17 March, St. Patrick’s Day. Never was one for green beer - did it once, didn’t like what happened later, never did it again.
Some of you know that when I was in Vietnam I had to stop my magazine subscriptions. Partly due to censorship, mostly due to the unpredictability of the mail system. No way I could spend the money and not be assured of delivery.
When in Canada I subscribed to Harpers, The Wire and Juxtapoz. Juxtapoz went to a quarterly subscription format and as much as I miss it, it became too expensive in the process.
Upon our return to Canada I decided to re-subscribe to Harpers and The Wire, but also picked up the New Yorker (worth it for the covers alone) and The Atlantic (a recommendation I am so glad I acted on - great, great writing). Still having problems with mail way up North, but at least there's no censorship risk.
Harpers has these two features every month called “Harper’s Index” and “Findings”. The former is purely statistical information on some of the oddest demographic datasets and the latter is just oddities, curiosities and such. I read them both each month before I plough into any of the main articles.
So, with them in mind, some oddities, wrapped up in some rants, from working and living up North.
After being here for nearly eight months now the family is doing ok, we are well fed and generally happy. However, there are a few things that are annoying that make being here a little more difficult than necessary.
Let’s talk about health insurance. The school board has contracted out our group insurance with SSQ. They are, without a doubt, the worst group insurance company I have ever dealt with. Their customer service is inadequately trained, save when it comes to deny, deny, deny. They allegedly do not take any notes when you call, so if you have to call back with the same issue you have to tell the agent the same story over again - very frustrating, since you are left with the impression that you are starting all over again. Other than during a criminal proceeding, do you ever have to repeat your story, verbatim, six times? Really poor customer service.
Now, it appears, they are having some employee problems. If you call in, like I did at the time of writing, you get a message that they cannot take your call at this time due to some “pressuring tactics by some unionised members”. I wonder how that makes those unionised members feel, when they are being centred out like that.
Here’s the note you get if you try their web based services:
Our service levels are currently affected by limited and sporadic pressure tactics, but most of our services remain operational. We therefore encourage our customers to use our online services. We apologise for any inconvenience this situation may cause and thank you for your understanding.
Nice how they drop the reference to unionised employees when it is writing, eh?
Why the rant? Well, I was told during the interview process that the insurance we use is great and that all my prescription drugs would be covered, no problem.
Unless, of course, as I have now discovered, you are:
65 years old or older
Use a lot of different drugs to stay alive
Live so far from a pharmacy you need to get six months of drugs at a time
In April, ‘21, when I reached out to the local nursing station to see if I could get drugs delivered there I was told:
Based on what seemed to be your health issues and what stated above, maybe reconsider the length of your stay.
I raised hell about that comment and my fears were generally assuaged at that time - you will be fine but do make all the necessary arrangements before you come North. With the prior assurances that my drug costs would be covered I figured I was going to be ok.
Instead I am out $1800 and still waiting for final resolution to the problem. I am ok, my health is excellent and no one is at risk of getting seriously ill. However, if the insurance guys think I am giving up, well, get ready for knuckles.
And I get their reticence in paying out my claim. They only get $350 a month from me in payment and the likelihood of me requesting about $3600 in coverage per year makes it a somewhat less than profitable situation. Great, I get it - however, I also have family members who work in the insurance sphere and I have actually worked as a consultant with the several insurance companies; no insurance company is starving, unless they are incompetent or legally compromised.
Just pay me, ok?
A good friend and colleague was recently on Facebook lamenting the implementation of a welfare state on her people here in the North. Essentially, live for free and why strive for anything better? My response:
You are already aware of this, but education is the key. A thorough, compete on the world stage education. I was appalled when I was told that we should be training our students on how to fill out application forms, so they can get that great job! With absolutely no eye for the future, the long term.
The North is changing, irrevocably and with no or little control over its own future. The old ways are going to die out simply because the planet is changing.
Keeping someone uneducated and ignorant, allows them to be exploited. That, coupled with a welfare state mentality, will keep those of the North down and out for the foreseeable future.
So, let's be the agents of change, recognizing that every child deserves an education that allows them to have options, to grow, to thrive. Let's give them the room to know there are opportunities, that they can still dream of a better life. That they can make mistakes and instead of giving up, it is a chance to stand up. To paraphrase an old favourite quote: "You know what the most dangerous thing in Canada is, right? An Inuit with a library card."
I am an old man, I won't live to see the change happen. Doesn't mean I am not going to try to help. I am betting you want to, too.
This dialogue reminded me of a conversation I had in my classroom with one of my students. I mentioned at the time that our daughter was on the cusp of reading, that she was demonstrating some real skills in that regard. That conversation went like this:
“How old is your daughter?”
