Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Thoughts on the Death of a Prince George Soldier

Today they bury Corporal Darren James Fitzpatrick here in his home town, Prince George, BC, otherwise known as BC's Northern Capital, or, by a select fewer, the home territory of the Grouse's Perch. The young man's death has surfaced all the kudos and patriotism one might expect when locals are involved. Thus phlegmatic local journalist and blogger, Ben Meisner, for example, is today defiantly asserting pretty well nothing new in tribute to the fallen youth,as he concludes his opinion article, as usual, "I’m Meisner and that’s one man’s opinion." Shouldn't be very hard to defend an airy opinion that amounts to nothing more than admonishing us to respect the dead. Meisner, like, I would guess, most Prince Georgians and all too many Canadians, is willing (I paraphrase Meisner) to "leave it to people with a better understanding" as to whether the sacrifice is worth it.

Coincidentally, the national news gab in Canada on this funereal Tuesday, whirls around some rather mild remarks made by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, which unsurprisingly reiterated that the Americans would like Canada to remain beyond the highly artificial pull-out deadline of 2011. Her words as exactly as reported by CBC: "But I'm not going to sit here and tell you we're happy about it because … that wouldn't be telling you the truth. We'd love to have Canada stay in this fight with us. But again, you know, you've got your own considerations and we respect that."

More pretty harmless stuff but, like they say, when your sleeping with an elephant even a mild fart can get your attention.

The question I have as we bury Darren today is why, if it is worth battling the Taliban and Al-Qaeda baddies this year, worth seeing young Canadians whose lives have hardly begun lowered into graves, is there something that magically changes and makes it no longer worthwhile in 2011.

No, Meisner, such illogical decision making is not in the hands of anyone who "knows better" than you or I. The mission in Afghanistan is either worthwhile now (and will remain so in 2011) or not. Under the leadership of a man whose brains are so scrambled that one year he drips apologetic verbiage to Native people for the historic harm they've suffered and the next, claims Canada has no history of colonialism, we had better start thinking this one out ourselves and making it clear to the Pols just how much we are willing to sacrifice or not, and why. Then perhaps, all those Darren Fitzpatricks will be at rest.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Resistance a la Canadienne

I really must be brief because I'm on a bit of writing roll in some studies I'm doing about parallels between Canada's continuing colonization of indigenous peoples and the life of one Gitskan ex-offender. That study zeroes in on the idea of resistance and how, within the well-laid strictures of Canadian society, individuals can find the elbow room to resist.

Along comes this preposterous brouhaha about the remarks Bloc Quebecois leader, Gilles Duceppe, made to the separatist faithful. The now oft-translated text was exactly this:

"For now, we're members of a resistance movement. But members of today's resistance movement are tomorrow's victors. Long live a sovereign Quebec!"

It's not that complicated a statement and utterly consistent both with the lengthy history of separatiste conviction and, more broadly, historic and worldwide independence movements. Fact is, the land that is now Quebec was invaded and conquered by a different cultural-linguistic nationality 250 years ago. Organized opposition to the outcome of this conquest is what resistance means.

However, the combination of Canada's mediocre journalistic mainstream -- who haven't had a figure skater with a dead mother to blather about for a few weeks -- and the no less mediocre morass of federal politicians in government and opposition who need to distract us from their own incapacities -- these social groups have combined to extrapolate wildly from Duceppe's quite legitimate statement of aspirations.

As if the word "resistance" have never had any other connotation, the first step in their dumb and transparent elision was to hold forth that Duceppe was comparing himself to the famed French resistance of World War II. Notwithstanding that Duceppe has validly pointed out the broader usage of the term "resistance" in social change movements and, specifically, his inspiration from writings of Pierre Vadeboncoeur, the late Quebec union activist, bleating MPs continued their duplicity inferring that if Duceppe saw himself as a French resistor, he was saying the Canadian Government were like the Nazis.

Blowhards like Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon and the vastly disappointing Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, seized upon this nonsense no doubt to divert us from their own obvious shortcomings. Internal email memos puffed up with righteous indignation with statements such as “It seems that Gilles Duceppe has forgotten that Canadians, including Quebeckers, bravely fought Nazism during World War II.” Good grief!

