Canada as a Six-String Nation

Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.

In 1995 Canada was coming apart at the seams. A host of proposed constitutional amendments that would dramatically shift power from the federal to provincial governments was stirring arguments among Canadians. Revolutions had been fought over such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War that was spurred by the question of state power. Canadians reach not for guns but gavels. We debate. We argue at kitchen tables and over backyard fences. But in 1995, it was getting ugly.

The national tension inspired Jowi Taylor. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.

Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii that is sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on.

The tree was an inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.

But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Strat at every gig I play.)

Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick, and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.

Finally, on June 14, 2006, the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later, at Ottawa’s Canada Day celebration, renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.

The Guitar and the Nation

Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.

Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need and especially when suffering the aftermath of war be it Vietnam, Syria or Afghanistan. We are nearly all from away and at one point we were on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada is a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.

(Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments  embedded it in. If you enjoyed this article, please consider sending it to others and maybe even checking out one of my books – my most recent is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Elections Matter

Whether we like it or not, after being confined to our homes for a year and a half we are all now off on a haphazard journey. Canada’s 44th federal election has begun. We will now be coaxed, bribed, and flattered. There will be appeals to the logic of our minds and yearnings of our hearts.

            This election matters because all elections matter. Ask Americans if it mattered that Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton. While all elections are important, some are more important than others. Over the next few weeks I will consider Canadian elections that were more significant than others because of the changes they wrought.

The Canadians or Colonials Election – 1926

Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was an odd duck loner with notoriously bad breath and totally bereft of charisma. Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was a brilliant debater but a sour puss who made clear that be believed himself to be the smartest man in any room he occupied. In the 1925 election, King lost his seat and the popular vote. He won only 116 seats to Meighen’s 131. But King refused to resign. He met with Governor General Lord Byng and said he would try to continue as prime minister with the support of the Progressives, a fringe party comprised mostly of disaffected Liberals. It worked, for a bit.

Arthur Meighen

            Parliament resumed in January 1926. Still unable to sit in the House, King had his able Quebec lieutenant Ernest Lapointe audaciously move a government confidence motion on itself! He was interrupted by Meighen who leapt up to move one of his own. The speaker allowed debate on Meighen’s motion. The Progressives supported the Liberals which allowed King to maintain his tenuous hold on power.

            In February, King won a hastily-called by election in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He was back in the House in time to have his government attacked as corrupt regarding a customs department issue. By the end of June, it appeared that the government would lose a censure vote; in effect, a vote of non-confidence. King dodged by going to see Byng. He asked the governor general to dissolve parliament and call a new election.

            Eton-educated Viscount Byng of Vimy had led British troops in South Africa and Canadians at the fabled Vimy Ridge. His family had been Lords, Viscounts, Earls, and such for generations. He was not about to be pushed around by this pudgy little colonial. He said no. The Canadian prime minister could not have the election he wanted. King’s only option was to resign the next day. Byng summoned Meighen, appointed him prime minister, and ordered him to form a government.

Viscount Byng of Vimy

            Now opposition leader, King rose to ask if parliamentary procedures had been followed and all newly appointed cabinet ministers had taken their oaths of office. They had not. They had done a political two-step to avoid resigning and running for office again as all cabinet ministers had to do in those days. King had them on a technicality. King moved a motion declaring that Meighen’s government was not legally in power. Then, for the first time in Canadian history, a government was defeated with a vote of non-confidence. Now an election had to happen. It was set for September 23, 1926.

            The campaign had only one issue. Who governs Canada? Is it the British-appointed governor general or the prime minister who had been elected by the Canadian people? King said, “a constitutional issue greater than any has been raised in Canada since the founding of this Dominion.” Ironically, just as Canadian nationalism had been stirred by the glorious victory at Vimy Ridge, Byng was at the centre of it all again when a new nationalist pride was felt in the breasts of many Canadians. After all, there is no deeper existential question than who are we?  The 1926 election was posing that fundamental question and demanding an answer. Are we Canadians or colonials?

            King took the message across the country. For two weeks, Meighen spoke of tariffs and King’s corruption and political trickery but then he too addressed little more than what had been dubbed the King-Byng Thing.

William Lyon Mackenzie King

            Voter turnout was high, demonstrating the importance Canadians placed in the election’s question. King and his Liberals were returned to power with 128 seats and a solid majority. Its support grew from 40% to 46%. Meighen’s Conservatives won only 91 seats. In an uncomfortable meeting, Byng asked King to again become prime minister and form a government.

Legacy

Weeks later, the Canadian election was the talk of a previously scheduled imperial conference. Inspired by Canada’s temerity, the other British dominions demanded all that the Balfour Declaration had suggested and insisted that they and Britain be deemed equal. Britain agreed. Negotiations continued until in December 1931 the Statute of Westminster declared that Canada and the other Dominions were independent and that Britain could no longer pass laws that applied to them. Governor Generals became subordinate to prime ministers.

            Elections matter. The 1926 election determined that Canada would be an independent state.

(If you enjoyed this article, please check my other work at johnboyko.com or my books – my latest is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Our next Governor General is Amazing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Mary Simon would be Canada’s 30th Governor General; the first Indigenous person to serve in that role. Simon is a tremendous choice.

(photo: CTVNews)

Mary Simon was born in the tiny village of Kangiqsualujjuaq, on the east coast of Ungava Bay, at the tip top of Quebec. While her mother was Inuk, her father was an English Canadian who ran the local Hudson’s Bay Company post. Simon and her seven siblings grew up spending months every year on the land, hunting food.

Simon has dedicated her life to public service; specifically, to protecting and advancing the rights of the Inuit people in an environmentally sustainable north. As the board secretary of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, she played a role in negotiating the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement – Canada’s first comprehensive Indigenous land claim settlement. She was elected vice president and then president of the Makivik Corporation, which administered the agreement’s complex terms.

Simon served as the secretary and then co-director of policy with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Its 1996 report outlined a 20-year plan to restructure the relationship between Canadians and Indigenous peoples.

The next year, Simon became one of three Canadians representing the country on the Joint Public Advisory Committee of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. She was elected committee chair in 1998.

From 1986 to 1992, Simon served as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. It represents nearly 200,000 Inuit in Alaska, Russia, Greenland, and Canada and lobbies governments to protect Inuit interests while advancing social and economic development. She then served as Canada’s ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs from 1994 to 2003. At the same time, from 1999 to 2001, she was Canada’s ambassador to Denmark.

Beginning in 2001, Simon served as a Counsellor on the Carter Centre’s International Council for Conflict Resolution. The Carter Centre was founded by former US president Jimmy Carter and seeks to mitigate and prevent conflicts around the world.

Simon served on the Nunavut Implementation Commission which, beginning in 1994, consulted Inuit communities to ensure their interests were reflected in the creation of Canada’s newest territory: Nunavut.

From 2006 to 2012, Simon was president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. It lobbies the federal and provincial governments with respect to Inuit rights in the north. Its work has become especially important as the very real effects of the climate crisis are altering life in the north. 

Simon has always respected education as the engine of change. From 2008 to 2014, she chaired the National Committee on Inuit Education. It brought positive changes to education in the north and ensured that Inuit children respect their cultural heritage and are taught in their own language.

The announcement that Simon would become Canada’s first Indigenous governor general was made in the shadow of recent revelations of mass graves being discovered outside several residential “schools.” The horrific news focussed attention on Canada’s history of systemic racism. Standing next to Prime Minister Trudeau, Simon observed, “My appointment reflects our collective progress toward building a more inclusive, just, and equitable society.”

