Category: Posts

A Photo Shoot at Jack Poole Plaza

I invite you to join our early morning photo shoot at Jack Poole Plaza on the Vancouver harbour last week, and see how photographer Rick Hulbert works. Using The Photographer’s Ephemeris, a free online program which shows the quality of light at particular places and times of day (including sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moon set), Rick knew exactly when morning light would be best at the Plaza. When I arrived at 6:10 a.m., he was already there, with his tripod set up at the extreme architectural point of the plaza. He’d already begun shooting material for use in future photography classes.

Last week, he sent me two images which he had ‘recorded’ (notice the lingo) during a five-minute period early that morning. Using the Ephemeris, he was able to find the exact angle of the sunlight and the best place to stand. He explained in an email that his intention was “to portray Harbour Green Neighbourhood in colour. It is early morning first light, and because the sun is shining through the greatest amount of the earth’s atmosphere, the quality of the light is soft and warm. I employed a wide-angle lens and kept my camera level and on a tripod to support a horizontal horizon along with ‘vertical verticals.’

The image of the downtown core of Vancouver surrounding Jack Poole Plaza is conveyed in black and white. B&W images portray pure luminance which has the potential of conveying an enhanced sense of depth. By stopping down my Tilt/Shift lens to f/22, I was able to achieve a starburst effect with the sun bouncing off one of the building windows in the distance.

“The challenge in both images was to display the enormous dynamic range of light in a single capture. I did this by reducing the original tone curve to a ‘linear curve,’ which also reduces the contrast, allowing me to have more flexibility in ‘re-visualizing’ the image in software. While it could be said that simplicity of subject is a noble goal, I chose to attempt to embrace a complexity of edges in an ordered composition.” He wanted “the images to read as large as possible with no cropping. The subject of each image is the entire field of view… edge to edge of each photo.”

Photo by Rick Hulbert

Photo by Rick Hulbert

Photo by Rick Hulbert

Photo by Rick Hulbert

Learning by doing means getting up early in the morning to experience in our bones the quality of the light at that hour of the day. While the master produced his prototypes for future use in class, the rest of us were free to see all the splendid scene had to offer.

My photos have not yet been re-visualized in Lightroom. They were shot as RAW files in Aperture mode. Rick did say that I could have moved the chairs. I never thought of that at the time. My focus on the greenery visible through the iconic Olympic Cauldron led to a discussion of how green pops out in any setting. In the last photo, I tried to highlight the Lions Gate Bridge in the background on my Apple Photos edit program but was not particularly successful. Next purchase? A download of Lightroom.

***** Thank you to Rick Hulbert for sharing his photos and his comments. 

 

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A Five Star Photography Workshop

Billed as the “Ultimate Urban Travel Photography Workshop with International Award Winning Architect, Urban Designer and Photographer, Rick Hulbert,” this four-day workshop held in Vancouver last week was one of the most intense and engaging learning experiences of my life.

I’d taken a workshop with Rick years ago, while he was still working as an architect. It had been very useful and relatively laid-back. I jumped at the chance for a repeat, with a focus on my hometown. After all, blogging about Vancouver is one of my favourite themes, and improving my pictures would make future posts all the better.

Retired from architecture for more than a year, Rick now teaches photography all over the world. From his professional background, knowledge of art history, and interest in the rapidly changing neurosciences, he articulates his (perhaps revolutionary?) philosophy of photography with unbridled passion. His lectures are amazing. His own photographs used to illustrate his points, awesome. He answers all questions with equal grace, no matter how technical, controversial, or simple (as many of mine certainly were). Post-course, students receive a copy of his key point visuals, which relieves the pressure of taking notes and focuses student attention on what he says and does. Conscious of what each student wants and needs, he ensures everyone equal “one on one” time. It seems that Rick has become the platonic ideal of a photography teacher: rigorous, thoughtful, constantly learning himself, and downright funny to boot. No wonder he is in such demand.

The ten participants in the workshop were photography enthusiasts: devotees of camera clubs, journalists who use photos to illustrate their stories, a hip sound man who is a sports photographer wannabe, a busy father of four who somehow fits serious photography into his work/life balance, some who have already sold their pictures, at least one a computer tech. I was by far the least photo-experienced of the group. The workshop promo said to come and “share your skills with others.” Everyone did, most generously. One, with a camera similar to mine, helped me with my settings. A second showed me how to set up and manipulate my new tripod. Another told me that I could press the button in the corner of my iPhone screen and take pictures without even opening the phone. (I blush to admit, I’d never used that feature before. How could I have missed it?) He also showed me how to download photos onto a USB stick, an essential task in sharing photography (and much else) which I had never quite mastered. Even before the workshop began, I’d learned these two new skills which will undoubtedly change my life.

The False Creek Bubble (photo by Bruce Hawick)

The False Creek Bubble (photo by Bruce Hawick)

The promo material promised that the course was “all about taking your photography to the next level.” It warned, however, that “you need a camera that you know how to use” and that you should “read the manual that came with your camera so you will be familiar with its features.” Easier said than done. Since creating my blog, my handy-dandy iPhone has been my camera of choice. But I knew that showing up at a Rick Hulbert workshop with only an iPhone was not on. I bought a light-weight, mirrorless camera two years ago but, out of sheer laziness, I’d used it only in Intelligent Auto mode. “Read the manual.” Are you kidding? Manuals are for techies. It takes a long time to become familiar with all the features on the contemporary camera computers we can now buy, and I hadn’t used my “new” camera for at least a year.

Fully aware that Rick doesn’t teach “Camera Operation 101,” I scheduled some lessons before the workshop to learn how my “new” camera worked. I also started to use my early morning walks for photo shoots. I thought I was ready to go. But, to go “to the next level,” in my case, was a really big leap. Rick recommends shooting in Manual and Aperture modes, and primarily in RAW file format. That’s a totally different thing. Manual mode I had forgotten. Shooting RAW files, I had never done before. I had no idea what impact this would have on how I used my camera. On Day One, I floundered big time.

On the Georgia Viaduct (photo by Bruce Hawick)

On the Georgia Viaduct (photo by Bruce Hawick)

That day Rick lectured in the morning. After a late lunch, we did a “hands on” walk-about over the Georgia Street Viaduct, down Main Street, and then along the waterfront to the Science Centre and the Olympic Village at the east of False Creek. It was less than a two kilometre walk, a glorious sunny day, and we stopped often to practice what Rick had taught us, and for him to make suggestions. His promo had said that we would learn what to wear on a photo shoot. I did! And it was definitely not what I had on: a black Icebreaker sweater, a wool sweater-coat and a new camera bag too small to hold all my gear. The next day, I jettisoned this attire and came more properly outfitted. That aside, around 4:00 p.m., in the shade of a patio near a bakery, Rick talked cameras and lenses with the more experienced photographers. They were on a short break while awaiting the change of light to continue the photo shoot into the evening.

Into the evening? How do they do it? I realized that I had to pace myself. Feeling a bit of a wimp, I took my leave, rode the Aquabus to the Plaza of Nations, and found my way home. I don’t know when I have ever felt so tired. I was utterly exhausted. Why was I so sore all over? What happened to my much-vaunted energy and the fruits of my physical training? Who knew that photographers worked so hard?

Day Two was another intensive session when Rick explained his principles for successful photography and we applied them to our pictures. In “Image Review” with Rick Hulbert, we saw a master manipulating Adobe Lightroom to improve the RAW data files we’d taken. Apart from teaching us about light, how to see, what to look for, and how to get what we want, “re-visualization,” as he calls his post-production editing, is an essential tool of the modern digital photographer. He made sure we knew how Lightroom works and why we would use its many features. Day Three was a lecture on street photography, a film, and an afternoon photo shoot on Granville Island, including another walk-about to unusual sites only a photographer like Rick would notice. Day Four was an early morning (6:30 a.m.) photo shoot at Jack Poole Plaza on the harbour, with another full day of “Image Review” to further embed our skills.

