And Then I Was Tear-Gassed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Then I Was Teargassed

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

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

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

The Written and Understood

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

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

Written and Understood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Something in Something So Big

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

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

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

William St Concert

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

William St 2

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

We’re Trapped in the Power of Three

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

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

Power of Three

Triquetra Symbol

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

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

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

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

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The Trudeau and Trump Memorials

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

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

Trum and Trudeau        Trump and Trudeau 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump and Trudeau 3

Washington as Roman Emperor   

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

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

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

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

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John Prine: A Minstrel’s Death

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

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

John Prine

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

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

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

Judy Rebick – A Woman of Courage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judy Rebick

(Photo: The Globe and Mail)

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

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

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

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

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

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Edith Clayton: Weaving Memory

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

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

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

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

Edith 2

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

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

Edith 1

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

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

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

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Wexit: The Fight for Canada

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

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

 

Wexit

(Photo: Global News)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(If you enjoyed this, please consider sharing it with others and checking out my other work at johnboyko.com)

 

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

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

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

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

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

Prince of an Idea

(Prince Andrew Duke of York – photo: BBC)

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

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

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

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

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

Dance for Diabetes Cure

Six years ago, my granddaughter, Kenzie, was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes. It was heartbreaking. From that day forward, her life has depended upon meticulously monitoring everything she does and every single thing she eats and drinks and then taking on sugar and carbohydrates or injecting the proper dosage of insulin to compensate. She will do so every moment of every day for the rest of her life.

Type-2 diabetes is caused by lifestyle decisions such as a bad diet and insufficient exercise. Most contract it as adults. No one knows, however, what causes a child’s body to suddenly kill cells in the pancreas that destroy its ability to manufacture insulin. Between 2001 and 2009, the incidence of Canadian children under 19 falling prey to Type-1 diabetes has increased by 21%. The cost for Canadian taxpayers is $16.9 billion. We are in a silent crisis.

Kenzie is now 11 years old. She is a healthy, happy little girl who enjoys hockey, soccer, and horseback riding, plays the trombone, and, due to years of French immersion, is fluently bilingual. I am exceptionally proud of her and of the fact that she has steadfastly refused to allow diabetes to restrict or define her.

Kenzie has worked to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). For over 40 years, the JDRF has led research in Canada and coordinated with efforts around the world to help those living with type-1 to lead healthy normal lives through developing new technologies and, ultimately, to find a cure.  Kenzie has worked to support the JDRF. She has raised funds through her participation in JDRF Walks for the Cure in Peterborough and Toronto. She raised more through running a race on Ottawa’s Marathon weekend. Kenzie has organized and run JDRF pop-up lemonade stands. She has been interviewed by local media and on a national CBC Radio program. And now, she is helping to organize a fund-raising dance.

On Saturday, November 2, at Lakefield, Ontario’s Royal Canadian Legion, Kenzie will speak at a dance at which people in her community will gather to enjoy an evening of music and fun while raising money and awareness of Type-1 diabetes. Kenzie is doing what she can to live a normal healthy life and helping others with Type-1 to do the same. I am proud of her. I am proud to help her in her efforts to help others.

Please click below if you wish to donate to this worthy cause:

https://jdrfca.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.personalCampaign&participantID=352366

Community Dance for Type 1 Diabetes Research - November 2, 2019 copy

 

 

 

We Need More Ireland

Canada is home. I have enjoyed time in a number of countries but for years was comfortable in my conviction that there is no other in which I would be happy. That no longer holds. Having just returned from twenty days in Ireland, I now have a second country where, if for some reason I was deported, I could quite happily resettle. My wife and I travelled with two other couples, met another friend there, rented cars, and stayed at tremendous Airbnb houses.

We avoided much time in cities and tourist spots, shopped markets for food, wandered small towns and villages, drove the countryside often somewhat lost and exploring, and enjoyed local pubs. I fell in love with the place. It has to do with the intersection of the physical and historical.

