Voyage to Vilkaviskis

16 Apr

 (INTRO: This essay was written a number of years ago, and has appeared in print. I’m posting it online for the first time today, on Yom Ha’Shoah.)

***

July 1995. The road from Kaunas, in central Lithuania, to Vilkaviskis, a town near the western border with Russia, looks like Vermont. Pastoral farmland, dairy cows, woods of birch and pine.

Inside tiny grocery stores in the church-villages dotting the road, old women sit behind large wooden abacuses. Back in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, counter-women will calculate your bill on the ancient contraption, then punch the total onto the display of a gleaming new electronic cash register to show what you owe.

This incongruity spills out onto the sidewalks. Older Lithuanians remember the statue of Lenin that stood until recently in Vilnius’s main square. Many still dress in drab Soviet costume. The youngs wear T-shirts or smart-looking suits. They frequent bars and cafés that wouldn’t look out of place in Manhattan. They speak English.

One of these twentysomethings – a pony-tailed Vilnius entrepreneur – runs an agency for foreign tourists. He arranged for a car, a driver and a tour guide to meet my wife and me in Kaunas, and take us to Vilkaviskis.

Our guide is Chayim, a Holocaust survivor’s son. As we left the agency to catch a bus to Kaunas, the young entrepreneur said Chayim would identify himself at the Kaunas bus stop by waving a “Jewish flag – I hope it’s not too big”.

Chayim met us with a small Israeli flag in his hand. He is fiftyish, short and gregarious. An engineer by training, he makes a living teaching Hebrew and showing tourists the historical Jewish sites of western Lithuania.

Of about 6,000 Jews living in Lithuania in 1995, 5,000 are in Vilnius – or Vilna – and most of the rest in Kaunas – or Kovno – the second-largest city. With 100,000 Jewish residents before the Second World War, Vilna was once dubbed the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Of the 96 synagogues that once stood there, only one remains.

In Vilkaviskis, where we’re headed, Chayim says the only remaining Jewish family emigrated about five years ago.

We’re not sure what to expect in Vilkaviskis, burned to the ground by the Nazis and rebuilt after the war. It is almost impossible to get my wife’s father – who was born there in 1917 and escaped to England several years before the Holocaust – to talk much about it. It is especially difficult now, as dementia rapidly extinguishes his remaining memories.

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In 1995, Lithuania is palpably in the afterglow of sudden freedom. After decades of Soviet oppression, its native language, culture, and politics are newly predominant. The monuments and Lithuanian-language plaques are new and shiny.

But this shininess illuminates some ugly, once-hidden historical truths. Information about what happened to the Jews here is freely available, but it’s hard to tell if Lithuanians pay much heed as they exorcise 50 years of their own subjugation.

You wonder what its teachers think of the kindergarten that stands on the former spot of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, destroyed by the Nazis and paved over by the Soviets. You wonder what workers think as they climb up to the trade-union building on steps built out of old Jewish gravestones.

You wonder about the implication in the voice of the young guy from the tourist agency as he spoke to a colleague in Lithuanian and used the word “Zydu” – Jew – to describe Chayim.

Do young people know what happened to the Zydus here?

In Vilkaviskis, the liquidation of the Jewish community was a model of Nazi efficiency. It was accomplished in just a few months in 1941, after Germany invaded.

Throughout Lithuania, the Nazis also had willing local help. In Kovno, for instance, the slaughter began with a well-documented incident in the yard of a gas station. A 25-year-old Lithuanian stood in the middle of a cheering crowd, holding a large iron bar as thick as his arm. One by one, Jewish men were brought before him. As mothers lifted their children for a better view, as German soldiers snapped photos, the “dealer of death” murdered dozens of Jews with repeated blows to the head.

In one photograph of the incident, hanging in a Vilna museum, the killer stands in the foreground and stares defiantly into the camera. When I saw that photo, I wondered how many young Lithuanians have looked into those eyes and confronted this past.

No doubt the Nazis oversaw the brutal treatment of Lithuania’s Jews, but as my father-in-law has said, the Jews of Lithuania – including most of his family – were slaughtered in Lithuania. There were few deportations and few obstacles here to the Nazis’ final solution.

