A few weeks ago, I read a story about the end of an era. A man who’d come from a family-run gourmet meat business and then had been elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1985, was stepping down. Monte Kwinter had served his constituents in the riding of York Centre for 32 years, but now he was retiring. The Toronto Star’s Robert Benzie asked the former solicitor general about his decision to leave.
“I am proud of what we accomplished during that time in my riding,” Kwinter told Benzie. But then the 86-year-old Member of Provincial Parliament added something I didn’t expect when he said:
“It’s time to turn over the reins to a new generation.”
They all looked sharp in their specially tailored commemorative jackets. They responded to the atmosphere of being away from home on a field trip with not unexpected exuberance; they looked pretty pumped. But when several of them spoke publicly the other night in Ypres, Belgium, I could tell these teenagers had changed even in the few days we’ve been away.
One of them, Sam Futhy, a Grade 10 student from Uxbridge Secondary School, noted a visit to one of the Great War cemeteries.
“When I saw the number of grave stones,” he said. “I don’t know. It just hit me.”
The media came out in droves to hear an important pronouncement about law and the use of a controversial hallucinogenic substance in Canadian society. Then, three sober-looking legal figures proceeded to offer their findings. J. Peter Stein, Heinz Lehmann and the man after whom the report was named, Gerald Le Dain, unveiled their findings.
“The cultivation of cannabis should be subject to the same penalties as trafficking,” Judge Le Dain said, “but it should not be a punishable offence…”
If you thought those pronouncements were a recent dress rehearsal for the current Trudeau Liberal government’s plan to decriminalize the medicinal or recreational use of marijuana next spring, well, you’d almost be right.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in a line of American travellers moving through an airport security area. We were all rushing to get to a flight bound for New York City. We had all removed our coats, belts and shoes, and were waiting to be cleared to the gate. That’s when a fellow passenger struck up a conversation with me.
“Going home?” a guy asked.
“No,” I said. “Home’s in Canada.”
“Kind of the same,” he smiled. “Except you Canadians all say, ‘aboot.’”
I buttoned my lip, preferring to leave well enough alone. Fortunately, I didn’t end up sitting next to him on the plane, so I didn’t have to endure any more of his mistaken perceptions about the similarities between Americans and Canadians.
That morning, about three and a half weeks ago, this political candidate was on the firing line. Two CTV journalists had fashioned their feature interview with him based on some hard-hitting questions. Then, the TV journalists invited questions from those in the audience. Several of my journalism students, invited to the studio, got their chance to ask questions. And the politician answered them thoughtfully. Then, with the broadcast over, the politician headed for his tour bus to dash to his next event. As we were leaving the studio, my students passed by the candidate’s tour bus.
“Hold it there,” I said to my students, suggesting they pose in front of the logo on the bus. I raised my cell phone to snap the picture, when…
“Wait a second,” the young politician shouted from just outside camera range. “Let me join you,” and he jumped into the shot next to the student journalists and thanked them for being part of a political selfie.
One could see the man was about to pounce. One could see that it was a debater’s moment – maybe even one of those so-called knockout punches. And the punch was aimed at the prime minister. Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau wound up and let it fly at Conservative leader Stephen Harper.
“Mr. Harper on (Bill) C-51,” Trudeau said of the anti-terrorism bill passed into law in June of this year, “wants us to be afraid that there’s a terrorist under every leaf and rock in Canada.”
When it happened, I figured maybe the solution was close by. I wasn’t entirely certain they could or would pitch in, but I thought I’d try to find out. I’d never really gone to them for help before, but I thought this time I would. So, I sat down and wrote a letter to township council.
“The recent rain and wind storm,” I wrote, “battered the township. And among the victims were some of our old-growth trees.”
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.”
Not so long ago, the talk in our oldtimers’ hockey dressing room turned to the usual grousing. The Leafs likely won’t make the playoffs, one guy moaned. Somebody else complained that township roads weren’t being ploughed quickly or thoroughly enough this winter. Then, Pearson airport became the target. In the recent ice storm, weren’t the delays horrendous? Wasn’t it criminal that travellers were forced to remain on the tarmac for hours?
