Saturday 30 October 2010

Saturday Photo: Zen for the End of Fall, Pumpkins for Halloween

The two squash with the morning glories I found a couple of weeks ago before the leaves started changing colours. The simplicity appeals to me, particularly as we're headed for the most Zen time of year, winter, when the landscape is stripped to its bare essentials. There is snow in the forecast for Montreal tonight--not much, just two centimeters--but the bones of most trees are showing and fallen leaves are drifting into great piles awaiting removal or burial when the real snow arrives.

But tomorrow also is Halloween, that crazily pagan ritual captured by children and commercial interest, one last spasm of activity before things close down in this climate. Don't eat too many sweets: that would damage your spiritual balance.

Friday 29 October 2010

Wanting to Be a College Professor: Notes from the Montreal Soderstroms Least Educated Member

Lee got his Ph.D. more than 40 years ago, Elin got her doctorate in perfomance last June, Lukas has been in Paris for two weeks talking to the co-director of his Ph.D thesis in philosophy. That makes me, as the holder of an M.Journ, the least educated person in the family. And this is (or its equivalent eons ago) is why I never was terribly intersted in following up on my BA in English literature.

No, no, that's not completely true. I just remembered (it's something I guess I must usually repress) that I applied to McGill's English MA program shortly after we arrived, and got turned down. How life would have been different, eh?

Thursday 28 October 2010

Birds Love These Grapes, Even If People Won't Eat Them

Leaves everywhere are turning colour--and falling off. The wild grapes which grow all over our neighborhood are no exception. The vine in our backyard came out of the compost heap, and now spreads along the fence to the garage where it covers two sides of that rather ugly construction

The grapes aren't any good for eating--skimpy and full of seeds. But the birds love them and they have spread them to the neighbors as they fly and drop undisgested seeds in their poop.

This week as I was walking down the lane, I came across another garage covered in vines where the leaves had fallen, suddenly exposing a wall full of grapes. The birds were going nuts. A whole flutter of starlings and others were squabbling over who got to go next, rather like kids at a Halloween party, lining up for goodies.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Book: The Newest Technology, Believe It Or Not!

Thanks to David Homel for pointing this out. Thanks also to the Castilian guy for presenting it in such clear Spanish that I actually understood most of it, even without the subtitles.

Right, Center, Left-Progressive: Whither City Government in Canada?

For those of us whose heads are whirling with the contradictory messages sent by electors in Toronto and Calgary, here's an interesting analysis by Ish Theilheimer on Public Values.

He adds that Ottawa turfed out a Rob Ford-like mayor after one term, because he was such a disaster. Does that mean hope for those of us who care about making cities work?

Tuesday 26 October 2010

English Kids in French Schools Produce an Interesting Demographic in Montreal

Is Montreal the largest English city in Quebec, or the largest French city in Canada? That's a question posed today by Gazette report David Johnston, in the backwash of considerable debate about admitting non-Anglophone children to English schools.

In case you'd missed it, the Supreme Court of Canada told Quebec it had to modify regulations regarding admission, which had allowed children who were otherwise ineligible under Quebec's language laws to attend province-supported English schools after they had started their education in English in a non-subsidized English private school. Not enough flexibility, the Court said, and the result was a complicated piece of legislation passed last week which gives English langage rights to children who pass three years in a non-subsidized English school. The debate up to the measure's passage was very heated, fueled by a number of recent reports on the declining percentage of Francophones on the island of Montreal.

The only people who are going to benefit from this are Francophones and immigrants rich enough to shell out tuition of $15,000 or more a year for a non-subsidized school. The subsidized English schools, public and private stand to gain a few more pupils once they've accomplished the three year passage elsewhere, but we're talking no more than maybe 50 new students a year.

