Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Forgotten Common Good

The New York Times’ columnist Paul Krugman wrote recently that the Republican party, now governing the U.S., is not ready to govern.

I would add this: There are few, if any, political parties anywhere - Canada included - ready or fit to govern. Good governance is a scarcity in a consumer society that has lost its feel for the concept of common good.

Ours is a society of individuals that believes we all should be free to chase our individual desires and self interests without giving up much for the overall common good.

Our governments have become tightly focussed on the individual. It is important for them to protect our individual benefits. Not doing so would cost them support because fewer people are willing to accept sacrifices required for the common good.

As more individual voices – the voices of minorities once seldom heard - have gained prominence, it has become difficult for political parties to serve the common good, or even to determine what it is.

Working for the common good has mutated into the belief that you do whatever is needed for the political party to gain and retain power, thereby ensuring it can do good things. However, too often what the party needs to have and to hold power is not always what is best for the common good.

More simply put: Too often politicians push aside what they truly believe is right, and stand up for what is perceived best for the political party.

There was an example of this late last fall when Cuban leader Fidel Castro died. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who called Castro a “remarkable leader”, caved in to critics and decided not to attend the funeral.

Castro was a friend of the Trudeau family and an honorary pallbearer at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral. The elder Trudeau did not accept Castro’s Communist dictatorship methods but understood why the Cuban revolution occurred. He encouraged a special Canada-Cuba relationship based on helping the Cuban people.

Justin Trudeau decided not to attend the funeral because the Liberal party feared it would cost them votes. And, likely anger incoming U.S. President Donald ‘Forrest’ Trump who planned a harder line against the island nation.

It was another case of abandoning what you think is right in favour of what’s good for the party. Pierre Trudeau would have given the party operatives the finger and gone to the funeral.

Not standing firm for what you believe, not accepting sacrifice for the common good, has created a leadership crisis. Our leadership class is collapsing as people have lost trust in government, the news media, many of our institutions and systems.

We don’t have the strong leaders needed to guide us through some of the most serious problems faced by humankind. How to balance and protect our world in an era of rapidly changing climates? How to pay for and maintain our tremendous gains in health care? How to stop social disintegration caused by an ever-decreasing job market, especially for those without post-secondary education?

We have created  a society that encourages freedom of the individual more than the citizen working for the common good. Most of us agree that we must dramatically reduce pollution, change energy consumption, provide excellent health care while reigning in costs. Yet too few of us are willing to change our personal habits.

Our governments could move us to change our personal habits but won’t for fear of lost support. In the meantime, they continue to try to satisfy everyone.

They overcommit themselves despite knowing that all expectations can’t be satisfied. They continue to make promises they cannot meet, while racking up more and more deficits.

The American writer Robert J. Samuelson wrote in a 1992 Newsweek article that America cannot work unless citizens take more responsibility for their actions.

“We face a choice between a society where people accept modest sacrifices for a common goal or a more contentious society where groups selfishly protect their own benefits.”

That certainly applies to Ontario, and the rest of Canada. We need to change our thinking and the thinking of our politicians. If we can’t do the latter, we need a wholesale change of politicians of all parties.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Here Are The News

I woke this morning with a head like a fermenting pumpkin, ready to explode.

No, I do not have a late winter cold. It’s just that I’m stuffed to the sinuses with unhappy news overload.

The UK is leaving the EU. Scotland is leaving the UK. The Dutch and the Turks keep yelling at each other. Bad Vlad, the new leader of the modern world, is busily sowing evil seeds in everyone else’s garden.

Forrest Trump, the nutbar president, ran out of people to insult this week so had more time to spend at his Florida golf course making America great again.

The only cure for bad news overload is to let the mind drift back to days long passed when the daily news was more fun, certainly a lot less threatening.

Many folks who collected and wrote the news back then did so outside the corridors of huge populations and power. They were a lot closer to real people living real lives.

I always enjoyed reading Margaret ‘Ma’ Murray’s (Aug. 3, 1888 – Sept. 25, 1982) writings in the Bridge River-Lillooet News from the B.C. interior. Her stuff was earthy and loaded with acid that peeled the pretentions off people who thought they were much smarter than the rest of us.