***

We approach Vilkaviskis and it begins to pour. My wife’s face betrays a queasy dread. The weather, the history and our own equivocal reasons for coming have conspired to make this trip even more depressing than expected.

For my wife, this visit is an attempt to connect with family she never knew, but also an act of defiance against her father’s inability to frankly discuss what happened to that family. She did not tell him we were traveling to Lithuania. But for reasons she cannot fully explain, his deteriorating physical condition and worsening dementia have created an urgent need for us to find out whatever we can here.

Our tour guide, Chayim, tells our driver to take us along a pothole-covered dirt road on the outskirts of the town. When we get to the end of the winding path, turned to mud by the rain, we are confronted with a tall monument topped by a wrought-iron stylized sun.

Monument2

Until a few years ago, Chayim explains, the monument was crowned with a hammer-and-sickle. It was a memorial to the “Soviet citizens” of Vilkaviskis murdered by the Nazis. Now, plaques in Lithuanian and Yiddish tell a more specific tale. The monument marks the site where 7,000 Jews from Vilkaviskis were brought during the summer of 1941, made to dig a large grave, and then shot to death by Nazis and Lithuanian “helpers”. We are probably standing at the gravesite of my wife’s grandparents and one of her two aunts (the other died in France).

The surging rain makes it difficult for Chayim to read and translate the plaque’s inscriptions. My wife takes a few pictures of the site. I leave a small stone on its base. It grows wetter and colder. But after we return to the car and continue into town, the sky clears.

Vilkaviskis is a modern and pleasant-looking county seat of about 20,000 residents, now best known in Lithuania — Chayim says — for a brand of lemonade bottled here. Before the war, 40 per cent of the town was Jewish. A woman behind the counter of a snack bar sells me a bottle of lemonade and tells Chayim she can remember where the Jews used to live and own businesses.

We go across town to the old Jewish cemetery. In fact, it is the new old Jewish cemetery –  the oldest, medieval one having disappeared long ago. The new old cemetery looks on the verge of disappearance itself. It barely survived the Nazis and was neglected throughout the Soviet years. Vegetation has overrun the gravestones, many of which have been vandalized. The Lithuanian government seemingly has not lifted a finger to restore it. Judging by some of the strange looks we are getting from people on adjacent properties, visitors here are few and far between.

At the entrance of the cemetery stands a large mound of earth, ringed by neatly placed gravestones and gravestone-fragments lying on their backs around its base.

Cemetery

You don’t feel all that bad for some of the more recently deceased in the new-old Vilkaviskis cemetery – the ones who died in the late 1930s or early 1940s. They are, of course, among the last to be buried here. You can’t help but count them luckier than those who lie anonymously beneath the monument we saw earlier.

We spend about an hour in the cemetery, the rain starting and stopping. We go from one gravesite to another, trying to make out the fading Hebrew names on the stones. About half the stones are missing, broken or indecipherable. It grows darker. My pants are soaked from wandering through knee-high vegetation.

I remember reading something about disease-carrying ticks in the high grass of the Lithuanian countryside. I try to think of something else.

Finally, in the most remote, most deteriorated corner of the cemetery, we find a gravestone with the fading inscription, “Aryeh Leib, son of Mordecai Sideris, 1923”. The family name is a Lithuanianized version of my wife’s family name, Sider. Chayim says it must be a relative. I take a picture of my wife standing next to the stone. We search the remainder of the area and find nothing else. We return to the car dripping wet.

In a strange way everything this day feels automated and detached, as if we’re scientists on a fact-finding mission. It will take time to absorb this information. We’ll have to piece it together with what we already know.

***

By the end of the Second World War, my father-in-law Jack was the only surviving member of his family.

Before the war, his father had the foresight to pack him off to London to study and to live with an uncle. When that uncle died, the British government tried to deport Jack back to Lithuania. A sympathetic bureaucrat found a loophole that allowed him to stay in England — effectively saving his life.

Jack slept on park benches and earned a law degree. He never saw anyone from his family again.

