Monday, November 13, 2017

My Log 563 Nov 13 2017: Senate does something good: insists on government abolishing sexism from the Indian Act: and not before time!

The news that the government is bringing in legislation to abolish all sexism from the Indian Act is good in more ways than one.  The second way it is good is that this measure has been forced on the government by the stubborn insistence of the Senate, a body usually dismissed as having no useful function. 
On this occasion, led by two indigenous Senators, Lillian Dyck, of Saskatchewan, the offspring of Cree and Chinese parents, and Murray Sinclair, an Ojibwa from Manitoba, both of them with distinguished records of public service in the indigenous as well as the general interest, the Senate rejected the government’s first version of a bill designed to correct some anomalies in the Indian Act, then rejected a second attempt on the grounds that it still contained some unacceptable provisions, before finally, after long consideration, the government caved before the upper chamber, and has promised  a corrected version of its proposals, which even now, the Senate has delayed from passing because they want to be sure the government has done what it has promised.
If all this works out as promised, some of the most ridiculous provisions of Canadian law ever perpetrated will have been corrected.  I remember the first time I learned of these unconscionable provisions of Indian law, which happened a few days after I first met Indian people in 1968.
I had been assigned to go to a remote village in North-western Ontario, a village accessible only by railway, where a group of native people were reported to be living in appalling conditions. En route I was directed to a native woman in Thunder Bay, Mrs Paul McRae, who had married a non-Indian school principal. Although from a well-known Indian family, one of her brothers the chief of a large local reserve, and a sister one of Canada’s foremost aboriginal artists, she told me she no longer was recognized by the government as an Indian, because of her marriage to a white man.  I could scarcely believe my ears, but she assured me it was true.
She generously handed me on to Chief Willie John, chief of the Lake Helen reserve, at the foot of Lake Nipigon, the lake that lies directly north of Lake Superior.  That was one of the luckiest accidents that ever happened to me, because Willie was a wonderful little man with whom I spent the next week or so as we travelled north to Geraldton, where we caught the train across the wilderness of north-western Ontario to Armstrong, the small town in question.  When I went to pick him up,  Willie introduced me to his wife, whom  he had married while in the army. She was a full status Indian, he said, because though a Yorkshirewoman  born and bred, she had married a status Indian.  Once again my jaw dropped at this insanity. But it was only the beginning of  similar shocks I received in the next thirty years or so as I familiarized myself with the legislative record of what Canada’s settlers from Europe, who had arrived equipped with a formidable arsenal of ignorance and arrogance,  had imposed on the original inhabitants. It was a vast assembly of laws designed to destroy the way of life of these people, of whose reality the settlers had only the vaguest idea, and even that dramatically out of focus. Indeed, it was a programme designed to wipe the Indians, so-called, off the face of the earth, a full-scale attack of genocidal proportions, that, fortunately, never really succeeded.
That week I spent with Willie John, who was a man of vast experience, successively a soldier, a tugboat captain, a heavy-equipment operator, a social agitator on behalf of returned aboriginal servicemen who arrived home after fighting for freedom to find they still couldn’t vote and had to sit in their own section of the cinemas, and  were forbidden to do this, that and the other because they were treated as children in the care of their big-brother government, introduced me to a Canada I could scarely have imagined existed.
Before I returned to Montreal I met Mrs McRae’s brother who was a major chief, and we engaged in a vigorous discussion as he attempted to defend the sanctions taken against his sisters because they had married white men. Brain-washed, the poor fellow, as so many of the Indian leaders I met in succeeding years appeared to be, ready to defend any foolish government law in order not to disturb their own small centres of power.,
When I returned I wrote a piece saying the people Willie had introduced me to as he, an operative of the Company of  Young Canadians, listened to their problems and undertook to represent them to the relevant authorities, were living lives that reminded me of nothing so much as  the characters in Gorki’s Lower Depths, and I felt sure that some day they would throw up their own artists to describe their condition to Canadians who for the most part had no idea what had been done to these people in their name.