I hope she’s right. We deserve to be pleased that it is no longer remarkable that our next governor general will be a woman. Let’s look forward to the day when the fact that a prominent official is Indigenous is no longer newsworthy. For now, let us celebrate the fact that our new governor general is such a well-qualified and simply amazing person.

(If you enjoyed this article, please see my others at www.johnboyko.com and you might even want to check out my books including my most recently published The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Canada’s Racist Ladder

Many Americans are arguing about critical race theory. It is the 40-year-old academic notion that race is a social construct. The theory contends that race is not an aberration rising at times in a country’s history but a constant that shaped its development. Racism, the theory contends, is embedded in legal systems and policies.

            Canadians are not debating critical race theory. We can’t. Not today. With the discovery of mass grave sites containing the remains of Indigenous children who were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered, we are being reminded of all we have known or should have known for years. We are being invited by our grief to consider who we are and have always been and, if we have sufficient courage, to begin active redemption.

            Our first step in that wrenching process involves a clear-eyed consideration of Canadian racism. It is perhaps helpful to consider racism as a ladder. The racist ladder’s first rung is stereotypes – characteristics attributed to a particular group. They are created and perpetuated by popular culture. Stereotypes are cemented by racist jokes that would fall flat if the stereotypes were not understood.

            The second rung is prejudice – a belief that the stereotypes are accurate and so all members of a particular race have the characteristics that are popularly attributed to it. A betrayal of prejudice is a sentence that begins: “They are all…” Prejudice allows no individuality for those of a particular race.

            The racist ladder’s third rung is discrimination – an action taken based upon prejudice. An employer, renter, or banker, for instance, may refuse to hire, rent, or provide a loan to someone of a particular race because their negative appraisal of the person before them is based on that person’s race.

            State-sanctioned racism is the natural next rung. With prejudice and discrimination widespread and accepted as normal, prejudiced people are promoted and elected and so discrimination becomes embedded in laws, practices, regulations, rules, and commonly understood behaviour. Racism becomes self-perpetuating as it becomes engrained into all facets of social activity and all social institutions. A systemically racist society overlooks or condones the actions of racist individuals, groups, and incidents in the house because the house itself is racist.

            The next step up the ladder is seen with exclusion and expulsion. Laws are passed to limit or end the immigration of those of a particular race or to stop them from expressing their uniqueness through dress or religious symbols and observances. A particular race may be forced to live in areas reserved for them that are apart from the general population. In times of war, those of a particular race may be rounded up and deported or placed in detention camps.

            The final step on the racist ladder is genocide. Genocide may involve the physical murder of a particular group of people within a country as was done in Germany, Ukraine, Rwanda, and more. According to United Nations Resolution 96, genocide can also involve the killing of a societal group’s soul through the systematic theft of its religion, customs, and language.

Children’s shoes outside a residential “school” where 215 children, who had been kidnapped and taken there with thousands of others over generations, were found in a mass, unmarked grave (Photo: NY Times)

            Canada’s racist ladder is white, Christian, and French in Quebec and British in the rest of the country. It’s propped against a wall of suspicion, fear, pride, and hatred. Without those emotions, and the ignorance from which they grow, the ladder would fall. The stirring and exploitation of those emotions for economic and political advantage, affords it strength.

            We must begin our personal and national reflection and redemption by finding all murdered Indigenous children and honouring their spirits. We must hold to account those people and institutions responsible. We must stop calling residential “schools” schools. We must listen and respect – all of us. We must quickly and faithfully act upon the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Report and the Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

            If our horror and grief at the discovery of the mass graves of children is not a turning point in our history, and the incentive to finally descend and abandon the racism ladder, then what the hell will be?

John Boyko is the author of 8 books including The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.

Courage and Compassion

It was four o’clock in the morning on December 20, 1978. Cradling her sleepy children in her arms, Rebecca Trinh clambered up to join five others on the hood of an old and overcrowded truck. Her husband Sam stuffed himself into the back, clutching a large backpack that contained all they now owned. The truck joined a convoy that was soon bouncing along in the dark on bumpy dirt side-roads.

            Rebecca, Sam, (their Anglicized names) and their two small daughters had been a middle-class family living as happy a life as possible in Saigon while the Vietnam War had raged in far aways jungles and parts of the city far from their home. Now, however, their Chinese heritage had deemed them enemies of the splintering state. They were among thousands on the run for their lives. Weeks after leaving their home with two backpacks and hope for better, they were on an overcrowded, leaky ship approaching Malaysia.

            Rebecca and Sam clutched each other and held their children tight. There were screams as ten pirates armed with axes, machetes, knives, and handguns yelled that all were to board the pirate ships now lashed to the gunnels. The pirates roughly groped their victims and anything of value was taken. Rebecca and Sam had their wedding rings ripped from their fingers. The boat was ransacked with bags torn apart, secret compartments slit, and gold and personal mementos stolen. Finally, after three harrowing hours, the petrified passengers were shoved back aboard and the pirate ships disappeared over the blue horizon. 

            That night, the captain shouted that another pirate ship was approaching. He tried to outrun it but was soon overtaken. Pirates again came aboard but while stepping on some passengers and striking others they quickly realized that there was nothing left to steal. Shuddering women and girls were relieved when, miraculously, a second crew of pirates left them unmolested.

            At about eight the next morning the ship entered Malaysian territory. Salvation appeared in the form of coconut trees on the far shore. But a Malaysian naval vessel approached and through loud speakers announced that they would not be allowed landfall. A chain was thrown and attached and the boat crammed with pleading people was towed back out to international waters. Like all ships under tow, it listed to and fro with waves and spray drenching all aboard. Twice it nearly capsized. After two hours of perilous hauling, the chain was released and the Malaysian captain shouted over the speaker that they were to sail straight ahead for two or three days where they would find Indonesia.

            Towing was a common occurrence. By the middle of 1978, the Malaysian government had decided that it had accepted enough Vietnamese refugees and could handle no more. Over the next couple of years about 40,000 desperate people were towed away. Thailand’s government had made the same decision and posted its army on the Cambodian border. At one point, a squadron of Thai soldiers aimed their weapons at thousands of starving people who had walked for weeks to escape their country’s madness. They were turned around and forced down a mountain trail. Several hundred were killed and others mutilated as they walked through a minefield that the soldiers must have known was there.

            The captain knew that no one had enough food or water for another three days at sea. People were falling ill and more children had died. He wanted to save his passengers and crew as well as his own family members who were on board. He conjured a plan, moved further up the coast to avoid naval vessels, and then tacked back along the Malaysian coast.

            The captain picked his spot and under the cover of a moonless sky maneuvered the boat as close to shore as possible. Shouts rang out and everyone scrambled to their feet. They were told to grab their possessions and yank boards from decks or walls and anything else that could float. They were abandoning and scuttling the boat.

            Rebecca  stood at the rail holding her two crying girls and watched others leaping into the dark waves. Sam yelled that he would go first and that she should then throw Judy to him. She watched him jump and for a terrifying moment he was gone until, sputtering and waving, he resurfaced and yelled up to her. Rebecca sat Helen on the deck and held her with one foot while she picked Judy up with both hands and with all her might threw the screaming child into the darkness. Judy plunged into the water just in front of Sam and in seconds he had her. Rebecca then picked up Helen and planned her move. She tossed her crying baby high into the air and at the same moment jumped, smacking into the water and then frantically scrambling back to the surface where she threw her hands into a splash beside her and astonishingly caught her howling daughter. Treading water with one arm and pulling Helen close with the other, she thanked God for having saved them all.

