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Innate equality

By George Patrick

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1776. Of course, at the time he was writing a kind of manifesto to justify the 13 American colonies’ secession from the British Empire, and some of what he wrote – especially in his first draft – was pretty tendentious stuff designed to justify the colonists’ treason and win support for their cause. Clearly, Jefferson himself didn’t really believe that all men were created equal. He proved it by keeping about 200 black people as slaves on his Monticello plantation, and he stated it explicitly in his correspondence with Benjamin Banneker, the black scientist and scholar. In short, the Declaration of Independence must be viewed as a piece of wartime propaganda. It also just happens to contain a soaring expression of humanity’s noblest aspirations (which Jefferson had lifted from John Locke and other great thinkers of the 18th Century Enlightenment).

Whatever their hypocritical and propagandistic origins, Jefferson’s words have rung down the years and found a home in millions of hearts. The overarching concept – the innate equality of all human beings – has become the bedrock of all progressive thought. All of us – man and woman, adult and child, homo and hetero, black and white, Hindu and Christian, Muslim and Jew, selfless saint and serial killer – all have the same inalienable rights simply because we are human.

There are no exceptions – Heinrich Himmler and Karla Homolka, Osama bin Laden and Pol Pot, they too, no matter how loathsome their actions, have the same fundamental human rights as a Mahatma Gandhi or an Albert Schweitzer. At a formal level, we sort of accept that. What country with any pretentions to modernity doesn’t have some kind of charter spelling out the equal rights of all its citizens?

And yet, in reality the idea so often seems to stick in our craw. We all like the idea of being treated by other people as equals, we just can’t always bring ourselves to extend that same equality to others. Oh yes, most of the others perhaps – but there’s always some group we just can’t quite screw up our tolerance for, and we go through the most absurd intellectual gymnastics to justify the unjustifiable. The hypocrisy of Stalinist thought that Orwell satirized in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” is alive and well in our society. We seem to have a remarkable capacity to come up with reasons why this or that particular group of humans (gays, Jews, Hutu, Serbs, etc.) isn’t quite entitled to have full equality extended to it.

More often than not, the reasons given for disregarding the equality of others are just too stupid for words. Frequently it’s some injustice or crime, which happened many generations before and for which no person alive today bears responsibility. It shouldn’t be a great intellectual stretch to see that I am in no way responsible for any wrongs committed by my father, my grandfather or any of my forebears. Just as, for example, no young German today has any moral responsibility for the Holocaust; no American alive today bears the guilt of black slavery; few Canadians alive today can be blamed for interning young David Suzuki during World War II. And yet many of the bloody, virulent hatreds of today have exactly this absurd basis.

Many years ago, I hitched a ride with a wing commander in the Royal Air Force who had taken part in the carpet bombing of Germany in World War II. I asked him, as politely as possible, if he felt any guilt about what he had done. He said he had been in London during the Blitz and had seen a little girl pulled dead from the rubble of a building bombed by the Germans. After that, he said, he had no misgivings. He was a very nice man, and he was giving me a lift, so I said nothing. But I knew that a dead child in London is one lousy excuse for killing little German girls in Hamburg or Dresden.

People who have been wronged (or feel they’ve been wronged) naturally want some kind of justice, and in their rage and pain find it easy to conflate the innocent with the guilty, to turn their anger on the children or the countrymen of those who have wronged them. I suspect that it is this aching need for justice that causes people to subscribe to religions that promise – most improbably – an afterlife where divine retribution will prevail, where the evildoers will finally get what’s coming to them. Unfortunately, the cure is often worse than the disease. Anyone with half an eye can see that the great religions are themselves the loci of many of the greatest injustices and inequities in the world today.

Most obviously, some of the major faiths are outrageously, eye-poppingly, jaw-droppingly anti woman. They’re so rigged that all the jobs worth having in the hierarchy are reserved exclusively for men.

How many women popes, cardinals, bishops and priests are there in the Catholic Church?

How many female mullahs and ayatollahs in Islam? The very nature of these all-male establishments screams “Women are inferior, they are not worthy of equality!”

Over the years I’ve heard many elaborate theological explanations of why this or that variation of God really wants it that way, but to me, it always comes off sounding like a lot of guys rationalizing their stranglehold on power.

