Friday 31 August 2007

Jack's Been Around This Week, but Stéphane Was In Newfoundland: the Outremont By Election

The Federal Liberals just finished their pre-Parliament caucus session in Newfoundland yesterday, while the New Democratic Party MPs were in Montreal earlier in the week doing the same thing. Interesting choice of meeting locations, given that Montreal is the site of a very interesting Federal by election in the multi-ethnic but largely Francophone riding of Outremont.

Jack Layton had already gone door to door with NDP candidate Thomas Mulcair in Outremont several times, but on Monday about 10 NDP MPs (the ones who speak good French, mainly) joined him and about 60 volunteers to canvass. The reaction was warm by all accounts: certainly it looks like the NDP has chance here this time. While NDP candidates have frequently done well, getting as much as 20 per cent of the vote in a three way race, Outremont has always elected a Liberal with one exception. That was in 1988 when outgoing Liberal Lucie Pépin and the NDP’s Louise O’Neill split the left and left-centre vote and allowed PC Jean-Pierre Hogue to slip through and win.

Liberal leader Stéphane Dion has been campaigning here too for his hand-picked candidate, historian and journalist Jocelyn Coulon. But he hasn’t been as visible as Jack Layton, which may be a strategic choice on the part of the Liberal party campaigners. Dion doesn’t fly as high as Layton does around here, which is perhaps a major reason why the Liberal MPs caught flights to St. John’s.

Thursday 30 August 2007

Dense Development on an Island in the St. Lawrence: A Good Idea in a Bad Place?

Eighteen thousand signatures on a petition in a couple of weeks isn't a bad score. At issue is a development of 2000 or so housing units on 24 acres in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. The project will either infringe disastrously on a provincial park, or be a model of sustainable development and dense urban planning, take your pick.

Developer Luc Poirier wants to build the high rise development on Ile Charron, one of the Iles de Boucherville. The group of small islands were formerly used for farming and pasturage, but most of them now make up the Parc national de Iles de Boucherville. Just 15 minutes from downtown Montreal, the islands are linked by pedestrian bridges and cable ferries, and criss-crossed by walking and biking trails. Birdlife is abundant, and a herd of deer graze the meadows. Last summer one of the best outings we had was an afternoon walking the the trails, followed by a picnic at the edge of the water. A lovely experience very close to the center of the city.

In order to protect this, Nature Quebec and government officials from the municipalities on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, which have planning jurisdiction over Ile Charron, presented the petition denouncing the development plan to provincial environmental officials on Wednesday

Ile Charron, crossed by a major highway into the city, already has a big hotel and a golf course. Developer Poirier insists that his project will not harm the provincial park itself, and will actually be a model of how to build with environmental concerns in mind. The buildings will be designed for high LEED ratings, with such things as green roofs and state-of-the-art energy conservation features, he told Radio Canada Thursday morning. Walking and bike riding will be encouraged within the project. There also will be shopping so residents can run errands on foot, and shuttle links to the nearest Metro station are planned to insure that residents won't be car-dependent. "We have outstanding urbanists on our team," he said.

Well, at least he's talking the talk. But will he walk the walk? This is one to follow: it could be this is a case of a not-bad idea in a bad place.

Wednesday 29 August 2007

Recycling Those Machines: Quebec and Big Box Chain Agree to Computer Recycling Program

You can turn in your computer and other electronics for recycling at Quebec’s Bureau en gros, the chain of big box office supply stores called Staples elsewhere. The Quebec government has just reached an agreement with the chain, which has stores throughout the province, to provide the service for free. This makes recycling of old computers much cheaper here than many other places: Staples outlets in the US charge between $10 and $20 to take electronic equipment off your hands for recycling, and a Google search didn't turn up such a program elsewhere in Canada.

Of course, the electronic information age was supposed to do away with a lot of waste, and it may do so yet: I know I use less paper than I once did when writing, since I rarely print anything any more. For my last two books—the novel After Surfing Ocean Beach (Dundurn Press, 2004) and Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places (Véhicule Press, 2006)—I didn’t even have page proofs in the usual sense. The files were sent to me as Word documents and I made the changes on them.

But what do when the technology makes your computer obsolete? The top of one of our bookcases is home to half a dozen Macs of various ages,, and I hesitate between wanting to find a home for them, and hoping to keep them long enough to have a little Mac museum. If you look around you may find a charity that will take recent–generation computers off your hands, and ship them off some place for use by an NGO or other charity. But the projects tend to depend on the good will and energy of volunteers, who may move on to another project after a while. Montreal's
has such a project, but it is limited in extent to students and staff.

The new Quebec/Bureau en gros program should help out a lot here. Maybe the next step will be the kind of legislation that the states of Texas and Oregon have which require computers to be recycled at the expense of manufacturers.

