Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Overbranding

There was a time when the examination of an individual lead to a comparison of one's character and personality, with the former being that substantial aspect that was immutable and personality something that was a tad more fluid and apt to change according to circumstance, comfort or company.  I'm raising this as a means to raise the topic of personal branding which has emerged as a significant complement to character and personality and may even supersede them.  The interest in polishing up our avatars or digital effigies for the social media environment, quite frankly borrows too much from the corporate sector.

In the last decade or so corporate branding has evolved to become a more significant part of a communications strategy.  After generations of a brand's qualities being attributed to it by consumers or fans over the course of time and through the evolution of a product's or company's reputation, the efforts to control or project that brand has lost a degree of authenticity due to the efforts to control and take ownership of a brand and its traits rather than to acknowledge that a brand is a public entity separate from the organization that owns the trademark and creates and builds the product(s) associated with it.

One consequence of the more methodical approach to branding is that organizations have tended to distance their core operations and mission from the brands that they promote and earn their revenue from.  In the case of Proctor and Gamble, the brands they have compete with one another, each projecting their images to targeted audiences to win favour and expand profit margins.  The branding seems to be an even more cynical guise of corporate intentions at Unilever, where the branding for Dove products - with their positive body image approaches targeted at female consumers - stands in stark contradiction to the branding used to pitch Axe products to men.  Corporations are intent to say whatever their appeals to their targeted audiences, but at the same time keep enough distance from their brands that the general public can participate in the dialogue on brand perception or definition when choosing not to buy.


Branding for a corporation is often intended to add complexity to an object or product where none actually exists.  The intention is to take something as simple as soap or a car and entice a consumer to further define their own personality with the product and do so at a premium.

With personal branding it seems that the complexity and range of interests or traits a person can have ought to be simplified and encapsulated to a digestible entity, with perhaps the opportunity to dole out those personal subtleties over time, in a manner that narrows what we are and as with corporate branding, distances a projected image from our character.  Such an approach to presenting an online presence of one sort or another is not without its advantages, but there are too many occasions where our online presence overlooks so much of our essence our character that it never does us justice.  It is ironic that when so much narcissism is attributed to people who are active in social media that profiles - whether via Twitter, Facebook, a blog (or five) or message board - are so much aimed at pleasing others and adapting to the communities one gravitates toward.  The question that I would like to answer is if there is a correlation between the increase in personal branding and the quest to assert a degree of authenticity as well.  The complexities that one creates by with this new online-self-consciousness only emphasizes the artificiality of the process.  It is more ideal to strip down the core of an online presence as much as possible and get to the reality of character.  The more you try to mold or edit out of your virtual presence, the more likely you are to limit the core audience that would follow regardless of the range of expression,

In many ways online presence needs to get closer to that face-to-face persona, which again is based on company, comfort or circumstance.  Bear in mind that an online presence can become rigid in the name of neatness rather than the complex messiness that we are more capable of presenting "live," whether we intend to or not.  At the end of the day, we must find someway to let our character and individuality find expression no matter what the niche of the net we drift into.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Disposable Stadium Game

Turner Field (1996 to 2017)
Business news has become a more significant component of the Sports section and no small part of that gets consumed with the moves that are made because of the financial realities of sports today.  Those realities have resulted in teams leaving town in nearly every major professional sports league and leaving a trail of enmity in their wake.  Those cities that have been out in the cold have been wooed time and again as part of the charade played to force local governments to pony up for a new stadium. The romance of the older buildings that have been discarded or imploded has not been recaptured in the softer seats or the luxury boxes added to the recent facilities and it seems that newer stadia may not get their chance to stand long enough to do so either.

This week's news that the Atlanta Braves would be vacating Ted Turner Field in three years time to relocate to a suburban stadium a full 17 years after the stadium hosted the Olympic Games is a stunning highlight in the parade of stadium stories that have unfolded throughout North America over the last 25-30 years.  Just months after the City of Atlanta approved a $1 billion deal to replace the 21-year-old Georgia Dome with a new stadium with a retractable roof, the insatiable appetite for new stadia met a remarkable new threshold for disposability when the city announced it would raze the Braves' home after they moved out and redevelop the land.  As surprising as this is in light of the short lifespan of Turner Field, Atlanta managed to steer well clear of the controversy that still lingers in Miami surrounding the construction of Marlins Park.

As seems to be the case in many of these stadium developments, public money is used to support these projects regardless of the other needs that governments may need to address, including bankruptcy as may the case in Detroit if plans go ahead to provide the Red Wings with a new arena to replace the 32-year old Joe Louis Arena, which suffers from steep staircases, an unpleasant smell and a humble scoreboard that can't compete with more modern jumbo-trons.  The Red Wings plan is to replace it with a new arena modelled on the old Olympia which it left in favour of the Joe in 1979.  Detroit - having seen the Silverdome (granted in Pontiac, Michigan) dispensed with by the NFL Lions after 26 seasons in favour of Ford Field, which at age 12 must have the Lions planning to consign it to a dust bin any year now - ought to know as well as Atlanta about the new stadium treadmill.

Cities ought to know by now that the stadium game with the major professional leagues is an invitation to hop on the treadmill to bleed their coffers dry.  Apart from the cost of construction of these facilities, there are major extensive renovations, which few teams seem able to bear themselves, despite the revenues they are earning through the facilities.  Despite what would easily be labelled subsidies, franchises show little loyalty to the communities that foot the bill.  In San Francisco, that city's efforts to bid for the 2016 Olympics were dashed when the NFL 49ers set their sights on moving to Santa Clara rather than agreeing to use a new stadium that would have been part of an Olympic bid.

Despite not wanting to stay in the cities that they are named after, the Braves and 49ers remain content to carry those cities' names rather than Cobb County or Santa Clara.  This is not unusual.  Several teams in all of the professional leagues play away from their nominal homes.  The Phoenix Coyotes are based in Glendale, which could be a tome or two unto itself rather than a footnote here, the NFL's Jets and Giants share their home in New Jersey rather than New York, the NBA Pistons are in Auburn Hills and so on.

Cities have to stop falling for the game.  With contraction in each league mentioned as regularly as expansion and perhaps more realistically as the Darwinism of small-market teams grows too bleak to offer much promise to a new franchise in a virgin market, there are fewer viable places for relocation and a greater risk of building a white elephant that ends up abandoned or underutilized, such as Kansas City's Sprint Center, which was opened in 2007 with the yet unfulfilled hopes of attracting a major sports franchise.

As cities and other municipalities buy in to the ratrace of funding these stadia rather than tell their teams that previous arenas managed to serve 60-70 years rather than a few dozen, the partnerships that end in naming rights on these buildings ought to be examined.  Do these teams connect with their cities as deeply as the romantics might believe?  With very few exceptions, the only time a team's connection with its community becomes a mutual one is during a championship run.  Fans devote themselves to the team but the athletes on those teams rarely devote themselves in the same way, unless there has been a hardship as was the case for the New Orleans Saints post-Hurricane Katrina.  In the end, business is business.  Athletes rarely feel accountable to the community they play in and a civic government cannot pressure an athlete or a team to conduct itself properly because of the city name that is on the jersey. Cities have to stop being stooges providing corporate welfare to sports franchises.  Instead, these governments ought to be committing these projects to the same oversights, strategic assessment and lifespan planning that they would any other project to participate in rather than inventing ways to redistribute funds and drum up debentures that would make the project palatable to enough voters to keep in office.  They are fools to presume a new stadium would foster loyalty to the community that makes itself tangible.

What if sponsors invested in naming the team, rather than the stadium?  For decades, stadiums were named for the community they were served or were built by, rather than the highest bidder.  I would propose that sponsors name they team after themselves, as in the Nintendo Mariners or the Time-Warner Braves.  The facade of civic loyalty would be scrubbed away and replaced by a relationship that would elevate the teams' and athletes' accountability.  The sponsors of the Miami Dolphins would be press for a quick intervention in their hazing controversy because of the embarrassment it would bring to their brand.  The sponsors of the Yankees would be keen to distance themselves from Alex Rodriguez. The cities they play in (and nominally for) don't seem to have that kind of stake that a corporate sponsor would have.  It is unlikely corporations would invest as much in the team name as a city would in a stadium, but they would still have more influence.  All the more reason for municipal governments to think twice.  What is the return on the investment?