We wouldn’t tolerate any of this all-male nonsense in any other area of society, but because these religions have been around almost forever, because many of us have been subjected to them since we were impressionable little children, and because religion’s all about the Big Guy in the Sky, everybody tippytoes around the subject. Enough already. The reactionary stance of male-dominated religions is an affront to everything that our society stands for.

As a non-religious outsider, I can never understand how intelligent women can bear to be treated as second-class citizens within their own religious community.

Unfortunately, their passive acceptance of such oppression in the religious sphere only bolsters male control in the secular world and sends a really lousy message to every little girl in our society. I have enormous respect for women, but I do sometimes wonder if they quite understand the power game that men have been playing for thousands of years and will continue to play until Kingdom Come – if allowed to. Every woman must understand: All this male monopoly stuff in religious hierarchies is not about theology. It’s about power.

Of course, male religious leaders justify their socially harmful behaviour by citing various holy books written hundreds, even thousands of years ago by people who knew less about life than your average grade four kid, today. Little wonder that much of what they have to say is simply wrong, or irrelevant, or weird, or downright impossible.

It’s fine if people find comfort in believing in a divine being and an afterlife. But it’s not acceptable to use such beliefs to oppress other human beings. It was Jesus who condemned all those sanctimonious religious pooh-bahs who were so keen on finding sin in others when they were themselves gravely flawed. Amen to that.

Bundle up and explore Toronto Islands

Hiking is a great way to spend some quality time with the kids while getting exercize. And a great place to take your kids on an overcast winder day in Toronto is the Toronto Islands. Dress warm, and you can look forward to seeing some spectacular things. The ice has formed some magnificent shapes on the rocks along the shore – fencing stops those who might be missing a few brain cells from climbing on them – and it’s well worth the visit.

Don’t forget to bring along some birdseed so the kids can feed the chickadees!

United we stand

By Kent Peacock

There is a place in India called Alang, where old ships are broken.  In this surreal wasteland hosts of labourers swarm over the hulks of obsolete oil tankers and cargo carriers, cutting them with torches into pieces small enough to be hauled away for scrap.  It is, by Canadian standards, an unbelievably dangerous place to work.  Over 400 workers are killed at Alang every year.  Sometimes their bodies are simply dumped into the sea, along with the toxic waste stripped out of the ships.  But no matter how many are killed or injured, there are always more men and women ready to try their luck in the yards.  They keep coming because their families need the money.  They have no health benefits, no vacation pay, no pension, no stock options, laughable safety equipment, little training, no funerals, no compensation or recourse if they are killed or injured — and no union.

There is nothing quite as bad as Alang in Canada, although many people here work in conditions that should be considered unacceptable.  We do enjoy the indecent spectacle of the working poor — people (often single parents) desperately holding down two or even three (non-unionized) jobs to pay the rent and keep dinner on the kitchen table for their children, while the top corporate executives who employ them are sometimes paid millions of dollars per year.  These inequities are often sanctimoniously defended by the excuse that they are mandated by the all-holy “free market,” an argument which ignores the fact that the labour market is not really free since individual workers, whether in Canada or India, rarely have as much bargaining power as their employers.

There are many reasons for the increasing rich-poor gap, such as competition from cheap off-shore labour (non-unionized, of course), and the gutting of the progressive taxation system that began in the days of Reagan and Mulroney.  But it could never have become as bad as it has without the steady weakening of the trade union movement that has also occurred in parallel with these other trends.

Many people these days are fond of saying that unions are no longer needed.  Even the most ardent union-bashers will probably concede that in the past unions fought severe abuses of workers by owners and corporations, and they might even agree that union victories led to better working conditions for everyone.  But we are now told that unions are obsolete because we can depend on our governments to protect workers’ rights.  In fact, labour laws exist in large part because unions fought so long and hard for workers’ rights that governments had no choice but to write them into law.  And those laws will not remain on the books or be enforced without the political will that flows from organized labour.

Unions can be a mixed blessing.  They can hinder efficiency and technological innovation, and a few unions have at times become so powerful and corrupt that they were no improvement over the big businesses they were supposed to protect their members from.  There is no question that unions sometimes limit the freedom of business to hire and innovate, and many small businesses could not survive if they were unionized.  On balance, however, we need strong unions more than ever.  Above all else, a union is a voice that is independent of governments and the powerful interests to which governments often pander.  In this age of the faceless multinational corporation we need independent voices with real clout. As such, unions are inherently a democratizing force.  That is why they are hated by authoritarian governments of both the right and the left.  Unions were ruthlessly crushed in the workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union, and anyone trying to start a union now in China would find themselves on a one-way trip to a gulag in a remote region of central Asia, or worse.

