Friday, June 23, 2017

Meet the Inuit activist who made climate change a human rights issue


In December 2005, Inuit author and activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier launched the world’s first legal action on climate change when she presented a 167-page petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Signed by sixty-two Inuit elders and hunters, it charged that unchecked emission of greenhouse gases from the United States had violated Inuit cultural and environmental rights as guaranteed by the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.
Watt-Cloutier changed the world by making climate change a human rights issue. So I argued, rightly I think, in 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. I had organized my Outstanding 50, all born in the twentieth century, into six broadly inclusive groups. Watt-Cloutier I profiled as primarily an activist. In presenting the petition, she  drew on an exhaustive Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) prepared over four years by 300 scientists from fifteen countries. It attested that the Arctic is experiencing some of the most rapid climate change on earth. It predicted that the change would accelerate and produce major physical, ecological, social, and economic consequences, and that these would lead to worldwide global warming and rising sea levels. Some marine species would face extinction, and the disappearance of sea ice would disrupt and might destroy the Inuit’s hunting- and food-sharing culture.
 Identifying the Inuit as “the early warning system for the entire planet,” Watt-Cloutier put a human face on the facts, figures, and graphs. “Climate change affects every facet of Inuit life,” she said. “We have a right to life, health, security, land use, subsistence and culture. These issues are the real politics of climate change.” In 2008, when Time magazine hailed her as one of a handful of “Heroes of the Environment,” Watt-Cloutier said: “Most people can’t relate to the science, to the economics, and to the technical aspects of climate change. But they can certainly connect to the human aspect.” Her aim is to “move the issue from the head to the heart.”
The following year, while accepting an honorary doctor of laws from the University of Alberta, Watt-Cloutier reviewed how the Inuit “have weathered the storm of modernization remarkably well, moving from an almost entirely traditional way of life to adopting ‘modern’ innovations all within the past sixty or seventy years.” But rapid changes and traumas “deeply wounded and dispirited many,” she said, “and translated into a ‘collective pain’ for families and communities. Substance abuse, health problems, and the loss of so many of our people to suicide have resulted.”
Through all this, the Inuit drew strength from “our land, our predictable environment and climate, and the wisdom our hunters and elders gained over millennia to help us adapt.” Now, however, climate change has made the environment unreliable and capricious: “Just as we start to come out the other side of the first wave of tumultuous change, there is yet a second wave coming at us. We face dangerously unpredictable weather, unpredictable conditions of our ice and snow, extreme erosion, and an invasion of new species. These changes threaten to erase the memory of who we are, where we have come from, and all that we wish to be.”
Writing in 2012, I added a lot more. But obviously, I could not include anything from The Right to be Cold, a national bestseller Watt-Cloutier published in 2015. Seems to me that, along with 50 Canadians, we all should have that book on our bedside tables. 

How did Canada become multicultural, multi-racial, multi-national?

