Thursday, April 21, 2016

Canada's North and the Relocation Fallacy

Since January, when the school shootings in La Loche, Saskatchewan occurred, there has been a great deal of back and forth on the notion of relocating northern communities to the south.  The case has been built and the data cited to show that indigenous Canadians who live closer to urban centres have lower rates of suicide, depression, mental illness and other harbingers of the hardships that occur with greater frequency in more remote communities where individuals lack the easy access to the professional help.  Beyond the obvious professional help there would be other amenities and possibilities that would offer indigenous youth, in particular, opportunities for self-discovery that they are denied in remote isolated communities.

The strategy of packing-'em-up-and-shipping-'em-south has its appeal.  There is an undeniable feasibility which would be built in and economists would be able to cite a breakeven point some number of years down the line.  It would be cheaper to reestablish these communities elsewhere and forego the expenses of fly-ins, road maintenance, isolation pay, northern allowances, and all of the other things that make supporting the communities of the north to a standard that would not embarrass us in the eyes of the United Nations.  The measures might even be softened or hidden by their inclusion in a larger population pool and more facile-minded statisticians could say that the occurrences of certain social problems has declined.

The entire strategy of relocation overlooks two basic things: 1) the indigenous people in these communities need to be intimately connected to the land they live on in order for their culture and consequently themselves to survive and 2) they have already be relocated and disconnected from the land that they were once connected to.  It may be right outside their window, but they are not connected to it anymore, at least not as intimately as their ancestors were.

When I was a young teacher cutting my teeth in an Inuit community in Nunavik (Arctic Quebec), I had mused about the convenience of moving the community south.  I also weighed the alternative at the other end of the continuum: restoring their lifestyles to the way they were prior to contact with southerners.  There is in that notion of having them go all-in to renew their relationship with the land and there is some peril in doing this when the traditional skills that ensured their survival are dormant, if not lost.  It would be quite easy to resort to the language of cutting them off and a lot of post-lapsarian language about indigenous people being cast out of the "gardens" that southerners would claim to have built for them, all replete with electricity, heat, cable TV and cell phones.  (My refrain from adding running water to that list is a deliberate one.)  The reality is that the settlements that were built for northern Canadians over the past decades have taken the people in those settlements out of the nomadic lifestyle that they once survived by.  If post-lapsarian terms are to be used accurately, they would need to be used for the move from the land to the settlement, not for the return trip.

When I taught in the Arctic I asked my students about their willingness to go back out on the land and live there despite all the risks that they would face.  Everyone of the students said that they would have preferred to live on the land rather than in the village.  There may have been the softening thought that they would be able to use the village as a safety net and return there whenever things got a little too difficult, but they had a palpable despair about the lives that they were living.  In the 23 years that have passed since I left their community, one of the eight committed suicide just as he turned 21.  Other students from that class have, barely into their 30s, lost their own children to that plague of the north as well.  The math when dealing that that class of eight, that had been decimated by the tragedy of suicide before I arrived there, is stark and painful.

Apart from the relocation that occurred with the establishment of the settlements, which palpably altered the economics and the notions of survival in the community, was the further separation that occurred with the commitment to schooling.  A key part of orientation for north-bound teachers is the history of strategies and current realities that pertain to school attendance.  For decades and decades teachers have made the utmost effort to break indigenous students of the roles they played in their families contributing to the family's or community's survival by contributing to the hunt or the home. These roles, which were deeply laden with meaning, value, learning and self-worth had been disregarded and cast aside in favour of the institutional classroom, which further distanced the removal of indigenous people from a vibrant ecosystem that they were once indelibly linked to. What was once a well-known home has been rendered distant landscape by these separations and variations on relocation.

The proposal of entirely uprooting indigenous communities from the north and moving those people would be a mistake of significant proportions and an invitation for the actuaries or other bean-counters to eke as much efficiency out of such a process as possible.  There would be questions about how much of a community really has to be together and then at the same time opposing questions about the autonomy indigenous Canadians ought to have about where they live and how.  The proposal of relocating them denies them the basic rights to be masters of their destiny.  There is, instead, a need to deeply examine the problems that exist in each community and school and find ways to reconnect them to their environments and homes in manners that will address their needs and goals.  Broad programs, whether or relocation or some other "solution" will only exacerbate the current problems that persist in the Canadian North.