            Sam was quickly beside them and they turned toward the shore, several hundred yards away. Screams for help pierced the night but they had to keep swimming. Rebecca praised God again as she crawled, exhausted, onto the sand. The children had become too cold and wet and scared to cry. But now, safe and on the huge, desolate beach, their mother did.

            Rebecca’s family eventually made it to Canada. The majority of Canadians did not want them or the others escaping the madness of post-war Vietnam. But enough Canadians listened to their hearts. Enough Canadians saw that the Vietnam War, in which Canada had been involved from the beginning, was asking just what a Canadian was and should be.

(Rebecca Trinh’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It was published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, and is available now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

Could a “Trump” Insurrection Happen in Canada?

Last week, enough Republican Senators feared their base to acquit an obviously guilty Donald Trump. The January 6 horror and impeachment debacle invite two questions. For Americans: Was this the end of something or the beginning of something? For Canadians: Could a Trump-like insurrection happen here? We’ll see what happens south of the border but the short answer for Canadians is no; for three reasons.

(Photo: Seattle Times)

First, our political structure is different. In the United States, a federal election is run by each state and territory according to unique rules and with many blatantly partisan state officials brazenly supressing the other party’s vote. Elections Canada, on the other hand, is an independent, non-partisan agency that runs our federal elections. It ensures free and fair elections through many means, among the most important of which is enforcing campaign spending limits. Further, we don’t vote directly for our head of government. The only people who voted for Justin Trudeau were the good people of Papineau in Montreal. It is, therefore, a lot tougher to initiate a Trump-like big lie about a stolen election because it is a lot tougher to question Canadian election results.

Further, Canada’s executive is not separate from but a part of our legislature. As a result, if a prime minister began exhibiting corrupt or wonky behaviour he would be eviscerated in the House day after day. Dwindling support would leave a minority government leader on his ear. Even in a majority situation, a prime minister’s party would eventually turn against him. Ask Sir John. In both cases, a prime minister would be gone long before he became Trumpian – or Nixonian for that matter.

Second, Canada’s political culture is different. Canada is founded upon what political philosopher Gad Horowitz called a Tory Touch. That is, while the United States celebrates the rugged individual and a visceral distrust in government, since before Confederation, Canadians have been guided by an embrace of community, trust in government, and respect for authority. While Horowitz’s 1965 idea has been challenged, the stubborn persistence of its validity can be seen in the national consensus and all-party support for our social welfare state. That endorsement is reflected most clearly in our acceptance of the social contract that has us paying taxes to allow universal health care. The Tory Touch can also be seen in the vast majority of Canadians grudgingly accepting the measures taken to combat COVID-19. We wince as Americans, absent the Tory Touch, rip themselves up over health care and masks.

Finally, Canada’s media is different. Robert Murdoch has thankfully ignored us while his Fox News created an alternate universe for too many Americans. His viewers/adherents truly believe the big lie whether it’s that Obama is Kenyan, Clinton ran a child-porn ring from a pizzeria, or Trump won last November. The closest Canada came to slipping into the swamp of alternate facts was with the 2011 launch of the Sun News Network. Its hard-right editorial stance aped Fox in that ideology trumped truth and nuance was attacked as elitism. Perhaps because of the Tory Touch, Sun News failed to find an audience and died in 2015. Rebel News rose from Sun’s corpse but its coverage of American racist violence and then the Quebec City mosque shooting led sponsors to flee and all but its most fervent followers to leave the echo chamber.

Canada’s structure, culture, and media render a Donald Trump and so a Trump insurrection less likely in Canada – but not impossible. Those who can be convinced of horrible things can be led to do horrible acts and so Canadians must be vigilante. We must insulate ourselves from social media conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism. We must reject rampant partisanship and politicians who ignore or deny complexity while appealing to our base instincts. We must refuse to fear “the other” whether that be someone of a different race, religion, or political point of view. We must continually strive to be what we like to say we are.

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

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.

 

 

The Guitar That Reminds Us Who We Are

Sometimes the craziest of ideas can be terrifically inspiring. This one involves a guitar and a nation.

It was 1995 and Canada was coming apart at the seams. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had decided that because Quebec had not signed the constitution when it was finally brought home from Britain in 1981, that he would seduce the signature by transferring a host of federal powers to it and the other provinces. The provinces loved it, of course. Then the whole package, called the Charlottetown Accord, went to the people in a national referendum. That’s when the arguments began. Revolutions had been fought about such things. In the United States, over 700,000 people were butchered in their Civil War deciding whether dominant power should rest with the federal or state governments. But Canadians are different. We reached not for guns but gavels. We debated in public meetings. We argued at kitchen tables, and over backyard fences. It got ugly.

Jowi Taylor reacted differently. The CBC writer and radio host met with luthier George Ritzsanyi and suggested that they make a guitar. They would call it Voyageur. Ritzsany was a first-generation Hungarian immigrant who had worked as an auto worker but had become renowned among guitar lovers for his unique and fine work. But this would not be just any guitar.

Taylor would assemble this guitar from fragments of the nation to which it would be dedicated. David Suzuki, the well-known environmentalist and TV host, was instrumental in pointing Taylor to the Golden Spruce. It was the rare, 300-year-old albino tree on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) that was sacred to the Haida people. It became a symbol of resistance to broken treaties and land rights encroachments when, in the middle of the night, an angry logging scout chainsawed the sacred tree to the ground. Suzuki introduced Taylor to Haida elders and, after great debate, they agreed that the guitar would be an honoured place for part of the felled tree to live on. Voyageur would be made from a piece of the sacred Golden Spruce.

The tree was an important and inspiring first step but Taylor needed more items to embed in the guitar and money to support their collection. He called his project The Six String Nation. He set up a website and wrote emails and snail mails and made countless phone calls. He traveled. He begged for funding and was disappointed more often than pleased. The Globe and Mail published a front page story about the project but even that brought frustratingly little funding. The CBC offered to make a film but that fell apart.

But Canadians came through. Individual sponsors stepped up and big and small donations were made. Many people logged on and bought guitar straps to help finance the project. (Full disclosure, one of them was me. The black strap holds my Gretsch at every gig I play.)

Taylor’s persistence began paying dividends and more precious objects were collected. There was a piece from Rocket Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a fragment from Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick and another Paul Henderson’s stick. There was an antler from a moose and another from a mastodon. There was a piece of steel rail from a CPR track, one from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard, and a chunk of copper from the roof of the parliamentary library, Canada’s most beautiful room. There was a chunk of a seat from Massey Hall and another from the old Montreal Forum. There was a piece of Nancy Green’s ski and one from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle.

Finally, on June 14, 2006, the fragments had been collected and incorporated and the guitar was done. It was beautiful. It played beautifully. A week later it was in Ottawa where preparations were being made for the Canada Day celebration. Renowned bluesman Colin James strummed it for gathered reporters and said it was a fine guitar that he was proud to play. Colin Linden played it at a press event the next day. Then, on the big stage, on July 1, the guitar’s story was told and the enormous crowd thundered its approval with applause that echoed off parliament’s centre block. Stephen Fearing took Voyageur in hand and kicked off his set with the Longest Road. It had indeed been a long road but it was not over.