Tuesday 28 August 2007

Department of Eating My Words: Good Books Division

All right, I was wrong: historical novels about writers can be very good in their own right. Conceit by Mary Novik (Random House Canada) is a case in point. It begins with John Donne's daughter rescuing his funeral effigy from St. Paul's during the Great Fire of London in 1666, and then proceeds forward and backward in time to tell a wonderfully complex story of Donne, his wife and his daughter Pegge. Novik obviously has done much research into the period and Donne's work, but as she says in her acknowledgement, this is her 17th century. That appears to have given her the liberty to create something extremely good.

In the same post, I criticized Colm Toìbin's The Master, so perhaps I should report how good I found his The Story of the Night. Published in 1995, it takes place a decade earlier in Argentina where Richard Garay, son of an English woman and an Argentine man, finds himself translating for Americans who seem to be operatives of the CIA. The book gives an acerbic view of US involvement in South America, local government corruption and South American mores. It also treats homosexuality and AIDS with compassion...and passion.

Both these books are good reads, and I stand corrected.

Monday 27 August 2007

Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society: The View from Montreal

Things are back to normal, almost, in downtown Montreal this morning, and Mayor Gérald Tremblay is demanding that the owners of spaces in the underground city fully inspect their facilities. After a weekend of frantic work--a thousand steel supports were installed--a 1000 ton concrete slab underneath de Maisonneuve boulevard has been reinforced over the basement of The Bay department store and the passage from it to the McGill Metro station. On Friday afternoon workers at the store (which owns the passage and is supposed to maintain it) noticed cracks in the roof of the part of the store beneath the street, opened in the mid-1960s when the Metro was built. The whole area was immediately shut down—stores, office buldings, streets and the busiest line of the subway system.

Tremblay said in one of the press conferences he gave over the weekend that who is responsible for problem would be determined after the repair work was done, as would who will pay for it. The important thing was fix the problem.

This comes, of course, just a few weeks after a bridge went down in Minnesota and a fact finding investigation here on the collapse of an highway overpass completed its hearings. Once again the importance of having competent government which looks out for the public interest and security is underlined. The private sector can not be counted on, and cutting back on government only makes things worse.

And unfortunately we should not be surprised when things begin to fall apart. Constant work must be put into repair and replacement if our constructions—and our civilization—are to continue. My Saturday Photo was a young city worker, picking up trash, which at first seems only a small part of the problem. But remember that past societies destroyed themselves through toxic decline (disease bred in sewage for example) or actual submergence (in the Babylon of Nebuchdnezzar II streets were rebuilt at least twice to keep them up to the level of the constantly growing mounds of trash outside the doors of the houses.)

Without continual work, any empire, any city, any civilization will be weathered out of existence. As Shelley wrote as the grand works of the Pharohs were just being excavated in Egypt :

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, written in 1818

And as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said a couple of decades later:

Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.

Saturday 25 August 2007

Saturday Photo: Keeping It Clean and Green

Keeping a city clean and green is non-stop work--and Montreal has been criticized recently for the amount of trash blowing around its streets. But this summer, a number of the boroughs have made a concerted effort to clean things up. This young worker pushes his cart around the Plateau district, sweeping and picking things up. On this particularly day, he had quite a bit to do as papers put out for the recycling collection were blowing around. But the street looked a lot better than it had in years past.

Friday 24 August 2007

Véhicule Press's Spectacular Garden, and Botanical Gardens As Sources of Ideas

The garden (seen at the right) is looking a little monochrome these days. The Rudbeckia is in bloom in back, and the boneset has sent its tall spikes with white flowers above the leaves of things which have already bloomed. But so far no asters and the golden rod, with three shoots in front and one in back, just really doesn't get enough sun, it seems.

Last weekend we had a chance to see another small city garden, that of my publishers Simon Dardick and Nancy Marelli. They get more sun, so their roses bloom nearly non-stop while they have many other flowers--most of them perennials--which bloom in sequence from May through October. Their skill and their interest in plants and gardening are echoed in the book list of their house, Véhicule Press. Not only have they brought out two of my "green" books, Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens and Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, they will publish the first of a gardening trilogy this fall by Montreal-based garden expert Stuart Robertson.

"How do you do it?" I asked Nancy after I'd complained about the lack of flowers in my own garden this time of year and praised their abundance.

"Go see what's in bloom in the botanical garden," she promptly replied.

Of course, why hadn't I thought of that earlier! In a well laid out botanical garden you'll find plants growing in many niches, along with information about their culture and peculiarities. It is a fantastic way to see just what does well where and what time of year. So that's the outing for this weekend, if it doesn't rain too much. Or early next week, for sure.

