Fifty X 50 : Oly Backstrom

I met up with Oly on another one of those unnaturally warm and sunny days in November. He suggested we meet at the foot bridge that connects the small park on Wellington Crescent on one side of the Assiniboine to the Omand Creek park on the other side. It’s built into a rail bridge. When I inquired that maybe this bridge was some sort of metaphor to his life, Oly replied he simply chose it as he spends a lot of time in the parks and lives in the neighbourhood. Little did I know what that meant! Our session was punctuated by Oly running into at least three different people he knew, and I think several others who chatted with us simply because they recognize Oly as part of the community! While were on the foot bridge a train came through, a rare occasion. We laughed again about freight trains as metaphors and stood on the bridge while it rolled by us, mere feet away. It was a pretty cool experience. Connecting with Oly and learning about his work and how passionate he is toward it, was equally as cool an experience.

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My real name’s Orland, not too many people call me that. My friends just decided at one point in time that Ollie sounded more Swedish, and was a better fit to Backstrom, so my friends started calling me Ollie, and it’s what I ended up running with. I turned 50 January 31st. I’m a Winnipeg-er. I’m not a born and bred Winnipeg-er. I moved here in 1987. I’m originally from Saskatchewan. Started growing up on a farm near what’s now a ghost town. I went to a one room school until I moved my family to Swift Current when I was about 12. So I’ve been here in Winnipeg for almost 30 years, and I’ve been working at a non-profit organization called SCE Lifeworks for 22 years. And it helps people with development disabilities find work in the community. I started there in 1994 with a three month term, and have been there ever since in about six different positions.

It feels great to be 50. Part of the reason I think it feels great is I’ve learned a few things to make sure I’m doing what I need to do to make it feel great  I think I’m a little better at not being my own worst enemy the older I’ve gotten, and I think I’m a little bit better at being my better self as I’ve gotten older.

I think turning 28 was probably the toughest milestone transition. 28, in and of itself, wasn’t a transition year, but when I turned 28 I thought, “Well, I might as well be 30 now.” But being 50, I didn’t really reflect a lot on it being a big milestone until we actually started talking about it. It was almost like I avoided thinking about it [chuckles]. Now that we’re talking about it, I just find that really interesting. Maybe part of it is, a lot of us are busy enough not to be quite as reflective as we used to be.

About eight years ago. I think the stress of work was starting to get to me, and I was starting to have heart palpitations, and I wasn’t taking care of myself. I wasn’t exercising or anything. Then I joined the Refit and that was an amazing move toward helping me manage my stress and hitting the reset button for work the next day. That’s been one of the big things, to be honest.

This wasn’t a revelation at 50, but I think there came a point in time where I realized that I do have to be a little more purposeful about my own thought life. There was a period of time in my life where I had a pretty dark cloud over my head. I could be a little bit hard on myself and let that eat me up. I’d get into some negative thought cycles that I needed to be purposeful about getting myself out of.  I had more control of that than maybe I originally thought I did, so that was another revelation. If I started getting into a situation where I was beating myself up a bit too much, I’d be grabbing the steering wheel of my thought life and steering it back onto the road. I think there are people who struggle with mental health challenges who may not have as much control and maybe there were periods of time where I felt that, but I realized there was a point where I had to try I had to grab the steering wheel and get it back on.

A big an epiphany come to me in the early 90s when I read a book by Viktor Frankl called “Man’s Search for Meaning” Its about his experience in the concentration camps, seeing people have their humanity stripped away from them. He observed how some people even though every aspect of their life was being controlled, they never let go of that sense of control that they had of their own approach to life or the way they treated the people who were in the concentration camp with them. It isn’t all nature or nurture there will always be a little seed of control and freedom that you have to make choices. Reading that really kind of shook me up and made me re-evaluate the hole I was kind of digging for myself.

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Coming out of university and still waiting on tables, I knew that I wanted to do something that “helped people” and I had no idea what that meant. I had no idea what the lives of people with intellectual disabilities looked like or how people were supported, but discovered this organization that happened to have this vision of solely inclusive service. I wish I could say I looked at my career options and that’s what I chose, but that isn’t the truth at all. I stumbled into it, and I was fortunate enough to fall into this work and have some great people around me who were able to inform me about how people with intellectual disabilities should be fully included, and how we  have to be purposeful about including people in society.

