Things I Never Knew About Erin O’Toole

We like democracy but don’t like politicians. I know they have a bad name. But I have great respect for those with the courage to run for public office and for those who serve. I believe that most are honest, hard-working people who are in it for the right reasons. Further, I am often impressed by the backgrounds of politicians and one of those is Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole. You may disagree with his political ideology and policy proposals but, for a moment, let’s forget that. Let’s consider him as a person.

            O’Toole was born in Montreal, the oldest of five children. His mother died of breast cancer when he was nine years old and shortly afterward the family moved to Port Perry, Ontario, where he attended elementary school. They moved again, this time to Bowmanville, and he graduated from Bowmanville High School.

            At age 18, O’Toole attended the Royal Military College in Kingston. After graduating with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science, he became a commissioned officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He served in Trenton, earned his wings at Winnipeg, and was then posted to 12 Wing in Shearwater, Nova Scotia. Serving with 423 Squadron, O’Toole was a tactical navigator aboard CH-124 Sea King helicopters. He flew search and rescue missions and supported the Royal Canadian Navy with maritime surveillance and anti-submarine work aboard the frigate HMCS St. John’s.

            In 2000, after 12 years of service and obtaining the rank of captain, O’Toole transferred to the reserves. While serving as a training officer with 406 Squadron, he earned a law degree at Dalhousie University. In Halifax he met and married Rebecca. They would have two children; Mollie and Jack.

            Upon graduation in 2003, O’Toole and Rebecca moved to Toronto. Specializing in corporate law, he worked at two large firms before moving to Procter & Gamble. He could have stayed a corporate lawyer and made pot loads of money but he made another decision.

            An appreciation for the value of public service was instilled in O’Toole by his grandfathers, who both served in the Second World War, and his mother’s work with Vietnamese refugees. Further, in 1995, O’Toole had helped in the campaign in which his father, John, was elected Member of Provincial Parliament for Durham, a seat he would hold for 19 years.

            While working in corporate law, O’Toole’s dedication to public service led him to volunteer with the Royal Canadian Legion and the Rotary Club, serve on the Royal Military College Board, help initiate the Clarington Youth and Community Leadership Dinner, raise money to build schools in Africa, co-chair the River Runs Through Us project that protects fish habitat and built a recreation area on the Bowmanville Creek, and to lead the effort that created a memorial to Canadians who died serving in Afghanistan. O’Toole was also the co-founder of the True Patriot Love Foundation which raised millions of dollars to support veterans and their families, a director of the Churchill Society that encouraged education programs regarding parliamentary democracy, and was the director of the Vimy Foundation that raised funds for the battle’s 100th anniversary commemoration.

Politics

In 2012, O’Toole ran in a by-election and won a seat as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Durham. His election resulted in the first time that a father and son had represented the same riding at the provincial and federal levels. He served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government. levels. In January 2015, he was appointed minister of veteran’s affairs. The Conservative party lost the fall 2015 election but O’Toole won his seat. In October 2017, he became one of thirteen Conservatives running for the party’s leadership but it was won by Andrew Scheer.

(Photo: Global News)

            Scheer appointed O’Toole to his shadow cabinet as foreign affairs critic. In the October 2019 federal election O’Toole again won his seat. Scheer resigned in December and interim leader Rona Ambrose named O’Toole the party’s shadow cabinet critic for Public Safety.

            O’Toole again ran for the Conservative Party’s leadership. The onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic saw the leadership campaigns go virtual and mail-in ballot counting postponed until August 23, 2020. A malfunctioning mail opening machine delayed the count so it was not known until 1:00 in the morning that O’Toole won 57% of the votes on the third ballot to become the Conservative Party’s new leader and leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

            O’Toole’s job now is now to present his party as a government-in-waiting and himself as ready to be prime minister. We don’t know whether the policies he proposes will resonate with enough Canadians to allow O’Toole to become prime minister but what we do know is that his background is impressive and his dedication to public service is unquestioned. Our democracy will be okay with politicians like that.

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So I Went to Jail

After self-isolating for weeks and with the pandemic still raging I decided to go to jail. For the first time in a long while, circumstances had me out of town and with time to kill in Kingston, Ontario. I was somehow drawn to tour the Kingston Penitentiary. It was fascinating and jarring.

