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What has the Trudeau Government Done? An Update

In the heat of an election campaign, after months of the SNC-Lavalin affair, it is easy to forget what the Liberal government has actually done in the past four years. I wrote two earlier posts on the subject which list what they did until December 2016. See those posts here and here.

As my contribution to the current election campaign, it is appropriate to review what the Liberals have done since 2016. What follows is not comprehensive, and benefits from my reading Aaron Wherry’s Promise And Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power (2019 HarperCollins), which I highly recommend.

International Affairs:

From mid-January 2017 until late September 2018, the government was preoccupied with renegotiating the NAFTA agreement with the United States and Mexico. At first President Trump said that the relationship with Canada only needed “some tweaking.” By late April 2017, he was talking about “triggering a withdrawal.” Over the course of the negotiations, the US wanted to rebalance the trading relationship in favour of the US, impose a “rule of origin” which would require at least 50% of all auto parts to be produced in the USA, reduce the cap on autos exported from Canada to the US, do away with the Canadian supply management system which “unfairly” hurt American dairy farmers, include a sunset clause that would cause the agreement to expire after a certain time, and do away with the dispute resolution process.

In January 2017, Chrystia Freeland was made foreign affairs minister with responsibility for Canada-US Trade, including the negotiations about NAFTA. Born in rural Alberta of Ukrainian origin, now living in Toronto, she is an accomplished journalist who speaks five languages and has written extensively about income inequality. In June 2018, she was named Diplomat of the Year by Foreign Policy magazine.

In these negotiations, the government wanted the Americans to understand that Canada is “the signal largest market for US exports in all the world,” and that “at least a portion of their prosperity depended on (the existing) good trading relationship with Canada.” To do so, they decided that the best strategy was a united front at home. Cabinet ministers were assigned to chat up their counterparts in the Trump administration, the Congress, and in the states most dependent on Canadian trade (e.g.: Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Iowa, New York, Texas, California, and Florida). Freeland put together a bipartisan Advisory Council that included two former ministers of Stephen Harper’s cabinet (Rona Ambrose and James Moore), an advisor to NDP leader Jack Layton, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Brian Mulroney offered to help, as did Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada. All spoke with whoever would meet with them in the United States.

The bipartisan lobbying proved successful. A Canadian suggestion that some percentage of each vehicle (ultimately 40-45%) should be made by workers earning at least $16 an hour, which favoured both Canadian and American workers, was adopted. The cap on cars that could be imported to the US from Canada was set at a level well beyond that ever attained by Canada previously. American dairy producers were given access to 3.59% of the Canadian market, slightly more than the 3.25% granted to the countries of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The existing cultural exemption for Canada’s use of foreign ownership rules and target subsidies to protect domestic broadcast, news, and culture was maintained. Chapter 19, which allows for independent arbitration of any “unfair tariff,” was retained. The sunset suggestion was dropped.

In the fall of 2018, 59% of Canadians told polls that the Trudeau government had achieved “as much as possible” in the NAFTA negotiations. There was a general consensus in the media and among the non-partisan Advisory Committee that the Liberal government did the best job possible and should be commended both for what was accomplished and the manner in which it was done. Aaron Wherry, at p. 162, concluded that, “In conspicuously expending great effort in and around the United States, the Trudeau government at least insulated itself against any charge that it should have done more to swing the negotiations in Canada’s favour. That effort also showed a government that was otherwise not always on display: comprehensive, nimble, proactive and well communicated.”

In March 2018, President Trump announced tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum imported into the United States “as a matter of national security” but exempted Canada and Mexico “pending the completion of NAFTA negotiations.” Two months later, he changed his mind and imposed similar tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, even as the NAFTA negotiations continued. Both Freeland and Trudeau denounced the tariffs. Although recognizing that tariffs only increased prices for consumers, the Canadian government had no choice but to respond in kind. Canadian tariffs imposed on a host of American products covered $16.6 billion in American exports. They were targeted at areas considered politically important, and were coordinated with similar tariffs imposed by Mexico and Europe. In Freeland’s words, this was “the strongest trade action Canada has taken in the postwar era.” By the fall of 2018, the Trudeau government also allocated $2.4 billion in support for Canadian steel and aluminum producers affected by the US tariffs.

