10 War Words We Use Today

We are people of peace who use words of war. We can’t help it. They have entered the vernacular so completely that we don’t even realize we are doing it. Consider the following ten and listen for them as you go through your day.

  1. Deadline

American Civil War battles sometimes resulted in the gathering of hundreds or even thousands of prisoners. It was seldom possible to quickly transfer them to camps or arrange prisoner swaps so they had to walk along with victorious army. At night or during rest stops, guards would draw a line in the dirt around prisoners and warn them that if they stepped over that line they would be shot. It was the deadline.

  1. Chatting

Soldiers in First World War trenches found, among other hardships, that their hair and uniforms were infested with lice. They would sit across from each other and use fingernails or cigarettes to remove the lice and their eggs – chats – from their mate’s hair and clothing. While doing the deed they would talk and soon, soldiers referred to anytime they made small talk as chatting.

I Was There: The Great War Interviews

(Photo: http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

  1. Heard It Through the Grapevine

Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. It was a code that could click messages through wires at a speed that was a 19th century marvel. At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, both sides strung wires from city to city and to the front lines. The wires reminded folks of hanging grapevines and so when asked where one had heard a particular bit of news it became common to respond, “I heard it through the grapevine.”

  1. Sniper

In the late 19th century, British soldiers seeking to amuse themselves with proof of marksmanship took birds as their targets. The most difficult to hit was the small and quick moving Snipe. Those able to accomplish the feat became known as snipers. The name stuck when in the First World War Germans began using telescope-sighted rifles to shoot individuals in enemy trenches. Soon, all armies used, and called them variants of, snipers.

  1. Bikini

In the first year of the Cold War, in 1946, the American military needed a remote spot to test atomic bombs. A group of Pacific Islands was deemed perfect and so 167 native people were moved from their homes. The women were wearing skimpy clothing that exposed their midriffs as they were removed from Bikini Island. The bikini bathing suite went on sale shortly afterwards.

  1. Lock, Stock, and Barrel

A 19th century Civil War musket had three parts: a lock, a stock, and a metal barrel. Each part was useless without the other one but deadly when working well together. Thus, when a person put everything into an action he was said to be doing it “lock, stock and barrel.”

  1. Beer

There is evidence that all ancient cultures made and enjoyed beer. However, it was not until Roman soldiers began moving north and drinking a home-made brew in what would later become Germany that the name was invented. They called the hearty ales and lagers by the Latin word for drink – biber. When Romans conquered the southern part of England they found English folks drinking the same grog and they Anglicized it to beer.

  1. Cardigan

During the Crimean War, an English military leader named James Thomas Burdenell carefully drilled his men so that they were unbeatable in battle. Their prowess led to their being called the Light Brigade. In their famous charge, he courageously led them from the front. That day, like many in which the morning dawned chilly, he wore a gift from his wife over his uniform, a knitted, buttoned sweater. Burdenell, his men, and his sweater became famous. He was the 7th Earl of Cardigan.

  1. Champion

Medieval knights trained in contests held on a large field which, in Latin, was called a campus. The contest winners were deemed the campion. For reasons unknown, English spellers simply added a letter to make it champion.

  1. D-Day

The expression came from a First World War way of explaining operations without revealing the time or day of an impending attack. The practice remained common in the Second World War. The first field order mentioning the Second World War amphibious landing at Normandy, consequently, stated that the allies would attack at “H-Hour on D-Day.” The D, rather redundantly, stands for Day. So D-Day, used now for many of our deadlines, recall that is another war word, really means Day-Day.

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Charisma in the Capital: Trudeau or Kennedy?

A charismatic, handsome, photogenic leader gobsmacked a capital, turned the media into cheerleaders, and left the people agog. We saw it last week and we’ve seen it before with its lessons as clear as a radiant smile.

Trudeau in Washington

Trudeau, with Obama, in Washington (Photo: blogs.wsj.com) 

On a slate gray afternoon, in May 1961, Air Force One touched down at Ottawa’s Uplands airport. Two thousand guests rose from their bleacher seats inside the massive hangar as 500 children hooted and waved little American and Canadian flags. Applause erupted as the plane’s big white door yawned open to reveal President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline.

