A better response to the Ottawa shooting

Harper post

Photo by Remy Steinegger

If only…

Today, Canada awoke to a new reality, with the government saying it will do everything in its power to support those with mental illness and addictions after a citizen who had fallen through the cracks killed a soldier on Parliament Hill before being shot and killed outside the Library of Parliament.

“Too often those with mental illness and those who suffer from terrible addictions are ignored and left to their own devices in a society that has not provided the necessary care,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the suspect in Wednesday’s shooting, had reportedly been staying at a shelter in Ottawa leading up to the shooting spree. The man had stayed at shelters before and had a lengthy criminal record, but nothing violent, and had reportedly struggled with addictions.

“We have seen this far too often and we will not, as a compassionate society, sit idly by and let our citizens suffer. We will muster the full might of the state and its resources to help our fellow citizens. We will wage war against desperation and struggle within our own borders, no matter the cost,” said Harper, adding it would be futile to respond to the shooting by restricting rights and increasing surveillance on citizens.

“The best way to combat extremists luring Canadian citizens, is to look after our citizens and give hope to those with very little of it,” said Harper.

This is certainly not the first time that a man, struggling with inner demons, has wreaked havoc and shattered lives. In a recent and tragic example from Calgary, Matthew de Grood killed five people at a house party in April.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the friends and family of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, the young soldier who was killed far too young yesterday,” said Harper. “Our thoughts also go out to the thousands of Canadians desperately seeking mental health care in a system that has failed them, and to those who are left to struggle with addictions in a society which criminalizes them instead of helping them. While we mourn the loss of one life, we must work as hard as we can to ensure that these kinds of incidents don’t happen again. Herding those who need our help into overcrowded hospitals with little to no psychiatric or addictions care is a true national tragedy.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Capitalism and catastrophe: an interview with Naomi Klein

Photo by Ed Kashi

Photo by Ed Kashi

Let’s start with a question. What seems like a bigger challenge: fixing a flawed economic system, or dealing with the catastrophic consequences of uncontrolled climate change? How about another one: would you rather hand over billions to bail out a bank, or to help ensure the our planet remains liveable?

Extreme, right? No. We’re in the position where our world is collapsing around us, our governments are doing absolutely nothing to stop it and we’re throwing away almost a trillion dollars a year in global subsidies to the companies that are ostensibly killing us. It’s absurd.

Naomi Klein, who always causes a stir with her books, argues in her latest, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, that the time of small fixes to avoid catastrophic climate change has long since come and gone and that we need to radically rethink the way we live and structure our societies in order to affect positive change.

Needless to say, the book is daunting, but it still manages to convey a sense of hope that it is possible to overcome the hurdles and to fix our world.

“I think that I believe it’s still possible. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s likely. I mean, I’ve been meeting people on the road who have really given up all hope, and just feel like we are in hospice and should just enjoy the scenery on the way down. I’m not at that point. I think being hopeful against these odds is a choice,” says Klein over the phone.

“I both don’t want to be in despair and I also believe that even if the chances are slim, that there is a moral responsibility to fight to better those chances.”

Her book is an elegant argument against the unbridled capitalism unleashed on the world in this era of global free trade, and its effects on the climate. As Klein describes it, our timing was terrible, with climate conferences starting work on treaties at the same time as international trade deals reshaped governance, regulations and the economy. Unsurprisingly, the trade deals rushed forward with strong monitoring and punishments for transgressors, while climate deals faltered and were ignored. Our global emissions in 2013 were 61 per cent higher than 1990, when the first climate treaty talks began.

“It’s a two-pronged issue. One is… we can’t regulate and that’s why we have failed to respond to this crisis, and then there’s the growth issue that I think cuts beyond deregulated capitalism,” say Klein, addressing the need of our current economy to constantly expand.

A longtime critic of international trade and the sort of unrestricted pillaging that comes with it, even Klein wasn’t prepared for what she found while working on this book.

“When I started the book, I did understand this clash between the sort of extreme free-market fundamentalism and what we need to do to respond to climate change, but I didn’t have my head wrapped around those numbers, those sort of terrifying numbers around how quickly we need to cut our emissions and what a challenge that represents to economic growth,” she says.

