Wednesday, July 01, 2015

O Canada (on Canada Day)



If you're not sure who Louis Riel was, click on his name for a one-minute history lesson. Sadly, a lot of those words -- especially the ones about government -- are just as true now as they were then.

Although I'm one who considers him a hero, not everyone does (nor obviously, considering his end, did).

For several years while I was attending Simon Fraser University, I was lucky enough to live in what was called the 'married residence' even though few of us were actually married. The other, more important name for that building was Louis Riel House.

Because the university didn't look after the building as well as it might have, conditions there have made the place uninhabitable. It will be closing at the end of August. What this means is yet another chapter of affordable housing closing.

Many of us who lived there were single parents, trying to raise our kids and complete a degree. We found the building a place that enabled us to fulfill both roles.

With closure of the Louis Riel House, education will become just that much more difficult for the students (and their families) who have been living there.

It's more than a little ironic to consider these words from the man himself, Louis Riel, about the battle being "...for homes and human rights."

He understood the importance of access to housing.

If only our politicians did.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Way of the Raspberry (and other berries)


Picking raspberries allows one the time to do nothing more than look and move one's hand. Such simple, repetitive motions -- hand to berry, to bucket, to bush again -- allow time for contemplation, almost meditation.

The berries reveal themselves, each in their own way. To the picker, to the sun, to the bumblebee in search of flowers to visit. It's as if they understand the purpose of their existence -- that they were made to be eaten and enjoyed.

The darkest, deepest red of the berries let go of their branches at the slightest touch. Those paler or slightly orange cling tightly and won't allow themselves to be plucked, teaching perhaps that resistance is not, as the Borg would say, futile.

Some lie hidden, gathered in a clutch beneath a canopy of green leaves, as if in wait for the one who will seek them out, perhaps the one who will best appreciate them.

Still others push forward -- higher, higher on the branch -- standing tallest at the top of the spindliest part of the cane, maybe as if to be nearer the sun.

Already, so many berries have gone into my bucket this year. So many of those have in turn gone into bags now filling the freezer. Others have gone into jars of jam that will in turn become gifts at Christmastime.

The strawberries have come and been. Blueberries are next (tomorrow, first pick for me).

But wait a minute, what's that already ripening even though it's still June? Blackberries aren't supposed to ripen until August, are they?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Summer bed, summery dreams

It's official. As of last night, when we passed the mark of Solstice, it's summer.

For us, summer means we set up our tent and sleep in the little clearing in our yard. Home-camping, I suppose. All that fresh air makes for great sleeps and wonderful dreams, even if the birdsong does seem louder in the morning.

Around here, it's felt like summer for weeks -- strawberries have come and been, raspberries are ripe, even the blueberries will be ready soon.

Yesterday was also Canada's National Aboriginal Day. To celebrate, our Sunday dinner was a little out of the ordinary: venison, turkey, wild rice salad, corn and (as just about always), green salad from the garden. Served with plenty of gratitude and family in attendance, it felt like a great way to start the season.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Remembrances and coincidences

It's been one week since we attended a remarkable remembrance event for a dear friend. It's a matter I mostly want to keep private.

But another remembrance that came to my attention this week is one that I think deserves a more public commemoration.

It was an item that caught my eye mostly by accident. Though I often scan the obituary pages (usually on my way to the day's Sudoku), I noticed a name I hadn't seen nor heard mention of in years: Mary Steinhauser. The announcement was a remembrance item, commemorating her death forty years ago on June 11, 1975, when she was caught in crossfire (or as we may now identify it, by the hideous oxymoron, 'friendly fire') during a hostage-taking incident at the British Columbia Penitentiary in New Westminster.

The institution's been closed since 1980, mostly excavated and re-invented as a subdivision, though remnants of the old BC Pen linger.

The penitentiary was well known for its practice of holding inmates in its SCU (Special Corrections Unit), where prisoners were confined alone for over 23 hours a day, with only the rarest access to the outdoors. Because the SCU was on the top floor of one of the buildings, it became known as the Penthouse. Prison humour, always the darkest, is often enduring in its irony.

Steinhauser was a social worker -- or, to be more accurate, a classifications officer -- who worked at the prison. She was known as an advocate against the practice of solitary confinement and was viewed by some as being 'on side' with the men, a situation that may well have contributed to her death.

Although the full report stemming from the official inquiry into the incident does not cite the names of any of the hostages (it names only prisoners and those who were called in as negotiators), we know that the single resulting death was that of Steinhauser.

I'll admit to having had greater than average interest in the story, both because I admired Steinhauser (and Claire Culhane, a peace activist and another prisoners' advocate of the era) and because I knew someone who was a brother to one of the hostage-takers. All I can find to substantiate my memories of the event is the Wikipedia article on Steinhauser. It portrays her heroically, as being the only hostage who chose to stay in the room with the prisoners who'd taken charge, standing for what she believed to the end.

