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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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

 

 

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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What I’ve Learned About Being an Author

My first book was published a number of years ago and I am now working on what will be my eighth. I’ve seen a lot of changes in the publishing industry over that time but the most essential element remains the same as it’s been since Gutenberg invented the printing press. An author sits alone with the seed of an idea and a reader sits alone enjoying the fruit of that idea. It’s only the middle bit between those solitary acts that has changed. Here’s what I have learned.

  1. Write

If you want to write, then go ahead. It’s like Yoda said, “No try, do. Do or don’t do. No try.” There are many ways to get started and the easiest is to set up a free WordPress webpage and begin blogging. Write about what you know. Develop a theme. Forget how many people click to read it, that’s not what it’s about.

You are writing not as a sprinter on race day but a marathoner in training. Build writing muscles and skills by using them. Read authors you admire. Then read those you don’t. Treat them as teachers. Then write more. Someone who is not writing is not a writer. They are someone who either has written or someone with a dream but no plan.

All I've Learned About Being an Author

(Iconix Brand Group Inc)

  1. Printing and Self-Publishing

Printing is often all many people want. For example, if you want to write a history of your family that no one but your family will probably read then find yourself a printer. They will help design, and then print and bind as many copies as you wish of whatever you give them. Be sure you have at least five people proof-read your work or even hire a professional editor to save yourself the embarrassment of errors that will live longer than you.

Self-publishing is becoming increasingly prevalent. It’s tough as you must essentially become your own publishing company. It demands a lot of work which means hours away from your writing. However, if willing and able to take the risk and do the work, the reward could be your book appearing on Amazon and other online sites and generating sales.

  1. Publishing Houses

Publishing houses understand that they are making art and making money but if they don’t do both then they can’t do either. Accept that. Many small houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts – over the transom, as the saying goes. Larger houses, and there are fewer of them as they have been shuttering or swallowing each other, will only accept manuscripts from agents. Agents and houses will not be interested in a whole book, just a proposal.

  1. Proposal

If you want to write a book, then don’t write a book. That is, develop your idea for a book into a proposal for a book. It is a two-page sales pitch. Be succinct in explaining why anyone would want to read your book and why a publisher will make money by publishing it. A novel’s proposal is more straight forward but a non-fiction proposal’s subtitles could be: Elevator Pitch, Argument, Market, Author, Table of Contents. If you are a first-time author you will probably also need a sample chapter. Have a couple of people read and edit your proposal. Be sure it is not someone who loves you or will not be harshly critical for you want unburnished opinions now, not later. Then find yourself an agent.

  1. Get an Agent

Scan the web and you will find lots of agents. Or, go to a bookstore, if you can still find one, and look at the acknowledgement pages of books like yours and see which agents are being thanked. You only want to approach an agent who specializes in your kind of book. An agent is the liaison between you and the publisher. If your proposal is any good, an agent may take you on as a client. A contract will be signed in which the agent will get around 15% of everything you make.

She will then be like your best friend, supporting you or kicking your backside depending on which you need most at the moment. She will help to hone your proposal and make it better than you thought it could be. She will then approach publishers attempting to have them take it on. She will negotiate an advance on royalties and contract with them. Meanwhile, you concentrate on your writing.

  1. The Publishing Contract

Famous people sell a lot of books and so they get huge advances that can sometimes be in the millions of dollars. First-time authors, however, can expect between $5,000 and $20,000. You should not get too excited, though, because the money is there to pay for expenses incurred while writing the book and it is later deducted from royalties earned from sales. Most authors will earn from 8% to 12% of the book’s sale price. The contract will establish when the finished draft manuscript must be submitted. Now you must actually write the thing.

  1. Writing

There is always time. I am up and writing each day at 5:00 am. The sane world is still asleep so there are no emails or calls, just me, tea, and the muse. Even if the muse doesn’t show up some mornings, I am there doing what feels like a punch-the-clock effort but at least I’m there. I run and take long walks without music and it is there the real writing takes place. When in my office, I am usually just typing what I have already written in my head. The best secret as to how to get words on a page is to get your ass in a chair.

  1. Editing

Kurt Vonnegut once told students that anyone can write. To be a writer, though, is to write something then rewrite it, and then rewrite it, and then re-write it again. Then, when it is absolutely perfect, re-write it three more times. You should do this before submitting the manuscript. When you do, you will be assigned an editor. This is your other best friend or perhaps like your best high school teacher. He will take your manuscript and mark it up noting where the structure should be improved or grammar fixed. You will go back and forth a number of times until finally, you are on the phone or in an office going through the entire manuscript one sentence at a time. It will then be sent to a proofreader who will, hopefully, find all the little mistakes left for you to fix.

  1. The Box

It’s a glorious feeling. A box will arrive at your front door and inside are the dozen or so books that your publisher sends you for free. There it is. After two or three years of solitary work and then months of editing it is finally a tangible thing. The verb has become a noun as your writing is a book.

  1. Marketing

Your publisher will assign a publicist. She will do all she can to sell you and the book. You may be interviewed on radio or TV, do speeches, or appear at literary festivals. You must be ready to explain your book in twenty seconds, or ten minutes, or an hour. You must never be ashamed by shameless promotion. You are no longer in the business of writing. You are now in sales. This will involve your engagement in social media for you must take on a lot of the marketing work yourself.

You will need to grow the hide of a rhinoceros because there will be those who will not like your book. You may get trashed in a review. You may have no one show up for an event. Your book may be ignored altogether. All you can do is your best and keep smiling.

  1. Dividing Your Brain and Time

Usually, several months or even a year may go by between your having submitted the final draft manuscript and the publication date. While editing that one, you will be writing your next one, beginning with the idea and proposal. You will then be in the odd position of talking about your first book while all your brain really wants to focus on is your next one because your first one, to you, is already two or more years old. It’s an interesting dance.

  1. Sales

About five to ten years ago, it was predicted that book sales would plummet. They did not. There are actually more people buying and reading books today than ever before. Even the sales of physical books have become relatively stable year to year. Even if physical and e-book sales are combined, the sales of nearly all books are relatively low. There are only a few Harry Potter like hits each year. They allow publishing houses to publish all the others. One can have a Canadian best seller at 6,000 – 8,000 copies. That is why nearly all writers have other jobs. Most teach or are journalists but there are a lot of writing waiters.