This Changes Everything isn’t just a screed against capitalism, though. Klein argues effectively for new ways forward and highlights the kind of resistance that is springing up around the world to fight extractive industries like mining and oil and gas exploration — particularly heavy oil and fracking operations. We meet Alberta’s Beaver Lake Cree, as well as protestors in Greece and beyond, all joined by an opposition to building infrastructure that will lock us in dependence on these destructive industries for years. She calls this loose gathering of pockets of resistance Blockadia, and lauds the role of indigenous communities in driving and aiding the fight.

Klein’s solutions lie in the need to rein in the economic system, allowing for public, small-scale control of utilities to force green solutions, funding green developments in the developing world and increasing taxation on consumption and death-dealing industries. We need job training in low-income communities and countries to help lead to a new world where those left behind today can survive and grow in a new economy that respects the environment. As she puts it, we need equitable sacrifice, with industry and the wealthy taking just as much, or more, of a hit than those lower down the line.

She even outlines ways to pay for all of this, with a large chunk coming from existing oil and gas subsidies.

Needless to say, Alberta doesn’t come out looking all that good in this book, and for good reason. Not only is this province home to one of the more destructive enterprises on the planet, it’s also home to the gilded towers where decisions are made on Canada’s oil and gas industry and its planned pipelines.

So how does she feel about reading here?

“You know, the last time I went to Calgary with The Shock Doctrine, I thought it was going to be really controversial, and I found that it was one of my most receptive audiences,” says Klein. “I think progressives in Calgary are some of the most progressive people in Canada, because it just takes such fortitude to stand up to such a powerful…. You have to be such a powerful counter-culture.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

The empty Postmedia empire

Postmedia/newspapers

Photo by Drew Anderson

This morning, the face of Canada’s newspaper industry changed, and it’s not for the best. Postmedia, owner of daily papers across the country and the National Post, announced it is buying Quebecor’s English-language papers, all 175 of them, including the Sun papers, for $316 million.

It’s no surprise to anyone at this point that the industry is struggling. Declining ad revenues, competition from the web, and on and on. We’ve all heard the issues and the challenges and we’ve all witnessed the painfully slow acceptance of a new order and the cut-and-slash response that has done nothing to improve matters.

What we haven’t seen until this morning is the wholesale consolidation of newspaper ownership across the country — depending, of course, on a ruling from the Competition Bureau.

That sounds like hyperbole, and it sort of is. There are still other players across the country, but not many. The Globe and Mail is still alive as Canada’s national paper and the Toronto Star still does great work out east as it struggles with restructuring. Metro is active in several markets, including Calgary, but hardly fills the void left by large dailies.

There are also countless community papers, though they are often owned by chains, and Postmedia now owns a dizzying amount of them. This paper, Fast Forward Weekly, is owned by Great West Newspapers, which owns 24 publications throughout Alberta, including us. Great West will now be facing off against Postmedia papers in small markets across the province if this deal goes through.

We also shouldn’t forget about our independent alt-weekly brethren like The Georgia Straight, The Coast, NOW and Vue.

But the announcement today that Postmedia is gobbling up the a chunk of the Quebecor empire and effectively creating a daily paper monopoly in almost every major English-speaking centre in Canada is troubling (Quebecor, which owns the Sun brand, is keeping its Quebec properties).

We now have a situation where the pretense of diversity — Postmedia says it intends to keep two papers running in markets where it was competing with the Sun, including the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun — passes for a strong print media sector. There is one owner and one ultimate arbiter of what gets said and how it gets said governing almost all the major papers across the country, but pretending like there’s an option.

So why would they do that? Well, it allows them to control the market in a way they couldn’t with only one publication. By creating the illusion of choice and dominating the market with two papers, it creates an even larger barrier for any competitor entering the market than if you just had one. Of course, it would be crazy to open a new paper in today’s day and age, right? Not necessarily. But with Postmedia holding a monopoly it sure is.

It also allows them to sell into all the daily print publications, offering choice to their advertisers that doesn’t really exist for their readers.

Also troubling in all of this is the fact that a company that struggles to balance the books is using some financial wizardry (offering $140 million of new debt to an existing creditor, for example) to fork over $316 million for the Quebecor properties.

This comes at a time when newsrooms have been decimated and there are apparently no new hires on the horizon for places like the Herald. There’s no money, after all. A once mighty newsroom has been reduced to a fraction of the size, morale is low and now the company is essentially saying it would rather consolidate the media landscape than invest in the people that are required to commit good journalism.

