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Bookends: A space ship seeks justice in the empire May 9, 2019

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Bookends: A space ship seeks justice in the empire

By Dan Davidson

June 6, 2018

– 1055 words –

Ancillary Justice

by Ann Leckie


416 pages

Ancillary Justice$19.42

Kindle edition



“The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it.”

Breq doesn’t know exactly why she stops to check for signs of life, why she turns the body over, or why, when she recognizes the person, she decides to save her life.

She had not liked Seivarden Vendaai when she had known her as an officer in her earlier life, 1,000 years earlier, when Breq was not the mere fragment of her larger, infinitely more capable self than she now was as an individual.

But she does save her, and the pair eventually, after much trial and tribulation, become quite inseparable in a way neither of them could have foreseen. In a way they have something in common, since both are strangers to the world in which they now live.

Seivarden is a stranger because she has spent the better part of the last 1000 years in suspended animation and is a person out of her time, not to mention being an addict and an insufferable classist snob when first we meet her.

Breq, the individual, is an even stranger case. As an entity, she is many thousands of years old, and most of those years were spent as the AI (artificial intelligence) in control of the starship Justice of Toren, which was how she thought of herself. In that capacity she ran the ship, had access to vast stores of knowledge, and interfaced with the organic world through the medium of ancillary bodies, at least hundreds of them, which were neurally linked such that she could survey any scene or any encounter with another entity from multiple points of view.

She (all members of the Radchaai use the female pronoun) is the sole remaining ancillary, following the destruction of the ship and all her other bodies 19 years earlier. Adjusting to being so very singular has been a struggle. Knowing that she used to know and be capable of so much more weighs on her. As an ancillary to her primary, she was not entirely human, her body equipped with all manner of biomechanical and digital extra bits, including a very handy force shield, or armor, which she can extend past her body to protect herself.

She knows who killed her larger self and all the crew that were her responsibility. It was the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, the equivalent of a galaxy spanning emperor, who did the deed. Well, it was and it wasn’t. The Lord ruled by means of a host of synchronized bodies of her own, scattered throughout the Radch Empire, using not quite the same technology as Breq had access to when she was Justice of Toren, but with much the same effect. The Lord has developed a fragmented personality, and some of her bodies and minds have been working against the more official parts, while seeking to hide that fact from herself.

Sounds confusing? Well, it is, and it was when Breq uncovered the self-deception 19 years earlier that the Lord quite literally blew her brains out.

We enter the story from Breq’s singular viewpoint at the end of those 19 years, when she has accumulated enough capital to fund her revenge on the Lord. In alternating chapters, she drops back to her last days as a super AI, when the Justice of Torenwas in orbit around the planet of Shis’urna, which was being formally brought into the Radchaai empire, the last planet to be so acquired and forced to join.

There are some other memories that go back even further, but these are the two main strands up to the end of chapter 16, when Justice of Toren was ordered to kill her human captain and the Lord tried to cover it all up by destroying the ship, apparently unaware that one ancillary, that which became Breq, was not destroyed.

Past that point, we race to a complex conclusion in which Breq and Seivarden are forced to chose which side of the Lord they will follow.  The set up for the sequel is obvious, but this feels like a good place to stop this part of the story.

Ancillary Justiceis the first novel in a trilogy, which includes the sequels Ancillary Swordand Ancillary Mercy; the second word in each case denoting a class of star ship. The books appeared between 2013 and 2015. Since it’s reported that Leckie took six years to finish the first volume, either the next two came faster or she was well ahead of her publisher by the time they were needed.

Some books beg you to figure out just how the author decided to put them together. In the case of this book, I imagine that Leckie wrote the whole thing in chronological order and later decided to structure it as a braided novel with different time lines, perhaps deciding in the process that a few other time frames were needed just to fill in the back stories for some of the characters.

The other interesting feature of this book is that the main character, Breq, comes from a race called the Radchaai, which has not organized its people in gender identities. It’s unclear to me whether there are actual genders, or whether these shift depending on procreative requirements, as was the case with the ambisexual beings in the late Ursula K. Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Alternatively, procreation may be accomplished by artificial means, or even cloning.

Not all beings in this story follow non-binary structures, and Breg is often confused when dealing with other races as to how she should address them.

