Category: Books and Movies

This is Not an April Fool’s Day Joke

Apparently, the New York Times has cancelled April Fool’s Day. On whose authority? Did Trump order that? Governor Cuomo? It’s probably an illegal order. April Fool’s Day has never been a statutory holiday. It’s part of our freedom of expression as a culture. Since when can a newspaper dictate the cultural expression of the masses? Or Trump for that matter? What are they afraid of? Hackers taking over the world? I guess they could, but we desperately need a little levity. And, besides, I have never heard of such an order in Canada. We live in Canada.

But now we know that the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 (hopefully not extending into 2021) is not a joke. We are in it for a long haul. Who would have guessed that we would find ourselves in a period of cataclysmic historical change? I wonder if people felt this way at the beginning of World War One? Or on the fall of the stock market in 1929?? Or the start of World War Two? Maybe 9/11 is the closest in my generation. When we emerge from this pandemic, the world will not be the same. In an instant we will have pivoted to modernity.

“In these hard times,” to use my son Ben’s favourite phrase, we need to look for the bright spots. Already they are apparent.

In Canada at least, the tedious war between partisan interests, premiers and the federal government, and groups mobilized to pursue their own agendas, has ended. We are all in this together. We need each other. Our lives depend on good leadership and the cooperation of every citizen. This common experience will change our political culture and create a new climate of collaboration. We may be less wealthy, but we are already more cooperative and more nimble than we have been in decades.

Our Parliamentary system is working well. The government proposed to give itself the broadest possible powers necessary to fight an unprecedented epidemic. The Opposition challenged their draft legislation as over-reach. After hours of negotiation, but in historically fast time, all parties agreed to a compromise which appears to have given the government the powers it needed for a much shorter period. That Quebec was instrumental in proposing the compromise is a good thing for confederation. For all the last-minute drama, the parties did agree to an expedited process to approve the legislation in the House. And did you notice how quickly the Senate convened to approve the legislation? A refreshing reassurance that the Senate can move with expedition when necessary.

We are lucky to live in Canada. Our politicians of all stripes are rising to the challenge. Our civil service and public servants are professional and not gutted. We have a strong banking system and banks which owe a debt to the society which has sustained them. We have a public health care system and a social welfare infrastructure which provides the basis for speedy responses. We have the CBC which, for all its faults, is professional and brings the country together. We have business, cultural and community sectors which are innovative, energetic and willing to do what they can for the common good. For all our political and cultural diversity, we share common values and a sense of community.

We now know that we are living through a revolution. B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry noted that, in this age of modern technology, physical distancing need not mean social distancing. In World War One, young men and women left their families to fight abroad. Only the occasional letter or parcel arrived between family back home and the troops and medical personnel overseas. People lived in a state of dreaded anticipation. By World War Two, the telephone was commonplace at home, but less so across the water. Today, communications around the world are instantaneous over a proliferation of devices and apps. People (particularly those in the wealthy industrialized world of which we are a part) can see each other, conduct business, share common experiences of every possible kind, even write a book collaboratively with a host of experts located all around the continent.

Compare the spectacle of partisanship and dysfunction south of the border. Their response has been a horror show, and will lead to horrific results. Trump and the anti-science Republicans around him are doomed. What we are seeing is a massive human experiment, a comparison between how a pandemic should be fought versus how it is being fought in the USA. Canada’s going to come out looking good in this.

So while we do our part as troops in this environmental war, we are living through a total transformation of our society. It is our technological revolution. We are hurtling towards modernity in all sectors of our society and our lives. Governments are working collaboratively across the country (when did that happen last?) and with business and labour (both nationally and locally). Our public health care system will never be the same again. E-education is coming on a massive scale, whether we like it or not. Even the musty old legal system has stopped. When it gets going again, the old practices and culture that impeded reform will be swept away. Truckers and grocery staff are now recognized as essential workers. All sectors of the economy are joining in a communal effort.

Millions of people in lock-down and mandatory isolation are a captive audience who must find something to do to fill their time. In modern times, we are used to going out and about, shopping in the malls, using the gyms and the parks, visiting our friends and relatives in public spaces, restaurants, bars, discos. We are not used to being cooped up. How we deal with being housebound will be a major test. We need to find ways to divert ourselves in close quarters and in the physical presence of only our immediate family. It’s time to read the classics, take up an old or a new hobby, learn to play the piano, take up cooking, declutter the house. In the weeks ahead, we will talk about what people are doing, how they are doing it, and what resources are available to assist.

To survive, we are also going to need to learn about modern technology. Have you heard about Zoom? Two weeks ago, I knew nothing about it. Now I hear stock shares in Zoom are skyrocketing, and that it will sweep the world. Last Saturday, I was at my first Zoom gathering with my family. It was a hoot. I am meeting my close girlfriends for a Zoom date this coming Friday. Our next post will feature a Guest Blogger who will tell us how to set up Zoom and how to use it.

Did you pick up on the fact that Canada led the world in ensuring that the 2020 Olympics will be postponed until 2021? We had a great Winter Olympics in 2010. We know what hosting an Olympics entails. Good work to the Canadian Olympic Committee and the athletes who led that effort.

And did you notice that the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear the appeal from the City of Toronto against Doug Ford’s arbitrary cut to the size of the Toronto City Council in the midst of the last municipal election? Maybe we will get some much-needed clarification of the modern law relating to the powers of municipal governments, and the standards of fairness that apply to the municipal context. This is going to be very useful.

It’s time to make lemonade out of lemons, everyone.

Afghan Migration Goes Personal

I met Mujeeb at Costco before Christmas. He was pushing a dolly which held a half-dozen deep grey plastic bins, some more full than others. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained that he was filling orders for an on-line computer shopping site. He was using an iPad to keep track of the orders. Apparently, people choose what they want to buy on the website. He is their personal shopper who fills the orders and later delivers them. He told me the name of his company but I have lost the note on which I wrote it down. (I should have used my iPhone “notes,” as I normally do to record such information. Perhaps I was so excited about meeting Mujeeb that I forgot.)

Sensing that he might be new to Canada, I asked where he was from. He replied that he was from Afghanistan, and that he had come to Canada with his parents and his siblings. I told him about my son and daughter-in-law in the Canadian army who had deployed several times to Kabul and/or Kandahar. He told me that all his family were now working in Canada and that his sister was a student at the University of Toronto. He also told me that there was a book written about his family.

