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Bookends: An Incisive look at world problems and relief efforts January 18, 2017

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Bookends: An Incisive look at world problems and relief efforts

By Dan Davidson

June 28, 2016damned-nations

– 866 words


Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies, and Aid

by Samantha Nutt

Signal (Random House Canada, Incorp.)

240 pages



“There are certain rules about war, and rule number one is that young men die. And rules number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one”

-Col. Henry Blake to Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H


There are all sorts of problems with our international aid systems, and Samantha Nutt, who has been involved with these systems since her inaugural experience as a 25-year-old medical school graduate back in 1995, delineates a lot of them in this book. It is, as most of the really gripping books of this nature are, a combination of personal memoir and impassioned, sharply reasoned argument.

Nutt has been a regular feature on several of the CBC’s panels on the National since this book appeared in 2011. She is also the founder of War Child (with branches in Canada and the USA), an international humanitarian organization with a particular focus on how children and families are affected by conflict.

This book alternates between personal experiences and analysis, beginning with her very first mission in Somalia.

“Goats, burned out cars, and a few spindly trees interrupting a expanse of copper sand: this was what the landing strip outside Baidoa, Somalia, looked like from 3000 metres in 1995. Baidoa: the City of Death. Where three years earlier 300,000 people succumbed to starvation and disease. Now, a new wave of famine was failing to rouse any degree of outside interest.”

Famine wasn’t the only problem. There were armed gangs running around with that favorite of Third World weapon, the nearly indestructible AK-47, and Nutt would find herself on the wrong end of one before her stay was over.

The curse of arms sales is a theme in this chapter, poignant in light of our nation’s own recent deal with the Saudis.

“…Availability of cheap weapons in fragile impoverished states is an invitation to war. Even Mikhail Kalashnikov has expressed regret that he did not invent a lawn mower instead.”

Of course, the rising death toll in America tells us that too many weapons, too easily acquired, anywhere just might be a bad idea.

Chapter two, “Chaos Incorporated”, takes us to the Congo, and a discussion of rape, kidnapping and the sale of mineral resources to finance conflict. Diamonds aren’t the only substance you can put the word “conflict” in front of.

The chapter ends with a tense encounter near a transit centre for supposedly former child soldiers. When it emerges that she has no money to give to a boy who raps on her vehicle’s window demandingly, he looks at her and says, “The next time you come here without any money, we’re going to rape you, pour gasoline on you, and set you on fire.”

“Winning Wars, Losing Peace” is a chapter that deals with the aftermath of the misguided and disastrous invasion of Iraq by America and its Coalition of the Willing, the military action which probably has the most to do with the rise of ISIS a decade later.

“Paved with Good Intentions” is, of course, a reference to what the road to Hell is paved with, and offers a number of examples of well meaning efforts that have turned out badly. Some of these efforts have been attempted by internationally known charitable organizations that have gone in with the wrong message, the wrong approach and the wrong emphasis.

She cites the biggest problem as being the focus on emergency relief, when what is needed is a less fraught, but more consistent, steady, regular aid. While the response to a crisis is generally pretty effective in the short term, most of the problems around the globe are more intractable than that.

Consider Liberia, Haiti, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burundi, and other such places. In all of them there is an inefficient duplication of effort, an emphasis on making sure that the brand of a particular agency is seen to be doing things, and an assumption that the arriving “saviors” know more about what needs to be done than the locals who are actually suffering.

Nutt believes that a focus on sustainable development would be of more use than the many rescue missions which are now the standard practice, which the next chapter defines in its title: “Pack Your Bags, We’re Going on a Guilt Trip.” Humanitarian programs run the great risk of becoming a kind of disaster tourism if not carried out properly.

The final chapter, “A Just Cause”, offers a short list of issues that need to be tackled: the gender divide and inequality of opportunity; the burden of poverty and unemployment; legal aid (to deal with rape, war crimes, etc.); alternative solutions to the business-as-usual attitude to international and internal conflicts.

She concludes the chapter with a very useful list of common sense things to think about when planning to donate to the various organizations that regularly appeal for you to loosen your cheque books and credit cards. It’s a good list, and I was pleased to find we were already doing most of those things.




