Corporate Coup: Where Have You Gone Teddy Roosevelt?

Does this sound familiar?

  • The gulf was widening between a tiny elite that was growing richer while the vast majority was seeing the evaporation of economic security and social mobility.
  • Political leaders were largely voices of the powerful who backed campaigns and swayed votes with gargantuan political donations.
  • Cities were witnessing growing violence, as people grew helpless and hopeless with police apparently more interested in cracking heads to maintain order than enforcing laws to promote justice.
  • Rapaciously ambitious business interests that government seemed unwilling or unable to regulate for a common good or sustainable future were befouling the air, water, and forests.
  • The media pandered to the lowest common denominator with stories of the latest crime, tragedy, or scandal while ignoring what truly mattered.

It was the United States. It was 1895. Everything seemed to be circling the porcelain facility with gathering speed. But then, something happened.

Theodore Roosevelt was born to a affluent family in 1858. He could have taken his wealth and Columbia law degree and chased women or money or both but instead chose public service. As a New York assemblyman he was aghast at the working and living conditions of the poor to which his privileged upbringing had blinded him. He fought the deep pools of wealth and swirling eddies of political power that sought only to maintain the status quo or enhance its inequity.

A string of family crises took him to the west but he was soon back and with a burning desire to bring right to so much wrong. As New York City’s police commissioner he often took a reporter in tow and toured the city’s mean streets at midnight. He fired cops who were found asleep, corrupt, or unworthy of the badge. He shone light into dark tenements where unfair advantage, unenforced laws, and accepted practice worked against the working poor.

He continued these efforts as New York’s governor. With each demand for reform, he was threatened by those who believed him a traitor to his class and a danger to bosses who ignored laws, rules, ethics, and morality. Roosevelt’s Republican Party, seen as the party of the rich, white, elite, began to move against him.

Many Republicans applauded his being moved out of the way with his appointment as President McKinley’s Assistant Navy Secretary. They were even happier when, after his daring military exploits in Cuba made him nationally famous, he became McKinley’s Vice President. At that time the old joke rang true: One man went to sea and the other to the Vice Presidency and neither was heard from again.

However, McKinley was assassinated in 1901. At age 42, Roosevelt became America’s youngest president. Upon moving in, by the way, it was he who changed the name from the President’s Mansion to the White House.

Where Have You Gone Teddy Roosevelt

Roosevelt moved slowly toward implementing his Progressive agenda and was helped immensely by a growth in investigative journalism. McClure’s Magazine began it all with the publication of a number of fact-filled articles detailing corruption in government, unions, and business. Its greatest writer was Ida Tarbell. She wrote a series that exposed the Standard Oil Company as the worst of the huge trusts that were enriching a very few while exploiting workers, destroying the environment, and making a mockery of democracy and capitalism.

The McClure’s articles, and others that followed their lead, afforded Roosevelt the public support he needed to take on the trusts and their powerful mouthpieces in Congress and the mainstream press. He used the largely toothless Sherman Anti-Trust Act to launch a lawsuit that ended up smashing the trusts and their corporatist Congressional power. Despite what critics had warned, the economy did not collapse, in fact, it thrived as never before as millions were now participants and contributors rather than its minions and victims.

From this effort came what Roosevelt called his Square Deal. It was a program of government action that regulated business to make food and products safer, workplaces more humane, living conditions more human, and, through it all, the American dream more aspirational and obtainable. Hope replaced despair. Again, despite the warnings, the government activity did not end ambition; rather, it allowed it a more fertile field in which to blossom.

The Square Deal attacked the notion that the rich can’t be taxed and poor can’t be helped. This idea was the corollary of the maxim that the rich won’t work because they don’t have enough money and poor won’t work because they have too much. Roosevelt showed both were bosh.

Roosevelt was the first environmentalist president. His National Monuments Act created parks, bird sanctuaries, national forests, and game preserves. Against the baying lobbyists demanding the right to drain profits from untapped resources, Roosevelt protected national treasures such as the Grand Canyon.

Upon leaving the presidency, Roosevelt took pride in the fact that Robber Barons who had been despoiling capitalism and democracy were chastised. A movement for the responsible stewardship of the environment had begun. The role of government as the arbiter for the people rather than apologist for the little elite was established. The practice of socializing risk while privatizing profit was put at bay.

