Sunday, October 14, 2012

Justin Trudeau, uniting the left and sugarplum fairies

“I shook his hand once,” my coworker said as we watched the news on the office TV. “Who?” I asked. “Justin Trudeau,” he said. “Oh,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
There's an aura growing around Trudeau, or perhaps there has always been one, that gives liberals (I use the small “l” intentionally) hope for the future. Especially in the face of Stephen Harper’s quietly draconian governing style rising up again in the form of a new omnibus bill as the fall session starts. “Can Trudeau reignite the flame of the centre-left?” Canadians wonder.
Trudeau's aura brings with it a halo effect to liberal/Liberal politics that's been missing since, well, I don’t know when. Yesterday, for example, I got an accidental phone call from a disaffected NDP supporter in Montreal (which is odd, since I’m based in the provincial Liberal office in Edmonton). She was upset that the NDP in Quebec were drifting toward what she termed “soft nationalism” and she didn't want to remain with a party that supported separation, no matter how softly. Toward the end of the conversation she asked whether I knew if Trudeau had officially declared his nomination. “Ah, there it is,” I thought.
No one would like to see Canada's left reignited and reunited more than I would. And lately in Alberta there’s been a lot of not-so-secret backroom buzz flying around about a merger between the parties on the left. In fact, there are a few people actively campaigning to make that happen.
Just for the record, the lonely Alberta Liberals have 5 seats in the Legislature, the New Democrats have fewer with 4 and the Alberta Party has zip. The Wildrose Party on the other wing is now the official opposition with 17 seats. The PCs control the remaining 61 seats—a comfortable majority to say the least, especially when one considers that the party has been in power for 41 years. And, for you trivia buffs, this will be the longest running provincial party in the history of Canada by the end of its term in 2016, beating the Nova Scotia Liberals who operated uninterrupted from 1882 to 1925.
Clearly, Canadians are no strangers to dynastic politics, whether it’s in the form of long-standing regimes or second and third generations of political scions such as the Ignatieffs, the Martins, the Leblancs, the Lougheeds, the Bennetts, the Crosbys, the Laytons and many more. So Justin Trudeau is no anomaly. But one might ask, is this aggregation of power into the hands of a few families a healthy thing, given our country’s present size, wealth and population?
I don't know. My instinct says no. But instinct is often wrong. There seems to be no shortage of new genes coming into our political system, including Stephen Harper. Ultimately, the key to a healthy political system is diversity and renewal. And in that sense, Justin Trudeau fits the bill perfectly for small “l” liberals on the national scene, just as Harper did for the right a decade ago.
So we have two threads of thought here: the magnetic appeal of the next Trudeau, and the possible merger of the parties on the left, principally, the Liberals and the NDP. And can these two threads be linked or are they mutually exclusive? It's too early to tell. Bob Rae will be a key figure. But given the discontent of half of the Canadian voting public, there seems to be a deep desire to pursue anything that brings together a working coalition on the left to take on the evermore rightist Conservatives in Ottawa.
Some pundits might tell you that the Canada’s left will unite about the same time the Liberals take power in Alberta. And actually, that could happen sooner than anyone thinks, but that's a story for another time.
Mirroring the federal scene, there’s a small movement underway in Alberta to bring the Liberals, NDP and Alberta Party together into a unified party of the centre-left. This was openly discussed at the NDP annual general meeting last week, which was publicly rejected by party leader Brian Mason. But the issue isn't quite dead on the floor.
I caught an e-mail the other day outlining the similarity of the platforms of the Alberta Liberals with the NDP during the last election, pointing out that there wasn't a great deal of difference between the two. It was a justification, I suppose, for the merger.
But the devil in any of these concepts, as they say, is in the doing. It's not the platforms that matter so much as how those platforms are developed and implemented that matter. These “how” issues raise deep philosophical divides between entrepreneurial, pro-business liberals and pro-labour, anti-business socialists.
And it's not the parties that matter, but the power residing behind those parties that matter. The “how” of merging power structures and cultures is far more challenging than merging platforms.
On both counts, merging ideologies and power structures, it would be na├»ve to think that uniting Alberta’s Liberals with Alberta’s NDP would be an easy task. Developing strong leadership and interparty cooperation might be an easier and far more effective way to deal with the slowly calcifying policies of Alison Redford’s PCs.
That, at least, is my insider's view for now. That could all change if the Trudeau-Bob Rae alliance reaches out to unite with the federal NDPs. All things are possible in Canadian politics.
At the end of the day it isn't left-right that matters, it’s always top-bottom. And even sugarplum fairies know Santa’s the boss.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Riding the big red Alberta sled with Raj Sherman

Raj and his partner, Sharon, picked me up at the airport in Edmonton. He was unmistakable. His open enthusiasm telegraphed that this is the leader of Alberta's Liberals almost as much as his big red Dodge Ram truck. On the way into the city we talked about Alberta's oil sands, the economy and, of course, his recent history as a health critic with both the provincial PCs and the Liberals.

