Pivot Points

We know the moments when our lives change. Sometimes we choose those moments such as when we marry, divorce, or change careers. Sometimes the moments choose us like when we suffer a life-altering accident or the death of a spouse. We recognize the moments as pivot points that split before from after.

Countries experience pivot points. They are sometimes sudden such as when 9-11 quickly changed how we swap inconvenience for security. Sometimes national pivot points arrive in slow motion like when the Great Depression led to new regulatory policies and social programs.

Communities experience pivot points too. Lakefield is at a pivot point right now. The Official Plans of Peterborough County and Selwyn Township both state that Lakefield will grow through building homes in the current Village and in the area known as Lakefield South — between the water tower and 7th Line. Plans now with the current council will, when completed, see the addition of people to our community approximately equal to Lakefield’s current population.

We are fortunate to have fine Township staff and that Triple T, a good, experienced, local company with good people, is presenting the largest of the currently proposed developments. A lot of good work has already been done.

The next council will be responsible for ensuring that growth happens in a way that is in the best interests of those now living in Lakefield — all of whom, after all, chose to live in a village and not a city or suburb. The next council must also consider the best interests of those who live in the rest of Selwyn and those who will be our new neighbours.

The next council must navigate the pivot point by ensuring that the next steps are informed by a clear vision of what Selwyn and Lakefield are and what we want our community to be. That vision must include acknowledging the climate crisis, the importance of a walkable, bikeable, community built for people and not cars, and the importance of parkland containing active elements for kids and families. The vision must include how those in the current village, on the 7th line, and in the new neighbourhood will interact as one community. The vision must include how the safety, lifestyle, and character of Lakefield will be positively enhanced and not negatively impacted by more people, traffic, and strains on already taxed infrastructure, police, fire, education, recreation, and healthcare services.

We cannot surrender our agency and forfeit our responsibility by saying that it will be years before the developments in and adjacent to Lakefield will be completed. Rather, we must acknowledge that decisions made by the next council will shape our community for generations.

Leaders recognize a pivot point when they see it. Leaders see the challenges and opportunities that pivot points represent. Leaders humbly seek to learn, understand, and consult, and then, with genuine, transparent communication, to lead.

Lakefield is at a pivot point and, consequently, needs strong leadership on Selwyn Township Council. I am doing my best to earn the support needed in the October election to become that leader as Lakefield Ward Councillor.

(I hope I can earn your vote. Please contact me with questions, suggestions, or offers of support at boykolakefield@gmail.com)

National to Local in Two Minutes

Last Thursday I was humbled by a successful launch to my campaign to become Selwyn Township’s Lakefield Ward Councillor. Seventy-one people gathered at Lakefield’s Isabel Morris Park Pavilion on a beautiful warm evening. Lakefield’s former Reeve, Bob Helsing, was MC and introduced businesswoman Susan Twist and engaged-citizen Sue Bell-Gastle. All said positive things about my candidacy. Their words and the crowd’s presence left me humbled. Then it was my turn.

Part of my remarks addressed the issue that seems top of mind for most people I am meeting at their doorsteps: the planned neighbourhood between the water tower and 7th Line known as Lakefield South. Some people have told me that it’s been talked about for years and will never happen and others that we must stop it. My response to both is the same. It’s happening. Our task is to ensure that it’s done right.

In my speech, I said that we should consider the impending Lakefield South development from a broad then narrowing perspective. To begin, all of Canada is experiencing a housing crisis. House prices and rents are too high, partly because supply is too low. We need more housing across the country, including here.

The Ontario government has designated Peterborough County as part of the Greater Toronto Area, or Golden Horseshoe, in terms of development. Part of that designation makes new housing a priority as much here as Toronto, Oshawa, or Hamilton. The province can issue ministerial orders regarding development decisions.

Peterborough County and Selwyn Township have both submitted new Official Plans to the province for approval. Both have designated two areas in Selwyn for development. One is Woodland Acres, adjacent to Peterborough, and the other is Lakefield South.

So, Lakefield South is happening. We are fortunate that a large portion of the land that will be developed has been purchased by Triple T, the Turner family business. We are fortunate because the Turners are good people, the company is strong with a track record of good work, and it is local. The people who will be on the next Selwyn council matter because to them will fall the task of partnering with Triple T to plan our community’s future.

We must begin with a vision. The vision must be informed by community. We must consider who we wish to attract to live in Lakefield South and how we can help them to interact with each other and those already here in safe and healthy ways. We must enhance and protect the character of the Selwyn-Lakefield community and not simply build a Peterborough suburb.

The vision must be future-ready with considerations that include environmental sustainability, a recognition that the climate crisis is real, and a genuine dedication to doing our part, however small, to address it. Directly linked to that imperative is that we must make the new neighbourhood for people and not cars and so consider safety, walkability, sidewalks, bike lanes, green space versus concrete, and plans for recreation, trees, and landscaping.

We must consider traffic in and around the new neighbourhood so that the tense situation where Lakefield already experiences frequent traffic snarls from the downtown traffic lights to Clementi Street is not made worse. We must consider the challenges and opportunities that welcoming 3,000 or so new neighbours will have on schools, arenas, police, fire, ambulance, and other municipal services.

There is more that can be said about establishing a comprehensive vision and some of this work has already begun but the point, I hope, is clear. That is, the decisions that the next council will make will affect the future of Selwyn and Lakefield for decades. Like the national to local perspective regarding whether the development will take place, we must begin with a vision, let that vision inform the plan, and the let the plan inform the details.

We have a once in a generation opportunity before us. We owe it to those of us living here now, our new neighbours, and to generations ahead, to get it right.

