Displaying items by tag: Ashoke Dasgupta - New Canadian Media
New Canadian Media
Monday, 19 February 2018 12:32

New Horizons in Voluntourism

By Ashoke Dasgupta in Winnipeg, MB

Elsie James (83) pulled into Fernie, British Columbia, with her family when she was seven. The rain-drenched moon raised its Aladdin’s lamp to the stars, conjuring magical shadows into being. The next morning, crimson streaks were smeared across the skyline, mountain topping mountain. Entranced by a magnificent view of the shimmering mountaintops, James — a prairie girl by birth — announced to her mother that she would live among crags when she grew up. 

Sure enough, we find her among the mountains, symbols or images of other reality, 74 years later at home in High River, Alberta and, for months at a time, in Nepal —  a poor land-locked state between Tibet and India —  which features eight of the world’s 10 tallest mountains.

“I’ve been hypnotized by mountain ranges ever since that morning in Fernie, so, when I retired after three decades in banking, I trekked to Mount Everest, Nepal, in 1995,” James said on the phone from her Alberta home. “My metaphysical connection with mountains and the Nepali people led to a second career short on financial compensation, but long on self-fulfillment.”

International charities have been working in Nepal since 1951. Elsie James of Calgary, Medical Mercy Canada (MMC)’s Nepal Country Manager, has been making two trips there every year for a total of five months annually, usually in the spring and fall, the timing depending on needs at the other end. 

First encounter with Nepal 

Her first official trip to Nepal was for an NGO called PartnerShip Canada in 1996; James was there full-time until early 2000, except for brief visits to Canada. She continued to work with village schools and supported her activities by bringing tour and trekking groups to Nepal after PartnerShip downed shutters until 2007, when Medical Mercy Canada, a registered Canadian charity, adopted her projects, taking them under their wing.

(At right, Elsie James with summer intern, David Bobyn, at the opening of Sanskrit High School in Maidi, Dhading District)

James began working with Kanti Children's Hospital in Kathmandu 2008. She organized a fund-raising trek to the Everest Base Camp on her 75th birthday. New plumbing, electrical wiring, the installation of a new kitchen, painting the building inside and out, and replacing the leaking roof, were needed at the hospital’s Shelter House. This is where family caregivers stay while helping their hospitalized children.  Everyone on the trek did fundraising in their communities, and a portion of the trek fee also went to the Shelter House Fund.  The trek, called "Trek 4 Kanti Kids" (aka Granny's Grunt), raised approximately $29,000.  The work was completed in 2011.

MMC also has an emergency fund that helps families unable to pay for extended treatment, blood transfusions and special diagnostic tests.  The Shelter House is managed by a Nepali NGO, Social Action Volunteers-Nepal (SAV-Nepal). In 2015, SAV's annual reports showed 6,801 occupied "bed- nights" in the Shelter House Dormitory and 146 children financially helped to treatment and diagnostic services.

Between 2005 and 2014, they were improving sanitation at village schools, organizing annual medical or dental clinics in remote villages, and operating a mobile medical clinic that employed four Nepali health workers who made the rounds to four remote locations where villagers lacked access to health posts or hospitals.  The free clinics were served by Nepali and foreign volunteers.  

The last, large medical/dental camp was in 2012. Like its predecessors, it included workshops, teaching villagers the importance of clean water, water treatment options, sanitation and hygiene. By 2012, travel and food costs within Nepal had become too expensive for large mobile clinics to continue to be viable. 

Road access to centrally-located District Hospitals had also improved, enabling transportation of patients from villages to District Hospitals for medical care.  “We are now concentrating more on health education and prevention than active treatment,” says James.

Providing education and water

Beginning in 2006, MMC trained and paid four village youths in Tipling Village Development Council (VDC) to act as Classroom Assistants in three schools, to help the overworked teachers.  The Tipling villages are in a high valley just south of the Tibet border in northern Nepal.  The attendance of teachers and students had been irregular, and the villages unable to solve the problem.  One teacher had three grades with a total of 105 students in ages ranging from 5 to 14 — and was expected to teach them all.  Attendance and parental support of the schools improved with the provision of help for the teachers. “We supported this project for five years until the situation improved, and then moved on with the local government taking more responsibility,” says James.

MMC did its first major water project, bringing water to taps serving 84 homes in Khare Village Development Council, Dhading District, in 2013. Three reservoirs were built, and an electric pump raised the water from a spring 500 feet into a storage tank above the village.  Gravity-fed pipelines from the reservoirs distributed the water to 14 tap stands conveniently located to clusters of homes in the local villages.  

This was a joint project funded by MMC and a partner, the Bethany Baptist Church in Puyallup, Washington. Before this, the village women carried water cans from the spring in baskets on their backs, 500 vertical feet to their homes over a rough, steep trail. This was a project that made a sustainable difference to everyone in the villages served —  especially the women who no longer had to carry water to their families at least twice each day.