It is time for cities to put away the childish notions of major league sports making vast contributions to the economy and community life and make more rational decisions in this area.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Veneer Peels

One of the most frustrating things people cited during the debates during the 2011 Federal Election was Stephen Harper's ability or tactic to remain impassive throughout the criticism the other candidates did not try to aim at him.  Instead of responding with an emotional response that may have been merited, he never rose to the challenge or took the bait that was offered when Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff, Gilles Duceppe or Elizabeth May excoriated his policies.  Under those hot lights and pressure he impressed his base with his calm and steadiness.  For those who may have been aggravated by his approach and his resolve, he did not care.  Harper has always known who his base has been and what has been required for him to gain a majority government.

The same could be said of the control with which he has interacted with the media.  There have been limits on the number of questions and probably an apocryphal counting of "Would you like me to repeat that Mr. Harper?" as one of the quota for each press "availability."  Throughout his public life, the introverted man has never possessed comfort and openness with the media of other political figures of this generation.  This in itself is not a fault of Mr. Harper's that I wish to take issue with.  However, the efforts to add some warm and fuzzy to Mr. Harper have often failed to strike the desired chord with the Canadian public.  This is not to say that Harper needs to be a gladhander or an effusive figure to capture the imagination of interest of the Canadian people.  None of Paul Martin, Joe Clark, Stephane Dion nor Thomas Mulcair have presented themselves particularly charismatic figures but all of them interacted with a degree of integrity and were willing to take their hits on the political trail.  The efforts to stage manage the Prime Minister's presence with the blue sweater and the strict control of messaging and the strict avoidance of settings (the United Nations) or questions (the environment) that would put him in an uncomfortable situation or bring sharper scrutiny to the policies or platform of the Conservative Government.

It is largely unknown whether there is any telfon to Stephen Harper.  The reality may simply be that in the polarized political environment of the last ten years, he has been aware that a relatively small component of the electorate could be swayed one way regarding his performance as prime minister and his may not worry a whit about those who are not going to be swayed.  The issues that have most threatened the Prime Minister have been diverted rather than averted through prorogations or other maneuvers.   Controversies over military spending, Afghanistan and the environment have been evaded rather than faced and it is hard to tell if this government has the resilience to withstand a scandal.  There has to be a point though where the base that he has been able to count upon to this point of his career may start to erode or grow weary of the routine or the speaking points.

The aversion for moving away from those speaking points to acknowledge the issues that raise questions of Stephen Harper's fallibility has been demonstrated time and time again throughout the Prime Minister's term in office.  Throughout it all there has been the insistence that all is well with the government, its direction, the country's standing and sense of itself and above all Stephen Harper's leadership.  Whenever a question is raised the argument is raised - vociferously - that a conspiracy by the media has been hatched to make the government look bad or that the intransigence of the opposition has been the issue that has stood in the way of efficient decision-making and creation of legislation in the House of Commons.  All the while, however, it has been a matter of the Conservative Party of Canada striving to strictly serve their interests, the interests of their constituency of voters or the topics and ideology that the government has the competence to deal with.

The ongoing assertion by this prime minister and his government throughout their reign that they have done little or no wrong has weakened the legitimacy of this government with each scandal that it has refused to acknowledge or face the music for.  Cabinets have been reshuffled, chiefs of staff in the PMO have come and gone, as have communications directors but their has been little interest in adapting policy or messaging to respond to the concerns and interests of those beyond the minority of the population that they have managed to maintain some semblance of favour with.  The refusal to accept the consequences of fallibility to this point has kept the dialogue in Ottawa from ever losing the toxicity that has been part of the decorum for the past decade.  Experiencing some significant political damage from some scandal rather than avoiding it and/or preemptively bullying the opposition would have given the Conservatives the credibility of governing out of a desire to implement policy rather than merely have power for its own sake.

Ultimately though, the focus has been keeping up appearances and the Duffy scandal has escalated to the proportions it has because of the effort to sweep things under the carpet.

The explosion of the Duffy scandal with the allegations made in the Senate on October 22 has further undermined the credibility of a government that has chosen to address a narrow range of the nation's concerns and interests and glossed over the issues that it has neither the competence or the appetite for.  Cutting the GST may have been popular but it was unnecessary.  Addressing environmental concerns would have required sacrificing political capital as well, but they did not have the will to undertake this bit of heavy-lifting.  The long-standing insistence to ignore rather than respond to the more significant challenges have, throughout the Harper era, effectively sealed off his government with the stimulus and opportunities for his government to respond to the nation's needs and demonstrate their competence and legitimacy.

As this government continues its decline, it will become increasingly apparent that it has been more out of touch than any of the enemies that it has wished to wipe from our history's pages.  As the government becomes increasingly divided and disarrayed it will look more and more like the graphic conclusion that faced Dorian Gray.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Authentic Pope

When Pope Benedict abdicated this past February, one of the things he intimated was that the job had become too substantial for him to continue doing, given his age and declining health.  When Pope Francis was elected in time for Easter a few weeks later, the details about his own health -- he had lost part of a lung earlier in life -- and his age left some wondering if he was going to be up to the demands of the task, especially when faced with the challenges the Vatican or the Roman Catholic Church - depending on how you might parse either entity - have been grappling with.  The ongoing issues with sex abuse scandals, the Vatican Bank, declining clergy and attendance were just a few of the matters that made Joseph Ratzinger wave the white flag and step away from the role he was supposed to hold until his death.

Ratzinger, given the nickname the "German Shepherd" after he was elected, never came across as a particularly endearing figure to the faithful.  Perhaps it was the challenge of succeeding someone as iconic as Pope John Paul II that made this task particularly daunting, but there were decisions and statements throughout his tenure that seemed to indicate an at-all-costs commitment to the established doctrine of the church on matters such as female priesthood and the primacy of the Catholic faith over all others.  Those moments or decisions kept him from earning the support and trust of the Catholic faithful.  This is not to suggest that leading a church ought to be done with an eye to achieving popularity or that the doctrines of a church ought to be altered for strategic reasons.  There is, however, a need to be conscious of the coherence of the stands one makes with reality and basic religious principles.

Ratzinger began his career as a more liberal or reformist figure in the church, but as a consequence of confrontations with those who disagreed with him retreated into a more insular position and a less flexible, more dogmatic interpretation of the church and its relationship with its faithful.  Throughout his term he seemed to adopt a rigid position and was unwilling to acknowledge the changes that were occurred and move away from the apparent intellectual safety he had sought throughout his career until he was elected Pope in 2005.

Pope Francis in sharp contrast to Benedict has been affable, accessible and accountable to those he has been in service of.

From the outset, Pope Francis has made a point of being accessible to the public, whether it has been taking the bus with the other cardinals after the conclave in March, continuing to live in the humble apartment he has in Rome, his comments on atheists, blessings for Harley riders, forays into the congregations when he has traveled or the notes he has sent to those who have mailed him, he has avoided the isolation and remoteness of Benedict's papacy.

Francis' affability has been much lauded.  A introvert by nature, Francis has quickly grown into his public role and perhaps even been energized by it.  His watershed moment when talking about his feelings on homosexuality in July has marked a significant change of tone from his predecessors when he simply stated, "Who am I to judge?" was a move that might be considered a populist move, but it is much more consistent with the principles that motivated him to wash the feet of prisoners during Holy Week, his comments on atheists and other gestures and comments that have indicated a more inclusive approach to the papacy, an approach that would recall Christ's own actions and teachings.

Time and again though, it is that humility, common touch and frequent contact with ordinary people that creates a further degree of accountability that he would encounter by being closer to the street rather than in an ivory tower.  Francis seems willing to answer all questions, to integrate his conservative stand on Christian doctrine into a sensibility that he has brought him significant goodwill and energized the Catholic faithful over the first six months of his papacy.  Francis' greatest strength has likely come from that willingness to engage with anyone and be available to them.  When you are regularly making yourself available to taxi drivers, cooks, and people of all ages and backgrounds, it is easy to keep rooted and practical rather than seeking a more intellectual and rarified approach to matters of faith.  Francis' willingness to make himself accessible and engage in dialogue with anyone and everyone has also enhanced the authenticity with which he has borne his cross or conducted his service over the last seven months.  In that combination of affability, accessibility and accountability is an example of leadership that could serve as a textbook example of authentic, transparent leadership.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Fallacy of the Ideals of Suburbia

When my wife and I lived in the suburbs of Calgary we saw one of our neighbours at his place of work more often than near his home.  The gentleman is an employee with the Canada Border Service Agency and we would see him occasionally when we returned home from a trip somewhere.  We didn't travel frequently and we did not see him upon every return, but we still saw him more often at the airport than on the doorstep of our neighbouring townhouses.  Separated by a few 2x4s from one another and living with matching floor plans and perhaps even the same upgrades, but we saw him more often at the airport.

