What’s in a Name

This is an index for an ongoing series of columns I’m writing for CultKW, “an independent online community developed by THEMUSEUM in downtown Kitchener that aims to facilitate discussion around the arts and culture in the Kitchener-Waterloo region and surrounding areas.”

The theme is “what’s in a name.” Taken together, these pieces represent a train of thoughts related to current discussions about the significance, and the suitability, of names such as Dundas, Waterloo, Kitchener, Victoria, even Canada.

These are musings, not contentions. The main point is that stories, including national stories and stories of shared identity, can be told in multiple ways without straying away from basic truth.

There is, however, serious intent. Part of the purpose is to come up with some answers to the question that arose after witnessing the Kitchener March for Black Lives Matter on June 3rd: “What can a poor boy do?”

The hope is that, by tinkering with familiar storylines, we may discover pattern variations that will open fresh possibilities for imagining how we’ll deal with the challenges and opportunities that lie immediately ahead.

May 06 I am Groot

May 20 Victoria Day | Museum Day 

June 03 Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter 

June 17 Dundas Street / Old Highway Two 

June 24a Waterloo Day

June 24b Waterloo, Waterloo, Waterloo

July 01a O Canada

July 01b The Canadas

July 08 Towns

July 15 Islands and Valleys

July 29 Kitchener I

September 2 Kitchener II: “Kitch”

September 16 Work

October 3 Company

October 17 Ontario

November 18 The Lion and the Lamb

Topics for projected posts planned for the immediate future include:

Ghost Names of Waterloo Co/R

Ontario Nation


Reflections on the Common Sense Revolution at the 25 Year + One Week Mark

File:Tree planting 001.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
image is from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Another Saturday night. I’m still in my lockdown coop. I want to finish my reflections on the Mike Harris years before another Sunday tempers my outrage.

The response to my June 8, 2020 Facebook post about the 25th anniversary of the Common Sense Revolution was encouraging. Lots of comments and shares.

One friend wrote that the real problem is “not … what has been done, but what has NOT been undone.” I agreed:

“The Liberal administrations that followed [the Harris-Eves era] left much of the toxic legacy of the Common Sense Revolution in place. The workfare scheme, the resentment generating “sunshine list”, the total demoralization of our educators, offloading costs to municipalities (i.e., property taxes), centralization and bureaucratization of the health care system, making an absolute shambles of local democracy in this province, privatization of long term care, riding roughshod over legacies, symbols and traditions: e.g. the King’s Highway, Loyal She Remains, peace, order and good government … the list goes on and on.

We’re not talking about past ills here. We’re talking about chronic ills, and the very real and present danger of relapse.”

Another friend commented: “this neo-con virus is as prevalent and as pernicious as the present pandemic. Calls for eternal vigilance and … Speaking truth to power and all that that implies.”

“‘Virus’ is an apt metaphor,” I replied.

“What emerged in the 1970s was a new strain of disease that began attacking the various bodies politic that we’re all part of.

This disease is virulently contagious, and deeply debilitating. The powerful are as infected as us ordinary folks, so there will be no help from that quarter. We haven’t been vigilant. We’re only beginning to become aware of what hit us.

An emerging awareness, however, is an indication that there is still a possibility that our bodies politic have an immune system that can fight the infection.

In this case, self-isolation is not part of avoiding infection or curing it. The remedy is working together, each by our own lights, in our own particular corner of the world. It is speaking the truth, but also living it, and putting it to work.

If you have a good heart, and you can see a glimmer of hope, you are an indication that our immune system is actively engaged in fighting the infection and restoring us to health.”

As you can tell, I get worked up about these things.

I got furious in 1995, and started speaking out in a way that I never had before. And hadn’t since — I went through the entire Stephen Harper decade without losing my cool even once — until April 25, 2019.

That’s when, on the eve of Ontario Arbour Week, Premier Doug Ford announced that his administration was cancelling a program that was in the process of planting 50 million trees.

In an instant all the rage I’d felt almost 24 years earlier came rushing back. And now, 59 weeks later, I remain committed to doing anything and everything I can to free my life, my city, my province and my country of the influence of the kind of diseased frame of mind that can make decisions like this.

It’s nothing personal. Mike Harris is long gone. Doug Ford is just a mascot. Andrew Scheer has become a pitiful figure. Stephen Harper is in the dust bin. Maxime Bernier came within a hair of being his successor, but his assault on our values was a total bust. Jason Kenney is squandering whatever modicum of credibility he has left with his recklessness. Donald Trump appears to be almost down for the count.

Let them all rest in ever lasting peace. It’s that toxic bundle of attitudes that have held sway on this continent for going on half a century that I want to help find a cure for.