"Most developed countries tolerate plural identities. But what they struggle to accommodate, Canada embraces and proclaims." So I wrote four years too early. "This is partly the result of necessity: ours is a country of minorities. But it derives also from historical timing."
In the introduction to 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, published by HarperCollins Canada in 2013, I then clarified and elaborated. The original thirteen colonies of the United States of America adopted a constitution in 1787. Inevitably, that document reflected eighteenth-century ideas about the nation state: one nation, one state, one national identity.
As a result, the United States became proudly one and indivisible, and it fought a civil war to stay that way. Citizens of the U.S. have a single, over-riding identity: they are Americans. Canada, by comparison, did not even begin to emerge as a state until late in the nineteenth century. The country reached a political milestone in 1867 with Confederation. But even then Canada remained subject to the British North America Act, a document that Britain could repeal at any time.
Only in 1982, under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, did this country gain control of its own constitution. By then, Canada was too complex to fit into an eighteenth-century constitutional mould. Trudeau recognized that the country had become pluralistic: regional, multicultural, multi-racial, multi-national.
But wait!  I'm sparing you quotation marks, but I'm drawing from the book. And 50 Canadians Who Changed the World can still be found in better bookstores, among them Chapters-Indigo (which carries the paperback online at this link.) So maybe the timing is right for a few quick hits from the book. In the introduction, I continued:
Trudeau realized that, as a pluralistic state, Canada could become “a brilliant prototype” for the civilization of tomorrow. He convinced Canadians to reject the ethnocentric model (one nation, one state) championed by Quebecois nationalists -- and adopted in the 1700s by Americans -- and recognize that freedom is most secure when two or more nations co-exist within a single state. This pluralistic vision, rendered into reality by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, makes Canada unique among developed nations. That reality means individuals have room to grow, no matter their roots, no matter their complexities. It explains why so many Canadians have changed the world.
It also explains why, instead of arguing ideas, I decided to focus on individuals. That, I reasoned, is where the stories are. I quickly discovered a multitude of extraordinary individuals -- far too many. And so I adopted two basic criteria. First, because I hoped to paint a portrait of contemporary, cutting-edge Canada, I confined my selections to Canadians born in the twentieth century. This meant excluding remarkable figures from an earlier era, but opened up space for those changing the world today. Second, I wanted to focus on Canadians who have made a difference globally. This ruled out people who have worked miracles here at home, but have had little impact in the great wide world. A third criterion emerged as I wrote. 
But I'll produce examples as we approach Canada Day.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Scottish front pages highlight wet, rocky path through Brexit forest



Our guidebook described the hike to Steall Falls as "a pleasant walk with good views of the river." It did concede that the "grass/stone path can be slippery when wet." But as the rain came down, and we found ourselves scrambling up and down a rough, rocky trail that winds through a forest, we realized that we were struggling through the perfect metaphor for Scotland's post-election trauma. 
Which way to turn? What do the signs say? Judging from today's front pages, they aren't easy to read. The 
Scotsman tells us: "SNP admit independence / lost them election seats." But The Inverness Press & Journal delivers a counter-spin: "‘Brexit disaster will boost independence.’"
The Scottish Daily Mail declares: "Tories turn on Theresa." But the Scottish Daily Express claims: "Sturgeon on the Retreat."
The Daily Record tries hard for exhaustive clarity: "The Fate of May // Heaven help us/ because she can’t." But then it delivers the worst pun of the day: "Elephant Indy Room."
The good news is that we kept slogging and saw some spectacular sights. Not only that: as we arrived back at the car park, the sun came out. Visibility? All clear. Full speed ahead.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Smaller than the Crystal Serenity, yet too big for a Scottish port

As we approached Oban on the ferry from Barra, I mistook this ship for the Crystal Serenity, which is slated to sail through the Northwest Passage later this year. But no. It's the MV Artania, which was anchored offshore because it is too big to enter the port. This particular Motorized Vessel is 231 metres long and weights 44,348 tons. The Crystal Serenity is larger still, at 250 metres and 68,000 tons. Oban is a port city of 8,575 people, and is designed to handle great numbers of visitors. The Serenity, which carries more than 1,000 passengers, is slated to put in at Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, population 1,766. You do the math. I whole-heartedly support adventure tourism in the Arctic. It brings money to Nunavut, and also increases awareness of northern issues. But these numbers? The smart move might be to control ship size by limiting the number of passengers per voyage to maybe 250. Just a thought.


Monday, June 5, 2017

The 'most hated man in Scotland' is killing my buzz in the Islands

In the mid-19th century, he was “the most hated man in Scotland.” For sure he had competition, but Colonel John Gordon lived in a fabulous castle (see below) and was also known as Scotland’s “richest commoner.”  Here in the Highlands and Islands, Gordon’s ghost has been killing my buzz. That’s not because he was wealthy, but because he stayed that way by ruthlessly squeezing the lifeblood out of poor crofters eking out a living on his massive estates – among them, as of 1838, the entire island of Barra.
Today, we visited the scene of some of Gordon’s handiwork – an archaeological site called Balnabodach (above). You won’t find it in the usual guidebooks, or even on most maps, and good luck working with google. But after making one false downward-scramble off the eastern side of the one-lane highway that encircles Barra, and getting turned back by marshy ground, we tried again and managed to reach it.
People have lived in this location for centuries. But at Scotland’s first census, in 1841, Balnabadoch was home to eight households and twenty-six people.  They lived in typical Barra blackhouses, which had thick walls and single doors in one long side.  Families lived on the earth floor, and cooked and slept around the fireplace at one end.