(I hope to earn your vote in the election that takes place beginning on October 11. Please contact me at boykolakefield.com with questions or comments.)

Community Matters

A new neighbour was marvelling that she could walk to the post office, bank, and pick a few things up at Foodland and be back home so quickly. My wife said, “Well when you’ve been here a while it will take you much longer because you’ll be stopping to chat with so many people.”

It was a very Lakefield conversation. It reflected part of why so many of us like living in this community so much.

Community matters. It matters because we are social beings who seek comfort among those who share beliefs, values, and habits. Communities, of course, are complex, overlapping, and with today’s technology, they can be virtual. Lakefield is a small geographic community and home to a diverse group of people who are linked by their shared conviction that a small, safe, walkable, accessible village is the best place in which to live, raise children, work, invest, run a business, and, perhaps most importantly, call home.

In our own ways, we all contribute to our Lakefield community. Our contributions might involve being a friendly neighbour, coaching a kids’ soccer team, playing pickleball or baseball at the park or hockey at the arena, taking the risk to begin a new business at home or downtown, volunteering, joining a Board, or running for public office. We are all part of the Lakefield community and in our own ways, we all contribute.

In May 2020, when we were hunkered down in the early days of the pandemic, two neighbours and I decided to play a one-hour driveway concert. I delivered a note to those within hearing distance and, like always happens in our Village, the word went out. On the afternoon of the concert, nearly 75 socially distanced people were gathered up and down the street, in lawn chairs, in cars, and on porches. It was great fun. It ended with The Beatles’ I Saw Her Standing There. There was dancing on William Steet. That was community.

Community was seen again with last May’s derecho. Neighbours were sharing generators and helping to clear fallen trees and hauling brush to the landfill. That was community.

Our municipal council protects community in ways that most of don’t think of as we go about our lives. Council ensures that infrastructure and services are properly maintained and upgraded. It ensures that infilling opportunities are properly planned and implemented. It should see that permits for improvements to our homes are processed quickly and properly.

Sometimes we are presented with a once in a generation challenge to our community. The impending construction of the Lakefield South Development Area, between the water tower and the 7th Line, is that challenge. It is one of two identified development zones in our township. The land has been purchased by a developer and the process to build 966 homes there has begun.

The problem, though, is that the current draft plan lacks a clear vision. Planning must always begin with a vision. That vision must reflect and respect Lakefield’s character. It must protect the interests of those now in the Village and those of the new neighbours we have not yet met. The vision must be fiscally responsible. It must recognize the climate crisis and so be environmentally sustainable.

Doubling the size of our Village and creating a new and huge neighbourhood is a daunting challenge and tremendous opportunity. We must get it right. In our desire to get it right we must always be thinking about what brought us here, what keeps us here, and what makes being here what it is—community.

We need a strong Lakefield voice on Selwyn Township Council. I hope I can earn your vote to become that voice.

(You are invited to my campaign launch on Thursday, September 8 at 7:00 at Lakefield’s Isabel Morris Park Pavillion. Please share this article and invitation with neighbours and friends.)

Change is Coming to Lakefield

Lakefield will change more in the next ten years than in the last fifty.

After decades of talking about it, plans are now being made to build a new community in Lakefield South, between the water tower and 7th Line. Current plans call for 966 houses on 40 foot-lots, townhouses, and apartments/condos. When complete, the development will double Lakefield’s population.

We need to do this right and so we need strong leadership on Selwyn Township Council.

Growth must be fiscally responsible and environmentally sustainable. Growth must protect our community’s safety, character, and quality of life.  Growth must be in the best interest of Lakefield’s current residents and our future neightbours.

I am now enjoying conversations with a great many people about Lakefield’s challenges and opportunities. The most frequent questions I hear, however, are about what will happen to our Village when about 3000 people move in next door.

I am running for Lakefield Ward Councillor to be Lakefield’s strong voice on the Selwyn Township Council. I hope I can count on your vote.

(Please contact me with questions or suggestions: boykolakefield@gmail.com)

Five Rules Candidates Should Obey

The municipal campaigns in Selwyn and elsewhere are now underway. Mercifully, though, we’ll not see or hear much until after Labour Day. Selwyn is like all municipalities in that staff has informed candidates of the rules regarding fundraising, where to place signs, and more. But perhaps we could make the experience a little more valuable for everyone if all Ontario’s municipal candidates considered obeying these five additional rules:

  1. Don’t call us voters or taxpayers. We are citizens. Citizenship is a profound concept that informs our collective identity, individual rights, and responsibilities to others. Don’t cheapen citizenship’s nobility by confusing it with voting and paying taxes. They are but two of its duties.
  2. Don’t offer false choices. The most obvious example is the old chestnut of picking either a thriving economy or environmental sustainability. Respected scientists, economists, and urban planners have argued for years that we’ll have both or neither.
  3. If you say something brilliant or dumb or contradict a previously stated stand, social media will instantly let us know. Admit mistakes, apologize when you should, and insist that sometimes more information leads to a more nuanced and perhaps different point of view. We’re grown-ups. We’ll understand.
  4. Don’t underestimate us. Kim Campbell once said that campaigns are not a time to discuss complicated issues. She was wrong. Trust our intelligence and attention spans by engaging us with complex ideas and grand visions. We just may surprise you.
  5. Don’t forget character. Leadership is about character. In fact, in the final analysis, that’s all it’s about. Show it. We’ll recognize it. We’ll reward it.

I am a candidate for Selwyn Township’s Lakefield Ward. I will, of course, follow the Township’s written rules. When asking for support in the soon-to-commence campaign, however, I will also obey the additional five.