There’s not even a proper name for it. What I mean is the attitudes and proclivities that characterize all those neo-con; neo-lib; earth ravaging; Kochist; rebel-yelling; anti-government; anti-federalist; anti-democratic; anti-republican; anti-Christian; blasphemous; hate mongering; fear, resentment and ignorance peddling hucksters, tempters and tricksters who were and are part of … let’s call it the Big Con for short.

Never mind the personalities. These are all people who have either been deceived, or who are practiced in the art of deception. Concentrate on the lies.

For the last 13 months, this has been my mission in late life.

Reflections on the Common Sense Revolution at the 25 Year Mark

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(this is based on a Facebook post from Monday, June 8, 2020)

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the day Mike Harris was elected as Premier of Ontario with a mandate to impose his “Common Sense Revolution” on our way of life.

I was going to post a comment about this being a day for “every Ontarian who has a modicum of decency and loyalty left to hang our heads in shame and grief, and then rise up to voice a solemn vow ‘never again'”.

That’s as far as I got before remembering that this was a Sunday, and such dark thoughts may not be appropriate on the Lord’s Day. So I’m posting this today as a Monday afterthought.

The motto “never again” probably needs some adjusting.

Two years ago Ontario forgot all about what transpired so long ago, and, for the first time since the end of Mike Harris era, elected another PCO government under the leadership of another “for the people” style standard bearer.

And it started to look like they were ready to pick up from where the “reign of terror” of the Harris era had left off by launching a kind of dictatorship in June 2018. This would be Napoleon began his rule making it clear that he had every intention to serve as the successor to the Robespierres of the Common Sense Revolution.

Thank goodness the people started voicing their disapproval; thank goodness people started booing our “premierissimo”, and thank goodness things started to quiet down.

Thank goodness, because if that hadn’t happened, Andrew Scheer would be Prime Minister right now, backed by that new-fangled, post-PCC political party controlled by true believers like Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney and others in solidarity with the the Fraser Institute / Manning Centre / Calgary School mindset.

“Never again” at this point means coming together in an omni-partisan effort dedicated to using every peaceful, lawful and honest means available to make sure that what began here 25 years ago remains in the dustbin of history, and not the harbinger of what will come to pass.

And there is a real danger that it will come to pass with a vengeance as early as the next provincial and federal elections.

Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter

This was written on the eve of the Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter in Kitchener, and published via CultKW.com on the day of: Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

This image is from the Fashion History Museum website; it’s related to the WARdrobe exhibit prepared in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is set to open as soon as it is safe to do so. It’s related to my column below because I’m proposing that, although the story of anglophone, francophone and allophone North America has many subplots, it is essentially a single narrative.

I was going to write something about museums for this top of the month of June column. Jonathan Walford and Kenn Norman of the Fashion History Museum in Hespeler, Cambridge,  were guests on our community radio magazine program on CKWR 98.5 last night, and they had all sorts of interesting news to share.  

But current developments have set me in a different direction. At 5pm today the Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter is happening in Kitchener’s venerable Victoria Park. That’s very close to where I live. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m ready to leave my coop just yet. I’m old, and have various vulnerabilities.

So what can this poor boy do instead? “ … [S]ing for a rock & roll band,” Mick Jagger mused at a time when people all over the world were fighting in the streets. I was still a teenager then. In 2020, all I can think of is maybe do a history lecture. Why not? (I wish I was in a band, though. This Groot never liked being a solo act). 

On Saturday, March 21, I was scheduled to give a talk at the 2020 United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination observance at Kitchener City Hall, a gift to the community that Gehan Sabry of Cross Cultures magazine has been putting together for many years. (She also does the Cross Cultures radio hour Saturday mornings on CKWR 98.5).

The lockdown started in earnest during the week leading up to the event. So my talk never happened.

Because I usually wait until the last minute on projects like this, I never finished my speaking notes. But I had a good idea of what I wanted to say, so when Gehan asked for a description, I was able to promptly scribble something down.

“I’d like to talk about causes and commitments,” I told her. “It was through happenstance, not conscious choice, that I became involved with arts, culture and heritage with a local/regional focus. So my bias is towards a personal, biographical approach, as opposed to rational ‘prioritization’ ’’.

That was putting it mildly. I am adamantly opposed to setting priorities for others to follow with regard to their personal causes and commitments. 

“However,” I went on in my talk description, “with a growing sense of urgency arising on so many fronts, especially over what is called the ‘climate emergency’, one is drawn towards re-examining long-held interests and preferences. I’m going to propose that convergence, rather than increased specialization, holds the most promise.”

