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.