Leaven

Original Kitchener, September 7, 2021

So, we’re in the home stretch of another federal election. Sigh. This is something most of us didn’t want and certainly don’t need, especially not when we’re only just beginning to recover from a global health emergency. 

As usual when a federal or provincial election is underway, I did the CBC / Vox Pop Lab “Vote Compass” test,* which is offered as “a tool developed by political scientists for exploring how your views align with those of the parties.”

Vox Pop Labs presents itself as “a social enterprise that uses data science to improve democratic participation and political representation.”

I’ve expressed my frustration with the decision to call an election at this time, and with the current culture of political parties — all of them — in another forum.** The influence of this kind of “data science” is part of the problem.

So I don’t put too much store in the results. But I’m always amused by my scores,  and take them into consideration. Any and all information that can help me get my bearings during an election campaign is appreciated. 

“Data science” shows that my alignment with the views of four of the main parties is remarkably balanced. My score for the current campaign is:  

65% Green PC

63% Liberal PC

63% New Democratic Party

61% Bloc Quebecois

52% Conservative PC

23% People’s PC

This is the first time green has had a slight lead in my personal Vox Pop Lab result; in other years it’s been red or orange. But no party has ever been ahead by more than a smidgen. 

Consequently, I find myself, once again, frustrated and angry about being put in the position of having to choose among  a set of “parties” with what for me are minimal differences between them. 

“Party” signifies division, separation, partition. Political parties are collectivities that have, for various historical, emotional and ideological reasons, “come out” of the general whole to operate as a separate, contrarian interest. This is a useful function, especially since the dawn of the modern era, when change began to become a constant. Partition is a peaceful, orderly alternative to violent revolution — in other words, to civil war.   

At this stage of my life, I want to join, not come out; to belong, not part ways; and at this point in historical time, it seems obvious that the importance of coming together to deal with the challenges before us far outweighs any partisan distinction. 

So I’ve modified my views on what an election is all about. I’m not interested in “having a say”, and I don’t have a personal shopping list to bring to the political promise mall. I don’t think of the voting booth as a private sanctuary where I solemnly profess my particular political faith, identity or will. I also don’t aim to leverage my vote as a strategy for achieving the result I personally prefer. 

The way I’ve come to see it, a democratic election is a collective deliberation process. We decide together. It’s not about what I want to see happen, but what we can do working in concert towards a desired result. What the parties say they intend to do matters to me, but what my compatriots across Canada think and say, especially fellow citizens here in my own city and electoral district, is far more important.   

I aspire to be what I like to call a responsible or considerate voter: a citizen who takes into account prevailing views and opinions; current needs and possibilities; the options in my municipality or electoral district, and the range of possible results. The odds, as best as they can be determined, are an important part of the decision, especially when there’s a possibility of an outcome that would be damaging to my city and my country, and therefore intolerable. 

I should explain that rooting for the Liberal cause has been a tradition in my family since we first became Canadian citizens, during the Diefenbaker-Pearson era. In the socially conservative Christian Reformed enclave I grew up in, this was a mildly radical minority stance. But I’ve never been inspired to join this or any other political party.

I became politicized, or at least began being deeply concerned with the outcome of elections, in 1993, when I started to become actively engaged with civic affairs in my city, and in 1995, when the “Common Sense Revolution” turned my province upside down. Ontario has never fully recovered, and I’ve never regained my former detachment. 

From Mike Harris through Canada’s lost decade under Stephen Harper to the antics of the Ford brothers here in the heartland and the Kenney regime out West: the intolerables in Canada as a body politic are mostly derived out of models and precedents in the U.S. and the U.K.. 

Most disturbing is the Deep Red Republicanism that has been steadily depleting all the promise the U.S. experiment once represented to so many around the world. The red is fitting, but only because this mindset was shaped by the Cold War: In opposing an imagined Soviet threat, the freedom fighters adopted the ruthlessness and the ideological rigidity of the enemy. It is a mentality that sees the world in black and white. 

For me, these are all variations of a strain of late modern political life that is simply intolerable: It is a perverse way of seeing the world that is particularly dangerous at a time when we need to come together to deal with the challenges before us. 

______

I’m thinking of that report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that was released earlier this month. A press release from António Guterres, Secretary-General of the U.N., describes the document as a “code red for humanity”. “The alarm bells are deafening,” he said, “and the evidence is irrefutable. … This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet. … If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. … [T]here is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”  

His words are directed to “Government leaders and all stakeholders.” Greta Thunberg responded with a call for “massive pressure from the public and massive pressure from the media” demanding that “people in power … start acting.” 

At this late hour, with the dangers so grave and the stakes so high, we need to come to terms with the likelihood that “people in power” will never heed that call to action. They can’t come together because they represent partisan interests. The powers that be are separated, from each other and from the rest of us, by ideology, by their privilege and their class, by their national particularities, and by their associations with corporate interests competing for private gain in the global arena. 

Should the leaders and all the stakeholders ever manage to get it together, there is a limit to what they could and should impose on our everyday reality from their lofty positions. There is no set of levers and switches that can be turned on or off to take us into the right direction, and if there were such controls, there is no one who would know for certain what to do with them.    

The importance of exercising the right and the duty to do things together as a town, a city, a province, a state, a nation or a federation, through a government led by democratically elected representatives, should be obvious. It is equally important, however, to recognize that there is a limit to what we can do for and to one another through government action, by decree, backed by law, enforced by an armed constabulary and the imposition of fines and prison sentences. 

The role of individual initiative, calling, inspiration or free will is also critical. That includes choosing to participate in collective deliberation during and in between election days: speaking out, weighing options, listening, calculating odds. And it means responsible, considerate voting. 

______

So how should I vote this time around? A scant 22 months ago, 17 of them under lockdown, I almost opted green. Not for the party and their platform; I don’t believe the fate of the planet and all living beings on it should be treated as a partisan matter, a left to a right, or a right to a left: The emergency transcends differences. It should be bringing us together. 

But Mike Morrice worked so hard throughout the campaign, and always spoke sensibly, with a rare sincerity. He deserved to be elected in 2018. If he had, he would have made an outstanding representative for the citizens of Kitchener Centre in our House of Commons. And it would have looked good on us if we’d sent him there: For Guelph to go Green provincially kind of makes sense, but if Kitchener had followed suit federally it would have been a near miracle, and a great national news story.  

But when all was said and done, I stayed with the red. Morrice began talking about how he wasn’t a typical politician, but someone who really listens, really cares, suggesting that he was somehow above the fray. This turned me off, because it bordered on routine resentment mongering: the system is broken; politicians are corrupt; the promises are lies; the stories are fake — just trust in me, I’m your friend, your saviour. It started sounding very much like Doug Ford presenting himself as an ordinary guy, a man of and for the people, ready to stand up to the downtown elites and the mainstream media.  

At one point, though, I did offer to trade my Kitchener Centre vote with anyone intending to vote orange or green in Kitchener-Conestoga in exchange for a vote for Tim Louis, a red candidate whose energy and sincerity matched that of Mike Morrice who was in a tight race with the CPC incumbent. But no one took me up on it, and I stayed with the red. 

The same considerations had led me to going orange provincially in 2018, even though I would have been happy if Kathleen Wynne had been permitted to carry on with her work, and pleased if we’d been allowed to continue having our Kitchener Centre MPP serve as the Minister of  Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. But it was obvious that I was out of tune with my fellow citizens. 

Our orange MPPs have served us well. But the way things are set up, a majority  government can do as it pleases, and if it is controlled by a set of true believers who don’t believe in government, the results will be catastrophic. The number one qualification for any tolerable political option is being able to win in an election. And in our system, all elections are local.   

Whatever happens this time around, Justin Trudeau deserves our gratitude and respect for delivering us from ten years of wandering in a moral, ideological and cultural desert.

But, all things considered, I find myself ready, once again, to cast my vote for Mike Morrice. I’d feel better about it if he dropped the populist tone. But I can look beyond that. If he wins, and we send him to Ottawa to represent us, great. If he loses, I’m hoping he’ll consider helping me and anyone else who is interested to come together as a movement, rather than a party — an “Omni-Partisan” effort dedicated to a sustainable future and a reconception of what true prosperity means.  

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António Guterres is right, the alarm bells are deafening; the evidence is irrefutable. The gravity of the situation is comparable to grappling with a 1930s style global depression, a national emergency on the scale of a 20th century World War, with the tensions of the Cold War added in, complete with nuclear doom as an imminent possibility. All at once. 

The war analogy fits the scale of the emergency, and of the mobilization that will be required to deal with it. In the face of this level of danger, partisanship must be set aside. Distinctions of class, race, creed, faith, ideology, even gender, become less pronounced. Everyone does what needs to be done. 

The difference is that in the present struggle, there is no identifiable foe. We are the enemy. And we, citizens living and working in a democracy, must also be the guardians, the healers and the liberators, doing our duty, not as heroic champions, but working together, each in our small corner, in accordance with our personal lights.  

Moreover, as it was during the Great Depression, there is no clear diagnosis, and no known remedy. A pragmatic, scattered, experimental approach is best. But incremental doesn’t always mean timid, weak and slow. The situation calls for an immediate, rapid and massive response, on all fronts, with everyone doing their part. Courage becomes commonplace. Morale becomes critical. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and its corollaries: resentment, ignorance, hate, blame, division, despair, denial, passivity, surrender.   

It’s what we do in the aggregate that causes all the damage. To reduce the harm we’re doing to the lands, the waters and the skies, we need to think and work together, not necessarily in unison, but in concert, organized in delicate detail to maximize the efficiency and the effectiveness of our labours.

A federal election is a deliberation process to decide what direction to take together, as Canadian citizens. What I long for are structures and mechanisms through which I and others, whatever their Vox Pop Lab score might be, can participate in a deliberation process that considers all the factors, and chooses the best possible people to represent us and our communities in the House of Commons.

If Justin Trudeau had held his eager, pollster-inspired horses, at least until next spring, there might have been time to set such a mechanism in motion. But alas, we’ll have to make do, one more time, with the system we have. 

What I’m suggesting is that, while we’re at it, let’s think about how to do things better nine months from now, when it’s time to decide how Ontario will face challenges and seize opportunities from 2022 until 2026, and on Monday, October 24, 2022, when we decide who will serve and represent us in the  municipal sphere. 

If we had such a mechanism for helping each other decide how to vote responsibly here in Kitchener Centre right now, I am close to certain we would be electing Mike Morrice on September 20, 2021. 

