Saturday, December 27, 2008

Shekinah December

View from the Hermitage, Christmas Day Doing the rounds. -30, Christmas Day.

Doing the rounds. -30, Christmas Day

The Hermitage, Christmas Day, 2000

Timberlodge and the North Saskatchewan , Christmas Day, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve eve. Cold. Really cold . . . I think; I haven’t stepped outside since yesterday.

I’ve been writing teachers’ guide commentaries for the Adult Bible Study series, a good job to be working at when winter grabs the countryside like it has this year. Today, I was working on a lesson for late December, 2009. The subject was the arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem and the flight into Egypt. A great deal of traveling going on.

Meanwhile, Canada’s airports are clogged, flights late or cancelled and a lot of people are sleeping on airplanes, benches, but not—to my knowledge—in a stable in Bethlehem. Donna Molnar got caught in a snowstorm in her car and was found alive after three days cradled under a snow bank in the Hamilton area, 200 metres from her car. Christmas and travel go together like zipper-skin oranges and Cracker Jacks.

Makes me nostalgic for some Christmases I can barely remember, say in 1950. We rehearsed in school and in church for concerts at which adults gave us bags of candy and peanuts, oranges and Cracker Jacks and we sang the drifting snow spread a robe of white on this beautiful Christmas Eve. And Christmas Eve—after the church concert usually—would be dark and cold and we’d light the candles on the tree in the parlour, eat peanuts and anticipate opening gifts on Christmas morning after the chores were done and breakfast eaten. I can still hear the sound of the poker as my dad banked the fire in the furnace downstairs, still smell the faint odor of coal dust and coal smoke, a promise that although the cold would creep in through the shrunken window sashes and door frames, we would not freeze tonight.

There was no thought of traveling past the Eigenheim Mennonite Church, one mile away.

The passing of the years struck me tonight as I loaded music onto the Mpeg player I gave Agnes for Christmas. It’s just big enough so you wouldn’t swallow it by mistake, but I loaded it with about 50 Christmas songs from our albums and it told me it had room for about 5,000 more. In the late 40’s, my brother bought a waist-high phonograph from a neighbour. We’d crank it up and play scratchy Wilf Carter records. One at a time. Each record weighed at least as much as 10 Mpeg players.

I have no idea what I’m trying to say here, except that I’m getting old enough to break into nostalgia at the drop of a hat.

I want to wish all of you a blessed Christmas season and a hopeful New Year. I finally decided—as I pondered what I might write about the Magi seeking the Christ—that the star is symbolic of our longing for a better world. In the story, they took up to two years to hunt down the child whom their astrological observations seemed to be predicting. Its like Jesus’ parable about a man who finds a treasure in a field, and sells everything he has to buy that field.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

State of the Union

Shekinah, November 28, 2007

801 First Avenue, Rosthern. November 22, 2008 (The north unit of a Triplex)

State of the Union?

By George Epp

It’s a crisp, sunny day at Shekinah in the valley of the North Saskatchewan, and because the weekend is coming, we’re slowing down. I like the German word, Feierabend, which means the dusk of the work day or week, when tools are being put away and rest beckons. This weekend, a women’s group of 38 from a church in Osler is “retreating” in the Timberlodge, but since we’re ostensibly off for the weekend, I hope to do some writing and reflecting.

Writing what, you ask? I’ve accepted a second contract for writing the teachers’ guide to a quarter of Bible studies for adults. My job is to take the lessons prepared by others and write a companion guide for teaching them. It’s enjoyable, but demanding in time and energy. That’s one thing that’s on my mind.

This morning, the building committee of our church spent time with the contractor plotting out the location of the new structure we’re hoping to erect. That, too, has its demanding aspects; as committees, we often have to decide things as if a whole bunch of people were standing in our shoes with us. And sometimes, church members are not as forthcoming as they could be, and other times, committee members don’t listen as well as they should. Those who have served on any kind of building-planning committee with a lot of money at stake, various sentiments at play, and a lot of differing tastes being expressed, will know well what I’m talking about. That’s another thing on my mind.

At the same time, Agnes and I are in the middle of purchasing a home now under construction. The builders are friends, so much of this planning is pleasant and convivial, but at the same time, we have to whittle down our preferences and actually decide on a lot of details. Would you want a fridge with the freezer on top or on bottom? Is crown moulding significant enough to justify the extra cost? Stuff like that. It will be a small place; we’re well aware that this may be our last home purchase, and it’s the first one in which we’ve actually had a say in where a wall will go. That’s on my mind these days.

The news is telling us that the government may face defeat over its economic statement and the lack of projected economic stimuli. That would mean an election or a request from the governor general to the opposition parties to form a government. Strikes me as being so un-Canadian that I don’t give it much credence, but who knows? These are ground-breaking times. That’s on my mind as well.

And then there’s the news from Mumbai. I have to confess that I was just barely aware that there was a city in India by that name. What’s on my mind in that regard—besides the empathetic agony over the loss of innocent lives—is the matter of determining what soil is required for such hatred to take root.

Have a nice day . . . anyway.

(Copyright 2008 George Epp)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Janitorial Career

My Janitorial Career ã

Some 5 years ago, the Rosthern Library moved to new premises and needed a new janitor. I was asked and accepted, probably because Agnes was in charge of the library at the time and it was she who asked me. My thinking was this: vacuuming, cleaning windows, dusting, washing counters, clearing the sidewalk of snow, etc. would be good exercise, something that retired people have to make a deliberate effort to maintain a reasonable level . . . of.

