Now available, Kindle and paperback
Shooting the Bruce, a novel
For more information
Carousel Talk at Club of Rome, Conference Ottawa, 20/09/2013
Before I begin a brief description of the air quality measures we took while I served on City Council, I should set the context for you. In November, 1997, I was a brand new Regional councillor, just elected. But before I had time to open my office at City Hall, eastern North America was struck by the largest weather disaster that the nation had ever seen. A six day ice storm closed down cities all across the north-east from Ontario all the way to Nova Scotia via Quebec, New Brunswick, New York State and Vermont.
The heart of the storm was the black triangle that went from Ottawa to Kingston and east to Montreal. Large sections of our city had no electrical power. Montreal came close to losing its ability to pump potable water and sewage and once that happens you have lines of refugees leaving the city because without water it’s no longer habitable. The army was mobilized and we moved into emergency response mode. Ultimately there was about 5 billion dollars in insurance claims which set a record for a climate event.
After the ice storm, the newly elected Regional Chair, Bob Chiarelli called a Smart City Summit and for two days our new council heard talks from some of the best urban thinkers in the world. They either came to Ottawa to speak themselves or were teleported in on a large screen to the council chamber. Out of that Smart City Summit came a new commitment to a greener more, sustainable city and a new understanding of the inter-connectedness of the environmental problem.
For example, poor air quality couldn’t be isolated into a bubble of its own. It was connected to just about everything else we did from how we governed ourselves to how we travelled and lived. Like most North American cities, we were 98 per cent dependent on internal and diesel combustion engines, both of which were highly polluting. We tackled this part of the problem by starting an aggressive transition to surface electric rail. The first part of the problem was to just convince people it could work. Many were not sure. So we started the cheapest way possible by converting an old freight line into a short 8 kilometre city diesel rail service with three leased trains to test if reintroducing surface rail would be acceptable to the public. It was.
The test line ridership exceeded expectations from the beginning. The O train which is what the three trains came to be called was followed by an international competition for the first arm of a city wide surface light rail system. The city’s procurement process won a national award and in 2006, a contract was signed to begin construction of a 28 kilometer North-South line from the distant suburbs to the city centre. It would have been the cheapest, longest surface rail project in North America.
The next step was getting an east west electric line underway to offer an alternative to the east-west busway and the expressway. We proposed to do this to the west along Carling Ave hooking into the North-South line at Preston and Carling.
What does all this have with air quality? Well, Ottawa is a white collar town, there is very little heavy industry. Most of the city’s pollution comes from the very ordinary needs of life, heating and cooling homes and driving our cars. The largest single polluter is the 417 expressway which goes through the centre of our city, not far from here. Just the north south electric line alone would have immediately reduced carbon emissions by 26,000 tons annually. It would also have continued to improve air quality because rail based growth creates a tighter settlement pattern than roads do. The city presently expands our road way system at more than a hundred kilometers each year. As a result, there are fewer people today occupying more geography and fewer people per capita using transit than in 1960.
A large part of the difficulty in creating a more sustainable city with cleaner air and cleaner water has been that few people really understand the inter-connectedness of the problems being dealt with at City Hall. The public did did not see surface electric rail as an air quality, environmental issue but this is what it was. They looked at it as a debate about rail versus buses or rail versus cars or surface rail versus a tunnel in the city centre.
You can’t do much about transportation or air quality or any other issue if you don’t have three things 1) research data which describes the problem; 2) publication of the data; 3) public discussion of the data such that a consensus for action can be built.
We tried to tackle this problem after the Smart City conference by opening up City Hall’s governance to the public. We moved towards a participatory budget modelled on Porto Alegre in Brazil. Here citizens have more time and the capacity to influence the city’s spending priorities as well as its reductions. (They preferred their taxes spent on human services versus more asphalt eg more day care, more transit, better health care.)
At the same time, we created 15 citizen advisory committee for everything from preservation of heritage buildings to air and water quality. The citizen committees principal cost were a city clerk to help them keep the minutes and convene the meetings. It paid off, we began to see lively debates at Council with much more attention paid to the nitty-gritty of running the city from the anticipated transition to light rail to air and water quality, and local food supply.
If there was a bottom of the barrel on environmental action air quality was it. Prior to 1995, there were two air quality monitors in the entire city. To put this in perspective, Oxford, U.K. has 300 and in 1995 as part of the cutbacks in the federal and provincial governments terminated the Queen Street air quality monitor. This was a significant loss as it was the only monitor we had that captured traffic emissions in a congested part of the city at rush hours. Both of these monitors were full sized permanent type ones with a broad range of pollutants measured including PM 2.5 and PM10, NO2.
