Category: Posts

Excursions from Dawson City

As the heart of the Klondike, Dawson City has numerous attractions which relate to its history as an Indigenous centre and as the site of the l898-1899 gold rush. The town itself is a national park and well worth a visit. I have discussed these in two earlier posts: Life in Dawson City, and Greetings From Dawson City, Yukon.

Apart from its history, Dawson City is the jumping-off spot for at least two excursions which can be most memorable day trips. Both trips take the visitor to some of the most fabulous vistas in the Yukon and suggest the need for more time to explore further.

The first trip we did was over the “top of the world” highway to the Alaska border, 105 kilometres west of Dawson. After crossing the Yukon River on the free ferry (which runs 24/7 during the summer months), the road mounts to the tops of the mountains south and west of Dawson. In 2004, when we visited Dawson during a major forest fire, we saw nothing on the highway but smoke. This time, we had dramatic views of the Yukon River, lush valleys, and what seem like endless mountains beyond. As we mounted above the tree line, the vistas became even more breath-taking. To say we were “on top of the world” is no exaggeration.

After the border crossing, we continued to the tiny hamlet of Chicken, famous for its “public gold panning areas” and as the locale where 19-year-old schoolteacher Anne Hobbs, in 1927, came to find adventure in a one-room schoolhouse. Tisha: The Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaskan Wilderness (published originally in l976 and still available) recounts her classic memoir of love, rejection, and ultimate acceptance in the wilderness. It is a marvellous story which sticks with you. Like so many such stories, it is hard to imagine the life she must have led. Beyond Chicken, the visitor can drive another 78 kilometres to Tok, Alaska, the first major Alaskan community on the well-travelled Alaska Highway, and, from there, south to Haines Junction, Yukon or west to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Another excursion we did was up the Dempster Highway to Tombstone Park, which, in l972, was named a UNESCO heritage site of “exceptional biological importance.” The Dempster Highway stretches 735 kilometres from near Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik in the Mackenzie River Delta of the Northwest Territories. It is the only Canadian road that crosses the Arctic Circle. Completed in 1979, It passes through six distinct geographic regions, each very different, all equally interesting and breathtakingly beautiful.

Much of the Dempster lies within Beringia, a broad stretch of land from Siberia to the Northwest Territories which was unglaciated during the last North American glacial period and was the home of many exotic animals which have since become extinct. It has also been the home of Indigenous peoples who have hunted and traded in the area ever since. Although the Canadian government built the highway expecting it to be a “road to resources,” it is used now primarily for transportation to the Northwest Territories, for Indigenous hunting, and for tourism.

Tombstone Territorial Park is called Ddhäl Ch’él Cha Nän (or “ragged mountain land”) by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in who agreed in their land claims to this part of their traditional territory becoming a park. The rugged mountain tops looming above the forest and tundra of the valleys below are spectacularly dramatic. Hikers and climbers must be experienced and well-equipped to climb into these mountains successfully.

The Tombstone Interpretive Centre, located at kilometre 71.5 of the highway, provides information and activities about the cultural and natural history of the park and the highway, mid-May to mid-September. Nearby, the Tombstone Mountain Campground offers car camping with fire pits, picnic tables, outhouses, water, and a picnic shelter. Several back-country campgrounds on lakes are also available. Visitors have a choice of six hiking trails from 0.5 kilometre to up to 19 kilometres in length, and ranging in difficulty.

Driving the Dempster is an exhilarating experience, especially in good weather when the mountains and tundra stand stark against the horizon and the vistas go on forever. The diversity of habitats along the highway encourages a tremendous variety of plants so that wildflowers are rich and vibrant throughout the growing season. When we were there, the fireweed was rampant as was the Arctic cotton, which my friend harvests for her art projects. My bucket list now includes a trip up the Dempster in late August-early September when the flowers are in greatest profusion.

Seeing animals in the wild is a matter of luck, which is a rare and exciting experience. In the spring and fall, one of the world’s largest herds of barren-ground caribou (197,000 as of 2013) travels through the Ogilvie and the Richardson Mountains (at the north of the Dempster) on their annual migration to and from their calving grounds on the Arctic coastal plain. The caribou of the smaller Fortymile herd and the mountain caribou of the Hart River Herd (some 2,600 animals) sometimes winter further south. Bears may be seen, and moose, Dall’s sheep, wolves, and numerous smaller mammals. To spot the animals takes time, knowledge of where they might be, and luck to be in the right place at the right time.

For a comprehensive, beautifully-illustrated description of the Dempster Highway, its geography, history, flora, fauna, and climate, see The Dempster, published in 2017 for the Friends of the Dempster Country Society, email: friendsofdempster@gmail.com.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

back to top


 

The Dawson City Music Festival

Are music festivals on the wane? That the 50th anniversary concert celebrating the Woodstock Music Festival may not happen has led some commentators to conclude that summer music festivals may be no more. Music festivals epitomized the energy and buoyancy of the ’60s and have long returned across the country each summer, drawing enthusiasts for musical experiences in the open air. Some have come and gone. Others continue with no apparent loss of enthusiasm.

One such festival is the Dawson City Music Festival, this year in its 41st annual incarnation. Over the years, almost all the young members of my family have attended the Dawson City Music Festival, using it as an excuse to visit the Yukon and perhaps to canoe the Yukon River. My sister volunteers her beautiful log house on Eighth Avenue as the venue for the Music Festival after-party where the artists, techies, and volunteers gather for an all-night celebration. The Dawson City Music Festival was on my bucket list. This year, we decided to take it in.

The Main Stage of the Music Festival was in Minto Park where a massive tent shared space with a beer garden and Emerging Artists stage, a children’s playground and numerous food carts offering a surprising array of ethnic food. Other venues were the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre (Long Time Ago House) the home of the local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, St. Paul’s Anglican Church constructed originally in 1902, and the Palace Grand Theatre which has been providing entertainments since 1899.

Old and as uninformed about modern music as we are, we knew none of the musicians. At the Main Stage concerts and at a couple of workshops, we heard only some of them. We particularly liked The Jerry Cans from Iqaluit who use Inuit throat singing and the Indigenous language of Inuktitut in their folk-rock repertoire, Ryan McNally and The MessaRounders (from Whitehorse) who are known for their blues, jazz and old-time music, and Major Funk and the Employment who use their horns and big vocals to play very danceable music.

I also particularly liked the Orkestar Kriminal, a group of five women and five men, who come from Montreal. They play unique instruments (among others, the sousaphone, trombone, saxophone, bouzouki, baglama, piccolo, accordion, and flute) and sing in Yiddish, Russian, Greek, Spanish, and Pashto. Their songs focus on international experiences of crime and prison. In addition to their Main Stage show, they played a concert at the historic Commissioner’s Mansion as part of the very popular Music Crawl which started at the Robert Service cabin, moved to the Commissioner’s Residence, then to the banks of the river, and then to the S.S. Keno.

We could not attend more than a little of the entire festival. What impressed us was the extent to which the best of the musicians got the audience involved. Both on Saturday and Sunday nights, we were amazed to see the floor of the Main Stage tent fill with hundreds of dancers of all ages; children, young people, old people, singletons, apparent drifters. It seemed that everyone there was dancing. And they went on and on. It was a great party.

On Sunday night, the after-party continued in my sister’s house and backyard. There, it was great fun to meet the musicians and the volunteers and to listen to Ryan McNally sing and play in her greenhouse. Altogether a most memorable event.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

 

 

back to top


 

 

The Theatre Under the Stars

No theatre experience is more engaging than when it takes place during the summer in the open air at Stanley Park in Vancouver. Malkin Bowl, near the Stanley Park Pavilion and the rose garden, has been the site of musicals presented since l940 by the Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS). Apart from the quality of the theatre, the fading daylight, singing birds, the scent of the evergreens and the sound of the nine o’clock gun render the site sublime

A community theatre, TUTS is dependent on volunteers, staffed with only a few paid professionals. It provides invaluable experience for the young performers who are part of the cast. Their energy and enthusiasm is contagious. This is particularly so in their production of Disney’s Newsies which we attended on Sunday night and which is currently alternating with Mama Mia.