During the war, he served in the British navy. He understood German, so he was assigned to intercept enemy radio communiqués. Luckily for him, his English was shaky. When he was sent ashore for a weekend course, his boat was attacked and his replacement was shot through the forehead as he sat at Jack’s usual station.

That story was the most interesting thing that my father-in-law ever told me about his early life. It popped out one day unprompted, at an unguarded moment. When I pressed him for details, he clammed up.

Jack was not a survivor of the Holocaust, but had developed a survivor’s mentality: A man who seemingly could not — or would not — take comfort in anything.

From our first meeting, all attempts to talk about his past were met with uncomfortable silences or awkward conversational lunges into more innocuous topics. Mention the war at the dinner table and Jack might ask if you wanted more soup. Ask a question about his childhood and he would talk about the day’s trading on the stock market.

Of course, since he was diagnosed with the dementia that — by the time of this journey — has been progressively, cruelly eating away at his memory and other mental capacities, the uncomfortable silences have become more frequent.

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Here in Vilkaviskis, my wife and I have seen almost everything that Chayim, our tour guide, planned to show us. Before heading back to Kaunas, we stop at a train station on the outskirts of town. Chayim tells us the station is the only place in Vilkaviskis that survived the war intact. If Jack was with us, it would be the only thing he could possibly recognize of his hometown. It’s probably the last thing he ever saw here. We get out and take a look.

As we climb back into the car and head east, the late afternoon sun peeks through the clouds behind us, the day’s gloom finally lifting at our exact moment of departure.

In Kaunas, Chayim surprises us with an unscheduled stop. He takes us through an unlit neighborhood to a dingy apartment building. Here, he has arranged for us to visit with two old women — one of them sick in bed. They both grew up in Vilkaviskis, Chayim tells us. He thinks they may remember my father-in-law’s family.

They say they do remember. But as Chayim translates for us, they begin to argue with each other over details. Yes, they remember the family. No, they don’t remember a boy in the family. The family owned a soap factory. No, that wasn’t them. We tell them about the inscription we found on the gravestone. That was a different family with the same name, one of them thinks.

It’s a little frustrating, sitting here in this drab room trying to piece together the past with these women and their fog-bound memories. Sitting here, half the earth away from home, in this country with a selective memory of its own past. Sitting here at the end of a trip that underscored the fragility of memory itself.

When she hears we’re from Canada, one of the women jumps up. She says she knows a Jewish man from Vilkaviskis who lives in Canada. It’s a big country, I say. She pulls out a ragged-looking book and shows us the man’s name and address.

No, it’s not Jack, but the address is in Montreal — not five minutes away from where my wife grew up.

We say goodbye, head down the stairs, and back out into the darkness.

***

(POSTSCRIPT: We never told my father-in-law about our visit to his hometown. Three strangers showed up at his funeral in the year 2000. They were childhood friends of Jack from Vilkaviskis. One of them was the man in the address book.)

Ontario: No Political Hat Trick

12 Oct

Back in the middle of the summer, when politics and elections were the furthest things from most people’s minds, Toronto mayor Rob Ford hosted a barbecue for 800 of his closest friends.

It was a special event honoring federal finance minister Jim Flaherty for his work helping Toronto-area candidates make historic breakthroughs during the federal election earlier this year.

Those federal breakthroughs came about six months after Ford’s own breakthrough victory in Toronto – a steak-and-potatoes conservative mayor winning power in what some perceive as a brie-and-white-wine liberal city.

The barbecue came to the attention of the media because of a surprise guest who showed up to address the gathering: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In a video of the event shot by one of the barbecue guests and later posted online, Harper made partisan comments about Ontario politics:

“We started cleaning up the left wing mess federally in this area,” Harper said. “Rob’s doing it municipally. And now we’ve got to complete the hat trick and do it provincially as well.”

When Harper made those remarks in early August, it seemed likely that Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak had a good chance of completing that conservative hat trick. Only two months before the scheduled provincial election, his party sat comfortably atop public opinion polls, and the trend over many months had shown Progressive Conservative support growing as support for Premier Dalton McGuinty’s governing Liberals steadily fell.