After four days, others in the group were fading and even Rick admitted that he too was tired. No wonder. He gives out 100% all the time, and then some. It’s true that many of the activities he offered on the last two days were optional. But who wants to opt out when Rick is at hand to share his expertise? I may not yet be able to apply all I have learned, but I now understand the lingo and have the basic concepts firmly embedded in my brain. There is no doubt that I am many levels higher than when I started. Everyone rises to expectations, right?

Granville Island (photo by Bruce Hawick)

Granville Island (photo by Bruce Hawick)

So, how to rate Rick Hulbert as a teacher of photography? A+++ He more than delivers on what he promises, with the caveat to potential students that he deliberately pitches his program to make the best possible photos. “Learning by doing” is the name of the game. Nothing is more effective. Rick teaches a theory of photography which will stay with us forever. And the attention he pays each student makes it like a master class in photography. Listening to more experienced photographers teaches much, by osmosis. Just remember to get lots of sleep and exercise before the workshop begins, bring a water bottle and some trail snacks to keep you going. And tell your family in advance that you will be late getting home for dinner.

***** The uncaptioned photos are my RAW files of data, “re-visualized” with the help of Rick and the group. 

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Red Flags to Avoid a Computer Hacking

On Tuesday, my computer was hacked royally. And I helped the slimy skulker do it. All sorts of red flags should have alerted me to the danger, but I ignored them and became a party to my own hacking. How embarrassing is that? Don’t let it happen to you.

I had just opened my MacBook Pro laptop to begin my day’s writing when a window popped up in the middle of the screen indicating that this was a “System-key 23.xyz.” warning to a “Telus Communications User.” It said I needed to know that my computer was infected and that I was in danger of losing all my data. To avoid further problems, I was to phone the 1-844 telephone number provided without closing my computer. Assuming this was a communication from my internet provider, I obeyed the instruction, and called the number.

That was Flag Number One. This is a classic line which should have immediately alerted me to the fact that this was a scam. A computer-literate friend of mine later told me that no one external to my computer can ever know in the abstract that there is anything amiss with my computer. What I should have done, right away, was to close my computer. If my computer would not close (which may have been the case, I can’t remember), I should have disconnected my router from the wall and cut my wireless connection.

I did neither. I blithely used my iPhone to call the number and the drama began. Right away, “Ethan, employee number 1603, extension 8008” answered. He said he was a “Microsoft-certified technician” who also “provided support to all Apple users all over the globe” and that he was working from the “Apple Support Desk in Buffalo, New York.”

Flags Number Two, Three and Four. I have worked on several Apple computers and devices for more than six years. I have also used Apple Support, on occasion. I should have known instantly that “a Microsoft-certified technician” does not fix Apple computers, and that the Apple Support program does not operate, out of the blue, from Buffalo, New York. What was I thinking? These were all obvious clues. That I did not pick up on them gave the hacker the information he needed to know that I was someone he could exploit.

“Ethan” went on to tell me that he “would check out any damage to [my] machine,” “check for viruses,” “insecure connections,” and “malicious infections,” since it appeared that “there were no protections on [my] machine,” and “no warnings.” Without protections, my computer may crash and without backup I “might lose all my data.” He asked me for permission to access my computer so that he could show me the problems. I said, “okay. I guess you need to do that,” or something to that effect. He then showed me a code page from the computer indicating that there was malicious software shown in the codes. During our conversation, which went on for some time, he assured me that he would “clean and tune up” my computer, “optimize the browser,” “run the stop services,” “update the drivers,” “install Mac Defender” and “install Apple MacKeeper.”

Flags Number Five, Six and Seven! In my work life, when I used Microsoft computers, I had bought Norton software to give protection against hackers. I had assumed that Apple products were less prone to hacking than Microsoft, and that anti-hacking software was built into my machine. No professional techie that I had used to rationalize my Apple computer, and no instructor in any One-on-One program I had taken, had ever suggested that any extra protection was necessary. This guy was telling me differently. And I fell for it.

Until he mentioned “Mac Defender,” and I saw that the printed material he was flashing on my screen was misspelled as “Apple Defends.” When he said “MacKeeper,” the penny finally dropped. Late one night, several months ago, I saw a “MacKeeper” ad on my Facebook page, and followed up. When I did so, I discovered that “MacKeeper” is a scam which I later tried to remove from my computer but was never quite able to do.

At that point, I freaked. I confronted him and said that he was a hacker and that this was a scam. His tone changed. He called me a “lady thief” because I “had wasted all his time,” and he began using FaceTime to flash pictures of me over and over again on my screen. Totally intimidating to say the least. He then told me that my computer was now useless and I should throw it out. I put my iPhone down beside my laptop and used my landline to call Telus support to resolve this rapidly escalating problem.

I’d forgotten that I would have to wait awhile to get through to Telus. Eventually someone answered my query about the internet and I asked to speak with Telus technical support. I spent some time with the Telus operator who was consistently unresponsive to my questions. Obviously she knew nothing about computers. I insisted that I speak with her supervisor or someone in the tech department right away. She asked me to wait. I waited. She returned to tell me that because I did not have a Telus Internet Protection Plus Plan, which costs $50 to start (I think she said), and so much per month, there was nothing they could do. I told her that no one had ever told me that before and that I had never been given an option to buy the Plan or not. She suggested that I disconnect my wireless by unplugging the router. I unplugged the router. But that was that. Without the Protection Plan, it was not a Telus problem. She gave me a number for Apple Support and suggested I should call them.

At that point, the hacker started typing on my NoteBook Page: HEY STOP FOR A SECOND I HEARD THE CONVERSATION THAT YOU JUST HAD WITH TELUS. NOW LET ME TELL YOU. I BELONGS TO ISIS ISLAMIC STATE AND OF IRAQ AND SEREIRA. MY NAME IS ABDULLA BAKR – AL BAGHDAD AND I AM A SERIAL HACKER. NOW I HAVE ACCESS TO YOUR INFORMATION. NOW I WILL SHOW YOU THE CONSEQUENCES. I realized to my horror that I had not ended the call with the hacker on my iPhone. I immediately turned off my phone and called Apple Support.

The Apple Support technician asked my name and my product, and politely but firmly de-escalated my rising panic while emphasizing our mutual need to get my computer up and running again, safe and sound. He told me to turn off my computer. I turned off my computer. (How come I had not done that before?) He then told me to re-activate my wireless and reopen the computer. He told me that the codes the hacker had showed me were their normal codes and said that there was nothing wrong with them. He ran his own scan of my computer, found that it was clean but for a couple of suspicious files, which he removed. He also cleared away a couple of icons of apparently legitimate applications which the hacker had put on my dock. He then installed a malware detection application, and appeared to have the computer functioning within fifteen minutes or so. Fifteen minutes. I had already cancelled my afternoon appointment in the expectation that it would take all day to resolve the problem.

Apparently, I had acquired an extended AppleCare Plan when I bought the laptop and it was still good for a couple more years. He told me that he was going to take personal responsibility for this file and that I should call him should any further problems arise or if I had any questions. He then sent me an email with his name, his direct telephone number, his usual office hours, and an invitation to leave him a voicemail or send him an email, promising that he would follow up no later than his next day in the office. Now that is good service.