Now, though, it is 1895 again. The slow motion corporate coup d’état that began in the early 1980s in the United States, Canada, and Britain is nearly complete. Those noting the trend and offering solution are, like before, ignored, belittled, or attacked as enemies of the democratic, capitalist ideals they are trying to save from those who sing their praises while violating their principles.

Is that OK? Or is it time to wonder: “Where have you gone Teddy Roosevelt, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

I guess its up to those of us who believe in real democracy and capitalism and not what they have become. It is for us to see through the negative ads, scandal de jour, screeching pundits, twitter trolls, ideologically warped cable news, and bread and circus on offer.

Perhaps those eager for change will not take to the streets but, rather, there will be a quiet but popular rejection of those who are bought and paid for. Maybe a lot of folks – it never takes a majority, just a lot – will call out those who use our money to bribe us and insult us by ignoring us or by hissing “obviously” through smirks. Maybe enough people will make it clear that we actually see through the contradictions between their words and actions and see their irony on parade and the cynicism of their papier-mâché faux patriotism.

Perhaps there is another Roosevelt out there and who know which party he or she is in? Teddy? Are you there?

Postscript: The story is true. Roosevelt was an avid hunter who once refused to shoot a small bear that his guides had leashed to a tree lest he go home without a kill. A toy company heard the tale and produced stuffed bears that it named after the president, hence, Teddy Bears.

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Two Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

You should never try to teach a dog to whistle for it will result in nothing more than frustrating yourself and annoying the dog. Similarly, there are questions that you should never ask a teenager. The two most important are these:

Question One: What were you thinking?

Last Saturday evening I was leaning on a railing enjoying the majestic view of the river and parliament buildings from Ottawa’s beautiful Major Hill Park. Then, far below, a young man had missed the Frisbee thrown by a friend and they were staring forlornly into Rideau Canal’s shallow, stagnant water fifty feet down.

The taller, skinnier one was suddenly climbing down the lead used by boats in the summer. A small crowd gathered at my railing. We were too far away to intervene but some giggled, some shook their heads, and, like me, others held their breaths.

Two Essential Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

Rideau Canal from the park (www.tripadvisor.com)

At the bottom of the cable, the young man found himself six feet or so from his little yellow toy. He clamoured back up. Soon he had descended again, had a leg linked over the bottom of the cable, and was precariously dangling upside down. He’d gone Cirque du Soleil on us. His friend then dropped a long stick that he miraculously caught. He used it to snag the Frisbee and then sailed it back to the top. Clearly exhausted, he slowly climbed out with his legs visibly shaking. Our little crowd dispersed as our two heroes commenced a spirited victory dance.

Why did he do what could have led to a serious injury or death? It was his brain’s fault.

You see, the last part of our brains to become fully functional is the pre-frontal cortex. It is just behind the forehead. It is the area responsible for being responsible. It links cause and effect. The incomplete wiring renders teenagers not unwilling but unable to fully comprehend situations that adults would consider socially awkward or inherently dangerous. As a result, teenagers often embarrass or infuriate adults or take what an adult would consider crazy risks like, for instance, climbing into a deep, concrete canal.

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

(Photo: sharpbrains.com)

The nucleus accumbens is another part of the story. That is near the back of our brain and is the first to develop. In teenagers, the impulses flowing through that wiring work overtime. It is the pleasure seeking, reward loving part of the brain. It is the part that inspires action not because it would be right or safe but only because it would be fun. With no frontal cortex to warn of risks, the teenagers are off to the party, into the fast car, skipping away from class, or, like last Saturday, lowering themselves down canal walls.

I wish I had been closer so that I could have warned our young friend about what he was about to do. I could have done as good parents and teachers do and, like a computer’s remote hard drive, acted as his remote pre-frontal cortex. But we spectators were all too far away. And it was just as well there were no adults waiting at the top when he emerged to ask our young climber what he was thinking. His honest answer would have been, “I was not thinking at all.”

Question Two: What do you want to be?

This question is dumb for three reasons. First, it implies that the teenager is nothing now. That’s insulting.