The Guitar and the Nation

Jowi Taylor and Voyageur (Photo: Doug Nicholson)

The guitar toured the country. Professionals and amateurs held it and played it. As guitarists know, playing a guitar is an intimate act. It is the only instrument the player cradles when playing like a child, like a lover. And Canadians loved the guitar.

Canadians are a nation by choice. We are a nation not of blood but of laws. We build bridges not walls and we extend our hands to those in need whether suffering the aftermath of World War Two, or the Vietnam War, or the Syrian War. We all know, and most of us recall, that we are nearly all from away and at one point we were the aliens on the boats, risking all to seek a better life and contribute to nation worthy of our dreams. Canada, after all, is less an entity than a conversation. Jowi Taylor’s Voyageur guitar has become an important part of that conversation by inviting us to consider the fragments within it that are fragments of ourselves.

Please visit http://www.sixstringnation.com/ where you can scan the guitar and see all the amazing fragments  embedded it in. Please consider sending this column to others.

Canada’s Only Assassination and Last Public Hanging

Patrick Whelan lived his life at the intersection of politics and passion. He was born around 1840, just outside of Dublin, Ireland. When only 14 years of age, Whelan did as most young Irish people did at the time and left school to pursue a trade. He found work as a tailor in Dublin and eventually completed his apprenticeship. Times were tough. They would get tougher.

Ireland was still suffering from a blight on the potato crops that, beginning in 1845, had led to wide-spread famine, dislocations, and nearly two million people leaving the country for Canada and the United States. The decade’s long economic and humanitarian crisis led to political upheaval. A group of Irish nationalists called the Young Irish sought to use peaceful, democratic means to win back Irish independence that had been lost to Great Britain in 1800. By the time Whelan arrived in Dublin, the group had failed to advance their agenda. Those frustrated by a lack of progress created a more radical group called the Fenian Brotherhood. Named after ancient Irish warriors called the Fianna Eirionn, the Fenians sought independence through revolution.

Whelan moved to England and again found work as a tailor. In 1865, the year of a violent but futile Fenian uprising, Whelan followed so many of his countrymen and fled economic hardship and political upheavals for a better life in Canada. He arrived in Quebec City and took up his trade with Mr. Vallin. He enjoyed horses, dancing, and drinking. He contributed to his new city in early 1866 by joining Montreal’s Volunteer Cavalry.

Irish political troubles crossed the Atlantic with the Irish immigrants. The American Civil War (1861-1865) saw a number of Irish-American regiments fight bravely. With the war’s end, Fenian leaders worked to use the military experience of the soldiers to their advantage. Approximately 10,000 men pledged allegiance to the Fenian cause and supported the idea that they would invade and capture the British North American colonies. (British North American at that time consisted of Canada – Ontario and Quebec. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland) Britain would be asked to trade Canada and the Maritime colonies for Irish independence. The 1866 Fenian border crossing in New Brunswick was a minor nuisance but there was a battle in June near Ridgetown, north of Lake Erie, near Niagara Falls. The Fenian Americans quickly withdrew.

Whelan’s cavalry unit was not involved in the Fenian raids but his sympathies were betrayed when he was arrested for trying to persuade a British soldier to join the Fenians. He was released when only the solicited soldier could testify about the conversation. At the time of the Fenian Raids, Whelan was reported to have been in Buffalo, the center of American Fenian activity. He then worked as a tailor in Hamilton before moving to Montreal. It was there that he was married to a woman about thirty years older than himself. He became involved with an Irish nationalist group called the St. Patrick’s Society. In the fall of 1867, he and his wife moved to Ottawa where he worked for tailor Peter Eagleson, a well-known supporter of the Fenian cause.

assassin-whelan

Whelan (Photo: CBC)

An important gentleman opposed to that cause was Thomas D’Arcy McGee. McGee had been born in Ireland, emigrated to Boston at age 17 and was the co-editor of a journal advocating Irish nationalism. Young Ireland leaders asked McGee to return to Ireland and write about the movement. He was among those who, in 1848, tried to spark a revolution to establish an independent Irish republic. The effort’s failure took him back to the United States and then, in 1857, to Montreal. Months later, the journalist, poet, author,  and gifted public speaker was elected to the Canadian legislature.

By 1864, McGee was an influential member of the Canadian cabinet and in the Confederation meetings in Charlottetown and Quebec City that led to Canada’s creation in July 1867. He had also changed his political views and was now writing and speaking against Irish nationalism and the Fenians. By 1868, his close friend Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was considering him a possible successor but many Irish Canadians saw him as a traitor.

On April 7, 1868, McGee’s late evening House of Commons speech about Canada’s promise was met with rousing applause. The House adjourned just after two o’clock in the morning. McGee walked across the Parliament Hill lawn and then the two blocks to his Sparks Street rooming house, enjoying the unusually mild evening illuminated by a stunning full moon. He was reaching for his key when an assassin crept behind him and fired a .32 calibre bullet through the back of his head. He died instantly.

mcgee

McGee (Photo: CBC)

Within an hour, Police Detective Edward O’Neill was on the case. The House of Commons doorkeeper told him to arrest the “sandy whiskered tailor” at Eagleson’s tailor shop. O’Neill knew the Irish community well and so he knew the man in question was Whelan. Whelan’s rooms at Michael Starr’s Hotel were searched and found to contain a great many Irish nationalist and Fenian publications. Police found several copies of the Irish American and several blank membership cards to Irish nationalist groups, which suggested that he was involved in distributing literature and soliciting memberships. Police also found Whelan’s Smith & Wesson, .32-calibre revolver. One bullet had recently been re-loaded and there was fresh powder on the muzzle. Whelan was arrested for the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

Based on the suspicion that the murder was a Fenian conspiracy, forty others believed to have been involved were also arrested. They included Whelan’s boss, his landlord, a number of his friends, and even prominent Fenians in Toronto and Montreal.

Whelan’s trial began in September. He appeared resplendent in a green suit and white vest. The courthouse was packed with reporters and Prime Minister Macdonald sat at the table with the crown’s lawyers. Testimony revealed that Whelan had been seen outside McGee’s boarding house twice in the days before the murder. He had been seen looking anxious and jittery on Parliament Hill on the night before and, with his pistol in his pocket, in the House of Commons gallery watching McGee’s final speech. It was stated that Whelan had spoken many times about wanting to kill McGee. A man who was incarcerated in the jail cell across from Whelan, testified that Whelan had confessed to feeling remorse about having shot McGee. Another gentleman testified that he had seen the murder take place and, while his testimony was confused in places, he was sure Whelan was the assassin.

The defense poked holes in the eye-witness testimony and much of that presented by others, but the evidence was clearly stacked against the accused. Whelan took the stand on the trial’s final day. Dressed all in black, he said that he was not a Fenian and had great admiration for McGee. He concluded, “Now I am held to be a black assassin. And my blood runs cold. But I am innocent. I never took that man’s blood.”

After several hours of deliberation, the jury found Thomas James Whelan guilty of the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The conviction was appealed to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Ontario but to no avail. It was appealed again and, in January 1869, the Ontario Court of Appeal rejected it again. There was nothing left but for Whelan to face the sentence the court had announced. He would be hanged.

Whelan languished in cell number 4 in Ottawa’s Carleton County Jail for ten months, awaiting the hangman’s noose. On the day before he was scheduled to die, he composed a three-page letter to Sir John A. Macdonald. As he had in court, he claimed to be a loyal British subject, to have never been a Fenian, and that he had not shot McGee. The letter went unanswered.