Such is the neighbourly life in the suburbs.

Five years ago, during the last week of May 2008, we were driving to the airport to pick up guests who were coming to our wedding, we had to pull aside for a handful of Calgary Police squad cars heading to discover a tragedy that unfolded in Dalhousie.  As with any tragedy of that nature, the neighbours shrug and say it was a quiet man or a quiet family and that they never really got to know them that well.  It plays out in utter shock, with people unaware of how a sense of neighbourhood and community in the parts of Calgary that are labelled "new communities" needs to have something to their fabric that brings people together.  The tragedies that most vividly splash across the pages of the newspapers occur in the suburbs that the Calgary's developers have insisted with the flimsiest of arguments are safer than the core of the city. SARS?  SARS is one of the threats in Calgary's downtonw core?  How desperate would these developers be in the face of reason?

There was little enticing us to walk in that suburb but we did from time to time.  The nearest coffee shop was 55 minutes away on foot and it was a walk that needed to be planned out well in advance to ensure that we had time to get there before closing and then walking back in the dark.  The suburbs are built for cars and invite nothing more than a scant, rushed wave between nominal neighbours as they taxi themselves and their children through their routines.  Names are learned only incidentally, perhaps at the mailboxes and the only people who gain familiarity with a wide number of neighbours would be the dog walkers.

For the past four years my wife and I, plus our son have lived in an inner city neighbourhood in a condo.  We don't have our own yard but there are parks nearby and three elementary schools within walking distance.  We have neighbours that we see come and go, who've seen us with our extroverted 2-year-old emerge from the bucket to climb the stairs on his own.  We have seen our neighbours go through their lives as well.  Some have moved on, others have dealt with the realities of the later stages of life as old age has forced couples to part to a routine of visits to the rest home.  We have learned that neighbours have started the journey to parenthood that we have enjoyed to this point.  All of this has been unfolding around us as we share a home and enough of one another's lives to share names, laughs and foster fondnesses for one another.  Now, a 55-minute walk would take me past 3 movie theatres, 3 or 4 concert venues and countless restaurants and coffee shops.

The efforts by the developers of this city to sway voters to vote in their less than transparent slate of candidates is aimed at keeping their noses in the tax trough for a little longer.  This is because of the changes that have been clearly occurring throughout North America as more and more cities densify their core areas, revitalizing them and serving the interests of home buyers who want to live a more compact life rather than be reliant on automobiles and paying for gas that is currently at $1.14 a litre and is far from likely to drop below a dollar.  Individuals and families are adapting to a different lifestyle and the city government is as well.  Industry cannot or does not wish to and is hoping that influencing the outcome of the upcoming municipal election will give them one last gasp of the good old days.

The conduct of the developers in and around Calgary of late brings to mind the scenario that was played out in the auto industry as it was described in the documentary Who Killed The Electric Car?  The automakers were faced with legislative changes that they did not like and did their best to fight againsts those changes.  Even though they had the means of adapting to the changes and the technology as well, they dug in and refused to change.  The aftermath for the auto industry in the following decade, with General Motors and Chrysler both bailed out of bankruptcy and then taking the steps toward what they could have done in 2000 if they chose to adapt rather than resist. The difference for the developers and the car makers may be that the consumers are not as fond of the suburbs today as they may have been of cars a decade ago.  If they refuse to acknowledge and adapt to the changes that are occurring in real estate development in cities throughout North America, the City of Calgary would would incredibly unwise to subsidize this pursuit and exhaust their resources later to bail them out.  If the developers cannot adapt, then it is time to let the weaker fall by the wayside and see how that industry evolves in the coming decade.

There is no template that all people ought to follow in choosing where they live or how.  However, it is wiser to adapt to the signs of change than it is to ignore them outright or assert that the old ways are still sustainable.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Selective Vision of Calgary's "Developers"

If necessity is the mother of invention, you might have to say that profit margins are one of the suspected fathers of efficiency, complete with a nervous look and a furtive rub of the rabbit's foot that the DNA tests finger someone else.

One of the few issues that seems to bring any heat to the Calgary municipal campaign of 2013 goes back nearly 12 months to the video of Cal Wenzel advising developers on his plans to fund candidates in the councillor races to provide a slate of councillors that would effectively thwart Mayor Naheed Nenshi's efforts to put forward a more urbanist set of policies for Calgary in the next term in office.  Wenzel outlined in his video his efforts to fund Ward 7 candidate Kevin Taylor in 2010 and intimates plans to do the same in 2013.  Those policies range from introducing secondary suites, continuing improvements to transit and reducing subsidies to greenfield developments that would continue to expand the cities geographic footprint and increase the tax burden because of the infrastructure that needs to be built to support those new developments.

Wenzel and the slate of candidates running throughout the city are clearly of the more libertarian attitude that the Manning Foundation has touted as the answer to more democratic municipal government.  The libertarian ideals they espouse have a glaring gap, however, when it comes to the issue of the development subsidies of $4800 a development, however.  The addition of each new home to the city's infrastructure occurs in lower-density communities that have little industry to attract anything other than residential traffic.  Once that community is built, the amount of traffic and industry that will occur in that area will be relatively fixed for a decades-long period unless an intervention occurs to update or revise the land-use pattern in that area.  In effect, the suburban "new communities" that extend Calgary's footprint are designed an laid out in a manner that hermetically seals them off in single use communities that will regress rather than progress with the passage of time.  Population density will be fixed and traffic will be limited into the commuter traffic for work and taxiing kids around on Saturdays.  In the northwest, Royal Oak and Rocky Ridge denizens are still waiting for empty lots with "new school" signs to actually be filled with them and further in, the matured suburbs of Hawkwood and Dalhousie are showing their age and lack the property values that are attracting in-fill developers to the core of the city in significant numbers.  The evidence that suburbia is a cash-suck for home-owners is pretty easy to find as well.

Homes in the suburbs return a much lower return on investment than homes closer to the urban core for the buyer and from a tax perspective, do not pay for themselves in terms of tax revenue.  Neither the homeowner, nor the municipality benefit from the investment in suburban residences.  The housing subsidy that Mayor Nenshi is hoping to end is supporting an unprofitable, or more precisely, unsustainable living arrangement.  It is inconsistent for a libertarian organization such as the Manning Foundation to be supporting such an inefficient use of the public coffers, that is unless the developers that it has been associated with are looking to get their noses a little deeper into the tax trough.  There needs to be a return on investment.  Sinking taxpayer dollars into subsidizing the development of more sprawl in Calgary would generate a tax loss for the city and would not arrange the houses built there in a way that fosters a community that will knit itself into something that is more than the sum of its parts. The conformity of those communities in their design and execution, not to mention their muddle of street names, inhibits the development of neighbourhoods that will resist depreciation.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Arctic Journal Excerpt: Discovering Silence

On my first morning in Ivujivik, a cloudless, crayon blue sky was all the invitation necessary.  The solitude on the land was the carrot that had the most appeal whenever I looked ahead to the time in Ivujivik.  Without even a bowl of cereal, I scrambled through the boulders piled immediately behind my house, camera slung over my shoulder, to get out on the tundra.  It may have been more conventional for me to take the gravel roads through the village, but that was too lengthy a route for my liking and there was something about “making a left turn at the community centre” that diminished the grandeur and purity I had already attributed to the land.  I also wanted to ensure my time on the tundra was solitary rather than intruded upon by someone who saw me striking out on my own and wanted to ensure I would be okay.  I wanted to, had to contemplate the space and the epic minimalism the tudnra for myself without the trouble of making conversation or needing to be aware of or reading someone else for their mood or take on the place.  Solitude would allow me to relate to that place without any mediation or intervention from another person wanting to whisper, “Something, huh?” or “Leaves you speechless.”

