Why Do We Work For Nothing?

I received a call inviting me to join the board of directors of Lakefield’s Morton Community Healthcare Centre. It’s the sole medical centre that serves our small Village and the surrounding rural area. My first question to the caller was why do you want me but the first question to myself was why would I want to do this? Indeed, why do any of us work at certain tasks for nothing?

People working for nothing are the smiling folks in bright T-Shirts at the various fairs and festivals we enjoy so much. Without them, those events simply could not happen. More often, though, we don’t see those working for nothing at all. They serve on all the boards that oversee those events and all the other organizations that make our communities what they are.

I, for instance, am the Chair of the Lakefield Literary Festival. It is a terrific little 24-year-old annual festival that brings authors from across Canada to read from and discuss their books one evening every April and for a weekend in July. Dozens of volunteers make the events happen and eight of us work all year to pull it together. None of us makes a dime doing it.

Boards like that exist in every community. Think of Hospice, Children’s Aid, hospitals, race relations, United Way, agricultural fairs, libraries, social planning councils, Lions, Kinsmen, Probus, YMCA and YWCA, and on and on and on. Think not just of all the coaches in the rinks and on the sidelines keeping kids active and out of trouble but all the folks who run the leagues. Unlike corporate boards that pay members handsomely, the people serving on these boards, and the many more like them, all volunteer their time and talents. They work hard and they work for nothing.

I believe that we should pay for that from which we draw benefit. I would never enjoy a restaurant meal and then leave without paying. That would be theft. Similarly, I would never consider enjoying life in a society where people are educated by schools, protected by police, and helped by hospitals without paying for it. That is why I don’t grumble about paying taxes for those things despite the fact that I am not in school, and have not called a cop in years or been admitted to hospital since I had my tonsils out at age four. To enjoy the benefits of a society where those and things like them exist without paying would be theft as much as a dine and dash.

In this vein, picture a community without all those organizations made possible by the work of volunteers. Our community would be poorer if they were gone. We would be poorer. So we pay for the benefit of living in a civilized society by contributing to those organizations we can with our time –  we work for nothing.

Why Do We Work For Nothing?

So yes, I said, I would be happy to serve on the Morton Community Healthcare Centre Board. I will need to learn a lot. I will be out a couple of evenings a month and be doing other work to prepare for those meetings and to address actionable decisions but that’s OK. I look forward to the experience. I look forward to working with others who also see the value in such work. I look forward to knowing that in doing what little I can to help, I will be adding just a tiny bit to my community. I look forward to working for nothing. I urge you to do the same.

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The Audacious Power of No

President Kennedy once said that most government decisions come down to choosing between two lousy options. Like all government leaders, Kennedy understood that as important as deciding to undertake certain steps is a decision to take no step at all. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, Kennedy’s military leaders and the majority of his cabinet urged him to attack Cuba. But he said no. Instead, his diplomatic efforts led to the Soviet missiles being removed and the world avoiding a nuclear holocaust. Kennedy’s courageous decision demonstrated the power of no. Let’s consider a Canadian example.

The Power of No

In the 1990s, much of the western world was enthralled with the celebration of cowboy capitalism and the veneration of corporate leaders. Government was suspect. State regulations were rolled back as mega-mergers created mammoth corporations. In the United States, the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that regulated bank mergers and separated savings and loans from investment institutions was rescinded. Elephantine financial institutions grew. They put peoples’ savings, pensions, and homes at risk to spur higher and higher profits through increasingly complex investment vehicles.

Canada’s prime minister at the time was Jean Chrétien. He had served as finance minister and so understood the issues at hand. Chretien’s finance minister was Paul Martin. As a successful businessman, he understood micro and macroeconomics. Chrétien and Martin knew what America and other nations had done with their banks and financial institutions and were under enormous pressure to do the same.

In January 1998, the Bank of Montreal announced its intention to merge with the Royal Bank. Shortly afterwards, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Toronto-Dominion Bank announced that they too would merge. The banks demanded that the merger be approved and that the Canadian government do as other governments had done and end regulations that separated retail from investment banking. Chrétien and Martin knew that in the current political climate it would be politically popular to say yes.

MARTIN/CHRETIEN/BUDGET

Chrétien and Martin

But they said no. They argued that limited competition in the financial sector was dangerous. They worried that the mergers would create institutions that would be too big to fail, leading to a situation where trouble within them would render government bailouts essential. They insisted that the regulations in place were designed to protect Canadians, the Canadian economy, and even to protect the banks from themselves.

The mergers were not allowed to happen. In fact, the capital requirements for banks – the amount of money they must keep in reserve related to outstanding loans – was increased.

Within a decade, in the fall of 2008, the world economy collapsed. Enormous banks and financial institutions had caused it through sneaky undertakings that starved their customers and fed their greed. Around the world, bank after bank fell. Former American Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan quipped that when the tide went out, we saw who had been swimming naked. But Canadian banks were suitably suited. The disallowed mergers and maintained regulations meant that no Canadian banks went bankrupt, no big bailouts were necessary, and Canada rode the storm much better than nearly every other country due mostly to its banking and financial system remaining sound and stable.

Quebec and Nova Scotia leaders said no to Benjamin Franklin when he arrived, hat in hand, asking them to join the American revolution. Quebecers said no in 1980 and 1995, rejecting ethnic nationalism and remaining in Canada. Elijah Harper said no to allowing the Manitoba legislature to vote on the Meech Lake constitutional amendments which led to its failure and the inclusion of Indigenous nations in future negotiations. Canada would be a different place if in these and many other cases there had been a yes rather than a no.

We all know the power of no in our lives. We teach our children. As we age, we grow more willing to wield it without excuses. It is an essential concept for businesses, schools, and big and small organizations. Leaders must use it. Middle managers must sometimes employ its power to remind the powerful of vanishing values. As important as what a government does, is what it does not do, does not allow, and what it prevents. We must pay closer attention, and acknowledge and applaud the audacious power of no.

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A Candle in New Zealand

Democracy, the rule of law, and even the truth are under attack. The bedrock of assumptions once thought immutable has turned to sand. And yet, despite troubles and the deafening drumbeats of negativism, idealism is still not naïve, hope remains wholesome, and hard work is still rewarded. We know that even a small candle can conquer darkness. Light, like love, always wins. Think about it – always. As a measure of that audacious notion, I offer New Zealand.

New Zealand is not a place that often, or ever, crosses our minds. But there it is, a nation of 5 million people, made up of two volcanic islands, about 1,500 km south-east of Australia. Earning independence in 1947, its tacit head of state remains Britain’s monarch while real power rests with parliament and the prime minister. New Zealand’s prime minister is Jacinda Ardern. She is a candle.