Whelan enjoyed his last meal on the morning of February 11, 1869. The gallows were ready. Whelan’s hands were lashed behind his back and he was slowly led up the wooden steps. A hushed crowd of 5,000 watched intently. Whelan’s last words, uttered a moment before a hood was lowered over his head: “I am innocent.” It would be Canada’s last public hanging and the only assassination of a Canadian politician.

The pistol that killed McGee is now on display in Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of History. Ottawa’s Carleton County Jail has become a hostel where people spend the night and hear of ghost stories including that of Whalen’s ghost, reportedly seen in his old cell, writing his letter to Macdonald. In August 2002, descendants of Whelan’s family came to the spot near the hostel where Whelan was buried. They proclaimed his innocence. A priest said a short prayer. A mound of earth was scooped into a box and taken to Montreal where it was interred next to Whelan’s widow, at Cote des Neiges cemetery. In the same cemetery, rests the remains of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

 

This column is the second that I have been invited to contribute to the Canadian Encyclopdia. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others.

 

 

Dear Canada: Winter

Dear Canada,

Summer is easy. What’s not to love about you in summer? Character, however, is only built and revealed in adversity. So anyone wanting to know you, anyone wanting to know us, has to know winter.

The leaves and temperature fall and everyone knows it’s on its way. Summer stuff gets stored, the outside water is shut off, and the sky goes purple-gray and silent as the last of the cowardly birds betray us and go. And then comes the day, snow’s first day, when we stand at the window and watch with a child’s eyes; as if for the first time. We marvel as snow too white to be real sparkles diamonds in the sun. It blankets leafless trees standing defiantly brittle amid sagging spruce and pines. And the yard becomes art.

Winter slows us down. There is no such thing as rushing out when having to first don boots and coat and hat and scarf and mitts. Thank goodness for Velcro, but a child’s snow suit still demands patience and time and then more of both when disassembled for the pee that is somehow, again, forgotten. And then there is the path to be shoveled to the car that then needs to be unburied, de-iced, and warmed.

Speed limits are for summer. All but main roads are snow-packed for months and the occasional melts turn them to pock-marked Passchendaele. Streets scoff at the oceans of salt and Sierras of sand so we bounce and creep, especially around corners with their paint-smeared telephone poles reminding us to be patient. The days shrivel. We make our way to and from work in inky darkness smudged with ghostly plumes of exhaust. Snowflakes that would be pretty if we were home with a fire and a glass of hearty red are instead headlight-engorged rockets that fire mercilessly into windshields inducing a hideous hypnosis.

Things do not speed up upon arrival. Three feet inside every public doorway stands a momentary community with their fogged-up glasses all exchanging knowing, blurry glances. Then it’s the slow, walking strip-tease, because everywhere inside in winter is warmer than outside in summer. Work places resemble used shoe stores with wet boots on soppy mats. Everyone’s hair is the shape of their hats. We approach door knobs with dread and sometimes actually see sparks. After a while, every place smells the same – wet wool and cough drops. It isn’t exactly bad and it doesn’t really matter because with the cold we’ve all been fighting for weeks it’s hard to smell anything anyway.

Winter can sometimes stop you altogether. What is more glorious than a snow day? We hear it on the radio and we’re suddenly all children. The radio also brings reports from the city’s “Thank God it’s Monday” crowd who slide and smash into one another to get to the vertical ice cube trays where they are apparently indispensable; unaware that no one’s keeping score. The wind howls hurricanes down concrete canyons that are empty of all of but the intrepid as the city-below-the-city bustles in its high-heeled obliviousness. Just a few miles away it’s all quite different.

dear-canada-winter

My yard, last snow day

Township and county plows tend to the main roads but it’s always a long while before they get to most streets, so there’s time for another coffee. Kids who usually fight to stay under covers burst outside with wide smiles and bright eyes and without a screen in sight. Folks are soon in driveways, leaning on shovels and speaking with neighbours who lean on theirs. Why not? Everyone knows the game. We scrape and shovel and throw it high onto piles that seem taller than last year. The plow waits until it senses we’re done and then, only then, it thunders by with three feet of plowcrete. The shoveling army mobilizes again; there’s nothing like a good minus-ten-degree sweat.

Climate change’s thaws and freezes have euchred all but the most dedicated backyard rink masters, but the little bay still goes stiff. Nothing’s ever organized but somehow it always gets scraped and there is skating for all. Windswept days between snowfalls sometimes provide the magic of pick-up hockey with nets a ridiculous distance apart. It seems fittingly patriotic to finish a hundred yard breakaway on a frigid sunny afternoon in the world’s only country with a hockey player on its Bill of Rights.

Gravity games rule. What’s not to love about skiing, tobogganing, and sledding. Kids love the snow-mountains that grow beside the school parking lot. Look up every big or little hill and see somebody in a primary-coloured snowsuit sliding down. Evening walks offer the joy of the crisp boot-fall crunch and the smell of woodstoves that stir a deep and primal yearning that’s lovely in its mystery. The stars seem closer and clearer. Lungs burn, breath freezes, cheeks redden, and there is nothing more romantic than holding hands through down-filled mitts.

Muddy April is marvelous but brings fixing and raking and cleaning. The gifts left by months-worth of wandering dogs present themselves along with the recycle stuff that cycloned from blue boxes Tuesday after Tuesday. Purple crocuses pierce the last bits of crystalline snow. The magical, riotous tulips remind us that the world is not black and white after all. There is always that one last storm with snow as pretty as the first but we damn it this time and steal its power by steadfastly refusing to shovel it; there, that will teach it. We convince ourselves that it will melt soon enough, and sure enough, it does. And then there is green, oh green, glorious green.

Winter defines. Winter slows, and winter stops. Winter reminds us that we are not the boss. It ignites a humble admiration for the power and majestic beauty of the true boss. It invites community. Winter says that work can wait and time with family is the only wealth, recognition, or reward we need; everything else is by the by. Winter reminds us that, like those dark nights with gently falling snow or those bold, defiant tulips, nothing lasts forever – nothing. But it’s all good right now, and right now, that’s good enough.

Sincerely,

A friend.

Song For A Winter’s Night  by Gordon Lightfoot

The lamp is burning low upon my table top

The snow is softly falling

The air is still in the silence of my room

I hear your voice softly calling

If I could only have you near

To breathe a sigh or two

I would be happy just to hold the hands I love

On this winter night with you

 

The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead

My glass is almost empty

I read again between the lines upon the page

The words of love you sent me

If I could know within my heart

That you were lonely too

I would be happy just to hold the hands I love

On this winter night with you

 

The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim

The shades of night are lifting

The morning light steals across my window pane

Where webs of snow are drifting

If I could only have you near

To breathe a sigh or two

I would be happy just to hold the hands I love

And to be once again with you

To be once again with you

The Rich Man’s Riot and Democracy’s Dawn

Like each of us, a nation’s character is forged by triumphs recalled and tragedies we choose to forget. On an April evening in 1849, a Montreal mob burned Parliament to the ground. The fire and ensuing riots are among many largely forgotten incidents suggesting that Canadians are not what we like to think we are.

Canada is not the meek and peaceable kingdom of our collective mythology. It’s more complicated than that. We are more complicated than that. If we wish to understand who we are as Canadians, who we truly are, then we must understand and acknowledge the ugly but transformative power of riots whose fires, blood, and mad destruction dot our past and colour our character.