The thing is that over the last 20 years Allophones and many Anglophone families who chose to stay in Montreal and sent their kids to French schools. There is a whole generation of non-pure laine Montrealers who speak and work in French quite happily, but who may speak English among themselves. You'll hear them talking to their kids in English on streets in the East End where they've moved, attracted by lower rents and the coolness factor. The kids are going to French schools, and becoming yet another generation of truly bilingual folk.

This has demographic implications for all sorts of reasons, which I frankly think are positive.

Now, what would be interesting is if there is an exodus of cool young types from Toronto to Montreal, after the election of a right wing Mayor there yesterday. I bet there are some English school board officials here who are hoping for such a reaction.

Monday 25 October 2010

Boys and School: Ways to Help Them without Penalizing Girls

Lukas is working on his Ph.D now, which gives you some idea of how long ago he started elementary school. Even then it was very clear that boys were not doing as well as girls. I remember sitting in parents committee meetings during the late 1980s and early 1990s and saying, terrific! we've taken the lid off girls' aspirations and they're soaring, but what are we going to do about the boys who are turned off by school?

Since then not much has happened, except that girls are continuing to get better grades and suceeding in many academic fields. The situation has become so extreme that major media have noticed: last week's Globe and Mail series is just the most recent example. We can't tolerate failing boys, wailed the editorial on the weekend.

In no way should we start slamming doors now open to girls, but there are a few things that I think could make a big difference immediately in the rate of masculine school success.

1. The first is the chance to start school later. I have four cousins who are elementary school teachers and who have boys. Everyone held her sons back so they started school as one of the oldest kids in their first grade class. That gave them an advantage in terms of physical prowess and also in general maturity which seems to have helped them a lot. Malcolm Gladwell's interesting book The Outliers talks about the same phenomenon in hockey and other sports: the kids who are oldest do the best. His suggestion is to offer two cut off dates for sports eligibility, to make the playing field more equitable, literally and figuratively. The same might be done in larger elementary schools where there are at least two classes at each level.

2. Give everyone, but particularly boys, the chance to move. Recess should be active, and PE should be a daily affair. Get kids to walk or bike to school. Put more resources into after school activities where kids run around. All kids need to expend their energy positively, and the need is particularly acute in boys, in my observation.

3. Recruit more male teachers on the elementary level. This will mean promotional campaigns aimed at young men, but why not? In addition, offering an alternative (perhaps an intensive year course) to the three or four year teacher-training course now required by many states and provinces would make it easier to switch into education after a few years in science, language or whatever.

A debate to continue...

Saturday 23 October 2010

Saturday Photo: I am Curious Yellow and Blue, But Not Swedish

The maples in front have turned a gorgeous, buttery yellow colour which contrasts marvelously with blue sky. I took this photo off the balcony in front as the sun was just beginning to shine down the street. The trees, even without the sunlight, appeared to be glowing, as if they were somehow lit from within by the energy stored over a summer of bright skies.

The railing on the balcony was painted blue some time ago and has faded a bit, so that the combination of the colours reminded me of the Swedish flag. I Am Curious Yellow was one of the ground-breaking films of the 1960s which caused much controversy: it was seized by US customs officials in 1967 for being "pornographic." Times have changed, but the lovely combination of blue and yellow remain in the flag and in the October landscape here and, I presume, there.

A note, however, on my name: Soderstrom--which in Sweden is spelled Söderström, and means "south stream"--isn't the name I was born with. That was McGowan: despite getting married at a time when women were questioning all kinds of limits put on them, I didn't think twice about adopting Lee's name. In the 1970s women in Quebec could re-assume their birth names without any bureaucratic fuss, and many of my friends did just that. But I'd begun to make a small name for myself as Mary Soderstrom, so I decided not to. Besides, whether you take your husband's name or your father's name it's all patriarchy, isn't it?

There is no doubt about me being curious, though. That's what's led me to undertaking this blog, when you come right down to it.