Having graduated university in 2001, Ardern became a member of parliament in 2008 and, in August 2017, was chosen as Labour Party leader. In a general election held just a month later, her party increased its seat count by 14 and, through negotiations with the National Party, a coalition government was formed with Ardern as prime minister. She became New Zealand’s third female prime minister and, at 37, its youngest.

A Candle in New Zealand

She had campaigned on a promise of “relentless positivity” and that’s how she is governing. Ardern is a progressive. She believes that the state has no right to dictate who people may love and, therefore, supported laws allowing same-sex marriage. She believes that abortions have always occurred but if made legal they become safer and so she supported removing abortion from the Crimes Act. She believes that people’s health and safety comes first and so she has supported efforts to combat climate change.

Last January, Ardern and her husband, who hosts a television fishing show, stood together to announce that she was pregnant. She explained that after giving birth this June, she will take a six-week maternity leave, during which time deputy prime minister Winton Peters will become PM. She will then return to office with her husband assuming full-time caregiver responsibilities.

Ardern was attacked by those who did the math and said that she must have known she was pregnant while negotiating the coalition that made her prime minister. But is being pregnant a disqualifying condition for a position of power; or any position; or anything? She was criticized for thinking she could meet her responsibilities while pregnant. But are men not applauded for courageously carrying on despite health issues that are less natural and less temporary? She was savaged for not resigning to take care of her child. But are men asked to surrender jobs or ambitions when they become fathers?

Ardern met critics with grace. She said, “It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children, and it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities…I am not the first woman to multitask. I am not the first woman to work and have a baby.” She tweeted: “We thought 2017 was a big year! This year we’ll join the many parents who wear two hats. I’ll be PM & a mum while Clarke will be “first man of fishing” & stay at home dad. There will be lots of questions (I can assure you we have a plan all ready to go!) but for now bring on 2018.”

Like always, mud-slingers were left with more of the stuff on them than their target. They revealed more about themselves and their latent, or perhaps blatant, dinosaur misogyny than about their prime minister. Supporters quickly overwhelmed naysayers. Their thoughts were summarized by a message from Scotland’s prime minister Nicola Sturgeon: “This is first and foremost a personal moment for her — but it also helps demonstrate to young women that holding leadership positions needn’t be a barrier to having children (if you want to).”

Ardern is helping to illuminate a path forward for girls and women everywhere who challenge the darkness of people, laws, and attitudes that shame, limit, deny, and disparage. The path is being lit one candle at a time. Emma González is a Florida high school student helping to shine a light on leaders more concerned with campaign donations than children’s safety. Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for promoting the education of young women but, after painfully recovering she resumed her fight. Chrystia Freeland is Canada’s foreign affairs minister and Jane Philpott its minister of Indigenous Services. They are among Canada’s most powerful political leaders. Freeland is working to modernize and stabilize Canada’s economy by renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and Philpott to right generations of wrongs by bringing justice to a relationship that has never known the concept.

There are candles like Ardern and the others in your community and, if you are lucky, in your home. Let us not curse the darkness but celebrate their light.

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The Rebels Among and Within Us

Keith Richards was once asked if he had a drug problem. “No,” he replied, “I have a police problem.” I love that. I love the old joke that the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust would be cockroaches and Keith Richards. Nineteenth-century American essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” I’m not sure that’s true. But I do know that out there right now are people like Richards – the wild, the untamed, living on the edge of out of control and, while not necessarily breaking the law, not giving a damn about polite expectations or the rules of acceptable behaviour and, in so doing, proving Thoreau wrong. Maybe that’s the lure and maybe even the purpose of rebels and rock stars.

Keith Richards

Photo: New York Times

As a kid, I loved books, movies, and TV shows about cowboys, pirates, and space adventurers. I still do. My favorite Beatle was John, my favourite Monkee was Mike and my favorite Rolling Stone was, well, you know. I loved John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits – singers with something to say who couldn’t sing worth a damn and didn’t care. I loved not just the writing but the idea of Hunter S. Thompson. And yet, I was always straight home after school and then on to university like a good boy. I still live my life like that, while all those real and imaginary rebels are still out there, attacking life not just for themselves but for folks like me who have never been arrested, fired, divorced, and except for that sad roll-on-the-ground tussle in grade 5, never even been in a fight. Is my admiring them a confession of quiet desperation?

And what of Adam Shoalts? Shoalts is a Canadian currently completing his PhD at McMaster University, which sounds ordinary enough, but he is also an explorer. That’s right, there are places on the planet that are unknown and unmapped and, even more astounding than that, there are present-day Lewis and Clark and David Thompson explorers burning to find them.

In 2007, Shoalts scoured maps and journals seeking an unexplored place in Canada and finally found it – the Again River. It had been discovered by a government agency that mapped the area by plane. The Again meanders roughly along the Quebec-Ontario border and empties into James Bay but it’s so remote, so removed from even distant Cree villages, that there was no evidence that anyone had ever he traversed it. Certainly, no one had ever explored it, that is, traveled it to create a detailed map and record. Shoalts determined to be the first.

Adam Shoalts

Photo: AdamShoalts.com

With little but inadequate support from the Canadian Geographic Society, he set out with rudimentary gear and a partner who quit shortly after beginning. Another year brought another attempt but that partner quit too. Shoalts determined to do it alone. He paddled but mostly dragged his canoe through swamp and bog. He suffered freezing, blinding storms and endured ravenous clouds of relentless blackflies and mosquitoes. He fought hypothermia. He watched for bears and wolves. And, he made it. The river was stunningly beautiful but hardly welcoming. At one point it turned rapids into a 7-meter waterfall that smashed Shoalts’ canoe but not his spirit.

Three times I have read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. At one point a character says, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!” I like that. Adam Shoalts and Keith Richards understand.

Right now, Adam Shoalts is out there somewhere either searching for another mysterious place to risk his health and life to explore or he’s out there doing it. And Keith Richards is still writing and playing rock ‘n’ roll or doing God knows what else, and maybe even He doesn’t know. And as I carry on with my life, not of quiet desperation but gentle contentment, I say thank goodness for them both. Thank goodness for all like them.

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My Shame and the Shameless Racist

An interesting part of being an author is being invited to address groups about one’s books. You shake off the office, library, and archive dust and meet those who share an interest in books and ideas. Sometimes, though, you meet folks who are not curious but angry. They seek not to learn but profess. Last week, I encountered one such gentleman and wish I had handled him differently.