That my computer is back operating is a huge relief. I am now in the process of changing all my passwords. I don’t yet know what else I may need to do. For the moment, I am exhausted. Another computer-literate friend said I was lucky. He knows of other hackers who have locked out computers and demanded ransom money from owners to regain access to their own data. I guess security is a really big issue. No kidding.

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The Blessings of a Broken Kneecap

My husband went to extraordinary trouble to bring us the blessings of an extended stay in Vancouver. Now that his care (and mine) is in place, he is exercising every day, taking charge of planning and cooking our evening meals. and using his walker to shop for groceries and visit local eateries. He appears to be making good progress. For all the tribulations, our extended stay in Vancouver is bringing us many unexpected benefits. Just to list a few.

  1. The rain which depressed even me February through mid-April has now stopped, the sun is shining, and the cherry and plum trees, magnolias, and early rhodos are in unbelievably beautiful bloom. At their peak, they are breath-taking. I never would have guessed that our local community here was endowed with such a splendid display.
  2. Living here, grounded, without any possibility of touring elsewhere, has caused us to use the resources and the merchants of the local community as never before. It’s been an eye-opening “welcome wagon” of new experiences.

  3. We live next door to the West Vancouver Memorial Library, but have hardly used it in the past. This week, the Library Foundation streamed, live and free of charge, the 2017 TED Talks which other people paid big bucks to hear at the downtown Vancouver site or in selected theatres. I happened upon a session on “Mind, Meaning” at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, and was awestruck by what I heard and saw. Lots of material for posts there.

  4. I have now spent much time with the WVML Information Librarian. When I asked for a couple of books that were out locally, she told me that they were available at the Vancouver Public Library downtown, and that I could pick them up there and return them here. She also did a computer search of recent Globe and Mail book reviews to find an essayist whom I wanted to read but whose name I had forgotten. Once she had identified the author, she put me on a waitlist for both her books which are now on order. Undoubtedly, these same services are available at the Toronto Public Library. I just have never used them before. My loss.

  5. The proprietor of the local Kerrisdale Camera Shop referred me to Advanced Digital Training in North Vancouver where I have had two simply superb private lessons on how to operate the mirrorless compact camera I bought a couple of years ago.  Utterly intimidated by the complexity of what is effectively a very sophisticated computer, I have hardly used the camera all this time. Peter Levey at ADT is an enthusiastic and gifted teacher who has made my camera accessible. Next week, he is going to show me how to organize and manage my photo files, something that I should have learned years ago but never did. Finding Peter, and working with him, has been a real coup.

  6. Last night, my husband and I went for turkey dinner and all the trimmings at the spacious Garden Side Café at the Seniors’ (over 55) Centre nearby. Run by volunteers, the café serves breakfast and lunch every day, and full hot dinners twice a week, at a very modest cost. My husband, who has avoided the Seniors’ Centre until now, even conceded that it was a good meal, that the company was congenial, and that the dinner menu for May looks more interesting than he would have expected.

  7. Walking on the Seawalk, the people I run into at about the same time each day are beginning to become friends. As my Sixth Floor Caregiver friend has told me, these early morning walks come with all sorts of benefits, apart from the exercise itself. Among other things, I suspect that these new friends will bring some great stories to inspire future posts.

  8. Last week, one of the texts for the writing program I am starting this summer arrived unexpectedly early. This single book is a revelation which already is making the rewrite of my first book go better and faster. With a regular routine and few distractions, my writing is on a roll. I now think it likely that my forthcoming book will be published this year after all, thanks in no small measure to my husband’s broken kneecap.

  9. As a couple, we have been slow to think of ourselves as “seniors,” an illusion now shattered. We are coming to realize that dealing with the medical issues inevitable with aging requires proactive thought and a modicum of grace. Achieving that, or not, may well be a measure of character, part of “growing up.” Those people who have met the challenges of medical issues all their lives set an example. They are the experts in how to relate to and benefit from the health care system. We’d do well to emulate their courage, resilience and their joie de vivre, no matter what comes. Maybe this is one of the secrets to successful aging. And to successful living?

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Lessons Learned from a Kneecapping

Three weeks ago my husband suffered a kneecapping. His injury was not a malicious wounding as the I.R.A. and the mafia historically imposed on those who’d earned their ire. No. His was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill broken kneecap sustained from a simple fall on the hard cement sidewalk near our local grocery store. Nothing could have been more prosaic. The results, however, have been a life lesson for both of us.

When he fell, he also hit his head and nose on the cement, splattering blood all over and alarming the shocked onlookers gathered around him to help. An ambulance took him to the Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver. Two hours later, he was released. The good news was that he had no concussion and no broken nose; the bad news was that his kneecap was broken and he had to wear a velcro leg stabilizer to keep his leg perfectly straight until it could be seen by an orthopaedic surgeon. Six days later, he saw the surgeon who ordered day surgery for the next day.

That Friday, he was last on the list to have his knee cap wired, stapled, pinned and stitched together, as only surgeons can do, and was told to keep the leg straight in the velcro stabilizer for six weeks. When we left the day surgery unit, it was 9:30 at night, the lights in the ward were low, all the beds but that of my husband were empty, the intravenous poles were herded together for the next day, and two staff (nurses or aides, we had no idea) were behind the desk. When they finally pronounced him fit to leave, they rolled him down to the car in a wheelchair, he pulled himself and his prone mended leg into the back seat as best he could, and we headed home.

We left the hospital as proverbial babes in the woods. The hospital provided a set of crutches, a prescription for painkillers (which only made us recall with horror a previous very negative experience with side-effects of high-powered opioids), and instructions to schedule a post-op with the surgeon two weeks hence. We had planned a return to Toronto by that time; obviously that was not going to happen. We had no idea what would happen, nor what we would be required to manage.

The past two weeks have been a crash course in “Basic Care 101.” Part A: for the caregiver, and Part B: for the care receiver. Although we did not know it at the time, our first big mistake was leaving the hospital (probably due to the late hour) without any referral to an Occupational Therapist, Home Care Assessor, or to the Red Cross (which apparently loans all sorts of medical equipment to people recovering from hospital stays, all on referral from the hospital or a doctor). We had no family doctor on the west coast, and no referral for that, either. We had to manage as best we could, by trial and error, as the situation evolved.

We soon ditched the crutches and rented a walker, bought a raised toilet seat, and set about to make my husband as comfortable as possible. In a totally understandable post-surgical stupor, strategically sedated with painkillers, he developed bedsores, a bad sign we thought. The remedy? “Keep them clean,” and “Cover them with Mepore pads,” said the pharmacist who sold me a half-dozen dressings. A friend brought some Tegaderm film she had used to good effect for her long-deceased mother years ago. The bed sores healed as my husband became more mobile.

In the meantime, an 89-year-old neighbour who lives on the sixth floor and who has been a full-time caregiver for her wheelchair-bound husband for the past three and a half years, gave me the telephone number (604-215-4700) of a publicly accessible nurse whom she assured me is “always helpful… even in the middle of the night.” That we had a phone number to reach some medical help if necessary was immensely reassuring.

Our biggest mistake was our failure to buy or rent a “Bed Assist” that would help my hubby get up from his bed and onto his walker. Who would have guessed that it would be so difficult? First, I was the ballast as he grabbed the walker to pull himself up. That was difficult and hardly confidence-building. Then, we tried arranging cushions beside him in various configurations to act as risers. That was better, but a nuisance. Ultimately, our next-door neighbour, well into her nineties, who uses a walker, demonstrated on her own bed how she uses her upper arms, wrists and fists to push herself up and how she places her head to get the necessary momentum. If she can do it with such agility, so can my hubby. After two weeks, we finally rented a “Bed Assist,” a curved bedside bar attached to two long metal anchors that go between the mattress and the box spring. Problem solved, at least in the bedroom. Getting off cushions piled on the chesterfield in the living room still requires some care. Getting out of the back seat of the car, using the seat belt and the door for leverage, requires the strongest possible strength in the upper arms. Where are those strong shoulder muscles and biceps when you need them?