In 1851, with the potato famine wreaking havoc, killing two islanders and, less acceptably, reducing the Colonel’s income, Gordon decided to solve the problem by evicting crofters and shipping them to Canada. He sent men here to Balnabadoch, where they forced farm families onto small boats that transported them to a ship waiting at Lochboisdale. According to oral tradition, one young woman was milking the family cow when Gordon’s agents hauled her off with nothing but the clothes on her back. By the time the ship reached Quebec, well, that is a subject for another day.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Stumbling across a Highland Clearance site is my idea of a good time

Did I mention my interest in Scottish-Canadian connections? Today we stumbled on the ruins of a tacksman’s house in Upper Bornish Clearance Village. This brought us face to face with a well-documented Highland Clearance that sent thousands to Canada. We were rambling around on South Uist, roughly ten kilometres north of Lochboisdale, where the ferry arrives from Oban. At the Kildonan Museum, after visiting the nearby birthplace of Flora Macdonald, we had picked up an archaeological guide pointing the way to notable ruins. It spoke rather grandly of a “Kildonan Trail,” but we found ourselves beating across pathless, marshy ground to the ruins of this little known village.
In the 18th century, the guidebook told us, Upper Bornish comprised half a dozen households, the people living mostly “in long houses shared at times with livestock.” The tacksman among them, the senior tenant, was the only one who could afford a separate byre for sheep and cattle. Decades came and went, people lived and died, and in August 1851, the poor farmers whose ancestors had toiled here for centuries were among those commanded to attend a public meeting at Lochboisdale, where a sailing ship called the Admiral stood at anchor.
According to an eyewitness, many of the people “were seized and, in spite of their entreaties, sent on board the transports.” The next morning, the writer adds, “we were suddenly awakened by the screams of a young female who had been re-captured in an adjoining house, she having escaped after her first capture. We all rushed to the door, and saw the broken-hearted creature, with dishevelled hair and swollen face, dragged away by two constables and a ground [local] officer.”
Those constables caught twenty more people who had fled into the hills and carried them aboard the Admiral, “in consequence of which four families at least have been divided, some having come in the ships to Quebec, while the other members of the same families are left in the Highlands.” This brutal incident was part of an extended clearance that saw roughly 2,000 people evicted from the Outer Hebrides. Those who survived the weeks-long voyage arrived destitute in Quebec, and most of them, assisted by previous arrivals, made their way to Upper Canada.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bonnie Prince Charlie points the way forward for the 21st century

They call this The Prince’s Shore. It’s on the tiny island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides, linked to South Uist by a two-lane causeway and to the Isle of Barra by ferry. This is where, on July 23, 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil. A hubristic twit with an astonishing sense of entitlement, the prince had sailed from France, where he had been born and raised, to claim the kingship of Scotland, which he believed to be rightfully his.
Soon after landing on this beach, and over-riding the sage advice of more than one Scottish chieftain – “Go back to France, you daft bastard!” – the prince set about enlisting troops. He raised just enough of them to launch an ill-conceived assault on Scotland’s far more powerful neighbour to the south. This Big Mistake led directly to the calamitous Battle of Culloden, complete with atrocities, and then to the Highland Clearances – in short, to 150 years of unmitigated disaster for Scotland.
If I were a Time Lord, I would confront the Bonnie Prince on this beach in 1745. Back to France I would send him, dead or alive. No Culloden, no Clearances. We're talking a completely different narrative. In the real world, the students of Eriskay School built this cairn in 1995, overlooking the location of the prince’s arrival. And in 2017, we hiked to this spot along a sandy beach, Sheena and I, and stood looking out, imagining what might have been. And reflecting: stop one man early enough and you change history.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A cairn marks site of the most famous of all Highland Clearances


