Thursday, 30 April 2009

Signs of Spring: Road Painting and Recreating Eden

Last night I was awakened by a noise that I had a hard time placing. It sounded mechanical, with short bursts of higher intensity. Very strange in the middle of the night: loud voices in the street, music from a passing car, the occasional motorcycle are familiar, but this was something different. Then the faint smell of paint floated in the open window. Of course! City crews were remarking the cross walk lines. What I was hearing was a real sign of spring.

There is another, too--the splendid, almost luminous green of grass that has just started to grow after a winter under snow and ice. The lawns in the parks are a feast for the eye now, satisfying a hunger for green that is probably hard-wired into us. After all, on the savannas of East Africa where our ancestors evolved, close cropped green grass means rain, nearby water and large herbivores--in other words, a good habitat for hunters and gathers. Those early humans who were attracted to this kind of landscape were better providers, left more descendants, and here we are, eons later, trying to make green lawns in the semi-desert or the north woods or the tropics, trying to recreate the real Garden of Eden.

Photo: Grass in Parc Beaubien

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Looking after Business: Quebec Cabinet Ministers Can Now Own Companies They Award Contracts to

The old maxim was that Caesar’s wife should not only be virtuous but also have the appearance of virtue. It seems, however, that not only have many Quebec politicians thrown aside any pretense of virtue, they are now going to be able to do just about whatever please.

In the last month we’ve had scandals in the city of Montreal over the awarding of a huge contract for water meters. Earlier in the year questions were raised about a provincial health minister who was negotiating a contract to go to work for a private health service company while he passed directives giving the private sector more freedom to provide health services. The ex-minister, Philippe Couillard, came in for some criticism for the apparent conflict of interest, but according to rules introduced last month by the provincial government what he did would henceforth be perfectly all right.

In short the changes, introduced in March but only made public this week, completely remove the concept of conflict of interest from public life, because they allow a cabinet minister to own a company with which his or her ministry does business. ““It’s an open bar,” The Gazette quoted Stéphane Bédard, the PQ house leader, saying when the changes were raised in the National Assembly.

Where is Caesar now that we need him? Didn't the Obama victory mean anything to political leaders here? How can we turn the rascals out?

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Martyrs and Stillness: Yann Martel Goes on Vacation and Sends Stephen Harper Some Troubling Reading

Yann Martel has gone on vacation so he’s sent Prime Minister Stephen Harper two books to cover the month of April. It’s about time that Martel took some time off: he’s just completed two years of providing Harper with some bedtime reading, begun after Martel noticed how harried the PM was during a ceremony to celebrate the Canada Council’s 50th anniversary. What Harper needed was some “stillness” in his life.

The latest books aren’t likely to provide that, Martel says, even though one is what we used to call a comic book and is now called “graphica.’ It is Louis Riel, by Chester Brown, a biography of the Canadian Métis leader who became a martyr in some people's eyes. “Would the Parti Québécois have been elected in 1976 had Louis Riel and the Métis Red River settlers been treated more fairly by Ottawa?" Martel asks. "Or would that have lead Ontarians to elect an “Ontario Party” advocating union with the United States? What is clear—and you must surely know this from your own personal experience in politics—is that once prejudice and bad faith are entrenched among a people, it’s very hard to get them to get along.”

The second book is The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima, translated by John Nathan. Martel spends more time recounting the way Mishima killed himself by ritual suicide than in presenting the book, but he suggests that Chester Brown probably knows and admires Mshima’s “aesthetic” craziness. One of the wonders of books, Martel writes, is that they can “rest together without strife on a bookshelf. The hope of literature, the hope of stillness, is that the peace with which the most varied books can lie side by side will transform their readers, so that they too will be able to live side by side with people very different from them.”

Pax vobiscum, in other words. And, maybe, beware of people who will give their lives for their causes.

PS I forgot to mention Martel’s 52nd gift to Harper, Burning Ice: Art & Climate Change, a collaboration organized by David Buckland and the Cape Farewell Foundation and sent March 30. Now there is troubling reading. Needless to say, Harper hasn’t acknowledged that book any more than he has any but the first one.