(Please check that you are registered to vote. If you would like to support or even help with my campaign, please contact me at boykolakefield@gmail.com)

Why Would Anyone Be a Candidate?

It’s a hard slog. People running for municipal, provincial, or federal offices work for months to apply for a job that entails long and thankless hours. Inevitably, half the people think you’re wrong no matter what you do or say. When running and in office, many people insult you, lie about you, and assume the worst about you. Consider the sexist attacks endured by Peterborough mayor Diane Therrien or the invective lobbed at Prime Minister Trudeau when all he did was get a haircut.

Attacking politicians is as old as politics itself. The invention of social media, the erosion of public decorum, and the Trumpian destruction of a foundation of agreed upon facts have made a bad thing worse. So, again, why would anyone be a candidate?

I concede that some people run for the wrong reason. Some run for the money and some to feed their ego. Others run to build their brand for future opportunities. I sincerely believe, however, that they are the minority. I believe that most candidates and, consequently, most who serve, do so for noble reasons.

Consider what Robert Kennedy said in 1964. Months after his brother was assassinated, Kennedy resigned as Attorney General to run as a Senator for New York. He was asked during a raucous event at Columbia University why he was running. I like his answer. Kennedy said, “I don’t need the title because apparently I can be called General for the rest of my life, and I don’t need the money, and I don’t need the office space…frank as it is, I’d like to be a good United States senator, I’d like to serve.”

Robert F. Kennedy

Kennedy offers an important reminder that a public office is public service. When serious people run for the right reasons, they do not do so because they think they are smarter than others, have better vision, or are better able to make important decisions. They run because they care about their community, have thought deeply about the challenges and opportunities before it, and believe they have something to contribute to help make it a little better. The right people run because, like Kennedy, they want to serve.

I am running for Lakefield Ward councillor in my hometown. It’s certainly not as lofty an office as United States Senator and I am certainly no Robert Kennedy. But if I can paraphrase him: I don’t need the money, title, or office space. I am running because I want to serve. I know that sounds corny and perhaps even naive in our world of vicious politics and alternative facts, but it’s true.

Perhaps as we consider the municipal candidates whose signs will soon sprout on lawns around town we might temper our skepticism a little and consider that maybe most of them are running for the right reason.

(If you liked this article, please consider sharing it with others.)

Three Priorities For Lakefield

My campaign issued its first media release announcing my candidacy in the October municipal election. It stated my three priorities for Lakefield.

John Boyko Announces Candidacy for Selwyn Township’s Lakefield Ward Councillor

Former Lakefield Deputy Reeve, educator, and nationally respected author John Boyko has announced his candidacy for Selwyn Township’s Lakefield Ward Councillor. Boyko says “Lakefield is poised to change more in the next ten years than it has in the last fifty. I am committed to providing a strong voice on council to help manage that change.”

Boyko says his three priorities are, “the delivery of quality municipal services, continued improvement of infrastructure and public spaces, and managing growth. We must move forward in ways that are fiscally responsible, environmentally sustainable, and that respect our community’s safety, character, and quality of life.” Boyko pledges transparent communication and engaged, informed leadership.

“All decisions and our inevitable growth,“ Boyko says, “must respect that Lakefield’s strength rests upon kind neighbours, energetic entrepreneurs, and committed volunteers enjoying a walkable, accessible, environmentally sustainable community.”

John Boyko has lived in Lakefield for 33 years with his wife Sue, the retired owner of The Village Florist. He grew up in Peterborough, graduated from Crestwood Secondary School, and has degrees from McMaster, Queen’s, and Trent Universities. He is a retired teacher and administrator having worked at Lakefield District Secondary School and Lakefield College School.  

A former Lakefield Deputy Reeve and Peterborough County Councillor, Boyko believes in public service. He is the current Board chair of the Lakefield Literary Festival and a member of the Morton Community Healthcare Centre Board. He has chaired the Boards of the Morton Community Healthcare Centre, Lakefield Library, and the Peterborough Social Planning Council. He has also served on the Boards of ORCA, Lakefield Police, and Children’s Aid, and volunteered with the Lakefield Environmental Action Forum, Lakefield Jazz and Art Festival, Imagine the Marsh, and Ontario’s Fair Tax Commission.

Boyko is a best-selling author having written eight books addressing Canadian history and politics. He contributes editorials for newspapers across Canada, writes entries for the Canadian Encyclopedia, and is invited to appear on television and radio to discuss current political events.

Phone  (705) 313-6890          e-mail  boykolakefield@gmail.com

Twitter: @johnwboyko           Web: www.johnboyko.com. Facebook: John Boyko

 (Please contact me if you would like to support my campaign.)

Are We Taxpayers, Consumers, or Citizens?

Introspection matters. It is important for the health of our democracy to occasionally consider how we see ourselves in our relationship with our elected representatives and how they see us. Are we consumers, taxpayers, or citizens?

Are we consumers?  Consumer capitalism developed over many years and became the bulwark of our economic system by the 1920s. The prosperity of our nation became dependent on stuff being made and services being provided for us to buy. We, in turn, were paid for making all the stuff and providing all the services. It was a nice, symbiotic circle. We were in trouble when things stopped being made or became too expensive, or when we stopped buying. That’s what happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008-’09. Our leaders understand. That is why after the tragedy of 9-11, the first advice President Bush had for Americans yearning to demonstrate resilience was to go shopping.

When our buying stuff became an economic imperative and patriotic duty, then it is unsurprising that some of our leaders began to think of us as nothing more than consumers. We consume Corn Flakes and health care. We consume iPhones and education. The thought becomes that because everything is a commodity, government exists only to provide things to be consumed that private capitalists don’t or won’t. Our leaders, therefore, promote themselves as providers and we look at ourselves simply as consumers of what they have on offer.

