Top 10 dog days of summer .. Cindy Sheehan, more trans-Canada follies, more news from Iraq, etc.

Aug 16th, 2005 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

“August,” some poet has said, is “for the people and their favourite islands.” It is also a time when journalists complain about how nothing ever happens in “the dog days of summer.” This year may be an exception. I have been trying to watch only baseball on TV, but the bigger world keeps intruding. As therapy (and, well, protest too), I have compiled a top 10 list on how the week of August 814,  2005 looked, north of the lakes … from the bereaved mother, Cindy Sheehan, watching over George W. Bush’s vacation … to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show on the quest for an ethanol alternative in Canada … and the sudden surge of handgun violence in Toronto the Good … Read on at your own peril, of course …

1. George W. Bush’s summer vacation is being dampened (one hopes?) by a single protester near the ranch gate in Crawford, Texas. She is a plainly distressed middle-aged woman, whose soldier son was killed in Iraq. The story was covered quietly on the evening TV news in Western New York, and alluded to as well on CNN. Meanwhile the adjacent Canadian TV reports that Dick Cheney will be visiting Alberta next month, to inspect the tar-sands oil supply. Is this a sign that the White House is also starting to think harder about a US foreign policy that depends less on Middle East oil? Probably not? (And in any case on September 4 it was reported that Mr. Cheney has cancelled the trip, as a result of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.)

2. In the longstanding Canada-US softwood lumber trade dispute yet another NAFTA panel has found in Canada’s favour. But Washington has made clear that it is still not going to leave its noisy domestic producer interests to the mercy of some pinhead international rule of law beyond its borders. Canadian politicians are making the usual bold noises about real free trade. Canadian voters may be wondering why their leaders keep on humming this tune. Canadian lumbering just has to keep developing more processing capacity of its own, and cultivating new global markets. Canadian political leaders are apparently going to be making more bold noises. The world’s only superpower next door will of course do what it likes in the end.

3. Louis Menand, one of the few deeply interesting present-day American literary intellectuals, has just published some compelling thoughts on the 1920s1960s literary critic from Red Bank, New Jersey, Edmund Wilson, in The New Yorker (a magazine for which Wilson once wrote himself). A few sentences suggest why the whole thing is worth reading in full: “Wilson came out of the Progressive era. … he enlisted European modernism in a mission … to deprovincialize American culture … he … had firmly in his sights the twin enemies of every Progressive intellectual: unregulated business and the genteel tradition … Wilson hated American chauvinism and gentility, and everything he associated with them-prudery, pedantry, commercialism, and militarism. That hatred is the starch in his prose.”

4. All 10 Canadian provincial premiers (and three territorial leaders) have just held their annual midsummer meeting of what is now called the Council of the Federation, in the beautiful town of Banff, in the oil-rich Province of Alberta. By all accounts this has been the best ever event of its sort for hangers-on. This year’s host, Premier Ralph Klein, now widely rumoured to be in the denouement of his long political career, served gourmet food and laid on a Rocky Mountain train trip. Policy-wise, there was nothing like the warm-up for last year’s ground-breaking federal-provincial health-care funding deal. But there were apparently more diffuse good vibes. The new US ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins from South Carolina, was a special guest. He listened to the usual provincial complaints about softwood lumber, guns across the border, and on and on.

5. The midsummer issues of The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books are full of provocative news on the War in Iraq and allied subjects. The White House may not read either publication, for its own good reasons. But a report from Baghdad by the seasoned Iraq correspondent Patrick Cockburn, in the August 4 London Review of Books, nonetheless concludes with especially ominous thoughts: “There is unlikely to be peace in Iraq while US forces remain. Their presence fuels the war. There are frequent leaks from Washington and London about reducing the number of troops … The Americans don’t have a long-term plan for Iraq. Their main priority is for the White House’s actions to be presented in the US as a success … But, as the war enters its third year, the extent of American failure in Iraq is becoming more and more difficult to conceal.”

6. Catherine Swift, a persistent representative for Canadian small business, is worrying about how “in the dog days of summer, when most people aren’t paying very close attention, politicians across Ontario are busily crafting a piece of legislation that, if passed, could represent the single biggest change in the way Canadians are governed, and taxed, since Confederation.” For years federal and provincial (state) governments in Canada have been balancing their books by downloading assorted public responsibilities to municipal (local) governments. At last the Province of Ontario seems to be working on giving its local governments greater tax powers to meet these responsibilities. Ms. Swift thinks someone should be sounding alarm bells about that.

7 . Soon “water from Devils Lake, North Dakota – along with whatever is in it – will start flowing into the Sheyenne River, and then the Red River, and then Lake Winnipeg,” in the Province of Manitoba, Canada. The “project is going ahead, despite the best efforts of the federal and Manitoba governments to stop it, because Canadian officials badly misread the implications of a local emergency, and by the time they woke up to reality, it was too late.” Journalist John Ibbitson advises: “There are those who believe that water …. will become the dominant geopolitical flashpoint, both within North America and globally, over the coming decades.” If that’s true, Canadian officials in Ottawa are going to have to wake up earlier, and “pay a great deal more attention to what’s happening in state and provincial legislatures.”