School for the deaf

That same year of 2013, MMC joined hands with the founders of  the Swabalambi Primary School for Deaf Children in Dhading District.  The school opened in 2012 in borrowed quarters, an unfinished farm house, but needed to move from there. There was no educational facility available to children with profound hearing loss anywhere in the District.  One was sorely needed. 

Today, the school is in new quarters on land donated by a local farmer.  A partnership of several donor agencies, including MMC, the local community and municipal government, made this dream come true.  The school now has three floors —  incomplete, but functional.  Its 64 students live full-time at the school while becoming proficient in Nepali sign language and standard curriculum courses. Its 64 students live full-time at the school while becoming proficient in Nepali sign language. There are plans for parents’ sign-language workshops and vocational training for students not wanting to pursue academics.

Much of Nepal, including its capital city Kathmandu, was savaged by earthquakes in 2015. Says James, “The April 25 and May 12 earthquakes of 7.8 & 7.3 magnitudes on the Richter scale, did not physically affect the whole country.  About 14 of 75 districts were affected, with the brunt falling on seven districts, including Dhading, where we were working. There were more than 400 aftershocks measuring 4.5 or more since the initial quakes.” 

MMC reacted immediately after the quakes.  Emergency supplies were gathered and delivered to devastated villages in its service area, putting other projects on hold temporarily.  Then, in the following 10 months, with the help of many donors, including Canadian Nepali organizations, nine villages’ schools were rebuilt and ready for occupancy for the new school year, beginning April 2016.

Families hope to vacate their temporary shelters in resettlement camps before another monsoon starts in mid-June, but their future is still a question mark and recovery a long, dark, winding road into the unknown.  

Calgary Nepalis

A school at Muralibanjyag, the first of nine to be built by MMC, was completed in November 2015 in partnership with the Calgary Nepali Community Association (CNCA). They did not respond to e-mails sent by New Canadian Media.A trainer teaches the Girls’ Menstrual Health Education Program in Dhading, at Days for Girls, a school in the Himalayans.

Another school was inaugurated in Dhading 10 May 2016, in transitory sunshine and clear skies. District, VDC, and political party leaders thanked the sponsors, organizers, volunteers and construction team. The last three speakers had, however, to shout to be heard over thunder and lightning. This project was also in partnership with the CNCA.

Ramesh Dhamala, district president of the Nepali Congress Party, unveiled a donor plaque with James.

Mules were the only carriers that could access many places MMC worked, till recently. That changed with the introduction of jeepable roads.

(At right, micro-enterprise trainer Bimla Dhakal teaching menstrual health education at a typical countryside school in the Himalayan foothills.)

MMC inaugurated the Single Women's Hostel in Dhading Besi in partnership with the local chapter of  Women for Human Rights, Single Women's Branch , in May 2014.  The hostel provides a temporary dormitory for women in transition, and vocational training rooms. (Micro-enterprise Trainer, Bimala Dhakal, teaching the girls menstrual health education at a typical countryside school in the Himalayan foothills, picture at right)

“Currently, we are sponsoring a start-up program jointly funded with a US NGO, ‘Project for a Village,’ for a micro-enterprise group that is producing menstrual hygiene kits to be distributed in conjunction with an education program for girls in Grades 5 through 10 in the District’s government schools,” continues James: “This program was founded by ‘Days for Girls’ and is being expanded into Nepal.”

The Karuna Girls’ School and Women's College in Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, was a project that was brought to MMC by Trevor Ironside of Calgary, who was sponsoring it, and raising money to establish the school in partnership with a Canadian Engaged Buddhism Association (CEBA). MMC adopted the program.  Ironside is now president of its Board and MMC still very involved in the project.  “Trevor is the one who manages this one,” continues James: “ It is a great project and they are now hoping to expand on property they have acquired, to build a hospital and nurse training program in conjunction with the school one day.” 


 Ashoke Dasgupta is a member of the NCM Collective based out of Winnipeg. He has won three journalism awards in Canada and Nepal. 

Published in Top Stories
Wednesday, 24 January 2018 12:18

Cathy Wong’s Fear of a Bus Driver

By Ashoke Dasgupta in Winnipeg, MB

Cathy Wong (61), who emigrated from Hong Kong, had an unpleasant experience last December, with a racist bus driver.

The incident came on the eve of an unprecedented bus fare increase for services that have been deteriorating over the last two years.

Wong lives way down Pembina Highway in Winnipeg, just before the Ring Road, and takes two buses to work —  the 162 and the 15 —   in that order.

She works in a hotel near the Richardson International Airport. On December 13 afternoon, Wong took the Number 162 as usual to Portage Place, where she alighted to transfer to a Number 15. The driver of the 162 stopped to get coffee from Tim Hortons; he took the wrong route after that, delaying the bus while he got back on the right track.