I realized very quickly that I’d lived my life to date as an elitist, in this case a person who looked upon people who clean up after others with a condescension bordering on scorn. But in order for a public place to be maintained sanitary and appealing for us elitists to work in or visit, I now know that someone has to do at least some of the following tasks.

1) Clean up after the phantom crapper. This character gets caught short while in the vicinity of a public washroom and uses the provided facility. This happens on a day before a weekend. He is notorious for forgetting to flush, and by the time the janitor gets around to cleaning, the whole place smells like a stable. Our job is to hold our noses and return the facilities to a pristine, hygienic state before the elitist people happen by.

2) Clean up after the livestock handler who likes to read (do business, get a chest
X-ray, whatever).
This person doesn’t have a pair of oxfords handy in the pickup truck, and so walks in with residue of his day on his boots. This probably includes animal feces, mud, straw, pebbles, leaves and definitely some unidentified substance that adheres to carpet like Velcro. His 5-minute visit will cost the conscientious janitor at least an hour of work to undo.

3) Clean up after vandals. It’s highly predictable that the most clean and airy of places will be most attractive to persons who need to be noticed through the medium of graffiti, obscenities or simply scratching their initials into the paint on the railings. What takes a vandal ten seconds to create takes a janitor hours to put right again.

4) Clean up after a roof leak, a broken window, a toilet overflow or a flood. It happens. Janitors get to wade in flooded basements picking soggy boxes out of water, drying the contents and wet-vacuuming late into the evening after all the elitists have finished dinner and laid their tonsured heads on satin pillows.

5) Clean hand prints off glass. Why is it that even when a glass door has a perfectly placed metal push panel, almost everyone opens the door by pushing on the glass?

6) Put up and check the trap line daily. Professional people in buildings report the evidence of mice on the premises; janitors trap them, dispose of them and reset the traps. They also clean up the spoor. The elitists screw up their faces and say eeeyooo! We all have our roles.

7) Etc., etc., etc.

Janitoring will probably always be a thankless occupation. A janitor’s work is only noticed when it’s done badly. “Did you forget to dust the counters?” “Yes I did, sorry. But did you notice that I cleaned the toilets inside and out?”

Janitoring is boring, like washing dishes. It’s maintenance work, is neither creative nor constructive. The floor needs to be vacuumed or mopped in the same way every day. Variety is introduced only when something disgusting happens, like a child throwing up on the carpet.

There is some satisfaction to be had in looking back at a shiny bathroom, or noticing that the windows all sparkle, or the toilet is functioning perfectly again. Seize these moments, all you cleaner-uppers; it’s all you’re going to get.

At Shekinah, I’ve been able to apply some of my janitorial skills. Some of my tasks as a volunteer involve cleaning up the leavings of one group so the place is ready for the next group. That’s what chamber-persons in hotels do. That’s what thousands and thousands of people are doing late into the night in thousands and thousands of office towers and banks.

Some time ago, I sat in the emergency area of the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon waiting for staff to get to my brother. I watched a burly man, about 30 years old, mopping floors—fruitlessly, it seemed: it was a slushy day. “Poor bastard,” I thought as another pair of muddy boots clomped across his freshly mopped floor. “Can’t you find a better job?”

Ours is a caste system. Professionals are Brahmins. Janitors, garbage collectors, restaurant dishwashers and unskilled labourers are untouchables. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but if positive regard and pay are the measures of our esteem of people around us, it doesn’t fall far from the truth.

But then, I personally don’t want to live in a world in which hotel rooms contain a washer and dryer, a mop, pail and a vacuum and the requirement that the room be left in the condition in which I found it. Neither do I want to wash my dishes in a back room of the restaurant after eating. “Being served” in the less-glamorous aspects of daily living is—at least in part—a frequent reason for leaving the house!

My short career as library janitor reminds me that I am in debt to people who clean for me—and after me. I’ll try to pay the debt as I go along—with praise and gratitude, probably, although talk is cheap.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Welcome to the next recession

Autumn that was

Who made this mess? (copyright reserved)

By George Epp

Are you puzzled by the current economic misery gripping people-with-money these days? Are you confused by the fact that—although the economic landscape in your neck of the woods appears much as it did yesterday—all the news on the international front is insisting that we’re in for difficult times?

In the most recent issue of The Christian Century (October 21, 2008) Economics teacher at Wheaton College, James Halteman, explains what has happened nationally in the US to cause this international economic influenza. In summary, US financial institutions have been selling bond issues backed by mortgages with sub-prime interest rates, which mortgage brokers have been peddling like magic hula hoops. Inevitably, buyers of homes with far-too-generous conditions have had to walk away from their purchases, flooding the market with unsaleable homes, driving down the values of real estate, subsequently driving down the value of the bond issues, decimating the cash flow through the various lending institutions, consequently making it nearly impossible for many developers, manufacturers and exporters/importers to do business. The resultant state of panic has decimated the value of stocks and bonds, and has resulted in widespread selling-out behaviour, the curtailing of consumer confidence and the long skid down the recession slope.

Halteman’s conclusion: “Regulation of the financial markets needs to be updated—something that has been hindered by an anti-regulatory political climate.” That may be the understatement of the week.

I was told yesterday about a well-to-do Christian who is in a blue funk these days because the economic collapse has cost him massively. One presumes that his investments have tanked and the loss is on paper and might be regained if he holds on for the long term. But I have to wonder: What is an active Christian doing in the stock market anyway? The poorly-regulated way in which those institutions function these days means that they are less about acquiring an interest in the economic engines of the country in order to further common goals, and more about getting rich through non-productive, speculative behaviour. Take derivatives, for instance, buying and selling of futures, etc. This behaviour wouldn’t be so reprehensible if it weren’t for the fact that it “bets” with the common currency that you and I depend on to feed our families and further worthwhile goals, like schools, hospitals, art galleries.