The pointing arrow said 3.2 kilometres. Already we had driven 5.7 kilometres along a winding, pot-holed, one-lane road that hugged the side of the small mountain. Happily, we had encountered no vehicles, no cyclists -- in fact, nothing but recalcitrant sheep who frequently stood defiant in the middle of the road until we beeped our horn. We were on the tiny island of Raasay, which is situated between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland. Our destination was Hallaig, one of the best-known sites in the history of the Highland Clearances. It is famous because the 20th-century poet Sorley MacLean, arguably the greatest who wrote in Gaelic, gave the name "Hallaig" to his most celebrated poem. He was born in this place, once a thriving settlement, now a ruin, a jumble of rocks. Once out of the car, we followed a dirt track slowly upwards for what seemed longer than 3.2 kilometres. At last we reached the cairn created in memory of MacLean, "the people of Hallaig and other cleared crofting townships." On the cairn, you can read the poem in Gaelic or in English translation by Seamus Heaney. To me, it is reminiscent of Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas: "Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood/ There's a board nailed across the window/ I looked through to see the west / And my love is a birch forever . . . .

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Spontaneous dash to Orkney produces lost images and a whirlwind tour

We made a spontaneous dash to Orkney to visit Tom and Rhonda Muir. Then we contrived to banish them to the wrong camera (hence no pix of them!) and ended up with shots of a hotel, a statue and a charming young couple on the steps of a classic edifice in urgent need of refurbishment (see my previous blog posts re: fund-raising campaign). We stopped in to say hello to the owner, Ivan Craigie, and whoosh! back I flashed to 1998, my first visit to Orkney, and Ivan inviting me to ride the back of his tractor to cross the rough field to the water where as a boy, in a "noust," John Rae stored his boat. What a time we had -- not just then, but today, zooming around on a Tom-led tour of cottages, beautifully restored, dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, all in aid of a crash-course on the history of the Clearances in Orkney. Except for Tom, who even knew they happened?


Friday, May 26, 2017

Dunrobin Castle is the most politically incorrect edifice in the UK



Here we have the splendiferous Dunrobin Castle, the most politically incorrect edifice in all of the United Kingdom. In the early to mid-1800s, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland ordered (though they did not personally orchestrate) the infamous Sutherland Clearances. This entailed forcibly evicting thousands of tenant farmers from the lands of their forefathers. Many of those driven from their modest crofts settled eventually in Canada. A few miles north of Dunrobin, at a coastal town called Helmsdale, we find a statue, The Emigrants,
commemorating those who fled to Canada -- a monument endlessly appealing to photographers. An identical statue is situated in Winnipeg, where it is called The Selkirk Settlers. Yes, this is the same doubling phenomenon that occurred with the iconic statue of Robert the Bruce on his horse -- one copy in Scotland, another in Calgary, Alberta.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Rambling around Scottish Highlands? Canada is always in your face

Here we have the church at Kildonan, Scotland, in the heart of the Highlands. Most of the Selkirk settlers who emigrated to the Red River Settlement in Canada in 1812 and 1813 had attended this church. Among those who sailed to Churchill, Manitoba, was George Bannerman, a great-grandfather of once-prime minister John Diefenbaker.  In 1968, Diefenbaker journeyed here and unveiled a plaque on the church in memory of Bannerman and "all the Selkirk settlers from Kildonan." It's a modest plaque on the wall to the right in this photo. And it is just one of many links connecting Scotland and Canada. Presto! Below we discover a second. In the early 1800s,
George Simpson, later the "little emperor" who served as governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, went to school on the ground floor of this edifice in the heart of Dingwall. A bastard "both by birth and by persuasion," as Peter C. Newman once observed, Simpson lived in the flat on the second floor with his uncle and his cousin, Thomas Simpson. After he grew up, Thomas joined his older cousin in the HBC, but then came to a bad end.  I've written about that here and there.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

