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.  

On the Sixth Day of Christmas, 2020

December 30

Happy Holidays; Merry Christmas; Fortunate New Year.

I know Christmas proper has come and gone, but a seasonal greeting should still be in order. I’ve been musing about possible extensions, adaptations and variations. A case can be made for spreading it out — taking the whole 12 days instead of concentrating on just one — especially this year.

Christmas, and the high holiday season in general, has been in austerity mode this time around. For some people, it didn’t feel like Christmas at all. By taking the whole 12 days or even longer, we’d be able to stretch what’s left for us to enjoy to the fullest. 

They’re called THE holidays because we take so much store by the string of celebrations that happen during what are the dark days of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere.

In places where Western European ways have been dominant, the heart of the holiday season is December 25. The big day is perceived as the apogee of a sequence of special observances, from Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en and the Winter Solstice, to New Years, Epiphany and Groundhog Day.   

It seems clear, however, that this dominance is being eclipsed by a more balanced way for the various cultures of 21st-century humanity to relate to one another. 

That’s an optimistic take on where we’re headed. A darker outlook is one that can’t imagine a world where some great empire or other doesn’t rule the waves, the lands and the skies. The conclusion becomes that the decline of Western dominance must lead to the rise of an Eastern world system, or maybe even a Southern one. 

The fact is, though, that the holidays as we know them are being steadily enriched with elements from additional celebrations, ancient and modern:  Samhain, Día de los Muertos, Diwali, Bodhi Day, Hanukkah, Kwaanza, Imbolc, Lunar (Chinese) New Year …  all the way to the original New Year: Nowruz, as celebrated around the first day of Spring in places along the Silk Roads, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.   

Beginning the year in March was the Roman, and therefore the original Western way: December is still named month ten, following month seven (Sept), eight (Octo) and nine (Novem). January and February are a kind of interlude: prologue to month one, and epilogue to the tenth. 

It will be interesting to see where all this leads. Will these new variations get absorbed to the mainstream? Could they help restore some depth and meaning to these celebrations? 

I’m using the word “restore” with some hesitation: The folly of trying to go “back” to any kind of imagined past has been made amply clear by the deluded longings of MAGA and Brexit advocates.  

The conventional holiday season in North America is the commercial Christmas, which began emerging going on 200 years ago. Two institutions that originated in the 19th century and thrived throughout most of the high modern era played leading roles in shaping Christmas as we know it: city newspapers and big local department stores.

Despite the excesses, mainstream Christmas has been a wholesome development: It helped settler communities on both sides of the border move beyond a rather grim puritanical bent. The holiday brought people from diverse backgrounds together through a relatively benign set of shared customs. It also played a role in developing modern prosperity, which, although we’re struggling to come to terms with the fact that it is unsustainable, has brought previously unimaginable comfort, security and wealth to a fortunate large minority of us humans.    

Television stations and shopping malls have helped keep mainstream forms alive for the last 70+ years, but they have not enriched Christmas culture in the same way newspapers and department stores did earlier. All I can think of are a few movies and TV specials that may stand the test of time, and the annual shopping frenzy on Black Friday and Boxing Day. 

The reason for this stagnation may be that these peak modern forms left little room for local adaptation or engagement. And now, these 20th-century systems are being eclipsed by new configurations that are even more remote from life on the ground in any particular place. 

The optimistic view is that, with commercial Christmas now almost totally within the domain of post-national, nowhere/anywhere corporate conglomerations, we’re left with a wide open field for adaptation and innovation. The powers that be may appear inevitable and invincible, but they’re actually spread extremely thin. Done the right way, efforts to improve balance and deepen meaning may meet with little resistance.

And there may never be a better time than the present, while we’re in the depths of the second wave of the pandemic, to try some things.

Taking the whole 12 days could be a good way to begin. We can make of them — six geese a-laying; seven swans a-swimming; eight maids a-milking, the works — what we hope and wish.


We could go even farther, and experiment with a kind of “Afterlude” that mirrors Advent: make it a full 40 days this time around rather than the traditional 12. 

This would take us almost to Chinese New Year, and, in some years, the beginning of the Easter cycle, both of which are aligned with phases of the moon. The holiday season as we’ve known it has a solar bias; it might be good to add some lunar elements. 

Matching the celestial with more of the terrestrial would also be timely: The angel chorus sang from on high, but their songs promise peace ON EARTH.

We could use this disruption in our routines to work on inventing or adapting ways to celebrate Christmas that could accelerate the development of a new kind of prosperity: ways to live, work, learn and associate that are more respectful of the planet and to all the creatures that live and grow on it than the kind of consumption mainstream Christmas has come to represent and promote in wealthy societies like ours. 

