Sunday, November 11, 2007

It's OUR story!

November 11, 2007

It’s not just coffee!

It’s ­our story; not my story.

What’s on your plate?

We all have AIDS.

I decided to begin today with a series of maxims that recent events have conspired to plant firmly in my brain. The first two are from a sermon delivered this morning by Nadine Ens on the occasion of Remembrance Day. The third is from Duane Guina of earth care, an agricultural conservancy here in Saskatchewan and the last from Race Against Time, the CBC Massey Lectures of 2005 by Stephen Lewis.

Nadine talked about a recent trip to Guatemala with Rosthern Junior College students and some of the things she learned from that trip regarding coffee growing, land clearing, mudslides and poverty. Her central point arose from the idea that we wealthy North Americans love and demand lots of good coffee, that this demand drives the clearing of more and more land for coffee growing, that the clearing of land often results in mudslides that destroy villages and kill people. Hence our coffee habit ends up killing people. Or does it?

She suggested that the stories we hear on the radio and television about the tragedies suffered by the most vulnerable people on earth are our stories, not their stories as opposed to my stories. She was saying the same thing that the final quote is saying: the whole world has AIDS. We are all interconnected in too many ways to be able to say that we don’t share the responsibility for tragedy, or for that matter, that we don’t share the credit for the relief of people’s agony when it comes.

“What’s on your plate?” could also read, “What’s on your back, on your feet, in your home, in your garage or in your backyard?” As consumers, we decide on the parameters that will circumscribe the economic lives of the producers. It makes a difference if our cars are manufactured in the USA, Canada, Japan or Korea. Do we know what the difference is? It makes a difference if we choose to get our Vitamin C from imported grapefruit or from domestically-grown blueberries. Do we know what the difference is? Many corporations have been challenged on the use of cheap labour in order to produce everything from toys to gadgets to clothes. Do we know what effect our demand for NIKE running shoes is doing at the production end? Current estimates are that the average distance our food travels is something like 1500 Km. Transportation consumes non-renewable energy. So it matters “what’s on my plate.” We need to begin schooling ourselves in the intricacies of consumer wisdom. Do we know how to do that, where to go? Send me titles or links that you are aware of and I’ll publish them here.

Race Against Time is subtitled, “Searching for hope in AIDS-ravaged Africa.” I personally am HIV negative, so how is this “our story?” For most of you, the answer will be obvious, as it was to Nadine as she told us to remember that it’s all “our story” because we are all so inextricably linked that the echoes of each event reach all of us in one way or another.

Since hearing Stephen Lewis a week ago, I’m contemplating a poor-person’s dinner at $30.00 a plate to raise some money for “Generations at Risk”, an MCC program to alleviate the suffering caused by AIDS in Africa. I might serve lentil and chickpea soup and South African bread and pass the proceeds on to MCC.

Who wants to join my project?

I’m easily reached at

It’s not just coffee!

It’s ­our story; not my story (or their story).

What’s on your plate?

We all have AIDS.

Winning a war may get all the celebratory attention, but foreseeing and preventing war is a far greater challenge and a far nobler undertaking than the commanding of a victorious army.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Saskatchewan Election - Postlude

Well, it’s over. The results were more or less as predicted: Saskatchewan Party 37, NDP 21, Liberals 0, Green 0. Popular vote: Liberals 8% (down), NDP 37% (down), Saskatchewan Party 51% (way up). Although the Sask Party won a few urban seats, the rural/urban, Conservative/Social Democrat ideological split is relatively intact.

We woke up this morning to an inch or two of snow. Harbinger?

Agnes and I manned the hospital poll where we accommodated three voters and sat restlessly for four hours. I read a chapter in Stephen Lewis’s Race Against Time (The Massey Lectures of 2005), poked around in the recesses of the hospital to see what goes on in the kitchen, the labour room, the recovery rooms, the physical therapy unit, etc., drank hospital coffee and kibitzed with the nurses and doctors.

An elderly gentleman from Beardy’s-Okemasis Reserve was wheeled into our voting area by a nurse and we accommodated him as best we could. I took his declaration and gave him a ballot, showing him the space where he was to write in the name of either the party for whom he would like to vote, or the name of the candidate. He said, “I vote NDP,” and at that point, I gave up all pretense of secrecy, gave him a pencil and an open ballot on the table and in a very shaky hand, he put down what approximated the three letters well enough to be read.

We took the poll to a room where a just-admitted sweet old lady wanted to exercise her franchise and was surprised when the nurse told her she didn’t even have to sit up to vote. After voting she said, “Thank you, this was fun. I didn’t know voting could be this easy!”

In Rosthern-Shellbrook constituency, a lot of the right people would have to stay home for the sense of urgency in voting to return. The Conservative (Sask Party) candidate won by a hefty majority. In Martensville Constituency to the south of us, Nancy Heppner had 80% of the popular vote the last time I checked last night. The three hospital votes we garnered did something for the voters, possibly. They did nothing for the results, I expect.

