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.

Truth and Reconciliation, there’s hope but it’s a marathon

Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC commission chair
Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC chair, in June 2015

It has been 20 years since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) issued a lengthy report calling for changes in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, as well as governments across Canada. Not much happened as a result. But now, in the wake of a 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  (TRC) led by Justice Murray Sinclair, there is new hope for reconciliation, not to mention a renewed relationship altogether.

RCAP and residential schools

Back in 1991, RCAP was appointed by Brian Mulroney’s government after an armed standoff at Oka, Qué. There were many issues to consider, but an RCAP commissioner recalls that in almost every community they visited, the painful issue of residential schools was raised. Survivors eventually launched a class action law suit against the government and the churches that operated the schools, and they received compensation. Still, they also wanted to be heard, so the TRC was created, not as a government commission but rather one commanded by survivors and financed by the payments made to them.

TRC recommendations

When it reported in June 2015, the TRC made 94 recommendations. The Harper government, at the time, was mostly non-committal. But the Trudeau Liberals have promised to accept and act upon all of the recommendations. Politically, this is the most hopeful sign in decades. Trudeau has also appointed Justice Sinclair to the Senate, where presumably, he’ll continue to advocate on behalf of the recommendations he made.

One of those recommendations calls on Canadian governments and churches to adopt and comply with principles outlined in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The TRC also wants governments and churches to publicly repudiate the doctrine of discovery, which granted sovereignty to European colonizers who were deemed to have “discovered” lands that were already populated by Indigenous peoples.

The TRC says that the discovery doctrine originated from 15th century papal bulls, which purported to give Portuguese and Spanish monarchs the right to any lands that they encountered because they were spreading Christianity to non-European peoples.

Church promises

In late March, leaders from seven churches and religious organizations met in Ottawa, committing to support these and other TRC recommendations. Catholics, who administered 60 percent of the residential schools, chose not to be involved.  Catholic leaders, however, issued their own statements. One supported the UN declaration while the other stopped just short of repudiating the discovery doctrine even while “rejecting those erroneous ideas that lie behind [it].” Perhaps the church felt that rejecting the doctrine would also mean rejecting the bulls published by medieval popes, and that would be one step too far.

Martahon of hope

At another Ottawa event involving Protestant church leaders, Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Susan Johnson used the metaphor of a marathon race to describe the journey toward reconciliation. Some people, she said, are already at the starting line while others are so far back in the crowd of runners that they haven’t even heard the starting gun. We’re all running the same race at different speeds, she added, but the ultimate goal is reconciliation.

This piece appeared in as a blog on the United Church Observer website on April 14, 2016.

Religion’s role in extremism, conflict and peacebuilding

Gerard Powers says religious actorts do important work in peacebuilding around the world
Gerard Powers, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

It is always stimulating to hear someone knowledgeable talk about an issue in a way that leads one to deeper understanding. Gerard Powers did that recently at Ottawa’s Saint Paul University in a speech regarding extremism, conflict and peacebuilding. Powers is the director of Catholic peacebuilding studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

“Wars of religion”

Powers made two basic points.  One is that the “war of religions” paradigm is frequently unhelpful and diverts attention away from other causes of conflict such as the role played by the foreign policy of nations, including those of the West. The second point is that religious actors are playing an important role on a daily basis in what Powers called the “peace of religion.” He described those efforts as “unheralded, under-appreciated, and under-analyzed.”

Some of the world’s conflicts, Powers said, certainly do involve religious extremists such as ISIS in the Middle East, but there are often multi-faceted dynamics at work which are not primarily religious in nature.  The rise of ISIS, for example, has included support from former secular Bathists in Iraq who were sidelined when the United States toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. As well, Iraqi Sunni tribes fear the Shiite-dominated Iraqi governments installed by the U.S. even more than they fear ISIS.

Powers said that Catholic and Protestant leaders in the U.S. had warned against military intervention in Iraq but the U.S government did not heed that advice.

“Peace of religion”

Regarding peacebuilding, Powers said, religious leaders and ordinary people motivated by their faith have do important work in conflict zones throughout the world, including Iraq, Syria, Uganda, South Sudan, and Northern Ireland. In many societies religious institutions are ubiquitous and can be present in places and situations where secular and government negotiators fear to tread.

In Colombia, for example, a local priest might travel in “no-go” areas and reach out to rebel leaders as a pastor who tends to both the victims and perpetrators of violence. He might even hear a killer’s confession.

The “track two” or soft power diplomacy provided by religious and other civil society actors, said Powers, supplements what he called the “track one” diplomacy engaged in by politicians and diplomats.

Powers said the “peace of religion” efforts would be even more widespread and effective if a greater number of people in leadership and in the pews understood peacebuilding as integral to their faith and to the vocation of their religious institutions.

Poor diplomacy

Powers added that there is among Western governments a secular bias which ignores religion, wishes it would go away, or that, at the least, it would remain a private activity with no influence in the public square. This lack of sympathy and understanding leads Western countries into foreign diplomacy that supports what they consider “good religion” while at the same time discrediting “bad religion” in foreign countries.

This, Powers said, is a self-serving approach that rarely works and often plays into the narrative of religious extremists such as those in ISIS.