I read on my currency that it is the property of the people of Canada through the Bank of Canada. How is it that we allow the misuse of our common currency by shysters who demand the right to unregulated speculation with it?

It’s time for big changes. Halteman is right. Trouble is, we’ve just re-elected a government that is congenitally gun-shy when it comes to market regulation. Let’s see what this whole mess leads to; with any luck we’ll come out smarter on the other side.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Election blues and some autumn-garden wonders

Election BluesÓ

by George Epp

As a kid, I and a couple or three of my siblings walked to school in the spring and fall: half a mile east, one mile south. Some years, the telephone post at the junction where we turned south was plastered with election posters. Walter Tucker was the Liberal Candidate in our constituency, and I would probably have drawn a mustache on him if he hadn’t already had one.

At the time, the only credible rivals for government in Saskatchewan were the Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Liberals. I clearly remember how most of our neighbours supported the Liberals, but that my father was a staunch follower of Tommy Douglas and his democratic socialism. That meant that perversions of the CCF name—as in “Crazy Cat Farmers” for instance—were taken as personal insults when hurled out as playground taunts.

Elections were serious business and volatile emotional experiences.

I think I still take elections too personally, probably in part as a result of those childhood experiences. The New Democrats have always been my team, like the Saskatchewan Roughriders or the Montreal Canadians; a Grey Cup or Stanley Cup loss for the home team still stings, although less with the passage of time.

Seeing Conservatives in office is like having a sharp stone in my shoe.

Mind you, it’s not just about loyalty to my father and his political allegiances. I’ve become convinced through my courses in university and my years of teaching in the humanities that the cooperative (socialist) model is superior to the competitive (capitalist) model as a way of doing government. The debate on this subject is certainly being reopened by the “Wall Street Crisis” going on in the US at the moment. Capitalism has made such a gigantic blunder that it can’t think of any other way to save itself except to appeal to taxpayers to rescue it. Had the US been governed after the Social Democratic model, government might long since have reined in the excesses of corporate greed and the country would have been spared the spectacle we’re currently watching.

The astounding thing is that many people still believe—apparently—that the “invisible hand” that guides the workings of an unfettered marketplace will also lead us all to the best possible world. Greed should never be allowed to drive the bus; to ride in it maybe, but under a watchful eye. It’s a government’s role to act as guardian of the public interest and to ensure that resources are distributed equitably enough to provide the basics of a reasonable life to everyone. For this, there must be controls on those who would make their living by speculating with and manipulating the economic system in order to become wealthy without actually providing any goods or services for the public.

I may vote strategically this election. My MP is a Conservative who believes that crime can be fought with harsher punishment and that day care centres cause women to go out to work when they should be raising their children. Whichever Candidate comes closest—in my opinion—to being able to deliver a challenge to this kind of thinking may well get my vote, although I may stand in the voting booth for a long time with pencil poised, struggling to look beyond old allegiances and at the big picture.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Kennedy on US political scene.

Robert F Kennedy said in a speech you can see on the truthout website: “80% of Republicans are uninformed Democrats.” He goes on to show how Republicans and Democrats showed no difference in their opinions when they were given accurate information on the question—for instance—of the morality of the war in Iraq. There’s a great deal more to his speech that will energize liberals (small l), something that’s badly needed in North America with two very important elections coming up.

It may not be appropriate to compare Canada’s Conservative Party to the Republican in the USA; it is nevertheless as important for us to be informed about the issues of corporate control of government and the consequences, and to ascertain which party is most likely to keep a check on government-by-lobby. “Where the government controls the corporate world, you have communism. Where the corporate world controls government, you have fascism.” Another quote from Kennedy’s speech. “Democracies have to walk the fine line between the two extremes.”

Kennedy also points out that the USA no longer has an investigative press, and so the population is getting very slanted news reports from Fox and it’s equivalents.

Check out Kennedy’s speech at

Thank you to reader Gordon F. for alerting me to the website.

I urge you to click on the link and here Kennedy’s speech; he’s a fabulous orator.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Shekinah Journal #1

Shekinah Autumn
September 23, 2008, 7:00 a.m.

It’s a Shekinah morning. There’s some time yet before the staff at the Retreat Centre meet in the office below our apartment to set priorities for the day. Time to sit on the couch with my laptop and reflect for an hour. Time to pause at the commas and periods and scan the high riverbank opposite with its clumps of yellow poplar, red cranberry bushes and rusty chokecherry shrubs. Autumn is the most magnificent time of year here, colour-wise.

I’ve learned in the last weeks that I love nature, but at a distance more than up close. As we drove the sharp bend before descending into Shekinah late last night, two sleek whitetail deer streaked through the wash of our headlights, close enough for us to see their frightened eyes, far enough away for me to take evasive action. Cars and deer colliding on the roads is a regular occurrence around here.

And then there are the peskiest children of Mother Nature: beaver, squirrels, chipmunks and mice. Along the banks of a ravine that runs behind our apartment, the beaver have found a haven. A spring-fed stream winds its way down the gully to spill itself into the North Saskatchewan, a perfect setup for beaver, who will build dams across this stream as often as we can break them apart (I have yet to be involved in this), denuding the ravine of already-sparse poplar growth.