Tanned from a recent Florida vacation, they smiled, waved, and descended the stairs. They moved slowly, shook hands with the governor general, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, and their wives, and then strolled along the red carpet into the building. Coronation trumpets blared a royal welcome. The Honour Guard was inspected, an RCMP band played the American national anthem, and outside, a twenty-one-gun salute pierced the breeze.

In his welcoming speech, Diefenbaker said some nice things then self-deprecatingly apologized before offering a few words of what he called “fractured French.” Kennedy responded by saying of Canadian-American relations: “Together we have worked in peace, together we have worked in war and now in this long twilight era that is neither peace nor war we must stand together even more firmly than before.” All was going well but then, as he had at the White House press conference before Diefenbaker’s February trip to Washington, Kennedy mispronounced the prime minister’s name—“Deefunbawker.” Diefenbaker winced.

Jacqueline Kennedy was fluently bilingual. She had helped her husband memorize a few lines in passable French. Rather than simply say what he had practised, however, Kennedy admitted that he did not speak the language and then said, “I am somewhat encouraged to say a few words in French, having heard your Prime Minister.” The crowd laughed. The thin-skinned Diefenbaker again felt insulted.

As the Kennedys walked toward the waiting motorcade, the clouds parted as if on cue and bathed them in sunshine. Throngs of cheering people waved from the sidewalks as Kennedy approached the city. The cars were forced to slow several times as admirers surged forward with many holding children on their shoulders. Fifty thousand normally staid and steady people of Ottawa welcomed Kennedy to their city like teenage girls might greet Elvis.

The reception was not unexpected. Kennedy’s popularity was soaring as high Canada as it was in the United States. Kennedy knew policy and actions mattered but believed that his personal popularity was an important key to advancing his agenda. He understood his celebrity and took pains to enhance it with films of him playing touch football and photographs of his photogenic family. Every week viewers watched a riveting display of his prodigious memory, impressive intelligence, clear understanding of complex issues, and razor sharp wit in a live, televised news conference. He told speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “We couldn’t survive without TV.”

The next morning, after enjoying a state dinner at the governor general’s mansion the night before, Kennedy was cheered by a large crowd gathered at the Canadian War Memorial. The brief ceremony began with the American national anthem. Kennedy inspected a one-hundred-man Honour Guard, laid a wreath, and then stood for “O Canada” and “God Save the Queen.” With people waving and cheering, he and Diefenbaker walked slowly across Wellington Street toward the Parliament Buildings’ Gothic splendour.

Kennedy in Ottawa..

Kennedy, with Diefenbaker, in Ottawa (Photo: ici.radio-canada.ca)

With a massive crowd impatiently waiting on the Parliament Hill lawn for another glimpse of Kennedy, the president and prime minister repaired inside where they experienced nothing but frustration. Kennedy had arrived with a shopping list of requests for policy changes but Diefenbaker declared each contrary to Canadian interests and, over and over again, said no. They agreed on nothing except their dislike for each other. The people, however, saw none of the private machinations, only the public smiles.

President Kennedy was, and remains, a phenomenon. Born to wealth and privilege and with terrible health, he could have done anything or nothing at all. Instead, he became a war hero, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and then a Congressman, Senator, and President. The blinding light of Kennedy’s celebrity shone so brightly that its 100-watt brilliance overwhelmed Canadians and shaped their perception of their country and its leaders.

Like Macdonald, Lincoln, and Churchill, Kennedy is a standard against which Canadian leaders are measured. When Pierre Trudeau rode to power in 1968, he was complemented for the degree to which his intellectual cool and charisma reminded Canadians of Kennedy. A Trudeau biographer observed: “The mood was conditioned by nearly a decade of jealousy. Canadians had enviously watched the presidency of John Kennedy, and continued to wish for a leader like him.”