At first, we were in a state of shock, overwhelmed by our frequent miscommunications, my husband’s justifiable fear of falling again, my expectation (which he didn’t initially discourage) that I needed to do everything, and our clear incompetence. Neither of us was sleeping at night, except with heavy-duty sleeping pills which were running out. When our dishwasher was overflowing with suds just as the new cleaning woman arrived (because I had used the wrong detergent), that was the last straw. The mistake reflected my state of mind. 

It seemed as if this event was a foretaste of the future. Would this mean we’d have to sell our Toronto house (if only to get rid of the steps)? Or give up our Vancouver cottage (because our primary health care providers are in Ontario)? Must I abandon my writing, just when I’m on the verge of learning what the craft is all about? Apart from the love and devotion caregiving requires, the professional skills involved and the constant attention are bloody hard. I know the statistic that caregivers often succumb before the person they care for. Being a caregiver is a high-risk occupation. 

All that has now changed. A friend who is a professional social worker invited me for coffee, gave me space to vent and shared some practical referrals she could recommend from experience. I have now visited the walk-in clinic she suggested, and had excellent service for my own needs. The doctor sent me to a local LifeLabs where I can get access to the test results myself on the internet. We saw the surgeon for a post-op on Wednesday and, as well as having the staples removed and proclaiming the knee nicely on its way to healing, he gave us all that we asked. We had a long list: renewals of sleeping pills, written orders for physiotherapy, a referral to the Red Cross for medical equipment, and a date for the next visit.

The physiotherapist from local community health came Thursday, showed us how to manage the brace, what exercises to do, which furniture adaptations and equipment additions would work best, how to install new shower heads… altogether a most helpful consultation. On Friday, we secured from the Red Cross Loan Program a shower stool and a tub transfer bench, two possible means to get proper showers. That same day, we plugged into a Home Care Service for a personal service worker or attendant who can help my husband with his bathing routine. And my hubby never even complained. Truth be told, we both came to exactly the same conclusion about our mutual needs at the same time.

Our neighbours, who are nearly twenty years our senior, carry on their caregiving and their personal health challenges with relentless good humour and energy. Who are we to complain?

My hubby is feeling better; he wants to get some exercise, and resume cooking. He has ample time to browse the cookbooks (one of his favourite past-times), can push his walker around the grocery store as he does his shopping, and can manage cooking in the small confines of our galley kitchen. Already he has bought dozens of exotic spices so he can cook from the Jerusalem cookbook a friend gave us. On Thursday, he actually walked all the way home from the grocery store pushing his walker and paying very careful attention to the contours of the sidewalk. The physiotherapist had told us about the practical consequences of neuropathy in the feet, something which may account for his fall and which we should have known before. This successful spurt left him in great good humour. I have resumed writing, taken up walking again and returned to the gym. Friday morning, at 6:00 a.m., I met my Caregiver neighbour on the Seawalk. We are now bosom buddies.

It will be at least another month before we return to Toronto, but the new norm seems manageable after all. And with the sun finally coming out in Vancouver, and the cherry blossoms, early rhododendrons, ornamental tulips in the latest fashion colours, bright yellow and spritely white daffodils, who could want for anything more?

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Three Ds to Reduce Delay in the Criminal Courts

Federal Minister of Justice Wilson-Raybould is meeting with her provincial counterparts next week to discuss delay in the criminal courts. I am a fully retired judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, appointed in the wake of a similar Supreme Court induced crisis on the same issue over twenty-five years ago (in the case of R. v. Askov). During my twenty-year career on the bench, I spent most of my volunteer time as a judge on the issue of delay. And still the problem remains. I have three systemic suggestions to throw into the discussion.

1. Download more “hybrid” criminal offences from the Superior Court to the provincial courts. During the 1990s, the federal government amended the Criminal Code to increase the maximum sentence possible for summary conviction on “hybrid” offences. These are offences where the crown has a choice to proceed by the more complex indictable route or by the simpler summary conviction procedure. Before, the highest sentence on summary conviction was six months in custody. When the amendment “supersized” the cap on sentence for these hybrid offences to a potential eighteen months in custody, crown attorneys assessed the facts of particular cases in light of the higher penalty and, if appropriate, often elected to go ahead by a summary trial in the provincial court. That meant that trials were held more quickly, and the accused had no right to a preliminary hearing. The result was that thousands of cases were downloaded from the Superior Court to the provincial courts, even high-profile criminal trials like those of Jian Ghomeshi and Mike Duffy. That downloading was successful. If the maximum sentence for summary conviction “hybrid” offences were raised again so that it could incorporate more aggravating facts, I suspect that many more cases would proceed in the lower courts.

2. Divert simple drinking and driving cases to an administrative enforcement procedure such as British Columbia implemented in 2010, which was upheld, with some changes, by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2015. When I sat in the Ontario Court of Justice in Brampton, post-Askov, drinking and driving offences made up 45% of our caseload. Even today, drinking and driving cases are the most hotly litigated of charges, and take months to process through the criminal courts. In British Columbia, the Automatic Roadside Prohibition (ARP) scheme provides that drivers who register a “fail” on a roadside breath test can have their licenses suspended immediately for up to 90 days, those who register a “warn” can have shorter suspensions of between three and 30 days, their cars can be impounded, a fine and mandatory remedial education imposed. Apparently, deaths caused by drinking and driving in B.C. have decreased since the administrative enforcement scheme was put in place, and criminal prosecutions of simple drinking and driving charges are down by about 85%. Where there are aggravating factors, a high roadside breath test reading, a prior record of administrative suspensions or criminal convictions, driving while disqualified, or any injury to persons or property, the criminal process should be invoked and sanctions increased. Apparently even MADD Canada is in favour of the B.C. model and has been lobbying the Ontario government to implement it. Now that driving while impaired by marijuana is being added to the Code, a rethink on how enforcement is to be made effective without swamping the criminal courts is imperative.

3. Give the Chief Justice of the provincial courts direct access to the Court of Appeal by enacting a power to “state a case.” Prior to the mid-1990s, Ontario judges had statutory authority to put a factual case to the Court of Appeal for an expedited decision on a legal issue. That power was taken away, a change which in my view has proven dysfunctional. New laws come first to lower trial court judges who have a duty to apply them to the fact situations before them. Sometimes those fact situations are clear and uncontested. The only issue is whether the fact situation involves a breach of the Charter, or some narrow legal issue which needs a definitive resolution by the highest court authority, as speedily as possible.

I had such a case in 2000. It was a simple police stop on the street, a conversation between two officers and a young man, a delay while the police did a computer check on his identity, and then an arrest on unrelated charges. When the charges came before me for trial, both counsel agreed on the facts and the only issue was whether or not the stop amounted to “a detention” which had Charter consequences. As a lower court decision, my written judgment, although published in the national criminal reports and argued repeatedly, had no value as a precedent within the hierarchical structure of our court system. But my case crystallized the issue as a systemic matter. With no power to state a case for an expedited definitive decision from the Ontario Court of Appeal, the issue of what constitutes a detention on the street churned around the lower courts until finally, nine years later, the Supreme Court of Canada decided the issue. Nine years is a long time. Too long.