I was not conscious of the very moment silence first set in.  I climbed the rocks upward seeking a broader horizon that was level with my feet rather than over my head.  When I cleared the rock pile to the more open area I sought, I finally paused to create and go through a mental checklist of the sounds I would hear from the village: barking dogs, the ATVs, the hum of electricity through the wires.  None of those sounds could be caught or conjured up in my imagination.  For a few moments I strived to stretch my hearing toward some sort of sound to confirm or deny the possibility of complete silence.  I listened for breezes percussing against my ears, or playing an aeolian note on some crack in the rock. There was even the thought of finding my own heartbeat.  At that point, in that place, I was entirely absorbed in my imagination and left to believe whatever I wanted about myself and that moment.  I could deceive myself or discover a truth, but ultimately I was going to be left with whatever I chose to believe.  In a place as primal, pure and unadorned as this, it would be hard to believe that silence would lead me to self-deceit. Compared with the inundation of challenges in the village or the classroom, the tundra was a place where I could satisfy myself with the knowledge that I respected the land and treaded on it accordingly.  

That first hike, like all that followed, was an occasion of rapture and peace.  I shot two rolls of film that would never equal the experience.  Two dimensions of texture and colour admitted as much.  The patinas of granite and sedges seemed a mere monotony of rock and sky to friends who handed those pictures around a kitchen table in the south.

The land, however, commanded a reverence that kept me walking slowly and deliberately to ensure that I was grounded by more than mere gravity during those hikes.  I never gave a thought to sitting down on the tundra, shouting out to see what the space would do with my voice, looking at my watch or bringing my walkman.  This was not a place I would render mere background.  I do not know if the time I spent on the tundra provided me a context for the community I was working in, but it definitely provided me meditative hours to clear my mind and recharge.

I was able to escape whatever matters I was dwelling on.  I would ponder things like the tiny magenta flowers that grew in the barest patches of dirt: tiny wonders blossoming briefly on the granite with scant, cosmic mysteries of survival and will locked in their seeds for the long winter.  Puzzles of the fragile and ineffable filled my thoughts - a free radical ready to latch on to any other notion about the community, the vocation or life.

Without a landmark to identify as a destination before returning to the village, the decision to head back was always an arbitrary one.  I would be absorbed in the breadth of the uninterrupted horizon and the depth of my contemplation, until a mundane thought turned me back to the village for food, rest or being available to others, even if it was just to assure people I was safe and accounted for.  I regretted every step back, knowing that I had deprived myself of more of that state of mind.  Could it have been enlightenment?  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Three Words That Will Never Ever Meet: Authenticity, Risk and Politicians

One of the daily pleasures many share, especially Nova Scotians, is the Bruce MacKinnon political cartoon in The Chronicle-Herald from Halifax.  With a provincial election campaign underway in Nova Scotia, MacKinnon's pen and ink today relates the inevitable moment in every political campaign: the front-runner or the incumbent yielding to the command of advisors calibrating messaging or some other piece of strategy with the goal of not screwing it up.

Take away the "Liberal" hat on the shrewd handler and this could apply to just about any election.  Stephen MacNeil seems photogenic enough to be the template for the party leader casting call just about anywhere.

Over the last few decades, the political campaign has become a rational exercise in honing and droning the right sound-bites, packaging the politician with the right clothes for the occasions and the right hordes of excited placard-wavers.  It becomes so stage-managed that voters question whether this politician has a personality and set of principles of one's own or is merely a mass-produced bit of plastic with "policies" and "strategies" cribbed from the blueprints of a successful politician who won the game elsewhere with the same battle plan.  Always remember the key piece of those strategies is to spare people the details on those strategies.  This is not to bore people or to sound too much like a wonk, but rather to play the "We didn't know this about X" card while the sound bites are at the cleaners post-election.

For all the talk about negative advertising in election campaigns, youth disengagement, or the flaws in the first past the post system, one of the things undermining voter turnout in political campaigns is the attempt to fob off candidates as unambiguous characters of as few dimensions as possible.  Campaigns get dumbed-down and any modicum of passion or personality is hidden or bound and gagged in favour of these purported "leaders" playing it safe and doing whatever it takes to stay in favour with the portion of the electorate their handlers consulted the actuaries or whatever other oracles and demographers they have at their disposal.  It all seems like a lazy student's contrivances to do just barely enough to get that 74.5 or even more cynically that 74.49 that would round up to the 75% required to just land at the south end of that B mark that will look so... adequate.

That aversion to ambiguity or even nuance in politics, in either the candidate, the message or the dialogue is what is tuning people out.  The people who stand for office, especially the party leaders who are reaching for the brass ring that will, I don't know, earn them an expanded entry in Wikipedia or the opportunity to be the answer to a trivia question, seem too detached from the issues or too attached to their own dogma to be capable of providing responsive leadership.  They seem content to provide voters with an air of stability and certainty but sometimes the prudence and caution give voters an unmistakable whiff of timidity that makes nose-plugging voters more begrudging at the ballot box.

It would be rational to exude certain and stability in uncertain times, but there is a clear lack of ambition and perhaps even integrity when politicians basically retreat to a turtle shell when they appear to have a safe lead.  This is not to encourage the recklessness that leads the meteoric rises of younger politicians to result in the rapid plunge from relevance because of a lack of discipline by the party or the leader. The results of the 2012 Alberta provincial election saw the emerging Wildrose Party meet its nadir despite its promise at the outset of the campaign.

Rather than having incumbents or frontrunners disappear or hit the mute button on the homestretch in an election, it would be far more reassuring and engaging for these politicians to strive to establish a meaningful and unique public presence and conduct themselves with an unpracticed authenticity that makes their leadership style, their ambitions for themselves and the community apparent.  That would inspire far more trust and support from voters than the parroting of a carefully refined blurb.

If a politician is willing to bring an authentic presence to the political landscape and give the public the opportunity to see leadership from a receptive, responsive individual, there would not be a need to curtail or contain that presence in the closing stages of an election campaign.  A politician with that presence or those gifts should be self-aware enough to campaign effectively without the interference and refinement of handlers apprehensive about their ability to fob their candidate off as a product.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Hung Out to Dry

It is extremely unfortunate that one of our most gifted writers is under fire for being the frank, unguarded confessional type for a few moments of real life that he is when writing his novels and non-fiction.  I have read all of David Gilmour's novels and his non-fiction book, The Film Club and find them to be filled with a bracing - at times stunning - honesty that truly sets him apart from many, many writers.  He writes the type of things that make his readers often stop and ask themselves one or both of two things: 1) would I do the same thing in that situation? and 2) would I risk being that raw in my own writing.

David Gilmour is a man who writes unfiltered and with unflinching honesty.  I must admit that it is a presumption on my part, but there is a realism, a genital warts and all quality to his writing that may challenge you to be sympathetic to his characters at their most unfortunate moments, but at the same time makes it impossible to admire them or his craft when they are at their most depraved.  He is a rare and towering talent among Canadian writers and a terribly under appreciated one.

Having read the article that is at the center of this controversy, I see a man who is as unfiltered in the moment as he is in his work.  As I interpret the conversation, what Gilmour said first and foremost is that he can only teach the literature he loves.  That does not communicate a disdain or disregard for other literature, but indicates what his passion is and what would provide for him a means to passionately engage his students in deep discussions about literature with a writer who has beared is soul on every page rather than an academic with thoughts on his research, tenure and other minutia a full-fledged faculty member might be preoccupied with.  Gilmour does not use his classroom exclusively to disparage women writers, Chinese writers or others and he is not incapable of citing the strengths of those writers in the classroom or beyond.  The writers he chooses to teach (Tolstoy, Chekhov, Roth and Miller to name a few) speak volumes about his intentions in the classroom and his perspective on literature.

When Gilmour says he has been misquoted, it is not necessarily by his interviewer but those who have lined up against him for providing them the phrase "I'm not interested in teaching books by women" to bash him with.  He did not say that he couldn't stand or had no use for, then we'd have grounds for a controversy.  If he chose a syllabus or reading list that was more generic or accepted rather than literature that he "truly, truly loved," he may not bring the same passion to those discussions as he would other pieces.  This is not to say that he is incapable of bringing anything to bear on a discussion of works he is less passionate about but there would likely be a spark missing from those classes.  If you are in a university class, it ought to be for the sake of engaging with a professor or instructor passionate about the topic they are teaching rather than someone meandering through a reading list deemed to be appropriately representative.