What this is all symptomatic of is the utter shallowness of what federalist populations understand about Quebec sovereigntist agenda and, really, about sources of pride in this thing called Canada. It is as if, no longer having torch-toting Olympic propaganda to cheer about, the masses need an even more ridiculous focus for waning pseudo-nationalism. Let's create an enemy that we can all be offended by as a distraction from a government, indeed a parliament that's nothing to be proud of.

Brings to my mind another far-fetched (maybe) analogy such as when Hitler's thugs burned down to the Reichstag and then blamed it on Jews and Communists. That's how false claims can bolster up an otherwise morally bankrupt regime. As I now return to my essay about internal colonialism, especially recalling Mr. Harper's erasure of Canada's shameful history of colonial suppression of Natives, I'm thinking that perhaps the analogy Duceppe never intended about Nazis and the Canadian government, fits not all that badly.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

REDUX III - Where have All the Ooli-gone?

Alas this reduxed article remains as timely now as many springs ago when it was written. The Bella Coola River where once this many-named oiliest of smelt abounded in early spring, is unlikely to see much more than stragglers for the 12th straight year. What is even more irksome, is that after such a long time with the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) Natives and others pressing for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to do something about this ecological disaster, the grapevine just yesterday brought forth news that the Fraser River eulachon (with that geographic specificity) is being considered under Canada's Species at Risk procedures. This perpetuates DFO's ignoring and ignorance of the far greater and more recent cultural significance of the eulachon in remoter northern areas than in the churning grey sewage pit known as the Fraser River estuary! This is an indigenous treasure and with all due respect, the Fraser First Nations have not exactly made diminished eulachon the high priority as have their more northern coastal brothers and sisters.

But as with the Olympic transfusions of public dollars from poorer regions to the richest, apparently, it is still the Lower mainland that will always get the goods.

So without further ado... an old but still relevant Grouse from the past(April, 2002):


Where have all the ooli-gone?

[Warning: A not very funny Grouse column lies ahead -- and I heard you wags saying "so what's new?"]

For the fourth consecutive year that wee fish of legendary greasiness, Thaleichthys pacificus has failed to return in any worthwhile numbers to the Bella Coola River. Indeed, field surveys turned up less than a dozen as well as a puzzling small flux of eggs drifting seaward.

Lest I infringe upon the customary terrain of my journalistic neighbour Mr. Trischler,(a fisheries biologist who also had a column in the Coast Mountain News at the time of writing) I shall not linger long on the bio-ecology behind this. Which is easy because the level of scientific knowledge about oolichan is nothing less than an embarrassment for a country with Canada's reputation in fisheries biology. Our aquatic scientists have done ten times more research on sticklebacks! And on "really valuable" species -- i.e. ones whose primary significance is "making real money" -- well they seem to get at least one trained ichthyologist per spawner!

Au contraire for the fish of many spellings (ooligan, ullachun, eulachon, olachen, hoolican. etc). Venerated as it may be by First Nations it has been subject to a perilous neglect, scientifically and managerially, whose consequences are now dreadfully manifest. Through the years of this very real crisis, and in the absence of any long or deep baseline information, little more could be done than to wring hands and mutter about the effects of El Nino.

Alas one thing we do know is that the vast majority of these smelt cousins live only three years. It takes neither a biologist nor mathematician to deduce that if it's been four since they graced the Bella Coola in any significant numbers, they are as Monty Python, said of the infamous dead parrot, "history, kaput, finis, ceased to be, gone to meet their maker, bereft of life, and joined to the choir invisible." An ex-oolichan run.

And the response beyond Bella Coola - other than one or two scientists running about here and there looking for traces and some belated "Species at Risk" funding, Canadian society has been a shrug or less. Leaving aside the bio-disaster of all this, I want to speak of the cultural tragedy but that is not mine to tell. It is the Nuxalk's. They are the ones who could explain, if asked, what it means to have your larder and medicine chest stripped of this live-giver, to no longer be able to show your kid how to make grease or trade the stuff for goods and good will with neighbouring oolichan-less peoples. And to see irrevocably shattered this primeval bond between generations alive and departed.