In my work I’ve had a chance to play a role in helping people build some new points of references in Manitoba and Winnipeg about where people with developmental disabilities fit and how people with developmental disabilities can contribute meaningfully in the workplace and other places. But of course, a person always wishes they played a bigger role and that’s an ongoing journey and struggle too.

In Manitoba there are still a lot of people with developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and autism coming out of high school, for example. It’s an invisible field, but people are still often going to day programs doing recreational activities coming out of high school. And some are still working in workshops as well, at least partly segregated from the community. In my work I’ve had a chance to work with some other great champions in the community, to show people can make that valued contribution, and make really meaningful community connections in the community, and live fulfilling lives in the community.

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So the next part of our journey, and part of what I’m trying to influence is the idea that the people we serve are capable of taking on more valued roles, and taking on more complicated work. One of the big projects I’ve been working on the last six years is Project Search, where high school students with developmental disabilities are embedded within large, valued organizations where you typically wouldn’t see many people with intellectual disabilities or autism. But they’re fully embedded within those businesses for what would have been their last year of high school working through free work experiences or internships. We’re trying to identify atypical roles, and more valued roles within those organizations. It’s happening at Manitoba Hydro, Government of Manitoba, and HSC Winnipeg.

My hope is that we are building our own point of reference of what people are capable of. The longer we’re embedded the more we develop eyes to see ourselves where people could fit in that value, and do complicated tasks that people would have never thought of.  The longer we’re embedded my hope is that our colleagues at HSC Winnipeg, and Manitoba Hydro, Government of Manitoba develop their own eyes to see that too.

When we started Project Search conceptually our partners at Manitoba Hydro and Government of Manitoba were keen on the concept. But when the rubber hits the road they’re trying to figure out with us, “So where are people going to work? What kind of work experiences are people going to get?” Because the only points of reference were the ones we had shown them, and that was those typical roles, those logical cleaning roles. And so over time those attitudes within those organizations have started to shift, and it’s been gratifying to see there are wins to that, but still a lot of work to do. For people with developmental disabilities what they are transitioning into out of high school,  it’s a pretty good chance that that’s what they’re going to be doing for a fairly long period of their life – maybe all their typical working adult life. So if we can play a role to present a different way forward and build that new point of reference, even if people aren’t coming into Project Search, they can see the possibilities and identify them elsewhere. That’d be gratifying for me.

dscf7585_ian_mccauslandI remember a time, I wouldn’t have been in this work for very many years. I was probably as gratified from the work, but also frustrated with some of the systemic barriers to move things forward. I remember a conversation I had with a really good friend who was in similar work where he was just as emotionally invested. he said, “Some days I just want to punch the clock, at five o’clock and just want to go home and forget about it” And I remember thinking, “Yeah, I kind of get that,” at the time, but I don’t feel that now. I think the systemic barriers are still there and the frustrations still there, but it the longer you are doing the work, while the change might be incremental, you can look back and say “Yeah I’m glad I’m not checking out at 5:00 after making widgets. I’m glad I could witness this progress.”

I think I’m finding finding a better way to channel that frustration and contextualize it, but also realizing I’m sticking with it, I’m not going anywhere. If there are systemic barriers I want to be that guy that keeps on poking at them.

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You don’t have life all plotted out and planned out. And don’t panic about that, but also be aware there are opportunities that are going to fall in your lap that you maybe don’t see as opportunities yet. Something that looks like a little bit of a side road might just be that road you end up staying on and that might not be a bad thing. So don’t panic if you don’t have it all plotted out. There’s a part of me who wants to say to the 25-year-old who has it all plotted it out [chuckles], “Be ready for things to play out much differently than how you expect it and that’s okay, and you might be richer for that too.”

I can still relate to the 25-year-old where I haven’t plotted it out, so I’m trying not to panic about it. For my next 50?  Just keep on being persistent. Keep on finding ways to channel frustration in a productive way. The other thing I think about as being 50 is, I’ve been very lucky with my health. At some point in time, life is going to serve me a curveball with my health in the next 50 years that I’ve never had to deal with before. I don’t have any wise things to say to myself, other than to not take for granted what you have now, embrace that as part of the package of living when it happens.dscf7635_ian_mccausland