Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gym Shower Politics

In the weeks since Donald Trump's election to the US Presidency, I have wondered if there once was a period of broadening tolerance before the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler. In that case there may have been such a period of tolerance emerging, but the Versailles "peace," the economic burdens that came with it and the flaws in the Weimar system opened the door for Hitler far outweighed the possibility that there was a retreat from tolerance as appears to be the case under the looming Trump administration.

Still, comparisons can be drawn between the economic uncertainties of 1920s and 30s Germany and those that have dogged the US over the last decade or so.  Industrial erosion removing working class jobs and leaving the intrigues and games of the financial services industry to be become a bigger chunk of the economy. The innovators who found competitive advantages with new inventions and gadgets from the 1860s to 1960s have been replaced, with the exception of a handful of industrialists of Mount Rushmore calibre, by those who came up with the ideas of exporting jobs instead of some other value-added creation and turned their innovative eye to the mischief that was achieved in the preamble to the financial crisis of 2008.  Add to the financial difficulties of this century the burden of solo superpower status and the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and there is a cause for defensiveness, concern and an aversion to anything that changes the rigid definition of America that so many cling to for refuge.

However, during this period there has been a significant period of reflection and adaptation to take pluralism to a new level.  More tolerant attitudes toward homosexuals and transgendered individuals were emerging, the two-term Obama administration indicated and fostered social progress.  The problem with that emergence of tolerance was the belief in some quarters that it was not tolerance, but permissiveness running rampant and undercutting "American" values.  This has not been the case. Apart from the tolerance, there have been efforts to reduce bullying, ensure greater safety in sports at all levels (particularly football), enhance the experience for cyclists and pedestrians in cities large and small and make the argument that racism is still an issue in the US.  Each of these changes, and these are but a few of them, have valid rationales behind them and definitely benefit a wide number of Americans, not to mention aligns with the preamble to the US Constitution.

There has been an instinctive, irrational response against those changes to advance tolerance and extend basic human rights to all people. There has been push-back of various sorts in recent months and years, whether it is legislation about bathrooms in North Carolina, the Vice President-Elect's own legislation allowing discrimination based on religious grounds or merely the renewed threat that education will move away from what secular and pluralist components it has toward a more Christian orientation under the new nominee as Secretary of Education.  Sadly, people usually cite the guidance of their Gods when prefacing acts of prejudice or hatred, not charity or understanding.  Such blind adherence to creed and a distaste for dissent or discourse, once the most American of bull shit deflectors, has left the nation without the intellectual or moral armour to remain true to the vision it was founded upon.

Given the opportunity to increase rights to all, there has been the sense among many Americans, or at least their politicians, that the expansion of human rights is a threat or that equality is a zero-sum game.  As a result, more and more people have asserted that in the name of their God, certain people need to be punished for their beliefs, actions or in a prime fit of anti-elitism, their knowledge.  This mindset has been what energized rallies among Trump supporters and made it hard to distinguish the Republican also-rans from the presidential nominee.

The social progress that has been sought and would have been further heralded under a woman president if she had been elected on November 8, 2016, would have pushed people into circumstances that they would have been instinctively uncomfortable with.  There have been significant economic issues in the US that prompted people to vote Republican in the recent election, but a platform that promised to roll back the social progress that has occurred over the last eight or the last 75 years was a significant part of it.  It is a false assumption that a brash, ostentatious businessman could right the US economy instead of padding his wallet and worse still is the sacrifices in social progress that will occur as a consequence of this shell game.

The election of Donald Trump has energized neo-Nazis, the KKK, schoolyard bullies, the racists, the rapists, the sexists and so many other individuals or groups who embody our baser impulses and instincts.  While not so long ago, it may have been easy to assume or hope that a society would do its best to proceed toward become more just, peaceful, free or egalitarian, the recent election outcome and the early warning signs that have emerged as Trump has made his key appointments, white nationalists have voiced their hope and approval and those minorities who had gained so many rights in recent years wait with uncertainty about what their futures hold in the land of the free.  At a time when progress on social matters could be continued, it seems that discomfort with such changes may uncork a regression to the adolescent ferality of the boys in Lord of the Flies.

The only outcome I foresee that would ensure the justice, domestic tranquility and liberty that Americans claim to stand for is an event that would jolt them away from their irrational attachment to a past that will not be recaptured or restored.  Given the geographic, religious, economic and spiritual suburbanization or Balkanization that has occurred throughout the country, it will only be a moment of profundity and calm (not fear) that would make them recommit themselves to preserving the values and Constitution that protect and define them.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Who DOESN'T Think They're the Moderate?

At the risk of confusing people with the possibility that I am referring to climate, I am citing the possibility of an echo of the 1968 Prague Spring or the Arab Spring of 2010.

As we have lurched for historical references to give us a context for where we are at, the options are countless. There are the easy comparisons and my references to 1968 and 2010, I suspect, would be regarded as optimistic, or, more likely gravely naive.  I would rather not give into the pessimism that has coloured so much of 2016 and I refer to the Springs because I believe that is the type of collective action that would be required to stem what is occurring and what will unfold in the coming months.

Donald Trump is the embodiment of a state of mind among a significant number of people and with the regression in American politics that goes back to George W. Bush's purported compassionate conservatism, Newt Gingrich's efforts to undermine the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s', the recount debacle in 2000, Watergate or the tacitly racist opposition to Barack Obama there seems to be an inevitability to this precipice in US history.  While Donald Trump has done an astounding or appalling job of amplifying the simplistic certitudes about America that provide comfort to those who are unable or unwilling to make the effort to define their lives and dignity in the face of an uncertain, changing time where people must rededicate themselves to a greater purpose.  We are at a time when terms like freedom, faith, truth, neighbour, comfort, greatness, man, family, success and of course, American are all subjected to the most rigid and simplistic of interpretations.  

Trump has amplified these simplicities for much of the past year and it is abundantly clear that he now embodies the interests and concerns of a group or demographic despite his own disdain for the group who has voted for him.  He was the most audacious of the Republican candidates for president in pursuing those voters and he was not far out of step with the beliefs or platforms of his opponents. With that in mind, a Trump downfall that does not dent his popularity amongst those who have pinned their hopes to him will not result in an orderly transition to a more benign presidency.  The appetite for witch trials, bullying, deportations, religious registries, kleptocracy or the hatred-guided assertion of hierarchy will not disappear with Trump's dismissal from office.