If you asked any other professor in the Faculty of English of the University of Toronto if there were writers that they favoured over others, they too would indicate that they have their favorites or they would avoid giving an honest committed response, despite the body of academic research that they have focused on a very narrow area of literature.  A university faculty is made up of a group of PhD's whose interests are just as, if not far narrower than those David Gilmour so unguardedly shared with his interviewer.  A university is often made up of countless little specificities that only come together to provide a coherent education because a student has the good sense or good fortune to take a combination of courses that offer a breadth of opinion and perspectives of viewing the world they will head into upon graduation.

David Gilmour makes it clear what his passions in literature are and strives to unguardedly share them with the students who are in his classroom.  If he is possessed with the ego and strong opinion that make him the distinguish talent that he is, some may be inclined to bristle at those aspects of his personality.  However, we ought to cast a careful eye at the agendas of those who have read half a sentence out of that interview and pilloried him because they overlooked the most important point of the article: teach what you are passionate about.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

If Hockey is a Religion in Québec...


There is nothing like the imminent start of hockey season to provoke a reassessment of Quebec's secular charter.  The interpretation of what a religious symbol is might take a different turn as Montreal Canadiens' fans fill the Bell Centre and huddle in front of their HD televisions to take in the pomp and ceremony. With Ste. Catherine Street clogged with souvenir shops hawking the rouge, bleu et blanc vestments like so many tourist-trap kiosks in Jerusalem or Bethlehem sell the purported wood of the cross it is easy to stretch the hockey as religion metaphor.  In the eventuality that the NHL resurrects the Nordiques in Québec City, there would be (supposed secular) clashes that would prove more divisive than the religious differences that the Parti Québecois is trying to smother.

The definitions of secular or religious brings to mind a nominally more innocent era of airport security and the admonitions or punishments one would encounter when making a joke about terrorism.  The determination of what qualified as a joke was left to people who, by many accounts, are not particularly competent even what they are hired to do.  In the airport, the screening processes that have been added over the last decade are selective knee-jerk reactions to other incidents rather than part of a well-prescribed comprehensive strategy to ensure safety.  The spectre of box-cutters has forced grandmothers to give over their knitting needles, the shoe bomber has required us to take off our shoes and the racial profiling has been accepted as adopted and the denial of its practice considered cheap lip service.  There is news today that there may be some respite for those who deign to bring water or other fluids onto a plane.

Those security interventions, adopted in the name of safety, were indications of aimlessly flailing at a problem and evidence that decision-makers had nothing resembling a comprehensive, effective response for the challenges posed to them.

The Charter of Values proposed by the Parti Québecois government is, likewise, an indication that the government is unable to grasp the changes that are occurring in their society but feels that it has the best resources available - its bureaucrats - to mediate the sensitive cultural issues that have presented themselves when cultures and religions clash in everyday life.  In a society of neighbours who have the degree of respect required to engage with one another in dialogue about cultural differences, there is opportunity for people to interact with one another with the precision and openness to work toward an understanding of one another, their cultures and the source of friction.  Those dialogues would be efficient and work toward a compromise that supports and enhances diversity.  Instead, it seems that there will be established absolutes, do's and don't's for how to conduct and present oneself.  Decision-making will not take place at the right levels and it will encourage people to complain to a bureaucrat rather than engaging in dialogues toward understanding.  The option is to create a society where people are weighing questions about how political a beard might be while ignoring all passing bumper stickers.

Arguments would be made that the Charter is in the name of a secular ideal, but it sheds a strong light on a quote from the hearings for the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, also known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission held throughout Québec in 2007-08: "People with absolute values cannot be integrated into a democracy; only an interiorization of belief allows for the respect of others."

Those who hold such absolute values may be attached to their faith at the expense of all others, but it can also be true of one's devotion to one's hockey team - while undermining rational thought, not necessarily a threat to democracy - or one's language and culture.  Recognizing that people hold different faiths and opinions from one other allows those people the opportunity to interiorize their beliefs and values, without hinderance or second thought, and equip themselves with the confidence in their beliefs to respect and accommodate difference.

The irony is that the differences in language, culture, legal code and tradition that Québec has nestled in the heart of Canadian society has taken the impulse toward certitude off the table.  We have evolved as a nation because we are less inclined to deal in absolutes.  Our culture diversity has kept us from putting too much power in the hands of too few people or in too iron-clad a document to hinder our social and cultural evolution.

Québec's leaders, however, have time and again insulated their culture further and further from the forces around it.  The argument is that the French language and culture need protection on their little island in the vast English continent enclosing it but Québecois confidently leave their province's borders for other parts of Canada and other parts of the English-speaking world beyond it.  They will be in environments where they will be in the minority and they will interact with people in a manner that will enhance their inner beliefs.  Whether or not they return, they will remain Québecois, confident in their heritage and language and they will become, if they are not already, wiser and more confident than Premier Marois and her band of cultural NIMBYists.

The attempts to isolate Québec language and culture and impede its interaction with unfamiliar cultural and linguistic influences will preserve them, but only in amber.  The Québec government has to embrace the contradictions inherent in allowing the language and culture it purports to protect and allow it to be part of an inclusive, diverse and vibrant community.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Enough with "Later"

The NRA favours cold, irrational thinking over emotionally-informed rationality. That short circuit about sums up collective thought on far too many subjects that are skewed or screwed up.

Too many large, conservative-minded organizations favour their selective application of their logic to maintain the status quo and too many people buy in because they don't feel up to the sacrifices of heavy-lifting. Syria, the environment, abuse, the economy... take your pick and add another 10 items.

It is time for us to stop telling ourselves "later." ...

Later means we're relatively happy with the status quo and that a little tweak here or there is all that's needed to set things right.

Later means the trivia is more important than the graphic broad strokes of what is wrong.

Later means you think someone else is going to fix it.

If you decide to write that letter later, make that complaint later, go to that meeting later, read that insightful article that will incite you later because a Kardashian has further cemented her place in boldface headlines, you just have to look up the word twerk this very minute, there is an even cuter cat video or nuance to a rookie left defenseman's potential impact on this season's fantasy hockey draft.

Later means you'd rather be distracted than engaged. Later means you are willing to let another politician BS you about our children and grandchildren. Do these characters know what's best for our children and grandchildren? If we do not start speaking and acting and arguing and standing now we will look to squeeze in one more "Later."

Which means the sound arguments against the BS will be heard later. The curtains will be pulled back on the wizards later. We will only stand for what's right later. We will only set the example we want for our children later.

This is not a matter of us turning things upside down within the next 14 seconds. It is just a matter of taking the time not stop saying, later.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beginning The Exile

The following is an excerpt from my Arctic Memoir Exiled from the Tundra.  Shortly after the start of my second year teaching in the Arctic, an assault by a member of the community required me to leave the village and to determine how accountable I was for the incident.  The night after the assault I visited a Surete du Quebec detachment in a neighbouring village to give me account of the incident.  As always was the case, the plight of the Inuit took precedence over anything I might have been concerned about.

There was no small talk on the way to the station.  The officer would be prying enough out of me in a few moments and it would be better to do it while he had pen and paper rather than have the false start in the truck and leave too much out when it came time write things in detail.  I was a bit uncomfortable with the silence and, desperate to fill it, complimented the village.  He remained silent and I did not choose to push the silence back further.  

We arrived at a small building which appeared to be nothing more than a modified shipping container and the officer politely offered me a seat and a coffee.  I declined.

We started with a few questions about the time and place of the incident that occurred at my home 24 hours before and then proceeded to the extent of the relationship that existed between the woman and I prior to the incident.  I started with her presence in my income tax class in April and that we knew each other in passing from that time and from the time that I stayed in the hotel while my plumbing was being fixed.  I did not share the occasion where she may have dropped in while I was on my way out to the school.  I could not confirm it was her so I did not bother.  As I thought about it again, I was convinced that her stalking - if that was what it was - had started early the previous winter.  I recounted the insistence of her questions and requests for attention during the tax class.