The flint that lit the 1849 flames lay in the muskets and determination of farmers who, twelve years before, marched down Toronto’s Yonge Street and up the road to St. Denis. They understood power. They knew they had none. A small, rich, urban elite – we would call them the one percent – was making all the rules and ruling only for themselves. A British governor held executive authority and he appointed only rich business and clerical leaders to his cabinet then heard only the advice of London and those well-heeled friends. The people and its elected assembly were routinely ignored.

William Lyon Mackenzie, in what is now Ontario, and Louis Joseph Papineau, in what is now Quebec, harnessed the people’s righteous indignation and led armed rebellions. The Toronto fight ended quickly with gunfire where Maple Leaf Gardens would later stand. Papineau’s rebellion was longer and bloodier but it too was crushed. Three hundred and thirty died, 2,000 were arrested, 151 were banished to Australia, and 12 were hung. The leaders fled to the United States.

The foppish Lord Durham was dispatched to find out what happened. He grumbled through five months of high living and then wrote a report revealing that he had learned little. Thinking the rebellions were inspired wholly by religious and ethnic tensions, he recommended joining the two colonies under one administration to overwhelm the pesky French Catholics. However, he also recommended that the new colony’s governor rule according to advice from Canadians rather than London.

The old conservative elite rigged the new game to keep their old power. People like Toronto’s Bishop John Strachan and Montreal brewer John Molson still called the shots. Reform politicians Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, however, forged an unlikely alliance. They insisted that members of the executive council – the cabinet – be appointed not from among the rich and clerics but, rather, from among those elected by the people.

After two violent elections that were corrupt even by 19th century standards, and then shifting priorities in Britain, a new Governor arrived. Lord Elgin allowed democratic reforms that farmers and urban merchants were demanding. The 1848 election afforded Reformers a parliamentary majority and Elgin asked Baldwin and LaFontaine to become co-premiers and form a cabinet. The 99% had won. The 1% were out – and they were mad.

Among the new government’s first legislation was the Rebellion Losses Bill. It pledged to compensate all those whose property had been damaged in the 1837 rebellions, including the rebels themselves. The old conservative elite was outraged. Their petition to the governor was dismissed. Although Elgin disagreed with the bill, he said that the people’s government had legally passed it and so he must sign it. At five o’clock on April 25, in the presence of the members of both houses of parliament, he affixed his signature.

As Elgin left the legislature, elegantly dressed business people and Conservative (Tory) MPs pelted his carriage with rocks. An egg smashed his face. With horses at a gallop Elgin escaped the melee. Drunk with indignation, 1,500 angry Tories and their supporters gathered at Champ-de-Mars. Holding torches aloft they marched, shattered windows, and chanted their way to the opulent St. Anne’s Market building that housed parliament.

The legislature was in session but members scattered as rocks smashed through windows. Sandford Fleming, who would later plot the railway route through the Rockies and invent standard time, grabbed a portrait of Queen Victoria and ran it out a back door. Several legislators, including John Sandford Macdonald, who would later be Ontario’s first premier, blockaded the large front entrance. Led by a well-known lawyer, the mob stole a 35-foot ladder and used it to crash their way inside. Legislators were knocked down and kicked. A fat man in an expensive waistcoat jumped atop the speaker’s chair and yelled, “I dissolve parliament!” Furniture was smashed. Gas pipes were broken and then torches thrown. Bankers, lawyers, and clerics cheered the collapse of the roof as the screaming, leaping flames licked the sky. The fire quickly engulfed a neighbouring house, two warehouses, and a hospital. And the cheering went on.

Rich Man's Riot.

(Photo: history.lbpsb.qc.ca)

The next night, men left their fine homes, expensive sherry, and imported cigars to reassemble downtown. There were more speeches about race, religion, class, and the natural order of things and power lost. This time their spitting anger was focused on the homes of political enemies whom they blamed for stealing what was considered rightfully theirs. LaFontaine’s house on rue de l’Aqueduc and Baldwin’s boarding house were among those attacked with torches and rocks.

As the mad violence threatened to fill a third night, the military assembled. General Gore warned of the arming of police constables and that the 71st regiment had rifles and cannon ready. There were scattered incidents of violence but a tense and eerie calm gripped the city.

Everyone knew the riot’s instigators. Everyone knew who had thrown stones and set flames. But Baldwin and LaFontaine restrained their reaction. They did not meet violence with violence. They ensured that some arrests were made but also that all were freed. They carefully enhanced security and for weeks there were flares of politically inspired violence but a bitter peace eventually prevailed. The army retired to base and the police locked up their guns.

Over the next weeks, Parliament was moved to Toronto. A Tory petition to London demanding an overturning of the Rebellion Losses Bill was denied. The payments were made. A Conservative movement demanding Canada’s annexation to the United States was initiated by new voices of the old Tory elite, including some who would later be fathers of confederation. It was allowed a natural death.

Most importantly of all, those still raging at the shift of power from the one to the ninety-nine percent fought not on the street but through committees, editorials, and speeches. The government remained in office with executive power, then and forever afterward, held not by the privileged, handpicked few but determined by the votes of the many.

The 1849 rich man’s riots did not signal Canada’s independence from Britain, but it was a crucial step. They did not give birth to true democracy, but parliament’s flames illuminated its dawn. Perhaps we are well served to recall incidents such as the Montreal riot to better understand ourselves and who we truly are. Further, perhaps we should ponder if the old fights regarding whose voices should be heard and interests served will be, or maybe even should be, re-fought. If so, let us listen for the voices of this generation’s Baldwin and LaFontaine, lest torches be lit again.

If you enjoyed this column please share it with others and considered checking our more from my Monday blog archive at http://www.johnboyko.com

Ten Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

In TV’s political drama West Wing, C. J. once bemoaned a trivial incident being reported as news and said, “Everybody’s stupid in an election year.” Charlie replied, “No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year.” With the first debate in Canada’s long electoral slog heading toward the October vote now over and the campaign gathering steam, sadly, it appears that C. J. was correct. But there remains time to change. Canadians can enjoy the campaign they deserve if party leaders obeyed the following rules:

10 Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

(Photo: kelownalakecountry.liberal.ca)

  1. Don’t call us voters or taxpayers. We are citizens. Citizenship is a profound concept that informs our collective identity, individual rights, and responsibilities to others. Don’t cheapen citizenship’s nobility by confusing it with voting and paying taxes. They are merely two of its duties.
  1. Don’t tell us we’re choosing a prime minister. We’re not Americans picking a president or Human Resource directors involved in a hiring. Rather, we’re architects designing a House. The 338-member House we create will decide which party enjoys its confidence and that party’s leader will become ours.
  1. Don’t deride coalitions. Canada fought the First World War with Borden’s coalition government. In 2010, Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders negotiated a coalition that successfully and responsibly governed Britain for five years. Coalitions are a legitimate option in any parliamentary democracy.
  1. Don’t offer false choices. The most obvious example is the old chestnut of picking either a thriving economy or sustainable development. Respected scientists and economists have argued for years that we can have both or neither.
  1. Don’t employ terms without definitions. Promising tax changes for the rich and middle class without defining either invites cynicism. Promises to help families are similarly shallow when the concept of family is so broad.
  1. Don’t try to scare us. We know that foreign policy discussions must involve Canada’s support for aid, international justice, environmental stewardship, and fair trade. We know we must sometimes go to war. Please don’t pretend that foreign policy is about nothing more than tempering liberty to battle terrorism that, after all, is not an enemy but a tactic.
  1. Don’t bribe us with our money. Monthly cheques for this program or that are just dribbles of our cash that you held for awhile. Come tax time, you’ll get part of it back again anyway. We are not children and our money is not your candy.
  1. Don’t devalue social media. If you shade the truth or outright lie, change your message in various regions, or contradict a previously stated principle, we’ll know instantly. We’ll know before you can react or spin. Your TV ads won’t save you because fewer of us watch them than follow Twitter and Facebook.
  1. Don’t underestimate us. Kim Campbell once said that campaigns are not a time to discuss complicated issues. The unusual length of this campaign offers a unique opportunity to prove her wrong. Trust our intelligence and attention spans by engaging us with complex ideas and grand visions. We just may surprise you.
  1. Don’t forget character. Impress us by your ability to rise above empty slogans, staged events, sophomoric behaviour, and bully tactics. Speak not at us but with us. Speak with journalists who inform us. We all suffer slips of the tongue so if you commit a verbal gaffe, apologize and move on. Relax. A leader’s most important attribute is not a bursting war chest, lists of promises, strict adherence to a script, or even, forgive me, nice hair. Leadership is about character. In fact, that’s all it’s about. Show it. We’ll recognize it. We’ll reward it.