Monday, March 28, 2016

Can Corporate Calgary Innovate?

For much of the last 18 months Calgary has been trying to rediscover its way as it reels from the collapse of oil prices.  Layoffs have swelled the EI rolls, the prices and geopolitics of the day are monitored for a theory to explain the collapse and give a more optimistic theory for a recovery of the price.  Conspiracies loom with the theories that the spigots have been turned to full blast to drive the prices down and other theories suggest that the rise of alternative energies will keep the Wood Buffalo bitumen in the ground indefinitely, if not for good.

All of the uncertainty seems to have left the oil industry, if not all of Calgary, dazed.  There are choruses singing their old song of the economy needing to diversify but the reality of that is that when the oil industry is kicking along at its break-neck pace, there is little opportunity for any other industries to attract and retain talent for an organization or an industry outside the oil patch.  It was hard enough to keep Tim’s staffed at anything less than $15 an hour in 2008; trying to get a university graduate with expertise required for a new start-up would have been a daunting task when the full-on churn of the oil industry was driving up salaries, the cost of living and the auction prices on the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon tarps.

Industry in this city has been set in its ways for some time and the diversity and innovative thinking that have been the hallmarks of other economic hotbeds in North America and beyond, has seemed lacking in the city.  The city’s workforce diversified gradually as a result of the demand for engineering talent, but the question of how that talent was integrated into the workforce remains.  Did organizations diversify significantly to integrate and retain the talent that was coming in, or was the onus of adaptation placed on the newcomers?


Just as significant a question is whether or not industries and organizations in the city innovated in wide-ranging manners that optimized the talent that was under their roof or in the field representing them.  Like it or not, the oil and gas industry in Calgary has earned the reputation for being relatively old-school in its practices and have not varied much from the mindset that serves them in the task of extraction.  Those formulas are simple, tried and true and based on the bare efficiencies of the process.  As the price of oil fell, extraction stopped and costs were cut with an eye to the immediate bottom line.  While riding this phase of the boom-bust cycle might be the correct strategy for the oil and gas industry, they cycles continues and this trough seems to be far more uncertain than previous dips.

The question that has occurred, and the increase of diversity within the workforce is just one component of this, is how innovative can corporate Calgary be?  There have been innovations made throughout the oil industry to address environmental concerns and find ways of increasing cost effectiveness of extraction, but there have been few innovations which have indicated that Calgary has the appetite for collaboration and innovation that such an educated workforce ought to be capable of.

In 2010, as many can recall, there was a convergence of talented young thinkers who put together an approach to the challenge that faced them and they succeeded in a manner which made significant news across the country and beyond and that accomplishment still resonates within the city.  That group of people was the team that helped move Naheed Nenshi, alternately known as a policy wonk and a prof at Mount Royal College, from darkhorse mayoral contender to his first-term as mayor. Midway through his second term as mayor, it could be argued that the city government and bureaucracy may be more innovative and collaborative than some of the largest corporate citizens who line the towers of the city with their glowing names.

There have been corporate entities in Calgary that have innovated, WestJet, SMART, and DIRTT are a few of the organizations that have thrived, but those are probably still too few for a city of this size. Apart from those organizations, there is still opportunity for innovation and collaboration within the energy giants in the city, but the corporate culture still seems rooted in processes, mindsets and relationships that are less likely to increase collaboration and innovation even within the energy sector.  In the preamble to Alberta Venture's list of the 20 most innovative organizations for 2015, the magazine states that, "[innovation is] not just a buzzword, it’s a compulsion to be better and an inability to be satisfied with the way things are. Frequently, innovation is born of struggle. When a resource is low, ­competition for it is high, and companies realize the status quo will not carry them to prosperity." The probability in the oil and gas sector is that the comfort with high oil prices and high demand imparted some complacency in the sector rather than encouraging the strategic partnerships, innovation and collaboration that has defined other sectors.  (With a travel agent who has discovered the niche of marketing tours to geeks, with a fondness for comic book expos, I hoep the list is not in any particular order.)