Last Wednesday I addressed a group of 60 or so folks about my book, Last Steps to Freedom, which addresses the history of racism in Canada. I said that at racism’s core is the belief that in creating some people, God made a mistake. I explained the book’s idea that racism is like a ladder we ascend, climbing the rungs of stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, state-sanctioned discrimination, and, finally, genocide. In Canada, I explained, we have been on every rung, including, with respect to Indigenous peoples, attempted cultural genocide. I illustrated the point with stories of Ukrainian-Canadians, thousands of whom were locked up during the First World War, and Black Canadians who endured slavery and then discrimination that persists today.

The two most important rules in public speaking are to be brief and be seated. I did both. Then came the question period which is always my favorite part. But last Wednesday was different.

He thrust his hand in the air. I nodded his way and he leaped to his feet. The slight man, in his late sixties, asked if I knew the meaning of a hate crime. I began to answer when he cut me off and said that it was hateful to attack another person’s opinions. He then said that according to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, all slave ship captains were Jews. There was a gasp in the audience. I began to respond when again he cut me off asking if I had heard of Ernst Zündel. Yes, I began to reply, when he said that, according to Zündel, the Holocaust never happened. How can I prove, he asked, that the Holocaust happened and that 6 million were killed?

A microphone is a good thing. You can pull it close to increase your volume while moving toward a speaker. All but the truly crazy usually fall silent. He did. I said that, yes, I had heard of both Farrakhan and Zündel and knew them both to have been rejected by all real historians. He began to speak again but I kept going. As for those men and you holding opinions, well, in my opinion, I am Robert Redford’s virtual twin. But no matter how fervently I believe it does not make it true.

Racism

He began to speak again but I said he had made his point and now it was time to allow others to pose their questions. I pointed to a gentleman in the back and as he started his question, our friend huffed from the room.

The questioner continued but I was only half listening, noticing the heads turning to watch our angry friend go, and seeing the nudges and whispers. With the question posed, I said thanks but paused. I said, now that was interesting. Opinions and facts are not the same and are seldom friends, I said. There were smiles and shoulders sank back down as people relaxed. I then answered the second question, well, really the first question.

There I was, having written a book about the horrors of racism and speaking about how we need to atone for our collective crimes and ignorance to work together in building an egalitarian, non-racist society and yet I had allowed an obvious racist to hold the floor for what I believe was too long. I should have challenged him sooner, harsher. I should have said more directly that his sources were known anti-Semites and that the bile he was spewing was anti-Semitic hooey. But I didn’t. Was I too polite? But then again, would my moving more aggressively have simply employed the same ugly weapons as his hate-based tribe? We must always confront racism and I should have done so quicker, firmer, perhaps ruder – polite be damned.

We are now enduring a moment in which too many people see political correctness as weakness, compromise as lacking principle, and critical thought as elitism. This challenge to the post-1960s liberal consensus has invited racist, sexist, homophobic, nativist, bigoted talk to be dragged from the shadows and waved like a flag. Those confused by complexity find solace and community in dividing the world into me and you, us and them. Facts can then not be sought to learn but cherry-picked to confirm. It’s sad and dangerous, but I sincerely believe we’ll be OK.

History used to evolve in spans but now leaps in spasms. This moment will pass. It will pass quickly. The racists and bigots will return to their shrinking circles of confusion and fear. Love will trump hate and that which gave rise to Trump will fall. The better angels of our nature will again sing.

I believe it. I have to. The alternative is too frightening. Next time, I’ll do better.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others through your social media of choice. If you wish to read the book that brought the folks together on a cold, snowy evening and made one gentleman so angry, you can find it here: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html

 

 

Power, Wealth, and Responsibility –Enbridge

On 13 February 1947, the Imperial Oil Company found crude oil at its Leduc #1 well, about 15 km west of Edmonton. The Leduc well began Alberta’s oil industry. However, finding crude oil was only the first step for it still needed to be transported to refineries to turn it into useable products.

Two years later, Imperial Oil created the Interprovincial Pipe Line Company (IPL). Its first pipeline cost $73 million to construct and, in October 1950, began transporting crude oil from Edmonton to Superior, Wisconsin. Within a year, the company had transported 30.6 million barrels of oil. In 1953, a new pipeline, Line 5, was constructed from Superior to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario, allowing Alberta oil to supply Ontario’s growing manufacturing base. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, IPL and its American subsidiary, the Lakehead Pipe Line Company, built more pipelines that connected additional American cities including Buffalo, Chicago and Detroit.

The company also expanded in Canada. In 1972, IPL pipelines were transporting an over 1 million barrels of crude oil per day across North America. In June 1976, after an expenditure of $247 million, a pipeline transported Alberta oil to Montréal. In April 1985, IPL pipelines connected the oilfields at Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, to its pipelines in Zama, Alberta, and, through that junction, across Canada and into the United States.

In 1988, IPL changed its name to Interhome Energy Inc. The company expanded in 1994 when it purchased Consumers’ Gas. It was soon transporting natural gas from its sources and distributing it directly to businesses and homes. About this time, the company’s name changed to IPL Energy Inc. The company’s operations expanded internationally with the acquisition of a pipeline in Colombia. By the summer of 1996, its 829 km OCENSA pipeline was transporting crude oil from the Cusiana and Cupiagua fields in central Colombia to its west coast.

Enbridge Created

In 1998, IPL changed its name to Enbridge Inc. The name refers to what the company does by linking the words energy and bridge. Shortly afterward, Enbridge became involved with the exploitation of the Athabasca oil sands in northern Alberta, near Fort McMurray. The difficult process of extracting crude oil from the area by processing it from the rock and soil in which it rests began in 1964. By the 1990s, the oil sands promised to be North America’s largest depository of crude oil. By 1999, Enbridge had built one long-haul pipeline connecting the oil sands to its existing pipelines in Edmonton and Hardisty, Alberta, and, through them, to other parts of Canada and to the United States.

Question of Power - Enbridge

In 1999, Enbridge developed a natural gas distribution network into New Brunswick. Its 2001 purchase of Houston’s Midcoast Energy Resources was followed by a further expansion of its American natural gas distribution network. In 2005, Enbridge acquired Shell Gas Transmission LLC, including ownership interests in 11 natural gas pipelines in 5 offshore Gulf of Mexico pipeline corridors.

