The Freedom of Convenience
By Bob Chrismas
Have you ever stopped to think about how much freedom we Canadians have, in relation to other countries, but also in the context of our own history? At any moment, in any developed area of Canada, we can choose to pop down to the corner store with no thought of being arrested by corrupt soldiers and police, stepping on a landmine, being attacked by marauding criminals, or poisoned by poorly regulated products. This is not the case in many other places in the world. Reflecting back on my own life, having been born and raised in Canada, I’ve had an interest in justice and protecting peoples rights; I’ve worked my entire adult life in peace-keeping and law enforcement, first for several years as a soldier, then five years as a sheriff, and now in my 31st year of policing.
I’ve seen a lot of change, and completing my PhD in peace and conflict studies as well as some of my travels have given me some perspective on how fortunate we are in Canada. At the same time, it is difficult to acknowledge that there are still people living in many places without clean running water or the living standards that are enjoyed by most Canadians. In the case of many of Canada’s isolated reserves it is still not worked out how to get healthy reasonably priced foods in to them. Many people are forced to pay exorbitant prices for food and the overall desperation of poverty and hopelessness plays a significant part in high suicide rates and violence. I saw similar effects of colonization and settlement in 2011, when I had the transformative experience of travelling across South Africa.
Millions of people still live in the South African townships. The picture I took in Soweto (South West Township), Johannesburg, where one million people live mainly in tin shanties that flood whenever it rains. When work colleagues smell smoke on you, they know you live in a shanty with a small firepit for cooking. When I was in Cape Town, several xenophobic killings occurred; these involve attacks on people who migrate from poorer parts of Africa, sometimes starving, and are viewed as threatening to take work from people who already live in South Africa – so they are attacked and sometimes killed. Undoing the impacts of colonization has many similarities from South Africa to Canada, but there are also many differences. In Canada a growing community of immigrants from England and France eventually marginalized the relatively small Indigenous population. In South Africa the opposite occurred as a small white community tried, through extreme violence, to oppress a much larger black Indigenous population. In both countries, however, the Europeans were motivated to stay and keep reaping the natural resources for export.
For the most part, however, the standard of living in Canada is high and people are immigrating here from all over the world. The Canadian government is currently expecting one million people to immigrate to Canada over a three-year period from 2019 to 2021. Most will have increased security and freedom in Canada. Many are highly educated, with credentials that are unrecognized when they move; many will work in the convenience store industry. Many will experience greater freedom to participate in democracy than they had in their country of origin. In Hong Kong, for instance, people are still fighting for the right to vote. In 2014 I was there for a conference, to speak about my first book on policing, and the protests were going on. The protests were over the right to vote democratically. Mainland Chinese government had directed that only mainland leaders could be elected.
We (my wife Barb and my two daughters and I) took a train into nearby Shenzhen, in southeastern mainland China. Many people from Hong Kong commute to work in factories in Shenzhen and hundreds of commuters were carrying large cans of baby formula under their arms; at the train platform in Shenzhen hundreds of people converge on the arriving commuters and purchased the baby formula from them. We learned that people in mainland China did not trust the baby formula that is supplied by the government, as there had been a massive scandal in which baby formula had been laced with chemicals that made babies sick. It made us realize how lucky we are that we have no such concern when we go to the corner grocery store in Canada.
In a modern world of expedience and convenience some areas of the world lack the accessibility to these comforts and amenities. The Dharavi slum in Mumbai (picture taken by me in 2017). Over one million people live in the slum, which is in the middle of the city. The interesting thing about Dharavi is the industry that residents have built around it. People gather plastic from all over Mumbai to sell for recycling, and the street laundry cleans the linen for nearby hospitals and many residents of the city. Our travels (my wife Barb and I) in India have driven home for me the disparity that still exists in the world, and how fortunate we are in Canada to live comfortably and, for the most part, not have to struggle every day just to survive. In India, one billion people coexist, many with almost no money and barely able to make it day to day. The freedom of convenience is a foreign concept for many. In a way, convenience stores are a symbol of our success in the global north, a trademark of our high standard of living.
As a child, growing up in central Canada, I recall scraping up some change, by collecting bottles to return, and then going to the local corner store to buy candy. I could get three jawbreakers for a penny. There were no massive box stores and large grocery stores were pretty scarce over 50 years ago. We got a lot of our daily staples and drinks at the corner store, and there was one within walking distance in most neighborhoods. Over time it seems the convenience store has evolved to being the stores that are open when the large box stores are closed, and for when it is just too inconvenient to drive to the larger store. Cities in north America have developed with highway systems that require people to have a car, so getting to the large box store requires a car, even if you live close to it. The convenience store also often fills that gap. Everyone needs a car in modern Canada; hence the growth of the carwash industry as well. So, it seems the convenience store remains an important part of our social fabric, just changed slightly over time. The fact that the convenience industry thrives amongst the continued growth of giant box store chains proves that it is here to stay, a vital employer, service provider, and a symbol of our freedom. Perhaps a measure of our successful reconciliation in the future will be when the same conveniences are available in every corner of our great nation.
Bob Chrismas, Ph.D., is an author, scholar, consultant, passionate speaker and social justice advocate police professional with internationally recognized expertise in community engagement and crime prevention. An advocate for social reform, he has written and speaks extensively on innovative trends in policing, community partnership and governance. Visit Bob at BChrismas.com