In retrospect, Hudak was trying to swim against a couple of longstanding currents in Ontario politics. The first was the tendency of Ontarians to give party leaders some extended time on the opposition benches before they are willing to vote them into government. Hudak’s two immediate predecessors as PC leader – John Tory and Ernie Eves – learned that lesson the hard way, as did McGuinty himself when he was trounced by Mike Harris in his first election campaign as Liberal leader in 1999.

The second – even more unfailing – current was the tendency of Ontario voters to vote in different parties provincially than they do federally. In the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals held power in Ottawa, so did Bill Davis’s Tories at Queens Park. In the ‘80s, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative governments negotiated with Liberal and NDP governments in Ontario. In the ‘90s, Liberals under Jean Chretien owed successive majority victories to Ontario voters, who handed them near-sweeps of this province. At the same time, they were giving Mike Harris similar victories in provincial elections. Finally, the current Harper era in federal politics has coincided with the McGuinty era in Ontario.

When the video of Harper’s barbecue speech showed up online, his aides seemed to realize that it probably wasn’t helpful to the Hudak campaign, or to the conservative cause, for the Prime Minister to be seen making such a blatant partisan intervention into a provincial election campaign. A bit of an Internet cat-and-mouse game ensued, with Conservatives trying to remove every online appearance of the video as quickly as McGuinty supporters could get it reposted.

As I have written before on this blog, it helps to imagine this province as an Ontario-shaped target, with a lop-sided blue bull’s-eye in the middle, stretching across the rural southwestern, central and eastern parts of the province. That’s the conservative heartland – a couple-dozen ridings that right-leaning parties usually win easily in both provincial and federal elections.

Splotches of NDP orange dot the outer edge of the province-shaped target, where the most urban neighborhoods of our cities and the least-populated stretches of our northern regions lie. When New Democrats do well in Ontario – as they did in both elections this year – the perimeter of the province grows a deeper shade of orange.

Between the orange edge and the blue bull’s-eye is the red Liberal donut that expands or shrinks at the expense of the other colors, depending on the Grits’ success from election to election.

In May’s federal election, the Tories and the NDP both took big bites out of different sides of that donut – most notably in Toronto-area ridings. The result was the worst showing ever for the federal Liberal party.

In Ontario earlier this month, it was Toronto voters – and to a lesser extent those in Ottawa and a few other urban areas – who preserved the red donut enough to give the McGuinty Liberals a narrow minority victory.

It’s hard to know if Harper’s comments helped McGuinty win. But they certainly underlined the fact that in this province, political hat tricks are hard to come by.

And Bugs Begat Spongebob…

25 Sep

When I was a kid, I used to watch cartoons. Lots and lots of cartoons.

You too? Small world.

As in many of life’s domains, when it came to cartoon watching, there were choices to be made and rules to be followed.

Just as you can’t be a fan of both the Red Sox and the Yankees… or of both Coke and Pepsi… or of both boxers and briefs… so too did animation aficionados of my generation have a central conundrum to sort out:

Mickey Mouse. Or Bugs Bunny.

The classic Walt Disney and Warner Brothers’ cartoons were created in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. By the time I had grown into full cartoon craziness, those classic animated shorts had been repackaged into TV anthology series.

I laid it all out in an earlier post on this blog:

There was the Wonderful World of Disney, home to Mickey Mouse and other examples of anthropomorphic sweetness and light.

And then there was the Bugs Bunny / Roadrunner Hour, featuring Warners’ misanthropic nastiness and bite.

Today, of course, they’re just two sides of the same lunchbox – part of a multi-billion-dollar, multi-media, multi-logo industry.

But back then, they were two conflicting halves of an unbridgeable psychosocial divide.

Well… something like that…

As a kid, my loyalties resolutely fell on one side of that divide: That of Bugs Bunny and his co-conspirators Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, et al.

While the typical Disney cartoon plot would see Mickey and his pals getting themselves into and out of sugary situations, the Warner Brothers’ cartoons displayed a darker, nastier, more risqué, and more broadly comical edge.

Warner Brothers’ cartoons were full of crazy slapstick, hilarious wordplay, winking double-entendres, and comedic violence.

