Colten Boushie shooting in Saskatchewan fuels backlash

The shooting death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan prompted a bigoted backlash on social media.
Supporters of the family of Colten Boushie, who was shot to death, gather at the North Battleford, Sask. courthouse on Aug. 18. Photo by Peter Garden

Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old First Nations man, was shot to death on Aug. 9. He was in a farm yard near Biggar, Sask., about 100 km west of Saskatoon. Gerald Stanley, a 54-year-old farmer, has now been charged with second-degree murder. According to Boushie’s family, he and four friends were returning from swimming at a river when they sought help for a flat tire at a farm. Stanley’s family, meanwhile, issued a statement through their lawyer, saying that what occurred on that day is not as simple as what has been portrayed.

Vicious comments on on Facebook   

Either way, Boushie’s death has unleashed a torrent of public emotion and comment on social media. On Aug. 18, roughly 200 people gathered peacefully in support of the Boushie family at the North Battleford, Sask. courthouse, where Stanley was arraigned. Elsewhere, a Facebook page called Saskatchewan Farmers Group included racially toxic comments following Boushie’s shooting. One commenter, who wrote that “his [Stanley’s] only mistake was leaving three witnesses,” is the elected reeve of a rural municipality in southern Saskatchewan. The page has since been taken down and the once-outspoken reeve is now unavailable for comment.

Of course, the self-described Farmers Group cannot claim to represent all farmers. The Saskatoon-based National Farmers Union, a modestly sized but well-established organization, issued a news release of their own, condemning racist comments, including those on the Farmers Group page.

Premier Wall says “stop”       



The torrent of racist comment on social media was such that Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall pleaded for it all to stop. “Racism has no place in Saskatchewan,” Wall wrote on his Facebook page. His post received more than 500 comments — most of them supportive — but there were others that were unrepentant: “Wanna stop racism? Revamp those obsolete treaties and make every adult in Saskatchewan pay taxes.” Another said: “The very sad truth is that [by] being ‘white,’ we can be discriminated upon more than any other race and no one faces any repercussions.”

The treaties



These latter two comments capture a sentiment that fuels the antagonism toward First Nations people in our country. The original inhabitants occupied and used the land for tens of thousands of years but were forced by the British Crown — and a succession of Canadian governments — to give most of it up. In the Prairie provinces, they surrendered that land in seven treaties negotiated in the 1870s. As a result, the First Nations were shunted onto small reserves to make way for European settlement. It’s both ignorant and malicious for the descendants of settlers who benefit from those land surrenders to now say that the treaties should be torn up.

Who’s on top? 



The second comment — that it’s really white people who are discriminated against more than anyone else — is simply not true. How is it that the descendants of settlers whose governments forced First Nations from their land and into poverty can somehow see settlers as the victims? Indeed, the bigots and the foolhardy on social media have had their day. But surely, we won’t allow them to prevail in the near and distant future.

This piece appeared on the United Church Observer website on August 24, 2016.

Religion and America’s election, Trump doesn’t do Beatitudes

Religion and the US election. Expect no Beatitudes from Donald Trump
Donald Trump speaking to media in 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore

In her nomination speech to the Democratic National Convention in July, former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described her Methodist faith as the foundation of her activism. “[My mother] made sure I learned the words of our Methodist faith,” she said “‘Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.’” This is almost Sermon-on-the-Mount material, and one hopes that Clinton actually means it.

Trump and evangelicals

Meanwhile, her political rival Donald Trump says that he’s a Presbyterian. But in his nomination speech to the Republican National Convention, he only explicitly mentioned religion while praising evangelical Christians. “I would like to thank the evangelical community,” trump said, “because, I will tell you what, the support they have given me — and I’m not sure I totally deserve it — has been so amazing.” Continue reading Religion and America’s election, Trump doesn’t do Beatitudes

Canada Day 2016, celebrate but let’s not be complacent

Canada has a healthy democracy but there is no room for complanency
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters at a June 22 news conference in Ottawa. Photo by Art Babych.