Yesterday we cleaned out a garage of accumulated bikes and bike parts, camping gear, old records in boxes and the mountains of odds and ends that tend to accumulate in garage-like places where order is not immediately of the essence. And we cleaned up mouse shit. I hate mouse leavings with a passion. But here at Shekinah, there will always be mice; the appropriate response to them, I guess, would be to admit that it is we who are encroaching on their territory, not the other way ‘round. Until that consciousness sets in, however, I will set traps for them. Not the other way ‘round.

The bushes around the retreat centre are tangles of beaver-cut stumps, fallen poplar and the berry and cherry shrubs that thrive on the banks of the Saskatchewan. At this time of year, the high bush cranberries are overripe, and as they burst and give up their juices to the wind, they exude an aroma that you wouldn’t want to harvest as a household fragrance. It’s not skunk, but it suggests skunk. I understand now why my mother called these Schtinkberren. Chokecherries are at their best now though, and I strip a handful of them from a shrub every time I walk down to the Timberlodge, suck off the meat and spit stones like a baseball coach (or a Rhinefeld Mennonite) spits sunflower seed shells. I’m told the chokecherry is a great herbal remedy for, well, whatever ails ya.

Poets and artists of the Romantic Period introduced us to the idea that the natural world isn’t a dirty, hostile place that one does best to avoid. Oh, there’s obviously danger out there; if the poison oak don’t get you, a black bear might. On the other hand, traditional aboriginal spirituality stresses our unity with the natural world, and since Darwin explained to us that we humans are intricately bound up with all living matter on earth, we are more prone to see our connectedness to nature. Not like the pre-enlightenment folk, who believed that the night air carried a foulness that caused illness and death, and that evil spirits roamed the midnight woods.
Life for us now is much quieter than it was in town. Here at Shekinah, a cloudy night renders our surroundings so dark that even following the gravel road down to the meadows is a challenge. The onset of evening darkness is like a signal to all of nature to hush; sound seems to “leave the building” along with the light.

I don’t think I’ll ever master the art of being one with the earth. I curse when a bramble catches my sleeve, I hold a mouse trap at arms length when called upon to dispose of its contents.
High on the bank above us, Shekinah offers a house called “The Hermitage,” a primitive log structure characterized more by what it hasn’t got than what it has. It doesn’t have a bathroom, running water, electricity, gas, and so, of course, lacks pretty much all of the amenities and gadgetry that we associate with comfortable living. Agnes and I helped Lorne clean it yesterday.

Agnes said, “You couldn’t pay me enough to spend a night in this place!”

I said, after noting the rough walls, the crude wood stove, the flies and mouse droppings, “There’s nothing wrong with this place that a can of gasoline and a match wouldn’t fix!”

And yet, The Hermitage is booked as much as any facility on the premises. There are people who want to experience the primitive life, who want to be so close to nature that it pokes it’s fingers through the windows beside their bed as they lie there, gazing at the stars through poplar boughs.

Our apartment, by contrast, has all the good stuff we’ve decided we need. And it manages to allow us a good look at nature’s magnificence through big picture windows while keeping most of that nature outside . . . where it belongs.

There are two ways to enjoy nature: theoretically, and at an appropriate distance.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

sunday morning musings

How did we end up where we are? ©

I had occasion to talk church history with a member of the Salem Bible Fellowship Church in Waldheim, Saskatchewan recently, primarily on the question of their history as a congregation. She couldn’t help me very much, since she hadn’t paid much attention to the congregation’s historical roots, but she gave me one of those rural community history books that were being produced in the 1980’s all across Saskatchewan, and there a few pages summarized their story.

They began as the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren church (Krimmer: German for “Crimean”), an offshoot of the Mennonite Brethren movement in the area of the Molochna Colony just north of the Black Sea in Ukraine. In the 1870s, a group of about half a dozen families emigrated to the US where they settled in Kansas for a time before some of them decided to move on to the area between the Saskatchewan Rivers at present day Waldheim. Here they worshipped in homes until a “revival” saw their numbers increase and the need for a permanent worship home emerge. The building that grew from that burned down in the late thirties and a new building was erected west of Waldheim, but subsequently moved into town and added to. (This may not be precisely accurate, but I’m not so much interested in the building.)

Time came when the Krimmer churches in Canada merged with the Mennonite Brethren, except that the Salem Group chose not to participate in this merger, joining instead another branch of the MB church called—I think—the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church. In the 1980’s, as I recall, the Salem group joined the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches and parted company with the “Mennonite” name for good.

Salem “Mennonites” are considerably more conservative in their theology than the Zoar Mennonites (Mennonite Church Saskatchewan) and the Mennonite Brethren Church a stone’s throw away. The website for the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible churches has a pdf download available on their tenets regarding controversial issues: Not surprisingly the stand on abortion is “conception marks the beginning of a human life;” on homosexuality: “it’s a sin but homosexuals can find redemption;” on gender roles: “God gave the tasks of eldership and pastoring to men, but women have important other roles in the church,” etc.

Waldheim could well form a useful case study for the branching that occurred in the Anabaptist world in the last half of the 19th Century. The last names of people in at least the three branches of Anabaptism represented in Waldheim are often the same, and so I wonder how it came to be that I am attending this branch and not that. If my ancestors had lived a few houses over in the Ukrainian colonies, would I be a conservative of the Kleingemeinde or Krimmer branch? Are my more-liberal, less-literal Bible interpretations a matter of choice, or are thy consequences of historical accidents?