Like in the music business, there are a lot of people doing it but only a few making a good living. That said, if all you are interested in is the money then forget it. You probably won’t make much and you will probably not be much good because you are in it for entirely the wrong reason.

And so….

Writers understand and live for the warmth of a well-written sentence and cogently constructed argument. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are writing in July about a winter scene and then after an hour lost in creative thought you look out the window and wonder what happened to all the snow. Good luck. I’m pulling for you.

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Are We The 5-Year-Old Us?

I am currently reading Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye. It’s the latest of many I have read about the man who was a childhood hero of mine and for whom I still have a great deal of respect. Among the things Kennedy taught me, when my Mom used to say was too young to be thinking about such things, was existentialism. He spoke of being one and so I looked it up and thought it was a tremendous philosophy. I told myself that I was one too. An essential notion is that we are in control of our own destiny and able to create and recreate ourselves regardless of both nature and nurture. This new book, which is very good by the way, had me thinking about that notion again. But it also reminded me of an event whose anniversary is approaching that made me wonder if I should throw existentialism into the ditch. It involved a report card.

You see, about this time last year, my three younger brothers and I were cleaning out my father’s house. My Mom had been gone for some time and it was time for my Dad to be where he could be happier, healthier, and safer. So there were with a dumpster in the driveway, in what had been our home but had suddenly become just a house. What had been family treasures was bothersome stuff. “Why take this,” my one brother said, “only to have my son throw it out thirty years from now?” He was right. Furniture and kitchenware went to a Syrian refugee family and more went to local charity re-use centre, but a lot was going straight into the steel bin of sin. But then we were stopped cold.

My Mom had saved a box full of our old report cards. We stood together, laughing as we read comments from the days when teachers were allowed to be honest and communicate in English. I found my kindergarten final report card which said, “Johnny likes to sing songs and write stories.” Well, so much for Bobby Kennedy and existentialism.

I still like to sing songs. I learned to play guitar when I was nine and sang in a band in high school, then in coffee houses and bars with a friend and later alone. I recorded three songs that I had written as singles and still write a song every month or so to prove to myself that I still can. I play in a little band. We love working out new songs and playing the occasional gig. It is a rare day that I do not pick up the guitar and enjoy time singing and playing; it slows me down and slow is good.

I still like to write stories. I am writing one now. I also write newspaper editorials, magazine articles, book reviews, entries in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and am now writing my eighth book. There is a warm satisfaction earned by composing a well-constructed sentence or in weaving a lucid argument. The muse can occasionally be kind.

So the report card led me to wonder if I have really been living the existential life that I thought I had been living for all these years. Have I really been rediscovering and reinventing myself or was I set at kindergarten?

Consider yourself at age 5 and whether you are significantly different now. How have you changed, or not changed, since high school? When together with old friends, is everyone looking a little older but essentially the same? I wonder if despite the buffeting winds of change, the moments of celebration and chagrin, and the years that colour our hair and idealism, whether we are really that different than the five-year-old us?

Bobby Kennedy was assassinated 49 years ago last week at age 49. It was just weeks before he would have won the Democratic Party’s nomination and gone on to defeat Richard Nixon to become president in January 1969. Think about that. Vietnam would have ended earlier with thousands of lives spared. There would have been no Watergate. He most likely would have been president until 1976. God, he may have even stopped disco – ok, perhaps I’m stretching it.

Robert Kennedy

The point is, that if Kennedy had lived then policies would have been different, the media would have been different, America and the world would have been different and, perhaps most significantly of all, we may have been spared the cynicism born of his having been killed so shortly after his brother and Martin Luther King. The existentialism in which he believed would have been writ large through his example and legacy.

Of course, last year I would have still found the old report card that inspired both a smile and furrowed brow. Even Bobby Kennedy could not have changed that.

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Power Where it Belongs

Canada is a conversation. When confronting troubles visited upon us, or of our own making, Canadians reach not for a gun but a gavel. We talk it out. Every leadership race and election, every new bill, public initiative or staggering crisis, and every table pounding in the House of Commons or at the local Tim Hortons is another element of that conversation. And when we’re talking, we’re always talking about power. So, let’s talk.

Political power touches us all. Positively expressed, it offers a vehicle through which we are collectively encouraged and enabled to act for the common good. Power matters, and so it matters who has it.

Our founders understood. In 1864, they met in Charlottetown and Quebec City and talked their way into the creation of a country. From Britain came the concepts of a limited monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From the United States, they took the ideas of a written constitution and a federal state, in Canada’s case one composed of a central government and provinces. This is where the real talking about power began.

Power and Sir John's Echo

Sir John A. Macdonald led the way in arguing that while the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the fact that the United States was, at that moment, butchering itself in the Civil War demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. Seeing this, the Canadian Confederation delegates decided to stand the American system on its head. Macdonald explained that Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”

The provinces were given only municipal-like areas of responsibility and a limited ability to raise revenue. The federal government, on the other hand, was afforded the major powers relating to sovereignty, including trade, the military, the post office, criminal law, currency and banking. Unlike in the United States, where, until 1913, the states appointed senators, in Canada the prime minister was given the power to populate the country’s Senate. The prime minister would also appoint the lieutenant-governors, who approved provincial bills while sending questionable ones to the federal cabinet, which could disallow them. It was decided that responsibility for anything the Constitution left out or that came up later, such as airports, would go automatically to the federal government.

Throughout Canada’s 150-year conversation, provinces have worked to overturn our founders’ vision and shift power to themselves. An example is the decades-long provincial demand for greater power that sabotaged repeated federal efforts to earn greater independence for the country by gaining control of our Constitution. In standing up for what they believed was best for their province, too many premiers betrayed and undermined the very concept of Canada while dividing Canadians against themselves.