This is not to say that Calgary is not innovating at all, but that the corporate leaders in the city may all be too habituated by the boom-bust cycles of the oil and gas sector to integrate innovative thinking and collaborative work practices into their organizations in a manner that makes the city play a more active role in defining its destiny or its potential.  If the 80-20 rule were to be applied, it would likely indicate that only 20% of Calgary enterprises are adopting more innovative and collaborative practices while the other 80% are sticking to the tried and true, even now, and riding it out, insulated (they hope) by their sheer size and the assumption that the oil market will again come around to them.

In their book Creative Confidence Tom Kelley and David Kelley simply state that "Most businesses today realize that the key to growth and even survival is innovation." From there, they go on to outline the means by which organizations can unleash the creative potential of the 75% of employees who do not feel they are achieving their potential.  In my survey of thought leaders with a close eye on Calgary would concur that there is a great deal of potential that has not been tapped for a variety of reasons, whether it is more hierarchical thinking, an absence of a creative bent amongst those coming from the STEM fields or the narrow focus that the drive to get the oil out of the ground has propagated throughout the industry.

While there may once again be a call to diversify the economy as Calgary and Alberta adjust to new normals with the price of oil and the demand for oil in the state they are in at the moment, the other thing for businesses in Calgary to do is to take a long detailed look at their organizational cultures and structures and adapt to integrate more collaboration, innovation and diversity into their organizations and look closely at models of innovational success from other industries in the city and beyond.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Trump and the American Identity

It is hard to tell if America is in an odd paroxysm of darkness or merely playing out the drama of the Donald Trump campaign for the Republican presidential nomination to , hopefully, harmless and comedic comeuppance for the main character in this big production reality show.  For months, Trump has, in short, been himself nothing more or less.  Despite campaigning with a performance artist's preference for shock rather than the consequences of his actions his achievements in the primaries beg the question, "How did he do it?"

His bigotry, misogyny and glee at offence have galvanized the Republican voters to support him in startling numbers and his progression toward becoming the party's nominee for the presidency has left some pundits questioning whether or not voters are fully informed or taking the election process seriously.  As the speculation about the short-term future of the Republican Party mounts, it has become evident that Donald Trump, despite the abundant flaws that ought to hinder him, has struck a chord with the electorate.

From a Canadian perspective it is doubly puzzling to see the regular season of the current presidential election season unfold the way it has.  One thing that might be the defining trait of the Trump campaign has been the persistent exceptionalism.  Whether it is his antics mocking other candidates, his language or his policy statements he has crossed the line time after time without denting his momentum.

Such ruthless behaviour would normally define a candidate as a loose cannon who should not even be on the stage for a debate let alone having dibs on the keys to the White House.  As an aside, I suspect that Trump would either drastically remodel the presidential mansion to reflect his "tastes" or quit and go home.

He has achieved what he has during this presidential campaign season because of the certitude and simplistic elements of his slogan, "Make America Great Again" even if the slogan is printed on hats that are Made in China.  Unlike Canada, which has struggled to define itself and establish a clear definition of its identity throughout its history, America has not been troubled with lingering complex questions about what the nation is or stands for.  While Canada has struggled with the inherent pluralism and bilingualism that has refuted efforts to say Canada is such and such in the simplest of terms, Americans have been able to assert time and again that their nation stands for greatness and freedom.  Like Tim Robbins' Nuke LaLoosh character in Bull Durham, they have never been troubled by self-awareness.  They have overlooked flaws and the darker chapters of their history.

For much of this century, the United States has been troubled by events and circumstances that have challenged their preeminence in the world community and the exceptionalism that they once believed was their birthright has wavered and weakened due to the increased complexity of the times we are living in.  Trump's promise to restore America to greatness with the most short-sighted and dangerous of policies that lack for clarity and substance.  Given the doubts that have been troubled Americans since September 11, 2001, racist policies, bullying the weak and threatening war are not merely empty promises to reassure America's greatness.  Instead these threats and actions do more to undermine the meaning of "America" and its "greatness."