She told it like she saw it (“that’s fur damshur!”) enraging politicians and others, who often threatened her with legal actions or lickings. She rolled with the criticism saying:

“It’s a poor turkey who can’t pack a few lice.”

Then there was Edith Josie who wrote a column about life in the remote Yukon community of Old Crow, a place you’ll never hear about these days unless some calamity or tragedy occurs there.

Josie (Dec. 8, 1921–Jan. 31, 2010) was a Gwich’in whose Here Are The News column appeared in the Whitehorse Star for 40 years. It told of the comings and goings of life in the isolated village above the Arctic Circle.

She was single woman who had three children and wrote about giving birth to one.

“At 8:30 p.m. I had baby boy and he’s 6 lb. . . . . I give it to Mrs. Ellen Abel to have him for his little boy. She was very glad to have him cause he’s boy. I was in nurse station and Miss Youngs sure treat me nice. Myself and baby I  really thanks her very much for her good kindness to me.

Her writing was in broken English and ungrammatical but it gave the outside world clear pictures of life in that place, and presumably places like it.

Neither Ma Murray nor Miss Edith had much formal education. Ma left school at age 13, Miss Josie at 14. They didn’t know many rules of writing, but that did not matter. What mattered was the story.

You don’t hear many stories these days from tiny, tucked away communities like Lillooet and Old Crow. That’s a shame because the news of those places can tell us a lot about Canada and Canadians.

And these places produced stories that often brought you laughter. One of my favourites was about a famous parrot in Carcross, Yukon and was written by my talented Canadian Press colleague, Dennis Bell, who has since passed.

 “The world famous Carcross parrot is probably the oldest, meanest, ugliest, dirtiest bird north of the 60th parallel,” Bell wrote.

“He hates everybody. Which is understandable, because the damned old buzzard has resided within spitting distance of a beer parlour since 1919 and has had to endure 64 years of beer fumes, drunks who mash soggy crackers through the bars of his cage, and phantom, feather pluckers.”

Bar patrons amused themselves by feeding the parrot beer and shots of booze. Sometimes it got  so drunk it fell off its perch. But then someone taught it to sing Onward Christian Soldiers and it found religion and quit drinking.

One day in the 1970s it was found drumsticks up on its cage floor. It apparently died of old age. A public funeral was held, which included a procession down the hamlet’s main street. After the burial everyone went back to the hotel for drinks.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

'We Are Story'

Richard Wagamese completed his life journey last week, leaving behind the only thing any of us leave: his story.

It is a brilliant, inspiring story. A homeless street kid fights alcoholism and the torments of being born Indian to become one of Canada’s most important writers.

Wagamese, 61, died Friday, March 11 at his home in Kamloops where he had lived for the past 10 years. He was born at Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) First Nation near Kenora, Ont. but was taken from his parents by the Childrens’ Aid Society and raised in foster homes.

Wabaseemong is one of the two Ojibwe aboriginal communities ravaged by health and social ills created by mercury poisoning from a pulp and paper mill.

His parents were residential school survivors deemed incapable of looking after him. When he was a teenager he took to the streets and at age 16 stumbled into a library in St. Catharines where he developed a passion for reading and began teaching himself to write.

He returned to his reserve roots at age 24 and became a journalist, landing a spot at a native newspaper in Saskatchewan. He became a columnist for the Calgary Herald, winning a National Newspaper Award in 1991.

Wagamese began writing books, achieving wide acclaim for his two most recent novels, Indian Horse and Medicine Walk. Indian Horse, the story of a residential school boy who finds hope in hockey but despair in racism, is in production as a movie.

How a tormented street kid with a Grade 9 education could teach himself to write with such powerful simplicity is both mysterious and inspirational.

Here is an example taken from Indian Horse:

“We were hockey gypsies, heading down another gravel road every weekend, plowing into the heart of that magnificent northern landscape. We never gave a thought to being deprived as we travelled, to being shut out of the regular league system. We never gave a thought to being Indian. Different. We only thought of the game and the brotherhood that bound us together . . . . We were a league of nomads, mad for the game, mad for the road, mad for ice and snow, an Arctic wind on our faces and a frozen puck on the blade of our sticks.” 

