Saturday, December 29, 2012

My Log 333 Dec 29 2012 Loss of memory: does it really occur in everyone, or just the aged? Reflections on a couple of recent films, and some small confusions

Cover of "The Man Who Sued God"
Cover of The Man Who Sued God

 A thing that is slightly oppressive as one moves into one’s eighties is the evidence of frequent memory loss. Oddly enough, when I mention this to people --- people of 45 or 50, or even younger --- they always say the same thing, “Oh, yes, that happens to me too.” I am never sure if they are just trying to reassure me, or whether it really does happen to everyone, which, if true would not be really surprising, because it seems to be a fact of modern  life that we now have more information than the human mind can cope with.

A couple of aspects of memory loss that have become persistent for me only in the last few years are first, an inability to remember something I read or watched only yesterday, and secondly, when picking up a book to choose, a difficulty in remembering whether or not I have read it before.  None of these afflicted me in earlier years, and I was surprised a few months ago to find, as I laboured through a new book, that something about it was vaguely familiar, and, as I read on, became so familiar that finally I remembered having read it before. A few years ago I would have spotted that in the first sentence.

Thus it is that I find it hard to remember titles, even of writers many of whose works I have read, such as John LeCarré, James Lee Burke, Ian McEwan, even my beloved P.G. Wodehouse. It happens more and more frequently that I arrive home with a new book, only to discover I have already read it.

Eventually, these traits became so commonplace for me that I have reverted to a habit I had a few years ago, which is to make notes of every book I read, every movie I see, so that, in an extremity, I can refer to the notes and refresh my memory that way.

I have also found myself falling into unprecedented confusion about detail: for example, visiting Toronto over the holidays, my son and I watched three movies. I remembered the last one I had seen, but as for the two earlier ones, their titles had completely vanished from my mind, along with their themes, and even the members of their casts. When he reminded me of the title The Man Who Sued God --- a striking enough title, for God’s sake --- I began to describe the plot to an acquaintance, only to find that the story I was telling was actually that of a film called Find Me Guilty. The common thing between the two movies was that they both had long court scenes as the centrepiece of the action. The third film was one called Harlem Nights, starring such black comedians as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Redd Fox, and some others. Halfway through, as the story about a nightclub during prohibition days unfolded, I said to my son, “What’s this got to do with Robert Johnson (the great black folk singer of earlier years)?”  He said, “No, the story of Robert Johnson was the film we didn’t choose.”  Another memory confusion.

It is probably worth mentioning in passing that  The Man Who Sued God was about the wonderful Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, playing a boatowner in Australia whose boat is sunk during a storm that gave the insurance companies licence to say it was an Act of God, and therefore, not covered. Connolly’s character, a persistent mischief-maker, decided that his best recourse was to sue God, a course he followed with such elegance and vivacity that the churches finally agreed to settle a sum of $150,000 on him against the loss of his boat plus another $200,000 for his trouble and inconvenience, the only rider being that the deal must remain secret.

Connolly thereafter took legal advice and entered a class-action suit for half a billion dollars, representing all the thousands of people who had been cheated by the “act of God” excuse over the years. At this point the tone of the movie changed, became more serious, as a genuine debate broke out about where God was to be found, how he could be held accountable, and finally, whether or not he actually exists. The clergymen, representing their established churches, were forced into a position in which they would have had to argue that God did not exist if they were to win their cause. I liked this film a lot, another good one from the Aussies.

The other courtroom drama, also based on the apparently frivolous fact that it was about an accused mobster, one of 20 charged with mob activities under the RICO act, who decided to represent himself. This film  also took on more serious tone as the mobster, persuasively played by Vin Diesel, began to ask serious questions of the witnesses whom his mob brothers, outraged by his unorthodoxy, put up to denigrate him and call his honesty into question. This developed into an interesting examination of a man under pressure, a man without any significant education, a crook who freely admitted his culpability for a wide variety of crimes, but in whom an unaccustomed path slowly seemed to be settling in his mind --- a path of decency and honour.

This was apparently based on a real-life occurrence. After the longest trial in U.S. history, the jury found all 21 accused innocent --- so all went free except the barrack-room lawyer, who was already serving a life sentence for other crimes.

A footnote recorded that he was released after seven years, and took up a quiet, and apparently crime-free life in the suburbs of somewhere like New Jersey. But not before having been greeted on his return from the court to prison by his fellow prisoners as a hero for his part --- no doubt significant --- in helping to obtain freedom for all the accused, whose confidence he was proud never to have betrayed, even under the most intense provocation.

I started out, somehow or other, to write about a book I have just read, but it will have to wait for next time.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Log 332, Dec 19 2012 Five Broken Cameras, the sort of film everyone should see, watched by me and nine others last night

Cinq caméras brisées - un village contre une a...
Five Broken Cameras, a Village against an army by Emad Burnat et Guy David :  (Photo credit: ☪yrl)

  Last night at my local movie house, Cinema du Parc, in Montreal,  I saw one of those gritty amateur documentaries that sometimes tell us much more than the smooth, professional effort. The movie --- Five Broken Cameras ----was about the daily life of a Palestinian village, Bi’lin on the West Bank, and its struggle to oppose the brutal occupation of their lands, the theft of their lands to give it its correct name, by the Israeli army and settlers.

The documentary was shot by an ordinary Palestinian peasant, as he described himself, Emad Burnat, who had no intention of making a film, but when he was given a camera started to shoot what was happening to him and his family. He went on filming against all discouragements, for more than five years, recording the arrival of the Separation Wall, built on his family’s land, the burning of his family’s olive trees from which they had always made their living, the birth of his youngest son, and the slow development of this child into what seems likely to become another irreconcilable Palestinian “terrorist” filled with hatred for the Israelis, as he watched his father being beaten, injured, his uncles and other role models killed, by a group of ever-changing soldiers who responded to every challenge with volleys of stun gun fire, tear gas canisters, and live ammunition.