Polls in 2018 indicated that 73% of Canadians were “extremely” or “very concerned” about “Donald Trump.” As of the fall of 2018, the American tariffs on steel and aluminum still remained in place and the new USMCA agreement was not yet ratified by the American Congress. Recognizing that the existing NAFTA agreement is still good for Canada, the Canadian government has taken the position that it will not ratify the new agreement until it is ratified by the US Congress. If the Congress delays or refuses to ratify it, NAFTA remains in place. In May 2019, the United States agreed to drop the steel and aluminum tariffs against Canada.

As for peacekeeping, the Liberal government finally sent a helicopter squadron to provide support for UN peacekeepers in Mali. Other Canadian forces were deployed in training missions in Latvia, Ukraine, Iraq, and the Middle East.

Domestic Affairs:

Wherry suggests that the “mantra of the Trudeau era… the middle class and those working hard to join it… [is] a statement of empathy and aspiration.” The Liberals focused on it initially and now all parties are doing the same. Under the Liberal government, federal income tax for those earning $200,000 or more increased from 29 to 33% while the rate for those earning between $45,000 and $90,000 dropped from 22% to 20.5%.

Of primary importance to the Liberal government was its reformed federal supports for families with children. The Canada Child Benefit transfers $23 billion to Canadian families on a progressive basis. A family with less than $30,000 income receives the maximum amount of $6,400 per child under the age of six. Families with higher earnings get smaller cheques; families earning $200,000 or more get nothing. In mid-July 2019, the Canada Child Benefit was indexed to inflation. Statistics Canada reported in February 2019 that the overall poverty rate in Canada declined to 9.5% in 2017 and that, as compared to 2015, 278,000 fewer children were living in poverty, in part due to the Canada Child Benefit payments. As Wherry indicates, this is “the most significant increase (of children out of poverty) ever accomplished by any government in Canada.” In the summer of 2017, the governor of the Bank of Canada also credited the Canada Child Benefit with being “highly stimulative” for the economy.

The Liberal government also put new funding into the Guaranteed Income Supplement and the Canada Workers Benefit, both of which were made automatic for eligible individuals who file a tax return. Student grants were increased for low and middle-income families. Money was also allocated for training for workers. New pay equity legislation has been enacted for employees under federal jurisdiction. The government also agreed with the provinces to spend $7.5 billion over eleven years on early learning and childcare.

The Trudeau government eliminated the Public Transit Tax Credit, the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit, the Children’s Arts Tax Credit and the Textbook Tax Credit. “Such micro-targeted… tax breaks were a hallmark of the Harper era, even as economists derided (them) as inefficient policies that generally rewarded people for behaviour that would have happened anyway.” (p. 83)

When the Conservatives left office in 2015, federal tax revenues as a share of GDP stood at 11.5%, a historic low and well below the pre-Harper average of 13.3%. Under Trudeau, tax revenues were set to settle at 12.4%, “exactly halfway between two different ideas of how much a federal government should properly need.” (p. 84)

Reflecting its priorities in spending, the Liberal government ran deficits of $17.8 billion in 2016-17, $14.9 billion in 2018-2019, and $19.8 billion in 2019-2020. It is argued that showing deficits in a period of economic growth is not a bad thing, and that the declining ratio of debt-to-GDP is an indication that federal finances are ultimately sustainable. In the mid-90s, the federal debt-to-GDP ratio reached 67%. Statistics Canada data as of March 2019 indicates that Canada’s overall debt-to-GDP ratio is now about 34%. To put this into context, it is interesting to note that, according to the US Bureau of Public Debt, April 17, 2019, the debt-to-GDP ratio in the United States in 2015 was 104.7% and in 2017 was 105.4%.

Wherry notes that the economy continued to grow at a decent rate (1.4%, 3.0%, and 1.8%) in the first three years of the Liberal government, and that the unemployment rate is the lowest in forty years. This is credited in part to immigration. Canada brought in between 221,000 and 280,000 immigrants annually between 2000 and 2014. In the last full year of the Harper government, Canada accepted 260,000 people. In October 2016 the Economic Advisory Council recommended that the federal government aim to increase immigration to 450,000 new residents annually. For economic growth and to counteract current demographic trends increasing the proportion of seniors per working people, the focus should be on economic immigrants and international students. The Trudeau government brought in 296,346 immigrants in 2016, 286,480 in 2017, and 321,065 in 2018. From 2010 to 2017, Canada’s population grew at a higher rate than any other G7 country. (p. 86)