As MPs headed back to their constituencies for the summer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a news conference in late June. Before submitting to questions from journalists, Trudeau talked about three promises kept since the Liberals won power in October 2015. They had, he said, delivered on a tax cut for middle-class Canadians and modified the Canada Child Benefit to support families. They also promised to strengthen the Canada Pension Plan for future retirees. Continue reading Canada Day 2016, celebrate but let’s not be complacent

Climate change deniers sow doubt, muddy the waters

Professional climate change deniers sow doubt and muddy the waters
Professional deniers sow doubt and muddy the waters about climate change

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the premiers have appointed several task forces to propose ways in which Canada can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This action follows last December’s Paris climate conference where leaders of 195 nations reached an accord committing them to lowering those although they did not say by exactly how much. Continue reading Climate change deniers sow doubt, muddy the waters

Flying with Gordie Howe, how I met my childhood idol

Gordie Howe, my childhood idol, dies at 88. Here is the story of how I met him in adulthood.
Gordie Howe, my childhood idol, dies at 88.

Gordie Howe has died at 88. The man called Mr. Hockey was born into a poor family near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1928. I idolized him when I was a boy and wanted desperately to play professional hockey one day. Here is the story of  how I  finally encountered Gordie in my adulthood back in 1994. 

Please note: this is a repost

It was early March and minus 30 degrees in Regina, Saskatchewan. The prairies had endured a two-month deep freeze. I was awakened in my hotel room that Saturday morning by the growling sound of car motors turning over slowly, then dying, and the distinctive crunch that tires make on snow when it is that cold.

Later, at the airport terminal, I learned that my flight to Edmonton was delayed so I half-heartedly turned to reading a newspaper. When I looked across the small waiting room, I noticed a slope-shouldered man leaning against the wall. Big, but not bulky, he was perhaps 60 years old, with deep lines in his tanned face and thinning grey hair.

He was dressed casually in a pair of beige cotton twill pants and he wore a dark blue sweatshirt over a white turtleneck. He squinted at the clock across the room and blinked several times in quick succession. There was something about him which was familiar.

The next time I looked up, he was being approached by a stout woman in a bright red coat. She offered him a writing pad and a pen, blushing robustly as she did so. He took the pen, signed deliberately and handed the autographed page back with a slight smile which brought an even brighter flush to her face.

The seat beside mine

Then he surveyed the room and spotting an empty seat he walked over and dropped into the seat beside mine. He began to shuffle with some papers, removed a stocky felt pen from his pocket and laboriously made some thick-nibbed notes. I had been an amused spectator but now I had a dilemma.

Should I tell him how as a child I loved winter, no matter how cold it became, because I could play hockey? Every day after school I went to the outdoor rink in our little Saskatchewan town until supper time, playing pickup with anybody who was willing. Immediately after supper I ran all the way back to the rink, before the other kids came for night skating. In that half hour I would spread shovels and scrapers the length of the ice, then I would take a puck and stick handle my way through the maze, up, around and back, again and again, believing completely all the while that one day I would play in the NHL.

Should I greet him? Say his name? Shake his hand? Ask for his autograph? “I met your dad once,” I found myself saying, “when I was a kid.” He looked at me with a steady hazel-eyed gaze, giving away nothing, as though I was a goalie and he was waiting for me to move first.

“It was out behind the Barry Hotel in Saskatoon. My father went in for a beer and left me sitting in the car with the motor running and the heater on. A little while later he came out with an old guy and he said, `I want you to meet Gordie Howe’s dad.’”

A slow smile lit Gordie’s face. “Yeah, that’d be like the old man,” he said in a soft drawl. And that was all. He went back to making felt pen notes, and I to my Saturday paper.

My dad’s loyalty

My father did not like to travel alone and often took me along for company. He could rarely pass a hotel without stopping, and when he did he gave me a dollar to buy soft drinks, chips and chocolate bars to eat while I waited for him. He had a habit of striking up conversations with strangers and so he began to talk to the older man seated near him in the Barry.

It must have been loyalty to me that led my dad to invite Gordie’s dad, Abe Howe, out to the car to meet a skinny 12-year-old. My dad knew that for me hockey was life and that I would discuss no other future. On our way home that evening, as the moon bathed the snow-covered fields in blue light, my father said that I should write a letter to Gordie Howe. I should tell him that I had met his father. I should tell him how much I loved hockey and wanted to play in the NHL.

Letter to Gordie

I wrote the letter and sent it to Gordie Howe, care of the Detroit Olympia. I hoped against hope for an answer but did not really expect one. Then one morning during the Christmas holidays when I was still in bed, my father came home from the post office.

“For you,” he said and he flipped something into the air which landed on my blanket. It was a postcard, a black and white shot of Gordie Howe. He was on the ice, in his dark Red Wings uniform. He must have been doing stops and starts for the camera, because the ice chips sprayed up toward the lens from where he had come to a halt. He was leaning away from the camera, looking at me over his left shoulder. I turned the card over, and there across from my name and address he had written, “Best regards, Gordie Howe.”