To say that this guy is controversial is an understatement. Stories roll of his tongue like chapters of a rags-to-riches novel. Apparently, his family already had a long history in Canada before Raj was born in India. By the age of six the family had migrated to Squamish, BC, where Raj learned the ropes in a tough frontier logging town where East Indians weren't exactly welcomed. While his father moved into the labour union movement, young Raj accepted the prejudice, smackdowns and bruises stoically.
And I couldn't identify any bitterness in Raj the man, the successful ER doc and now, seasoned politician. In fact, the Raj I met was clearly as Canadian as I am. And a real character, to boot. Which is great since I enjoy working with colourful characters, and I'll be working closely with him (and Sharon) for the next four years as the new executive director of the Alberta Liberal Party.
The learning curve during my first week on the job has been nearly vertical. I've had a mind-meld with Alex, the unofficial party strategist, for two days, had dinner with the party president, took in an executive board meeting, made an off-the-cuff presentation to 20 or more staunch Liberal women over breakfast, tip-toed into the in-house systems and files, and struggled to remember names of a several dozen key people.
In the middle of this I got into two late night sessions with Raj that ended in the big red sled (aka "The Sherman Tank") on the way home talking about everything from our personal histories-philosophies to global resource management issues. Not to mention the curious coincidence that my wife is also named Sharon, who is also an American like his Sharon, also hailing from New England, which I learned while we watched Obama give his big speech at the DNC at their place over takeout Thai.
What have I learned about Alberta's Liberals in just one week? It's too soon to say and probably more than I can possibly remember. But I have learned a bit about Alberta itself, at least as a comparison to life back home in New Brunswick.
I've learned that there's an epidemic of potholes in the streets of Edmonton. That its water and sewer utilities have been partially privatized and that the water tastes just fine. That housing prices are through the roof relative to East Coast prices, and that the cost of a mortgage can eat up a large portion of an Albertan's paycheque.
I've also discovered, I think, that Albertans seem to be, at least after one week, to be friendlier and more optimistic than eastern Canadians. They smile at you and look you in the eye even in the big city, which comes as a bit of a surprise to someone more attuned to the Toronto-Boston-New York street society. That said, I've been told that Edmonton is the murder capital of Canada, attributed feuding immigrant drug dealers.
But I'm an immigrant here, too, just like all those Newfoundlanders and Somalis, Middle Easterners, Asians and the rest. If they're part of the problem, then perhaps I am too, just another newcomer looking for new opportunities and challenges in the Promised Land.
And that land is big and beautiful, as I found out this weekend when a friend drove me up to Athabasca for the weekend. The farmers were out combining their fields, swathed into rows in the sunshine under that indescribably big sky. I had my friend stop the car so we could get out and walk into a cut grain field and stand among those huge round bales parked like spun gold discs against the bright blue horizon.
Is it easy to be here? Would I advise others to come? I don't know. A lot of easterners and even westerners like Raj have made the leap before me. I do know that the logistics of putting the house up for sale back home, staying connected with family on Skype, buying a new car, finding a place to live, shopping for houses and fumbling my way around a new city is slightly daunting.
Of course, the whole experience will seem insignificant a year from now, as they say, like a woman remembers childbirth.
But remembering is the thing. We moved from Ontario 8 years ago. New Brunswick has been the only home our kids have known, and a lot of our memories are there: sailing on Passamaquoddy Bay with the tides and seals, walking down to the St. Andrews blockhouse and the reef, having lunch at Olde Tyme Pizza in January when you could shoot off a cannon and not hit a tourist if you wanted to, and those slow, slow days of summer living beside the retired people who have nothing much to do except maybe cut the lawn and go for a walk. And for me the days of writing and hanging out with the kids.
It isn't going to like that here. But that's OK. I'm looking forward to the challenge of a more active, liberal chapter after a long sojourn in the slow moving, conservative East. So goodbye, New Brunswick, you will be missed. And hello, Alberta, let the adventure begin.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

White man's burden: the shame of Indian Point

The parking lot on St. Andrews’ Indian Point must be the best RV park in North America. I mean, where else can an RVer get a front row space on the oceanfront with a 270-degree sunrise to sunset view of the Bay of Fundy?