I’ll think about this in church this morning as Allan delivers his sermon and the Gideons bring greetings to the congregation, and as we sing hymns, some from Hymnal: a worship book and some from Sing the Journey. And I’ll remember what Robert Frost said so eloquently:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim . . .

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back . . .

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Election Coming

Me at White Sands, 2007

So October 14th will be the big day. An election that we don’t need and shouldn’t be holding, particularly since the law (to hold elections every four years) enacted by the same government that is calling this one is being flagrantly broken.

Coincidentally, the US presidential vote will take place just weeks after ours. The Republican ticket now includes a woman who is a self-described “hockey mom” and a “pit bull with lipstick,” and a man whose campaign organizers seem to believe that he deserves to be elected because he suffered much as a POW. Meanwhile, the Democratic ticket features a relatively inexperienced presidential candidate who has had some shaky moments in the campaign but represents the best hope for change in a discredited political establishment.

For me, of course, names like Harper, Dion, Layton, May or Duceppe won’t be on the ballot, let alone McCain or Obama. I have to decide whether or not to vote for incumbent Maurice Vellacott or one of his opponents. To help me choose, he’s placed another brochure in my mailbox featuring a get-tough-on-criminals message with the conclusion: “The Conservative Government is standing on the side of law-abiding families and taxpayers. Prison perks have to end.” Vellacott wants to see an end to tattoo practitioners serving prisoners, the closing of smoking rooms and a withdrawal of the right to vote.

It’s the typical conservative response to trouble: meet deviance with force; punish harshly; “they asked for it.” It was Bush and Cheney’s response to 911, and caused them to jump swiftly to choices that were seen in retrospect to be foolish in the extreme.

The problem with this mindset is that, logical as it may seem, it’s ineffective. According to Vellacott, prisons are about “accountability, public safety and punishment.” Prisoners are locked up to pay a debt to society. The problem is that after sentences have been served and the debt paid, we are left with the hardened and broken husks of human beings, incapable of reintegrating, partly because they have been treated like animals in the prison system. This is not doing a favour to “law-abiding families and taxpayers.” This is substituting harsh retribution for a more considered approach to crime and punishment.

Conservatives tend to leave rehabilitation and reconciliation out of their dialogue. That’s why Bush’s foreign policies have failed so utterly, and that’s why another four years of the Harper Conservatives will continue to push our justice system and our foreign policy closer to the retributive model, a model of the past, not the future. Our military budget line will rise faster than our foreign aid line.

In a time when care of the environment, particularly, is front and centre on the global agenda, we can’t afford to be led by the conservative mindset. The Harper record is clear: “Do no more than you have to to keep the tree huggers off your front porch.” Harper appears far more interested in Arctic sovereignty than in Arctic conservation and—as he let out in a recent news conference—that has much to do with the oil that may lie under the Arctic waters.

With any luck, Americans will shake off the Bush legacy, and will refuse to be swayed into thinking once more that their security lies with the pit bulls. With any luck, we Canadians will recognize that conservative thinking in our country is taking us steps backwards when we need to go creatively forward.

Prison-perks is a non-issue in comparison to the global hurdles we face.

We need an MP who recognizes this.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Prince Charles speaks out.

Prince Charles farming . . . in a tie

Bonnie Prince Charlie takes on Monsanto and friends©

By George Epp

Bonnie Prince Charlie has spoken out again, this time on the evils of corporate farming and the rush to genetically modified food products. Apparently he was being interviewed by the Daily Telegraph recently when he was reported to have said of the corporations concerned that they are conducting a “gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity which has gone seriously wrong. Why else are we facing all these challenges, climate change and everything?” (Saskatoon StarPhoenix, August 14, 2008)

I’m not sure you can trust completely a person who ends his opinion with “all these challenges, climate change and everything.” Seems to me that climate change and genetic manipulation (not to mention “everything”) are separated by enough distance to make lumping them together and laying them at the feet of one villain unacceptable, rhetorically.

Genetic modification has been with us for a long time. Here in Rosthern, a man by the name of Seeger Wheeler selected seed from different strains of wheat and mated them until he achieved a desired result: better, earlier maturing grain. Wheeler, however, took years to achieve a very small alteration in the genetic makeup of wheat, and furthermore, he was not aiming at control over the seed industry and the chemical inputs that go with it like modern corporations are. I admit that I share the Prince’s skepticism about the practices we’re currently seeing in the food industry, primarily because they’re profit driven, and if power corrupts, then so does profit. Profit begets power.

The debate gets quite heated. On the radio the other day, an industry person and an ecologist were exchanging pretty emotional viewpoints on the subject. From industry: the growing population requires that the tools of genetic modification be applied in order to achieve the production that will be needed to feed everyone. From environmentalists: the corporate takeover of the food industry is effectively driving farmers off the land all over the world and forcing them to subsist in the slums and ghettos of the big cities. From environmentalists: the introduction of genetically modified crops is doing way more damage than good. From industry: No it hasn’t; it’s working really well. From the environmentalist: No it’s not!

Charles cites the onslaught on the water tables in India as an overt manifestation of the problem. New, genetically modified plants being grown require far more water than their predecessors, he says, and the end of that process is drought and famine. He also talks about the issues arising from increasing herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer use, all of which are already familiar to most of us.

Prince Charles is frequently the butt of jokes. He’s an aging heir to the throne who may die of old age before his wiry mother is ready to hand the throne over to him. His estrangement from the divine Diana and simultaneous entanglement with Camilla Parker Bowles didn’t help his image much, and most of us are automatically skeptical when a man of wealth and influence—who farms as a hobby—speaks out on the subject of agriculture.