Monday, 27 April 2009

What a Way to Celebrate Henry Purcell's 350th Anniversary!

As soon as I finish here, I'm going to put on a new CD that should be in a music store near you beginning today. It could be called "Henry Purcell's Greatest Hits", but officially it's Fantaisies pour Violes.

Les Voix Humaines (which includes our own favourite viols-da-gambiste Elin) recorded some marvelous music last winter, much of it on instruments that date from Purcell's time which belong to the University of Toronto. We had the pleasure of listening to Elin practice on one. The tone was absolutely fabulous, and I'm sure the CD is too.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Saturday Photo: Daffodils and Breakfast Outside

This morning was the first that it was warm enough to eat outside comfortably. Lee had rescued the plastic porch chairs from the garage yesterday, so I could sit, drink orange juice and watch things begin to grow in back.

There is a good two weeks difference between front and back in terms of the arrival in spring chez nous. The first daffodils are up in front, the snowdrops have disappeared and the violets' leaves are unfolding. But in back, where the snow melted only 10 days ago or so, the grass has barely begun to turn green. But the force that through the green fuse drives the flower (to quote Dylan Thomas) is at work there too. There are leaf buds on the raspberries and the kiwi, while the first leaves of the most-infelicitously-but-quite-descriptively named bleeding hearts are above the surface.

Friday, 24 April 2009

A Good Way to Celebrate World Book and Copyright Day: Raise a Glass to the Electronic Rights Defence Committee

What a way to mark World Book and Copyright Day! Several stalwarts of the Electronic Rights Defence Committee met at a pub last night to celebrate the recent Quebec Superior Court decision authorizing their class action suit against a bunch of media heavyweights. There were flowers for lawyer Mireille Goulet who single-handedly took on a team of lawyers from Montreal’s biggest law firms, and congratulations all round.

It’s only taken 12 years to get this far, so let’s hope it doesn’t take that long to get a decision and the recognition that creators should receive a cut of the take when their work is sold electronically.

ERDC secretary was busy taking photographs last night and has promised to put some up on his blog: here's the link.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Private Health Care Is Better? Case at Dr. Chaoulli's Clinic Suggests Otherwise

It’s time to ask more questions about the increased involvement of the private sector in Canada’s health care system. Dr. Jacques Chaoulli and his health clinic came under fire yesterday in a coroner’s report into the death of man more than a year ago in the clinic’s waiting room. The training of clinic staff as well as its equipment appeared not to be up to standard while Dr. Chaoulli’s conduct—he did not attempt to reanimate the man—is a subject of an inquiry by the provincial body regulating doctors.

Dr. Chaoulli, you’ll remember, challenged Canada’s single-payer, universal health care system all the way to the Supreme Court, opening the door to the establishment of private health care in certain cases. Chaoulli and others argue that competition from the private sector will increase access and lower costs, a contention that is challenged by many health experts.

Certainly in this case it doesn’t look like Chaoulli’s clinic provided the kind of excellent health care proponents of privatization vaunt. Without a doubt members of the victim’s family must be asking what would have happened had he gone to a hospital emergency room where triage teams are trained to quickly size up a situation. It’s doubtful that a man turning blue would be told to sit and wait on a chair: while there's no doubt that it can take hours for non-urgent cases to be seen, life-threatening cases are evaluated and treated quickly in hospitals, observers agree.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Earth Worms on Earth Day: Evolutionary Pressures at Work?

Back in days of real, live switchboard operators, I once interviewed an ”Information” lady at McGill for story about non-academic employees for the university’s alumni magazine. "Information," you’ll recall, was whom you called to get a telephone number, but people obviously saw the question as much larger. She got some good ones, she said, and probably the best—and most puzzling—was “Does it really rain worms in the spring time?”

