Monday, April 29, 2019

The Modern Right: Without Principle or Reason

Throughout much of my life, I acknowledged and perhaps gave more than necessary respect to the need to form and support a rational argument when advocating for the things I believed. Whether it was on a personal level, or about a public concern related to topics such as the environment, immigration or education, I have put the onus on myself to make my case. The spirit of fair play dictated to me the need to go beyond a deft rhetorical touch or an appeal to emotion to do more than assert that my gut feeling and attempt to make the appeal that if we waited 20 years we would have the data to prove I was right.

Somehow, I was conditioned to believe that my arguments needed to be sound, my thinking straight and my homework done if it were going to stand up to the scrutiny of the more rational thinking and bean-counting we associate with conservative thought. For half my life I have set aside my passionate, poetic arguments in favour of inclusion, fairness, better education and other frivolous feel-goods. I have been conscious that if I were to propose a course of action, I would have to hold myself to a scrutiny that could be measured and identify outcomes or accomplishments that I could clearly claim as my own.

I would play by those rules. I would do my best to make a rational case. Have the data. Assure as many people as I could that this was not merely a gut instinct or an effort to have my way. If I had evidence to make my case about, for example, the economic benefits of diversity I will still sit tight until I had more or more irrefutable evidence to make my case.

I want to get it right. I have written and worked with the belief no amount of BS or bullying that will make the wrong true.

In the spirit of fair play.

With the goals of advancing inclusion, improving education, protecting the environment.

That sort of thing.

Yadda, yadda, yadda... etc. and so forth.

As cold and calculating as we once thought those with a conservative mindset seemed to be -- you know, the risk-phobic bureaucrat that needed to ensure that the bean-counting was complied with and the common good attended to before anything "special" were done in a particular situation, even if it cost nothing -- you had to acknowledge and give them credit for the fact that they were being rational and following a set of rules. Regardless of how frustrated you might be with their position, they were doing what they believed was in favour of the greater public good.

Past tense.

As easily as what I stand for could be ridiculed with a line about unicorns and rainbows, the things I have advocated for has been deeply rooted in reason and reality.  Like many people, I have set aside the soft arguments about happiness or intangible benefits of an initiative to make a case that was premised or a rational argument, a clear logic model or a strong business case.  Beyond those things, my opinions and positions as a leftie, a moderate, a progressive, a liberal, or whatever label one might assignment out of a pejorative impulse, my position has also been rooted in optimism and a belief that we -- collectively and individually, as families, neighbourhoods, and nations -- are capable of doing better. It is within our reach.

The right, as it is currently preoccupied, does not exemplify that optimism. There is a more fundamentalist and pessimistic mindset that characterizes the mouthpieces of the right and the people who pinned their hopes on them.  It is quite difficult to make the case that the current leaders of the right -- whether Donald Trump, Theresa May, Andrew Scheer, or the Conservative premiers who have ascended to power over the last year or two in Canada -- are laying out policies grounded in a rational examination of their impact on the greater or common good. Whether it is resisting pressures to improve gun control laws, relaxing or eliminating measures to protect the environment, compromising food and water safety, or treating minorities or the marginalized with the appropriate regard for their human rights. Over the last few years, the leaders of the right have governed with the intention of inflicting damage in these and other areas of public interest. These "leaders" have also conducted themselves in a manner that has provided tacit cues to those who have despaired that the changes occurring are a sign of society's downfall.

The right is acting like a vanquished group because the privileges they so deeply embrace -- things like driving without the hinderance of bikes lanes, pedestrians and carbon taxes; owning guns; asserting that whatever they say is 'just a joke, don't be so sensitive;' determining the skin tone and creed of your neighbours; avoiding the queasiness that one might associate with a different lifestyle, orientation or perspective; throwing what they want wherever they want and not having to think about the consequences of their actions or beliefs -- are being compromised and that they have to fight back to retain that status and the expense of everyone else's well-being.