Christmas as we know it also has a pronounced Northern bias. Maybe we can join forces to persuade Santa Claus and his crew to move their operation to the South Pole for the next six months or so. These austerity measures must have wreaked havoc on Christmas as they’ve known it up there too, so there might be interest. 

If they agree, we can start getting ready for a celebration of the Winter holiday season in the Antipodes as the Northern Summer approaches.

Imagining a kind of anti-Christmas in July, with the “anti” signifying balance and completion, rather than conflict or opposition, could be a pleasant and rewarding way to spend the rest of the current holiday season, however long we wish it to be.

What would a one-time-only event, six months from now, dedicated to offsetting all that we’ve had to do without during this long, long time of cessation and isolation look like? 

Company

“Sammankomsten” (“The Meeting”), oil painting by Ester Almqvist, original at the Swedish National Museum. The painting was chosen by the UN as a motif for a stamp commemorating the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, paragraph 20: the Right of Assembly – Wikipedia

The question, beginning back in June in the wake of the Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter, remains: “What can a poor boy do”?

There is no end of things that can be done to make this beleaguered world a better place. And there is no shortage of “human resources” (what a repulsive term) to do the work: 7.94 billion of us and counting. 

Some of us are old or otherwise slowed for work; some are sick or otherwise incapacitated, and some are busy growing and learning, but that leaves what must be an inexhaustable reservoir of minds, hearts, hands, bodies, and imaginations to do what needs to be done.    

To get started, the best move for any one of us facing the question of what to do as an individual would be to start or join an association of some kind: a company.   

The fact is, there is almost nothing you or I can accomplish alone. Even a rock’n’roll band is an organization of sorts.

It doesn’t have to be official. You don’t always need a license, a charter, or corporate status. A secret sect, a personal cult or a street gang is a company of sorts.

But informal arrangements have limitations. Without rules, leadership is usually by force of character or personality. A formal organization with all the proper understandings in place can smooth processes, expand capabilities, and limit bullying.  

I’m inclined to agree with Margaret Thatcher: There is no such thing as “society.” Not as an abstraction, anyway, as utilized by social scientists, economists and the like.

Such categories tend to bypass, if not erase, many of the peculiarities of what humans do, alone or in company. The aim of social science is primarily mastery, whether for our own good or to fit us into some system or other. 

There may be no such thing as an actual, tangible “society” as such. There are, however, a breathtaking variety of what I’ll call organisms — collectivities that evolve out of particular circumstances in an unplanned and unpredictable manner. 

There is also an almost infinite variety of what I’m calling “companies” — collectivities that are willed into existence, for a purpose.   

Nations and peoples are primarily organisms, rather than willed associations. Who could ever have imagined a land of the Canadas or a United States of America as they exist today? But beyond recognized borders of their respective lands, they are largely imagined, and not inclusive: Not everyone within the boundaries belongs. 

Towns and cities are the most interesting organisms because they’re real. The limits might be vague, but they’re measurable: There are ways to determine the point where dense proximity ends. For the most part, a townsperson or city dweller belongs by simply being there.      

Companies are formed deliberately. Usually, the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “company” is a business organization dedicated to making deals or staking out territory for private gain. But there are so many other types of companies: lodges, clubs, congregations, denominations, faith groups, charities, political parties, coalitions, universities, colleges, schools, monastic orders, monasteries, guilds, unions, gangs, armies, militias, brigades, sport teams, sporting associations, libraries, galleries, choirs, orchestras, bands, theatre groups, dance groups, &c, &c  …. .

There are associations to preserve and conserve, and associations to disrupt and improve; associations to restrict and limit, and associations to open opportunities; associations to protect the established norm, and associations dedicated to overthrowing the existing order. 

It’s not quite so neat and tidy, of course. What is willed inevitably becomes systemic. Things get out of control. Systems become oppressive, exclusive or routine. Nevertheless, all the ways and means by which human beings do things are artificial — i.e. cultural. A large organism like a nation, a city, a movement or a major legacy corporation may be beyond anyone’s control, but they are all our doing nonetheless. 

Deliberate association may be the defining element of modern life — more definitive, I think, than that ever-shifting cluster of behaviours social science types abstract as “capitalism,” which, if and when it actually exists in any form, is more like an organism: unforeseen, unintended, out of control, but human nonetheless.  

Those original “companies” that played such a major role in creating the land of the Canadas as well as the settler republic down below were formed deliberately, for relatively simple purposes: to share the risk, but also the potential profit of foreign adventures: The London or Virginia Company, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Hudson Bay, Honourable East India, Company of One Hundred,  Dutch East India, Dutch West India, British West India, French West India, Danish West India — the list goes on and on. 

flag of the Hudson Bay Company

Atlantic European colonialism, and through it, much of the modern and contemporary world as we know it, began through the adventures of private, for profit corporate entities with exclusive rights and privileges established at the pleasure of, and for the benefit of, monarchs who were considered the embodiment of their respective realms and peoples. 

