A Little Something in Something So Big

The pandemic is big. We are little. But we’re doing what we can. In Lakefield, our little Ontario village, most of us wear masks when shopping at our one grocery store; picking up mail at the post office; or lining up outside our one hardware store and in the often-outrageously long LCBO queues. We wave and weave widely around each other on daily walks. We’re hunkered down. But last Saturday, for just a bit, we broke free.

There’s not much I can do to help. I can’t make masks. Beyond staying home, I can’t help doctors and nurses. But I know how to sing and play the guitar a little. Plus, Terry lives across the street and he’s a drummer. Mike lives one street over and he plays bass. An idea was born.

Flyers were put in people’s front doors. They said that on Saturday at 4:15 there would be a William Street Concert and Sidewalk Dance. People were invited to bring lawn chairs (and stay six feet apart) or just open their windows. We had no idea if anyone would come or if the police would shut us down – there is one patrol car that commutes in from Peterborough.

William St Concert

It was terrific. Families gathered close and neighbours sprawled on lawns at respectful distances. Others were on front porches and between songs we heard others clapping and hooting from back decks. Mike, Terry, and I had never played together before so we did old, no fail, rock ‘n’ roll songs. A lot of folks sang along and danced in their places but for our last two songs (I Saw Standing There and Birthday) the street filled with socially-distanced dancers.

William St 2

It was only an hour. But it was glorious. There was laughter and singing and dancing and wide smiles. We actually saw friends who for weeks were only thumbnails in Brady Bunch Zoom calls. When it ended, we all retreated to the safety of our houses and yards knowing how lucky we are to have houses and yards and to live in a little place like this even in the middle of something so big.

We’re Trapped in the Power of Three

That feeling we’re feeling is real. The first weeks of quarantine were disconcerting but those with food and shelter were essentially okay. But then, like a party that goes on just a little too long, it lost its sparkle. Look at all those protesters insisting on their right to be infected and to infect others: the angry and the armed and those oblivious to irony who scream it’s all a hoax from behind their masks. Like us, they are trapped in the power of three.

Three permeates our understanding of ourselves. Ancient Celts, Vikings, and Pagans adopted the three interconnected arcs of the triquetra symbol to advance understanding. Early Christians adopted it for their concept of the Trinity: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Greeks spoke of mind, body, and spirit. Freud said our minds are comprised of the id, ego, and superego.

Power of Three

Triquetra Symbol

Three informs our culture. America’s foundational philosophy rests on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while Canada’s promises peace, order and good government. The Olympics award medals only to the top three competitors. There are three periods in hockey and in baseball we pass three bases to get home and it’s three strikes and we’re out. Musical chords are based on triads. Every story, book, movie, and TV show we have ever enjoyed has three parts as a protagonist is introduced, run up a tree, and then let back down. Every joke we’ve heard has a set-up, reinforcement, and then the punchline’s surprise twist.

Marketers and speakers understand. Businesses offer Goldilocks options – too hard, too soft, and just right. (Recall how many bears Goldilocks was dealing with.) The Gap, for instance, offers three price points: Banana Republic, Gap, and Old Navy. Restaurant menus offer cheap, reasonable, and expensive options which lead most of us to the middle – the just right choice. Brain research confirms that we are persuaded by, and can only recall, three points. Speakers tell audiences what they are about to tell them, they tell them, and then they tell them what they told them. Within the structure of three, they teach and persuade as marketers do, with what Aristotle called Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. That is, you establish authority, make a logical argument, and then sell or teach through emotion.

And so here we are. We have three engrained in our fundamental understandings and hard wired into our brains. But an unseen virus has us stuck at two. We know the one because we recall the before; when we had never heard of Covid-19. We accepted the two, the now, when we hunkered down. But we are desperately yearning for the three, the next, the future offering reward and resolution. Stuck at two and inching toward three is causing more mental health issues, more domestic violence, and more impatience with those damn Zoom meetings.

Holding on for the third part of this thing is indeed getting harder but maybe understanding the power of three will make it just a smidge easier. Maybe we can be careful and consider others just a little bit longer. Maybe our staying home, distancing, and wearing masks will allow us the protective bricks of the third pig until the huffing and puffing invisible wolf is finally gone.

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The Trudeau and Trump Memorials

Someday, will visitors gaze upon the enormous Donald Trump Memorial gracing Washington’s Mall, exuding the size and emotional power of the Lincoln Memorial? Maybe. And, someday, will Canadians be moved by the Justin Trudeau Memorial on Parliament Hill, with his bronze likeness towering above us within a giant Romanesque building with soaring Corinthian columns akin to Washington’s Jefferson Memorial? Never. Not a chance. Not in a million years.