Now, Canada seems to have another Kennedy. Last week in Washington, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acted the heir of Kennedy’s charisma and celebrity. When Kennedy arrived in Ottawa and Trudeau visited Washington they had both been in office for about four and a half months. However, Kennedy went on to add gravitas and a legacy of accomplishment to his celebrity. We’ll see if Trudeau can do the same. We’ll also see whether the next president will be to Trudeau as Diefenbaker was to Kennedy; a personal thorn, ideological nemesis, and challenge to every political skill he can muster.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. The full story of JFK’s relations with Canada is told in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available at sensible book stores everywhere and online here:

https://www.amazon.ca/Cold-Fire-Kennedys-Northern-Front/dp/0345808932

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/search/?keywords=john+boyko

 

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

Five Reasons Why JFK Still Matters

On a bright and frigid afternoon fifty-five years ago, John F. Kennedy became America’s 35th president. It was an exciting day. The unabating flood of articles, books, and movies suggest that his life and leadership continues to enthral. Let’s consider why he still matters by pondering questions he still poses.

5 Reasons Why JFK Still Matters

(Photo: mauialmanac.com)

Leadership and Wealth: The one percent who own and influence so much is under attack. In Canada’s recent election, Justin Trudeau’s opponents argued that his inherited wealth precluded him from understanding and helping working- and middle-class Canadians. Hillary Clinton is taking similar hits.

Kennedy grew up in mansions and was chauffeured to school in his father’s Rolls Royce. He could have done anything or nothing at all. Instead, he worked tirelessly to improve the lot of those toiling in shops, fields, and factories. He implemented a middle class tax cut, a higher minimum wage, and proposed universal health care. Does money kill compassion?

Government Power: Kennedy was more practical than liberal and more pragmatic than conservative. He decried ideological blindness that seeks victory without compromise while trying to tip the balance of power between government and business too far in one direction. He believed government was a positive societal force, essential for the collective good.

Because government cannot and should not do everything, should it do nothing? Does a government’s inability to completely solve a problem invite rejection of first steps?

Celebrity: Kennedy did not invent the celebrity politician but he was the first to exploit looks, charisma, and a photogenic family in the TV age. The 1960 campaign swung when he beat the more experienced but less-media savvy Richard Nixon in TV debates. Kennedy confessed that he would not be an effective president or possibly even have become president without television.

A journalist once wrote of Canada’s 1968 “Trudeaumania” election: “Canadians had enviously watched the presidency of John Kennedy, and continued to wish for a leader like him.” Last year, Canadians watched Trudeau’s son ride a wave of Kennedyesque celebrity while Nixon-like opponents attacked his appearance and gaps in his policies and resume, all the while forgetting Kennedy’s lesson. And now Trudeau commands, Donald Trump confounds and Kevin O’Leary considers. Must our leaders now also be celebrities?

Public Privacy: Kennedy’s legacy was later tarnished by revelations of reckless sexual liaisons. He also hid serious health problems and daily drug injections that managed symptoms. The press was complicit in the secrecy and silence.

The post-Watergate media changed the relationship between public and private. Social media shattered it. Canada’s last election saw candidates humiliated and others withdraw due to social media gaffes and attacks. Many good people now avoid public service, fearing slander and privacy’s surrender. Can a flawed person be a valid candidate or good leader? Are there limits to our right to know?

Aspiration: Many recall lines from Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” or “The torch has been passed to a new generation…” In June 1963, he called for world peace based on our shared humanity. The next day he went on TV and reframed Civil Rights as a moral imperative.

We are well served by neither demagoguery nor technocratic managers masquerading as leaders. Instead, with so much and so many dividing us, Kennedy reminds us that real leaders really lead and that we need words that inspire, dreams that unite, and the positing of challenging questions and grand goals. What’s wrong with shooting for the moon?

Kennedy still matters because, in the final analysis, his enduring gift was not programs or policies but his inspirational leadership. We should consider the questions he still poses and answers he suggests. We owe it to ourselves and our children to consider his audacious exhortation that idealism is not naïve, hope is not foolish, hardship is incentive, and community can extend beyond one’s family, class, race, or even country.

This column originally appeared as an op ed in the Montreal Gazette on January 20, 2016, the 55th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it with others.

Santa, Trudeau, and the Acceptable Lie

We lie to our children. The biggest lie, of course, is that we adults know what we’re doing. Right up there with our major league whoppers is Santa Claus.