The appetite that is hardest to slake at this time, however, is that for ridicule. For the past year we have seen the comments of America's finest comedians surpass the news organs in terms of insight and prescience, but they did not influence the outcome of the November 8th election as much as their audiences may have hoped. Social media is rife with as much snark as false news and both are indications of how hard it is for people to communicate in a meaningful manner anymore.

The United States certain to enter an embarrassing phase of its history that will make the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) seem like merely a recurring blip of paranoia.  Faced with that realization I am fighting back the urge to quote Vaclav Havel or slap a passage from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being I have been saving on my desktop into the next paragraph in impressive italics with the anticipation that a scant 100 words or so of translated Czech will make everyone nod knowingly, say he nails it, and send on the link to this.

Instead of going that route, let me simply point out our most common assumptions about our children.  Not that they are the most beautiful kids ever; that would be a bit irrational.  We do, however, operate on the assumption that our kids are the most advanced and that they are at the 90th or 95th percentile for whatever we aspire to pin our hopes on. 

Just as we are so optimistic about our children, we are equally convinced that we are the moderates.

None of us are. Well, okay, not none of us, but the world champion fence-sitter on all issues probably does not even know who he or she is.  I know it is not me as there aren't that many moderates who spend their honeymoon highlighting their Havel... not the whole honeymoon... for just the opportunity to trot it out when the livid head of tyranny is being reared all ugly and such.  None of us are the moderate, but that does not mean that we do not have the opportunity or the responsibility to be a moderating positive influence.  

We need to be committed to being a moderating influence when an instance of hate is occurring around us.  At the same time it is more important than ever, not to mention more difficult than ever, to have the conversations required to test the opinions that we are so inclined to grasp with body and soul at a time of such uncertainty.  We have to set the ridicule aside and hear someone out and assert everyone's right to be heard and at the same time we have to hold people to account for the opinions they hold and respectfully test the beliefs that they hold and hope carry the day.

The simple desire of treating one another with respect that we owe one another regardless of our gender, station, income, creed or race has been grossly undermined not only in the discourse that our politicians have exchanged over the past year but in our own interactions and in the assumptions we make about people we do not know.

It is time to determine where we are and close the distance between ourselves and the people we disagree with.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

9 Seconds

A day later and I have to acknowledge that the second thoughts about the finish will linger a lot longer the the lactic acid that left its searing grin in my muscles. In my mind, a replay about climbing the last hill in the 26th mile and grappling with a moment's reluctance as I waited for the race marshalls to stop traffic and wave me ahead or ultimately into the final right turn for the downhill dash to the finish. I had somewhere around 500 or 600 meters left, and I will now and then ponder the possibility that I could have run it a little harder than I did. As I closed in on the finish, there was the realization that came with seeing the clock at the finish line and my 49 year old eyes seeing two consecutive threes instead of the three-two-something I hoped for. My watched had stopped when I covered the calculated 42.2 kilometres and for a moment I was without that guidance and thought I had enough time to finish in 3:29:59 or faster - the time required to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  (Over the course of the race, the passes and the unfamiliarity with the shortest line added a few hundred metres onto what one runs.)

It was a brilliant race. I felt strong throughout. There was one hill around the 22K mark where I breathed hard and gave myself a furrowed brow at what lay ahead but got back in gear as I reached the bottom and turned south toward a wooded path way that was away from the cars and was a comforting reminder of the path I take for my Sunday long runs.  Out there, I found reassurance in finishing my first 24K in just under two hours and keeping the pace under 5 minutes a kilometre or 8 minutes a mile. The only moment of dealing with the wall was around 36-37K and it was the most fleeting moment of weariness of mind, passing after a matter of seconds. From there on it was the challenge in running near solitude for the next 4.5K with only slower runners who were still working through the first half of their races to motivate me into a chase pace. On the last hill, I passed two more runners and came to that turn and last stretch.

Running a 3:30:09 marathon should not be a regret. Not when it is 8 minutes faster than my previous personal best. Not when it is 28 minutes than the first marathon I had this year when I salvaged my sense of failure by asking my preschool son if he was proud of me. He was and I assured him I would be proud of him should he ever feel he failed at something he tried hard at.

Even the briefest regret about those nine seconds is a perverse luxury.  After two and a half years of marathoning and some wonderful travels for the races I've done, Boston remains a Maxwell Smart "missed by that much" away, but that math and question are of little significance when compared with other goals, dreams and needs that people are a greater or merely unknown distance from attaining. I am, more than anything else, grateful for the opportunities I have had in my life to pursue this. I have had damn good health and more importantly so have those around me. I have had the time in my days and weeks to put the time into this. I have had the incalculable good fortune of living in a time of ease when I have had the energy to squeeze training into my week in my runs to and from work and the predawn long runs that mark my Sunday mornings. Blessings upon more blessings.

All of that makes me that more conscious of those people who want something so much more than that particular number or those specific nine seconds. I have had the opportunity to pursue goal that is within my control. The variables between me and those last nine seconds are almost entirely mine to assert my effort and will upon. I cannot help but acknowledge people in situations where what they want, dream of or need is beyond their command and all they are able to do be patient until fate offers them what they dream of. It is that undaunted patience that I will be inspired by the next time and when I decide how to proceed with my running and other goals. It is a remarkable blessing to have the means, the energy and the time to pursue running to the extent I have. Throughout my last few races, I have had the opportunity to settle into step with someone for a few K and talk about the race and our lives and just encourage each other along as we mark time and determine what we are able to on this given day. The support among runners as we give advice and encouragement or just take our mind off the race are abundant. Today though my consciousness takes me beyond those runners I race with or greet on my long runs to people I can't bond with over fuelling, intervals, or my beloved shoes to those who have goals far more substantial than my pursuit of those last 9 seconds.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Agora and Pizza

For the last decade I have been spending my Saturday lunches with a group of men who have dubbed themselves The Senate. I am one of the youngest trio of the group's regular attendees and I am an easy 30 years younger than the group. During the time that I have joined there have been marriages among the group, (including my own) health battles won and lost, three Prime Ministers, two Popes, the rise or fall of favorite teams and elections at the municipal, provincial and national levels. In other words, there has been no shortage of discussion and by the time we break camp after a few hours, we can confidently plant our tongue in cheek and declare that we have solved all the world's problems.

