There’s no doubt he’s made a sensational choice — one dramatic enough to take the spotlight away from Barack Obama during the same 24-hour news cycle that the Democrat had wowed 84,000 people at Denver’s Mile High Stadium.
By today (Saturday), the second thoughts were setting in. The Globe and Mail and the National Post brought their particular slant to the story. More interesting, perhaps, was the response of U.S. papers.
Up in Alaska, the Anchorage Daily News hailed Palin as “The Joan of Arc of Alaska politics.” The New York Post bannered WOW! and the New York Daily News called the new team THE ODD COUPLE. But most papers took the middle road, like the Indianapolis Star with its headline, AN UNLIKELY PICK.
The most intriguing item I could find came from the blogosphere. After reviewing local reaction, Alaska blogger Mudflats had a simple question: “Is this a joke?” Then he passed on a few trenchant comments Ms. Palin gave a week ago on whether she’d accept, if offered, the Veep nomination:
“I’d need to find out what is it exactly that the Vice President does. We want to make sure that that VP slot would be a fruitful type of position, especially for Alaskans and for the things we’re trying to accomplish up here.”
So much for a world view!
McCain’s only hope
John McCain’s real strategy, it seems to me, is circle the wagons, mobilize the Republican right-wing core (who’ve never been warm to him), and hope that the novelty of his bizarre choice will bring in enough Independents to let him squeak to victory.
The more likely outcome is that it will succeed only in saving the Republic party from total collapse. After defeat in November, the core supporters will still be there, ever loyal and ready to fight another day.
Barack Obama, meanwhile, will get the chance to make good on the issues he argues for in his book: get the troops out of Iraq, broaden health care, cut taxes for the middle class, get more kids into college, make sure free trade is fair trade, and be prepared to sit down and talk with adversaries like Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Russia.
John McCain’s choice can be seen in another light: the final and total repudiation of George Bush and evertything he stood for. With Palin at his side, McCain will campaign against the mistakes of the past, promising change for the better. And make no mistake, she’s likely to turn out to be an appealing and attractive campaigner in her own right.
But the choice also lets Obama off the hook on the experience issue. And Ms. Palin’s fierce right-wing Christian conservatism (she’s against abortion even if there’s incest or rape, wants to teach creationism in the schools) isn’t likely to appeal to many of those women who voted for Hillary Clinton.
In the words of Ronald Wright, it’s Backwoods America against Enlightened America. Right now the split is about 50-50. Let’s hope Wright’s metaphor about the USA proves there’s more enlightenment than back woodsism in the American electorate.
The flurry of objections over the use of bottled water is a reminder that in most of North America, the water that comes from our tap is perfectly safe to drink and probably more pure than the stuff we pay a fancy price for in plastic bottles.
Water is a little like the weather, not in the sense that everybody talks about it (we don’t) but from the angle that you can’t do much about it. Yet, in coming years, Canadians are likely to find water at the top of the political, social and economic agenda.
Marq de Villiers wrote the book on it when he published Water in 1992, then came out with an updated edition in 2004 (McClelland & Stewart).
Water’s in the news now because of a report from the Montreal Economic Institute that favors export of water. The Globe and Mail has the story here.
“Large-scale exports of fresh water would be a wealth-creating idea for Quebec and for Canada as a whole,” the report says. It estimates that if Quebec exported ten per cent of the one million cubic metres of “renewable fresh water” available to it each year, this would bring $65 billion annually.
Okay, you’re getting upset already. You don’t want to see our precious water drained away to slake the thirst of Las Vegas and other U.S. desert cities, leaving ourselves high and dry.
That gut reaction overlooks a vital fact. Water never disappears — it recycles itself within the earth’s ecosystem. Right now, most of our fresh water is running away into the oceans, via the St. Lawrence, the Fraser, the Mackenzie and innumerable other rivers. Eventually it evaporates and returns to earth via precipitation. Why not make a bundle by selling it to people who’ll someday pay just about any price for it? Then let it evaporate, while we keep the bucks.
Of course, we have to recognize that the melting of the Rocky Mountain glaciers is reducing the run-off to prairie rivers. We have to manage water to make sure it’s a sustainable resource. But as Mark de Villiers points out in his book, the problem is not that the world is running out of water, but “it’s running out in places where it’s needed most.”
He cites Bangkok and Mexico City as examples of places that are pumping up so much ground water that they’re starting to sink. And mines all over the world are still polluting rivers with their tailings. Places that de Villiers identifies as notorious for their shortage of water, besides the American Southwest, include the Nile delta, northern China, and Central Russia where the Aral Sea has dried up as a result of reckless agricultural development.
