Archive for March, 2008

Where would we be without Milton (Acorn), Canada’s People’s Poet?

One of the themes of this blog is poetry, so I want to say something important I’ve believed for years and never put on a page: Milton Acorn is not only Canada’s greatest poet, he is Canada’s only great poet!

The first time I heard of Milton Acorn was back in the distant Sixties, when some Chamber of Commerce worthy in Abbotsford, B.C., or thereabouts, went nuts because a poet who was a Commie and who now and then wrote a swear in his verse had been given some money by the federal government. Canada Council? Possible. But Unemployment Insurance, more likely, in Milton Acorn’s case.

As for swears, there were precious few in Acorn’s poems – as befits a rather prim old Red who’d had a little trouble with the Hard Life. Milton Acorn: He even ended up an uncomfortable alcohol-fuelled pro-lifer, believing as he did in the nobility of Mankind, un-besmirched by Original Sin. Yet I likely imagine the Abbotsford ranter unfairly, as a stout man sweating through a cheap suit and buying Social Credit nostrums. In reality, no doubt he too, just like Milton Acorn, was only trying to build a better world, according to his own lights. He likely imagined Milton, warts and all, unfairly as well: There never was a swear without a purpose in those poems!

Later, I lived on the same street in Toronto as did Milton Acorn, in the same stinky, exciting, historical, atmospheric, evocative working class neighbourhood. Like Milton Acorn, I have had a beer or two in the Waverly Hotel, heard the clarinetist play Lili Marlene in the beer parlour there, sadly watched the strippers at the Silver Dollar, listened to the jazz at Grossman’s, marveled at the strength and dignity of the working men and women of Chinatown nearby, devoured a falafel at that place next door to El Mocambo, name long forgotten, where poor Margaret Trudeau sat on the curb and gave us all way too much information.

I’m sure that I’ve heard the gunshots down there too. And I’m pretty sure I’ve also bought the bulldog edition of the Globe and Mail from that same newsie with his dirty pink chapped face, mention of whom never fails to move me. Here is Milton Acorn on that person, and much more:

Knowing I Live in a Dark Age

Knowing I live in a dark age before history,
I watch my wallet and
am less struck by gunfights in the avenues
than by the newsie with his dirty pink chapped face
calling a shabby poet back for his change.

The crows mobbing the blinking, sun-stupid owl;
wolves eating a hamstrung calf hindend first,
keeping their meat alive and fresh … these
are marks of foresight, beginnings of wit:
but Jesus wearing thorns and sunstroke
beating his life and death into words
to break the rods and blunt the axes of Rome:
this and like things followed.

Knowing that in this advertising rainbow
I live like a trapeze artist with a headache,
my poems are no aspirins … they show
pale bayonets of grass waving thin on dunes;
the paralytic and his lyric secrets;
my friend Al, union builder and cynic,
hesitating to believe his own delicate poems
lest he believe in something better than himself:
and history, which is yet to begin,
will exceed this, exalt this
as a poem erases and rewrites its poet.

— Milton Acorn, c. 1960

Later I journeyed to P.E.I., hoping to meet this most admired poet. This and like things followed: I bought my ticket in July of 1986. Milton was dead – on Aug. 20 – a week before I got to Charlottetown. I saw the red earth, and the green gables, ate the white lobster. I left a red rose on his unmarked grave. On a later visit there was a simple gravestone, a carving of an acorn – the tiny nut whence grew this great Canadian oak, sturdy and inevitable; so fondly remembered – and another red rose.

Denied the Governor General’s Medal, Milton Acorn was declared The People’s Poet, a more noble title, a title to aspire to.

Milton James Rhode Acorn. Born on this day in 1923. Died on August 20, 1986. Named The People’s Poet by his peers. Playwright. Worker. Writer. Socialist. Canadian. Canada’s Greatest Poet. Born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Buried in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Red earth to red earth.

Poetry is important. A culture that does not value poetry is a culture no more. For, after all, as a poem erases and rewrites its poet, poetry erases and rewrites its society.

From time to time we need that.