No kidding? I had vaguely heard of a book written by CBC journalist, Carol Off, about an Afghan family whom she befriended and had helped come to Canada. Apparently, four months post-9/11, Off was in Afghanistan gathering information for what later became a very successful CBC documentary. Among her most significant sources at the time was Mujeeb’s father, Asad Aryubwal, who provided her with information about war crimes by Afghan warlords. His forthright cooperation with a western journalist however came at a cost. After numerous threats to his life, he had no choice but to flee to Pakistan which, as the political circumstances continued to change at home, he did four times before he was forty. In the fall of 2007, Off learned that Asad needed her help. Contrary to customary professional journalistic practice, she felt she had no choice but to become involved.

Needless to say, I rushed off right away to find Carol Off’s book, All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey Into the Lives of Others (Random House Canada, 2017). Reading it was a revelation, a totally compelling view of how a single family dealt with the turmoil in their homeland and their seemingly-interminable seven-year wait for permission to immigrate to Canada. Off’s description of their travails will break your heart.

This book is an absolute must for everyone who wants to understand what it means to be a refugee from a society such as Afghanistan.

Carol Off now co-hosts the CBC Radio current affairs program, “As It Happens.” Several weeks ago, this book won the prestigious $40,000. British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Jury members praised it as “a timely memoir that offers both context to, and a closeup of, uncomfortable truths: the failures of the West’s involvement in Afghanistan, the hurdles confronting refugees who seek safety in Canada, and the dilemma of a combat journalist expected to maintain professional distance from her sources.”

It’s a wonderful book. The Timeline of Major Events and the Cast of Characters at the back of the book are in themselves an invaluable thumbnail guide to Afghanistan’s history. I am thankful that my chance meeting with Mujeeb brought his family’s story and this book to my attention.  I wish them all the best.

 

 

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“The Promise of Canada” by Charlotte Gray

With the ground shaking under our feet and accepted truths under attack, how better to prepare for the challenges ahead, than to remind ourselves of who we are, and what we represent? For Canadians, that means refreshing our memory about what makes Canada unique and about what we need to champion going forward. Charlotte Gray’s new book The Promise of Canada, published in October in anticipation of Canada’s 150th birthday, seems even more relevant in the aftermath of the American election.

Gray immigrated from Britain to Canada (and to winters in Ottawa) in 1979 when the exuberance of the Centennial, the new flag, and Trudeaumania had given way to fears of Quebec separatism and “regular spasms of insecurity.” Continuing “concerns about whether there was enough glue to keep the country together” was the prevailing preoccupation.

As she has “gradually morphed into a Canadian,” Gray has concluded that, “There is no master narrative for Canadian history: there are too many stories to package into a tidy, tightly scripted identity. Yet Canada exerts a sense of endless promise because… it has successfully managed so many competing pressures: parallel identities, layers of allegiance, deep-rooted hostilities, overlapping loyalties.”

Her book is a Petri dish approach to our history. She focuses on the lives of nine plus individual Canadians “whose stories reflect the evolution of Canada over the past 150 years,” and whose “reflections on being Canadian have become embedded in our collective subconscious.”

There are those she describes who “laid the foundation” of our national subconscious. George-Étienne Cartier preserved the French culture of Lower Canada by ensuring a federal system of government, and the protection of minority rights. Samuel Steele personified the North West Mounted Police as it imposed “peace, order and good government” in the Canadian west and during the Gold Rush in the Yukon. Emily Carr embraced her local Indigenous culture, and turned outward to Europe and Eastern Canada to inspire the modern artistic sensibility she brought to the lush forests of the west coast. Professor Harold Innis used his canoe trips on wild northern rivers as “dirt research” for his economic history of Canada as a northern nation that naturally grew east to west because of the fur trade.

Gray then describes individuals who have helped Canada become “a different kind of country.” Tommy Douglas and the CCF government in Saskatchewan (1944-1961) created a host of social programs (including but by no means limited to state-funded medicare) which became prototypes for similar social initiatives across the country. Margaret Atwood’s influence “landscaping Canadian literature” in her Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) nurtured a rich garden of Canadian literature which has flourished and gone global. Bertha Wilson, who came to Canada in 1949 as an “accompanying spouse” of a Presbyterian minister, in 1982 became the first woman on the Supreme Court of Canada, and helped shape the rights we enjoy under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The last section of the book, “Straining at the Seams,” talks of the pressures on the country in recent decades, as Quebec separatism continued simmering, Indigenous people demanded self-government, western alienation became more vocal, and hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from different cultures adapted to life in Canada. The profile of Elijah Harper is searing, not only for his dramatic “No” to discussion of the Meech Lake Accord in the Manitoba Legislature on June 14, 1990, effectively killing the Accord, but also for what it shows about the history of the indigenous people in Canada, our shared responsibility for their continuing problems, and their increasing determination to be “Silent No More.” To answer the question, “What does the West Want?,” she describes Preston Manning’s response to the populist politics of Alberta and how his alternative vision for the country has influenced the mainstream. She concludes with a pastiche of new Canadians who have grown up with the enthusiasm, energy and creativity to achieve personal success and reinvent the country with them.

Gray acknowledges the warts and the inequities which, from our contemporary perspective, have stained the history of the nation. But she remains optimistic. “It helps to recall,” she says, “Canada’s extraordinary resilience during constant turbulent change, and to recognize subconscious as well as conscious change.” Ours is not a singular tribal identity. For all our differences, “we have learned to share this land and for the most part live in neighbourly sympathy.”

The Promise of Canada is a great read which raised my spirits and made me glad that I live in Canada. Maybe it will do the same for you.

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Speaking with Strangers

My ears pricked up. Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current was interviewing New York writer Kio Stark on her new book, When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You (TED Books, 2016). Stark was saying that the world needs more of strangers talking to each other, more random conversations on the street, in the shops, on transit.

It occurred to me that I shared her philosophy, and that talking with strangers helps make The Effervescent Bubble thrive. Without even waiting to actually read the book, I ordered twelve copies from Indigo to give as gifts for Christmas.

As an aside: Have you noticed how easy it is to shop on the internet these days? Click, add to cart, pay with the credit card, and forget about it. A few days later, often free of charge, Canada Post delivers a bright clean new cardboard box to the doorstep. Do you get the same frisson of excitement when the time comes to open the box? It’s like Christmas all year.

Getting back to Kio Stark: When the book came, I was keen to devour it. Stark writes, “Talking to people I’ve never met is my adventure. It’s my joy, my rebellion, my liberation. It’s how I live,” and her words resonate. That’s what I do. That’s what I like doing. Why? Perhaps because, as she writes, “when you talk with strangers, you make beautiful and surprising interruptions in the expected narrative of your daily life. You shift perspective. You form momentary, meaningful connections. You find questions whose answers you thought you knew. You reject the ideas that make us so suspicious of each other.” Hers is a book “about talking… about seeing, listening, and being alert to the world.”

