Where have all the Tories gone?

My mother’s current garden, 20 years in the making

(March 29, 2021)

Pete Seeger’s song Where have all the flowers gone? epitomizes the circular futility of refusing to deal with what is really wrong in our world. We always return to where we started, and the cycle of heartbreaking loss begins again.

The song’s first verse blames the young girls for picking all the flowers, instead of just letting them grow, and everything else unravels from there.

One spring day, long ago, when I took the shortcut across what is now the Living Prairie Museum field on my way to Athlone School in St. James, the prairie crocuses were in full bloom. So I took a paper bag and half-filled it with crocuses as a gift for my mother. My nine-year-old brain thought this was a great idea — my mother admired those spring crocuses, especially because her garden then was mostly new subdivision gumbo.

I still remember the mixed emotions on her face as she looked into the paper bag that I offered to her — pleasure at the gift, but dismay at what I had done. No scolding could have been more effective, and to this day I remember that lesson.

So I am reluctant to cut down trees — even dead ones, which the woodpeckers love. Weeds have their place in the cycle of plant and insect life. The edges of our small oak bush randomly blossom with prairie roses, wild plums, highbush cranberries, and other surprises. The clover and dandelions feed the bees when there is not enough else in bloom, as our perennial garden slowly accumulates plants that will carry on for the rest of the summer.

It was a fundamental lesson in conservatism. Every good gardener and farmer is conservative. Nothing is changed just for the sake of change; nothing is uprooted or thrown away that could be used by someone else; the soil is tended, fed, watered and thoughtfully cultivated. There is a harvest at the end, but the process (and the life that is nurtured throughout) is just as important, because next spring will always follow winter.

I thought of this conservative philosophy as I watched the Pallister government finally reveal more of its mystery legislation, in what is best described as a systematic effort to uproot or dismantle the democratic freedoms all Manitobans currently enjoy. It has long been said that the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Pallister’s leadership are not progressive. It now also needs to be said they aren’t conservative, either.

That brings me back to Pete Seeger’s song, only rewritten to ask “Where have all the Tories gone?” Certainly, a new cycle has been started on Pallister’s watch, because like fellow Reform politician Stephen Harper, he has gifted the next government a winning legislative agenda: all they need to do, for the first six months, is to repeal his bad legislation and try to repair damage already done.

Bizarrely, Pallister’s legislative assault is aimed most at the people to whom conservatism is important — those farmers and others who live closer to the land, in rural Manitoba. Farmers have already lost their local agricultural support offices, told instead to go online or drive to the city. The “ag gag” laws don’t help their image, because everyone is now unfairly lumped together with factory farms that animal activists protest are inhumane — protected by the “Big Brother” of government against problems (and enemies) most farmers don’t have.

School trustees may be invisible or irrelevant in the city, but in rural areas, they are important elected officials, respected for caring about local children and giving the community a voice in how local schools are run and taxes are spent. (My mother later became a rural school trustee, by the way.) To be told all education will now forever be handled from Winnipeg, by a handful of government-appointed minions, is another blow against rural autonomy.

I suspect rural municipalities are next to be hit. They have already lost control over outside businesses plundering their land, because they can be overruled by the Municipal Board of government appointees (located in Winnipeg) if they refuse anyone.

Worst of all, the very people whose life philosophy these rural conservatives share — the environmental activists who work to conserve and protect the environment for our children and theirs — are now all potential criminals. Free speech, freedom of assembly, the right to protest bad laws, to preserve land rights, clean water and air — all dismissed by a government more concerned with corporate power than natural justice. Bill 57 (the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act) smacks of American Republican values, not conservative Canadian ones.

Where have all the Tories gone? Pallister isn’t one — never was — and that should worry any Progressive Conservatives still left in Manitoba. They need an alternative, soon.

Actually, we all do. Pallister is not just some kid plucking flowers this spring. He is deliberately ripping out perennial plants — just because he can.

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Close to home is where we need to live

(February 9, 2021)

Nine years ago, I began to write a trilogy of books on the sustainability problem – what was wrong, how we got here, and what we could do to avert the disaster that lies ahead.

The title of the third book, published in in 2016, was somewhat prophetic, given our current pandemic situation. I called it Live Close to Home.

One of the things I had realized about our unsustainable western culture was that many of us are more interested in things at a distance than in things close at hand.

Instead of eating staple foods that are produced locally, we import them from away — often, far away. Instead of spending time at home, we escape from there as often as we can — again, sometimes going far away. Instead of spending cash we already have in our pockets, we buy more and more on credit, which is money we hope to have, sometime in the future. We fume about politics and global affairs in other places, but ignore what is happening in our own city or neighbourhood.

When it comes to the environment, we worry about global warming, pollution and environmental degradation and how these affect people and planet somewhere else, but don’t think much about what we eat, drink and breathe ourselves, right here.

If you think about our relationships with other people, there has been a similar shift there, too. We don’t really reach out and touch someone – too often, we use our communications technology to do it instead, from a distance.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has only made this situation worse. So, with physical distancing morphing into social isolation, it’s not surprising that we worry about our mental as well as physical health during this pandemic.

I remember watching people, supposedly out together to talk over coffee, yet both on their cellphones messaging someone else instead. After all, when you text and message instead of talking face to face, your partner literally can be anyone, anywhere in the world. Often, these partners are far away — because distant avatars may be more exciting than an actual person picking the food out of their teeth, seated across the table.