Saint City News column: ‘B.C.-Alberta pact bad news for local democracy’

Here is yesterday’s Saint City News column:

A year ago next Tuesday — on April 1, 2007 — something happened that is potentially very bad news for the citizens of St. Albert and other communities large and small throughout Alberta and British Columbia.

Yet despite the potential significance of this bit of April foolery called TILMA, there has been precious little media coverage anywhere in Alberta throughout the past year.

Unfortunately, despite the day it went into effect, TILMA is no joke. TILMA stands for the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement between Alberta and B.C. It came into force with barely a whisper of opposition in this province, although it aroused a few protests in B.C. last summer.

Here in Alberta, there was virtually no news coverage, no Legislative debate, and no public hearing. Just quick and efficient passage and a few words here and there making TILMA out to be a sort of corporate bill of rights.

This is not so. Since under Canada’s Constitution municipalities are creatures of the provinces, TILMA amounts to an attack on local democracy, public health and environmental action. It’s a serious threat to municipalities like St. Albert, not to mention their taxpayers.

This is because TILMA says jurisdictions that sign up must ensure nothing restricts trade, investment or labour mobility among them. Like NAFTA and similar international trade agreements, this sounds swell, but means something different.

In the case of TILMA, it means municipalities cannot establish new standards or regulations to protect local jobs, the local environment or local public health without risking of fines of up to $5 million! It will be local taxpayers, of course, who end up footing this bill.

They face fines because such positive, democratic local initiatives could be ruled to restrict or impair trade, investment or labour mobility. And TILMA defines such local measures very broadly to include legislation, regulation, standards, directives, requirements, guidelines, programs, policies, administrative practices or other procedures.

Individuals and corporations, including multi-nationals, can use TILMA to bludgeon municipalities into abandoning virtually anything they argue restricts their ability to be profitable. This could include local environmental standards, or zoning bylaws that block urban sprawl, promote green space or restrict the height of buildings. Under TILMA, junk food makers could also challenge bans by local school boards on the sale of unhealthy food in schools. (And just watch, years later, when the kids get sick, this same crowd will argue for an end to public health care!)

What a great weapon for corporations determined to undermine local democracy and be bad corporate citizens. What a wonderful excuse for politicians who want to appear to respond to public pressure for “green” legislation, but also wish to support their corporate backers by wiggling out of their promises.

TILMA attacks the democratic right of citizens to decide what is right for their local communities. It means local policies must bow to corporate interests. It gives private sector investors priority over your democratic rights.

With Alberta’s Conservatives back in power, the possibility of TILMA getting a sober second thought seems small. Already there is a push by the B.C. and Alberta governments to get other jurisdictions to sign on.

Not only are they pressing other provinces to join, but some U.S. states say they’re interested too. So we could be forced to accept even lower U.S. standards as we make the race to the bottom a local as well as a national priority.

Anything from policies to encourage retail businesses at street level in downtown St. Albert to Alberta’s innovative and effective new anti-smoking legislation could run afoul of TILMA’s protection of profit at any cost. This is not good news for St. Albertans, or for anyone else who is concerned about local democracy.

Saint City News column: ‘Opposition leaders failed at their jobs in election’

In case you missed it, the Saint City News has given me the opportunity to write a twice-monthly political column. The first installment ran in the Friday, March 14, edition. I’m very grateful to the News for this opportunity. Herewith, a reprint of Friday’s column:

Ken Allred and Jack Flaherty are cut from pretty much the same piece of cloth.

One’s a former schoolteacher, aged 75, back for a spell as a politician. The other’s a former land surveyor, aged 67, back for the same reason. Both have excellent records of service to St. Albert. They’re a pair of decent, white bread, retirement-age, gentlemen with not that much that separates them.

Flaherty, our incumbent MLA, represented a political party that said it was time for change. Allred, his challenger, represented a government that said it had the formula for change. Both were responding to a raft of polls that indicated Albertans were fed up and wanted change.

On Election Day, Jack was swept away and Ken coasted to victory. So what the heck happened?

One thing should be obvious from the get-go: It was not the relative merits of either of these fine men that carried the day so convincingly for the Conservative and ruined Monday night for the Liberal.

