Not The First Rodeo – Let’s Hope It’s Not The Last

As I write, America and her international audience are anticipating an election that – regardless of how the numbers work out – is certain to decide nothing. Well, I suppose after some kicking and screaming and not a few riots (complete with gunshots), some old white guy will get to sleep in the presidential palace for four years, if he lives that long. And, there will be many more books published – and much hand-wringing on CNN – by the faithful who still believe in American exceptionalism and the oft-repeated mantra, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

The trouble, of course, is the people. In his 1953 novel In The Wet, British novelist Nevil Shute has a protagonist explain the following: “I doubt if history can show, in any country, in any time, a more greedy form of government than democracy as practiced in Great Britain in the last fifty years… The common man has held the voting power, and the common man has voted consistently to increase his own standard of living, regardless of the long term interests of his children, regardless of the wider interests of his country.”

An ocean away, and not a century earlier, Abraham Lincoln delivered that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” mantra to an audience of dead neighbours at Gettysburg. And here we are, a century and a half later, watching the folly unfold once again. “The people,” we moan, “are letting us down! They are uneducated, lazy, greedy. They don’t trust the media, they don’t trust the science. They’re going to riot in the streets if they don’t get their way. They’re too stupid to understand…”

Excuse me: of course they understand. They understand all too well. They understand that at least fifty percent of the population considers them “the deplorables” and refuses to pay for the education they need to succeed, the health care they need to survive, and the environment and infrastructure they need to thrive. They don’t care to hear promises about searching for solutions and working to fix problems… they need their “government of the people” to cough up the damn money and actually fix the problems by enacting the solutions, one of which would be to train and pay them properly to work on the things that are important to our shared society.

Making it to the next rodeo will mean that we cannot adopt Nevil Shute’s somewhat nihilist view of “the common man” and allow our society to shrivel into at least an oligarchy or at worst a full-blown dictatorship. Democracy may seem to be an imperfect tool for governing a state, but for it to have any chance at all of success we must pay more than lip-service to maintaining a healthy, educated and prosperous common society.

Neither is democracy a meritocracy; embracing it means we must accept that every single human being has exactly the same rights and responsibilities as every other single human being at every stage of life. If we do not rise to that call, we will forever receive exactly what we deserve: government by the greedy.


… so many friends

It’s October, 2020, and I feel ancient. I have so many friends.

These have been my friends:

The young Indigenous man who gently undertakes a ceremonial fast in front of a provincial legislature, fighting not the noisy battles of treaties and nation-building, but a quieter battle to support mental health in his community.

The cop whose idea of a perfect day is one spent caring for the community he loves before returning home and being cared for by the family that loves him.

The young reporter who lies violated and charred in a ditch in a faraway country, executed for the crime of investigating corporate malfeasance.

The apprentice mechanic with first aid training who requested two hours off this afternoon to take the town ambulance to a high-school game.

The Sailor First Class who has been deemed emotionally unfit for service and discharged for having the temerity to report her own rape by a senior officer.

So many friends. They blur together with the passage of time. How did I meet them? Did they turn up in the bar one night, like the cute little babe with the nice boobs and the red hair? Or – wait a minute – maybe that one turned up on page 312 of my second novel. Or maybe not. I think she was in the second chapter of the first book. If it’s her, she was more blond than red, but whatever.

Never mind. They are all my friends. Well, maybe not all of them. Some of them were downright evil, no friends of mine. Killers, thieves, misogynists. Nobody would call them friends, not even I. But, after all, I am a writer and I need friends, so I’ll just write about them differently: soldiers, politicians, priests! There, that’s better. So many friends.

Do you remember the old guy at the garage, the one who could fix anything as long as it didn’t have a computer in it? I do. And I remember his wife, too… the one with the sad eyes. They didn’t have kids, but there were rumours that long ago they had a daughter. There had to have been a story there, but I never did find out. Or maybe I ran out of space. So many friends.

In 1637, or maybe it was 1644, French philosopher René Descartes wrote I think, therefore I am. (Latin scholars amongst us will have first heard it as Cogito Ergo Sum, but it means about the same thing only plainer in English. Actually, Descartes was French, so at first he actually wrote, je pense, donc je suis but in the interest of maintaining a snooty sense of clarity it is most often quoted in Latin. Really.