Consumers, Taxpayers, or Citizens?

(Image: UGA Career Centre)

Are we taxpayers? American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are what we pay for living in a civilized society.” I don’t much like paying taxes but I get his point. I pay for things from which I draw benefit. I benefit from living in a society in which there are assumed and enforced modes of behaviour. For example, I can go to a restaurant knowing the food is safe and the kitchen has been inspected and my card or currency will be accepted. I have never left a restaurant without paying. After all, I benefitted from the meal and service and all the government regulations behind the scenes. In the same way, I believe that I benefit from living in a society in which people are educated and healthy. So I may grumble from time to time but I pay my taxes to support public education and health care even though I don’t have a child in school and my last operation was when I had my tonsils out when I was four.

Are we citizens? Citizenship is more than both consumer and taxpayer. It is a more noble concept. It derives from ideas born in ancient Greece and seen in the Iroquois Confederacy. Citizenship suggests membership in something akin to a club or even, at its best, a family. It’s why we carry a membership card – a passport – sing the anthem and celebrate our founding each July. Some of us are born into the family and others can join and become equal members. We too can leave and become a citizen elsewhere. So, in that way, citizenship is not about birth and blood but choice.

As with clubs and families, citizenship involves rights and responsibilities. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms spells them out. They suggest that we not cherry-pick but, as citizens, respect and live according to them all. The Canadian Supreme Court exists to remind us of that fact even if, occasionally, we are infuriated by its decisions. Even when we disagree, in fact especially when we disagree, citizenship means that we are in this together with responsibilities to and for each other.

Buying stuff and paying taxes are only slivers of what it means to be a citizen. When political leaders rally us as consumers and call us taxpayers they cheapen the concept of citizenship. It tears at the fabric of who we are and places in jeopardy the core of our democracy.

It matters whether we see ourselves as visitors to a mall, the government’s ATM machine, or members of a national and local family. Perhaps as we move into muncipal elecctions this fall we should reflect the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us by listening carefully to how those who lead or aspire to lead, speak of and to us. If among the greatest gifts the ages have bestowed upon us is the concept of citizenship, then let us respect and protect it and elect those who will help with that important work.

(I am running for Selwyn Township’s Lakefield Ward Councillor. Online and telephone voting begins October 11 and ends October 24. I hope everyone votes for the candidate of their choice in their community.)

The Derecho’s Lesson

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I learned a new word: derecho. I was driving home with my dear wife after enjoying lunch at a nice, lake-side restaurant when it looked like someone was suddenly plunging a dimmer switch. The clear blue sky turned an ominous dark purple. Then came wind, hail, and a deafening howl. A transformer exploded a cascade of white sparks behind us then another above us. No longer able to see the hood of my car, let alone the road, I inched to a stop. We felt the vehicle lift then fall. Leaves, small branches, water, and ice pounded us and then we felt the car lift again. We held hands and waited to be flung.

            It was over as quickly as it had begun. The sky was again blue. But the devastation was stunning. A derecho is unlike a tornado or hurricane as they move in circles. A derecho, on the other hand, is a fast-moving, severe storm that screams ahead in a straight-line inflicting destructive hurricane-force winds and damaging rain to an area 5-10 km wide and hundreds of km long. Nature’s 138 km per hour pile driver left hundreds of towering trees broken and uprooted with dozens of hydro poles snapped like match sticks.

            The drive home had us weaving around downed trees, poles, and lines. Our Village had been hammered. Power was out. Streets were blocked. Huge trees lay atop smashed cars, boats, and homes. There were reports of injuries and deaths. The emergency room was filled with people having had bones broken by falling trees and others bleeding from tree shrapnel wounds.

            Upon our arrival home we saw that a large Maple in our yard had lost a branch that smashed part of our fence. A 20-meter tall spruce had been uprooted and taken down more. Blown shingles revealed a scar of sodden plywood on our roof. We felt lucky. We were safe. Our daughter and grandchildren were safe.

            Love and community sometimes hide themselves. They hide behind the waste-land of social media, disillusioned protesters, and those who exploit fears, lies, and hatred to divide us for personal and political gain. Love and community hide behind our frantic activity, the sad urge of material consumption, and the vagaries of ego and ambition. But on that day, looking at the trees and fence, we heard love and community emerge from their hiding places. They announced their arrival with the roar of chain saws and generators.

A neighbour arrived with an extension cord and we tapped into his generator for several hours a day to keep our refrigerator cold for the four days it took to restore power. A neighbour knocked the next morning; she was going door to door with a pot of hot coffee. A friend arrived and helped cut up the maple. A brother arrived and helped me cut up the spruce. Another friend arrived and helped me rebuild the fence. A neighbour and I donned work gloves and over and over again we loaded his trailer with brush that others had piled on their lawns and took it to all to the landfill’s growing mountain of brush.

            The storm was horrible. Many still grieve those who died. Many are still recovering from injuries. But the derecho reminded me of something that I need to recall more often. Through the noise of our every-day lives and the cacophony of all that is wrong we must more often pause to reflect upon the peace in quiet and all that’s right.

Recapturing Our Flag

Last weekend I drove four hours to Ottawa and passed several farms with large Canadian flags at the ends of their long driveways. With each flag, I cringed. The red-and-white pennant used to afford me a sense of communal pride. There, I used to think, was someone who, like me, is proud to live in one of the world’s most peaceful, democratic, egalitarian countries.

But instead, over and over, I felt repulsion. Each time I passed a maple-leaf pennant, blowing in the wind, I wondered if the owner believed in a free and democratic Canada, or in the vitriolic vision of our country on display at the Trucker Convoy last month.