No, this fight was won and lost on a wider battlefield. When the dust has settled, it should be clear that the principal failure in the March 3 provincial general election belongs to the two Opposition leaders, Liberal Kevin Taft and New Democrat Brian Mason. Neither managed to conduct a competent campaign, let alone an inspiring one. Both failed to exploit a once-in-an-era opportunity handed them by a jaded electorate, a stale government, a weak premier and a rag-tag collection of unions.

The big success, obviously, was Premier Ed Stelmach’s. For a second time, he surprised everyone with a blunder-free campaign.

But what actually happened may never be clear. This is because it’s in the interests of almost everyone to believe a misleading alternate theory. To wit: that those “attack ads” purchased by Albertans for Change, the coalition of unions that should have stuck to their knitting, actually galvanized support for Stelmach. The ads — so goes this myth — were unfair, un-Albertan, and unsuccessful.

This is baloney! But it’s baloney that tastes just fine all round!

It suits the government, because they know from their polling how effective the campaign actually was. With a little luck, the myth may prevent a similarly effective attack from even being launched next time.

It suits the major opposition parties, because it lets their hopeless leaders wiggle off the hook for a self-inflicted election-night debacle.

And it suits the labour leaders, who can be forgiven for wishing the whole thing would just go the heck away.

Fact is, though, the ads rang true with Albertans. It was the opposition that failed to exploit the opening they created.

Neither opposition party managed to articulate a vision for the province. No one knew what the Liberals or the New Democrats stood for – including own their supporters! When that happens, voters default to the government.

Neither reduced their platform to simple points and hammered them. This technique is well understood. It’s been honed to perfection by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But it was beyond the grasp of Taft. As for Mason, he had four weakly articulated points, but wasted energy hammering the Liberals instead. With no clear policies, voters default to the government.

Neither was capable of defining a ballot question. What was this election all about? We don’t know, because no one told us. When this happens, voters default to the government.

And when the government is run by the party with the big corporate bucks for TV ads, polls, phone banks and getting out the vote, the outcome is seldom in doubt.

What does this mean for St. Albertans? Probably not much. We’ll have capable if uninspired representation, just as we had before. We’ll have, as the old saw goes, the government we deserve.

Alas, it looks like we’ll also have the opposition we deserve. That’s a pity. It was that close to being an interesting four years!

Low-key town hall meeting hears some common sense

This evening’s Servus Place Citizens’ Advisory Task Force town hall meeting at the Cornerstone Pentecostal Church in Grandin Mall was a low-key affair. Only about 75 people attended, task force members and staff included. While there were a few cranky remarks – and not a few very long-winded ones – no one there seemed ready to storm the Bastille.

Indeed, my sense was that the most of those who came out view the work of the committee with a reasonable amount of good will and are prepared to reserve their judgment until it has an opportunity to report its findings.

Pretty much all the usual suspects – including this one, I’m afraid – got up on their hind legs and made the points they’ve made before in one forum or another. Lots of suggestions were offered – not all of them compatible with one another. For the most part it was a pretty unmemorable occasion.

Still, the best point of the night – in your blogger’s opinion – was made by Malcolm Parker. Mr. Parker, as those who follow St. Albert politics will remember, has run for City Council on more than one occasion. Based on his dignified and forceful performance this evening, he deserves a chance to serve in office.

Malcolm summed his argument up succinctly in four points:

1) The shock of the Servus Place deficit has worn off, and the excitement has died down.
2) Now that that’s happened, the St. Albert community wants Servus Place to be “a sustainable entity.”
3) To do that, though, the Task Force needs to “look at the past to learn from our mistakes.”
4) Therefore, “the Task Force must make it a priority to address the question of accountability.”

To me, and I think to most of the people at the town hall, this hit exactly the right note. It wasn’t vindictive. Malcolm didn’t call for heads to roll. But it did recognize that as a community we need to do more than make Servus Place a sustainable asset. We also need to ensure that an important project like this doesn’t go awry again.