This film allowed us to see the destruction of a way of life by the arrival of bulldozers, clearing the land that once was productive for a village of peasants, clearing it to make way for apartments for settlers from abroad, or wherever they came from. Eventually, the soldiers realized they should not permit this sort of thing to be photograhed, warned the intrepid peasant cameraman that he could suffer the same fate as some of his friends (dead) if he continued to film, and finally directed violent assault against his camera.

This happened five times --- five separate cameras smashed, replaced, and smashed again , until the film ends as a sixth camera swings into action to keep going.

Meantime, as pressure mounts against the cameraman, he records the pleadings of his extremely sympathetic wife to “for God’s sake stop this filming.  I can’t take any more of it,” she said. “Can’t you stop it, and find something else to do?”  Her husband is on the point of arrest and imprisonment. “What are we going to do when you are gone, me and the kids?” she pleaded.

But this filming had got under the skin of this peasant, and he couldn’t stop, even if commonsense told him he would be safer to do so.

This is the kind of film of which one says, “Everyone should see it.”

It is encouraging to record that many Israeli names were attached to the credits in the making of the completed 90 minute film, prominent among them being the co-director Guy Davidi.

But that is almost the only encouraging thing about this harrowing film. I was left with a terrible sense of the futility of it all. Here documented before our eyes was a monstrous act of theft, and one that is not only permitted by the leaders of the Western world, but is actually enabled by them through the use of Western-produced armaments.

Part of the futility came from the extremely barren nature of the land, which looked  like the only thing it could grow were the olive trees through which these peasants have for centuries eked out their precarious existence. The only criticism I could make of the film was that it left us wondering how these people kept going, what were they eating, what did they do for money, how did they keep at it through these terrible five years? We could have done with more information on that context of their lives.

And as for everyone seeing it. In the same cinema immediately before it was screened a packed audience was present to watch a film of the best advertisements of the year. Packed  --- standing room only, extra chairs needed to accommodate the public interest.

But for “Five Broken Cameras,” immediately after, there were just ten of us. Part of the sense of futility I was left with came from the  evident  fact that these peasants in their struggle for justice cannot depend on the world that calls itself democratic to help them in their struggle.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

My Log No. 331: Dec 14 2012 I find a great second-hand bookshop, The Word, on Milton street, Montreal, that has already wormed its way into my affections

Bookshop (Photo credit: conxa.roda)
Bookshops have always played an important role in my life, especially second-hand bookshops. This dates from my first sojourn in London, England in 1951, when I quickly became a regular habituee of the bookshops along Charing Cross Road, and later to the year I spent in or near Edinburgh, Scotland, which had the finest second-hand bookshops I have ever come across.

In those days one could buy for almost nothing fine, beautifully printed on rice-paper, and leather bound copies of old classics, many of which I bought at the time, and a few of which I still have on my shelves.  The price was usually around 1/6 in the old English reckoning, which would be equivalent today to about 30 cents or so, I imagine.

The trouble with the Edinburgh bookshops was that they ruined me for all those that followed them, which usually did not have the same quality of books, and certainly none at the same low prices.

In more recent years I have become disillusioned with second-hand bookshops because they have started to charge almost as much for wornout old copies of much–read books as one used to pay for new books --- which themselves have soared in price to hitherto unimaginable levels.

Ottawa, where I lived for more than 30 years, had a lot of second-hand bookshops, but most of them had this double deficiency (from my Edinburgh standards) that they were charging too much, and secondly, that when they put books out on the street as a come-on, the books they put out were always just trash that no one in his right mind would need or buy.

Restored to Montreal after a 37 year absence, I have been looking forward to investigating the Argo on Ste Catherine, which always was my idea of what a bookshop should be like: crowded with books, so many books one had to fight one’s way through them and among them.  I  have always remembered with affection a similar shop, Bonder’s on Bernard street in Outremont, but sadly it has long ago bitten the dust (although Abe Bonder himself just this week celebrated his 90th birthday), as has Archie Handel’s crowded mess of a bookshop at which I used to spent half an hour or an hour every day chewing the fat with the amiable owner when he was on Bleury, and I was on my way uptown to cover the city hotels for The Montreal Star (that was in the late 1950s).

My great good luck has been that I have wound up just around the corner from an admirable second-hand bookshop called The Word, kept by the friendly and knowledgeable maestro Adrian  King-Edwards and his son Brendon (and someone called Donna Jean-Louis, whom I have not yet met, also figures on their calling card, which says, modestly, that they sell “scholarly second-hand books, specializing in literature.”)

I can report that their selection of literature is excellent: I would almost say one could find just about any book one would want there, but they have another feature of their business which has particularly endeared them to me.

Outside their shop they have a shelf on which every day, they place books they are selling for 50 cents, and I can tell you they do not put trash out there, but excellent books, usually in good physical shape, covering a wide range of  subjects.

This has been great for me, because, after having made three moves of residence in the last couple of years, I find I have given away so many books in an effort to lighten the moving load that when I set up my home in a one-bedroomed apartment in Montreal I found I almost had more bookshelves than books. Urgently confronting the need to fill up some of the empty spaces, I have found Adrian’s 50 cent line a ready resource. I haven’t read any of them yet, having been attempting to catch up with a box of books loaned me by a friend, who, unlike me, is a big buyer of new books (that I usually tell myself I can’t afford).

But to give you an idea of the variety and quality of books Adrian puts on his 50 cent line, I have bought novels by Josef  Skvorecky, Yves Beauchemin, Lisa Appignanesi (none of whose works have I ever read before), Margaret Laurence (whom I have read in earlier years, and whom I had the pleasure of interviewing on one occasion when she was speaking at Cambridge University, England), a book on the Shakespearean stage in the sixteenth century, Simon Winchester’s much-praised book on the Krakatoa explosion of 1883, an autobiography by James A.  Michener (a writer who I have always thought had the perfect life in that he would spend two years researching a novel in a different part of the world, two years writing it, and at the end could be assured his book would sell a million copies or thereabouts), a book on the whaling industry of the past (something that, coming from New Zealand, has always interested me), a book by Eric Bentley on the Playwright as Thinker (another subject that interested me especially during those years I wrote a weekly column from London about the English theatre), and even a history of the Trappist monks (a far-out subject for a non-religious guy like me, and one that I think will bear no more than a cursory whip through, if that).