That case had to do with detention on the streets. There were other issues: whether a new drinking and driving law had retrospective application to cases currently before the courts? whether the crown had a Charter duty to disclose repair records of Intoxilyzer machines? Both technical legal issues which, in my view, caused what I can only consider constipation in the lower courts. The enema of an expedited Court of Appeal decision was needed. 

The existing criminal appellate process in Canada proceeds in a non-systemic, random manner, totally dependent on whether the crown or a defendant has any interest in an appeal. For many pragmatic reasons, neither may want to appeal a particular case, and the issue churns on, wasting endless hours of redundant argument in the lower trial courts. This ad hoc, leisurely and languid appeal process contributes considerably to delay in the courts. If speedy justice is in the public interest, then the Chief Justice of the provincial court has a systemic interest in cutting through the verbiage and getting some authoritative direction on these types of issues on an expedited basis. For this reason, the Chief Justice should be able to “state a case” for a definitive decision from the Court of Appeal. The faster the provincial Courts of Appeal deal with the issues, the faster they will reach the Supreme Court of Canada if necessary, and the faster the lower courts will know how to deal with the trials before them. What’s the downside?

This post was also re-published on my other blog, Re-view From the Bench, on 20 April 2017.

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A Response to Sean Fine and the Supreme Court of Canada on “Justice Delays”

It was gratifying to read Sean Fine’s overview of how Canada’s criminal “Courts [are] shaken by search for solutions to delays” in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. In an intelligent and engaging analysis, he set out the essential message of last July’s Supreme Court of Canada 5:4 decision in R. v. Jordan: that criminal charges are to be tried within 18 months in provincial courts, and within 30 months in Superior Courts, and delays beyond those time periods shall be presumed to be unreasonable. He described the differences of opinion between the different Supreme Court justices, the reaction of the criminal justice system across the country to the new timelines, and the context of this particular decision over time. I commend his report to you.

This is not the first such crisis in the criminal courts. In R. v. Askov (1990), when the Supreme Court also defined what constituted “a reasonable time to trial,” the Ontario crown withdrew thousands of charges because of obvious delay, and thousands more came before the courts when accused persons made their own applications for a stay because of delay. In Ontario, I was one of 36 new judges, and at least two dozen new crown attorneys, appointed by the provincial government to help deal with the existing backlog in the criminal courts, and avoid the situation from recurring. Over 25 years later, Jordan is another SCC decision on the same subject, and another “kick in the pants” from the Supreme Court to all the courts across the country bound to apply their ruling. Equally if not more important, the Supreme Court decision is a clarion call to the federal government responsible for defining the criminal law and to the provincial governments charged with the administration of criminal justice. The Supremes are saying that delay in criminal courts must become a priority.

Sean Fine points out that the Supreme Court agreed on the facts of the particular case before them (that 49.5 months to trial on a charge of possession for the purpose of trafficking is unreasonable), but disagreed on almost everything else. In the fall-out from Jordan, all sorts of questions are being discussed. Some say there is a need to change “a culture of complacency” which exists in the court system; others deny that any complacency exists. Do away with preliminary hearings, implement a triage system, divert less important cases out of the system, require crown attorneys to lay charges and not the police, inject more resources into the system, speed up appointing judges; all are bandied about as obvious “solutions” to the problem.

Finding enduring solutions, however, requires appropriate empirical data about the different ways the system is actually working across each province and across the country. As Professor of Criminology Tony Doob noted in a recent Globe and Mail article with respect to preliminary hearings, such data is non-existent.

Throughout my 20 years on the Ontario Court of Justice, the 1990 Askov “kick in the pants” was a continuing incentive to reform within the Ontario criminal court system. The provincial government appointed more judges and crowns; the provincial bench became more diversified. In 1991, the Supremes mandated full disclosure of the crown’s case to the defence. For a variety of systemic reasons, making that aspiration real took more time and effort than would ever have been anticipated, and still sometimes falls short in particular cases. Thousands of charges were downloaded from the Superior Courts to the provincial courts, eliminating the possibility of a preliminary hearing and inherently ensuring a more speedy trial. This was done by the simple statutory expedient of “supersizing” the possible penalties available for “hybrid” charges (such as assault and sexual assault) where the crown can elect to proceed by summary conviction.

Numerous practices were attempted to reduce delay. We tried two tiers of courts: one in the morning and another in the afternoon; that didn’t work. Special plea courts with judges known to be lenient on sentencing were set up; that helped. Plea courts for early resolution of cases are now the norm. We implemented an intake cycle system where a single judge and crown took ownership of blocks of cases coming into the system with the expectation that they would be resolved or adjudicated within four months. That system was abandoned after several years without any formal outside evaluation. The administration monitored “time to trial” statistics and, routinely, assigned temporary judges to run “blitz courts” to clear local backlogs of cases in overworked or understaffed courts. “Shadow courts” were established with “shadow” dockets of cases which were fed into the trial courts offering help after their regularly assigned cases were completed. Experienced crowns were placed into intake courts to “take ownership” of cases, encourage early resolutions and ensure that multiple adjournments did not bog down the set date process.

Numerous task forces and commissions (both local and province-wide) were set up and recommendations made for changes in practices: early vetting of cases by experienced crowns, early resolution discussions, diversion of simple cases out of the system and to special programs, mandatory judicial pretrials to narrow the issues and encourage resolutions, rules requiring notice about witnesses and issues to be addressed on prelims, prelims moved out of courtrooms and witnesses examined on the record without a judge being present, special training and procedures for complex cases and for dealing with unrepresented accused, the use of trial coordinators to set dates outside of court, specialized crowns handling specialized courts with specialized procedures (e.g.: domestic courts, courts for children, drug courts, mental health courts, courts for Indigenous people), dealing with impaired driving administratively rather than through the courts.

There has been no shortage of problems identified nor recommendations made about how the system could be improved. The problem has been making reforms happen, and the systemic failure to evaluate the effects.

The criminal justice system, like the health care system, is a very complex institution with multiple ever-changing stakeholders, little routine outside evaluation, and, in my time, a woeful lack of institutional memory. The federal government defines the criminal law but it is not responsible for the administration of justice. Our constitution makes provinces responsible for the operation of the courts. The actions of one affect the other, and vice-versa. One obvious example: When the federal government cut its financial contribution to the Ontario Legal Aid Plan, the number of defendants able to obtain counsel through Legal Aid went down, and the number of accused persons representing themselves went up. Without counsel, there were fewer pre-trial resolutions and the time taken for trial, even for simple matters, increased. What else would one expect? Defence counsel are essential players in the system. Apart from the detriment to individual rights, cutting them back removed the grease that makes the legal system work.

Don’t get me started…. It’s a big issue. How the time limitations imposed by the Supreme Court of Canada will withstand the reality of fact situations coming before Canadian courts in the immediate future, only time will tell. Maybe, as in 1991, the jurisprudence will become nuanced. In my view, it is a very good thing that the Supreme Court has put on the pressure to make “speedy justice” a priority. We’re finally talking about delay, the real issue which has faced our courts for decades. Maybe this time, there will be a major rethink.

This post was also re-published on my other blog, Re-view From the Bench, on 14 March 2017.

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A Super Fun Sports Gala

Another gala? It’s been a long time since my husband and I have attended a fund-raising gala of any sort, let alone a sports gala. I had a ball. Two organizations jointly sponsored the event: the Rotary Club of Coquitlam in aid of their local and international projects, and the Canucks Autism Network (CAN) to support their sports leagues for children and youth not normally involved in organized sports. Apart from the congenial company, the excellent meal, the interesting silent auction and the plenitude of games designed to extract $20 bills from everyone in sight, there were for me three highlights of the evening.

