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Bookends: Don’t judge this book by its cover January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Don’t judge this book by its cover

By Dan Davidson

September 9, 2015

– 927 words –


You’re In Canada Now ….Musgrave A Memoir of Sorts

by Susan Musgrave

256 pages

Thistledown Press


e-book available on several platforms

approx. $10.00


When I interviewed her back in March and again in April, when she was touring the Yukon, Susan Musgrave made a point of complaining about her relationship with technology. I expect that she would find it fitting that the e-book conversion of this collection of essays and columns was less than perfect. Most of the pieces made the transition fairly well, but several of them have real problems with apostrophes and quotation marks, rendering them as a series of nonsense symbols, &$@ something like this &$@. It’s disconcerting and distracting, having to pause to figure out just what is being represented this time.


That said, you figure it out and plough on through, because the material is interesting, thoughtful and often quite amusing.


For amusing, we might as well start with the title. There’s the one that’s on public display on the front cover of the book, and then there’s the one on the inside title page, where you find out what the ellipses are substituting for. It’s a naughty word that the publisher clearly felt would chase people away from the back in 2005.


Musgrave’s dedication is to her mother, of whom she has spoken and written in terms of her difficult childhood. After all, her parents did have her committed to an institution as a teenager. But what parent hasn’t felt like dong that at some point? The dedication reads, “If you’ve read this far, this is to say thank you … for everything you’ve taught me, including never judge a book by its cover.”


That might well be a humorous warning to the reader as well, The title of the book and the title of the essay from which it springs is not merely a case of Musgrave living up to her reputation as a one-time enfant terrible (or “rakish”, as the publisher’s notes put it) of poetry and prose. After all, the woman is my age, and would have been 54 when this kook first appeared a decade ago. No, that bit of dialogue, with its full-on use of the “m” word, is what the Mountie said to the drug smuggler on the beach when that fellow protested that his American civil rights were being violated by the police dog. In that context, it doesn’t seem to be gratuitous.


There are 58 pieces of varying lengths in this, her third collection of prose essays. Having only read her poetry prior to this year, I was surprised by the range of interests on display here. The material is organized into six main categories, ranging from the general to the particular and to the very personal. So there’s material about her travels, interactions with other writers, her family, sex (one piece being guilty of straying into “too much information” territory” for my taste), and the difficulties of a long distance relationship when the distance is increased by a set of prison bars.


While many of the pieces are set either on Haida Gwaii, where she mostly lives, and where she owns and manages Copper Beech Guest House as well as teaching poetry in UBC’s Optional Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program. She also spends some time on Vancouver Island. She still gets around, on vacations, to do readings (as in her trip to the Yukon in the spring), trips to seek out her roots in Ireland, memories of youthful excursions to various parts of Central and South America. The latter took place during one of her first two marriages, this one to a fellow who turned out to be a drug smuggler.


In March she told me that she never knows, when she starts writing, just exactly where the piece is going to go. Most lives are a bit like that; perhaps hers has been a bit more so than others.


While I enjoyed nearly every piece in the book, the ones that seem to be sticking right now are the ones I’ve read in the last week or two, those being her observations of her life with Stephen Reid, the one-time leader of the Stopwatch Gang of bank robbers. We get some of the love story, which began when she was asked to look at the manuscript for his novel, Jackrabbit Parole. We get a peek at their marriage and then watch the drug dependency which led to his second, short=lived and very un-stop-watch-like life of crime and incarceration. There are reflections on life in prison, family visits, and the regular indignities that go with all of that.


Near the end are eulogies to three Canadian writers, two of whom I have been privileged to meet in the Yukon, and a sort of daily journal for the month of August, 2004, which references a number of things that have been covered elsewhere in the book, ties up some loose ends, and gives some insight into the daily life of the writer.


I’ve been reading this book on and off for the last several months, opening it up on three separate devices. It’s convenient, but it does keep a person from getting a feel for the book as an object. Given the length of many of the essays, it was a handy book to have on hand when I had just a short space to pass while marking time for an appointment or waiting for a plane.