But now here's where the coincidences come into play. Reading this morning's paper, I found a hopeful article about rehabilitation activities in U.S. prisons. Instead of the continuously more punitive measures which are being undertaken in our overcrowded prisons, gardening is being encouraged as a way to give men meaning in their lives -- and to save money by providing a source of food for the prisons.

Only then, when I turned the page, an even bigger coincidence presented itself, this time on the too-familiar obituary page. Former prison guard, Albert Hollinger had died. It had supposedly been bullets from Hollinger's weapon that had killed Mary Steinhauser. And here, within a day of her death's anniversary, was his death.

Details of his obituary made it seem as though he'd suffered his own difficult times in life, alluding to PTSD.

Coincidences, remembrances. Lives intertwined. May all of them now rest, in peace.



Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Backyard solar power

This is our version of solar power. The sun dries the laundry, provides salad greens and illuminates a spot for reading and relaxing.

It seems that our prime minister has finally acknowledged (publicly, no less) the reality of climate change and agreed to a plan towards achieving decarbonization by the end of the century.

But what I want to know is, now that this has been stated as a goal (even though 2100 is way too far down the road), where are the grant programs for developing alternative energy sources? Think of all the start-ups that need to get rolling -- solar, thermal, tidal, and who-knows-what-else -- if we are to accomplish this goal.

Our house has what seems to be the perfectly angled spot on our mostly flat roof for installing a modest solar array. I'd like to know when the Feds will show up with some kind of encouragement for implementing a more serious solar plan for the homes and neighbourhoods of ordinary Canadians.

We can only hope this fall's election will see some major changes which will bring about real leadership as we move towards living in more planet-friendly ways.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Down by the river

Winnipeg. That's where I spent this past weekend. Aside from hurriedly changing planes at the Winnipeg airport, I'd never been there before. What a place, a city that reached into my soul.

In between meetings and sessions for The Writers' Union of Canada and the League of Canadian Poets, I made it to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Legislature Buildings and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. All of these visits were well worthwhile, but even more important to me was the visit I paid to the banks of the Red River.

The reason for visiting the river was so I could place a 'memory rock' there.

The memory rock was a shiny stone I'd found, in of all places, on the floor of a downtown dollar store.

The store was crowded, mostly with First Nations people -- singles, women, families with beautiful kids. It was a messy shop, with more security guards than ordinary staff, and I suppose the security guys weren't into tidying the shelves.

It made me sad that the food choices there consisted of nothing but chemmy-flavoured junk. I could only hope that there was another grocery store in the neighbourhood, one with at least milk, bread and some kind of produce selection.

But then, at my feet, was the perfect shiny stone. I knew it didn't belong there and rescued it.

It was later that the idea came to mind: I knew I wanted to take it to the river and toss it into the water, my small way of remembering Tina Fontaine.

Yesterday, my last day in Winnipeg, was the day I made my way to the river. But the River Walk was closed, owing to the height of the water, almost in flood. I tried a couple of spots where I might access the river -- in a park, beside a playground -- and got close enough that I could have thrown it in. Even though I tossed in a few small stones (ones I picked from under trees on the bank), felt like the right place to send out the special one.

Then, when I'd almost resigned myself to keeping the stone, I found the special place.

Here I'd spent the weekend with writers and what did I find but a park bench with a book on it -- a hardcover one at that.

The book's title confirmed that I'd found the right place and I said a kind of prayer/dedication and let the stone fly. For Tina.

Tomorrow the official Report on Truth and Reconciliation will be released -- the aftermath of the horror of the residential schools with their hideous agenda, to "..take the Indian out of the child."

I'm hoping that one of the steps our government will take towards true reconciliation will be initiating an official inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women. I hope the ripples of my special stone for Tina will radiate into something positive so we don't have any more women thrown into the river -- and not just in Winnipeg, but anywhere.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reflections on Cascadia

It’s been nearly a month since the Cascadia Poetry Festival in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Even though the concept of Cascadia has been part of me since the mid-’80s, this particular gathering made it real for me in a way I hadn’t quite believed before.

It felt like a gathering of the tribes – a coming-together with shared purpose and goals – one that extended well beyond the bounds of poetry.

During the first few days at home, I was often on the verge of tears. That’s how stirred my emotions were.

And this wasn’t simply because I wasn’t sure when I would next (if ever) see some of the friends who’d been in attendance, though that could certainly have played a part in my reaction.

It was more that my soul had been stirred by ideas that had been presented. Because it was a poetry festival, many of the ideas on the table focused on language. But the depth of the ideas – how some of the presenters linked language into the very bedrock of our region – this digging down somehow reached into me.

If I could put this into words, I would. Even with this much time, I still can’t express all that I want to. Regardless of that, the knowledge remains in me – or maybe it’s only the idea of the knowledge that seems to reside inside. 

And maybe these thoughts will stay there, just out of reach – it feels a bit like trying to put salt on the tail of the bird in the garden.

For now, I can only say, I plan to keep following that bird.

Postscript: This past weekend, while visiting the beach and lighthouse at Point No Point in Washington with friends, a man saw my shirt and recognized it, shouting as greeting, “Cascadia!” 

So no, it’s not just me. The dream is real.