For the private investors, the purpose was to share risk on highly speculative adventures, to earn as much exchangeable currency as possible, and to shut out overlapping interests by securing exclusive rights, permissions and by making deals of various kinds.     

They were like guilds: associations designed, in part, to corner the market, and, ideally, eliminate it altogether. That has always remained the dominant pattern: Every for-profit corporation is a conspiracy against a free and open market. 

The charters that recognized and legalized their existence granted privileges and set limits. Ultimately, the aim was to enrich the realm under which the company operated, thereby rendering it more secure against rivals and enemies. 

The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild by Rembrandt, 1662- Wikipedia

The public aspect of chartered private companies remains part of the basic organizational landscape to this day. They are part of the order of things, and ostensibly are still allowed to exist in order to serve the public interest. The tendency, however, is to think of such entities as independent, dedicated to the will and the interests of those that have a share in it, and to equate this unintended and largely imagined independence with “freedom”.  

The end result is what might be called Kochism, which in its purest form means no bishop, no king, no nobility, no realm beyond private and shareholder holdings, no commons, no public other than a formless, abstract “society” or “market”to serve as a kind of corporate happy hunting and gathering ground, and ultimately, no government, and until then, as little government as possible.

Every kind of organized human activity, including roads, rails, airways, shipping lanes, schools, knowledge, information, analysis, prisons, police, military services, social services, hospitals, pharma, water, energy, housing, recreation, entertainment, sports, fitness, gaming, drugs/alcohol (provision, control and rehabilitation), is owned and operated by private or shareholder corporate entities.

But let’s set the big picture and the long view aside, for now.

Part of what I’m trying to get at here is the dominance of the private for profit corporation in how people think and imagine what can be done. 

“Non profit” usually signifies do-gooder groups engaged with benevolent work led by the privileged and the powerful. The general conception is that the charitable sector operates as a complement to the main order of business in the corporate world.

The fact is, for-purpose and public enterprise have been around for much longer than the modern limited liability, for-profit corporation, and have played a much greater role in the evolution of modern realities than is generally acknowledged. 

For-purpose enterprise is as significant as ever: If we take the latest, and maybe last, field of endeavour in which the United States has been dominant — the rise of digital technology — my guess is the organizational structures that made it all happen are the military; institutions of higher learning; tinkering by individuals or small groups, and for-private profit corporate enterprise, more or less in equal proportions.   

The fact is, the private interest, for-profit model is of limited utility if the purpose is to do something that could make the world a better place. 

Private and public interests can, at times, be harmonious, but those interests need to be meticulously and constantly attended. But because private interest corporate model is so dominant, combining for-profit and for-purpose is usually an unequal yoke.   

Because the quest is market dominance, exclusive territory, privileges, long term contracts, mergers, acquisitions, restrictive patents and copyrights, large for profit corporate organisms are in many ways antithetical to free and open enterprise. And yet, that’s where the attention and the action is, to the point where the model threatens to dominate all other forms of deliberate organized endeavour.

As the standard corporate model expands, for-purpose enterprise form and practice have been stagnant or in recession. The time is ripe for innovation and experimentation in this field, on its own terms, without confusing or conflating it with for-private profit corporate forms and practices.   

A large organism like a nation, a mass movement, a disruptive tech behemoth, or a dominant legacy corporation may be beyond our control, but they are all our doing nonetheless. They are not part of the natural order of things: People created them, and they exist for the good of their members, of the places where they are chartered to operate, and of humanity as a whole.

And whether its for profit, for good, or for fun, it is all business — i.e. busy-ness. 

The world as it exists today is, to a very large extent, our doing, and therefore our collective responsibility.

So “what can a poor boy do”  — in particular, an old white settler Canadian of Atlantic European origins with no professional, religious or political affiliations?

Well, a good way to begin might be to look for company, be good company, join good company, gather companions, or form companies for doing what needs to be done.

Rapper Michael “Killer Mike” Render was thinking along similar lines when he said, at a critical point in the Black Lives Matter awakening, that Black Americans could “have freedom in an instant” if they “plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize.”

In other words, the logical next step after a massive assembly, is to get organized. 

The right of assembly, as exercised by the Black Lives Matter March, and its corollary, freedom of association, are inseparable, and equally fundamental. 

In the U.S. Constitution, the right of assembly is part of the First Amendment, which, along with freedom of religion, speech and the press, mentions “the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It is significant, I think, that the primary association with the right to gather is the “peaceable” qualifier, and that it is paired with petitioning the government to correct an action. 

The Founding Fathers of the republic next door seem to have protests in mind, which is logical in a place born in protest — beseeching the government to remedy various grievances — and turning to armed revolution when their prayers to their sovereign were not answered.   

