Wednesday, 30 October 2019


It’s the Tar Sands, Stupid

The Midas touch is classical antiquity’s most ironic myth, a gift as a curse. Sisyphus with his eternal rock and rolling stone merely exemplified the absurdity of fruitless labour. Both of these misguided kings are alive and well today in the Canadian province of Alberta which has continually mismanaged the random hydrocarbon boon provided by some compressed Jurassic ferns.

Last week the recently minted and recently elected United Conservative Party (UCP) presented its first budget to the people. The finance minister wore a new pair of cowboy boots for the occasion. Alas, his language signaled the same old and tired excuse for another cycle of austerity measures tried and true. “Boom times” would not be returning anytime soon. It was distressingly apparent that the boom mentality, sparked initially by Leduc No. 1 and later the tar sands up north, was still driving these plains and mountains.

Today Alberta is projecting herself as a bi-polar, alcoholic diva raging around her neglected ranch house, off her meds and out of vodka. As was the case with the rhetoric (or lack of it) in the national general election campaign which concluded 21 October, there’s been no visionary discussion here about growing and diversifying the economy. No, we’re waiting for the price of oil to rebound. See, according to the UCP, Alberta has “a spending problem, not a revenue problem.” Trouble is our largest crude customer, the United States, is pretty much self-sufficient these days.

But there’s a magic bullet! Harry Potter’s Philosopher’s Stone and Avenger Infinity Stones all combined in one cowboy hat. If the Trans-Mountain pipeline were twinned along an existing right-of-way, Alberta bitumen could reach Pacific tidewater and new Asian markets. Trouble is those Liberal mandarins in Ottawa exercising federal jurisdiction by approving the project twice and then buying it to ensure its completion after frustrated corporate investors began to bail. Another problem, and a legitimate head-scratcher, is that eastern Canadians prefer tobuy their oil from model states such as Saudi Arabia rather than Alberta. This type of situation demands the premier, a would-be statesman, mount a charm offensive and not throw a tantrum ranting his misperception of Quebec’s special status within Confederation.

Alberta has a relatively low level of post-secondary engagement compared to the rest of the country. This trend does not augur well for a rapidly evolving and increasingly complex global economy. It is in a large part a side effect of Alberta’s exploitation of the tar sands, big money in exchange for a modest skill set. To the hive mind of the UCP it only makes sense to cut provincial grants to advanced education institutions until the price of a barrel of oil rebounds. An educated workforce, an economic future beyond bitumen, what’s with that? Some academics have sniffed that Alberta’s five Christian colleges did not have their grants tampered with but a review of the numbers suggests a school like Burman University with its 400 students is already flying too close to the ground and that any funding reduction would be fatal.

The vast majority of Canadians reside in densely populated urban areas. Canadian cities are underserved by their provincial legislatures and the federal parliament, their voices subservient to a higher echelon of largesse. Revenue Avenue downtown consists mainly of property taxes and speeding tickets. Because Alberta has a spending problem and not a revenue problem UCP government logic dictates that municipal funding be cut, and that important infrastructure and transit projects in her major cities be delayed. Sure, their need will be much more acute in a few years’ time and costs will have gone up but by then the price of oil will have risen like Christ, black gold gravy.

And there’s another cross to bear (or ignore) in the meantime. Labourers used to decent dollars don’t hang around remote abandoned work camps. They migrate to populous places seeking work. If no one’s building hospitals, repairing roads and bridges or laying rails, there’s not much to do with one’s time. Social services have been cut; this budget de-indexed the Alberta Works family benefit allowance. When the welfare, as embarrassing and shaming as it is to accept, is subsistent and the food banks’ shelves are sparse, when things appear to be breaking down from the top, there’s only a few ways left to turn and none of them are good.

The climate in Alberta hasn’t changed; the same misguided wishes keep providing the same fruitless result.         
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Monday, 28 October 2019


Agent Running in the Field

My father moved from Montreal to Ottawa in 1973, maybe 1974. Dad died in 2014. The two of us did not spend a lot of time together during those four decades in between. As I’ve lived these past five years knowing he will never again be at the other end of a telephone line, I’ve realized he did his best to set me up in life and for life in his quiet, thoughtful and necessarily distant way.