I am saddened by this newfound uncertainty, and frustrated that our flag has been captured, in a sense, by the small minority who support the convoy and its negative messages of anti-government, anti-science, anti-democracy, and anti-God-knows-what-else that few among them seem able to clearly articulate. But this isn’t the first time that a symbol has been stolen for nefarious purposes.

(Photo: Canadian Press)

Some of those who attended the Ottawa Occupation and border blockades were waving Nazi flags. The swastika, though, is an old symbol. In the ancient Indian Sanskrit language, it signified good health and by the early 20th century, it had become a universal symbol of well-being and good luck. Prior to the Second World War, Finnish pilots sewed swastikas on their flight suits; it was carved onto the new Federal Reserve building in Washington in the 1930s; it was even used by Coca Cola and was a popular symbol for the Boy Scouts

Adolf Hitler, of course, wrecked all that. Nazi scholars convinced him that links between the German and Sanskrit languages represented a shared Aryan heritage. He swiped the swastika and made it the symbol of his Nazi party, which in turn associated the swastika with the horrors advocated by Hitler’s twisted tactics and evil goals.

The capture of the English flag was at one point so pernicious that it was banned in England. Many will recognize that one of the symbols within the United Kingdom’s Union Jack flag is England’s own St. George’s flag, with its white background and red cross. In the 1970s, the flag was adopted by the racist Nationalist Front; for decades it was waved at football matches and protest rallies with the chant: “There ain’t no Black in the Union Jack / Send the bastards back.” The white supremacist English Defence League then took the St. George’s flag as its own. Despite efforts to reclaim it, the English flag still makes many an Englander’s skin crawl.

And now it’s happened to Canada. As the trucker rallies and border blockades dragged on for weeks, hundreds of Canadian flags fluttered in the wind among banners with swastikas, anti-vaccine symbols, and expletive-laden slogans.

We need to steal our flag back. We need to fly the flag on our homes and wear it on our lapels not because Canada is perfect or has a spotless history but because we are patriotic. That is, we are not nationalists who claim superiority and embrace aggression against anyone deemed “the other,” but patriots who are proud of the values and aspirations that form the foundation of our country. Those values are democracy and the rule of law, a celebration of diversity, and a fundamental decency that inspires us to do better, informed by our desire for peace, order, and good government.

We must reject the tremendous power of algorithms that trap us within echo chambers, reverberating with confirmational bias and conspiracy theories. We must embrace humility and accept that there is always more to learn and that, sometimes, we might be wrong. We must somehow rebuild a foundation of agreed-upon facts, starting with a basic knowledge of how our federal system of government works. We must also accept that freedom has essential limits and is accompanied by responsibilities.

It has taken a long time for Canada to fall into the trap that was sprung in Washington on January 6, 2021, and again a few weeks ago in Ottawa. It will take a long time to disassemble that trap and leave it behind us, but we must make the effort. We can seek inspiration from the tenacious Ukrainians who are demonstrating what fighting for freedom really looks like. If we can summon the courage, we can do what is needed to recover from our moment of darkness.

Last Sunday, hundreds of jubilant soccer fans enthusiastically waved Canadian flags as Canada qualified for the World Cup. Perhaps that joyous display of shared happiness and patriotic pride may be the first step in recapturing our flag. Now comes the real work.

(This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on March 29, 2022)

Breaking the Writer’s 4th Wall

Writing and reading are solitary pursuits and yet, somehow, the written word creates a special bond between a writer and reader. I have written eight books and enjoy the part of the process that takes me to launches, speeches, clubs, and festivals – even, more recently, over Zoom. It allows me to conspire with readers to smash our solitary fourth walls. Many readers also breach that wall by sending me an email. I welcome them. Allow me to share a few, without breaking the implied privacy, to suggest how special that connection can be.

I wrote a biography of Canadian prime minister R. B. Bennett who led Canada through the Great Depression’s darkest days. One reader wrote that he was surprised that so many of Bennett’s policy initiatives would today be considered left-wing. I deserved praise, he said, for legitimizing Canada’s progressive political orientation, especially given the right-wing drift of the current Conservative Party. Another reader, though, called me a “mindless fascist.” He wrote in rather blunt terms that in praising Bennett’s creation of the Bank of Canada, I was a “stupid right-wing toady” who was ignoring that the institution was unconstitutional. I was a plaything of a “capitalist cabal” that rules Canada and is destroying the working class. I should be ashamed, he wrote, for promoting the extreme right-wing viewpoint.

Blood and Daring is a book about Canada’s involvement in the American Civil War. I received a number of moving emails explaining how readers had been motivated to look up ancestors who had gone south to serve in the war. I received photographs of old family gravesites they had visited and told of family members with whom they had reconnected. Another correspondent, though, said I should be ashamed of myself for glorifying war.

My most recent book, The Devil’s Trick, is about Canada’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Probably because so many of the issues discussed in the book are relatively recent, I received a great number of emails. Many were gratifying. Some spoke of the book rekindling old memories of having fled the United States as draft evaders, having been welcomed by Canadians, and becoming Canadian themselves. One draft evader told me of having a disturbing conversation with his father-in-law who later became a prominent member of the Reagan cabinet and who simply could not understand the morality in refusing to fight in an immoral war.

The most moving email was from a woman whose parents had fled the war’s chaotic aftermath as Vietnamese refugees. Like many Canadian soldiers who enlisted with the American military to fight in Vietnam, many refugees were traumatized by their experiences. Many shared little with their children. My correspondent said that the book stirred memories in her mother and for the first time the old stories were shared. A deeper mother-daughter bond was forged. I confess that the email brought me tears.