I cherished that card but lost it somewhere along the way. I never did make the NHL although I did have a few pretty good years in the Potash League in central Saskatchewan. I had never met my childhood idol, until now.

Flying with Gordie

When the ticket agent called the flight to Edmonton, I was in for a surprise. To get there from Regina,  I had to fly north to Saskatoon, then south to Calgary, only to fly north again to Edmonton. “Dammit,” I said to no one in particular. “I didn’t know I was going to Saskatoon.”

“I didn’t know I was comin’ to Regina,” Gordie said. “I sat on the runway in Chicago for an hour and I watched my plane leave for Calgary without me. Now I’m in Regina and my luggage isn’t.”

I preceded him onto the plane, a small Fokker jet, only to find that we were sitting in the same row, me on the aisle and he scrunched into the window seat. Once we were airborne, Gordie shut out the surrounding noise just as he had in the airport and tended to his own matters.

He pulled out a hardcover book and opened it carefully, his place marked by a thick elastic band wrapped around the cover and the pages he had finished. It was a book about the rise and fall of hockey czar Allan Eagleson, whose career had been riddled with conflicts of interest and practices that cost hockey players millions of dollars.

Gordie read slowly, wearing a pair of gray-rimmed glasses, his thick index finger moving slowly across the page as he parsed each line. Above the sturdy hands his wrists looked the size of juice cans, and seeing them I remembered how he could shoot a hockey puck from either the right or left side with equal force and accuracy.

I noticed, too, that both of his wrists had arthritic lumps on them, each covered by a scar, probably from surgery. It was his painful wrists, not the failure of his legs or lungs, that led to his retirement from the Detroit Red Wings after 25 seasons in the NHL. The wrists must have continued to hurt him during the additional eight seasons he played after coming out of retirement, before he finally quit for good at age 51.

Goodbyes

When we put down in Calgary I stood, took Gordie’s coat from the luggage rack, and handed it to him. He looked up and smiled. “Nice to make your acquaintance,” I said, the words sounding formal and banal. In fact, I hadn’t even introduced myself.

“Sure,” he said. “And now if I can just get re-acquainted with my luggage.”

 

Taking the pledge: The TRC reading challenge

A B.C. writer is challenging Canadians to read the entire report of the Truth and Reconciliation Comission
TRC Commissioners Wilton Littlechild, Murray Sinclair, Marie Wilson, June 2015

It’s been a year since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its report into the history and legacy of Indian residential schools. Yet most of us have probably read little more than snippets of it or none at all. Now, Duncan, B.C.-based writer Jennifer Manuel has created an online campaign asking Canadians to pledge that we’ll read the entire 380-page document. Manuel calls it The TRC Reading Challenge. When she began in April, she hoped to have just 1,000 people sign on, but nearly 3,000 have already done so.

History of the schools

The June 2015 report documents what the TRC heard from 6,700 survivors and witnesses over six years of hearings and research. For more than 130 years, Indian residential schools were organized and largely financed by the government but operated by Canadian churches. An estimated 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis children were removed from their homes, often forcibly, to attend. They were punished for speaking their languages, lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, emotional and — in some cases — sexual abuse.

TRC commissioners Murray Sinclair, Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson have described what happened in the schools as “cultural genocide,” a term that has also been used by Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, former Prime Minister Paul Martin and others. As such, the report provides 94 recommendations that challenge Canadians to redeem the past by walking in solidarity with Indigenous peoples.

Reasons to read the report

Jennifer Manuel says that there are three underlying principles behind her TRC Challenge: that we care about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada; that we believe improving the relationship requires dialogue, which means listening to truths expressed by Indigenous peoples; and that we prefer to read the TRC report yourself rather than relying on others to interpret it for us.

Aboriginal Day and beyond

Manuel wants those who make the pledge to begin their reading by National Aboriginal Day on June 21. On that day, she’ll use the TRC Challenge website to publish the names of those who have made the promise. “Take as long as you need to read it,” she says. “It’s not a race. It’s a commitment.”

She also hopes that anyone taking up the challenge will invite at least one other person to do so: a friend, a local city councillor, MLA, MP, local news reporter or national journalist. She says that invitation can be made in person, on the phone or by doing so publicly using social media, such as Facebook or Twitter.