Bookends: Who were the Remittance Men anyway? January 17, 2017

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Bookends: Who were the Remittance Men anyway?

By Dan Davidson

scoundrelsJune 1, 2016

– 839 words –


Scoundrels, Dreamers & Second Sons

British Remittance Men in the Canadian West

By Mark Zuehlke

Harbour Publishing

231 pages



It’s rare for a book’s title to so perfectly describe its contents, but Mark Zuehlke’s first serious popular history book does just that. It is the history of British Remittance Men in the Canadian West, and a good many of them were scoundrels, dreamers and second sons, which was how they ended up that way in the first place.

In terms of writing, Zuehlke started out as a journalist, and one of his first books was The Yukon Fact Book (1998), fun to read, but quite outdated now. By that time he had already written and published the first edition of this book in 1994. It was reprinted, with a few changes in 2001, and then pretty much vanished until Zuehlke became famous in popular history circles for the dozen volumes of his Canadian Battle Series and four other books in the Military Heritage Series. Now it is back in print again.

Chapters 12 and 13 of Scoundrels, telling the tales of what happened to the Remittance Men who went off to battle of Britain in what was once called the Great War was a fairly good indication of how Zuehlke would tackle popular history once he got around to it.

But the whole book is a predictor of his career in subject matter and in technique. The Remittance Men flourished from the late 1880s until World War I, after which most of them vanished from the landscape. Lots of them wrote journals and published books about their time in the Prairies and British Columbia, and much as written about them by other people and in the newspapers of the period.

This material provided Zuehlke with a sizable compendium of raw material, which he could had to the oral history he had heard as a boy in the Okanagan Valley, where many of these strange immigrants settled.

When he came to write his histories later on, he wasn’t content to mine the official record. He tracked down and interviewed as many WWII veterans as he could find, and wove their human recollections into his factual research.

Chatting with Zuehlke during his signing at Mac’s Fireweed during The North and the First World War conference, at which he was one of the speakers, he remarked that he may have to revert to the methods he used in Scoundrels to finish the last few volumes of his series. There are so few veterans left, and some who are, are no longer up to the rigors of recalling their experiences. Fortunately there are still diaries, journals, memoirs and archives to be mined.

The Remittance Men were members of the gentried and noble classes who were surplus to requirement and who did not fit in, for a variety of reasons, in the mother country. They were encouraged to move to the colonies and provided with a regular stipend to keep them there. They arrived full of British class prejudices and notions of colonial life mostly at odds with the society and geography they were invading.

They dressed funny, had know idea who to farm or ranch or whatever that had set their sights on. They made a serious effort to create Little Britains wherever they touched down. They were eccentric visitors and inspired the sort of local reaction and legends that Zuehlke heard as a boy.

Zuehlke learned that they had little cabins scattered across the countryside, and when word reached them that Britain had declared war on Germany, they made this pact that they would all go off to war. So one guy rode to another’s cabin, and he burned it down, and the owner of that cabin rode to the next cabin and did likewise, and so on, until all the cabins were burned.

And they all went off to war, which seems to be the part of the legend that has some basis in reality, because most of them did just that, and a lot of them perished in the conflict exactly because their class status gave the sort of rank (first or second lieutenant) that took them into battle.

Writing this book influenced Zuehlke in another way. He liked the idea of the Remittance Men so much that he created a latter day version of his own, named him Elias McCann, popped him into the town of Tofino on Vancouver Island and made him the coroner in a series of mystery novels with title chosen from martial arts moves. The first was Hands Like Clouds and it won him the 2000 Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel.

The Canadian Battle Series has also been successful, and won him the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Popular History, which is called The Pierre Berton award. In 2003 he was working on both fiction and non-fiction when we was a writer-in-Residence at Berton House here in Dawson City.




Bookends: Examining an Arctic Under the Threat of Extreme Climate Change January 17, 2017

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Bookends: Examining an Arctic Under the Threat of Extreme Climate Change

By Dan Davidson

May 4, 2016

future-arctic-copy– 1005 words –


Future Arctic:

Field Notes from a World on the Edge

By Edward Struzik

Island Press

199 pages




During a week when Fort McMurray has been largely burned to the ground, taking a closer look at this book seems appropriate, especially with the way it opens.