So, write away dear readers. The emails are welcome distractions as I’m at my desk tapping away on my next entry for the Canadian Encyclopedia or Op. Ed., or even my next book. Even if you write just to call me names or tell me of mistakes I’ve made, the emails are a welcome reminder that I’m not alone. You’re out there.

(Thanks for reading this. Send a response along, if you wish, and perhaps consider checking out one of my books and then sending me an email about it. Let the fourth wall tumble down.)

A Little Festival Grows

Authors write in isolation and we read in isolation and yet books can bring us all together. Literary Festivals shatter the wall between writers and readers as they meet to explain, question, and enjoy the power of words and ideas. The Lakefield Literary Festival is widely respected for bringing writers and readers together for over twenty-five years.

It began small. Its founding spark was the acknowledgement that the Lakefield area has a thriving arts community and was once home to pioneer authors Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie and, from 1974 to her death in 1987, renowned Canadian writer Margaret Laurence.

In early 1995, Ron and Joan Ward purchased the modest Lakefield house in which Laurence had lived with the notion of creating a writers’ retreat. While that idea failed to materialize, the conversations about honouring Laurence morphed into a two-day event that July that involved a walking tour and performances, readings, and musical selections at a banquet in the dining hall of Lakefield College School. CBC Radio host Shelagh Rogers was the banquet’s master of ceremonies.

The event’s success led to the formation of a group of volunteers who created what became the Lakefield Literary Festival. The enthusiastic group was led by Shelley Ambrose and Brenda Neill. At that time, Ambrose was the personal assistant to CBC Radio personality Peter Gzowski and summered at a nearby cottage. Neill was a retired teacher and long-time Lakefield resident. They were the perfect team as Ambrose’s connections to Canada’s cultural community brought attention and noted authors to the festival and Neill’s local ties inspired a group of eager volunteers. An early sponsor was Quaker Oats, located in nearby Peterborough, with generous donations from many local businesses and individuals.

Growth

From those humble beginnings the festival grew. Its mandate became: To commemorate Catharine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie, Margaret Laurence, and our community’s ongoing literary heritage; to showcase Canadian authors; and to promote the joy of reading among children and adults. A Board was formed and the festival was incorporated as a non-profit organization. The festival has no staff. While authors and those attending the festival come from across Canada, it remains a grassroots organization, run by dedicated volunteers.

The festival came to involve free readings for children in the downtown Cenotaph Park in what became known as the Children’s Tent. There were readings in a local church on Sunday morning, a Village walking tour, a reception, and a Young Writer’s Contest involving students from the area’s secondary schools.  

A range of noted authors entertained and challenged audiences including Margaret Atwood, Richard Wagamese, Andy Barrie, June Callwood, Michael Crummey, Michael Enright, Terry Fallis, Douglas Gibson, Graeme Gibson, Charlotte Gray, Lawrence Hill, Wayne Johnston, Thomas King, Roy MacGregor, Linden MacIntyre, Alistair MacLeod, Rohinton Mistry, Lisa Moore, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Shoaltz, Paul Quarrington, Nino Ricci, Bill Richardson, Noah Richler, Drew Hayden Taylor, Jane Urquhart, and many, many more.

Future

In 2019, the Lakefield Literary Festival celebrated its 25th Anniversary. The next year, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. The Young Writers Contest continued but the festival was suspended.

The festival will return on July 14 and 15, 2023. It will celebrate its core elements with author events on Friday night, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday evening, the Children’s Tent on Saturday morning, and the Young Writers Contest. The adult author readings will take place at the United Church on Regent Street, each followed by authors signing books and a reception in the church auditorium.

In 2023, the festival will continue its dedication to commemorating the area’s literary heritage, celebrating authors, and promoting the joy of reading. The Lakefield Literary Festival’s history is still being made by those who write, those who read, and by the power of the connections between them.

Four Lessons for Canada from the Vietnam War

As we recall from school, lessons can be taught but not always learned. Such was the case with Canada’s involvement in the slow-motion tragedy that was the Vietnam War. Canada was taught four lessons.

Our Wallets

The Canadian government claimed neutrality in the war, but we were not. We sold an average of $370 million a year in war material to the United States for use in Vietnam – over $2 billion annually in today’s money. We manufactured and sold ammunition, guidance systems, armoured vehicles, napalm, agent orange, and more. Over 130,000 Canadians complained about the war while watching it on television each night but then went back to jobs the next morning that were linked to supporting it. We learned that we were quite willing to swap principle for profit.

Our Brawn

Canadian soldiers and diplomats were in Vietnam nine years before the Americans came in great numbers and they remained there two years after that iconic helicopter pushed down the ladder and lifted off from the American embassy roof in Saigon. We were traffic cops trying to get sworn enemies to play nice. We were the stereotypical Canadians trying to punch above our weight and persuade those killing each other to see the immorality of their actions and be more like us. We were right and both sides were wrong but it didn’t matter. We learned that we were big enough to be independent but small enough to be ignored.

Our Hearts

Canada welcomed about 30,000 young Americans who opted to run rather than fight and over 60,000 Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian families who saved their lives by suffering the indignity and danger of boats and camps to escape. Polls at the time indicated that the majority of us did not want either. But we changed. When we dusted off the principles and procedures we had invented for the Vietnam War to welcome Syrian War refugees in 2015, the majority of us supported the effort. We also finally acknowledged and helped those 20,000 Canadians who enlisted with the Americans to fight in Vietnam. It took a long while but we learned that despite race, religion, nationality and other ways we artificially divide ourselves that we are all, in the final analysis, human.