How about all of those fashionable sporting-goods products that everyone feels guilty about buying, since they were made by people who are paid almost nothing or who may have even been enslaved?  A few strong unions could do more for exploited workers in the Third World than any number of celebrity rock concerts.

We still need unions in Canada to counterbalance corporate power and to remind our governments that other things matter besides the bottom line — and unions are desperately needed in those parts of the world where workers are treated as if they were expendable tools.

*photo credit www.ofl.ca

Extreme cold shuts down too many streetcars

By Sarah Thomson

With 28 street cars pulled out of service Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning due to extreme cold a question many should be asking, is what will happen as global warming causes more extreme weather conditions for Toronto? Ice storms and snow storms also play havoc with above ground transit. The T.T.C. has announced they’ll have busses runnng to fill in where they can -502 Dowtown, 503 Kingston Road & 511 Bathurst – check transit app to get updated times.

Major cities around the world invest in underground transit. With the extreme weather predicted for Toronto’s long-term future, it makes the larger investment today all the more reasonable. Toronto must begin to look at transit planning through a bigger lens than merely cost. The last time Toronto’s subway shut down fully was during the July 2013 flood when all major highways and transit in the city was shut down for a few hours at the height of the flood.

The subway system has proven over the years to be the most reliable system through the winter months, but we have to invest in it. It is an aging system in need of significant upgrades and investment, and remarkably small system given the growth of Toronto ove the past two decades.

The downtown relief line running under Queen Street and joining up with Eglinton Street at either end is still the most important subway line that Toronto needs to build. Unfortunately political maneuvering continues to stall it’s progress. With so few politicians willing to stand up for the dedicated transit that is needed to fund such a project.

While Mayor Tory announced his Smart Track as an alternative for the downtown relief line, the truth is that it too will suffer from the increasing extreme weather conditions (primarily winter conditions) that Toronto is expecting over the next few decades. And while his Tax Increment Financing (TIF) may have seemed the perfect solution to transit funding during the election, it was merely a strategy for borrowing and it does not actually raise funding, but merely works as security for a loan. And unfortunately it will leave future generations forced to pay it back.

Personally I believe Mayor Tory knows that Tax Increment Financing is nothing more than a strategic campaign platform, it is not a funding tool but a financing strategy that has worked on small projects across North America.  He still has a lot more work to do when it comes to supporting the basket of revenue tools – increase in development fees, parking levies, sales taxes or tolls – that he has advocated for over the years.

But for some reason, with Tory at the helm, I can imagine a time when Toronto decides to invest in itself, when revenue tools have been put in place to generate funds that we can invest into our transit system. Add in a Federal transit funding strategy to the provincial and municipal funds and then our City will have a real choice – invest in below ground subway or cheaper above ground rail that continually shuts down during extreme weather conditions?  If the funding is there Toronto will build subways because they are a better long-term investment.

It’s time for Mayor Tory to get started on securing the dedicated transit funding tools that he’s advocated for over the past few years.  He’ll need all the help he can get, and each one of us can play a part in convincing our neighbours to support dedicated transit funding.

A courageous man once said “If anyone tells you that Toronto does not need revenue tools for transit, they aren’t being honest.”  It’s time again for that man to show courage.

In search of Monarchs and Green Zebras

By Kate Zankowicz

I can still see the photos in the National Georgraphic of my mind. The startling realization that those dead leaves coating the trees are in fact thousands of living butterflies. They rustle in faded oranges, against the 1970s blue of the sky,  preparing for their 3000 km migration to Mexico. I clip the photo out, breathless, file it away into my “things I must see before I die” folder. Then I begin to associate Point Pelee with very drinkable wine and briefly forget that each year a tiny insect goes on a  monumental journey equivalent to going around the earth eleven times, and all for the nourishment of the poisonous milkweed plant.

Knowing that the milkweed is the only food source for monarch larvae, and the only place where they will suspend their cocoons has made me a socially inacceptable person. I have scolded ignorant teenagers with lawnmowers who regularly massacre milkweed, and endanger the lives of monarchs unknowingly. I have chastized young children with butterfly nets who are out with their parents enjoying a “nature moment”. I have broken open pods and seeded abandoned urban lots. No I do not have a butterfly tattoo on my ankle, but I do have an unflagging desire to see the magnificent monarch roostings on the tip of Point Pelee.