If the United States is inclined to lurch toward an antithesis of Barack Obama, Trump would be the man to provide that.  However, simplistic policies and megalomaniacal thinking are not going to serve the United States well in the face of increased complexity.  The consequences for the United States would be far more dire than the loss of face that occurs in a reality program.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Train Story 18

When I'm on the train with my son, we often get some extra attention - a lingering, doting gaze and smile from someone.  As he has gotten bigger and he takes in the construction that we pass by or spot the Peace Bridge as we cross the river, his excitement can earn a smirk from other passengers.

Today, though, we were out with the cameras.  I have handed down my old DSLR because of, or is that despite, his damage to his mother's point and shoot.  We wandered around shooting for about an hour but I could not coax him into walking across the river to extend our shoot a little longer.

As we boarded the train to First Nations' men noticed us and offered to pose.  I had my camera back in my bag and I had my son's on my lap.  Gabriel was a little wary and he did not take the men up on their offer.  He interacted a little, offering his name and his hand when the more talkative of the two, named Jesse, chatted him up.  Gabriel was a little timid about taking their picture, already conscious of the intimacy or involvement that you engage in when looking someone in the eye and raising your camera to yours. The two men looked a little hard done by on the Saturday morning and I was conscious of oversimplifying them or telling them anything that risked becoming a stereotype.

Jesse told Gabriel that he and his friend were Natives and he asked Gabriel if he knew what that meant.  I told Gabriel that it meant that they had been here longer than we had.  The tangle of our relations and history with First Nations' people would be far too complex for me to unwind for a 4-year-old during a three minute train ride.  Jesse filled the silence by talking about the gemstone that he had around his neck when we first saw him.  As we settled into our seat, Jesse swung the stone around on its chain in a poor imitation of a num-chuk routine rendered either comical or menacing by the short chain that limited his range of executions with the stone and chain.  He managed to send a women into retreat to another seat.  He stopped the routine to show the stone.  He claimed that there was werewolf hair in it.  I pondered the full moon madness that would allow this hair to find its way into the crystal but there was a pattern in the stone that suggested a brown clump of fur.  He added that the crystal would turn blue in certain light as well.

A bond of sorts formed over this stone, which Jesse popped in his mouth as he continued to talk to us. Jesse told Gabriel that he had an amazing name and that he was a prophet too.  I cringed at the possibility of a long talk about religion but Jesse went on to add that he was part French and that his family name was Lambert - my mother's mother's maiden name of all things.  I told Jesse and Gabriel of this link but Gabriel probably would not get the genealogical links either.  After one stop we disembarked and I wondered how strong his memory was of a First Nations' man who had been playing the bagpipes on Stephen Avenue a year earlier.  He was clean-cut, kilted and in a smiling mood as he played against type.

Ultimately these encounters on the train or on the bus, where he loves to sit at the back, will expose him to the wider world and raise questions.  Hopefully they will present themselves in a sequence that will not engender fear or prejudice but instead allow me the opportunity to tell my son that he may or definitely does have more in common with the strangers around him than he may know or guess at first glance and that he can ponder the link comes from family trees or a shared set of needs, desires and ambitions.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

La Loche, January 22, 2016

Twenty-three years ago tonight, almost to the day, I sat in front of my television watching the news when Davis Inlet, Newfoundland became a part of the national consciousness, but less so its conscience. Children, teenaged and younger, appeared on the screen in a carnival of rebellion and self-destruction. Their tragedy was the despair that lead them to gas-sniffing. They extended middle fingers and expressed their wish to die as the adults of their community described the problems that contributed to this despair. As I ponder it now, I try to figure out what it took for the cameras to arrive there, in this case amateur "home" video that captured, generated and transmitted those images to the rest of the country.  As I sat in front of the TV that night, I could not help but look over my shoulder and out my living room window.  The same type of footage could have been captured in the Inuit village where I was teaching at the time.