Then we got lucky, sometimes lightening does strike in a good way, the satellite air quality project was funded by National Research Council to promote standardization of the data from the on the NASA AURA satellite. This resulted in an unprecedented increase in air quality observations from July 1 2007 to July 1 2008. The remote sensing mapping from the AURA satelitte was done by a firm in Kanata. They were able to refine the 10 km maps possible from raw data to approximately 1 km resolution. The city had never had data like this before, suddenly city managers were able to start building an air quality map of the city upon which new policies can be based as the Region of Halton is doing today.
At the same time the city also acquired two “portable” monitors thanks to donations from the federal governments and to the City’s Public Health Department. This included the loan of the very sophisticated air quality van owned by Environment Canada and the calibration of the ground monitors by Environment Canada labs. (Accurate calibration is a complex technical achievement and absolutely necessary for any successful air quality monitoring.)
The city’s part in this was providing an air quality, manager who with help from a couple her colleagues won a well deserved award of excellence from the city. Her special skills were in networking and getting advice and significant support from DOT, MOE and the City of Gatineau without which the project would have been a bust. This position was declared redundant in 2013 and air quality priority has been downgraded.
She was not alone. The 15 advisory committees have been disbanded and the sustainability focus that had begun in Ottawa after the Smart Growth Summit has collapsed back into business as usual. The new mayor elected in 2006 cancelled the city’s north-south light rail line and all the old road projects were back on the table. Widening of the city’s east-west expressway is now underway as is the most expensive drive way in North America – 57 million dollars for a kilometer long access from Riverside Drive to a big box mall.
Air quality reports were cancelled because they considered to be dangerous to the economic health of the city and the citizen advisory committee has been disbanded. For example, what would happen to high rise land values if you found out that an intensely developed downtown corner had the dirtiest air in the city? Or that a primary school was being located at the dirtiest suburban location possible? What you don’t know, can’t hurt you, right?
A critical air quality report by the consultant firm Senes has never been made public- only a summary was presented to Committee. It’s equally difficult for the public to understand the environmental and health consequences of the loss of the north south LRT, because the public was never presented with comparison data for environmental trade-off between the 4 kilometer tunnel and the new north south light rail system.
We live in a complex world. The costs and the pain of the 500 premature deaths from poor quality in Ottawa are largely invisible and not assumed by the city, but by the provincial health system. The costs of the ice storm were largely born by the private insurance system, not city tax payers. The costs of cancelling the light rail program were never evident because the benefits never had a chance to be felt. Figuring out what the city’s priorities should be require citizens to make connections and understand the consequences of city action and inaction across a broad range of activities.
I don’t see much hope for change in the immediate future. After 2006, the city snapped back to business as usual and the developer driven model that has been in place since 1950 and it’s still there.
There’s very little glory and not much attention, but there should be. Over half the world’s population now lives in cities. Over eighty percent of this country does and over sixty percent in only 10 cities. Somehow we need to find the public energy to focus on the connections that can move all cities towards one that can survive until the end of this century and one that won’t.
I am confident that one day people will start to see the connections between air and water quality, transportation and urban geography. We will abandon this old developer driven model and begin addressing the very real problems that face us with new solutions and new approaches. Right now, our civic job has been reduced to keeping sustainable options in front of people. This is an essential task for without an idea of how this city and every other city can function to provide better air quality, better water quality and economies of scale, not diseconomies, there is no hope.
I would like to thank the organizers of this conference for helping us to give people hope by keeping alive the ideas necessary for creating cities and societies that will endure.
I did not like the comments of Jason Kenny denigrating the Marois’s charter of values as Monty Pythoneque. They were spurious and destructive. Does he not have any memory? Does he not recall the recent ‘honour killings’ of four women in Kingston? Does he not remember that in court the murderers constantly referred to their values and traditions? Can he not recall that his government is spending billions of public money on security to protect Canadians against people who are of the opinion the only legitimate law is a religious one? Does he not remember Boston?
You can’t legislate values and Premier Marois is not going about it the way I would, but at least she’s honestly and directly trying to address the problem, not pretending it doesn’t exist or that the only response possible is more police, more punitive legislation and more prisons. Perhaps if Mr. Kenny’s government was more interested in new Canadians understanding and supporting the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms instead of swearing allegiance to the Queen, Madame Marois would be less anxious about protecting the hard one rights of democracy and secular society.