Friday 22 October 2010

Open Letter from Josée Blanchette to Pierre Karl Péladeau: The Importance of Independent Voices in the Media

For anyone who cares about how we are informed, Josée Blanchette's column--an open letter to Quebecor chief Pierre Karl Péladeau--in Le Devoir today is "must" reading, even if it means a struggle to read French. She's a long-time free lance writer who has chosen that rather precarious career in order to present an independent voice to the world. Le Devoir, respected as it is, is not a big circulation newspaper, but, faut de mieux, it is rapidly becoming one of the rare channels where journalistic excellence is combined with a way of looking at things that big media don't endorse.

Locked-out journalists at Péladeau's Journal de Montreal, you'll remember, recently massively rejected a settlement "offer" that would return most of them to work after 20 momnths on the picket line, but close down their very interesting Internet paper Rue Frontenac and prohibit them from working for the competition.

Blanchette writes that she had been impressed by Péladeau, the son of media magnate Pierre Péladeau, when they were students because he made a serious effort to learn how the other half lives, working in fast food restaurants and studying at the populist Unversité de Québec à Montréal. But it's obvious he has gone over to the dark side, which was always waiting for him, and we all are the poorer for it.

I walk by PKP's house nearly every morning, and frequently see his chauffeur waiting for him outside. Yesterday the car was not the only parked outside his elegant house: there were more than half a dozen high costs SUVs, sans driver, and two other costly sedans where a chauffeur was waiting for the boss. I wondered what was up: looked like a breakfast meeting about something important. Don't know what it was all about, but you can be sure that Blanchette wasn't among the guests.

Thursday 21 October 2010

No Leaf Bonfires Any More, But Lots of Polluting Vehicles: The Need for High Efficiency Stoves around the World

The street sweeper just passed, sucking up the leaves that have fallen so far. At the same moment, the CBC program Dispatches had Burkhard Bilger talking about the need for clean stoves in the developing world. His article in The New Yorker last winter raised a lot of questions about the search for a stove that will not only cook food where fuel is scarce, but do it in a non-polluting way.

Taken together, the incidents mark a big change in attitudes toward burning things. When I was a child eons ago, burning leaves in the fall was accepted, as was the burning of wheat stubble in open fields. Now you'd get fined if you tried either in most parts of North America, which is a small step forward.

One of my strongest first impressions if East Africa, on the other hand, was landing in Nairobi about this time of year and being greeted by wood smoke hanging heavily in the air. I asked the taxi driver on my way into the city from the airport if there were wild fires--it was the end of the dry season--but he seemed not to understand what I meant. Later I realized that in many places wood is used for cooking and fields are still set afire before planting, with consequences which can be bad for both the overall greenhouse gas situation, and for the health of the people immediately around.

You can't ask people to stop cooking their food, though. Hence the importance of low-pollution, highly efficient stoves. What about putting a surcharge on all sales of SUVs and light trucks with the money collected to go toward providing that kind of stove to everyone all over the world.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

New Mothers Need Support to Breast Feed: Supplemental Home Visits, Not Supplemental Formula Feedings

The health advantages of human breast milk babies is well established, and most health systems are currently officially encouraging it. At the moment Héma-Québec, the provincial blood bank agency, is studying the possibility of creating a certified breast milk bank to help out when mothers have problem nursing. There are similar banks elsewhere in the world, and one already operational in British Columbia, it seems.

At practically the same time, Le Devoir launched a debate about the support for breast feeding that is given in the Québec health system. Nursing babies is strongly encouraged, but publicity campaigns are one thing, and successful breast feeding is another. Mothers and babies are sent home here after 48 hours under normal circumstances, which is before the milk really comes in. After that, there will be a visit from a public health nurse sometime in the first couple of weeks, but in those tempestuous first days, all too many mothers are left to their own devices. Faced with a baby who wants to nurse every couple of hours and breasts that are sore from the little mouth which may not be very efficient at sucking, who can blame a woman who says it's not worth it?