Bookends: Why we need to change how we do things January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Why we need to change how we do things

By Dan Davidson

July 22, 2015

– 948 words –

 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

By Naomi KleinThis changes everything

Vintage Canada

576 pages


Kindle edition



Say what you may about Naomi Klein, it was impossible not to take notice when she was invited by Pope Francis to join a top level environmental conference at the Vatican recently. Self-described as a “secular Jewish feminist”, Klein is not exactly the sort of public intellectual that one might expect to answer such a call. On the other hand, a number of the Pope’s statements coming out of that conference sounded very much like he had read her book and taken notes.

Klein is, after all, the person who made “branding” a household word with her first book, No Logo. Likewise, the ideas that fuelled her second big book, The Shock Doctrine, have been very much in play recently as we have watched the economic struggles going on between Greece and the rest of the Eurozone.

It would be hard to deny (though the federal government does) that it made effective use of the shock doctrine after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau attacked Parliament Hill and Martin Couture-Rouleau attacked the two soldiers in Quebec, killing one of them.

These isolated events, carried out by two unconnected and disturbed individuals, were made to be the spur for panic and the enactment of Bill C-51, or the Anti-Terrorism Bill, as it is now known.

Klein’s main thesis is spelled out in the title of the book. The world’s economic system was birthed when James Watt created the steam engine, and freed engine driven enterprises from dependence on water power.

We began burning fossil fuels at an expanding rate: first wood, then coal, and finally, the various products that come from the petroleum industry. She calls the process extractivism and says that, hand in hand with our current practices of capitalism, it is waging war on the planet.

It is not simply capitalism which is at fault; Klein points to the economies of the old Soviet Union and Communist China as being just as much parts of the problem. They have followed an extractivist model just as closely as the capitalist world.

Aside from a dedicated search for improved and reliable sources of non-polluting energy – solar, wind and hydro, in spite of the latter’s problems – Klein doesn’t offer a lot in the way of solutions, but she does a good job of eviscerating most of the capitalist based models that have been proposed so far.

A lot of the major environmental organizations have, she says, been sucked into the capitalist dreams of not doing anything unless it can make tons of money. A number of them get their major funding from the oil industry and one even has an oil well on property that it controls.

Carbon capture, as well as cap and trade systems, all come under fire because they fail to address the basic problem as she defines it: we need to stop burning carbon based products. Going further, any carbon that is still in the ground needs to stay there.

Global trade and the proliferation of “free trade” agreements come up for criticism in a big way. These have enabled corporations to move their work around, take advantage of cheap labour, dodge the regulations wherever they might actually be working, and take various levels of government to court when they attempt to do things to deal with the climate change problem.

She gives several examples of this type of action, as well as others. One of the reasons the book is as long at it is, is the inclusion of many anecdotes and examples to enliven the statistics and arguments she puts forward.

Never content to simply make a statement of fact or advance a proposition, Klein is a belt and suspenders type of intellectual who reinforces every point she makes.

On the personal side of things, she informs us about her cancer scare and all the difficulties she and Avi Lewis had while attempting to conceive a child, including several false starts. She doesn’t underline this too much, but it’s certainly no accident that success came after they put less faith in medicines and more in nature.

Moving from the negatives into the positives in the latter sections of the book, she gives a number of examples of things that seem to be working. Citizens must, she says, get control of their governments, wresting this back from the industrial classes that now dominate the field.

Blockadia is not a county, but a word she coins to describe the resistance to fossil fuel exploitation wherever it is happening in the world. Blockades are part of this reclamation, but so were the Occupy Movement and Idle No More. Indigenous values have a lot to say about what needs to be done, she feels.

The change that needs to come does mean that everyone will have to do with a little bit less – have to downsize somewhat – until adjustments can be made. Continuous growth never was sustainable, and we need to admit it. That there must be “limits to growth” was known as early as 1972, when the Club of Rome commissioned a study with just that name.