I can only recount two little stories to convey in miniature what has been lost. Both are from the one and only oolichan-spring I've lived through since coming to Bella Coola nigh five years back. We'd moved into Ivan Tallio's home on the river in October 1997 and were delighted to realize how close at hand were the shacks and stinkboxes the Nuxalk used to make oolichan grease. Years before I had worked with a Da’naxda’xw hereditary chief whose territory was at the mouth of the Kleena Kleene on Knight's Inlet. I had been invited but not had the two weeks to spare for the journey to his remote camp of cultural immersion in someone else's rites of spring.

Now, here in Bella Coola, I had literally a front row seat in my La-Z-Boy as thorough my picture window I could see the natural and human rhythm of the oolichan's return. Come the last full moon in March the aerial reveries of gulls and eagles foretold the wondrous event. Soon, River Road was humming. In the thick of it all was a man who I'd seen do little else all winter but wander about picking up recyclable cans, now miraculously transformed into a master of an ancient ceremony.

When he and I had casually chatted only weeks before, I'd taken him to be no taller than I. But now he swaggered about like the architect of a rising skyscraper, five-six and going on seven feet. Here was someone no longer in need of $1,500 healing trips to "Choices" or an HRDC-sponsored Life-skills course to know his place in life's big picture.

And where is he now that there is no run of oolichan? I see him some early mornings despondently checking out the trashcans near empty picnic benches from which no one even bothers to watch the river for the old miracle.

And also from that spring, I recall a knock at the door and Howard Walkus inviting me over to scoop whatever I needed of still live oolichans from a big cold washtub in his backyard. And his grandsons, Lorne and Jordan knocking on my door night after night and gifting me with their own small boys' catch of life-bringers until my then pregnant wife said "please no more fried oolichans this week!"

But these are a white man's bitsy tales from a much larger tragic story that has befallen our Nuxalk neighbours. I have worked in the past two years with the Nuxalk Fisheries Program as they raise research funds and sample of the hand numbing waters of the Bella Coola. But it is lonely out there on the river with no saviour fish. Will they ever return?

The biology is not encouraging and so it is also on a cultural or rather cross-cultural note I end. In Newfoundland when the cod collapsed, provincial and federal governments knew and cared that the very survival of important rural life-ways was in jeopardy. Our society as a whole dug deep in its pockets and transfused several billions of dollars to merely sustain outports. Here in Bella Coola, it is not so clear that money could ever mitigate the manifold losses to the Nuxalk community. But a start must be made somehow.

In the aftermath of those wonderful Bella Coola Town Halls last month where the predominantly non-Nuxalk assembly sang the peace-cry, "Two Cultures, One Community" it is time for something tangible as well as symbolic. Why not a jointly composed "Oolichan Manifesto" that begins with conveying the shared grief and outrage of this socio-economic cultural and ecological catastrophe in a common voice heard all the way to Ottawa?

Monday, March 08, 2010

REDUX 2: The End of Trivia (9/11 one year later)

This column appeared in the Coast mountain News at approximately the first anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon

* * * *

Another perfect late summer back to school morning in Bella Coola. The river was down from its last rain driven surge and the only sound outside was the distant drone of Wayne Sissons’ Cessna off for some secret cove among the countless such in this seeming untroubled world of the Central Coast. As is I my wont I was limbering my dialing fingers for another go at CBC Daybreak’s trivia contest, a ritual at precisely 6:53 A.M. each day. Although it was only Tuesday, and I had four days left to qualify, I’d be gone all the rest of the week to Port Hardy.

And then as every conscious human being now knows that September 11th morning lurched sickeningly sideways. Co-host Mark Harvey, voice quavering with emotion and disbelief said planes had crashed into the World Trade Centre and there’d be no more trivia that day.

We rushed to the TV and caught first glimpse of images that quickly became emblematic of that day of horror for many weeks and months, probably forever. Within the hour, I learned that like everyone else in North America, I would not be flying that day nor for some time to come. But for the most part locals here were not very immediately affected by the terrorist attacks. Bella Coola Air got special dispensation to fly some stranded travelers in from the wilderness and then we went about things much as before. Of course, our airwaves and newspapers were inundated, first with fast-breaking news and then with specials ranging from benefit concerts to vitriolic debates about “root causes” to a peculiar onslaught of special programming dedicated to sating our sudden appetite for things Islamic.

