In All of Us Command

— Evening shadows at the National War Memorial, Ottawa

It is Canada’s 150th birthday today. Later on, after celebrating with family and friends, I will be with a large group of people at the Forks, the historic junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers where trade and settlements go back thousands of years.

We will sing O Canada, and – as I have done every time since 2003 – I will change the words from “true patriot love/in all thy sons command” and sing instead “in all of us command.”

In 2003, I began teaching history to students in the Canadian military, through the Royal Military College. The first time I looked at my class list, then out into the room, I knew I could never sing those outdated and entirely inaccurate words again.

The number of women in the Canadian Armed Forces – in all branches, including combat arms – continues to rise. It is a reflection of the ideas about equality that underpin what we do as Canadians, even if we need constant reminders about past (and present) injustices.

It’s not just about what we do, either, but about who we are as a nation and who we are, as citizens.

The proposed change to the national anthem to bring the rest of the country in line for today with what I have been singing for fourteen years have been thwarted by unelected, largely Conservative, mostly (if not entirely) white and male senators.

On a day when we mark our birthday as a nation, their actions remind us how the self-serving and self-interested defence of unmerited privilege threatens the sustainable future not only of our country, but of the whole planet.

It would be easy to associate their actions with patriarchy and misogyny – the barriers that women world wide, including in Canada, must continue to overcome. I consider their attitude more insidious and dangerous than that, however – it is what lies behind racism, religious intolerance and hatred of those who are different, for whatever reason.

More specifically, it is the same attitude that protects personal and corporate privilege, the power to continue to do as one pleases, regardless of the social, cultural or ecological consequences. It is what we have to overcome, and quickly, in order to make the changes to how we live together on this planet, if we want our children and grandchildren to be able to have any kind of a sustainable future.

It may seem a leap to associate those few, unchanged words with such an outcome, but (as national anthems tend to be) they are symbolic of who we are and who we should be as citizens of Canada — and of Earth.

Those women in uniform who looked back at me in that first class had made the personal choice, for their own reasons, to serve Canada at the risk of their own lives, if necessary. They had chosen to protect the people and the institutions of the country, even those mostly white and male Conservative senators. It seems a small thing to offer the nation’s respect for their service by changing a few words.

I’m an historian, so the various attempts at historicizing the national anthem and claiming purity with past traditions as justification for leaving things unchanged are just as lame to me as they sound. It is not about protecting tradition, but preserving privilege.

Things change – and so they should. As First Nations people remind us, the historical record of settlement and colonization reflects many injustices toward aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Our record of injustice toward the other children of Earth who are not human is even worse. We are called “to live with respect in Creation” just as much as we are called to live with respect toward each other.

If we had an anthem for being citizens of Earth, those should be lyrics it includes.

For now, for all of us, and for a sustainable future, those few words can make a difference in how we think about each other and our collective responsibility toward those who will follow us in this place.

O Canada, our home and native land.
True patriot love, in all of us command.

If you are a Canadian, please choose for yourself to sing those words, every time you have a chance to sing the national anthem.

It’s not about who we were, but who we are – and about whom we hope to become.

Miigwech.

On environment, Pallister needs summer school

(June 20, 2017)

The end of the school year in June means students get the final evaluation of their efforts before heading off to summer vacation, summer jobs — or summer school, if the grades weren’t good enough.

It should be the same for governments. After 14 months managing the environmental portfolio, the Pallister government is like a disappointing student who shows promise in September, but has not done much the rest of the year.

Such students skip a lot of classes and neglect their homework and whenever there is a test, they perform poorly.

The first example was the review of the cosmetic pesticides ban, already one of the more anemic ones in Canada. Public consultations were announced, so environmental and public health groups went back into their files and pulled out the materials they thought were no longer needed. Neither the science nor the health concerns had changed — just the government — which eventually showed the ideological face its detractors had predicted by ignoring the evidence and announcing there would be “practical” changes sometime soon.

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We must think before we eat

(June 13, 2017)

The next time you sit down to a meal, you might consider eating for a change.

That thought was at the core of Vandana Shiva’s recent Axworthy Lecture at the University of Winnipeg. A forceful and articulate Indian activist, Shiva aimed her pointed comments at a worldwide food industry more focused on its own profits than the health of its customers or the well-being of the Earth.

She illustrated her lecture with examples drawn from India, where she and the organization she founded, Navdanya, struggle against multinational agrochemical companies for the rights of farmers to control their own seeds and to farm without chemicals. The challenge, she said, both there and in Canada, is to embrace and nurture diversity in agriculture the same way we promote it in other areas of society.

For Shiva, uniformity threatens our health and our future. Monoculture agriculture — growing large amounts of the same crop, over and over — is not only destructive of farm land, requiring increasing amounts of artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers, but produces food that lacks the nutritional content of organically produced food. In short, we are eating empty calories, using fossil fuels and reducing the productivity of the soil under the guise of “feeding the world.”

It was a pungent critique, not only of chemical monoculture, but of the justice issues that go along with the devastation of the land — the soil — and the water on which we depend for life itself. Every time we choose what to eat, we are voting for the kind of agriculture we want to flourish and its effects on the places and people that grow the food, as well as on our own health.

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