If we're serious about encouraging nursing it would a lot of sense to set up a system where there is a visit within a day of release from the hospital by a health professional who understands what nursing is all about, and is ready to give support and advice when it is really needed.

The milk bank feasibility study will cost $66,000, The Gazette reported. It probably will be money well spent, but I think a bigger effort in supporting mothers from the beginning deserves a far higher priority.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Taking a Lesson from Martin Luther: The Need for a Climate Change 'Narrative'

The New York Times blogger and environmental writer Andrew Revkin had an interesting piece yesterday about the need to create a coherent narrative framework for discussion of climate change. What he suggests is that the matter should be viewed "a challenge of generations, with today’s efforts focused on what’s feasible now, on rebuilding a culture of innovation in which energy matters and setting the stage for grander de-carbonization efforts down the line."

He'll get no argument from me there. What strikes me, though, is the way he concentrate on the need for "narrative:" the piece is actually titled "Is There an Effective Climate 'Narrative'?"

One of the cultural aspects that is found in every society is the habit of telling stories. Sometimes they are explanations of how the world came to be. Other times they pass on valuable information, as in cautionary tales about hunting, planting and the like, or comment on the ways that a group's members do, or do not, follow the group's rules.

Many others are designed to rally support for the group and the group's projects. That's called propaganda in some quarters, and it's obviously this kind of narrative that Revkin thinks we need. But should we shy away from creating an atmosphere designed to further serious consideration of real problems just because doing so will require pulling out all persuasive stops?

No. It's time to take a lesson from Martin Luther who wrote hymns because, he asked, "why should the Devil have all the good tunes?"

Monday 18 October 2010

Going Down to Freezing! Time to Close Things Up

Just spent a couple of hours turning off the water outside, bringing in the lawn chairs, cutting some seed-laden flower stalks and otherwise preparing for the first night when the forecast is for freezing in Montreal.

At the moment the sun is shining with lovely October-intensity, but Saturday I ate breakfast for the last time on the back balcony. Usually I start in mid-April and end mid-October. Both ends of the season require bundling up, but I do enjoy the daily chance to read the newspaper headines while looking out on whatever is growing in the garden at that point. There comes a time--and Saturday was it this year--when enough is enough, and reluctantly I've closed things down.

Many trees still have their leaves, however, so I couldn't do the final garden clean-up. One good thing: it seems that tar spot disease which has afflicted the maples for the last three years is much less intense this year.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Saturday Photo: Getting Jump on the Season with Pumpkins Now!

Canadian Thanksgiving is barely over, but the kids in the neighborhood have started putting out Halloween things. I notice that it's the older kids who decorate earliest, as if they can allow themselves to be eager to do things for the "little kids" even though they may be very ambivalent about whether they're" little kids" themselves.

But I'm one to talk. I bought two big pumpkins and five little ones a week ago at the Jean Talon market. One of the large ones went into pumpkin pies for our feast last weekend, but the other one is ready to be made in a jack o'lantern in two weeks time, while the little ones are decorating the dining room table already.

Friday 15 October 2010

Theatre That Entertains or Theatre That Makes You Think? The Threepenny Opera in Montreal

Interesting experience the other night when we went to see the Théatre de Nouveau monde's production of l'Opéra de quatre sous, or The Threepenny Opera by Bertoldt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

The show opened with a shortened, trilingual version of that Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald hit, Mac the Knife, performed in German, English and French which put us, at least, immediately in the mood for a musical and political evening that transcends borders. The production is bumped up in time from the late 1920s (the original production dates from 1928) to 1961 at the time of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. But the criticism of the police, the linking of corruption, poverty and crime, and the damning of ordinary charity remain very current.

I went back to read the reviews afterwards, to discover that the pointed humour was well-appreciated on opening night. This certainly was not the case the night we were there. Even though the Opéra was brilliantly staged with fine musicians and quite respectable singing, the audience didn't give the enthusiastic response it usually does to TNM productions.

