Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Quiet Place within the Madness

I am late on the lake.

The fishing has been spotty and dusk is deepening quickly as I concede the evening contest to the bass. The waters around me, having  consumed the last misty rose blush of sunset, are flat and black.

Usually I am not on the water this late. However, a young visitor to my place caught a 17.5-inch smallmouth earlier in the week and I am driven to outdo that.

The advancing darkness does not worry me. There is never total blackness out here. Stars toss dots of brightness, mimicked by those landscaping solar lights now trendy along cottage shorelines.

Then there are the campfires providing comfort and evening entertainment for the outdoor enthusiasts who have pitched tents on the lake’s breeziest points. I can see in the dancing firelight their shadowy outlines poking the campfire coals with sticks.

Why people stare into campfires and poke the coals with sticks is one of life’s great mysteries. I guess it’s because it is a calming thing to do and helps create a sense of belonging to the wilderness.

The campers’ voices carry easily across the still waters. I can’t make out their words but they are soft and reflective, and broken by long pauses. There is a calmness in the wilderness that encourages people to form a thought before they speak the words.

These quiet conversations are an appreciated change from the shrillness of urban life where yelling has become the accepted way of making your point.

Many of the lakeside campers are from the Big Smoke to the south where stillness and soft words are rare. Gunshots echo through the concrete canyons of Toronto almost every night. These days they are difficult to hear over the monotonous din of politicians pounding the ears of voters for the Oct. 19 federal election.

An important member of the Toronto elite has treated everyone to a bizarre diversion from the campaign monotony. Margaret Atwood wrote in the National Post  an opinion piece on hairdos and the election campaign but it was yanked, re-edited and re-published by the Post upper brass. Apparently editors felt it was too rough on Stephen Harper, whom Atwood dislikes intensely.

One wonders why an intelligent, rich and famous writer would not write something profound about the scandalous secrecy of the federal government, instead of what she herself called “a really silly piece.”

The world needs journalism that massages our stultified minds and encourages thinking capable of producing exceptional ideas that might solve exceptional problems.

However, all that is as interesting as a pinch of raccoon poop to the folks gathered at the lakeside campfires tonight.

They are well away, at least temporarily, from campaign hair styles, the political hysteria over the Senate scandal, the constipated economy, and the fretting over how to improve the lot of the middle class, whatever that is. (What happened to concern for the poor, who earn under $20,000 a year while 12,000 Ontario “middle class” public sector workers hit the Sunshine List level of more than $100,000)?

Life is so less complicated out here on the lake. That is because the country surrounding us is a giving place.

Snow melts and replenishes the soil, which feeds the trees, which provide protective cover for birds and animals that provide food for each other. A bird that eats a berry drops the seed and another tree or bush begins to grow.

Here there are the tensions of staying alive, but there is no avarice. Nothing is owned; all is shared.

Everything that occurs here is in service for the whole, except when we humans are involved. We are takers who have little to give back, except the intelligence to manage what has been given to us.

It is fully dark when I reach my home shore and put away my fishing tackle, including the empty stringer. The campfires and the voices are gone but they have reminded me of how lucky we are to have places like this.

More places like this, and more people able to visit them, surely would lessen the madness of this world.

(From my Minden Times column this week)


Friday, August 21, 2015

The Other Side of the Cecil Story

There are two sides, and usually more, to every story. Getting people to see or to hear all sides of the story is challenging. Consider the story of Cecil, Zimbabwe’s most celebrated lion.

Cecil was 13 years old and the star of Hwange National Park. He was fitted with a tracking collar, was studied by researchers and often sat out sunning in view of park visitors.

Cecil is skinned out now and headed for a Minnesota dentist’s trophy wall. The dentist, a passionate trophy hunter, shot him with a bow and arrow after paying somewhere around $50,000 for a trophy hunt.

One of the storylines is that the hunter and his guides lured Cecil beyond park boundaries, where hunting is prohibited, and shot him on a private preserve. Another is that Cecil wandered out on his own and the hunter shot him unaware that he was collared and from the national park. Which story is true likely will not be determined until the dust settles.

Cecil’s sad demise hit social media like an atomic bomb. There were hundreds of thousands of messages and comments of outrage. There were demands for an end to trophy hunting. Some airlines, Air Canada among them, announced that they would no longer allow big game animal trophies on their airplanes.