I have of course also bought slightly more expensive works from within the shop, including a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s masterpiece, The Mating Season, whose opening paragraph is such a glowing example of the use of the English language that I am always uneasy when I find I don’t have a copy at hand, as seems to happen: do I give them away or what?) The only one of The Word bookshop books I have read so far is a three-novel compendium of works by Ian Rankin, whose Inspector Rebus, an Edinburgh man,  is one of the great detectives of modern times, scruffy, emotional, drunken and disreputable, but a guy who always seems to get the job done. I had the pleasure of hearing Rankin speak and be interviewed in Ottawa: an amusing, irresistable fellow.

Well this is The Word bookshop, which has already worked its way into my affections, and is well on the way to filling my empty bookshelves.

All hail to Adrian, and The Word! Here’s to their next 20 years!

PS:  For those of you wondering about the Wodehouse opening paragraph: here it is:

Wodehouse classic prose
“While I would not go so far, perhaps, as to describe the heart as actually leaden, I must confess that on the eve of starting to do my bit of time at Deverill Hall I was definitely short on chirpiness. I shrank from the prospect of being decanted into a household on chummy terms with a thug like my Aunt Agatha weakened as I already was by having had her son Thomas, one of our most prominent fiends in human shape, on my hands for three days.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

A contemporary drawing of Karl Marx as a young...
A contemporary drawing of Karl Marx as a young man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Log 330: Joining, but not joining: the English turn against Europe recalls amusing days for a former correspondent

I notice that a recent poll shows that 68 per cent of the British electorate favour Britain leaving the European Community.

This really takes me back to the early 1960s when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, having decided that Britain should join, set his minister Edward Heath on the path to negotiating entry with General De Gaulle, who, in his imperious way, had no great fondness for Britain. I was working in London as a Canadian reporter at the time, but more important to my attitude on this subject was the fact I had been brought up in New Zealand, whose persistent and overpowering pro-Britishness I had always felt was cringe-worthy.
Thus, emotionally and temperamentally, I almost automatically sided with those Englishmen who opposed the entry into Europe, because it seemed like a massive betrayal by the perfidious English of the people who had come to their support over the decades in any number of wars --- the Boer war, the First World War, the Second World war, among them--- in all of which thousands of New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians, Gurkhas and others had been slaughtered for causes that seemed to have more to do with quarrels between European powers than with people like us living in the far corners of the Earth.
As a kid I remember the declaration of our Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, when he said, “Where Britain stands, we stand.” No ifs or buts. No reservations about the treacherous British conservative establishment who had so flirted with Hitler and his gang. None of that: just a bald statement that whatever Britain wanted, we were willing to do.
I remember reading at the time some psychologists writing about what they called resolution reinforcement being a natural tendency among humans: in other words, if your  opinions tended in one direction, it was natural to seize every fact that reinforced your opinion, and thus the nation quickly became divided into entrenched camps.
For example, in addition to the concerns expressed from time to time by political leaders based on their reluctance to betray people who had always trusted British leadership --- I remember a forceful speech by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell to a party conference in which he said (or words to this effect)  “you may say, we have to change with the modern world, but what about Ypres, Passchendale, where loyal soldiers from the Commonweath were killed in their thousands, in the British interest” ---- in addition to this level of public debate an argument raged based on economic facts. I particularly noticed some Swedish research which seemed to prove that for the developed countries of Europe, by far the most efficient and profitable form of trade was among themselves, and this is why Britain was ready to jettison its long-held arrangements for favourable trade with the far-flung dominions, in favour of freer British entry into European markets.
A clear case of Britain feathering its own nest, and to hell with all its loyal followers around the world.  Moseying up to the Germans and Italians whom they had so recently called in the dominions to fight, and saying, to hell with New Zealand lamb and butter, Australian wool, and so on. Every New Zealand minister who came to Britain complained there was a world-wide conspiracy against free entry of their efficiently produced dairy products, which could have wiped out (for example), the dairying industry  of Canada if only they could have obtained free entry (as the British had given them for years.)
I remember a debate between two Labour leaders, Douglas Jay, who was against British entry, and Roy Jenkins, who was in favour of it, and I wrote a very amusing article suggesting that Jay was against it because he was known to drink cheap sherry, and generally to be rather a wowser (as New Zealand slang would describe him) and Jenkins was in favour because he was known as a bon vivant who loved French food and wine, and all the continental joie de vivre for which Europe was so famous.
Of course, in the event, it probably turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to New Zealand and Australia, who, faced with the loss of their British trade, had to diversify into other countries that were willing  (and eager, as it turned out) to buy their products.
But one positive aspect, I always thought, was that there were great areas of humour to be derived from all this fervent debate, and one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had was to cover the South Dorset by-election, which was centred on the question of British entry. The seat had been held by a man called Lord Hinchingbrooke, who was elevated by inheritance to the Earldom of Sandwich, and thus became ineligible to continue in the House of Commons. (How he could have been eligible as Lord Hinchingbrooke is one of those unfathomable English mysteries.) Hinch, as he was known to everyone, was a gloriously unclassifiable personality, both imperialistic, pro-Russian, anti-American, violently against the European connection, and totally independent. His seat was to have fallen into the hands of a successor, a man called Angus Maude, who had become disillusioned with the comparatively liberal ambiance of the Macmillan Tories, and emigrated to Australia, where he became the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.  It appears, however, than not only did he not take to Australia and the Australians, but they did not take to him; and so he returned just in time to get back into the House of Commons through this by-election.
But just as he was writing to Hinch soliciting his support, another extraordinary character entered the scene. This was Sir Piers Debenhem, a member of the establishment family that owned a major department store in London, but who had lived his entire life on the edge of the common that was immortalized by Thomas Hardy in his novels, as Egdon Heath, on whose barren wastes he had been planting trees for years. Sir Piers declared he was fighting the election in opposition to the attempt to join the Common Market. Hinch, of course, felt impelled, as a man of honour,  to support him,  and when Maude wrote to Hinch soliciting his support, he received the stunning blow that Hinch was sorry but he could not support him.
Sir Piers in his meetings clutched a copy of the Treaty of Rome, waved it over his head and cried, “This Treaty is about Europe’s borders. They have trouble with their borders. But we do not. We do not need to join this Treaty.” He had a wonderfully archaic pattern of speech, referred to Macmillan as “that old silly who governs us,” and was generally loved by the flock of reporters who descended on the constituency.  Warned that his intervention might conceivably overturn an impregnable Tory seat to the Labour Party, Sir Piers expressed his utter indifference to that.  Maude, facing the disappearance of his safe seat, become more and more hysterical, denouncing this loveable old eccentric in ever more extreme terms --- “a prating philosopher,” he contemptuously called him, which didn’t go over too well with the countrymen who knew Sir Piers well ----  and every one of Maude’s cracks exposed him for what he seemed to be, a rather nasty, jumped-up little careerist.  In the event, that is exactly what happened. Sir Piers got a respectable vote, of some 5,000 if I remember correctly, allowing the Labour candidate, Guy Barnett, an earnest technocratic type, to come up the middle and take the victory.
Well all this fun eventually came to an end when General De Gaulle delivered the coup de grace, shutting the English out of the Community, until the persistent Mr Heath managed to obtain entry on a later occasion.
Still, there is an old English saying, “the foreigners begin at Calais,” and there is every evidence that the British commitment to Europe has never been better than extremely lukewarm. In a way that must surely revive thoughts of “perfidious Albion”, it  now appears they want to remain outside the Euro Zone, while having their say into how it is run. Twas ever thus, I imagine.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Log No. 329: Our great leaders seem to be alive, but they also are living on another planet from me, it seems