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I began with the parable of the leaven because it seemed analogous to what the 4% of Canadians who say they’ll be voting for the Green Party from coast to coast to coast could accomplish if they were a movement rather than a party. But I’m not suggesting that committed Greens give up on trying to become a viable political party. 

In an Omni-Partisan movement, you can come as you are, stay where you are, remain loyal as you’ve always been, and do what you feel inspired or called to do.  Ideally, you end up serving as a leavening agent for whatever measures of meal you happen to be associated with. 

What is the leaven to the measures of meal? Not an influencer, not a convincer; the flour doesn’t become yeast. Not a power; the new loaf absorbs the leaven, and it disappears. The combination of a relatively small amount of leaven and the triple measures of meal sets a mysterious process in motion. When the batter rises, the loaves are baked, and put on the table as daily bread. 

Read this way, the parable becomes a promise, not an instruction.  

—-

* to do the test, go to votecompass.cbc.ca/canada

**see Taking Our Time, CultKW Aug 4, 2021.

A Labour Day Post

“Work” was the title of a column I wrote on Labour Day last year, and later submitted as my mid-September contribution to CultKW. 

It began as further thought on a question that had emerged in the wake of the Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter: “but what can a poor boy do”?

The answer that had kept coming to mind was: “Get to work.”

Here’s a revised version of the piece, which I’m posting here as a best wishes greeting for Labour Day 2021.

Call to Work

Marching is not getting to work. Ideally, it’s an expression of commitment and resolve, which are prerequisites for both effective work and purposeful association. 

If the march is to protest, it is talk, not work; reaction, not action.

If the intent is to speak truth to power and move political, managerial, professional and economic leaders to take action, it is not true activism, but a kind of persuasion.  

If the aim is to build solidarity, it can strip away difference and personal resolve. The result can be association with militaristic elements, in preparation for mobilization. For those who are not in command, this is not getting to work but getting ready to be put to work or marched into battle.

Although command is normally at the behest of the powers that be, and perceived as oppression, it doesn’t have to be. Order can be service to shared purpose as well as to private gain; a division of labour like any other.

Work doesn’t always have to be in service to and for the benefit of those who have developed the capacity to organize.     

Despite all the improvements modernity has brought, it is becoming increasingly clear that standard ways of organizing things are extremely wasteful, not just of land, air and water, but of human lives and capacities. We can do a lot better. 

There fact is, there is virtually no limit to the work we could do for one another. And there is no shortage of people to do the work: 7.87 billion of us, and counting. 

So let’s get at it.

A Labour Day Wish

Right now, because I’m almost completely unaffiliated, all I can contribute is the kind of wishful thinking I’ve been dishing out in this forum.

My wishful thinking for Labour Day is that we start moving away from the association of work with drudgery and toil. 

I know there’s a biblical injunction that supports this view of work: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

In this telling, work becomes a curse, a punishment. But it can also be a gift, a blessing. In many respects, work is life, and life is work: It’s what defines us and our place in the world. Work can and should be what gives our lives meaning and purpose.

The idea of setting just the right “work-life” balance, usually through various lifestyle and leisure offerings from purveyors of health and happiness, seems twisted: The implication is that we’re truly alive only when we’re not sacrificing hour after hour to making a living. 

Chamber of Commerce style promotion of a city or a region as a “great place to live, work and play” strikes me the same way. 

Work, play, recreation, leisure and rest are all living.

The distinctions between “work”, “recreation”, “leisure”  and “play” have always been vague. That’s especially true in the arts:

“The play’s the thing,” but it is the work of a playwright, i.e. a maker or a builder.

Performers are “players,” but they commonly work in companies, train within disciplines, and create productions. 

The play aspect of art making is a major part of why it is so difficult to get policy makers and the public art large to pay serious and sustained attention to working in the arts as an integral part of a healthy economy.

Art Work is the Key

For a long time, arts advocacy was my business, and I’m not sure if anything I said or did in this line of work ever made the slightest difference. Nevertheless, I’m more convinced than ever that arts-related work is the key to a smarter, stronger, more advanced  economic future. 

Any way you look at it, in 2020-21 smarter and more advanced means more sustainable. We’ve reached the point where the ecological balance sheet is of far greater consequence than anything that can be measured in terms of dollars and cents. 

It would be wise to take this break from the normal that the pandemic provided to work on updating our conception of what prosperity means.

My sense is, if culture-related work, culture-related exchange, the infinite bounty of arts-related production, and the ever-increasing riches of our collective cultural inheritance are not at the very centre of our conception of true prosperity, the future starts to look very bleak.

The arts are, after all, the original work. From before the beginning of historical time, what people do, as soon as there’s enough food and no enemy at the gates, is tell stories, sing, dance, depict, decorate, embellish, make special. 

Full Employment

There will always be work providing the necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter, security, healing. But this needn’t take anywhere near the amount of effort we put into covering these essentials today. 

If we distributed the workload more equitably, we wouldn’t have to work so arduosly. But we may still want to work long and hard. All work could and should be more like arts-related work: varied, open-ended, creative, done for its own sake, with pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.

What I’m getting at here is that it might be time to extend some of the confusion between work, play, leisure, learning, creation, recreation and entertainment that we associate with artistic practice to work of every kind. 

If there are aspects of our working lives that make us miserable to the point where we feel a need to seek relief or escape, it’s because of the way we organize the work that needs to be done to make a living.

The habit of thinking that living life to the fullest requires choosing “lifestyles” and buying “experiences” from the purveyors of such compensations for living meaningful and wholesome lives is perverse.

There can be pleasure even in drudgery, but not if you’re bound or relegated to it, and when you’re looked down on for having to do it. There are better ways to organize these things, starting with working towards a free and open market for work. 

The system of having twenty workers seeking employment for every ten decent jobs is cruel and wasteful. In a healthy, mature economy, these proportions are reversed. We can all be rich in possibilities. Everyone seeking gainful, meaningful employment will be able to pursue whatever they feel a call to do. 

To “pursue” an objective will involve either proposing a project with a view towards finding people able and willing to work with you to make it happen, or signing on to a project already in the works.  

Mudsill jobs will have compensatory rewards. The key to getting a project off the ground will be the credentials of the people committed to working on it, not the wealth or borrowing capacity of the person or organization behind it.  

Work as Fun

Part of the inspiration here is a comment from Jimmy Wales, the prime mover behind Wikipedia, the for-purpose, non-shareholding enterprise that has produced miraculous results relying largely on unpaid, voluntary work. 

According to Jimmy Wales, “It’s a misconception people work for free. They have fun for free.” Researching, writing and editing the site is painstaking work, yet capable people do it willingly in part because they trust the organization and believe in its purpose, but also, as a survey of Wikipedia volunteers revealed,  simply because “it’s fun.”

Judging by the kinds of things people do as a hobby, a pastime, or for recreation, almost every kind of work can be pleasurable, even fun. And my hunch is that as we move toward conflating work, play, leisure, learning, creation, and recreation, we’ll not only be happier and healthier, but also more steadfast, conscientious, and consequently a lot more productive.  

Organized Labour

Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean people needn’t and shouldn’t be paid for doing it. If there’s no money involved, it may still be work that is beneficial, but it would not be part of the measured exchanges that are an economy.  

There may come a time when we can do it all on trust. For the time being, however, I’m suggesting that we keep track, and try to keep it reciprocal. We can start by getting to work wherever we happen to be, each in our particular corner, according to our own lights, with whatever capabilities we may have been gifted with or developed. 

I firmly believe that each and every village, town and city in the land of the Canadas is, or can be, a great place to live, play, work, learn and associate.

Association is the critical component. The fact is, there is almost nothing one can accomplish alone. Even a rock’n’roll band is an organization of sorts: a company.

Company” was the title of my next column, which I posted here, not as CultKW musing.

More on ô

A few weeks ago, I floated a proposal for a new endeavour I’ve playfully been calling: 

ô: omni practical pursuits

The name is provisional. I find it helps to give a thought a name, and imagine possibilities in relation to people, organizations and situations that actually exist.  

The first post on this project explains that the intention is to undertake “explorations in the field of voluntary, purposeful association.” By voluntary, I mean non-governmental: Freely chosen association for an explicit purpose.  

The ô project would serve as a lab, a studio, a matrix, an incubator; a channel, a resource, an agency, an institute. 

Why am I doing this? I’m working for work. I’m hoping to make this my business. 

Although I am confident in certain areas, I also know my limitations. If I had money, I could hire people to do what I can’t do alone. So I’m hoping to find associates interested in investing energy and/or resources to achieve similar, or at least compatible, objectives.      

The kind of work I have in mind touches on the three fields of endeavour that I’ve been involved with during my working life, in each case on the margins: 

1. the academic world; specifically, in the humanities; 

2. the media, primarily local/regional print journalism, and 

3. the local/regional arts, culture and heritage ecosystem. 

I have also been engaged, mostly on a voluntary basis, with the civic sphere: with my city and city-region; it’s organizational infrastructure, governmental and non-governmental, and how the prevailing order, part rational structure and part culture, has come to be, and continues to evolve. 

There are aspects of this concept that I’ve been thinking about for more than 25 years. As a result, I’m not ready with an executive summary or the five-minute elevator pitch. What I can do is offer some additional details about styles, preferences, ways, means, and about fields of endeavour that appear to be relatively open, and therefore ripe for action. 

I’ll conclude with some thoughts about steps.  

styles and preferences

ô is imagined as a civic endeavour, as distinct from a social enterprise. The emphasis is on engaged citizenship, on public service, on enlivening communities, and on enriching lives as lived in cities, towns and their various precincts. 

I don’t mean any and all cities and towns — “local” in the generic sense — but actual places, with specific names — Kitchener, Preston, Elora, New Hamburg, Paris, Trenton, Bancroft, Chatham — each with their own history, character and circumstances, past and current; each with their own unique possibilities. 

The preference for civic endeavour is not in opposition to what is called social enterprise, or as an alternative to private, for-profit enterprise, or to charity work as traditionally conceived. The emphasis is because the civic sphere looks like a less crowded field. There is work to be done here.  

ô is conceived as a “for-purpose” enterprise. The mandate is the reason the organization exists. Serving the mandate will be the fundamental point of reference for all decision-making, planning, strategizing and investing, whether of time, energy or resources.  

Again, this is not being proposed as an alternative way of doing things, or in opposition to privately owned, for-profit enterprise, or in relation to semi-private entities like guilds, unions, co-operatives, mutuals, clubs and congregations. The intent is to begin working towards creating a check and a balance to the prevailing currents of consolidation, externalization, privatization and demutualization.