Beginning in 2001, Enbridge began to invest in sources of renewable energy. It invested in Saskatchewan’s SunBridge wind power project and by 2012 was involved with 10 wind farms, 4 solar energy operations, 4 waste heat recovery programs, and a geothermal energy project — all representing a $5-billion investment. At the same time, Enbridge altered many of its practices with the goal of becoming more environmentally responsible. It was subsequently listed as one of the world’s most sustainable companies eight years in a row. In 2016, American magazine Newsweek ranked Enbridge the world’s 12th most sustainable corporation.

Controversy

While pipelines play an essential role in the transportation of crude oil and natural gas from their sources to refineries and then to customers, they are controversial because they sometimes break, resulting in leaks onto land and into water. Several Enbridge lines have suffered spills. In 2017, the Great Lakes Region of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) stated that Enbridge’s aging Line 5 — linking Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario — had experienced 29 leaks between 1968 and 2015, resulting in the spilling of over 1 million gallons of oil and gas liquids in 64 years. The NWF insisted that the leaks threatened the water supply of more than 40 million people.

In 2005, Enbridge signed a deal with PetroChina stipulating that it would purchase oil from Alberta’s oil sands. A 1,172 km pipeline would bring the crude from northern Alberta to the small, northern British Columbia port of Kitimat. The pipeline’s construction would cost $6.6 billion and be called the Northern Gateway. The project was immediately opposed by environmental groups who worried about spills along the route and in the harbour and along the coast. Several First Nations communities objected to the pipeline crossing their land.

Meanwhile, Enbridge initiated government approval processes to rebuild and expand its aging 1,659 km Line 3 that took crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. The $7.5-billion project proposed to fix problems, render the pipeline safer and increase its volume to allow the transportation of 760,000 barrels a day. Objections were raised by environmental protection groups and communities through which the pipeline ran, including many Indigenous communities.

The Northern Gateway and Line 3 proposals led to fiery public hearings and long, complex submissions to the Canadian government’s National Energy Board, the body responsible for issuing the necessary licences to proceed. Enbridge admitted, with respect to both projects, that there is always “residual risk” but promised to take all necessary precautions to mitigate them. It pledged, for example, to use tethered tugboats to pull big oil tankers out of the Kitimat harbour and through the Douglas Channel, to employ new radar and other navigation aids, and to enforce strict rules about the quality of ships that would be allowed to transport the oil.

In July 2010, Enbridge’s pipeline in Marshall Township, Michigan, ruptured, dumping 20,000 barrels of oil in the Kalamazoo River watershed. The US National Transportation Safety Board investigated the spill and accused Enbridge of lax safety standards, made worse by the fact that the company’s monitoring stations had been between shifts when the rupture happened so that no one was watching the line. Enbridge promised to make changes, but the damage was done to the environment, to people of the area and to the company’s reputation.

In November 2016, the Canadian government announced that it would not approve the Northern Gateway project. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he was approving a proposal put forth by Enbridge’s competitor, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, to build a pipeline from Alberta to a bigger and more southern British Columbia port. Trudeau said of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway: “It has become clear that this project is not in the best interest of the local affected communities, including Indigenous peoples.” Trudeau also announced that the government approved Enbridge’s Line 3 rebuild.

Continued Growth 

In September 2016, Enbridge had purchased Spectra Energy Corporation of Houston, Texas, for $37 billion. The move increased Enbridge’s value to $166 billion and made it North America’s largest energy infrastructure company. Enbridge was restructured with its natural gas pipeline business run from Houston, its liquid pipeline business from Edmonton and its headquarters remaining in Calgary. The move also meant that Enbridge laid off about 1,000 employees. The layoffs, potential for tax savings, and capacity for more growth in Canada and the United States increased Enbridge’s stock price and dividends for investors.

In November 2017, Enbridge filed an application with the Ontario Energy Board to amalgamate with Union Gas. Enbridge stated that the merger of the two natural gas distribution companies would allow a more efficient distribution to customers. Critics said it would create a monopoly that would allow Enbridge too much power to control distribution and prices.

The questions surrounding the amalgamation were the same as had been asked for years regarding balancing a return on shareholder investment, consumer rights, the power of government to regulate, and environmental responsibility.

This column is my latest entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia which is a great source of information on all things Canadian.

Lennon, Leonardo, and the Responsibility of Genius

Life would be less without art. Art affords us the emotional vocabulary to comprehend pain and beauty and sin and redemption, all the while exploring meaning. Artists stand outside the cauldron of our stress-inducing schedules of jobs and mundane responsibilities and so enjoy the time and perspective to observe, ponder, and create. Through their songs, paintings, sculpture, dance, architecture, and more, they light the candles that flicker in the dark, quiet places where we ask questions often admitted to no one, not even ourselves. If all this is true, then does the artist have a responsibility to create art? Let us consider two artists who didn’t think so.

lennon

John Lennon was only 29-years-old when the Beatles broke up. He went on to create a number of fun sketches, brought attention to the cause of peace, and recorded albums but then, when his wife became pregnant, he quit it all. After the birth of their son, he just stayed home. Lennon wrote, “I have never subscribed to the view that artists owe a debt to the public any more than youth owes its life to king and country.”

Lennon wrote of the artist Gauguin who left his wife and beloved daughter behind in Paris to escape to Tahiti where he worked on what he hoped would be his masterpiece. He slaved away for years and died without seeing his daughter again. Later, the painting dedicated to her was lost in a fire. Lennon wondered if Gauguin’s time would have been better spent with the daughter he professed to love so profusely. He wrote that, for him, Gauguin’s lesson was clear: “I’ve already lost one family to produce what? Sgt Pepper? I am blessed with a second chance…If I never produce anything more for public consumption than silence, so be it.”

Lennon’s example and point would have been understood by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo was a genius. He was a polymath who considered painting the least of his talents. His voluminous notebooks betray the astounding range of his interests. He pondered and explored things such as why the sky is blue, how woodpeckers avoid concussions, and how eddies swirl in streams. He designed innovative buildings, invented flying machines, developed elaborate theatrical productions, and drew plans for advanced weaponry and fortifications. He conducted autopsies to determine how the heart worked, how movement was controlled by muscles and tendons, and detailed the intricacies of the spine and central nervous system.

Many of his inventions and discoveries were centuries ahead of his time. His precise descriptions of heart function, for instance, would only be determined to have been accurate in 2014 when technology became adequately advanced to confirm his findings. Think about that. It took until 2014 to determine that he had been right in 1509.

Leonardo notebook

The most fascinating thing about all of the work that sprang from his insatiable curiosity and stubborn refusal to silo art, technology, and science is that he published none of it. Nearly all stayed in his notebooks, accompanied by exquisitely detailed drawings and explained in his quirky left-handed mirror image writing. Some of his inventions and suggestions were entertained by popes, kings, and generals but sabotaged by their being far beyond the technology of the day.

