Sunday, August 28, 2011

A rose for Jack

 A rose for Jack - rest in peace
Let’s assume for a moment that the political economic goals in Canada are that everyone should have enough quality food, a comfortable shelter and equal access to healthcare. There’s much more to a fulfilled life than a roof in the rain and a balanced diet, of course, but let these be the goals that are espoused by politicians at election time for argument’s sake. How are we doing?
               The death and funeral of Jack Layton provided us with a curious television spectacle: the camera panning over the audience would stop occasionally to let us see how Conservative and Liberal politicians were standing and applauding Stephen Lewis’s unabashed defense of Jack’s Social Democratic ideals. I’m sure they were forced into some quick calculations: I’ve ridiculed this world view a thousand times so will I look worse if I stand and applaud or if I sit here unmoved among a sea of New Democrats? Given, of course, that I’m at the man’s funeral and am listening to his eulogy!
               If you were following other news beyond the tragic early death of Jack Layton, you would have been aware that Stephen Harper was in the Arctic for much of the week. In one news interview, he expressed the view that social progress is easier if there is economic development. He was wearing a hard hat and there was a gold mine in the background, I think. He was expressing a major tenet of a model that would nearly equate with the worldview of most of the non-New Democrats in the funeral audience: Free the market up so capitalists can create wealth, which will pour down on the whole of society.
This model, however, has had to defend itself over and over again—against charges, for instance, that the kind of economic development that big capitalism tends to bring not only doesn’t benefit area populations, but destroys them. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay used the Lubicon Cree of Northern Alberta as an example to show that rights were being ignored or trampled upon by development around the world: “For example, intensive oil and gas development continues in northern Alberta, Canada in the areas where the long-standing land claims by the Lubicon Lake Nation remain unresolved.”
Amnesty International Canada describes the issue in more detail:
The traditional territory of the Lubicon Cree is criss-crossed by more than 2400 km of oil and gas pipelines. The latest leak has spilled an estimated 28,000 barrels of crude oil –  the largest oil spill in Alberta since 1975.Although the province says that the spill has been contained and poses no threat to human health, the Lubicon are questioning these claims. The school in the Lubicon community of Little Buffalo had to be closed after the spill and there is still no explanation for why students and teachers got sick.
The capitalist, trickle-down model doesn’t deliver on the goals, but our Prime Minister either doesn’t get that, or chooses not to get it.
               And then there was Jack Layton and before him, Tommy Douglas, David and Stephen Lewis, Ed Broadbent and others who proposed another model that begins, not with economic mega-projects and growth, but with the welfare of the population in an area. By the outpouring of empathy for the Jack Layton vision over the past week, one could almost be convinced that Canadians are ready to give his model a try.
               The interests that support the status quo are strong and influential in the corridors of power. But their model is ill; in the USA, it’s so sick it’s throwing up all over the population and the public institutions are bankrupting themselves in attempts at cleaning up the vomit.
I hope a lot of Canadians appreciated the juxtaposition of the two models this past week—and drew some substantial conclusions. May Jack’s enthusiasm and optimism for a better Canada continue to inspire Canadians in the days to come.
(For more on the Lubicon Cree story, click

Sunday, August 21, 2011

the play's the thing

 "Never trust a man who hates dogs" (Gustav, in Heroes)

“The plays the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king . . .” (Shakespeare’s Hamlet)
Of course Shakespeare, the iconic bard, would see in a stage play the power to move even a king to question his conscience; his vocation revolved around those peculiar events where actors assume the personality of a character in a story and strut and bellow their hour on the stage, acting out parables for the enlightenment and/or entertainment of a crowd who, for the most part, just don’t get it. So he wrote comic relief into his plays, humorous—often bawdy—bits to appease the groundlings, the uneducated poor who could stand on the ground below the boxes for the admission of one penny.  
               Heroes, too, has its humorous and bawdy bits. Tom Stoppard collaborated with French playwright, Gerald Sibleyras, to produce this English version of the latter’s popular play about a few days on the terrace of a retirement home in France. Three surviving veterans of WW I are facing old age—as are all of us—and the terrace has become their private nation, and when it’s threatened, they comically revert to military strategies to defend it. Cantankerous and quarrelsome throughout, they are nevertheless bound by the strictures of a past when they were heroes in an heroic cause.
               More people stayed away from Heroes than attended it, obviously. Of those that did attend, some said they didn’t get it, some felt it was fraught with so much subtle, nuanced meaning that they had to see it twice. A few said they didn’t get the gestures at the end, and one or two implied that it was a bit too corny to be enjoyed by them. For the bottom-liner in us at the Station Arts Centre, the fact that we were sold out, turning people away for the last half of the run, spoke loudly about the play’s impact.
               It’s a rare drama indeed that plays to audiences who come away unanimous. Neither can you base your entire outlook on one parable (Jesus told many).
               Reverting to the bard, I recall Hamlet’s instructions to the actors about to present the conscience-catching play before the royal household:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure (Ham: III, ii, 17ff).
I’m not sure how many patrons saw their virtues and scorns reflected in Heroes, nor whether it mirrored the age and body of the times for them as it ought. As for me, I loved it from the first time I read it to the last time I watched Philippe, Henri and Gustav united in their longing for the freedom of the geese, heading south to their mating ground.
Oh to be young again!