You can count on water becoming the great sacred cow of Canadian politics. A lot of the rhetoric we’ll hear will have more emotion to it than fact.
John Baird, the federal Minister of the Environment, jumped out quickly last spring to say that Canada has “no intention” of entering into negotiations with the U.S. or Mexico on bulk water exports. And Maude Barlow’s Council of Canadians is already sounding warnings.
The argument is remiscent of what Alberta went through in the 1950s over the export of natural gas. A great cry went up within Alberta that the province had to keep its natural gas for its own citizens. Common sense prevailed, in the realization that Alberta had more than it could use and it made sense to share its bounty — at a price.
For Canada, water will be a more vauable resource than oil, and with prudent management, we should be able to profit from selling reasonable quanitities to those less fortunate than ourselves. It could make us richer than all the oil sheiks of the Middle East combined.
Ronald Wright, the Vancouver novelist, historian and essayist, is out with his most provocative work today, an icily-crafted dissection of the religious and economic forces battling for the future of America.
Wright characterizes the United States as a nation split between archaic superstition and liberal thought in a struggle that pits Backwoods America, a frontier land of guns, prayer and ignorance, against Enlightenment America, the tolerant descendant of the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Some of you may have read segments of Wright’s What is America? (Knopf Canada, $29.95) in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail. The scary thing about Wright’s analysis is that he sees the coming Presidential election as a showdown between these two Americas, and that he’s not convinced that Backwood America will not emerge the winner (as it did in 2000 and 2004).
Consider Wright’s observation that American religious fundamentalism is based on a “mindset not vastly different from that of the Taliban.”
Now, consider that both Barack Obama and John McCain were only too willing to subject themselves to an hour of nationally-televised, public grilling from the right-wing evangelist, Richard (Rick) Warren at his Saddleback Church in posh Lake Forest, California.
Both candidates, of course, expressed themselves as God-fearing Christians bent on destroying evil in the world. Obama’s responses, I was glad to see, were more measured and thoughtful than McCain’s, even though he must have realized that any sign of temperate consideration would not have been well received by the congregation.
Just as troubling as right-wing fundamentalism, in Wright’s view, has been economic globalization and the return to laissez-faire capitalism in the United States. The consequences of deregulation of the financial services industry, he reminds us, were seen as early as the 1980s when, on Ronald Reagan’s watch, the savings and loan companies were freed of rules that had previously restricted them to prudent lending. The resulting binge of reckless (and often fraudulent) loans earned huge profits for a few, but cost honest investors and American taxpayers upwards of half a trillion dollars to bail out the survivors.
The current credit crisis over sub-prime mortgages (a scam that suckered low-income home-buyers into mortgages they clearly wouldn’t be able to repay) is today’s version of the same kind of abusive money grab. The expectation now is that the U.S. government will throw a lifeline to the two big mortgage lenders, Freddie Mac and Fannie May, but at the cost of wiping out existing investors. Between them, the two agencies are said to be $100 billion short of meeting their obligations to lenders.
It’s no coincidence that these two rip-offs have occurred under administrations resolutely committed to a philosophy of the uncontrolled free market.
Nor should it be any surprise that inflation is now beginning to show itself, not just in oil and food prices, but in rising costs right across the economic index. Inflation is the way markets have always dealt with debt that has become too burdensome for the economy to handle.
Wright ties all these trends together as he paints the picture of a divided America, with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, and a world-wide “war on terrorism” substituting for the Cold War.
The hope for change that has been aroused by both candidates, Wright says, “will be far less easy to fulfill. Whether it is Backwoods America or Enlightment America who takes charge, the new leader will inherit the wreckage of the past eight years: wars that seem both unwinnable and inescapable, a ruinous public debt and a financial crisis that may prove to be the worst since the 1930s.”
“It remains to be seen whether moderation and thought will prevail over extremism and personality.”
More needs to be said — and asked — about the explosion at the Sunrise Propane plant in Toronto on Sunday. Today’s coverage of this disaster that killed two and devastated a neighborhood is here (Globe and Mail), and here (Toronto Star).
It’s clear that a public inquiry is in order. Were safety regulations adequate, and were they being enforced? Is the present largely privatized safety regulatory regime in Ontario up to the job of protecting the public? How can we break the log jam that prevents municpalities from updating their by-laws to control where highly hazardous plants like propane facilities can be built?
Other questions, perhaps outside the mandate of an inquiry, that many would like to see answered:
Why did the Provincial government resist municipal efforts to put in stronger bylaws? Are we at risk of similar disasters invoving hazardous materials plants? How can the safety regulator, the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, be strengthened so it will more closely monitor at-risk operaitons? Is there culpability on the part of the owners or management of Sunrise Propane?