As much as I agree with Stark’s approach, her tone is didactic and, on first reading, seems a bit self-helpish. Her approach is analytical, somewhat clinical in nature, with suggestions for what to do, how to do it, and exercises to begin.

Many of her examples and discussion come from a course on communications and modern technology which she teaches. Her comparison between conversations in person and on the internet is intriguing but relevant primarily to social media types. She understands the violence implicit in “street harassment” and calls for action against “aggressive street behaviour.” She is conscious of “stranger danger” as a product of “childhood training,” but makes the point that “unpredictable and unpleasant are not by definition dangerous,” and how we need “to perceive, not… name or categorize” or stereotype.

Her essential point is that talking with strangers is “good for you.” “You are awake… you’re not in your own head, you’re not on autopilot from here to there. You are present in the moment. And to be present is to feel alive. You are also connected.” The action of speaking with strangers, meeting strangers, pushes us to see others as individuals and can be transformative to the person, and to society more generally. We become more empathetic and “cosmopolitan,” which she defines as “tolerant, open… curious and (believing) that we are all in this together.”

In her chapter “The Mechanics of Interaction,” Stark writes about how some cultures “take extraordinary measures not to interact at all.” She cites Toronto as an example, “though not other places in Canada.” She has been told that “strangers in Toronto talk (or mutter) to each other only when necessary, and with the tacit understanding that it’s painful for all involved. ‘Excuse me’ is a last resort on the streetcar.” I know that my west-coast volubility is a little unusual. A Toronto-born travelling companion once told me that I “could talk with a newel post,” which I am not sure she intended as a compliment.

I have often felt that native-born Torontonians are hesitant to talk to strangers, although not in the dog park, nor in a shop. If the stereotype is true, it is changing. The majority of people who live in the city do not come from Toronto; so many were born elsewhere, either in Canada or abroad.

The techniques described by Stark, when I think about it, are simply second nature to me. Talking about dogs and babies is an excellent entrée to learning about people in the neighbourhood. Compliments are conversation-starters. Many different young people, and even a memorable older woman my own age, have taught me about my smartphone and how I can download apps or text numbers to find out when the next transit vehicle will come. Newcomers to Toronto have told me their migration stories, and provided the grist for yet another post on my blog. I can attest that my talking with strangers, even in Toronto, is generally well-received.

I remember how it was a total stranger on the Paris RER  (transit system), in 1966, who suggested that Grenoble welcomed students and I could find accommodation there cheaper and more quickly than in Paris. I had spent several days looking for a cheap place in Paris and was on my way back from spending a horrible night in a decrepit student hostel in the far southern suburbs that I remember for its high ceilings, broken windows, and dormitory beds like those in war movies. I went to the train station right away, bought a ticket to Grenoble, and was welcomed there by volunteers greeting foreign students. A day later I had a job, room and board with a wealthy industrialist just outside the city, and was registered as a student in a university program there. I spent four months in Grenoble, and had an excellent experience with a very interesting family. That stranger on the RER did me a big favour.

Read the book. Listen to Kio Stark’s TED Talk at TED.com. Try talking with strangers, and see what happens. I think the stereotype about taciturn Torontonians, if it really is true, will not long endure.

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“Spa in the Sky”

Have you ever felt run off your feet? Busy, busy, busy? Totally occupied with a thousand things, all of which you want to do, but which all too quickly fill your days?

That’s been me the past few weeks. October seems to have been so busy a month: family dinners, the renewal of the opera and concert season, multiple medical appointments, working out at the gym, runners to cheer for, guests to entertain, a quick trip to Vancouver, people to visit, Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, home repairs, organizing our upcoming vacation, doing some writing, getting the garden ready for winter. The list goes on. And on top of that, the persistent dreadful drone of the American election.

At the #6DegreesTO event in Toronto in September, I picked up the most marvellous little book by Pico Iyer, one of the “Framers” invited to talk about Inclusion. Iyer is a well-known essayist and travel writer born in Britain and now based in Japan and California. He writes regularly for Harper’s, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. His book is The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014, TEDBook, Simon & Schuster).

His description of Leonard Cohen at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles immediately engaged my attention. I had no idea that Cohen had spent 40 years meditating with the abbot there, or that his monastery name is Jikan which means “the silence between two thoughts.” Apparently, Cohen practices the silence of meditation as avidly as he crafts his poetry and his songs.

Iyer invites his readers to “take this book… as an invitation to the adventure of going nowhere.” He describes how he left his dream life as a writer in Manhattan and around the world to live in a tiny single room in the back streets of Kyoto. “Going nowhere… isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” When so much of our lives are lived in our heads, perspective comes not from what we do or where we have been but from how we reflect on it. A real change in life can come from changing “the way I look at it.”

Iyer writes about how freeing up the mind to “play” fosters creativity. He gives the example of Google’s headquarters where employees spend a fifth of their time lounging in tree houses, jumping on trampolines, or practicing yoga. Every building on the campus of General Mills in Minneapolis has a meditation room. Apparently one-third of American companies offer “stress-reduction programs” to their employees. And then there is the institution of the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest, which has existed for a reason and which we increasingly erode to our detriment.

He writes of his meeting with Matthieu Ricard who is known as “the happiest man in the world” and who has written that “Simplifying one’s life to extract its quintessence is the most rewarding of all the pursuits I have undertaken.” When Iyer asked him how he deals with jet lag, when he is in such demand all over the world, Ricard replied, “For me, a flight is just a brief retreat in the sky. There’s nothing I can do, so it’s really quite liberating. There’s nowhere else I can be. So I just sit and watch the clouds and the blue sky. Everything is still and everything is moving. It’s beautiful.” Iyer relates how he met a young woman on a flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles who sat down and just sat there, “apparently at peace” throughout the entire flight. When Iyer finally spoke with her she said she was a social worker from Berlin en route to a vacation in Hawaii. “Her job was exhausting… (and) she liked to use the flight over to begin to get all the stress out of her system so that she could arrive on the islands in as clear a state as possible, ready to enjoy her days of rest.” I think I will try that the next time I fly. 

It is a beautiful little book, with stunning photographs taken by Icelandic/Canadian photographer Eydis S. Luna Einarsdóttir who lives in Vancouver and travels every year to Iceland. This book is a companion piece to a 14-minute TED TALK by Pico Iyer. Also check out the TED TALK by Matthieu Ricard “The habit of happiness.”

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The Season of Used Book Sales

Leaving TIFF last Friday, I walked east on King Street to the subway. At Simcoe, I noticed that there was a used book sale set up on the grounds of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Always a sucker for a bargain, I went in to browse. An hour and a half later, I left with four boxes of books, over 70 books in all.