Based on the 1992 musical film Newsies, redone as a musical which debuted on Broadway in 2012, Newsies tells Disney’s version of the real-life story of the strike by newsboys who sold newspapers in New York City in l899. The strike was prompted by the decision of Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World, to raise the price of the “papes” he charges to the newsies who sell his papers.

It is a delightful musical with a compelling story that illustrates the evolution of labour-management issues, and with believable characters who draw us into the complexity of their responses. The range of music is appealing and the choreography utterly fantastic. Director and Choreographer, Toronto-based Julie Tomaino, and Music Director, Christopher King, have produced a delight which I highly recommend.

All the cast members were strong. Adam Charles plays the charismatic leader of the strike, Jack Kelly; Cole Smuland, his friend Crutchie with a disabled leg; Julia Ullrich, the reporter Katherine; Daniel Curalli, the “brains” of the strike; and Jordyn Bennett, his younger brother. The two latter characters are the only Newsies with parents. Equally impressive was the ensemble of dancers.

On Sunday’s performance, we sat beside the mother of one of the ensemble, Haley Allen. The young actor comes from Smithers and is a recent graduate of the Musical Theatre Program at Capilano University. She is like many of the cast who have come through that program. Haley’s mother told us how excited her daughter is by the opportunity to perform every second night for six weeks, and to bond with the cast who have become her friends. As I had learned a little about her, I watched Haley with particular interest as she sang, danced, and performed mind-blowing gymnastic tumbles and jumps. Her talent is evident, as is that of all those who shared the stage with her. Clearly, their personal bonding is reflected in the strength of the collective.

Jerry Wasserman of the Vancouver Sun, in his review headlined “Fabulous Dancing, with Politics by Disney” (The Vancouver Sun, July 13, 2019) wrote that “this production… feels at first like Les Mis, then Les Mis crossed with Annie for the Disney Channel… a stirring story with a feeble ending that lets the nasty capitalists off the hook.” He concludes that “Director Julie Tomaino’s muscular, athletic choreography… reveal(s) as much about the spunk of these downtrodden orphan kids as their political resistance does.” He notes also that “the elaborate fights” directed by Michael Kovac and Ryan McNell Bolton, “that mesh nicely with Tomaino’s energetic choreography… drive the show.” Andrea Warner in The Georgia Straight (July 25-August 1, 2019) writes that “Newsies charms with heart” and “some of the most epic and impressive dance numbers in the company’s history.” It’s an amazing show which left us feeling warm and wonderful. Musical theatre at its best.

***** TUTS has just announced an extension of the 2019 season to August 24th.

 

 

 

 

 

back to top


 

 

An Excursion to Giverny

Giverny is near the Seine River, a drive of an hour and a half northwest of Paris, close to Vernon. In 1883, impressionist painter Claude Monet moved there to live as a tenant with his children and the family of Alice Hoschedé whom he later married. There he began to plant the first of the two gardens which came to inspire his painting. A decade later, he bought the property and began construction of the lily pond which became the subject of thousands of paintings including the eight massive Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas) painted at Giverny and, after his death in 1926, installed in L’Orangerie in Paris. The paintings evoke changes in nature during the day and throughout the year and are considered a significant contribution to the evolution of modern abstract art.

His son Michel Monet bequeathed his family home and gardens at Giverny to the Académie des Beaux-Arts on his death in l966. Restoration of the home and gardens began in 1977 under the direction of Gerald van der Kemp who had previous experience renewing Versailles. In l980, they were opened to the public and the Fondation Claude Monet was established. Given the impact of the Water Lilies paintings, it is little wonder that the house and gardens at Giverny have become a very popular tourist destination, attracting over 600,000 visitors every year.

We were warned that Giverny would be crowded. It was, but friends had discovered a self-guided tour offered by Paris City Vision that would take us there and back by bus and, most important, ensure that we had a “group entrance” to the house and gardens. The “group entrance” meant we avoided the long line of individual visitors waiting to enter. We were able to enjoy the gardens and the house for as long as we wanted, at our own speed. As our time was our own, we spent the rest of the day indulging in a delectable meal at a very friendly and accommodating restaurant. On our return to Paris, the bus drove along the right bank of the Seine and gave us final views of the river and many of its attractions.

As someone who plays with gardening and enjoys photography, I found our visit to Giverny positively exhilarating. The present-day gardens have been planted “in the spirit of Monet,” an idealized version based, among other things, on records of seed orders found in the archives and on Monet’s many paintings of the gardens. Numerous planting schemes create a palette of bright colours which change with the seasons. In the summer, the roses, nasturtiums, lavender, lilies, irises, clematis, tulips, a range of perennials and annuals, take the breath away. By contrast, the greens and accent colours of the lily ponds, the Japanese bridge, the groves of bamboo, the weeping willows, and the reflections in the water induce a serenity which invites rest and contemplation. I would gladly return to the gardens again and in other seasons.

As for the house, I loved the Japanese prints and the other artworks on the walls (most, copies of originals hanging elsewhere), his bright yellow dining room, and the kitchen with its blue and white tiles, fireplace, copper pots, and massive stove. Claude Monet was a very successful artist who lived a long life, had influential friends, and was able to enjoy the fruits of his talents. The restoration of his family bequests will ensure that Giverny attracts visitors in perpetuity. Theirs is a gift to cherish.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

back to top


 

 

Tales from Charles de Gaulle Airport

During our recent trip to Paris, we had occasion to spend three nights at a hotel near Charles de Gaulle Airport. It was an interesting experience.

The hotel, the Innside by Melia, was pleasant enough, but not one I would recommend. The staff were friendly and helpful, but the hotel was not as well-located as it made out. The television and air conditioning did not work in the first room they put us into, and we had to change rooms. The service for multi-nights was deficient. Most important, there were problems with my credit card which were the fault of the hotel and their booking agent, booking.com, which may cost me unnecessary international telephone charges.

When I connected to the WiFi in our first room, I found an email from the hotel to the effect that my credit card had bounced and I had two hours to correct the situation. I knew that this was a mistake. When I had booked the hotel the previous week, CIBC had sent me a text asking that I confirm (Y) or not (N) a booking charge they had received from booking.com for prepayment of the room. I confirmed the payment and received another text telling me to go ahead with the transaction. I emailed booking.com on the Thursday to explain the situation and ensure that the room was confirmed. The following Monday, I checked in without a problem and, an hour later, received the nasty email from the hotel.

I texted CIBC. I then tried to call Canada to correct the situation. I called the number on the back of my credit card for calls from outside Canada and the United States. That number did not work. At first, I couldn’t get beyond the French telephone system. Then I got a message to the effect that, outside the USA, this call would cost $2.00 per minute, did I want to continue? I continued to hold, got my credit card balance, the date of my last payment, the minimum payment due at the end of July, etc., etc., but no person to deal with my problem nor to confirm that my call to CIBC would be “collect.” I ultimately hung up in utter frustration. I then noticed that there was a text on my smart phone from CIBC giving me yet another number to call.

By this time, the defects with our tv and air conditioning had become apparent. The staff person who moved us to another room then explained that my credit card was indeed okay, and that “there had been a miscommunication between booking.com and the hotel.” Gee, thanks. It would have been nice to have received an email from the hotel to that effect an hour earlier.