And, just for good measure, aren’t those sunshine destination airfares outrageous? And I thought about something one of our daughters had said, when I complained about a similar problem, delay or cost.
“It’s a First World problem, Dad,” she pointed out quietly.
“Yes, but…” and I stopped myself. She was absolutely right.
This week, I caught both the federal budget unveiling in the House of Commons and the political and public response. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that he would run the country’s business for about $250 billion, running a $2.9 billion deficit with an additional $3 billion contingency just in case the economy goes south. He suggested he would stay the course “to weather any future global economic storms,” in his speech in the
Commons. I’m sure Flaherty’s done the math, but Canada’s deficit and contingency alone would cover much of the assets of many Third World countries such as Bangladesh, Congo, Liberia, Eritrea and Afghanistan combined. In other words, deficits and contingencies and economic storms are all relative.
I watched Global TV’s coverage of Opposition leader Tom Mulcair assess the budget. The NDP leader complained that there are 300,000 more Canadians looking for work than during the economic crisis of 2008; in particular, he worried that 260,000 young Canadians are still looking for work. Down the hall, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau worried the budget didn’t offer any hope of growth or a vision for the future; he scoffed that it was an electoral budget, promising to balance the books just in time for next year’s federal election.
“We’re not seeing any vision,” Trudeau scolded, but then, that’s what Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’s job is – to complain.
This week, I conducted a bit of a state-of-the-union survey among my journalism students at the college where I teach. They decried tuition fees. They wished cell phone rates weren’t so high. They hated the cafeteria food. And when I asked why some of them hadn’t arrived on time for their news reporting class, they said it was scheduled too early in the day.
It was just after 11:30 a.m. and – to some – that was an ungodly hour to be expected to perform thinking, reasoning or any other creative skills. When I informed them that I had originally intended to schedule the class for 8:30 a.m., they responded with such indignation, you’d have thought I’d insulted their family name.
“That’s ridiculous,” one of them said. “How could anybody function under those conditions?”
The reaction gave me pause. I remembered a personal experience that had profoundly affected my sense of perspective. In the summer of 2010, I travelled to Krakow, Poland. I met a guide, who had offered to assist me as I planned a subsequent trip leading a tour of Canadians through that part of Eastern Europe. I asked him if he would get me to a small town just outside Krakow, called Oświęcim, where during the Second World War, the Nazis constructed a prison (Auschwitz) and concentration camp (Birkenau) to systematically exterminate political prisoners and the Jews of Europe.
“The tour will last three hours,” the on-site guide told us at the Auschwitz interpretive centre. “And I hope you brought umbrellas.”
I hadn’t. But it didn’t matter. The rain was pouring down with such intensity and volume as we began the tour of Auschwitz prison, that most of the people in our group were drenched within the first 10 minutes of the visit. And because the content of the tour was so severe and depressing, only a handful of us remained by the time the three-hour tour had concluded.
Much of what the former prison contained haunted me. The cells in which the condemned spent their last hours depressed me for days. The photographs of the men and women tortured and killed stick in my head even now. And when I got to Birkenau and realized how many thousands of Jews the Nazis had crammed inside those former horse barns, I cried. But what stays with me most of all, was the sight inside one of the prison barns of a lone faucet and basin, the sole washing facility for hundreds and hundreds of prisoners there.
To this day, I cannot turn on a tap, brush my teeth, take a shower or pour a glass of water without flashing back to that solitary faucet and basin. I guess it’s the mental equivalent of reminding myself – anytime I complain – that mine are “are just First World problems.”
Centennial College in Toronto recently asked me to organize a roundtable discussion during several days of lectures, study and debate on human rights. I agreed and have approached several acquaintances of mine in the federal civil service to participate. I was hopeful, in one case, that an expert on federal law might join the roundtable to offer a Canadian perspective.
“I’d love to, Ted,” he said. “But I’ve been told not to speak publicly on anything.”
“Not you too,” I responded. “Not like the scientists.”