 

Wherry reports that efforts to move infrastructure funding have been slow. The Parliamentary Budget Office found that only $7.2 billion moved in the first two years of the Trudeau regime, half of what was projected. The impact on real GDP was only 0.1%. In the spring of 2019, the Trudeau government moved to fast-track $2.2 billion directly to municipalities to get around the several conservative provincial governments that were moving too slowly to match the federal funds. (p. 85)

The Liberal government passed legislation more slowly than did the Tories, but their new legislative process included wide consultation beforehand and extensive review by the newly independent Senate after. Between the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2019, the Senate amended seventeen government bills, sending them back to the House for review. This compared to only one bill sent back to the Tories in the last four years of their government.

The Liberal government has faced continuing controversy on the pipelines as the political and legal scene has changed. Trudeau killed the Northern Gateway pipeline that was to go to Kitimat and banned large tankers from transporting crude oil along the north coast of BC. With the election of Donald Trump, TransCanada abandoned its Energy East proposal, which would have carried oil to Quebec and New Brunswick, in the expectation that their Keystone XL pipeline in the United States would be approved. That left only the Kinder Morgan proposal to twin its existing pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby on the BC coast which would triple the capacity of the line.

In November 2016, the Liberal government approved the Kinder Morgan proposal in exchange for Premier Rachel Notley’s reducing Alberta’s carbon emissions. Their intention was to mesh two ostensibly competing objectives: impose pricing on pollution to fight climate change in the long run, and build a pipeline to “create responsible and sustainable ways to get (Canadian) resources to market” in the short run. (p. 185). This delicate balance was undoubtedly difficult, guaranteed to concern environmentalists as much as it dissatisfied Albertans.

To win support of the BC government, the Trudeau government agreed to spend over $1.5 billion to improve marine safety and local spill responses and to protect the killer whale population. But, emerging from the May 2017 B.C. election, the NDP formed a government with the support of the Greens based on an agreement to oppose the Trans Mountain project. A year later, Kinder Morgan wanted to pull out of the pipeline project, and, to keep it going, the Liberal government bought the pipeline for $4.5 billion minus the capital gains.

In August 2018, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the National Energy Board had wrongly declined to consider the increase in tanker traffic related to the project and also that the Trudeau government’s consultations with the Indigenous were insufficient. In response to the court decision, the government ordered the National Energy Board to complete a review of marine impacts within twenty-two weeks, and appointed former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to oversee new consultations with those Indigenous groups still opposed to the pipeline. The National Energy Board ultimately concluded that notwithstanding potential damage to the environment, twinning the pipeline was in the national interest and, in June 2019, the federal government again approved the Trans Mountain expansion project. The government committed that everything it earns from the pipeline will be invested in clean energy projects. Work is now underway on the pipeline, although legal appeals over the project continue.

In the fall of 2018, the Liberal government passed the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (GHGPPA) which required all provinces to place a minimum price of $20 per ton on GHG emissions by January 1, 2019. Provinces have the flexibility to create their own solutions to deal with GHG emissions in their jurisdiction. If they do so, the federal government will not intervene. If they fail to do so, the federal government will impose a price on pollution and provide an annual rebate to families living within their jurisdiction. Although economists agree that putting a price on carbon is the most efficient way to combat carbon emissions, the newly-elected Jason Kenny government in Alberta, the Doug Ford government in Ontario, other conservative provincial governments, and the federal Tories are fighting what they call “the carbon tax” both on the hustings and in the courts.

The Trudeau government dealt with housing in two ways. For potential home buyers, it introduced between 2016 and 2018 the mortgage stress test which set stricter standards that federally-regulated lenders are to apply to borrowers seeking mortgages. The object is to ensure that buyers could still afford to carry their mortgages in the event that interest rates were to rise. In 2019 the Liberals also announced a $55 billion, ten-year National Housing Strategy led by the National Mortgage and Housing Corporation for renters. After several decades of little market attention to rental housing, the object is to create up to 125,000 affordable housing units and refurbish more than 300,000 public housing units.

With respect to the Indigenous community, the Trudeau government has taken initial steps to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Long-term water advisories have been lifted in 87 First Nation communities as of August 2019. The government has also committed to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which includes provisions that protect Indigenous peoples from harmful and unwanted encroachment on their lands and resources without their free, prior, and informed consent. Putting that commitment into practice has been more difficult, leading to criticism of how these standards were not applied to the Trans Mountain project and to their support of the Muskrat Falls project in Labrador. In the spring of 2019, they enacted legislation providing support to Indigenous peoples trying to protect their languages, and also returning jurisdiction for child welfare services to First Nations communities.