To escape the near-heart-attack anger I had experienced over the telephone, I decided to do a little recce. The staff said that the shuttle to CDG was just out the door, turn right and walk about five minutes to the CDGVAL, a train which links the three terminals and the parking lots at the airport. I followed the instructions, then the signs. After what seemed to be a very long time, I found the CDGVAL train which took me to Terminal 3 Roissypole.

Terminal 3 was spacious and roomy, cool and comfortable, totally upbeat. I found a bank of RER kiosks to purchase RER tickets and passes, with the help of a friendly, English-speaking team attached to an information desk. They provided me with all the information I needed.

Opposite the entrance to the RER was a good-sized Marks & Spencer. When I canvassed their stock, I realized that we could buy all that we needed for supper and breakfast, and we need not spend a single extra cent at our hotel. The problem was how to get the groceries (and the wine) back to the hotel. There was a bus shuttle that served some hotels at the airport, but not ours. I would have to walk back or take a taxi. The RER Information team told me where to find taxis.

Outside a nearby door, I met a group of Algerian-French taxi drivers sitting on a bench, their cars in a queue waiting for passengers. They had time to kill. I asked their stories, and they told me where they came from, how long they had been in France, and how they came to be there. We talked about Uber and how it was a threat to their business. I told them that I was from Canada, had once hitch-hiked across North Africa, and that I was the first anglophone to teach senior level English at the Normal School in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. One driver gave me three euros for the thirty ten-centime pieces that weighed down my wallet. Another told me about when he had once been to Canada. We had the most delightful time. Before I knew it, thirty minutes had passed and it was time to move on. I went back to M&S, bought my groceries and returned to get a cab. The “supervisor” of the taxi drivers agreed to drive me to our hotel for 14 euros. I felt that I had made a friend.

The next day, we walked to the CDGVAL shuttle station. Early in the morning, we discovered that the distance was not as far as it had seemed the night before. We then took the CDGVAL train shuttle to Terminal 1 to find the gate we would need for our return flight. For the heck of it, we also took the CDGVAL to Terminal 2 to see where most Air Canada flights depart. The train is very efficient, comfortable and frequent, but we realized that it would be difficult if we were loaded down with luggage. We decided that we would need a taxi to pick us up at our hotel and take us to Terminal 1. That’s ultimately what we did. The short drive from the hotel pickup to Terminal 1 on the last morning cost 20 euros.

I add the prices because there are now standardized rates imposed on taxis taking people to downtown Paris from Charles de Gaulle airport: 50 euros to the right bank, 55 euros to the left bank. Clearly, the taxis doing short runs at the airport are charging a premium.

I had asked my Algerian-French taxi driver friend what restaurant he would recommend at the airport. He suggested the buffet on the ground floor of the Ibis hotel in Terminal 3. We found the buffet only a few steps away from M&S. The meal was excellent, and the price perfectly reasonable. We ate so well at lunch that we needed nothing for dinner. The next time I want a hotel at CDG, I will book at this Ibis.

Returning to our hotel after the lovely meal at the Ibis was painless. Our hotel may have been the most distant of the “local” hotels, but with no baggage or groceries, it was a nice walk. The next day, we took an excursion to Giverny (see next post), returned to M&S that evening for more groceries, and then took another taxi back to our hotel. As the airport was busier at that hour, the taxi queue was longer and no one was keen to leave the queue for a short run. The drivers now quoted 20 euros for a run to our hotel. One who had been part of my conversation a couple of days before offered to do it for 15 and we went with him. I felt like I was a Charles de Gaulle “local.”

 

 

 

back to top


 

 

Paris Thirty Years On

It’s been thirty years since we were last in Paris for any length of time. For all the eternal verities of the old monuments, museums, and traditional street scenes, the changes are striking. Apart from the update on the public transit system which I discussed in my last post, there is a new atmosphere in the city which illustrates the dynamism of the city.

What is most engaging is an apparently all-pervasive new interest among the French in speaking English. When I visited Paris as a student in the ’50s – ’70s, the French had a reputation for being unfriendly to visitors. They proudly spoke French and expected everyone else to do so as well. At one time, the French government actually ran a poster campaign encouraging their citizens to “be friendly” to visitors. Today, no such campaign is required.

Although my husband and I speak French, if not with a great accent, we both found this trip that everyone we talked to shifted into English the moment they heard our accent. Shopkeepers in all the local stores and in the department stores, bus drivers, security guards, “volunteers” in the subway, staff at the museums, other travellers on the buses or the Métro, people in the laundromat, all took the opportunity to speak English, even when their English may have been more limited than our French. Sometimes, when their English was in fact quite good or they had travelled in Canada or the United States, they would engage in long conversations.

Apparently, a new generation of French started learning English in grade school, studied the language for three or four years at least, and they are eager to practice what they remember. Many told us that they learned English because of the movies, music, and the media. Their enthusiasm for the language seems to reflect a new openness to engaging with visitors which we had not experienced before.

It seems ironic that, just as the French are embracing English as the principal means of communication in the world, the English are threatening Brexit. The British may not want to participate in the European Union, but the French at least have now adopted English. It’s a major victory for the English language which the Brits are spurning.

Another change is the all-pervasive use of credit cards and smartphones. Everybody pays for everything using bank cards. Tickets for public transit, groceries in the supermarkets, purchases in local stores, entries to the movie theatre, theatres and museums, restaurants and brasseries all prefer payment by bank card. To buy stamps for postcards, I had to use a machine at the local post office and use my bank card to pay for each 1.8 Euro stamp. Ordering tickets for the symphony or for museums presupposes that payment will be by bank card and that a smartphone can be used to show email copies of the tickets on entry. Our Canadian bank occasionally rejects purchases I have made on Visa and sends me a text seeking confirmation that the particular purchase is okay. Without a smartphone, I could not get the text. My husband, who has always resisted using smartphones, now realizes that having a smartphone, and knowing how to use it, have become necessities for contemporary travel.

The diversity of people in Paris is also evident. Public transit is full of people of all races, colours, and creeds from all over the world. There are so many tourists in Paris from Japan, China, and Korea that Asian languages are seen everywhere. And “ethnic” restaurants are proliferating in Paris as much as in Toronto. We discovered several small Asian restaurants which served delicious fare, were inexpensive and extremely friendly. Apart from McDonald’s and other North American chains, Marks & Spencer has many stores in the city, large and small, selling finely-prepared food which is reasonably priced, can be heated on the spot or eaten cold and is popular with tourists and locals alike. The busy Marks & Spencer at Terminal 3 of Charles De Gaulle airport is an outstanding example which we used often to provision informal dinners for our room at the airport. I wonder what will happen to M&S post-Brexit?

Another new development in Paris is the vast expansion of public greenery which now prevails in the city. In the past, open spaces were covered with gravel and sand. If there was grass, it was formal, considered decorative and people were forbidden to walk on it. Now, children play on the lawns at the Parc Montsouris and other such parks, and families picnic. The small open space just up the street from our apartment, now called Place des Droits de l’Enfant, sports trees, benches and public art. René Coty is a lovely boulevard nearby which runs from the Parc Montsouris to Denfert-Rochereau and onto the Boulevard Raspail. In the centre of this wide boulevard, tall trees now line a sidewalk on both sides, encouraging the public to walk in the shade. It is a beautiful street which has enhanced the quality of the neighbourhood enormously. The Paris City Council promotes these initiatives as part of their public policy priority favouring the greenification of public spaces.