The biggest lesson of this debacle, perhaps, is that Ontario still suffers from the onslaught on public services by the Mike Harris Tories during their eight years in office.
As a consequence of their pillage of the public service, we had the Walkerton water tragedy that killed seven and sickened a couple of thousand people after water inspection was privatized and inspectors were made beholden to their clients.
Now, we may be seeing the effects of their decision to put regulatory responsibilities in private hands. The TSSA is just one of their hyrda-headed offspring, it having responsibility for enforcing safety codes on propane, hydrocarbon fuels, elevators and other services. Only three of its 13 board memebrs are appointed by the government – the majority come from the private companies that have a stake in how the body carries out its duties.
About all the TSSA has done publicly so far is to issue a meaningless press release saying they “remain fully committed” to working for public safety. If you’ve a mind, you can read it here. Job #1 for Premier Dalton Mc Guinty should be to rein in this outfit and see that its mandate puts the puiblic first, not the companies that purport to self-regulate.
Sunrise Propane, in the meantime, appears to have disappeared along with its plant. Except for the Toronto Star, the media haven’t done much of a job of exploring the background to this outfit. According to the Star report linked above, the company has had its share of legal difficulties in the past, and owner Sean Ben-Moshe won’t talk. Sorry, this isn’t good enough.
What’s happening to its employees? Does the company have other operations which might be at risk? Why not a word about this unhappy event on its web site?
Two law firms are working on class action suits on behalf of the 12,000 people who have had to evacuate their homes. The Toronto Health Department has been remarkably inept in responding to concerns about debris that’s landed in their yards. The local councillor, Maria Augimeri, gets into a public shouting match with the head of the district ratepayer association, and screams at him to “shut up.” Then she refuses to attend a meeting of the association, taking refuge in a rival one the city has set up for the same evening (tonight).
Industrial accidents can never be totally prevented. What can be prevented is what appears to have happened in this case – a risky plant allowed to build where it should never have gone, and a civic administration that beyond providing normal fire and police service, has been hopelessly inept in assisting the victims of this unhappy event.
In Toronto, Mayor David Miller and his officials have set citizens’ heads to shaking with their claim that they had no way of preventing the construction, three years ago, of an incendiary propane plant situated smack between a Jewish cemetary and a densely-populated residential area. The plant of Sunrise Propane blew up on Sunday, killing two, demolishing a dozen or so houses, and sending thousands of residents fleeing.
But, by God, they’re going to put a stop to scavengers scoring wine bottles out of your garbage.
This tells you a couple of things about our society in general, and the “cover my ass” attitude of certain politicians, in particular.
In the wake of the inferno, Miller and his crew went before the TV cameras to make nicey-nice about how well the residents are dealing with the disaster. But the Mayor spent most of his time finger pointing. He was at pains to explain that the City of Toronto had no way of stopping the plant from being built where it was because the Province of Ontario prevented it from changing its bylaws back in the days of the Mike Harris Tory government. Now, the Mayor says, he’s ordered a review of the city’s zoning laws to prevent a similar future disaster. If they couldn’t prevent Sunday’s blow-up, how are they going to forestall something like this from happening again?
Stopping the Bottle Scavengers
Meanwhie, the Mayor and his Council are hell-bent to stop scavengers from rustling wine bottles and other deposit-returnables out of your garbage before the City can get to them. (Of course, you’re not supposed to put them there in the first place.) They’re robbing the City of valuable revenue to be gained from recycling, says the head of the garbage department. Once you put your garbage out, it’s City property, and only the City can touch it.
The Mayor has made a great fuss about his compassion and concern for the homeless. The fact that many if not most of the bottle scavengers are homeless doesn’t appear to count for much. Their initiative in crawling around our back alleys in the middle of the night is not something we’re supposed to appreciate.
Some of the folks who are beating the City out of bottle refunds and recycling revenue are said to be professionals who make a tidy profit out of getting there first. There’s a simple way to deal with this – turn a blind eye to individual collectors going their rounds, but crack down on the pros. Canadians take this approach to many laws — we prosecute the serious offender (like marijuana traffickers) but usually turn a blind eye to the kid with a toke in his backpack.
There’s an interesting untold side of the Sunrise Propane story. Other than a statement by the company’s lawyer that Sunrise was conforming with all by-laws and rules (and I’m sure they were), I haven’t seen a line or heard a word about what this means to the company. Are they fully insured? What’s happening to the workers? How does the owner feel about this catastrophe? Who IS the owner? Not a word.