If the right feels they need to "fight" to retain this status, it is a fight premised on the establishment of collective rights over individual rights. It is a fight that has shown a visceral disdain for data, reason, truth and our long-term well-being. They have resorted to confrontation and petulant stubbornness when there is a need for openness and collaboration. When they speak about the environment and human rights, areas where the data is in and the arguments sound, it is abundantly clear that they are discarding principles in favour of power.

The sad thing is that reality will hold firm, regardless of what these leaders insist upon.  The consequences for our communities, societies and our planet will prove dire, but it is even more important for the diversity, stewardship, collaboration, critical thinking, honesty, and reason to be the default mode of operations among those who oppose them.

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Grizzlies: A Review

When there's a Canadian movie that remotely catches your interest, you know that you need to rush out quick to see it before its run comes to an end. So, on the Thursday night of The Grizzlies first week of release I found I was not alone and enjoyed sitting down with an ample audience.

The movie gives the account of a new teacher's efforts to respond to the social and emotional challenges in a community where among other things, suicide, particularly teenaged suicide, is, as one character puts it, not a "copycat thing" but an epidemic. The filmmakers are quite upfront about the harshness of the subject matter and go to the unusual lengths of providing a warning about these aspects of the story's portrayal before the movie, rated PG, begins. Perhaps this incongruity between rating and warning is an indication of the challenges that are unique to filmmakers as we strive to tell more and more stories of the realities and history of Indigenous people in Canada. Having been one of those callow, raw, rookie white teachers like the main character in this film, albeit half a lifetime ago, my interest in stories such as this is deeply rooted.

After the film's warning about its content, the opening credits roll over archival images of students in residential schools to help set up the story and indicate what themes will be explored in the film.  Apart from suicide, the cost of living, poor quality of housing, teen pregnancy, the dilemmas surrounding schooling, family violence and the culture clash between Inuit and Qallunaits (whites or southerners, as they are called in Inuktitut) are quickly delineated.

As the story unfolds, the young, cocky white teacher, with his eye on a lightning-quick departure for a gig at a private school, starts to recognize the issues that his students have. The portrayal of these aspects of life in the Arctic are bang on.  The youths' night-time gatherings to drink and find some safety or normalcy while their parent's are doing the same at home is one of the many details of the movie where the reality is not softened or overlooked for the audience. The harshness of the family violence and social problems are laid out clearly and quickly as the challenge of set up this tale for a movie audience is pursued.

In the effort to get the story told and to comply with the goal of having these students and their teachers overcome the challenge facing, there is, however, a bit of a rush. The young teacher, ostensibly the lead protagonist in the story, is not developed as fully as he ought to be. The challenging of defining him and the circumstances he is being airdropped into are rushed for the economy of the storytelling within the film. During the early moments of the movie, the main character's observation that their aren't any trees risks trading the quiet awe of the landscape for a quick joke. In reality, migrating southerners quietly press their heads to the airplane portholes to observe the changes in the terrain and vegetation throughout the trip.  They are awed enough by the landscape and mature enough in most instances to, more often than not, proceed with discretion or get weeded out early in the interview process to not appear in the community. Within a film, however, our rookie teacher, Russ Sheppard, provides the audiences' eyes and ears for the story as well and a film audience is clamoured for rather than vetted and carefully oriented to the story and its setting.

Another key character that is not fully developed is the school principal, played by Tantoo Cardinal.  She is overwhelmed enough of the breadth of the job and the challenges that she faces, but within the context of the movie, must also provide the big picture perspective of the challenges in the school and community that the audience may not be cognisant of. She has and all-too-familiar with the attitudes and limitations of the young white teachers who come to the village, but there are times she is required to provide blunt opposition to Ross' plans rather than display the dilemmas that she must grapple with in her position.

These, ultimately, are compromises that ought to be made because of the constraints that a feature film imposes. The filmmakers do a great job fitting this story into the template of a film and the arc is inspiring. The epilogue notes that follows the story's ending indicate that the characters who comprised the team have indeed achieved great things in their adult lives despite the challenges that remain in their community. It also serves as an admission by the filmmakers, that there were compressions and composites that served the story. The real-life Ross Sheppard stayed in the community for 7 years, an accomplishment that I admire and honour.