Our Soul

Along with assassinations and race riots, the Vietnam War came into Canadian living rooms every night with the evening news. It was ugly. At the same time, stories about us were being offered by a new generation of Canadian authors and songwriters – we didn’t want no war machines and ghetto scenes or tin soldiers and Nixon coming. Universities created more Canadian-based courses taught by Canadians. The growing patriotism was deeper than just celebrating Expo ’67. Pro-Canadianism became about more than anti-Americanism. It was as journalist Peter C. Newman observed: the Vietnamization of the United States brought about the Canadianization of Canada. We learned to be not British, not American, but finally, and proudly, Canadian.

Treaties are signed and memorials are built but wars never truly end. Canada is still being shaped and tested by the lessons offered by the Vietnam War.

(If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy my eighth book The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War. It’s available at bookstores across Canada, Amazon, or at the Chapters link below.)

Three Canadian Elections That Matter

Today is the 44th time we have gone to the polls to create a new parliament. Today, power shifts from them to us. Candidates preen and promise; glad-hand and grandstand, while the media shines its light on orchestrated pictures and silly distractions. But it’s our moment. In the end, when it counts, what counts is us. We decide.

            Today’s election matters because all elections matter. All campaigns reveal and some change who we are. Where we place our X later this month will determine a host of issues that will shape our future including how we emerge from a pandemic still wracking the world and the climate crisis that may wreck it. But this election could do even more than that.

            Let’s pause to ponder our moment by considering Canada’s three most important elections and the lessons they offer.

1926: Canadians or Colonials

Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was an odd duck, notoriously bereft of charisma. Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was a brilliant debater but a sour puss who made clear that be believed himself to be the smartest person in any room he occupied. In the 1925 election, King lost his seat and the popular vote. He won only 116 seats to Meighen’s 131 – but he refused to resign. With Governor General Byng’s grudging assent, King continued as prime minister.

Parliament resumed in January 1926. King remained in power through keeping the support of the Progressive Party, comprised mostly of disaffected Liberals. In February, he won a by election in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and so he was back in the House in time to be attacked as corrupt due to customs department shenanigans. By the end of June, it appeared that his government would lose a censure vote; in effect, a vote of non-confidence. King sought to dodge the loss by asking the governor general to dissolve parliament and call an election.

Eton-educated Viscount Byng of Vimy had led British troops in South Africa and Canadians at the fabled battle at Vimy Ridge. His family had been Lords, Viscounts, Earls, and such for generations. He was not about to be pushed around again by this pugnacious colonial. He said no. King resigned the next day. Byng summoned Meighen, appointed him prime minister, and ordered him to form a government.

Now opposition leader, King asked if parliamentary procedures had been followed and all newly appointed cabinet ministers had taken their oaths of office. They had not. They had slyly shifted portfolios to avoid resigning and running for office again as ministers had to do in those days. King had them on a technicality. He moved a motion declaring that Meighen’s government was not legally in power. For the first time in Canadian history, a vote of non-confidence defeated a government. An election was set for September 23, 1926.

The campaign began like most with a scattergun of issues and concerns but it quickly coalesced to just one. Who governs Canada? Is it the British appointed governor general or the democratically elected Canadian prime minister? King said, “a constitutional issue greater than any has been raised in Canada since the founding of this Dominion.” Ironically, just as Canadian nationalism had been stirred by the glorious victory at Vimy Ridge, Byng was again at the centre of it all when a new, indignant nationalist pride swelled Canadian chests. After all, there is no deeper existential question than who are we? Are we Canadians or colonials?

King took the message to the country. Meighen began the campaign by speaking of tariffs and corruption but soon he too addressed little more than what had been dubbed the King-Byng Thing.

Voter turnout was high, demonstrating the importance Canadians placed in the election’s fundamental question. King and his Liberals were returned to power with 128 seats and a solid majority. Its support grew from 40% to 46%. Meighen’s Conservatives won only 91 seats.

Weeks later, the Canadian election was the talk of a previously scheduled imperial conference that adopted the Balfour Declaration. It led to the 1931 Statute of Westminster declaring that Canada and the other Dominions were independent and that Britain could no longer pass laws that applied to them. Governor Generals became subordinate to prime ministers and Britain’s power merely ceremonial nostalgia. Canadians already knew; they had already made that decision.

1988: Bridges or Walls

Brian Mulroney had been ambitiously exploiting his thick rolodex, rich baritone, and Irish charm on the road to political leadership since he was a skinny teenager. In 1984, he led his Progressive Conservatives to an astounding 211 seats and a commanding majority. But his government was quickly mired in a succession of scandals. He needed a hail Mary pass to change the narrative.

In September 1985, a Royal Commission begun by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau issued its long- awaited report. Its analysis of economic problems and opportunities concluded that Canada should seek a comprehensive free trade agreement with the Americans.Despite having previously spoken against free trade, Mulroney became a convert. Canadian and American trade negotiators threw away all tariffs and trade barriers then fought over a litany of exceptions. They initialled the 194-page deal in October 1987.

The House of Commons ratification debate was raucous. Silver-haired Liberal leader John Turner had recently been prime minister for ten weeks and wanted the big chair back. He attacked not free trade but the agreement saying, “This is not a trade deal with merely lower tariffs. It goes beyond that. It’s the Sale of Canada Act.” Just before the summer break, the Conservative majority saw the agreement’s easy passage. But Turner had a trick left up his pinstriped sleeve. He ordered the Liberal-dominated Senate to block the free trade bill. He argued that because it would fundamentally change Canada, an election should be called to allow Canadians to have their say. Mulroney acquiesced and voting day was set for November 21, 1988.