This is not to say that premiers are not patriots and provinces don’t matter. Of course they are and of course they do. But it was successive federal governments that fought to maintain our founders’ vision. Provinces were cajoled and dragged along as the federal government led the building of Canada through projects such as the transcontinental railway, St. Lawrence Seaway and the Trans-Canada Highway. The federal government needled, nudged and negotiated for Canadians in creating national policies such as pensions and health care. Federal governments rallied our response to emergencies such as global wars, the Great Depression and the FLQ crisis. The federal government spoke for Canadian values whether reflected as peacekeepers or climate-change leaders.

Some federal leaders have made boneheaded mistakes and some perpetrated tragic policies. Macdonald himself can never be forgiven for the crimes he committed with respect to indigenous people. Those actions condemn the men not the structure from which they worked.

Let us move to the present. Ignore whether you like or dislike our current Prime Minister or his policies, but grant that his Canadian tour last spring indicated his understanding that this country is indeed a conversation. He is also demonstrating that he is the personification of Sir John’s vision. He gathered the premiers and then led the revamping of pensions, unemployment insurance and health care. He told the provinces that we will combat climate change as a country and that they will step in line. His government organized a national emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfires.

We have been at our best when the power that our founders afforded the federal government was effectively employed. We have gone off the rails when firewall letters, referendums and power squabbles have attempted to distort that vision. We are better when we consider ourselves not as of a particular province but, more broadly, as Canadians first, stronger in the complexity of our citizenship.

Every time you hear our Prime Minister speak, listen carefully for a hint of a Scottish burr, for you’re hearing Sir John’s echo.

If you liked this column or disagree with it, please send it to others and consider leaving a comment. You see, the Globe and Mail posted it last week as an opinion piece and it sparked debate then. It is a summary of my latest book, Sir John’s Echo, which Dundurn Press asked me to write, urging me to stir debate as part of Canada 150. It has been doing so. The book is available at book stores or online through Chapters, Amazon, and elsewhere. Polite, informed debate is good, it’s our conversaion.

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/sir-johns-echo-speaking-for/9781459738157-item.html

 

 

Thanking the River and More

I don’t know about you, but I always just skim a book’s acknowledgments. They are usually akin to a bad Oscar speech: a list of names of people I don’t know. My latest book, Sir John’s Echo: The Voice for a Stronger Canada, was released last weekend. It’s my seventh book and this time I tried something a little different for my acknowledgments. I thanked some folks, of course, but also tried to consider what really inspired me to write. Let me know what you think.

Acknowledgments: Sir John’s Echo

Dividing and defining our Village is a river that, as Lakefield resident Margaret Laurence once observed, runs both ways. It does, you know. It really does. It is on long, slow runs along the river that I wrote this book. Oh, certainly I typed it in my office but the genuine work, the tumbling and juggling of ideas, the real stuff of writing, came accompanied by the falling of footsteps and washing of water.

And so, odd as it may seem, I would like to acknowledge and thank the river for its uncaring but profound inspiration. It reminded me that somewhere beneath its gently flowing surface, at the heart of its magic, hides the metaphor for our country. The truth and what truly matters lay not in the surface sparkles, gleaming as diamonds in the sun, but with the rocks and roots and weeds below that roil all above, offering resistance and form.

The river urged me to take a broader view, to consider more expansive ideas, deeper concepts, and to think not of passing fads and fancies that capture clicks and headlines but what really matters. Power. The power to shape, inspire, speed up or slow down, to move while lifting or, sometimes, pulling below.

That’s what this book is all about. Power. It’s the power of perpetual motion, of rugged beauty and gentle grace lying comfortably with the awful potential to direct or destroy. That is the river’s power. That is Canada’s power. That is the power we owe ourselves to contemplate; relentless power that moves even when we don’t notice, while we sleep, flexed and expressed and occasionally challenged, and while appearing to be heading in one direction in a natural, linear fashion, sometimes, flows both ways.  I thank the river for encouraging my contemplation so that I might invite yours.

And what of Margaret Laurence? I thank her for being among those who taught me a love of words and a respect for the power of ideas powerfully expressed. There were others: Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Kurt Vonnegut, John Ralston Saul, John Prine, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote, Gwynne Dyer, Paul Simon, and John W. Boyko, Sr. I thank them all.

This book began with a conversation between Patrick Boyer, Steve Paikin, and me – three men insatiably entranced by books, politics, ideas, and Canada. Patrick invited me to contribute a book to Dundurn’s Point of View series as part of the commemoration of Canada’s 150th birthday. Make it controversial, Patrick urged, stir readers’ passions and propose notions to spark debate. Thank you, Patrick, for inviting and trusting me to write and for your valuable suggestions on an early draft. I hope I have not let you down.

Sir John's Echo

Thank you to the Dundurn team who embraced me so thoughtfully and supported me so professionally. I am grateful for the vision of president and publisher Kirk Howard, and for the editorial skills of Dominic Farrell, Cheryl Hawley, and Michael Carroll. I thank the talented Lawrence Martin for his constructive suggestions and fine forward.

This is my seventh book and I have lost count of the number of editorials, articles, and blog posts I have written. My dear wife Sue has read and edited every word. She brings to all I do an unparalleled editorial precision and skill and sense of when something is going on a little too long or needs to be fleshed out. She knows what it is about my work that works, and doesn’t. Her kindness, care, tenderness, wit, and love, makes all I do better, possible, and worthwhile.

I am grateful to Craig Pyette and Ann Collins of Penguin Random House Knopf who lent me to Dundurn for this project and to my literary agent Daphne Hart who encouraged me.

Being a father is one thing but being a grandfather is something else altogether. Grandchildren teach you to love all over again. Without trying, my two sweet granddaughters remind me of all that truly matters, including the country in which they will be making their lives. Canada was not inevitable and is not immutable. All that is great about it, from its stunning physical beauty to the strength and marvel of its complexity, must be not just celebrated but protected. You won’t protect what you don’t love and can’t protect what you don’t understand. Without understanding, we can sing about standing on guard but not really do the deed. It is the future of my grandchildren, and yours, even if you don’t yet know them, that renders the striving to understand, in order to protect what is worth protecting, worth the effort. I thank my grandchildren for inspiring my contemplation of the home they deserve.

Thank you for reading my thank yous. Please share them with others if you wish. I am now on the road promoting Sir John’s Echo, doing TV, radio, and print interviews, as well as speeches. It is the business part of the book business. I’m also hard at work on my 8th book. Writing is fun.