Thursday 23 August 2007

"After the First Death There Is No Other:" Two More from Canada Dead in Afghanistan

In 1946 Dylan Thomas published an enigmatic poem, "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of Child in London." The poem was written after the German fire-bombing raids, and I have long puzzled over it. Did Thomas mean that repeated deaths remove the horror of individual deaths? Or that our outrage should begin with the first death and continue unabated thereafter?

Whatever Thomas's intentions, some time ago--toward the end of the Vietnam war--I decided that I must interpret the poem in the latter fashion. Two young soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment were killed Wednesday: that makes three in a week. With them went their Afghan interpreter: I have no idea how many Afghans have been killed this week. This is terrible news, and unfortunately just another bit in an escalating mountain of bad news about Afghanistan.

Unlike the case of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were good arguments for intervening in Afghanistan in 2001, and for a time it seemed that the multi-national force was making a difference. But things have gone very wrong. We obviously are not winning the hearts and minds of Afghans. A cynic would say that the major accomplishment has been to convince the Taliban to encourage opium poppy growing, even though they had one time had eliminated it.

This mission must be re-evaluated. We must support our troops by bringing them home. To do otherwise is truly outrageous.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

The Problem with Biographical Fiction—or Maybe Just Biographical Fiction about Writers

The Hours by Michael Cunningham is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, but the more I think, the more it seems to me that the lives of writers don’t make good fiction.

In the last week I’ve started to read two novels about Henry James by writers I admire very much-- The Master by Colm Toibin and Author, Author by David Lodge. After reading at least 75 pages in each I flung them aside in boredom and annoyance. What disappointments!

Toìbin’s book, which I understand becomes a sensitive treatment of James’s ambivalent sexuality, seems to ape James in style, while Lodge, whose other fiction without exception combines witty literary references with rollicking social commentary in well-told stories, appears to be a lightly fictionalized biography. I don’t know though because I couldn’t finish either.

Was it fascination with the process of literary creation and the effects of failure on the writerly psyché that tempted Toìbin and Lodge to write such respectful but ultimately uninteresting books?

Would they have written better novels if they had allowed themselves to take more liberties with James’s life? Perhaps, like Michael Cunningham, they should have somehow mixed their subject into a stew with other elements to create something much less biographical.

Making things up, using facts as the place from which to soar, is what fiction writers are supposed to do. Would that Toìbin and Lodge tried some aerial tricks with Henry James, whose life was, after all, so solidlly anchored in a particularly, rather stuffy milieu.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

Sounds of the End of Summer?

The goldfinches are chittering. I heard them in our backyard, up the street and over in the park. This is the time of year when this season’s crop of birdlings leave the next and prepare for winter. For goldfinches this appears to begin with little outings in the neighborhood of the home nest, followed by longer flights until it is time to move on.

The nighthawks already seem to have moved farther afield. Usually we hear them until the week of Labour Day, hooting and buzzing in the night as they search for insects. Perhaps because the unusual cold—it has been down to 8 or 10 C (in the high 50s F) for the last three nights--they may have started to go south in search of bugs which--temporarily at least--have stopped flying around in the evening chill.

These are signs of summer coming to a close, just as are the yellow masses of Rudbeckia in many gardens and the wooden crates of red tomatoes at the Jean Talon Market. We may have some hot days yet—we surely will—but the sun is lower in the sky at midday. We are, after all, as far from the summer solstice as we were in late April.

All of which means that plans have got to be made for the next season. School, work, harvest. Makes me tired just to think of it....

Monday 20 August 2007

From Washington to Ottawa and Beyond: The Importance of Opposition

Who makes the decisions in a free society? Who are the real “deciders,” as George Bush calls them? And once the decisions are made, who sees that they’re properly put into effect?

The questions are rhetorical, but they've also loomed large in my thoughts this summer. First, I’ve been struggling to assess the results of some grand schemes undertaken by governments: Haussmann’s transformation of Paris and Lee Kwan Yee’s great plan for Singapore are two which in the balance—probably, maybe, I’d like to think—have been worth the effort.

But so often the big plans put forth by leaders—whether or not they’re “democratically elected”—are questionable. They may be poorly thought-out, or they may be the result idealogy that fogs all thinking. The response of the United States to the event so 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq are clearly examples.

This is where an informed and assertive opposition comes in. Democracies are nothing if there are no voices raise to contest what is going on. This is why protests at Montebello this weekend are so important when Bush, Harper and Calderòn are “chatting.”

And this is why the recent failure of the US Democratic party effectively to counter legislation on secrecy and eavesdropping is so disappointing. The New York Times said on Sunday that what was passed by the US Congress is actually worse than the legislation it was supposed to replace. Good lord, where were you guys? The Democrats have got to be more awake than that if they expect ever again to improve US life.