Leonardo didn’t care. His paintings won him patrons and all the money he needed to live. His explorations afforded him all inspiration he needed to make living worthwhile. He cared not one wit about sharing with the world that to which he dedicated his life to examining and inventing. He left many paintings incomplete and even failed to start many more for which he was commissioned. His most famous work, the portrait of the 24-year-old wife of a local silk merchant, the enchanting Lisa del Giocondo, was found in his studio after his death. He had worked on it, off and on, for sixteen years and neither delivered it nor was paid for it.

Are artists like Lennon and Leonardo self-indulgent ingrates because they selfishly kept from the world that which it was owed? Perhaps the question is whether those with exceptional talents owe it to the world to share the products of those talents. Would we have been just fine if Sinatra never sang, Jobs never tinkered, Einstein never wondered, and Cohen never rhymed? Perhaps. But would our world be poorer and our lives somewhat shallower without Imagine and Mona Lisa’s smile? Who owes what to whom? What do we owe, whatever our talents, to the world?

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The Important Canadian You Should Know

Denham Jolly is a man we should know. He is a Canadian teacher, entrepreneur, publisher, broadcaster, philanthropist, civil rights activist, and community leader.

Family and Personal Life

Born in Negril, Jamaica, Jolly enjoyed an idyllic childhood, playing on his family’s 300 lush acres and long, natural beach. His father was a successful entrepreneur and his mother was the local justice of the peace. After graduating from secondary school in 1953, he became a clerk with the West Indies Sugar Company but agreed with his parents that a university education was essential for his future.

Jolly was accepted at the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. Upon entering Canada, he was forced to sign a document pledging that he would leave the country the day that his student visa expired. He later learned that only Black students had to sign the pledge and so he became acquainted with Canada’s subtle, bureaucratic racism. He augmented his studies with two years at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro before completing his Science degree at McGill University. Jolly wanted to remain in Canada but, due to the immigration rules, he was forced to return to Jamaica.

In April 1961, he was finally able to secure the papers necessary to return to Canada. He worked for a few months as a City of Toronto air pollution researcher and then secured a position as a biology teacher at a secondary school in Sault Ste. Marie. In the spring of 1963, he met the young woman who would become his wife, Carol Casselman. After a year in the Soo, Jolly accepted a position teaching Physics and Chemistry at Toronto’s Forest Hill Collegiate. Carol moved to Toronto to pursue her nursing career, they were married in July 1965, and later had three children.

Entrepreneurship

While enjoying teaching, Jolly earned extra income through the purchase of a Toronto rooming house. He then bought a second one. In 1968, he opened the Donview Nursing Home and six months later the Tyndall Nursing Home. The success of his growing businesses led him to leave teaching and, in 1972, he built a state of the art nursing home that grew to 151 beds. His entrepreneurial spirit was seen when he discovered the astronomical sum spent each month for his residents’ laboratory work and reacted by arranging for the consolidation of two private labs and then the purchase of 51% of the new company. Then, in 1990, Jolly observed that family members visiting his residents had difficulty finding nearby accommodation and so he purchased land and built a 65-room hotel that he called the Jolly Inn. A year later he paid the fee to register the hotel as a Day’s Inn. His businesses became international when he purchased a 120-bed nursing home in Dallas, Texas and began a boat chartering company in Montego Bay, Jamaica. When after only two years the profits from neither justified the headaches of running them from afar he sold them both – for a handsome profit.

Community Engagement

While becoming an increasingly successful businessperson, Jolly never forgot the racist student visa document he been forced to sign and the racial segregation he had experienced in Nova Scotia where, because he was Black, he could not attend an all-white church or enjoy a meal in a whites-only restaurant. Later, Jolly met Toronto landlords who assured him on the phone that an apartment was available but then became suddenly unavailable when he arrived to see it. When Jolly arranged for a white friend to visit the landlord, the apartment was available again. When buying his first house, the unwritten rules about where Black people could live in Toronto forced him to have a white friend pose as the purchaser while he pretended to be a contractor. He also found that some banks had more stringent loan conditions for Black than for white entrepreneurs. Others bluntly refused loans for Black-owned businesses. Jolly believed it was his responsibility to do what he could to help fight for racial equality.

Jolly became the treasurer of the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA). He learned more about racist organizations in Ontario such as the Western Guard Party that worked with the Canadian KKK to harass non-white people, spread racist propaganda, and urge the government to restrict non-white immigrants. The JCA’s headquarters was burned to the ground in a suspicious fire that all assumed but was never proven to be arson.

One of the targets of racist groups and individuals was Contrast, a Black newspaper that had been founded in 1969. Its articles reflected the kaleidoscope of the Black experience in Toronto from the perspective of long-time residents and more recent arrivals from Caribbean islands. In 1983, the paper was in financial trouble until Jolly saved it by infusing much-needed capital. He became its owner and publisher. The paper remained free to readers even as Jolly increased it from 16 to 24 pages, made it more professional looking with new computerized type-setting equipment, broadened its range of articles, and improved the quality of its writing. Under his leadership, Contrast became, according to the Toronto Star, the “eyes, ears, and voice of Canada’s Black community.” He ran the paper for three years before selling it to another Jamaican-born entrepreneur.

Jolly was angry when he saw Black Canadian athletes applauded for earning medals for their country in the 1982 Commonwealth Games but then having to endure racist discrimination when they returned home. He and some friends gathered leaders from Toronto’s diverse Black community and formed the Black Business and Professional Association. He was its founding president. It supported and publicized the success of Black businesspeople and professionals, partly through the annual Harry Jerome Awards and Scholarships. Meanwhile, he personally funded scholarships for even more aspiring young Black people.

In August 1988, Jolly became a founding member of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC). Its goal was to stop the harassment of Black citizens and the frightening regularity of white police officers being exonerated after shooting young Black men. The BADC wrote articles, staged demonstrations, lobbied politicians, and helped victims’ families. The Ontario government responded to a May 1992 Toronto riot that followed a peaceful protest organized by the BADC with an investigation that revealed and confirmed the depth of Toronto’s systemic anti-Black racism.