I thought of that this morning on my walk in Mount Royal cemetery. After 36 hours of rain, I saw a half dozen earth worms slowly making their way across pavement. Somewhere along the way I was told that worms must come up for air when the soil is saturated, so I presume that these ones had been flooded out. But why does this happen in spring and not later on when rain from thunder storms surely must fill their tunnels too?

Then I saw one of the first robins of the season, and it came clear. During the summer, worm-loving birds feeding their young and then getting ready for migration must pounce upon any worm that finds itself out n the open. Right now there are fewer predators so the chances of survival on the surface after a rain goes up.

I didn’t stick around to see if the robin found the worms, though. Too sweet an Earth Day morning to watch nature red in tooth and claw work through the evolutionary drama.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Rebel Leader in Burundi Gives up AK-47: Can Peace Be on the Way?

Last weekend may have marked the beginning of the peace in Burundi. Or so it seems: what a pleasure to read some good news!

According to the UN’s news agency IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks,) Agathon Rwasa, leader of Burundi's the Forces nationales de liberation (FNL) which had been the last hold-out in a peace process begun nearly 10 years ago, gave up his AK-47 and military uniforms on Saturday at “a ceremony to mark the beginning of the demobilization of thousands of combatants.” The news service added at the FNL will become a political party, while 7,000 rebels will be integrated into the nation’s police forces and military by mid-May according to a time table worked out with a South African mediation team. Other rebels, particularly several thousand women and children, will be assisted in returning to their home regions.

The conflict in Burundi has gone on as long as that in its non-identical twin Rwanda, and also grows out of ethnic divisions between Hutus and Tutsis. Over the last 40 years, several hundred thousand people have been killed, but the concentrated massive carnage experienced in Rwanda 15 years ago this month did not occur. Since 2001 Burundi has been inching toward peaceful accommodation with governments of transition. For the last couple of years, the FNL has been the main holdout even though cease fire agreements had been signed in 2006.

You don’t turn rebels into loyal soldiers or policemen over night, of course, so Rwasa’s enthusiastic prediction of peace may be viewed with a bit of skepticism. Nevertheless, progress seems to be in the right direction. "Now the next fight in Burundi is a struggle against hunger and starvation.” the IRIN quotes Lt-Gen Derrick Ngueb of the mediation team. “If Burundi is stable, the region and the [African] continent will be improving in security and development."

Monday, 20 April 2009

Looking for Meaning, Exorcising Ghosts: J.G. Ballard's Life Work Is Finished

J.G. Ballard is dead, after a long illness, it seems. I think I must have come across his short stories in the late 1960s when I was still reading a lot of science fiction. The dystopian worlds he wrote about seemed singularly appropriate for that time of Cold War threat and open war in Viet Nam. But it was his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, published in 1984, which demonstrated just how subtle and complex his talent and his appreciation of the world were. The Steven Spielberg movie, released in 1987, is a rare film that is nearly as good as the book.

The French Concession in Shanghai where Ballard was born still existed when I visited there in 2005 for Green City. As I wandered up and down the streets where big houses built for Europeans in the 1920s had been turned into much more modest flats, I was constantly reminded of both the book and the movie. When the young hero Jamie finally makes it home after being separated from his family, he finds the wide, well cared-for streets and gardens deserted. Therein lies the origin of many scenes in Ballard’s science fiction.

But obviously life has gone on and Ballard in recent years has had much to say about the difficult necessity of continuing. His last book, shopped around at the Frankfurt Book Fair last fall, is supposed to be called. Conversations with My Physician: The Meaning, if Any, of Life. Finding whatever meaning there is is a life’s work certainly, and one to which Ballard devoted much of his time and talent.

Photo: West Nanjing Road in the French Concession in 2005. The linden trees which line this major thoroughfare have a name in Mandarin which means "the French tree." The picture shows how modest houses were being torn down as Shangai reinvented itself.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Saturday Photo: It's Over, But Winter Did Have Its Moments

A light rain fell for most of the night which has done wonderful things to the grass. Lawns were much greener this morning than they were yesterday. Although the snow has been gone nearly everywhere in town for a week--the last bit has just melted in our backyard--warm, sunny weather seems to have slowed the growth of grass. Too much of a good thing, perhaps. But April showers are working their magic at last.