Surveying students, especially international students, I found many are spending six to eight hours a day on their phones and computers, and others confess they are online from the moment they wake up, all day long. So if the internet goes down or the cell service stops, it seems we are utterly cut off from everything and everyone that matters.

Of course, this is not true. But that’s how it feels.

Obviously, isolation and loneliness are not new problems. You could argue the pandemic has merely removed the distractions that used to keep us from noticing how alone we really are. A night at the club, the pub, the concert, the game — all these activities allow us to avoid the awkward fact that the crowd would not have missed us if we had stayed away.

In the end, we can’t escape who and where we are. For the sake of our own good health, we need to live close to home, focusing first on ourselves and where (and how) we live, and to make that the foundation of everything else.

Living close to home provides other benefits for a green recovery and a sustainable future, too. We can buy local food to cook for ourselves; shop local, in community stores; help neighbours struggling with chores they can’t manage on their own; drop food on the doorstep of someone who feels just as isolated as we do. We can be kind, rather than cranky, when someone makes a mistake because of the stress they are under, too.

We are trying to spend less and stretch each dollar further, because our future income seems not as certain as it used to be. We now know more about our kids’ education than perhaps we ever did before, because we help them with it every day — or perhaps we have become their teacher.

Favourite restaurants provide us with takeout food that families are now eating together, instead of everyone alone and apart. We can no longer easily escape the people we live with, a fact that can be both painful and hopeful at the same time, as we are made to focus on what is happening close to home.

And yet while we have learned, the hard way, that nothing on a screen can replace a hug from someone we love, no one is ever really alone when there is someone, somewhere, who appreciates us for who we are. Especially when our communications technology is used to develop or enrich our personal situation, not just to escape it, living close to home can be a healthy and positive approach to coping with pandemic stress.

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Loudest voices don’t say smartest things

(January 26, 2021)

If you follow the news cycle, it is impossible to escape the fact we live in a time of strong opinions.

Every time I pick up my pen to reflect on the events of the day, words like “incompetence,” “arrogance,” “negligence” — even “stupidity” — immediately spill onto the page. Whether it is about politics, pandemics or pipelines, I feel angrier and more frustrated every day.

But I also feel like I’m at a wedding social (remember those?) when the party really gets going. As the volume grows, communication is reduced to yelling a few words right into the ear of the person sitting next to you. Everyone is competing to be heard, but no one is getting through. (I always wished there was some giant gong that could be struck when the decibel level got too high, some sign that would make everyone stop and reset their volume to a normal level.)

After all, in life and at wedding socials, it’s not the loudest voices that make the wisest observations. And if words matter as much as I believe, we also need to be careful which ones we choose to use ourselves.

When it comes to the pandemic, the quietest voice in the room is saying “follow the science” — instead of being blown about by the winds of political expediency or battered into accepting the demands of special-interest groups. Simply put, dead people don’t shop — and sick people don’t work — and right now, we have too many of both.

Every single time restrictions have been relaxed, anywhere, there has been a further wave of disease that makes things worse than before. As for the mental-health impact of lockdowns, it is worse to keep saying things might get better, soon, instead of being honest about the longer term. Whatever the public-health guidelines are going to be, put them in place for at least six months at a time, or people will lose trust in the judgment of those now making these decisions every couple of weeks.

For example, I have believed from the start that there won’t be a return to “normal” face-to-face classes at universities until the fall of 2022 — if we are lucky. If everyone adjusted to that more realistic timeline, instead of planning four months (or less) at a time, it would help us all make better decisions about how to live and what to do until then.

As for politics, if we learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten, the past four years have demonstrated that many current politicians were not paying attention to their lessons. Maturity and politics are words not often used together these days; instead, petulance, immaturity and tantrums are commonplace on both sides of the border. Of course, no one gets things right all the time, but mature leadership (however old you are) recognizes its mistakes and corrects them.

Looking at Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister has been hard of hearing throughout his entire political career, so it is no surprise to find it getting worse with age. Unfortunately, the ideological voice in his head has always been the loudest one in the room for him, especially when others start to yell. Admitting mistakes is never easy for any politician, but not admitting them can lead to a Trumpian nightmare that hurts a lot of innocent people, as we have seen.

For example, Bill 57 — the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act (PCIA), introduced without details on Nov. 2 ­— is effectively an authoritarian smackdown of people who protest against the immorality of government actions. The PCIA is guaranteed to inflame and antagonize, and probably will be found to be against the charter rights of Manitobans, too.

It is more in line with Trump’s version of America than with a progressive Canadian province, in which we need to live and work together toward a sustainable future for everyone, regardless of politics.

So, in light of how well that kind of divisive approach has worked in the United States, Bill 57 should be withdrawn, offering the reasonable explanation that there is already ample protection for the welfare and safety of Manitobans within existing legal frameworks. Coupled with an apology, this would go a long way toward setting the stage for the thoughtful public conversations we will need to have about managing the growing climate crisis, with all of its social and economic implications, as the pandemic eventually recedes.

Finally, in terms of ending our political addiction to doing more lines of pipe, the incoming Biden administration has thankfully already demonstrated more wisdom and maturity than our own government. The fossil-fuel industry is only an investment option for those with money to burn (such as banks and pension plans). Everyone else is already investing in green energy and sustainable development, instead, and so should we.

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