It is not that there is a like-mindedness that prevails at the table. There are Catholics (women-priest-liberal and scowl-at-Francis-conservative) , atheists and at least one aspiring Buddhist amongst the group. The range of political opinions is just as provocative and time and again, the debates raise an eyebrow of concern or amusement at the neighbouring tables. 

The range of opinions can result in testy exchanges and the only expulsion from the Senate was (wisely) a Alex Jones addled conspiracy head, who did not have the listen skills need for us to broaden the range of possibility beyond nefarious concoction of the government and the media. Despite the differences of opinion, there is still an ability to get through lunch without the battles getting personal, despite the impulse to resort to a bit of name-calling or indulging in a bash of the lefties.

Ultimately though, we do not take ourselves or our opinions too seriously. For the core of the Senate, who are somewhere in their mid-70s to mid-80s, the time together is precious, even if they have only gotten to know each other in the twilight. For all that is discussed within the realm of these three taboo topics, there are times when two of the guys lean across the table to one another to confer over some of the realities that are too common and too stark at this stage of their lives. These questions of ailing wives and dying old friends hit home more deeply and the conversation about political matters and the question of whether the Blue Jays merit the frustration that has been invested in them take a back seat as required.

These men are prepared to ponder other views, to wait their turn and make their contribution to the dialogue because it is only a venue to the bonding that we need for the more important conversations that are calling for an outlet for the personal issues and concerns that press in on them harder and harder each day.  At the end of lunch, we all come away more uncertain, but with the comfort that there is a salvation in the week to vent, get informed and know that we are not alone. We even come away with a sense of how we can make ourselves more adequate in some way, whether as friends, husbands, fathers or in some other capacity.

The dialogue is what draws together each week and has kept the exchange going as long as it has. If the opinions we hold have any relevance and we are bold enough to voice them and expose them to the polish and sanding that comes with the exchange and brings the refinement of opinion or thought process, we come away more capable to bond and to understand the opposing views.

The opinions get tested rather than merely aired in the echo chambers of our respective choirs or within the comfortable confines of an postal code or gated community that aligns with our untested tastes or beliefs. None of these men is voicing their opinion to a compliant, safely agreeable subculture to have them merely agree or nod. They have the wisdom to weigh disagreement, ponder it and even respect it.  Within the confines of the dialogue, however, there is ultimately the expectation to engage in a manner that is rational and respectful as well. That face-to-face exchange with people who can be contrary to us is missing because the temptation is to isolate ourselves in a more comfortable setting without the ennui that comes with uncertainty.

The reality is growing apparent, however, that the impulse in insulate or isolate ourselves makes a large number of us entirely unwilling to engage in the face-to-face conversation that would enlighten us.  The most foolish of believes and opinions goes untested and embeds itself ever more deeply into the broader noise that is broadcast on traditional and social media and with myriad channels and sources available to us we can hear only what we want to hear about any topic, person or political platform that we want to align our interests and opinions with. Instead of that, I encourage you to sit down with a disparate group of people on a regular basis and hear not only their opinions, but the stories of their lives.  You'd be enlightened by an uncertainty that would make you listen a little more carefully before you spoke.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Busyness and the Dead Heart

It is quite easy to let ourselves get caught up in a whirlwind of activity, especially in the workplace, and feed off the adrenalin that accompanies a looming deadline or unexpected change that -- individually or as a team -- must be dealt with.  Priorities, and perhaps even passions, get put onto back burners while tensions mount. Eventually, all this eases with a sense of accomplishment and there may even be a certain buzz that comes from a task completed.  Despite the valiant efforts that might earn a quiet pride upon reflection, there is still the very real sense of feeling absolutely spent at the end of the day.  

The problem during such distracting or even addictive stretches of busyness, especially if it is one introduced out of (perceived) panic, is that they are highly unlikely to align with one's priorities or passions.  The adrenalin rush takes over and the calm, focus and intent of peak performance morph into something that neither stokes the appropriate brain chemistry of flow nor aligns with your goals and values.  While being busy might sate the curiosity about whether or not one or one's work is valued or important, in other instances there might be a reason to exercise caution or concern about being busy. In Japanese, for instance, the character for busy is comprised of the radicals representing "heart" and "death." While this combination does not hinder the use of the term, it does embed a caution light in the dialogue about busyness that gets overlooked in English.

The interpretation of busyness as meaning or implying a "death of the heart" is not a challenging logical progression. Busyness, whether it is imposed or -- more dangerously -- sought, essentially reduces, pummels and/or imprisons the solitary time that we require to acknowledge and give shape to our goals and passions.  Busyness also evicts the possibility of peak performance in favour of the less mindful frenzy of multitasking and arbitrary deadlines because during those busy times we are likely not as mindful of what inspires us most deeply. 

It is worth adding that in Japanese, when the radicals for "heart" and "death" are written one above the other, instead of side-by-side, the character means forget - again, not a huge leap of logic or concept. We indeed forget when we are busy, we excuse forgetfulness when busy, and whether it is a short term sacrifice to achieve an objective or a motivated numbing busyness to isolate ourselves from challenges and difficulties that we would rather not face.

The possibility of busyness being allowed to overwhelm us at work is just one, and in some ways it may be the safer scenario.  Excessive demands in the workplace are more likely to prompt a detached or even resistant posture - just the attitude to make one keep score and keep promises to even the ledger when there is time to relax and reflect on the work.  In that setting you can be detached enough to recognize that the demands are unwelcome and make a promise to reward oneself with the downtime or the revitalization that would counter the negative effects of excessive busyness.

The bigger danger is when busyness is pursued for the comfort of staying occupied with something, anything, for the sake of muting the uncertainties that speak loudest in stillness and silence.  In that pursuit busyness is a toxin that keeps us from embracing the chaos that comes with our unique potential and evading the core of who we are and what we are most capable of being.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Incremental Descent: Can The Right Build On Trump?