“The beginning of what many people thought was the end of the world began on June 2, 1950, when a small wildfire ignited in the boreal forest in northern British Columbia near the Yukon Border and the Chinchaga River.”

As it grew, the smoke became so dense and so widespread that people across the northern hemisphere, still jittery about warnings of atomic Armageddon, believed that the end had come and that bombs had been dropped.

In the end, the fire burned for 222 days and destroyed 3.5 million acres of forest. At the time it was an anomaly, but since then there have been sire seasons in Alaska, the Yukon and NWT to rival it in 2004, 2007 and 2014.

Struzik’s book is about climate change; about seawater intrusions from storms that have flooded arctic freshwater river deltas and have changed the local ecologies; about diminishing ice floes that threaten the existence of the polar bear; about fires that release tones of carbon dioxide into the air, along its deadlier cousin, carbon monoxide; about lakes that are no longer being replenished by annual precipitation or by rapidly retreating glaciers.

These changes are, he maintains, circumpolar in scope and accelerating faster than earlier projections held to be the case.

Chapter 1: “Eight-foot long beavers, scimitar cats, and woolly mammoths: What the Past tells Us About the Future Arctic” is a reminder that change is a constant, and that the world has not always been the way that humanity has experienced it for the last multiple millennia.

“If the past tells us anything about the future Arctic, it’s that climate change happens often, and when it does, it happens relatively quickly and sometimes catastrophically for mammals that lived there.

“With the climate warming up the polar world faster that any other place on Earth, the Arctic is, in some ways, both an accident waiting to happen and an opportunity to be seized.”

If chapter one was an overview of the book’s message, the remaining 10 chapters focus sharply on specific issues outlined at the start. “Oil and Ice” makes no bones about the effects of oil exploration, pipelines, spills and ancillary issues.

The next three chapters enlarge on the effect of changing conditions in the Arctic Ocean, sharply increasing storm seasons, warmer water, changes in the species of fish and mammals that can thrive in these altered conditions. Of special interest are the sections on the polar bear/grizzly bear hybrids that are being found in increasing numbers, and the arrival of Pacific species of fish in areas where they had not been seen traditionally.

Chapter six zeroes in on the polar bear, the stresses the changing landscaper is forcing on them, and how it brings them into increasing conflict with humans. There is some space spent on how the community of Churchill has tried to find solutions that do not involve simply killing the bears, how they have tried to turn a liability into an asset.

Chapter seven moves to the caribou and also spends some time on the reintroduction of wood bison into areas where they once roamed in numbers. Some of this is because efforts have been made to save caribou populations in some areas and the two projects are comparable. Protection of calving grounds has been an essential part of caribou protection projects.

Chapter eight is called Paradise Lost and it relates to the vast numbers of birds of many species, which have traditionally found the Arctic a perfect place to bring their young into the world. Increasing rain, all by itself, seems to be endangering the lives of the hatchlings of several species, However, the decline in the numbers of harp seals, the basic food of the polar bears, has these predators going after birds’ eggs. Then there are the mosquitoes, which are hatching earlier than they used to due to warmer temperatures, and are putting a serious stress on the birds, not to mention the other inhabitants of the region.

Chapter nine comes back to the problem of Arctic oil and mineral exploration, focusing on the history of industrial accidents and oil spills that industry really hasn’t been able to deal with very well and outlining how totally unprepared we would be if something like the Gulf oil spill were to occur in the Arctic Ocean. With the resources fairly readily available in the Gulf, the clean up remains problematic. There is nothing like those resources to deal with a similar problem made worse by sub-zero temperatures

Chapter ten outlines the case for the nations to come up with an Arctic treaty to anticipate some of these problems and try to prevent them before they become real. The chapter concludes with a chilling scenario in which a accident occurs and everything goes wrong, as a result of which, “the Exxon Valdez is no longer the worst oil spill for have occurred in the Arctic.

The final chapter concludes that there needs to be another effort along the lines of the International Polar Year project of 2007-2009 that would bring together the thinking of scientists from variety of nations to chew on these problems. At that time 62 nations devoted “hundreds of millions of dollars to send thousands of scientists to the polar regions to examine a wide range of physical, biological and social research topics.”