And that is why I’m hoping that Thomas Mulcair will win in the Outremont by election in Canada. He is a maverick—he fought with the provincial liberals over a number o issue. He lost those battles but it appears that he won’t quit fighting. Good on him!

Saturday 18 August 2007

Saturday Photo: Sunken Garden on Avenue du Parc

People who want to make their corner of the city green can be marvelously creative. This sunken garden on Montreal's Park Avenue between Fairmount and Saint-Viateur uses the steps in front of a basement store front (which itself has been converted into an apartment) to make a lovely private garden.

Thanks to Anne Chudobiak for pointing it out.

Friday 17 August 2007

Heritage Minister Verner: Just Speaking the Language Doesn't Mean You Speak the Language

Josée Verner is the new Minister of Canadian Heritage, replacing Bev Oda. Talking to some friends in the cultural community here the first positive reaction is that at least she speaks French. Bev Oda didn’t and people in the Quebec culture world found that annoying to say the least. In the round-up stories after Verner’s appointment was announced much was made of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec next year, and how the Heritage minister really should be able to greet people properly at the festivities.

But speaking a language is not the same as communicating or listening. Bev Oda speaks English, but I think you’d have to search hard for someone in the Anglophone culture world who thought she was open to dialogue. She met with practically no groups or arts spokespersons, Anglophone or Francophone, during her tenure. It’s unclear what her thoughts were on many of the dossiers, it appeared that she was only following the party line of the Harper government that culture isn’t to be taken seriously. Even the argument that cultural industries are major players in the Canadian economy didn’t seem to be understood.

So while Verner may be better able to communicate with all segments of the Canaadian cultural world than Oda was, don’t expect very much. Stephen Harper is still calling the shots, and he doesn’t seem to care.

By the way, the latest book that Yann Martel has sent the Prime Minister is Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel García Márquez, chosen, Martel says, because of Harper’s recent trip to Latin America. It was mailed a week ago Monday, so perhaps it’s too soon to expect a response—but then there hasn’t been one to any of the eight other books Martel has sent, aside from a brief note of acknowledgement for the first one.

People in the Montreal area who would like to discuss that one—The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy are invited to either of the two book discussions groups I lead. We’ll be discussing it in French at the Bibliothèque Robert-Bourassa in Outremont on Tuesday September 11, and in English on Wednesday, September 12, at the Atwater Library.

Thursday 16 August 2007

Rabbit-proof Fence, Rain, Cold and What We're Doing to This Planet

A friend has just returned from a couple of weeks in New Brunswick where he and his family had gone to vacation and to help out friends with the harvest. Only it seems that it has been so cold that crops are ripening three weeks later than usual.

That has to be balanced by the heat wave in Greece early in the summer, just the way the current drought in Turkey finds its opposite in the torrential rains which have fallen recently in Great Britain, India, Pakistan, Nepal and—just last week-- North Korea.

What’s going on?

Some of this variation must be due to weather cycles that the earth would normally experience. But if you have any doubt about the way human acitivity affects weather, a story in Tuesday’s New York Times should start you thinking. To stop ravages by rabbits in the outback, a hundred years ago Australian authorities built a 2,000 mile long rabbit-proof fence. On one side is native vegetation, on the other is farmland: satellite photos show the line in dramatic fashion. But what is even more striking is the fact that there are rain-producing clouds much more often on one side than on the other. Rainfall on the farmland side has actually been reduced by 20 per cent since the 1970s.

The NYT gives a couple of hypotheses about why this might be, but no definitive answer. Fair enough: winkling out the hows of any natural phenomen should be done carefully. But what is clear is that human activity has profoundly changed that landscape. We see only what is in front of us, our memories are short, and most of the time we don't want to think about the consequences of our actions. The results can be disastrous, and it's time we began to take a longer view.

For another view of Australia, the fence, and the havoc humans can wreak, check out the excellent film Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Colm Toìbin, David Lodge, Henry James: It's How You Tell the Story

Funny where your reading can lead you. I started out this summer reading novels by Émile Zola as I tried to understand mid-19th century Paris for a book in part about Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the architect of the great tranformation of that city. But I realized soon that I already had seen part of the world in novels written by American novelist Henry James, so I dipped back into them. Then this week I discovered that two recent novels about Henry James by writers I admire were available in the library,and last night I sat down with them.

The books are The Master by Coim Toìbin and Author! Author! by David Lodge. Both writers—two of my favourites--turned to James for inspiration, featuring, apparently, the same sad episode in his life, the dreadful failure of his play Guy Domville in January, 1899.

