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Loss of innocence

Politicians, police and just plain people have offered a lot of captions to the events in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa over the past week. The Prime Minister called the killings of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo an attack on Canada’s democracy. Law enforcement officials referred to the murders as “lone-wolf terrorism.” And friends of mine have said it was an assault on this country’s innocence. A paramedic who joined those watching Cpl. Cirillo’s body pass on Hwy 401 last Friday summed it up:

“I never expected to be standing here for a Canadian soldier killed on our own soil,” Roger Litwiller told the Toronto Star.

He went on to say that the incident didn’t happen on the First and Second World War battlefields of Europe or in the Middle East against the Taliban or ISIS terrorists. No, Litwiller said, it had happened here “where we live.”

But what about that innocence? I actually believe this country lost much of its innocence on a spring night in 1985, when members of Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh militant group, planted a bomb aboard Air India Flight 182. The resulting explosion over the Atlantic Ocean – the first bombing of a 747 jumbo jet – killed 286 Canadians, 27 Britons and 24 Indian citizens.

In the 25 years that followed, numerous investigations focused on Sikh extremists groups operating in Canada, the U.K., the U.S. and India. Investigators drew up lists of at least eight different suspects, all with connections to Canadian locations and terrorist cells. Trials and convictions in Canada resulted. And in June 2005, then Prime Minister Paul Martin summed up the reality of the attack.

“Make no mistake,” Martin said. “The flight may have been Air India’s. It may have taken place off the coast of Ireland. But this is a Canadian tragedy.”

Furthermore, while some of Canadians may still believe this is a nation practising only peacemaking and peacekeeping, I think that tradition is long past. Our decisions to join NATO operations in Afghanistan for a dozen years, our participation to the joint air-operations against Muammar Gaddafi’s in 2011, and now the coalition involving Canada’s F-18s bombing ISIS operations in Iraq (and possibly Syria) have indeed left this country far from neutral, but an active participant in a war against terror.

This week, I was listening to a conversation involving a number of historians, journalists and political scientists about an even greater “terrorist attack” on Canadian soil. Indeed, it came to a head 44 years ago this month. At the time, the movement for Quebec sovereignty and support for the separatist provincial Parti Quebecois were in their infancy.

But a core group of Quebec nationalists – Front de liberation du Québec – emerged to press for independence and separation from Canada. Indeed, they went so far as to detonate nearly 100 bombs in mailboxes. Then on Oct. 5 one FLQ cell kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross from his home. Five days later, as the FLQ demanded the publication and broadcast of its manifesto, another cell kidnapped Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s minister of labour.

The “October Crisis” came to a head on Oct. 16 when Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa called on the federal government to enact emergency powers of search and arrest. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau responded by implementing the War Measures Act, which suspended all civil liberties and gave wide-ranging powers of arrest to police. At the time, columnist and politician (later Quebec Premier) René Lévesque denounced the “acts of terrorism,” but added:

“Until we receive proof of the size of the revolutionary army to the contrary, we will believe that such a minute, numerically unimportant fraction is involved, that rushing into the enactment of the Act (is) panicky and altogether excessive reaction.”

Excessive or not, on Oct. 17, Pierre Laporte’s body was found strangled and stuffed in a trunk. And over zealous English-speaking editorialists and commentators claimed the country was on the verge of civil war. Eventually, police homed in on the murderous cell and negotiated James Cross’s freedom with the other.

As an indication of the national sentiment, however, a December 1970 Gallup Poll revealed that 89 per cent of English-speaking Canadians supported the implementation of the War Measures Act, as did 86 per cent of French-speaking Canada. Ultimately, 497 people were arrested in the sweep to find the kidnappers (although all but 62 were later released without charges). And remember the exchange between CBC reporter Tim Ralfe and Prime Minister Trudeau on the steps of Parliament Hill about the confrontation?

“It is more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about … (soldiers and police in the streets) with helmets and guns,” Trudeau said.

“At any cost?” asked Ralfe. “How far would you go with that?”

“Well, just watch me!”

With all due respect to the murders of two dedicated reservists over the past week, I think Canada’s innocence was lost a long time ago.

Visual aids or impediments

Alberta Aviation Museum at Edmonton's former Blatchford airfield.

Alberta Aviation Museum at Edmonton’s former Blatchford airfield.

It was just a few minutes to go. Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, the author with whom I was sharing MC-ing duties (last Friday night), and I, were trying to organize visuals for our combined presentation about historic aviation moments. We were about to co-host the launch of the LitFest 2014: Edmonton’s annual non-fiction festival. The audience was all seated in the venue now, the Alberta Aviation Museum. She tried to get all our images to register on her computer. I tried to get them to register on mine. But we couldn’t get one laptop to talk to the other.

“It’s just a Mac-PC thing, I guess,” she said.

[more...]

No sound? No reality!

SUBCONSCIOUS_PASSWORD_POSTERThe concept was fairly simple. Oscar-winning moviemaker Chris Landreth leads his audience into the recesses of the brain of a character named Charles Langford, who’s attempting to remember the name of a long-ago friend he’s suddenly re-encountered at a party. You know… It’s when you see the face, but you can’t remember the name… Well, Landreth used that premise in an 11-minute short film, called “Subconscious Password,” which we recently saw during the annual Short Film Festival at Uxbridge’s Roxy Theatres. The film becomes a madcap edition of that classic TV game show “Password,” with every contestant knowing that the long-ago friend’s name is “John,” except our hero.