Many of our newest Canadians come from countries awash in blood from religious and sectarian conflicts. One of the reasons that they are here is this country is not. This is an accomplishment that is worth protecting for in many countries men and women are not equal before the law. The state is not separate from religion and democracy has never been practiced, but this isn’t our country. In Canada, men and women are equal. The state is not a theocracy and we consider it a right to meet the face of our accusers face to face in court.
We have the laws that make this clear. We need no new laws. We need no charter of values. We have them now. They are written in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in New York at the United Nations which Canadians helped found and to compose the first universal laws protecting all human rights and freedoms, but we do need governments with the courage of their convictions to support them. Where can we find that government? That’s the most discouraging thing for I see it nowhere in the gang bang comments from our fearless leaders in the media.
Tomorrow morning, I ride out with the Grandmothers to Grandmothers ‘Ride the Tide’ bicycle tour to raise funds to assist grandparents in Africa who are taking care of their grandchildren because of Aids deaths among their own children. We leave from Kanata and ride about a 100 kilometers each day for three days. So far 35,000 dollars has been raised by my co-riders. If there is anyone out there who would like to put a few dollars on my legs, it would be much appreciated. Trust everyone had a good summer. I spent most of it in Cape Breton at my father’s village and bought some land by the sea. No doubt a foolish thing to do but I’ve always wanted my own place in the village.
For those who follow me on twitter and wonder where I’ve gone this summer. Not very far unless you count Cape Breton as far, but my twitter account has gone down and I can’t seem to get reinstated.
Trust you had an excellent summer.
Clive Doucet: Your comments about journalists weren’t appreciated by some readers.
Capt. Tom Travis: “Because the truth hurts? They’re gutless. Take Lac Megantic – the most recent tragedy to come our way. There’s only one question worth asking. Why was one man driving at 72 car train loaded with hundreds of tons of tar sands gumbo? Could it be because it exposes the unholy alliance between the elected politicians and the corporate ones?”
C.D.: ”I remember seeing that question being asked.”
Capt. Tom Travis: ”One question out of kilometres of coverage and a zillion interviews doesn’t make a story. The reason the question is buried in ‘personal’ interviews is it exposes the fact that this country won’t invest in rail. Today, the French who have the best rail system in the world just announced a 3 billion dollar upgrade forthe Paris system. That’s three billion to improve and expand one city’s rail system. We’ve got governments that specialize in dis-investing in the country’s assets. The largest rail system in North America is now Canadian National. It’s private. Guess what? We Canadians used to own it, lock, stock and barrel. We kept the junk. It’s called VIA Rail.
“And how about the single pay-out for soldiers suffering from PTS. Here’s some cash soldier – go fix yourself and don’t bother us again. Do you see journalists asking tough questions like what happened to taking responsibility for broken bodies until they’re mended? Maybe we can’t afford to go to war if we can’t afford to take care of our wounded after. And how about the return to glory? The government just announced there’s pips and stripes for Canadian soldiers just like in the good old colonial days. While we’re at it, why don’t we go back to muskets?”
C.D.: ”I take it you don’t like the government.”
Capt. Tom Travis: “The local government does what it can but it’s got no money and no authority. That’s why l live in Bruce County. The possibility of a fucking up paradise is limited here. Now, can you go to the beach or something and leave me alone?”
C.D.: Clive Doucet reporting from Wemje, Bruce County. Home of war hero, Captain Tom Travis.
Clive Doucet: Thanks for agreeing to meet again.
Tom Travis: You said I’d caused some trouble with my statements about Canada Day.
C.D.: We did get a lot of chatter/clatter. Some people thought you should apologize.
Tom Travis: For what? I’m for people on Parliament Hill watching fire works, drumming drums, playing guitars. It’s a whole lot better than the I-gotcha. No, I gotcha-you. No-no I gotcha-you politics that passes for debate behind the Peace Tower. The point I was making was simple: Patriotism without democracy and the rule of law is tribalism. And tribalism leads to war. I know because I’ve lived it. And I would not be keeping faith with all who died there if I didn’t say it now because we’re seeing history repeat itself. It’s what’s happening in Egypt right now.
C.D.: Are you saying Canada Day is tribal?