John Rae Centre will celebrate Orkney, the Arctic, and the Inuit

I do love this image created by Orcadian photographer James Grieve. He has combined photos of the Stromness statue of explorer John Rae and the Hall of Clestrain, where Rae was born in 1813. Having visited the Hall a few times over the years, I still most vividly remember the first time, in 1998, when the building was in rougher shape and Orcadians were just beginning their long struggle to restore the landmark edifice to its original splendour. In 2013, this initiative gained impetus with the formation of the John Rae Society. The Society is bent on turning the Hall into a John Rae Centre celebrating the links between Orkney, the Canadian Arctic, and John Rae's Inuit and First Nations allies. OK, I may have mentioned this once or twice. But those just discovering Rae might enjoy reading about when the Society purchased the Hall or the unveiling of the National Commemorative Plaque, or look, here's an Open Letter to the Explorer on His Birthday.  A more comprehensive narrative is coming in September, when HarperCollins Canada publishes Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage. Meanwhile, to achieve its objective, the John Rae Society has launched a Go Fund Me campaign. Turn the Hall of Clestrain into a John Rae Centre? All I can say is YES!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Creative nonfiction workshop is coming to U of T in July

So on the left we see the image that accompanies my all-time, second-most- popular blog posting: The night Leonard Cohen taught me that Magic Is Alive. And you know how some people can't get over their own jokes? I still find this one pretty funny: 'Obscure' Canadian writer declines to don kilt for CTV appearance. My all-time greatest hit? That would be this puppy: Let's invite Scotland to join Canada. 
All this is by way of announcing my intensive, week-long, narrative nonfiction workshop at the University of Toronto. Hey, best to have some idea of what you're up against. So here we are again, all good to go starting July 10 as part of the Summer Writing School.  I do ask for submissions (up to 1,500 words) so we can hit the ground running. Below, we find a nutshell description and an image of the official "me." Dr. Jekyll. We do have a good time. And I do believe that this workshop can move you forward. Click here for an official rendition. And come on down! 
Meanwhile, here's that nutshell description: Anyone looking for today's most exciting writing should check out Narrative Non-Fiction, an emerging genre in which writers apply literary techniques to factual narrative. This course will orient writers within the genre, which includes both personal streams (memoir, autobiography, travelogue) and impersonal ones (true-crime writing, biography, historical narrative, immersion reporting). The workshop focuses on craft, and will include lectures, discussions, exercises, and workshopping student writing.
You have to register before submitting material.  Please submit a story--maximum 1,500 words. 
Note:  these pieces will be uploaded so that students can read each other's work before the start of the course.
Required Textbook: The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda, ISBN-13: 978-0684846309--available at the U of T Bookstore.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Blast from the past (1985): Atwood talks about The Handmaid's Tale

Wow, three decades and change: whoosh! Where did those 32 years go? Back in 1985, when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale, I interviewed her and wrote as follows. . . . then included the piece in Canada's Undeclared War: Fighting Words from the Literary Trenches.