There are several new attractions in Paris which warrant the attention of visitors. The Paris Symphony has built a striking new Philharmonic Hall at La Villette in the northeast of the city which opened in January 2015. The architecture is highly controversial, but the concert hall itself, the Grand Salle Pierre Boulez, seats 2400, all arranged around the orchestra which is placed in the centre. As everyone is seated so close to the maestro and can see the orchestra as it goes about its work, the intimacy of the concert is amazing. With excellent acoustics, the yellow, orange, and cream colours of the undulating lines of the room add to the glow of the music. The Institut du Monde Arabe is another new museum with breathtaking architecture, excellent amenities for seniors, and an emerging collection. In addition to the permanent historical and archaeological exhibits, a current exhibition shows art from contemporary artists from all over the Arab world, work we would not normally see. Another exhibition, called Foot et Monde Arabe, features Arab football players and teams that have been famous over time. Included are the Jordanian Women’s Football Team, and a presentation on playing football in Palestine under current conditions. The renovated Musée Picasso is utterly beautiful, with modern elevators, places to sit, and an innovative exhibition of Picasso’s lesser-known earlier work, and an exciting current exhibition comparing Picasso with mobile sculptor Alexander Calder. Clearly, there is much to see in Paris.

***** Thanks to Tim and Judith for their input.

 

 

 

back to top


 

 

Mastering the Paris Transit System

The highlight of our recent visit to Paris was, for me at least, two bus rides I took towards the end of our five-week trip. As a student in Paris over fifty years ago (is it really fifty years?), the Paris subway system seemed marvellously extensive and, to my mind, had to be one of the best in the world. Then, it was so easy, and I took it for granted.

Not this trip. This time, I found that using Paris public transit in my mid-seventies was a significant challenge and a disturbing mark of my aging. As the weeks of our visit passed, my mood was affected by my reaction to Parisian public transit. I found myself dreaming about crowded buses and endless trips on the Métro. And thinking that this city was too big for me.

Unlike in Toronto (where public transit has become child’s play for politicians, sabotaged by years of political interference), public transit in a truly world-class city like Paris is a rapidly expanding complex venture which is constantly changing and appears to be based on a rational assessment of public needs. In Paris, now, there are 16 Métro subway lines, five RER rapid transit train lines, two trams, and endless bus routes. All snake across the city, intersect at some stations but not at others, and are accessible using some tickets but not others. All are well-used. Learning how this system works and how to use it safely is a major challenge.

We initially decided to use the buses which ran up a major street not far from our 14th Arrondissement apartment. We know that buses are slow, subject to the congestion of the streets, and often crowded. But they seemed to go more or less directly to places that we wanted to visit. And since we were visitors with no particular deadlines, when we arrived was of little concern, and we could enjoy the sight-seeing en route.

Alas, different buses on the same street have different stops, and the official schedule (which is indicated at each stop) is more aspiration than reality. When one must wait too long, there is no choice but to take a cab or search for the nearest Métro stop. On one bus ride, there was some sort of demonstration on the street and, without prior notice, the bus driver just abandoned his route and dumped all the riders several blocks from where we wanted to go. As we walked to the Musée d’Orsay that morning, my husband swore that he would never again take a Parisian bus.

Buses also seemed to be dominated by older people, many with disabilities, some in wheelchairs and many young mothers with children in strollers. There is a reason for that. The subway system is comprehensive, relatively reliable, and in the process of being upgraded everywhere with the occasional rolling sidewalk, new security doors, escalators, and signage.

Notwithstanding these obvious improvements, we became acutely aware of the demands that the Paris Métro makes on its users. The Métro is built using long tunnels linking one line to another and using many steps, often on several steep staircases. For someone with mobility issues, using a cane or walking stick, or pushing a baby stroller, the Métro is decidedly difficult. We became very conscious of which Métro stations had escalators and where they were located. Elevators appeared to be non-existent. The stairs on the Métro became a factor which favoured the buses.

Another complexity of the Paris Métro system is the size of the stations and the variety of exits (sorties) provided. At Châtelet-les-Halles, for example, there are at least ten different sorties, some of which are accessible not in the station itself but via the nearby Les Halles shopping mall. The direction of the sorties is marked but finding them may require consulting the maps posted on the walls or help from one of the many English-speaking “volunteers” there to assist visitors like us. Going out the wrong sortie can put you a long distance away from where you want to go. Nobody wants to walk outside at length under a hot summer sun.

Since the RER lines were built after most Métro lines, RER stations will not necessarily be at exactly the same place as the Métro station with the same name. Everything is marked, but visitors have to be alert to the signage and take the time to follow it precisely. Miss the correct signage, and you will find yourself going on the wrong subway line, or the wrong direction on a Métro or the RER.

Learning to use the more modern and accessible light rail RER lines is a major step forward. The RER lines extend across the City and far into the exurban suburbs. The RER line we used when we lived in France thirty years ago goes from Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse in La Vallée de Chevreuse to the west of Paris all the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport in the east. A “new” (to me) RER line now extends to Versailles Rive Gauche, a short walk to the palace and its gardens.

In the city, the RER lines act as an express train, stopping at fewer stops than the Métro and crossing the same area much more quickly and comfortably. So long as one’s route is in the city, the same ticket applies and there is no additional cost. It is more expensive if one is using the RER to go out of the city. To go from downtown to CDG airport, for example, costs about 10 Euros each way, but that cost covers all your Métro transport on that trip within the city itself. To get from downtown to St. Rémy costs 5.8 Euros. To go to Versailles costs 3 something Euros. If you are spending the day travelling the RER and the Métro, a day pass is cheaper than two one-way fares.

Clearly, those familiar with Parisian public transport use the RER system a lot. On our last day there, we used the Métro and the RER to go all the way from CDG to the Tuileries (near the Louvre) and back using a day pass. Each trip took less than 45 minutes (even with one change between the Métro and the RER and the need to use a long moving sidewalk at the exchange). Most of the way, it was comfortable and uncrowded.

In addition to the buses, the Métro, and the RER, Paris now also has at least two tram lines which are modern and accessible. I travelled on the T3A line from Pont du Garigliano near the Bois de Boulogne in the west to Porte de Vincennes in the east, and then on the T3B line from Vincennes to the new symphonic theatre at Parc de la Villette in the 19th Arrondissement in the northeast. That line extends further around the north of Paris all the way west to the Porte d’Asnières near Clichy. These are comfortable new light rapid transit lines which are above ground, have frequent stops, connect at no additional cost to the bus system, and provide public transit to more distant suburbs where the density of population does not warrant underground Métro service. They are also designed to accommodate crowds and wheelchairs.

The Paris trams are precisely what was planned and funded for Scarborough eons ago. In Toronto, they got scuttled by Rob Ford and other politicians of all persuasions who continually put their own interests above the needs of the public. Toronto imposed an extra 1% tax on everyone to pay for the extended Scarborough line and still squabbles about the nature of what should be built. While we have nothing, Parisians enjoy the use of their modern new trams in a timely fashion. 

The final weekend I was in Paris, I mastered the bus system. After visiting the new L’Institut du Monde Arabe, located near the Seine and east of Nôtre Dame, I found a bus stop (#89) right there which went to the Porte de France, a station on the new tram line. I knew that the bus which runs right near our apartment (#62) also went to the Porte de France. So I caught the #89. For my single ticket which cost 1.9 Euro, I rode to the end of the line, discovering many interesting new developments east of the massive National Library en route. I then transferred free of charge onto the #62 to take me back to the apartment. For much of the time, I had the bus to myself. When I didn’t, I was obviously the only non-local on the bus, and my fellow travellers were very helpful ensuring the I got off at the correct stop. I felt that I was back in the Paris that I once knew well.

It was apparent throughout all our use of the Parisian public transit that the French will always give up their seats (on the bus, Métro, RER or tram) to anyone who is disabled, using a cane or even just older. On the single occasion when this did not happen almost instantly, I was in a very crowded tram, confused about where to pay using my ticket (rather than the passes locals use) and rather abruptly asked a young teenage boy for his seat. He got up complaining about “the pushy American” who thinks she can take his seat. A French woman watching the incident admonished him that his complaints were totally unjustified; as a Frenchman, he should have given up his seat voluntarily. 