Tom Travis: “I’m saying patriotism without democracy is like gasoline without a car, it doesn’t burn usefully, it just burns. So you’ve got to be careful that national days and flag waving don’t turn into flag sucking as Hunter S. Thompson used to call it.
C.D.: I take it you’re a fan of Hunter S. You mentioned him before.
Tom Travis: He was sane, sensible and mouthy. A bad combination. But yes, I was a fan.
C.D.: What do you think about the recent events in Lac Megantic?
Tom Travis: What’s one guy doing driving a train loaded with hundreds of tons of tars sands gumbo? Where’s the brakeman? Where’s the second engineer? Where’s the caboose? Like he drives into town, pulls a switch and then leaves the train in the driveway like he’s driving a volkswagon? My cat gets gets more supervision.
C.D.: There’s no mention of cat in ‘Shooting the Bruce’.
Tom Travis: So what? No doubt one day they’ll write a book about this poor bastard who was driving the train that blew up a town. Doesn’t mean it will reflect reality but someone will make money off it. They always do. People made money off the Bosnian war. They were called journalists.
C.D.: Sounds like you don’t like journalists.
Tom Travis: I don’t. That’s why I started my own twitter file. I figure if other people were starting to write about me, I’d better say a few words myself.
C.D.: Do you care if anyone follows you on twitter?’
Tom Travis: No.
C.D.: Not that he cares, but you can follow Tom Travis on Twitter @CptnTom
Clive Doucet: Thanks very much for agreeing to this interview on Canada Day.
Cptn Tom: No problem.
C.D.: You were awarded a jar full of medals in Bosnia but you never mention them and they’re never mentioned in ‘Shooting The Bruce’, I was wondering why.
Cptn Tom: I didn’t write the book, you’ll have to ask the writer.
C.D.: Are you okay with that?
Cptn Tom: I don’t see what medals have to do with the story. The way it was explained to me is the book is about how I made the switch from shooting human beings to shooting flowers and birds with a camera. They don’t give you medals for that – so why have them in the book?
C.D.: You sound a little angry.
Cptn Tom: Maybe I am. I don’t much like Canada Day.
J.D.: Why is that?
Cptn Tom: The Bosnian war was all about patriotism, Croat patriotism, Serb patriotism. Bosnian patriotism. They called it the homeland war – still do. Everyone was killing everyone else. Anyway they could. It’s what’s happening in Syria right now. A man will walk up to a neighbour, someone he’s eaten dinner with and put a bullet in his head. Same thing used to happen in Sarajevo. I’ve seen a grandmother take a garden hoe and do her level best to kill another old lady – that’s where patriotism can take you. People in Canada think it can’t happen here, well it can. It can happen anywhere. Hunter S. Thompson used to call it flag sucking patriotism.
C.D.: That sounds a little harsh.
Cptn Tom: You asked me what I thought of national days, I told you.
C.D.: Maybe we should change the subject.
Cptn Tom: Fine by me.
C.D.: How’s the book going?
Cptn Tom: No idea. It’s not my book.
C.D.: But you’re the subject of it – the hero.
Cptn Tom: I agreed to having my story told because the writer persuaded me it might help other vets suffering from PTS. If it does great, but it’s not my book. I don’t make any money off it. Don’t see why I should I pay attention to how it sells? Think that’s enough.
C.D.: Well, thanks very much for this Tom. Perhaps we could do it again sometime.
Cptn Tom: I’d rather not.
In the Realm of Us
I recently listened to a panel on “public sector perspectives on challenges to the community sector”, featuring representatives from all three levels of government. Each speaker virtually began with: ‘Don’t look to government for the money because government can’t afford it.’
But, in a democracy, isn’t the government us? So when our governments say they can no longer afford something, what they are really saying is that “we” can’t afford it. But, is this really the case? Have we really become poorer?
Canada’s average GDP per capita—the value of total productive output divided by the population that produced it—has continued to grow, with a few minor interruptions since 1946. Our national wealth is, relatively speaking, where it has always been.
On the other hand, Canada’s median income—the mid-point income level—currently stands at only two thirds of GDP per capita. Until the 1970s, Canadian GDP per capita and median income were roughly the same.
Obviously, we don’t have a wealth problem, we have a distribution problem.
Secondly, we have a revenue shortfall. Tax revenue is the interest we claim for the use of public resources which, collectively, we all own and maintain. Simply, we are not paying ourselves enough.