The pessimist in me still ponders whether or not the right-wing mindset Donald Trump has embodied over the last year could see a revival in the future.

That remote possibility is hard to separate from the gravity of Trump's ego and his limitations as a leader or campaigner, but despite himself he still managed to secure the Republican Presidential nomination and galvanize a core of about 40% of the US electorate. While these are not exactly the most comforting parting gifts for the bridesmaid in this year's most popular reality program, Trump has still come frighteningly close to the car, plane, house and nuclear football that comprise the grand prize.

It remains hard to fathom that a candidate for US President could garner the support for the dangerous set of values - the sexism, the racism, the self-aggrandizement and the exclusion - that Trump has openly professed and voiced throughout his campaign.  Apart from the shell game that would amount to his version of trickle-down economics on steroids -- that is, if he actually has an economic plan, Trump has been completely unvarnished and crassly open about his positions and his values. Given the limitations Trump imposes on himself with his lack of restraint or a deep-seated desire to merely make the 2016 presidential campaign a complete farce, a campaigner with similar values might have an easy time whitewashing his or her positions on social policy and instead of being so offensive, campaign with enough veiled suggestions and hints about policy and values to stir the blood of the 40% core that Trump seems to have and cobble together enough interest to gain the Presidency and introduce a mandate similar to what Trump has to embodied and incited throughout his campaign.

Regardless of the assessment of the man or his campaign, Trump has captured the interest and the passion of a segment of the American population that feels threatened and fearful for the uncertainties of the times. Economic and social change have stirred fear in significant segments of the population and Trump's campaign has provided the first draft of the playbook to retain that core constituency in future elections and given a budding right-wing start a solid checklist of "don't's" to guide the pursuit of the votes required to capture the required portion of the Electoral College.  Just mop up a few of Trump's biggest mistakes or indulgences and polling numbers will turn upward and give the next far-right candidate the mandate required to set the United States back.

The economic anxieties will ebb and flow, but the progress toward a more open and tolerant society will not, unfortunately, proceed unopposed. There will always be people who will feel threatened by diversity and equality. There will always be people who will want the certitude of clear rules and exclusivity and there will be politicians time and again that will capture that. The next Trump wannabes are only waiting for the spotlight to beckon them.  It may only be a matter of time.

However, one thing that has held Trump in check throughout the campaign has been the absence images that would compel the electorate to recognize and rally to his cause. The post-mortem on the Trump campaign is to be seen, but one significant gap has been the absence of compelling language or imagery to rally people to Trump's side.  He went through the campaign cycle without a rallying cry any stronger than his instantly meme-able "Make America Great Again" and that tacky Made in China trucker hat, both of which pale and whither in comparison to the positive language and imagery that were such a compelling and appealing part of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.

The lasting image of Trump will be of him at a podium, distant, mugging and mocking. Such images -- whether on a dais with his opponents or with a backdrop of supporters -- merely project the flaws the man believes are his strengths and he seems to be campaigning against rather than for. He has, like a man of his generation, relied on words, which he has demonstrated only the most limited command of. At a time, when so little is read or even attended to when spoken, the sight of him railing from his distant podium all but ensures his failure.

Could a more literate, more telegenic, less narcissistic figure get further than Trump? Definitely.  The one variable that would put such a figure over the top and into a position may ultimately be the power of a catch phrase or an image that would stick in the public's imagination contagiously enough to gain power. The conditions would have to be ripe for this; fear would have to overpower hope and confidence in neighbours and best intentions or the common humanity that we share. The challenge, even in a fearful environment, would be to communicate the values that Trump and his followers profess with images that inspire more than they offend. (That might be one reason why time and again right-wing politicians and parties tend to grasp at stock images that are proven false or inaccurate.) Apart from Trump's time at his distant podium, away from the cries of children, the other images that dominate coverage of his rallies and speeches display hatreds that the majority of us would be prompted to halt before we would ever regard them as acceptable collateral damage or consequence of improving our own wellbeing.

Could we be protected from this threat merely by our preoccupation with image? No, but it'll help.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Of Assassins, Headline Crime and Faith

And yet we reel once again, from a crime and the symbolism that gets attributed to it. We reel while still reeling and trying to absorb at a time when the inability to absorb may suggest a rock-like hardness or impermeability. Attributing hardness and sticking to that suggests a bleak coldness of heart has come over us collectively. While it is easy to find pockets where sympathy has been ossified out of the heart, it is the hardness of head and certitude of thought, the over-reliance on first conclusion that contributes far too much hue and cry. Each crime that we hear of, regardless of the scale, seems to come with the travesty of the act but also an assault on the possibility of reflection. Assumptions are shared impulsively without the recognition of pattern that brings clarity to the crimes or to the myriad sides of the discussion.

There was a time when assassins were assumed to have had a political motive for their actions and in the last century that pantheon of criminals, from Gavrilo Princip to Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan were attributed the motives that we assumed included some degree of hunger for fame or significance. Little thought was given to the psychology among those individuals that set them on the path that lead them to the murders they committed. Frankly, the consequences were too significant for entire nations or continents for anyone to do a forensic psychological investigation, if this science was professionally practiced. 

Mark David Chapman's murder of John Lennon raised the question of whether or not it was actually an assassination or "merely" a murder. Indeed the victim was a famous man, but the consequences did not clearly alter the course of history the way other assassins did. The other significant thing that accompanied the Lennon murder was Chapman's possession of The Catcher in the Rye. That, the book was to blame for the murder according to some grossly uninformed, meaning-seeking sources and nearly four months later John Hinckley's obsession with Taxi Driver and Jodie Foster was cited as contributing to the attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Taxi Driver seemed to survive its moment of infamy better than Catcher, which may has been cited several times for possible links to crimes among its readers.

In the years that have passed there have been other members of society who have dissociated themselves from society or family and in turn committed crimes that have appalled, shocked and dismayed us. In the aftermath of the school shootings at Columbine in 1998 people tried to pin the connection to video games and The Matrix.  In 1990, Judas Priest was sued for the influence their music had on teens who had committed suicide. Time and time again people trying to find cause for such crimes stop at the most superficial answer and settle for it rather than pursuing the question more deeply and looking at a pattern that is consistent throughout a larger series of crimes or patterns of behaviour among those commit them.