I went to the Sunrise Propane web site and here’s the first thing I found: “Sunrise Propane and its employees take great pride in being able to deliver very competitively priced propane and industrial gases with exceptional service to all customers. Satisfied customers are the foundation upon which Sunrise Propane was built.”
I noticed a link to “Risk Management” and clicked on it, expecting to find something about safety precautions. This was not the type of risk Propane talks about. Their Risk Management “is a set of tools that help limit exposure to price swings.” And here I thought risk was all about saving your neck, not just your wallet!
The brouhaha about the illegal bottle collectors is a reminder that we still express little concern for the underclass in our economy. Not a lot has changed from the Hungry Thirties, as I was reminded this week in re-reading Hugh Garner’s great 1950 novel, Cabbagetown. It tells the story of young Ken Tilling, from his frustrating days at tech school, living with an alcoholic mother, holding down mind-numbing jobs (when he could get one), in love with a girl who becomes a whore, and ending with his joining the International Brigade to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
Garner’s book, most now agree, was a largely autobiographical stream of consciousness, with Tilling’s path paralleling his own life, including his volunteering to go to Spain. By present-day standards, it’s overwritten and could use a good edit. But get it from your library. And let me know if you don’t think much of what Garner writes about in terms of social injustice and economic explotation isn’t still going on.
With most people focussed on what’s going on in Beijing, the Harper government probably thought it a good time to slip out their announcement cancelling Canada’s support for sending our artists and writers abroad.
The decision to shut down the Promart program that provides funds to give Canada a cultural presence in other countries, was slipped out quietly just as our thoughts were on prospects for Canadian athletes at the Olympics.
It’s too soon to tell how we’ll do at Beijing. But it’s obvious that from this point on, we’re dead in the water as far as the “Cultural Olympics” is concerned.
Every major country in the world promotes its culture internationally. France has disseminated its cultural output abroad for generations, and the United States has backed up its cultural industries with geo-economic policies that have helped its film, music and book industries to gain world dominance. Britain, too, has been a consistent international promoter of its culture. The UK’s efforts all came together in the great “Cool Britannia” campaign that made London the world’s cultural hot spot in the 1990s.
But not poor old Canada. We’re too small, too broke, and too lacking in cultural originality to go about the world boasting of the work of our artists.
Mind you, Lawrence Hill has just won the Commnonwealth Prize for his stunning novel of historical realism, The Book of Negroes (Harper Collins Canada), sold in the United States under the title, Someone Knows My Name. We’v e had Booker Prize winners, stunning achievements in art at the International art biennial, and film producers like David Cronenberg and Sarah Polley have gained international stature.
The reason most countries promote their culture so vigorously is that it’s good business to do so. The billions of frances (and now Euros) that France has spent on its cultural attractions has only paid off a million or so times.
So why would the Harper government abolish the Promart program, which for less than five million dollars a year has gained international awareness for hundreds of Canadians through foreign showings, traveling exhibits, and personal appearances?
I’d say there are two big reasons. Number 1, the Harper tax cuts have squeezed the treasury so badly that Ottawa posted a deficit of half a billion dollars in the first part of the current fiscal year. With the softening of the economy, this could get worse. And Number 2, the Conservatives, for all the Prime Minister’s efforts to moderate his party’s right wing image, don’t trust anything with “culture” attached to it.
According to the Globe and Mail, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Anne Howland, said her department thought that some of the recipients “didn’t represent Canadian values.”
Then a secret Conservative Party memo delivered the final punch. It is said to have named the London-based Canadian author and correspondent, Gwynn Dyer, as a “left-wing columnist and author” with plenty of money of his own. Is Dyer’s crime being left-wing, or being well off? I once shared a beer with Gwynn in a Notting Hill pub. Politics aside, I’d rather see Dyer out there representing Canada than any politician you can name.
It’s not hard to understand why Stephen Harper chose to miss the Opening Ceremony of the Bejing Olympics. Too left-wing. Is this why Canada looks to miss the boat in the “Cultural Olympics?” Unless there’s a big change of policy, and soon, it’s going to become increasingly difficult for Canadian artists to show their mettle against the world. Write your MP!
It’s the second time the company’s been sold, a pretty good indication of what a solid business it is. ABE Books passed from the hands of its founders, Kathy Waters and her husband Keith and their partners Rick and Vivan Pura, to a German company in 2003. With its purchase by Amazon, booksellers (and some writers) are raising questions about what this means for the book world.