It strikes me that the Trudeau government has done a great deal since it in came into office, notwithstanding drastically changing conditions both abroad and at home. The election of Donald Trump threatened the most important relationship Canada has with any other country. The Trudeau government has negotiated that to their credit. The cooperation which characterized federal-provincial relations in the first couple years of the Trudeau mandate has disappeared. Whose fault is that? Promoting change is not easy, takes time, and the results can be insufficient and even messy. I’m satisfied, however, that activism at the federal level on the various issues promoted by the Trudeau government is preferable to none at all. It will be up to Canadians to decide.

 

 

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Superb Service at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto

When I left the hospital after my initial Afib episode, I had a referral to the AFQCP, the Atrial Fibrillation Quality Care Program at Women’s College Hospital for Wednesday of last week. Women’s College has been rebuilt in recent years as an outpatient medical centre. It is a beautiful new building, upbeat and efficient. I had no idea what superb care I would get there.

When I arrived at the Ambulatory Acute Care Centre, I was shown to a room where a nurse practitioner took my blood pressure, gave me an ECG and took my weight. She was a charming young woman who has been trained as a personal support worker and works during the week in Women’s College and also on call during weekends at the Michael Garron Hospital (the former Toronto East General). She told me how PSWs can train in hospitals and, using their formal training and their work-day experience, follow a path into second year Nursing studies.

I then met the Internal Medicine doctor. She had at her fingertips all the medical records created by the Toronto Western Hospital the previous week. Apparently, all medical records created in GTA hospitals are stored electronically and accessible according to privacy protocols. She reviewed my medical history and my medications, explained the nature of the condition, and the pros and cons of the medications I would need to take in the future. Apart from the regular blood-thinners, she also gave me a prescription for a medication that would settle any future Afib incidents. She ordered an echocardiogram and a Holter test.

Then, the unit pharmacist came into my room. This was a totally novel experience. She explained how the medications worked. She confirmed that taking Tylenol for my arthritis (which I have been hesitant to do) would not conflict with any of the other pills. And we had a discussion about expiry dates on medications. She said that I should gather up all the expired pills (both prescribed and over-the-counter) in my household and take them to my local pharmacy for disposal in their program. Throwing pills away in the garbage or the toilet contaminates the environment and the water system.

A doctor who specializes in respirology then arrived. He had a lovely accent and, in response to my question, told me that he had come from southern Ireland nine years before. He is conducting research into the relationship between sleep apnea and Afib. He questioned me at length on my sleep patterns and suggested that I might benefit from an overnight sleep test in a sleep lab. He then explained that his team was testing a new apparatus for “sleep tests” that patients could do at home. He showed me how it worked and asked me to take it home to use for one night. Once I’d done it, I was to return the memory card to him in a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Why not? He told me to expect a call offering me convenient dates for the Lab Sleep Test. That will be interesting.

I was then sent upstairs for the echocardiogram. This ultrasound of the heart is the basic tool used by cardiologists to assess the working of the heart. I had scarcely sat down in the waiting room when I was called to the technician. After I had climbed up on the table and moved into the appropriate position, she set to work:  “Breathe in, breathe out, hold it, breathe in a little, hold it, a little more, hold it, breathe out.” The procedure went on for quite some time. The swirling forms and colours on the screen of the machine were mesmerizing. I occurred to me that this is the raw data that my nephew must work with every day. The technologist knew what it was all about. She told me that she has been doing this work for twenty years and that she came from Moscow. I reflected how lucky we are in Canada to have the benefit of so many skilled immigrants.

When it was over, I left the hospital with an After Visit Summary which included my health data accumulated that day, the changes in my medications, instructions for the two further tests, the date I am to return for the followup appointment, the names of the people who had met me that morning, and all the relevant contact information.

What an amazing morning. In less than four hours, I had seen a nurse practitioner, an internist, a respirologist, a pharmacist, had an echocardiogram, and was set up for two further procedures that would complete the workup. What in the past would have taken several months of visiting various doctors’ offices and labs was done in a morning. And I had all the relevant information at my fingertips. An example of one-stop patient-centred service, clearly Cadillac service in a Cadillac facility. Thanks to all the warm and wonderful people who staff the program.

