Issues

October 2011

Re: “Has the Centre Vanished?,” by Stephen Clarkson

I can feel Stephen Clarkson’s pain. He has spent much of his adult life writing about the Liberal Party of Canada, and it’s fallen into third place, not just in Canada, but even in Toronto. Clarkson’s Trudeau and Our Times won a Governor General’s award. He borrowed a phrase from the Hell’s Angels when he wrote another book on the Liberals, The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics, which described in detail how they beat up Bob Stanfield, Joe Clark, Kim Campbell, Jean Charest, Preston Manning and Stockwell Day. But now the Big Red Machine lies in the ditch, having been sideswiped by a Bigger, Badder Blue Machine. It’s all very sad.

Even sadder is the effect of melancholia on Clarkson’s vision. He sees Stephen Harper as a dangerous reactionary, bent on dismantling all the wonderful achievements of the old Liberal consensus; but other observers see that Harper bought into the Liberal consensus as the price of achieving power. Henry of Navarre famously said, “Paris is worth a mass,” as he converted to Catholicism to become King Henry IV of France. Harper has not only gone to mass; he has said rosaries and novenas on his way to majority government.

Harper has adopted the Liberal shibboleths of bilingualism and multiculturalism. He has no plans to reintroduce capital punishment, criminalize abortion, repeal gay marriage or repeal the Charter. He swears allegiance to the Canada Health Act. He has enriched equalization payments for the provinces and pogey for individuals. He has enthusiastically accepted government subsidies to business, while enlarging regional economic expansion. He now advocates Keynesian deficit spending and government bailouts of failing corporations, at least part of the time.

Yes, he has terminated a few Liberal programs, but government programs are not immortal. If you win a democratic election, you get the right to govern, which sometimes means making changes. Yes, Harper is talking about budget cuts, though far more modest than those inflicted by Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin in the mid 1990s. And yes, Harper plays hardball politics in order to survive, but he’s still way behind the Shawinigan Strangler, who shut down the Somalia inquiry, obfuscated the Auberge Grand-Mère affair and stonewalled in the face of scandal after scandal. Clarkson should take a Valium, throw away old Liberal talking points and realize that the Liberal consensus lives on. It’s just under new management.

Tom Flanagan
Calgary, Alberta


Studying the tea leaves of the vote in the May 11 election in which the Liberal vote collapsed, Stephen Clarkson suggests the centre in Canadian politics has disappeared. May I suggest a different interpretation: it is the Left that has disappeared. The NDP had began life as the CCF, which was a democratic socialist party. Becoming the NDP, it transformed itself into a social democratic party. For some years before Jack Layton it had been edging into the centre, competing with the Liberals. In the recent election in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper ran one of the most dishonest campaigns in memory, he focused and succeeded in destroying the inept and inexperienced Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff. No ideologue, Layton seized the opportunity to occupy the centre. It remains to be seen if the Liberals will join the NDP in the centre, or, as Harper no doubt hopes, reopen the battle with the NDP and so split the centre vote.

Anthony Westell
Toronto, Ontario


Re: “Enough Talk,” by Tasha Kheiriddin

Tasha Kheiriddin offers an engaging review of First Nations Gaming in Canada, a welcome publication in a field that has received little serious attention. But the view that gaming in First Nation communities is “unregulated” deserves a closer look. It seems to betray an assumption that First Nations are people without laws or governments, perhaps even incapable of governance.

In fact, First Nations are quite capable of making laws and policy choices on gaming. Like other governments, they are faced with tough decisions. Should we host a gaming facility? What regulations will maximize safety, fairness and other public goals? How can we obtain a share of the economic benefits of the gaming industry, and how should those benefits be used? How can we address the social impacts on our citizens, especially from problem gambling? First Nations Gaming in Canada is a useful resource on these topics. It speaks to both pros and cons of gaming, and the complexities of analyzing them.

The Kahnawake Gaming Commission, profiled in chapters 2 and 3, is an example of successful regulation of gaming by a First Nation. In 1996, the Kahnawake community near Montreal decided to establish the commission and passed the Kahnawake Gaming Law. Since then, Kahnawake has become a major host and licensing authority in online gaming. Not only has this project been profitable for the community, the gaming law and regulations were upheld and applied by the Quebec Superior Court in Horne c. Kahnawake Gaming Commission (KGC), 2007 QCCS 4897, a case brought (and lost) by a rejected licence applicant.