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers re...
ALL SMILES: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks after meeting with Quartet Envoy Tony Blair in the Treaty Room at the State Department. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 I am becoming very conscious of an other-worldly air about the pronouncements of our political leaders.  I’m sure readers must have noticed the same thing. For example, in arguing against the Palestinian case for status at the UN, both Canadian and American political leaders, such as Hillary Clinton and John Baird, not to mention our two supreme leaders, have given as a reason for their opposition that the route to settlement of the dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis can lie only in negotiation. This essay in the UN can only set that peace process back, they have intoned, solemnly, with every appearance that they are putting forward a solidly-based argument.

Is there something wrong with me, or is there some reason why they insult our intelligence in this way?

Everyone knows, I know, my friends know, my cat and dog know (or would if I had any) that the Israelis have killed off the peace process, by the simple expedient of building thousands of houses in the occupied territories of the West Bank, and settling hundreds of thousands of people there.

This has been Israeli’s unchanged policy for years and years, to create conditions on the ground that cannot be reversed, and whose inexorable logic will be the creation, supported by the global powers, of a Greater Israel, occupying the entire area of what once was Palestine.

That this policy has killed off the two-state solution almost goes without saying. Yet these global leaders --- Tony Blair is another I have heard recently along the same lines --- keep insisting on the so-called “road map” put forward by the so-called Quartet of leading powers --- always ignoring the fact that the road map called on the cessation of settlement building. Israel, of course, has simply thumbed its nose at the road map, and at any other proposal they have not been willing to go along with. And yet the Israeli leaders, supported by the European and American powers, keep chuntering on about how they are ready to negotiate any time the Palestinians can get themselves to the table.  Even though we all know they put every conceivable obstacle in the way of such negotiations.

People like me, and millions of others, I suggest, may think that this policy of Israel is like a suicide mission, because if a one-state solution is to be the only viable alternative, then inevitably it must, eventually, lead to the end of the Jewish state, because it will contain more Arabs than Jews.

There is, of course, one other possible route, which is that the Western powers whose support for Israel is so unshakeable, might go along with Israel as a state built frankly on apartheid --- something that has already begun to develop, actually. In other words, a state that is not built on the democracy that the United States is always preaching to the world, but on an ethnically-cleansed dictatorship of one race, one class, over the other.

As I sit here listening  to our great leaders chunter on in this totally unrealistic way I begin to wonder if the world has not gone slightly mad, as if such values as equality between peoples, tolerance among races and religions, decency between classes, have not already begun to disappear from the earth.

Watch the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio as it develops, because if the Israelis are allowed to get away with their long-term plan for a Greater Israel, then we can be certain the value-system we were all brought up to believe in, is on the ropes.

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Log 328: 37 years later --- Montreal’s charm and corruption intact, apparently, the city’s heart still worn on its sleeve

Avenue McGill College in Montreal,
Avenue McGill College in Montreal, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
(This piece was published in The Gazette, Montreal, on Nov. 23, 2012).