But today I’m with Charles. We dare not put the earth’s future in the hands of the corporate elite. They make a mess of everything. They exploit, they pollute, they manipulate people, and they simply are not the kind of global citizen that is needed to grapple with the big issues of the day.

Go Charles.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Harvest time in the Garden

Grow your own Food

Yesterday, as we harvested some of the goodies in our backyard garden, I thought about gardens when I was a kid and wondered if there will come a time when people will again garden for food. I've been told that the average item on our plates these days travels 1700 Kms to get there. Transporting food takes energy; fossil fuels are expensive and becoming scarcer; the globe is suffering from CO2 emissions, etc., etc.
I have a friend who market gardens. I believe he said that he grows $8.00 worth of food on a square metre. We have about 75 square metres for vegetables. This produces enough potatoes to last us past Christmas, carrots for most of the winter, tomatoes for a full year (in the form of frozen, canned spaghetti sauce and juice), plenty of beans, greens for the full summer, and so on. In June, we're eating strawberries that taste like the wild berries we used to pick on the prairie with enough left over for jam for the winter. Raspberries are our most beloved dessert throughout July and into August.
We also have a sour cherry tree that provides an abundance (about 30 Kg.) of cherries, a plum tree and a chokecherry tree that produce as much jam, sauces and jellies as we need for a year. Gardening takes energy too, of course., but in that it provides useful exercise, it's a win/win proposition. Moreover, there's no comparing the taste of a vine-ripened tomato picked 10 minutes ago with the tennis balls available in the supermarket; the same holds true for most of the other vegetables. New potatoes fresh from the garden with dill sauce and a bit of salt and pepper is a foretaste of heaven.
All our fruits and vegetables are organic; we know they haven't been sprayed, are not genetically modified.

Tomatoes and Zucchini

Green Beans


Sunday, August 03, 2008

A Sunday Morning Reflection

a prairie Sunday

One Sunday Morning – a meditation©

by George Epp

Sunday morning. It’s one of those rare prairie days when a brilliant sun caresses the earth through air so clear that you feel like you just gave your glasses a good cleaning. Every leaf, every blade of grass is in sharp focus here on 5th Street this morning, and it’s a relief to realize that there’s hardly a breath of wind to disturb the tranquility that is, well, Sunday morning of a prairie summer.

I was in a downtown Rosthern store the other day and as I made my purchase, remarked that it was already August 1. The clerk sighed and said, “Yah, summer will soon be gone.” It’s a distinct side of the prairie character, I’m guessing; an inbred pessimism that makes it hard to relish the great food on your plate when your thoughts are on the dismal fact that it will soon be gone and you’ll be left with that overstuffed feeling and absolutely no appetite.

If only every day could be like this day!

But then, life is not only weather, is not just about physical calm and warm, peaceful days between storms, winds and cold. As the sun arose this morning to herald an absolutely splendid morning, life was ending all around us. It’s an unfathomable sorrow for us mortals that things—no matter their splendour—must end, and that far too soon. The day is too soon over; the dinner too quickly eaten. The lilies that were so resplendent in the vase on our dining table two days ago are today wilting in the compost box.

Given these inevitabilities, what are we to make of the gems we hold fleetingly in our hands? For many, it’s become an obsessive resistance: a search for the fountain of youth by which the march to an end can be thwarted. An ad repeated nauseatingly on TV promises to even out the telltale wrinkles that remind us that youth is escaping our grasp. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Dylan Thomas wrote to a dying father. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Others teach us that there are resources to be had that make it possible to relish each day like this prairie Sunday without lamenting the winter to come. I envy the tranquil people; I want to be like them. While some of us may say that we believe in the goodness of God as being central to the universe—and to those who live in it—others live each day in that reality as if it were knowledge, way beyond faith.

In any case, this morning I look forward to a great day. The sun, the clear air, the quiet seem like a glimpse into a world that is so good that it chokes us up to contemplate it.

The ends of things may wear a death mask, but there is a reality that declares every end a prelude to a sunrise.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Murder: America vs Canada

A Right to Bear Arms?©

Maclean’s reported the following in the July 7 ’08 edition (“Lawless, but Gunless,” p. 58):

A. One-third of Canadians own a gun or guns; 90% of Americans do.

B. Canada has 60 gun murders for every million people annually; the US has 340.

C. Canada annually has 190 total murders per 1 million population; the US has 570.

Let’s crunch those numbers a bit:

  • Of the 190 people per million who are murdered in Canada, 60 die by bullet, 130 by some other means (knife, mostly, one imagines). That’s 31.5% by guns.
  • Of the 570 people per million murdered in the US, 340 die by bullet, 230 by some other means. That’s 59.6% by gun.
  • The murder rate overall in the US is 300% of Canada’s.

The appalling statistic here is that in Canada, annually, ca. 4750 and in the US, ca. 145,000 people are violently killed, by our own citizens, by and large. We fight wars abroad to combat terrorism’s threat; is that ironical when we look at the threat from within?

The statistics don’t prove anything about the efficacy of gun control. Gun murders in the US account for 60% of such events and in Canada only 32%. Obviously, people don’t murder someone because they have a gun available; it’s more likely that they decide to murder someone and then decide on the means. In Canada, murderers more often resort to knives, clubs or cars, possibly because handguns just aren’t as readily available here. Or does the possession of a handgun actually increase the likelihood that a person will contemplate murder as a way out of a dilemma?