I was delighted. I discovered a cache of hard-cover Canadian history books. There were memoirs or biographies: of politicians René Lévesque, Preston Manning, Joey Smallwood, Ed Broadbent, Sheila Copps, Tommy Douglas, and John Diefenbaker; of Rabbi Gunther Plaut and of Dr. Bob McClure, one-time moderator of the United Church of Canada; of famous lawyers Eddie Greenspan and Arthur Maloney; and of the generals in World War II written by noted Canadian historian Jack Granatstein. There was Rosemary Speirs’ Out of the Blue: The Fall of the Tory Dynasty in Ontario, and even a History of Canada written by my hero, June Callwood, and a novel written by politician Judy LaMarsh. Having spent time this summer reading the memoirs of popular historian and CBC celebrity, Pierre Berton, I looked for Drifting Home, his story of travelling down the Yukon River with his family, and for his two railroad histories. I found all three. And there was much, much more. Not a bad haul for a little browsing.

The volunteers who packed my boxes had decided among themselves, even before I felt inclined to leave, that, as I was their best customer during the two-day sale, I should have all the books for a mere $20.00. I resisted, held out a $50 and said it was the least I could pay. After all, I wanted to support their outreach projects and, having run my share of yard sales in the past, wanted to reward their efforts with a fair donation. They insisted that, by that point, they would pay someone to take the books away. We settled on $40, I hailed a cab and they put the boxes into the trunk.

“Will you read all those books?” one of the volunteers asked.”No,” I replied, “but I will use them. Some will fill in gaps in my library, some will be models for my writing, others I will give as gifts, if nothing else, as stocking-stuffers.” At a time when we are weeding our house of books, adding more seems dysfunctional, but if I use them, it’s a small investment that will pay off.

It occurred to me, as Peter Sellers of Sellers & Newel and Joyce Blair of Balfour Books insist, that the market for used books remains. Often book lovers just need to be reminded of what it is that they might need or want. Besides, I believe in serendipity. Finding and reading books by chance this summer brought me immense personal and professional satisfaction. As all lovers of used books know, this happens often.

It’s the time of the year for used book sales. Several colleges at the University of Toronto have massive used book sales coming up: Victoria College, September 24-28th; St. Michael’s College, September 27-30th; University College, October 14-18th; and Trinity College, October 20-24th. Check for times and locations on the websites of the individual colleges. For other used book sales across the province, see the list at www.booksalefinder.com. Book lovers interested in new books and magazines have Word on the Street in Toronto this Sunday, September 25th, at Harbourfront starting at 11:00 a.m. Enjoy.

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“Guantanamo’s Child”

Everyone has heard of Omar Khadr. Perhaps you saw him live on television last May when he was released from jail in Edmonton to live with his defence counsel and his wife. Or maybe you saw the CBC Firsthand video “Omar Khadr: Out of the Shadows” aired on television on December 3rd, 2015. If you didn’t, it is available on the internet.

This video is a shortened version of the White Pine Pictures movie entitled “Guantanamo’s Child,” based on the book of the same name by writer Michelle Shephard. The original movie is playing this Sunday, March 13th at 8:45 p.m. at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, with Ms. Shephard available for a Q & A, afterwards. I commend the full-length movie to you. If you don’t see the movie now or at some later date, at least look up the video.

Undoubtedly, you know the outlines of his story. Like me, you probably know that he was only 15 when he was alleged to have killed an American medic in a firefight in Afghanistan. I knew that he had spent a decade at Guantanamo Bay, that he ultimately pleaded guilty to war crimes before an American military tribunal, and was sentenced to eight years prison. I knew that his efforts to return to Canada were opposed by the Canadian government (both Liberal and Conservative), and his lawyers had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada to get him returned. I knew that Canadian corrections housed him in an adult maximum security federal penitentiary and his lawyers had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada again to secure his transfer to a more humane facility. Released on bail in May 2015, pending his appeal of his US conviction, the Harper government appealed his bail. The new Liberal government last month dropped that appeal.

If you are anything like me, you know the outlines but don’t know the details. I certainly didn’t when I saw “Guantanamo’s Child” at TIFF in September. The movie was an eye-opener. The movie picks up on the interview outside his lawyer’s home last May, and fills in the context.

It’s the context that counts and which we all need to see and hear. Omar Khadr with his family in Afghanistan before and after 911. Actual pictures of the firefight and the compound where he was found. The evolution of the American soldier assigned to interrogate him for three months at the Bagram military prison outside Kabul. The transfer of the detainees to Guantanamo Bay, and the conditions which prevailed there. The fact that the Canadian government was the only western democracy which declined to repatriate its nationals from Guantanamo. The impressions Khadr made on his fellow detainees, and on the military physicians and senior officers who interacted with him. The difficulties his lawyer had in getting access to him. The nature of the military tribunal and the reasons for his guilty plea. The litany of details goes on. Most chilling is the video of the interview CSIS agents conducted over four days to garner what intelligence they could from him in our name. Never have I been more ashamed of our country.

The context raises all sorts of questions. Khadr was 15 when he was found. At the lowest, he was a found-in, under the influence of his father. At the highest, he was a child soldier. He was so badly injured, yet tortured for what information he could provide, shipped off to Guantanamo, and, apart from an interrogation, abandoned by his country. I left the theatre shaken. How is it that Canada could have been so complicit? And how is it that I, a supposedly well-informed and committed Canadian, had allowed myself to be so complacent about his fate? After all, he was a Canadian citizen, born in Toronto, obviously an extremely intelligent and active adolescent.

Like everyone else, I saw Linden MacIntyre’s CBC interview of Khadr’s mother and sister on television and was appalled by their ideological fervour. Khadr says that “his family has strong feelings” and are not “always intelligent about how they express them.” Did I fall into the fallacy of projecting the sins of the family onto the son? How is it that we could treat a “young person” in a manner so contrary to our values? Hard questions we all need to consider.

Khadr’s story is also the story of genuine legal heroes: defence counsel Dennis Edney, his wife Patricia Edney, and co-counsel Nate Whitling. But for their dedication, diligence and persistence, Omar Khadr would likely still be in Guantanamo today.

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Filling the Gaps

My book of choice for Christmas gifts was Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators (Simon and Shuster 2014, paperback). If you are like me, you have used the World Wide Web and Google for years, are a convert to smartphones, and have totally integrated your iPad (or the kids’ iPad) into everyday living. All these fruits of the digital revolution I have come to take for granted without knowing anything about how they came about. Didn’t Bill Gates and Steve Jobs invent everything? Well, no, they didn’t. And it is fascinating to find out who did.