It is as if those there were extremely uncomfortable with the resonances to life now. Perhaps they were remembering the man vending the magazine The Intinerant outside the entrance or the recent scandals about the appointment of judges or the inquiry into the shooting death of a street gang member a couple of years ago by police, or any of a number of other present day problems.

Why this was, I suspect, lies underneath the question asked by the man behind us as we shuffled our way out after the show: "Why didn't they sing Mac the Knife all the way through?" If you spend good money to go to the theatre, you may want only to be entertained. You may not want to be asked to make connections between what happens on the stage and real life.

But doing that is just what the politically-engaged Brecht and Weill wanted us to do.

Here's Ute Lemper's version of the original

And Bobby Darin's translation:

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe
And he keeps it, ah, out of sight
Ya know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, oh, wears old MacHeath, babe
So there’s never, never a trace of red

Now on the sidewalk, huh, huh, whoo sunny morning, un huh
Lies a body just oozin' life, eek
And someone’s sneakin' ‘round the corner
Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

There's a tugboat, huh, huh, down by the river dontcha know
Where a cement bag’s just a'drooppin' on down
Oh, that cement is just, it's there for the weight, dear
Five'll get ya ten old Macky’s back in town

Now d'ja hear ‘bout Louie Miller?
He disappeared, babe
After drawin' out all his hard-earned cash
And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor
Could it be our boy's done somethin' rash?

Now Jenny Diver, ho, ho, yeah, Sukey Tawdry
Ooh, Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Oh, the line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky’s back in town
Look out Macky's back!

I said Jenny Diver, whoa, Sukey Tawdry
Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Yes, that line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky’s back in town.....

Thursday 14 October 2010

Rue Frontenac and The New York Review of Books: When Labour Conflicts Lead to New Voices

Tuesday the 253 locked-out journalists at the Journal de Montréal turned down an offer from Quebecor that was touted as a possible resolution to the 20 month old conflict. Nearlly 90 per cent of the journalists voted against the proposed settlement which had been overseen by a provincial conciliator.

Spokespersons for the reporters' union said members were ready to compromise on points, but balked at a "no competition" requirement. Under it not only would journalists fired by the Journal in the future not be allowed to work for the other big French-language paper in Montreal for six months, but the union's outstanding web-newspaper Rue Frontenac would be shut down.

The web-paper, which plans to begin putting out a hard copy at the end of October, has published some excellent investigative reporting over its short existence. To cease publication would not only silence an interesting, informative voice, but remove a valuable source of employment for journalists.

The situation has resemblances with what happened in New York in 1963. Then strikes closed most New York newspapers for 114 days which meant, among other things, that no books were reviewed in the American cultural capital. Three figures in the New Yorke literary world, Jason Epstein, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick started The New York Review of Books to fill the void. When the strike ended, they kept the biweekly going, publishing long and thoughtful articles of a depth found nowhere else. In a short time, it became one of the pillars of American intellectual life, and is still going strong.

There is room for many voices in this world. It would be wonderful if Rue Frontenac became as strong an independent voice in Quebec as TNYRB has become in English-speaking North America.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Parabéns Portugal; Shame, Shame Stephen Harper

Le Devoir calls the vote in the United Nations yesterday which saw Canada come in third in the contest for a two year seat on the Security Council, a "slap in the face." That's exactly what it was, and well deserved too.

Over the last seven years, the Harper government has systematically undercut many decades of excellent foreign policy by not caring about the rest of the world, except when it thought it could push things in a conservative, reactionary direction. As many commentators have said, why should a country whose prime minister missed the opening session in 2009 in order to open a Tim Horton's plant sit at the UN's highest instance?

