John Prine: A Minstrel’s Death

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

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

John Prine

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

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

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

Judy Rebick – A Woman of Courage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judy Rebick

(Photo: The Globe and Mail)

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

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

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

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

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

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Edith Clayton: Weaving Memory

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

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

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

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

Edith 2

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

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

Edith 1

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

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

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

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Wexit: The Fight for Canada

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

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

 

Wexit

(Photo: Global News)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prince of an Idea

(Prince Andrew Duke of York – photo: BBC)

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

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

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

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

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

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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