A related incident occurred at the beautiful Sainte-Chapelle on Isle de la Cité. I was sitting beside several young anglophone tourists who occupied five of the twenty or so chairs set up down one side of the chapel. An older, grey-haired French woman stopped in front of them and in polite French asked if she could have a seat. The girls stared blindly, did not move, and the senior went on her way. The youngest then turned to her companions and said that she did not understand what the woman had said. When I told them that she was asking for them to give her a seat, the five were embarrassed, got up and left. Clearly, it takes a village….

 

 

 

back to top


 

 

The Perils of Visiting Paris as a Senior

I thought that I knew Paris well. We spent the first year of our marriage living in a sixth-floor walk-up apartment in the Second Arrondissement just off rue St. Denis. In l988-89, during a sabbatical year as a family living in La Vallée de Chevreuse, the lush green “Silicon Valley” to the west of the city, we were in Paris at least weekly. During that year, I drove all over the city and I didn’t think twice about showing the sights to my parents and their friends who were then in their early seventies.

But I have never visited Paris as a senior… and that makes all the difference. What a culture shock that has been. The city has certainly changed in the thirty years since we last lived here. (I’ll talk about that in another post.) More importantly, I have changed. Now approaching 75 years of age (which is only late “middle age” in the current era), our recent visit to Paris has taught me much about myself, and the perils of travelling as one ages.

First, I find it much more difficult adapting to change. It’s harder to travel, and takes longer to settle into a new environment, and to feel comfortable in new situations. Secondly, there are practical perils of big cities which I must recognize and learn to deal with for my own protection. Paris may be no different from any other big city but, for these purposes, it is the city which has made me personally aware of the challenges imposed by aging.

The biggest peril is falling. I have not had a problem with falling in the past. On this trip, I fell four times. Twice occurred in the same spot on the sidewalk to the nearby RER station, with no great consequences. The friends I was with the second time realized that I had tripped on a defective grate in the sidewalk. The third time was a major tumble on the sidewalk where I walked every day. This time, I was preoccupied with our conversation, stepped into the gravelled tree well of a tree lining the sidewalk and took a major tumble. I hit my head, broke my glasses, and suffered cuts and bruises to my face, hands, wrists, arms, and knees. Some stranger had to lift me up off the ground. The fourth fall was getting onto a bus on the tarmac at Frankfurt airport on our way home. I tripped on the entry to the bus, falling on all the injuries from before. Fortunately, I broke nothing. Probably one of the few advantages of being plump. (My brother, a family doc, once commented that the Canadian Health Care system would save significant resources if seniors could be bubble-wrapped. My bubble-wrap must be built in.)

My husband is the official “faller” in our family. Whenever he falls, he breaks something. He has gone through a series of tests over the years to diagnose the cause of his falling and has used a cane to aid his mobility for at least the last year. He had three falls in Paris, two not particularly serious, the other when he fell in the door of a brasserie, had to be lifted up by someone in uniform, and suffered sufficient injury and indignity that thereafter he ceased most sight-seeing.

Now, I am using a walking stick regularly, and am trying hard to concentrate on where I walk and how. I’ve learned that the sidewalks of Paris are remarkably uneven and that any construction (which seems as all-pervasive there as elsewhere) causes major changes to the surface of the sidewalks and roads nearby. I’ve learned that trees and the areas in which they are planted can be hazards, and that publicity posters can be dangerous distractions. The huge crowds of people who fill the sidewalks in the touristy areas and the popular museums are moving quickly and constantly jostling. The public transit system is full of steps, long corridors, and publicity which distracts from the need to pay very close attention to where I am going and what I am doing.

When I was younger, I used the Paris Métro with great joy and abandon. Now, I think twice about the nature of the transit I am going to use and the qualities of particular lines and stations. Which stations have escalators and moving sidewalks? Which stations have long steps to climb? Which exits will help me avoid the crowds? Or shorten the distance I have to walk? (I will do my next post on the Paris Transit system.)

Visiting museums and attending events has become a real pain. There are long lineups for security inspections and then to purchase entry tickets. Unless you like standing in a slow-moving line in the heat for long periods of time, it is necessary to pre-purchase museum tickets. There is a variety of Paris Museum Passes available, including ones for two, four and six days, which give priority access. I bought mine on the spot at the Paris Tourism Office located in the Hôtel de Ville. One can also buy passes and tickets on the internet. My friend bought hers from home and traded the voucher she received on the internet for an actual pass when she arrived. It is not necessary to have printed tickets. One can also use priority entrances by showing tickets that are stored on one’s smartphone. The bottom line, however, is that you really need a smartphone and to know how to use it.

Even with priority access for tickets, there is still the need to stand in the security lines. Security lines exist everywhere; most are reasonably efficient, but they do require standing with no place to sit down. And, at the Louvre, for example, the line outside the Pyramid entrance is in the hot sun. When one visits a particular museum or monument now depends on how long the security lines will be at any given time of the day.

As for the museums themselves, in the summer, they are very crowded, so much so that one feels no desire or ability to see what the museum has to offer. Too often, the museums have very few places to sit, and are full of steps to climb and rooms that have been closed “for renovation.” It is remarkable how poor the cafeteria and restaurant facilities generally are: few and far between, hard to find, under-staffed, with slow service (made worse by the fact that almost everyone uses bank cards to pay).

The Louvre, for example, prides itself on its “accessibility for the disabled” and its Museum Plan. After standing in the hot sun to get through the security line, I was invited to take a small elevator downstairs to the entry level. I visited the Disability Office to get a plan of the Museum and find out where everything was. These were welcome surprises, harbingers I thought of a good visit ahead.

Alas, not true. The Louvre was by far the worst of all the museums I visited on this trip. I found it impossible to find the elevators, and staff hired to provide “information” gave contradictory directions. The elevators that do exist are small, old-fashioned and dreadfully slow. Too many escalators were out of order. Signage was totally inadequate. I soon discovered that reading room numbers high above from a distance conflicts with my need to use reading glasses for the identifying information provided in the Museum Plan. In one area of the Museum where many of the rooms are empty for renovations, there was no advance notice of a dead-end corridor which required everyone to retrace their steps back through many rooms already seen. The restaurants and washrooms were lamentable and totally inadequate for the millions of people who pass through the Louvre every year.

Better to go to a smaller place which is less popular. I will never again go to the Louvre, even though the “Medieval Louvre” with its original foundations built in 1200 and 1385 is one of my favourite spots in all of the city. Were I to return to Paris, I would gladly revisit Le Petit Palais with its permanent collection of art owned by the City which is spacious, quiet, free of charge and has lots of places to sit. Or the Rodin Museum with its lovely gardens. Or even the Musée de l’Armée which has been modernized, and offers commentary in several languages and lots of movies (inherent places to sit). Or the spectacular new L’Institut du Monde Arabe with its banks of modern elevators and plethora of comfortable white leather sofas strategically located throughout the gallery.

As an older person, my priority has become my personal well-being and safety. To enjoy a museum, having places to sit has become important, to appreciate the artefacts, rest and, most importantly, to avoid falling. Having a readily available restaurant or café, without long lineups for payment, is a necessity to satisfy medical needs and prevent dehydration. These are new criteria to think about when travelling.

 

 

back to top


 

 

A Solution to the Wilson-Raybould Affair

Further to my post on Thursday, see the excellent article by Adam Dodek, Dean of the Common Law section of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. The Globe and Mail published the article entitled “The impossible position: Canada’s attorney-general cannot be our justice minister” on February 22, 2019.