In any case, for me it is a piece of crap wrapped up in a pretty language, apparently for the sole purpose of reinforcing a false distinction between different classes in society… between all my friends, in fact. Hell, horses think. Even cows think, only slower. Not even counting the four-legged ones, all my friends think. But the thing that makes them unique is how they feel. How they feel makes them who they are. Indeed, some of my friends may not even think as well as the dumbest of cows, but they all feel, and therefore they are.

These have been my friends:

The coastguard officer who retired early to start his own business at a village in cottage country.

The brilliant young biologist who is passionate about birds and wild places, wrestling with greedy politicians and bureaucrats in an effort to measure the harm human beings inflict on our tiny globe.

The oilfield truck driver with a somewhat warped sense of justice but a heart of gold.

The elderly lady who took a young man to bed one night, sharing wisdom and comfort.

It’s still October 2020, but now I feel even older as I realize that some of my friends may have physically moved on, even as they linger in my soul, or on my pages, or both.

I feel them close, therefore they exist.


Gonna leave this here, and wait about four months:

Quote from Barton Gellman, in The Atlantic, in late September, 2020:

Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.

Trump’s invincible commitment to this stance will be the most important fact about the coming Interregnum. It will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before.

A culture of greed focused through a lens of pure evil

The USA under the presidency of Donald J. Trump

Every race, every country, every culture and every religion has its share of bigots, extremists and misogynists. Such people may be fellow citizens, they may be neighbours or relatives, and yes, some may be people whom we have called “friends”.

In Canada and the USA, as in many other countries, there are constitutions, bills of rights and so forth. Good for them, but those praiseworthy documents are truly just paper and won’t fix the problem when a country is lit by an inherent culture of greed focused through a lens of pure evil. Laws are worthless when they are willfully ignored.


About Going Back to School in a Pandemic

Things that going back to school during a pandemic are not about:

  • Forcing overworked Moms to go back to work for low wages to keep the economy strong.
  • Enabling parents to pursue business and lifestyle dreams in which their children come second.

Things that going back to school during a pandemic are absolutely about:

  • Ensuring that children receive the best possible education, period.
  • Ensuring that children receive the best possible health care, period.

How does society accomplish this?

  • Develop plans by listening to education and healthcare professionals, not school boards and politicians.
  • Collectively pay the full cost. Period.

There. That was simple, wasn’t it!


White Folks and Original Sin

Immigrants to North America have long seemed determined to practice Original Sin. It’s bad enough that we white folk from Europe stole North America at gunpoint from its original inhabitants, but then we went and imported (also at gunpoint) people from yet another continent to serve as our slaves. That must be why we white folks have such a problem with Black Lives Matter: it’s hard enough to admit that we have wronged another race, let alone figure out which one we’re talking about on any given day!

Lest we white Canadians protest that we never had slaves and that we have always treated our Indigenous neighbours fairly through negotiated treaties, I would like to offer this blog post written by my (formerly Australian) wife Valerie, in which she shares a seminal moment in her understanding of Canada’s flawed inter-racial relationships:

In the 1970s we lived for awhile in Slave Lake, where I worked for a time as a bank teller at the local branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia. In those days, the federal government gave coupons to the residents of the First Nations Reservation north of the town. These they would take to the local store on the Res to buy their groceries etc.

There was, apparently, a policy at the time to bring the First Nations people – one at a time – out of the reserve and put them in the town of Slave Lake “to learn to live like the white man”. They were told, “No more coupons, just the government cheque. Go to a bank where they will take the cheque and give you money.” 

Most did not speak any English, only Cree. These people would be picked up by a bus and dropped off on Main Street. We knew an Irish Catholic Monk there who would find these people sitting – mostly at night – in doorways, not knowing what to do or where to go. He would take them home and feed and clothe these poor people, which is where we met a number of them.

So, at the end of the month, the government cheques came in: old age pension, family allowance and so on. When a (white) senior came in with her cheque, the teller would be all smiles and very chatty and gave her cash. Then there was another, and another, receiving the same welcoming treatment. Then a very small Indigenous man came in with his cheque and a young man who was his interpreter. The teller said, “we don’t cash those here.” The young man asked, “why not” and she said, “because the government takes too long to pay the bank.” The young man told the old man who looked totally confused: “now what?” The teller said, “move back I have to serve others.”