I first came to Montreal in 1957 when Papa Duplessis was still in full charge. One of my enduring memories is of the night he was taken fatally ill in Schefferville. A fellow walking ahead of me on  Ste. Catherine street, picked up a newspaper from a kiosk, tossed it back on the pile and said, “When he dies, I’ll buy one!”
I came directly from Winnipeg, where I had arrived by way of  Kenora,  Kirkland Lake, London, Coventry, Dalkeith, the Punjab, northern Queensland and ultimately from Invercargill, my hometown in the far south of New Zealand, a city we all referred to as “the southernmost city in the British Empire.”
In Winnipeg we had heard a lot about the lackadaisical nature of English-language journalism in Montreal in those days, and when I arrived it turned out they were all true. My first job on The Montreal Star was the hotel beat, which  involved mooching up Bleury towards downtown, a half-hour pause  most mornings at Archie Handel’s Diamond bookstore to chew the fat, on up to the larger hotels, Sheraton Mount Royal,  Laurentien, Windsor, Ritz-Carlton just long enough for the desk clerks to say they had no guests of interest,  then to the Pam-Pam on Stanley for a cup of coffee over a book for an hour or so, while keeping tabs on the middle-aged, East European waitresses on each of whose faces was written a lifetime of experience that a young innocent reporter could only imagine.
I have returned to the city after 37 years away, have taken to recalling the good old days, boring my friends to tears  ---   and when I described the above routine  one friend remarked, “Sounds like a great gig!”  He could say that again.
Although by this time, having worked in four different countries, I had never met a newspaper whose politics I agreed with, I was enchanted with Montreal. Peripherally, my hotel gig put me in touch with people who loved good food and drink, including members of the Quebecois bourgeoisie, people with genteel old world manners and a French joie de vivre, many of whom seemed to me to be consummate crooks. When I got to know the journalists on La Presse, I discovered an underworld of seething resentment  and political awareness, radicalism of a kind I had been accustomed to elsewhere, and which in Montreal soon developed into a movement that only three years later threw out the old guard of Quebec politics, and began the transformation of this society.
When The Star sent me to London to represent them, I found myself deeply grateful I worked for an old-fashioned, conservative newspaper  that was quite happy to leave me alone to do my thing so long as I sent them plenty of copy, something I had no trouble in doing. (This really was a great gig!)  I developed into almost a fine art, how to hold the guys back in the office at arm’s length. I made the occasional visit back to the home base, on each occasion once again being bedazzled by the vivacity of Montreal, and was only mildly disappointed when, after eight years, I was finally recalled to home duty.
I didn’t have much time for Maitre Drapeau and his way of running things, so, after a few embarrassing skirmishes, the newspaper decided I would better serve its interests if I was despatched to far-flung places like northern BC,  the Northwest Territories, even Alaska, to report on the parlous  condition of the indigenous inhabitants. Back home  what was happening was the FLQ insurrection, troops in the streets, but my enduring memory of that time is being phoned by a newspaper in Vancouver asking for a red-hot  account of life in the very heart of the storm. “Afraid I can’t help you,” I said. “I am sitting here writing a learned piece about city planning in Vancouver!”
I left in 1975 to return to my home country, a big mistake. But 37 years later the Montreal I have returned to still seems beautiful, busier than all hell, the charm and the corruption undisturbed, apparently, and the heart still visible, beating away on its sleeve. I can’t keep up with the intense level of cultural activity.
And those students who throng the streets around McGill --- are they ever young! Was I ever that young?  I doubt it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My Log 327: Tributes to a great Metis leader, Jim Sinclair, of Saskatchewan

Metis sashes
Metis sashes (Photo credit: Chris Corrigan)

This tribute, written and assembled by Tony Belcourt, of the National Council of Canada, is to a remarkable Metis leader who has just died, and whose life every Canadian should know about. The man in question is Jim Sinclair, brought up living on the margins of society, later degenerated into a helpless alcoholic, but later become a powerful and influential leader of the nation's poorest people, the Metis  of Saskatchewan. Over my years as an active journalist interested in native issues, I have known personally many remarkable leaders of the Metis, --- ranging

onwards from the remarkable Adrian Hope, of Alberta through the late Stan Daniels, and on to the present day ---

and their combined story is one of the most extraordinary of all Canadian stories and, as many people have testified since his recent death, Jim was one of the most eloquent, one of the most forthright, one of the most fearless of them all. And he never gave up. His career spanned from the days of Lester Pearson to those of Stephen Harper, and he deserves to be honoured by Canadians at large.
Jim Sinclair Tribute

I mourn the loss of Jim Sinclair, a great Aboriginal leader. I first met Jim 42 years ago on November 16, 1970, the anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel, when Metis leaders met and decided to form the Native Council of Canada. Jim was chosen as our first spokesperson. In my three terms as NCC President in the early 1970′s, I had the great privilege of having Jim present as we struggled and lobbied to get recognition from the federal government and attention to our issues. He was a strong and towering figure who, when he spoke, was listened to. His eloquence in articulating the desperate situations of our people at the time were a major contribution to our success in getting a million dollars for emergency housing repairs at our first meeting with the President of CMHC and helped to pave the way for us to get a Rural and Native Housing Program to build 50,000 new homes within 5 years. I am grateful to have known Jim for these past four decades, for having the chance to work with him and build a lasting friendship and to have had the opportunity to spend some precious time together on the course. I will miss him but will always have him in my mind and my heart. I send my sincere condolences to Jim’s family at this time of sorrow.
Below is an excerpt of an obituary published in the Regina Leader Post:
Jim Sinclair
June 3, 1933 – November 9, 2012
Aboriginal leader Jim Sinclair passed away with his family by his side on November 9, 2012. For over 50 fifty years, Jim championed Treaty and Aboriginal rights of Indigenous peoples and left an indelible mark on the international stage that will be felt for generations to come. As a founding member of both the Native Council of Canada and the Metis National Council and past President of the Association of Metis and Non- Status Indians of Saskatchewan (AMNSIS), Jim’s passion and commitment to equal justice for his people will live on forever. His great oratory ability moved people and governments to deal with Aboriginal people’s immediate needs and rights. His work led to the creation of many institutions including the Gabriel Dumont Institute, the Saskatchewan Native Economic Development Corporation, Metis Addictions Council, Urban Native Housing Corporation and Provincial Metis Housing Corporation. In 1982, he was one of the prominent leaders that successfully lobbied to have the Métis included in the Canadian Constitution. Widely recognized for his work, Jim received numerous awards including the Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Canadian Senate, the Metis Women of Saskatchewan, the Metis National Council and the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards.
Jim’s life was one of constant challenge and struggle. There was no greater orator who could articulate better the desperate needs of Aboriginal peoples. He was tenacious in his resolve to bring about change in their way of life. His accomplishments are towering but his greatest legacy is his speech at the end of the failed First Ministers’ Conference on the Rights of the Aboriginal Peoples when he condemned Premiers Bill Vanderzalm of BC and Grant Devine of Saskatchewan for their role in blocking acceptance of a federal proposal that would have given constitutional recognition to the Aboriginal right of self-government. I plan to have the video of that seminal moment on this website later today.
John Weinstein, author of Quiet Revolution West, the Rebirth of Métis Nationalism provided a glimpse of Jim in his book…
Championing the Cause of Métis Nationalism – A Few Profiles from the Life of Jim Sinclair
(From Quiet Revolution West, the Rebirth of Métis Nationalism)