It studied five variables: population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. Klein touches most of these in her book, but several of them are subsumed in one additional problem that really wasn’t on most peoples’ radar in 1972: climate change.

Klein won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for this 2014 book. It takes a while to read, but it’s worth the time.


Bookends: Imagining the aboriginal roots of Canada January 27, 2016

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Bookends: Imagining the aboriginal roots of Canada

By Dan Davidson

June 17, 2015

– 801 words –


A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada

By John Ralston SaulA Fair Country

Penguin Books

342 pages



The most basic summary of Saul’s 2008 study of our country is to say that we are not who we think we are, and that this misunderstanding is holding us back. Saul apparently expands on this theme in his next cultural analysis, The Comeback, but the reviews of that refer to it as a sequel, so after the publisher sent me a copy of that it seemed I had better read this one first.

The first 110 or so pages present Saul’s argument that we take more of our social morays and thoughts about government than we are aware of from the First Nations. While there are British and French roots in our self definition, there are also aboriginal roots that we tend to ignore. Such a blending makes us a Metis civilization, not as European as “deux nations” theorists would have us to be, and not quite like our American neighbours to the south and (writing from the Yukon) the west.

Part two of the book deals directly with governance. Time was when one could not get through Canadian Government 101 without learning that one of our defining characteristics was “peace, order and good government”, shortened to the POG Clause. The order part has been used to justify breaches of civil liberties such as the War Measures Act and, more recently, Bill C-51, the omnibus bill (“An Act to enact the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act and the Secure Air Travel Act, to amend the Criminal Code, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts”) that will restrict our liberties and freedoms in the name of defending them.

Saul maintains that the original versions of the documents that led to Confederation had “fairness” where the British parliament insisted on putting Order. Had we but followed the nation building strategies of Baldwin and LaFontaine (Saul’s very favourite pre-Canadian politicians) we would be a very different nation today, and things like the Residential Schools tragedy might never have occurred.

In part three Saul takes on the leaders of our nation, the political and business elites. He calls them castrati, for he says they have neutered themselves in their attempts to be British, French, American, anything but the fully committed Canadians they need to be in order to make the most of our resources and national spirit.

Our elites are failing us on a regular basis because they don’t know who we are, or who they ought to be, or what the nature of our country is.

Castrati, of course, were those male singers who maintained their youthful soprano voices by being castrated and thus, never becoming fully adult males.

It all comes back to what Saul writes on the very first page of his book, a thought that heartens to Thomas King’s dictum that all we are is stories and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are what define us.

Saul’s version of this thought goes like this:

“A dancer who describes himself as a singer will do neither well.”

(Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire might argue with him, but they were exceptional.)

“To insist on describing ourselves as something we are not is to embrace existential illiteracy. We are not a civilization of British or French or European inspiration. We never have been. Our society is not an expression of peace, order and good government.. It never was.”

As he begins the last section of the book, Saul issues a bit of a challenge. He is going to deal a bit with the North and with something he calls A Circle of Fairness.

“What we become in our lives is often a matter of self-perception. So, too, for any society. If we can see how Canada has taken its unconscious shape from our Aboriginal experience and how we have organized that inspiration around the concept of peace, fairness and good government, we will approach our need to act in a different manner.”

His notion is that should have an idea of citizenship that is a “circle that welcomes and adapts” and in which “fairness and inclusion are the keys to how we function.”

I’m not at all certain that I am entirely convinced by his arguments, but I do think that he argues with some conviction, that a good many of his criticisms are well founded, and that the discussion is worth having.

Indeed, the weakest point of the book is that it lacks an index, making it difficult to check on specific points when trying to review its contents.