As time passed and locals eventually made whatever voyages afar had been in their pre-9/11 plans, they probably noticed the stepped-up security – some poor fellow at Dayton International even had to closely inspect my sweaty sneakers - and then by the added costs which Her Majesty graciously passed on to the traveling public in most (though not yet our) airports.

Now a year has passed and like throngs of journalists and pseudo-journalists worldwide, I am drawn like a moth to flame to muse on what it all has meant, what, if anything, has changed. And I must leave to my colleague pundits in lesser outlets like the Globe and Mail or CTV NewsNet, who have more space, time and are paid better, to fill in the big picture of impacts of September 11th on lives, individual, community, national and global.

Here, so far out of the way, the question of how life changed, is if anything, more problematic. Internationally the effects are blatant and innumerable: We know the footprints of those dire events can be tracked forward to numberless further heartbreaks, like four dead Canadians on an Afghan steppe; the tilting and pitching of stock markets around the world; the inspiring collapse of the Taliban, the less inspiring fact that a total nincompoop has achieved one of the highest approval ratings in the history of the American presidency.

Yes, the world turned upside down. But here? The economy slides downward but on an incline that was quite evident well before Bin Laden dispatched his disciples on their mission of terror. Nighttime TV has changed a bit with some too-close-for-comfort action shows being canned or postponed and the irrepressible Politically Incorrect Host, Bill Moyer, indeed being repressed for daring to criticize U.S. military wisdom, such as it is. Around the world, young men of swarthy complexion and unrecognized accent find air travel uncomfortable at the very least.

But again, these are distant things. The Bella Coola River rushes onward as do the comings and goings of our seasons and people – and, how we too have lost so many dear folks since last year albeit as a steady current of emigration and fatality rather than in one cataclysmic moment! Which brings me in my crabby side-wise fashion to the point that perhaps what changed most and, I hope, enduringly, right here in Bella Coola as in so many sleepy hollows all over this continent – is the heightened sanctity we now attach to what, before that September morning, seemed so trivial -- the smile we can bring to another’s face with the smallest act of good humour or forgiveness; the extra pause taken to appreciate the mere continued existence of people and things we previously took more for granted; the next breath and the one after of some withered old-timer whose knee we once sat upon. And, as always, we turn to the radiant, close-to-God forms of our children with the twofold sentiment – “thank heavens I still have them; thank heavens that they were not among the many so suddenly orphaned one year ago.”

At 6:53 each morning the new hosts of CBC Daybreak still call forth devotees to what they call “trivia” and I even sometimes succumb to dialing in with an answer, though probably less often because of the memory of Mark Harvey’s solemn pronouncement that morning. But way back in my mind, a new small voice is arguing that in this year since some 3,000 souls were so pointlessly, so obscenely destroyed, nothing is trivial anymore.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

REDUX 1: Not Wanted on the Voyage (Sept.00)

As already noted, this was the inaugural Grouse column back in the last year of the old century and millennium, which, of course, was 2000 - you wanna argue about that??


Well, yes, I know that! Grouses technically don’t perch. I thought that in taking wing, so to speak, with this the first of what will become -- given the power of public demand -- a long series of not so amicable perspectives on the world near and far, I’d give you (those few who know or care to distinguish passerines-- perchers -- from phasianids - literally, pheasantish things) at least the first complaint.

Now, down to business at hand. And speaking of creatures whose plumage far exceeds what is necessary for the ordinary conduct of one’s affairs, my first topic concerns the very pinnacle of formal authority in this fair province of British Columbia, his vice-regalness, the Lieutenant-Governor, the very honourable Garde Gardom, QC, who in early incarnations served the Bennett government and more recently opined how BC at the time of George Vancouver’s visit only needed the presence of humans to fulfill its destiny (somehow forgetting that there were already more than a few indigenous folks wandering about the future province).

Notwithstanding, it was with cardiac palpitations that I opened a gilded letter and learned of the latest perk in my brief tenure as your faithful Area D Director (Central Coast Regional District): The Honourable Mr. And Mrs. Gardom requested the pleasure of my ever so humble company aboard the HMCS Regina one fine late summer evening in September 2000.