Tracing the history of the “hackers, geniuses and geeks [who] created the digital revolution,” Isaacson relates the individual initiatives, and the feats of great collaboration, which led to our computerized digital world. His is an important theme: a “report on how innovation actually happens in the real world.” He discovers that there are “social and cultural forces that provide the atmosphere for innovation,” and that government spending and military-industrial-academic collaboration have intersected with the idiosyncratic loners and hackers to produce change. Most significantly, he notes “that the truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences.” His is an upbeat message which points to the utility of interdisciplinary perspectives and which puts the lie to those seeking funding for only science and engineering.

The narrative begins with Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine in the 1830s, his proposed Analytical Engine in the 1840s, and the prescient “Notes,” describing it, by Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who laid out the basic concepts of the computers that would be built 100 years later. Isaacson traces the range of innovations which led to the computer, programming, the transistor and then the microchip and microprocessors, video games, the Internet, the personal computer, software, and the web. We learn about the origins of IBM, Unisys, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, Fairchild, Intel, DEC, Atari, the National Science Foundation, RAND, Microsoft, Apple, Google….

We learn about the Bell Labs and the Stanford Research Park, the Turing Machine, Presper Eckert and John Mauchly’s ENIAC, the interaction between advances in technology and in theory, the disadvantages of working in isolation and the benefits of group effort, the impact of war on science. We learn about Grace Hopper, coding, “bugs and debugging,” ENIAC’s women programmers, the stored program computer, the impact of silicon, the discovery of the transistor, how and why Silicon Valley came to exist, the rise of the “solid circuit,” patent litigation, the impact of pocket calculators, “Moore’s Law,” the importance of hackers, of Spacewar and Pong. Isaacson tells us about Vannevar Bush and the partnership of the military, universities and industry in creating the Internet, Joseph Licklider with his “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” and “Intergalactic Computer Network.” We read about the utility of routers, bite-size message units, a fully decentralized packet-switched network and a common Internet Protocol (IP). Also: the development of the “mouse,” the impact of the Whole Earth Catalog, and so forth.

We learn about big recurring issues: whether intellectual property should be freely shared or patent-protected to further commercial proprietary interests; which model most efficiently promotes innovation; artificial intelligence versus “augmented intelligence;” the symbiosis “between nurturing individual geniuses and promoting collaborative teamwork;” the stages of innovation from invention, to production, and then marketing; leadership styles and the culture of innovation; the challenge of creating simple and intuitive user interfaces; the importance of venture capital; the use of open processes and collaborative creativity in developing the Internet as an open, decentralized network; the struggle between large time-shared mainframes and personal devices. You get the idea. This is a history which dissects the big issues and trends of contemporary innovation.

Isaacson’s penchant for the individual human story, the back story, the context, and the politics, makes for fascinating reading. This is not a dry history of science. It is a passionate recounting of the individuals and institutions which have contributed to the world as we now know it. I was amazed at how little I knew. I am gratified that Isaacson has filled the huge gaps in my knowledge. Once I started the book, I could not put it down. And I intend to keep The Innovators on my shelf as a permanent reference. Maybe you will do the same.

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Will the Mike Duffy Trial Taint Stephen Harper’s Brand?

What is most remarkable about Stephen Harper as Prime Minister has been the tenacity of his brand. Apparently made of Teflon. Two recent books, Mark Bourrie’s Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know (Harper Collins 2015), and Michael Harris’s Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover (Viking, 2014) catalogue his track record. On a litany of issues, over the entire term of his office, he has stirred hornets’ nests of opposition.

Criticism that would be expected from the Official Opposition, has come from independent Officers of Parliament, from brave civil servants who have given up their positions for their principles, and from a host of knowledgeable people (dare I say “experts”?) across the country: scientists, economists, veterans, health care professionals, lawyers, chiefs of police, planners, even members of the business community. Controlling, consistently partisan, he has used his majority to impose many laws for non-problems which are dysfunctional, fly in the face of the evidence, and are often blatantly unconstitutional. Former Progressive Conservatives have shaken their heads in despair at how his anti-intellectual populism, his contempt for Parliament and the Supreme Court, and his pandering to the “old country” politics of some new Canadians has hijacked Canadian conservatism. And now he vilifies a young woman wearing her niqab at a citizenship ceremony apparently to ally himself with xenophobic Quebecers who championed their shameful “Charter of Values.” For all that, he is considered a “brilliant politician,” who caters to his base, rides out the storms, and appears set for re-election.

Now we have the trial of Senator Mike Duffy, on 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust, and bribery relating to residency expense claims, expense claims unrelated to Senate business, awarding of consulting contracts, and accepting $90,000 from Prime Minister Harper’s Chief of Staff Nigel Wright. Commentators differ on what effect this trial will have on the upcoming federal election. Clearly, it is the talk of the town in Ottawa, and among “the chattering classes” and political junkies across the country. They will dine on the morsels of meat which the media gleans each day from hours of evidence which may seem irrelevant to some. But the average person on the street? Some commentators say that the trial is no more than a rehash of an old story which burned itself out last year, and there is nothing new to add. The average voter, they say, is cynical about politics and politicians, has already written off Duffy as just another “pig at the trough,” and “doesn’t care” how it relates, if at all, to Prime Minister Harper. And besides, the Prime Minister will divert attention from the trial with his upcoming budget, the publicly funded “infomercials” about his promised tax breaks “to families,” and fears of terrorism in our midst.

But is this true? There are certain key facts about this case:

1) Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Mike Duffy to the Canadian Senate in December 2008 to fill a vacant seat representing Prince Edward Island.

2) At that time, Mike Duffy had lived in Ottawa for over 20 years. His connection to P.E.I. was that the island was his place of birth and he owned a cottage there. On the first day of trial, Mark Holmes, the Crown Attorney prosecuting the case, appeared to concede that Duffy probably didn’t qualify for the position.

3) When issues were raised about Duffy’s claiming certain expenses relating to his residence, there were ongoing discussions between Duffy, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Conservative party. Ultimately, Nigel Wright, the Chief of Staff for Prime Minister Harper used $90,000 from his personal funds for Duffy to repay his disputed expenses.

Duffy’s defence is that he had no intent to commit the crimes with which he has been charged. Whatever Duffy did, he says he did at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office and consistent with the practices then prevailing in the Senate. Whether he is ultimately convicted or not, his relationship with the Harper government is crucial. 