The cover notes that the book won both the Hugo (fan) and Nebula (fellow writers) awards for its year, but fails to mention that it scored a trifecta by also winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award, making it the first novel to take all three. It wasn’t finished. Other awards included the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best First Novel, the British Kitchies Golden Tentacle for Best Debut Novel and the Japanese Seiun Award for Best Translated Novel.





Bookends: Lawrence Hill Delves Deep into the Subject of Blood December 30, 2018

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Bookends: Lawrence Hill Delves Deep into the Subject of Blood

By Dan Davidson

April 25, 2018

– 964 words –



Blood: The Stuff of Life 



384 pages

House of Anansi Press


eBook edition



Lawrence Hill’s fascination with blood stems from an incident when he was very young and cut himself on a broken beer bottle. He splashed blood of the sidewalk all the way home – 10 houses away –hoping that he would need enough stitches to have bragging rights. It didn’t work out for him. Four were not enough. But he was impressed by how long it took for the blood to be washed away.

A few years later, he managed to crash through the glass door of a cottage and cut his upper arm.

He recounts these personal stories in chapter one, “Go Careful with That Blood of Mine: Blood Counts” of the 2013 Massey Lectures. Getting the contract for this chore took him away from writing The Illegalfor about a year, he says, but he found it worth while as it caused him to organize and formalize a theme which he had already noticed was prominent in his other fiction and non-fiction writing.

The resulting research is indicated by the footnotes, acknowledgements, and bibliography at the end of this book.

That first chapter is a short history of the study of blood, as well as a personal account of his own experience, first as a runner, and after, in his mid-forties, as a man with the same diabetes that seems to afflict all the male members of his family, going back several generations.

“Blood,” he concludes at the end of that chapter, ”is truly the stuff of life: a bold and enduring determinant of identity, race, gender, culture, citizenship, belonging, privilege, deprivation, athletic superiority and nationhood. It is so vital to our sense of ourselves, our abilities and our possibilities for survival that we have invested money, time, and energy in learning how to manipulate its very composition.”

There was a time in his life when Hill badly wanted to be a champion runner, and it took him some time to realize that he had pushed himself to the peak of his ability in that sport. It turned out that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen into his bloodstream. He was fit and thin, and remains so today, but at age 16 he “had the lung capacity of a forty year old smoker.”

His track coach at the time was David Steen, a reporter and gold medal athlete, who recommended he take up the study of English literature, for which we can all be grateful.

“We Want it Safe and We Want it Clean: Blood, Truth and Honour” examines what we have traditionally done with blood, how it has been used for sacrifice, offered to the nation, and used in medicine. In particular he dissects the issues related to stem cell research, blood donation policies, and the tainted blood scandals of the 1980s, which have affected the lives of a couple of families I know.

There is a revealing section on the scandalous career of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.

“Comes by it Honestly: Blood and Belonging” begins by telling about his own quest as a man of mixed blood to define himself, and how this nearly led to his death while serving with Crossroads International in Niger in 1979. This chapter deals with matters of blood, personal identity and international affairs.

“From Humans to Cockroaches: Blood in the Veins of Power and Spectacle” deals with how blood in involved with violence, power and spectacle.

“Violence and power need blood,” he writes. “They feed on it as cars feed on gasoline. When we want to hurt people, entertain ourselves at their expense, or capitulate to our most base instincts, we lust for blood.”

This chapter cites works as diverse as the Bible,The Wizard of Oz, The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter novels, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“Of Presidential Mistresses, Holocaust Survivors, and Long-Lost Ancestors: Secrets in Our Blood” ranges through literature and history. The presidential mistress was Sally Hemings and the president was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote strongly against miscegenation (the mixing of races) and yet had a son with this woman.

In science and home economics we know that blood stains are among the hardest to remove from anything, and it is a trope in television mysteries that it becomes visible with the use of certain chemicals and types of light even after it seems to have been removed.

Lady Macbeth knew the staying power of blood stains (“Out, damn’d spot! Out I say. What, will these hands ne’re be clean?”) ”as did the murderer Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who cannot seem to get the blood from his hands, his axe, his boots, and certainly not from his imagination.

The Massey Lectures are broadcast annually by the CBC as part of its Ideas series. The original recordings, in the fall, take place live in five different cities. Last year’s series, with Payam Akhaven, had one of its sessions at the Yukon Arts Centre. The lectures are generally repeated sometime in the spring, often with some additional material.

Most of them are available in book form and as audio productions from Anansi Press. The books are either expanded versions of the talks or the talks are condensed versions of the chapters. Hill told me it as a bit like doing different essays on the same subject.