Bookends: How the war in Afghanistan broke a reporter’s heart January 1, 2014

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Bookends: How the war in Afghanistan broke a reporter’s heart

By Dan Davidson

December 11, 2013

– 894 words –


The dogs


The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

Our War in Afghanistan

Alfred A. Knopf
By Graeme Smith

298 pages


I haven’t actually met Graeme Smith, but he became a Facebook friend of mine after I assisted the Writers Trust of Canada in helping to raise the public profile of the contest for the. I photographed the cover of the book, which they supplied me from the list of finalists, against the backdrops of a number of iconic Dawson places, including the London, Service and Berton sites.

Even before it was announced that Smith had won the prize, he had seen the pictures and requested to connect with me. It’s been interesting reading his occassional postings from Afghanistan, where he currently works as senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. A fairly recent post commented on an event that occurred during his return to Kabul.

“Just arrived back in Kabul. My colleague Sharifullah Sharaf says he will slaughter a sheep to celebrate our good luck: on the way to Gardez, flying over Logar province, our white UN helicopter was hit with a .762 round which passed through the cabin – not hitting anybody – and lodged near a small fuel tank. The bullet was 10 centimetres away from causing a problem.”

He says his understated reaction wasn’t one of bravery because no one in the chopper knew how close they were to dying until after they had arrived safely at their destination.

I was reading this book at the time and thought that this seemed like a reflection of the whole problem with the Afghan conflict.

Some years ago now I read a book about the history of conflicts in this region. The British called their efforts in the area the Great Game and reputations were made and lost there. The Russians learned the hard way that the place could not be subdued the way they had done in contiguous parts of the world.  The Americans were instructed once again, and once again failed to learn, the lessons they should have learned in so many other states where they financed the anti-Soviet forces only to have their protégés turn out to be problems equally as bad as the regimes they had aided them in toppling.

Smith concludes that the Western powers in Afghanistan have never understood the nature of the place, the fractiousness of the population, the degree to which they were seen as invaders, and the amount of corruption among members of the current elected government.

When a bomb or a drone kills the wrong people, or even when it kills the right ones and just a few innocents, the Afghans do not view it as “collateral damage”, that sanitized vocabulary of modern warfare. No, they see it as a personal affront, and will avenge it with a persistence that we in North America tend to find only in the tales of the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Black Donnellys.

Smith takes us through his life on assignment for the Globe and Mail during the war, beginning in 2005 when he was a shiny new war correspondent full of excitement at the idea that an international force was actually going to go into the mess there and clean it up, “bring the whole basket of civilization” to the state. He arrived during the period when the prevailing theory was that throwing enough troops, ordnance and money at the problem (the first two parts of that equation quaintly termed “surges”) would produce the desired effect: no more Taliban and a transformation of the country into something like a recognizable democratic state.

By the end of his time there he had realized that “Our attempts to set up a moderate Afghan administration gave birth to a regime that resembled neither a fully democratic government nor a group capable of ruling its entire territory.”

The message is not remarkably different from that found in Michael McLear’s 1980s documentary on Viet Nam, The 10,000 Day War. Afghanistan was once described as the USSR’s Viet Nam, but during its 4000 plus days (and counting) it has turned out to be pretty much the same experience for everyone involved in it.

The book’s title comes from an anecdote on page 65, an example of how war hardens well meaning man and leaves them with memories that might begin to account for some recent suicides among veterans.

Aware that the Muslim Taliban did not like to leave their dead behind, but collected them for quick and proper burial services, some soldiers staked out some dead bodies as bait and waited for the Taliban to come and claim them. It didn’t work and later the corpses were devoured by wild dogs.

“The soldiers casually joked about it afterward; in our of my audio recordings an officer sounds casual about it. ‘We hit a couple of guys over there,’ he said. ‘Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now.’”

In addition to the Weston Award, Smith’s book has been nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize. It’s a depressing read, but well worth your time. Expect things to get worse over there, though we’ll probably hear less about it as our presence is withdrawn.