From the Fringe to Political Machine
Sinclair grew up among “road allowance people,” destitute Métis living in slum dwellings on the sides of public roads. At night, he heard tales of the 1885 resistance told in hushed tones by people still fearful of reprisals. “Road allowance people” were regularly harassed by local authorities wishing to avoid making relief payments. Sinclair’s family was evicted from their shack and forced to live in a tent farther from Punnichy. From there, Sinclair attended the mostly white school, where he was subjected to incessant racism and brutality.
In 1950, his family moved to Regina and the half-breed tent city alongside its “nuisance grounds” or garbage dump. Welfare and occasional manual labour were his only means of support. At night, local whites drove cars through the camps, hurling insults and sometimes trampling tents. As Regina grew and the “nuisance grounds” moved farther out, the tents moved with them. Succumbing to the hopelessness of poverty, Sinclair turned to alcohol. For the next ten years, he drifted from half-breed slums to skid row sections of towns, his life a continuous drunken stupor. For two years, he lived out of a derelict car. On more than one occasion, he woke up on a floor after a party near someone who’d been stabbed to death.
His sole source of inspiration during this period was Napoleon Lafontaine, a Métis Society of Saskatchewan (MSS) local leader whose followers fought for their dignity with their fists. Under Lafontaine’s influence, Sinclair began to realize that his condition and those of many other “road allowance people” could be overcome through self-help and organizing. Sensing a purpose to his life, Sinclair fought off alcoholism. Then he plunged into work, banding poor, alcohol-plagued Métis into self-help groups so they could gain control over their lives. In the process, he tangled with welfare authorities, the police, and the church, which branded him a dangerous radical.
The self-help movement became an integral part of the reorganization of the MSS later in the l960s. Under the influence of radical activist Howard Adams, Sinclair became aware of the political roots of Métis problems. The MSS used community organizing and confrontational politics to politicize Métis people. This heavy emphasis on political action and control at the local level would influence Sinclair’s distrust of distant and top-heavy national organizations.
In contrast to the ideological approach of the MSS during Adams’ presidency in the late 1960s (cut short due to illness), Sinclair practised pragmatism from the day he succeeded Adams. He believed that Métis people could not grasp the political objectives of nationalism as long as they were locked in poverty and dependency. Only by first assuming responsibility for themselves as individuals could the Métis achieve self-determination as a people. While Adams had distrusted government-funded programs as attempts to depoliticize and bureaucratize Aboriginal associations, Sinclair encouraged their creation as a means for his followers to gain control over their lives and as a focal point for political awareness.
Scores of marches, sit-ins, and camp-ins to improve living conditions helped to release more government funds for social and economic programs. When given a miserly $5,000 for a housing program, Sinclair ordered it converted into nickels that were then carted in wheelbarrows to the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation office in Regina. As the floor flooded with coins, he told reporters that the Métis were fed up with “nickel and dime” programs. Sinclair made sure to channel the energy that went into these programs through the MSS. Unlike other provinces where governments often funded independent Aboriginal agencies and societies to provide services to Aboriginal people, in Saskatchewan all these functions, including housing, communications, and job training, were kept under Sinclair’s central control.
The crowning achievement of Sinclair’s drive for Métis self-reliance was the founding in 1978 of the Gabriel Dumont Institute, the educational arm of MSS. It would later become affiliated with the University of Regina and expand into a network of centres throughout Saskatchewan, developing the educational components of programs in areas such as economic development, employment, job training, and culture. It also involved Métis in the public education system, training teachers, developing curriculum, and launching adult/community education programs. Sinclair viewed the Dumont Institute as a training ground for the development of professional management of Métis affairs and institutions that would accompany any successful exercise of political autonomy.
A prairie populist, Sinclair believed that Aboriginal leaders had to be directly elected by and responsible to the people at the grassroots level. In the late 1970s, his association had pioneered the province-wide “one person, one vote” ballot box electoral system; thus, Sinclair could claim that the thousands of people going to the polls on Métis election days made him as legitimate a leader as MPs or MLAs. Whether giving speeches, debating opponents in his favourite “bear-pit session,” or “rapping” with reporters, Sinclair personified the populist politician; a large, powerful man, at least a decade older than he looked, he exhorted his audience in a style reminiscent of the Bible Belt preachers he’d heard so often on skid row. Once, fed up with public stereotyping of “half-breeds” as welfare cases, he declined an invitation to meet the queen, telling reporters she was the “biggest welfare bum in the world.”
By the end of the 1970s, Sinclair had become the closest thing to a household name and his organization the closest thing to a well-greased political machine among Métis people anywhere in Canada, with Sinclair lieutenants Jimmy “D” Durocher and Wayne “Millions” Mackenzie dispensing largesse to the faithful, who didn’t have to be reminded of the source of the start-up money for a gas bar, the new roof on the house, or a seat in a training centre. From his headquarters in Regina, Sinclair commanded the support of more than 120 locals, regional offices, salaried board members, full-time legal counsel, and hundreds of employees throughout Saskatchewan. The annual “Back to Batoche” celebrations were expanded into massive expositions of Métis culture, drawing as many as 20,000 people to the site of the 1885 resistance.