Such a suggestion would never prompt those who attribute crimes directly to one's faith to pause and look more deeply for the dissociation that prompted them to commit their acts. The possibility is that, among those criminals who only have a superficial interest in a particular faith and clearly follow a pattern of behaviour that is in clear conflict with the tenets of a faith. Before criminals chose to associate themselves with a particular genre, novel, movie, line of employment or religion, they dissociated from the family or circle of support that ensured they remained conscious of and connected to the entire society. Before they sought to kill or main soldiers, diners, commuters, shoppers, jocks, school kids, the disabled, members of a race, faith or tax bracket that they considered a threat, there was an incident or a pattern that detached them from the rest of society. That happened first. The murders or terrorist acts committed in Ottawa and Quebec in 2014 were by people who only had a tenuous connection with ISIS or ISIL and acted in a way that directly conflicted with the faith they wanted to cloak their actions in. They remained dissociative despite the opportunities to practice a faith that allowed and encouraged them to become part of a welcoming community.

Amidst all of the crimes that have marked 2016 and provoked arguments about, religion, race, weapons and whatever else people choose to argue over in the absence of clear, well-regulated debate occurred a crime that must be taken into account and included in the discussion as we try to determine what it is that causes these individuals to wreak the pain and misery that they do. Earlier today, a 26-year-old man in the suburbs of the massive Tokyo-Yokohama megalopolis returned to his former place of employment and killed 19 of the residents (or patients) in a facility for the disabled and injured another 20. He had aspirations of becoming a teacher, being one of those individuals that we as a society rely on to be the glue that helps hold society together but, as the Associated Press put it, "somewhere along the way, things went terribly awry." What attributed to this young man's slide toward the state of mind that prompted these murders is yet to be investigated. In the absence of a faith or explicit otherness that can be attributed to him by the Japanese media, they will have to grapple with the dissociation that gradually occurred in this young man rather than attribute it to one of the superficial causes that the Western media and the uninformed social media peanut gallery will attribute it to.
The investment of these criminals' energy in The Matrix, Catcher, Ozzy Osbourne, Taxi Driver, the Communist Party is ultimately incidental and the same can and must be said of religious faiths as well. All faiths have flaws and I am not going to defend the flaws of one over any other in this post. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland have had their roles in crimes beyond their borders but these are overlooked as other faiths are smeared. There are, however, devout Muslims who are nothing short of petrified by the pattern of crimes which are superficially associated with their religion. The first reason for this fear is, of course, the assumption among Westerners that they and their religion are a threat to peace and order throughout the world. The greater concern that many of them have, is the threat this pattern of crime may have on their children, their confidence in the faith they are raised in and its standing in the community. Parents, all of us, want to ensure that our children are raised to be empathetic and feel a sense of community and connectedness that will make us love, serve and support one another. That is the aspiration of most, if not all parents. The faith that we practice and pass on to our children is part of that sense of connection that we want to form among our children to ensure that they do not dissociate and cause such harm to themselves or to others. As the practice of faith becomes a more dangerous enterprise, as the commitment to this particular pillar of community gets called into doubt, these parents must raise their children exceptionally cautious and self-conscious about the purpose of their faith being questioned and denigrated with such exceptional and unbridled malice.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Confession Time: Distraction Over Engagement

It is Thursday and the past week has seemed painfully long, eventful and disturbing. Whether I look near or far, reflect on what has happened or get ahead of myself and anticipate the possibilities that the events seem to harbinger, there is much to make you want to turn away from the world beyond.

Terrorism in Nice, a coup in Turkey, the vitriol, miscues and misogyny that the Republican Party had presaged throughout the entire year, the thwarted terrorist attempts and the disaster-in-waiting Rio Olympics all make me want to don blinders or cast my eyes closer to home. Even here, however, with the burial of a murdered mother and child, the reflex to turn the eyes away, down or inward offers no relief. There is a local, seemingly intractable, scuttlebutt and protest against expanding transit service. When I conclude it is best to just stare at the ground and lose myself to my headphone entertainment during my regular walks and runs I see more dead birds strewn on the asphalt and the grassy berms than I've seen since I was 8 years old. (Not exactly a time when official records began to be kept, but the carcass count is well into the dozens.)

The last seven days alone could fill one of those year-ending collage blurs of news highlights tracing the course of the entire calendar back in 1983 when the peanut gallery was that much smaller and less-equipped, and I failed to mention the airstrike in Syria that killed an unconfirmed number of civilians or the African-American man who was shot in Florida while on the job with a young autistic adult. For each of these events, there seems to be this fury of response yay or nay to each and everyone of those events. I've responded in those clusters of social media frenzy, liking, retweeting, sharing or snarking about what's unfolding or how superficial or abhorently misinformed or hateful someone's position might be. The next seven could be the same.

But I have no confidence, whatsoever, that I have clue one about any of what is going on right now or how to distinguish between signal and noise. More often than not, our human tragedies incite this flurry of uninformed response, with all of us singing along with the choirs of our comfort indifferent to the cacophony that our knee-jerk impulses create.  When we contribute to the data load at computer servers to indicate our yay or nay on a topic or news item, we are doing it without giving the topic at hand or the articles on it their due consideration.

I've been conscious of how I do this - retweeting or sharing something without actually reading it.  I have done it regularly and the reality is that read through more of those, "if you are a friend of mine..." or "if you are reading this..." items (which I never share) than I actually read the articles that I share and retweet.  Evidence shows that I am in the majority. There are times when I do this deliberately to bookmark something for my own reference, but most of the time it is a brief click to say a little bit about myself or the things I am interested in or perhaps believe in.

How little I actually know.

Marshall McLuhan presciently envisioned a communications system that would serve as, or mirror the central nervous system of the planet (our collective conscience thoughts and concerns at a given moment) and the signals coming from that system, if it is our current internet or Web 2.0 indicate that we are entirely unaware of our almost Touretic insensitivities to others and on top of that have a case of ADHD. When I nudge a post into my circle of contacts all I am really doing is adding to the throb of rage, sympathy or sarcasm the post stands for without too much critical investigation into who are the most reasoned voices on a topic or what the biggest concerns ought to be.