 

 

Rule One at the Men’s Book Club

I have always loved reading. I recall my Mom telling me to put the book down and go outside and play, and my sneaking it out with me. I was an active, sports-loving kid but she later told me that, despite being a voracious reader herself, she was sincerely worried about me reading so much. My first job was delivering 139 Burlington Post newspapers every Wednesday for which I was paid $1.39. (It was a while ago.) I used to save up, and every two weeks buy a bottle of coke and Hardy Boys book. It is my fascination with reading and books that led to my becoming a writer and, lately, to forming the Men’s Book Club.

I have always liked the idea of book clubs. To get together once a month to discuss a book seems like a grand idea. My dear wife belongs to a book club. I see her reading away, we talk about her current project, and she always arrives home from her book club meeting invigorated by the discussion; whether she particularly liked the book or not. But there were a few problems, in my estimation, with most book clubs. Around here, anyway, they involve only women, hosting meetings at your home with carefully considered drinks and snacks, and the reading of novels. The first left me out and the next two left me cold.

I spoke with a number of men in my Village who felt the same way. Hosting seemed like too much work and we agreed that we are fundamentally lazy. Like me, they read ten non-fiction books for every novel. Don’t get me wrong. I think novels are important and great and there have been many that I have truly enjoyed – springing to mind are The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Lottery, and my John Grisham junk food. But non-fiction is different. Non-fiction books feed my insatiable curiosity. To me, non-fiction books are like speaking with the smartest people around about the most fascinating events, people, and places. Others agreed and so we made a decision.

Rule One at the Men's Book Club

(Photo: www.123rf.com)

Our first Men’s Book Club met in February. Eleven showed up. We met at our local pub, the Canoe and Paddle, on a Sunday evening. No one had to tidy up their house and if you wanted something to eat or drink, the bar was right there. (We agreed that if there is beer involved, men will do just about anything, even read.)

After the pints arrived, we discussed the rules we should play by and it was established that the first rule of book club was that there were no rules. Perfect. Our second decision built on the first. Instead of us all reading the same book each month, we established themes. Our first month would be music, then the environment, and then, for the 100th commemoration of Vimy Ridge, war. Near the end, one gentleman said that he loved the idea of meeting for beer and chatting once a month but wondered if he really had to read a book. He was referred to rule one.

Our first Monday in March meeting was terrific. I had enjoyed Robbie Robertson’s Testimony. Others read books about or by Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, Bruce Coburn, Sting, and more. It was fascinating to learn how many talented singers and songwriters came from parents either physically or emotionally absent or abusive. It was revealing to see how long and hard they had all worked to become successful. It was also interesting to see that behind the sensitive lyrics, some are not really nice people. We wouldn’t have been able to make the connections if we’d all read the same book.

For our next meeting, I am now reading Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders. It is not really about the environment. It’s more cultural anthropology. But it’s close enough to the theme. If anyone complains, I’ll refer them to rule one.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking more at http://www.johboyko.com or even some of my non-fiction books, available online through Chapters and Amazon and, as Stuart McLean used to say, at sensible book stores everywhere. (Miss you Stuart.)

 

The Woman Who Changed the World

The crowd hushed, cameras snapped, and Senators sat respectfully still as the slight, pale woman limped slowly to the big table then, painfully, took her seat. It was June 4 1963, and Rachel Carson was 56 but looked much older. She was dying. Cancer had fractured her pelvis, taken a breast and, hidden by a dark wig, her hair.

Carson had worked as a United States Fish and Wildlife Service marine biologist and written articles for a number of magazines. She had turned her love of the sea and outrage with what was happening to rivers, lakes, and oceans into three best-selling books: The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea-Wind, and The Sea Around Us. Each presented disturbing ideas and scientifically sophisticated arguments without jargon, preaching, or rancour. She married her knowledge, passion, and writing and investigative skills in the creation her next book: Silent Spring.

While researching the book, Carson had served on the Natural Resources Committee of the Democratic Advisory Council where she became aware of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy having initiated the Cape Cod National Seashore Act. Kennedy had read her books on the sea and then the committee report and so when he sought his party’s nomination for president, he invited Carson to join the Women’s Committee for New Frontiers.

rachelcarson

Photo: Rachel Carson Council

As president, Kennedy read Silent Spring pre-publication excerpts in the New Yorker magazine. He was moved by Carson’s detailing the devastating effects of pesticide use on animal and human health and invited her to attend a White House conference on conservation. The conference led to Kennedy announcing that, because of Carson’s work, he was ordering the Department of Agriculture and the Public Health Service to investigate the dangers of pesticide use and the establishment of the President’s Science Advisory Committee to study links between pesticides and health.

Silent Spring became an instant bestseller when published in September 1962. It explained how pesticides, and specifically DDT, had been around since 1874. The American army had used DDT in both world wars to delouse soldiers and that Paul Hermann Müller had won the 1948 Nobel Prize for determining its effectiveness in killing mosquitoes and other pests. Carson’s book explained how DDT was also killing fish, birds, and people. Her title warned of the day that birds would be gone and skies without song. Most shockingly, Silent Spring told of how the government, scientific community, and the companies making and selling pesticides knew of their harmful effects. But there was money to be made. And so, the evidence was ignored, hidden, and denied. Carson asked an essential question: “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the whole environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

silent-spring

Pesticide manufacturing companies Cyanamid, Monsanto, and Velsical were outraged. They attacked. Velsical threatened to sue Carson, her publisher, and the New Yorker. They even tried to stop the publication of an article about the book in the Audubon magazine. The companies paid scientists to write editorials and articles that belittled Carson and her conclusions. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association published a booklet, Fact and Fancy, that savaged Kennedy and Carson. It was argued that Americans would suffer a food shortage without DDT.

In May 1963, the President’s Science Advisory Committee released a 46-page report, Use of Pesticides. With point after well-supported point, it said the companies were wrong and Carson was right. It stated, “Until the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides…The Government should present this information to the public in a way that will make it aware of the dangers while recognizing the value of pesticides.”