Now I know very well that in the echelon of real political power the Lieutenant Governor stands somewhere in importance between the deputy assistant to chief legislative janitor and her majesty’s royal rodent exterminator. But, no matter, I have a confession: I am a devoted royalist (and I hasten to say that this disposition preceded indeed managed to survive the overblown claptrap that grew up around the life and death of the late Princess of Wales). I think having a chief nobody who, in very rare historic circumstances of legislative and/or executive insanity can exercise his or her prerogative, is a remarkable if serendipitous safeguard against American-style nut-bar leadership.

This and the fact that many the summer evening passes in beautiful downtown Bella Coola when there is -- may I say ? -- something of a dearth of entertainment options, made me anticipate with uncharacteristic enthusiasm this coming pomp and circumstance. We the elected were to be ferried out to the royals’ yacht at precisely 6 o’clock for goodness-knows-what ceremonial and gustatory delights!

Especially given the issuance of the invitation by both Mr. Gardom and the missus, I assumed that my long suffering wife, Sue Ellen, and other spouses of the select invitees would be welcomed on this excursion. But being a man of proper protocol myself I thought it best to confirm and so called one Allison Collins, the designated staff person on the invitation.

To my surprise my modest request met with a polite but firm “no way, José”. The good Miss Collins explained with great and firm patience that spouses were not invited because that would lead to excessive numbers and thereby limit the total number of regional dignitaries on the list. Maybe they’d run low on hors d’oevres. Perhaps the tub would tip. No congestion, please, at this floating levee!

I was caught quite off guard because I had never heard of a reception by royalty, or its proxies, which treated so offhandedly the critical role spouses play in making public life bearable. I sputtered out something about knowing that there would be room because I knew of several RSVPs already conveyed to the Lt.Gov. But Ms. Collins knew the self-promulgated laws of the voyage was unyielding. She explained that if an exception were made for any one of us, why others would be very upset.

And now I did get offended. The belief that community leaders of the Central Coast would break out in petty bickering over such a matter spoke volumes of an unflattering image apparently held about Central Coasters by our more southern, urbane and presumptively “civil” servants. Seeing the unrelenting nature of Ms. Collins on the matter, I informed her that the pleasure of my company aboard the vice-regal vessel was not to be had that evening. Then, as is my wont, I dispatched an e-mail to Mr. Gardom’s office to this effect:

“As explained over the phone we locally elected officials work on an entirely volunteer basis and are required to spend many evenings away from our loved ones, not on pay like provincial politicians or government staff but pro bono. To expect that we would want to go out on a Friday evening solo is, to say the least, insensitive. It is especially grating to see that his Honour, Mr. Gardom is co-hosting this event, at taxpayer's expense, with HIS spouse. Protocol and respect would dictate that the invitation be similarly and equitably extended to our spouses.”

“The fact that there were absences from your original invitation list (of which I am aware by official communication) but that inappropriate "rules" limiting attendance are still being enforced because you think there would resentment, displays added evidence of disrespect for the leaders of our region. We are much too busy around here trying to do our jobs as political leaders to be so childish.”

Alas, I have not had the favour of a response and two weeks have passed. Not to worry. My late, dear Uncle George told me that each of life’s tribulations is really a teacher, and, oh, haven’t I learned quite a bit what protocol – and common courtesy – means at BC’s loftiest governing altitudes!

Reduxing the Grouse

It usually can be only the widely acclaimed -- which the Grouse is not - to get away with regurgitating old columns as if they are or should be held with general reverence by the readership. Nonetheless, the felicitous coincidence of having run in to a rather busy spell away from Grousing and, part of that busy-ness, doing some long overdue housekeeping on my various hard drives and related storage devices, thereby finding past writings - that I want to put out into Blogland a few forgotten "treasures." These are from the glory days of the Grouse's Perch and the Coast Mountain news.

As noted briefly elsewhere on this blog, the Grouse really began in September, 2000, when I got royally pissed off by the BC Lieutenant Governor who sailed his yacht into North Bentinck Arm at Bella Coola pre-inviting elected officials of which, I was one (Area D representative on the Central Coast Regional District). Sounded like a lark even if it might mean having to tidy myself up, something I am rarely inclined to do. Just for courtesy, never for a moment expecting anything but an enthusiastic "yes" I called to confirm that spouses could attend. The startling answer was "no" and from that sprang the much ruffled first grouse that soon became a regular column.

So such as they are I shall mount a number of those much earlier grousings, opening, as needed with some context-giving.

Hope you enjoy this waddle down memory lane...