Dean Dodek provides the history of the existing two-hatted position, the background necessary to understand the context of the current “crisis,” and the need for Canada to adopt a new governmental structure like that in the United Kingdom. What he has to say accords with my own thoughts on this matter

In my view, at this stage in the ongoing saga, the Liberals could achieve the “solution” they need, both practically and politically, if they took advantage of the “new kind of politics” Jody Wilson-Raybould has brought to them, embraced her within the Liberal caucus where she properly belongs pending re-admission to Cabinet, and separated the Department of Justice and the Attorney-General, as both Wilson-Raybould and Dodek have recommended.

That would be a beneficial outcome of this very messy affair. It would cut through the ever-expanding witness list before the Justice Committee which, while fascinating for the inside dope it offers on how government works, is a colossal waste of time and money and cannot lead to a definitive finding, one way or the other. It would also undercut the partisan harping that the Opposition parties would undoubtedly like to continue until Election Day.

Once that initiative were taken, focus could shift to the ongoing court proceedings, and to the reports of the Justice Committee and the Ethics Commissioner when they are released. There could also be a calm discussion of the pros and cons of Deferred Prosecution Agreements in general, and of whether SNC-Lavalin should qualify for such an Agreement at some stage. Anything to reduce the inter-regional bad-mouthing, stereotypical name-calling, and credibility-bashing we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Such a reform would be a positive show of leadership on Trudeau’s part, and reverse the precipitous drop in his popularity caused by this affair. I, for one, don’t want the next federal election run by the Opposition on an “anti-Trudeau” campaign in the same vein as the “anti-Wynne” blitz which destroyed the Liberals in Ontario. There, the Tories ran a dubious leader with little political experience, no interest in policy, and offering no platform (except that offered by the social conservatives). Still, they won a majority government and defeated one of the most intelligent and policy-wise politicians ever seen in Canada. Trudeau may not be a Kathleen Wynne but his Cabinet has been replete with intelligent and talented politicians, such as Jody Wilson-Raybould, Chrystia Freeland and Jane Philpott. The country does not need a repeat of the Ontario experience at the federal level.

 

back to top


 

 

My Two-Hatter Take on Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau, and SNC-Lavalin

Former federal Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, testified for nearly four hours before the Parliamentary Justice Committee yesterday. Her testimony was riveting, thoughtful, precise, backed up by notes, her credibility impeccable, and her presence a paragon of integrity. Dramatic, yes? But “devastating to the Liberals,” no.

She related several instances over the five-month period between September 2018 and January 2019 when Prime Minister Trudeau, senior members of the PMO, and the civil service put what she described as “inappropriate pressure” on her and her staff, apparently in an effort to have her “change her mind” about supporting the Director of Public Prosecutions in her criminal charges against SNC-Lavalin for bribery in Libya, and her refusal to offer them a DPA (“deferrred prosecution agreement”) to settle the matter. In her view, their actions amounted to “a consistent and sustained effort to politically interfere” with JWR’s role as an independent Attorney-General.

JWR admitted that what happened did not rise to the level of criminal activity but, in her view, “it was inappropriate” and, but for her refusal to change her mind, could have amounted to a derogation from “the rule of law” in Canada. She went on to testify that she thought her removal from her Cabinet position as Minister of Justice and her role as Attorney-General was due directly to the stand she had taken on SNC-Lavalin.

If you have not seen her testimony, do not rely on press reports. Watch it yourself on the internet.

The opposition is having a field day. Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Scheer, called for the PM to resign and for the RCMP to start a criminal investigation. NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, insisted on a full-fledged Judicial Commission of Inquiry. The Justice Committee wants the PM to extend the government’s waiver of cabinet confidence and solicitor-client privilege so that JWR can return and testify about what happened between her and the PM after she was demoted to Minister of Veteran Affairs. The Committee and the media agree that everyone who had contact with JWR and her staff must testify before the Committee and the Ethics Commissioner so that “Canadians can know the facts.”

In his press conference after JWR’s testimony, Prime Minister Trudeau forcefully denied that he and his staff did anything wrong. He totally rejected JWR’s characterization of what occurred. He agreed that his government was concerned about the consequences of the ongoing SNC-Lavalin prosecution on “jobs,” and on innocent employees, creditors and investors of the company. But he insisted that the decision about the criminal prosecution was for the Attorney General to make, and that, at no time, did anyone ever direct her otherwise. While respecting the role of the Attorney General and the primacy of “the rule of law,” he acknowledged, as JWR said, that his government wanted “a solution” to the SNC-Lavalin problem.

We’ve had three weeks of political turmoil in Ottawa and unprecedented testimony about how government works from the inside. Despite the drama, no one in the Justice Committee, nor in the national media commenting on the event later, picked up on the primary lesson evident from all that has occurred.

At the end of her testimony, former Attorney General Jody Wilson Raybould suggested that the dual role of Minister of Justice and Attorney General which exists in Canada should be divided, as it is in Britain. There, the Minister of Justice sits as a member of Cabinet, concerned with policy development and political considerations. The Attorney General is an independent office, does not sit in Cabinet, and is shielded from political influence by the separate structure created by the express division of responsibilities for policy development and for prosecutions. She suggested that such a structure would be useful for the Canadian government to consider. I totally agree.

In my view, this entire episode boils down to different views on the role of Canada’s two-hatted Minister of Justice/Attorney General.  The dual role requires different approaches and different actions. Inherent in the dual role is the potential for conflict. Positing both positions in the person of a single individual may well place her into an impossible conflict, as it apparently did with Judy Wilson-Raybould.

Everyone knew that the AG supported her DPP, and there is no evidence that anyone asked her to countermand her DPP and/or take over the prosecution (although in law she had the power to do that). When, in October, SNC-Lavalin received formal notice of the DPP’s decision not to offer them a DPA, the company immediately started a legal action challenging that decision. That legal action was the first such action on the new law and was pending at all relevant times. The focus of this litigation was on three key questions: could the courts review the exercise of her discretion? if so, what criteria did she use? And did she apply the criteria correctly? All are important questions on how the legislation is to work in the future.

That the matter was before the courts was useful for the government. As I have argued previously, this Liberal government doesn’t like to be labelled “soft on crime” and prefers to have the courts do their dirty work for them.

But while the matter proceeded before the courts, the Liberal government wanted its constituents to know that they had not forgotten the matter; hence the search “for a solution.” JWR admits that all the officials and staffers who pressured her were looking “for a solution.” What kind of “solution”? Since she said her refusal to interfere with the ongoing litigation was clear as early as mid-September, what kind of “solution” were the PM’s politicos after? I interpret this to mean alternative legislative or regulatory means which could mitigate the damage on SNC-Lavalin in the event of a conviction. An amendment to the mandatory ten-year ban on no-government contracts in the event of a conviction is one possible option; another may be providing a discretion as to what length of ban would apply.

As Minister of Justice, JWR was responsible for policy development related to the Criminal Code. In that role, “jobs” and the interests of “employees, investors, and creditors” would be legitimate and major concerns, and the PM, other officials, and staffers could well want JWR to use the resources available in the Department of Justice to formulate a proposed alternative solution. These were matters that could have been dealt with in the original legislation. For some reason unknown to us, that did not occur and now the government was faced with correcting the lacuna.

Apparently, JWR, wearing her Attorney-General hat, felt uncomfortable with discussion and actions that properly fell to her in her role as Minister of Justice. That she raised the need to separate the two roles before the Justice Committee indicates the dilemma and helps explain the context of what has occurred. For all the shouting from the opposition and the black ink in the media, the Liberals have learned a valuable lesson. I am confident that they have the wisdom and the experience to go forward with the structural solution that stares them in the face and could well resolve the problem.