This project is also influenced by an uneasiness with the dominant social engineering approach to relieving misfortune, remedying damage and healing affliction — doing things to people, for their benefit, guided by evidence-based on the human behavioural science approach to research, or by references to “self-evident” truths. 

The open field of endeavour here is working towards achieving balance through humbler,  more human, more personal and less deterministic ways of doing things. The emphasis on voluntary, purposeful association means looking for ways to do things with people rather than doing things to or for them.    

The thinking behind this includes considering the proper role of individual initiative, calling, inspiration or will. But it also considers our right and the duty, when it serves the purpose, to do things in concert, all together as a city, a region, a province or as the people of a nation state, through the governments we elect to represent and serve us, and through non-governmental associations for civil, cultural, educational and social objectives. 

Whereas the prevalent expectation is for things to continue to unfold through the workings of unseen forces beyond anyone’s control, ô begins with the assumption that the future will either be what we choose to make of it, individually and collectively, or what we allow to be done to us and for us by the powers and forces that be.   

fundamentals

The “ô for omni” initiative is a “do-tank”: the aim is towards activation and actualization — getting work done; undertaking projects, large and small. Every project begins with agreement around what the objectives are, and a basic understanding of the parameters: Mission and principles come first, then the ways and means.


Personally, I would have difficulty working as part of an association that did not share a basic agreement on fundamentals such as:

  1. that the relationship between human beings and our earthly home needs to be drastically re-adjusted in the light of 21st century realities, including our conceptions of what progress and prosperity signify;

  2. that adjustments to the relationship between humans and the earth are intertwined, and interdependent on adjustments related to great historical injustices among peoples, nations and other large collectivities; 

  3. that the role, both of individual initiative, calling, inspiration or will, and of doing things together through the governments we elect and associations we choose to become part of, are equally important, and not at odds;

  4. that the way of peaceful transition is best; and with it, there needs to be uncompromised respect for the lives of other humans;  

  5. that there’s a shared preference for a friendly, welcoming, respectful and considerate approach to the community at large and everyone within it;

  6. and that the endeavour is progressive, i.e. that it is dedicated to the here and now, and forward looking, not based on a longing to restore or preserve an imagined ideal past. 

ways and means

To repeat: There is no intention here to establish an “alternative” to existing norms and structures, or an opposition to any prevalent order.

The aim is to complete, not compete;

to complicate, not sort out or explain away;

to connect, not consolidate;

to deliberate, not contend or debate

to seek better balance, not correct or overturn;

to adapt, improve, fulfill, not destroy or replace.  

Adopting a principle that was an important part of the City of Kitchener’s CulturePlan I, the resolve is, whenever possible, to build on, with and through what already exists. 

The corollary is to demolish nothing, throw nothing away, and waste nothing that can be put to good continued use. 

This enterprise is forward-looking: There is no longing to return to past glories, virtues or innocence. There is no rejection of modernity. 

There is no denying, however, that change at every stage of development over the last 600+ years has also brought loss. Progress over the centuries has been ruthless, cruel and exceedingly wasteful. Having reached the point where dominant patterns of modernity have become a threat to life on this planet, this is a time for gleaning the fields for what the modernization process may have left behind. 

This is a time to reconsider overlooked or discarded forms of wisdom and virtue. 

This is a time to look for stones or beams or forms that builders have rejected that may yet serve good purposes.  

At the current juncture, the most likely place to find satisfying, life-affirming work are fields of endeavour that are relatively open: where there are gaps and imbalances; where the landscape is strewn with the abandoned, the rejected, the neglected.

ô is meant to serve as an incubator: When set in motion, it will be people joining forces to cook up project possibilities out of whatever ingredients may be on hand or readily gathered. When a prospect begins to make sense and starts attracting engagement, it is time to launch the enterprise and get to work. 

Each project will be embedded in the place from which it emerges, and where it is meant to be of service. The intent is to build, maintain and utilize lateral relationships — standing on the same ground, face to face, shoulder to shoulder, person to person, in proximity  — without an upper tier, and with no ladder to climb or descend, no colonizing mother polis, no centralized command, no head office.  

This is not pitching for a more egalitarian and libertarian approach vis-à-vis hierarchies of every sort. Again, it’s that the tiered, top down, remote control approach to organizational structure is the standard everywhere, including among our governments, our representative bodies, the business world, for-purpose and for-profit, as well as in the military and the religious spheres. And it’s that all that winnowing down in search of excellence, all that centralization, consolidation and stratification in search of efficiencies are so wasteful of talents, energies and lives. 

The situation is especially out of balance on the ground, in actual places, where increasingly, everything that matters is designed, organized, controlled and owned from somewhere else. 

Doing things laterally, in proximity, and for purposes beyond private profit still requires order: Assigned authority, rules, regulations, procedures for decision making, and scrupulous record keeping are equally if not more important for a voluntary, mandate-centred enterprise. But in a voluntary, for-purpose endeavour, it becomes order as service, to the mandate, to the community, to the associates, and to the customers, clients, subscribers or members.  

This is the kind of authority that a conductor wields when hired by a choir to lead it to performance excellence, or that a traffic police officer holds when guiding vehicles coming from all directions in taking their turn to proceed through an intersection. With a lateral approach, authority is practical, and never extends beyond the task or office at hand, in place, on the ground. It exists to get things done, not to put everyone in their place.   

The emphasis on actual, tangible results — on doing, rather than theorizing, influencing and persuading — makes it possible to take a decidedly omni-partisan approach from the outset. If the purpose is, say, to build a thousand affordable houses, or plant a billion trees, or restore and maintain an architectural heritage treasure, or save a language that is close the extinction, the beliefs, creeds, convictions, predilections and even the prejudices of those doing the building, planting, teaching, restoring and the maintenance are, for the most part, irrelevant.    

The emphasis on association comes from an awareness of how little anyone can achieve entirely on their own. Association is also a logical objective when the call for participation is directed first to those of us who are not fortunate enough to have access to significant amounts of working capital, whose working lives are less than satisfactory, who are or would like to be engaged with their community, and who care about more than just their own interests and ambitions. 

Consequently, the preference is for bootstrap, pay-as-you-go operations that respond to circumstances as they arise, and that are improvised rather than predetermined. 

Revenue generation and monetary investment are as important as they are in any for private profit enterprise, but only in relation to serving the mandate or purpose. Any and all proceeds are judiciously folded back into the enterprise, rather than divided up among the various shareholders. 

Debt can lead to loss of the freedom to serve a mandate. The preference, therefore, is towards a picayune style of earning revenue, a penny or a bit at a time.  This is a model that goes back to the invention of the penny post and the penny daily newspaper, and currently looks like a field that is ripe for innovation and experimentation.  

The preference is also towards relatively level remuneration rates. If the endeavour is dependent on work that is done without or with minimal remuneration, a for purpose structure that no one owns, no one extracts profit from, and that can operate without a highly paid management structure  is almost a necessity.  

The ultimate purpose, however, is to find ways that people can earn a living in fields where things appear out of balance. The purpose is fuller, more satisfying, more meaningful employment, not replacing adequately paid work with unpaid or minimally paid workers.  

fields that appear open, hence ripe

The academic world appears vulnerable: Sooner or later, the disruptive practices of the for-profit corporate world will turn on institutions of higher learning. 

Meanwhile, academia is a closed, exquisitely chaptered and layered, guild-dominated field of endeavour that has been able to withstand most threats to its prestige, privilege and power. That’s especially true for the STEM disciplines, and for systems for the acquisition and protection of professional credentials in prestigious and lucrative fields. In terms of power and influence, the social and human sciences, including health sciences, economics, political science, business administration and communication, don’t do so badly either. 

It’s the humanities that are overlooked, neglected, left behind. The only sustained interest in their intrinsic value is from an older, classically oriented, regressive kind of conservatism. 

There is a tendency for what remains of the arts and humanities to get cannibalized by the stronger fields of learning, for example, the arts squeezed into the applied science and technology spectrum to add a soupçon of “creativity”: from STEM to STEaM. 

The trend towards transforming arts practitioners into social workers, place makers, community builders or political activists is comparable. We see the same dynamic at play in the trend towards reducing the role of museums and galleries, which, like libraries and archives, are fundamentally places of learning and study, to “cultural attractions” that bring in tourists, or to help with employee retention in fields that really matter. 

In the world of high modern business, of work, of productivity, and among all the exchanges that constitute an economy, artistic pursuits tend to be regarded as peripheral, except in the higher echelons of “cultural industries” operating at a national or global scale. 

So the arts, broadly conceived, are another wide-open field. In this case, however, it is one that is on the rise rather than in decline. 

A foundational premise of this endeavour is that the arts are the original human work beyond achieving subsistence. In all times, and all places, once food and shelter is secured, and there is no enemy or plague at hand, this is what people do: they tell stories, remember, sing, dance, decorate, celebrate, make pictures, fashion images, make special, beautify, build things, and contemplate their existence.  

In terms of the kind of work that we can do for one another to achieve a kind of prosperity that will not destroy the planet, artistic pursuits are ideal because they are relatively clean, and because the people who follow them tend to find them meaningful and fulfilling.   

Journalism is an arts pursuit rooted in such elemental human activities, but it is also a prototypically modern field of endeavour that has claimed and been assigned a critical role in the civic sphere, as a trusted source of information, a “watchdog” on authority, and as a forum for the kind of discussion that is essential for democracies to function.   

Legacy media, especially the city daily and the town weekly, have been in steady decline for decades. Broadcasting media, especially at the local and near regional level, are not far behind. The metropolitan owners of our daily newspaper took advantage of the disruptions of the pandemic to quietly abandon their physical presence, including their newsroom, in the 10th largest urban centre in Canada. Our local, always a decidedly provincial private television station once produced a hundred or more regular programs at any given time. Now they can’t even manage to keep the yard tidy. 

Radio, and audio communication and presentation in general, has been a relatively neglected field since the advent of national network television, but with the rise of podcasts and audiobooks, sound media are on the ascendent.  

It is interesting to see, not just knowledge and information, but also the exchange of  ideas claimed as part of the purpose and function of libraries, galleries, even choirs and drama groups. Meanwhile, the newspaper is conceived as a kind of learning institution. It is possible to imagine a local/regional news, information, ideas, deliberation, chronicling and storytelling ecosystem that encompasses traditional media, arts and humanities educational structures and civic learning institutions, broadly conceived. 

Open enterprise, multiple ownership, unmanaged legacy business districts, and with them, the appreciation, preservation and adaptive reuse of architectural and other cultural heritage assets, are also long overlooked fields that are ripe for attention. 