There were threats on the lives of the dentist and his family. The Zimbabwean  government has called for the dentist to be extradited to face trial.

Tom Bronkhorst, local safari operator and the professional hunter who guided the Minnesota dentist, was charged with failing to prevent an illegal hunt. He is in a court next month facing up to 15 years in prison.

It seemed that the entire world was infuriated at what was called the cruel and insane practice of killing animals for trophies.

Not exactly. And that’s the other side of this story.

Wildlife experts, conservation groups and African governments generally support trophy hunting. They say that when animals within government preserves become too numerous they are sold to private game preserves.

Private game preserves pay a lot more money for the animals than they would fetch for food or other purposes. In turn, the private preserves bring in large amounts of money from trophy hunters and other tourism enterprises, which is a help to the overall economy.

In some places, lions and other animals are poisoned or trapped because of the threat they pose to humans, livestock and crops. Locals tend to leave the animals alone if they are realizing the economic benefits of trophy hunting.

Governments in Namibia and South Africa spoke out against calls for a ban on trophy hunting.

“This will be the end of conservation in Namibia,” Pohamba Shifeta, Namibia’s environment and tourism minister was quoted as saying. If there was no trophy hunting, there would be no money for conservation.

South Africa’s environment ministry said trophy hunting helps to pay for its  conservation efforts.

Bronkhorst called the charges against him frivolous and added: “If we do not use wildlife sustainably, there will be no wildlife.”

Hunting has been an effective conservation tool, not only in Africa but in North America, when the money it generates is put back into wildlife management and conservation programs.

Critics say the money often is diverted to other programs or into corrupt pockets.
They might be right. Corruption exists wherever money is to be made. But that’s a different problem and a different story.

I’ve been a hunter all my life but never a hunter for trophies. However, I’ll reserve judgment on whether it is a good or bad thing until I hear more facts.

The Internet and social media have allowed our society to form instant opinions based on incomplete and unchecked information. Critical thinking is a requirement of making intelligent decisions. And critical thinking involves looking at all sides of the story.

Fortunately the Cecil story is only about trophy hunting and not a topic in which instant outrage and condemnation leads to people pushing buttons that launch intercontinental missiles.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Canada's Unworthy Leadership

The early days of this marathon federal election campaign confirm a sad fact: none of the party leaders is worthy of leading Canadians.

Not one has displayed the courage needed to shake the addiction of serving their political parties and their self interests, instead of the people. None has had the grit to reject toxic politics and personal attacks as tactics for getting elected.

Their policy thoughts are based on information drawn from their most trusted sources: the pollsters, spin doctors, lobbyists and media manipulators.

Canada, like the United States, has lost over the last few decades the concept of servant leadership. At one time political service was an honour and a duty. Thomas Jefferson, author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, envisioned a government of citizen farmers serving fellow citizens for four years, then returning to their farms.

Now political service is a career, a job that provides good salary, plenty of perks and prestige and excellent pension. All three federal main party leaders – Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau – are career politicians. Their skills are political skills directed at gaining and retaining power for their parties.

The problem of having career politicians should be obvious. Because they have no other career (and future retirement income) to fall back on, they must devote more effort and energy to getting re-elected. That means less effort and energy to devote to serving the people.

Servant leadership means putting all others above yourself. It means understanding the interests and needs of your followers and listening actively to what they have to say. It grows from the kind of humility demonstrated by Mahatma Ghandi, who walked among his people in homespun clothes. And from  Pope Francis washing the feet of convicted criminals.

It is not that the country lacks leadership. Much good leadership is found outside political arenas. Leaders in industry and business know that cynicism, incivility and belittling their competitors do not grow their enterprises. They understand that gathering diverse views, pursuing change unrestricted by party tenets, and accepting compromise are building blocks for success.

Many of those leaders want no personal involvement in politics that have become too partisan to achieve much of anything.

Howard Schultz, self-made billionaire and Starbucks chairman, gave us some insights into this problem recently when he wrote a piece for New York Times in which he said he would not enter the U.S. presidential election fray.

Our nation has been profoundly damaged by a lack of civility and courage in Washington, where leaders of both parties have abdicated their responsibility to forge reasonable compromises . . . .”