No big, showy words. No sledgehammer sentences designed to pound a judgment into readers’ heads. Just simple words evoking powerful thought. Writing that is clean and humble. Exquisite.

Wagamese was believed to have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his childhood, and fought alcoholism on and off throughout his life. In 2011 he pleaded guilty to three impaired driving charges, which court was told occurred during a two-week binge. He was sentenced to house arrest and banned from driving for 10 years.

The best advice he said he ever received was from Norval Morrisseau, the Ojibwe ‘Picasso of the North,’ who told him to “work for the story’s sake.”

“When I work for the story’s sake I leave my ego at the door and the energy of the story emerges without my interference,” Wagamese once said. “. . . because me and my ego are not in the way of the story pouring outward.”

For me, the best words Wagamese ever wrote were not in one of his novels. I found them on his former website some years back, wrote them down and still keep them at my desk:

“All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time…”

Richard Wagamese is gone, but his story is here forever. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Winter-Spring Battle

There is good news and not-so-good news about the weather for Haliburton County over the next three months.

The not-so-good news: What we saw this week is likely what we’ll get for the rest of March and early April. And, what we got was a whacky mix of spring one day, deep winter the next.

Last weekend saw some of the coldest temperatures of this unusual winter. It was minus 24 degrees Celsius Saturday morning, and even a little colder Sunday morning. This week there is rain and the melt is back on, only to be followed by more winter cold.

I asked meteorologist Michael Carter at the Weather Network in Oakville what’s going on. He says wild temperature swings result from competing air masses. That happens in March with warm and cold air fighting to dominate each other.

The original people of this country had that figured out long before meteorology was a science.

The Ojibwe told stories of the earth shaking as Biboon, the old winter giant, and Ziigwaan, the strong young man of spring, would fight to overthrow each other. Ziigwaan always won eventually but sometimes the battle lasted until the arrival of Niibin, the summer.

That is what happened last year when spring, which was winning the battle in March, was pinned to the mat by well below temperatures through April and into May. People shook their heads then and asked what happened to spring?

“There are no indications of a cool spring like last year,” Michael Carter tells me. “It’s a good story overall.”

The winter-spring battle will continue for the next few weeks, but April, and especially May, will see a quick transition toward summer-like temperatures, Michael says.

There is a chance of more precipitation, however. The number of rainy days likely will not be above average, forecasters say, however, rainfalls might be heavier than usual.

Although the spring outlook is positive, we can’t count out some heavy snowfalls. There is more open water than usual and cool air over warm water can bring lake effect snow.

As of last Sunday only 11.8 per cent of the Great Lakes had ice cover, meaning more lake effect snow to come. The lack of ice also means coastal areas of the Great Lakes will see an earlier spring warm-up.

Although temperatures are forecast to be below normal for the next week to 10 days, it has been a relatively mild winter. As far as I can tell, the temperature not factoring in wind chill, did not hit minus 30 once. The coldest day this winter was Jan. 7 when the low was minus 29.5.

By my count there were only 16 days between Dec. 1 and March 6 when the low temperature sank below minus 20. During the same period last winter there were 24 days below minus 20, six of them below minus 30 and one below minus 40.

Snowfall so far has been about 250 centimetres, which is about average.

I have collected this data from a mystery weather site called Haliburton 3, which lists its location at  Latitude 45°01'56.094" N and Longitude 78°31'52.014" W. On my map that’s somewhere on the south side of Haliburton Village.

I call it a mystery site because I can’t find out much about it. It is an Environment Canada site on the Internet, found by searching for Haliburton 3.

The site does not give current weather and lists only historical data like how much snow/rain fell and what the temperatures were on days past.

I have asked Environment Canada several times to tell me about Haliburton 3. They tell me to contact the severe weather department. Neither the site, nor my request, has anything to do with severe weather. Follow-up messages have not been answered.

It is the only site I know that every day measures and records Haliburton County daily snow- and rainfalls, high, low and mean temperatures and snow depth on the ground. It is an interesting and valuable site for anyone following the weather.

I just don’t know who is doing all that valuable measuring and recording and would love to know more about it. If anyone reading this knows, give me a shout.