Small and mid-sized urban centres in themselves have lost their purpose and function in relation to their hinterlands or service areas. Provincial, non-metropolitan centres are wide open fields of endeavour, along with their current, but mostly former, hinterlands:  “flyover” country, they call it in the U.S.. 

The entire area known as the “Rust Belt”, which Laurentian Ontario is an extension of, was the very centre of North American cultural, political and economic life from the late 19th century until well into the 20th. Today, it has been largely abandoned, rejected, outmoded, and therefore ripe for fresh, imaginative, purposeful endeavour.  

All forms of enterprise other than the private, for profit norm are undervalued, and poorly understood, including mandate-based enterprises, mutuals and cooperatives, faith groups, and even public or civic service structures.  

Voluntary associations of all kinds appear under threat: service clubs, lodges, orders, friendly societies, representative associations, along with the traditional religious associations out of which most of our educational, health, social service and purely social infrastructure originally emerged. I read somewhere that even the rock band is no longer as common a form as it once was. 

The odds are also stacked against all original, local/regional, innovative, independent and freely associated enterprises, whether civic or private; for purpose or for profit. 

The talents and energies of older people tend to be wasted. So are the days, years and energies of young people whose career paths are delayed, diverted or blocked because of the vagaries of an economy where discord and disruption are the norm, and the constant winnowing of a placeless, ruthless dedication to efficiency. 

This is one of the reasons why this project begins with an intergenerational focus. On the one hand, the aim is to balance the dominant pattern of segregating age groups, and setting them against one another. But life is finite, and unfolds in stages, from infancy, childhood and youth to maturity and old age. Because of the contrasting needs and capacities of the younger in relation to the older, and their shared relative freedom, the combination of the youngest and the oldest adults among us carries boundless potential for associating, and getting things done.      

And, of course, the legions of people of all ages, backgrounds and identities all over the world who are unemployed, sporadically employed, underemployed, misemployed, or miserably employed, together constitute a vast pool of wasted potential. 

The fully employed — the workers of the world, as they used to say — might be wise to unite, with a view towards breaking their dependence on the power and the will of their employers, and getting a better deal. But the workers of the world are a relatively fortunate, privileged minority. 

It’s the billions of us that live on the edges of full, meaningful employment who have the most to gain by exercising our right to assembly and association.    

Compared to other rights and freedoms that are cherished and defended, the rights of assembly and association are in themselves a neglected field of opportunity and concern.    

At this juncture, in Canada and all over the liberal democratic world, the political party is close to bankruptcy as a means towards the form’s original functions and purposes: as movements that bring people of divergent interests together, and as channels for democratic engagement at the broader, extra-civic and inter-civic scale. There is boundless opportunity for innovative approaches to associated citizenship related to democratic forms and practices.  

The traditional, and still close to universal left versus right political spectrum, calibrated along the fault lines created by the various revolutions set in motion by upheaval in the British and French empires in the late 18th century, is long overdue for a reset more in line with 21st century challenges and opportunities. 

As I’ve tried to explain in some of my CultKW and Here & Now | Now & Then posts over the last year, I think the Canadas; Ontario Nation; all original village, town and city areas (any area built up contiguously before the mid-20th century suburban boom); watersheds and sub-watersheds, and all non-metropolitan local/regional news, information, ideas, deliberation, chronicling and storytelling ecosystems are wide open fields, are ripe for sowing, planting and cultivating. 

steps

Step 1: Write and Talk About It

The first step is to talk and write about what I have in mind. That’s really all that is in my power to do at this point.

The next chapter will be some examples of the kinds of projects I’m imagining.
.

Step 2: Carry on With Current Engagements

Meanwhile, I’ll carry on with what I’ve been doing since the pandemic hit:

— a fortnightly post for CultKW;

— occasional posts on my own Here & Now | Now & Then;

— edit and host Promenade, a weekly “community radio magazine” that airs over CKWR 98.5, Canada’s first community radio station Tuesday evenings at 6;

— organize the bundle of intergenerational and interdisciplinary shared learning programs I helped develop at the Commons Studio as an autonomous entity tentatively called the “Home [on the] Range Story Kitchen”, working in partnership with the Commons Studio at its new home with KPL Central, Inter Arts Matrix, CKWR / Wired World Inc and other community partners. 

— do social media posts for myself; the Story Kitchen; WR Arts Reboot / Arts Together. 

— serve on a few boards and committees: Inter Arts Matrix; 98.5 CKWR Wired World Inc; Bread & Roses Housing Co-operative; Arts Network for Children & Youth / Participate Community Arts / Creative Roots. 

And with this, I’m adding refining the ô concept, developing project ideas, and outlining plans to my day in, day out job description. 

I can happily keep on doing these things as long as I can keep body and soul together.

The steps towards actualizing any of this — moving from talk to action, to work — will depend on attracting engagement, articulating understandings, and developing mechanisms for associated endeavour.  

Step 3: seek and find engagement

Step 4:

a. develop basic understandings

b. create structure and board

c. begin undertaking projects as part of the ô initiative.

Canada Day, 2021

Garden strawberry (fragaria × ananassa), image created by Ivar Leidus, via wikipedia

Original Kitchener, July 1, 2021

I’ve never been much of a Canuck Doodle Dandy. At this stage of my life, the fact that it is strawberry time here in our neck of the woods is more exciting than celebrating the achievement of settler home rule and a federation among the remnants of British and French colonial projects on this continent 154 years ago. 

And yet, I’m feeling more devoted, more committed and more connected to Canada, the land, the waters, the peoples, the habitations, than I ever have before. It feels as though, when you go in deep enough, grow contrary enough, and think the whole thing over, under, around and through, you come out on the other side.

Observing Canada Day as a day of mourning, recognition and reflection in 2021 is not cancelling our annual celebration of becoming a modern independent nation state. On the contrary, it is transforming what had become a pale imitation of July 4 traditions in the U.S., with scattered displays of patriotic bunting, fireworks and holiday specials in the weekly flyer drop, into a deeply patriotic observance that holds the promise of redemption, reconciliation and restoration.

I’m a late settler, born on the other side of the Atlantic. I was too young to choose to come here. I became a citizen through my parents, without having to pass any test, swear any oath, or subject myself to any crowned sovereign. I was, however, exceedingly glad when we received those citizenship papers from our local MP (Lee Grills, the friendly milkman, a Diefenbaker Conservative), primarily because we could now go over the Thousand Islands Bridge and cross the border into the United States. 

I’d been to Toronto and Ottawa by then. I’d outgrown the Trentonian tri-weekly and CJBQ a.m. radio from Belleville, and was ready to expand my horizons. We were late to television, but when it arrived in our home it came mainly from across the lake in Rochester, New York. Meanwhile, radio came into my room from all over the continent: Boston, New York, Buffalo, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Wheeling. The Toronto stations just weren’t cool.

Canada was a weak and lacklustre presence in my life, especially after I left Queen Elizabeth primary school to enter the segregated environment of Calvin Christian. The old guard Tory, Loyalist strain, still a palpable presence in those days, felt hostile to us as newcomers, especially down in the County, on the other side of the Bay of Quinte. 

These circumstances turned me into something of a revolutionary republican with a decidedly continental outlook.

It is only lately that it occurs to me that the Canadian project from 1867 on is actually an imitation of U.S.-style self-determination followed by continental expansion, driven by a version of Manifest Destiny, borrowed almost entirely from the original. A kind of upstart Pepsi to the classic Coke.

So when it comes to the centuries-long horrors that have accompanied how the west was won, plus the south, plus the north, on the continental mainland as well as the Caribbean plantation lands, it is essentially one story, whether the original colonizers were French, English, Netherlandish, Iberian or Scandinavian. 

For me, the main difference between classic Manifest Destiny and our continental expansion story is that Canada’s path towards home rule has been peaceful and incremental: We never made a radical break with all that had come before, and we never declared that, when things appear to be out of line with what we take to be self-evident truths, people should rise up in arms, overthrow their government, conspire with foreign enemies if need be, and, once separation is achieved, confiscate the property of those who held to other versions of the truth, and drive them into exile. 

That is one hell of an idea to found a new nation on. But it has been the standard storyline for how and why self-determining nations are built ever since. 

Emphasizing the colonial or imperial aspect over the basic act of settlement itself not only obscures the honest  truth, it actually appropriates the ideas, principles and methods of the rebels who rose up, in part to fight for freedom to encroach on Indigenous homelands on the other side of the Appalachian divide. The raised fist, the bloody splatters and the mutilated colonial statue are simply “don’t tread on me,” “give me liberty or give me death”, and “thus always to tyrants” all over again.

Fighting and killing are what the separatist nationalists have always respected, and even preferred: An uprising provides justification for dealing out reciprocal death, and inevitably, annexing yet more land. The peacekeepers, the prophets, the orators, the storytellers, the knowledge keepers, the ambassadors, the elders, the matriarchs, the healers, the drummers, the singers, the dancers are generally ignored, and perhaps even feared, while the warriors, majestically appointed in full battle regalia, have automobiles, cities and sports franchises named after them    

My newly discovered patriotic sentiments are anchored on the fact that Canada’s story has never been disrupted in such an abrupt and bloody manner. I firmly believe that this gives us advantages for dealing with those centuries-long injustices that have been ignored for so long.

Maybe it is living in a settlement founded by pacifists that has drawn me in this direction. But, as the abolitionists I studied for my dissertation used to emphasize, following Jeremiah, a pacific stance can be false prophecy: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”

I am conscious of the fact that if it hadn’t been for Canadian soldiers fighting for the liberation of my homeland, there would have been a swastika on my birth certificate. And now we’re talking about historical wrongs that are comparable, in significant ways, to the burden of blame, guilt and shame that people in Germany have to bear. That’s what it means when they describe our national policies and practices as genocidal. 

Words may fail, but we shouldn’t flinch from the truth. To address these wrongs, we need to take full ownership of the errors, crimes, sins … there is no term that adequately conveys the gravity and the enormity of it all. 

The longer view of what Canada represents, over 400 years rather than just over 150, actually deepens our complicity, both with what Atlantic European powers and interests did to men, women and children in Africa, as well as to the people and nations of this hemisphere. The long view doesn’t exonerate us in any way, but it connects us with both the oppressors and the oppressed in ways that oblige us to act. 

As a settler, and as a citizen who has voted in every election, federal, provincial and municipal, since I reached voting age, I accept full complicity. The nation state of which I am a citizen did these things; my votes approved this course of action, and my silence has helped sustain it. 