West Wing’s Leo McGarry once said, “We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.” We respect all those working to earn a seat in our House. Just imagine if party leaders, in turn, respected us by obeying the ten rules and adopting McGarry’s goal as their guide. We could then engage in a campaign worthy of Canadians.

If you liked this, please send it to others through Facebook or your social media of choice. This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, and Maclean’s online.

Love Letter to Canada on her Birthday

Dear Canada,

Birthdays are great. The friends, family, and food are marvelous as another marker is placed on the road to wisdom and understanding; the destination we seek and hope to recognize upon arrival. Of course, the fewer candles on the cake increase the chances of bouncy castles and donkey-pinning and the normally banned junk-food.

Your birthday is always special. What’s not to love about fireworks, music, and a day off in the middle of summer? For some reason we attach special significance to anniversaries ending in fives and zeroes so your biggest birthday bash was in 1967. The Centennial parks, fountains, buildings, and bridges from coast to coast are testament to your 100th birthday having been celebrated everywhere. The biggest bash was in Montreal. Expo ’67 invited the world and the world came. Magnificent national pavilions wove facts and myths in what other countries chose to display of themselves and how we cheered ourselves.

Dear Canada on her Birthday

(Photo: nmmc-co.com)

Your most powerful myth is your birthday itself. You became an independent state on July 1, 1867. But your independence was an act of the British parliament. Britain still controlled your constitution. A British committee could over rule your Supreme Court. A British company controlled what is now northern Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and the North West Territories. Britain still negotiated and co-signed treaties and trade deals. So you were independent but only like a teenager who moves out but only as far as Mom’s basement.

For a long while, we pouted and slammed doors from time to time but didn’t do much about it. After all, we still considered ourselves British. Our census form had nowhere to proclaim we were Canadian. We carried British passports. We voted for Sir John A. and his slogan: “A British subject I was born and a British subject I will die.”

It all changed when a European family spat led cousins with big navies and bigger egos and more pride than brains to trip the world into war. We called it the Great War because not until the next phase in what became a decades long European civil war would we begin to number them. Britain was in and all we could yell up the stairs was “Ready Aye Ready”. Boys who had never traveled more than fifty miles from home were stirred by a pull of patriotism, a yearning for adventure, and the hope that girls really do love a man in uniform. They were soon on trains to Val Cartier, Quebec, and then aboard crowded ships to Britain and then, the front.

They had no idea what they were in for. Picture digging a hole in your yard and living there for a year. Eat there, sleep there, and relieve yourself there, day after day and season after season. Watch for rats the size of spaniels, killing coughs, lice, maggot-infested food, and after standing for days in the open sewer, toes fall away when sodden boots were finally removed. It was a war against conditions and, too often, stupid officers more than the enemy.

Dear Canada on her Birthday.

(Photo: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca)

After years of using Canadians as shock-troop cannon fodder, our four divisions were joined and told to capture a ridge that the French and British had found impossible to take. We dug and planned. We ignored the British way and told every man his job. And men the boys had indeed become. Many still bore pimples but too much boredom punctuated by terror and too many trips on leave for bad booze and horizontal recreation made them older than their ages; older than anyone deserved to be. On Easter Sunday, a barrage that shook the earth and shattered the sky announced the attack and the Canadians soon had Vimy Ridge..

Back home, for the first time, we had not an allied, not even a British, but a Canadian victory. For the first time, Canadians considered themselves Canadians. When the war finally ended, Britain said it would take care of the peace. With a pat on the head we were to go back downstairs and wait quietly. No. Too many of our children, sent to kill their children, had died. Too many were home but broken. We had earned a place at the grown-up’s table. It took a while but we increasingly considered ourselves Canadian and one but one by one the vestiges of colonialism fell away, forgotten like other childish things.

So while a person’s birthday is easy to peg, a country’s is more a decision than fact. Perhaps, Canada, your birthday is really April 12, 1917; the day we made it to the top of that damned hill. But is it better to plant our patriotism at a Charlottetown conference table, in the British House of Commons, or on a blood-spattered Belgian ridge? Or is according too much significance to the tragic blunder of a crazy war affording too much recognition to the boneheads who started it, the profiteers who exploited it, and mankind’s predilection to slaughter rather than build?

Perhaps it’s better to stick with July 1, 1867. I guess, like Jimmy Stewart was told in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when facts get in the way of the legend, print the legend. So this July, let’s enjoy the day off and with the sun’s surrender, let’s ooh and ahh at the fireworks. But this year, with these thoughts in mind, let’s offer ourselves a dare. Let’s see if any of us now can watch the colourful explosions over the park or lake and not think of the sky over Vimy.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

This is a few days late to stick with my Monday posting schedule but hopefully still invites consideration. If you enjoyed it, please send it along to others through Facebook or your social media of choice.

Love Letter to a Country

Dear Canada,

It’s been said that you have too little history and too much geography. It’s a nice quip but the first part just speaks of too many bad history teachers convincing generations of kids that your past is short, boring, and without inspiring heroes and snidely villains. None of it is true, of course, but once a myth takes hold, it’s hard to shake.

The geography bit is interesting and a trifle more accurate because Canada, you are indeed massive. While old, thankfully gone history classes were having us memorize dates and the deeds of dead white guys, geography teachers were bragging that only the Soviet Union was bigger than you. Since, no matter what anyone says, size does indeed matter, it was exciting when Mr. Gorbachev let the ailing Soviet giant fall. The sparkle of elation was followed, however, as often happens, by the snuffed candle of disappointment. Even when shorn of its satellites, Russia remained biggest. But that’s alright. Famously modest Canadians would have been embarrassed to chant “We’re Number One”, so perhaps it’s for the best. But you’re still big.

A fun exercise is to have a friend close her eyes and then place her index fingers on an imaginary map, starting at the western tip of Lake Superior. Then, slowly move east and west to St. John’s and Vancouver Island, and then turn north with both fingers, angling in by the Yukon and Labrador to finally meet at the North Pole. If she squints just the right way, she has just drawn homeland as a home plate. That’s kind of nice.

Like in baseball, home is where we start. And during the frantic efforts of love and loss and jobs and kids and moving and moving again and through the trails and trials and travails of constructing our scrapbooks of madness along the base paths of our own design, home remains the constant, home remains the goal. After all, through it all, through the problems we invent for ourselves or have visited upon us, all we really want is to get home, and to be safe. Plus, its kind of nice that Santa Claus is Canadian.