The officer struggled to determine whether or not that amount of contact was enough to warrant the vengeance of a jilted lover and his brow clearly furrowed, but he would not give away whether he did not believe that I was telling the truth or could not believe that she had pursued me despite my limited involvement.  He was starting to see the likelihood of a pattern of stalking when the phone rang out, startling the officer more than me.  His face pinched with apology and anxiety as he looked at me before picking up the phone.  He spoke briefly and scribbled on a separate pad as the voice on the other end of the line worked in a higher range, filled with urgency and fear.  He hung up, apologized to me for the interruption and took off.

Left alone for a while, I paced all of the two steps the space allowed and found himself staring through the bars of the small cells that were on the opposite side of the desk.  Each of the two was slightly bigger than an outhouse, with enough room for a stool next to the stainless steel toilet.  I was surprised.  For some reason I didn’t think that I would see such a thing in a police station. 

“Of course stupid,” I said out loud to myself.

There was something illicit about being alone in a police station of all places.  The feeling quickly passed and I became cautious about learning too much about the place.  I stopped looking around the station for details about how things worked there.  A jar of Coffee Mate and pile of styrofoam cups intimated more universal routines, but I turned a blind eye to anything that would have revealed the inner workings.  I heard a car door slam and darted back to my seat.  Nobody came in.  It was a neighbour coming or going.  I remained seated, the two jail cells stuck in my imagination.  I reflected on how they were used and wondered how often people were put in there.  In my case the night before, they did not lock the woman up until she reappeared to accost me.  If she had not done this, she would have been able to sleep the night off as she wished.  Even then, they let her out as soon as they could.  
I sat in the chair trying to keep still and did not have the space to pace as I would have liked.  Not wanting to be caught being nosy, I didn’t glance at the report to see how it read to me.  Another 20 minutes passed and my thoughts became as still as I was.  

When the door crashed open, it startled me back to reality and the ejaculation of, “What the fuck are you lookin’ at?” from the perp brought me to a previously unknown level of meek.
My consciousness and train of thought were restored, along with the details and biochemistry of the attack the night before, if only for a moment.

“Smarten up,” the officer said to the man.

The officer put the drunk in the cell.  I recalled the fresh image of the cell and I added the image of the drunk perp sitting there, cuffed and teetering on the three-legged stool.  I never got a good look at his face.  His unruly hair and the downward tilting posture of the handcuffed obscuring any efforts I could have made to discern something that would help me empathize with the man somehow.  Through the hair, his face was incoherent shards of cheek and chin, a nose and a glinting, watery eye.  He passed too quickly and his words intimidated me too much for me to combine those elements into the biography or personality of someone who ended up in the jail at this small village's police office early on a Monday night. 

“I’m sorry man.”
“Settle down.  I’ve got work to do here.  When I finish this we’ll talk about it.”
“I love her too much man.”
“It’s Montreal that’s making you like this.  Every time you come back...”
“I know I know.  It just makes me crazy in my head when I go there.  I really love her though, man.”
“I know.  I got to work.  Okay?”
The perp’s tone changed slightly to redirect his words to me, “I’m sorry there, man.”
My ears perked up and I looked to the officer to see if he should say anything.  He did not indicate that silence was better.
“It’s all right.”
“Now, where were we?”, the cop asked.

We continued with the interview from where we left off, occasionally interrupted by apologies from the cell.  The officer took pains to accept them and the conversation that went back and forth between them suggested a familiarity that went back ages rather than the brief gathering of facts from the pick up, just as it would have to in a village so small.  The officer kept reminding the man of what was necessary to keep him out of jail and off the bottle.  The man in the cell acknowledged this and said that he knew, but that the devil was a “strong guy” and that he was weak.  

The officer looked over the report that he had in front of him and paused for a moment to consider any other questions he might ask before nodding and adding, “That’s it.  Thanks.”

The story of what had happened the night before, how a drunk woman came to my home demanding to spend the night and threatened to kill me when after a long, drawn out confrontation I declined every possible way I could until faced with the threat on my life, each of he syllables punctuated by a trigger pull on her finger gun.  The account at the police station was a bit more desiccated and detailed than this description, but the questions about my career as a teacher hung overhead and required me to fly south to Montreal for another account of the incident, where the likelihood was that I would be presumed guilty, despite clearly being the victim.

The cop gave a head jerk towards the lockup to indicate there were protocols.  I would have to wait.  I had become too familiar with “Inuit time” and thought about the possibility of waiting another two or three hours until somebody came along to look in on the perp while I was delivered back to the principal’s house for the night.  I wondered for a moment if I would be asked to stand vigil if another call came in.  As the officer took a peek at the prisoner and contemplated the incident that he had extracted the perp from, the pain and sympathy in his face etched a few more decades into his face for a moment.  

The two of them likely knew each other since childhood and each knew where the other was headed but had no interest in changing their own paths.  It was the trope of a more gothic police movie or one of those stark paeans to hardship from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.  Two men destined to have their shoulder-to-shoulder lives intersect at this point, where the little that stands between them just happens to be so much.  It was not a story that was told as often in the north, it is not part of their heritage or mythology as far as I knew it.  

Under the circumstances, the best this officer could do was to don the cloak and authority of the kalunait justice system.  For countless reasons, he could not (formally) rely on elders for their advice or insight.  He was not able to offer an ancient, rooted alternative to the kalunait.  If what I experienced the night before was an indication, the SQ was probably too tentative to enforce the law as strictly as it would in the south, consequently making themselves less effective and leaving a void in the balanced and constructive application of justice.  

Perhaps the two of us were cogs hoping to keep a much bigger machine humming along, even though there was little indication that we were making a difference with the work we were doing or keeping the machine operating, regardless of the direction it may be going in.  Contemplating what the school ought to be doing was an engaging topic to grapple with and it was a stimulating a subject for reflection and conversation - the intellectual counterweight to the commitment and support I had devoted to the kids in my class.  

Sooner than I expected, the replacement the officer called arrived.  He seemed to be nothing more than a friend of the officer and after a few quick instructions he sat himself down at the desk, familiar with the routine and his surroundings.  He looked in at the sleeping prisoner and assured the officer he could handle things in the meantime.

We drove back to the principal’s house, each of us sitting quietly with our own thoughts.  A few times each, we sighed with a soft extended rasp.  It was not in imitation of one another, but seemed a way of replying, “You can say that again,” to the thoughts of the other.
Finally, at the principal’s house, “He’s going to be my brother-in-law.”
“Ah.”  It was all I could manage.  In English, of course, it expressed the surprise and inability to add more, and I had been around enough Inuktitut to have it mean “yes,” as well.
“Good luck.”


It surprised me to hear this from him.  I hadn’t thought that I was worthy of it, especially with what lay ahead for him that night and beyond.  We shook hands and I could only hope it was reassuring to him. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Excerpt from Exiled From The Tundra

Day One

On the morning of Monday, August 19, 1991, the same day that the news lead with reports of chaos in Moscow and the ominous Soviet news-speak that Mikhail Gorbachev “had a cold,”  the school year officially began.  It was worth pondering that the Cold War motivated the Canadian government to take interest in Arctic sovereignty and that I was starting work on a day when the last chapter of that history was being written, but the big picture was far from my thoughts.  I went to school early to practice calibrating my tone of voice to the precise mix of friendliness, purpose and compassion to set the tone I wanted to set in the classroom and choose the words that would most easily squeeze past my heart’s place in my throat.  I paced the classroom alone, visualizing how I wanted the morning and the rest of my year to proceed.  As I was trying to get my head around the next few hours ahead, Davidi scurried into the room, his panic palpable.

He darted about, angled over to peer into each desk for a view of the contents inside.  My own thoughts strayed to the realization that the students left their stuff in their desks throughout the summer, something that drove home the fact that it was their classroom more than anyone else’s.  I finally asked Davidi what he was doing.  He explained that he was looking for the desk of one Willie Iyaituk, a 15-year-old boy who had committed suicide that summer.  It was the first I had heard of his name.  Davidi found Willie’s desk and emptied it.  Before I could fully absorb what Davidi just told me, he added that Willie’s little sister Lydia Iyaituk and his girlfriend Maggie Luuku were in my class.  He then left, clutching Willie’s belongings to his chest.  I was too stunned to contemplate the questions I ought to have asked and merely scraped together my scattered thoughts to glance up to the clock and move on to what was next.  I headed to the gym for the opening ceremony and waited to be introduced to my kids.  As minutes ticked by I began to assemble questions about Davidi’s timing and the lack of information I received in the five days that had passed since I arrived.