These tragedies are not primarily the work of a wily Prime Minister who has been dead for 130 years, and not the invention of a True Grit reformer inspired by nascent “evidence-based” social engineering practices, nor are they the work of any Queen or King on a faraway throne, nor of any church, association or for-profit corporation that was contracted to provide services to help move the modern, democratic nation-building process forward, nor any soldier, policeman, prison guard, teacher or preacher who was assigned related duties. They were all, even their royal majesties, serving their country, serving this country, and this country is us.   

The truth is that the Indigenous peoples of this land, their languages, their customs, their stories, their family ties, and their very bodily existence have been perceived as obstacles to our freedoms, our way of life, and our prosperity from the outset, especially from the time the fur trade began losing its lustre, and when we realized that our 8,890 km border with the revolutionary republic no longer needed defending. 

Canada — i.e. we, us — wanted these people de-cultured, de-natured, properly washed, dressed and shorn; trained for domestic or field work. We wanted them safely penned up beyond the pale, yet readily accessible in designated concentration zones for various purposes, including so that we could readily take their children away because we were dead certain we knew how to nurture them better than their mothers, aunties, fathers, uncles, grandparents. We wanted the Indigenous population gone, vanished from the True North strong and free: either dead and buried in best forgotten graves, or dissolved into the national melting pot that renders all ingredients into what we consider proper, decent, normal. Even our democratic practices have been an instrument for social and cultural engineering.    

The heart of the matter is that settlement itself, compounded by settler home rule, both here and in the revolutionary republic to the south, lies at the root of this horror.

The fact that we’re beginning to open our eyes to such truths is a good sign. We’re beginning to realize how wrong we have been, and that’s a critical step towards doing better. 

My hope is that Canada’s true destiny may not be dominating the continent, or carrying on with wresting a fleeting and devastating kind of wealth from the land, the waters, the earth below and the sky above. Maybe Canada’s calling is to show the world how to begin repairing the damage that revolutionary zeal, “man shall have dominion” cultural and environmental arrogance, and exclusionary national self determination projects have caused over that last two centuries and more.  

This is not advocating national self-loathing, guilt or shame. It’s not counter-erasure, holier than thou socio-political purity, or another manifestation of cancel culture. It is standing up for Canada, and standing up as a Canadian. 

Me, My, I — Us, Our, We

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

I’m going to pick up from where I left off in my June 3, 2021 CultKW.com post. Entitled “One Year Later,” the column is a reflection on what has happened in my life over the year that has passed since I raised the question: “What can a poor boy do?”

This was in the wake of the Kitchener Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter on June 3, 2020. The poor boy [he, him] in question is me — an old, white Canadian with an Atlantic European background, who studied history, writes columns, is devoted to arts, culture and heritage, and lives, works, plays and learns here in Waterloo Count[r]y.  

At the time, I thought perhaps I could work on some history essays. The end result is “What’s in a Name”, an album of columns written “in the hope that by tinkering with familiar storylines, we may discover pattern variations that could open fresh possibilities for imagining how we’ll deal with the challenges and opportunities that lie immediately ahead.”

I stand by most of what I wrote or hinted at in the sequence, and still hope to follow through on the original intent of publishing the pieces as a pamphlet. 

But while my days under the restrictions of the pandemic have been productive for coming up with ideas, concepts and possibilities, I haven’t been able to articulate any firm, practical proposal for actually doing something. After more than a whole year musing, mulling and imagining — four seasons spent conceiving projects, writing proposals and building partnerships —  there are few tangible results. It does feel like it’s high time to go “out of the door, into the street, alone.”** 

My year and half in my coop at the co-op has shown me that imagining projects, making proposals and building connections are kind of my thing. But imagining, proposing and connecting are not enough. To get anything done, you need to form or join a team or an organization, and then get to work.

So now what?

Well, I’ve spent most of my work life, paid and unpaid, on the fringes of three major fields of endeavour: the academic world, specifically in the humanities; the arts and culture ecosystem in a provincial, mid-sized urban-to-rural region, and the media in a local/provincial context, with an abiding interest in print journalism. 

Consequently, I’m looking for an enterprise that operates where these fields intersect. 

As far as I’m aware, nothing like this exists, not here, maybe not anywhere. And that’s a good thing. The objective is to find areas within and among these fields that are generally overlooked, neglected, under-appreciated, or that are in the process of being absorbed, abandoned or rejected.

Here’s a quick sketch of what I have in mind:

The working title is Project Ô — an entity dedicated to “omni practical pursuits.”

The overarching purpose is explorations in the field of voluntary, purposeful association.** 

The entity itself would be a willed association formed to serve as a platform and engine for concerted endeavour, i.e. for getting things done. The purpose is to lay out what can be described as a project garden or an association nursery. 

Project Ô would operate as something akin to a lab; a studio; a matrix; an incubator; a channel; a resource, an agency, an institute.

As an institute, the aim would be to learn, study, ponder, muse, imagine, propose, but also to launch, build and maintain. I’m imagining a “do-tank”, more than a think tank. 

Omni means “all”, as distinct from “one”: In the higher learning field, this would be an omniversity, not a university. The aim, however, is to be firmly grounded, rather than aspirational. Higher education is a crowded, fiercely competitive arena.   

Pursuit denotes
— movement with purpose, but not as in a race or a chase;
  — pursuit as quest, calling, profession, mission, expedition;
— pursuits in the plural: there can be different paths to a shared destination;
— the reference to “pursuit of happiness” is intentional, but as in “to hap”: happenstance, i.e. what actually takes place, and exists in place.*

Practical means the emphasis is on getting things done, not on influencing or setting policy. The focus is on particularities — actual instances, not theories or generalities. 

As I was putting together an outline for a related idea that isn’t ready for sharing just yet, I started making a list of influences that inspired and shaped my imaginings, especially personal involvements of various kinds over time. The list grew longer and longer, and a feeling returned from the time I was putting the final touches on my doctoral dissertation: that for the citations to be complete, they would have to include everything I ever did, heard or read.

I’m going to offer just three examples of the many models and inspirations that have shaped Project Ô here, in order to give a better sense of the purpose and scope: 

1. CIGI

I’ve had no direct involvement with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, but it has been useful as a counterpoint for defining Project Ô. The aim here is to complete, not compete. What I’m imagining is in some respects the opposite of what this prestigious Waterloo institute is and does, but the contrast is meant to show complementarity, not conflict.   

— Ô is not a “centre” or a “hub”: The aim is to function laterally, on common ground, embedded in the communities from which it arises and aims to serve. 

— Ô is not international, but local/regional — not local in the generic sense of “anywhere”, but in actual places, with names and histories: Kitchener, Hespeler, Schneider Creek neighbourhood, Grand River watershed, Paris, Elora, Woodstock, involving actual people with names, each with their own lights, affiliations and stories.  

— Ô is concerned with the understandings that make voluntary association possible, along with organizational cultures and practices as they have evolved over time, not in power structures or governance per se.  

— Innovation, yes, but in conservation, adaptation, building on what exists — a check and a balance to the long dominant pattern of disruptions, interventions and impositions.

2. Inter Arts Matrix

An announcement went out the other day that June 6, 2021 marked 14 years of work by, with and through Inter Arts Matrix, a for-purpose enterprise that has been led, over the years, by 3 artistic directors, who have delivered 29 projects and 141 public events involving 153 artists and collaborators.

— Ô is similarly project-oriented, but in the area of civic endeavour, rather than art work per se.

— There is a comparable emphasis on hybridity: inter-generational as well as inter-disciplinary, within and beyond the arts, and inter-cultural; inter-sectoral; inter-faith; inter-personal; inter-town/city/urban.

— I’m imagining a comparable range of activities, including public presentations, exhibits, lectures, workshops, publications, productions, deliberation and inquiry, especially in the field of willed, purposeful association with a civic dimension, i.e. the village, town or city level.  

3. The Working Centre

If it weren’t for the interruptions due to the pandemic, my time working for the Commons Studio at The Working Centre would be approaching the length of time I devoted to the Waterloo Regional Arts Council: almost a decade, in addition to the six years I worked with what was originally called the Multicultural Cinema Club as a volunteer. 

As a result, Working Centre principles, ideas and practices are a major influence on what is being proposed here, including:

— community tools; non-hierarchical order; building relationships;

— work as gift; respect for earth;  

— humility; cooperation; respect; democracy of everyday life;

— serving others, but also civic service (essentially, service related to living, working, learning and associating in towns and cities), as well as curatorial or managerial responsibility as service.

— producerism, but beyond basic needs. The Ô project is situated in the area where work, learning, creativity and play intersect

I hope this is enough to give you an idea of what I have in mind. I’ll fill out this sketch in greater detail over the weeks ahead, including:

— more on styles, preferences, and on ways and means;

— more on what appear to be open fields of endeavour, where there are gaps, imbalances; the abandoned, the neglected, the rejected;

— examples of projects this new matrix could gestate, give birth to, nurture, set free;

— the fundamental understandings or conditions of associating;

— and the steps from idea to concept to plan to actualization.

The intention was to present this as an announcement. But it is actually just a statement of intent.

If any of this interests you, or if you know someone who might be interested, please get in touch or encourage them to connect.Right now, there’s only “me, myself, I”. If I send this out into my world, and an “us, ourselves, we” emerges, I will have achieved my aim of affiliating. But even as just me, I’ve got a job to do.

Martin (Marinus) de Groot

mdg131@gmail.com


* In another context, I once wrote:

<< As Garry Wills points out in his book on the Declaration of Independence, Inventing America: “Happy” is related to “hap”, “happen” and “happenstance”: it means luck, chance, fortune. 

Go beyond blind, random or absurd chance, and “happiness” becomes synonymous with “blessed.” But we don’t need to go that far. Whether it is luck, chance, fortune, or grace, gift, blessing: You can’t pursue or grab it; you have to be ready to receive it, and you must allow it to find you.

In other words, to pursue happiness in the original sense, you have to set the planning, seeking and grasping aside, and just drift.

That, to me, is what freedom is all about. >>

** see Company, on this site, but part of the CultKW What’s in a Name? series I’d like to publish as a pamphlet.

*** Grateful Dead, Truckin’, as cited in One Year Later,” CultKW June 3, 2021

Most of the cats that you meet on the street speak of true love
Most of the time, they’re sittin’ and cryin’ at home
One of these days they know they better be goin’
Out of the door and down to the street all alone ….

… “You’ve got to play your hand”
Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime
[But] If you don’t lay ’em down ….

16-20 Queen Street North

This is the text I used for my remarks to the City of Kitchener Heritage Committee Advisory meeting on Tuesday, June 1st. Delegates were allowed five minutes, so I had to make some last minute cuts to stay within the limit. No space restrictions here, so I’ve re-inserted the deleted passages, which are in italics.