Bookends: The dangers of gagging scientists and other public servants January 1, 2014

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Bookends: The dangers of gagging scientists and other public servants

By Dan Davidson

November 6, 2013

– 950 words –

The War on Science


The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada


Greystone Books

176 pages



As a journalist covering technological and environmental stories, Chris Turner found himself wanting to look for the positive side of these topics. It was not that there wasn’t any bad news to cover, or that he didn’t provide surveys of just what the bad news was. It was that he wanted to focus on possible solutions to problems, and that he was able to find them in various places all around the world. It seemed to him that a good many nations were taking the issue of climate change quite seriously and were making efforts to deal with it.

Our own country, previously seen as being a supporter of such efforts, now seems to be the poster child for denial.

That is perhaps the biggest reason wh, after producing two good news books  – The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need (2007) and The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy (2011) – Turner’s most recent book is an angry study of how Canada’s formerly progressive stance on a number of issues has undergone a 180 degree reversal that sees us marching backwards into the future.

Turner’s basic thesis is that the Harper Government (as it styles itself) is anti-science in nearly all of its activities, and seems intent on turning back to the clock to a way of thinking that predates the prime ministership of Robert Borden.

Turner and a number of other writers have picked Borden’s term of office (1911- 1920) as the beginning of the modern era for several reasons. It was under Borden that the professional civil service, positioned at arms length from the elected government, began to take shape. Its role evolved over the decades to become the advisory body to the government, providing it with the best, most objectively verifiable, advice available on a variety of topics.

Today, as we have seen repeatedly over the last several years, the job of the civil service is to prooftext reality and selectively report those facts which will support the conclusions the governing party has already committed itself to. The first job of public servants is no longer seen to be service to the public, but rather service to the party in power.

It was under Borden that the National Research Council began to take shape, a body dedicated to innovative scientific endeavors from the esoteric to the practical. The views of the scientists employed by the government in various departments were once respected around the world. Now they travel to conferences (when allowed to) with government media minders in attendance and are not permitted to speak or write freely about the results of their investigations.

One is reminded of the political commissars that once were a feature of the various Soviet Socialist Republics. Only data that supports government positions is to be made public.

The NRC has been downgraded to a “concierge” agency dispensing solutions tailor made for the needs of the business and industrial sectors.

Not satisfied with ignoring the science that might contradict its ideology, the present government has, through measures bundled within the pages of massive omnibus bills, selectively reduced its own ability to collect such information or to monitor for problems.

The Experimental Lakes Area was responsible for much vital research on questions like algae bloom and acid rain contamination, and the science carried out there shaped legislation and policy around the world. The current government shut it down, and it was only saved by the efforts of provincial governments and NGOs.

In spite of tons of evidence indicating that criminal activity is falling off, the government passes an omnibus crime bill, enacting just about every sort of punishment that the experts had advised against.

While good data relating to social issues across the nation is essential for good governance, the Conservatives eliminated the mandatory Long Form Census, replacing with a much less accurate voluntary document.

In spite of the PM’s annual Northern Tours and continued rhetoric about the importance of the North, the High Arctic research station known as PEARL was shut down in the winter of 2012-13 due to budget cuts. Funding was restored in May of 2013, but it seems the government’s main interest is in a newer facility, much further south, that will not cover the same range of environmental reporting.

There are more examples, but perhaps it is best to note the place where Turner begins, with the Death of Evidence protest march staged by many of Canada’s scientists in July 2012. The rallying cry of the lab-coated marchers is significant:

‘What do we want?”


‘When do we want it?”

“After peer review!”

Without the freedom of government agencies to follow the science to where it leads and give that advice to the government free from political interference, what we will get is more disasters like the collapse of the cod fishery off the Atlantic seas coast, where the advice provided by the scientists was overruled by bureaucrats too closely plugged in to the political agenda. The short term pain of prudently reduced catch quotas became instead the long-term pain of the total ban on fishing and the destruction of the fishery.

This thin volume is one of the books Turner was working on last winter while staying at Berton House, which Turner acknowledges in his notes as “incomparable … for providing a comfortable and endlessly fascinating retreat for the writing of a portion of this book.”