“She’s fucking fours year old and she is fucking reading? Fuck. When I was four I was outside playing with my fucking dog.”
Both my wife and I read to our daughter every night, me in English, her in Vietnamese. We really believe in the strength of the written word and how you can learn and form opinions based on what you have read, tempered, of course, by your own experience. Hunter may be only four but we can already see that she will read and read with a purpose.
That reminded me of My My. Before she took her own life, My My was a reader of renown. When she came to my classroom each day, we immediately discussed what she was reading now. She was feeding her brain and had nothing but questions based on what she was reading. Her mom used to complain to me that her daughter read too much. I had to explain to her that My My was using reading as her escape. I encouraged her to reach out and discuss what her daughter was reading, to enjoy the discourse, to engage. Even if you don’t understand, try.
No one will ever know if that was enough. I missed visiting with My My this year - I hope she could hear me.
So, parents here and anywhere: are you encouraging reading by reading to your little ones everyday? Too old to be read to? Great: what are your children reading? And if they are not, why not? Again, remember that power and what it means long term to your child and your community.
Speaking of reading, my wife is working on getting her permanent residence status here in Canada. One step on the long process of getting Canadian citizenship. We made the first application in August, just prior to landing in Salluit. It took them all the way to January of this year to let us know we had screwed up, that we had failed to sign one document and pay one fee. We were asked to re-submit, which we did immediately - good news is that they have acknowledged receipt of the new application and we’ve even got to the next step, a medical examination.
Why did we screw up? I swear we read everything at least a dozen times, that we checked and rechecked, but we didn’t do it thoroughly enough; we did not read with purpose. Too tired, too much on our mind.
Hopefully we were better in our efforts this time around.
One final rant and it is a long one. I add this in honour of my dear friend Corleen who passed away suddenly on 6 February. She knew what it was like to be bullied in the workplace and I owe it to her memory to finally share this with everyone.
Let’s start this with a little story from the past. Nearly thirty years ago I was a computer salesman at a small, boutique, specialist shop. We had some competitors who were always trying to beat us on price. When a prospective client came in they’d challenge why we charged so much compared to Company A or Company B. All of our computers were hand assembled from high quality components and had a full Microsoft operating system and Windows installation, with supporting documentation and disks. In other words: legally compliant. Our competitors were not, using copies of the operating system, cracked copies of production software, etc.
My sales pitch to counter the cheaper prices argument was a simple one: if Company A or Company B were willing to break the law and take on multi-billion dollar companies in the process, what were they willing to do to you?
Some bought that argument, some did not. All I know is that I could go to bed at night safe and secure in the knowledge that I never screwed over a customer, never lied to them, never cheated them. And I sold an awful lot of computers.
The moral of the story?
Be honest and you will be rewarded.
Unless, of course, you are the employee of the management group of a certain international school in Vietnam.
What follows are a series of revelations I experienced during my tenure at the Canadian International School, Vietnam (CIS). Some are my own, more are courtesy of some former and current employees. The key? All are true; these are facts, not fiction. Everything written here can either be substantiated by written word, slideshow presentations, video/audio recordings or combinations thereof. No names will be revealed, but there are obvious connections that can be made, innocent and guilty alike. History will judge them, just like it will judge me, so I will not offer any opinions; you can draw your own conclusions.
There comes a time when you have to start looking clearly at what is happening around you, to recognize that despite your best intentions, you don’t want to be, you should not be in that place anymore.
I can forgive, but I cannot forget.
The Company, as they like to refer to themselves, has been managed by a Board of Directors since its inception, back in 2009. The structure has been fairly fluid over the years, with a heavy emphasis on the family that essentially owns the business. The male half, Mr. Dong made most of his money in transportation, while his wife, Ms Oanh managed the household affairs. Their son and eldest daughter joined in the last two years I was one of their employees, to further augment The Board’s strategic planning and subsequent implementation.
Let’s talk about the kids who I worked with during my time at the school.
The one major project I worked with the son was a school yearbook over the summer months, while I was doing ESL assessments. When he showed up, about fifty percent of the time, he slept in a back office or under a desk. Result: zero contribution to the book and certainly zero work accomplished in anything else.
To his credit he seems to have improved his work ethic and the one meeting I attended, before my departure, that he managed, it appeared he was actually prepared and willing to make an effort. It was a shock to everyone in the room, trust me.
The eldest daughter I actually taught when she was in grade ten. Back then she wanted to be an oncologist, to save people from cancer. Her study effort was excellent and she was looking like a success story: smart, witty, committed to excellence. She was a pleasure to work with.