Denham Jolly

Radio

Jolly observed that among the problems facing Black youth in Toronto were the divisions within the Black community and a feeling of isolation as a minority within a predominantly white city. Part of a response to the problems, he decided, might be the creation of a Black-themed radio station that would play a range of Black music while offering Black voices and perspectives. He gathered other Black leaders and businesspeople and became the founder, president, and chief executive officer of Milestone Radio Inc. He then led the effort to have the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) grant Milestone the city’s one available radio frequency. The first question he was asked by the all-white commissioners was, “What is Black music?” He knew his group was in trouble. The license was granted to another group that proposed a country music station.

A few years later, another frequency came available and Jolly led another expensive and complex effort to earn it. The Canadian government sabotaged its own process by stating in advance that the frequency would go to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Finally, twelve years after first applying to the CRTC, his third application bid was successful.

In February 2001, Jolly’s FLOW 93.5 began broadcasting an energetic mix of R&B, reggae, rap, and stories told by Black on-air personalities about the Black community. Instead of having to tune into American stations, Black youth heard themselves reflected and their tastes respected over the air in their own city. As the station became increasingly successful, Jolly increased the power of its range so that it reached six million listeners across southern Ontario.

While a financial success, the station maintained its broader mission by promoting emerging Black artists, such as Drake. It provided scholarships for Black youth, staged free concerts, and supported Caribana, the annual celebration of Black-island culture. Not surprisingly, given the racial makeup of the region, 60% of FLOW’s listeners were white. This meant that more than just Black listeners were learning of the presence and vibrancy of the diverse Black culture that was a part of the Canadian mosaic. Jolly happily helped other Black music stations to form, first in Calgary and then elsewhere. After five years on the air, FLOW 93.5 was chosen as Canada’s best contemporary radio station.

Legacy

In his 70s, and pleased with the impact the radio station had made and that Black music had become mainstream, in 2011 Jolly sold Flow 93.5. He also sold his nursing homes. Jolly’s first marriage had ended in divorce and he later married Janice Williams. They traveled extensively, including to South Africa, where he had made generous donations to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to support its actions that helped end the state-sanctioned discrimination of Apartheid.

Jolly’s business acumen and community engagement were recognized through numerous local and national awards. Each recognized his dedication to his community and country and to the idea that Canada and Canadians will be better when there is justice for all through and the creation of a more equitable, non-racial nation whose reality matches its international image and the principles for which it stands.

I was invited to write this piece as an entry to the Canadian Encyclopedia. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others through your social media of choice and consider leaving a comment.

 

Trudeau, Trump and the UN: Two Views for One World

CTV News called to ask my view on various leaders and their thoughts on the United Nations. As we are dealing with so many issues that transcend national boundaries, it is an interesting time to pause to consider the internationalist viewpoint that led to the creation of bodies such as the UN in the first place.

Here is the September 20 interview:

https://www.facebook.com/CTVNewsChannel/videos/1549973815063944/

Scrubbing History: Sir John and General Lee

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 a death. The fight is gearing up in Canada with an Ontario teacher’s union demanding that Sir John A. Macdonald Elementary School change its name.

Power and Sir John's Echo

In the United States, memorials to Lee and other Confederate leaders are being attacked as symbols of white supremacy – and the point is valid. Southern states seceded and fought the Civil War primarily to maintain slavery.

Most of the Confederate statues erected and most of what’s named after Confederate leaders were done to celebrate the legitimacy of that reprehensible goal; they appeared around 1910 to support Jim Crow segregationist laws and in the 1960s to combat the civil rights movement.

The statues should come down. The names should be changed.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy is more nuanced. He was the indispensable leader who led the Confederation debates in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London and guided the creation of our constitution. He was our first prime minister and 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 from threats of American annexation when he purchased Rupert’s Land, kept British Columbia from joining the United States and negotiated the Washington Treaty in which Britain was considering giving Canada to the Americans to avoid paying Civil War reparations. He kept us united by having French and English work together and attempted to grant women the right to vote.

In American terms, Macdonald is our Jefferson, Washington and Madison.

However, Macdonald also 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 then crushed Riel’s Saskatchewan rebellion.

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.

Lee fought for a horrible end. Macdonald worked for a remarkable 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 is 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 or a sword to attack the ideas of others or a fence 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 existential, national conversation.

Ironically, that is the point missed by members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario who asked school boards to rename schools bearing the name of our first prime minister. 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 used to teach and learn about crimes that he and we committed.

We should use them to critically examine how we have grown, atonements due and work remaining. What better place for those conversations than public places with monuments bearing plaques briefly explaining aspects of Sir John that swell our chests or well our tears?

What better place for those conversations than schools, especially those bearing his name. So, let us not scrub Sir John from our public spaces, instead, let history to do its job.

This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and was the subject of my appearances on CTV television’s Your Morning and CBC Radio’s The Current. I would appreciate your comments on this latest conversation about who we are.

How to Steal Power from the Dark Side of the Moon

Only 15 human beings, American astronauts all, have ever seen the dark side of the moon. For the rest of us, we see only the moon’s bright face as reflected by the sun’s light but the dark side is hidden; its fascination is in its mystery. It’s the same with celebrity icons. We are the sun, throwing forth our needs and dreams and marveling in all that is reflected back as talent, charisma, and inspiration. But what of the dark side? When mysteries are revealed, does brightness become garish and accomplishments tainted?

Consider John Lennon. He is the cultural icon who, as a member of the Beatles, wrote alone or with Paul McCartney the sound track of a generation that sincerely believed love could conquer all. As a solo artist, he wrote of peace with songs such as Imagine, and Give Peace a Chance. And yet, he was candid in admitting that as a young man he was engaged in numerous fights and physically assaulted women, including his first wife, Cynthia. He was an absentee father who all but ignored his son, Julian. His remarks to friends often crossed the line between witty and cruel. In an interview near the end of his life, he said that violent people are often those who most eagerly seek love and peace.

Do Lennon’s character flaws mean that we should dismiss his artistry and social activism? Can we appreciate the genius of his songs and respect his personal growth while knowing the dark side or can we never again really enjoy All You Need Is Love?

Martin Luther King was only 26 years old when he became the pastor of a Montgomery church. Within months he was the leader of a bus boycott that riveted the world in its brilliant use of non-violence to bring attention and change to the racial segregation that was unjust, illegal, and in violation of the ideals for which his country stood. King’s inspiring words and action led countless courageous people to risk physical beatings and arrest to stand for what was right in terms of racial equality, social justice, and the end of the war in Vietnam. But it was discovered that he had plagiarized his Ph.D. thesis. FBI wiretaps indicated that he associated with communists and that he regularly cheated on his wife.

Do King’s character flaws mean that we should dismiss his courage, goals, achievements, and the manner in which he inspired millions then and continues to inspire today?