A month later, as part of that public education process, the sick, fragile, and wan Carson took her seat before the Senate subcommittee. She briefly summarized Silent Spring’s findings and then listed specific recommendations. The government should ban aerial spraying without the permission of landowners. Citizens should enjoy guaranteed security against poisons used by companies, governments, and private individuals. Corporations making pesticides, and all those using them, should be strictly regulated. She advocated the outright banning of DDT. The government should fund and support grass roots citizen organizations and non-government organizations to encourage awareness of environmental issues.

The environmental movement was born. American companies sold 90,000 tonnes of DDT in 1963 but production decreased the next year and every year after that. It took a while, but in 1972, American DDT production was banned. Carson’s name was raised and Silent Spring was read by those advocating and then celebrating President Nixon’s Clean Air and Water Acts, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and, in 1970, his establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In his 1996 book, Our Stolen Future, Dr. Theo Colborn wrote about chemicals that interfere with our body’s hormonal system called endocrine disrupters. He credits Silent Spring with awakening him and other scientists and researchers to the dangers of manmade chemicals and noted how it was still inspiring discoveries and environmental advocacy.

Breast cancer took Rachel Carson in 1964. But her voice still echoes for Silent Spring is still read. It still inspires. It still exasperates.Silent Spring is still discussed around the world every Earth Day.

Books that matter always educate and infuriate and important authors, like important ideas, are always ignored, then mocked, then attacked, and, in time, celebrated. Books measure how far we have come and how far remains to go. As the American government appears ready to deregulate corporations and eviscerate environmental regulations, and women are leading the charge to fight the turning back of the clock on this and other issues, perhaps Silent Spring is more important now than ever.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped change the world. It may need to change it again.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com

 

 

 

 

A Nation of Festivals Making Us Better

We are a nation of festivals. There are film festivals, poetry festivals, rib festivals, art festivals, and every conceivable genre of music festivals. They are fascinating in like a conch blowing silently but convincingly through the ether they gather those of similar interests to form a temporary community. Festivals offer revelry in the acknowledgement that our particular passion is shared. My favourite are literary festivals. They intrigue me because they shouldn’t work.

Canadians read. Canadians read more books per capita than nearly anyone. A lot of folks enjoy books on tablets but most are sticking with the physical kind, the kind you can hold, smell, feel the joy of cracking for the first time, hold in bed without hurting your eyes, drop without breaking, and then shelve as a friend to share your home. Ok, I’m biased.

Canadians write. A generalization that is generally true is that all novels ask the question, “Who am I?” and all non-fiction asks “Who are we?” That Canada is blessed with so many talented writers asking both questions and so many readers reading all that stuff it is little wonder that we always seem to be in a state of existential angst and renewal. That’s a good thing. A reactive society is one of division and anger but a reflective society enjoys more consideration and compassion. Is this Trump versus Trudeau? Maybe that we read so much leads to our fighting so little.

The thing is, though, and the source of my fascination with writing festivals is that both writing and reading are solitary pursuits. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are typing away in your office in July about a winter scene and look up and out the window and wonder where the snow went. As an author, I know that feeling. Writing my history books often transports me back to the era that I am investigating and I quite honestly sometimes have trouble getting all the way back. I’m alone in my research. I’m alone in my writing.

But then, whatever I have written is released to the world. It is like I watch a young bird leave the nest. I wish it well. I always know some will like it. I always know some will attack it. I always hope the world will not just ignore it. It is up to the readers. Readers, of course, then buy what writers have spent so many hours silent and alone creating and devote more hours silent and alone to absorbing. Watch someone reading. They are not really there. They’ve been transported. Books are conduits of ideas from one solitary person to another.

The notion of two solitary experiences coming together for a community group hug is the source of my fascination with writing festivals. Writers blinkingly emerge from their writing dens with their pallid skin and reeking of coffee and wine and are suddenly before large groups and asked to talk about what they wrote, how they wrote it, and why they wrote it. For many, it’s like asking a fish to describe water. Readers emerge from their solitary reading spots to quiz the authors and each other about books and ideas. The isolation ends.

A Nation of Festivals

(Photo: Lakefield Literary Festival)

Festivals, like book clubs, lay out ideas to be examined as a community exercise. They remind us that books are like paintings and songs and any other art. Their meaning is only partially controlled by the artist. The rest is up to the experience and mood of the beholder. At festivals, the readers and writers both learn more about the books and ideas in question and about themselves. I am always intrigued when asked questions about my book that I never considered.

I have attended many but my favourite is the Lakefield Literary Festival. I am biased, of course, because I live in the Village of Lakefield. It is the Ontario community in what city people call “cottage country” consisting of only 2,400 people. Lakefield was once home to sisters Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie who were among Canada’s first writers and much later to Margaret Laurence who was among Canada’s best.

The Lakefield Literary Festival began in 1995 as a one-off banquet to celebrate Margaret Laurence but it became an annual event. It is now among Canada’s premier literary festivals, this year to take place over the weekend of July 15. It draws writers and readers from across the country to enjoy the campus of Lakefield College School and ideas and books and each other.

I will be at the Lakefield Literary Festival in a couple of weeks both speaking and teaching a writing class. I’ll be at Saskatoon’s Word on the Street Festival in September. I know I will enjoy both. I know I will enjoy meeting people who share a passion for writing, reading, books, and ideas. All those writers and readers at these and all the other literary festivals will emerge from their isolation. They’ll contribute to our national conversation by reflecting upon who we are as people and as a broader community. Perhaps all that isolated writing and reading and then all those festival conversations will play a role in making Canada a better place for us all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others. I hope to meet you in Lakefield in July or Saskatoon in September.

Icarus, the Cleavage, & the Interviews

A man should never look at a woman’s breasts. Never. A man should never, ever look down a woman’s cleavage and under no circumstances for fifteen straight minutes. Never. Ever. No how. But I did. The red-faced moment occurred during one of the many interviews I have done as the author of six books supporting the rocky marriage between art and commerce.

A print journalist once began an interview for Into the Hurricane: Attacking Socialism and the CCF with the question, “What does CCF stand for?” The back jacket explained that the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was the Canadian democratic socialist party and precursor to the NDP. I tried not to betray surprise with my realization that far from judging a book by its cover, she had read neither.