Our premier elect is of Mennonite Brethren background, I’m told. A camera and microphone followed him as he plowed through the jubilant crowd at his victory celebration and I overheard an exchange in Low German: “Na Brad, wo jeet et?” Answer: “Gout. Nu ha wie Licht von Boven!” (“How’s it going, Brad,” Answer: “Great, now we have light from above.”) Light from above. In his speech, Brad Wall kept repeating the phrase, “Hope beats Fear,” The audience was chanting it with him at the end. I’m sure that poignant phrase will go down in history alongside “I have a dream . . .” and “Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .” But I shouldn’t descend into sarcasm; that genre is best employed before the election but after the same, sounds like sour grapes.

But my grapes are a bit sour this morning. Lorne Calvert was very gracious in losing, almost jubilant in fact, and I sensed that he was relieved that he was going to get a break from being blamed for every civil servant who goes astray, every pothole on every road and every venture that turned out to be less than hoped for. If you must lose, losing an election is not the worst scenario. Office carries a burden; I think it was Allan Blakeney who said that governing is an uphill climb, and every year in office adds another stone to the backpack. I think the NDP are going to relish a few years of their opponents taking it on the chin for a change.

Anyway, life goes on. This morning, I will spend half an hour cleaning bathrooms, etc in the library, I’ll go for coffee with my cronies and try to be polite when the election comes up, prepare for an evening meeting of the Rosthern Writers Group where we’ll discuss a great short essay by another member and a novel chapter of mine.

I’ll have to watch out at the corners today; riding a bike can be hazardous on ice and snow.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Saskatchewna Election Chapter 3

I'm sitting at my desk, where I'm supposed to be until 10:00 PM because it's revision day for enumerators. This is the day we make any last minute additions and corrections to the voters' lists and the returning office will phone us with any changes that come in to their hands. Naturally, it's a beautiful day out; I am allowed to enjoy the sunshine and blue sky through my window.
The leaders' debate was a debacle with three men in suits talking simultaneously and loudly much of the hour, and very little information actually being promulgated. I think it was water under the bridge in any case: the latest polls have the Sask Party 20 points ahead of the NDP in popular support with the Liberals way behind. It led to mixed feelings last night as I listened to a lecture by my favourite New Democrat in the world - Stephen Lewis - and realized that the fervent idealism and social conscience that characterizes him used to characterize the Saskatchewan CCF/NDP movement. I hope it will again, but that will have to be under new leadership. Lorne Calvert has lost the confidence of many party members and electors, and a dehorned bull can only bellow and kick up dust; he can no longer gore.
So what do we have to look forward to, here in the heart of medicare? Well I think the future will resemble what we would have seen federally had that other Stephen won a majority two years ago: lower taxes, trimming of arts and social programs funding, corporation stroking, law and order emphasis, etc. And likely deficit budgets despite the strong economy. And highways. The Sask Party backbenchers like highway construction and every secondary road in the province will be crying for money.
Stephen Lewis was magnificent. About 800 or so people gathered in the Great Salon at TCU Place in Saskatoon to hear him. His talk was about the scourge of inequality and he was a guest of the Saskatchewan Law Society. He talked about the AIDS/HIV situation world wide, about the UNs attempts to pass human rights conventions to protect children, women and the disabled and gave us an interesting statistic on this last convention. To be adopted as an international commitment by UN members, 20 countries have to ratify it. Only 7 have. Canada is not one of them. On the convention on children, all to the worlds governments have ratified it except Somalia and - you guessed it - the USA.
A further statistic was even more troubling. Lester Pearson once talked the developed world into adopting a goal of .7 % of GDP for foreign aid. All the G8 countries are moving closer to this target except Canada. Canada's contribution to foreign aid is actually declining by this measure.
Lewis said that the most troubling issue currently facing the world generally is the inequality of women and men. He told horrific stories of the abuse and rape of women in several African countries, particularly Congo, and said that in many parts of the world, the protection of women and children - even in countries that have ratified the UN conventions designed to protect them - the conditions for women and children are actually deteriorating. The UN has known about the problem in Congo and chooses to do nothing. It seems the Security Council can only think in terms of national security of borders and security against terrorism these days. There is little interest in women and children suffering in that august body.
And now, Saskatchewan is going to join the rest of the country in choosing "free enterprise" governance, where the major emphasis will always be the growth of the economy and may the devil take the hindmost. In that, we are more and more similar to our G8 friends and the World Bank.
By the way, did you know that the World Bank stipulated some time ago that countries borrowing money would only be granted loans if they applied user fees to health and education services? All across Africa, as a result, millions of children are not in school and cannot get appropriate medical treatment because they don't have the money to pay the user fees. I thought Lewis was on the verge of apoplexy when he told us this. Apparently the World Bank has been appropriately shamed into reversing this policy, but much of the damage has been done, and in one country, the sudden arrival of over a million students in school has created a major facilities and personnel crisis.
Well, that's not exactly about the Saskatchewan election, but then, it's all of a piece, isn't it?
In passing, Lewis divulged - tongue in cheek - his favourite election campaign strategy. He suggested that people favouring, say, an NDP candidate should go door to door after midnight, wake up the households and announce at each that they were campaigning for the Saskatchewan Party or the Liberals.
In four days we vote. I have revised my prediction: Sask Party 42, NDP 18, Liberals 0, Green Party 0.