And what of today’s celebrity icons? Do we need to know, or should we care, about Brad Pitt’s marriage or his relationship with his children or should we only concern ourselves with his acting talent and movies? Is the professional slice of Mr. Pitt’s life the only part about which we have a right to stand in judgment or, really, should know anything about? Should we care that Beyoncé recently had twins and displayed them in a tasteless photograph or do we only have a right to express an opinion about her music?

Those who fight for years to become famous are often blind to the irony of their wearing sunglasses in public while dodging photographers in a struggle for privacy. That, as John Lennon once said, seems as silly as trying to get famous in the first place. At the same time, the media, politicians, celebrities, and their handlers all profit from our voyeurism in our rampant violation of the privacy of people we only pretend to know. This is a carefully calculated, sad, and sordid game.

Perhaps we should refuse to play. We could steal the power of show business celebrities and the show business from politics by judging politicians only by their policies and artists only by their art. We could grow up a little. We could use our critical thinking to assess art we like and policies we support without poisoning our opinions with factors about which we have neither a right to know nor capacity to properly judge. We could stop seeking the dark side of the moon.

Take the one-month challenge. Shut off shows and ignore clicks and posts offering nothing but gossip. Ignore the show business of politicians and consider, for example, what policies President Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau have enacted or propose and whether they will make lives better or worse. Re-listen to Lennon and Beyoncé and like or don’t like them for the songs alone. Re-watch a Brad Pitt movie and listen to an old King speech on YouTube and then judge them by the performance and message alone.

The media and publicists will hate it. They lose money and influence when we refuse to play. The politicians will hate it. They lose the power to sway and distract when we concentrate only on legislative action. Some of us may hate it. We may cringe when recalling that the same morality that keeps us from sneaking a peek into our neighbour’s bedroom window at night should keep us from electronically peeking into the private lives of others. That’s okay. Sometimes what we hate at first is what makes us better.

Let’s surrender our desire to be the 16th astronaut. See you on the bright side. 

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com.  I will be taking a break from blogging for a spell in order to concentrate more fully on the writing of my next book. See you here again in the fall.

Lessons from the Moon and the Bridge

The Globe and Mail’s July 21, 1969, front page was intoxicating. Bold, green, three-inch high print announced MAN ON MOON. It reported 35,000 people breathlessly glued to a big TV screen in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square who cheered at 10:56 pm when Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module. Mayor Dennison delivered a brief speech calling it, “the greatest day in human history.” He may have been right. What he couldn’t know, and the Globe missed, were the important lessons contained in the paper that day, lessons that resonate today.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon

(Photo: thedailydigi.com)

The moon adventure was the culmination of an effort begun by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. He had just returned from meetings with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. While Kennedy negotiated, Khrushchev had hectored. Kennedy became convinced that the Cold War was about to turn hot.

Upon his return, he called a special meeting of Congress and asked for a whopping $1.6 billion increase in military aid for allies and $60 million to restructure the American military. He called for a tripling of civil defense spending to help Americans build bomb shelters for a nuclear holocaust that, he warned, was a real possibility. The president also said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” His popularity surged.

It was daring and presumptuous. The Soviets were far ahead of the United States in space exploration. But that day, and later, Kennedy expressed the courageous new effort in soaring rhetoric that appealed to America’s inspiring exceptionality and Cold War fears. When cheers arose from public squares and living rooms only seven years later and that night everyone instinctively looked up, it was the culmination of Kennedy’s dream for the world and challenge to America.

Kennedy did not micro-manage the NASA project. He set the vision and got out of the way. He did not badger the agency regarding tactics or berate it over temporary failures. He didn’t question the intelligence or patriotism of those who politically opposed his ambitious goal. Rather, he met with them, listened, and tried to convince them of the value of ambition. He gave NASA the money it needed then trusted the scientists and engineers to act as the professionals they were. His vision and leadership spurred the team and survived his death.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon.

(Photo: karmadecay.com)

The Globe and Mail’s July 21 front page declaring his vision’s realization did not mention President Kennedy. However, a smaller headline at the bottom noted, “Woman dies in crash, police seek to charge Kennedy.” The story explained that Senator Edward Kennedy, the president’s brother, would be prosecuted for leaving the scene of an accident.

On July 18, with the Apollo astronauts approaching the moon and their rendezvous with infamy, Senator Kennedy had attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island for six women and two men who had worked on his brother Bobby’s doomed 1968 presidential campaign. While driving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel, he took a wrong turn, then missed a slight curve on an unlit road and drove over a bridge and into eight feet of water.

Kennedy managed to escape the submerged car and later spoke of diving “seven or eight times” but failing to free Kopechne. He walked back to the party and was driven home. That night he consulted with advisors and then, eight hours after the accident, called the police. A coroner reported that an air pocket probably allowed Kopechne to survive for three or four hours before drowning. A quicker call for help, he concluded, would have saved her life.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon..

Car being pulled from river. Photo: www. www.latimes.com

In the 1990s, Edward Kennedy would become the “Lion of the Senate,” guardian of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and model for bi-partisanship. However, when he ran for his party’s nomination for president against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, many saw not a lion but liar and not a politician but playboy. Chappaquiddick appeared to reflect a belief that ethics, morality, and the rule of law applied only to others. Voters punished his conceit by withholding support.

It was all there in the Globe and Mail, nearly 50 years ago this week. We have the legacy of one brother who, despite his personal flaws, understood the nature, power, and potential of leadership. He knew what it took to be an effective president. And we have the other brother who seemed, at that point, to understand only the arrogance of privilege, the hubris to believe that he was above the law, ethics, morality, and decency. They are lessons of the moon and the bridge.

And now, as we cringe through our inability to tear ourselves from the tragedy unfolding in Washington, as we watch political leaders displaying the characteristics of one Kennedy brother or the other, we wonder if the lessons of the moon and bridge have been learned.

 

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Are We Consumers, Taxpayers, or Citizens?

From time to time, thoughtful people reflect on whether there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Introspection is important for ourselves and our relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues. It is important for the health of our democracy to also 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 take a trip to Disney World and 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 I-Phones and education. Everything is a commodity and so 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. We complain only when price does not match quality.

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 benefit and 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 society in which people are educated and healthy and so I may grumble from time to time but I pay my taxes that 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 at age 4. I benefit so I pay.

In his victory speech after winning the leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer said, “We are and always will be the party of prosperity not envy, the party that always represents taxpayers not connected Ottawa insiders.” With respect to a recent controversy he said, “As prime minister, I would have fought against this payout in court and made absolutely clear that taxpayers won’t be rewarding an admitted terrorist.” Are they mistakes, sloppy syntax, or a confession as to how Mr. Scheer sees us? Is that all we are to him: taxpayers? Are we not more than that? This has nothing to do with party, but perspective.