Then something flipped her mindset completely from “I want to help” to “I want to make money and show off the money I have made.” The pictures she posted of her driving her Jaguar to the University of Toronto spoke volumes relative to this attitude. If you can find her on Facebook you will see references to her Porsche and the multi-million dollars in real estate the family has owned over the years. The best Facebook vanity post? It's her, standing by her Porsche, school in the background, captioned with: “My Kingdom”.
The saddest thing of all - these kids were actually smart, they had the whole world ahead of them and they ended up dropping the ball. The youngest child, the second daughter, I never really got to work with, but the current path she is travelling means taking a gap year and “find something that makes me lots of money” after I get back.
You want to grab them all and say, “What happened to you?”
I worked for The Company from August, 2011 until June, 2021, almost ten years. During that time I signed five two year contracts. Every two years I received an Offer of Employment (OE) that invariably offered a bonus payable in the second year of that contract. This bonus was paid out over the second year, a raise in pay if you will. Please note that although the OE was not legally binding it constituted an offer that all of the interested parties, The Company and myself, signed off on.
And every two years, just as invariably, there was confusion if this bonus was a severance payout (more on that later) or an actual bonus.
With my last OE, in December 2018, I received a significant bonus offer, roughly a month’s wages. I, of course, signed. Once I received my contract, eight months later, The Company demonstrated that they were using a bait and switch technique to trap employees into staying longer. In my contract the bonus was now deemed severance and thus I was not going to get paid what I was owed.
A note about severance. As detailed in the Labour Code the employee is owed one half month’s salary for every year of service. The Company failed to do that for the first four years I worked, saying it “was an accounting error”. People who left after two, three or four years never got their severance. They were called on this discrepancy and decided to start paying out a severance estimate on an annual basis. Problem is it was never clearly stated as such, the amount sometimes called bonus, sometimes “additional income”, never clearly stated as severance. At best more accounting errors/not knowing the Labour Code or, sadly, more likely simple fraud.
When I discussed this with the new HR manager she simply didn’t seem to be aware of what was really going on. She had only been on the job for a couple of months and was clearly not aware of what she had stepped into.
Again, more lying, more unprofessional, amateurish behaviour. The tone of these actions was getting pretty loud at this point.
Then comes my new OE for 2021-2023. A 5% pay reduction.
Explanation: I was being paid over the grid for years and they were carefully realigning all of the payroll to match this grid. Can I see this grid? No. Why not? It is never revealed. So, the grid “ceiling” could actually be anything, couldn’t it? No response.
The latter conversation, documented in writing, took place between the HOS and myself. I complained, loudly, this was an unfair change in my pay scale, since it wasn’t disciplinary or performance based but instead based on some sort of nebulous grid. I copied The Company in on these conversations, directly appealing to their sense of fairness. Hadn’t they signed every OE full of knowledge of this grid and the consequences? Not a word in response.
The final statement about all of this: “...you should consider it your good fortune to have been paid what you were being paid over the years. And I shouldn’t be raising this as an issue knowing the financial hardship The Company had undergone after the impact of COVID.”
Good fortune - like the OE’s had no value at all, that The Company’s signature on the same documents was written in disappearing ink, that it was all happenstance, serendipity that I got paid at all.
As for financial hardship, let’s review the stable of cars The Company drives to work (well, when they come to work and they, of course, rarely drive their own car - they have a number of personal drivers at their disposal):
Mercedes Benz Maybach, the v12, four door model
Porsche Taycan*, the all electric one
Rough estimate of the “on the lot” cost: a cool million US dollars. They ain’t exactly eating rice and beans everyday, know what I mean?
To be fair, they lease these vehicles - they save money that way. Good for them.
The “shiny bauble” syndrome.
They must be hard up for cash, as I never received the four year’s worth of severance that was owed to me. I am willing to concede that from 2015-2021 I received some sort of severance, although it was never called that. It was only when they were called out in late 2014 that the lack of severance pay was brought to the foreground. However, they never paid out for the first four years. When it came time to pay up they were mute. Rough estimate of the money they owed me, but never paid out: ten thousand US dollars. I can forgive them from stealing from me and my family but I am not going to forget.
In 2019 the school and The Company began the task of trying to obtain their Council of International Schools (CoIS) accreditation. Already running under the Ontario system for both Elementary and Secondary panels, with International Baccalaureate (IB) for grades 11 and 12 (the Diploma Programme or DP), this accreditation would further cement the school in the international school universe. This would be a significant marketing tool as well; a shiny bauble to show off to friends and family and prospective customers.
By 2020 the accreditation process was in full gear - this was something the school Administration actively encouraged we teachers to investigate and understand. And I did.