I’m among those who have read only portions of the TRC report. It’s a rich resource, both in its historical detail and in the recommendations it makes for reconciliation. No longer is it possible to say that we don’t know what has happened in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the past 150 years.

Download for free

You can find the TRC report online and download it for free. If you prefer to order and pay for the book, you can do so here.

This piece was published as a United Church Observer blog on June 3, 2016.  

Where is Stephen Harper and what will he do now?

Stephen Harper has dropped out of sight. We're waiting to see if he has a passion to contribute anything positive in retirement.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Art Babych photo

Stephen Harper has vanished from sight in the past six months but his Where’s Waldo status may be about to change. Harper will address the Conservative convention in Vancouver late in May.  Recently he also spoke to Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and other Republican super donors about how fractured political parties can unite.

In Canada, Harper last spoke publicly on October 19 when he conceded defeat in the 2015 federal election.  He resigned almost immediately as Conservative leader but remains an MP for the riding of Calgary Heritage. He receives a salary of $167,400 but could collect considerably more in pension each year if he resigned his seat. Continue reading Where is Stephen Harper and what will he do now?

Bill C-14, churches one voice among many in debate on assisted dying

Faith groups in Canada are one voice among many in assisted dying debate
Faith groups one voice among many in assisted dying debate

The current debate surrounding Bill C-14 — the legislation regarding medical assistance in dying — is a reminder of how Canada has become a more secular society in which organized religion plays a diminished role in public life.

My own parents, both in their 50s, died within 16 months of one another in the 1970s. During their ordeals in our rural Saskatchewan community, there was never any mention of assistance in dying and no possibility of their choosing such a path even if they had wished it so. We didn’t even have the language to describe it. There had, of course, been suicides in our predominantly Catholic community, and they were considered a grievous sin equivalent to murder. We were told that, ultimately, our lives didn’t belong to us but rather to God, and that it was God who chose when and how those lives would end.

Sue Rodriguez sought assisted suicide

Fifteen years later, such concepts were challenged by Sue Rodriguez, who believed that her life did, indeed, belong to her. She was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and fought to have the legal right to assisted suicide. Her case then went to the Supreme Court, where she argued that a ban on assisted suicide was an infringement of her Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person. Meanwhile, religious leaders — including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) — appeared as intervenors before the court in opposing Rodriguez. This marked the beginning of an informal alliance between bishops and evangelicals which has continued on other public issues, including legal opposition to same sex marriage.

Rodriguez eventually lost in a 5-4 judgment and, in 1994, she took her own life with the help of an anonymous physician. But fast forward to 2011, when the B.C. Civil Liberties Association went to the Supreme Court on behalf of two other gravely ill women, once again challenging the law against assistance in dying. That time, the court ruled that the Criminal Code prohibition was unconstitutional because it breached the same provision of the charter that Rodriguez had challenged more than 20 years earlier. In 2015, the court then instructed parliament to draft new legislation allowing medical assistance in dying in certain limited circumstances — something that’s now being debated.

Civil society on C-14 

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which represents 83,000 physicians, has come out in support of Bill C-14. The Canadian Psychiatric Association and the Canadian Association for Community Living were more cautious, although not opposed to the bill. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which launched the challenge at the Supreme Court, is keenly disappointed that the provisions for medically assisted death are, in its estimation, too restrictive.

Response from faith based organizations

And once more, the most vociferous opposition has come from the Catholic-Evangelical leadership and a number of allied groups. A news conference on Parliament Hill organized by the EFC and Catholic bishops also included representatives from the Canadian Council of Imams, the Salvation Army and a local rabbi.  Curiously, neither the United Church nor the Anglicans, Canada’s largest Protestant denominations, have released an official position on Bill C-14. The Anglicans have set up a task force and the United Church says it is developing a statement.

Religious leaders no longer talk, at least publicly, about our lives belonging to God. They do, however, talk about medical assistance in dying as “intentional killing,” and as being morally and ethically wrong. Catholic leaders warn that their many hospitals will not participate in any such procedures and will not make referrals to other physicians on behalf of terminally ill patients who request it. One wonders how they can do so when most of their funding comes from governments.

A diminished role

Indeed, times have changed. Religious leaders used to meet with the entire federal cabinet. Today, churches and religiously based organizations are merely a few among many mature and competent voices, such as the CMA, debating public policy. The contributions from faith-based organizations are valuable but no longer prescriptive.

This piece appeared in somewhat shorter form on my blog with the United Church Observer on April 28, 2016.