Is the idea that Mr. Trump may have such a glorious memorial and Mr. Trudeau never will because Trump is the better leader; more ethical, moral, honest, more stirring in his soaring rhetoric and inspirational in the content of his character? Of course not. Mr. Trump has a better chance because Americans do that kind of thing. Canadians don’t.

Trum and Trudeau        Trump and Trudeau 2

    Thomas Jefferson Memorial             Lester Pearson’s Grave (Wakefield, Quebec)

Americans have always exalted their presidents. Presidents have always been the source of awe and myth. To Americans, the president is the epitome of the American dream, the office to which every child could aspire, the man whom all should respect and admire: “Hail to the Chief!” To Americans, the president has their back as a warrior prince while expressing American swagger and exceptionalism to the rest of the world; those who are merely failed attempts at being them.

Even when ending their time in office, presidents are cared for and revered. They continue to be addressed as Mr. President. There are fourteen presidential libraries. In each, the president’s papers, and those of his senior secretaries and staff, are carefully preserved. More than that, the libraries are museums. They celebrate the presidency and the man and with each, you exit through the gift shop containing books, busts, and posters suitable for framing.

Further, since 1958, every retired president has received a generous pension. They are also afforded money and assistance to transition to private life. They are gifted more money to maintain a permanent staff and office, secret service protection, access to top-secret security briefings, and, important in the United States, free medical coverage. And, of course, some are afforded towering memorials in Washington and their home towns.

And what of Canadian prime ministers? They leave office with only a member of parliament’s pension. Kim Campbell did not serve the requisite six years and so was out of luck. An oil portrait is hung outside the House of Commons. Some may get a modest statue or two or an airport, school, or street named after them but beyond that – nothing. Diefenbaker has a modest museum in Saskatoon but only because he bequeathed it.

I was once on my way home from a New Brunswick speaking engagement when I saw former prime minister John Turner waiting near me in the tiny Moncton airport lounge. There was no security. He had no assistant. He was alone. Mr. Turner had been at the same event and so I said hi and we chatted for a while about our families and the magazine article he was reading. While everyone else surely recognized him, none paid him any mind. As I watched him board the plane I pondered Bill Clinton or Barack Obama in a similar situation. The moment said it all.

Maybe the difference between how Canadians feel about their prime ministers and Americans about their presidents is rooted in the perhaps accurate notion that Canadians are generally a more modest people, warier of mythology, and more attuned to irony. We never chant “We’re Number One” even if we’re winning. We apologize – a lot. Rick Mercer once said that there should be a sign at every border crossing saying: Welcome to Canada – We’re Sorry. Americans are more likely to see a mansion on a hill and think that someday it could be them while Canadians are more likely to ask, “Who does he think he is?”

Perhaps because Canadians are less willing to feel awe, prime ministers inspire less of it than presidents. Prime ministers are certainly never mythologized. In Washington’s American History Smithsonian Museum rests an enormous statue of George Washington carved in gleaming marble, seated upon a throne, suggesting a Roman emperor, bare-chested and ripped. I have watched Americans snapping pictures and being genuinely moved by the thing. I imagined Canadians roaring in laughter at a similar statue of Sir John A. Macdonald.

Trump and Trudeau 3

Washington as Roman Emperor   

Maybe Americans venerate their presidents because they hire them through a direct vote. In 2016, nearly 63 million Americans voted for Mr. Trump. Canadians, on the other hand, construct a House of Commons with the winning party’s leader becoming the head of government. In 2019, the only Canadians to directly vote for Justin Trudeau were just under 25,000 people of Quebec’s Papineau riding. The link between Canadians and their prime ministers is thus less direct and less visceral than between Americans and their presidents.

            Conceivably, the American veneration is partly because the president is head of government and head of state and so directly involved in the ceremonial, celebratory aspects of leadership. The Canadian prime minister is only the head of the government with the monarch the head of state, represented by the Governor-General. The prime minister does the tough stuff but enjoys none of the reflected glow of things like the Presidential Medal of Freedom as Canadians are celebrated through Governor General’s awards.

Maybe the president’s emotional power rests partly upon the fact that he is available to the American people only on his own terms, with his lines ready, and the setting perfect. The Canadian prime minister, on the other hand, must face the Loyal Opposition nearly every weekday for an hour of grilling that is laughingly called Question Period – there are no real questions and fewer answers. Still, it is hard to imagine an American president, or the presidential myth, surviving the relentless onslaught of piercing queries and ruthless heckling.

