Tuesday, February 7, 2017


 I've seen a post going around on facebook that talks about the poison skittles analogy: the one where the author states that they would gorge themselves on skittles. I thought they made a good point, but was a bit reluctant to say the same. I think my kids would be sad if I ate a poison skittle. But today it occurred to me that I am already living with the risk that I may get in the path of a violent radical. That basically means that I am already eating out of a big bowl with poison skittles in it. And if somebody adds more skittles to the bowl which have actually been vetted by people trained to recognize poison skittles, that might in fact decrease the odds of me picking a poisoned one. So I feel pretty comfortable saying to bring them on, even without bringing any particular altruism to the table.

Make sense to any other cowardly but math literate folks?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Iago and Emilia (I Will Speak)

 There has been some controversy about the play Othello in Edmonton lately. I am not going to wade in on the specifics of that situation, but I do want to say that I would be sorry to see this play pushed out of sight and out of mind because of controversy around the titular character. The reason is quite simple. If we lose Othello, we also lose Iago and Emilia.

Of all the plays I've been to at our local outdoor Shakespeare festival, probably the one that left the biggest impression on me was Othello. The reason was the superb performance by the actor who played Iago. He delivered his lines in a way that made me see how such a person could convince people that he was an honest man, to be trusted above others as a source of truth.

The world is afflicted right now with a plague of Iagos. The problem is not just lies. It is twisting of facts to demonize opposing viewpoints and establish oneself and one's allies as the only trusted sources of knowledge. It is the abuse of that trust to mislead people and to incite them toward destructive acts.

We need, like Emilia, to stand up and speak out when we discover this happening around us. We need to do so even, or perhaps especially, when it may seem to be against our own interests, and those at fault claim to be on our side. I am not talking about preventing anyone from speaking, but about challenging the things that they say and holding them accountable.

I would like to leave you with two quotes, both spoken by Emilia: one an accusation and one a credo.

Your Reports Have Brought this Murder On.

I Will Speak as Liberal as the North.

Immigration Stories

I have noticed that some of those who are critical of our current refugee programs are saying that we should not try to justify them by talking about early immigrants, because those immigrants were not supported by government funding or handouts. I would like to share a couple stories from the early twentieth century in my local area, which I hope will help to illustrate a couple of points. First of all, I do not think we should romanticise the struggles and hardships of early immigrants. We may admire their perserverence and spirit, but we should not want to return to a situation where people had to work so hard for so little. Secondly, I would like to point out that early immigrants did get help from the Canadians who welcomed them, so far as they were able in a time when there was little money to go around. I believe Canadians who welcome refugees, whether by directly raising money to sponsor them, or by advocating for them, are fulfilling the dream of many who came before them that wished they could do more to help.

My father-in-law, Bob Kennedy, immigrated to Edmonton as a small child. After a few years, his family fell on hard times. At that time there was a relief program in Edmonton, but only for men who would do labour in exchange for the money. Here in Canada, that meant things like shovelling snow off the streets. Bob signed up for this program. At age ten, instead of attending school, he worked a full time man's job in order to support his family.

In 1929, around the same time that Bob was working in Edmonton, Frank arrived in Fort Saskatchewan. He had come from Yugoslavia, and hoped to earn enough money to send for his wife and two sons to join him. He managed to get work at a farm near Josephburg, but the money he was able to save accumulated slowly, and he was worried about his family's safety. He convinced his employer, Charles Thomas, to give him extra money in exchange for putting in extra hours at night, digging a ditch. He dug a two mile long ditch by hand, but still did not have enough money to send for his family. By now a decade had gone by and his sons were teenagers. Frank received word that they were going to be conscripted into the German army. At this point Charles raised the money that was needed, and loaned it to Frank. Thanks to his help, the family was able to leave Europe just before outbreak of war.

Frank's story is told in more detail by Helen Lavender under the title "Ditch of Dreams" in the anthology Under the Wide Blue Sky. If you live in Alberta, you should be able to get a copy by way of the TAL library system. But I actually want to recommend a different book.

When we talk about the dangers of letting possible terrorists into the country, by and large the people that cause the most concern are young men. We need to remember that so often, just like Frank's sons, the young men trying to leave troubled countries are doing so in order to avoid being forced into military service against their conscience. When we help a young man to avoid being forced to fight for the Islamic State, we are not just showing kindness to him, we are denying them a soldier.