That Portugal got the nod instead is also interesting. Thirty-five years ago--a time when Canada was making its name as a force for peace in the world--Portugal was coming out of five decades of dictatorship, recovering from a peaceful, but emotional regime change, and divesting itself of its colonial empire. Since then it has more than pulled its weight internationally, and its example of how to make a democracy from a near-fascist legacy has served the rest of the world well. The Portuguese deserve to be on the Security Council, but, alas!, Canada under Harper doesn't.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Time Flies When You're Having Fun: New Pix for New Book

Getting ready for the launch of Making Waves today. Meeting to talk PR with the folks at Véhicule this afternoon, and this morning I'm posting the new photo that Ron Diamond took of me a couple of weeks ago.

Ron, who does still photography for movies as well as portfolio pictures for actors, has been a stalwart of the Electronic Rights Defence Committee. More than six years ago, shortly before my novel After Surfing Ocean Beach was published, he took a studio portrait of me which I've used ever since for publicity releases.

But six years is six years. My hair--once fiery red--is whiter and my face is more, well "lived in" is perhaps the polite term. So we went to Parc Saint-Viateur, a few block away from where I live, one September Sunday to take some pix. This is the result. Not bad, I think.

Monday 11 October 2010

Canadian Thanksgiving Day Special: Missing DVDs, Read Books and Played-with Lego, Plus Succulent Turkey

Just spent a half hour crawling around on hands and knees in the guest room, looking for a DVD that had gone astray. We had the augmented gang over yesterday for Thanksgiving dinner--35 adults and eight kids, ranging in age from six weeks (Jeanne, the tiny perfect baby) to our friends Sid and Doris Ingerman who will turn 82 this winter. It was great fun, but somewhere along the way one of the three DVDs I rented for the younger generation got kicked under the TV/DVD player.

I suspect that nobody actually watched anything since there also was a lot of Lego scattered around too, as well as a pile of books that had obvsiously been looked at. A lot more effort seemed to go into eating--I cooked two 5.5 kilo turkeys plus two turkey legs, and everyone brought something including desserts to die for. Emmanuel carved the birds with great panache, Jeanne got passed around so that everyone got a cuddle, and some of the problems of the world were settled. In short, it was a great occasion to enjoy friends and family and to remember how truly fortunate we are.

Here's the recipe for the turkey which involved brining it for 24 hours. Well worth the effort.

Adapted from Global Gourmet and inspired by the way that Alice Waters did it.

Good for one 18-20 pound turkey or two smaller ones.

3 cups water
2 cups kosher/rock salt
1 cup sugar
5-6 bay leaves, torn up
6 sprigs of fresh rosemary, or 2 tsp of dried
1 whole head of garlic, peeled
5 whole allspice berries, crushed
4 juniper berries, crushed
10 black peppercorns, crushed
4 or 5 dried chili peppers

Stir the ingredients together in a saucepan over heat until the salt and sugar dissolve.

Put the bird into a big container (I used a canning vat in which both turkeys fit well.) Fill the container about half full of water. Add brine, and more water until the bird/s is/are covered. Refrigerate for 24 hours turning if necessary to make sure that all surfaces have several hours of direct contact with the brine.

Stuff with dressing--I use my mother's old fashioned white bread, onion and sage one with a little lemon zest added.

Rub the skin with olive oil and sprinkle with fresh ground pepper. Do not salt. Cook uncovered in a 400-degree oven for a half hour per kilo/12 to 15 minutes per pound. If the skin browns too fast, place a piece of aluminum foil over the affected part.

The result is terrific, and the drippings make fantastic gravy.

You can also do this with chicken and pork roast, halving the brine recipe. For pork, increase the brining time to three days.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Saturday Photo: Fall Comes Creeping up the Walls

Today is a brilliant fall day. We're having a gang over for Canadian Thanksgiving tomorrow, and there's a lot to do so I had intended to go for only a short walk this morning. The light was so gorgeous, though, that I ended up spending more than an hour admiring the changing colours.

This picture was taken earlier in the week, and I think the Virginia creeper is a real feast for the eye. Fall is one of the advantages of living in this climate.