We know that Santa began as a 3rd century Turkish monk named St. Nicholas who gave his inherited wealth to the poor. The Dutch perpetuated the legend but called him Sinter Klaas. We also know that in 1823 American Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature Clement Clark Moore wrote a poem for his daughters that invented the notion of a fat man, chimneys, sleighs, and reindeer. Only much later was it entitled “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” In 1881, Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast gave pictures to the poem and Santa got his red suit. We also know that in 1931, the Coca Cola Company hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom who, stealing from Moore and Nast, initiated a decades-long ad campaign based on Santa as a jolly, wholesome, kid-loving, and Coke-drinking Christmas mainstay. Cue the malls and parades.

Santa, Trudeau and the Acceptable Lie..

The Nast Santa

We know all that. But we lie anyway. And maybe that’s OK. Santa is the flimsy link between the magic of Christmas and parenthood’s delicate dance. He is among the gifts we offer our children to balance our warnings about holding hands crossing the street, not talking to strangers, secret code words, and practicing fire drills at home and lock downs at school. We scare the hell out of them to keep them safe so maybe it’s alright if we temper fear with fun through a few years of Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and our invincibility.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now enrapturing the country and many others around the world with his sunny disposition and deft ability to humanize the office that seems designed to suck the humanity from any who enter. Good on him. Canadians have known him from his birth – on Christmas day by the way – because his father was Prime Minister from the late ‘60s to early ‘80s. Canadians were reintroduced to Justin on September 28, 2000, when he delivered a touching eulogy at his father’s funeral. Consider a story he told:

“I was about six years old when I went on my first official trip. I was going with my father and my grandpa Sinclair up to the North Pole. It was a very glamorous destination. But the best thing about it is that I was going to be spending lots of time with my dad because in Ottawa he just worked so hard. One day, we were in Alert, Canada’s northernmost point, a scientific military installation that seemed to consist entirely of low shed-like buildings and warehouses.

Let’s be honest. I was six. There were no brothers around to play with and I was getting a little bored because dad still somehow had a lot of work to do. I remember a frozen, windswept Arctic afternoon when I was bundled up into a Jeep and hustled out on a special top-secret mission. I figured I was finally going to be let in on the reason of this high-security Arctic base. I was exactly right.

We drove slowly through and past the buildings, all of them very grey and windy. We rounded a corner and came upon a red one. We stopped. I got out of the Jeep and started to crunch across towards the front door. I was told, no, to the window.

So I clamboured over the snow bank, was boosted up to the window, rubbed my sleeve against the frosty glass to see inside and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I saw a figure, hunched over one of many worktables that seemed very cluttered. He was wearing a red suit with furry white trim.

And that’s when I understood just how powerful and wonderful my father was.”

Santa, Trudeau and the Acceptable Lie

Justin and his Dad (Ottawa Citizen Photo)

Let our leader be our guide. While we can, let’s enjoy the lie. This Friday my granddaughter will open presents that came all the way from the North Pole. Her eyes will sparkle. And that’s just fine.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and check more of my Monday blogs at http://www.johnboyko.com but, please, not on Christmas Day. Instead, let’s darken our screens to devote undivided time with those we love.

Shut Up Boomers: Every ‘60s Decade Booms

Even Baby Boomers are weary of TV specials celebrating ’60s singers and bands, most of which, let’s face it, look and sound excruciatingly sexist and corny. And my first reaction to hearing that The Beatles One has been re-reissued was to question whether after owning vinyl, eight-track, cassette, CD, and then downloading, that Paul McCartney really wants me to buy Hey Jude yet again. Poor Sir Paul must need the money.

Shut Up Boomers- The 60's Always Matter.

Sir Paul (http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

The greater point is that the ‘60s matter and, sorry Paul and boomers everywhere, not just the 1960s. No matter the millennium, the ’60s decade always offers remarkable up, down, sideways, and significant change. For some reason, the ‘60s is when old assumptions and rules are thrown asunder and Canada rockets ahead in a new direction.

1660s

France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, declared Canada a French province. Later in the decade, French explorers Radisson and Groseilliers followed Native guides all the way to Lake Superior and Hudson’s Bay. Because of a spat with officious French officials, they claimed it all for England. Their adventures led to the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the world’s first multi-national corporation. The chess pieces were thus set for a bloody two hundred year French-English grudge match; a struggle that many Quebecois insist is still on.