The irony of this case is juicy, indeed. Stephen Harper was elected to office on a platform to promote transparency and accountability in government. He has won kudos from his base for his “tough on crime” “law and order” agenda. He went to the Supreme Court of Canada on a reference asserting (wrongly) that his federal government alone could change the Senate. Yet here he is, the elephant in the room, as his personal appointee to the Senate exposes the bending of the rules, the partisan role of senators, the relationship between senators and the PMO, and the utter lack of accountability which appears to prevail. It’s a unique scandal, but it strikes at the heart of the Harper government and what it is supposed to stand for. Is this the last straw which tarnishes the Teflon? Will the Duffy trial, as Michael Den Tandt says in the National Post, be “Harper’s Waterloo”? The trial continues April 7th – May 12th and June 1st – 19th. We’ll see. 

Christie Blatchford, who is following the trial in detail, ended the first week of the trial “a little optimistic.” For all the sleazy detail of how the Senate runs, she praised retired Senate law clerk, Mark Audcent, the first witness, for his concluding “lesson in honour,” reminding the court of the standards of integrity, accountability, transparency and service which the public expects. Check out her video

***** I have posted a brief legal observation on the Mike Duffy trial in Re-view from the Bench.

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Seymour: An Introduction

This little gem of a documentary premiered at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival. Released for general viewing in New York the first week of March, during the 7 Days of Genius Festival at 92Y (the famous 92nd Street YM & YWHA), the film is now playing in Toronto theatres and undoubtedly elsewhere. Catch it when it comes your way. This is a work of quiet genius which warrants repeated viewings. The woman sitting next to me the day I went had already seen it three times, bringing a dear friend with her each time.

So what’s the attraction? The star is 88-year-old Seymour Bernstein, the world’s most unlikely hero. The director is Ethan Hawke, in his documentary directing début. Bernstein is a recluse who has lived alone in the same small New York apartment for 57 years. He is also a former performance pianist, a prolific composer, and a gifted piano teacher. They met at a dinner party given by one of Bernstein’s piano students a few years ago. When Seymour learned that Hawke was to be a guest at dinner, he did a Google search to find out who he was. When Hawke talked with Seymour and learned Seymour’s story, he decided there and then that it had to be made into a film.

Two and a half years of shooting Seymour’s life spontaneously and without rehearsal have now become what Seymour considers “a masterpiece… a harmonious whole, like a Beethoven sonata.” I would agree. Although a film about classical music, and about those who make music, the film is much more. From Seymour’s perspective, the object of the documentary is to show how a passion for an art form, or for a talent of any kind, can influence the art or the talent, and life itself. The tragedy is that too many musicians can perform on the stage but, unable to bring the same discipline to their personal lives, fall apart in the practice of life.

It turns out that Seymour is more than the sum of his career, more than the extraordinarily talented musician who mastered the piano as a child, brought classical music to American troops during the Korean war, became an acclaimed concert pianist in America and abroad, and gave his last public piano performance at 52 years of age. Thereafter, he devoted himself to teaching piano, composing piano music, and nurturing new generations of pianists to do their best. The improvement in the playing of the students in his NYU master class shown in the film is palpable, even to someone as untutored in music as I.

Watching Seymour discuss his life and his work with those who knew him best, and with Hawke who had just met him, we realize that he is a thoughtful and articulate philosopher of the art of living. In his view, nurturing our talents affirms the essence of who we are. Our talents are autonomous and take on a life of their own. The more we pay attention to our talents and pursue them to the extent that we can, the greater we grow in self-dignity, self-development, and self-love. The greater the synthesis of intellect, emotional life and physicality (which all successful musicians must find), the more we become a whole person. Adhering to no organized religion, Seymour is clearly an extremely spiritual person. He believes that his “inner voice is a spiritual reservoir” which “answers questions for him, helps overcome obstacles, and tells him all he needs to know.”

The film culminates in a piano concert where Seymour plays in the rotunda of Steinway Hall in New York, his first public performance in over 35 years. He admits that, but for the documentary, he would never have given the performance. Among the pieces he plays are the Bach Cantata #106 and Brahms Opus 18 #2, pieces of music which Seymour says “reflect the deepest feelings of the human soul.” Recorded live, his piano recital will be released as a separate dvd. To prepare for the film, or to follow-up for greater detail, see the video “Ethan Hawke on his Documentary Debut ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ at 92Y.” Much of the material in this post comes from this fascinating discussion between Seymour, Ethan Hawke, and Columbia University film scholar Annette Insdorf.  Watch it and you will see why the film is so seductive.

 

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The Back Story to Still Alice: The Movie and the Book

On the weekend, a couple of friends and I took in the Oscar-award-winning performance of Julianne Moore in Still Alice. We knew the movie was about a professional woman with early onset Alzheimer’s and how she and her family had to deal with the disease as it progressed from diagnosis to decline. Since we have all had some experience with dementia in our own families, we knew that the movie would be a bit of a test, certainly not the “feel good” fluff or escapism we might generally prefer. The movie does pack a wallop, but we passed the test and wouldn’t have missed it.

The next day, I read the novel by Lisa Genova. It is an amazing book. Extremely well-written, and totally compelling. Reading the book so soon after seeing the movie made me totally aware of the differences between the two: the scenes changed for dramatic effect, the different take on the family relationships, and some insightful detail in the book which was dropped in the movie. The book was originally self-published by the author in 2007 and re-published as a trade paperback by Pocket Books (now Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster) in 2009. Among other things, it includes a “Readers Club Guide to Still Alice” by the author, and “A Conversation with Lisa Genova” which is fascinating.

Lisa Genova was inspired to write the book by her own experience with her grandmother, whose Alzheimer’s was already well along before Lisa’s family came to care for her and to fully appreciate her situation. Then, Lisa became fascinated with the fundamental questions that haunt all caregivers: “What must it be like when those parts of the brain which are responsible for your own awareness and identity are no longer accessible?” “What is having Alzheimer’s disease like from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer’s?” Still Alice is her intensely personal and profoundly moving attempt to answer these questions.

Lisa Genova is extremely well-placed to have written the book. Inspired by Oliver Sacks, the neurologist author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, she obtained a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard. As she says, her degree “was like a golden, all-access pass to the right people to talk to;” everyone from the research professionals and the clinicians to the patients, their caregivers and their advocates. Before Still Alice was even published, she shared it with the American National Alzheimer’s Association who agreed with her that it was “a truthful and respectful depiction of life with Alzheimer’s” and “wanted to give it their stamp of approval.” With the encouragement of the NAA, and the knowledge that the book could be of use to millions, she chose, initially, to self-publish the book to make it immediately available.

Genova’s novel is an attempt “to capture the essence of” the experience of early onset Alzheimer’s. She “checked in regularly with people who have… (the disease) to make sure it all rang true. They were my litmus test.” She considers it important that people understand the earliest symptoms, and how people typically deny or deflect them. She admits that her portrayal of the diagnosis process is idealized to show how it should work, and does not dwell on the arduous testing most people experience for years. She also struggled with the decision to have Alice consider suicide. She included it because she learned, with shock, that everyone she knew, who was diagnosed with the disease at an early age, did think about it.

