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? 


“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.

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.