In fact, the typical Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck or Elmer Fudd cartoon would consist of two characters attempting to murder, consume, or – at the very least – completely humiliate each other.

When I was a kid, there was much handwringing over the violent content of Bugs Bunny cartoons, which at the time were two-to-four decades old, and originally created for a more mature audience.

Elmer Fudd would fire his rifle straight at Daffy Duck’s face, causing Daffy’s bill to spin around to the back of his head. Wile E. Coyote would accidentally blow himself up trying to catch Road Runner. Yosemite Sam, dressed as Lawrence of Arabia, would beat an uncooperative camel into unconsciousness.

You don’t see that level of violence anymore in kids’ cartoons. On the other hand, contemporary kids do have much more ready access to media images that are far more explicit and violent than anything dreamed up by animators half a century ago.

Yet despite all of the handwringing, there is no compelling evidence that my childhood exposure to the Wascally Wabbit did any lasting damage to my psyche or negatively affected my social development, or that of fellow members of my generation.

Just the opposite, I’d argue. At worst, Bugs Bunny was a benign time-waster. At best, it contributed to my cultural education in the same way as did the books I read, the films I watched, and the music I listened to growing up.

Which brings me to one of Bugs’ 21st Century spiritual descendants – SpongeBob Squarepants.

On the off chance you are unfamiliar with the ubiquitous cartoon character, SpongeBob is a cheerful sponge with … yes … square pants. As his theme song recounts, he “lives in a pineapple under the sea” in the underwater community of Bikini Bottom.

The cartoon, aside from being wildly popular on TV screens and lunchboxes of kids around the world, has all of the fast pace, wild slapstick and inspired lunacy of the old Warner Brothers cartoons without nearly as much of the violence.

But SpongeBob, too, has recently been the object of some grownup handwringing. An article in the latest issue of the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics says the cartoon has a negative impact on the concentration levels of young children, as measured right after watching it.

Researchers compared children’s cognitive abilities after watching SpongeBob to those same abilities after watching a notably slower-paced cartoon, “Caillou”. Those who watched SpongeBob scored lower on measurements of focus and concentration.

The measurements came immediately after the viewing. The study did not test for long-term effects.

As a Bugs Bunny veteran and a parent who has happily watched SpongeBob with his children since they were very young, I have one skeptical question about these findings:

Are kids distracted because the cartoon is harmful? Or are kids distracted because the cartoon is just plain interesting?

Final Judgment is Always History’s to Make

14 Sep

The most memorable moment of Martin Scorcese’s 2002 film “Gangs of New York” – generally not one of the acclaimed director’s most memorable films – comes in the final minute before the closing credits.

The film – starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis – mostly takes place in the now-gone Five Points slum of Lower Manhattan during the time of the American Civil War. It depicts the vicious and gory turf wars between “nativist” Protestant and Irish Catholic immigrant gangs in the unrecognizable pre-metropolis New York City of that long-ago era.

The story culminates in a violent battle among gang members set against the backdrop of the bloody New York Draft Riots of 1863, during which hundreds of people were killed, many buildings were burned to the ground, racial violence flared, and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln sent in troops to bring the city under control.

At the very end of the movie, as one character’s narration describes how the city was born of “blood and tribulation” and laments how everything he once knew had been swept away and he and his confrères forgotten, the camera lingers on a shot of the graves of two other characters in a cemetery across the East River from a burning Manhattan.

In a series of time-lapse shots lasting less than 60 seconds on film but representing the passage of almost 150 years, we watch the gravestones deteriorate and disappear, the cemetery transformed into a barren field, and the city in the distance grow into the familiar modern metropolis we recognize today.

The scene is a poignant depiction of the power of time to blunt memories and to turn powerful events that seem of great importance to those living through them into hazy half-forgotten historical footnotes.

At the end of the movie, the twin towers of the World Trade Center are briefly glimpsed on a spot where a minute earlier, smoke swelled from the 1863 riots. The film was made not long after the 2001 attacks that brought the towers down, so seeing them in this context is striking.