Her book has made Genova an ardent advocate for the Dementia Advocacy and Support Network International. Unlike people afflicted with other diseases, those suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s fall away from their normal existence and face extreme alienation and loneliness. She praises the online support groups which bring these people together in a caring community of similarly situated individuals who understand each other. In her view, “it’s high time this group had a face and a voice.” She also thinks that “a greater awareness of the early symptoms and experiences matters” so that people can get early diagnoses, proper medication, access to support groups and clinical trials, so that families can properly plan, and so that the stigma of living with the disease can be reduced. Still Alice goes a long way to that end. I cannot recommend it, the book and the movie, too highly.

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Reconnecting with Roots

My friend Marylyn Peringer, a professional storyteller, has had the most marvellous experience reconnecting with her roots. Since 2003, she has visited Malta four times, to meet relatives and use Maltese archives to research folktales. Last year, the people of Malta recognized her for her contribution to their national history. Hers is a wonderful story.

Her father, George Salter, was in the British army during World War I. When the war broke out, he found himself in Malta, working in the accounting office of a prisoner of war camp called Verdala. Among other duties, he was responsible for the money which relatives sent to their family members held in the camp. The interns were nationals of many countries: Germans, Austrians, Turks, Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs; many sailors and other civilians who were in Egypt and Malta when the war began. Marylyn’s father had an autograph album where he collected entries from over 200 of the inmates. Their contributions included poetry, drawings, paintings, and written testimonials in a variety of languages, all depicting life in the camp and the interaction between the interns and her father. It was a treasure trove.

When her father returned to Britain after the camp closed in 1920, he kept the album. Widowed after the death of his first wife, George went to Malta in 1933 to marry the Maltese woman whom he had met in the accounting office at the camp. In 1940, four-year-old Marylyn and her mother joined relatives in the United States while her father stayed behind in Britain. They never saw him again. He died from tuberculosis during World War II. His album went with his effects to one of his sisters and, eventually, to Marylyn’s mother. After her death, it came to Marylyn.

In 2013, Marylyn decided to return the autograph album (then 99 years old) to Malta, to mark the 100th Anniversary of World War I last year. She visited the National Archives there and showed the album to the curator. She also found a geography teacher in a school near the site of the camp who had written a blog about the local history of the area, including the camp. She brought the album to the school, told stories to the students, and established contact with the school archivist. Everyone loved the album. Later, the Archives wrote her saying they wanted to make a book of her father’s autograph album, and include some other materials about the Verdala camp that they had accumulated. The German government provided funding for publication, on the stipulation that some copies go to Germany.

Last November, the National Archives of Malta flew Marylyn to Malta for The Salter Album book launch and related festivities. There, she gave a lecture about her use of the Archives, and the German ambassador thanked her for bringing the album to light. Marylyn reports that the book is “gorgeous,” published in the shape of an autograph album with a photograph of her father and a pen and ink drawing of the camp on the front cover. The Maltese Consulate in Toronto is presently working to import copies of the book to Canada. All this, because Marylyn recognized the value of her father’s autograph album and took the initiative to see that it would be preserved for posterity. Good work, Marylyn.

With thanks to Marylyn and her daughter, Christine Peringer, for the photos.

 

Citizenfour: A Must See Documentary

Do you remember Edward Snowden? He was the high-security, high-tech young whistleblower who went public in 2013 with documents proving that the United States National Security Agency was (and is) gathering intelligence megadata on American citizens using cellphones and internet providers in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. His revelations were a bombshell which showed that highly-placed U.S. officials had lied on the record to Congress.

Two independent investigative journalists who interviewed Snowden released a series of stories showing that, contrary to American law, the U.S. government had a massive program to gather megadata which could be used to target individuals, trace all their activities in the past, and track their actions in the future. Ostensibly to protect national security, and facilitated by contracts with major computer and cellphone companies, this state surveillance of individual privacy is all-pervasive.

The reaction in America and elsewhere around the world was predictably dramatic. Shortly after the stories began to emerge, Snowden was identified and traced to Hong Kong. There, he sought refugee status with the United Nations, went underground, and ended up spending forty days in the transit lounges of the Moscow airport. The United States charged him with four counts under the Espionage Act, and pulled his passport. Today, he remains in an apartment in Moscow, officially stateless, and in the ironic sanctuary of a country committed neither to freedom nor privacy.

If you are anything like me, you may have missed the details of the Snowden affair. Even as the scandal continued showing that America spied on competitor companies in Brazil, and even on the cellphone of Chancellor Merkel of Germany, the significance of these revelations has faded. Worldwide media and public attention is fickle, moving on to other things.

Citizenfour is a documentary meant to change that. Directed by Laura Poitras, the film is shot in real time, with Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room talking with the reporters who brought his revelations to the world. Viewers see the planning, the strategizing, the bravado, the angst, the pressures, and the dangers (real and perceived) as Snowden works with his collaborators to make public what he felt the world needed to know. Contrary to official U.S. portrayals, Snowden emerges as a thoughtful, articulate, highly intelligent and idealistic. We wonder, however, if he is he as realistic as he asserts, or just naïve? How could anyone do what he is doing? His collaborators seem sympathetic, but they have their own agendas. The fallout is chilling for the participants, and for us.

The film is an absolute must see for everyone concerned about individual privacy versus state surveillance. Under U.S. law, court protections requiring a search warrant for further investigations are only necessary to monitor communications between two American citizens. Everyone else, including non-Americans communicating with or through American companies, is fair game. That included the German Chancellor, and includes us.

The film raises so many questions for thought and discussion. Is national security so fragile that comprehensive digital state surveillance is now necessary? To what extent are we prepared to sacrifice our privacy, and personal identity, to unsupervised state overview? Do we agree that modern technological companies should share megadata with the state which can compromise our privacy? Do we really care about privacy anyway? If we do, what can we, and will we, do about it? And how should the state treat whistleblowers? Is there any political will to provide a public interest or a constitutional defence against state prosecutions when the actions of the state contravene the law? The questions are mind-blowing. Focused as it is on the individual experience of one of the world’s most significant whistleblowers, so is the film. Citizenfour is showing this month at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, and at various venues in Victoria. Catch it when it comes your way.