I felt overwhelmed, isolated and duped, but wondered if Davidi knew where to begin either.  Willie’s suicide was something he would have to absorb personally as well as professionally.  Expecting Davidi to put Willie’s death in a context that prepared me for my job was reasonable but it still did not make it any easier.  Apart from the emotional and intellectual challenges of figuring out how a suicide was going to impact a class or the entire school, there may have also been the pragmatic matter of convincing a new teacher to not only come north, but to also take on the additional challenge of the dealing with repercussions of a suicide.

Coming out of my B.Ed program, where I finished 70th out of a class of 72, I had little confidence that I was equipped to bring the talent and passion required to teach rather than take up space at the front of a classroom.  I had spent much of the previous year trying to determine if my professor’s assertions that I had the potential to be a great teacher was based on my ability or merely an involved calculation of mathematical probability.  If the emerging challenges in Ivujivik were what my first job in a classroom was going to demand of me, I would accept it.  I never felt I was in a position to bargain for a more ideal gig.  

The people of Ivujivik did not know how to deal with Willie’s suicide.  Repressing the memories or the guilt may have been the easiest response given there were no grief counsellors coming to the village to guide them in a different direction.  Another factor at the root of the silence surrounding Willie's passing was a misplaced sense of inferiority to the kalunaits.  It was difficult to determine all of the social forces that contributed to Willie’s death and other suicides throughout aboriginal communities, but the guilt amongst the survivors would have left them blaming themselves first and foremost.  Willie was the son of an accomplished sculptor whose works sold across Canada and his mother was a teacher at the school - a combination that would give the appearance of accomplished and stable family that adapted to and even contributed to a close relationship with the south.  Given this, the suicide might have been an even greater blow.  The feelings about the suicide remained bottled up throughout the glum, quiet summer, only to be uncorked when the school year began and the children found themselves resuming the school year routine without one of their friends and without any adult choosing to acknowledge the death, or the pain the preceded and followed it.

I remained in a fog as I headed down to the gym.  There was no stage in the gym to give a sense of how the space or the occasion ought to be defined so the students and the teachers stood in two separate clumps while Davidi read of the names of the teachers and then the students who would be in their classes and the groups reorganized into nine new clumps of people.  The teachers were expected to spend an hour or so with the students and then the rest of the day would be spent setting schedule for the gymnasium, library and the Inuit teachers for each week.

That first hour together in the classroom was tentative.  Uncertain how to cope with the grief I was hesitant to even acknowledge it, I ultimately followed the footsteps of all the teachers who had preceded me in Ivujivik.  I introduced myself to the silence of my eight students and waited to see if it was enough to provoke an interest in communicating with me.  Silence.  It built until I caved and spoke next to ask them to complete a supposedly fun questionnaire where they could tell me about themselves.

They remained silent as they went through the questions on their sheets, answering what they could and skipping the difficult ones without asking me for clarification.  I wandered around to see how everybody was doing, constantly looking over one shoulder or another, oblivious that I was monitoring my eight as closely as a group of 30 or 35, and distracting them or making them uncomfortable.  I did not want to sit at my desk and complement the silence with the distance or the barrier of my desk.
Marcusi Ainalik, the youngest student in the class at 10 and the only boy raced through his questionnaire with a barrage of hockey-related answers and beamed for approval every time I passed.  Marcusi had an enthusiasm and innocence that made it easier to linger over his shoulder and stay away from the desk while biding my time acquainting myself with the girls, who were less tolerant of my patrols.  As the first weeks of the school year passed Marcusi would be the bridge between me and the rest of the class as he endeared himself as much to his "big sisters" as he did to me.  He was the one thing we could agree on.

As I made my rounds I looked over Maggie Luuku’s shoulder.  She had answered a question about her future with the sentence, “I WANT TO DEAD MYSELF,” scribbled in ragged uppercase.  Whatever uncertainties I was struggling to overcome during my first class had ossified into paralysis.  I did not know where things would go if I brought Maggie's emotions out into the open with the rest of the class.  I doubted the kids were willing to trust me enough to talk openly about their summer or what they went through.  Lydia Iyaituk's feelings still needed consideration, but I had no way to triage the grief and determine how to deal with Lydia’s emotions or anyone else’s under the circumstances.  I would have to build a relationship with the class before they would talk with me openly about Willie or their feelings. 

When the kids were together at the school, they took the opportunity to structure their wrath after idling the summer isolated from their parents, who spent those same weeks and months soul-searching and numbing away the guilt while trying to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the ineffable cultures - traditional and modern, Inuit and kalunait, northern and southern - that they were trying to balance themselves between. 

They all knew what was right and wrong, we all do most of the time.  Their lives had become so safe and their days so idle that it was more difficult to do the hard work that improves the chances of physical survival, but, more certainly, ensures spiritual survival.  For millennia these two aspects of survival were inseparable for the Inuit, just as they were one with the natural environment that they lived in.  Willie's death underscored the turmoil that roiled in the hearts and minds of everyone in the Arctic as they haphazardly adapted to the modern.  Many adults took solace in alcohol or drugs, while their children wandered the streets or the tundra late into the night until it was safe to come home.

The tangible struggles for day-to-day existence (or some component of it) would be easier for them to grapple with than the more existential struggles that had contributed to the social problems that emerged since the 1960s.  In the Arctic context, I realized that “struggling to survive” was not a simplistic lament about hard life, but an appeal to seek and embrace challenges that can fulfill you spiritually.  Material comfort and security alone, without a goal to pursue in life, is endangering the lives of Inuit more than the harshest of winters ever did.  

Other excerpts have been previous posted at:
http://closedrighteye.blogspot.ca/2013/04/interlude-ice-walking-first-draft.html
http://closedrighteye.blogspot.ca/2012/03/arctic-journal-excerpt-need-for-new.html

Friday, April 26, 2013

Roots and Enforcement: The High School Teacher Vs. The Dismal Scientist

When tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombings or what-ifs such as the Via Rail attacks that were nipped in the bud burrow into our consciousness, the occasion inevitably calls for national or party leaders capture the tenor and consequence of the event.  Everyone striding toward the mike does their best to voice a unanimous sympathy for victims, support for the authorities and hit all the right notes, while maintaining their or their party's perspective on the matters at hand.

With Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau weighing in for the first time as party leader, the spotlight was a little brighter and the stakes a little higher for everyone pushing their party's version of the narrative.  Trudeau's musings on the roots of terrorism seemed innocuous enough and shared a perspective on the subject that bears due consideration.  Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, took his expected tack on the topic going so far as to posit on Thursday that it was not a time to be "committing sociology."  Harper's suggestion that Trudeau's remarks were sympathized with the terrorists or rationalize their behaviour.  The approach is consistent with Harper's law and order agenda and his no-holds-barred enmity for the opposition.

Harper's position against examining the sociological dynamics influencing and contributing to - as one example alone - terrorism is intended not so much to portray Trudeau and the Liberal Party as soft but rather to suggest that terror, if not all types of crime, occur randomly and without a pattern or consistency that can be traced back to roots or environments where individuals grow up motivated to act violently.  It is much easier for Harper to continue to portray criminals, including terrorists, as an element in our world that can only be explained by some type of chaos theory and whose behavioural patterns cannot be predicted.  The conservative law-and-order narrative that crime and terrorism can occur anywhere and anytime intensifies the fear of crime out of proportion.  Trudeau's comments about the roots of terrorism telegraph his belief that it is spawned by disadvantage - as opposed to privilege - that makes a criminal or terrorist resort to the actions they indulge in, whether for personal attention, material gain or political statement.  This is grounded in a grasp of sociology and light years away from the idealistic naivete Harper will try to tag Trudeau with.

If Harper's intent is to portray crime and terrorism as random chaotic events without roots, it would be hard to make the case that the informed detective work, and intervention by the RCMP worked but that informed social workers and community leaders identifying troubled individuals, families or communities and intervening in a comprehensive way would fail.  If there is a risk of social workers or social programs failing, it is more likely because of a lack of resources than a lack of insight into the problems that make certain communities breeding grounds for crime.