The CoIS is essentially a consultative practice. You can bring them in (and pay them) to analyse your school’s capabilities and advise solutions. There is a heavy emphasis on child safety. The school initiated a child protection programme, with extensive research and development and officially launched it before the application was made to CoIS. The pamphlet/document and follow up training were comprehensive and would appear to have fit the need. The important thing worth noting here is that this programme and supporting policy grew out of a need to meet the criteria established by another organisation; why now and not before is a worthwhile question. A question that will be repeated, unfortunately.
With the application approved by CoIS, the next phase was to get the actual accreditation. As the campaign in language and attitude ramped up in the school, in early 2021, the school was advised that a health and safety inspection by the Department of Health was necessary. The inspection was part of a campaign by the local authorities to start weeding out those fly-by-night schools that risk the health of their students. A negative result for the school, of course, would weigh heavily on the accreditation process.
A bizarre memorandum appeared shortly thereafter. We were told to remove all of the plants and water we had in our classrooms. The memo also asked that we post a document on our door that was a 100% fabrication, alleging that we did a series of regular steps in order to ensure that we had a focus on our student’s health and wellbeing. Think of those checklists you see in public washrooms, indicating that specific targeted activities were accomplished by the cleaning staff. The reason why this was going on was clear: this was to create the illusion that the students’ needs were first in all that we do. It is not that teachers didn’t care about their students, but there was no way they took all of these poorly worded, wholly inadequate steps to protect the students in the classroom.
One final twist in this tale of fraud and deception. The morning of the Department of the Health inspection I went to my mailbox to secure these (now considered, by the staff, as) laughable documents. When I found the Operations Manager and asked where my copies were, he advised, not to worry, the inspection was already complete. All by 8:10 in the morning. It was obvious that no inspection had taken place - the school is a big place, big enough for twelve hundred students. Two hours, maybe, to do a thorough job.
I don’t know if they paid off the inspection team or what happened but the email that came out later that day congratulating us on achieving a 96% on the inspection was ridiculous. No inspection took place and if they had actually talked to any teachers they would have learned the truth.
At the end of the day, this is what this all means: if the school, the Company, the HOS are willing to commit this act of fraud with a government agency what would they be willing to do to the staff and, more importantly, the children in their care?
This for me was the last straw - the camel’s back was broken; time to leave.
I was very fortunate to have worked with a lot of dedicated, hardworking education professionals. Every person has their eccentricities; me, too. Even with that in mind, the majority of the people I worked with really believed in what they were doing. Again, me, too. Despite the repeated shenanigans and outright grifting by The Company I thought I was doing a good job, I was making a difference. My students were thriving, as evidenced by the work they did. There were many positive relationships that could be enjoyed by anyone: staff, parents, students. This was a good place to work.
Unfortunately, over the years, a sort of rot has creeped in. A mould so insidious there was very little I was going to be able to do to rectify or correct its trajectory.
Put COVID** in the mix and the risk of health and welfare for my family compelled me to pack my boxes and get out.
I could still be working there, I could still be trying. I just won’t.
If you made it this far, good for you. There are more stories, I do know where all the bodies are buried after-all, but that’ll be for another time. All blessings to you and yours; continued safe passage on all your journeys.
*The Taycan is a funny case. The Company’s eldest daughter started with a straight Porsche Carrera, but wanted to be more environmentally responsible. Hence the “lead sled” and its very impressive credentials. And very expensive. She might have been trying to be environmentally responsible but in reality she was just showing off - Vingroup in Vietnam sells an electric vehicle, the Vinfast, at around 29,000 USD - if she really wanted to go green she could have leased six or seven of the Vinfast models for the same cost of her one Porsche. And remember the Porsche requires a very specific charging station, of which there are two in Vietnam, one in Ha Noi, one, of course, attached to the school’s gymnasium.
**A COVID story that finally cements an image of what The Company is and how they function. Every year we actively participate in the Terry Fox Run. The Company is quite generous in their contributions and the subtle but persuasive arm twisting they invoked with their rich pals. The presentation of the charitable cheque was an event not to be missed and there was always some murmuring about how big it would be this year.
So imagine our FIBA specked gymnasium filled to capacity with students from all the schools - CIS, BCIS, AES and CVK. Thousand or more? Every child with a mask, every teacher with a mask. Counsel general from the Canadian Consulate, in a mask. Various other dignitaries, all masked and ready to go. Social distancing is optional, but at least everyone is wearing a mask.
In marches The Company, the Board of Directors, mom, dad, son, daughter. Son in his favourite (legit) Chanel suit, daughter with a light blue, oversized Louis Vuitton purse (colour matches her Taycan perfectly). And… not a mask amongst them.
Mad scramble ensues, masks, masks are needed now! Run minions, run!
The Company is now masked, all is well in the Magical Kingdom again.