It is hardly the place to go into a catalogue of the terrible laws passed to control Indians. I have already done that in a book I wrote in 1993, which sold some 300 copies, and was almost completely ignored by the media, most of which carefully abstained from reviewing it.  Suffice to say that if Lillian Dyck and Murray Sinclair had lived at an earlier time, neither of them would have been legally entitled to claim Indian ancestry, because they each have a passle of university degrees, and at one time, the moment an Indian received a University degree, he  or she was automatically stripped of his Indian identity  and declared to be a white man or woman.
In the chapter in my book outlining “the wonderful world of the Indian Act”, I have listed the more oppressive of these legislative acts taken against Indians in categories that give a sense of how all-embracing were the oppressive controls:  land; community government; restrictions on movement, assembly and speech (at one time a pass was needed for an Indian to leave a reserve); production (Indians were encouraged to become farmers, and then forbidden from selling their produce);  liquor; health; enfranchisement; inheritance; ceremonies rituals and amusements; and education. In each of these categories at one time or another repressive laws were passed.
The now well-known scandal of the residential schools in which from the age of six students were abused sexually and physically, often died and were buried without notifying the parents, flogged for speaking the only language they knew, their native tongue, and all administered by various religions (which have since apologized for the very existence of their schools), all in the name of the national objective “to detach the children from the barbarous lives of their parents” --- a prescription actually written down at the time, which is in itself surely one of the most barbaric objectives ever established by this or any government, is merely the  apotheosis of this vast architecture of genocidal legislation designed to wipe the Indians from the face of Canada.  
Throughout this entire story the government of Canada has played an equivocal, weasly role, illustrated by the latest wheeze discovered by the Dyke-Sinclair team: that in their revised programme designed to abolish sexism from the Indian Act, they have prescribed that children born of male Indians before 1951 who were denied Indian status should be retrospectively given status, but that should not apply to children born of female Indians who before 1951 had lost their status by marriage.
Still at it, eh? Nuff sed!                                                                                      

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My Log 562 Nov 7 2017: At last, after almost 70 years of voting, I finally have come out on top, having chosen a winner in the Montreal mayoral race

Last weekend I have made a breakthrough that I have been waiting to make all my life. I voted in an election, and for the first time in my voting life which began in 1949, everyone I voted for got elected.
Is this what Christian people would call a miracle? The occasion was the election for Mayor and councillors in Montreal. A pleasant-sounding woman called Valerie Plante opposed the blowhard, one-term Mayor Denis Coderre, who had been a Liberal MP in Ottawa before tackling municipal politics. His affiliation with the Liberal Party itself would have been enough to disqualify him in my eyes, so I decided to vote for Plante’s team, Projet Montreal, and they all won.
The irony is that my vote was based on probably the least information I have ever had about someone I voted for. 
I think back to that first vote I made, in 1949. It was in the national election in New Zealand, and it took place in dramatic circumstances. The Labour Party had been first elected in 1935, in the depths of the depression, and had been in power ever since. During those years I had never read a word favorable to that government in any newspaper or magazine, and as I grew through my teens I developed a detestation for the sort of people who owned the media of information, and for all their values.  That government had been composed mostly of working-class unionists, self-educated, and for my money they were the best government I have ever lived. They made our country the  pacesetter in the English-speaking world in constructing a solid welfare state, their creation of a National Health Service in 1935 being a good ten years ahead of any other such scheme in the so-called Commonwealth. In addition, they carried on the relatively progressive attitudes towards government of the indigenous Maori people that had become habitual in previous decades.
The drama came from the fact that our Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who had first been elected to Parliament in 1917, when he was in jail for opposing conscription for New Zealanders in the First World War, had returned in 1949 from an Imperial Defence Conference in London convinced that to confront the menace of Soviet aggression we needed to introduce conscription.  Talk about an apostate! He thereafter stumped the country arguing the case for conscription in a referendum, appearing alongside the hated leader of the National (Conservative ) party, to make his case.