Between 2004 and 2012, Canada’s federal corporate income tax rate fell by one third—from 21% to 15%. The argument against corporate taxation holds that corporate profits are either reinvested in the company, resulting in new jobs, or returned to investors. In either case, the taxes on those profits are realized through the personal income taxes paid by the employees and/or the rentiers. However, despite a 30% cut in the corporate tax rate, virtually none of those new, after-tax profits went into new jobs or investors’ pockets. Instead, corporations chose to retain their windfall as cash reserves—which are not subject to income tax on either the corporation or the investor. By the end of last year, there was nearly half a trillion of these dollars—what former Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney called “dead money”. That’s a significant revenue loss.
And the GST. Each percentage point of GST is estimated to return around $5 billion, annually. In 2006, the government reduced the rate from 7% to 6% and, in 2008, from 6% to 5%. This translates into a revenue loss of $5 billion in each of 2007 and 2008, and $10 billion in each of 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. So what did you and I get out of this $50,000,000,000 in ‘savings’?
At roughly 33-34 million, that meant every Canadian realized, on average, about $150 in GST savings in 2007 and 2008—roughly 41¢ a day, or the HST levy on a $3 chocolate bar. Since 2009, those savings have increased to 82¢ a day, or the HST on two chocolate bars. So there you have it. Although we can no longer “afford” adequate public health care, we can each enjoy two additional candy bars a day.
Finally, between 1982 and 2010, the median annual income of the top 1% of Canadian taxpayers increased by almost 50% to $283,400—an increase of $91,800. Over the same 28 years, the median income of the bottom 99% rose by $400—from $28,000 to $28,400. Keep in mind that fully half of the 99% earns less than the median income. Despite our wealth, a too many Canadians earn too little to contribute much tax at all. Another significant revenue loss.
Thirdly—we have a spending problem.
For example, in 2011, Canada spent $24.7 billion on defense. That was an increase of about $8 billion since 2006 and more than $10 billion since the start of 2001. An annual expenditure of $24.7 billion dollars a year amounts to just under $67.7 million a day.
So, at the risk of repeating myself, why, if the total national wealth continues to grow, in absolute terms, do our governments say they can no longer afford to meet our needs?
Federal corporate income tax brought in $30 billion dollars in 2012. At the 2004 rate, that would have been $42 billion. Repatriating the lost corporate tax revenues from the dead money reserves, brings us $12 billion. Restoring the GST to 7% (at a cost of 84¢ each, a day)—$10 billion. Rolling back defense spending to 2006 levels—$8 billion. Altogether, that gives us an annual revenue increase of $30 billion. Given that the deficit for 2012 is estimated to be $26 billion, we can not only balance the books this year, but do so with $4 billion to spare.
Yes, Virginia, we can afford what we need. And if we can afford it, so can our government.
Pat Steenberg is a former Executive Director of KAIROS, and a former Vice-President of the Canadian Council on Social Development.
I woke up thinking it could be worse. I could be Mikhail Gorbachev. He flew a lot higher and crashed a lot harder. Compared to Mikhail, the losses in my life were small potatoes. All I lost were one mayoralty and a few city baubles, a Park, an electric light rail system, the South March Highlands. Not much really. Suddenly, I felt a little lighter.
Normally, I wake up thinking in a deaf and grinding way: ‘Shit!’. Then I swing my legs over the edge of the bed and spend the rest of the day getting on without thinking about thinking. It works. I’m busy. I play with my grandchildren whose bright and happy faces I adore. I write words on electronic pages like netting summer butterflies. I strum tunes on my father’s old guitar and so on; that’s the script I take out each day, and it’s not false, but it’s also true the old wounds never quite heal; and then I woke thinking of Mikhail.
He lost a whole lot more than a city. He lost the multitudes of a continent to the vilest of greed, to the ugliest exploitation. The whole Russian middle class was tanked. Ballerinas lost their pensions and went looking for food banks. Famous engineers line up beside them and commiserated. The Russian public interest was raped from the Bering Sea to Poland. Mikhail’s tribulations make mine look like chicken soup.
He flew so high. Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. He brokered the first nuclear arms reduction treaty. He was the key figure in ending the Cold War and bringing down the Berlin wall. And all along he preached the gospel of bringing a balanced change to Russia, by restructuring (glastnost) the Soviet economy, and opening it up to the west and new ideas (perestroika). Gorbachev wanted to turn the corner, not drive off a cliff. Then his buddy Boris came along, mounted a tank and drove the old Soviet Union straight off a cliff. Mikhail and his message of balanced progress were entirely extinguished. From glory to compost in a few weeks.