In my talk, I would have taken the long view. I would have suggested that, although the story of anglophone, francophone and allophone North America has many subplots, it is essentially a single narrative for developments over more than five centuries on this continent, from Trinidad and the Mexican border to Nunavut; from Buena Vista to the redwood forest.

The story begins with alien invaders stealing land from men and women who had lived in harmony with place in the world for generation after generation, and then trying to drive them into oblivion. From there, they proceeded to steal other men and women from what had been their land and their people for generation after generation, and ship them here to this side of the Atlantic. Why? The aliens stole African women, children and men in order to possess, work, breed, and sell their bodies. 

My forebears, the sea-faring, sharp-dealing Nederlanders, played a particularly ignominious role in this woeful tale.

The talk would have mentioned 1619, when Africa in what is now the U.S. began. That’s a year before the Mayflower brought the Pilgrims, those radical Protestant separatists who “came out” of a kingdom and a church they considered corrupt beyond redemption in order to found a new, pure colony in the wilderness.

This November will mark the 400th anniversary of that sub-plot of the big story. (The quad-centennial of another key development, the beginning of England and France in our deep, deep south, i.e. the Caribbean, will happen in 2025).   

The plan was to talk up some history and some autobiography, and then tie it all together with the fundamental issue of humanity’s relationship to all lands and all seas, i.e. our earthly home. It would have included a reference to the “ALARM” exhibit that is currently running at THEMUSEUM. I even thought of asking CEO David Marskell if my talk might be a fit for the series of discussions planned in conjunction with this exhibit, now sadly shut off from public view.

But in the wake of what happened in Minneapolis last week, juxtaposed with news about that 21st-century Mayflower adventure called SpaceX, which proposes to “come out” of a defiled planet and set out on an errand into the wilderness on Mars, I’m going to have to make some major revisions to what I have to say.   

When I’m ready, I’ll let you know.

May 2-4 2020

(as originally published via CultKW)

A statue in front of a building

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photo courtesy of Cambridge photographer Vanessa Pejovic.

I am writing to you from what has been my perch, my coop for more than nine weeks now: from my apartment on the third floor of an industrial heritage building in the original part of downtown Kitchener.  

That’s the part of the city that goes back to when Kitchener was still Berlin, Canada; when Queen Victoria was on her throne, and when the sun never set on her domains. 

I hope your Victoria Day weekend was a joyous one.  

Victoria’s actual birthday – her 201st – is this Sunday, so this celebration opportunity is still open. 

Monday was damp and gloomy, so I have a mind to go up the street to her statue in her park and pay my respects later in the week, in a solitary, silent and properly masked for the pandemic kind of way.  

I love Victoria Day for all its quaint peculiarities. In her time, she was a global presence (check out this Wikipedia list of statues of her imperial majesty in locations worldwide). Today, Canada is the only place where Victoria and her long, long reign are still celebrated with a statutory holiday.  

Even though it has become an almost meaningless vestige of a time gone by, Victoria Day in Canada is part of what makes us distinct.  

It is worth noting, especially since it is THEMUSEUM that is hosting these musings, that this holiday Monday that just went by was also International Museum Day.  
The theme this year was “Museum for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion”.   

That Victorian Empire of old is not something we associate with equality; that’s a specialty of revolutionary France. In terms of diversity and broad inclusion, however, there has never been a political configuration that comes close to matching the cultural breadth and variety of that vast global empire we were once part of.  

The museum connection brings to mind the Record column I wrote for Victoria Day last year, which included a mention of a small exhibit dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria at the Fashion History Museum in Hespeler, Cambridge. 

The “Victoria 200” exhibit included one of Victoria’s personal garments — a linen chemise — on loan from the Jordan Historical Museum of the Twenty in the Town of Lincoln, out in Niagara. 

This year, of course, the Fashion History Museum and every other museum, gallery, theatre, concert hall, community art centre and library are shut tight. 

Writing as an arts advocate, I have to say something about how grave the current situation has become for organizations like the Fashion History Museum, and for people working in culture-related endeavours of all kinds. 

Things look worse with every passing day. We can no longer just hope for the best and wait for things to return to some semblance of normal. 

This is where another aspect of what Victoria Day signifies comes into the picture: May 2-4 in these parts is the culmination of a long arc of spring observances, from Groundhog Day to the vernal equinox through Earth Day, Arbour Week, Easter, May Day, Mothers Day, to now, when we can finally plant without fear of frost and begin the turn towards summer. 

More than any other time of the year, this is the season to honour and to treasure our earthly home. 

When we consider the future of museums, galleries, archives, libraries, and conservatories, and think about how music, theatre, dance, literary, visual arts, and media, new and old, will evolve, what we’re really thinking about is the future of work.  