This month, the tenth anniversary of the 9 / 11 attacks has provoked countless reports, memorials, and public and private thoughts about the meaning of the event, and how it changed our world and defined our era.

There is no question that 9 / 11 did those things. All of us old enough to remember that day will forever remember what we were doing when the airplanes hit the towers. And so many of the major international developments of the past ten years have origins in the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001.

It feels odd that it has already been ten years since then, because the attacks still have such a visceral resonance to so many of us who remember that day, how it unfolded and what came after.

In the broad sweep of history, though, there is no way for us to know now what its resonance will be. It all depends what happens next and what happens after that, and so on and so on. That’s how history works.

Will 9 / 11 be seen as a major turning point in world history or will it fade from memory in centuries to come as did the New York Draft riots of 1863? None of us will be around long enough to know, but it is worth contemplating.

Another example, closer in memory and certainly a Canadian – rather than a worldwide – historical event: The death from cancer of NDP Leader Jack Layton this past summer.

If Layton had passed away half a year before he did, it would have been no less tragic – a dynamic and prominent political leader taken down too young. But it was surely how he lived out the final months of his life – whether or not he had any definite sense of his looming mortality – that provoked the mass outpouring of genuine grief and lament for what could have been in the days following his death.

However you viewed his politics, there is no doubt Layton went out with a bang, almost singlehandedly altering the dynamics of Canadian politics by taking the party he led for eight years from fourth place in the House of Commons to Official Opposition and ending the generation-long dominance of the Bloc Québecois in Quebec federal politics.

But it’s too early to judge whether or not those final months of Layton’s life changed Canadian history in a lasting way. Only history itself will be able to judge that.

(Re-)Living History on Grosse Ile

28 Aug

When we got off of the boat at Grosse Ile, attendants quickly led us into the disinfection building right by the docks on the western end of the island.

Soon enough, we were undergoing physical inspections – of our tongues, our fingernails, our skin. Looming over us and dominating the room was the giant steam-powered disinfection machine, state-of-the-art when first installed, into which all visitors to the island were required to place their worldly possessions. For most, that meant a beat-up old bag or two.

Before too long, we were led upstairs to the shower room, also state-of-the-art at some point in its history, where each metallic stall was equipped with rows of curved horizontal pipes that would surround its occupants and spray water from all directions to ensure a thorough cleaning. For many visitors to the island, this mandatory disinfecting wash would have been the first shower of their lives.

The disinfecting steam machines and horizontal showers aren’t operational anymore, and the tongue inspections were just a bit of theatre. These days, visitors to Grosse Ile arrive with cameras and boxed lunches and stay for only a few hours. Past visitors would often arrive with cholera, typhus or smallpox and would stay for months at a time, if they ever left the island at all.

In fact, any sign of disease would get visitors shipped to the east sector of the island – the “sick side”. Many of them would die there. Those lucky enough to recover would get the coveted official papers they required to set foot anywhere else in Canada.

When it was in operation as a quarantine station for more than one hundred years until just before the Second World War, this small island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River north of Quebec City served as the first point of landing for most immigrants to our country. Possibly some of your own ancestors spent time on Grosse Ile before sailing on to new lives in places south and west of there.

Of course, in all its years operating as a quarantine station, no year brought as much tragedy to Grosse Ile as 1847, when thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Potato Famine fell victim to a typhus epidemic that swept through the island. This was a number of decades before technological and medical advances led to the disinfection and quarantine processes described above.

A mass grave not too far from the landing docks hosts the remains of the 5,424 victims who died that long-ago summer, the wavy appearance of the ground bearing evidence of piles of stacked coffins underneath.

More than two-thirds of all the visitors to Grosse Ile who ever died there over the course of a century perished that summer. When you approach the island by boat, the first thing you see is a stark, giant monument in the shape of a celtic cross – the largest in North America – that pays tribute to their memory.

A smaller monument – a plaque inside an old Anglican church on the island – is similarly moving. It reads:

“In memoriam of the thousands of persons of many races and creeds who, victims of pestilence, lie buried in nameless graves on this Island”.

I knew a little bit about Grosse Ile and its history before I visited there in person this past summer. But nothing teaches the history of a place as effectively as stepping foot in that place and walking in the footsteps of those who were there before.