It’s gotta be tough to go from addressing the United Nations and organizing a new world order to being a middle aged man with an odd birth mark on your forehead and few employment prospects. So I should just buck up. Shit happens. That’s the lesson of Mikhail.
It wasn’t until I watched the city’s beautiful electric rail project vanish into the hands of my opponents, the great South March forest felled for McMansions and Lansdowne Park ploughed under for McCondos that I began to see what was what. At the very centre o f myself, I had this unshakable conviction that we Canadians were immune to the world’s nonsense. We were capitalists – yes, but no one died in Canada because they couldn’t afford hospital care. Nor did we hold with the idea that owning weapons was a sacred right. We didn’t shoot each other in schools and shopping centres. We were magically insulated by the 49th parallel and cold northern air.
For four municipal terms, I worked in the cocoon of this profound conviction that it was ‘all good’ . Unlike Mikhail, I didn’t win the Nobel Prize and no Pope noticed me, but I was very happy with what we accomplished, and the recognition it received. To everyone’s surprise, in 2010, I was voted Ottawa’s Man of the Year; to less surprise, in 2004 Canada’s eco-councillor of the year, and like Mikhail I wrote a book about my experiences. Mine wasn’t a grand world release, but ‘Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual’ did well at home and was short listed for a prize.
We were on a roll. Mikhail was getting Russia ready for the last decades of the 20th century and I was getting my city ready for the first of the 21st. Like Mikhail, I had lots of forehead but unfortunately no interesting birthmark, but I did think about getting a tattoo, perhaps an image from the Chauvet cave in France. The paintings from that cave are extraordinarily beautiful. Those horses were painted 30,000 years ago and they are still stunning today.
Did I think of getting the tattoo after being defeated by a former Mayor or after? When the climate change statistics kept running through my head? No doubt, it’s not good to think these black thoughts, but it’s hard not to when the trees being hacked down in the park for condos are just down the street, not in someone else’s town. When some company registered in Manitoba is peeling the old park apart like a rotten orange and replacing it with cement structures and underground parking.
I wonder if Mikhail ever thought of running away to the South of France? I certainly have had those moments, but to what purpose? To be more comfortable? Sometimes, I think the idea of paddling a voyageur canoe from Ottawa to Washington was about running away, not about clean water. You have to be a little crazy to be a grandfather paddling at 45 beats per minute, day after day for 40 days. Paddling until your hands and feet went numb, paddling as if your life depended upon it.
The trip was in memory of William Commanda, the Algonquin Elder who preached peace and the circle of nations. His daughter blessed our departure with a smuging ceremony. It was an exhilarating moment with the Parliament buildings picturesquely on the bluff. We left with the ambition to bring Canadians and Americans together around the importance of protecting the waterways that we all need and share. We did it because great modern cities like Ottawa, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, Washington have all been built at the river’s edge and need clean water.
Wherever we camped, we talked about how we would like to see the Ottawa and the Potomac become sister rivers, as a way of celebrating these great rivers and encouraging the citizens of each nation to to protect them. The people we met were wonderfully welcoming. Nor did it matter what political allegiance or religion they professed, they helped us and spoke eloquently themselves of how they also wanted to see the day come again when people could fish and swim and drink the water of our rivers. We paddled and talked and camped and everywhere people’s kindness and generosity was overwhelming.
Somewhere in northern New York, out of the twilight, a father and his daughter paddled towards our remote island campsite with a box of local beer for us. He thought we might appreciate it. Another night, for supper, an evangelical Christian brought us a huge box of fried chicken. We paddled down the Hudson, past Pete Seeger’s boat, the Clearwater; we paddled into New York City past the United Nations, past the Statue of Liberty; we paddled past aircraft carriers, we paddled past Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell, we paddled into Washington to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where we poured some water from our river, the Ottawa into America’s national river, the Potomac symbolizing the connections and importance of these two waterways.
We paddled to the doors of Capitol Hill and arrived in time to help participate in the 40th anniversary celebration of that nation’s Clean Water Act, first passed in 1972. We talked of our journey. We shared our hopes for rivers where you could fish, swim in, and had water you could drink.
Yesterday, I awoke thinking of Mikhail Gorbachev walking across Red Square, a small figure in a big place, carrying a briefcase, the purple birth mark on his forehead hidden under a fedora, walking towards his little institute on good governance. How useless.