Second, the question is probing for a profession. The problem is that most teenagers don’t know and so will just proffer an answer likely to please. Why encourage lying? Further, according to Forbes magazine, teenagers today will have 15 to 20 jobs in their working lives. So why ask the question left over from the days of gold watches? Plus, one or more of those occupations will likely involve a job that does not now exist. So how can a teenager know what their job or jobs will be?

Most important of all, though, is that the question perpetuates the sad habit of defining oneself by a job. It’s the game show mentality of defining questions: what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do? It’s what crushes the souls of the un- and underemployed, led to baby boomer suicides after the 2008 crash, and makes retirement difficult for far too many. What am I if I am not the teacher, lawyer, or whatever? If a person is more than their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, ability, and body shape, then are they not also more than their job?

So if an adult asks a teenager what they want to be, a good answer would be this: “I hope to be an engaged citizen, a person of good character, a responsible parent, and a person who loves and is loved.” In fact, that would be a good answer for even those of us with fully wired brains.

For now, let’s avoid both questions. Instead, let’s enjoy our non-whistling dogs and the teenagers who are doing the best they can.

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The Princess and the Tulips

Princess Juliana was in trouble. The country over which she would someday reign was in crisis and her life was in peril. The Nazi blitzkrieg was pushing its way north and west and her beloved Netherlands was certain to fall to Hitler’s mad ambitions.

Just three years before, with the encouragement of her mother, the powerful and extraordinarily wealthy Queen Wilhelmina, she had married a young German aristocrat named Prince Bernard of Lippe-Biesterfeld. They soon fulfilled the most important part of their royal duties by producing heirs. Princess Beatrix was born in 1938 and then, a year later, Princess Irene.

Despite suspicions of all things German, the Dutch people accepted Prince Bernard. He changed the spelling of his name to be less German and became a Dutch citizen. Now they worried about their future, the future of their country, and that of the Royal bloodline if the Princess and her family were captured by the Nazi horde about which astounding stories of unspeakable horror were being told.

The Royal family was evacuated to London. Queen Wilhelmina oversaw the creation of a Dutch government in exile. A month later, in June 1940, Princess Juliana and her family were sent to an even safer sanctuary in Ottawa, Canada. A spacious house was found in the tony neighbourhood of Rockcliffe Park, home to ambassadors and the city’s elite. The house was called Stornoway. It would later become the residence of the leader of Canada’s Official Opposition.

Juliana followed the tragic news of her country having fallen under the Nazi yoke as she worried about her mother enduring the London blitz. The shy princess led a quiet life and remained aloof from Ottawa society events to which she would have been welcomed. Problems arose in late 1942 when she found herself pregnant. If she gave birth in Canada, the child would have dual citizenship and so be robbed of a spot in the Royal line of succession.

The Canadian government came to the rescue. It declared her rooms in Ottawa’s Civic Hospital to be temporarily extra territorial. In other words, for the moment, Juliana was in the Netherlands. Princess Margriet was born on January 19, 1943. The child became the first, and remains the only, royal personage to be born in North America.

Princess and the Tulips Royal Family

Home from the Ottawa Hospital (Photo: cbc.ca)

Canadians were as pleased as the people of the besieged Netherlands. The news led Canadian radio broadcasts and adorned newspaper front pages. The Dutch flag fluttered atop the Parliament Building’s Peace Tower and its bells chimed out the Dutch national anthem and folk tunes.

Meanwhile, the war raged on. Successful D-Day landings by British, American, and Canadian troops initiated a slow and bloody push toward Berlin. Canadians were assigned the left flank and, in September 1944, they began the liberation of the Netherlands. It was tough. The Nazi army had flooded land, mined ports, and dug itself into intractable defensive positions. The Dutch people did what they could to offer fifth column help. So many were so hungry that they had been surviving by eating tulip bulbs. Many were saved when Royal Canadian Airforce planes dropped food for the starving.

Canadian troops fought gallantly. The Battle of the Scheldt was the most excruciating engagement. Between October and November 1944, the Canadian First Army suffered nearly 13,000 casualties. When it succeeded and Nazi forces retreated, Canadian soldiers were hailed as heroes. As they entered Dutch towns, the tired but smiling young men were showered with flowers and gifts.