Sinclair Takes on Prime Minister Trudeau 
(March 1983 after the Métis were denied their own representation in advance of the first constitutional conference on the rights of Aboriginal peoples)

In the nation’s capital on Wednesday morning, March 9, a perplexed minister of justice and his associates met with Sinclair in a final bid to defuse a legal powder keg about to blow up in their faces. MacGuigan, who had earlier told the press that the Métis should take the Native Council of Canada (NCC) to court for their seats, now encouraged Sinclair to sign an out-of-court settlement offering one NCC seat to Sinclair in a personal capacity. Sinclair rejected the offer; the Métis people, not an individual, were taking on the state, he declared, and the NCC was irrelevant to their action.
Deputy Minister of Justice Roger Tassé advised Sinclair that the prime minister didn’t have a constitutional obligation to invite the Métis National Council (established a few days earlier by the three Prairie Métis associations). Sinclair replied that, when the AFN was invited, the Indians were invited; when ICNI was invited, the Inuit were invited. “Who did you invite when you invited the NCC—Indians or Métis?” he asked accusingly…. In fact, Sinclair intended to dispute the prime minister’s original invitation to the NCC on the ground that it had not been made to the Métis, only to an organization of which the Métis had been a part. As a consequence, no invitation had ever been extended to the Métis people to participate in the constitutional conference as required by the Constitution Act.
On Wednesday afternoon, Sinclair appeared in a prestigious law office in downtown Ottawa to be cross-examined under oath on his affidavit in support of the Métis position. The affidavit was a blow-by-blow chronology of the political realignment. It concluded that the Métis people would suffer irreparable harm to their future political, economic, and cultural rights as a result of their exclusion from the constitutional conference….
Assistant Deputy Minister of Justice Ian Binnie tried to establish that Métis were a diverse population represented by the NCC from coast to coast. Sinclair retorted that Sir John A. Macdonald hadn’t sent troops to crush any Métis in the Maritimes but to Manitoba and Saskatchewan. When a frustrated Binnie reminded Sinclair that this was a legal case, Sinclair shot back that it was a political case…. By the end of the day, the die had been cast for a landmark court battle. Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, had recognized but not defined “Métis.” To determine whether the Métis had been invited to the constitutional conference, the courts would have to rule on who, exactly, were the Métis….

On Thursday, March 10, legal proceedings moved to the Supreme Court of Ontario in Toronto, the only available space for a court hearing. With the case generating widespread media coverage, the federal government was under considerable pressure to settle with the Métis. Premier Lougheed had by now telexed the prime minister, calling for separate representation for the prairie Métis. In the House of Commons, the Tories were attacking the government for not having “shouldered its responsibility” and guaranteed two seats for the Métis.

A confident Jim Sinclair entered Osgoode Hall at 10:15 a.m. to appear on behalf of the prairie Métis plaintiffs against defendant Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Métis were applying to a judge of the High Court of Justice for declarations that they were entitled to participate in the upcoming first ministers conference and that the prime minister had failed to invite them, a writ of mandamus compelling the prime minister to invite them, and an injunction restraining the prime minister from convening the conference until such time as they were invited, plus damages. In short, the case was a political hot potato the courts of Canada would not want to touch.
When proceedings began at 10:30 a.m., Associate Chief Justice William Parker encouraged the litigants to reconcile their differences elsewhere and adjourned the court until the afternoon when the case would be heard by three judges of the divisional court. This set the stage for further talks behind closed doors between Crown Counsel Binnie, Sinclair, and Rob Milen (Sinclair’s lawyer). With Prime Minister Trudeau and his justice minister maintaining in the House of Commons that it was up to the Métis to sort out their differences with the NCC, Binnie’s new offer was no different from MacGuigan’s the day before.
Sinclair’s response reflected the finality of the Métis decision. The fight was with Ottawa, not the NCC, which as far as the Métis were concerned could have its own seats to represent non-status Indians. Furthermore, there would be no compromise on the Métis demand for separate representation under the name of the Métis National Council.
Minutes before the court reconvened in the afternoon, Rob Milen telephoned national representative Clément Chartier, who had arrived in Ottawa to monitor negotiations with the Department of Justice as the lawsuit proceeded in Toronto. Moments before Milen’s call, Chartier had received news from the Federal-Provincial Relations Office that the Government of Canada had acceded to the Métis demand for separate representation. Milen rushed back to inform Sinclair, who was facing three judges of the Divisional Court. Justice R. F. Reid announced an adjournment of the case for a day with the consent of both parties. Armed with Ottawa’s agreement in principle, Sinclair left the courtroom with Milen to fly to Ottawa.
Awaiting them in Chartier’s room in downtown Ottawa’s Holiday Inn was a letter from Justice Minister MacGuigan stating that he had been authorized by the prime minister to invite the Métis National Council to the constitutional conference on the condition that it withdrew its court proceedings against him. As well, Chartier had been assured privately that the prime minister would agree to the reinclusion of a Métis land base in the first ministers’ agenda if and when the MNC raised the matter at the conference….
On the morning of Friday, March 11, Chartier signed the documents for an out-of-court agreement. At the request of the federal government, the Métis had remained silent on the accord until Friday despite a curious and importunate media. This curiosity would be further aroused when lawyers for the Métis plaintiffs appeared in Osgoode Hall at two in the afternoon, withdrew court proceedings against the prime minister, and directed the media to a press conference in Ottawa for details of the settlement.
At 3:00 p.m., Jim Sinclair and Clément Chartier appeared in the Parliamentary Press Theatre at the largest press conference ever held by the Métis. They emphasized that the Métis Nation had won what rightfully belonged to it and not at the expense of any other Aboriginal people.
Sinclair Takes on the Premiers
(The “Blow-Out” at the 1987 constitutional conference on the rights of Aboriginal peoples)
According to Jim Sinclair, the Métis, after their battle to gain entry into the constitutional talks, should be the last to leave the bargaining table. He was determined to keep all lines of communication open until the end. Sitting amid the MNC delegates was Saskatchewan’s former minister of intergovernmental affairs (and future premier), Roy Romanow, who had been invited by Sinclair to direct the MNC’s advisers. Romanow’s group was expected to monitor the conference proceedings from the MNC caucus room and undertake the liaison work with other delegations toward the development of a consensus proposal.
The opening remarks by other conference participants quickly brought to bear the polarization on self-government that Sinclair had feared. Aboriginal positions congealed around the unconditional justiciable right to self-government – now termed the “inherent” right – as quickly as the three westernmost provinces reaffirmed their opposition to even a “contingent” right with a binding commitment to negotiate self-government agreements. Sufficient support for the federal proposal—basically a repeat of its 1985 draft accord—was not there….
Premier Bill Vander Zalm of British Columbia, after praising Canadian Aboriginal soldiers who had participated in the liberation of his native Netherlands two years before his immigration to Canada in 1947, concluded his remarks by flatly stating, “My government recognizes that the Fathers of Confederation divided all powers to govern between the federal and provincial governments. My government cannot commit to self-government as proposed by the AFN or its entrenchment in the Constitution.”
Premier Grant Devine of Saskatchewan, citing heavy provincial expenditures on Aboriginal peoples, would go no further than his proposed 1985 Saskatchewan Accord (with its non-binding commitment to negotiate): “Through the contingent rights approach it seems to me our approach bridged the gap between our concern that we did not understand the meaning of self-government—and clearly Canadians do not today—and our desire to recognize the rights and aspirations of native people. … We do not believe it to be in the interest of Canadians to have those questions just holus bolus answered by the courts without having some involvement in the process.”….
By the time participants gathered at 1:30 p.m. on the second and final day of the conference before a live national TV audience, the conference had become an exercise in damage control. Announcing the failure of the in-camera morning session to produce a breakthrough, Prime Minister Mulroney lamented,
I genuinely regret that the draft amendment failed to generate the support required to make it a reality. One day we shall succeed, but this constitutional process has now come to an end. … If in my judgment a new meeting or conference would be helpful and productive, I shall not hesitate to call one. But let us not be under any illusions. There shall be a price to be paid for our failure. I don’t want anybody leaving this room or leaving this city today under any illusions about that.
Unfortunately, those called upon to pay the largest share of that price shall be those least equipped to pay it, namely the Aboriginal peoples who have paid an unfair share of that price for an unfair share of time. But the concept of self-government remains alive. It remains an ideal to which many us are committed.