One would hope that, now that Canadian scientists are once again allowed to participate in such events without being under the watchful eye of government appointed communications specialists (a practice which smacked far too much of the political commissars that used to trail behind all Soviet officials) progress might be made once again.






Bookends: Journalists explain why they do it January 17, 2017

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Bookends: Journalists explain why they do it

By Dan Davidsonthats-why

April 6, 2016

– 841 words –


That’s Why I’m A Journalist

Top Canadian Reporters Tell Their Most Unforgettable Stories

edited by Mark Bulgutch

Douglas & McIntyre

328 pages



This book was assembled by a man whose name I did not know, but whose work I have been watching for years. Mark Bulgutch worked for the CBC for 35 years, nearly one-third of that time as a senior editor for the National, and ending as Senior Executive Producer of TV News. During those years he accumulated an impressive number of awards for his work, but unless you watched all the credits on a regular basis, you wouldn’t have seen his name.

Louise Penny named the central character of her Gamache mystery series after an editor she had worked with at the CBC, but Bulgutch hasn’t been memorialized that way.

In his introduction to the 44 essays in this book, Bulgutch notes that journalism wasn’t his original childhood choice for a career. When he was 5 or 6 he really wanted to be a milkman. Now there’s a career that wouldn’t have lasted. A good many of you will never even have seen such a person, or even seen frozen milk pushing the cardboard cap off a glass bottle in the winter.

It was watching his parents, whom he describes as working class folks who were barely literate, go through the daily ritual of reading the evening paper, that convinced him there was something magical about the process.

“And it was magical. The entire world was suddenly in my hands.”

For a lot of the reporters, most of whom are familiar faces and voices on CBC, CTV, Global, or on the various American networks where they have made their mark, there’s something of that in the tales they tell. Their profession has allowed them to get more than an everyday, street level view of what is going on in the world, or in whatever segment of the world on which they were focussed.

For some of them, it’s the thrill of having a backstage look at major events. For others it’s a feeling that this one particular story is making a difference to someone, somewhere.

For David Common, during the earthquake in Haiti, it was telling stories that he felt no one else was paying attention to.

Brian Stewart had a similar feeling during an early Ethiopian famine, but in his case there really was no one else there. “I felt the responsibility weighing heavily on my back.”

Adrienne Arsenault recalls bringing two old men together, one a Jew , the other a Palestinian. It was a meeting that it took three years to set up and it was fraught with tension, but it was full of meaning and worth the effort.

Diana Swain worked to uncover the scandal in the Boy Scout movement.

“Journalism,” she writes, “is about making things better.”

Allison Smith told the story of a Canadian 9/11 survivor, just one man’s story instead of the big global mess.

Patrick Brown travelled to Graceland with the Elvis Presley Appreciation Society of Quebec when Elvis died.

Anna Maria Tremonti spent time in the former Yugoslavian town of Mostar, where she found that victims of that war could be gracious and welcoming in he midst of their pain.

Dan Bjarnason, in spite of his mild phobia about small spaces, got to travel in one of Canada’s newly acquired British lemon submarines and produced a story that the brass hated, but the enlisted guys loved.

Joy Malborn was in Berlin when the Wall came down and Paul Hunter was sent to Boston to cover the aftermath of the Marathon bombing.

Hannah Gartner uncovered the nasty details of the Ashley Smith case, in which a young woman choked herself to death while guards, forbidden to enter her cell as long as she was conscious, looked on.

The venerable Joe Schlesinger was one of the first journalists to realize that relations between China and the United States were about to thaw, and that a game of Ping-Pong was the key to understanding that this was going to happen.

Peter Mansbridge writes about his experience being guided through the tunnels and trenches of Vimy Ridge during he 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing in 2014. He was there to commemorate a different war altogether, but these WW I remains affected him deeply

“When I came out of that tunnel I can truly say I had never felt more Canadian.”

This is quite a book for someone who dabbles in the trade and can say that he’s felt a few of these impulses over the years. I think I write to help myself make sense of the world, and hope to help others do the same. There was a lot of that motivation in a lot of these stories.

This was a browser of a book – one or two entries every few days. It took a while to read, but it was well worth the time.