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.