The first was that I met, and had my picture taken with, Lui Passaglia, a legend in the Canadian Football League and denizen of the national and provincial Sports and Football Halls of Fame. During his 25-year career as a placekicker/punter for the B.C. Lions, he scored more points than any other football player in the history of the league. He also kicked the last-minute field goal which enabled the Lions to win the 1994 Grey Cup against the Baltimore Stallions by a score of 26:23. He and I both admired the Hall of Fame display which included the No 38 jersey worn by By Bailey, my very favourite Lions football player in the 1950s. Then I was a passionate football fan. Listening to all the Lions games on the radio, I used to track the plays with a pencil in a paper scribbler so that, at the end of each game, I had a visual record of everything that had happened. Meeting Lui Passaglia was a bit of a sentimental journey to my youth.

The second was that we all met Robert Gagno, 28 years of age, from Burnaby B.C.  Did you know that he is the world’s best pinball player?  I certainly didn’t. He placed first at the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) World Championships held in Pittsburgh in April 2016. Chris Koentges has written a wonderful story entitled “The Charmer,” published November 13, 2016 in ESPN The Magazine, about how Robert, a child whom some doctors said might never talk, read or write, discovered pinball. He did it at five years of age and became “a pinball savant.” Apparently, as the machines have become more advanced each year, pinball has grown and now has 45,000 ranked competitors. A video tracing Robert’s progress in the sport, from his first victory in the 2009 California Extreme to his recent world championship, was an absolute inspiration for all of us to see. For fun, Robert challenged hockey player Kirk McLean to a pinball game. I know nothing about the sport nor how it is scored, so have no idea who won, but Robert clearly got as much of a kick  from the competition as we did watching them go at it.

And the third highlight? Because of my shrewd spending at the silent auction table, I actually won a raffle. And the prize? Two tickets to a hockey game at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena next Thursday night, between the Vancouver Canucks and the Dallas Stars. My husband and I have never been to a NHL Hockey Game before, and certainly not to the Rogers arena in Vancouver. We are not hockey fans, except when a Canadian team is in the Stanley Cup, or Canadians are playing Americans or Russians in international competitions, but this will be fun. As I said before, this was quite the gala.

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Preliminary Hearings: Prohibition or Reform of Practice?

The media has been full in recent weeks of proposals to do away with preliminary hearings (called prelims for short) and so, reduce delay in the criminal courts. The 5:4 Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Jordan in July set presumptive deadlines of 18 months for trials to be concluded in provincial courts, and 30 months in Superior Courts. Several high-profile cases have occurred where judges applying the new guidelines have stayed very serious charges because the time taken to get to trial was so long. When accused persons are not tried on the merits of their charges, the public is understandably upset.

The Ontario Attorney General is apparently encouraging more “direct indictments” whereby the crown refers serious matters directly for trial in the Superior Court (without a prior prelim in the lower court) and making demands to do away with most prelims. Manitoba’s three Chief Justices and its Attorney-General are proposing to eliminate all prelims. Minister of Justice Wilson-Raybould is saying that “Preliminary inquiry reform is a divisive issue…” and that committees in both the House of Commons and the Senate are looking at the issue.

What is a preliminary hearing? The Criminal Code provides that any person charged with an indictable offence (typically a serious charge to which a more elaborate procedure applies) has a choice: 1) trial by judge alone in the provincial court, 2) trial by judge alone in the Superior Court, or 3) trial by judge and jury in the Superior Court. If the accused elects trial in the Superior Court, he or she may request that a prelim be held. This means that a judge of the provincial court will conduct a hearing to decide if the crown has enough evidence for the defendant to be committed to stand trial. The “test for committal” is low: whether there is any evidence upon which a reasonable jury properly instructed could convict the accused of the charge or charges before the court. The prelim judge cannot assess the credibility of witnesses, nor can he or she hear any application for any potential Charter breach.

The limited jurisdiction of the prelim judge does not mean that prelims cannot be useful. Although the defendant will have received full written disclosure of the crown’s case well in advance, there may be much relevant information that defence counsel (and crown counsel for that matter) will not have. Neither will know, for example, how the complainant will appear as a witness and how he or she will respond to cross-examination. Neither will know information from the arresting officer or other crown witnesses that the defence might use to support a later application for exclusion of evidence under the Charter or otherwise. A prelim provides a chance to examine and cross-examine witnesses on essential points and get their responses on the record. Should they later testify differently at trial, the inconsistencies would go to their credibility. After hearing the evidence on a prelim, some judges offer the parties an opportunity to resolve the matter there and then without the need for any further trial. Resolutions at this stage are not uncommon.

It was also my experience, sitting as a judge in various courts in and around Toronto, that the use of prelims as a delay tactic has almost entirely disappeared. In the 1980s and early 1990s, defendants routinely elected prelims and then consented to committal at the prelim “without hearing any evidence.” The practice clogged court dockets and was then a primary cause of delay. In the 1990s, the Criminal Code was amended to allow higher penalties for certain offences (e.g.: sexual assault) where the crown could choose to proceed by the simpler summary conviction procedure. Thereafter, thousands of cases were downloaded to the provincial courts for trial and the defendant had no right to a prelim. Still later, court rules were put in place requiring a judicial pretrial where anyone seeking a prelim had to show precisely what witnesses he or she needed to hear and what issues were in play. If committal on the very low test were not contested, the crown might not need to call any of its case. Where multiple defendants were joined together and there may be little evidence relevant to one or two, the only evidence heard at the prelim would be with respect to those defendants. The prelim weeded out many problematic charges and focused the issues, both measures that would save time and resources down the road in the Superior Court.

The most intelligent piece I have read yet is the article by criminology professor Anthony Doob in the Globe and Mail on February 27th entitled “Preliminary inquiries: a debate that needs better data.” His essential point is that practice on prelims varies widely across the country and that what little data exists (reported in 2005) shows that prelims are often used instead of trials, and involve very few court appearances. He says that it is not clear why prelims “are seen as the Achilles heel of the court system” with respect to delay. He concludes that “data such as those provided by Statistics Canada in 2005 are no longer available. For explicable but stunningly short-sighted reasons, Statistics Canada has made it almost impossible to get a good picture of the use of the preliminary inquiry in Canada… (so that we know) less now than we did in 2005. … Those… on all sides of the debate can all claim that they are correct. They can make their arguments without even being forced to resort to the use of alternative facts, since the alternative—real up-to-date facts—don’t exist.” Someone is finally calling for “evidence-based” policy development with respect to delay in the courts. It’s about time.

This post was also re-published on my other blog, Re-view From the Bench, on 14 March 2017.

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CN Rail versus District of West Vancouver: Another Corporate Cash Grab?

The front page headline in Thursday’s Vancouver Sun caught my attention: “CN fights West Vancouver Over Centennial Seawalk.” CN Rail is demanding $3.7 million dollars in annual rent from the district of West Vancouver for public use of the seawalk built on the CN right-of-way to celebrate Canada’s Centenary 50 years ago. Since the district has refused to pay such a sum, CN has terminated its lease on the property, and started a lawsuit against it in the B.C. Supreme Court.

CN wants a judge to declare that their termination is lawful, that the seawalk, gazebo, gardens and parking spots built by the district trespass on the railroad corridor and must be removed, and that the district (and presumably the public) must be restrained from further use of the right-of-way. Oh yes, they are also asking for damages for arrears of rent.