“Landreth’s spellbinding animation makes anomic aphasia unforgettably entertaining,” explained the Roxy program. [more...]

Handling the handlers

Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.

Toronto mayoral candidates (l-r) Doug Ford, Olivia Chow and John Tory.

She started looking and listening from the moment she entered the room. Almost as if she were a bomb-sniffing canine, she was casing the space in which Olivia Chow was about to participate in a mayoral debate, Monday evening. I was the moderator and introduced myself. She had a raft of questions about where Ms. Chow would be sitting during the debate, and what the order of speaking would be. Then, just before her candidate entered the room, the handler approached me with one final question.

“How will Olivia know when her speaking time is up?” the woman asked me. “Have you got signs to count her down to the end of her time?”

“No.” I said. “I’ll just tell her she’s got 30 seconds left.”

“I really think you ought to have visual signs for her,” she insisted.

“Don’t worry. I’ve moderated a lot of debates. I don’t think we need visual signals. I’ll just find an appropriate moment, a breath pause in Olivia’s comments, and I’ll gently say, ‘Thirty seconds.’ It should work just fine.” [more...]

How families grow wiser

Walter Allward's marble sculpture of Mother Canada mourning her dead at Vimy Ridge memorial site in France.

Walter Allward’s marble sculpture of Mother Canada mourning her dead at Vimy Ridge memorial site in France.

Early in the celebration of Bill Cole’s life, last Sunday afternoon at Wooden Sticks, his son Rob talked about the periodic disconnect that had existed between himself and his late father. Rob said he thought it was much the same as the disconnect between Bill and his father, First World War veteran Thomas Clark Cole. But Rob admitted a reality that many sons and daughters do.

“I was astonished,” Rob Cole said. “The older I got, the wiser Dad seemed to become.” [more...]

Rules are not for breaking

People's Climate March supporters believe world leaders have failed to live up to environmental commitments.

People’s Climate March supporters believe world leaders have failed to live up to greenhouse gas emissions regulations they agreed to at Kyoto in 1997.

I remember the shot as if it were yesterday. Just a few minutes into our friendly game of shinny, this new guy in the game came skating down the wing, pulled his hockey stick back to let a slapshot fly. In an instant, the goalie ducked and everybody in the path of this guy’s shot got out of the way; it was like the parting of the Red Sea. A second later, his blast from the wing exploded off the glass behind the goalie and ricocheted around the boards with a resounding boom.

“Hey! No slapshots!” somebody yelled. “Don’t you know the rules?” [more...]

The frill is gone

My checked luggage as a profit centre for long-suffering airlines.

My checked luggage as a profit centre for long-suffering airlines.

It was just past 6 a.m. I was rushing through the Calgary airport to catch a flight to the U.S. a few weeks ago. I was relieved when I found nobody in front of me at the United Airlines check-in. I rustled up my passport and sighed with relief that I’d probably get to the gate in plenty of time. The ticket agent scanned my credentials and took out a tag for my one piece of luggage to be checked to the airplane’s baggage compartment.

“How would you like to pay for this?” she asked.

“Pay for what?” I asked.

“It’s $22 for your checked baggage.”

“I’m only checking one bag,” I protested. [more...]

A 9/11 story

Laurie Laychak simply identified herself as "a volunteer."

Laurie Laychak simply identified herself as “a volunteer.”

It was the tail end of a travel junket. By that I mean I was touring parts of Virginia (near Washington, D.C.) with several other writers and broadcasters. We had been invited there by a state tourism consortium in hopes we would write glowing stories about such tourist spots as Alexandria, former stomping grounds of George Washington; Manassas, with its showcase U.S. Marine Corps Museum; and Arlington, home of the Arlington National Cemetery.

But, on the last day, our guides took us to the west side of the U.S. Pentagon just across the Potomac River from D.C. There we entered a park area, with benches and stunted trees. A woman approached us.

“Are you the Canadian writers?” she asked. Then, she introduced herself. “I’m a volunteer. My name is Laurie Laychak.”

I still didn’t get it. “Volunteer?” I asked. And I looked around at the stainless steel benches inlaid with granite and the Crape Myrtle trees.

pentagon-Corbis

“Welcome to the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial… I lost my husband David Laychak, here in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.” [more...]

Driven and loving it

The Nanji twins are driven to contribute to their community.

The Nanji twins are driven to contribute to their community.

The two young women stood together at the front of the hall, the former pharmacy on the main floor of the Toronto Street medical building. They couldn’t have been more alike. They wore the same T-shirts decorated in a blue and yellow logo. They wore their hair the same – shoulder-length – and they even looked, well, identical. And when they spoke – like a married couple – they finished each other’s sentences.

“I still remember a year ago, thinking this might not work,” one said.

“Yeah, we’ve grown so much,” the other said. “There were only 15 people attending this time last year…”

“This year, there are over 30,” the first added. [more...]

My “famous” friend

Howard Walker never considered himself a wartime hero. But he was to a lot of Centennial College students.

Howard Walker never considered himself a wartime hero. But he was to a lot of Centennial College students. (Photo courtesy Matthew Wocks.)

With some people I know, there are delicious rituals enjoyed when we meet after not seeing each other for a while. For some it’s a real bear hug or a genuine slap on the back. With others it’s a heart-felt handshake. Then, there is one friend with whom I’ve established a unique greeting, in this case an exchange on the telephone. Depending upon who’s calling whom, our phone conversations always began the same way.

“Is this the famous Ted Barris?” he would ask.

To which I’d respond, “Is this the famous Howard Walker?” [more...]