So because it deals with exactly that theme, and because I think it would be nice to make a point through humour after depressing everybody with real life stories, I would like to recommend Harry Harrison's book The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted. It is a bit dated, but still a good read, with the trademark dry humour that distinguished all the books in that series. And even if you find the whole thing completely unrealistic, you may still be left with a feeling that Mr. Harrison had his heart in the right place.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Rural Schools

And here is what I sent to my provincial representative today. I have decided it is time for me to become that curmudgeonly letter writing crank I always suspected I would turn into some day:

One of the questions that I have been asking myself lately is why parties like the NDP have so much difficulty gaining ground among rural voters. I think one of the reasons is simply that they do not have access to many of the programs that we are funding with their tax dollars. Funding for arts and culture is perceived as going almost exclusively to urban areas.
I have been involved in a lot of cultural activities over the years, including youth theatre productions and other educational activities for youth, folk dance, storytelling, and events promoting local writers. One of the biggest difficulties for those of us who try to organize cultural activities is the lack of affordable space, both for events and for ongoing rehearsals and meetings. This is difficult even in Edmonton, but much more so in rural areas where there are few venues for a group to meet.
Schools play a huge role in providing a space for cultural activities, as well as athletic activities, and many other things that help create vibrant communities. The decision on whether to support rural schools is not just about efficient use of our tax dollars. It is about supporting vibrant rural communities where families have a place to get together and engage in the activities that matter to them.
There is also a strong environmental case for rural schools. Start with the extra distance that children must be bussed. Then add on the extra distance their families must go every time they pick up their kids from an after-school activity or meet with the teachers. Assume that some of those kids who can no longer take part in sports and cultural activities that were hosted at their school will not simply miss out, but will be driven further to take part in activities elsewhere. It adds up to a lot of extra fossil fuels, and a lot of extra time for people with their butts in the seats of vehicles.
The Ministik school, right here in our riding, is currently being considered for closure. I am sure that you are keeping abreast of the situation, but I want to encourage you to truly look at the whole picture here. It is my sincere opinion that our province could use more small rural schools, not fewer.

Black History in Alberta

I read in the news that Alberta is officially recognizing February as Black History Month. In honour of that I would like to share a story, though unfortunately it is one I only know the bare outlines of.

One of the founders of the storytelling circle I belong to, TALES Strathcona, was Helen Lavender. Helen told many sorts of stories, but now and then she would relate stories of her own life, often beginning with how she came to Alberta as a baby in a Bennett Buggy during the early 1930s. Another thing that she spoke of only once or twice, but that really stuck in my mind, was a certain couple who were neighbours and friends of her family when she was a young child, living in rural Alberta. This couple was very elderly: I have it in my head that she said they were both about a hundred years old, but I am not absolutely sure I remember that detail correctly. The detail I am sure I remember right is that they were both just thirteen years old when they ran away from slavery together, and came to Alberta on the underground railroad. They homesteaded together, working hard to create a new life for themselves. Helen remembered them as kind, welcoming people, still very much in love with one another.

I think most modern people would feel that thirteen is too young to decide to spend the rest of your life with someone. But you can't apply ordinary rules to something like this. In a better world the two of them would have had time to grow up in security and freedom and leave such decisions for later years. They did not have that privilege. They had the courage to take a chance on a better life together, and they were able to build that life here in our province. I think it is a part of our history that is worth remembering.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Freedom of Travel

I am pasting in here a copy of the email that I sent today to the Prime Minister, the Immigration Minister, and my MP.

I know that you are hearing from many Canadians right now who want to see our country help the people currently affected by the US ban. I wish to add my voice to those urging our government to remove the US status as a safe haven, fast track the processing of refugees who have already been vetted by the US, and raise targets for admission of refugees. But I also want to see some assurance from the Canadian government that our border agencies will treat all travellers as free human beings, entitled to basic rights.
When a traveller is detained, their family and lawyers should be given access to them, and they should have the right and opportunity to initiate communication with their family and lawyers. This is particularly essential if the traveller being detained is a minor: there is simply no excuse for refusing a parent access to their child. If Canada does not have regulations which provide for these rights, we should.
Many of the changes I have seen over the past decades to airport security, such as the strict rules for what may be brought in carry-on luggage, do help me to feel safer when I travel. But I am not convinced that there is a sufficient gain in safety to justify policies which are increasingly preventing legitimate travel by innocent people. There needs to be greater transparency and clearer means of appeal for travellers who are put on no-fly lists, or are otherwise barred from travel.
I also have concerns about the recent changes that demand Canadian citizens always travel on a Canadian passport. Since I became a citizen of Canada I have not renewed any passport other than my Canadian one, and use it exclusively for travel. I do not understand why somebody who has moved from Canada to another country should not be able to do the same. It can be very difficult to renew a passport from overseas. I think that when regulations are made, we should always consider whether we would consider that regulation reasonable if other countries were to put similar rules in place.
The freedom to travel is more than just a luxury. Travel allows family to be with each other at critical moments in their lives. It allows experts in many fields to meet with their counterparts in other countries to share knowledge, helping to build a better future for us all. It allows athletes, who have trained hard to represent their countries, to compete in friendship with their counterparts from around the world. I hope that Canada will stand out in the coming years as a nation that supports this freedom.