Especially a place with as much historical resonance as Grosse Ile to a country made up of so many descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves.

The Grosse Ile site is now operated by Parks Canada, and in my experience, there is no better guardian of its legacy than that agency. Last year, my family bought an annual pass that allowed unlimited access to all of the national parks and historic sites operated by Parks Canada. We visited as many as we could on trips in Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

Every experience was worthwhile, and the history and natural wonders of each place we visited – from battlesites to unique geological phenomena – were presented in fascinating and memorable ways.

Parks Canada’s mandate is to “… protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment … for present and future generations.”

It’s been doing so for 100 years. I hope it continues to do so for centuries to come.

Wills, Kate, and Moi

6 Jul

For her first Canada Day appearance on Parliament Hill earlier this month, Kate – the Duchess of Cambridge – did not disappoint either Royal watchers or patriotic Canadians. She emerged from her ride decked out in red and white, including a stunning cream dress by the British Reiss label, a red fascinator hat with a maple leaf motif designed by Sylvia Fletcher at Lock and co., and stylish red pumps.

The pièce de résistance, of course, was a diamond brooch in the form of a maple leaf, loaned to the Duchess for the tour by the Queen Herself, who first wore the same item of jewelry on her maiden tour of Canada as a young princess in 1951.

For my part, on Canada Day, I wore a fetching black-and-white striped, short-sleeved, buttoned-down-the-middle, wrinkle-free-cotton Arrow shirt (on sale at Zellers last month for $17.99), coupled with a pair of khaki cotton Timberland shorts and – in a Kate-like nod to recyclable fashion, and to the patriotic colors of the day – I topped off the ensemble with my four-year-old Ottawa Lynx red baseball cap.

Although I have been photographed wearing that cap on numerous past occasions, these are tough economic times and I need to do my part, however symbolically.

Later, the Duchess returned to Parliament Hill for the evening festivities wearing a striking long-sleeved V-necked purple Issa dress. She retained the Queen’s brooch. Unlike Kate, I opted to remain in my complete morning ensemble for the entire day. I even retained the cap (mostly because I didn’t want photos of my hat hair appearing in the weekend tabloids).

Actually, I missed out on all of Ottawa’s live, in-person Royal watching because of an out-of-town commitment, but I wasn’t left completely out of the loop. Because I am a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, I got daily email updates from “Miguel”, Will’s and Kate’s (and also Prince Harry’s) personal press secretary, most of which detailed whatever outfit Kate happened to be wearing on that day.

The day after Canada Day, for example, Miguel informed me that Kate was wearing a grey Kensington dress by Catherine Walker. The following day it was a blue, lace ‘Jacquenta’ dress by Canadian designer Erdem.

I wrote back, asking Miguel to please inform the Duchess that I had on my red Montreal Canadiens 100th anniversary T-shirt, and that the mustard stain is now almost completely undetectable.

I really didn’t need to be on the press email list to be kept up-to-date on all of the Royal goings-on. With hundreds of members of the international media covering the first official tour of the celebrated newlyweds, every detail of it – Kate’s outfits and beyond – was covered instantly and extensively around the world and across the Internet.

Canada hadn’t been featured in so many international news stories since… well… since last month’s Stanley Cup riot.

But to what end?

How much of the frenzied and fawning attention to Will and Kate’s excellent Canadian adventure was due to the Royal couple’s Hollywood-like celebrity and how much of it was due to an appreciation of the Duke’s hereditary role as the future Head of State of our Constitutional Monarchy?

Probably a lot more of the former than of the latter. Canadians seem more interested in seeing Will’s face on the front cover of People Magazine than on the front of the $20-dollar bill (where it may one day be).

From the point of view of the Royal family, it probably doesn’t matter why we were all paying attention, only that we were. The Will-and-Kate show is the best PR in decades for that often controversial, sometimes scandal-plagued and frequently mocked institution.

For that matter, it’s not likely that any of the Canadian politicians sharing the stage with the Royal newlyweds – the Prime Minister, the federal cabinet ministers, the provincial premiers – were upset about the reflected attention they received as a result.