The physical begins with the roads – they’re nuts. Getting used to driving on the left and shifting with the left hand comes quickly enough but once outside of Dublin the roads become narrow and curvy goat paths. Every tiny, shoulder-less road is flanked by stone walls making it impossible to give way when a car is approaching. Each encounter with an oncoming vehicle brings heart-to-throat with the screaming imminence of a side-scraping incident or head-on collision. I felt myself involuntarily inhaling to shrink thinner as each vehicle whizzed past with my left mirror skimming the wall and the other narrowly missing his. Every passing was an adventure with many of the insanely blind and tight turns bringing audible gasps.

But then I got it. I relaxed. The speed limit signs are wry jokes. The roads are meant to slow you down. They are a reminder of a gentler then and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the frantic now. The roads remind you that the journey is as important as the destination.

The valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. There is tranquillity in a horizon so distant and shades of green so endless. There is perspective in the walls, stone buildings, churches, and castles constructed hundreds, or in many cases, thousands of years ago. Enormous cliffs and sweeping empty beaches welcome the Atlantic’s cascading waves with a rhythmic reminder that they were there long before us and will be there long after we’re gone; sparing nary a thought for our piddling worries and trifling foibles.

Irish Eyes...

Like the physical, the historical is everywhere. The Irish do not hide and deny their history like Canadians or bleach and commercialize it like Americans – they live it. We visited three memorials to the 19th-century famine that killed thousands and sent millions abroad in a diaspora that changed Ireland and the face and culture of many nations. The blunt and honest memorials spoke of tragedy and loss and hinted, some rather directly, of the damn English landlords who swept the suffering from the land and the damn English government that offered scant help for the starving who remained.

Irish Eyes

We visited Michael Collin’s grave. Collins was the West-Cork rabble-rouser who was jailed for his role in the 1916 Rising and then became a guerrilla fighter, leading the fight for Irish independence. After negotiating a treaty that allowed the Protestant north to become a separate country and the Catholic south to declare itself the Irish Free State, he was assassinated in the subsequent civil war.

Irish Eyes.

The visits added a great deal to books that I had read in advance and the biography of Collins that I read when there. Together, they revealed the major themes of Irish history that I came to know better as I watched, listened, and eavesdropped: tragedy, resilience, strength, pride, humour, community, and the long-held, deep-seated desire to be left alone.

Like every nation’s history, it is lived not just in what they choose to memorialize, buildings they chose to preserve or tear down, and the roads they refuse to straighten. It is more subtly revealed in how people treat each other, relate to each other and strangers, and in song. History is alive in the pubs. The made-for-tourist pubs in Dublin’s Temple Bar district are okay but the tiny pubs in tiny towns are magical. In Sneem, for instance, population 850, the young barmaid told me there were six pubs and believed I was having her on when I said that my village of 2,400 has only two.

Irish pubs are small, low-ceilinged, wooden, with tilting floors and doors that no longer hang quite right. They smell of the decades when smoking was fine, of generations of patrons packed shoulder to shoulder, and of oceans of poured pints. Did you know it takes 119.5 seconds to pour a perfect Guinness? Signs indicate that the local was established in 1812 or 1759. There are no drunks. Locals gather to tip a pint, yes, but is more about coming together. The pub is their communal living room. A few folks bring a fiddle, concertina, accordion, flute, or bodhran. They sit in a circle, not on a stage but around a table and somehow without discussing the tune or key, play one lively song after another. From time to time it’s everyone else’s turn. The players stop and the pub falls silent when a person stands to sing. A funny, bawdy song or, more often, a long and forlorn ballad about heartbreak and loss fills the pub and hearts. And there, in sad and happy songs, the playing not by professionals but fun-loving neighbours, and in the laughter and stories and tippling together is betrayed the history that defines the culture that fills the spirit.

Irish Eyes....

I love Ireland. I love the stunning views. I love the heartfelt music. I love that when ordering a pint, the barman or barmaid stays to chat. We were not customers but new folks to meet. I love the smiles that come quickly and often, the gentle sarcasm, hilarious slang, and ribbing that simply disallows arrogance or pretention. I even grew to love the crazy roads.

Canada is great. But we could use more Ireland.

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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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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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