My first shock was that the big metal door slamming behind me left me sincerely shaken. I understood that my hand-sanitized and masked bubble kept me safe from the place and others on my tour and that I could leave at any time but the perceived finality of that sound resonated deep within me. How could it have felt for the thousands who heard that slam and then awoke in this place morning after mind-numbing, soul-wrenching morning?

(Photo CBC)

The 21-acre facility on Lake Ontario opened as the Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Upper Canada in 1835. With Confederation in 1867 it became the Kingston Penitentiary. I learned that throughout its first decades its inmates included men, women, and until the Juvenile Delinquency Act was passed in 1908, children as young as eight.

Our guide said that he would answer any questions except about specific inmates. I had read a little before the tour and so knew that among the pen’s more famous guests were Communist Party leader Tim Buck, James Donnelly of the Black Donnellys, Boyd Gang leader Edwin Alonzo Boyd, and Grace Marks who we came to know through Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. And there was the monster who, with his wife, raped and tortured young girls – like our guide, I will not afford him the dignity of recalling his name.

While we saw the exercise yard, the factory-like work houses, and more, the most disturbing portion of the tour was the cell block. Four two-story blocks reach like spider legs from a central hub. Each barred cell is one pace wide and two paces long and housed one inmate. Each had a steel table and a steel bunk bed, the upper for sleeping and the lower for a desk. The cells allowed neither privacy nor dignity and about five square feet of floor space. I would have gone mad. I’m guessing many did.

Our guide led us around to former guards who each spoke of their area. The gentleman in the block told us of the 1971 four-day riot in which inmates took control of the prison. It was intriguing that while many wanted to kill the guards, only one was beaten up before all were locked away and left unhurt. However, the inmates released those who were kept separate from the others – the rapists and child molesters. They were mercilessly tortured and two were killed.

Over the years a number of people escaped. The story that struck me was the gentleman who in the 1930s somehow scaled the wall and made it all the way to Louisiana. He then had the temerity to write a snarky letter back to the warden. The letter is there under glass with its surprisingly neat penmanship. Our buddy, however, forgot that envelopes are postmarked and so authorities soon picked him up and hauled him home.

In 2013, after 178 years, the Kingston Pen was closed because it no longer met federal guidelines and a retrofit was deemed too costly. Good. We have always needed prisons because some people deserve to be locked away. We have always struggled, however, to balance criminality with mental illness and addiction, punishment with justice, retribution with rehabilitation, and our safety with their humanity. It’s tricky. We’ll probably never get it right. But for a few hours on a gray afternoon within tall gray walls I was reminded of our need to try.

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The Remarkable Woman We Should Know

Helen Gregory MacGill was born in Hamilton, to a prosperous family, in 1864. Her mother, Emma, was suffragist who told her daughter that a woman’s role as a mother affords her a right and responsibility to seek gender equality in order to contribute to society’s improvement. This social feminist idea informed MacGill’s life.

            At age 19, took her dream of becoming a concert pianist to Toronto. She became the first woman to graduate from the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and the British Empire’s first woman to earn a degree in music. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts and, in 1890, a Master of Arts degree.

            Upon graduation, she was contracted by the American Cosmopolitan and Atlantic Monthly magazines to cover the opening of the first Japanese legislature under its new Meiji Constitution. MacGill met with family friend, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who provided her with letters of introduction for her Japan trip and asked her to write of her observations of the Canadian west.

            In what is now Manitoba, MacGill met a rancher named Lee Flesher. A week later they were married. MacGill continued her trek and discovered she had become pregnant. Despite feeling ill nearly every day, she pressed on and composed a number of articles about the Canadian west. While enduring a violent storm on the ship across the Pacific she broke her leg but nonetheless completed her tour of Japan and submitted articles about the legislative opening and the country’s unique culture.      

            When Flesher’s ranch failed, the family moved to San Francisco where he studied medicine. MacGill’s mother Emma left her husband at home to help her daughter with the children. MacGill published articles with a number of newspapers and magazines and, with Emma, purchased and wrote for two newspapers: Society and The Searchlight. Both women advocated greater rights for women at a time when women could not inherit money, hold public office, serve on juries, or vote.

            When Flesher graduated and was offered a job with the Mayo Clinic, the family moved to Minnesota. MacGill published more articles newspapers and magazines and she and her mother joined a number of reform and women’s suffrage organizations. In 1901, Flesher died.