1760s

In 1760, in the shadow of the Conquest, where a small British army defeated an even smaller French one outside Quebec City, Montreal fell. With the broader world war finally over, in 1763 French negotiators traded cold and troublesome Quebec for the warm and prosperous island of Guadeloupe. Canada became a British colony with a French people. Native nations who had allied themselves with one side or the other were promised that their land would remain theirs. It was a lie. Shortly afterwards, gifts were made of smallpox-infested blankets in a brutal act of biological warfare.

1860s

The United States was butchering itself in a Civil War that would see over 600,000 dead and 40,000 Canadians serve. Partly as a result of all that death, and fear of what would happen when the killing ended, Canada was born. John A. Macdonald and others from the broke and dysfunctional Canadian province loaded a ship with great food and better booze and crashed a Charlottetown conference to urge Maritime delegates to think bigger. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick signed on. Canada was more dream than fact but the dreamers emerged from their ’60s decade with a vision as grand as the land.

1960s

The decade saw the dream reimagined. A new Bill of Rights said citizenship was based not on blood but law. Native people were afforded the right to vote as a tentative step toward righting centuries of wrong. The establishment of official bilingualism expressed a desire to descend the Tower of Babel. A distinctive new flag and Montreal’s Expo ’67 World’s Fair unleashed a patriotic tsunami. In 1967, Canada’s 100th birthday, the Toronto Maple Leafs did what they have not managed since and won the Stanley Cup. Canadians decided that everyone’s health was everyone’s concern and created a national system whereby we each pay a little to help those who need a lot – it’s a family thing.

New programs sought to end the sorry fact that generations of children could graduate without ever having read a Canadian book, seen a Canadian movie, or heard a Canadian song – and oh the songs. We could duck into seedy bars and pretentious coffee houses to hear kids like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Randy Bachman, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Robbie Robertson, Gordon Lightfoot, and more and more. Canadian kids could hear a top ten song on the radio all week and then dance to that very band in their high school gym on Friday night. The songs, along with the words of Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, Margret Laurence, and more invited us to more deeply consider eternal bonds.

Shut Up Boomers- The ‘60s Always Matter

Joni Mitchell (www.biography.com)

The 1960s west reverberated a hundred-year-old echo. It was in 1869 that Metis leader Louis Riel demanded respect and a recognition that the people of the west owned the west. Prime Minister Macdonald agreed to nearly all Riel’s demands and a new province was born. Sir John then set out to sweep Native nations from the plains and we still feel the pain and shame of that attempted cultural genocide.

By the end of the 1960s, thousands of Canadians were, as Gordon Lightfoot would sing, Alberta bound. Oil was gold and the rush was on. Cornerbrook accents filled Edmonton bars and cheques were mailed home to Halifax and St. John’s from wildcatting rigs and Wild West barracks. Politicians scrapped, fat cats plundered, and Canadians did as always – the best they could.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if we were in buckskins or bell bottoms, starched collars or tie dye shirts. It was another turbulent ‘60s – the decade that always seems to matter. Maybe before the next ‘60s arrives we’ll be like Canadian Alex Trebic and have all the answers or at least be like Montreal’s Leonard Cohen and know the right questions. By the next ‘60s we may have learned how to live more peacefully with each other and gently on the land.

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When It’s Time To Burn Your House and Go

Sometimes it’s not your fault. Sometimes the business cycle’s spin, the greed or stupidity of folks with big wallets and little hearts, a microscopic bug, or tiny shift in weather patterns can change everything. No matter how hard you work or how well you raise your children, respect your neighbours, love your spouse, or live by your God’s rules and land’s laws, things slip away. Cyril Oxford understands that. Today he is considering burning his house down.

When It's Time to Burn Your House and Go..

(Photo: www.fireengineering.com)

You see, Cyril lives in Little Bay Islands, Newfoundland. He was born there. For his seventy-two years, Cyril forged a life and living as a cod-fishing boat captain. Now, though, with his wife gone and children moved away, he has a decision to make.

Little Bay Islands is a group of five islands just off Newfoundland’s northeast coast. The abundant fish attracted Europeans over 200 years ago. The story goes that in 1825, a summer resident named Budgell shot the last Beothuck, thus ending the indigenous nation that had once thrived. But, of course, like many stories on and about the rock, legends and facts are seldom on speaking terms.