No wonder that the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Indians considered Qonasqamkuk, their name for Indian Point, to be a sacred place, which was, in fact, a well-known native burial ground for Passamaquoddy chiefs. It was here that these Indians first met Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain over 400 years ago. It was from here that the Passamaquoddies went out to rescue Champlain and his starving settlers on Saint Croix Island that winter. 

And it seems to have been trouble ever since for the Passamaquoddy people.

This place comes into focus once again as the town council of St. Andrews has once again considered the possibility of allowing a housing development on the site. It seems that the concept of who gets to settle on the point has never been resolved.

The Loyalists, escaping the American Revolution by way of Nova Scotia, came to the area in 1780 or so, and agreed to pay the Passamaquoddies 25 pounds a year rent to stay at Qonasqamkuk, which they promptly renamed St. Andrews. And reneged on paying the rent. Less than five years went by before the newcomers chopped down a big cross marking the sacred native burial ground on the point and a complaint was lodged by the Indians to the government.

Most of the Passamaquoddy people then packed up and moved across the U.S. border to Pleasant Point, where they remain to this day. By the early 1900s the Town of St. Andrews sanctioned construction on the original burial ground, disturbing the sacred site. Some time later, the sweet grass field—an important traditional native resource on Indian Point—was destroyed (in an act amounting to high irony) to create the town’s sewage lagoon, which was recently upgraded with a multi-million dollar expansion in 2009.

One family remained connected to Qonasqamkuk, specifically, the 100 acres of Indian Point. That group is the Akagi family, the product of marriage between a Japanese man and a half-Passamaquoddy woman who had remained on the land and maintained historical Passamaquoddy claim on the place. Today, the Chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Hugh Akagi, and his extended family, still live of the site.

Local gossip has it that over decades the Akagis were put under considerable pressure to give up their land to the town, including as I’ve heard it said, a threat to take their children away if they did not comply. In any event, the Akagi families stayed intact and the town secured title of the land—land that the townspeople had never leased, purchased or legally acquired at any point in time.

By the early 1990s development, perhaps to raise tax revenues, was much on the minds of some local town councilors. In 1992 they took the Passamaquoddies to court to secure “quiet title” of the 100 acres of Indian Point, a case which they won, leaving the Akagi family just 7 acres.

Throughout the rest of the decade the town council was approached to develop high-end housing on the point. Each time the proposals failed. Finally, the Kiwanis Club was more successful in its proposal to build the famous RV park on the oceanfront—which rather conveniently generates a lot of profit, a good chunk of which goes directly to the Town of St. Andrews every year. So the point has been repurposed from sacred burial ground to sacred cash cow.

Fast forward to this year. Another housing development proposal landed on the town council’s agenda. Councillor Mary Myers worked diligently to get council to put Indian Point into a “public land trust” for the people of St. Andrews to enjoy in perpetuity. One has to wonder how the Akagi family and the rest of the remaining Passamaquoddy people feel about her patronizing gesture.

And just how should we feel about it? Well, native peoples across Canada have been working directly with the federal government on treaties for the last 200 years or more. Land claims, both historical and recent, have been negotiated and many settled. But here in this lost corner of New Brunswick the entire issue seems to have been rendered invisible and irrelevant by the Loyalists and their ancestors who still run the place. It’s as if the Passamaquoddies had never existed, except for presence of their name on the bay lapping on the town’s waterfront.

If we were a moral and honorable people what should happen would be exactly opposite to what has already happened. The 100 acres of land should be returned, immediately, to the Chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. The federal and provincial governments should generously contribute a hundred or more millions of dollars to the tribe to make restitution for the theft of the St. Andrews town site and occupying it illegally for 227 years.

I am sure they would be as good or better stewards of that land than we’ve been, what with our building of sewage lagoons and RV parking lots.

Of course, many long-term residents of St. Andrews might think this solution is outrageous. But imagine how we would feel if a wave of foreigners came and took over all the best available land around our town? Would we be as gracious as the Akagis and Passamaquoddies have been?

Given our history I highly doubt it.