It could be argued that in the heat of the moment, the clean, arms-length death that can be delivered with a gun increases the likelihood of a murder being committed. An angry person might be deterred by the messy nature of hand-to-hand killing, but might not be if a handgun, say, were available and the murder could be done without looking the victim so intimately in the eye.

Also, the “right to bear arms” may contribute to an overall cultural climate in which the use of guns seems to be legitimized, and by extension, the use of violence of all kinds to settle quarrels. Is that what’s behind the enormous difference between the murder rates in the two countries, so similar in so many other ways?

Lest we become smug about our superiority to the Americans in this, however, Maclean’s also reports in the same story that our break-and-enter, arson and auto theft rates are higher than theirs. Go Canada!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Text and Context


Text versus Context or Text plus Context?©

The Christ in our Context by McGill theologian Douglas John Hall is speaking to me rather directly—and I might add, disturbingly—about the theology that guides—or doesn’t guide but ought to—our lives in the Western World today—pardon the plethora of ellipses. I’ve read only part of it so far, in preparation for a discussion group session a week from now. It’s become my habit to apply little, semi-transparent sticky tabs to the pages rather than underlining or highlighting passages that strike me particularly, and it’s becoming apparent that I’ll run out of these before I finish the book.

Today, I’m struck by the concept of text vs context discussed around page 57. The idea is that we Christians possess a text; this text includes the Bible, our traditional communal understandings of God and Christ, writings of our scholars, cultural habits, etc. That is to say, the authorities we refer to when we preach, teach or debate issues, or even when we privately decide what is and what is not ethical in our behaviour.

We also live in a context, namely the world as we find it, so different in so many ways from the world in which our texts generally came into being. I think, for instance, of the matter of baptism and how the text for my own Mennonite denomination was “written” in a time when rebaptism as adults was a powerful political choice in that it defied church/state authority over the citizenry. In our context, baptism may not have lost any of its significance, but it is no longer a political statement as it was. The question than becomes: is the Mennonite text on baptism an anachronism, and does it govern our thinking to the point where we are blind to contextual clues about what baptism means today? How would John the Baptist or Jesus baptize people coming to the faith today, as opposed to the time of the Reformation, or the Jordan River episodes in the gospels?

Point is, we Western Christians have struggled with the text/context thing, and have often failed to witness properly to the world in which we live because we put text over and above context, and have preached a gospel to the world that their circumstances make it impossible to embrace. The missionaries that worked among Canada’s aboriginals, for instance, preached a text, with some exceptions, of course, and tried to alter the context to fit it. Seeing that that wasn’t working, the church and the country reverted to a forced assimilation policy and the residential school system was born. We have just learned again how brutal applying text to the backsides of aboriginal children became in the end.

Recently, our church had a visitor from a Mennonite Church in Colombia. The contrast of their meager resources, their political constraints, their context when compared to ours made me squirm. I learned more about context from Amanda’s visit than I will from the book, probably, and the members of our congregation who visited this group in Colombia did even better in this. Without context, text can turn into a hollow reed, sometimes even a sword—but that’s a whole other subject.

I look forward to the rest of the book.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Open Letter to my MP

An open letter to Maurice Vellacott, MP

Dear Mr. Vellacott;

Here are some of my thoughts in response to your Summer, 2008 mail out to constituents:

1) The announcement that VIA Rail will be giving free travel passes to Defense Department employees and Canadian Forces personnel during July was news to me. I must say that I fail to see the reason for granting such a privilege to one sector of the population and not to others. Do our defense forces really merit the honour that is implied here, above, say, teachers or nurses or bridge builders?

I won’t get into my own disapproval of our presence in Afghanistan, except to say that a claim that our soldiers are there in defense of our country is a stretch; terrorism has never been a primary danger to Canadians, at least not when compared to domestic crime, traffic accidents, natural disasters or disease and addictions. Let’s honour the people who struggle daily to overcome these real dangers for a change.

2) Thank you for reprinting in whole the article by Michael Den Tandt of Sun Media, even though it is nearly a year old by now. I appreciated the inclusion of the following quotes:

Canada is [losing the communications war]. The military and the media deserve some measure of blame for this. Mainly though, responsibility falls to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Even as he struggles to sell the Afghan mission to an increasingly uneasy public, his mania for control is stifling the truth about what’s happening there.”

“The five officials from foreign affairs, the 10 RCMP officers engaged in training Afghan police, the head of the CIDA mission in the province (with a budget of $39-million this year alone), are not allowed to speak to the media. According to multiple sources here, they have been gagged by the Prime Minister’s Office. Figure that one out.”

Including these quotes in your publication one flip of the page away from “Stephen Harper is a Leader . . . Stephane Dion is not” takes some courage. One might arrive at the misconception that a great leader is one with a “mania for control,” but that surely was not your intent.

3) I was puzzled by your inclusion of the “Trials and Tribulations” article from the Canadian Shooting Sports Magazine, which basically outlines ways to stymie a government official who requests permission to inspect one’s firearms to ensure that their security complies with the regulations. Are you not a member of the government that is responsible for the regulations on gun safety? Are you not a member of the government that is responsible for ensuring that these regulations are adhered to?

(Was it just a coincidence that the hunter photographs you chose to accompany the article are all of females with guns, exhibiting their kills?)

4) Lastly, I’m not impressed by the personal attacks on Stephane Dion despite the fact that he doesn’t possess the same “mania for control” of Stephen Harper. Your leader has ridiculed the carbon tax scheme here in Saskatchewan, a stance that matches nicely with that of our current Premier. But the status quo that both are trying to window dress for public consumption is not leadership at all, and the viciousness of Mr. Harper’s attack seems to me to be an indication of his suspicion that his perceived weakness on environmental issues may become the nub of the next election campaign.