So, how Americans treat their presidents – dead or alive – is distinctly different than how Canadians treat their prime ministers because Americans and Canadians are different. Trump may but Trudeau will never get a big marble monument. And that’s okay. Let us respect but not worship our prime ministers. Let us admire them when earned but never deify. Let’s remember former prime ministers as leaders from among us not mythical figures above us. Let us continue to see our politicians as not fabled purveyors of unobtainable dreams but public servants trying to make our country and lives just a little bit better.

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John Prine: A Minstrel’s Death

John Prine died. In the midst of the roiling economic and health tragedies and stress-inducing changes visited upon us by the Covid-19 pandemic, that news struck as a thunderbolt. John Prine died. He survived two bouts of cancer, a hip replacement, and a life on the road but the virus none of us can see but all fear struck him down. Damn it. Damn it all to hell.

John Prine’s death breaks my heart. His songs were a soundtrack to the good and not so good times in my life with his clever, soul-weary lyrics and deceptively simple, yearning melodies reminding me that there is always and everywhere survivable sadness and ironic humour. I always knew that when too much was confusing that I could read Kurt Vonnegut and listen to John Prine and that their similar messages of chagrin overlapping hope would help me through.

John Prine

I have seen John Prine perform countless times but the first was special. It was the Mariposa Folk Festival on the Toronto Island in 1975. He was the final performer and mesmerized us all with the sorrow of the old woman in Angel From Montgomery, the blistering humour of Grampa Was a Carpenter, and the invitation for compassion for the elderly in Hello In There. At the end of his performance, he invited his friend Steve Goodman to the stage and they performed Souvenirs and then the song of good times gone bad in paying the price of progress: Paradise. The crowd cheered and headed for the ferry. The song started far behind us but overtook us like a wave. We were soon all singing Paradise, over and over, in the line and on the boat. If I close my eyes and gentle my mind I can hear it now.

I will listen to a lot of John Prine today. I think I’ll start with one of his recent songs called When I Get to Heaven to hear what he’s up to right now. The songs will evoke memories, smiles, and tears, like always, and, as is the case with all artists who matter, forever.

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Click here for When I Get to Heaven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0EiV423j0M

Judy Rebick – A Woman of Courage

 Born in Reno, Nevada then spending her early childhood in New York City, Rebick’s family moved to Canada when she was nine-years-old. An early supporter of left-wing political activism, she wrote for the McGill University paper, the McGill Daily, while completing her undergrad degree. She became involved in counter-culture activism and the bohemian lifestyle of the day both in Montreal and after moving back to New York City in 1968. Members of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead once crashed in her apartment.

She was surprised and angered by the sexism exhibited by many male counter-culture leaders. Rebick courageously undertook a solo backpacking adventure through Europe and the Middle East where she saw even more blatant expressions of racial and aggressive gender discrimination.

Upon her return to Canada, Rebick was among those who led the Revolutionary Marxist Group and its successor, The Revolutionary Workers League. The Trotskyist groups were part of the New Left movement that argued about tactics but agreed that if Canadians were to enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from discrimination then democracy had to be reformed with power wrestled from the male, white, elite who controlled political parties, corporations, and the media.

Rebick’s activism led to her involvement with the Waffle, the radical-left caucus within the New Democratic Party. Founded in 1969, the Waffle argued that the party was wrong in abandoning its socialist beliefs in its attempt to attract more mainstream voters. Rebick argued that to protect Canadians against the powerful elite that ruled Canada and American influences that threatened its survival, the party should proudly advocate radical socialist ideas. Rebick ran for but failed to win the NDP’s presidency. In the 1987 Ontario provincial election, she advocated Waffle ideas as the NDP candidate in a Toronto riding but placed third.

Women’s right to control their own bodies through access to birth control and abortion was an important aspect of the Canadian women’s movement in the 1980s. Rebick earned public recognition for her work as a pro-choice spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics. In 1983 she and abortion advocate Dr. Henry Morgentaler were walking toward a new clinic that he was about to open in Montreal when an anti-abortion zealot sprung at Morgentaler with a pair of garden shears. Rebick quickly intervened, saving Morgentaler from harm.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rebick was also the Canadian Hearing Society’s Special Projects Director. She later explained, “I made things happen. All my work is making changes. That’s what I do.”