The best way to do that, as Malcolm pointed out, is to forthrightly account for what happened.

That Servus Place poll: 80% against if they could vote again

It was a fluke – an inspired one perhaps – that led me approximately two months ago to choose for the expiry of my little on-line poll about Servus Place the same day that Ed Stelmach would select for a provincial general election. (As for that election, all I have to say tonight is “Holy Cow!”)

Just remember, it was me that first picked March 3, 2008, as a propitious day for a political event!

I asked the question: “In a 2004 plebiscite, St. Albert voters were asked: ‘Are you in favour of the City of St. Albert building (a) proposed Multipurpose Leisure Centre?’ If you could vote again today, how would you vote?”

Given the limitations of the Blogger site’s survey tool, extreme economy of words was required. Still, I believe most people “got it” about the question and understood the implication, “if you knew then what you know now, would you have still voted yes to building this facility?” One guy dramatically disagreed, writing, as I recall, that the question was “idiotic.” However, he wrote blogger Don Sinclair, not me. So nuts to that!

In the end, while the number of respondents was not huge, I was gratified that so many people bothered to respond to the poll. A total of 59 voters (one of them me) indicates, if nothing else, that this blog has a few readers. That the totals continued to edge up in parallel throughout the entire time the poll has been on line also strikes me as a hopeful indicator that readers continue to find this blog.

What do the results mean? If I had guessed when I was campaigning for elected office in last fall’s municipal vote, I would have said about 80 per cent of the St. Albertans I talked to regretted the decision to build Servus Place, given the financial outcome of the decision. About 20 per cent would have backed the decision to build regardless.

In the event, my poll never varied much from that. From Day one on Dec. 27, 2007, until last night at midnight when the poll closed, the tally was always about 80 per cent against, 20 per cent for. The final count – 47 against (79 per cent) to 12 for (20 per cent) – showed almost precisely the same ratio as appeared on the day the survey went on line. Moreover, people with both views continued responding right to the end.

Now, these kinds of polls are not very scientific. They are self selecting – only people who are interested bother to vote. And they are subject to manipulation – it is possible, if you know how to overcome the limitation on one vote per computer, to vote more than once. Still, my gut tells me that this one has hit the sentiments of St. Albertans bang on.

For the moment, Servus Place has died down as a hot issue in St. Albert. This, I think, is mainly because most citizens (like me) wish City Council, its consultants and its operational review volunteers well in their efforts to find a solution to the facility’s problems. It is also because, with the provincial general election, St. Albertans have had other fish to fry. With the election over, I expect that once the reviews are complete, Servus Place will be back on St. Albert’s political front burner. How hard the issue boils will depend on how successful the city’s Servus Place Action Plan turns out to be.

In the mean time, I would very much welcome the suggestions of readers for future poll questions.

Tories: They dish it out, but they can’t take it!

OK, so what is with the reaction here in Alberta to those “attack ads,” paid for by several unions, that accuse Premier Ed Stelmach of having no plan, no way?

The government’s initial response was predictable, if mildly inept. Suddenly, they had a plan for everything. Indeed, by now, a day before Alberta’s general election, we could almost officially christen Mr. Stelmach The Plan Man!

The next move was a classic. Friends of the government in the private sector, like the mysteriously funded National Citizens Coalition and the anti-union Merit Contractors Association, opened up a new front. It’s a venerable right-wing strategy: when under attack, counter-attack somewhere else! So they did, rhetorically assailing the unions for using money raised from members’ dues to – heaven forefend! – advocate a political position that might benefit union members.

Well, this is to be expected from the likes of the NCC, which will go to court to defend the free speech rights of billionaires, but gets a little antsy at the thought the elected representatives of working people might want to do the same thing. Whatever…

Next, the government stepped back in with a TV advertisement that begins with a re-run of the No Plan ad, and then intones, “This isn’t Alberta style politics…”

The reaction of many individual Conservative Party supporters at this supposedly un-Albertan development has been much angrier. Trade unions, one local commentator wrote recently in response to the ads, “are a useless bunch who protect the very worst workers from being dealt with by employers. They had their use in their day, but that day is gone.”