Thank you for this opportunity to speak. I signed up as a delegate, but I don’t currently have a relevant association, so I hope it’s OK that I speak only as a citizen of this city and this region.

I can’t add much to what distinguished, knowledgeable voices like Karl Kessler and Jean Haalboom have said in public statements recently. 

So I’ll speak personally and generally. I’ve always admired 20 Queen North, and thought long and hard about all the wonderful uses it could serve, especially from an arts&culture perspective. Not so long ago, when the late Ron Doyle told me that he and his partners had taken possession of it, I shared a few of my imaginings with him, because some of my thoughts were inspired by his various visions. He was gracious enough to at least listen with what seemed like a receptive mind.

But it wasn’t until a couple of days ago, when Councillor Chapman posted her “heritage alert” on social media, that I fully realized what an absolute treasure it is, as it stands, in miraculously good condition: a true wonder, given that it stands in a city that has been foolish, negligent and unfortunate with its heritage.

16-20 Queen is a treasure as it stands, but also because of where it stands, on this relatively small lot so near the city’s iconic royal crossroad, where East meets West, and South meets North. 

I recommend that we start treating Twenty Queen North of a piece with the freshly restored American Hotel, the miraculous Walper Terrace, and the splendid CIBC edifice: 

All four of these buildings warrant being valued, enjoyed and celebrated by future generations, and anything built near and around them should complement and enhance what they represent.

A lot of people I’ve been speaking to have given up already: Kitchener just doesn’t respect heritage, they say. They tore down their magnificent city hall to build that ridiculous mall. 

I can’t say I’m optimistic, but I have managed to keep some hope alive: I honestly believe we have an opportunity here to turn the tide: This is not 1973. It’s 2021. We know better now. 

Back then, they argued and argued, and then decided in the worst way possible, through a “yes or no” referendum. Sixty per cent of the turnout voted thumbs down for heritage, thumbs up for the mall developer. In 2021, we reflect back on that debacle 48 years ago and say: “What were they thinking?

The turning point can be right now, and right there, at Queen and King. From now on, and from that junction out, a more respectful, more considerate 21st century approach could take root, and then spread, up and down the block eastward, westward, southward and northward, until the radius of the circle encompasses the whole “Kilometre of Culture”, as it was called in Kitchener’s first CulturePlan.  

My initial reaction to Councillor Chapman’s call for input was: Couldn’t the site be traded for a parking lot or two somewhere? Let them pile up 100 storeys if that helps sweeten the deal, just don’t do it here.

There is so much room left, from King and Queen on out until you reach the countryside line. I didn’t fully appreciate how much until I saw what these developers propose to do with this tiny, tiny footprint. There must be a thousand sites of this size without any heritage buildings on them, which means there is room to double the population of the city without disturbing so much as single brick on anything of lasting architectural value. 

But it is not an unlimited amount of room to grow, and we need to start using what we have left wisely and judiciously. 

I’m hoping we can begin moving away from making decisions one building lot at a time, in response to the particular vision of each developer coming forward, in line with whatever is currently fashionable. It is time to take a holistic approach. It is time to be proactive.

Let’s take a moment to ask, as Rick Haldenby of Waterloo Architecture asked in his talk at KPL a couple of weeks ago: What kind of city are we building? 

Before we go any further, let’s take into consideration the whole city, and the other cities and towns and villages around us, and then decide when, what and where to build, or allow to be built, or, better, invite citizens to imagine, and architects to design for developers to build and sell.

That’s all I’m saying: Just slow down, and think it through. This building has stood for 112 years. Let’s not rush to deciding its fate.

Regarding its fate, and without considering the larger context and all possible alternatives, I’m speaking up for the conservation and continued good use of the building in its entirety, as close as possible to the way the architects designed it, as the labourers and craftspersons built it, out of respect for the materials that it is made of, and for the ways it has served this community generation after generation. 

A building, especially one of this quality, has a kind of life that, properly tended, can go on virtually forever. 

The facade would be just a souvenir, like a bear skin, an ivory tusk or a mounted set of antlers in relation to a majestic living creature.

Victoria Day, 2021

Victoria Day 1854, Toronto, Canada West

Original Kitchener, Waterloo

May 24, 2021

If I have my arithmetic and my wikipedia facts lined up correctly, today is the 176th iteration of the celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday here in our neck of the woods.

Victoria Day is my favourite secular holiday, for a lot of reasons, starting with how deliciously peculiar it is that, after all those years, we’re still doing this. No one else does; not in England, nor in the rest of the nations of the troubled kingdom where Victoria’s successor reigns, nor elsewhere among the 15 “Commonwealth Realm” polities that remain.

Victoria’s birthday is not even universally celebrated in Canada: It is a general holiday in Alberta, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Yukon; and a statutory holiday in British Columbia, Ontario and Saskatchewan. 

It makes sense that the peoples and nations of pre-Victorian Canada — i.e. the Atlantic provinces and  Québec — don’t particpate. I wouldn’t mind if federal authorities began treating this as another celebration of Canada’s diversity. That would pave the way to reclaiming the holiday as something special to my province. I like to imagine it as la Fête nationale d’Ontario, but without the overtones of Bostonais-style separatism. 

Traditions evolve. I wouldn’t mind if the fireworks came to an end, for instance. Given that most of the meaning has been lost, and that May 2-4 gunpowder play is now almost entirely private, we can dispense with it. All that noise that went on until the wee hours last night in anticipation of the big bang tonight struck me as in-your-ear version of in-your-face tagging of public vistas with cans of spray paint.    

Regardless of what it has come to mean, an unbroken tradition of 176 years is valuable in and of itself. It would be a shame, and probably very bad luck, to break it completely. It’s always possible, of course, to start a new tradition, but we’d have to wait until 2297 to match the way this legacy has lasted.  

The usual arguments that Canadians should break ties with the monarchy and finally do away with these quaint, subservient practices have become an annual Victoria Day ritual of sorts. With the widely prevalent idea of “colonialism” being the root of all evil, this line of thinking has gained a fresh relevance. 

I don’t buy it. But I don’t believe in “debate”. There are myriad sides to every important question. The best way forward is to move beyond routine positions, pro versus con, towards a respect for the complexities actually involved.  

In this case, coming up with a counter-argument to these latter-day republicans would not only be a waste of time, it become a reckless return to battles millions have fought and died for over the last 200+ years. 

Canada, especially Ontario, Canada, is the product of such a battle. We’re what remains of the realm of Victoria’s grandfather on this continent after the thirteen disgruntled colonies rose up to overthrow their government and establish settler home rule.

Through a convoluted personal journey, I’ve become what I like to call a “conservatory progressive”. The “tory” in conservatory is deliberate: It declares that, by temperament and conviction, I’ve become a “neo-loyalist” — or, better, a “latter day loyalist.”  

Ironically, I got this way by trying to imagine what the complete opposite would be of what passes for “conservatism” nowadays. I’ve been deeply concerned about how things have been unfolding in our part of the world since the “Common Sense Revolution” began raging out of Queen’s Park 26 years ago. 

When it started flaring up again with the arrival of our current Premier on the provincial and federal scene, I was appalled. But my equilibrium has been restored. My sense is that Mr. Ford is cut from different cloth than Premier Harris, while his party and his leadership team remain totally immersed in the mindset and spirit of ‘95. 

Victoria Day to me is a symbol of 262 years of relatively peaceful transition. We’ve had a few flare ups of the Yankee / Rebel spirit every now and then. This is understandable, given that we live next door to the separatist settler republic, and given that the U.S. storyline has been dominant for going on 250 years now. That’s how nations are supposed to be born. 

When you tell the story this way, we come out losers, cowards, sheep. Fortunately, the spirit of rebellion has never prevailed. Loyal we’ve remained, more or less. 

Symbols are what we choose to make of them. To me, the monarchy is a symbol of continuity, of evolutionary change, of peaceful transition. We’ve gotten to where we are today by adapting and building on what exists, step by step.  

I think the idea of a head of state who, even though she is the commander-in-chief of the spiritual, military and civil spheres of the four countries of the UK plus 15 more lands overseas, has absolutely no power over any of us, is simply brilliant. 

The idea of leaving succession to genetic chance, rather than personal ambition, partisan squabbling and majority rule, is similarly astute.    

As a latter day loyalist, I can sing “God Save the Queen” with heart and conviction. 

The Royal coats of arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as used by Queen Elizabeth II …  in Scotland (right) and elsewhere (left). – wikipedia

I should clarify, though, that a true progressive only looks forward. There is no golden age to return to, nor are there any past glories worth bragging about. It’s the future that counts.   

I should also fess up that I’m not sure I really believe any of this. It’s all make believe.  

In this time of plague, of conflict and schism, of looming economic collapse, when efforts to redress historical wrongs appear destined to failure, and when the “Man and His World” attitudes of the 20th-century linger on to the point where such arrogance has become an existential threat to the planet Earth itself, you have to work hard to keep a modicum of hope alive. That’s why I like to keep an eye out for omens that might be imagined as promising. 

This is pure make believe, remember. So please don’t waste our time trying to convince me that it really is hopeless. 

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday. Just as Victoria Day is my favourite secular holiday, Pentecost is my favourite spiritual holy day. I love the numbers: Seven times seven plus one equals fifty. I love the idea of the light of the spirit visible over the heads of an assembly of believers. I love the idea of speaking in tongues that are marvelously varied yet universally intelligible. 

In the Christian story, Pentecost is as meaningful as Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving. The fact that the modern nation state and the world of commerce have never even tried to make anything of this holy day seems almost miraculous. So to this make-believer, Pentecost falling on Victoria Day weekend can be taken as a fortunate coincidence. 

If the powers that be conspired to abolish la Fête nationale d’Ontario once and for all, I’d make believe that this, too, is a good omen. It would be an indication that we no longer need to emphasize the “us and them” distinction this province was founded on. 

It is possible that our destiny has been obscured all this time by the twin imperial storylines that have been dominant for so long, and that any day now, the fog may lift. (I should mention that I like to imagine Victoria’s maritime empire and the continental superpower we’re attached to as two sides of the same coin, like Rome and its one-time colony, Constantinople, in days of old).

It may soon become apparent that Sir Wilfrid Laurier was right, but off by a century, when he prophesied that “the 20th century belongs to Canada” (or, in his exact words, “The 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century.”)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier with Zoé, Lady Laurier, in 1907 – wikipedia

The promise of the Canadas, including Ontario nation, may not be to right the wrongs of 1776, 1789 and all the bloody horrors that have followed. The task at hand is not to set things in order, whether from the reactionary or the revolutionary perspective, nor is it to reconcile such opposites. 