If you’re planning to make it down to Point Pelee there are a few accomodation options. For the more epicurean traveller there is the Vintage Goose Inn, a lovely guest house that offers facials, and omelettes and a wrap-around porch. I stayed in a charmless motel in Kingsville and treated myself to the Strawberry Rhubarb Goose Liver Pate Brulee at their restaurant on Main Street. This way I wasn’t tempted to sleep in—the monarchs are most viewable in the early hours of the morning.

The best time to see the monarchs preparing for migration is in late August to early September. That certainly does not mean that you will see them. There is a monarch hotline that you can call that will report monarch sightings and I highly recommend giving them a ring before you go, to dispel any false hopes (519) 322.2371

Thanks to the torrid temperatures this summer, I was able to spot exactly four monarchs, flitting away, all at different times and in different places. Global warming has robbed me of the desired life-changing experience yet again.

Luckily one of my other obssesions was being celebrated just around the corner from the National Park. By pure fluke, Leamington was in full swing with its annual Tomato Fair at Seacliffe Park. After a few hours of watching the Leamington Idol competition, I forgot about global warming completely. And after stomping on a few tomatoes (not heirloom varieties) I was able to face my failed monarch expedition. Being monarchless was something I was beginning to accept, when all of a sudden, I was gripped by the need to eat something other than Beefsteak and Roma. I wanted a Green Zebra. Possibly even more difficult to find then a horde of migrating monarchs, the Green Zebra is a tangy tomato with  lovely green stripes, that was created in 1986, and is perfect in sandwiches. It is food guru Alice Waters’ favourite tomato, and, like the monarch, it apparently didn’t enjoy our hot summer either. I was in the tomato capital of North America, and the Green Zebra was nowhere to be found.

Instead I comforted myself with some Earl of Edgecomb tomatoes, purple, swollen-looking and delicious. Then I settled down to witness a few waterbarrel fights, a geriatric swing dance extravaganza, and a  Miss Tomato pageant. It was just as impressive as watching the flutter of thousands of butterfly wings.

Wowie Cowie

By Kevin Somers

 

We were visiting a cottage on a Muskoka island earlier this summer and between the ideal setting and toys that float, it was picture perfect.  Inside, large windows provided spectacular views from every glance, but amidst nature’s best, an oil painting by Ellen Cowie stood out.  It is a commissioned piece of canoes on the dock, with the lake and a neighbouring island in the background.  The sun is twinkling off rippling water and tranquility emanates from the canvas.  There’s a photographical precision to the piece, yet a surreal richness that couldn’t have come from a camera.  All the guests stopped to admire the work and agreed it was something special.

 

I had tea with Ellen recently and she’s as lively as her paintings.  “Family is everything to me,” she said.  Indeed, the second youngest of 10 children, Ellen and husband, Brian, married for 25 years have 6 kids of their own, between 23 and 14.  “They’re all wonderful people,” she said of the extended clan.

 

Ellen has paint in her veins: her mother’s mother worked in oil and her father’s brother was a gifted sketch artist.  Grandmother, Rose McGuire, raised 10 kids during the depression and didn’t begin painting until she was in her 60s.  Although she began late, Grandmother was talented and prolific.  “Her paintings were always around,” Ellen said.  “Her style was more towards realism.”  Ellen’s uncle, was not a professional artist, but, “He drew and sketched everyday.  One of my strongest memories from childhood is him coming on Sunday and sketching with a pencil or a piece of charcoal.  In a few seconds, and with 15 lines, he could capture a portrait.  He was a truly an amazing artist.”

 

Cowie has taken something from both, combining the realism of her Grandmother with the startlingly swiftness of her Uncle.  “I go straight to work,” she said, “no sketching or measuring, I just start painting with oil.”  Although deceased, Ellen’s ancestors speak to her still, “Sometimes when I step back and look at my painting, I hear my uncle say, That’s enough, Ellen, and then my grandmother says, Maybe a little more over here, Dear.”

 

Because of higher obligations, Ellen has only been painting full time since 2001.  “I always knew I would be an artist surrounded by family,” she said, but how she’s arrived at this point is the stuff of legends.  “I got married when I was 18.  I loved Brian Cowie and wanted to have a family with him.”  Brian’s career meant the family has moved 15 times.  “There were times when I’d go months without painting,” she said.  Laughingly, she explained how her family would force her to go and paint because her withdrawal from creating made her irritable.  “I always came back feeling better.”