When I covered the Akhaven lectures, In Search of a Better World, I had the book open beside me and read the parts he wasn’t saying, so I could see how that worked. Some of the earlier lectures are available for free listening on the CBC Radio Ap, but Hill’s lectures not there any longer.



Bookends: One Woman’s Personal Struggle to save the Arctic’s Snow and Ice December 29, 2018

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Bookends: One Woman’s Personal Struggle to save the Arctic’s Snow and Ice

By Dan Davidson

April 4, 2018

-1025 words –


The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet

By Sheila Watt-CloutierThe Right to Be Cold

Penguin Canada

368 pages


eBook edition, KOBO or Kindle: $11.99


Sheila Watt-Cloutier was a keynote speaker at last fall’s Tourism Association of Yukon conference, held in Dawson City. Much of her presentation was drawn from this book, with its provocative and surprising title.  This book was one of the finalists in the 2016 Canada Reads contest, as well as being nominated for a number of non-fiction awards.

A few passages from its introduction will serve to give you the flavour of her argument.

“For the first ten years of my life, I travelled only by dog team. As the youngest child of four on our family hunting and ice fishing trips, I would be snuggled into warm blankets and fur in a box tied safely on top of the qamutiik, the dogsled.

“The Arctic may seem cold and dark to those who don’t know it well, but for us a day of hunting or fishing brought the most succulent, nutritious food. Then there would be the intense joy as we gathered together as family and friends, sharing and partaking of the same animal in a communal meal. To live in a boundless landscape and a close-knit culture in which everything matters and everything is connected is a kind of magic. Like generations of Inuit, I bonded with the ice and snow.”

That bond is being broken as the reliability and predictability of the climate changes. A culture dependent on its relationship to the land, the snow and the ice, is becoming collateral damage to the global warming which is having she writes, its most dramatic impact on the region which is the “cooling system for the planet.”

“The Arctic ice and snow, the frozen terrain that Inuit life has depended on for millennia, is now diminishing in front of our eyes.”

This book is a blend of personal memoir and a history of her struggle, n her various roles, to come to terms with those changes and get others to take responsibility to reduce the toxins that natural forces tend to filter into the North.

This has happened to such as extent that at one time mother’s milk was found to be contaminated with industrial toxins due them being ingested as a component in the country foods that are a natural part of the Inuit diet.

Traditional education on the land was about more than just teaching children how to survive, the hunt, to master the technical skills, she writes. These lessons were also exercises in character building.

“It’s a very wholistic approach. The technical skills and the character building are not separate at all. Technical skills are about how the world works; character skills are about how you work. This wholistic approach to learning is the hallmark of Inuit culture, and this wisdom, which is sourced from the ice and the cold and the snow, is equally now at stake.

“It is being lost, just as the ice itself is being lost.”

Paradoxically, Watt-Cloutier’s time in a couple of residential school settings during her teenage years is something she remembers as being quite positive for herself and her classmates, even though it did divorce them from their culture. She seems to feel that more damage was done when she was finishing her high school and living with a well-meaning, but non-native, family in Nova Scotia.

She would spend many years trying to reclaim her fluency in her native tongue. She would have liked to reclaim as much as possible of her native culture but she found that, during her absences for school, the life she remembered so fondly had decayed and diminished. Some of this was due to the changing climate limiting traditional choices; some was due to nomadic people being herded into settlements by government policies and social assistance financing; some of it was due to the curse of alcohol, a problem she herself experienced at one point.

Watt-Cloutier has travelled extensively during her working life, beginning with jobs in the health care and education fields before moving into the political arena. She has been a political representative for Inuit at the regional, national and international levels, most recently as International Chair for the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents the interests of Inuit people in Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland.

She became a sort of human rights activist for the North. In 2007, Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work in showing the impact global climate change has on human rights, especially in the Arctic, where it is felt more immediately and more dramatically than anywhere else in the world.She did not win the prize, but the nomination highlighted her work.

She does not see herself as an environmentalist, though they have some causes in common. Protests over seal hunting have done serious damage to the Inuit economy, led by people who don’t understand that seals are both food and raw materials for the Inuit.

“We Inuit simply cannot have personal freedom, we cannot have choice, if we don’t have the right to be cold, if our homeland and culture are destroyed by climate change.”