I understand that interviewers are busy folks often armed with nothing but a list of questions prepared by others. Some are so shackled to their list that I could respond, “Gee, my pants caught fire!” and hear nothing but, “I see, now my next question…” I accept those interviews as a challenge to stir interest and I sense success with the first follow up question that hints at a wandering from script.

An American print journalist once told me she had read Blood and Daring, which was about Canada’s role in the American Civil War. That, I thought, standing in my office, cradling my phone, fighting my ADD and trying to stay focussed, was a good start. She then said, “I’ve never heard of this Sir John A. Macdonald, but he seems like kind of a big deal. Perhaps for my American readers you could you sum him up in one sentence?”

With apologies to my high school English teachers, this was my one sentence stab: “Macdonald is like your Thomas Jefferson because he provided much of the philosophical underpinnings of our democracy; he is like America’s James Madison because he was the main architect and author of our constitution; he is also like your George Washington because he was our first chief executive and fully cognisant of the fact that everything he said and did would be precedent to his successors – so, Canada’s Sir John A. Macdonald is like America’s Jefferson, Madison, and Washington rolled into one man.” Damn, I was proud of myself. The article based on the interview was a well-written piece but the run-on Macdonald explanation was absent. Rats.

In-studio radio interviews are fun because many studios are cramped and chaotic. The interviewer is often hidden behind microphones and equipment or glass, making eye contact impossible. Assistants and producers are often scurrying about. During one interview the news and weather person was scribbling madly away beside me, tapping an I-Phone, and leaving and returning. It was a challenge to focus. Other studios offer Zen-like calm. Like Forrest Gump’s chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

Icarus, the Cleavage & the Interviews

(Photo: http://www.mxlmics.com)

Live radio over the phone is often interesting. I recently attended a good friend’s retirement party in Chatham, Ontario and expected to be back at his house in time for the 8:00 pm interview with a gentleman broadcasting from Montreal to affiliates across Canada. The party ran longer than I had expected. So, at 8:00 I was shivering in my dark, cold car, beside a parking lot dumpster, answering questions about John F. Kennedy and John Diefenbaker, while hoping beyond hope that a police officer or ne’er-do-well would not rap on my frosted window.

Live radio hates dead air. You must talk without time for thought. The funniest live radio question came at the end of a long interview about my biography of R. B. Bennett. The gentleman said, “Now you have read a lot about Canadian prime ministers so tell me, which one would have made the best NHL hockey player and why?” Later, my wife Sue, who is much smarter than me, said that Lester Pearson was a great hockey player or maybe I should have said Jean Chrétien because of the Shawinigan handshake. The best I could muster was, “Sir John A. because in the Gordie Howe tradition he was the best of his era and not above throwing an elbow.”

Television is fun. I once did a live interview for the East Coast CBC from a studio in Toronto. I was made up, wired up, placed on a swivel chair but told not to move, and then instructed to look at the screen six feet before me. I heard the producer count down and the interviewer’s voice through my ear-piece but the screen remained dark. I had expected to see him as he and viewers were seeing me. I know I was thrown for the first question or two wondering if there was a malfunction. I carried on and tried, as always, not to say anything too stupid.

One of the best in the business is TVO’s Steve Paikin. He has interviewed me three times and in each instance he has carefully read the book and prepared questions but then the interview becomes a conversation. For those interested, here is my most recent interview with Steve Paikin so you can see how very good he is.

http://tvo.org/video/programs/the-agenda-with-steve-paikin/kennedys-northern-front

TVO Feb 17

Steve Paikin and me on February 17

And then there was the cleavage. It was an interview for my Bennett biography. For some reason, it was decided that the taped radio interview would be done outside. The interviewer was an attractive woman about eight inches shorter than me clad in a red, low-cut top. I had begun to respond to her first question when the sound person stopped us and said that because of the height difference she would lower the wind-socked microphone and I would need to look down and keep looking down throughout the interview. “OK,” I whispered, realizing straight away that I was being asked to break the cardinal rule and look where a man should never look. Never. A cleavage is like the sun, I’ve been warned, more than a glance can hurt you. Yet, for fifteen long minutes, I was Icarus.

Interviews are all fun and nearly all interviewers are well read, intelligent, articulate, interested and interesting. Like the folks I get to meet at speeches and festivals, I feel honoured to share ideas with them. I never forget that I am lucky to have written and published books and, through them, to have met so many great people and seen the places I’ve seen and done the things I’ve done. Even when the interviews get a little funny, crazy, or embarrassing, I never take for granted how truly blessed I am.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice. You can check out the books I was talking about at your local bookstore or here http://www.amazon.ca/John-Boyko-Books/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A916520%2Cp_27%3AJohn%20Boyko

The Day JFK Visited Toronto

There was no welcoming crowd. There were no reporters. Although the 1960 presidential election was three years away, Senator John F. Kennedy had been vigorously campaigning and so he must have found his silent arrival in Toronto on that slate grey November afternoon either amusing or disconcerting.

Throughout 1957, he had been a frequent and entertaining guest on American political chat shows. His office flooded newspapers and magazines with press releases and articles he had written or at least edited. He accepted 140 speaking engagements. The herculean effort to render his already famous name even better known had spilled over the border, as these things do, and so Canadians knew of him and his ambition.

The Day JFK Visited Toronto.

John F. Kennedy (photo: historynewsnetwork.org)

Twenty female University of Toronto students certainly knew of him and were waiting. They were outside Hart House, where Kennedy was scheduled to participate in a debate. Since Hart House was opened in 1919, its lounges, library, and recreational facilities had become the university’s social and cultural hub. The impressive gothic revival building was a gift from the Massey family that had insisted on guidelines stipulating that within its stone, ivy-covered walls, Hart House would allow no studying, drinking, or women.

The first two rules were often and flagrantly broken but Margaret Brewin, Judy Graner, and Linda Silver Dranoff led a contingent hoping to end the third. They asked the Hart House warden to allow women to see the debate. When rebuffed, they gathered friends and created placards and greeted Kennedy with chants that alternated between “Hart House Unfair” and “We Want Kennedy”.