Friday 8 October 2010

Republic and Religion: October Celebrations of Portuguese Events

Sunday, October 10, is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the first republic in Portugal. Relatively short-lived--it died in 1926 with the conservative wave that brought António Salazar to power--it nevertheless is celebrated by many in Portugal today as a first step toward a democratic, progressive state.

There will be events marking the anniversary in Portugal itself and in Portuguese communities around the world. In Montreal, the weekly Portuguese language newspaper A Voz de Portugal is featuring this allegorical picture from the period on its front page, as well as a long story giving the history of the republic on the inside.

The same edition also carries a large ad for another celebration, this one commemorating the appearance of a vision of the Virgin Mary to three children in the poor Portuguese village of Fatima in October 1917. The Republic was militantly laic, authorizing divorce and taking control of much church property, so the vision certainly was a welcome one for forces in the society that wanted a return to strong religious values.

The juxtaposition of the two celebrations in Montreal are evidence of the continuing debate over the place of religion in society. No question where I come down: for separation of church and state. But isn't it an interesting irony that Fatima, that symbol of rock-hard Roman Catholicism, is also a common name among Muslim women? What does that say about cultural crossovers?

Thursday 7 October 2010

More "Don't Confuse Me with the Facts:" The Link between Prisons for Unreported Crime and Complaints That Never Were Made

More prisons for people who commit crimes that unreported: that's the latest folly from the Harper government. Earlier this week it announced 675 new cells in Kingston and Montreal as part of its crime "clean up" program.

But, according to The Globe and Mail: "The latest Statistics Canada data have the overall crime rate in 2009 down 3 per cent from the year before and 17 per cent from a decade ago. The Crime Severity Index, which measures the seriousness of reported crime, declined 4 per cent in 2009 and stood 22 per cent lower than in 1999."

Oh, that's because people aren't reporting crime as much, Public Safetey Minister Dick Toews said. And, it's true that other Stats Can figures show a decrease in reporting of minor crime over the last 10 years. Yet the figures for major crimes like murder are also declining, and they are unlikely to go unreported.

At the same time, the Harperites are standing firm on abolishing the long form census, and Maxim Bernier is caught out in his fabrication of "thousands of e-mails a day" protesting the census.

The bottom line here is the Stephen Harper and his government don't care about facts. They care about ideology and scaring people--and not just all people, but ones in certain swing ridings--into voting for them

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Wednesday Wildflowers, Because It's Raining....

But it wasn't yesterday, and the billows of asters that have bloomed this year were stunning.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Sad News from Burundi: A Reminder of Bad Old Times Like Something Out of Novel

It's been a couple of montha since I checked to see what was happening in Burundi, the small country on Lake Tanganyika which also has been the scene of much ethnic violence in the last 20 years, although not as much as in its twin Rwanda. The sad news is that things are not going well: 14 bodies were discovered last week north of the capital Bujumbura and several opposition politicians have felt it necessary to flee the country after recent elections.

Nine years ago exactly I spent a short time in Bujumbura to research a novel, The Violets of Usambara. It was a moment when it appeared a power sharing arrangement could be worked out between Hutus and Tutsis. And, indeed, in the years following violence declined and a semblance of order returned. The round of elections this spring and summer appeared to augur well, in fact. But the UN's Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) reports that tensions have been high for the last months, even though thousands of Burundians who had taken refuge in Congo are being encouraged to return home, with a similar return of Congolese from Burundi underway.

Sadly, the news this week sounds much like the scenario I painted so long ago. In my story which takes place in 1997, a Canadian politician on a fact-finding mission goes missing outside Bujumbura in an area not far from the border with the Congo. It turns out that he and his driver were killed by persons unknown. What happened recently sound eerily similar. The IRIN story says: "Earlier this week, 14 bodies were discovered in marshes near the Rusizi river, about 10km northwest of the capital, Bujumbura.