It’s a hollow empire, one built on the backs of journalists expected to do more with less in hulking buildings now mostly empty or rented out to others all in the name of budgets and bottom lines. The purpose of the papers in the chain and the people who work for them long since discarded in a race to the bottom that is disastrous for the state of our national dialogue and our democracy.

To really invest in a paper, Postmedia should be putting more attention to creating work that people scramble to read. The announcement today is a repudiation of that strategy and stands  in stark contrast with a recent column from the New York Times’ David Carr, writing about the rebirth of the Washington Post after it was sold to Jeff Bezos, thanks mostly to investments in good journalists and good journalism.

It’s too bad that in this country, the majority of our news will now come from an organization whose actions are dictated by shareholders and debtors and which shows no interest in saving its business by investing in its actual business — journalism.

Click here a full list of what Postmedia will own, depending on a review from the Competition Bureau.

Click here for a statement from the Commissioner of Competition.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Jim Prentice’s flood of words

Jim Prentice

Although the calendar reads September 2014, some Calgarians would be forgiven for thinking it was June 2013.

Since Jim Prentice was anointed as this province’s new leader, the latest in the 43-year Conservative dynasty, there has been a flood of promises and policies, including sudden decisions on flood mitigation itself.

The government is going to work on a water management agreement with TransAlta and is planning to dam a section of Springbank for a dry reservoir, which has residents a little miffed and garnered one hell of a passive-aggressive response from Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “With respect to the two flood mitigation measures for Calgary that were announced by Premier Prentice today — namely the dry reservoir in Springbank and the direction to negotiate a permanent water management agreement with TransAlta — it is difficult for us to comment in detail since the City of Calgary has not yet been consulted with respect to either proposal and our experts have not yet seen any engineering studies,” wrote the mayor.

In addition to pointing out the possible failings of the plan, due in large part to other elements and agreements not being in place, Nenshi’s posting highlighted the continued maltreatment of cities by a paternalistic provincial government that still governs as though we’re an agrarian society. This does not bode well for the much-discussed city charters that I’ve heard are effectively dead.

But the flood of words isn’t just about shoring up the banks of Alison Redford’s old riding of Calgary-Elbow, where residents are still fighting with the government for flood relief, and where Gordon Dirks, the so-far unelected minister of education, is running for a seat.

The torrent from the premier’s office is reaching biblical proportions — something preacher Dirks can understand — with Prentice desperately trying to prove to a skeptical public that the PC party has changed and that all those promises of accountability and openness will totally happen this time. Swear. Starting with not giving away sole-source contracts to friends to deal with communications during events like the flood.

The premier has outlined five priorities that someone should fact check to make sure they weren’t plagiarized from any of the hundreds of conservative campaigns fought across North America in a given year. Conservative fiscal policies? Check. End entitlements and restore public trust? Roger that. Maximize value for our natural resources and respect property rights? Yup. Quality of life, including leading in health care, education and skills training (but not something silly like social sciences)? That’s there too. And then down at the bottom, hey what’s that? Oh, “establish our province as an environmental leader.”

It’s worth digging into that last outlier. Fortunately, it’s just a click on the Prentice website before we read: “we will not damage the competitiveness of our oil and gas industry by unilaterally imposing costs and regulations.” That’s under the “environmental leader” banner. His whole rationale for environmental protection is to get more oil to market. Other harmful activities appear not to exist in Prentice’s world.

Like a tailings pond breach spewing its toxins into a waterway, we can expect a strong push from Prentice to get our oil out the door. He mimics his old boss Stephen Harper, calling for Alberta to be a global superpower in energy, which should prove challenging given rising global stockpiles, U.S. supply increasing exponentially, forecasted increases in Mexico, and no efficient way for our glut of production to reach the markets.

Prentice’s first weeks in office have produced the same flood of words we hear whenever a new Progressive Conservative takes the provincial reins, and all these years later people are starting to tire of the debris built up from the empty words. Our access to information is a joke, and so too is the treatment of our cities. Dissent is considered dirtier than a barrel of bitumen and there’s never really been a plan to wean us off the oily teat. We’re wholly dependent, locked in to a volatile market at a time of profound societal shift. Just look to the treatment of our colleges and universities if you want any indication of how the government views education outside of science and technology.