Kennedy smiled but said nothing as he was escorted through the drizzling rain and noisy protesters. Beneath its towering, dark oak-panelled ceiling the Debates Room could seat two hundred and fifty. It was packed. A scuffle interrupted introductions when a sharp-eyed guard noticed a guest’s nail polish and removed three women who had snuck in disguised as men. With the women locked out, the men inside prepared to argue: “Has the United States failed in its responsibilities as a world leader?” Kennedy was given leave to present remarks from the floor in support of the team opposing the resolution.

Reading from a prepared text, he offered that Americans did not enjoy immunity from foreign policy mistakes but that the difference between statesmanship and politics is often a choice between two blunders. He expressed concern regarding the degree to which public opinion sometimes dictated sound public policy and admitted that the United States had misplayed some recent challenges. Regardless of these and other errors, he argued, American foreign policy rested on sound principles and his country remained a force for good.

The Day JFK Visited Toronto

Hart House (photo: toronto.cityguide.ca)

The address was well written but poorly delivered. Kennedy read in a flat tone and seldom looked up. The student debaters tore him apart. Leading the team against him was a nineteen-year-old second-year student named Stephen Lewis. As a member of the four-man U of T debate team, he had competed at various Canadian and American universities and won accolades, including the best speaker award at a recent international competition. Lewis argued that the United States consistently acted in ways that violated the tenets of its Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He accused America of trying to be, “policeman, baby-sitter and bank to the world.” The audience offered good-natured ribbing throughout the debate. Cheers rewarded good points and witty rejoinders. Kennedy seemed to enjoy himself and was heckled along with the rest.

The audience gasped in disbelief when adjudicators scored the debate 204 to 194 and declared Kennedy’s side victorious. Afterwards, at a participants’ reception, Lewis and others spoke with Senator Kennedy and expressed confusion as to why a Democrat such as he would defend the hawkish policies of the current Republican administration. Kennedy startled them by confessing that he was a Democrat only because he was from Massachusetts. He agreed with the suggestion that if he were from Maine, he would probably be a Republican.

Kennedy was not through raising eyebrows. When leaving Hart House, a reporter asked his opinion of the women’s loud but polite demonstration. He smiled and said, “I personally rather approve of keeping women out of these places…It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere.”

Although his side won, Kennedy had impressed few with his speech, fewer with his confession of political opportunism, and fewer still with his flippant dismissal of women and the concept of gender equality. His brief meeting with a small group of the protesting women the next morning changed no minds. Kennedy’s Toronto flop was surprising because by 1957 he had become quite adept at handling gatherings that demanded a blend of political chops and charm.

The next time Kennedy visited Canada it would be a president. In pursuit of his Cold War goals he would ask Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to meld Canadian policies with his own. Diefenbaker’s response offered Kennedy an even rougher reception than he had received three years before on that chilly November evening in Toronto. Diefenbaker wanted Canada to be more sovereign. Kennedy wanted a satellite. And there it began.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. The above is among many stories found in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front. Published on February 2, 2016, it is available at bookstores everywhere, Amazon, Barnes and Noble,, and at Chapters Indigo right here:

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/cold-fire-kennedys-northern-front/9780345808936-item.html

Book Review: Three Weeks in Quebec

Christopher Moore’s latest work, at its core, is about long meetings. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could be as frightfully boring as most meetings themselves. Instead, the book crackles with wit, intrigue and, despite knowing how it all ends, genuine tension. Three Weeks in Quebec City is an entertaining, informative and gracefully written must-read for every Canadian concerned about the state of our country’s democracy. The story begins in the fall of 1864. British North America is comprised of the poor and poorly governed colonies of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Canada that was united in the forced marriage of what are now the southern portions of Quebec and Ontario. The Charlottetown Conference had taken place the month before. Delegates had agreed to form a new federal state. The goal of the 33 men assembled in Quebec was to forge a constitutional framework for their bold and improbable idea.

A harsh critic might note that Three Weeks in Quebec City is merely a rewrite of Moore’s 1867: How The Fathers Made a Deal. Let’s concede that Moore’s hugely successful 1997 book is at least his newest work’s father. Both hang their narratives on mini-biographies and invite us to the dinners and balls where alliances were made. Both take Sir John A. Macdonald down a peg. They note his being reluctantly dragged to the idea of Confederation, drinking too much and even fiddling with the minutes to balloon his actual importance.

The main point of both books is also the same. Moore believes, as did our founders, that the complex Canadian nation is best served by a state with power located not in the provinces but the federal government and not in the Prime Minister’s Office but Parliament.

The founders’ dedication to parliamentary democracy was demonstrated when each of the five delegations arrived with both government and opposition members. Important initiatives and decisions, they believed, are not the sole purview of the executive. Once assembled, they comfortably ignored public opinion. After all, parliamentary democracy empowers representatives to act responsibly on the citizenry’s behalf. They never discussed the creation of a Bill of Rights. A properly constituted and operating parliamentary democracy, they thought, is all the protection from the state a citizen needs.

The constitutional framework they forged reflected their fundamental beliefs. The longest debate, for example, involved the Senate. They wanted appointed senators to ensure the undemocratic body would enjoy nothing but dignified, advisory, ceremonial power. A neutered Senate met their goal of aping Britain’s bicameral parliament while locating real power where it belonged – in the elected House.

They afforded the central government a long list of powers to ensure its dominance. Important among them was the ability to disallow provincial laws and that any new areas of jurisdiction would become federal responsibilities. This division of power was fine with Quebec that needed to protect its French culture and tradition, the Maritimes that sought to avoid being swamped by the central Canadians and Macdonald, who didn’t want provinces in the first place.

The Conference did not, as the book unfortunately hints, occur in a vacuum. Moore merely mentions at various points that the American Civil War was happening at the time. In fact, Canadian and British actions, including a well-financed Canadian-based Confederate spy ring, led to real and perceived threats of American reprisals that focused minds on the urgency of getting Confederation done. Moore mentions the Irish American Fenians but ignores how their threats influenced Maritime support for Confederation. Similarly, Moore affords scant attention to the growing power of Britain’s Little Englander movement. Its advocating an end to colonialism rendered the old idea of Confederation a new and urgent necessity. The impatient Brits and angry Americans were the twin elephants in Quebec City conference rooms where Confederation was born and in the pubs, papers and Parliaments where it was later debated.