Victoria Day 2021 is a good time to make believe our manifest destiny is to show the world how to rise above all that, and move forward with a storyline better suited to the circumstances, the challenges and the possibilities of the present hour. It sounds warm and fuzzy: peaceful transition, rather than rule the waves, live free or die, masters in our own house, to the ramparts, and so forth. But it is a storyline through which Canada could fill the 21st century. 

More on the Capitoolstorm of January 6, 2021

Tory refugees on their way to Canada, by Howard Pyle. Harper’s Monthly, December 1901.– wikipedia

February 12, 2021

The beginning of the lunar new year is a time to reinforce the resolutions made at the turn of the solar new year. So far, I’ve been able to stick to my resolve never to mention the 45th U.S. president by name again, even though he has been dominating the headlines again. 

But I do want to pick up from where I left off with my musings on the events of January 6th: the capitoolstorm, as they’re calling it in my native land. 

I called it the Epiphany Mob, but a term that evokes the beeldenstorm — the iconoclastic fury that deranged my forbears 4 ½ centuries ago — suits me even better: We’re talking about riotous impulses that go back even farther than the Boston Tea Party and the destruction of Governor Hutchinson’s house.

My “Loyal She Remains” take on the events of January 6 began with a reminder that the United States of America as a nation state was conceived and born in protest, riot, sedition and armed rebellion. My home and adopted land, Ontario, and the union it is part of, Canada, were not forged in a bloody uprising, so the view from here is different. 

I want to make it clear, though, that “different” here means another perspective, not an assertion that our way is the right way, in opposition to the systemic flaws woven into the fabric of the settler republic to the south. Both are pragmatic, ever-evolving, and very human creations. Like all human constructions, the settler dominion in the north has systemic flaws of her own.           

I’m not interested in a clash of ideas, especially not anything that can be reduced to an either/or debate. My concern here is how fragments of ideas can come loose, detach from the unfathomable whole, and become toxic, for individual minds, for human associations, and for a body politic.

The idea that motivated the mobs that vandalized the Governor’s mansion and dumped the East India Company’s tea into the ocean — “no taxation without representation” — has been a useful formulation. It is not self-evident; it’s not even a “truth”. It is practical standard, and when cited, it is, in effect, a demand for responsible government and fair taxation, at rates set through deliberation and consent. 

The concept can serve as a guide for setting up basic civic practices within an existing order, or from scratch, as settlers in the seceding colonies, now states, had to do..

When this fractional truth is whittled down to “government is the problem”, it becomes unwholesome, and sometimes deadly. 

The danger of standing armies, and the role of militias made up of townsfolk and citizens as a check and a balance, is also a useful formulation. The 19th-century Peelite principle that civic police are not soldiers is similar. But the idea of a personal right to bear arms, meaning that every man is, in effect, a militia unto himself is, again, pernicious and lethal. 

The Kochist formulation, that every man and whatever he has managed to stake out for himself is, in effect, a landed sovereign republic in his own person, is one of the most debilitating truth slivers ever devised.

These delusions are connected with the 18th century fractional truths that drove New Englanders to the rioting that set off the War for Independence. But this current manifestation — this dangerous combination of truth fragments that has deranged so many minds and souls — emerged out of 20th century concerns. 

The syndrome that the Grand Old Party and the U.S. as a whole suffer from didn’t start manifesting itself in this distinct present form until after World War II. 

High modern libertarian conservatism was formed in the crucible of the Cold War. It’s purpose, and it’s appeal, was to serve as a counter to Marxist formulations by providing an ideological framework as comprehensive and as consistent as communism. The difference is that now the science of history, society and economics shows that it is unfettered private, for-profit enterprise that will lead humanity towards some kind of stateless utopia, rather than workers of the world casting away their chains and submitting their fate to an ideologically pure vanguard.

This is why there are so many parallels between the two strains of thought. A key difference is their relative success: Soviet and Maoist formulations lost all credibility long ago, while the mindset designed to replace Marxist truths remains a dreadful force.  

After the end of the Second World War, a kind of paranoia swept the nation about communists infiltrating governments and institutional structures of all kinds. Such fears were unfounded, and the general sense of the actual power and influence of the people in charge in the Kremlin was greatly exaggerated. 

Ironically, counter-Marxism as parsed by neo-con/lib thought leaders has succeeded in all the ways people used to imagine the red menace was undermining liberty: Their formulations are as materialist, as deterministic as those of the enemy. They are as convinced they are in tune with dialectical forces of history; as conspiratorial; as ruthless; as immoral in terms of the means they use to serve their ends; as contemptuous of cultures and traditions; as global, imperial and total in their ambitions, and as ready to make gods out all-too-human personages as any Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, Fascist or Maoist true believer.  

These thought patterns have infiltrated governments, institutions and minds, not just throughout the U.S., but around the world, especially where English is the main language spoken. What has transpired is almost precisely what so many people imagined was happening during the McCarthy era, but from forces that profess to be the very opposite of the dreaded communist threat.

Cold War formulations, now 30+ years out of date, are the heart of the matter. But there are other poisons that have been leaching into the cauldron, including:

— festering resentment over New Deal innovations;

— Goldwater’s “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”;

— “silent majority” appeals to drive decent folk in the continental heartland towards fear and resentment;

— Christians yielding to the temptation to arrogate themselves and their nation state as the right hand of God;

— an anti-federal, states rights, separatist bent that has been persistent since the Second War for Independence, the one that failed, but rooted in the victorious rebellion that led to the birth of the Great Settler Republic;

— an uneasiness with modernity, in this case not peculiarly U.S. American but near universal in its reach, and the accompanying nostalgia for lost values, norms, certainties, glories;   

— and, perhaps worst of all because it is so central to late modern Republicanism, Nixon’s cynical “Southern strategy” of exploiting fear and hate, which has been the key to the party’s electoral success ever since.  

Together, these and other strains combine to give rise to what can be seen as the latest of the horrors that have cursed human life on this planet since those pivotal 17th century mobs raged. 

The syndrome that deranges so many minds, with its neo-con/lib core, belongs in the same category as Napoleon’s ideals-driven militarism; dictatorial presidentialism around the world; late imperial scrambling and plunder; fascist and national socialist delusion, brutalization and genocide; hardcore Soviet social scientific order; Red Army totalitarianism, or any of the many fanatical perversions of Abrahamic faith traditions that have emerged over the last 60+ years.

Extremes meet in all these configurations, especially in the present danger as manifested on January 6. Although these horrors are all part of the chain of events set into motion by the rebellion led by Massachusetts and Virginia and its aftermath, they don’t fall neatly into place on the traditional political spectrum set with those original revolutions as the benchmark. 

So it would be a mistake to opt for surgery that involves applying “left wing” correctives to “alt-right” excesses. MAGA populism and Breitbart style gonzo disruption are, again, merely symptoms. The disease is deeper, and more pervasive. 

The malaise is also infectious, so it is best not confronted directly. Quarantine — something like the containment that ultimately proved so effective against the Soviet threat — may be the best strategy here.

We’re dealing with slivers of truth — ideas, thought patterns, story lines — so the disease metaphor only goes so far. It’s mainly the patterns, and deliberate efforts to deceive people into falling into them for nefarious purposes, that need to be shunned, exposed, shamed, ridiculed and isolated, not the human element — not the people, individually or in company. 

The objective need not be to defeat the Republican Party once and for all, and relegate it to the dustbin of history where the disgraced grandee who inspired the capitoolstormers will certainly remain until the end of time. Even though the party that he used to serve his purposes has been in a diseased state for going on 60 years, the legacy it embodies is greater than what it may appear to be in its pitiful current state. Rescuing the party of Lincoln from its captors, bolstering its immune system, and purging it of all traces of the contagion would lead to the best possible outcome.   

The Cold War is over. There is no enemy as readily identifiable as the Soviets or the Nazis at the gates. This means the age of revolution is over too. Even if a case could be made for carrying on with the pattern of disruption, violence, schism, revolution and counter-revolution that was set into motion going on 250 years ago, the world at present is too fragile, too divided, and too heavily armed for such recklessness, such disturbance. 

The debacle at the U.S. Capitol shows how vulnerable we are. Think about it: In the very heart of the only global superpower still standing, members of the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and the vice president himself came close to being killed by a frenzied mob that was somehow convinced that it was the duty of patriots and freedom fighters to stage a coup. 

The fact that their leader is so ludicrously incompetent is, to me, an indication that despite all her sins and all her flaws, God is still inclined towards blessing America, and that Satan — the Prince of Lies — is close to being a spent force.  

But I wouldn’t count on it. Imagine what would happen if someone actually capable came along to lead the heirs of the Boston Tea Party mob and the Sons of Liberty trashing the governor’s home in another uprising dedicated to restoring the republic to an imagined former glory.  

I’m writing from an Ontario, Canada perspective, avowedly in keeping with the remnants of the “Loyal She Remains” tradition, threadbare as it may be. But if we manage to break those patterns of disruption, violence, schism and revolution, there would be no place for the reactionary, counter-revolutionary mindset either, whether in defence of an established order, old-fashioned Tory, “Family Compact” style, or determined to give free way for a new one to emerge, neo-con/lib, Manifest Destiny, deep red U.S. Republican style.

I propose we begin by discarding the traditional left/right political spectrum calibrated to late 18th century developments, and re-setting the compass to the challenges and opportunities we have before us in 2021, especially our relationship with our earthly home, with other life forms, and among ourselves, as peoples, nations, cities, towns, faiths, traditions, orders and companies of every sort. 

When we recalibrate the spectrum, the sick republicanism that I’ve been calling out in these musings will fall outside the range of practical civic discourse, along with all the other ideological horrors that have cursed life on this planet for going on 250 years. 

Their delusions do not need to be answered. While neo con/lib true believers can continue to blather away through their think tanks, institutes and media outlets, what they say does not warrant any of our precious attention. It’s hard not to loathe their existence, but even contempt is a waste of time, energy and band width. There are more important, and more practical matters to attend to at this critical point in human history. 

If, after we set our sights more purposefully, we still find binary, stereoscopic ways of looking at the world useful, it won’t be in oppositional terms, but harmoniously: The left and the right will function like our feet do when we walk, run, bike or skate; like our hands do when we work, wash, swim, love, play; and as the venous and arterial systems do to keep us alive with fresh energy.   