What has transpired in this round of the slog to come between Trudeau and Harper, the Prime Minister simply wanted to criticize for not being conservative enough.  Mr. Trudeau's grasp of the events over the last two weeks, has shown a broader vision.  Addressing terrorism dearly requires diligent, dedicated and painstaking police work in order to prevent it and Canada has had two occasions where the police have succeeded admirably during the post 9/11 era.  Given how random and chaotic terrorism is, societies cannot rely on enforcement measures alone.  There have been too many occasions where the creativity and intent of a foiled terrorist has been responded to with increasingly invasive and idiotic attempts to screen every average air traveller for a repeat of that same evil genius.  It is also necessary to ensure that the motivations for committing crimes and acts of terrorism take root in fewer minds and hearts.  The real naivete on crime and terrorism is to insist that only one of these two approaches is effective or sufficient to ensure the public safety.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Dinosaurs of Outer-urbia

The current scandal surrounding the real estate developers in Calgary and their efforts to influence the October 2013 municipal elections is evidence of an industry feeling entitled to proceed with business as they see fit but unable or unwilling to innovate or think strategically or critically about their direction.

Hackneyed, yes, but would opportunity drive
18km from downtown out to Bearspaw?  And 
would it find your door there?
Their bald efforts to influence Calgary city council is just one instance of the industry being more intent on having their way rather than getting things right.  Their anxiety is that Mayor Naheed Nenshi's initiatives to encourage downtown living and increase the fees on greenfield development have clearly not are the start of something that may get out of control and lead city planners to adapt more integrated mixed use neighbourhoods and while the short shelf life of the suburbs is becoming more apparent with each expansion outward. Whether from a philosophical perspective or from the forgotten, lost gloss on communities like Dalhousie and Hawkwood, the ongoing construction of the suburbs does not seem to be paying off for homeowners.  

The constructors' conclusion is that Nenshi's initiatives, and the the presence of other progressive, urbanist aldermen, are steering the city away from this ideal of ongoing construction outward and that a tweak to the balance on city council will prime the pump and ensure that greenfield development gets back on track.  The attempt to adjust the thermostat at City Hall for a warmer welcome misses the point that the current city council, under Nenshi's leadership and with the informed urbanist attitudes of aldermen such as Gian-Carlo Carra and Druh Farrell has lead the city back toward an approach to urban planning and is more pedestrian-friendly and focused on building and rebuilding communities in a manner that has been evidenced to be healthier and more sustainable than the suburban model which has long passed its peak.  Calgary's founders started building the city around the Bow River and communities like Inglewood, not the areas hugging Nose Hill.

The obsession with greenfield construction that provoked Cal Wenzel to refer to aldermen contrary to his ambitions as being from the "dark side" indicates the complete failure of the industry to adapt to changes which are occurring in other cities throughout North America.  The effort to avoid innovation and sustain the unsustainable rather than respond to changes in policy and the reality that the next generations of homebuyers would much rather live in more urban and walkable neighbourhoods are short-sighted and indicate a complete inability to contribute to dialogue on the continued development of Calgary. These emerging realities raise questions about the lifespan of developers with such outdated business plans, the most ham-handed strategies and a habit of cladding the diminishing return on their products with a veneer of faux-luxury.

The construction industry's ambitions to alter the course of the upcoming election by throwing their resources behind "friendly" candidates or incumbents indicates a limited interest or capacity to engage in meaningful discussion about development that can and is occurring closer to the city's core.  If they would prefer to establish a speaking society with like-minded politicians they can try as they wish, but city hall must not become a play thing for this spoiled child of an industry.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Interlude - Ice Walking


My house in 1991-92 was possibly the northernmost in Quebec.  It was at the eastern edge of the small harbour the settlement was built on.  A GPS device could help determine where exactly true north was  if the case was made for a house on the opposite side of the harbour.  This is nothing more than an obscure piece of trivia when weighed against my trials with the plumbing and the occasional gas fumes that made me nauseous.  Needless to say there would be little rush to install a plaque on the house.

My living room afforded me a view of the harbour, the sky and the tumbled granite antechamber to the tundra that was immediately behind the house.  During my first few weeks in Ivujivik, I headed straight onto the tundra by that route, following my own road into the silence.  I doubt anyone gave much thought to my movements on Saturday mornings, but I took a measure of satisfaction of disappearing for a stretch of unaccounted time, untethered from anyone's knowledge or concern.  The time on the tundra was the paradigm of solitude and there has never been another place where I have felt nearly as much peace or proximity to my thoughts.  

There were early reminders though that my time heading out there would be brief.  The first dusting of snow fell shortly after Labour Day.  A few weeks later, the accumulation began without reprieve and after the clocks were turned back in October, I ceased my hikes onto the land to wait out the cold wintry weather.  Winter's next increment of progress was when I woke up on the first Sunday of December to find the harbour filled from shoreline to horizon with the ice pack.  The sudden, overnight appearance disconcerted me for a few moments before I accepted that the ice had held off long enough by this point before imposing itself further on the landscape and our routines.  There was no gradual appearance of floes or harbingers (to my eye) prior to this change.  It just appeared overnight, with the inevitability of Christmas presents under the tree.

When the surprise wore off, I pondered walking across the ice to the promontory that sheltered the harbour.  The icejam that appeared that Sunday morning paved a stable, solid path across the harbour to the other side.  I never gave much thought to following the isthmus that would have lead there around the harbour to that peninsula; the trail seemed more demanding than the route directly east to the open tundra.  

Venturing across the ice - with my home in view if I ever needed to look over my shoulder for reassurance - offered a satisfactory fallback to the routine hike on the tundra that I had relinquished in October.  The ice would be stable enough for the 1-2 kilometers across the harbour and if the wind was kicking up a squall, the shrouded features of the village would still provide direction.  Still, I never worked up the motivation or the nerve to do it until February.

Bundled up in my winter parka, I was conscious of being a red dot breaking up the prevailing whites of snow and sky.  After two months, the pack was solid and more secure than it would have been that first Sunday morning in December.  As I headed across the harbour with little to threaten my safety, the will to cross ebbed away, eroded by fears or second thoughts that ought to only apply if I were trying to swim, rather than walk across.  There was no need to pace myself or conserve energy for a return trip back across the ice, but as I progressed, a twinge of anxiety remained constant.  It was not an all-consuming fear, just an ennui or a fatigue that made me wonder if crossing the harbour on foot and reaching the promontory on the other side would be that rewarding.  I ignored the feeling but it persisted with the suggestion of ominous unknowns.  There was nothing to fear.  The ice was substantial, still and silent.  It had been -30 for the two months that crammed the harbour and another two months would pass before the pack loosened.

I still do not know what stopped me.  Was it a matter of not knowing what to do with myself when I got to the other side?  Was it a fear that the weather would change suddenly and make the return trip harder?  Was it the notion that a handful of people in the village were looking out their windows and wondering what was motivating me to venture out alone on the ice like this?  Perhaps there is some sense that I knew there was a need for me to be connected to the people of the village and that there was a slight foolhardiness (at the very least) in doing things like this on my own.  Rivalling this may have been my desire for the private independence that regularly added a frisson of defiance to my time hiking on the tundra that past autumn.  It may have simply been my mood that day.  Perhaps an attempt on another day would not have provoked as many thoughts and instincts to anchor me and bring me back to solid land prematurely.

That abandoned walk remains one of the most memorable albeit nagging parts of my stay in the Arctic.   The sense of failure or regret in that instance has been more instructive than the success would have been.  Perhaps it is just the perception I voice - that of simply crossing the harbour ice - versus the one I choose to keep to myself - arriving at the foot of a mountain without climbing it is not much of an accomplishment.  Crossing might have felt like an accomplishment but it may have been sufficient to stand in the middle of the ice and contemplate where I was and tune myself into the shifting and creaking that seemed so imperceptible with each step.  

Like so much of those two years, it is hard to determine what would have resulted from making that walk more cut and dried than I did by abandoning it halfway.  There is something arbitrary about defining your success without considering the consequences of your actions or, as in the case of that walk, acknowledging how inconsequential they are.  The time that the teachers who preceded me had "put in" may have been cited as a contribution or an achievement, but the accomplishments of my predecessors and I would rest entirely on the Inuit's determination of whether we helped them.  No matter what we may think of ourselves, it may ultimately be a matter of how far up that mountain we tried to climb.