Verdict? Well, the jury is still out because I have not read very far in either of them. Partly that is due to my annoyance with the way Toibin begins his book with the same, heavy, complicated sentences that James favoured. Why, I thought as I put the book on the beside table, should I read imitation James when there are a half dozen original James novels waiting downstairs for me to re-read?

The Lodge books starts out more briskly, with James’ man servant thinking about his recent military service in World War I while the great writer lies dying. It doesn’t appear to be imitation anything, and, as I have grown increasingly impatient with the rich and famous in my old age, I found the treatment of ordinary people far more interesting than Toibin’s torturous presentation of James’s agony over his theatrical failure.

But these are both just the beginnings of the books. I may change my mind. What is certain is that this pair of novels underscore the truth in the adage that it’s not the story, it’s how you tell it that’s important.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

The Metro Wins: Tales of Transport Time in Montreal

I've heard it said that the quickest way around a city for distances under five kilometers is by bike. I don’t know, and I don’t think I’m ever going to find out because for me riding a bicycle is like diving: something I could do if someone’s life depended on it, but which I’m not going to volunteer for.

Walking and taking public transportation is another matter though, and yesterday I thought I’d see how long it would take to walk from my house in Outremont to the Westmount Library on the other side of Mount Royal.

Mapquest says the distance is 6.48 kilometers or 4.03 miles and should take 13 minutes in a car. I probably travelled slightly less far since I was cutting through park land for a good part of the way, but I did have to climb to the top of the mountain and then go down the other side. Time elapsed: about an hour and a quarter.

Then on the way home I decided to take the Metro around to a camera store where I had some photos waiting. According to Mapquest that’s 15.4 kilometers or 9.6 miles, and should take 17 minutes in a car (the route suggested would take you up on two expressways, however, and I know that frequently heavy traffic would make the time much longer.) On this one, the Metro was actually faster than the time Mapquest calculated for a car—about 15 minutes.

This morning my walk was nothing major, just one of the circuits I often use to start my day with a little exercise while thinking about writing projects. As I enjoyed the cool morning in greener parts of the city, it occured to me that my experience yesterday is another reason why the Toronto City Council should get its act together to save public services in that city.

When a couple of tax increases were turned down last month, the council there started talking about cutting service on one subway line completely. What a way to not make a city liveable. This is a file to watch, for certain.

Monday 13 August 2007

Outremont by-election: Who's Got the Greenest Campaign?

The placard skirmishes have begun in the federal by-election in the Montreal riding of Outremont. Thomas Mulcair’s New Democratic Party forces were first off the mark with their placards when the election was called late last month . The smallish (maybe 25 cm by 75 cm) orange and green-trimmed signs with Mulcair’s face in black and white went up on lampposts all over the riding almost immediately.

Bloc Québécois candidate Jean-Paul Gilson was next with a much bigger poster (a meter by a meter and half perhaps) showing Gilson with Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe. The first signs (the same size as the BQ’s signs but with no reference to the Conservative leader) for the Conservative candidate Gilles Duguay went up last Wednesday.

Strangely many of Mulcair’s signs disappeared the too, but that didn’t annoy the NDP campaign. What did was the fact that some of Duguay’s signs were attached to trees. Campaign director Raymond Guardia protested in writing to City of Montreal director general Claude Leger. “Trees are a precious but fragile part of our urban wealth which do much to improve the quality of life of citizens,” the letter said (my translation.)

So sorry, replied Daniel Pelletier, the Conservative organizer, and sent workers into the field immediately to take the posters down. “Our party also understands that trees must be protected.”

By the weekend the Mulcair signs had been replaced and the face of Liberal candidate Jocelyn Coulon had joined the crowd. His signs are the same size sign as the BQ and the Conservative ones, with no reference to the Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion.

Two Rhinos are talking about entering the combat, Brian Salmi (aka Satan) and Jacques Ferron, but so far the Green Party has not announced a candidate.

Saturday 11 August 2007

Saturday Photo: The Pink Bicycle

For several summers the folks who live on the corner of Lajoie and Pratt in the Outremont district of Montreal have filled the paniers of this bicycle with flowers. A nice combination of green things!

It probably also is a joking reference to a very popular French trilogy which takes place in the Paris of World War II, Le bicyclette bleue, which appears to have been largely inspired by Gone with the Wind. Well, it's better to have peacetime flowers than war, I think.

Friday 10 August 2007

Linda McQuaig: Toronto Tax Phobia Starves Transit

Straight Goods, an excellent on-line journal of independent news and views, has a good piece by Linda McQuaig this week. It's headline is:

Toronto tax phobia starves transit

City would rather slash subway services than implement land transfer tax.

Those who care about the future of cities should read it, whether they live in Toronto or not.