I thought of myself on that long trip, where every stroke, every day, every week was a stroke for clean water and I did not care if it was useless. I awoke thinking Mikhail would have come with us and this cheered me.
The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage voted to undertake a “comprehensive review of significant aspects of Canadian history. That history would include, but not be limited to, pre-confederation, confederation, suffrage, WWI, with an emphasis on battles such as Vimy Ridge, WWII, including the liberation of Holland, the Battle of Ortona. The Battle of the Atlantic, the Korean conflict, peacekeeping missions, constitutional development, the Afghanistan conflict, early 20th century Canada, post-war Canada and the late 20th century.”
I am Canadian. My father fought in the RCAF in WWII from Naples to Ortona; my father-in-law, an infantryman, was awarded the Military Cross. In the earlier war, my wife’s grandfather was one of the original Canadian members of the Royal Flying Corps. Both my father-in-law and his father-in-law were shot and lived with the physical and emotional scars of that experience for the rest of their lives. Their history—Canada’s history—lives on through their, and my, extended families.
But had you suggested to them that wars were the defining events of Canadian history, they would have been gobsmacked. They fought so that they and others would be free from tyranny—and so that no one else, ever again, would have to fight a war. And when they came home they repatriated their courage, their principles and their ideals and applied these to their civilian lives. Proud as they were to have fought for their country, they were equally proud of the country that welcomed them home and helped them restart their education and embark on civilian careers. As lifelong public servants—one a fisheries economist and one a professor of particle physics—they now engaged in a different kind of national service.
But, as my fathers knew, patriotism encompasses much more than war. It is, in fact, the entire landscape of “significant aspects” from which our history is made.
A history that saw immigrants settle the West with unmatched Canadian grit and perseverance.
A history that celebrates compassion—introducing public health care so that no one again would be denied medical attention for lack of money. No one again would suffer financial ruin simply in order to preserve their health or that of their family.
A history that built a national railway system—an industrial project of enormous difficulty and significance and a feat possible only through the combined efforts and vision of Canada’s nascent public and private sectors.
A history of innovation and enterprise that built one of the first national broadcasting networks—giving Canada her voice while, at the same time, setting her up as a leader in modern communications technology for the better part of the 20th century.
As a founder of the United Nations, and a pioneer in the science and art of peacekeeping, we earned the world’s respect. At home, abolishing capital punishment reflected a new maturity and national self-respect, as well as obedience to the commandment: thou shalt not kill.
A history of three national populations and two official languages demanded flexibility, tolerance and a willingness to compromise—demands not always honourably met.
For, of course, our history has its darker side. Our systematic and ongoing marginalization of Native peoples’ rights, cultures and desires. The Family Compact. Our internment of Japanese Canadians. Our treatment of Jewish refugees during the Second World War and the imposition of admission quotas in our universities. The expulsion of the Acadians by our British colonial ancestors. The suppression of the Metis. And countless other examples, both past and, regrettably, present. No history—no society—is perfect, certainly not ours.
But our national story—the arc of our history—has, until now, “bent towards justice”. It has been a history of individual and collective effort and one of shared prosperity. We have sought to be a decent country and there is no shame in that. It is a history that has been expressed in many forms—through the art of the Group of Seven, Emily Carr and the women of Beaver Hall; through the documentary films of John Grierson at the NFB, through the stories of Margaret Atwood; and through the songs of Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers and Rita MacNeil.
Canada doesn’t need to rewrite its history, we need simply to remember it.
I am Canadian. I continue to stand on guard for a Canada that still bends, clumsily but steadily, towards democracy and justice. If history is written by the winners, may my history be written by all the ordinary men and women whose stories make up our sprawling Canadian narrative.
A few months ago, Hugh Hefner celebrated his eightieth birthday and a spate of interviews and magazine profiles appeared on the founder of Playboy magazine. I glanced at several but can remember only the closing lines of one. The interviewer asked ‘Hef’ what were the greatest changes that he had seen over his life time and he responded with ‘women have less pubic hair’.
This is on my mind because a few days ago I was holding forth on life in my father’s little Cape Breton fishing village (which I often do for it in my mind is symbolic of the many changes we’ve seen, no fish, no farms and no people left) and a young friend of my daughter’s listening asked me the same question the journalist asked Hefner. “What were the greatest changes I had seen in my life?”