 

 

 

 

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My Experience in the Toronto Western Emergency Ward

Last week, I had the most amazing experience in Emergency Care at the Toronto Western Hospital. About 7:45 that evening, after getting up from my couch at home, I felt a sudden onset of dizziness, chest pain, and a continuing compression in my chest which made me feel “winded.” It was like nothing I had ever felt before. When the condition continued, I called to my husband to drive me to the nearby hospital. I feared a heart attack and knew from the experience of several colleagues that it was imperative to get to the hospital ASAP. We were there within minutes.

Fifteen minutes after I signed into the emergency ward, I was called to the triage nurse. He heard my story, found my blood pressure to be high and noted that I had an abnormally fast heart rate, and immediately sent me for an ECG. That showed an arrhythmia in my heart and I was taken right away to what I later learned was the “Resuscitation Room.” I totally bypassed the normal Registration process which was done by the staff on their own while I was seeing the doctor.

The resident physician gave me a once-over and concluded that I had Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) which can cause a stroke or a heart attack. He gave me two aspirins and ordered immediate blood tests. To slow down and correct the rhythm of my heart rate, I had two choices. I could take a drip treatment which takes some time and which may or may not work, or they could do an immediate Electrical Cardioversion. He explained that an Electrical Cardioversion was a brief electrical “shock” to the heart using a machine (later I learned called a defibrillator) which uses two sticky pads that are put on the chest and back. During the procedure, I would be given meds to make me feel comfortable. Since my nephew on the west coast is an electrocardiologist and works with these procedures, I was more than willing to consent to the “shock” treatment.

Within an hour of my arrival, a senior doctor on the ward was doing the procedure in consultation with another doctor, and in the presence of two residents and two nurses. I was left in the Resuscitation Room for a while and then moved to the back of the ward for another three hours. They then took more blood tests and did another ECG. Although I later learned that my systolic blood pressure at one point had been over 200 and my heart was stressed for about an hour, the blood tests taken on my arrival and again three hours later showed no damage to my heart and, as the nurse said, I (now) had “the ECG of a 16-year-old girl.”

I was discharged with a prescription for blood thinners, a referral to the Atrial Fibrillation Quality Care Program (AFQCP) at Women’s College Hospital for the next Wednesday, and a recommendation that I see my family doctor within two days. I was able to see her at 7:00 p.m. later the same day.

I was blown away by the quality of the care. I consider myself most lucky. This AFib Incident identified my current cardiac condition and steered me onto a path of treatment which may avoid a major heart attack or stroke down the road. Although the AFib condition must now be managed, my chances of living a longer life and without stroke-induced disabilities just improved. Because I went to the hospital immediately, the “shock” treatment was an available option to stabilize my condition. 

NOTE THAT THE “SHOCK” TREATMENT IS ONLY POSSIBLE FOR A SHORT PERIOD AFTER THE ORIGINAL AFIB INCIDENT. Should you suspect a heart attack, go ASAP TO YOUR LOCAL EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT so that you too might qualify for this treatment.

I have subsequently learned that it may be better to call an ambulance immediately. The paramedics would monitor your condition en route to the hospital and you would be given a priority in triage on arrival. On the other hand, the ambulance may not take you to the nearest hospital; they decide where you go depending on how busy the different emergency wards are.

The incident taught me even more.

First, I saw that emergency care nurses have the most demanding of jobs. They work twelve-hour shifts. How they do it I do not know. They are constantly on the run, working in crisis situations, and responsive to many people who are difficult, impaired or addicted, and who make unreasonable demands like shouting that they want to go home when they clearly cannot.

One of my nurses is 62 years of age, has two grandchildren and a constitution which allows her to sleep only five hours a night. She “loves her work” and would miss it if she were to retire. She told me her name, and showed me pictures of her grandchildren. The other nurse is 30 years old. He came from Gander, Newfoundland, and spent the first two years of his career as a Flight Nurse working in Nunavut. He also told me his name and we talked about my forthcoming trip to Newfoundland in October. Both were extremely pleasant and resilient, with incredible patience and warm compassion. That they shared so much of themselves made me most comfortable. I very much appreciated that they kept me informed about my condition and what was happening as we went along. When I was discharged, one took me to the lobby and showed me how to call a cab.