The Grizzlies has a story that can be easily told and it will reach sizeable audiences within and beyond Canada because of its simplicity, the key facts that it contains about the challenges facing Indigenous youth, their educators and communities and the inspiring tone it hits. There is a risk, however, in a story too simply told. During my time in the Arctic, a school administrator showed the movie Stand and Deliver to the junior high students in our school and then turned to the teachers, and essentially admonished us by posing the question, "Why can't you do that?" The question overlooked the fact that we had been in the school three months at this point and that we, unlike the protagonist in Stand and Deliver, were not of the same culture as the students.

Beneath the feel-good elements that lie at the root of this story are complex threads and realities which have been trimmed away. The story remains intact but there is much that has been left out. A longer treatment of this subject is in order and perhaps The Grizzlies will prompt more people to look for other stories about the modern Arctic or Indigenous experience. Filmmakers will have the experience to know where a corner had to be cut and have the opportunity to figure out how to tell a similar story more fully the next time around. They will also know that audiences will come to these stories in significant numbers to make them viable and the characters in these stories can be more fully developed rather than required to serve multiple functions.  

These stories need to be told and heard more and explored for the depth that they possess. In time, there is the opportunity to become familiar with the cadences of Indigenous storytelling as well.  The oral traditions of Indigenous people provide a rich source of story but story making and telling as well. Hopefully there are ways of filmmaking and storytelling that can plumb this potential beyond the arcs of tragedy and inspiration and give more space for these stories to be told and shared in the way that Indigenous people are prepared to tell them.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Untethered to Dream

A week ago I was riding the bus from Edmonton to Calgary, drowsing off and on, pondering the book I was reading and letting the muted rom-com divert me from time to time.

Behind me, a telephone conversation casually intruded on my attention. There was little mystery to the conversation, nothing that left me trying to grasp the context that could come from the other end of the line. I can't honesty rely on tropes like, "from what I gathered" or "could discern." The man behind me, whose presence might have suggested an amount of bulk looming in seat 6A, was riding the bus from Edmonton to Calgary to be incarcerated.  There did not see to be anyone accompanying him on the journey so my best guess was that he had a sentence that he was required to serve on weekends.

I have no idea. The one thing I did gather from the call was that he was keen to impress the woman he was talking to and assure her that he had an eye to setting himself straight, or at least turning the page when the time was served in the 48- or 60-hour instalments. Could he having been trying to intimidate the other passengers with the story? Possibly. At the same time it is hard to strike fear in people when you make it clear that you are, like the rest of us, free to move about the province from Monday to Friday under your own recognizance. The distinction might be that his week is the photographic negative of everyone else's, their weekends demarcating freedom as Friday afternoon's last hour drains out of the workweek.

He was vague about how long he was in and what it was for, but there was a clear desire to move on. Clearer still was his optimism and what he wanted. The conversation turned to moving on and he got specific about where he wanted to go. He wanted out of Alberta and into BC. Kelowna was not too appealing for him because of the winters and he was setting his sights on Vancouver Island.

As his half of the conversation pulsed into and away from my attention, it was inspiring to see him grant himself the broad horizons he saw for his future. There were no questions about the hindrance his criminal record might pose, none about logistics or equity or simply getting anywhere. Perhaps there is an element of that old line "freedom's just another word for nothing else to lose," as stated in the old chestnut "Me and Bobby McGee," and there is a chance that such a damn the torpedoes is just the thing that got him in to trouble and could do the same.

Still, if we strip the risks or probabilities aside, that optimism is not something that should be confined by the situation that we find ourselves in. There is also the ironic possibility that the more we have, the less inclined we are to dream or target a possibility that may be beyond reach. Perhaps a dream requires you to dramatically push everything you have into the kitty and bet it -- a prospect that may prompt some reluctance to dream at all.