Rabaska LNG Plant: Proponents Plan PR Campaign

Proponents of the Rabaska liquid natural gas facility, proposed for a site just across the river from Quebec City, are not going to let opposition get away with challenging the plan. Le Devoir reported Thursday that elected officials in Lévis, the town which would be home to facility, and elsewhere in the Chaudière-Appalaches region will soon start a public relations campaign to convince doubters the plan is a good one, and that people in the area support it.

At the same time, Konrad Yakabuski, the Globe and Mail’s Quebec business specialist, argued in Thursday’s G&M that “Quebec would actually be doing itself - and the planet - a favour if it imported more natural gas for domestic use to free up more of its hydroelectricity for export." This would allow buyers in Ontario and the U.S. “to rely less on the worst greenhouse gas culprits - coal and oil - to produce electricity.” Quebeckers waste too much electricity, he added, largely because it is so low-priced here.

He’s partially right about waste, of course. Energy conservation has to be part of any environmental plan. But encouraging restraint is never very sexy, while the desire for jobs in small centres where most industry has left is understandable. The solution to many of this problems is going to come through education and--how can one put it otherwise?--that kind of persuasive propaganda we call public relations. Those elected officials in Lévis and environs understand that. Let's hope the other side does too.

Thursday 9 August 2007

Fiction, Memoir and Alice Munro

This last week I've taken a break from 19th century Paris, and read The View from Castle Rock (McClelland and Stewart, 2006) by Alice Munro. What a pleasure, and an interesting experiment in walking the boundary between fiction and non-fiction!

Munro has always drawn deeply on her own experience in creating her remarkable series of fictions, which in many respects are truer than non-fiction. When I first read The Lives of Girls and Women in the early 1970s I was blown over at their resonances with the lives led by women in my family. With some trepidation I bought a copy and sent it to a cousin whose struggle to break free of small time life was still going on at that time. She never commented on it, which I took then to mean just how uncomfortably close to her reality Munro’s stories were.

But at the age of 75, Munro suggests that Castle Rock is something closer to the facts about her life, that it approaches memoir in some respects. Part of the book consists of stories which she wrote over the years beginning with documents from her Laidlaw ancestors. At the same time, she says in the foreword to the book, she found herself writing about the figures in her own life, using their real names, but discovering that they began to take on new “their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality....You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does.”

In The View from Castle Rock, Munro writes with her usual elegance and elliptical economy. But, oddly, the stories are not as compelling as other fictions she has created out of the same life experience. It is as if writing “fiction” from the beginning allowed her really to soar, like her ancestor who said he could see America from Castle Rock in Edinburgh.

For the facts about her life, read Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up with Alice Munro ( McClelland and Stewart, 2002) by her daughter Sheila Munro or the literary biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, by Robert Thacker (McClelland and Stewart, 2005.) For marvelous literary experience, read any of her books of short fiction.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

City Critters and Civilization

The skunk—half grown, with shiny white stripes against glossy black fur—lay next to the curb, dead. It hadn’t been there long, I suspect, because it hadn’t begun to swell. It smelled though, the pungent aroma of frightened skunk. Caught in the headlights coming back before dawn from a foraging expedition? Or wiped out by some gardener who put out poison for city critters stealing from a vegetable patch?

The block I live on is composed of attached single family houses on lots 20 or 25 feet wide. Across the lane is a row of three storey flats—triplexes, they’re called here—on similar size lots. A couple of blocks to the west the pattern is less dense—single detached houses on somewhat bigger lots. This is the middle of Montreal, nevertheless.

It is also full of trees and small gardens, with two parks a couple of minutes stroll away. You have to cross a busy street to get to the cemeteries and woods of Mount Royal a half a kilometer to the south, but that doesn’t seem to stop wildlife from wandering into the more settled area. Skunks parade through our backyard regularly, raccoons have raised families under the hedge across the street, and last week a ground hog or marmot was munching its way through a litter of pears which had fallen from my two pear trees (it's a small garden, as I said, but we've got pears, blueberries and raspberries which make a valiant effort, if not very successful, to bear fruit.)

City wildlife is a both a blessing and a curse—the pears on the ground were there because they'd been stripped from the trees by an army of squirrels which nothing seems to dissuade from feasting on garden produce. I've given up yelling at them and even the husky across the lane doesn’t frighten them. In my less agitated moments, though, I recogize that these untamed animals show us again and again that we are not the centre of the universe. That's a good thing to remember as when we decide what to do about the damage we're inflicting on the planet as a whole.

But there are upsides to civilization: I told the student working as a guard in the nearby park about the skunk, and when I came back from my walk, the body was gone, picked up by the Outremont borough's road crew. Good: that’s what we pay taxes for, and as US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said: "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society."