On May 2, 1945, after five years in Canada, Princess Juliana and her children were able to return first to London and then, along with Queen Wilhelmina, to a freed and free Netherlands. To demonstrate their gratitude for all that Canada had done for the country and her family, the Princess arranged that 100,000 tulip bulbs were sent to Ottawa. The next year, 20,000 more arrived with the request that they be planted on the hospital grounds.

In 1948, as result of her mother’s long illness, Juliana, became Queen. She ensured that more tulip bulbs were sent to Canada every year. Every spring saw Ottawa resplendent in a riot of colour. In 1952, at the suggestion of noted Canadian photographer Malak Karsh, Ottawa began an annual Tulip Festival. The city hosted a celebration that grew to include concerts, buskers, plays, fireworks, and more. Every year the city’s tulip beds grew even more spectacular.

Princess and the Tulips Photo: magpiejewellery.com

In Canada’s centennial year, 1967, Queen Juliana was enthusiastically cheered as she enjoyed the festival. In 2002, Princess Margriet was the special guest commemorating the festival’s 50th anniversary.

This weekend my family will be enjoying the festival. We’ve been before. It is spectacular. The flowers, so fragile and lasting only a short while, are reminders of a friendship within a tragedy and of our common humanity. They remind us of what can be lost to the insanity of war and blind adherence to a hateful ideology. And, standing boldly in the spring breeze, they symbolize the assurance that after every winter follows the spring and the determined hope that we may someday be sufficiently mature to live in peace.

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What Can We Learn from Leviticus, Wealth, and the Monkees?

As a historian, my job is to urge greater understanding of where we are through offering fresh perspectives on where we’ve been. My humble efforts constantly have me discovering things I never knew while challenging myself to reconsider things I thought I knew for sure. The curiosity quest has led to more questions than answers, which, I think, is as it should be. The following are among those issues and queries currently furrowing my brow.

Questions(Photo: http://www.cedar-rapids.org)

Science: In grade 4, Miss Haney taught me that man very early made jars stand up nearly perpendicular. The mnemonic device allowed me to remember the nine planets and their order from the sun. Look back and see what I mean; I’ll wait.

All was well until 2006 when scientists demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status because it had an unsteady orbit and was unable to “dominate its neighbourhood”. Then, thanks largely to the Hubble telescope, it was discovered that beyond our solar system there are perhaps a trillion planets. I don’t really know what a trillion is but it’s a lot more than eight. These new facts laid waste to Miss Haney’s old facts and ruined her perfectly charming memorization trick.

So, is science based not on facts but our best guess at the moment? If that is true, then what of mathematics, economics or anything else resting upon quantifiable truths?

Music: I used to sneak a small transistor radio into my bed every night. From beneath my pillow, so my parents couldn’t hear, I nodded off to a Buffalo radio station that skipped the latest rock ‘n’ roll across Lake Ontario just for me. I was ripe for the Monkees. I bought the records and every week enjoyed their TV show.

Although an enamoured nine-year old, I noticed that what I was hearing did not match what they were playing; especially Micky the drummer. It ends up that the Monkees sang but the music was played by a group of crack LA studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew. They were the same talented group we really heard when listening to The Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Beach Boys, Association, Partridge Family, Grass Roots, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and many more.

So, can music be enjoyed while accepting deceit in its creation? If so, does the same acceptance apply to other forms of artistic endeavour? If we accept deception in art, then where else will we wink at irony tilting toward lies – perhaps business and governance?

Bible: Until we stopped going to church for some reason, I attended Sunday school. Every week I fidgeted with the adults before we kids were led downstairs for a snack and lesson that we could actually understand. The rather violent portrayal of Jesus upstairs and the equally gruesome representation in the basement frightened me. The stories of God were thankfully reassuring as we were encouraged to consider Him as an old man who not only looked like Santa Claus but also acted a lot like him. Both had lists of naughty and nice and both meted out rewards and punishments although God seemed more quick to anger and a whole lot more spiteful and violent. I recall being shaken by the thought that I was apparently under constant surveillance.

I later enjoyed a university World Religions course, read a great deal, and, over the years, I have re-read the Bible four times. I learned to accept that Jesus was likely not the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blond man with whom I’d grown up. I learned that crucifixion was the Roman’s chosen form of capital punishment. So wearing a cross as jewellery then would be like wearing an electric chair now. Further, I learned that God is no more a man than Santa but, rather, a concept.