Are we citizens? Anyone can be a consumer because anyone can wander into a market and buy stuff. Anyone can be a taxpayer because anybody can be made to pay for stuff. Citizenship is more than both. It is a more noble concept. It derives from ideas born in ancient Greece. Citizenship suggests membership in something akin to belonging to a club or even, at its best, a family. It’s why we carry a membership card – a passport – sing the anthem, take pride in the flag, and celebrate our founding each July. Some of us are born into the family and others, after passing the muster of the gate keepers’ requirements, can join and become equal members. We can leave and live elswhere. In this way, citizenship is not about birth and blood but choice.

As with clubs and families, citizenship involves rights and responsibilities. The American Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms spell them out. They suggest that we not cherry pick but, as citizens, respect and live according to them all. Americans, for instance can’t stomp on the first amendment in their advocacy of the second. The American and Canadian Supreme Courts exist to remind us of that fact even if, occasionally, we and our governments are infuriated by their 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. Rallying us as consumers and calling us taxpayers cheapens 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 family. Our founders believed it was important and created a system based on our considering ourselves, and our leaders treating us, as citizens. Perhaps we should reflect the wisdom of those founders whether Sir John A. Macdonald or Thomas Jefferson and whether there is a 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 us. Let’s be aware of how others within our national family speak of themselves and the rest of us. If among the greatest gifts the ages have bestowed upon us is the concept of citizenship, then let us respect and protect it. I would rather live in a country than a mall.

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Lessons of the Bonsai

Ancient cultures are not dead. They are around and within us and offering lessons for those willing to listen. Indigenous cultures, for instance, are teaching us the power of community, environmental responsibility, circles, cultural approbation, collective responsibility, and resilience in the face of tragedy and overwhelming odds. Let us consider the lessons of the ancient Japanese culture: patience and simplification. The lessons lie in the bonsai.

The Japanese tradition of tending a bonsai tree has its origins in China and can be traced to around the year 1200. Buddhist monks began the practice of tending tiny trees as a reflection of their lives devoted to quiet, slow, gentleness, and spiritual contemplation. A seed was planted in a small container. As it grew, the sapling would be supported by string. The monk would imagine the shape of the tree that he wished to create and then nurture that part to grow while carefully pruning leaves and branches. The process would take years but slowly, as it was lovingly tended, the tree would develop into the shape imagined. The monk’s job would then be to maintain the shape by continuing to trim superfluous bits.

By the end of the 1300s, monks had taught the practice to Japanese rulers. By the 1800s, it had become a proud traditional among all Japanese people. Ironically, considering what was about to happen, just before the Second World War there was a burst of interest in Japanese culture, and the bonsai in particular, in Europe and North America. The World Bonsai Friendship Federation was inaugurated in 1980. It convenes enormously popular conventions every four years at cities around the world.

Lessons of the Bonsai

(Photo: Bonsai Tree Gardener)

As in the beginning, it’s really not about the tree. It’s about life. To create a fine one, one that brings joy and about which happiness and satisfaction can be felt, recall what you must do: imagine how you want it to be, nurture it, trim the superfluous bits.

Consider those parts of our lives that are merely habit – the superfluous bits – those that add no value, that distort it. They are misshaping our bonsai. Imagine the merit in trimming a few people, places, and experiences that really bring no joy. Picture living with fewer things that are really just clutter or stressful responsibilities. What happiness would come from reading a book, listening to or playing music, or spending time with a loved one rather than scanning a screen to perchance see and unconsciously judge or compare what someone else is up to.

I wish I had more wisdom to envision the shape and the courage to trim. Perhaps I am getting better at it. But then again, another essential aspect of the Japanese culture, and one shared with Indigenous cultures, is reverence for elders. Maybe, if I continue to work hard at remembering and recognizing what truly matters and trim all that does not, I will, someday, with the gift years allow, have the bonsai I’ve imagined. Someday. Good luck with your bonsai.

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Viagra, Frankenstein, and Us

In June 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband were enjoying a dinner party with a group of friends. They talked of books and poetry and swapped German ghost stories. The dinner led Shelley to write a short story that she later turned into her 1818 novel, Frankenstein. The book was a cautionary tale of a research scientist who successfully assembled a living being from corpses, only to have his creation turn on him and wreak havoc on the community. The book asks us to be aware of the Frankensteins of unintended consequences all around us. Let’s consider one.

Viagara and Frankenstein

One day in 1991, researchers working in England for the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, were taken by surprise. They had been toiling away to develop a chemical compound to treat heart problems. They had come up with Sildenafil. It looked promising but then, during clinical trials, older men who had been taking the compound reported rock-hard erections lasting more than an hour. Those in the placebo-taking control groups reported no such effects. The Pfizer heart research project took a quick turn. More tests were done, the discovery was deemed sound, and so a method of mass producing the compound as a pill in the proper dosage was quickly established. The research team had inadvertently invented Viagra.

Patents were obtained. Observers wryly noted the unusual lightning speed with which the predominately middle-aged men in charge of so many of the world’s government approval processes allowed the little blue pill to machete its way through red tape. Within six months of its American approval, in March 1998, 7 million prescriptions were written, rendering it the country’s most popular medication.

Viagara and Frankenstein2

Pfizer’s future changed and its stock and profits rose dramatically. Commercials changed acceptable public conversations by dragging discussions of impotence, or erectile dysfunction, as it was renamed, from the shadows. The research changed the lives of millions of men and couples for whom impotence had been a problem. All was well.

But then, retirement homes and senior-dominated communities began reporting skyrocketing numbers of cases of sexually transmitted diseases. Arizona’s Pima and Maricopa counties, for instance, have unusually large senior populations. From 2005 to 2009 the number of people older than 55 who contracted syphilis and chlamydia for the first time in their lives rose by 87%. As is the case with most corporate, applied research, Pfizer never released the names of those who created Viagra so we don’t know their reaction to the good and bad changes their work brought about. But Mary Shelley would have smiled.

What other research and inventions bring about Frankenstein change? What small decisions have we made in our lives, that ended up big ones in disguise, put us on roads we had hoped to never travel? How many political decisions made for expedient or partisan reasons have helped some but hurt many? Can we rise up as the torch-bearing villagers did in Shelly’s novel and defeat our Frankensteins? Let’s first identify them in our lives and our communities. Then, let’s light the torches.

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