And any way you look at it, in 2020 the future of work means finding ways to do things for one another in more sustainable ways — all 8 billion of us alive today around this globe where the sun is always rising and always setting.  

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.  

My Victoria Day 2020 wish is that we take advantage of this break from the normal and use the time to work on updating our conception of what prosperity means.  

My sense is, if culture-related work, culture-related exchange, the immeasurable value of arts-related production, and the ever-increasing riches of our shared cultural inheritance are not at the very centre of an evolved conception of true prosperity, the future starts to look hopeless and impoverished. 

Oktoberfest in May

The May Day signal went out in March: Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest is facing a serious crisis.

There is talk of major changes in the works, aimed, as Oktoberfest Executive Director Alfred Lowrick has said, towards making it “a more family-friendly festival that celebrates the region’s Germanic roots while better reflecting the diversity that’s come to represent the area.”

That sounds reasonable. The best approach, when dealing with a time-honoured entity like this, is one that is progressive, but also conservative:

Protect and preserve, but also adapt. Renovate as needed; build anew where it makes sense to do so, but always build on what exists.

Taking steps to better reflect this region’s diversity is sound advice. The fact is, our diversity can be traced to those German roots: We are the only major Canadian settler city area whose founding tradition is neither anglophone nor francophone.

Thanks to those German language roots, we have reasonable claim to be the birthplace and capital of allophone Canada. And a 21st century Grand River Country Oktoberfest can play a leading role in making such a claim.

To that end, here are nine points of advice:

Keep the German language and culture foremost, but broaden it to encompass the German-speaking world in the 21st century, both in the homelands — Germany, Austria, Switzerland — and throughout the diaspora.

It could even be all Germanic languages, including what anglophones call “Dutch”, which is my native tongue. And if we go that far, we might as well go all the way and make it allophone Canada in all its diversity.

Keep the role of the German clubs central — Concordia, Schwaben, Transylvania, Alpine, Hubertus Haus. A smart move would be to invite involvement from other cultural associations, especially those that own and operate their own places and spaces. There are dozens of them. All of them face challenges. They’re better off working together.

Keep the beer, the sausages and the sauerkraut. It’s high time, though, to move beyond the domestic beer duopoly and towards artisanal and legacy brewing, especially independent production here in Grand River country, but also the beers of the whole wide world.

That goes for artistry and tradition in fermenting and preserving as well. If local Koreans came forward to share the kimchi tradition, it wouldn’t diminish celebrating sauerkraut in any way. The enjoyment of bratwurst and frankfurter würstchen is fully compatible with an appreciation of chorizo, boerwors, sujuk, makanek, longganisa, sai oua, or alheira.

In a similar vein, strengthen the polka component, but complement it with offerings from comparable popular dance traditions from around the globe: rumba, flamenco, dabke, square, line, swing, jig, shuffle, … .

Say it’s the Levant group, representing people from the Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Kurdistan area, that steps forward to bring Dabke dance into Oktoberfest. Some polka people might take it up, but they can also stick to pure polka if that’s what they prefer.

Keep the harvest theme, but deepen the meaning to include celebrating

  • the Waterloo County food tradition;
  • holding the line to protect the farmlands of Greater Waterloo, and
  • giving thanks for the beauty and bounty of our earthly home.

Keep the downtown Kitchener base, but aim towards a festival that manifests an ascendant spirit of “Berlinnova,” as the visionary Kitchener artist Edward Schleimer advocates. There has been a renaissance bursting to emerge for decades now. A 21st century Oktoberfest can help this city to truly flourish in ways it hasn’t been able to since the tragedies of the First Great War.

Hold fast to October – all of it, not just a nine-day slice. Extol the glory of autumn in Southern Ontario, and throughout Great Lakes North America as a whole.

Put the maypole up on May Day. October was once the eighth month. The time to begin preparation for a great harvest festival is when the original new year turns — i.e., months 1, 2 and 3. That means right about now, as our spring planting holidays unfold: the original new year at the vernal equinox, Easter, Earth Day, Arbour Week, May Day, Mothers Day, and Victoria Day.

Make land acknowledgment an integral part of every aspect of planning a revitalized Oktoberfest.

There are many ways of saying that Kitchener’s Oktoberfest takes place on the traditional home of the Neutral (Attawandoron, or Chonnonton), Anishinaabe, and Haudenosaunee peoples.

It is a matter of fact that Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo are all built on the Haldimand Tract, the lands granted to the Six Nations from Upstate New York, refugees from the War that led to the separation of the United States.

Our community could lead the nation in developing a meaningful and distinct allophone Canadian dedication to honouring the promises and agreements with Indigenous peoples on which British and French North America were founded.