With those thoughts stirring in my head, the bus continued south. We got off and we went our separate ways with him heading to a thinner mattress and livelier ambitions.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Why'd Kenney Do It?

The evidence of the Kamikaze campaign is being uncovered and there will be the expected effort to assert that evidence is actually just circumstantial evidence or conjecture and that circumstantial evidence is nothing at all or merely conspiracy to mar Jason Kenney's reputation.

It is all quite puzzling, really. At the risk of being taken out of context and quote to build the flimsy, circumstantial case in his favour, "Why would he have to jury-rig the proceedings of the United Conservative Party leadership race by bringing in Jeff Calaway as "the kamikaze candidate?" He had the greatest name recognition and along with it the strongest "machine" behind him, the experience, the blue cache of being one of the Reform, Alliance, CPC stalwarts who was on the front lines of that movement for two decades years. The reputation, track record, the whole shebang of resume credentials required to make the electorate gravitate to him. 

Or did he?

Positioned as he is, firmly on the right, his draw is fixed and there is a definite and self-imposed ceiling on his appeal. Among Conservative voters deciding the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives and then the UCP, the assets he brought back from Ottawa to Alberta ought to have been enough to clinch the position he has now in a walk. IF the whole kamikaze scandal proves to have enough truth to damage him, then the rationalizations for his (and his team's) stratagem would include a lack of personal confidence, an impulse to see what he could get away with, a distrust of the supporters within his party and an aversion to chance and uncertainty.

Of these possible motivations to support the Calaway campaign, the one that is overlooked in the crossfire of partisan motivations is the aversion to chance and uncertainty. Kenney clearly had all of the tangible advantages he needed over Brian Jean to secure leadership of the UCP, but that is never quite enough. It is a less than gentlemanly sport, especially if victory and its commensurate leverage is more important than consensus.

In an August 2016 article during his campaign for the UCP leadership, Kenney is quoted as saying, “I have learned, in 19 years in Parliament … that ‘conviction conservatives’ can’t do anything unless they can work in a coalition with others.” The thing that he seems to share in common with those "conviction conservatives" as a discomfort with chance or uncertainty. Perhaps change is another word to add to the realm of discomfort that Kenney and the far-right seem uncomfortable with, especially now that he has chosen to stand with the conviction conservatives who would form his front bench and his inner circle. The UCP united in part not strictly against the NDP, that is primarily a matter of branding or the odd sense of entitlement that the Alberta right-wing assumes within their province. It seems at times that change and perhaps even the outside world -- as the separatist or firewall impulses demonstrate -- that the UCP wants to fight against. 

We live in remarkably uncertain and rapidly changing times. We are not going to be served well by leaders who are uncomfortable with that or incapable of responding to it effectively. Effective responses are not those that rig the system in the favour of those who have the resources to rig the system in their favour, as seems to have been the case during the UCP leadership campaign. Effective responses are those that strive to integrate as much of the reality of our complex environments and take all of them into consideration when making decisions and drafting the policies that will shape this community in the coming years. At the end of the day, there needs to be a custodial impulse to providing a community that all Albertans would feel a part of.  That single community needs to have the infrastructure, the compassion and the openness for all to feel welcome, supported and included.

Those are pretty essential things and easy to neglect on the campaign trail in favour of attention getting items and issues that will drive voters to the polls, or in this more cynical era, away from the polls. Jason Kenney and the UCP find themselves struggling with the same convictions of exclusion that welled up in the past for the Wildrose Party, the convictions that Kenney once or briefly expressed a need to distance himself from. The UCP's quixotic efforts to tamp down inevitable change and fend off the discomfort of uncertainty have flared up and will erode their focus throughout the balance of the campaign and leave voters uncertain about their ability to ensure that Alberta remains a diverse, strong and vibrant community. The investigation into the Kamikaze campaign will continue and the question is not so much whether or not Jason Kenney will have his comeuppance there but whether or not Alberta wants to pin its fate on him and his ilk.