Further to this 570 News story about funding for THEMUSEUM’s Rolling Stones exhibition

https://bit.ly/3iRg45o

This Rolling Stones exhibition is a big deal. The timing could be just right: The cautions and restrictions of the coronavirus era will likely diminish, bit by bit, over the spring and summer. A November through January run is unusual for a major event like this, but if everything goes well this should be a time when we’ll all be eager to move around some.

A request for a bit of extra marketing support — $100,000 to intensify advertising in Toronto, Montreal, Quebec and potentially Buffalo and Detroit — seems reasonable.

Still, with local/regional media struggling and the regional arts community devastated, you wince when you see scarce resources going to metropolitan ad sellers, and weep when you see such dollars tossed in to the gaping maw of social media behemoths.

But that’s the way of the world nowadays, and there’s no question an influx of visitors from near and far can help the local economy break out of the doldrums of the “Great Cessation”. So I’m not raising any objection.

No, I’m going to be so bold as to suggest an even larger amount be earmarked, the sooner the better, to help ensure the communities of Greater Waterloo make the most of the opportunity David Marskell and his Museum team are providing for us here.

The idea I have in mind goes back to the latter days of my work with the WR Arts Council: a proposal to mark the 200th anniversary of Waterloo as a name in Upper Canada in a grand way, including a Cultural Capital of Canada bid for 2016. 

This would have come with several millions of investment from the federal government. 

There was considerable interest, including from the newly formed Creative Enterprise Initiative and from Kitchener Centre MP Stephen Woodward, who recognized the potential immediately and provided the most enthusiastic and effective support I’ve ever received from a member of parliament, federal or provincial. 

But the Harper government cancelled the program — no blame, it wasn’t well conceived. Canada just doesn’t have enough cities to go around. But we here in the Tri-City area, the 10th largest urban centre in the country, could have made very good use of that kind of investment. And I am certain that our bid would have been successful: We were ready for this. 

Even though the Arts Council had shut down by then, I would have worked hard to try to make sure that the bulk of the funding was dedicated to paying artists for doing the work only they can do. The plan was to invest in making art happen in our communities, like the Region of Waterloo Arts Fund has been doing year after year.

So to ensure the money stretched as far as possible, we had to be frugal. The plan was to engage people in Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and the townships in a kind of citizen tourism promotion effort. But it wouldn’t have been just to save money: If it had succeeded, it would have provided a kind of messaging that money couldn’t possibly buy. 

I’m not sure what more recent tourism figures look like, but at the time I was struck by the fact that, according a current study, the #1 reason people come here is to visit friends and relatives. That’s right: WE are the top tourist attraction — by far — in Waterloo Country. 

So the idea was to organize a campaign encouraging everyone in the region to invite friends and relatives to come and visit, thereby adding a homecoming aspect to the anniversary year and the Cultural Capital of Canada designation. 

The Rolling Stones have been part of my life almost from the beginning of their career. I’m not the hard core fan type, but at the peak of the youth culture era, I was awe-struck by these artists and their work. My regard began to wane somewhat when they became a global brand, complete with a tacky logo that is now almost as recognizable as the classic Coca-Cola script.

I remember the point when I started noticing people I’d grown up with going to Stones concerts with their teenage sons and daughters: The Rolling Stones had become an intergenerational point of connection. And that was going on 40 years ago.

Since then, they’ve become a global connector. They really have taught the world to sing, if not in perfect harmony, at least in time with a U.S. blues beat. 

Their reception in Cuba in 2016, during the Obama era thaw in relations between the superpower and the mini revolutionary republic south of Florida, suggests that they have been more effective missionaries of freedom than the CIA, the United States Information Agency, Voice of America, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe combined. 

They’re not saints, but what we’re getting for three months starting November 2nd, is the 21st century equivalent of religious relics, the original tourist attraction of the Western world. There’s even talk of a living, breathing member of the band coming here in person to offer his blessings.   

This could prove to be a real godsend, and we’d be wise to take full advantage of the opportunities that open up. 

So here’s my proposal: Let’s all throw in a couple of quarters, say, to a town and city funding pot, and another four bits to cover Waterloo Country as a whole. 

That would add up to five times the amount the Region has been asked to contribute. Let’s make the goal to at least match that amount with sponsorships and donations. So in total a cool million, which is about the price of an average house in Toronto.

The fund will be to encourage and facilitate other community groups to come up with other things for people to do while they’re here to see the Rolling Stones exhibit and/or visit friends and relatives in November, December and January

This will have to be done immediately, because November, December and January are not far away.

I recommend forming a jury of trusted community members, and paying them a fair amount to quickly set the criteria and then proceed to make decisions about how best to invest the money. 

The thing is, almost every extended family or friendship cohort must have at least a couple of Rollings Stones fans interested in seeing the relics. If we made the exhibit a homecoming event, people would come in more than just groups of two or three. And they’ll stay a few days longer if friends and family are part of what brings them here.

There are only so many hotel, motel and bed/breakfast rooms available in these parts. By opening our homes to friends and relatives, we could dramatically expand the region’s capacity for welcoming visitors. 

The ancillary attractions could be anything:

An off-season Oktoberfest session.

A Caribbean equivalent, featuring calypso, soca, salsa, reggae, reggaeton and zydeco instead of polka.

Special offers for symphony concerts already scheduled. Choral presentations.

Singalongs in churches: Beatles only; Rolling Stones only; Sound of Music; show tunes; ABBA; psalms and hymns.

A church organ extravaganza (2021 has been designated the Year of the Organ).

An arena-sized Art$Pay style show and sale.

A really big blues, Waterloo Country style, show.

A really big Country & Western, Waterloo Country style, show.

An immersive Celtic Real Life offering.

Poetry slams. Book fairs. Pow Wows. Talks. Lectures. Tastings. Guided walks.  

Art in the forum and the public space. 

Dancing in the streets, with boots, scarves and mitts. 

In contrast to the Culture Days formula, I recommend charging, even if it’s just a nominal amount, for every offering. 

There are roughly six months left to imagine, plan and get organized, and after that, another three months to invite friends and relatives to come and visit, and to get the house ready to receive them. 

Treat it as an experiment. Make notes while the adventure unfolds. Let our imaginations run off the leash for a few months with a view towards doing it again, on a bigger scale, with a more original and dynamic focal point, in 2022, 2023, 2024 … .  

Further to the Record’s View on Preston Springs

Answers, please, on Preston Springs demolitionWaterloo Region Record editorial January 8, 2021. 

Yes, answers please. 

We need answers that can help lay the ground for developing ways and means to prevent the same pattern from repeating over and over again.

The “hard questions” that need to be addressed are not the concern of “irate heritage advocates” alone. 

“Who is to blame?” is not the question to ask, especially not if it means assigning blame among City of Cambridge elected officials and civil servants. 

These kinds of failures are systemic. 

The blame belongs to all of us.  

For the most part, the Christmas Eve demolition order and what has taken place since then at the site where the Preston landmark stood for 132 years are irrelevant.

We give a City’s Chief Building Official authority for the same reason we have a Medical Officer of Health at the Region: to protect lives, and deal with emergency situations.

The decisions we charge them with making are not up for public debate, not even by mayors, chairs or councillors. There is no alternative but to trust them to do the best they can when a crisis arises. Later, such decisions can be analyzed, like the decisions of commanders in historic battles can be studied and debated.  

There is no doubt that the building was a danger to public safety. The fact is, it started becoming a danger to the public the moment renovation efforts were abandoned and the site was left unattended to weather the elements, and to withstand the inevitable mischief that neglected property attracts.

The “hard questions” we’re left with now that the Preston Springs Hotel has been destroyed have been with us all along. We, the public, not just heritage advocates, should have been demanding “answers, please” for going on 20 years now.

As an informed public voice with a duty to speak out, the Record’s editorial staff has been especially negligent here. The paper’s investigating and reporting staff should long have been, and could still be, deployed to finding the facts and telling the story.

If we’re serious about finding answers, we should look at the whole picture: Demolition on order from a civic authority after years of abandonment has become an all too familiar pattern. 

The investigation should include the loss of the Forsyth Shirt factory complex, the Mayfair Hotel and the former Electrohome factory on Shanley Street in Kitchener. 

It might be good to include an examination of some comparable situations where there were happier results, like the Old Post Office in Galt, the former Goudies department store in Kitchener, or, going back farther to one of the luckiest breaks this generally unfotunate city has ever received, the resurrection of the Walper Hotel years after being boarded up.    

It is not clear what kind of investigation is most likely to yield productive results: journalistic, professional, scholarly, or some combination of these. Certainly not forensic. It is doubtful an established heritage consultant from another city would be able to produce the best result. But I’m also not sure all the resources required could be sourced locally.

Whatever the format, the broader the engagement, the better the chance for success. We have to come to terms with the reality that no leadership, political, professional or entrepreneurial, can fix this kind of problem for us. It will require all the wisdom, knowledge, confidence and will we can muster as a city, a region, a province and a country.

To break the pattern, we need to deepen our understanding of all the factors, and then set out to break new ground. The effort must be grounded in reality, current and past, here in our neck of the woods. To break through, courage, especially for imagining possibilities, will be more important than gathering all the facts and adding up all the numbers.       

The situation here is unique, but the call for “answers, please” is not a Cambridge, Kitchener or Greater Waterloo challenge alone. The Record editorial describes the lost landmark as “one of southern Ontario’s most historic buildings.” Consequently, it is not just the Cambridge chapter, but Architectural Conservancy Ontario as whole and other provincial, national and international agencies that can and should help lead the way towards preventing failures on such a colossal scale.

It is also a challenge to Canada. Because this is such a young nation state, everything built before 1950 has historic value, and everything that remains from before the end of the Victorian era is precious beyond measure because it is scarce, and irreplaceable. 

The self-evident fact that “the greenest building is the one that already exists” adds a new dimension to architectural conservancy. 

If the story so far has been one of unspeakable devastation to the land and to the peoples who lived on it before settlers from points south and east took possession of it, all the more reason to start changing our ways and means. For this reason alone, we should have shown more respect for those timbers and bricks that got trucked off to the landfill last week.

For Waterloo, North and South, especially Preston, Cambridge, we have just lost, through our own negligence and incapacity, an inheritance that was as valuable to this community as the Chateau Laurier is to the City of Ottawa — more so, in relative terms, because the nation’s capital is so much richer in such assets than we are.

We here in Waterloo Country have an opportunity here to lead the way towards a breakthrough in the appreciation, conservation, daily maintenance, practical use, and happy enjoyment of cultural heritage assets in towns, cities, provinces and territories from coast to coast to coast.

Let’s seize that opportunity, do it right, and not waste valuable attention, time and energy hounding local civil servants and elected representatives for answers, and looking for someone to blame.