Whether you believe that the monarchy continues to have relevance in the 21st Century, or whether you believe that it is an archaic institution that has no place in a modern democracy, there’s no denying the Royal duo made a positive splash in this town and across the country.

As far as hereditary heads of states go, you certainly could do a lot worse than Will. But maybe we could consider putting Kate’s image up there with his on the twenty-dollar bill.

I’d even be willing to lend her my Ottawa Lynx cap.

Senate Shuffle

2 Jun

When it comes to the Senate of Canada, no news is indeed good news.

If the Upper House is in the headlines, or leading broadcast newscasts, or the subject of spirited online discussions, chances are good that it is for reasons that don’t reflect well on the institution.

After Prime Minister Stephen Harper swore in his new cabinet last month at Rideau Hall, he spent a few minutes speaking to the media about the ministers he had just appointed.

His office waited until after Harper was done speaking, and safely out of earshot of reporters’ questions, before announcing via press release that the Prime Minister was also appointing three Conservatives to the Senate, all of them unsuccessful candidates in the election that had taken place only two weeks earlier.

In fact, two of the three new senators – Larry Smith and Fabian Manning – had only recently resigned from the Upper Chamber in order to run their failed campaigns for House of Commons seats.

Nice consolation prizes. And nice work if you can get it: The base salary for a Canadian senator is $132,000 a year until the age of 75. Smith, of course, famously referred to that as a “dramatic, catastrophic pay cut” from his previous salary as president of the Montreal Alouettes when he was appointed to the Senate for the first time in December. But Senate appointments have been plum rewards for party loyalists since the time of Confederation.

If the Conservatives thought they could bury the news by announcing it on the same day as the cabinet shuffle, they were mistaken. The Senate appointments knocked the cabinet news off the front pages.

Critics said the appointments smacked of cynicism and contempt for democracy from a Prime Minister who just won his first majority government.

Jack Layton, the new Official Opposition leader, called the move a “slap in the face” to voters.

“Canadians should be outraged that three individuals who were just defeated by the Canadian people in an election have now been appointed to the Senate,” he said.

The public advocacy group Democracy Watch went even further. It called for a police investigation into the appointments, arguing that if the new senators were promised reappointments if they lost their elections, that would have violated a law against inducing Parliamentarians to resign in exchange for reward.

In response, the new-old senators said their surprising reappointments also came as surprises to them.

The government’s explanation for the appointments seemed paradoxical to some. Marjory Lebreton, the government’s leader in the Senate, said the new appointees were necessary to bring the Conservative numbers back up to a solid majority in the Upper House – a majority that can now help pass reforms to the Senate to make it more democratic.

“They’ve all served in caucus, they all support Senate reform and they’ll make a great contribution to the Senate,” Lebreton told CTV News.

Missing from the explanation was a justification for why these particular appointees – and not others – were necessary to ensure such a majority.

But with majorities in both Houses of Parliament, will the government now move quickly to enact Senate reform?

Harper has always advocated some sort of reform, but he will not even entertain the idea of re-opening constitutional talks with the provinces in order to fundamentally change the way the Senate operates – to make it “equal, elected and effective,” in the language of the old Reform Party, in which Harper cut his political teeth.

Instead, his party will soon re-introduce legislation that it couldn’t pass when it had a minority government – legislation that will enable provinces to hold elections for senators that the Prime Minister will be expected to appoint, and that will impose term limits on the winning candidates. Opposition parties blocked such initiatives in the past, arguing they would create a half-baked Senate with uneven regional representation, a fuzzy democratic mandate, and an uncertain legislative role.

Provincial governments are also mostly opposed to this plan (maybe because elected senators could challenge their own monopoly as democratically-elected provincial representatives). Quebec’s government is threatening to take the matter to court if the federal government attempts unilateral reform. Other provincial leaders, including Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, are echoing the federal NDP’s call for the Senate to be abolished entirely.

To effectively enact its plan, the federal government will need the provinces’ co-operation.

If the Prime Minister really is trying to move toward a more democratic Senate, his recent actions on that file may have damaged the credibility of his cause.

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