I can write for hours and not scribble or type a single word. That sort of stasis is a peculiar sort of agony. “Sure the sentence is grammatically incorrect but its meaning is clear and it sounds better. Oh…” With advertising copy that conflicted inactivity became something of an ethical dilemma. “Is it fair to bill for pacing and smoking? I’m selling two commodities here, one of which is time. Yes, but…” The back-handed miracle of middle age, semi-retirement, is that I can now write what I want when I want and my time-killing skills have markedly improved.

Since I signed my first lease for independent shelter in first year university I’ve carted a modest yet quality library between apartments and houses, cities and provinces. When I get stuck on a page now, hung up on a comma or a semi-colon, I scan the spines that surround my work area in the Crooked 9 for inspiration. As I contemplate the reference volumes, the histories, the sports writing and some of the world’s great novels, I don’t think of their authors and their subjects, I think of my father and the foundation he patiently and stealthily laid. “Dad gave me that one, that one too and that.” Dad was born in 1924; his collection of Shakespeare’s works, published around that time, is upstairs in the living room anchoring an elegant library table.

My father was a very precise man. His McGill engineering degree was interrupted by the Second World War. Crossword puzzles could be filled in with ink provided one wasn’t too hasty, fooled by the puzzler’s cryptic clues. He instructed me to write the number eight as two circles, much neater than my left-handed Mobius strip. Printing was a more effective way to communicate than cursive because the writer had an iota of additional time to consider his words. Letters from my father were always on sheets of graph paper, one letter per square. I acquired that habit and my printing (and my late older brother’s) looks exactly like Dad’s. Later in his life when he used unlined, personalized stationery, I could tell by the squared off bottom of each letter that he used a steel ruler to keep his lines straight and his margins true.

Dad’s favourite novelist was John le Carre. My favourite living author is John le Carre. A portrait of my father in his Royal Canadian Air Force uniform rests on a bookshelf near the hardcover editions of le Carre’s complete works. Some of the books are from my father’s library, some were gifts from him and some I bought myself. The three of us are connected by invisible strands of spider silk, enough perhaps to motivate an agent running in the field.

My father never did complete his engineering degree. He went back to school after the war but quit in frustration. He mentioned that time in his life just once. “After what I’d been through what could anyone say to me?” I believe my father’s experiences overseas taught him that there was a space between right and wrong and that that space was amoral and murky. This theme runs through all of le Carre’s novels and I’m sure it resonated with a particular veteran.

My father and I will always share a natural bond. Dad introduced me to his favourite writer and I was enthralled, hook, line and sinker. I appreciate le Carre’s writing on another level too, that much more because I know how much pleasure Dad derived from his prose. Le Carre transcended his genre and transformed the spy thriller into literature. His style is as dense as his plots. The reader must become something of an intelligence analyst because moves made in a great game played in a wilderness of mirrors may not be as they appear. Details of feints and deceptions, divided loyalties, the moral ambiguities of crimes committed to serve the greater good stack up enough to fill a dossier. A leaping off point for a new reader of le Carre is not Eric Ambler or Ian Fleming but rather conflicted Catholic convert, Graham Greene.

Following the cessation of the Cold War, the former MI5 and MI6 operative turned his attention to international banking, Big Pharma, arms dealing, money laundering and terror financing. Le Carre is pushing 90 now but remains amazingly prolific. A definitive biography by Adam Sisman was published in 2015 and quickly followed by le Carre’s own memoir The Pigeon Tunnel. But his fiction has not ceased. A Legacy of Spies which harks back to 1963’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold appeared in 2017. Agent Running in the Field was published just last week. I do not know if my father had time enough to enjoy 2013’s A Delicate Truth; I know we talked about its publication but not the story which minutely relates the folly of a plausibly deniable special forces “extraction” of a most wanted jihadist.