All this was fine but I was more troubled to find myself cherry picking from the Bible. I read that Leviticus 18:22 says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Ok, I disagreed, but it was clearly stated that homosexuality is a sin. But wait, 25:44 says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” So slavery, alternatively, is not a sin but, in fact, encouraged. It must be so because Exodus 21:7 says, “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.”

So, can we accept the good things a religion proffers while ignoring the questionable stuff? Can we use a part of the Bible to justify a particular belief while ignoring other parts? Can we treat the Bible as a smorgasbord without cheapening or even rejecting its core message?

Wealth: I once worked at a school for teenagers who were damaged, learning disabled, culture shocked, lost in the criminal justice system, or just lost. Later, I worked in a private school where those of means could buy their children’s peers and opportunities no longer available in the ideologically besieged and fiscally starved public system. I found about the same percentage of happy and unhappy kids in both schools.

Happiness, it turns out, has little to do with money. Last year, University of San Francisco psychology professor Ryan Howell determined that buying more stuff, having more clothes and cars and living in bigger houses do not make people happier. His findings supported a 2010 Princeton study showing that happiness rises until income hits about $75,000. After that, it was found that happiness goes up not one whit even if one’s income soars higher than poor old Pluto.

So, was John Lennon right? Is love really all we need? If the studies are true then should we re-examine the meaning of success, the efficacy of ambition, and the value of materialism?

There are folks I know who are deeply offended by questions that invite an exploration of opinions that they have hardened into facts. The questions should none the less be asked. I believe that we owe it to ourselves to ask questions of ourselves, even if the answers are difficult, illusive, or impossible.

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A Woman’s Power

Movie lines sometimes contain more truth than a philosophy tome. Consider my favourite line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A mother is patiently explaining to her adult daughter that Dad is indeed the head of the family. However, she adds, “I am the neck.” I love that. I might add that women are also often the glue.

I learned this truth by unconsciously absorbing my paternal grandmother’s lessons. She was the eldest of three strong sisters, the second generation of Ukrainian immigrants escaping turn of the century pre-revolutionary violence. Her mother provided Ukrainian language lessons to other immigrant kids in Hamilton’s hardscrabble east end. One day, the skinny 15 year-old was bored and waiting for her Mom to finish when a shy pupil not much older than her approached. He whispered that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and that someday he would like to marry her. That was my grandfather. They were married for 63 years.

Her father was one of the first men hired at Hamilton, Ontario’s brand new Dominion Foundry and Steel (Dofasco). He arranged a job for his son-in-law where he worked for 42 years. Later, the Second World War saw North American women doing what many women and most men said could not be done; they fought the war on factory floors. My grandmother worked 8-hour shifts in heavy overalls and beneath a thick kerchief. She lifted, turned, and processed steel sheets. She was, in the vernacular of the day, Rosie the Riveter.

An old Dofasco newsletter shows her and other women smiling broadly and doing their bit with a patriotic passion and rugged determination to make a deeper point. There was celebration when the guns fell silent and the afternoon shift was let out early. Amid the cheers, all the women were given small paper packets containing a tiny bonus and a pink slip. She told me how that she would have liked to have kept working and, like many others, felt used and cheated.

Women Are Glue

(The three sisters and their parents, my grandmother is standing on right)

When her mother was failing, my grandmother made a promise. She would keep the family together and carry on the tradition of the large gatherings like those at the old Port Dover farm. The basement of her modest Burlington home was refashioned into a party room. Every big occasion, and certainly every Christmas, the room sang with my large and loud extended Ukrainian family. My grandmother met everyone at the door with a smile, kiss, and hug. She was a big woman and when you got hugged, you stayed hugged.

Long tables sagged under more food than even our army of a family could consume and then everything was packed away for my cousin’s band and the dancing. The adults got to drink a little too much and the kids got to stay up past bedtime as the old stories and jokes were told through Export A smoke, smiles, and laughter.

The last time I saw her was in a hospital bed. As I was saying goodbye she put her hands on my cheeks and squeezed them together and pulled me close as if I was a six-year-old again. Perhaps, in her eyes, I was. She said, “I hope you know how much I love you.” I said, “I do. And I hope you know how much I love you.” They were our last words.

