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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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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A single light shining in a dark place

(December 24, 2020)

My favourite part of Christmas Eve church services in different places over the years was always singing Silent Night by candlelight.

There are many variations, of course, but it’s emotionally powerful to see a single candle, burning in the darkened room, and then to watch its light spreading out as all the other candles are lit from it. One by one, the room brightens into (literally) a blaze of light, as the song ends.

I don’t know why singing that carol and candle lighting has become such a western Christmas Eve tradition over the years — its words by Father Joseph Mohr, its simple melody composed by Franz Gruber, and first performed in rural Austria in 1818.

But the image of light overcoming darkness — even a single light — is rooted deep in ancestral memory. Humans have always been afraid of the dark. With eyes adapted to daylight, we are completely vulnerable to predators that see well when we can’t. So the light of a fire kept them at bay, and kept us safe and warm in the dark.

These symbols of light and warmth are most powerful in the northern hemisphere, as we pass the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. It may not always be the coldest night, but the long darkness can certainly make it feel that way.

Close to the equator, there is little difference between night and day, all year long. But as you move farther north, to the latitudes where most of the people of Europe lived, the cultures there combined the winter solstice with the pagan feast of Yule (and no doubt a few others), the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and finally added the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Long before what we would recognize as math (or even geometry) in more southern climes, people measured and marked the longest night, the furthest distance away from the warmth and light of spring. The candle — or fire — lit at the winter solstice was a reminder that the sun would return, leading people toward the longest day and the first fruits of spring planting.

The famous passage grave in Newgrange I once visited — a megalithic mound built on an Irish hillside 5,300 years ago — precisely angled the entrance to illuminate the central burial chamber as dawn struck on the winter solstice. Similarly, 1,000 years later, the stone pillars at Stonehenge were arranged to have the light strike them at a unique angle at sundown, on the same day.

The image of a single light shining in a dark place transcends the religious and cultural settings in which it is found. “Light One Candle” was a powerful idea long before Peter, Paul and Mary first performed their hit song, because its symbolism extends beyond the duality of light and dark. Whether it is the lights of the menorah, celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah, the celebrations of Diwali lanterns lit for Chinese New Year or any of the local (or family) traditions involving fire and light, all make their defiant contrast against some background of darkness.

Whoever first said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” understood the emotional relationship between light and hope. All it takes is that one first candle to defeat the darkness, no matter how large or strong it seems to be.

As that candlelight service always reminds me on Christmas Eve, we receive the flame from our neighbour to light our own candle. It is our choice to dip the unlit candle to the flame, knowing that when we do it, nothing will ever be the same again, as we then become light-bearers ourselves.

By our choice, and the choices of others around us, it spreads from that one flickering flame to light the whole room — and, once outside those walls, into the world around us and across the generations.

One of the individual lights that went out in 2020 was U.S. congressman John Lewis. Hero of the civil rights movement, because of his persistence in working for justice and equality right to the end, he set an example of hope that will continue to spread and grow.

Throughout his 2017 book, Across that Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Face of America, Lewis drew on that image of a single light in the midst of darkness. Bringing it all home, the last page began:

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light.”

Whatever the darkness, Lewis’s words remind us that what is good, in ourselves and in others, is the fuel we need to keep that light burning.

This Christmas Eve, in a world darkened by pandemic, may we find ways to share with each other the light we all need.

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