Judy Rebick

(Photo: The Globe and Mail)

The National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) was formed in 1971. It is a federation of over 500 women’s groups with support from over 700 unions, churches, and grass-roots community organizations that became Canada’s most influential feminist lobby group. From 1990 to 1993, Rebick was the NAC’s president. Under her leadership, the NAC successfully pressured the government to bring about changes to improve the lives of women through legislation regarding what constituted consent in rape cases, pay equity, and greater access to abortion and rape-crisis centres. The NAC successfully fought against the Mulroney government’s Bill C-43 which sought to restrict a woman’s right to an abortion. Rebick also led the NAC’s support for the Mohawk of Kanesatake who, in what became known as the Oka Crisis, were protesting to stop the expropriation of their land. Under her leadership, the NAC stood against the Meech Lake Accord and then the Charlottetown Accord, arguing that the proposed constitutional amendments would decentralize power to the provinces and thereby threaten social programs, many of which help women.

The national exposure earned by her NAC presidency led to Rebick becoming a commentator on television and radio, a cohost of Face-Off, a CBC-TV news and debate program, and then on a program focusing on women’s issues called Straight from the Hip. In 2001, Rebick co-founded and, until 2005, was the editor of rabble.com, an influential multi-media web site that encouraged debate on a range of progressive social issues.

Meanwhile, Rebick contributed articles to a number of newspapers and magazines and was a sought-after public speaker. She wrote four books and co-wrote another including 2009’s Transforming Power in which she contended that old left-wing parties were no longer bringing about positive change. She applauded, “…a bottom-up, diverse, compassionate, collective approach to social change in which issues and communities were coming together and producing something new and powerful.”

The Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University was created to provide “a hub of interaction between social justice activists and academics.” Judy Rebick was the first Sam Gindin Chair. Among her initiatives was a three-day sleep-over at Ontario’s legislature to bring attention to Indigenous efforts to protect their land from unfair and illegal corporate resource extraction. She created Ryerson’s Anti-Racism Taskforce, the Toronto Social Forum to fight for social justice in the city, and organized international conferences bringing political activists together from around the world.

In 2018, Rebick released a memoir entitled Heroes in my Head. She wrote that throughout her life she had suffered bouts of debilitating clinical depression and dissociative identity disorder which involved eleven distinct people living within her. Therapy revealed that the multiple personalities were her mind’s defensive reaction the suppressed memory of having been sexually abused by her father beginning when she was only five-years-old. She explained, “I thought [the book] would help other women to know that someone like me, who most people see as strong and competent, has suffered from male violence and mostly recovered. I also believe our notions of mental health are still quite problematic. We stigmatize, criminalize and marginalize people with mental health problems.”

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Edith Clayton: Weaving Memory

We are what we choose to recall. Art is an essential part that recollection.

Perhaps in Black History month, we might pause to consider that baskets have always been an important element in African and North American Indigenous communities. They have been practical tools and art; expressing as all art does, a society’s uniqueness and desire to preserve what matters.

Edith Clayton’s grandparents were among the 2,000 African Americans, – some free and some slave – who as War of 1812 refugees settled in Nova Scotia. Clayton was born in Cherry Brook, Dartmouth, in September 1920. Her mother, Selena Irene Sparks, taught her the maple-splint wood basket weaving technique that had been passed down – mother to daughter – for six generations. Clayton weaved her first basket at age 8 and grew to become a highly-skilled weaver. She met with local Mi’kmaq women to obtain natural dyes which afforded her intricately weaved baskets unique and stunning colours.

Clayton wove many different types of baskets including church collection plates, large horns of plenty, and baby cradles. Her baskets became a source of income for her family when, every weekend, she sold them in the Halifax Farmer’s Market. Her husband Clifford gathered the red maple wood that she carefully split to use for basket ribs and ribbons. Mi’kmaq dyes arrived every week in the mail. Her distinctive designs, materials, and colours drew national attention when she presented them at fairs across Canada. In 1977, she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal. In 1986, Clayton traveled to Vancouver to demonstrate her technique and display her work in the Canadian pavilion at Expo ’86.

Edith 2

Clayton’s notoriety was enhanced when, in 1989, she was featured in a National Film Board documentary entitled Black Mother Black Daughter. A scene in the movie showed Clayton, her daughters, and other women at one of their regular gatherings at her East Preston shop. Under her guidance, another generation was learning basket weaving skills while they spoke of their lives and families; allowing not only the weaving of baskets but also the oral tradition of story-telling to preserve and enhance the African-Canadian experience.