Hannes Blum – ABE CEO (by Darren Stone, Canwest News Service)
For anyone not familiar with ABE, perhaps the best way to describe it is as “the world’s biggest second-hand bookstore.” The web site represents 13,500 booksellers who carry an inventory of around 110 million used, rare and out-of-print books.
As in any corporate take-over, the folks from both companies are saying the sale will be good for ABE’s customers and its 135 emloyees.
“The staff and team will remain in place (in Victoria) and we expect to expand our offerings and introduce new features,”says Hannes Blum.
I tend to agree, although not everyone does. A new fee structure that went into place earlier this year frustrated many of ABE’s partners. Christine Volk, of the Independent Online Booksellers Association, says there’s disappointment that ABE “is not sticking to what it started out to be, which was, ‘well’ll never get in between the buyers and the booksellers.’”
I’ve bought dozens of books through (not from) ABE in the last few years, making it my favorite bookstore in terms of total purchases. As a writer, I’v e found ABE terrific for sourcing books I need for research that even the libraries don’t hold.
When I was doing the early research for my upcoming historical novel, Lives of My Fathers, I needed to learn everything I could about the lives of peasants and landlords in Tudor England. ABE came to my rescue with one of the most fabulous books I’ve ever read, the beautifully-written The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century. What kind, you say, of dull academic work is that? In fact, it’s a gripping and compelling account of England’s struggle out of feudalism and into the modern world.
The author, a young man named R.H. Tawney, published it in 1912. He was a socialist-minded economist from a wealthy land-owning family. That didn’t prevent him from seeing the evils that accompanied England’s transition to modern agriculture. And he wrote about it in a way that almost let you touch the pitchforkin the hands of a 16th century yeoman.
Tawney’s special interest was the enclosure movement. It was a kind of reverse land reform, when once-open strips that any peasant could hunt on or use to graze his animals, were gobbled up and enclosed into private farmsteads. Many suffered, of course, but the enclosures led to more efficient farming.
Writing of the old manor lands where tenants enjoyed communal cultivation of the land, Tawney said:
“The surface of a manor was covered with a kind of elaborate network of rules apportioning, on a common customary plan, the rights and duties of everyone who had an interest in it. A man must let his land lie open after harvest; he must not keep more than a certain number of each kind of beasts on the common; he must plough when his neighbours plough, and sow when his neighbours sow.”
Maybe not sexy stuff by 21st century standards, but written with feeling and heart.
Back to ABE Books. Some writers think they should get a cut from the resale of their titles, on the grounds that the “intellectual property” it represents rightfully remains with the author. Aside from the obvious logistical difficulties of trying to do this (which perhaps could be overcome), it’s a great concept. I’d love to hear what my readers think about it.
It was one of the most iconic moments ever recorded in Canada – the driving of the Last Spike that marked the completion of the transcontinental railway linking British Columbia with the rest of the nation.
Pierre Berton, in his two-volume history of the Canadian Pacific Railway (The National Dream, 1970 and The Last Spike, 1971, both by McClelland & Stewart), helped immortalize the picture of the driving of the Last Spike when he declared it “the most famous photograph ever taken in Canada.”
The picture was taken on November 7, 1885, at the tiny mountain outpost of Craigellachie, B.C. The photographer’s name was Alexander J. Ross. The man who drove the last spike into the tie on which that last rail rested was CPR director Donald A. Smith, later Lord Strathcona.
But what’s always interested me about the picture is the young boy peering out from behind Smith’s top-hatted self. He was an 18-year-old lad from Victoria, B.C., named Edward C. Mallandaine.
Now, I’ve had the chance to tell his untold story — and my conenction with him — in the current issue of The Beaver, Canada’s national history magazine.
My story, The Boy in the PIcture, accompanies a selection of the 10 most memorable photos in Canadian history, as selected by a panel of picture experts.
Mallandaine Photo is Special
The Last Spike photo has a special meaning for me because the boy in it grew up to be the mayor of my home town in B.C. And although I was a very small boy when he was still alive, I remember him well. He — and that photo — are my links with the Canadian past. Canada’s entire history since Confederation has unfolded during the lifetimes of just the two of us.
In case you’re interested, here are the top five of the 10 most important photos as chosen by The Beaver panel:
1. The Last Spike (1885)
2. Wait for Me, Daddy (small boy watches Dad go off to war, 1940)
3. Henderson’s Goal (Game-winning shot in Canada vs Russia hockey tourney, 1972)
4. Terry’s Journey (Courageous amputee Terry Fox running across Canada, 1980, see cover, above)
5. Standoff at Oka (Soldier faces Mohawk warrior, 1990)