The 15 arrived late too. When she entered, its middle-aged, male, white driver pointed out that her transfer had expired ten minutes ago. Wong was willing to pay afresh, reaching for her purse, but changed her mind because the driver was unpleasant. He seemed to accept her explanation grudgingly, allowing her to board the bus.

“He didn’t kick me out,” she told New Canadian Media: “As the (on-board) camera may show.”

When the time came for her to get off at her place of work, there were only two passengers left in the bus: herself and a colleague. The colleague got out the back door while Wong went to the front door.

Toxic memory 

The driver refused to open the door for her, saying he was punishing Wong for not paying the fare. He stopped after driving on for about two minutes saying, “Go back to your country,” as she got off.

The animosity of his parting shot is a toxic memory for the slight, quiet woman. Wong fears encountering the same driver again because he may start playing micro-aggressive games with her, as bus drivers are known to do.

Wong, who does not know English well despite her 32 years in this country, called 311 to report the incident, and Winnipeg Transit investigated the matter. She took off from work until the New Year.  

Wong says graciously , “I think about it for long time, who wrong and right. I don’t want he to get more pressure. In my life I make a lot of bad things, but some of my friends forgive me. I let this gone, and stay away. Please don’t call Transit Company.[sic]

She informed in an e-mail on January 13 “Last week Transit  call me  . and I told them about the bus # 162 got lost from its original route , and  ...everything . The Transit Said ‘ sorry’ to me.[sic]  

Racism exists 

Ross Eadie, a Winnipeg Councillor who takes the bus regularly said, “No driver should be making racist comments, and I’m seriously disappointed in this remark. It was a vicious incident on two counts: apart from the racist comment, it must have been cold and windy to walk extra. I missed a stop a few times, and didn’t like walking back in freezing temperatures.

“Racism exists in our population, and buses reflect what’s going on in society. Once I saw a sick young Aboriginal slumped in a bus. Everyone assumed he was drunk. I went to him and asked what the matter was. I was able to coax a few words out of him in time: ‘I want to die.’ He turned out to be a diabetic refugee from a flooded area of Manitoba with nowhere to go at the time. The driver demurred that he was already running late when I suggested he call for an ambulance . . .”

Matt Allard, another Councillor, takes the bus regularly to acquaint himself with Winnipeg Transit’s issues, but did not respond to e-mail or voice mail queries.

Alissa Clark, Manager of Communications, Winnipeg Transit, says, “The safety and security of its passengers is of the utmost importance to Winnipeg Transit. It is also very important that our passengers feel welcome and respected.  While we are unable to comment on the specifics of the incident you’re referring to because it is an HR matter, we would like to say that we spoke with Ms. Wong in early January to offer our apologies. All operators participate in extensive, ongoing customer service training which involves segments on respecting diversity.”

Early this month, City officials revealed an $8.7 million surplus, though they said they had no choice but to hike bus fares $0.25 a ride in January. The ticket prices usually rise $0.05 annually. This jump has caused low-income people even more hardship. 


 Ashoke Dasgupta is a member of the NCM Collective based out of Winnipeg. As a journalist, he has won three awards in Canada and Nepal.

Published in Commentary
Monday, 18 December 2017 11:14

Trump Dims the Lights in Jerusalem

By: Ashoke Dasgupta in Winnipeg, MB

President Donald Trump announced on December 6 that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel unilaterally, triggering global protests and rejection of the US as a peace broker.

About 60 Winnipeggers protested on December 10 on Portage Avenue, near the Polo Park Shopping Mall. That day happened to be International Human Rights Day as well.

Many vehicles honked enthusiastically while passing along Portage Avenue, one of Winnipeg’s main thoroughfares.

Rana Abdulla, a Palestinian-Canadian organizer, said, “The protest was diverse, and full of positive energy. It included many community and social justice organizations.”

The event was organized by:

· The Canadian-Arab Association of Manitoba

· The Canada-Palestine Association of Manitoba

· The Canada-Palestine Support Network (Winnipeg)

· Independent Jewish Voices (Winnipeg)

· Peace Alliance Winnipeg

· The Winnipeg Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid

“The first objective of our public leafleting and rally action was to condemn and rail against United States President Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — this, alongside, his fatuous declaration of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel,” said Krishna Lalbiharie, Event co-organizer and member of the Canada-Palestine Support Network (Winnipeg): “The second objective of our action was to educate Winnipeg shoppers, media and the larger Manitoba citizenry as to the illegality of Trump’s decision, and the resistance to it — commensurate with International Human Rights Day.”

“I would say the objective was achieved. There was a good turnout, the action received some accurate media attention, and the public response was generally positive,” said Harold Shuster of Independent Jewish Voices.