And I am as guilty of information pollution as the most vitriolic, inane, click-happy Trump supporter, Brexit strategist, xenophobe or Kardashian groupie.  (I did manage to miss the recent tumult over Taylor Swift writing a song with her ex.  I'm still not sure what modicum of shame or shade needed to be thrown how hard in what direction over that.)

Instead of engaging in the dialogue via social media, the uninformed retweeting and sharing of unread articles merely tilt the signal from the nervous system toward the frenetic and away from the considered and rational.  At every moment, 24-7, there are opposing masses of people who send out signals with their posts, headlines and pithy 140-character comments but rarely do they delve deeply enough into the details of what they are reacting to or the positions that we purportedly support without taking the care to inform ourselves about the entire issue or the side that we are taking.  That toxic echo following each tragedy is the hue and cry of people who cling to their chosen certainties as if they were fact rather than belief.

The times we live in are incredibly uncertain, but our collective refusal to let our beliefs be challenged by the facts is a significant threat to clear thinking and discourse, even if you happen to be right.  We will never know if we are right and we will never battle test our positions or our thinking processes if we closet ourselves in echo chambers of our careful design and ongoing editing.  (Is it possible that we edit our friend and follower lists more judiciously than we edit our own posts or review what we are sharing?)

We continue to choose the distraction over engagement, just as we choose the narrow specifics of our view of the world: Darwin was wrong, someone else's religious fanaticism is the greatest threat known to man, Brady didn't do it, Melania didn't mean to, and on and on. There is the feeling that we need to know a little bit about everything: a belief that renders trivia essential while the deepest interpretations of our planet its workings and its problems are deemed too much trouble to undertake. This is not a promising combination for a world that needs informed humanity to ensure our safety and wellbeing.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Comfort Zones and the Zone

Two weeks ago my son and I were wandering around downtown with our cameras when we came upon a street artist.  She was a mid-20's girl camped out on the pedestrian stretch of Stephen Avenue with an arsenal of spray paint cans, some bristol board, a few templates to work with an a clutch of black Sharpies of varying gauges. She worked at what appeared to be a brisk pace, but over time there were occasions when there was less certainty in what she was doing. She knew the techniques that she wanted to apply for the most part, but there were occasional quests for the right approach for a desired effect and occasional forays into improvisations that were painted over.

The retreats with approaches did not prove major setbacks. Her improvisations were while she was solo and applying the tools and techniques of a (spray) painter rather than a musician on a bandstand and subject to the threat of intolerant, impatient or superior bandmates. The only cost to her was in the efficiency of production.  If it took her another three, five or ten minutes to sort through her efforts to dapple a tree in cherry blossoms with one errant effect and then discarding it for something that was more routine but effective in this instance, there was nothing more to lose for it other than the increment of time spent on the next painting. Throughout the time we lingered there, she completed paintings in bursts of 10-15 minutes at a time and her audience remained engaged in the process they were witnessing and she was selling her $20 paintings before any of them dried.

She interacted occasionally with the audience. One middle-aged woman brought her a bottle of water. Friends happened by and briefly made plans. Money exchanged hands. Inspirations were discussed. She also mentioned that it was the first time that she was doing it in public rather than in her (or her parents) garage.

As I thought about the challenge of doing this work, especially what is regarded as private work, in public it raised the question of what exactly her comfort zone is and what it might allow or encourage in contrast to what she might allow herself and require of herself when she is essentially performing her art for an audience. In her own garage, which I'm speculating is a comfort zone, she might have been inclined to discard her error immediately, take much more time to contemplate the move around her error or just keep going until she ended up with something far removed from her intention.  With an audience, however, there was less luxury to paused and contemplate or shred the error in a fit of artistic pique.

There was a point where she had to perform the role of artist (or should that be artiste?) and conduct herself with an authority and confidence that was never required in the comfort of the garage. She did it without missing too many beats or pausing and dwelling too long or too hard on the puzzle she posed for herself. It was the move away from the comfort zone of the garage that prompted an uncomfortable period of discovery, error and innovation as she worked through completing her painting while an audience looked on quietly and expressing only interest and curiosity about her work and her process.

The move from the familiar setting that is one's comfort zone into a place where the comforts are gone and the pressures to improvise and produce can be a stimulating one that prompts a great deal of growth and redefines your abilities far more pervasively than a long stay in the comfort zone which may risk cultivating complacency and draw you into a rut.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Farewell To The Giant

On April 2, 2014, I was walking north toward Stephen Avenue here in Calgary when I saw a familiar figure strolling east. He was accompanied but more preoccupied, as a grandfather would be, with a rope of preschoolers who were toddling past. They were a diverse group oblivious to their brush with fame with this man who discreetly doted on them without intruding. It was a beautiful moment for me as I watch this man who gained a second act in his hockey career playing professionally with his sons, the family business masterfully managed by mom and wife, Colleen.

It was of course, Gordie Howe, 2 days passed his 86th birthday. I'd never seen him play, but from childhood I knew that his birthday was one to file in my thoughts and commemorate with a quiet good wish to him each year. On this occasion, I could directly give him my belated greetings but I was reluctant. Frail is never a word that you would use to describe Mr. Howe, never. His health was in decline. That much Canadians and hockey fans had heard. Throughout my childhood, I plundered the bookmobile shelves for hockey books and read of Gordie Howe's life and exploits in way that other kids read of fictional heroes.

I am not one to crowd celebrities. I would much rather acknowledge them discreetly with a nod of respect. In this case, however, the internal debate raged briefly and I concluded that I did not want him to feel forgotten. There was something about his fond glance at those children that gave me the sense he wanted to reach out, to dote, to connect. I gave it a shot and took a few steps toward him and his son-in-law to express my respect to the man and wish him his belated happy birthday.

I was welcomed, the man and his family more accustomed to the affections of hockey fans than wearied, even now, by it, and we chatted briefly. His son-in-law offered to take a few pictures with my phone an unexpected largesse given all I wanted to do his wish him a happy birthday, place my small hand in his bearpaw for a shake and worship him a little.