In addition to her Nobel nomination, Watt-Cloutier has been awarded the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the UN Champion of the Earth Award, and the prestigious Norwegian Sophie Prize. She is also an officer of the Order of Canada. From 1995 to 2002, she served as the elected Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). In 2002, she was elected international chair of the council. Under her leadership, the world’s first international legal action on climate change was launched with a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

This is an engaging book, most interesting in the pages where it is most personal. The drier aspects of bureaucratic struggle do drag on a bit, but it is a worthwhile read for all that, and those details do matter.



Bookends: What the Rest of Canada Doesn’t Understand about the North December 28, 2018

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Bookends: What the Rest of Canada Doesn’t Understand about the North

By Dan Davidson

January 31, 2018

– 848 words –

Hunting the Northern Character 

Hunting the Northern Character

By Tony Penikett

Purich Books (UBC Press)

336 pages



“Canadian politicians, like many of their circumpolar counterparts, brag about their country’s ‘Arctic identity’ or ‘northern character,’ but what do they mean, exactly? Stereotypes abound, from Dudley Do-Right to Northern Exposure, but these southern perspectives fail to capture northern realities.”

Those words, from the flyleaf and the promotional material for Tony Penikett’s latest book, capture quite well the essence of what our former premier was hoping to accomplish when he sat down to make a book out of the lecture notes he had prepared for a seminar he taught as the Fulbright Chair in Arctic Studies at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies in Seattle.

University lecturing, negotiating and mediating are the sorts of things he’s been doing since he left Yukon politics in 1995, after having been a major political player in the territory since 1978. As the president of Tony Penikett Negotiations, based now in Vancouver where, as he says, he keeps his clothes, he has travelled all over the Northern World, visiting many places more than once, working in all of Canada’s territories, Alaska, the Scandinavian nations and Russia.

Originally, those lecture notes were mostly about policy, as Penikett considers himself something of a “policy wonk”, but he found that his seminar students perked up a bit when he injected some anecdotes into the mix. When it came time to turn in the manuscript to his publisher, “more stories” was the demand, and so the serious critiques and analysis are leavened with memories of his father, who was the only doctor in Dawson City for some time, of reading Lars in Laplandwhen his schoolteacher grandmother gave it to him as a boy, and of some of his siblings and his children, who are all active in the entertainment field.

The ten chapters of the book are grouped into three thematic sections.

Contours deals with identifying the landscape and the people and the development of an indigenous self-government regime, which was unique in Canada at the time that his two governments negotiated the Umbrella Final Agreement. Some other provinces where treaties were scarce have followed this lead, but it bothers him that a system that has proven its worth in the North is so little understood by the rest of the nation.

One thing that does concern him about how negotiations have tended to run, is that a group like the Arctic Council features federal and native people but, as the title of that chapter (No Settler Need Apply) indicates, ignores the fact that there are many non-indigenous people who have lived in the territories for generations, many of whom have developed a keen personal investment in the land and its culture.

The Community section is three chapters that deal with food, poverty, education, health and resources and how all these things blend together in ways that are hard for those from Outside to understand.

The final section is called Conflict. Canada’s North was heavily affected by the Cold War that ran from 1945 until the fall of the Soviet Union, when missiles were a major preoccupation.

The recent false alarm in Hawaii is a reminder of those days, and we all have to hope that the Twitter War between Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un remains nothing more than a war of words now that North Korea has nuclear weapons. Both sides may have their buttons, but as P.F. Sloan wrote decades ago “if the button is pushed there’ll be no runnin’ away”.

Climate change is another kind of conflict, and one that is creating problems (some see them as opportunities) for the North. Here in Dawson, we have only to look at the river that isn’t freezing and the shifting ground under our recreation centre to know that something is happening and that we have to figure out ways to adapt to it.

In the final chapter, “Boomers and Lifers: a New Divide”, Penikett dares to suggest that there is a more significant way to look at the North’s demographics than the traditional racial divide.

In the North there is less of a distinction between the Settler population and the Indigenous population, than used to be the case. Towards the end of the book he develops new classifications, which he refers to as Boomers and Lifers.

To quote from the book, “Boomers are adventurous folk who come north to make a killing, waving goodbye as their booms turn into busts. Lifers are competent folk who stay in the North to make a living in their homeland, working, hunting and fishing, and adapting to climate change as they build and rebuild their communities,”

There are northern realities, Penikett says, that may have more to do with actual reconciliation than any of the commissions that have lately been roaming the land.