Well, OK, he must not have been at the same worksites where I spent my career, but he’s got a right to his opinion. Whether or not I agree, I believe his anger and distress are genuine and sincere – as are the reactions of callers to the group that financed the ads, whose commentary at times has bordered on the hysterical.

But the anger of these Conservative supporters notwithstanding, the reality is that political attack ads are not un-Albertan at all. Indeed, the Alberta-based brain trust behind Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no problem whatsoever with attack ads – as long as they’re directed at Liberals like federal Opposition Leader Stephane Dion.

The Tory attack ads were nasty but effective, taking the comments of other Liberals out of context, mocking Mr. Dion’s English pronunciation and generally making him look like a stumblebum. Their conclusion, that Mr. Dion is “not a leader” is similar in tone to the position of the Albertans for Change ads that Mr. Stelmach has “no plan.”

So why was there virtually no reaction in Alberta to the Tories’ brutal anti-Dion attack ads?

I’ll tell you why. Because in Western Canada’s political culture, vicious attack ads are a normal part of political discourse – as long as they are directed at centrists, liberals and social democrats. Dion as bumbler? Liberals as pigs at a trough? Endless overwrought responses to leaked “criminal investigations” of NDP and Liberal politicians – which mysteriously all turn out to be nothing after the election is over? All of this is barely worthy of a raised eyebrow.

This may simply be because, generally speaking, only the Tories have the big bucks needed to produce these kinds of ads. But whatever the reason, when a labour group finally dares to adopt this revered Conservative practice, there is fury in the land!

Personally, I think it’s because Tories can dish it out, but they can’t take it. They’re used to putting the lumber to their opponents. But they don’t like the sensation when it comes back at ’em!

Regardless of the reason, it is an article of faith in this part of the world among many supporters of all political parties that Albertans don’t like negative political ads. Some sharp observers predict that many voters will support the Tories because the ads offended them. As readers of this blog know, I am not so sure. I guess that we’ll have a clue tomorrow about whether the anti-Stelmach ads worked.

I have a theory that if Liberal Jack Flaherty wins again in St. Albert tomorrow – without a Wildrose Alliance candidate in the riding to distract right-wing voters like last time – it will be compelling evidence that the Albertans for Change ad did work. If Tory Ken Allred wins, and the Conservatives do well elsewhere, it’ll be evidence they didn’t. We’ll know soon after 8 p.m. tomorrow.

Either way, though, I am prepared to confidently predict one thing: For good or ill, we will never see a return to the civility of the past in Alberta political advertising.

Until tomorrow, readers can amuse themselves by watching uncontroversial anti-Liberal attack ads, and controversial anti-Tory attack ads, linked in the two blog posts below. Then they can judge for themselves …

"Not a leader…"

Tory-sponsored anti-Dion attack ad.

"No Plan…"

The original “No Plan” ad from Albertans for Choice.

Election Eve Reminder: Surprises do happen

Your blogger, yesterday, with a former premier. Could happen again…

With the provincial general election just two days away, dissatisfaction in the air but no one quite able to believe that 37 years of the same old same old could ever give way to something new, this photo is provided as a public service, to remind readers that now and then, surprises do occur in politics.

On Sept. 15, 1972, Dave Barrett, the Dave on the left, surprised everyone (including himself, one suspects) by leading his New Democratic Party to a majority victory in British Columbia. Your blogger was there, and the mood in B.C. then was not unlike the mood in Alberta now – hunger for change, disbelief in the hope it could ever come.

Yeah, the NDP only lasted a single term, but as Mr. Barrett noted today in a brief meeting in Edmonton with a group of what the mainstream media calls “labour bosses,” present company included, much of the landmark legislation they drafted remains usefully on the books – including the agricultural land reserve (which anticipated the green movement), fair and affordable government-run auto insurance and the introduction of Question Period to the Legislature.

Of course, surprises are surprises because they surprise. That is to say, they don’t happen all that often or they wouldn’t qualify. Chances are, Monday will be no exception. But if not Monday, then one of these days, Albertans will wake up to something completely different!