She told the doctor that she wanted to go home and he said only when she could walk the hallway and was completely off morphine. He didn’t know her very well. She did both the next day. She arrived home and within 45 minutes she was gone. This last act said everything you need to know about her strength.

That Christmas, there was no party. Everyone was too sad. She wasn’t there to push us through our grief. There was never another party. First the extended family and then some even closer drifted further. The glue was gone.

No family is perfect. Scratch the surface of any family and amongst the litter of love and happy days glowing like Facebook postings, you’ll find scars and unhealed wounds. Despite this fact, family, no matter how defined, constructed, or shifting, is sanctuary. Family is what reminds us of who we are when we sink too low or fly too high. Family is what affords us the courage to carry on when we’d rather quit and the reason and confidence to venture forth in the first place.

Every family has one person that acts as glue and holds it all together when so much seems determined to tear it asunder. Because most men, like me, are dullards about such things and too often too self-absorbed, the job usually falls to women. They are the miraculous caregivers who become the bond between people and generations. They love without judgement. Their lives and the values that guide them become their silent advice. They kiss your cheek or kick your ass or just sit and listen, and then listen some more.

They are the women who only those with enough love can see for who they truly are. Bless these women. They, like my grandmother, are the angels among us now and forever.

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The Importance of Ignoring Your Rabbits

Journalists, detectives, and hiring teams love hypothetical questions. Those in their sights are asked to imagine situations and predict reactions. Politicians dismiss them. Suspects leap behind lawyers. Pity the sweaty-palmed job applicant spinning an internal Rolodex of possible responses while balancing honesty with guessing the right answer

As an author, I have been interviewed countless times in TV and radio studios, over the phone and over coffee, and before audiences. Speaking engagements always end with a Q and A. In most cases, I am asked about whatever book has just been published and my answers come relatively easily. After all, by the time a book leaves the nest to make its perilous way in the world, it has been re-written so many times that an author nearly has it memorized. Further, after a while, an author hears the same dozen or so questions and it becomes a little like Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline – the performance is still heart-felt, enjoyable, and hopefully entertaining, but seldom challenging.

But then, once in a while, down the queue comes the query – the hypothetical. It just happened to me again. I am proud and was humbled to have been invited to be one of six artists, authors, business people, and community leaders to participate in the annual fundraiser for the Greater Peterborough Health Services called Peterborough Speaks.

Last Wednesday evening, each of us took a turn on a chat show-like setting at the Market Hall theatre. We were interviewed for about 15 minutes before an audience of 250 and those who will watch later on television. Media personality Michelle Ferreri began my session with a question about my upcoming book and all was going well enough, I thought, until the end. She concluded with, “What advice would the current you give to your 20-year-old self?”

Ignoring Rabbits (photo: Peterborough Examiner)

Wow! Up in the Green Room, I had heard BrandHealth president Paul Hickey asked that question and so I didn’t think the same bullet would be fired again. I was reminded of the same gulping feeling I experienced when asked by a Calgary CBC journalist during a live radio broadcast: “Of all the Canadian prime ministers, which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?”

That time, I was on the phone with radio’s cruel absence of the communication crutches of expressions or gestures and the terror of dead air. Now I was on stage before all those people and cameras. I was suddenly like one of the hundreds of job applicants who, in another part of my life, I had interviewed with similarly tough, hypothetical questions. It was my turn to spin the Rolodex.

I said, “I would tell my 20 year-old self to ignore the rabbits and tend the tree.” Michelle looked incredulous and there were smatters of nervous laughter from the audience. I explained;

“When I was 20, I was like a frenetic young man alone in a large field teeming with rabbits. I was armed with a tiny net called ambition. I scurried from one to the next, finding that with every rabbit I snared, two more got away. I wish I could convince that guy to leave the field and seek a sanctuary of silence to contemplate what is truly important. I would implore him to imagine shaping his life less as a hunter and more as a gardener before a young bonsai tree. I would suggest that he slowly nurture its growth by picturing its ideal shape and then, over time, mold it into that shape by snipping off certain people, places, activities, and habits and all else that is destructive and distracting. I’m not sure he would have had the capacity to hear me for winter can seldom warn the spring, but I would advise my 20-year-old self to ignore the rabbits and tend the tree.”