The district has responded by applying to the federal Canadian Transportation Agency which resolves public transportation disputes. The district says that nothing is owed to CN Rail at all because of the long public use of the right-of-way, the lack of any damage to CN’s property, and the district’s ongoing and expensive enhancement of the shoreline which provides added protection to CN’s tracks at no cost to the corporation. To settle the matter, the district has offered an annual rent of $12,500.00, indexed to future inflation. Apparently, that’s not good enough for CN Rail who want a rental value based on the very expensive real estate in the area.

My Vancouver rental “cottage” is very close to the seawalk and the gazebo in dispute. I have written about the seawalk in prior posts, and am one of the thousands of locals who use the seawalk every day. The 1.7 kilometre seawalk may be the single most popular attraction on the entire Vancouver North Shore. Tourists and residents from all over the Lower Mainland flock to the short walk along the seashore that links Dundarave Pier with John Lawson Park, Ambleside Park, and the Capilano River to the east. Beside the seawalk is a separate “dog run,” unique in the area, which allows dogs to pace their owners leash-free without interfering with other users of the seawalk, including many seniors with mobility issues.

I only have “the facts” as set out in the newspaper article, taken from documents filed by the district. Here’s the history. When the seawalk was built in the 1960s, the government-owned Pacific Great Eastern Railway also owned the right-of-way. The PGE became BC Rail, also owned by the government. In 2004, the B.C. government sold its railway operation to CN Rail but retained ownership of the right-of-way which it then leased on a long-term lease to CN.

I gather that the government-owned railway must have leased the right-of-way to the district when the seawalk was first built. The district paid an annual rent beginning at $25 and increasing to $300. BC Rail requested rent increases up to $9,523 in 1999, but the district paid nothing at all after 1994. BC Rail made no further demands for any payment after 1999. When CN Rail purchased the rail line in 2004, it would have taken its own lease subject to the pre-existing lease to the district. Apparently CN Rail made no demands for rental payment from the district until September 2015 when their officials met with the district “to regularize the lack of a written agreement, deal with compensation and risk allocation.”

Without the benefit of hundreds of hours of costly legal advice which, undoubtedly, CN Rail has available and which the district will have to incur on behalf of the taxpayers, the issue seems pretty straightforward to me.

Why is CN Rail doing this? It seems that CN Rail wants to play hardball with the district of West Vancouver like CP Rail did for fifteen years with the city of Vancouver over its abandoned Arbutus Corridor which runs for nine kilometres from False Creek to Marpole on the south side of the city. There, residents had used the right-of-way as a community trail and created community gardens which CP Rail then bulldozed as leverage to force the city into buying the property. CP initially said that the land was worth $400 million. The city ultimately paid CP $55 million to buy it. 

But the Arbutus Corridor situation is entirely different from the West Vancouver seawalk. There, CP Rail actually owned the land, no trains had run on the right-of-way for fifteen years, and no public money was spent to enhance the value and use of the right-of-way. Here, the right-of-way is still owned by the province. The railroad and the seawalk have co-existed for nearly fifty years. I have no idea how much the district of West Vancouver has spent on the seawalk, its protection and amenities but it must be a lot. The seawalk is stunning and the anti-erosion enhancements have been substantial.

Who is CN Rail? CN Rail is the largest railway in Canada, with 32,831 kilometres of track extending from coast to coast and even into the United States (both to the Gulf of Mexico and to Alaska). According to the internet, the largest individual shareholder of CN Rail in 2014 was Bill Gates. The latest internet CN Rail Ownership Summary shows that the largest institutional investors in CN Rail are the Royal Bank of Canada, Massachusetts Financial Services, the Wellington Management Group, the Bank of Montreal and TD Asset Management In. The President and C.E.O. of CN Rail is Luc Jobin. He joined CN Rail as a senior executive in 2009, responsible for, among other things, “strategic planning.”

Some strategy. The court and/or the Tribunal should throw the Greedy Grouts out of court, and impose all possible legal costs against CN Rail and in favour of the district. What’s CN going to do? Impound all the cars from the parking spots? Tear down the gazebo? Bulldoze the seawalk? Their position is ridiculous, if not shameful, and will only serve to waste scarce public resources better spent on something else. What kind of corporate citizenship is that?

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The Day I Hit the Bentley

Today when we renewed our ICBC government-owned car insurance on the two old cars we keep out west, I was reminded of the only claim I have ever made on my car insurance. The time I hit the Bentley.

It was a baby blue Bentley convertible which I had seen one bright sunny day being driven along Marine Drive in Ambleside. Probably one of the most distinctive and expensive cars I have ever seen in my whole life. I noticed it at the time and promptly forgot about it.

Many months later, I returned to Vancouver and was driving my 2000 teal blue four-door Toyota Corolla, with the stick shift which always takes me a while to get used to, over the Lions Gate Bridge. It was mid-afternoon. My companion and I waited patiently in one of the five or six lanes of vehicles inching forward, bumper to bumper, where the traffic notoriously converges down to the one lane where the signal would be green and we could cross southbound over the bridge.

It was a dark and dreary day but the rain wasn’t so heavy that I really noticed it. I’m not even sure that I had my windshield wipers on. I was talking with my companion in my usual style, and driving my usual moderate speed, when I reached the apex of the span. As I passed over the height of the bridge and started down the decline to the Stanley Park causeway, I was shocked to see a long line of cars stopped ahead of me, backed way up the bridge. They were stopped dead, with their tail-lights red, and no one moving. I hit my brakes and pumped them as hard as I could, but the surface of the bridge must have been damp and I slid forward into the back of the car ahead of me. It was the baby blue Bentley convertible.

There was nothing to do but to bring my car to a stop, turn off the ignition and talk with the tall, silver-haired driver of the Bentley who approached my window. I got out of my car and went with him to inspect the damage. There were no marks on the paint job but he said that the tail pipe seemed to be bent. I looked and had no idea what I was supposed to be seeing.

There was no time, however, to discuss it. Never having been in any kind of accident before, I had no idea what to do. He was not happy. More precisely, he was visibly embarrassed. Being involved in an accident on the Lions Gate Bridge at any time close to rush hour is a civic disaster which can tie up traffic for hours. We have a friend who happened to be in a taxi on Georgia Street in downtown Vancouver at precisely that hour. He later told me that there was a news bulletin over the radio in his taxi reporting a car accident on the Lions Gate Bridge. That would have been Mr. Silver Hair and me. Mr. Silver Hair thrust his card at me, told me to call him later, and hastened back to his car.

By now, the traffic was moving smoothly, and we followed the Bentley through the park, around Lost Lagoon, and up Denman Street going towards English Bay. My companion took a couple of photos of the rear of the Bentley on his smart phone, so at least we had a record of what we regarded as the minimal damage I caused.

That night, a friend recommended that whatever discussions I might have with Mr. Silver Hair, the best practice was to report the accident to ICBC. At least, I would be covered if he should make a claim. I called the number on the card he’d given me and a man identifying himself as his son told me that his father had left for a vacation and had asked him to “deal with it.” He also told me that their company had many cars and that “one of their mechanics” would look over the blue Bentley and he would get back to me with an estimate of the cost of repairing the tail pipe. I looked up on my computer the name on the card and discovered that Mr. Silver Hair was a well-known “motivation speaker.” There were several sample podcasts of his lectures on his webpage and, just to check him out, I watched one for a while, but soon fell asleep. Two weeks later, I finally heard from his son. He told me that the mechanic had confirmed that the tail pipe was indeed bent and that it would cost $2400 to fix it. If I paid him the $2400, that would be the end of it. I said I would call him back.

$2400! Forget it! That was much more than my car was worth. I phoned up ICBC and learned that if Mr. Silver Hair actually made a claim, I might have to pay an extra couple hundred dollars of insurance for a couple of years, but that would be it. If he didn’t make a claim, there would be no cost to me. I never called him back. I’m not sure that he ever made a claim.