            Carrying on as a single mother of two sons, MacGill became the Exchange Editor of the St. Paul Globe. A series of letters exchanged with university friend, Jim MacGill, led to a romance and the two were married in 1902. They purchased a home in West Vancouver where two daughters were born.

            MacGill continued to write articles and also joined a number of clubs and organizations. She served as president of the Women’s University Club of British Columbia and chaired its Committee for Better Laws for Women and Children in British Columbia. In 1912, she self-published a book entitled Daughters, Wives, and Mothers in British Columbia – Some Laws Affecting Them, then later celebrated progress with eight revisions. In her writing and community work, MacGill rejected radical feminism and sought to bring about change from within the established system. In advocating legal reform and greater concern for women, children, and the poor, she honed her skills as a community organizer and a persuasive public speaker.

            MacGill was a founding member of the Vancouver Women’s Press Club in 1909. As a branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, it promoted the hiring of more women journalists while providing classes to help women improve their skills and a network of support to sustain them in the face of resistance to their growing influence. MacGill also founded the Vancouver Music Society that provided another vehicle for discussions of social issues. In 1913, MacGill helped bring together twelve women’s organizations to purchase a large Thurlow Street building. Designated the Vancouver Women’s Building, it was the first of its kind in Canada; providing office and meeting space for women’s groups and a dime-a-day childcare. MacGill taught classes there in writing, public speaking, and how to conduct and effectively participate in meetings.

            MacGill’s widening circle of friends included painter Emily Carr, who provided young Elsie with art lessons. Another was feminist and social advocate Nelly McClung.

            Women’s tireless efforts to win the right to vote led to one province after another granting that right. MacGill was at the forefront of the fight in British Columbia which granted women the right to vote in 1917. The action allowed women not only to vote but also to run for and be appointed to public office.

            In July 1917, British Columbia celebrated its first female judge when the 53-year-old MacGill was appointed Judge of the Juvenile Court of Vancouver. On the bench, MacGill balanced the welfare of the child with the safety of society. She acted upon her belief that most children who commit crimes are from homes where love is absent or the child is neglected or mistreated. She advocated probation rather than incarceration for most children convicted of crimes. She worked with the Children’s Aid Society and other groups to create accommodations, school and work placements, and counselling support. MacGill said that after a year of support and regular school attendance, along with educating parents, 95% of children she saw in court were leading productive lives. Her efforts led to a revision of peoples’ perception of the purpose of the juvenile court along with its procedures and institutions. She served as a juvenile court judge from 1917 to 1929 – when a new government appointed a replacement – and then again from 1934 to 1945.

            Throughout those years MacGill continued her reform efforts with membership in a great many groups. Among them was Vancouver Mother’s Pension Board, the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee, the Provincial Board of Industrial Relations, Advisory Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, the Minimum Wage Board, the International Juvenile Court Judges Association, and the Welfare Subcommittee of the United Nations. In 1938, MacGill became the first woman to receive an honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of British Columbia.

            In 1945, at age 81, Helen Gregory MacGill retired. Remarkably, after 23 years on the bench, not one of her decisions was reversed in appeal. Two years later, while visiting her daughter Helen in Chicago, she died. Her daughter Elsie became the world’s first female aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer. She cited her mother as her greatest mentor and influence. Elsie wrote that she was constantly moved by her mother’s, “passionate, yet objective sympathy for the hurt, the helpless, and the exploited.”

Erasing Sir John

Sir John A. Macdonald is no Robert E. Lee. But the 19th-century leaders are similar in that they are leading again.

This time, they are serving as the focus of Americans and Canadians squabbling about their history. In the United States, the fights have sparked riots, injuries, and deaths. The fight is gearing up in Canada with Montreal’s much-defaced Macdonald statue being torn down and broken.

Macdonald

(Photo: CBC News)

In the United States, memorials to Lee and other Confederate leaders have been attacked as symbols of white supremacy. The point is valid. Most Confederate statues were erected around 1910 to support Jim Crow segregationist laws with another wave of statues coming in the 1960s to combat the Civil Rights movement. The statues have always had less to do the Civil War and more to do with the war against racial equality.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy is more nuanced and so the statues more complex. He created Canada as the indispensable leader who led the Confederation debates in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London and guided the creation of our constitution. As our first prime minister, he built the country behind tariff walls and on steel rails with the National Policy and building of the transcontinental railway.