The Little Bay Island community grew with the bounty of the sea and indomitable spirit of people toughened and united by perpetual wind, ruthless winters, and the songs, jokes, and tales that fill dark nights and ease tough times. By the 1920s, 116 men on 14 boats fished and trapped cod, crab, and shrimp, a ship building company created three fine schooners a year, and determined farmers coaxed vegetables from thin soil. The Wesleyan church pews were full every Sunday and children learned at the little school. By the 1940s, nearly 800 people proudly called the place home.

Things changed after the war. Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. In 1957, its premier, Joey Smallwood, the mercurial little man to whom so much is owed and on whom so much is blamed, undertook an aggressive program of relocation. More than 300 outport communities, accessible only by boat, that had been around for one or two hundred years were deemed financially unfeasible. People were given money to leave. Many fought. Many pocketed the cash. Black and white photographs of big wooden houses lashed to bigger barges and steaming through the waves were either sad signs of defeat or sparkling signals of courageous resilience. Through it all, Little Bay Island survived.

There was a crab processing plant, a cooperage, a shipyard, a fish plant, and eleven stores. Along with the new road came electricity, telephones, and a water system. A shiny, new ferry connected the islands to the mainland. A gym was added to the school. History books and old men’s tales boasted of days when you could drop a bucket over a dory’s side and pull up fish, over and over, stopping only when arms ached. Such abundance, it was believed, could never end.

But foreign trawlers and profligate habits meant that by the late 1980s, there were fewer crab, and then shrimp, and then cod. In a feeble and far too late attempt to save what remained, a moratorium was declared. And then there was none. One at a time the businesses closed. One at a time the young people left, and then families. Boats were sold and houses were shuttered. Today, only two students attend the school. The gym’s hardwood floor gleams in silence. There are no stores. There are no jobs. Only about 70, mostly gray-haired people remain.

When It's Time to Burn Your House and Go

(photo: www.lanephotography.com)

Three years ago a town counsellor approached the Newfoundland and Labrador government. He proposed the assisted suicide of his town. If it were killed, or allowed to finally die, then money could be saved with the end of government services. A deal was made whereby each resident would be offered $270,000 to leave. To ensure that death was truly the community’s will, it was insisted that a secret vote must be held and that 90% must agree.

The impending referendum split families. It divided friends. Summer residents had no vote but exerted pressure to vote no. There were arguments and threats as some wanted the cash and others spoke of tradition, home, and ancestor’s bones.

When the vote was tallied, all but ten had opted to go. It meant only an 89.47%, plurality, just shy of the necessary 90%. The government would not round up. The money stayed in St. John’s and the acidic atmosphere remained in Little Bay Island.

In 2014, acclaimed Newfoundland novelist Michael Crummey published a superb novel entitled Sweetland. It tells the story of a small, remote, and declining island town whose people are offered resettlement packages with the proviso that all must leave. Moses Sweetland says no. He then watches the community torn asunder by those seeking to change his mind and others changing theirs. The novel is exceptionally well written and the characters quirky and expertly drawn. It suggests the thin and wavering line between fact and fiction and Oscar Wilde’s wisdom in observing the imitative nature of art and life. I highly recommend the book.

A provincial election held on November 30 threw out the Tories and created a Liberal majority government. When the dust clears, the new government will need new answers to Little Bay Island’s old questions. For now, like Moses Sweetland, Cyril Oxford sits alone in his house. Outside and around town, the warmth of emotion fights the chill of logic as what’s fair battles what’s possible and proof is once again rendered that money does not really talk; it swears. Cyril told a reporter, “Things just can’t go on like this around here. When I go, my dear, it will be the last of the Oxfords on Little Bay Islands.”

If he goes, if they all go, it will be the last of a lot of things. It will represent the inevitable turning of the wheels of progress and the tragic consequence of bad decisions and lost opportunities. It will be a victory of the head and failure of the heart. It will be the sad end of two hundred years of hard work and dreams. If Mr. Oxford and the others go, the wind will still blow, the waves will still crash, and Little Bay Island ghosts will stand in silent reverence with Beothuck spirits.

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Eight Ways To Look At Sir John A. Macdonald

January 11th was Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. As Canada’s first prime minister and key founding father, he deserves to be remembered. Across the country there were cakes, candles, songs, and speeches. Many Canadians will enjoy celebrations of one sort or another all year. Others, however, will not celebrate but castigate. The attacks have begun and some have been viscous.