It was common for the children of the village, some barely starting to toddle, to mill about the streets in the night, steering clear of their parents for the time being in case the jovial mood that the bottle induced soured unexpectedly.  During the time that I lived and taught in that village, sniffing was an issue but it was one part of a much larger complex of issues that did not merely intersect, but meshed together to restrain any pursuit of self-determination.  There were children as young as 11 who were sniffing, older kids were experimenting the the narcotics that made their way to the village, others who had to grow up with the consequences of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and there were suicides that seared the community into palpable uncertainty about what the people of the community were supposed to do, together, to ensure that their children did not die in this manner anymore. The tragedies have continued over the last 23 years just as they continued over the years before I arrived there.

It is extremely easy to regard the tragedy in La Loche, Saskatchewan -- four children shot in their high school earlier this afternoon -- as an echo of the serial gun tragedies that occur in our neighbour to the south, that residual incident to maintain a statistic norm that reflects the difference in population but that would overlook the realities.  I risk losing a few readers by digressing to this brief, soon-to-be-discarded comparison to the United States.

In the days ahead, we will get a clear portrait of La Loche and the social issues that attributed to the shooting that occurred there.  They will likely be similar to the issues that have persisted in indigenous communities throughout Canada for decades, if not centuries.  The social problems, whether the ones I have indicated above or less tangible problems that come with the existential questions about their identity and self-worth as First Nations' peoples, their relationship with the institutions of the south or the defeatism that comes with associating with or relying on "southern" or "white" institutions rather than maintaining or cultivating their own social infrastructures to contribute to their individual and communal survival and well-being.

As the dawn rises on La Loche and the rest of Canada tomorrow, there ought to be questions about what can be done or said.  The dialogue about guns need only be a cursory one, hunting and fishing are significant part of the life and culture of La Loche and it is much more about their connection with their environment and their traditions. The discussion needs to be about the community that we, every last Canadian, live in and contribute to.  The discussion is one that may touch on our history and the relationships that we have with one another via the institutions and infrastructure that we expect are a part of every community.  

However, that is only one part of the discussion. It may be something that occurs over the next 48 hours in barber shops, over coffees or in whatever haunts we congregate in during the idle hours of the weekend ahead.  There would be rehashings of what we all assume one another have or do not have but few of these opinions would be informed by exposure to life on a reserve or in an indigenous community.  Those discussions will be the musings of amateur sociologists and wannabe politicians who want nothing less than a day in office and an amnesty to avoid the consequences.

The most significant discussions among Canadians will occur on Monday morning, in classrooms where many, many teachers in indigenous classrooms are "white" or "southern."  As the students settle reluctantly at their desks, those teachers will have to cobble together a conversation that will assure their students and themselves that what they do everyday in that classroom is indeed a worthwhile, nurturing vocation and not just a hoop to jump through en route to a most uncertain future partially equipped with knowledge and skills that may be suit them for being funnelled into a lifestyle that is not of their liking or culture.  

It will be one of the toughest conversations or lessons those teachers will ever have, but for all the risks it can be revitalize a classroom and give students hope at a time when there is enormous uncertainty.  That Monday morning will be an occasion where they have to express their commitment to their students on the most personal, rather than institutional, level.  To that end, it needs to be a moment where the teacher sheds the comforting structure and carapace of their roles as employees of a school board or of their provincial or territorial government and engage with their students in the most personal, heartful and vulnerable of manners.  If the relationship between "white" or "southern" individuals and their indigenous counterparts are to become something that stems the sequence of tragedies that echo from one indigenous community to another in Canada, those individuals have to put aside the mantle of their role and whatever protection or certainty that comes with it.  When they speak to their students in the aftermath of this or future tragedies, they have to be willing to acknowledge their limitations: they do not know what is best for the students or their community, they are uncertain about their safety going forward, they cannot guarantee that a high school diploma will ensure employment happiness or comfort.  These things have to be communicated to the students in these schools because they, the schools, have been the most significant institutions for undermining self-worth and identity among indigenous people in Canada.  