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The Giller Prize Show

Did you catch the Giller Prize show on the CBC last Monday? The Scotiabank Giller prize is awarded each year for the novel or collection of short stories judged the best Canadian fiction of the year. Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovitch established the award in 1994 to commemorate his wife, literary editor Doris Giller. Scotiabank joined as sponsor in 2005. The winner receives $100,000, one of the richest literary purses for English language writing. Nominees receive $10,000 each. This year, 32-year-old Sean Michaels from Montreal was the winner with his debut novel, Us Conductors. His novel relates the fictionalized life of Lev Termen, a Russian-American inventor and musician who devised the theremin, a musical instrument which gives sound to electrical currents in the human body and which was popular in the 1920s. There were five other nominees, all well-established writers, some major prize-winners:

Frances Itani for Tell
Padma Viswanathan for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao
Heather O’Neill
for The Girl Who was Saturday Night
David Bezmozgis for The Betrayers
and Marion Toews for All My Puny Sorrows

The three-person jury chose what they considered a particularly strong panel of nominees from over 161 entries this year.

Martin Knelman, in the Toronto Star, called the award show “the most deliriously enjoyable televised Giller night ever, with a bubbly and spunky tone that kept the audience in a constant state of bliss.” He praised host Rick Mercer for his understated handling of what he called “the elephant-in-the-room matter of Jian Ghomeshi, former host of the event,” and for his high-speed humour including the claim that “the guest list provided proof that there was no such thing as ‘the downtown Toronto elite.’”

I caught the show on my computer, live streamed on CBC Books, with an accompanying live chat. This was a novel experience for me and totally delightful. Comments posted by book lovers from across the country attest to the enthusiasm of Canadian readers and their appreciation of how the CBC contributes to promoting Canadian literature. Consider the following:

“Giller prize nominees all so adorably awkward.”

“This Giller Prize feed is one of the greatest twitter things to ever happen in my life. Thank you fellow #booklovers #readers #writers.”

“Go Canada. Are you watching PM Harper?”

“Possibly the most awkwardly Canadian thing I have ever seen. In the best way.”

“Canada: The country where book award hash tags trend: #Giller Prize #love.”

“Funny, entertaining, classy and engaging.”

“#Giller Prize CBC class act show!”

“OMG @Miriam Toews reading AMPS. I’m teary and goose bumpy.”

“Can we please talk about how cool the #Giller Prize is?”

“My must read book list is growing tonight.”

“And a classical pianist playing Chopin? Eat your heart out Oscars.”

“I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an awards show this much!”

“@cbcbooks. No idea! They are all so deserving! a great night for Can Lit. I love that in Canada we treat our authors like rock stars.”

For a list of all Giller prize winners and the nominees each year since 1994, check out Wikipedia on the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Notwithstanding the demise of distribution houses and the fact that writing as a profession is not particularly remunerative, there is no shortage of talented Canadian writers. Thanks to Jack Rabinovitch for establishing the Giller prize, and for insisting that CBC host the Giller Prize Show. Promoting Canadian literature is precisely what the CBC should be doing. Great show everyone!!!! We are very proud of you. 

 

Is there any debate about “The Big Shift”?

One advantage of retirement is the time to read books languishing on my shelves. Last year, columnist John Ibbitson and pollster Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs, released The Big Shift (Harper Collins, 2013), which they billed as “the seismic change in Canadian politics, business and culture and what it means to our future.” The authors wrote the book as a “polite provocation [We are, after all, Canadian.] to start a debate.” I remember the first reviews of the book, but have heard little debate.

In a nutshell, the authors see the 2011 federal election as a watershed. In that election, the federal Tories put together a new coalition of seats from the west and from the middle class suburbs around Toronto to secure a majority government even without Quebec. This new coalition reflects the fact that, for over twenty years, Canada has imported 250,000 new immigrants per year, “a new Toronto every ten years.” These immigrants are the New Canada: energetic, pragmatic, cosmopolitan, global, using English as the language of business, primarily from Asia (India, China, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines), oriented to the Pacific (or the Indian) Ocean, middle-class, suburban and thriving on diversity. They argue that these immigrants “found common cause with Old Canada ­– the white and often rural stock who were the descendants of the settler culture” in rural Ontario and the West. Their issue was, and is, all about the economy and who was, and is, best placed to manage it.

In the New Canada, power has shifted to the West. And “the capital of western Canada, the seat of its power and influence, is Ottawa.” There, they argue, “The West dominates the power centres of the federal government today the way Quebec did under Pierre Trudeau,” and that “today’s Ottawa is increasingly a city of Western values and Western priorities, dominated by western politicians who lead the first truly Western government in this country’s history.” The authors argue that this “big shift” is the new reality which will shape the future of the country.

This change is from what they call the “Laurentian Consensus.” Although the Liberal Party came to epitomize the Laurentian Consensus, they argue that it was bipartisan, based in Central and eastern Canada, committed to a strong national government, preoccupied with Quebec, equalization of the rich and poor provinces, protection from Americanism, oriented to the Atlantic and the “old countries” of Europe, and to Canada’s role abroad “exercising soft power” through diplomacy, international aid and as peacekeepers. In their view, the “Laurentian Consensus” is dead and the “Laurentian elites” (whom they define as the liberals living downtown in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal who dominate the universities, media and cultural centers of the nation) are chafing at their loss of influence.

They argue that the Harper Conservatives have been the first to capitalize on “the big shift” and, because their values coincide with those of the newcomers, the Conservatives have now become “the natural governing party” federally, as were the Liberals before. The authors suggest that, were the Liberals and the N.D.P. to recognize the change as have the Tories, there is the potential to form a “progressive coalition” that could return to power with the support of the social democrats who have re-entered federal politics under the N.D.P. in Quebec. They postulate that the N.D.P. are the natural leaders of any such coalition and that the Liberals are destined to decline.

This grand theory does provide food for thought. But it raises more questions than it answers. How to account for the current popularity of the Trudeau Liberals? Or the strength of Liberal provincial governments across the country? It is interesting to note that those same ridings in the suburbs around Toronto who voted Tory in the 2011 federal election voted Liberal in the 2014 provincial election. Ontario voters choosing different parties at the federal and provincial levels is a well-established pattern which reflects their pragmatism. To what extent is Western power based on its place as the economic engine of the nation and the source of its current growth? That economy, however, is resource-based and vulnerable to overseas demands, changing prices and the need to reach foreign markets. The assertion of “western values” and “western priorities” assumes that the West is monolithic. I would suggest that what we see in Ottawa are “Alberta values” or “prairie priorities” and not necessarily those from over the mountains on the west coast where most B.C.-ites live. Just as “the west” is not monolithic, neither are immigrants. Newcomers to Canada come from different political traditions with different political perspectives. History also shows that the second generation soon integrates into the mainstream, with minds of their own, and opinions as diverse as they are.

And so the debate goes on. In the context of the federal election year ahead, the more debate the better.

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