Before we put away all our winter things and thoughts, however, I thought I'd post this picture, taken in December. The cold season has its beauties, too, and perhaps in this climate we appreciate what we have all the more because of the contrasts.

P.S. Gasp! After looking at the published blog I see I made one of the errors I rant about: confusing the contraction "it's" with the possessive "its." The mistake has been corrected, but just in case you noticed: my apologies

Friday, 17 April 2009

Jane's Walk Goes World-Wide: From Moscow, Idaho, to Mumbai, Montreal and Toronto, Too

It's a beautiful spring morning, just perfect for walking, which also makes it the perfect occasion to share the the final schedule of Jane’s Walks in Montreal. Click here:

All will take part May 2 or 3, and are part of amore-than-continent-wide homage to Jane Jacobs. The homespun urbanist was a great advocate of the walkable city. Three years ago, a year after her death, her friends in Toronto came up with the idea of the walks. They are led by individuals in neighborhoods they hold dear as a tribute to her. That first year there were about 20 in one city--Toronto--but this year there will be hundreds around the world.

Besides Montreal and Toronto, Canadian cities this year include: Brant County, Ontario, Burlington, Calgary, Cambridge, Charlottetown, Guelph, Halifax, Hamilton, Kitchener, Markham, Mississauga, Newmarket, Oakville, Ottawa, Penticton, Regina, Sudbury, Thornbury – Clarksburg, Thornhill, Vancouver, Victoria, Waaterloo and Winnipeg. Click for more information.

In the US there will be walks in Anchorage, Boston, Chicago, Cambridge, Dayton, Ohio, Moscow, Idaho, New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, Ogden, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Orlando, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Spanish Harlem, Starkville, Mississippi, St. Louis and Washington D.C. Click for details

And, believe it or not, two walks in India are planned, in Goa and Mumbai: check them out.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Cuts to Science and Education Are As Short-sighted As...Well, As Short-sighted as Science Ministers Who Don't Believe in Science

According to figures compiled by Le Devoir, over the last three years the Harper govenment has cut $162 million in scientific reserach funds. The latest bad news came Wednesday when the National Research Council announced that 30 of its employees would be laid of June 9. The number seems not that great—not when thousands of jobs have disappeared in other industries during the last year—but the no-nothingness the job losses represent is breath taking. Or maybe even heart breaking.

I had the good fortune to grow up in San Diego at a time when concern about Russian scientific advances was sending waves through education circles in the U.S. A lot of money was pumped into space and nuclear research at the time, much of which may have been partly a pact with the devil, but also leaders on all levels believed that education would be important to win whatever fights lay ahead. Therefore, the state university sysstem was greatly expanded and public schools were enthusiastically funded. We had the chance to take Spanish, French and Russian, calculus, advanced English, and challenging science and history courses in public high schools. After that, like thousands of others, I got a really top quality BA at UC Berkeley, emerging without any student loan debts and with a broad base of knowledge and skills that have served me extremely well ever since.

That kind of educational system along with the money spent on scientific research paved the way for the information age. What will follow is not clear, particularly since California has cut public spending on education drastically, I understand. The motor for innovation is going to run out of fuel—and social inequalities will increase as the gulf in educational opportunities be the rich and the rest grows wider.

Canada expanded its research and education systems in the 1960s and 1970s along Californian lines, and the country has greatly benefited. To cut into scientific research funds at this point is short-sighted, even stupid.

But what do you expect from a government where the science minister doesn’t even accept evolution as the most valid paradigm for biological investigationi?

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

ERDC Class Action Gets Go-Ahead: Yesssss!

There are times when, even though a fight is not won, you feel extremely pleased about the way a battle is going. One of them is right now, because after far too long, the Electronic Rights Defence Committee has received authorization for its class action against Montreal's The Gazette and associated media players.