Making these realities better known was the major theme that propelled him to write this book.




Bookends: Is Canada a Warrior Nation? December 28, 2018

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Bookends: Is Canada a Warrior Nation?

By Dan Davidson

January 9, 2018

What we Talk about



– 946 words –


What We Talk About When We Talk About War


Goose Lane Editions

370 pages



The rather cumbersome title of Noah Richler’s fairly strident polemic on the nature of our national character when it comes to conflict might be more succinctly summed up by the title I’ve given to this week’s column, for Richler’s thesis really is that blunt a question: Is Canada a warrior nation?

His answer is that we are not, but that the decade during which Stephen Harper ruled the roost in Ottawa was one during which the war hawks among us, who had been building up their arguments for some years earlier, got a chance to shift the national image in ways that were more congenial to their way of thinking.

Much of Richler’s argument is outlined in his lengthy introduction, the 36 pages of “Achilles’ Choice”. That nearly invulnerable Greek hero, you may recall, did his level best to avoid going off to the Trojan War, even to the extent of disguising himself as one of a number of nuns. It was the trickster, Odysseus (or Ulysses – take your pick), who outed him and made him face up to his responsibility.

It didn’t work out well for him.

Part of Richler’s argument in this book is that war and conflict are narrated in the epic style, and are therefor more appealing to the masses. Most of ordinary life, however, is better summed up by the type of narrative used in novels.

The epic style requires a sense that sacrifice is necessary to achieve some greater goal, that there are heroes every where if we but have the wit to see them, and that it is essential that their efforts on our behalf be seen not to have been in vain.

If, as Thomas King and many others have observed, all we are is stories, then it matters very much what kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about others.

Richler rightly notes that Canada’s history is mostly shaped by negotiation rather than conflict – and there are some who find that boring, who feel that the fires of revolution and conflict are missing from our national heritage.

Pierre Berton, in Marching As to War, rightly pointed out that most of our martial adventures prior to 1945, were at the behest of the call to arms from the British Empire, and most of the ones after that related in some ways to our ties to the United States.

Richler more or less agrees with this, but feels that the moral vision of Lester B. Pearson in the years after WWII, the vision that led Canada to take on a major role in the peacekeeping activities of the United Nations, best exemplified our national character.

Richler is happy that we stayed out of Viet Nam, and that we refused to be officially involved in George Bush II’s disaster in Iraq, but he is less happy about our decision to participate in events in Afghanistan, and feels that several governments – both Liberal and Conservative – have done our national narrative harm but altering it in order to make that decision fit.

“The Canadian commitment to that war required a full-scale eradication of the country’s foundation myths as they had been told for half a century. The face that Canada now presents to the world has been profoundly transformed. Much of the change was managed at a banal, mundane level of stories and clichés that were nevertheless so powerful that a previously peaceful society, one in which the respect for the individual distinction of views was paramount, quickly conceded the ground to a more monolithic, one fervently embarking on the most destructive of paths and calling such a route ‘heroic’.”

I quoted that much text to give you a sense of Richler’s style in this book, which is often dense, full of even longer sentences than I usually write, and crowded with paragraphs of Dickensian length.

Chapter one, “The Vimy Effect” talks primarily about how some of our martial history is overblown. For Richler, it is wrong to say, as we so often hear on November 11, that Canada “came of age” during this battle. Indeed, he feels that the original purpose of our acts of Remembrance has been subtly altered over the decades to promote the theme of a “Warrior Nation” which is his title for chapter two.

Chapter three goes on to chronicle how the phrase “Building Schools for Girls” was used to denigrate earlier peacekeeping activities; that is until in chapter four “The War Becomes a Mission (Impossible)” and it was necessary for the powers that be to retitle the war as a mission and start talking about reconstruction and human rights again in order to appeal to the need for public support.

In the final chapter, “What is to be Done?”, Richler urges us to recognize that the warrior nation sales pitch has been a bill of goods and that we need to reclaim what he feels is our better nature in our international relations. While he would be happy with the current government’s stated direction in this regard, compared with what he criticizes in this 2012 argument, he would be annoyed at the actual lack of real progress.

The single most annoying thing about this book is that nobody took the time to give it an index. There is software that makes this job easier than it used to be, and indexes are invaluable when someone like me wants to check a certain reference in a book like this one.











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.