While Kahnawake operates independently, it is important to remember that in the wide majority of cases where First Nations are hosting gaming activities, they are doing so in collaboration with provinces, and they are regulated not only by their own laws but by provincial and federal laws too. The idea that First Nations are dens of unrestricted gambling while the rest of us keep to loftier pursuits is deeply patronizing and completely false. All of the provincial governments have chosen to open their doors to the gaming industry.

A major constraint for First Nation governments, however, is the oppressive economic and political context in which they are forced to make such choices. Most First Nations are deprived of any meaningful control over natural resources and other revenue, and their ability to make their own decisions is endlessly questioned. As a result, they have limited options at their disposal to advance community development. Decisions about gaming need to be understood in this context.

But this context can change, and I agree with Kheiriddin that change is overdue. Let’s start with a little less weight on First Nations’ backs from those who would tell them what’s best for them.

Judith Rae, J.D., M.S.W.
Toronto, Ontario


In her review of First Nations Gaming in Canada, Tasha Kheiriddin’s assumption of the health of water and sewer installations in non-aboriginal communities must be challenged. She claims precisely that if a non-aboriginal town had to face five years of negotiation for such a necessary system without success, “regional newspapers would be full of protest letters … and local politicians would be turfed in the next election.”

I must beg to differ and question Ms. Kheiriddin’s awareness of water treatment needs and battles—in Northern Canada at least—regardless of any ethnic factors. Some of us have been writers of such letters, and despairing protestors of the pollution status quo in our communities, for 30 years or longer. We watch projected treatment plant costs escalate year by year, while civic pollution continues to adulterate our waterways contrary to federal laws, while three supposedly cooperative levels of government continue to bicker endlessly over shared funding. The careless behaviour of past society in Southern Canada is perpetuated and extended with the northern expansion of the population, the exploitation of new resources and the ongoing development of our celebrated “final frontier.”

It is incorrect to claim such neglect is apparently “perfectly acceptable to subject aboriginal communities” alone. It is a common situation across other population centres likewise. I know, because our local 30-year struggle is only now slowly being addressed.

A sewer treatment system (nearly scuppered again only weeks ago) is finally under construction, hopefully to be functional in 2012. Until then, 8,000 people, of all racial origins, continue to pour untreated effluent into a magnificent major river. And we are not alone. This is your True North, Strong and Free, but Clean?

Susan Felsberg
Central Labrador


Re: “A Great Human Tragedy,” by James Pitsula

I thank J.M. Pitsula for reviewing my work Happyland: a history of the Dirty Thirties in Saskatchewan, 1914–1937. While he certainly flattered me with his attentions, the review contained a staggering number of errors, omissions, misconceptions and blunderings that are in need of a response.

Pitsula claims, for example, that I suggest “Saskatchewan has no history.” Here, he ignores the context in which the exploration of this very important theme occurred and disregards the original source of the quote, Wallace Stegner. Simply put, Pitsula is putting words in my mouth—as he does elsewhere, too.

It is evident that Pitsula neglected to undertake a thorough reading of the book. He offers the one-off comment that I do not record how many people actually remained in the drylands. Had Pitsula consulted the appendices he would have found 17 pages of charts and tables that indicate not only how many settlers left each rural district, but also the number of those who remained.

Given that Pitsula did not undertake a thorough reading, it does not surprise me that he misunderstood my argument. He corrects me by writing “the years 1914 to 1929 were not a period of unrelieved drought.” Nowhere in my book do I argue this point. I argue that the Dirty Thirties began in 1914 and continued down to 1937 and that within this broad period of time “there were three different and distinct stages of drought, crop failure and land abandonment” [italics added] namely, 1914, 1917–1924 and 1929–1937.

The whole point of the book, in fact, is the connectedness of the droughts and the implications of this connectedness. Each of these three periods of drought was characterized by starvation, deaths from nutritive diseases, hard-labour road gangs, crop failure, land abandonment, federal commissions, evacuation/relocation plans, federal-provincial-municipal relief aid and the dispensing of flour, fodder and coal ad infinitum. And all of these elements appear in all three of those distinct periods and were caused, created or generated by the droughts and they occurred only on the south and west plains. At this point, I must ask Pitsula how, exactly, does my argument “not really hold up”?

On stylistic matters Pitsula is equally critical. Indeed, he calls my writing “appalling”—“cliche-ridden”, “cringe-making” and marred by “hopeless metaphor.” I would naturally argue the opposite, which suggests that, fortunately, these are matters of taste.