If you think this is old news, you are forgiven. We started at the end of the 1990s and we're still at it. In February 2008 we had a three-day court hearing which I blogged about then. Last night we sent out the press release you'll find below, and next Thursday we're going to celebrate: April 23 is World Book and Copyright Day, and what a way to mark it! If you're in Montreal, join us to raise a glass from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. downstairs at the Brutopia Pub, 1215-19 Crescent St., between Ste. Catherine St. and Rene Levesque Blvd.

Press Release:

Green Light for Class Action, Finally

After more than a decade, the Electronic Rights Defence Committee (ERDC) has received authorization from Quebec Superior Court to proceed with a class action suit against some of the biggest names in Canadian media.

At issue is electronic use without permission or compensation for work by freelance writers in The Montreal Gazette. The defendants are the Montreal Gazette Group, CanWest Global Communications, Hollinger Canadian Publishing Holdings, CanWest Interactive, Southam and Southam Business Communications, Infomart Dialog and Cedrom-SNI.

In February 2008, the Honourable Eva Petras, J.S.C., heard three days of arguments from Mireille Goulet - the ERDC lawyer, and a team of lawyers representing the defendants. The Justice’s decision was rendered March 31, 2009. It authorizes the ERDC to institute class action proceedings with writer and translator David Homel as its official designated member. The class action group includes all freelance writers whose articles, originally published in The Gazette, have been allegedly illegally reproduced on the Infomart data base since 1984.

The next steps will lead toward a trial on the merits of the case, a process which may take several years to reach a conclusion.

The ERDC case is one of several in North America seeking compensation for unauthorized electronic use of freelance writers’ work. In October 2007, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled five to four in the Heather Robertson vs. Thomson case that freelancers do indeed hold copyright on their work reproduced in electronic data bases. The US$ 18-million class action settlement in the United States which followed from the Tasini vs. New York Times case is currently before the US Supreme Court, which has agreed to decide whether a lower court has jurisdiction to approve settlement agreements. The Association des journalistes indépendants du Québec (AJIQ) is also currently in the process of undertaking a class action against several Quebec media providers.

Link to judgment (in English) (Search for
Superior Court decisions in March 2009 (cour superieure, keyword: ERDC)

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Department of Unexpected Results: Recession Means Less Green House Gases

There was talk this morning on RadioCan of a story in La Presse which recounts the horrors of congestion on the highways around Montreal. But, said traffic reporter Yves Desautels, things have been a bit better since the first of the year, perhaps because the recession has cut down on commuters.

That may be one of the rare upsides to downturns. A recent New Yorker Talk of the Town piece argues in the same direction. Writing in the March 30, 2009 issue, David Owen says that the countries most likely to meet Kyoto Agreement green house gas targets—six per cent reduction by 2012—are those of the former Soviet Union. That's because the 1990 Kyoto baseline was just before things fell apart in the USSR. Indeed, Owen writes, the countries with the best emissions-reduction records—Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic—were all parts of the Soviet empire.”

Canada which, unlike the US, signed Kyoto too, is actually running more than 120 per cent of the goal, despite millions spent on climate intiatives, Owen notes. That’s because our sprawling way of life is not being managed properly. North American green intiatives aren’t going to make a difference, he adds, if they’re don’t attack the way we live.

“A national carbon policy, if it’s to have a real impact, will almost certainly need to bring American fuel prices back to at least where they were at their peak in the summer of 2008. Electric cars are not the panacea they are sometimes claimed to be, not only because the electricity they run on has to be generated somewhere but also because making driving less expensive does nothing to discourage people from sprawling across the face of the planet, promoting forms of development that are inherently and catastrophically wasteful.”

Public transportation, premiums for denser construction, and renewal of infrastructure with an eye to reducing sprawl and vehicular use seem to me to be badly needed additions to our discussion about economic recovery. In the meantime I‘ll walk.