But here’s the thing: floods aren’t all bad; they flush a system. Last year’s flood cleansed the Elbow and the Bow of the rock snot clinging to our waterways’ pebbles and stones, providing a hopeful metaphor for the upcoming byelections and eventual provincial contest. There’s no telling just how a flood will play out, but we all know there’s plenty of muck to get rid of in this province, and after 43 years it’s pretty easy to see who’s to blame.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Rewriting the narrative: Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country

BOOKS-Fire-in-the

It’s difficult to know where to start on a review of Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. The book is a thing apart. It’s a unique entity without direct comparison, although maybe a collaboration between Jose Saramago, Haruki Murakami and Franz Kafka would come close. Islam’s tale breaks every rule you can think of, in terms of grammar, syntax and storytelling structure — not to mention the bounds of reality — and produces something that can draw gasps from a reader. It is, in short, a wholly remarkable and beautiful book.

The story is set in a fictional land marked by intrigue and revolution and dictatorships and war. It starts in the past, when spider silk fields covered the land and there was relative peace. In time, surveillance descended onto every corner of the country and there were no more secrets. Something called the The Mirror, a sort of Hollywood surveillance/reality television system, fights with the state for snooping dominance in a world devoid of privacy. In this land we follow Hedayat, the central character, as he navigates the hidden corridors of the country — working as a smuggler and a caretaker of ghosts — falling in love and recounting his family’s history. It’s a sometimes confusing timeline, going back to the founding of the unnameable country, and made even more so by the surreal happenings within this surreal land.

It’s a land where Hedayat’s father worked in the bowels of the bureaucracy, dealing with thoughtreels, which contain the minds of the country’s inhabitants. A land where Americans invade to destroy the spider silk fields which can weave armour. Where Hedayat, and his father before him, use glossolalia as a weapon and a means of influence.

Both the story and the writing are challenging, and the initial pages pass slowly as your mind adjusts to Islam’s structure and cadence. Once fully immersed in the tale, however, this is a captivating read. Belief is suspeneded as you’re taken on a fantastic ride of flying carpets and rebels and giants and underground caverns and neverending bureaucracy. Islam’s writing is so incredible you will occassionally find yourself breathless.

It’s all made even more remarkable by the fact that this is Islam’s first published novel. First-time novelists are not supposed to come out of the gate with such a forceful challenge to the status quo. This isn’t simply a new kind of story, but a new kind of storytelling that would be almost impossible to duplicate. It layers metaphor upon metaphor and ideally should be revisited more than once to catch all the nuance. It’s the kind of book that leaves you wondering just how much of it you missed at the end, or whether the author was simply messing with you for half of it. Your own theories on certain aspects of the book would likely fill pages.

Hidden amongst the magic and the scattered words and phrases, however, are real world messages about torture, abuse, dictatorship, colonialism and war. This is a magic land beset by the horrors of the contemporary world and Islam doesn’t hold back, letting his poetic writing batter the inequities.

This is a staggering work by a writer that it sure to one day loom large in our consciousness. If you’re up for a challenge, this is a must-read.

Fire in the Unnameable Country, by Ghalib Islam, Hamish Hamilton, 448 pp.

Cycling outside of Calgary’s inner city

NEWS Suburban cycling

While cries of social engineering and a war on cars echo off the sides of skyscrapers and condos, the city is busy turning Calgary into a bike-friendly city in newer communities and suburbs without much fuss.

Although there has been at least one councillor bemoaning the separated bike lane being built on Northland Drive in the city’s northwest, there are multiple projects that have been completed or are in the works with little to no opposition. That may change, however, with new “complete street” regulations that will first crop up in committee after the summer.

Complete streets essentially mandate certain features on roadways in order to make them amenable to walking, cycling and driving, rather than focusing on cars alone.

“The stuff that’s going to be greenfield development [new communities], the goal is to have a complete streets policy that says when the developers are building these roads, they provide the right accommodation for cyclists and for pedestrians,” says Tom Thivener, the city’s cycling co-ordinator. “Once that’s in place, if a road is a certain classification, it automatically gets the treatments. So then I don’t have to worry about petitioning, lobbying the developers each time to try and get a facility in. That’s very much a piecemeal approach that we’re trying to avoid, so as soon as we have council’s approval on the complete streets policy, that’ll kind of take care of the greenfield.”

New communities already accommodate cycling, but usually in the form of regional pathways that are more geared towards leisure than commuting. In the southeast community of Mahogany, for example, the developer Hopewell is building 22 kilometres of pathways that will link up to the greenway project — a sort of cycling ring road that will encircle the city with 138 kilometres of pathway.