I was working as a journalist in one of the daily newspapers, which, like all others, represented the conservative interest. But that didn’t stop me from joining a band of outraged leftists who gathered around a progressive bookstore in the centre of the city of Dunedin, to stuff letterboxes with pamphlets arguing against the warmongers, as we thought of them.
In the event, Fraser won his referendum --- it was more or less a foregone conclusion, given the Prime Minister’s ruthless control of the information environment for the occasion ---- but it also had the peripheral effect that it split he New Zealand Labour Party right down the middle, making it a sitting duck for the National Party who ended the 14 years of Labour government in the election held towards the end of the year.
Disgusted, following the defeat, I got married to my girl-friend, and we headed off for Australia, where a colleague had fixed me up with a job on a small daily newspaper in the town of  Mackay in northern Queensland.
I didn’t stay in Australia long enough to be confronted with a vote, but if I had been there I would have voted for sure against the detestable Robert Menzies, an old-style British-type Imperialist, who was kept in power in Australia  for 18 years. Talk about going from the fat into the fire!
It wasn't until I arrived in Britain late in 1951 that I had a second chance to vote. I was just in time for the election in which Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who had been elected in 1945 with the biggest swing ever known in British politics, and had been narrowly re-elected in 1950, when his party lost 90 seats to Winston Churchill’s Conservatives, chanced his arm again.  I went around to my local Labour constituency office, joined the party, signed up to be a local election worker, and set off towards the expected smashing victory.  That euphoria lasted only until the evening I went to hear Attlee speak, when I was so disgusted immediately lost interest in the election, withdrew from my stamp-and-envelope-licking job on Labour’s behalf, and watched in dismay as the dreadful Churchill, always an enemy of the working man,  was swept back into power. He had a narrow majority, but it was enough to keep his party in power until the next election in 1955. By that time I had quit the United Kingdom and taken up residence in Canada.  Here, I supported the CCF, which became the New Democratic Party, but it always lost whenever I was around to vote for it. 
I was sent back to England in 1960 by The Montreal Star, to find Harold Macmillan as the Conservative Prime Minister. Now, as a working journalist, I had the pleasure of attending the House of Commons regularly, and I also was present at the annual conferences of the major political parties. By this time Labour was in the hands of Hugh Gaitskell, who was never my idea of a leader of the working class. Of course, I never liked Macmillan, but, with the benefit of hindsight, I have to say he wasn’t half as bad as I always thought him.  He is the only person I had ever seen who, when making a joke of the kind usually called a tongue-in-cheek joke, he actually stuck his tongue in his cheek.  He had a certain sangfroid: for example, on the occasion when Khrushchev took off his shoe and banged it on the desk for emphasis at the United Nations, Macmillan asked, “Could we have  it in translation, please.”  I was always amazed at the effrontery of the Tory leaders who talked of their attitude in terms only of duty, as if no one else could pretend to leadership of the nation because only they, after being specially educated to the job, were ready to face up to the heavy duty imposed on them by their birth and upbringing.
I was never high on British life, having been appalled by its class structure on my first four years in Britain, from 1951 to 1954. But I was witness to some stirring events during my eight years as a correspondent in London. For example, the only really democratic debate ever held on the question of nuclear power and its horrendous dangers was held at the annual conference of the Labour Party when it came to discuss the idea of unilaterally renouncing nuclear weapons. The left took the lead, and I will never forget a five-minute speech by Michael Foot, standing on a lecturn in front of the assembled leaders of his party lined up behind him, his long hair bobbing up and down as he turned furiously, his finger jabbing in contempt at the leaders as he reached a peroration that sent the conference out for lunch abuzz with excitement.  The argument, and the vote, was won by the left: in theory this should have committed a future Labour government to renouncing nuclear weapons, but in practice, it had no effect whatever, because the next Labour government, headed by its new leader Harold Wilson, simply ignored the wishes of its assembled members.  Britain has the American-made trident missile with its nuclear armament, until this day.
Come to think of of it, one hardly ever hears a debate in which he result is not known in advance, the result depending on the skill of its practitioners, and it is on that observation that I have come to the conclusion that the idea of a democratic government, of the people for the people, and by the people, is as myth.