Monday, June 6, 2016

My Greatest Achievement

The following is an excerpt from my Arctic memoir, Exiled From The Tundra, a passage which outlines what I still consider my greatest achievement. The names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Alfred reminded everyone it was time to prepare for the Christmas concert. The teachers probably dreaded it more than they did the year before. All I wanted do was avoid the girls’ rebellion against the concert and the embarrassing performance that was a consequence of the late decision to join.
Recalling the challenges from the previous Christmas concert, one of the first things I set out to overcome was the challenge of filling the gym with sound for whatever songs we did. With Raymond absent, I decided to combine my class with his to perform "Silent Night" together in French and English, something that would give Raymond’s class a presence in the concert and create a group large enough for everyone to hear in the gym. When the kids became familiar with the song and melody, they let me know that there were Inuktitut lyrics as well. With that, I thought it would be a good idea for the two classes to sing it in all three languages. As we rehearsed in the gym and the Inuit teachers of the youngest students heard it in all three languages, the choir expanded to encompass all the students in the school. This lead to rehearsals with all the students and teachers together in the gym. As everyone gathered to rehearse, there was a rare moment of camaraderie. Each of the teachers took their turn prompting and directing their kids or in their language to enhance the performance. There was a feeling amongst us that — at least for that brief part of the program — the concert was going to be all right despite the prevailing mood among the teachers.
For my class, I came up with a reworking of "A Christmas Carol." I wanted to avoid making it corny or being too wordy for them to remember or their parents to understand. I kept the lines short, assigned and refined parts according to the personalities of the kids and even worked in a (bad, bad) joke on the meaning of Ghost of Christmas Present to let me come on for a moment to correct their use the homonyms and assure them I was there. I cast Putulik as Ebenezer Scrooge. I put Mary in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present. I portrayed the Ghost of Christmas Future as the Terminator and with that in mind, cast strong, silent Josepi. I kept Piatsi and Eva together to be the Cratchits and Ima had the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
I was not sure if the people in the village were familiar with “A Christmas Carol,” but it would be in English, the kids would not have any undue demands on them and it would be quick as well. All of the kids remained in their comfort zones and there were enough little subversive touches to keep them from turning their noses up at it. They were eager to do it and gave me the feeling they would have been willing to do even more. We rehearsed the play in the evenings in our classroom and went over the lines and blocking a few times before they had it and were confident with it.
On the last night before the concert, we ran through the play a few times in the classroom and I found in that evening together a contentment that made the entire year worthwhile. For some reason, we worked just by the light that came into our classroom from the hallway. Sitting in the shadows on the floor, leaning against the wall with the desks obscuring our view while we wound down over milk and granola bars, I looked ahead to the concert the following day with confidence. We chatted about my Christmas holidays and things about my life in the south. I realized that all of them would have done what Putulik did for me in the Co-op my first day back and that I would do as much as I could for them.
I did come up with a way to involve Raymond’s class more in the concert as well. I asked Josepi Ovaut, Paulusi Kenuajuak and Jaaku Angutik what they were doing in the concert and I was met with shrugs and retreat. I knew that these three guys would be up for something fun and that they could do it well. The three of them were about the same height and they were all good at playing the clown. I asked them to come around to the school in the evening for a performance in the concert that would require little translation. I brought them into the gym and set down a long plank, a chair and a banana. I explained in the best detail I could that they were going to perform “The Jape Sketch,” a highlight from Monty Python’s Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I had a personal fondness for the sketch and thought it would be a fun contribution to the Christmas concert even though it did not capture anything resembling Yuletide spirit. I recalled Elias Taptuna’s fond recollections of watching Charlie Chaplin silents on a hand-cranked projector decades before and thought our sketch would provide a good tip of the hat to that era. The guys would proceed to abuse each other with silent-era slapstick while I contributed a pompous academic commentary on what they were doing. My contribution was not all that important during the performance given the vocabulary that I was using. I emphasized the boys’ need to be serious throughout. We rehearsed steadily and I pushed them to buy into the reality that their seriousness would be the key to the comedy. They indicated that they were in, but I suspected that they might be tempted to goof off at some point. I trusted my instincts, but crossed my fingers.
The afternoon started off with all of the kids singing "Silent Night" together. The younger classes then each took their turns singing a few songs and the concert concluded with the play by my class and the “The Jape Sketch” with Raymond’s boys. I hung on every word of my class’ work on their play and was thrilled to see my kids nail it. I wondered if the irony of Josepi’s performance as the Terminator made people think about the disillusion of those same kids who hid behind their mirrored shades when we first arrived. It was not my intention to remind people of that, but it was a vivid image that hinted at how out of character these kids were a year and a half earlier. During the grand finale, Raymond’s boys held form and kept stone-faced throughout, but the adrenaline might have gotten the best of them as they carefully cream-pied each other and did their shtick with the two-by-four. One of them came away with a bloodied nose that he ignored, but it was superb and disciplined other than an attempt to finish their delivery of a pie to me when I was supposed to surprise them instead with one of my own.
The concert quickly went down as one of the better ones that the school had ever had. I went home content and packed for the trip home for Christmas. I joked to myself that I better not come back for a third year because I would have a hard time living up to what I had just done that day.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fort Mac: Returning and Redefined

In about a week, barring any unforeseen reversals, the citizens of Fort McMurray will begin taking the first steps toward cobbling together the routines of daily life. The odyssey toward that new normal will prove to be a daunting, lengthy and ambitious task. After having so much support and comfort from strangers during the four weeks that they have been taking scattered refuge across the Alberta and beyond, they will now have to grapple with the apprehensions and anxieties of trying to put so many things back together, realizing at ever step along the way that they will have to wait for even the most basic and overlooked of daily requirements.

The people of Fort McMurray will need time to reorient themselves to the landscape and will drive north more slowly to absorb the change and take a bit more time to prepare themselves for the extent to which their environment will have changed.  They will need new bearings in this familiar but altered place and then from there they will try to look within and determine what they will need going forward. The list of the tangible will be easy to form and will be lengthened and reinforced with each turn of the head, each wet blink and the new horizons.  The intangible will be harder to account for and the challenge will be to hang onto the optimism to maintain that list with the hope that they might put and "x" or a checkmark in a box or two on that mental list of what they need to make life go on.