He saved Canada when he stopped Nova Scotia from seceding. He saved us again from threats of American annexation when he purchased Rupert’s Land, kept British Columbia from joining the United States, and then negotiated the Washington Treaty which stopped Britain from giving Canada to the Americans to avoid paying Civil War reparations.

While Macdonald created, built, and saved Canada he was a flawed leader. He ruthlessly exploited Chinese railway workers and later tried to expel them while imposing a prohibitively expensive tax on Chinese immigration. He negotiated with Métis leader Louis Riel to bring Manitoba into Confederation but 15-years later crushed Riel’s Saskatchewan rebellion. He refused to overturn a court’s death sentence and so let Riel hang.

Macdonald thought nothing of taking Indigenous land without consultation or ignoring treaties to take more. He withheld promised food and support from Indigenous nations to pressure them to surrender to reservations and so has been accused of attempted genocide. His government began the first residential schools.

Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate leaders fought for a horrible end. Despite all, Sir John worked for a glorious goal. Macdonald’s image on our money and public monuments and his name on our highways and schools represent our respect for that goal, and not for all he did to pursue it.

And that’s the difference.

We are constantly discussing who we are and who we aspire to be. History’s facts don’t change, but our interpretation of those facts does. History is not a shield to protect ideas, a sword to attack the ideas of others, or a wall to keep us from unpleasant things we’d rather not see. History is a teacher. It is there to teach us about ourselves and to intelligently inform our perpetual, existential, national conversation.

Ironically, that is the point being missed by many at the moment. Since Macdonald’s primary goals were overwhelmingly positive, he should remain celebrated. Because aspects of his means to achieve them were inexcusably appalling, he should be appropriately condemned but used to learn about the crimes that he, and we, committed. We should use him to critically examine how we have grown, atonements due, and the work remaining. What better place for those conversations than public places with monuments bearing plaques briefly explaining aspects of Sir John that both swell our chests and well our tears?

When Macdonald’s statue crashed to the ground in Montreal it represented not an invitation to heal but a demand to ignore – and down that road is not growth but regression.

What better place for our public conversations than public squares. So, let us not scrub Sir John from our public spaces. Instead, let those statues stand and allow history to do its job.

10 Minute Walk took 300 Years

Canada is a large and diverse country and so someone who is well known in one region may be a stranger elsewhere. Such is the case with Wayne Adams. Mr. Adams is a Canadian we should all know.

Adams was born in Halifax. His father died when he was 13. His teen years were shaped by a number of positive role models including his mother, uncles, and church and community leader Reverend W. P. Oliver. All inspired him to be industrious, consider others, and work hard to achieve his goals.

Adams’s first full-time employment was at a Halifax Chevrolet dealership. His diligence and initiative led to his becoming the service sales manager and then Halifax’s first African-Canadian new car salesman and, later, used car manager. He then became the manager of the province’s first indoor service station. With the opening of his Shell station in Lower Sackville, Adams became Nova Scotia’s first African-Canadian service station owner-operator.

Always interested in the news and current affairs, Adams became a broadcast journalist. He became widely known in 1969 for his reporting on Canada’s first Summer Games, held on the campus of Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University. Adams created the Black Journal in 1972 which, until its demise in 1978, reported on news and ideas from an African-Canadian perspective.

Politics

Adams had shown an interest in politics when he was elected to the Student’s Council at Halifax Vocational High School. In 1979, his concern with environmental and economic issues and the manner in which the needs of Halifax’s African-Canadians were being ignored led to his running for municipal office. He understood the challenges facing an African-Canadian in local politics because the city had elected its first African-Nova Scotian, Graham Downey, only five years before. He won a seat on the municipal council of what was then Halifax County. His popularity and hard work led to his being re-elected five times and serving for fifteen years. From 1982 to 1983, Adams was Halifax’s, Deputy Mayor.

In late 1992, Adams announced his intention to run for a seat in the Nova Scotia legislature as a member of the Liberal Party. He was enthusiastically supported by many people but he also confronted blatantly racist insults and incidents. He later said, “That kind of negative reaction just exhilarated my efforts to go on and run and win.”