If the prime minister was to deliver the obituary notice for the process, it fell on Georges Erasmus, chief spokesman for the AFN, to deliver its eulogy. In a quiet and dignified manner, backed by delegates from all four Aboriginal organizations standing around the grand chief in a rare show of Aboriginal solidarity, Erasmus explained most eloquently why the “contingent” right proposal was not acceptable: “Could we take that great leap of faith and actually encourage a statement in the Constitution that we had nothing until we were given something? The answer always was the same, Mr. Prime Minister. It was always clear. It was always unequivocal. It was virtually never.”
The prime minister then turned to the one politician in the hall who, perhaps more than any other, had come to Ottawa to make a deal. Jim Sinclair had kept his political feelers out to the end, reviving his “sunrise clause” proposal from the 1985 conference in a last-ditch effort to forge a consensus. Regardless of the strengths of a free-standing “inherent” right to self-government in the Constitution, Sinclair, who had personally borne the full brunt of racism for much of his life, did not trust the white judiciary as an arbiter of Aboriginal rights. He had come to make a political deal that could then be written into the Constitution, but what he had found, particularly in the stance of Bill Vander Zalm and Grant Devine, was a preconceived refusal to negotiate.
Then, to the amazement of the conference and the live television audience, Sinclair exploded. He turned on the BC premier, calling it shameful that as an immigrant from a country liberated from Nazi occupation by Canadian forces including large numbers of Aboriginal soldiers, he could rise to the premiership of one of Canada’s largest provinces in such a short time while refusing to “recognize the rights of our people here in this country of their origin.” He turned on Quebec, represented at the table by Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Gil Rémillard, and expressed the disappointment of the Métis that Quebec would not come to their aid at the constitutional table even though the Métis had fought and died for French-language rights in western Canada. According to Sinclair, instead of giving the Métis the kind of support they needed, Quebec had come to advance its own cause.
Then he turned on the premier who had held the balance of power at the last two conferences and had used that power to block the full implementation of the federal proposal, the premier of Sinclair’s own province. In response to Devine’s complaint about provincial spending on Natives relative to net farm income in Saskatchewan,]Sinclair, with the Mulroney government’s farm aid package in mind, declared to a shocked Devine, “At the same time, you came to the prime minister here, and he bought an election for you for $1 billion.” Referring to northern Saskatchewan, Sinclair continued, “We pay twice as much … for food as you would in the south. Yet for every bottle of wine and every bottle of whiskey that you send north of Prince Albert, you put a subsidy on that so the price of that wine is the same price in La Loche as it is in Regina. At the same time, there is no subsidy on the price of milk for our children and on the price of food for our people who are having a hard time in those communities with no jobs.” Referring to the lease of a vast tract of crown land to an American pulp and paper company by Devine’s government, Sinclair declared, “You ask for definitions when we talk about self-government. You gave them an open-ended agreement which gave them more land than all the reserves put together in Canada. You did not ask them for a definition. You gave them one year where an 800-page document came out with not one definition but 300 definitions. That is what you got from a big company that you gave a blank cheque to.”
The mortified expressions on the faces of Bill Vander Zalm and Grant Devine amid the thunderous applause of Aboriginal participants said it all. Jim Sinclair had set aside constitutional niceties and brought two of Canada’s premiers before a live national TV audience into the realm of brass-knuckle politics. In the firebrand tradition of prairie populists, Sinclair had declared the first ministers conference process to be a monumental failure and laid responsibility squarely at the feet of two of the premiers. Sinclair had provided the catharsis to end a five-year drama of mounting frustration and broken hopes of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.
In what was probably the most charged atmosphere in the conference centre’s history, Sinclair then brought the process to a close, concluding with a statement that, in the words of Liberal MP Keith Penner, “will never be forgotten in the annals of the history of this nation.”
I have worked hard over the years to bring justice to my people, to sit down with governments and make deals. I have pounded on doors. I have had many guys say no. I have troubles meeting with the Prime Minister and with the Premiers. Yet, we have struggled hard to try to make a deal. We have kept our end of the bargain. We struggled with our Aboriginal brothers as to what should go on the table.
One thing I want to say, as we leave this meeting: I am glad that we stuck together on a right that is truly right for our people, right for all of Canada, and right within international law throughout the world based on human rights alone. We have the right to self-government, to self-determination and land.
The people who are here are going to continue the struggle. This is not an end. It is only the beginning. I think our leadership has made a stand now. We break new roads for those who come in the future. Do not worry, Mr. Prime Minister and Premiers of the provinces; I may be gone, but our people will be back.”
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