In preparation for the return of citizens to the city, Fort Mac's infrastructure has been assessed and tested and its needs triaged.  There will be gaps and shortfalls in the weeks and months ahead and early patience will come from people being in their homes once again after weeks of transience and uncertainty. The individual task of cleaning up will be unpleasant with, at the very least, the hazmat preparations required to reenter one's abandoned kitchen and address the state it might be in after the power being off as long as it has. That grotesquery will be the tip of the iceberg of the challenges that people will face in sorting their lives out.  For those who have lost their homes and still face the precarious questions about their employment and their future face even more daunting questions about their present and future, including the question of whether they ever go back. Once again, people in Fort McMurray will feel the peril of being in the crosshairs of forces far beyond their control.

For all that though, Fort McMurray has been taken to the hearts of the country in the last four weeks. For much of the last decade and a half, if not longer, the city was synonymous with the largesse of the oilsands, the oil industry's indifference to the environment and the excess that oil wealth induced in the people who lived there or were just passing through. For the longest time, Fort Mac had was a place that was home for only a few and only for a short time. That reputation was among the first things engulfed in the flames first threatened the city.

The citizens of Fort Mac who will reunite in the weeks ahead will realize a strong longing for the neighbours that they shared this nightmare with and as they gather to survey the damage and the good fortune they will be able to communicate volumes to one another, if only with a terse nod, a smile twisted to hold back tears or hugs warmed with the deepest of unspoken promises. As they go back to put their hearts and shoulders into the task of toughing out the months ahead and eking out the life they once had there, they will also carve out a deeper sense of community than one would attribute to a place with such a long-standing reputation for transience.

Fort McMurray now resonates in our collective vocabulary as a place that requires a commitment and an homage from the people who go there, no matter how long they stay. As newcomers - people without the firsthand experience of the May 2016 fire - start to arrive again, there will be among them an impulse to connect with this particular volume of the city's history and survey the landscape for the scars and victories that the city has been left with.  The reminders and reminiscences will be on the lips of those who remain and there will be a closeness amongst those who remain in Fort Mac. There ought to be enormous pride among Fort McMurray's citizens for what they have survived and what they will rebuild in the years ahead and, hopefully, that pride will infuse the people and the streets of Fort McMurray with a sense of community that will ensure the city's future is a bright one no matter what uncertainty they face in the weeks and months to come.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Geographer Poet

Eight years ago, on a road trip to Seattle for my bachelor party weekend, we made a required stop for gas. My best friend, the best man who had organized the trip, meandered a few steps to take a picture of the hotel that was in eyeshot, the Golden Rim Motor Inn.

I knew nothing of the place or the nostalgia it evoked in my friend. To me, it was nothing more than another roadside landmark windmilled into view during the pursuit of the horizon or the next time zone. The poetry of the near rhyme and the perfect cadence of those four words evokes so much in the imagination: the story of a small town businessman's ambition in building such a place with its "soft water and colour TV" (and water slide); the alternation of adventure and tedium of the road for touring musicians or any other itinerants earning their keep by venturing on to the next town. As an aside, the hotel is now the Days Inn Golden and the Trans-Canada charm of the maiden name lost to a corporate boilerplate that is far, far less evocative or is so in a pejorative sense.

As news hit us this morning that Gord Downie, the electric, eclectic, eccentric force of the Canadian rock stage has been diagnosed with brain cancer, I thought of that hotel on the side of the road in Golden and how he stored the poetry of that name, filed it among the mental notes and jotted it in a journal until he penned "The Luxury." On this occasion, as so many others throughout his career with The Tragically Hip he elevated this little unknown place, one of hundreds or thousands strung out along the spine of the Trans Canada Highway and elevated it. Could anyone possibly calculate the number of times people have stopped at this hotel for a shot like this or how many will stop in the days and years ahead to acknowledge the way that Gord Downie elevated this hotel to this particular height of Canadiana?

Throughout his exceptionally literate and explicitly Canadian canon, Gord (which the Barenaked Ladies insisted in its wry way is the most quintessentially Canadian of names) has harvested the fabric of this country's history, geography, tragedies and passions in a way the few other songwriters have even tried.  Stan Rogers comes to mind with the flurry of what-if's about his too-brief career. Over the course of the 30-plus years that The Hip have held command over their fans, they have done it with a passion for this country as a source of inspiration and material in a way that coincided with a remarkable transition in the state of the Canadian identity.

I was not in Canada during the time that The Hip were at their peak.  I left the country a few months before the 1995 referendum in Quebec and returned home the day before the 2010 Winter Olympics were awarded to Vancouver in July 2003. When I left, the long-lingering navel gazing over the Canadian identity was the rich source of conversation that it had always been and when I had returned there was a pride in the country and a sense of unity that I would not have anticipated in the fall of 1995 when people asked me if I would have a country to return home to.

On the musical front throughout their career and especially at their peak, Gord Downie and The Hip mapped and excavated this country in a manner that went far beyond the rock band mandate.  They have made Canadians -- of my generation at least, and hopefully our kids -- aware of the breadth and depth of our land in ways we used to tell each other that a once-empowered CBC used to do. We know a little more about the hidden corners of the country, our heroes, our artists, our authors, our villains and victims and get the pre-web Yelp review thrown in for good measure.

For that, we have every reason - fan or not - to be thankful for the career that Gord Downie has had and given to this country. This rock star who is equal parts Earle Birney, David Thompson and Michael Stipe (have I misstepped on my choice of front man?) has left an indelible mark on Canada, its music and its sense of self.  Today and in the days ahead, we will pause to honour and contemplate the work he has done. In the concert halls we will congregate to thank him in the months ahead but we will always be able to pause on a street corner, in a library, in a canoe or at the next bend in the highway to pay homage to the corners of this country that he has illuminated and shone a light on with his poet's brush.

Thanks, Gord.  Godspeed.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Canada's North and the Relocation Fallacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

Can Corporate Calgary Innovate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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