Mulroney tried to make the seven-week campaign about his leadership but Turner said it was about Canada’s sovereignty; it was about Canada’s survival. The campaign came down to two key moments. First, a Liberal television ad showed imaginary American free trade negotiators standing over a map of Canada with one saying there was a line he would like to change. An eraser then began removing the 49th parallel. It ended with the Liberal slogan: “This Is More Than an Election. This Is Your Future.” It was devastating in its simplicity.

The second crucial moment was a two-and-a-half-minute exchange near the end of the second televised debate. Turner stepped from the podium, his steely blue eyes widened, and he boomed: “I happen to believe that you have sold us out.” Mulroney was taken aback, said he was a patriot, and with Turner shouting over him claimed that the agreement was but a commercial contract, cancellable in six months. Turner pounced again, saying that the agreement was much more than that because it related to every facet of all peoples’ lives.

The campaign became a free trade referendum. Many Canadians expressed worry that free trade would steal their healthcare and all that was unique about the country while many business leaders spoke of the economic bonanza free trade would bring. Polls later showed that many people changed their voting intentions two or three times.

An impressive 76% of eligible voters went to the polls. Mulroney’s Conservatives won a majority with 169 seats. The Liberals took 83 and the NDP, which had consistently opposed free trade, won 43.

The Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement came into force on January 1, 1989. Just five years later, it was folded into a broader Canada-U.S. free trade agreement involving Mexico (NAFTA). With the 1988 election, Sir John A. Macdonald’s high tariff National Policy, through which much of the country had developed, was gone. The 1911 election that had rejected free trade with the United States was reversed. Free trade had finally won. We reoriented ourselves to think north-south as the rules shaping Canada’s future were forever changed.

2015: Sir John or Stephen?

Sir John A. Macdonald and Canada’s other founders met in 1864 when the United States was butchering itself in a bloody Civil War. They believed the war’s root cause was the American constitution having placed too much power with the states. They would right that error by creating a country where a dominant federal government had sufficient power to speak and act for all Canadians and the fiscal capacity to respond to emergencies. As Canada evolved, this orientation was woven into its political culture. The federal government organized the creation of railways, canals, and highways that built us; the fighting of wars and a Depression that saved us; and the institution of social programs that strengthened us. Inevitable right – left ideological arguments merely banged at the extremities of our general consensus.

Then came the letter. In January 2001, former Reform Party MP Stephen Harper, and five friends, published an open letter asking Alberta premier Ralph Klein to, “build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.”

The letter clearly articulated Harper’s mission: to turn the Canadian consensus on its head. A new Conservative party emerged after years of double dealing. In 2006, the introverted policy wonk with the cold eyes was prime minister. Harper’s objective remained the same. Journalist Paul Wells wrote, “His goal is to hobble not just his own government, but any federal government of any party stripe that will come after it.”

Harper cancelled the national day care program negotiated by the previous government and in its place offered families a monthly $100 stipend. He told provinces he would maintain healthcare transfers but surrendered federal influence on how the money was spent. He cut the Goods and Services Tax by 2%. Harper eliminated the long form census. He cut grants to government scientists while banning them from speaking about their work. These actions, and others, were consistent with a leader who saw the federal government as a beast to be emasculated, starved, and lobotomized.

Harper was re-elected in 2008 and 2011. In the 2015 election, however, he faced the strong opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, leading the NDP, and newly installed Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, whom polls said was in third place. Mulcair and Trudeau led an uncoordinated two-pronged attack on Harper’s vision. They spoke of the federal government undertaking national programs to fight climate change and provide day care. Harper promised boutique tax cuts. He dog whistled to his base about the wearing of the niqab, barbaric religious practices, and “old stock Canadians.” Crude attacks on Trudeau’s movie star looks and apparent inexperience gained no traction.

On October 19, voters created a Liberal majority government. Sixty percent of Canadians had rejected Harper and his decentralized conception of the country by voting for the NDP or Liberals. The firewall fell. The country’s founding and guiding consensus was back. Every time Trudeau put conditions on federal transfers, rallied national support in reaction to natural disasters and the welcoming of refugees, and spoke of new national policies on day care, climate change, and vaccination acquisition, one could almost hear the soft Scottish burr of Sir John’s echo.

We don’t know why individuals vote as they do and our antiquated electoral system often divorces voter intentions from seat counts and power. That’s alright because the reasons that determine a particular election’s outcome are not the same as why it’s important. It’s a safe bet that our most significant elections – 1926, 1988, and 2015 – changed Canada in ways that most voters at the time did not factor when marking their X.

That notion leaves us with a sobering thought. When considering our vote later today, let’s think not just about who we want to win, but more importantly, why that win will matter.

(A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Globe and Mail on September 4, 2021. If you liked it, you should consider checking my books, my most recent is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Canada as a Six-String Nation

Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.

In 1995 Canada was coming apart at the seams. A host of proposed constitutional amendments that would dramatically shift power from the federal to provincial governments was stirring arguments among Canadians. Revolutions had been fought over such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War that was spurred by the question of state power. Canadians reach not for guns but gavels. We debate. We argue at kitchen tables and over backyard fences. But in 1995, it was getting ugly.

The national tension inspired Jowi Taylor. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.

Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii that is sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on.

The tree was an inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.

But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Strat at every gig I play.)

Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick, and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.

Finally, on June 14, 2006, the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later, at Ottawa’s Canada Day celebration, renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.

The Guitar and the Nation

Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.

Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need and especially when suffering the aftermath of war be it Vietnam, Syria or Afghanistan. We are nearly all from away and at one point we were on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada is a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.

(Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments  embedded it in. If you enjoyed this article, please consider sending it to others and maybe even checking out one of my books – my most recent is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)