 

back to top


 

 

 

Asian New Year 2019

The fifteen days of Asian New Year have come and gone. Already. Where has February gone? It’s the Year of the Pig and, in West Vancouver where we have come to escape the worst of eastern Canada’s winter, the celebration was bright, cheery and more extensive than I remember it being ever before. I missed the big Asian New Year’s parade held in Vancouver on February 3rd. Next year. But I did catch the festivities held on the north shore.

On January 31st, at the Osaka Supermarket (originally bought by T & T and then by Loblaws), I was struck by the colourful decorations which greeted shoppers on arrival. Ah yes, it is Chinese New Year I thought. I wandered over to the multiple high piles of large boxes, bags, and packages full of cookies, candies, rice cakes, decorations, and other goodies that the Chinese buy in great quantities to share with family and friends during the holiday. There were so many, all so enticing, so mouth-watering, all seriously not recommended for my diet.

Then I found a variety of boxes full of kinds of oranges from all over the world. Among them was a pile of large red plastic baskets, each filled with mandarin oranges, all individually wrapped in paper and cellophane. Here was a Chinese New Years delicacy that I could indulge in. At $8.80 for a basket of 24 oranges, I thought them a bargain and bought a basket for myself. These proved to be the largest, sweetest, most delicious mandarin oranges I had eaten since I was a kid. I learned that oranges were a lucky food for the Asian new year, and that these oranges were especially imported from Japan. Later I bought two more baskets to take to my friends.

On the first weekend of February, just before the first day of the lunar New Year on Monday February 4th, West Vancouver sponsored two full days of festivities to celebrate Asian Lunar New Year. I was struck that the festival was not limited to the Chinese but extended to all Asian nationalities who celebrate the lunar new year. That gave my head a shake; so many cultures in the world take part. Bright red and gold balls, and placards full of facts about lunar new year traditions decorated the atrium of the West Vancouver Community Centre. People were everywhere, many dressed in red, eager to take part in the action.

I was fascinated. Young men did Kung Fu, others beat on drums, young girls and boys played on a grand piano, troupes of children dressed in lavish costumes performed intricate dances, and several young women played traditional instruments. Almost everyone present picked up an activity “passport” which led us to different stations where we could learn more about new year activities. We learned the names of the twelve revolving years of the lunar calendar, and about the qualities of The Year of the Pig. We learned what foods are traditional for the season, and why red packets are given as gifts. Two young girls designed and distributed elaborate sugar treats which we tasted with delight. Altogether, a totally delightful event.

On the first day of the Lunar New Year, the cashier at the Fresh Market, our local supermarket, handed a red packet containing a chocolate coin to each customer at the register. Yet another New Year tradition extended into the broader community. We are indeed lucky to live in a multicultural community where we can celebrate New Years many times of the year in many ways. Happy Lunar New Year.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

back to top


 

 

Response to the Political Scene in Ontario

Thanksgiving has come and gone, the leaves are in glorious colour, and the air is crisp. It’s a new school year, a new season of theatre, concerts and ballet, a Jewish new year. Like many others, it is also time for me to think of new directions ahead.

For months I have been overcome with an all-pervasive gloom which has left me anxious, dispirited, and anything but effervescent. I attribute it in part to the dismal political scene. The United Kingdom is in an existential crisis which has no obvious solution. In the United States, Trump and his Republican toadies continue undermining traditional American values, conventions and institutions in the name of what? Social conservatism? The wealthy who benefit from his tax cuts? The drama of dysfunctionality? The mid-term Congressional elections loom with the possibility of some improvement, but who knows?

Most discouraging has been the irrational Trumpism demonstrated by Doug Ford’s vindictive interference in the current Toronto municipal election. I come from a province which has had some wacky premiers. W.A.C. Bennett comes to mind, and Bill Vander Zalm. But even they never showed such contempt for the conventions of our democracy, nor for the opinions of voters, as did Ford in his recent actions.

To list what he did is to cringe:

1. an irrational and unfair interference in an ongoing municipal election

2. a total failure to consult with the voters involved

3. enacting legislation that contradicted the wishes of the City determined after several years and millions of dollars of consultation about appropriate ward sizes

4. demonstrating an abysmal lack of understanding about the role of the courts in Canada’s constitutional democracy

5. forcing an all-night legislative session trying to pass a Charter “notwithstanding clause” which former Ontario Premier Bill Davis and most other reputable politicians denounced. That Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney, supposedly thoughtful Conservative cabinet ministers who should have known better, supported his madness adds to the sorry nature of his enterprise

A week after Judge Belobaba accepted the argument of the plaintiffs that Ford’s Bill 5 violated s. 2 of the Charter, the Ontario Court of Appeal “stayed” his decision. In their view, Ford’s law may have been unfair, but it was likely not unconstitutional. This meant that Bill 5 creating wards in the city similar to those of M.P.s and M.P.P.s (unlike every other municipal jurisdiction in Canada) and reducing the number of councillors to 25 prevails for the election next week. The Court of Appeal (and perhaps even the Supreme Court of Canada) will consider the case in greater detail only after the election is long past.

The result was not surprising. But that the law permits the voters in the largest city in Canada, the economic engine of the province, to be treated so cavalierly is totally devastating. In my view, if our Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not extend to municipal governance, a huge lacuna cries out to be filled. A constitution which does not recognize how important municipal government is in the daily lives of contemporary voters is woefully out-of-date.

Mike Harris’ Conservative government in Ontario forced amalgamation on Toronto against the overwhelming wishes of the people in 1998, twenty years ago this year. Amalgamation has proven an expensive mistake. Within four months of assuming office, Doug Ford has used the same bullying strategy to impose on Toronto a City Council structure which was explicitly rejected by the city because it is unfair and will not work. He created a crisis where none existed. And the city will bear the cost for the foreseeable future.

This will be the last post that I write on politics for some time. The issues take too much out of me, and leave me too upset. In my self-interest, at an age when time is precious and good health is at a premium, I will focus on the good things going on in the world. Good news would be a welcome change.

back to top


 

 

Justice Belobaba’s Decision in The City of Toronto et al v. Ontario

This is a brilliant decision which everyone must read.

I commend it to you. Check it out.  It can be found on the internet.

My comments will follow once I have finished the two further films I am seeing today at TIFF.

The Fight against Doug Ford’s Attack on Toronto has Begun

On Monday, the Toronto City Council continued its debate on their response to Doug Ford’s changing the ward boundaries and cutting City Councillors from 47 to 25 in the midst of a municipal election campaign. The law which purports to authorize Ford’s actions was not yet introduced at Queen’s Park when the debate on what is an existential issue for the City of Toronto had already begun.

“Bill 5, The Better Local Government Act, 2018” (who says?) was introduced for first reading only on Monday afternoon. Tuesday, second reading was delayed by an Opposition amendment. It is now scheduled for second reading tomorrow, Thursday, August 2nd. The expectation is that the government will use every effort to push the law through as quickly as possible without any Committee hearings or any consultation.

I attended the City Council debate on Monday and was struck by how much time the hard core of councillors who supported Ford’s actions spent pontificating about the advantages of reducing their number to twenty-five. “Twenty-five reps works well for the province and the federal government;” they said, “it can work well for municipal government as well. It’s “a welcome move,” “taxpayers will be happy,” “a first step to ending the chaos at city hall,” “there is no need for any referendum; that occurred on June 7th,” “the province has all the power, we can do nothing about it, move on.”

Another group of councillors supported reducing the wards and the number of councillors but were very unhappy with the process and timing. They made it clear that their constituents did not like arbitrary change mid-way through an existing election.