Dad died on 11 November. I’ve always believed that date befitting of the man I knew. It’s approaching now, as surely as winter. I miss my father and I will always miss him. But grief is a peculiar thing. Dad himself said, “I had a good run.” I accept that; I understand that the great wheel of generations will always turn. I do not grieve my loss so much as his loss because I know that my father has missed four or five books that would have delighted him. But those recent le Carres are shelved with Dad’s books beside his RCAF picture and so, there they are and here the three of us shall remain.             
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Monday, 21 October 2019


A York State of Mind

Since Roman times the British city of York has been strategic, the key to the north. In its day it rivaled London (the southern key) as the seat of power on the island. Modern travelers will find York a convenient hub for tours of the spongy and mossy Yorkshire dales and moors patterned with their drystone walls and apparently immobile flocks of sheep, and dotted with quaint, picturesque market towns. Leeds is 40 minutes away by rail. Even closer, about half an hour away, is the spectacular cathedral city of Durham, a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, York, just two hours from London by train, is a destination in itself.

The prime real estate where the Ouse and Foss rivers meet has been home to humans for thousands of years. The area was the territory of the Brigantes, a Celtic tribe, before the Roman occupation began around our calendar year 71. Surviving artifacts indicate that York served as the base for two Roman legions, the Ninth at first and then their replacements the Sixth. The Romans withdrew from Britain around 400 as the empire cleaved into east and west factions. Subsequently opportunists immigrated: the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons. If these combative migratory waves weren’t disruptive enough, those epitomes of bloody tourists, the Vikings, were also frequent visitors. William’s conquering Normans marched into York in 1068.

Archeologists understand that history is preserved and recorded in layers. York’s famous medieval walls were erected as earthworks topped and wooden palisades dating from times prior to the Age of Antiquity. They are the final heightened and expanded product of many hands, many centuries of labour. Walkers can mount the wall at the foot of Lendal Bridge on the west bank of the River Ouse. There’s width enough to stroll two abreast, although reassuring railings are few and far between, and in this overly sensitive age nary a hint of suicide-prevention fencing; there are some lovely spots should the call of the void become a siren’s song.

This elevated route to York Castle resembles a backward letter c, angular, in a capitalized collegiate font. All that remains of the castle itself is the Norman keep known as Clifford’s Tower. It is a massive cylinder of stone perched on the peak of an artificial hill of earth known as a motte. The lower bailey and the surrounding moat (fed by the River Foss) are long gone; the stairs from those flats, a parking lot now, up to the parapet which commands a spectacular view of York and the countryside are a visitor’s only option and no joke.

It’s a short walk from the York Castle along Tower Street into what was once the ancient city’s core. The narrow cobblestone streets constitute a pedestrian mall, or perhaps a maze. Evidently the urban planner was a kitten with a ball of yarn. Tourists can orientate themselves by finding either one of the two main Roman roads which run straight and true and intersect. They are now called Petergate and Stonegate. It’s simpler to scan the sky for the twin spires of York Minster, the gothic cathedral which dominates the city utterly.

The church in all its vainglorious majesty was completed as it now presents in 1472. Its construction required 250 years though one suspects a project of this magnitude is never quite finished. God knows the combined costs of maintenance, upkeep and restoration. The grandeur and the genuine wonder is the scale of human endeavor. Ponder the assembly of this shimmering beige beauty when the average human life was considerably shorter than today. A common labourer or skilled artisan, a woodcarver or stonemason, would have spent his entire career on a single jobsite and would have likely apprenticed his son to the same endless task. And so it would go, so it went, tools passed down through generations.

The foundations of any institution can be tricky. The Minster was erected upon crumbled, buried Roman ruins. The Romans, ever practical in matters of civil engineering, aligned their fortress parallel to the banks of the Foss. Dogma being what it is the Christian cathedral had to orientate east to west thereby criss-crossing its cruciform weight on top of unstable Roman walls. Delicate, painstaking and expensive restorative work undertaken by the City of York in the 1960s prevented the whole damn thing from tipping over. The miracle was that the excavations revealed the layers of civilizations past, the first church on the site, wooden, is believed to date from 627.

York is a small city by any measure, its population barely tips past 200,000 souls. Its modest size will not overwhelm a visitor, but a walk around town will.      
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