No one has ever asked me this question before, presumably because I’m too young to consider such a burdensome question, nonetheless I gave it serious attention. As important as women’s anatomy is to the human race, its’ appearance was not first on my list, but it was easy to understand why it was for Mr. Hefner. He has found prosperity buying and selling photographs of naked women and we tend to see and judge what is important through the lens with which we observe the world.
No doubt, the high tech folks would say the invention of the internet has been greatest change. The internet has made the global transfer of capital instantly possible. It has spawned whole industries and moved us from the world of paper to the world of online. Newspapers are now staggering into the sunset as people move to being ‘on line’ – all the time via their cordless phones. It isn’t hyperbole to say the internet has changed the way we live.
Canadian political commentators which populate the media like dandelions would probably say the greatest change has been the rise of pluralistic politics. A majority of Canadians are no longer required to elect a parliamentary majority. All that matters is how the vote splits and how much of the plurality or ‘base’ your party controls. Pluralistic politics have become permanent politics.
American Presidents would probably be inclined to say terrorism. Terrorism has changed the local and international legal fabric of the American nation from the Geneva Convention to freedom from incarceration without due legal process. Drones war is in but chemical war is still out. What appears to be incontrovertible is what people regard as important depends more on the lens through which they’re looking than what they’re actually seeing.
For me, it was and easy question to answer. After 1950, North America invented a new kind of city. If you stand on the Bridge over the Rideau on Bank Street in Ottawa and look north, there you can see the pre-1950 city. Bank Street north is narrow. It’s lined with small shops and back in 1950 a street car ran down the centre of it and through the adjacent communities. Now, spin a hundred and eighty degrees and face south and look across the river, you will see Ottawa’s first shopping centre ‘Billings Bridge’ built in 1952. It has about 2,000 parking slots. It’s single story and behind it are townships of tract housing, car based suburbs, six lane divided arterials, no street cars and few buses.
This changed North America and created the world we live in today. Stephen Harper grew up in Etobicoke north as did the present Mayor of Toronto. It created an endless demand for cheap oil because the suburbs can’t work without cheap oil. It created the landscape of warehouses that we call malls where ‘cheapest’ price possible is the principal religion. It created a world where people and the planet’s resources are at the service of ‘cheapest possible’ but the rich pay ‘fair wages and buy ‘organic goods’ for quality because they can afford it. Everyone else does what they must. The new landscape killed the idea that quality of life was a more complex equation than a high grade owner/operator franchise and low taxes. The new landscape changed us culturally, creating communities of purpose perfectly matched to the internet world. Dial it up. Plug yourself in and connect to the lowest prices possible.
The pre-1950 urban landscape were communities of place before they were communities of purpose. They still exist and are endlessly celebrated in product ads and political ads but the reality is every year there are less of them, fewer small towns, fewer remnants of the pre-1950 streetcar villages. Fewer places which people feel to be a place first rather than a collection of advantages and purposes.
The differences between the two communities pre and post 1950 are so encompassing materially, physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually that their significance escapes most people. Like a goldfish accepts his bowl of water as the only reality possible, so do people accept the post-1950 landscape as the only life possible. Not surprisingly a new kind of politician has emerged to serve this new landscape. Mr. Harper grew up in Etobicoke north, resolutely part of the post 1950 North America. His principal interests are oil, low product prices at the mall (and it’s concomitant low wages for local and foreign workers) and of course growth at all costs. I call it the one, two, three policy for a happy Canada. Nor does Mr. Harper have any choice but to follow this course because post-1950 residents are his chief support.
The same applies to Mr Ford, Toronto’s new mayor who was elected on a series of simplistic slogans. One of the them being ‘getting the streetcars off the streets’ and ‘stopping the war on the car’. No doubt, Mr. Ford would be a perfectly acceptable Mayor for Toronto if it consisted entirely of post-1950 communities. Unfortunately for Mr. Ford, he also represents the largest, collection of old streetcar communities – with their streetcars still operating – left in Canada. Hence he constantly clashes with these residents who live differently and see the world differently than post 1950 residents.
This is the greatest change I have seen in my life time. It’s the greatest because whether you live in a pre- or post 1950 landscape it affects everyone. It affects how we are govern ourselves as a nation and as civic collectivities. It affects what we define is important and it has created an unsustainable form of human life which is slowly but surely bankrupting human society financially and suffocating us biologically. Everything else is trivial in comparison.