On May 25, 1993, Wayne Adams was elected to represent the overwhelmingly Black riding of Preston and became the first African-Canadian elected to the Nova Scotia legislature. He received letters of congratulations from across Canada. Premier John Savage understood the significance of his election. He quipped that Adams lived only a ten-minute walk from the legislature building but it had taken him 300 years to get here. Adams became the first African-Canadian in Nova Scotia’s cabinet when he was appointed the minister responsible for the Emergency Measures Act, the minister responsible for the Nova Scotia Boxing Authority, and, his most challenging and rewarding portfolio, minister of the environment.

Among his accomplishments was the development of Canada’s first Solid Waste Management Strategy. Implemented in 1995, within five years it had diverted 50% of waste from landfills through a number of initiatives including a recycling program that banned landfills from accepting items such as tin and glass food and beverage containers, corrugated cardboard, compostable organics, and hazardous materials. The strategy also created the Resource Recovery Fund Board, waste management regions, enviro-depots, and a centralized composting system. Related legislation reduced the number of landfills by 75% and introduced stricter guidelines for those remaining that significantly reduced the pollution of adjacent rivers and streams.

Adams also introduced important amendments to the Protected Spaces Act that preserved nearly 8,000 acres of environmentally significant land by bringing it under public control. He also led the reengagement of old trade agreements between Nova Scotia and Caribbean island nations that led to delegations from Canadian environmental industries making deals in Trinidad, Port of Spain, and Barbados.

While Adams was accomplishing a great deal, the government became increasingly unpopular. As a result, many Liberals lost their seats in the 1998 provincial election, including Adams.

Continuing Community Engagement

Adams remained active and influential in the Halifax Board of Trade and Lions Club. He served as an elder in his church, an executive member of the Atlantic Baptist Convention, and was active with the Nova Scotia African Baptist Association. He served as the director of the Halifax Citadel Amateur Boxing club and chair of the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. In 2011, he was invited to the first United Nations’ International Decade for People of African Descent. He told reporters, “There’s strength when you come together…There has to be a mass education, and that comes when you have policy in the corporate sector, as well as the government.”

Wayne Adams

Adams’ ongoing dedication to environmental issues was demonstrated by his becoming the founding president of Chebucto Windfields; a company focusing on creating power through wind generation. Adams also became president of the Nova Scotia Environmental Industries Association. The not-for-profit organization promotes environmental services and products while linking the federal and provincial governments, universities, and businesses to promote progress in matters such as hazardous materials management, fish and wildlife habitat preservation, and environmental research.

In 2003, Adam founded and became CEO of the Adams Consulting and Management Group. It brings together governments, businesses, and interested parties to advance initiatives that address community economic development, renewable energy systems, and product development while promoting business opportunities for Atlantic-Canadian entrepreneurs. Adams is also the Special Project Coordinator with Perennia Food and Agriculture Inc. where he oversees the inventory of agriculture and fishery businesses owned by or located in Nova Scotia’s Black communities while advocating for entrepreneurs in those communities.

Among Adams’ many awards is the Order of Canada. At his May 2004 investure, it was stated, “As a volunteer, businessman, and politician, Wayne Adams has paved the way for generations of young people.” In a 2004 CBC Radio interview, Adams summed up the principle that guides his life, saying, “It is all of our tasks to make the world a better place. The 300-year walk was worth every step.

And Then I Was Tear-Gassed

I get it. I am a white, middle-class, healthy, employed, man living in a small, safe, Ontario town. I understand the privilege all that affords. I understand the sensitivity to the challenges of others all that demands. But the day I was tear-gassed affords me a modicum of insight and empathy for those peacefully protesting right now in America and around the world.

Before dawn, in April 2001, my dear wife and I left for Quebec City. We and others were assembling not to protest against the national leaders at the Third Summit of the Americas, but for them. We wanted them to summon the strength needed to stand against the growing corporate power that was running roughshod over individuals and states.

We arrived in time to join a wondrously joyful parade. Colourful banners and flags were hoisted above thousands of people singing, chanting, and some even dancing on stilts. There were old people and children. We walked slowly beneath a wonderfully cloudless blue sky enjoying the positive, party atmosphere and folks who were taking their messages but not themselves too seriously.

The leaders were ensconced far away and up the hill in the National Assembly building behind 4 km of fence and cordons of police. At the parade’s end, most people milled about and there were hugs and goodbyes. But I could not leave without venturing up to see the so-called red zone.

As I reached its outer limits I was stunned. It was like an eclipse had blotted the sun. It was eerily quiet. The air smelled of gasoline. The streets were dirty. People were dressed in varieties of battle fatigues and many had bandanas and goggles dangling on their chests.