Photo: Good traffic day near the Lacadie interchange, Metropolitan Expressway, Montreal

Monday, 13 April 2009

Women in Public Life: Cases from Quebec and Kandahar

What happens when a newspaper in North America wants to criticize a female politician? It publishes an unattractive photo of her. La Presse (photo on right) and Le Devoir in Montreal seem almost to have gone out of their way to print photos of Quebec’s Finance Minister Monique Jérôme-Forget, showing her with her wrinkles around the edges and her smooth cheeks which make one think she might have undergone a little nip-and-tuck. The woman is 68, and whatever you may think of her ideas, she has obviously been a strong player on the government scene for years.

And what happens when she withdraws from political life? Well, you show her in her best light. The portrait that Le Devoir (photo on left) had of her last week when she announced that she was stepping down is about as flattering as you could imagine for woman of her age.

Sounds frivolous, and commenting on the appearance of female politicians is, but there is a serious lesson to be drawn. While we still treat them differently from men (and when’s the last time you saw a jowly picture of a 60-something male politician?) women are finally a force to be reckoned with. We’ve come a long way, baby, even if looking older is still more of a no-no for women in public life than it is for men.

Compare that with the tragic death of Sitara Achikzai, the Afghan politician who was gunned down by Taliban outside her home in Kandahar a few days ago. Her offense seems to be merely the fact that she was on the Kandahar provincial council, after returning to Afghanistan from exile in Germany in order to help rebuild her country. It was a case of too much visibility for a woman who was too progressive for the forces of reaction. Add this to the sad memory of those school girls whose faces were sprayed with acid by Taliban last November, and you have a picture that shows the long way some societies have to go to accept the talents and contributions of women.

For an eloquent comparison of the importance of giving women freedom to move and earn, see Stephanie Nolen’s story in The Globe and Mail, in which she compares the health of children in Sub-Sahara Africa to those in parts of India. Despite great poverty the African children come out better because their mothers have the responsibility for feeding them, and can go to market and till the soil.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Saturday Photo: A Place for Day-Dreaming and to Day-Dream About

The sun is out this morning, and the temperature is only slightly above freezing, but the grass has begun to turn green and I've begun to think of summer.

This photo, taken last August, is of my favourite front gardens. It's just off two busy streets and is tucked inside a space perhaps 30 feet by ten feet, but it's a little paradise. As so many people in the center Montreal do, those who live here don't want to waste any good weather, and so they planted and trimmed trees around the edges. That's a hammack in the middle, and beyond a picnic table, making a great place to spend a hot afternoon or evening.

Of course, that's all a couple of months away, but spring days are designed for dreaming.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Easter Supper on Maundy Thursday, or the Second Night of Passover

Elin and Emmanuel, Sophie and Lukas were over for an early Easter dinner last night. Their schedules are so complicated at the moment—Emmanuel works all through the weekend and Sophie and Lukas are going down to Magog for Easter Sunday chez son Grandpapa Mercier—that Thursday night was the only one everyone was free.

There was a certain fittingness about it though, I thought, as our Jewish neighbors celebrated the second night of Passover. Maundy Thursday was the evening of the Last Supper, which was a Passover Seder.

Of course, none of us are believers in the usual sense, but knowing about religions does help make sense of the world we’re living in, we agreed as we talked about the links between observances. The orthodox churches, who insist that Easter before the end of Passover doesn’t make sense, won’t be celebrating until April 19. although next year and 2011, the Easters coincide.

Here's the Gospel reference, for those who're interested in cultural convergence (or is it divergence?)

Mark 14:12-21

12 And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb, his disciples said to him, "Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the passover?"
13 And he sent two of his disciples, and said to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him,
14 and wherever he enters, say to the householder, `The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?'
15 And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us."
16 And the disciples set out and went to the city, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the passover.
17 And when it was evening he came with the twelve.
18 And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me."
19 They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, "Is it I?"
20 He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me.
21 For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born."