 

After misdiagnoses, it was discovered in 2000 that Ellen had severe thyroidosis and her nodal gland was removed.  The three years previous, while raising her family with a wonky thyroid, Ellen had also been parking cars at Casino Rama.  “I was exhausted all the time.  In the hospital, a light came on.  I thought, what am I doing?” and she gave up parking for painting.

 

Brian is Native, so Ellen has full status and received assistance from Kagita Mikam, an organization dedicated to helping First Nations people.  “Their financial and moral support really helped me get started and I’m so grateful to them.”  Another break came from Ellen’s brother, Jim Donnelly, owner of Foot’s Bay Marina on Lake Joseph in Muskoka.  In 2002, he provided Cowie space to take part in the area’s annual studio tour, The Big Art Thing.  The show was a success and later that summer Jim asked Ellen to return to the marina because he had a surprise.  Jim had converted part of his business into a seasonal gallery.  “Go home and paint over the winter and fill the gallery with nice work,” he said.

 

It was a daunting prospect, but when opportunity knocked, Cowie answered with enthusiasm.  Along with her talent and work ethic, the gallery provides Ellen with an ideal location.  During the summer, she paints outside the gallery and the public can watch her work.  “Wayne Gretzky’s family watched me paint every day for 5 days while they were on vacation,” she said.  When a young man commented to Janet Gretzky that Ellen’s painting was like a photograph, Janet, who knows Greatness, replied, “No, it’s better than a photograph.”

 

Person, place, or thing, Cowie is confident; “If I see it, I can paint it.  I’m not afraid of the canvas.”  She prefers commissioned work, “It’s challenging.  If someone wants me to paint something they are passionate about it, so I have to find inspiration in it too.”  You can see that inspiration at www.artincanada.com/ellencowie/.  This may be the ancestors talking, but I think Ellen Cowie is going to be BIG.

My bucket of bolts

By  Diane Baker Mason

I’m not a car person. I don’t understand the thrill of a newly-released line of imports, or the sound of a particularly sporty engine shifting gears. I don’t care about shiny, red, or topless,  or mag wheels or leather interiors. To me, a radio that works is a sound system. If a car gets there and back successfully, without noticeably losing bits of itself en route, it’s a luxury vehicle, and I’m a happy motorist.

So it’s a hard fact of life to face that the days of my mini-van “Mom-mobile”, like my days as a mom, are numbered. I no longer need all that room for hockey gear and sticky hordes of teenage boys. Nor am I that interested in (or capable of) tossing a canoe onto the van’s roof and hauling my not-so-physically-fit butt up to Algonquin Park. When I got the van, I was still in good enough condition to wrestle the “noo” onto the roof-racks all by myself — as if that’s ever likely to happen again.

I didn’t even buy the van I’m driving, to tell the truth. My father did. Dad couldn’t stand to see me wobbling around town in a beater of a Hyundai Excel, and after a brief donation of a Buick the size of a – well, of a Buick – he replaced it with a 1991 mini-van. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t really know if it’s a 1991. And I think it’s a Plymouth. No, wait, it’s a Dodge. Nope. I’m really not sure after all. But I am reasonably positive it’s white. With a grey interior. That smells like fetid dog, thanks to my fetid dog.

Unlike my father, who collects cars like Dinky toys, I treat my cars with what can only be called disrespect. I drive them too fast, service them too infrequently (except for the brakes and tires and squeegee-juice for the bugs and/or freezing rain). I can’t remember the last time I washed the Mom-mobile. I keep forgetting to, and then before I know it, it rains. Problem solved.

It has always been thus, as the saying goes. My first car, a Ford Torino station wagon, was as big as a double-decker bus and chock-full of the things I used to need, back when I was 19. In short, it was usually chock-full of friends and cases of beer being carted from party to party. When the Ford’s stereo croaked, I substituted a battery-operated tape deck balanced on the dashboard. The strains of the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack would whisper from its  little speaker, as my girlfriends and I performed endless Yonge Street Cruises.

The Mom-mobile now boasts some 225,000 kilometers, and has been through a transmission, a radiator, multiple sets of tires, and one set of twins from ages 8 to 18. Now it is occupied mostly by myself and my big black dog, who usually rides shotgun, thereby rendering the front passenger seat a risky sitting proposition for any subsequent riders.