Then along came a young (white) mum with her two children and her family allowance cheque.  The teller was chatty as before and there was no problem. The mum and her kids left with cash in hand. I watched as the old man and young man talked quietly together, not knowing what to do. 

Another (white) senior came in and again there was no problem: out he went with his money. The old man and young man shuffled forward to the teller again, and she said, “I told you we don’t cash those here. Step back!” They went and stood by the door, not knowing where to go from here. Then a young Indigenous mum came in with her three children  and her family allowance cheque. The teller said, “I’ve told you before we don’t cash those here.” and she, too, left.

I watched this a number of times and when I asked the teller what the difference was between the government cheques, her response was, “We won’t cash their cheques because it takes too long to get our money back.” When I asked, “What about the white peoples’ cheques?” she said “Oh, that’s different, they need their money of course and we always cash their cheques.” I then asked, “So where are Indigenous people supposed to go to get their money?” she replied, “Who cares? Go to the liquor store for all we care, or anywhere else that will cash it.”

I was very angry and very sad.  The old man and young man were still standing near the door.   So I called the old man over to my wicket. I told the young man to tell him to make his sign and I would cash his cheque. Which is exactly what he did: one “X” later and I cashed his government cheque. And that is when the most heartbreaking thing of all happened: this little man literally bowed down to me and backed all the way to the door bowing to me, because I had given to him what was rightfully his!

A little later a young Indigenous mum came in with her family allowance and came straight to my wicket. Of course, I cashed her cheque. Then came another, and I did the same. I was soon called into the manager’s office, where he told me, “We absolutely do not cash their cheques, telling me the same reason the teller had told. I said “Okay”.

It was no time at all before I had a line-up of Indigenous people, young and old, with their government cheques.  I was called three times into the manager’s office who told me off and I would keep saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry I forgot………”

The last time he called me in I was fired.  By giving these people their money for their cheques, which they had every right to cash – the same right as all the white folks who came in at the end of the month – it cost me my job. No one, absolutely no one, should feel they have to bow down – let alone walk backwards while bowing – to anyone.

“Heartbreaking” doesn’t come anywhere close to it…


Anti-systemic-racism in Canada needs to include Indigenous people as well as Blacks

On Thursday, June 18, 2020, I sent an email letter to the recently-minted Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism. I addressed this letter to Andy Radia of Kingsdale Advisors, who is identified as the contact for the CCBLAABSR. I have so far not received a reply but when I do I will post it here.

Hi Andy:

On its face, I applaud this initiative. However, in Canada, while racism targeting blacks is most definitely a “thing”, this is, in fact, Canada and racism against Indigenous people has been a destructive part of our reality since before Confederation .

Without intending to be argumentative, I would appreciate knowing your organization’s response to that reality.


Peter Kingsmill

COVID-19 shows us how we could meet better

April 2, 2020:  A great many planned face-to-face meetings are being replaced by webinars or teleconferences because of the pandemic. I guess folks are scared of catching the virus, so they plan other ways to accomplish what they need to do. So I was a little taken aback when I read today that United Nations officials have postponed COP26 (the international climate talks scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland) as a result of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

I do understand the caution. But what I do not understand is why COP26 was not restructured as a web-conference. Seems like an ideal justification for the climate change scientists and proponents to practice what they preach rather than fly people all over the world to conferences. Embrace the technology and hold the meetings remotely; who knows, you might save not only yourselves from getting COVID-19, but also the rest of us from totally unnecessary GHGs.

Better ways to meet…

Reflections on the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal…”

As far as its relationship to the fundamental teachings of Jesus, in whose name it was built (to the actual glory of princes and kings and bishops and popes and almost certainly built by underpaid labour) Notre Dame Cathedral has consumed money and resources and emotions that would (always) have been better directed elsewhere.

However, taking those harsh thoughts out of the equation, it was a magnificent building, a tribute to its builders and a thing of beauty for all of us to share. A very sad day was April 16th!