But, ultimately, I get the nagging sense that Pitsula’s analysis is rooted in something other than his understandable dislike for references to Ernest Hemingway (any mention of whom must apparently necessarily be pretentious).

I am not very gentle with academic historians in my book. I cite Professor David Jones—a prominent and very highly respected Canadian historian—who laments the writing of professional academic historians. He suggests, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the writing of many professional historians has been a vapid mixture of the hopelessly boring, bland and benign when it was not busy being dull, cheerless and colourless. Indeed, many people have remarked that were it not for Canadian journalists such as Pierre Berton, James Gray, Peter C. Newman and Barry Broadfoot, no one would read Canadian history.

To that list, however, I also add that some historians in Saskatchewan suffer from an absence of vision. After all, how else does one explain that the most recent book on the greatest crisis in Saskatchewan history was written over four decades ago by a journalist? How else do we explain why none have been written since? Perhaps Pitsula was busy with his other various researches on “the early years of Regina College.”

Curtis R. McManus
Lloydminster, Saskatchewan


In his review of Happyland: A History of the “Dirty Thirties” in Saskatchewan, 1914–1937, James M. Pitsula repeats a story of a John Deere agent abandoning his attempt to collect a debt from a farmer when he was served porcupine stew for dinner. I have eaten porcupine stew as recently as two weeks ago when I was out berry-picking with a couple of First Nations elders, and it was utterly delicious.

The myth that porcupine is not fit for human consumption supports the myth that First Nations people eat garbage. Around here, the only garbage First Nations people eat comes from our local supermarket. I suspect the porcupine was another of those irrelevancies “introduced for their presumed entertainment value.”

Robin McGrath
Goose Bay, Labrador


Re: “Rogue Naturalist,” by Bob Rodgers

Regarding John Livingston’s legacy, I believe he will become all the more relevant and recognized with each passing year. He was light years ahead of the environmental movement and now the state of the biosphere validates his warnings from long ago. Rodgers asks rhetorically whether I might be one of “those in the environmental lobby who accede to the idea of sustainable development by means of technology.” No, I have never believed technology is our salvation, although we need better technology. The problem is that we don’t know enough to avoid unanticipated consequences.

David Suzuki
Vancouver, British Columbia


Re: “Guerillas or Folklorists?,” by Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan is known for his candid and provocative observations on the state of Canadian literature, and he is in characteristic form in expressing his displeasure in his review of my critical study Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature. He is entitled to his opinion, and I would leave him and LRC’s readers to it if I didn’t feel that what he offers is a misleading caricature of the book.

Anne of Tim Hortons makes the argument that much of Atlantic-Canadian literature disrupts the image of Atlantic Canada as an insulated, traditional, folksy society and instead highlights its thorough incorporation in a globalized economy increasingly marked by neoliberal ideology. Henighan recognizes this argument and then proceeds to take the book to task for actually developing it. My aim is to highlight a critical and subversive edge in the literature, but Henighan describes me as “cannily” choosing texts that support my argument and objects because I don’t sufficiently dwell on their (in his view) aesthetic shortcomings. Henighan has little appetite for the kind of political criticism in which I engage, and that’s his prerogative. Some of his criticisms have merit, and he is generous enough to observe that in my chapter on historical fiction I am actually practising what he sees as literary criticism. However, whereas I convey very clearly in Anne that my approach is a selective and ideological one, Henighan glosses over this (and, indeed, over his own selectivity). Instead, he insinuates—in a review laced with aspersions and backhanded compliments—that this emphasis is symptomatic of a lack of imagination, an incapacity for aesthetic appreciation, and even downright sneakiness. Aiding this characterization is the fact that he routinely overlooks how the book anticipates and addresses reservations that he raises (he stresses the influence of The Shipping News on the popularity of Newfoundland fiction as if I hadn’t broached that point myself, for instance, and accuses me of doing an injustice to these writers, whereas I acknowledge that I am emphasizing certain aspects of what is multifaceted writing).

For most of the review, Henighan makes me out to be a plodding, undiscriminating, thematic sermonizer; I think the book is more measured, nuanced and sophisticated than that. But I encourage those readers interested in the topic to judge for themselves, rather than on the basis of a heavy-handed and condescending review such as his.

Herb Wyile
Wolfville, Nova Scotia


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