About a month ago, in a fit of financial optimism, I considered replacing the old bucket of bolts. Spontaneously I visited the local Toyota dealer. The saleswoman was supermodel-beautiful and knew more about cars than Henry Ford. She used words I’d never heard before and showed me parts of the car that I should clearly be impressed by. We went for a test drive. It was only when I realized this car would cost me $500 a month – $500 more a month than the Mom-mobile was costing – that I rethought my spontaneity. Did I really need to buy something, which only fundamentally differed from my loyal mini-van, in that it wasn’t full of dog hair and personal effects?

So the Mom-mobile is still with me, rattling as it rolls along, its brakes groaning, its doors loosing a rusty wail when opened. But if you and I ever go out for coffee, trust me – let’s take your car. Especially if you’re wearing white.

The smell of home

By Diane Baker Mason

They say the closest memory-related sense is scent. It is not a sight or sound that triggers nostalgia, but a smell: the odor of mom’s baking bread, or of the hayloft in your cousin’s barn, or of the pine-tree-shaped air freshener that hung from the rearview in your Grandpa’s Chevy. Not the taste of the bread, not the feel of the hay, not the roar of the engine. It’s the smell of these things that takes you home.
Home is on my mind lately, since I am considering moving. One of my boys has moved out, and the other is soon to do so. I have fallen in love with the Beaches in east Toronto, and although I can’t realistically afford to move there, reality has never stopped me in the past, so move I intend to do. Therefore, I have had to take a hard, mean, look at my own condo apartment, which has deteriorated over the last three years to disaster area status. I tend to be away on weekends; my sons were not. Nor were their friends. And I had long ago given up on trying to cajole/nag/train them into doing even basic tidying (which I don’t like to do either). So my condo not only looked awful — it smelled awful, too.
I hired a trio of disaster-area cleanup experts and together with my remaining son, we stripped the condo of debris, and applied paint-stripper-quality cleaning fluids to all surfaces. Even the guinea pig got a “Total Home Makeover,” with a bleach-and-scouring pad treatment of his cage bottom, and cedar shavings. Instant memories of my pet hamsters, from when I was twelve years old: suddenly, with the smell of the cedar, I could feel those tiny soft bodies wriggling in my much-smaller hands.
Despite the cleaning, my apartment still doesn’t feel like home. Maybe it’s because I never saw it as home, but as a place I bought in a panic, to give myself and my then-barely-teenage sons a place to live. I don’t love it the way I loved my other houses or even the bachelorette flat I rented when I left my marriage eight years ago. And despite its professional cleansing (and my remaining son’s sudden, almost-religious conversion to Tidy Clean Person, something for which I’m hugely grateful), I still don’t get that “welcome home” feeling when I walk in the door.
Part of the problem is that the cleaning hasn’t kept the smells at bay. If smells could make a sound, my apartment would be a cacophony. First of all, there is our rancid dog. Licorice is a Lab mutt, and she loves the water (unless it comes in bath format). In the mornings, she prances through the Humber River; in the afternoons, she fords the streams winding through High Park; on weekends she is either swimming in Lake Ontario or sitting (yes, sitting) for hours at a time in the shallows at Bass Lake, hypnotized by the minnows. The problem with all this water is that it leaves bacteria on her underfur, which dies, which decays, which causes my dog to stink like a week’s worth of rotting garbage. I’ve had people get off the elevator to avoid sharing it with her. Baths and deodorant powders help for only a day or so. The only cure is winter, when all that water freezes over.
So there’s the smell of dog. There’s the smell of our musty old furniture. There’s the smell of my son’s cooking (he loves curries and fried corned beef). There are my son’s friends and their beer and cigarillos. There’s the guinea pig’s cage (a mountain of cedar shavings won’t cover the fact that it’s still a guinea pig cage). The place just doesn’t smell like me.
Hopefully there will be an animal-loving, beer-swilling, curry-eating tribe of Visigoths interested in buying a three-bedroom two-bath condo in a park-like setting, to whom it will smell just like the place they grew up. As for me and my bacteria-soaked dog, we’ve got our sights on someplace new. And she’ll either have to learn not to smell like dead fish, or I’ll have to learn to associate that smell with home. I guess anything’s possible.