Teachers' willingness to be frank with their students about their impact on their students' lives will equip them with some of the knowledge that will give students more influence on their destinies and help them work toward establishing a clearer understanding of what is happening in their lives and in their communities where these foreigners come into their communities to equip them with the skills and knowledge that are best used if they abandon their heritage.  Teachers who, at times such as these, step forward to provide an open, human, personal and flawed presence in Canada's classrooms, will make a brave and bold step toward giving their students a clearer picture of where their community has come from and where it can go.  It is that sense of possibility and path that will keep people from taking actions that will suggest despair and an assumption that their lives are at a dead end.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Conflict of Simplicities

It is difficult to determine how far to go back.  Do I just go back a few days to Paris, a place now laden with connotations of anxiety, heartache and uncertainty about what's next?  Or perhaps that shoreline on the Aegean in September? The Arab Spring? 2001? 1972? The Balfour Declaration? Whichever one we choose to go back to, there is the guarantee of bringing excess baggage that complicates the discussion at hand or ignoring details that oversimplifies, as has been the case in the last few days when so many politicians have made a point of muddying the line between refugees and terrorists and make the case that we needed to be protected from a group of people that at this moment is at its most vulnerable.

A too small a portion of the time line or the big picture has served to evoke emotions for the sake of a chosen expediency and stoked irrational thought at the exclusion of key details about what is happening and steering us away from a pursuit of the simple facts that need to be sorted through to allow us to proceed on the basis of what we as a society know rather than what we believe. In the wake of terrorist attacks such as that toxic, coordinated statement Friday, November 13, 2015 night or similar events in Bali, London, Ottawa, New York, Kenya and other places that comprise this bleak litany freedoms have been compromised as the flimsy case is made time and again that we are better off and safer with less freedom. There may be a case to be made in that matter but the argument often seems to be along the lines of, "If you have nothing to hide you should have nothing to worry about if we invade your privacy, (whether a little or a lot.)"

We have become less trusting of one another and we have directed our caution away from the thoughts we voice or support. Instead, we are cautious about who we extend our hands and hearts to. The events that grip the world these days become events that television was made for, occasions where we sit rapt and silent sponging up what has happened and hanging on updates with a hunger for a plot twist or other element that will sustain the drama.

None of these events are isolated from one another and none of them are given their fullest possible context because there is a reflexive desire for one set of victims and one set of bad guys without too many shades of grey in between. Time and time again, the simplistic definition of "other" misses the entire point. The region, country, or postal code that you come from does not determine your role in this unfolding drama. All of us, every last one of us -- from presidents and prime ministers, to perpetrators, mourners, mourned, a hopeful blogger and his 4-year-old who remains happily oblivious to this -- are bit players in what is unfolding and will continue to unfold.  The insistence that borders be closed to refugees is evidence of the short-sighted, misinformed stereotyping that we try to sway children from throughout their entire lives.

The insistence among purported "leaders" that refugees be turned away because they come from the same region, race or religion that these same "leaders" believe the terrorists came from makes a deliberate point of avoiding the facts to escalate public opinion and paranoia about how to protect people from the amorphous and ever-looming "them" that serves these fear-mongering politicians so well.  There is a convenience in branding and clustering people in a manner that invites a clamour for building walls, whether real or metaphorical.

Many people belief that they will be more secure by enveloping themselves in a brittle infrastructure and a policy framework that will do little but make fear more evident and tangible while ultimately failing to protect anyone from the threat that goes by the name of ISIS/ISIL, oh, sorry, this just in: they are now known as Daesh.

It has been made clear to us in tragedy after tragedy that our hearts are open and permeable organs that respond to the needs of other when we are made aware of them. Our communities must be just as open and responsive. Apart from the acts of terror that we have become to familiar with and too divided by, we have borne witness in the last decade to disasters and tragedies that have struck rich nations, poor and entire regions. Each time we have responded and, out of our collective compassion, done our very best to redistribute our wealth to the victims of these tragedies while we sat vigil before our televisions - not our most substantial and lasting of responses but we were moved enough at the time.