Much of what the founders created during their three weeks in Quebec remains in force. However, shortly after Confederation, court cases began handing more power to provinces. Beginning in the 1960s the executive began hoarding more power to itself. Macdonald, Cartier, Tilley, Tupper and the others would not recognize and would rage against today’s Americanized balances of power.

Three Weeks in Quebec invites readers to mourn Canada’s slow drift away from its centralist, parliamentary democratic founding principles. As recent events and trends have led many of us to consider the state of our state, the book’s greatest gift is its glimpse at original intentions. Moore’s insightful and valuable work encourages Canadians to ponder what has been lost and perhaps what needs to be won again.

This review appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday June 7, 2015.

Heroes Flawed and Fake

Dear Canada,

She stands alone in her Grand Prė garden. With a look of sad longing, Evangeline gazes over her shoulder toward heaven. She has her back to the church, the Church that turned its back on her. The tragic news arrived on her wedding day and tore her from her one true love. Her people were victims of a war that saw you become British, and her people uprooted because they were French. Their homes and villages were burned.

The deported Acadians fluttered as maple keys, some lighting as far away as Louisiana. It’s why New Orleans has Cajun music and a French Quarter. Evangeline devoted the rest of her life to searching for her beloved Gabriel, finding him years later, and only in time to have him die in her arms. Today, hundreds of years later, there stands Evangeline in her national park – a UNESCO World Heritage site, no less – a vision in bronze. She is a symbol of loss and for all that’s unfair. She expresses the power of love amid the hatred of war.

Evangeline_Grand_Pre

Meanwhile, over in Prince Edward Island, a long line is snaking its way from a rambling white farmhouse with stunning green gables. It’s Anne’s house. We know Anne Shirley through books, movies, and TV. She’s loved around the world and, since being placed on their school curriculum in the 1950s, a Japanese icon. Anne is what many of us first learn about us. She is honest, loyal, feisty, fun-loving and adventurous, with unbreakable bonds to the land and people she loves.

The tourists tour with reverence. Grownups steal a moment to peer at the rolling Cavendish countryside out Anne’s bedroom window. It’s the view that inspired her thoughts, and that the ten-year old then understood with the certainty of a ten-year old’s truth. They treasure the moment. They are warmed by embers of memory sunk deep in their hearts but now flickering from down where a child’s dreams are kept safe from adulthood’s flimsy facade. Then, as is always the case with such things, everyone exits through the gift shop. Japanese parents buy Chinese trinkets to celebrate a Canadian girl. Smiling children emerge beneath straw skimmer hats with long red pigtails, just like Anne’s.

Anne of Green Gables1

Anne and Evangeline share a secret. They never existed. Evangeline was the protagonist in a Longfellow poem, written nearly a century after the Acadian diaspora. The lines are lyrical but many of its facts are wrong. Anne Shirley sprang from the imagination of Canadian novelist Lucy Maud Montgomery. Visiting Anne’s actual green-gabled house is akin to visiting Batman’s actual cave.

But these facts rob neither Evangeline nor Anne of their importance. That is the nature, gift, and mystery of heroes and icons.

Consider the very real Emily Murphy. She was enraged that women were regularly and nonchalantly denied justice within the bastion of our male-dominated society. From her home in Edmonton, she organized a movement that pressured the Alberta government to enact a law allowing women to inherit their husband’s estates. Then, upset that women were unfairly treated in the courts, she exerted pressure until earning an appointment as Canada’s first female police magistrate; the first, in fact, in the whole British Empire.

When told by an uppity male lawyer that her gender disqualified her from the bench, she and four friends, later dubbed the Famous Five, fought back. They fought rusty old beliefs disguised as facts, politicians with their eyes on polls and feet in clay, and, finally, they fought the courts all the way over the pond to Westminster. Their efforts led to women being declared Persons; no longer just the property of Dads then husbands, but Persons with rights equal to men. Women could now be judges and senators and, well, anything they wanted to be. It was a spectacular achievement. Murphy had demonstrated intelligence, determination, and a burning sense of what should be.

murphystatue

However, under the guise of Janey Canuck, Murphy also wrote magazine articles and a novel espousing beliefs that we now recognize as racist. She was clearly on both the right and wrong side of rights. Does the racist rant erase the feminist achievement and so should Murphy’s statue be taken from parliament hill?

The heroes we venerate are players in a grand story we tell to ourselves about ourselves. Their triumphs and characters represent the best of us for the rest of us and the complexity within all of us. They challenge us to look beyond ourselves to become our best possible selves. Flawed or even fake, they inspire us to improve ourselves, our families, communities and, ultimately, to be worthy of you.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

Don Quixote   by © Gordon Lightfoot

Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek
Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a battered book into his hand
Standing like a prophet bold
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Till he can shout no more

I have come o’er moor and mountain
Like the hawk upon the wing
I was once a shining knight
Who was the guardian of a king
I have searched the whole world over
Looking for a place to sleep
I have seen the strong survive
And I have seen the lean grown weak

See the children of the earth
Who wake to find the table bare
See the gentry in the country
Riding off to take the air

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a rusty sword into his hand
Then striking up a knightly pose
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Till he can shout no more

See the jailor with his key
Who locks away all trace of sin
See the judge upon the bench
Who tries the case as best he can
See the wise and wicked ones
Who feed upon life’s sacred fire
See the soldier with his gun
Who must be dead to be admired

See the man who tips the needle
See the man who buys and sells
See the man who puts the collar
On the ones who dare not tell
See the drunkard in the tavern
Stemming gold to make ends meet
See the youth in ghetto black
Condemned to life upon the street

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a tarnished cross into his hand
Then standing like a preacher now
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Then in a blaze of tangled hooves
He gallops off across the dusty plain
In vain to search again
Where no one will hear
Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek

 This is the second of a series of Letter to Canada, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you like it, please share it on your social media of choice and see the first one, and more of my weekly columns, at johnboyko.c