“We received an overwhelmingly positive response from receptive, kind Polo Park patrons and drivers along Portage Avenue,” continues Lalbiharie: “There was widespread, favourable media coverage too.” 

It’s important to recognize, according to Lalbiharie, that President Trump’s ill-conceived decision may be to distract from the hot issue of  Russian collusion during his election, and his need to prove his gratitude to Zionist contributors and lobbyists in the US and Israel.


Ashoke Dasgupta is a member of the NCM Collective based out of Winnipeg. As a journalist, he has won three awards in Canada and Nepal.

Published in Top Stories
Wednesday, 29 March 2017 09:59

“We All Have Xenophobia to Some Degree”

by Ashoke Dasgupta in Winnipeg

The Islamic Social Services Association recently organized a conference on the theme of “At the Heart of Human Rights is Human Dignity” in Winnipeg.

It was attended by about 180 people, including many important speakers, but there was no local media coverage in the mainstream.

Andrew J. McLean, medical director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services and Chair of the Psychiatry Department at the N. Dakota School of Medicine, spoke on “Community Resilience and the Concept of the ‘Other.’”

He pointed out some unhealthy aspects of “otherization”: they are of less value; they are different from “me” and “us;” their differences are to be belittled; they are seen as “abject.”

“To work with another, you have to be able to admire something about them, even if you don’t like them,” said McLean.

The Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, a United Church Minister, spoke on “Beyond Our Comfort Zone: the LGBTQ Community, Hopes, Challenges, Collaborations and the Right to Dignity,” pointing out that hate groups lump “undesirables” together: “A part of the brain lights up when we see another, but not if we ‘otherize’ them.”

Everyone has prejudices

“We all have xenophobia to some degree,” said Shepherd. “But we must learn to be in solidarity with one another. Openness and courage are necessary to build relations and trust across communities that usually distrust one another.”

The event featured several “Conversation Cafes". One pointed out that prejudice may be positive or negative. Love is a positive prejudice which blinds us to the beloved’s negative qualities. Hate is the opposite.

The world is too complex for individuals to analyze each individual or phenomenon individually, and we don’t usually have the time. Consequently we fall back on our past experiences to make quick decisions.

For example, one may glance at the colour of the sky before leaving home and decide to carry one’s umbrella because that sort of sky often signals rain in our experience. One may then carry an umbrella all day, yet it may not rain; but if we ignore our past experiences, we deprive them of meaning.

We may have had negative (or positive) experiences justifying our pre-judgements, but should not fail to revise them when confronted with evidence to the contrary, concluded the participant.

Indifference and Silence are Threats

The Emcee, retired CBC Radio Host Terry MacLeod, welcomed Danny Smyth, Chief of the Winnipeg Police Service, and Scott Kolody, RCMP Assistant Commissioner, on the second day. In his address, Smyth said, “Women in our community will be a big part of the solutions.”

MacLeod called Shahina Siddiqui, Executive Director of the Islamic Social Services Association, “the godmother of everything that happened here,” and Kolody called her a leader.

Their greetings were followed by a heartfelt video message from Marie-Claude Landry, Chief Commissioner, Canadian Human Rights Commission. “Indifference and silence are threats,” she said.

A participant asked MacLeod why there were so few media people of colour in the mainstream. He replied that rectifying it was now a major project at CBC.

Another asked the lawmen what was being done about the over 100 extremist groups like “Soldiers of Odin” in Canada. The “Soldiers” even have a Facebook page. The policemen replied that they were networking and exchanging information.

Trump phenomenon

Haroon Siddiqui, an Editor Emeritus of the Toronto Star, then spoke on Islamophobia.

“(U.S. President Donald) Trump is doing what he said he’d do,” said Siddiqui: “And the Trump phenomenon has already happened here. Dozens of mosques have been vandalized, and Muslims assaulted. The alleged killer in Quebec was a Trump fan. We need to stand in solidarity with one another. Muslims can’t be maligned any more than they already have been. The ‘alt-right’ is code for white supremacists; indifference and inaction imply complicity with the victimisers.”

"Though Muslims aren't interned, they feel a psychological internment."

“The only crime of Canadians refused entry to the U.S. was that they weren’t white,” continued Siddiqui.

"Trump is similar to (former Canadian prime minister) Stephen Harper. Both elicited white support from their electoral bases. Once it was rumoured that Jews were taking over the world; now it’s Muslims. People talk of women’s status in Islam, but Muslim women are being spat on and shoved by North Americans.

"Have those who say the Koran says to kill infidels ever read the Old Testament? Wars call for propaganda, but one can’t separate Muslims there from Muslims here. When we demonize one, we demonize the other.”

Shahina Siddiqui thanked the funders at the end: Canadian Heritage, Sargent Blue Jeans, and The Winnipeg Foundation.  


Ashoke Dasgupta is a Winnipeg-based journalist who has won three awards in Canada and Nepal.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Top Stories

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