The times in which we live demand strong leaders which we don’t have and are unlikely to have soon. Unfortunately it will take a dire crisis for the best leadership to step forward. It has happened before: The Second World War produced Britain’s Winston Churchill. The Depression years brought forward C. D. Howe in Canada.

We need people like these to pull us all together. We need leaders who will spend all their energy working together and building consensus.

We have three mainstream parties in Canada capable of forming a federal government.  But ours is becoming a one-party system in which the winner forms a government with the principal goal of getting re-elected and the losers spend their time undercutting it.

We need a return to a democracy where there are no winners and no losers. Just elected citizens working on behalf of all Canadians.

That’s a pipe dream right now. The October federal election will produce much of the same old, same old. It might be in a different form, with perhaps a minority New Democrat government held up by the Liberals.

And then all the barking will begin anew as each party tries to knock the other out of the way and gain sole ownership of the government.

It probably doesn’t matter who wins and who loses. The bureaucrats (remember when they were called public servants) will keep the country running.  Hey, look at Italy, or better still Greece, the cradle of our democracy.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Driving Surprises

Each time I venture onto our roads I return convinced that we motorists are killing and maiming each other in record numbers.

We must be, considering the recklessness we witness every day on our highways. You’ve seen it all: vehicles tailgating so close you can’t see their head lights in your rear-view mirror; passing on double caution lines before hills and curves; impatient and distracted driving, and of course, speeding.

I decide to go looking for numbers to confirm my impression that our roads are increasingly becoming slaughterhouses. The numbers that I find shock me.

Despite all the bad driving habits I witness on the highways, fewer people are dying or being maimed in auto accidents. That seems impossible considering the number of distracted drivers, reckless drivers, speeding transport trucks and the deteriorating condition of many of our roads. But it’s true.

Back in 1994, 3,230 people died and 164,635 were injured in traffic crashes across Canada. Those numbers have declined steadily and by 2014 were down to 1,923 people dead and 120,660 injured, a remarkable drop considering the increased population and growing number of vehicles.

Closer to home, fatalities on roads patrolled by the Ontario Provincial Police also have declined. Last year there were 265 fatal collisions on those roads, down from 380 10 years ago.

Those numbers paint a picture of safer roads, part of which might be attributed to better driving practices.  It is not an accurate picture, however.

Fewer people are being killed or maimed on our highways, but the number of accidents is increasing. There were 75,000 collisions on OPP patrolled roads last year, compared with 69,000 five years earlier.

Also, collisions involving transport trucks are increasing. Last year there were 6,140 transport truck accidents on OPP roads. That’s up substantially from five years earlier when 4,667 were reported.

That’s no surprise to anyone who spends any time on Highway 11, or the 400. If you drive those roads at 10 kilometres over the limit, you will be passed by streams of big rigs doing 20 or 30 kph over the limit. And, have you ever seen police pull over a transport truck for speeding?

So despite fewer deaths and injuries our roads in fact are becoming more dangerous, not safer. The decline in deaths and injuries likely can be attributed to more seat belt use, air bags and generally safer vehicles.

Charges for not using seatbelts - and incidentally for impaired driving - have declined steadily. Distracted driving, however, is rapidly becoming the big new danger on our roads.

Ontario this summer increased distracted driving fines from $60 to $500 per offence to between $300 and $1,000. Also, a distracted driving conviction now will cost a driver three demerit points.

My road travels also have left me with the impression that I am seeing more OPP cruisers pulling over more vehicles. Therefore the OPP is charging more and more bad drivers. That also is not an accurate picture.

The OPP has been writing fewer tickets for highway offences. Last year it issued 431,267 tickets under the Highway Traffic Act, 45,000 fewer than in 2013 and 48,000 fewer than in 2012.

The OPP also are nailing fewer drivers for speeding. They issued 253,427 speeding tickets last year, 40,000 fewer than in 2013 and 41,000 fewer than in 2012.

They are starting to get more drivers on the relatively new Slow Down, Move Over law. That’s the one where you must slow down or move to another lane when approaching police, tow trucks and emergency vehicles that have their lights flashing. In the first six months of this year OPP have charged 763 drivers for failing to comply with that law. The fine is $400 to $2,000 and three demerit points.

So what this fact finding exercise has taught me is that numbers don’t always tell the true story. Despite fewer deaths and injuries, our roads are just as dangerous as before, probably more so.

(From my Minden Times column Aug. 6, 2015)