While the tangle of issues that began (in the short-term sense) in Syria and clustered in Paris a few days ago are far too controversial to capture in the soundbite realm, there are some basic elements that we need to regard as a touchstone in such times of certainty. The refugees are the brave, resilient, tenacious ones who are waking each morning with little certainty about what is next for them and getting through each day on the strength of their hope and their confidence in mankind to do the right thing.

They have the same simple desires and needs that people have always had safety, food, certainty and hopes for their children's wellbeing. They want to be masters of their own destiny as soon as possible and when they have the opportunity and support to achieve those their dreams they will have a transformative effect on their lives and the communities that accept them.  A scant few weeks ago it was heartwarming to see refugees welcomed as warmly as they were throughout Europe: a demonstration of compassion and wisdom that needs to be repeated regularly in the days and years ahead. Grounding ourselves in the simplicity of the lives and dreams of neighbours will provide us with much more guidance than the fact-deficient approaches of those who insist on fearing the weak.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Canada's Loving Embrace of Broad Horizons

It is more than a mere acknowledgement of our geography to suggest that Canada is a land of vast horizons.  The diversity of weather than we could boast to one another about or bemoan at any one time can be mind-blowing for people from smaller nations whether they are Luxembourg or Mali, but the more significant horizons are those of social possibility and potential that have urged us on in our ambitions of creating a more equitable and fair place to call not just our own, but our neighbours' as well.

It has been that way from the start as the English and French each took their turn to eke out a boreal survival of some sort in the face of the unfamiliar frigid winters and the inhospitable soils they may have relied on.  Alliances formed among neighbours and there was a sense of looking out for one another more often than not.  When the battle at the Plains of Abraham ended the way it did, there was little desire to put a foot on the throat of the vanquished and eliminate them.  Instead they were accommodated and out of that emerged a country that formed in peace, by negotiation and out of a recognition of common interests. We have ended up with a nation that has at its heart a dichotomy, or more realistically an embedded and enshrined robust diversity that has allowed it to ponder questions of identity, freedom and responsibility more carefully and thoroughly than a nation of people who go through life with uninformed certainty about similar questions.

We have not been without blemish and we have by no means been a perfect nation, but it has been a place where people have been able to call it home.  There are children who reach a moment in their lives where they grasp the concept of what a nation is and are thankful that by the accident of their birth, they have been able to call Canada of all places on earth, home. Others have had the less accidental opportunity to arrive here with their families and little more than the ambition to distance themselves from the troubles of the lands they have come from and contribute to Canadian society in a way that pays this nation back for everything that they have gained in it.

Despite the centuries that have passed since the baptism in fire of those winters which shamed European ones for their bitterness, there is a still a sense of cooperation and understanding of others and the recognition of the precedents that have been set by the neighbours or ethnic groups who have founded Canada and ensured that respect and careful consideration are central to the decisions we make and the place we take in the global society.

The robust dialogue about who we are and what we ought to be has long stood in the way of forming a definition of the Canadian identity because we aspired for it to be a deeply embedded and defined aspect of our life rather than something superficially defined by Mounties, hockey and maple syrup. We have shot for the moon in that definition and attached it to looking out for one another whether at home (medicare, official bilingualism and multiculturalism) or abroad (peacekeeping). We had long made a point of fighting the good fight because, for Canadians, the horizons of our potential were always a little broader and our ambitions directed us to pursue justice and imparted to us a strong sense of right versus wrong.  Outright victories have been rare, at least outside the hockey rink, but peacekeeping, for instance, was never about "the win." There was a commitment to those causes and a quiet confidence that came with the satisfaction in having those little eurekas that assured us that we were on the right track.  Along with it was an increased capacity and willingness to take the big picture into account, whether we were looking at where we were as a nation, or as a part of the global community.

There is a chance that you may read this and suggest that I have a remarkably naive or idealistic perception of what Canada is. There is even greater chance that I could be accused of holding onto a romantic image of this country that never existed. I am not suggesting that I am oblivious to the errors that our nation has made and I would be willing to discuss whether or not I am presenting an oversimplified account of what Canada was.