Call it "a feminist 1984" and Margaret Atwood won't argue. But she describes the novel as "a female Clockwork Orange." The Handmaid's Tale is "not science fiction in the usual sense," Atwood said. "It doesn't have spaceships or trips to Mars. But it is speculative fiction."
Like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or Woman On The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy, it belongs "to a long tradition of utopias—although in the 20th century, the vision is much bleaker and utopias have become dystopias."
While writing The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood was "very conscious" of this tradition, which began in the 16th century with Sir Thomas More's Utopia and includes Samuel Butler's classic Erewhon.
During the 1960s, when she was a graduate student at Harvard, Atwood studied the 19th century intensely "and a lot of utopias were written then."
Born in 1939, Atwood is widely regarded as the pre-eminent Canadian author of her generation. She has published fiction, criticism and poetry, and her works include The Edible Woman, Power Politics, Surfacing, Survival, Lady Oracle, Life Before Man and Bodily Harm.
Has her work become increasingly political?
Atwood resists the idea. She long ago defined politics as "who does what to whom"—that definition appears again in The Handmaid's Tale—and insists that all her works are political. "Survival was a very political book," she said in a telephone interview from Toronto. "But so was Edible Woman. It all depends on your focus."
"It isn't true that the novel is not a political form," she said. The genre "has gone through occasional periods of privatism, but it has also been used throughout the ages for social comment." To an Irishman, even the supremely detached James Joyce was politi­cal, Atwood said. And British novelist D.H. Lawrence, the high priest of love, was "very class-oriented."
In Canada, Rudy Wiebe has explored the politics of Indians and Mennonites, and Mordecai Richler writes "very, very pointed social satire." The Quebec novel has always been politically engaged.
"The world is getting more explicitly political," Atwood said. "It's no longer possible for us to live only in our private lives. We can't exist in that exclusively personal world anymore."
Set in the near future, The Handmaid's Tale "is an extrapolation of present trends," she said. "It's set in the U.S. partly because I lived there for four years, but also because trends happen there first. Here in Canada, we don't see the structure. We're too cautious, too egalitarian."
The effects of pollution, for example, "are having an impact on the birth rate right now," Atwood said. "And it's going to lead to a situation such as the one I describe."
The Handmaid's Tale, however, is "as much about the past as about the present," she said. "There's nothing in it that hasn't actually happened somewhere. Polygamy? Check out the Mormon Church. Public hangings? They were standard in the 19th century."
Atwood got the idea for the novel in 1981. She spent one year "actively writing it" in three different places—West Berlin, Toronto and Alabama. The book's title recalls The Canterbury Tales and so pays subtle homage to Geoffrey Chaucer. But it alludes mainly to the Bible, in which handmaids are described as bearing children for their mistresses.
Of the 12 tribes of Israel fathered by Jacob, Atwood said, eight came from children born to his wives, and four from those born to their hand­maids. One of her novel's three epigraphs is taken from Genesis, where Rachel says to Jacob: "Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her."
Atwood chose, as her first-person narrator, a new-age handmaid. This young woman has been re-educated, and her job, her sole function, is to bear a child for her "commander." To this end, she is stringently controlled and kept ignorant of the world around her.
"I wanted to work with a single person who was part of the society, and see how much I could tell through that person," Atwood said. "When you're unable to read, it's very hard to know what's going on."

Sunday, April 30, 2017

50 Canadians Who Changed the World: this really happened!

Hard to believe that four years have passed since we boarded a west-bound train called The Canadian in Toronto. We were celebrating 50 Canadians Who Changed the World – both the book and the individuals so designated, most of whom are alive and thriving -- by following in the tracks of those who linked this nation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. We called this endeavor The VIA-Rail, Cross-Canada, Ocean-to-Ocean, Book-Tour Extravaganza.
Faithful readers of this blog (hi, mom!) will know that Our Hero made stops in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Canmore, Banff, and Jasper. After enduring many hardships and overcoming countless obstacles (ahem), he reached Vancouver, made his way to English Bay and, carrying a copy of his new book (which paints a vivid portrait of cutting-edge Canada, if I do say so myself), waded into the Pacific Ocean.
Then came the second leg of the train journey, traveling on VIA-Rail’s “Ocean”: Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax. One afternoon, acting on the advice of locals, and assisted by a trio of volunteers, Our Hero made his way to Point Pleasant Park. There, despite a steady rain and a rocky shoreline that would have deterred a less intrepid author, he waded into the Atlantic Ocean, thus accomplishing his declared objective: ocean-to-ocean.  He was tempted to build a cairn, but decided to wait until he next visited the third ocean.
Of those I wrote about in this book, let's see. Sheila Watt-Cloutier has since published a bestseller called The Right to be Cold. Naomi Klein is preparing to launch a new book, No is Not Enough, in which she argues that Trump is extreme . . . but not a Martian. And Leonard Cohen has left the building. You know he would want us to party on!
(Pix by Sheena Fraser McGoogan)