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Life’s Little Ironies Department: Former Health Minister Philippe Couillard Gets Health Critic Lee Soderstrom’s Phone Number

Lee spent several decades at McGill working on health economics, and even though he has left teaching (not a “retirement,” he insists) he has remained vigilant on health related issues. One of the things that raised his ire this winter, as well as that of his McGill colleagues Abby Lippmann and Sam Noumoff, was an apparent serious conflict of interest in a new hire. In January McGill proudly announced that former Quebec Health Minister Philippe Coullard would become a Senior Fellow in its Research Group on Health and Law even though he had blithely and secretly negotiated a contract with a private health provider in the days before he left office last June. That sounds doubtful on its face, but what is worse Couillard at the same time pushed through regulations which make it easier for the private sector to enter the health care domain.

Lee and this friends wrote in a letter to the McGill Reporter, the administration’s bi-weekly publication, that Couillard’s actions before leaving office give an appearance of conflict of interest which McGill should investigate before it allows him to teach. Not surprisingly, nothing has been done about that at McGill. But on the provincial level, the affair raised many eyebrows: the actions of his new employer was investigated by the provincial commissioner charged with regulating lobbies. The firm was cleared of impropriety as a lobby, but Couillard's actions received no government scrutiny because there are no regulations governing what an elected official does in response to a lobby. An attempt to fill that gap--a proposal by the opposition Parti Québécois to set up an ethics commissioner for the provincial legislature--went down to defeat yesterday.

Also yesterday a friend who didn’t know that Lee had given up his office tried to call him at his old McGill number and was flabbergasted to get Couillard’s voice mail instead. It makes sense, in a way: somebody leaves, somebody arrives, and you just switch telephone numbers. But you couldn’t have asked for a weirder switch: if it had bee April 1 one might suspect a practical joke. Maybe, though, Couillard will get a message through the messages that Lee's cronies leave: we need to safe guard our universally accessible, single-payer health system.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Opportunities Too Good to Miss: Earthquakes As Times to Change Things

As Milton Friedman noted during the Hurricane Katrina debacle, a crisis is a good time to get things done. He had in mind the dismantling of the New Orleans public school system—which was indeed accomplished—but crises can work the other way round too. President Obama’s right hand man Rahm Emmanuel recognized this when called the current economic mess a crisis too good to miss.

The Marquês de Pombal, Portugal’s great Enlightenment leader, saw that clearly after the devastating earthquake which leveled Lisbon in 1755. He used the opportunity to reform building codes and rebuild the city along rational and hygienic principles not employed elsewhere until Baron Haussmann’s projects for Paris nearly 100 years later. As I research my next non-fiction book (tentatively title The Portuguese Adventure: The Large Legacy of a Small Nation), I am amazed at what progressive thinking was going on in Portugal then. Is it possible that Italian authorities will be able to seize the sad opportunity the Abruzzi earthquake affords to reform building codes and investigate the reasons why so many new buildings suffered so much damage?

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

In Praise of Flexibility: Earthquakes, and Lessons for Living

Several questions arise from the images broadcast widely of the earthquake in Abruzza. Among them are: which buildings were the most damaged? Given that the Richter scale rating of 5.8-6.3 is one which has been surpassed frequently elsewhere, is there a reason why the death toll is so high? Already voices are being raised in Italy, asking what can be done to avoid repetition of such high loss of life.

Part of the reason may be due to the hour the quake struck: 3:40 a.m. when many people were sleeping and had no chance to flee outside. Part also may be due to the fact that old masonry buildings do not withstand shocks very well. But looking at the footage on Italian TV, it also appears that one modern building was devastated: is this due to faulty application of building codes? Certainly quakes of similar force have prompted much more stringent requirements in Japan and California.

The geological tensions which cause quakes are better understood than they once were, but still much is unknown, including how to predict them. It should be remembered, too, that quakes can and do occur with force in places which are not known for them. When I was growing up in California, we felt a half dozen quakes of various sizes, but none of them shook me the way two others did, far from California. One of my earliest memories is of a 6.3 quake in the Seattle-Tacoma area when I was three. The other occurred in the Saguenay region of Quebec in 1988, registering 6.8.