The problem that we are presented with is that whatever Canada means, whatever branding we may associate with those 6 letters, is that it is moving deeper and deeper into the past and becoming an increasingly remote vision of our future.

For the last ten years, our nation has been lead by a government that has sought to avoid the complex discussions that the notion of Canada would present to any other government who had an interest in the careful and protective stewardship of this country, the people who formed it and the commitments that those people had made over the centuries that have passed since the first explorers came here. Throughout the time that the Stephen Harper and his version of the Conservative Party of Canada - not the Tories, not the Progressive Conservatives, but a regressive group committed to the most narrow depiction of what these nearly 10,000,000 square kilometres north of the United States is or ought to be - has continually oversimplified the discussions of this nation and the principles that once stood for.

That oversimplification could be attributed to malice on the part of Stephen Harper and his right wing ideologues, but there is every chance that a country of this complexity, ambiguity and elegance is something that he has been truly overmatched and unprepared for.  The disposal of the long-form census that Statistics Canada had used for years is just one example of too many facts getting in Harper's way and diverting him from the certitude that he preferred to guide his rule with. Throughout the ten years of Conservative rule, the policies have been simplistic and the failure to recognize all of the aspects of the big picture has squandered the government's financial resources, its reputation at home and abroad.  All too often it has overlooked the partners who have contributed to the successful experiment that Canada had long been.

In consideration of the government's approval of Bill C-24 this past spring and the legislation allowing the government to strip citizenship from people who have been convicted of treason or terrorism is another example of the flaccid grasp the Conservatives have of either a big picture Canada or one of the ambitions and aspirations that have made this the pluralistic beacon that it has been. By building legislation on such evanescent, jello-to-the-wall terms as treason and terrorism there is the threat of consuming significant resources depending on how broadly or loosely the courts would define these terms.  On the other hand, the legislation seems to ignore the consequences of the public dissent that had been expressed by the Parti Quebecois or the Mohawks of Kanesatake during the Oka crisis. The reality is that C-24 would not likely have been introduced or used in such instances because those figures would have been too public and the divisiveness of trying to strip Quebec premiers or indigenous people of their Canadian citizenship would have seemed repressive. Further to that it would have been deemed political suicide for a prime minister or government who resorted to using it. We have tolerated dissent and discussion throughout our history and we have even let our fate be held in the hands of a small number amongst us via referendum. We have risked the consequences of free speech and protest because of a long-standing respect for due process, democracy and the value of what this nation has been built into and the safety, certainty and opportunity that it provides

Legislation such as C-24, as is often the case with the Conservatives, is aimed at the weak and seemingly powerless in the name activating support among those with a narrower vision of what Canada's achievements and potential. Cobbling together a pluralistic society such as ours is not an achievement to be sniffed at and it is not a project to be abandoned merely because of its complexity. Canada, as the world knows it, has been a flexible nation of ingenuity and great capability that has only recently shrunk away from the ambitions and ideals that it has long stood for and poured its energies into.

As the Conservatives create parallel campaigns to appeal to the various subgroups - rural, male, ethnic, non-ethnic, theological, libertarian - that they hope to cobble together, the incoherence of what they claim to stand for disintegrates in much the same way that they would like the nation to disintegrate. Governance by prosecution and tax-break will fall short of what Canada requires in the future and the Conservatives lack the principles, the intelligence and the ambition to do anything more than that.

If my characterization of Canada is inaccurate or one held by an insignificant minority with too much poetry or idealism in their souls, please feel free to opt for the small-minded vision the Conservatives offer.  If you feel that you are not informed enough to vote for someone else, at least vote against this mean-spirited approach. The Canada that I believe I was raised in was never as caught up in cynicism as it is now. More often than not, past governments have strived to build consensuses that put individual rights ahead of collective rights, but the Harper government - in either its ignorance or its blatant disregard of our heritage and the fabric of our society - has done the opposite. The Harper Conservatives' preference for collective rights - whether the rights of men over women, rich over poor, whites over indigenous, Conservative over non-Conservative, or other limited binary approach in their practice of favoritism - over individual rights has undermined their ability to fulfill their responsibilities to the entire nation.