While working on her baskets every day and traveling to sell them, Clayton raised 11 children and adopted another daughter. Clayton also taught basket weaving at evening classes in Dartmouth for the Department of Continuing Education. In 1977, she worked with Joleen Gordon, a research associate with the Nova Scotia Museum, and published a book entitled Edith Clayton’s Market Basket, A Heritage of Splintwood Basketry in Nova Scotia. It contained a number of pictures of her work and detailed instructions on how to make many of her designs.

Edith 1

Clayton died on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend while attending church on October 8, 1989. She was 69 years old.

Her baskets are treasured in museums and homes across Canada and around the world. Clayton was commemorated on the Nova Scotia Black Wall of Fame, recognized by the Black Professional Women, and was made an honorary member of the Nova Scotia Designer Craft Council and the Nova Scotia Basketry Guild. In 1990, Nova Scotia’s Black Cultural Centre paid tribute to Clayton with an exhibition called Crafts: Connections in our Lives.

Clayton’s daughters learned well from their mother and continue to celebrate and perpetuate the African-Canadian and Mi’kmaq cultures by embracing the basket weaving tradition. In so doing, the whispering ghosts of the past and all they insist should be remembered are heard.

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Wexit: The Fight for Canada

Canada is in trouble. Not since the heady days of 1970s and 1990s Quebec separatism has a group of alienated Canadians so fervently wanted to destroy the country. This time, the over 260,000 disgruntled folks who have joined Alberta’s Wexit movement are riding a wave of western alienation. They are angry. They want out. They are wrong.

All can agree that Alberta is experiencing significant problems deserving serious attention. Massive unemployment is challenging municipal and provincial fiscal capacity while harming families and leading to a disturbing increase in suicides. Wexit co-founder Peter Downing insists that Canada was established to meet Ontario and Quebec needs and cares nothing about Alberta’s difficulties nor wishes to address them. Alberta’s only option, he insists, is to form a separate Alberta state.

 

Wexit

(Photo: Global News)

While Mr. Downing and those attracted to his movement are right about the problems they are wrong about their cause and cure.

Alberta premier Peter Lougheed spoke in the 1970s of the need to diversify Alberta’s economy because he knew that oil and gas would not forever be the foundation of the province’s wealth. That diversification has not happened. Lougheed’s wisdom and warning were demonstrated when in 2015 the price of oil collapsed and spiraled Alberta into the mess in which it now finds itself.

But despite what those currently angry at Prime Minister Trudeau, Ottawa, or Canada itself, the federal government did not want nor did our political structure cause oil’s plummeting price. There must be an admission by Wexit leaders that Alberta’s forming its own independent state would do nothing to bring oil back to the $100 a barrel necessary to again make the oil sands viable; nothing to end concern with the use of fossil fuels in the ongoing climate crisis; nothing to move the province’s oil and gas through pipelines across Canadian and Indigenous land; nothing to diversify Alberta’s economy, nor would forming an independent state do anything to prolong the inevitable end of oil and gas as our dominant energy source.

I recently participated in a Winnipeg radio panel discussing Wexit and Mr. Downing was asked, “If a Conservative government was elected last October and oil was now $100 a barrel, would we be having this conversation?” He replied, “Probably not.” I admired Mr. Downing’s honesty. He confessed that Alberta’s problems are economic and political and not constitutional.

Let Mr. Downing’s confession spur an admission by Wexit leaders that constitutional change and state-building are tough. The Clarity Act was passed in 2000. It states that a province can negotiate with the federal government about leaving the country only after a clear majority says yes to a clearly stated referendum question. Even if a clear majority of Albertans said yes to a clear question, there is no guarantee that negotiations would end as Albertans might hope. Look only to the United Kingdom’s sad Brexit debacle as an example of what negotiations might look like.

Let’s assume that the referendum goes well, the negotiations proceed perfectly, and an independent Alberta is created. The new founders will need to establish a constitution and all the other boring but practical apparatus needed to run a state. With all that done, the price and future of oil and gas would be the same. All the social and political problems such as climate change, spiraling health care costs, and much more would remain the same. Perhaps Albertans might be left wondering if all that had been accomplished was the swapping of one set of tyrants 3000 km away for a new set of tyrants 300 km away.

Mr. Downing has promised to create a new party and run candidates in the next federal election. Good. Let those candidates be truthful about the causes of Alberta’s problems and realistic about their cures. Let them add to the national conversation that is an essential element of our thriving democracy.

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