The moral? That the forces in the earth can be felt in many places, and we are foolish not to appreciate each day we are given. And, also, make sure that we build wisely. That doesn't mean bulding rigidly though, since wood frame structures often come through quakes well because they can move a bit without breaking. Second moral: flexibility is good for survival too.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Walking the Walk in Hamilton: Making Streets Safe by Being on Them

Saturday afternoon at Hamilton’s GritLit Festival, I had the pleasure of talking about cities with Linda Goyette from Edmonton, and John Leroux of Fredericton on a panel moderated by Dave Kuruc.

Each brought an individual reflection on cities. where the vast majority of people in the world live today. All three of us out-of-towners had made sure to walk around Hamilton before hand to see what it is like these days, and we tried to bring our points-of-view into the local context.

Walking, we agreed, is extremely important to making our cities more livable, but our enthusiasm for walkability drew a few comments. The strongest came from a young woman who has recently moved to Toronto, who loves it, but who has a friend, also recently arrived from a Prairie town, who is afraid to venture outside the door. Cities are dangerous, the friend insists. "What do I tell her?"

Our response was rapid: the idea that cities are dangerous simply isn’t true. Crime rates in Canadian cities are lower than in rural areas, while in general walking down a busy street is a good guarantee you won’t be mugged—too much visibility for the crime.

After we’d done our spiel an elderly, blind woman who has lived in Hamilton since 1946 recounted how she walks regularly down a stretch of James Street, reputed to be rather down at the heel. When her friends warn her how dangerous might be “I tell them that when I walk there are always a lot of older Portuguese gentlemen out and about, and I know they wouldn’t allow someone like me to be harmed.”

Indeed. Jane Jacobs’ eyes on the street working very well.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Saturday Photo: GritLit in Hamilton or Two Sorts of Plants

 This afternoon I'm talking about cities and greenspaces and whatnot at Hamilton's GritLit festival. The event's title is provocative: Hamilton is, after all, Canada's Steeltown. But it's more than that.

The pictures are ones I took a few years ago when I was working on Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places. Hamilton was one of the 11 cities I examined, much to the surprise of some. Windfall tax revenue from the construction of all that industry was used at the beginning of the 20th century to buy park and nature areas. In addition the folks who worked in the factories were frequently extremely proud of the small gardens they nurtured next to the industrial sites. Hamilton is a city of two different kinds of plants, you might say, one green, the other grey.And as you can see from the upper photo, nature has a way of insinuating itself even amid rusting facilities.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Giving Good Books the Credit They Deserve: Rawi Hage in French Wins Combat des livres:

For perhaps the first time in its history, Le Combat des livres (Radio Canada's version of Canada Reads) was won by a translation from English last week. Parfum des poussieres, Rawi Hage's DeNiro's Game in its excellent French version translated by Sophie Voillot, was defended by Brendan Kelly, a familiar voice on English-language arts programing around here.

It's always nice when a really good book wins one of these contests, and this year my picks have won in both book-reading promotions sponsored by the national broadcaster. (You'll remember that Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes won Canada Reads in February.) Would that there were more coverage on the airwaves of good writing from Canada and elsewhere, but when good books get good results, I think we should say

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Canada Geese Get Around: Spring Notes from All Over

This is the season that the Canada geese fly north. Great skeins of them can be seen settling at sunset on fields or waterways, and then in the morning taking off, honking advice to their confreres and consoeurs.

But Canada geese thrive many places outside North America now. This photo was taken in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, in London. The fat geese were waddling around, munching on whatever delicacies they could find on a misty spring morning. The fact that they were also pooping on the grass must be mentioned too. They're lovely birds,but they sure can make a mess!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Poisson d'Avril ! And I Won't Believe You If You Tell Me You've Gone Fishing Today

In Quebec, April 1 is Poisson d'avril, not April Fool's. Kids go around, trying to tape construction paper cut-outs of fish to their friends' backs. So do some adults, although they sometimes get involved in elaborate practical jokes too.

Today I'm on my way to Toronto, which reminded me of a picture I took a couple of years ago in Saint Catherines showing people fishing on a Sunday morning. Don't think the fishing season has opened most places yet, but the picture is here to get you in the mood for both jokes and a little outdoor recreation.