Down a narrow street, I saw a group of about twenty young people sitting in a circle and singing John Lennon’s Imagine. Strung behind them from building to building was the silver, gleaming 3-meter-high chain-link fence. Behind the fence was a row of police officers in black riot gear with face guards down and hand-held shields up. They were a column of Darth Vaders. Each was smacking a club into their palms to the song’s beat – ones and threes. They could not have been more intimidating. I guess that was the point.

Around the corner I found another stretch of fence blocking the road before me with another row of Vaders behind it, but I was alone. I did what I always do when I see a police officer; I smiled and waved. None waved back. In a minute or so a man about my age joined me and we stood chatting quietly. We were about ten feet from the fence, looking at each other and not the officers off to our sides. No one else was anywhere near us. We discovered that were both Ontario history teachers. We agreed that conviction had drawn us to Quebec and curiosity up the hill. We traded ideas about a restaurant for dinner. We were just two middle-aged white guys in shorts and golf shirts; very much tourists and not terrorists.

We were startled when a silver canister crashed behind us and white-gray tear gas spewed forth. We instinctively spun away and blindly careened into the fence. The cops charged forward and smashed it with their clubs. We turned and stumbled through the noxious cloud with eyes and lungs on fire. A masked and khaki angel pulled me to a curb, sponged my eyes from a galvanized pail, secured a red kerchief over my nose and mouth, told me to run when I could, and then vanished. I staggered, dazed and bewildered, as people ran past in both directions shouting a jumble of French, English, and profanity.

Woozy and blinded, I wobbled down the road and happened upon a group of young people shouting through the fence at yet another line of stormtroopers. I joined them, yelling every ugly epithet that schoolyards and hockey dressing rooms had taught me. But then, in mid-tirade, it was like I suddenly awoke. Perhaps the gas had worn off. Perhaps my righteous temper had peaked. I was suddenly embarrassed that the anger imprisoned since childhood had been so quickly and completely un-caged. I was shocked at my rage and the sound of my own voice and what I heard that voice shouting.

And Then I Was Teargassed

I stumbled back to the sidewalk across the street and watched the two groups of people – protesters and police – probably much the same age, who probably grew up in similar neighbourhoods, separated only by twists of fate and a fence. My youngest brother is a police officer. I knew he was one of the helmeted cops assembled there that day. Perhaps he was the target of my mad abuse. I needed to get out of there.

I found out later that while my companion and I were innocently chatting, the security system on the other side of the red zone had faltered. Protesters or anarchists or whatever they were had torn down part of the fence at Boulevard René Lévesque and police had reacted around the whole perimeter with gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. In their attempt to re-establish order, police attacked those with rocks and those with guitars. They attacked those administering first aid. And they attacked my companion and me, over a kilometer from the trouble, who had done nothing at all.

I am reminded of the day I was tear-gassed when I see horrific videos of police brutalizing those peacefully protesting police brutality. I’m reminded of the intersectionality of my privilege and that if it happened to me, imagine all those who have suffered injury and injustice but were not filmed. There are too many George Floyds. We need to end the brutality. We need to end racism. We need to engage in a national conversation built upon the fundamental agreement that we are all fragile, mortal, and human.

The Written and Understood

Society rests upon written rules and established understandings. In the United States right now the written and understood are in tragic conflict.

From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African Americans were lynched. Last week, we saw another one. A white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against George Floyd’s throat until he lost consciousness and later died. The written law responded. The officer was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. That makes sense. The protests that are rocking American cities also make sense. The legitimate protesters are not trying to bring attention to what is written but, rather, what is understood.

Written and Understood

After 700,000 deaths in a Civil War to determine if all men are really created equal, America’s original sin was vanquished. But the belief that had created slavery – a belief in one race’s inherent superiority – remained. The belief was seen in segregation and Jim Crow. It is seen in practices that still suppress African American votes. The belief was seen in the decades of lynchings and when African Americans are pulled over for “driving while black” or shot while walking home with a bag of skittles, or when jogging, or when they are suffocated while on the ground and handcuffed.