I had considered the metaphor of the bonsai before but never constructed the thought as I expressed it that evening. Now that I have, and because I did it in such a public way and with this writing I am doing it again, I am pressing myself to a new challenge. I will soon be making a couple more snips.

As for the fellow in Calgary, I said, “Sir John A. Macdonald would have been the best NHL hockey player for in the Gordie Howe tradition he had the broadest skill set of anyone at the time and was not above throwing a few elbows.” I hope Sir John and Mr. Howe would have liked that. I suspect that as young men they had learned to ignore the rabbits.

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The Little Known Canadian Links to Lincoln’s Assassination

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, on April 15, 1865, famous actor John Wilkes Booth placed a small derringer behind Abraham Lincoln’s left ear. Several hours later, the president who had led the United States through the horrific Civil War that had ended only days before, was dead.

With Lincoln went his goal of treating Southerners not as conquered but countrymen. The Senate’s Radical Republicans ran roughshod over a new and weak president to impose their program of punishment and retribution. To a large degree, America’s regional, political, and racial divisions are echoes of the botched reconstruction that Lincoln would not have allowed. We understand the assassination’s consequences for America but few know of its Canadian connections.

Canada and Lincoln Assassination

(Photo: en.wikipedia.org)

A virulent racist and staunch believer in the Southern cause, Booth gathered a group of like-minded people at Mary Surratt’s Washington boarding house and hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln. They would release him when the United States, seen by Southerners as a foreign country that had invaded theirs, withdrew its forces. To help organize the plot, Booth travelled to Montreal.

Like many other Canadian cities, Montreal was a hotbed of Confederate activity. A year before, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had appointed Jacob Thompson, a former federal cabinet secretary, to save the South by going north. Thompson established offices in Montreal and Toronto. He organized Confederate deserters, escaped prisoners, and sympathetic Canadians who then harassed Lincoln’s Union with daring raids, Great Lakes piracy, and fifth column intrigues.

Booth arrived in Montreal in October 1864. He took a room at the swanky St. Lawrence Hall hotel that served as Thompson’s headquarters. He met with Confederate spies and gun and blockade-runners. At the Bank of Ontario, he exchanged $300 for gold sterling. Booth worked for 10 days making plans and contacts.

Booth’s failed kidnapping plot and the war’s end led to a new idea. On a single night they would kill Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and General Grant. The government would be decapitated and the South inspired to rise again. However, at the appointed hour, Grant had left Washington, Johnson’s assassin got drunk, and Seward survived his stab wounds. Only Booth succeeded.

Booth was hunted down and shot by a 26-man detail led by Quebec-born First Lieutenant Edward Doherty. On May 2, a proclamation stated that the government was seeking a number of Booth’s accomplices, including “rebels and traitors against the United States, harboured in Canada.” Among those listed was John Surratt. He had fled to Canada and was being hidden by priests, first in a Village north of Montreal and then in the city. Canadians helped him to escape to Europe.

Booth’s other conspirators were captured and brought to trial. The prosecution sought to prove their guilt along with the complicity of what it called the Confederacy’s “Canadian Cabinet”. The first words spoken in testimony were by a War Department spy, “I visited Canada in the summer of 1864, and except for the time I have going backward and forward, have remained there for almost two years.” Canada was central to the majority of testimony that followed, including that of a spy posing as a Montreal businessman who later arrived to clear his name. The trial’s final words went to Special Judge Advocate Bingham, “Surely no word further need be spoken to show that…[Booth, Surratt] and Davis and his several agents named in Canada, were in this conspiracy.”

Sensational American newspaper coverage spoke of Canada’s complicity in their president’s murder. Public meetings and vicious letters to editors revealed even greater anti-Canadian sentiment than had developed during the war. There were calls for retribution. The rising tide of hatred led Canadians and Maritimers to renew their demand for Confederation that the Civil War had turned from a good idea to a necessity. Canada had to create itself to save itself.

Today’s divided America and united Canada are the twin legacies of Booth’s smoking gun.

For more on this story and of Canada and the American Civil War please check out “Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation”. It’s available everywhere including here: http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/contributor/author/john-boyko/#page=0&pid=978030736146