Tuesday 7 August 2007

Radio Canada to Cut TV Advertising

When I finished writing the previous post I sat down to read Le Devoir, only to find a Page One story on how Radio Canada will be reducing its television advertising to eight minutes an hour, at a time when other broadcasters are gearing up to increase the amount, following a CRTC decision in May. The allowed advertising time will rise from 12 to 15 minutes in the fall, and in 2009 the CRTC-imposed cap will disappear altogoether in 2009.

Radio Canada will charge more per minute, the French language service's Richard Portelance told Le Devoir. Whether the CBC will follow the same trajectory is unclear.

Why is Rad Can doing this? To dissuade people from zapping through advertising? Or is the idea that a better case can be made for more federal support when the public broadcaster is not competing so hard with private broadcasters for the advertising dollar?

To be continued, as they used to say...

It's August, But the CBC Needs Some Letters Written

When the head-hunt for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s new president was announced a couple of weeks ago, the folks at Radio Canada made on-air jokes about who should apply. Their laughs sounded a little hollow, because many on both the French and English sides of Canada’s public broadcaster are pretty worried about what comes next.

Television programming is constantly in crisis, and over the last two years the “cultural” part of radio programming has profoundly changed. First the French service inaugurated “Espace Musique” which programs a lot less serious music than its predecessor did--and nothing about literature and theatre. Then this spring CBC’s Radio Two started down the same route. Now Canada Live broadcasts a mishmash of music seven nights a week from 8 to 10 p.m. instead of the solid concerts of serious music that we enjoyed for years. The same dumbing-down of programming has slopped over into other programs: Peter Togni’s Weekender now plays much less serious stuff and the Saturday Afternoon at the Opera no longer has knowledgeable Howard Dyck as its host.

The motivation behind these changes seems to be a desire to increase audience, but it's unlikely that it will work: if anybody looked at the ratings, they’d see that the fiddling of the last two years hasn’t changed listenership substantially. What really seems to be prospering are the dedicated classical music stations, like CJPX in Montreal.

Robert Rabinovitch, on whose watch as CBC/Radio Canada president these changes were made, is retiring and supposedly a nationwide search is on to find his successor. Also up for grabs is the English language Executive News Director. The chief head hunter is Egon Zehnder International. Resumés for the news job are supposed to be sent to no other than Egon Zehnder staffer Tom Long, a great friend of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and not a great friend of public broadcasting. It would appear that, if anything, the move from serious programming is likely to intensify. Are we going to lose “Ideas?’ Eleanor Wachtel? All literary discussion?

The CBC and Radio Canada have helped define Canada. They need solid funding, and a mandate to let us listen to the best we produce, be it music, literature or thought. Even though it’s August, a letter to an MP about the danger would be worth the effort.

Monday 6 August 2007

Thomas Mulcair and Blue Green Algae: A Hot Topic in Outremont?

Farmers who plant bushes and trees for the first 10 meters away from lakes and watercourses should receive compensation as part of a plan to reduce the problem of blue green algae, New Democratic Party candidate Thomas Mulcair (and former liberal provincial environment minister) said Sunday. The NDP will introduce a bill enabling the program across Canada when the House of Commons resumes sitting this fall.

At first glance, Mulcair’s announcement seems a bit strange for someone running in a by election in a riding in the center of Montreal. While Outremont had a few market gardens as late as the 1950s—it was famous for its cantaloupe-type melons—it never had more than a few streams and its two natural ponds were replaced by concrete basins by 1930. What is more, Mulcair’s announcement was made in the rural municipality of Saint Hyacinthe, where there also will be a by election September 17: Mulcair was at a rally for the NDP candidate there, Brigitte Sansoucy.

There’s method in Mulcair’s madness, though. He knows the subject well. Four years ago he put forward a plan to reduce phosphorus in Quebec’s waters, but in early 2006 he left the provincial liberals when he was pushed out of the environment and sustainable development ministry. And the Outremont riding is full of people concerned about water quality, either because they’re what are called here "ecolos," or because they have country places which may be endangered by blooms of cyanobacteria.

As I said before, the Outremont by election could be pretty interesting.

Photo: Parc Outremont from

Sunday 5 August 2007

Saturday Photo: One of North America's Most Loved Little Gardens

This house, not far from the Dofasco steel plant in Hamilton, Ontario, is a great example of how ordinary people have gone out of their way to make green spaces for themselves. Don't know when it was built, but the neighborhood was established in the early part of the 20th century to provide housing for workers within walking distance of Hamilton's many industries. Over the years houses have been been given additions and gardens have received constant care. If you want to learn more, see my essay at or check out the chapter on Hamilton in Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places.