I don’t think I had a vote in the two elections held while I was living in Britain, but if I had had the vote I would have been on the winning side once, and the losing side the next time around.
When I returned to Canada in 1968 I was in my traditional mode --- I could never vote either Liberal or Tory, and whoever I did vote for lost. I suppose, given that I have  hardly ever been represented in the political discourse of the nation, it is not surprising that I have never much cared to which nation I was attached.   I lived in Canada, or was domiciled here, for 26 years before deciding to apply for Canadian citizenship, and when challenged as to why it took me so long I always said, “I vote every day.” I guess that was my slightly flip way of saying that I took a full part in the nation’s affairs, through my work and other activities.
 I cannot describe myself as politically active, although I am a sort of political junky. I joined the NDP again in order to vote for its new leader recently, but once again I was on the losing side. My only action was to turn up for a meeting to be addressed by the candidate of my choice, but when she had failed to turn up 45 minutes past the advertised time, I quit in disgust, asking the fellow at the door how, if she couldn’t get to a meeting in time, she could ever hope to run the government of Canada?
I can say now, of course, that I am eagerly awaiting proof that I have made the right decision in supporting Projet Montreal, about whose programme I have only the most minimal knowledge. But even if that proof is not forthcoming, it will hardly make any difference, one way or the other, any more than  my one vote in their favour has had any influence on their accession to power.

Monday, November 6, 2017

My Log 561 Nov 6 2017: Trudeau and his rich friends, wallowing in it: and, for a writer who needs only an audience of one, a portrait of an old man on film

The big story today, from a Canadian point of view, is that the so-called Paradise Papers, the latest issue of information about off-store tax havens emanating from a company in Bermuda,  appears to deeply implicate, to quote The Guardian, “the chief fundraiser and senior adviser to the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, (a man called Stephen Bronfman, heir to the Seagram fortune,) who played a critical role in the rise to power of the charismatic politician, (and who) was involved in the movement of millions of dollars to offshore havens.”
Also interesting is that although the online Guardian had many details about these transactions, the morning issue of the Globe and Mail, reporting the news about the Paradise Papers only in a single-column story on page six, failed even to mention the involvement of our Prime Minister’s bosom chum.
The story says two wealthy families were involved, and both appear to be Liberal Party insiders. The second family was that of Leo Kolbar, who was made a Senator by Justin Trudeau’s father in the last days of his years in office.
The closeness of Trudeau to these two families is revealed in the following para in The Guardian article: “The tight triangle between Kolber, Bronfman and Trudeau was on display last December when a Liberal party fundraiser, at $1,500 a ticket, was held at Kolber’s Montreal home with Bronfman as co-host and Trudeau as its prize draw.”
Ironically enough, on an earlier page in the same issue of the Globe and Mail, a commentator on the trouble the federal Liberals seem to be having with ethical questions recalled these $1,500-a-ticket fundraisers, which the Liberals have previously skated over as perfectly within the rules covering unethical behaviour.
I suppose none of this directly implicates Justin Trudeau in illegal or unethical deals, but it certainly does implicate Liberal party insiders, and people who can be described as his close friends.
I am quite grateful that I found this newsworthy story today, because I was about to resume my blog after a fairly long interregnum of seven weeks, even though I had no particular issue to write about.  I cannot remember why I have been so long away, except that, as I have grown older, my contributions on the state of the world have begun to seem to me more and more irrelevant, especially since in these last months, following the incomprehensible election of Donald Trump, world events appear to have been spiralling more or less out of control, with every day the constant threat of a major disaster being unleashed on us all.
When I started this blog in 1996 it was simply as a sounding- off board for me. I began thinking I could sound off almost every day, but a wise person suggested maybe I should aim at once a week.  In recent years even that has seemed beyond my grasp (or my energies, perhaps I should say). But this week a friend of mine told me he has a friend who checks on my blog regularly, and whenever I have been silent, appears asking if my friend could inquire as to my health.  Also, my friend said, his mother (who is an old friend of mine) regularly reads me, and wants to know if I am okay when I seem to have fallen silent.