“It is difficult to identify them or say where they came from or even whether they are the bodies of Burundians,” Police Director-General Fabien Ndayishimiye told a news conference.

He pointed out that the east of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo “is home to the bases of various rebel groups, with skirmishes reported almost daily. Even yesterday we heard gunshots. So far no Burundian has told us about any missing family members. We see bodies but they are not identified.”

The following day, however, the head of a fishermen’s association told reporters four new bodies had been discovered in the river with Burundian identity papers in their pockets. "

How sad that so little has changed.

Monday 4 October 2010

Anniversaries and Elections: War Measures in Canada, Dictatorship in Brazil 40 Years Later.

There's an excellent chance that a dissident from anti-dictatorship days in Brazil will become the country's next president. Dilma Rousseff, hand-picked by outgoing president Lula received more votes than any of her opponents in Sunday's elections, but did not get more than the 50 per cent needed to avoid a run-off at the end of the month.

Through an interesting twist of circumstance, the election coincides with the 40th anniversary of what is called here the October Crisis, a period in which a provincial cabinet minister and a British trade representative were kidnapped, and the former killed. The press here is full of stories about what happened then including the declaration of the War Measures Act, which did away with most judicial freedoms including habeas corpus. (Note to NDP: the only MP who protested it was Tommy Douglas, and the party would do well to remember that it's important to take stands on principles.)

Obviously people who are punished for protesting frequently go on to be inspirational figures in a country: Jomo Kenyatta and Vaclav Havel are two that come to mind. Dilma (which is what everyone calls her) probably is not of their stature, but it's encouraging to think that the three years in prison she suffered didn't rule her out of the game, once democracy was finally achieved.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Saturday Photo: Where Vasco da Gama Set Sail

Well, actually the Torre de Bélem didn't exist in July 1498 when the great Portuguese explorer left for India. It was built later as part of the fortifications guarding the entrance to the River Tagus and to Lisbon.

But the Praia das Lagrimas, the Shore of Sorrows, is just steps away. The great Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões memorialized da Gama's departure in his epic The Lusiads, and gave the name to othis stretch of shore where thousands of Portuguese set sail toward an unknown future over a period of several hundred years.

I took the picture when I was in Portugal 18 months ago, and I have beside me on my work table the final proofs of my book Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure. My editor Simon Dardick says it will go to the printer next Wednesday, and the first copies will be in my hands in three weeks--ready for another adventure!

Friday 1 October 2010

Maybe Those Montreal Métro Cars Will Finally Arrive: Why You Should Be Up Front from the Beginning in Calling for Bids

When are we going to get new Métro cars? Reports are that an international call for bids on them has been delayed for a week, while the Société de transports de Montréal and the consortium Bombardier-Alstom negotiate a contract and the provincial government prepares legislation that will remove this transaction from requirements that the bidding process be opened,

The saga goes back four years when things looked ripe for Bombardier to get the whole contract, but Allstom protested in court. The upshot that the French firm was included in the deal which was enlarged, in part because it became clear that more cars were needed. Under existing legislation that meant a larger call for bids, and two other firms, one Chinese and the other Spanish, said they wanted in on the action and went to court to be included.

Four years later, the contracts have not been awarded and things are really mired down. This morning on Radio-Can, the transportation commentator said that the cars--some of which are more than 40 years old--are kept in use because of the skill of STM mechanics who have been masters at coming up with replacement parts.

The proposed special legislation would supposedly open the way to finally going ahead with the award of contracts: the two outsiders who want to bid would not have recourse to international courts because "free trade" treaties are not in effect with their home countries. Had one of them been US based, that would not be the case under NAFTA.

I'm not one to condone sweetheart deals--and the Bombardier bid had elements of that from the beginning--but we need those cars if we are to keep the Métro running. At the moment it's estimated to offer more than a million trips per day, and that figure should be encouraged to increase.