Thursday 2 August 2007

Anita Kunz's New Yorker Cover, Henry James's The American, and Choices

There has been quite a bit of chat about the July 30 New Yorker cover which shows three young women on the subway, one dressed in a burka, one in a nun’s habit and the third—in between the other two—in a halter and shorts. The comments have tended to run toward the vituperative, to the extent of vilifying societies which “force” their women to cover themselves up. There also has been considerable speculation about the ethnicity of the sweetie wearing so little.

As I said in my earlier post, I think that women—particularly young women—are socialized to the norms of the society they live in. In mainstream North America much emphasis is put on sexual attractiveness, for its own sake and to sell things. So, while the girl in the halter top may have chosen to flaunt her youth and beauty, her “choice” is influenced by the culture around her. Same thing for the young nun: a Catholic upbringing still puts a high value on the religious life.

As for the woman in the burka, I have heard Western women who’ve spent time in Iran say that it can be liberating to pass through the world completely covered. I can’t comment on that since I’ve never tried it, but I do know that the Muslim world is far from being monolithic and given the variety of headscarves I see in Montreal these days, it would seem that an element of fashion is at work in the choices Muslim women make about their dress.

This discussion comes, as it happens, when I’m re-reading Henry James’s The American, where the choices of two attractive, intelligent women must be approved by their fathers and brothers. The words that James gives the women sound quite contemporary at times, so it is a shock to realize just how narrow their field of action is. In the 130 years since James wrote this book North American society has changed substantially, giving far more choices to women. Bravo, I say—but at the same time I don’t want to judge the choices made by women of other cultures.

Rabaska Protesters Muzzled by Legal Costs, Environmentalists Say

Those with the deep pockets win, it seems.

Ninety-three residents opposed to the plans for a new liquid natural gas port across the river from Quebec City have had to agreed not pursue their legal challenge to the project, because legal costs had grown too high.

Last September two environmental groups, the Coalition Rabat-Joie and the Association pour la protection de l’environnement de Lévis (the town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence where the Rabaska project is supposed to be built) started a court case against Rabaska and the city of Lévis, alleging that the project violated one of the town’s zoning ordinances. Rabaska challenged the competence of one of the expert witnesses called by the environmentalists, and legal fees rather quickly rose beyond their ability to pay, according to stories in Le Devoir and La Presse

This is not the first time—and it won’t be the last—when a big player has been able to stop protests by dragging out a legal process so long that their critics give up. I’m involved in one at the moment, a class action suit against the Montreal Gazette and other corporations for theft of electronic rights which was begun in 1997 and has made little headway. The media corporations involved would like to see us (the ERDC, the Electronic Rights Defense Committee) go away, but we’re not going to.

Can't let the bastards grind you down, if you can possibly help it.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Health Care and Aging: Where's the Fundamental Problem?

In some respects it’s not news at all: the Canadian Medical Association came out on Monday in favour of more privatization of health care while only days before Statistics Canada reported that Canada’s population is older than ever. Newspapers and electronic media followed with much hand wringing: whatever are we going to do about our health system?

Last summer the CMA elected Brian Daly as its president, someone who has been encouraging talk of a two tier health system for years. Therefore it should be no surprise that the CMA is proclaiming that doctors should be allowed to get paid for working in both public and private systems. (The practice has been forbidden in Canada since universal Medicare arrived in the 1970s—doctors here have to make the choice, and most choose the public. ) How allowing docs to work both sides of fence would change things is rarely addressed in these discussions, which seem to forget all about the great savings inherent in our single payer system. (See Michael Moore’s Sicko if you have any question about what a private insurance-driven mess our neighbor to the south has.)

But, you ask, how is Canadian Medicare going to face the challenge of an aging population (defined as people over 65)? Certainly, we’re probably going to have to spend more on end-of-life care, and less on infant immunizations, but this is a trend that has been going on for some time, a trend that we’ve actually been able to cope with very well, thank you very much. In fact the projected rate of increase in aging over the next 30 years will be no higher than the rate of increase has been for the last 30 years.

What’s needed, as a health economist close to my heart says, is the sort of modest economic growth that we’ve had historically and the will to recognize that great advantages of a publicly-funding, universal, single-payer system. As for the idea that a growing dependent population will be a burden unprecedented in our history, during the 1950s the ratio of dependents to tax-paying members of population was much higher than is projected for the future. Far fewer women worked then and a large proportion of the population was too young to work, while many people over 65 continue to work, and all must fill out income tax reports. (For more details see background papers of the Réseau de recherche en santé des populations du Québec, particularly the article "Le vieillissement de la population québécoise : les implications pour le financement des services de santé.")

What is disappointing is that these two reports have received so much media coverage, with little reference to the great body of research which puts things in perspective.

But then it's summer, and most people think the living should be easy...