There were and are laws standing against all that. But the laws don’t matter. What matters is the underlying understanding. Too many white people and white cops understand that unless there’s a video, they can get away with harassment, assault, and even murder. Too many African American parents understand the need to teach their children to cower, avoid eye contact, and assume the worst in all encounters with white people to keep from being arrested, beaten, or killed. Too many white people think all of that is just fine and too many African Americans think it will never change.

All those understandings violate a bigger understanding. The notion of a Social Contract was first expressed by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762. He argued that we all surrender a little of our rights to live in a society that can then protect our essential rights. The Social Contract stipulates, among other things, that if I work hard and live right I can earn a good living and if I obey laws the police won’t bother me.

But what happens if the Social Contract is broken? What if you work hard and live right but the system is stacked in such a way that you still can’t make a decent living? What happens if you obey laws but police and the ignorant and intolerant harass you anyway? What happens if you live in a society where everyone simply understands that the way you are treated every day and the opportunities available to you depend primarily on your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or how long your family’s been here? If all that and more becomes part of what is simply understood, the written laws stand but the Social Contract collapses.

Rousseau wrote that laws are binding only when supported by the peoples’ general will. If the Social Contract dies, that will dies with it. The pandemic tore one part of the Social Contract and the economic collapse ripped another. The recent killings of African Americans, after years of similar murders, left it in shreds. And so, we have Minneapolis and 40 other cities in flames.

We Canadians have our own original sin – the treatment of Indigenous peoples. We have our own less flagrant but equally virulent racism. We can’t be smug.

Thoughtful Americans and Canadians alike should listen to those advocating a broad national conversation not about changing laws but righting systemic economic injustice, racism, and bigotry. We should listen to and support those seeking a restored Social Contract based not on new laws but new foundational understandings. After all, we know that changing laws is easy while changing minds is hard but, in the end, it is the only way to clear the tracks, douse the flames, and save our souls.

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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A Prince of an Idea: End Canada’s Ties to Monarchy

Canadians should be grateful to Prince Andrew. His allegedly reprehensible behaviour and disastrous interview invite Canadians to consider our ties to the monarchy. It’s time to cut them.

The severance would not be a radical act but the final step in our long stroll to sovereignty. It began with Queen Victoria signing the British North America Act. It was a baby step with Britain still controlling all that mattered. But we kept walking.

The first steps involved saying no. When the empire became embroiled in South Africa, we were asked to send troops but said no; allowing only volunteers. When a subsequent Turkish spat led to another request for troops we said no altogether. When asked to bolster the British navy we said no and built our own. Later, we signed the Halibut Treaty with the United States and said no to the necessity of Britain’s co-signature.

We then started not just rejecting requests but demanding respect. The 1931 Statute of Westminster declared that Britain could no longer make or disallow our laws. In 1949 we said that our Supreme Court and not Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was our court of last resort. Two years later, the prime minister appointed our first Canadian-born governor-general. Our head of state would never again be another left-over lord.

Prince of an Idea

(Prince Andrew Duke of York – photo: BBC)

Lester Pearson turned Canada’s back on Britain when he sided with the United States in the Suez Crisis, again when we integrated our continental defense, and yet again when we replaced the Union Jack with a distinctive new flag. We began singing Oh Canada instead of God Save the Queen.  A giant leap came with the 1982 patriation of our Constitution and now, nearly forty years later, our stroll has only one step left.

That step would have us confess that titular power is a sham; that we and not the Crown owns our public land, and that in a mature democracy, it has no place in our courts or on our money.  In a nod to fiscal responsibility, we could end the Governor General’s $289,000 salary and all the other attendant costs that exceed $50 million a year. We could sell or repurpose the Royal housing across Canada, beginning with bulldozing the shamble on Sussex and moving the prime minister into Rideau Hall. Our new democracy could dispense with most of the Governor General’s ceremonial duties and leave the rest to a deputy prime minister; a person elected and not selected.

Our last step to independence would necessitate a constitutional conference. Embrace it. Let’s ape our founders and ensure that delegates are the leaders of our federal, provincial, and territorial governments and their opposition leaders. Indigenous representatives must be at the table. Let the conference begin by declaring a republic and then addressing the claims of Quebec’s Bloc and the prairie’s Wexit.

Let us welcome Prince Andrew’s invitation, seize the moment, and engage in a serious national conversation.

(This article appeared as an op-ed in the Toronto Star December 1, 2019. If you like it, please share with others and please comment, agreeing or disagreeing is part of the respectful conversation we owe ourselves.)