8. The premiers’ meeting in Alberta almost bumped into some dog-day controversy over whether the newly designated governor general of Canada, Michalle Jean from Quebec, is actually a closet Quebec separatist or sovereigntist or whatever it is. (Or is it just her husband from France?) The story was started by Quebec separatists, miffed at being outplayed by federal prime minister Paul Martin’s cunning appointment of the lovely Mme Jean in the first place. But then it was picked up briefly by some provincial premiers, and federal Conservative leader Stephen Harper, starved for attention in the summer heat. O Canada, when will you grow up at last – as even the anglophone west end of Montreal now recommends? (And O Canada, by the way, is also the title of a mid-1960s book by Edmund Wilson, from the time when, as Louis Menand says, “he turned to the old, the marginal, the neglected, and the obscure.”)

9. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show sent senior Canadian studies policy advisor Rob Cordry north of the unfortified border to report on the local quest for ethanol, as an alternative fuel to all the oil in Alberta, Texas, and the Middle East, etc. Eric Reguly, an actually quite interesting business columnist with the Globe and Mail in Toronto, tried to explain to Rob that ethanol was just another Canadian wild goose chase, like the great Terry Fox, or Stephen Leacock’s “Sinking of the Mariposa Belle.” But Rob would have none of it. The Corn-Cob Bob guy or whatever, that the ethanolites had dreamed up as a maniacal marketing tool, was too good to pass up. Which probably made some Canadians think that someone somewhere in some part of the country finally should figure out how to “re-brand” Canada, in a way that translates not quite so badly on The Daily Show. (Even blue-state liberals still do have some problems with the subject, it seems – like, when all is said and done, just why does it exist anyway, if it really does? Maybe one secret is not to even try to answer that question at all? Or is that the problem now?)

10. The long and too hot summer of 2005 has had an almost alarming impact on Canada’s largest big city. In what used to be called, ironically or otherwise, Toronto the Good, since “the last week of July, eight people have been shot to death and 25 have been injured in shootings, including a four-year-old boy.” That’s at least a record for this old city of churches in what also used to call itself the Peaceable Kingdom, and it is shaking a lot of old and new local people up.

Mmm … something must be done, but what? The latest statistics seem to show that visions of more and more guns coming across the Peace and Rainbow bridges from the over-excited states are just the Canadian flip side of the American paranoia that terrorists are lined up all along the unfortified northern border, patiently waiting to wreak untold havoc on the great republic. I.e., increasing numbers of guns from the USA are not really the key problem.

Mayor David Miller, who has been to Harvard and is quite progressive, seems to feel that part of the current trouble is the cut-back public services in parks and recreation centres, that once helped him navigate his own single-parent adolescence in the modern city with the heart of a loan shark (as they say in the rest of Canada). But who has any money for that these days?

For the moment Toronto, with some financial assistance from the Province of Ontario, is just going to hire more police officers. And the police force has quickly been re-organized, to ensure “more diversity in the top ranks – including the first black deputy chief of police and only the third-ever woman deputy,” and “less centralized decision-making for the first time in years.”

As for the longer-term future, the Globe and Mail has just published a piece on steps taken by the old imperial metropolis in London, England, across the sea, when it was faced with “a rash of black-on-black’ gun violence … where both victim and shooter are of West Indian or African origin.” Toronto, it is sometimes still said, grew up in the crossfire between London and New York. Taking advice from London, which is now seven hours away by plane, remains a local policy strategy for avoiding complete and terminal absorption by New York, which is considerably closer. (Though new kinder and gentler Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair should not be confused with Sir Ian Blair, who appears to be the head of the police in London these days.)

All this can also remind you that back in the early 1960s Edmund Wilson from New York “visited for the first time Toronto, a rapidly growing industrial city, of which it is customary to say that it is getting to be indistinguishable from our similar cities in the Middle West but which I felt to have its own rhythm and accent.” Maybe if someone somehow tried to revive some of that in the early 21st century it would help a bit too?

And who knows? Maybe someone somehow is? “On Monday, Michael Thompson, a Toronto city councillor for Scarborough centre, said police should be allowed to stop young black men at random as part of a crackdown on guns … Mr. Thompson, who is black, said a large percentage of the guns being used and a large number of people being killed are in the black community, so there is a need to focus on people in that community.”

Chief Blair’s police have no doubt wisely demurred: “The chief’s position on racial profiling has been clear from day one, and that is that it is completely unacceptable,’ said Mark Pugash, spokesman for Toronto Police Services.” Even so, the local-statesman-like and eminently civilized Councillor Thompson has just said some brave words in public. They will probably go some distance towards reassuring Torontonians of all complexions today that somehow the old real and true Toronto the Good is going to survive.

(Meanwhile, on the morning of August 17 all Torontonians also awoke to the news that: “It’s happened again another life has been lost to gunfire on Toronto’s increasingly mean streets.”)

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