*** First published in the Nov. 2005 print edition of Women’s Post

Into the trash can with your culture

By George Patrick

In the little town in northern Scotland where I went to school fifty years ago there lived a man who had been a tea planter in India. He supplemented his income by boarding Indian boys who were the products of “mixed marriages” i.e. of British fathers and Indian women. The life of such people in Indian society, as you may know, was not an easy one. Rejected by Indians and looked down on by the snotty whites, these “Eurasians” lived in a twilight world of betwixt and between. Their schooldays in our town provided at least a few years of temporary relief from their (literally) outcaste world. It wasn’t perfect, for most Scots were racists then, as many are today. Scots, like all defeated and colonized peoples, have a huge chip on their collective shoulder, which they sometimes express in straight-from-the-shoulder racial epithets, starting with the English and working their way out around the globe. (On my last trip home, I was bemused by my family’s comments about “White Settlers.” It eventually dawned on me they were referring to English people who bought retirement homes in Scotland. As is often the case, behind the semi-jocular tone lurked something darker.)

Fifty years ago our town was lily white. The nearest to a non-white was my swarthy pal Lammy, who was part-Maori. To compound the error of his existence, Lammy was a (very bad) Catholic in a Calvinist community. As a result, he was something of an outsider, and I was the new boy in town who spoke with a funny accent, and was desperately shy. And so we gravitated towards each other, even though I knew that non-white people were inferior, with all kinds of deplorable moral defects that varied according to their precise ethnic origins. I knew this in the same way that I knew that “poofters” or “queers” were vile, that there was something wrong with Jews (although I had never actually met one and knew nothing about them), that divorced women were bad (but sexually “easy”), that a woman’s place was in the home, and that the male was inherently superior to the female. I held these truths to be self-evident. So although I liked Lammy a lot, I never quite forgot that he was not exactly, y’know, one of us.

The Anglo-Indian boys were very nice youngsters who seemed to mix well at school (much better than I) and appeared to be happy. Then Mr. MacTaggart, the retired tea planter, was persuaded by a Christian mission to take in two more boys. They were sea Dyaks from Sarawak who had been raised and educated by Christian missionaries. Now, I happen to believe that the human race would be much better off without all the god stuff and its multitude of absurd religions, but I must confess that if even a small fraction of Christians were as fine exemplars of their faith as those two young men I would be forced to re-examine my beliefs. I’ve never met any other people who gave off such an aura of sweetness, purity and goodness. I truly felt humbled in their presence. Strange to think that their own grandfathers had taken part in raids on other villages, killing the men, decapitating them and returning home to begin the long business of shrinking the heads to hang about their huts.

I’ve always considered Mr. (Pierre) Trudeau’s multicultural policy a classic example of murky Liberal thinking. It has that lovely warm fuzzy feeling that allows Liberals to think they really are, well, liberal! They get to hug themselves for being so gosh darn tolerant. And — most important — they get to mop up the ethnic vote during elections! The trouble is, the policy is hopelessly wrongheaded. Yes, in the great Canadian goulash of languages and cultures and religions, we should all be tolerant of each other. Few would argue with that. We’ve all learned from history that intolerance has killed more people than tuberculosis, malaria or bubonic plague. Live and let live makes very good sense.

However, encouraging tolerance towards other people and their way of life is one thing, propping up cultures with federal tax dollars is quite another thing. For the stark truth is, most, perhaps all of the cultures that have come down to us from the past are simply not worth preserving or sponsoring. Most of our cultures are rooted in, and many still reek of values that are abhorrent to us — racism, sexism, genocide, imperialism, and so on.

Which, for example, of the cultures from my youth do you think we should celebrate with federal tax dollars? Perhaps the Indian and British cultures that treated their own young as pariahs because they came of mixed races? What about the Dyak headhunting culture? Or maybe the culture that produced me — a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, vaguely anti-semitic young man? I suggest we should shrink from all of them in horror.

The Canadian society in which my children were raised remains, like all human endeavours, imperfect, but in its values it is superior to almost anything else one can find in the broad sweep of history. I am sometimes surprised, and encouraged, by the utter absence in most young Canadians of all the nasty little bigotries that made up the daily fabric of my early life. We are a fortunate people.      I believe the past should be studied for insights into the human condition. I don’t believe the past should be venerated. Most of our cultures are steeped in bloodshed, cruelty and injustice, and imbued with ideas repugnant to all except stupid and ugly minds. They serve only to remind us of what a bunch of schmucks we humans can be. We should cherish the values of our (generally) tolerant, just and decent society — and say good riddance to all that ugly, silly, musty baggage from the past.