Darren Bender, a Tuscany resident, cyclist and a former director of Bike Calgary, has nothing but good things to say about the pathways in his suburban northwest community, but takes issue with the connections between communities and the links to the inner-city — and is thankful not to live in the southeast or northeast.

“Yeah, the connections between the communities in the suburbs are not great, especially when you’ve got suburbs that butt up against a major road,” he says, before listing off the veritable car walls that box in Tuscany. “A lot of these communities are quite isolated unless you live by car.”

For Bender, the connections have to be made between communities, and activity centres like the University of Calgary, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the downtown network. “You’ve got to get the destinations linked in and then build your way outward,” he says. “The city’s doing that really well, I think.”

Doug Leighton, the vice president of planning and sustainability for Brookfield Residential says they recognize the importance of walking an cycling to ehnhance quality of life.

“We’re currently designing several new neighbourhoods to plug into the Seton town centre, health campus, regional park, schools and recreation facilities,” he says over email. “These will feature an inter-connected grid of pathways that will make it very easy to get around on foot or by bike.”

For the older communities stuck between the inner city and the outlying communities, cycling infrastructure mostly comes as roads are repaired and rebuilt, or tied into major projects. For example, the West LRT brought bike lanes and a new pathway to its surrounding area, and this summer, Northland’s painted lanes for buses and bikes are being replaced with the aforementioned separated lane during asphalt repair.

In Bowness, the main thoroughfare is going on a diet during construction, reducing four lanes to three and adding bike lanes. The road was large considering the 13,000 cars travelling its route on a daily basis. The project has the support of the community and the area’s councillor, Ward Sutherland, who opposed the cycle track network.

Thivener says his department is busy planning what they’re going to do once the downtown pilot wraps up, and co-ordinating with the roads department on construction projects and how they might line up with cycling routes.

So why don’t these projects elicit the same level of contempt as the downtown lanes?

“I mean, we do a good job of engaging the public — much improved, I would say, from some of the early projects that Calgary went through,” says Thivener. “We make sure that the community’s aware that these projects are coming and aware of the benefits and trade-offs before we proceed. But by and large, yeah, they don’t get as much interest because they’re isolated on corridors that probably not everyone sees — it’s more neighbourhood type concerns that we deal with. There’s some good projects that are going to be installed this summer that are going to be exciting.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Clint, the calf-roping calf

FACE-Cow2

So, you get to be in the Stampede this week?

Yeah, pretty excited about it.

Really?

No.

Why?

Well, there’s the lack of prize money and the fact that someone will be chasing me down while mounted on the back of a horse, trying to throw a rope around my neck and stop me dead in my tracks while I’m running for my life. Oh, and then pick me up, throw me on the ground and tie my legs together.

Well, when you put it that way.

Is there another way to put it?

Don’t you get a thrill performing in front of such a big crowd?

In a word. No.

Does it hurt when you’re roped?

Have you ever had someone throw a rope around your neck and pull when you’re running as fast as you can?

No.

That was a rhetorical question.

So you’re saying it does hurt?

Yes Einstein, I’m saying it hurts.

The incidence of injuries is very low.

True, but it would be a hell of a lot lower if I didn’t have to do it.

What about when they grab you and tie up your legs?

That part doesn’t hurt so much, but it’s pretty humiliating, not to mention totally uncomfortable when you’re stuck in the field waiting for someone to let you go.

Not into being tied up, eh?

Perv. No.

I guess there aren’t any safewords.

….

Okay, moving along. How are you treated when you’re not running away from mounted cowboys?

Oh, pretty good. You know, the usual. I stand around, eat a bunch, drool a little, eat some more, hang out with my mom when I get a chance. They feed us pretty good. And the ranch isn’t bad.

Do you get to watch the grandstand show?

We hear it, but they don’t really let us out to sit in the stands if that’s what you mean. Not a big fan of the fireworks.

Why not?

Well, loud bangs and all. I mean, I talk smart, but I am a cow. I get a bit freaked out, you know?

Have you checked out the midway food offerings?

Oh, you know, I’ve perused some of the options, yeah.

Any you want to try?

I’m more of a grass and hay kind of guy. Also, scorpions on pizza? Nasty business that.

If you weren’t being chased down in the rodeo, what would you be doing?

Probably standing in a field, staring, chewing. The usual. You know, living the dream.

Do you still have your balls?

This interview is over.