The majority of councillors were adamant that this was an arbitrary interference with the fundamental governance of City Council without consultation and in the middle of a municipal election, according to the existing law and set for October 22nd. Reflecting a multi-year Ward Boundary Review undertaken by the City in recent years and conducted with significant public and professional consultation, the existing law provides for 47 wards and 47 councillors. These numbers provide approximate voter parity and reflect changing voter populations in different parts of the city. Numerous diverse candidates from communities not previously represented at Council have already registered as candidates “for the right reasons.” Now no one knows what is going on. And the City Clerk has made it clear that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate the proposed changes in preparations for the current election.

Several councillors spoke about the unique governance structure of the City of Toronto, the multiplicity of community councils staffed by local councillors, committees, commissions, boards, and institutions which now require councillor participation and already have trouble finding a quorum. Others spoke about the work of city councillors where they must be responsive to personal, local concerns, development applications, the desires of multiple Business Improvement Areas, residential associations, community groups, the nitty-gritty of city life which puts more demands on local politicians than on federal and provincial representatives. If immigration is the primary preoccupation of M.P.s, provincial M.P.P.s are preoccupied with education and health care issues. Everything else falls to the municipalities.

Others noted that the actions of Doug Ford were directed only to the City of Toronto. If the number of municipal councillors is to be determined by using provincial and federal constituencies, many Ontario cities would be reduced to one councillor, or perhaps a councillor they would share with another town. Councillor Shan noted that Scarborough, with a population of over 600,000, now has six Councillors and would be reduced to three under the new rules. Markham, with a population of 350,000, has twelve. Already under the existing rules, Toronto has more constituents per councillor than any other city in the province; under the new rules, the numbers would double. So much for voter parity which is supposed to be a fundamental principle of the right to vote in Canada.

Many councillors were particularly articulate about the significance of Ford’s attack on the city and what must be done. See Gordon Perks on YouTube. He is absolutely right. If we value our municipal government, and the work that city councillors do on our behalf, we have to respond.

City Council has voted its opposition to the reduced numbers, and has requested the provincial government to conduct a binding referendum before proceeding with the legislation or, alternatively, to permit the City to put a question on the 2018 ballot. It has also requested the City Solicitor to consider the validity and constitutionality of any provincial legislation, including its potential violation of the rights of the citizens of Toronto to fair and effective representation, the practicality of conducting the election, the Clerk’s capacity to implement the changes, and any errors or flaws in the legislation and to report back to City Council at a special meeting… on Monday, August 20, 2018 with options for City Council’s consideration. (Passed 31:10)

Former mayor David Miller, lawyer David Butt in the Globe and Mail, and I have called for litigation to challenge what Ford is doing in court. There is jurisprudence which describes the nature of the “right to vote” under the Canadian Charter, but my lawyer son tells me that that the Charter “right to vote” does not apply to voting at the municipal level. Previous efforts to use the courts to stop the amalgamation of the City of Toronto were unsuccessful. This case, however, is unprecedented. How the province has proceeded, the lack of any consultation with those affected, and the timing of the change of the law (in the middle of a current election campaign) all distinguish this case from prior jurisprudence. If ever there were a fact situation that demonstrates the most arbitrary provincial action against a major city within its jurisdiction, this it it. It would make an excellent test case.

In the meantime, we have to follow Councillor Perks’ advice and make sure that the provincial government (including the alleged “adults in the back rooms”) know that what they are doing is beyond the pale. As Councillor McMahon said on Monday, “It is simply wrong.”

Tomorrow, those who want to show their opposition are invited to attend Queen’s Park and be present in the public gallery when the government seeks to go forward with second reading. There is also a rally scheduled for the lawn of the Legislature at 11:30. See you there.

 

 

 

 

back to top


 

 

Canada’s Donald Trump in Action

We were right. Doug Ford is a Donald Trump. He is so enamoured with his own self-proclaimed expertise in business that he thinks he can run the government as if it were his private company. Notwithstanding the apparent advice of more experienced politicians around him, he has DECLARED that Toronto’s current ward system for municipal government is obsolete and that Toronto’s amalgamated City Council will be cut from 47 to 25 councillors.

Let us put aside the pros and cons of a reformed City Council. Many may agree that reform at the city level is required. I would agree to that. But there is absolutely no consensus on what kind of City Council we require. How many constituents are best served by a single Councillor? What is the relationship between the overall City Council and local Community Councils? How can a reduced number of councillors serve on the local councils and all City committees as well? All these are issues for empirical data and for discussion.

DOUG FORD HAS PREEMPTED ALL THAT. Just as Mike Harris did in December 1996, when he announced that the City of Toronto would be amalgamated by provincial fiat.

In the face of the public outcry that followed, even the Mike Harris government was forced to have public hearings at Queen’s Park on the issue. As I remember, over 600 individuals, experts and groups made submissions to the Legislature; only four spoke in favour of amalgamation. But Mike Harris’ majority government went ahead anyway, and we have been living with the consequences ever since. Whatever one thinks of the amalgamated City of Toronto, there is no doubt that amalgamation did not save money.

BUT DOUG FORD HAS GONE A STEP FURTHER. In the midst of a municipal election cycle, after most candidates have already registered to contest Council seats in existing wards, are already raising money and putting together their campaigns, and on the precise day nominations were to close, Ford HAS CHANGED THE RULES OF OUR MUNICIPAL ELECTION SET FOR OCTOBER 22nd.

As reported in the press, he has “thrown a bomb into our current municipal election,” so that whether the city can actually conduct the upcoming election is highly problematic. No advance notice. No opportunity for consultation with affected parties and the public. No discussion of the pros and cons of the new system. No reference to recent reforms to make our ward system more democratic. No consideration as to how the change of rules can even be implemented. None of this.

The simple answer, for a simple man unschooled in the subtleties and sophistication of politics, is that the municipal affairs of the City of Toronto will be governed using the constituencies established for federal and provincial purposes. An easy answer… to save taxpayers money.

Oh yeah? Not if I can help it. The last time I was this angry was when Mike Harris made his similar arbitrary announcement about the amalgamation of the City of Toronto. The provincial government, especially with a majority, may have the legal power to change the laws affecting how cities are run. But legal powers exist in the context of legal conventions, many of which are not written.

Canada’s administrative law applicable to all governments and government agencies (over and above the Charter) recognizes that people ought not be deprived of their rights except in accordance with “principles of fundamental justice.” What are “principles of fundamental justice”?

  • the right to know the case against you
  • the right to make representations on your own behalf
  • the right to a fair hearing
  • the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure
  • and, more broadly, “principles of fundamental justice” also include the right to fairness and to freedom from arbitrary action

If these rights are applicable to persons accused of offences before the courts, and to other individuals in civil conflicts with the state, they are equally applicable to candidates in current municipal elections and to voters who expect that our current election will be conducted according to the rules in effect at the time the election cycle begins.

There is nothing fair about changing the rules of our upcoming municipal election less than three months before election date. Doug Ford’s announcement is the epitome of arbitrary action. He doesn’t yet have legislative authority for what he intends to do, and already the upcoming election is thrown into chaos.

Fairness and freedom from arbitrary action are conventions in our political and legislative process which are unwritten but important nevertheless. What is most disturbing about Donald Trump is that he is unaware of existing political and governmental conventions, or ignores them at his pleasure, and does so with little public or political protest.

Doug Ford’s arbitrary and unfair interference in the current City of Toronto municipal process is analogous. I, for one, will not stand by and let it happen. Nor should anyone else. Our fundamental rights as a democracy play out in the context of process. Process is important. The issue is not reform of the Toronto City Council. The issue is the arbitrary and unfair actions of a provincial government which thinks it can change the rules without any input from the people affected.

I will be at City Council Monday morning to hear the continuing debate on what the City plans to do about this matter. I would urge you to take whatever action you can to require that the current election proceed according to existing rules.

 

 

 

 

back to top