I now always drive over the Lions Gate Bridge on the greatest possible alert. I am also mindful that Bentleys and other expensive cars are to be avoided at all costs. Better to follow a truck than a Bentley.

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A Gem of a Concert

It is a striking story rich in imagery and drama. In the summer of 1701, over 1300 Native delegates paddled the northern rivers in their canoes headed for the colonial town of Montreal. They came from around the Great Lakes, from across the French colony, and from as far as Acadia, from 39 indigenous nations in all, to attend a peace conference called to put an end to decades of strife between them. In the middle of the conference, one of the leading organizers, Kandiaronk, a highly respected Wendat from Wendake (Huronia), fell ill and died. After funeral rites in both the Native and the French traditions, condolence ceremonies, and a funeral procession led by French troops, Huron warriors, clergy, the Native leaders and French officials, he was buried in Notre Dame Church in Montreal. Historians have said that his death brought everyone together and encouraged the signing of the peace treaty which was followed by feasting, dancing, singing and the exchange of goods.

The Toronto Consort, the nine-person ensemble of singers and instrumentalists led by David Fallis and known for their early music, turned the story of this “Great Peace of Montreal” into a haunting “choral documentary” which stunned the audience present for two sold-out Toronto performances on the weekend. Wendat scholar, poet and song-writer Georges Sioui brought the gravitas of his language, the wisdom of his poetry and the lyricism of his traditional music. Native singers and drummers, Ojibway Marilyn George and Wahta Mohawk Shirley Hay added their distinctive voices and drums. Wolastoq (Maliseet) composer and vocalist Jeremy Dutcher extrapolated from the oldest known recordings of songs by his Indigenous peoples along the St. John River basin, to produce a unique classical and operatic sound that brought the house down. He is now producing a CD, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, described as “part composition, part musical ethnography, part linguistic reclamation” that will be worth watching for.

The second half of the concert was a performance of “Wendake/Huronia,” another choral documentary, composed by Canadian composer and educator John Beckwith to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first encounter between Samuel de Champlain and the First Nations people in the province of Ontario, at Wendake (present-day Huronia). Commissioned by John French and the Midland-based Brookside Music Association, it had its première in the 2015 Festival of the Bays. Joining the Consort for this performance were the 40-plus member Toronto Chamber Choir and several singers who sang in the première.

“Wendake/Huronia” is written for choir, alto soloist, narrator, early-period instruments with indigenous drums, and sung in French and Wendat. Surtitles help with the translation. Beckwith first compiled a text from historical sources to summarize the Wendat experience before, during and after contact with the Europeans. His music simulates the use of snowshoes and canoes, both modes of transportation which fascinated the French. It evokes the appeal to the Europeans of exploring over the seas. There is “a musical depiction” of the traditional “Feast of the Dead” which so intrigued all who encountered it. “Lamentation, 1642” reflects on the epidemics and warfare which decimated the population. It ends with a French version of a poem by George Sioui which expresses hope for peace and reconciliation. The music is a melange of modern and First Nation traditional; the story is our history which is well worth knowing. The effect of the performance on the audience was mesmerizing. John Beckwith, who celebrates his 90th birthday in March, was present to share in the acclaim.

This very ambitious and successful triumph blew away whatever elusive expectations I had for the evening. Congratulations to the Toronto Consort.

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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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My Australian cousin writes on electoral reform and the Australian system

My cousin LARRY, today’s Guest Blogger, was born in Canada where he lived for about 50 years. On retirement in 1990, he and his wife left Canada on a 10-year sailing voyage to Mexico, several South Pacific Island countries, New Zealand and Australia, with the goal of sailing past the Sydney Opera House. After 10 years of fun and adventure, they sold their 37-foot yacht to an Aussie couple. He is now an Aussie citizen and lives in winterless Australia.

Here’s Larry…

I have lived here in wonderful Australia for 16+ years. During that time, I have done some research into the Australian electoral system. The complication of the whole process boggles the mind and they keep tweaking the rules. So confusing is it, that in the lead-up to the last federal election in 2016, the Federal Electoral Commission even published wrong information regarding the rules of voting, causing much confusion at the polls which caused ballots to be ruled informal (not counted) when they shouldn’t have been. There is a rule that once a ballot has been ruled as informal, it cannot be changed to formal for any reason, so these ballots were never counted.

Australia has elections every 3 years for the Lower House and ½ the senate, (Senators are elected to 6 year terms). However, if the government of the day calls for a double dissolution, all seats become vacant including all senate seats. This is what happened in 2016 so ½ the elected senators only got 3 year terms.

Australia has compulsory, preferential, manually counted voting. It may sound like a good idea to force every citizen to vote but in my opinion, it isn’t

Preferential voting here means each person on the ballot must have a number beside it in the order of your preference or your ballot is ruled informal and discarded. The Political Parties will get together and make deals for preferences before the elections. The various parties will publish “how to vote” cards which are passed out to voters at the polls, to try to influence the voter to vote their preferences to benefit them, as per pre-election deals made with the other parties. Many people just grab the card from the party they support and vote like sheep as per instructed on the card. Others get boggled with all the ‘how to vote cards’ thrust at them as they line up to vote. We call the walk from the footpath to the voting room entrance, ‘walking the gauntlet’ and do not accept any cards.

No one needs ANY ID to vote! Many cases came to light after the election, where on Election Day; people were told their name was already crossed off so they couldn’t vote again, when in fact they hadn’t voted at all. Obviously someone else voted and used their name. Anyone could visit different voting locations and give any name out of the phone book if they desired and some reportedly do just that. The far Left Labor Party has the reputation of telling their members to “vote early and vote often”. True or not – depends on who you talk to. This needs changing immediately, in my opinion.

People, who think seriously about their vote, will vote intelligently, and would have voted even if they weren’t forced to. However the people who don’t care and normally wouldn’t vote if not threatened by a big fine, don’t want to be there, and are angry they have to stand in a queue for hours to vote. Many of these people will just number their ballots 1, 2, 3, etc. from the top down to get the process over as soon as possible. It is such a problem that before printing the ballots, the names of the people contesting the seat are drawn out of a hat, to set the order their names will be placed on the ballot paper. Usually, the name at the top gets so many 1’s and has a very good chance of being elected. The poor guy at the bottom of the list is disadvantaged and rarely gets elected. The result is decided by voters who could care less! It is not a good system and why I prefer the ‘first past the post’ system.

The Senate – A senator is a member of the Australian Senate, elected to represent a state or territory. There are 76 senators, 12 from each state and two each from the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.
Our Queensland senate ballot had 122 candidates listed alphabetically by Party, running for the 12 seats available. I made a computer print-out, listing them in the order I wanted to vote for them, which took several hours to research and put together at home. It took about 20 minutes to fill out the 4 page ballot, putting a number from 1 to 122 beside each name. Very few people would have taken the trouble to do this and many just put a number beside the 2 or 3 people they are familiar with and put any sequential number randomly after all the other names. Not good – bogus outcome! The results of the Senate vote in 2016 took over 2 weeks to compile and publish the final list of elected.

Assuming that Canada is about the same as Australia, I would guess that no more than 35% of the population actually give a damn about who their government is. In Canada, the 65% don’t vote, here they do vote and badly skew the results. Forced voting is not good. Preferential voting is not good. Be careful what you wish for!

I find it interesting that Trudeau would be tinkering with the electoral process. Usually when any ‘politician in power’ starts tinkering with the electoral processes, they are trying to tweak the system to their party’s advantage for future elections. I personally would be very leery of someone who wanted to do this.

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