The spirited debates remind us of history’s importance and of its terrific habit of never shutting up. History is not a warm bath of nostalgia but a mean teacher that forces us to think of things we have not before and, even more importantly, consider things we thought we knew for sure. The conflicted commemoration of our first prime minister is as it should be for there are at least eight ways to see Sir John.

Brady-Handy_John_A_Macdonald_-_cropped

Creator: In the 1860s, Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and threatening an invasion of the British colonies on their northern border. The bitty Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them, needed to save themselves by creating themselves. Canada’s birth had many midwives, but the conferences and subsequent debates that brought it into the world would have failed without Sir John’s charm and political acumen. The Constitution creating the state to house the nation was written largely in his hand.

Saviour: With the Civil War’s end, the United States demanded astronomical reparations from Britain for its role in prolonging the conflict. The Americans offered to trade the cash for Canada. As part of the British delegation in Washington, to negotiate what was called the Alabama claims, Macdonald deftly controlled the agenda. He refused to be bribed by the Brits or bullied by the Americans. He left with generous concessions and the swap swept from the table.

Visionary: Macdonald knew Canada must grow or be gone and the only way was west on rails. Without the railway, British Columbia could join the United States and the United States could, as its Manifest Destiny decreed, take the prairies. The railway idea was ludicrous. It would be the world’s longest railway through the world’s most inhospitable land. The rocks and impenetrable forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rockies would be impossible. Macdonald told British Columbians they’d have the steel line to the Pacific in ten years and the money flowed and hammers rang. His will and conniving saw the impossible done and Canada linked from sea to sea.

Centralist: Macdonald put power in parliament. He saw the prime minister as the servant of the House and provinces like municipalities. Parliament could overturn provincial laws deemed to contradict the national interest and he disallowed many. He interpreted parliament’s purchase of what is now most of the west as its ownership of the land and resources. When premiers met to complain, he refused to attend.

Charlatan: He was not above political trickery to get or keep power. Globe editor and Reform Party leader George Brown learned the hard way when Macdonald tricked him into office and then two days later tricked him right back out again. He used patronage jobs to openly and unapologetically reward friends and punish enemies. He was once scandalized out of power when caught linking political donations to railway contracts.

Rogue: No one knew more stories and jokes than Sir John. No one remembered more names or slapped more backs. He never met a voter with whom he disagreed or an opponent he did not try to woo. He once entered his occupation in a hotel ledger as “cabinet maker”. A hard drinker, he once threw up during a campaign speech but then won the election. He told another audience that Canadians preferred him drunk to George Brown sober – he was right. He was a scoundrel but he was their scoundrel.

Racist: He imported Chinese workers for the worst and most dangerous railway construction jobs. With the task done, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. He did not want Canadians to become what he called a “mongrel race”. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by emptying bellies and filling schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide.

Founding Father: To our American friends, consider this: Sir John was like your Thomas Jefferson in that he provided the philosophical foundation upon which the country was based; he was like your James Madison as he was primary among those who wrote the constitution; he was like your George Washington in that he was Canada’s first chief executive and fully cognizant that everything he said or did set a precedent that would affect the behaviour of every prime minister that followed – so Sir John was your Jefferson, Madison, and Washington rolled into one man.

Sir John's Grave

Sir John’s humble grave site

Sir Christopher Wren, the man who designed St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the most spectacularly graceful and awe-inspiring buildings on the planet, once said that if you wished to see his monument you should look around. Canada is not as perfect as St. Paul’s but no country is. However, while flawed, it is safer, richer, and more democratic than most. Its long and fascinating history bursts with sources of pride and shame as well as progress and redemption. So as the key figure in creating, building, and saving the country, it is fitting and proper that we commemorate Sir John. Without him there would be no Canada. Perhaps we honour him best by acknowledging that he was as complex a man as is the country he left in our care. Perhaps we understand him as we understand Wren, by looking around.

 An edited version of this column appeared as part of Globe and Mail debates in which I was asked to be one of four historians to consider whether Sir John was a “Visionary or Hateful Embarrassment”. You can see what the others wrote and vote for who you think should win at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/sir-john/article22362438/