This has totally surprised me. I always operate on the assumption that I have about three readers, and these two reports suggest that I might have as many as six people who expect me to utter from time to time.  I have elevated the number to six because recently I heard from an old friend in Vancouver whom I have not seen or heard from in 40 years, and she told me she enjoys my ramblings whenever they occur.
Well, I always say --- quoting, I think it was Simone de Beauvoir --- that a writer needs only an audience of one, and I certainly agree with that.
So, if I can leave Justin Trudeau and his rich friends aside for the moment, perhaps I can report on a really memorable film I saw this week, starring the superb old actor, Harry Dean Stanton. The film is called Lucky, and it is about a 90-year-old guy living out his life in a small town somewhere in the south-western United States. I am almost of that age, so it is not surprising that there was much in the picture of his life that I found familiar. Especially familiar was his habit of doing the same thing every morning (A few years ago I realized with a shock that I had become a creature of habit, and that I quite enjoyed the feel of that, picking up the same cup and plate every morning, boiling the same tea, eating the same dish of granola, covered with fruit and irrigated by ten-per-cent cream.) So it was with Lucky.  He would wash and shave himself, dress in usually the same rough old clothes, go off to walk the same route to the same local diner, where he was a regular, and where he would have the same thing for breakfast among people who knew and understood him. (This last thing I do not have the luxury of: I live in a huge city, where, unlike Lucky, I am unknown and unrecognized.)
Lucky was a grumpy old sod, with little to say for himself. And when he did get into discussions he had a tendency to become rather obstreperous, on one occasion challenging one of his friends to come on outside so they could settle the disagreement with fisticuffs.  Of course, anyone could have knocked him over with a feather, so no one ever accepted this ridiculous challenge.
One morning he collapsed to the floor, which caused him to go to his doctor, who examined him thoroughly, then said, there seemed to be nothing wrong with him. In fact, for a man who had always been a heavy smoker, he was in ridiculously good health for his age, which didn’t satisfy Lucky, because, he said, he had fainted, so there must be something wrong with him.
The remarkable thing about this film is that almost nothing happens of any dramatic significance.  He was outside of his place  one morning, in his underwear, and his hat, when a black woman who had been in the habit of serving him in the diner arrived, just to check that he was all right. He was rather reluctant to admit to her presence, but he went inside to put on some clothes, and when he looked up, she was standing there watching him. “How did you get in?” he asked querulously, and she said, “the door was open.”  She asked if he ever smoked grass, and then they sat for a time on his sofa smoking away, Lucky eventually offering the unsolicited information that “I can hardly get it up any more,” before his visitor  left him. On another occasion, one of the diner regulars complained that President Roosevelt had run away.  This happened to be his pet tortoise, the only member of his family left to him, and his disappearance occasioned quite a bit of dialogue with Lucky who eventually brought the fellow around to accepting the disappearance of his only friend.
Another day, a man came into the diner to order a takeaway, and Lucky, spotting him for a veteran, broke the habit of solitude so far as to ask the guy if he would mind if Lucky joined him at his table. They then discovered they had both served on the same island in the Pacific, and Lucky revealed that he had himself  been a cook, which was where he got his name Lucky.
The beauty of the film came from the extreme sensitivity with which the meaning of the film was changed from just a portrait of an old geezer, into a sort of staccato philosophical consideration of the great questions about life and  death and the meaning of being alive, without these questions ever being directly addressed.
The film ends with Lucky walking into the countryside, where he stands before a tall cactus, looking up at it, contemplating it, finally allowing himself a suggestion of a smile, and then turning on his heel to walk back into town, the last shot catching his tiny figure alone in this vast, empty landscape.
Harry Dean Stanton, who was the lead actor in Wim Wenders’s memorable film Paris, Texas, made 30 years ago, died soon after making Lucky. He was 91, and this last film is a wonderful testament to a remarkable actor.