Have a nice day,

George Epp

cc. Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry . . .

South Saskatchewan River, Saskatoon

While we’re apologizing . . . ©

By George Epp

A few days ago, Stephen Harper and the other party leaders apologized to the Aboriginals, Métis and Inuit of Canada on my behalf (except for those in Newfoundland & Labrador, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick). They told them I was sorry for the policy that took their children away from them and put them into boarding schools with the express purpose of forcefully assimilating them into the culture, religion and language of the colonials invading the continent.

Well I’m deeply sorry that that was done. But I find myself wanting to get more off my chest than just the residential school issue, which was horrible enough. So here I offer to the Aboriginal people and their descendants in ALL of Canada, a few more apologies:

1) I’m sorry that I benefited from the process that saw you marginalized by an imperialist and ethnocentric power—in your own country, and failed to recognize that fact.

2) I’m sorry that I continue to live on land that was stolen from you and then sold to others, and finally to me.

3) I’m sorry that you are still not considered worthy of the same property rights as other Canadians.

4) I’m sorry that when one of your women—a bright, influential health-care administrator—attempted to reserve a meeting room at a Winnipeg Hotel, she was presumed to be a prostitute and was told to take her trade elsewhere. (Apply this apology as needed to the thousands and thousands of incidents like this that whittled away at your self esteem and self confidence, and for which my protests were far too weak and half-hearted.)

5) I’m sorry that land agreed to be yours by virtue of signed treaties was confiscated in many places whenever the government felt a need for it.

6) I’m sorry that I didn’t punch my neighbour in the mouth for you when his truck was vandalized and he jumped immediately to the conclusion that it was “those damned Indian kids from the trailer park.” (Multiply this apology by several thousand, on second thought.)

7) I’m sorry that when one of you is discussed, you are an “Indian” and when a neighbour is discussed, he is a “person.”

8) I’m sorry that we have not done enough to focus on the basics of health and education as stepping stones to dignity and equality, and have reverted instead to a welfare and indigence model.

9) I’m sorriest for the fact, however, that despite the magnitude of the apologies, the conditions in which you find yourselves will probably not change noticeably, because the ones who made them are good at words, but not so good at doing what’s right.

10) I’m sorry that I belong to the group that precipitated the apology. I hope I can be a contributor to any group that forms to make real changes.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Another reader response - on incarceration vs restorative justice

Hi, George:

The John Howard Society is a world wide prisoner advocacy organization. After I retired from work, I chaired the Manitoba John Howard Society, and spent four years on its national body. The experience strongly affirmed what I already believed about our penal justice system, and it provided me with empirical evidence that I would otherwise not have.

Re prisons:

I've come to thoroughly disrespect the established practice of incarceration. Here are some reasons :

- Broadly speaking, punishment almost never achieves the goal of deterrence. Our usual punishment for offenders is incarceration and we find that most people in prison have been there before. (Remember school detentions? It could have been easily predictable that the same kids were always there.) Punishment, or its threat, works only as long as the punisher is present. "If prisons worked, the United State would be the most crime free country in the world".

- A study done a few years ago at Manitoba's Youth Centre (a lock-up) showed that for every gang member who spent time there, two new gang members came out. A recruiting station.

- About ten years ago the federal government did a study on the relationship between length of sentence and the likelihood of recidivism. It found that the longer the sentence the more likely it was that the offender would offend again. !

- The following example is anecdotal, has been told to me many times: It's easier to get drugs (including alcohol) in prison than out. (I heard of a guy who became an alcoholic in prison. When he was released, one item topped the list of things to buy, borrow, or steal.)

- If it's vengeance we want, I have little to say except that at least the lash is gone.

There are a few good alternatives to incarceration. Here's one: "Restorative Justice"

Restorative Justice is slowly getting government recognition -- if for no other reason, it's much cheaper. Restorative Justice is the one process I know of that regularly has measurable, positive results. The rate of recidivism, for example, improves with inmates who are given the choice of being active in its educational classes and individual counseling... I like it for lots of other reasons. Check it out. There's lots of info about Restorative Justice on the net.

HN, Winnipeg

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Some interesting reader responses

From friend and reader, JB

Trickle down economics

I am somewhat familiar with the economics of Vietnam having lived there for a number of years. After 1986 when Vietnam changed its policies at the 6th party Congress, foreign companies were allowed to invest and set up factories. It took a while but by the mid 1990s there were many corporations that took advantage of low wages and generous government tax laws.

The 4th generation phenomenon occurred. Companies that invested in Japan first, moved to Taiwan and South Korea when wages in Japan rose. They then fled to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Now that wages are too high there to make a maximum profit, Nike and dozens of other companies have moved to Vietnam. I have visited factories in the south of Vietnam. Poor villagers prefer the Nike jobs because the conditions and wages are much higher than in locally owned companies. This may sound strange but this is what people told me. Are there unfair practices? Of course. Are people dismissed when they complain? Yes. Even so, there is no problem getting people to work.

So does trickle down work? Probably yes and no in Vietnam? The people benefit and have disposable income. While that is happening lax environmental laws allow companies to dump untreated wastes into rivers and streams. Short term gain at a long term expense. This phenomenon repeats itself everywhere



From friend and reader, JY

response to your blog question , especially 3rd and 4th points - I read
this issue of Wired on way home from Ontario, intrigued by perspective