But your geography is deceiving, because while you’re big, you’re relatively empty. Of course there are people everywhere but the vast majority of Canadians live along a two hundred mile swath hugging the American border. It makes sense. It’s warmer there. Crops grow there. But not every country is organized according to those considerations. This is where geography meets history.

The land has been here forever and aboriginal peoples almost as long, but you are not even 150 years old. That fact, by the way, makes you among the world’s oldest countries; but I digress. In the 1860s, the Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and also threatening, for a host of reasons, to invade and take the British colonies on their northern border. They’d tried before and were ready to give it another go. The bitty, broke Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them needed to save themselves by creating themselves.

Your birth had many midwives, but primary among them was John A. Macdonald. He linked his ambition to that of the country he envisioned. The conferences that cobbled you together would have failed without him. Much of the constitution is written in his hand. As the first prime minister, he knew two things for sure. First, the Americans still yearned for more land. Second, if the infant country did not grow, the Americans would soon have it surrounded and suffocated. It was grow or be gone and the only way was north and west. And the only way to do that, was with a railway.

Brady-Handy_John_A_Macdonald_-_cropped

The idea was ludicrous. If completed, and experts lined up to say it could not be done; it would be the longest railway in the world. Not only that, it would be built over the world’s most inhospitable terrain. The rocks and thick forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines whole would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rocky Mountains, well, they were impossible. Macdonald told the people of British Columbia that he would have the steel line to them in ten years and, based on that audacious pledge, they joined Canada rather than the United States which was bigger, richer and just next door. Now, the impossible had to be done.

There is a great deal about Macdonald that deserves admiration. There’s a lot that makes our twenty-first century selves squirm. To build his railway he exploited Chinese workers – the navvies. They were imported to build the line, given the worst and most dangerous jobs and, when finished, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by emptying bellies and filling schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide. He was slapped into the opposition penalty box when caught swapping railway contracts for political donations, but was soon back.

Canadians preferred Macdonald drunk to the sobor alternative and him a little crooked than the less bold a little straighter. Beyond that, the building of the railway and the building of the country had become synonymous. It was both or neither. Without him, it looked like it would never get done.

When the railway was done the country was one. Try the imaginary map again. Start at Lake Superior and draw a straight line west and see if it touches nearly every major prairie city. That’s the line Sir John built. He built it on the backs of the forgotten and dispossessed, but all for the glory of the rest.

Too much Geography? No. you has just enough to hold your bursting potential. Too little History? No again. No one understands where they are unless they know where they’ve been. It is the marriage of geography and history that makes you and makes us. And together, our iron will to continue, to remain whole and strong and on guard for thee remains reflected in the unlikely but ultimately indestructible and now largely metaphorical long steel rail.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

The Princess and the Tulips

Princess Juliana was in trouble. The country over which she would someday reign was in crisis and her life was in peril. The Nazi blitzkrieg was pushing its way north and west and her beloved Netherlands was certain to fall to Hitler’s mad ambitions.

Just three years before, with the encouragement of her mother, the powerful and extraordinarily wealthy Queen Wilhelmina, she had married a young German aristocrat named Prince Bernard of Lippe-Biesterfeld. They soon fulfilled the most important part of their royal duties by producing heirs. Princess Beatrix was born in 1938 and then, a year later, Princess Irene.

Despite suspicions of all things German, the Dutch people accepted Prince Bernard. He changed the spelling of his name to be less German and became a Dutch citizen. Now they worried about their future, the future of their country, and that of the Royal bloodline if the Princess and her family were captured by the Nazi horde about which astounding stories of unspeakable horror were being told.

The Royal family was evacuated to London. Queen Wilhelmina oversaw the creation of a Dutch government in exile. A month later, in June 1940, Princess Juliana and her family were sent to an even safer sanctuary in Ottawa, Canada. A spacious house was found in the tony neighbourhood of Rockcliffe Park, home to ambassadors and the city’s elite. The house was called Stornoway. It would later become the residence of the leader of Canada’s Official Opposition.

Juliana followed the tragic news of her country having fallen under the Nazi yoke as she worried about her mother enduring the London blitz. The shy princess led a quiet life and remained aloof from Ottawa society events to which she would have been welcomed. Problems arose in late 1942 when she found herself pregnant. If she gave birth in Canada, the child would have dual citizenship and so be robbed of a spot in the Royal line of succession.

The Canadian government came to the rescue. It declared her rooms in Ottawa’s Civic Hospital to be temporarily extra territorial. In other words, for the moment, Juliana was in the Netherlands. Princess Margriet was born on January 19, 1943. The child became the first, and remains the only, royal personage to be born in North America.

Princess and the Tulips Royal Family

Home from the Ottawa Hospital (Photo: cbc.ca)

Canadians were as pleased as the people of the besieged Netherlands. The news led Canadian radio broadcasts and adorned newspaper front pages. The Dutch flag fluttered atop the Parliament Building’s Peace Tower and its bells chimed out the Dutch national anthem and folk tunes.

Meanwhile, the war raged on. Successful D-Day landings by British, American, and Canadian troops initiated a slow and bloody push toward Berlin. Canadians were assigned the left flank and, in September 1944, they began the liberation of the Netherlands. It was tough. The Nazi army had flooded land, mined ports, and dug itself into intractable defensive positions. The Dutch people did what they could to offer fifth column help. So many were so hungry that they had been surviving by eating tulip bulbs. Many were saved when Royal Canadian Airforce planes dropped food for the starving.

Canadian troops fought gallantly. The Battle of the Scheldt was the most excruciating engagement. Between October and November 1944, the Canadian First Army suffered nearly 13,000 casualties. When it succeeded and Nazi forces retreated, Canadian soldiers were hailed as heroes. As they entered Dutch towns, the tired but smiling young men were showered with flowers and gifts.

On May 2, 1945, after five years in Canada, Princess Juliana and her children were able to return first to London and then, along with Queen Wilhelmina, to a freed and free Netherlands. To demonstrate their gratitude for all that Canada had done for the country and her family, the Princess arranged that 100,000 tulip bulbs were sent to Ottawa. The next year, 20,000 more arrived with the request that they be planted on the hospital grounds.

In 1948, as result of her mother’s long illness, Juliana, became Queen. She ensured that more tulip bulbs were sent to Canada every year. Every spring saw Ottawa resplendent in a riot of colour. In 1952, at the suggestion of noted Canadian photographer Malak Karsh, Ottawa began an annual Tulip Festival. The city hosted a celebration that grew to include concerts, buskers, plays, fireworks, and more. Every year the city’s tulip beds grew even more spectacular.

Princess and the Tulips Photo: magpiejewellery.com

In Canada’s centennial year, 1967, Queen Juliana was enthusiastically cheered as she enjoyed the festival. In 2002, Princess Margriet was the special guest commemorating the festival’s 50th anniversary.

This weekend my family will be enjoying the festival. We’ve been before. It is spectacular. The flowers, so fragile and lasting only a short while, are reminders of a friendship within a tragedy and of our common humanity. They remind us of what can be lost to the insanity of war and blind adherence to a hateful ideology. And, standing boldly in the spring breeze, they symbolize the assurance that after every winter follows the spring and the determined hope that we may someday be sufficiently mature to live in peace.

 This is a rare second column in what is usually a weekly blog. If you like it, please share it with others and consider leaving a comment.