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifies both freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association, perhaps because there is a general sense here in the True North that it is safe to do so. 

In a revolutionary republic, these are dangerous concepts. In a federated state founded on the idea that, should a government get out of line with self-evident truths, people can and should rise up, dissolve the bonds of law and order, and allow a new order take charge. 

For a neo-loyalist, deeply attached and committed to Ontario, the nation, in the land of the Canadas, the true path is closer to a “thousand points of light”. That’s the idea that Peggy Noonan wrote up for George W. Bush, and that Donald Trump finds so baffling, but without equating the light to private, non-governmental, voluntary, unremunerated benevolence.  

We can shine in any way that promises the best result, alone or in company, including all together as citizens of a town, a city, a province, a nation, or a confederation. 

Because human beings are so diverse, 

and because true freedom means being able to pursue whatever each of us are called or inspired to do, 

and because no sociologist, political scientist, urban planner, economist or think tank can ever have all the answers, 

and because the powers that be and their defenders are armed with weapons of personal, widespread and mass destruction,

a scattered, peaceful, piecemeal, incremental, experimental, exploratory and respectful approach is far more likely to produce the best possible results, 

while a solidified, aggressive, disruptive, revolutionary, ideologically consistent effort is likely to fail, and bring death and destruction in its wake.

On the Statues in Baden

Here’s my 2 cents worth regarding the controversy over the Prime Ministers statues project in Baden. I’m writing here as someone who was outspokenly critical of the project when it was initially proposed for Victoria Park in Kitchener, but not for the reasons being raised today. I just thought it was tacky, derivative and unCanadian.

A shorter version of the text below was published in the New Hamburg Independent on July 22, 2020. Later that day, Wilmot council decided to move the controversial Sir John A. Macdonald statue from its current place, and to postpone any additional statues from being installed until next March at the the soonest.

Let’s shoulder the burden
and leave Sir John A. where he lies

The Prime Ministers statues project in Baden is dividing the community at a time when we should be coming together to get ready for the challenges ahead.

It is getting difficult to imagine a happy outcome. Suspending the project indefinitely, or curtailing it by removing the historical figure at the centre of the controversy, would in effect be killing it. A Prime Ministers Walk without Canada’s first political leader, the man who, more than any comparable figure, built this country, wouldn’t make any sense.

I have no interest in exonerating or condemning Sir John A.Macdonald. He left this mortal coil 129 years ago, and is therefore no longer capable of guilt, shame or remorse. He can never be any wiser, more compassionate, or more just than he was when he was alive; he cannot make amends, seek reconciliation, or serve the truth.

It is Canada itself that is on trial here. Sir John A. and his contemporaries set us on a road to tragedy. And it is we, the living, who remain capable of honouring truth and working towards justice.

We know better now, and from that we can take comfort, build hope and gather courage. Because we know better, and because we are alive, the responsibility for setting things right falls squarely on our shoulders.

Can the statues project be set on a more promising course? I’m wondering if something along these lines would be acceptable, to the project leaders and to those who want to destroy their work:

— Change the name from Prime Ministers Path to something like “outdoor museum” or “history garden.”

— Take steps to ensure that each visitor arrives by choice, and not by stumbling upon the installation.

— Minimize ties with the municipality.

— Shift the focus away from political leadership, and towards the full timeline from the beginnings of Canada as we know it in the crucible of empire, through her evolution as a modern nation state, to the present and into the future.

— Take a broader approach to the educational aspect. For the immediate future, make Truth & Reconciliation the main focus. Aim towards broad community engagement that invites people of all ages, all backgrounds, all convictions to actually doing history, i.e. broadening knowledge, deepening understanding, and telling the story anew in the light of the present.

— Acknowledge that at this juncture moving beyond a “whitewashed” telling of the Canadian story has become an urgent priority, and that the Prime Ministerial focus may be a hindrance for this kind of work.

— Acknowledge that your inspiration to do something fun and exciting with traditional historical statues came at the worst possible time.

But if you can, stay inspired. Explore ways to regain trust, and get permission to continue.

To that end, consider an offer to cover all the statues in a coat of white paint, with a pledge not to reveal the monumental brass underneath until it is abundantly clear that the people of Wilmot, of Greater Waterloo, and of Canada are resolutely on the road towards Truth and Reconciliation.

If that’s not acceptable, try something else. Once it is clear that trust has been restored, finish what you started: Install the four statues that are ready to go, and mark the places where the other 13 will stand when the time comes.

There are so many things wrong with this project, but that could become a strength. With adjustments based on learning from how the community has reacted, it could still end up being of great service to each and every one of us as we consider our roles as active and informed citizens within the three spheres of Canadian democracy: federal, provincial and municipal.