Secondly, I learned that it is still common practice among medical professionals to refer to women patients as “my dear.” When the attending resident referred to me as “my dear,” I asked him not to call me that and to call me by my first name. I told him that I was surprised that young doctors are using that term in this day and age, that the only other doctor who had ever called me that before was an older cardiologist I consulted years ago, and that the term was well-recognized even then as being demeaning. The two very wonderful nurses admitted that they too used the term; one never thought anything of it, the other used it when she was looking for deep veins and thought she might be hurting me. The doctor concluded our interaction by saying that he learns something new every day. How is it that medical schools and institutions are not addressing the issue?

Thirdly, going home alone from the hospital in a cab at 5:00 a.m. is not to be feared. As we talked en route, the cab driver showed that he knew quite a bit about medical procedures in emergency wards. When I got out of the car, he added, “Marion, don’t forget to drink lots of water.” He was absolutely right to know that I might be dehydrated, and I was happy to take his advice. He waited at my doorstep until I was in the house.

 

 

 

 

 

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Fishing in Lake Ontario

My husband and I have lived in Toronto for forty-nine years and, until Labour Day this year, we had never once fished in Lake Ontario. Like most everyone else I know, we assumed that the lake was too dirty and the fish were inedible, or at least so toxic that consumption would need to be limited.

Not true. The lake has been cleaned dramatically in recent years. The government stocks the lake with salmon and rainbow trout. Every year the Toronto Sun sponsors the Great Ontario Salmon Fishing Derby which this year ran from June 29th to August l7th. During the derby, big prizes are offered to those who catch the biggest fish each week, the biggest fish during the derby, and the charter boats that catch the most fish. Winning fish can weigh twenty-seven to forty pounds.

My husband has been a fly fisherman most of his life; in B.C. as a youth, in the Wyoming mountain wilderness, and in northern Ontario rivers years ago. His catches were generally no more than a foot long and eaten immediately. We often salivate over stories of our relatives out west who go on big fishing trips in the salt chuck or on the big rivers of the B.C. interior. Once my brother caught a halibut well over 100 pounds near Tofino. It took over an hour to land and fed family and friends all winter. Two of my mother’s cousins fished for salmon up the B.C. coast until well into their eighties, canning the fresh salmon on the beach before they brought it home. People who live on the west coast are preoccupied with the size and health of the four-year salmon run. In Toronto, we didn’t even appreciate that there were salmon in Lake Ontario, also living a four-year cycle before they go upriver to spawn.

To celebrate my husband’s birthday, my younger son arranged to charter a fishing boat for a morning from Epic Sportfishing in Scarborough. At 6:00 a.m. on September 2nd, my husband, two sons, and I met skipper Aaron Flavell in the pre-dawn dark at Bluffers Park Marina. Before long, we were out in the water opposite the Scarborough Bluffs and Aaron began to let out what became eight lines, all set for different lengths and depths according to where his fish-finder indicated the fish could be. Fishing has obviously become a very sophisticated high tech affair.

Within a half-hour of leaving the dock, I caught our first fish, a rainbow trout well over five pounds and well over two feet long. Within minutes, Bill and Carl each caught, almost together, a couple of salmon of about the same size. Aaron said that they were two years old. We were utterly delighted. These were the biggest fish we had ever caught. It was Ben’s turn to reel in the next catch which turned out to be a yearling which we decided was too small to keep; our first catch and release. Ben’s next was another rainbow trout of a good size which ended up in the cooler. Over less than five hours, we caught nine fish: three rainbow trout and six salmon. We kept the six over five pounds to take home

Throughout the morning, Aaron filled us in on the mechanics of modern sports fishing, how the fish finder and the bottom feeders worked, and the advantages of different types of lines and reels. He told us about the big summer salmon-fishing derby, and how many of his clients had been winners. He was somewhat disappointed that we hadn’t pulled in a twenty-pounder. By contrast, we were ecstatic. Even more so when he filleted the fish for us as we returned to the marina. We brought our share home to put in the freezer.

It was a beautiful day for fishing. Not too hot nor too sunny. Apart from the fishing, the early morning air, the shining waters, the waves of monarch butterflies we saw flying south, and the vistas of the shore and the city were invigorating. The easy camaraderie between us was great fun. This was undoubtedly the beginning of a new tradition.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.”

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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….

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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