A Guide to Mismanaging Plastic Waste

Canadians are wonderfully warm-hearted and civically-minded people. After all, nothing feels more satisfying than making a charitable donation to an organization working to remove plastic waste from the world’s oceans; those images of sickly or dead whales and dolphins choking on plastic sandwich wrap and beach sandals are pretty hard to stomach (so to speak!) We also love our politics, and  notwithstanding lobbying against carbon taxes, most Canadians would voice their support for “polluter-pay” legislation (certainly as long as the polluters are not ourselves, of course!)

And therein hangs a tale. We purchase cute recycled plastic bracelets and dredge up “Free Willy” from our childhood movie collection in the forlorn hope that we are somehow helping to stem the scourge of mismanaged plastics. Not.

Consider this: according to the Wall Street Journal, 2010 figures show that 8.8 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste came from China with an estimated 3.53 million metric tons of it ending up in the ocean. You can add a similar amount from the other Asiatic coastal countries. The United States is also guilty of polluting oceans with plastic, but at a mere 0.11 million metric tons. While one can argue that even a pick-up truck load is too much, Canada doesn’t even make it to the chart. So much for polluter-pay!

And so much for even taking care of our own plastic waste: as little as three years ago, we used to rely on Asia – in particular China – to take care of our Canadian plastic waste. We would sort it away from our landfills, load it into containers and ship them across the Pacific – despite the fact that plastic waste from the destination countries themselves was being dumped into that very same ocean, and headed east to our very own shores. Of course, China was being very cooperative, returning much of our recycled plastic to Canada as manufactured goods so cheap as to undercut the stuff we manufacture at home.

Now, China has decided to clean up its act with its new “Green Sword” program, banning all imports of waste plastic. Now, much of North American plastic waste is stranded and the comparatively few American recyclers of waste plastic simply don’t have the capacity to handle it all. And the prices have tanked, so to make matters worse, municipal recycling programs are everywhere from challenged to permanently shut down. Even at the 16 to 43 Waste Management Corporation’s facility at the Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve, Site Manager Todd Linsley says that recyclable plastic wastes  are being baled and stored under cover along with paper and cardboard in hopes of future solutions: “The only other option at the moment is putting it into the landfill, but we are doing everything within our power to avoid that.”

The bigger the worser, apparently. Journalist Michael Corkery reported in the New York Times (March 19, 2019) that Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. “In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.” According to Corkery, hundreds of towns and cities across the country have either cancelled recycling programs outright or limited the types of material they accept.

Chris Cui, director of China Programs for Closed Loop Partners, says companies in the United States and China can help each other: “Recycling companies in China have long played the role of outsourced recycling processors for countries such as the U.S.,” Closed Loop Partners is an investment firm that provides capital to recycling-related enterprises.

“Chinese companies have the capability to process material at relatively low cost. The U.S., on the other hand, is far more advanced in collection and transportation of recyclables, and this is a gap,” Cui said from the stage of the Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show, held in Maryland, USA, in late March. “The gap can be bridged by connecting recycling operators in both countries, so they can share knowledge and resources.”

According to an article in Plastics Recycling Update (Resource Recycling Inc.), Closed Loop Partners launched its China Programs department last year following China’s ban on imports of many categories of recyclables. Director Cui continued: “… we see there is a huge opportunity after the ban for us over there, and we want to build a bridge for the industry here in the U.S. to work together with their counterparts in China and the rest of Asia.”

Cui suggested that plastic not currently being recycled in the U.S. and China represents over $230 billion in potential value. “ Chinese companies have a lot of challenges when they come to the U.S., culturally,” she said. “You can invest in a plant, but how do you make sure that the management team is up and running? How do you make sure you know how to work with the local state, the local government? How can you identify which area is the best for you to set up your plant? You have to consider the transportation, do you have enough feedstock, if there’s any tax incentive opportunity zone, those are the kinds of value you can add to the Chinese players that are coming over here.”

Just as our own failures to make any real attempts to deal with fresh water pollution and climate change are increasingly threatening Canada’s economy and our way of life, it appears that decades of inaction on properly addressing waste reduction and materials recycling may well be the next major challenge to building and maintaining a healthy society. It would be ironic if, having unloaded our waste plastic problem onto China for decades, we are forced to allow them to provide solutions within our own country. We really do need to be careful, and to do better.

Peter Kingsmill is a recipient of the Governor General’s Conservation Award and past chair and founder of the Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve in Saskatchewan