Where I spray-paint my thoughts…


All My Decapitated Heroes

In the spring of 1979, when I was thirteen years old, I fell in love with two men.

It was an impossible romance from the start. Not only were they both inaccessible to me, but they were each other’s sworn enemies, standing for starkly different values — one doomed to die at the other’s hand. I couldn’t have either of them, and I certainly couldn’t have both.

Plus, they were older than I was. Like, a lot older. Like, dead-many-decades older.

I blame the CBC — for my ill-fated love affairs, not to mention my lifelong fascination with history. In the spring of 1979 they aired the TV movie Riel, about Louis Riel, the Red River and Northwest Rebellions, and his subsequent execution. I was glued to the screen (ok, I was a weird teenager), passionately on the side of and in love with Riel, but also deeply fascinated with the movie’s villain, our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

They were both towering figures. There were, of course, inaccuracies in the movie, as in any adaptation of history, but it hewed close enough to the actual events and people to send me to books to find out the rest of the story. As for the movie itself, I cried when Riel went to his death. He was played by French-Canadian actor Raymond Cloutier and Macdonald by — I didn’t even realize this till I looked it up — Christopher Plummer.

I spent most of the next summer and my Grade Nine year that followed reading everything I could get my hands on about Canadian history, Riel, the rebellions, Macdonald and the other early prime ministers. There was no doubt in my mind that Riel, Dumont and the other Metis were absolutely in the right, that Macdonald’s ruthless determination to push through a railway and forge a (white, majority-English) nation on top of Indigenous traditional lands was unjust. But, from the safe distance of history, I could admire the powerful personalities of both men, could see Riel’s cause as right but ultimately doomed, could appreciate what Macdonald’s ruthlessness had won for us (us, settlers): a country.

It seemed possible, as a lover of history, a white, settler-descended Canadian, to have both — admiration for Riel’s ill-fated rebellion, and appreciation of Macdonald’s nation-building, even though the two could not coexist. Like most people (most white, European-descended people?) who love history, I have held that love of contradictory characters from history, counting myself as an admirer of both Riel and Macdonald, of Churchill and Gandhi.

With the exception of the true “bad guys” of history — your Hitlers and Stalins — surely, we tell ourselves, these men of the past were all complex characters, weren’t they? We imagine those who held power and those who suffered under them as equally men of their times, to be admired for their accomplishments and forgiven for their excesses.

It’s all well and good, isn’t it, till someone tears down a statue of one of your heroes, and, in the process, his head falls off.

This post is not about debating the rights and wrongs of statue removal. This is not about “erasing history”; the purpose of statues is not to teach us history, and people without statues are not erased.

On the whole, I’m in favour of taking down the statues of people I see as unambiguous bad guys — those Confederate generals in the US South, Edward Colston in Bristol, Stalin, Saddam Hussein. I’m on record (on Twitter, at least) as saying I don’t see the point of Gaspar Corte-Real towering over the St. John’s skyline.

But I have clung to my love for statues of John A. Macdonald, as of the man himself. I like Churchill statues too — the great striding figure covered in bird-crap outside the old Halifax library is a favourite of mine. I have liked, in my history-buff lifetime, a lot of old, dead white guys who said terrible things about black and brown people, and who did terrible things to them, too. I have a history crush on Sir John A., even though he had my other history crush, Louis Riel, hanged. Macdonald was the architect of a nation, and also the architect of the devastation of several First Nations.

I know all this. I know, now, the things he did to and said about Indigenous people in this country he hoped to unite and rule. I know that he never imagined a country in which those First Nations and Metis people could be anything like equal to white, English or French-speaking Canadians of European descent. He didn’t even imagine a country in which First Nations and Metis could go on being themselves, speaking their own languages and practicing their own religion and culture. I have no difficulty understanding why an Indigenous activist might describe a statue of Macdonald as “an open wound.”

And yet. It was a shock, to see the images. To see headless Sir John A., toppled and decapitated by protesters earlier this week.

I used to say that the correct response to every statue of Sir John A. Macdonald would be to erect a statue of Louis Riel immediately opposite him: confronting, challenging, staring him down. There’s something in that idea I still like — like the Fearless Girl facing down the Wall Street bull, I admire public art that challenges other public art, makes us see the original pieces in a different light.

But matching Macdonald and Riel statues would also be soothing to my settler soul, in some way — it would put them, as the TV movie did, safely behind historical glass together, on an equal footing where I could find things to admire about both of them. Standing between these imagined two statues, I would not be forced to take sides. I could go on loving them both.

A toppled statue doesn’t allow that comfortable distance, that false equivalence. A headless Macdonald lying in a Montreal street challenges that safe historical gaze, which is almost always a white, settler, European, majority gaze. Macdonald’s decapitated head tells me that while men like him are in the past, they are not safely there: the damage they did lives on, to be attacked and confronted.

Macdonald’s severed head gazes up at me from the street, from photographs of the street, haunting me. Mocking my perception that history can ever be safe, on a pedestal or behind a screen. Challenging my teenage settler belief that I can have both Sir John A. and Louis Riel.

History is never safely in the past, and we are never mere spectators. History is around us, in the streets, confronting and naming injustice. History stares at me from the street with unseeing eyes, forcing me to choose between my early loves. To take a side.


Lighting Candles in Corners: Some Thoughts on Charity

Above is a not-very-great picture of me doing the thing that has, hands-down, given me the most personal satisfaction and enjoyment during the long weeks of pandemic lockdown: preparing food hampers for home delivery out of our (otherwise unused) church basement.

For five years we’ve been running a hot meal program every second Sunday, but in early March it quickly became apparent that having a random group of people come in, sit down together, and eat food prepared and served by a variety of volunteers was not going to work for the foreseeable future. We shut down the meal program and looked for other ways to be useful in the community.

With one of the largest food banks in town temporarily closed due to COVID-19 precautions and other programs operating with limited staff and hours, we felt the best service we could offer was a grocery delivery program for those who not only found it hard to afford food, but hard to get out and either shop or line up at food banks, especially in a pandemic.

Since late April we’ve been delivering groceries to about 20 households — mostly seniors, disabled people, or single-parent families with young children — every week. For the summer months, with demand slacking off a little, we’ve just switched to doing it twice a month. A good crew of volunteers, and some funding from our church’s national relief organization and other groups, has made this possible. Organizing the program has taken a lot of my time over the last few months; it’s been a welcome distraction and a way to feel useful in a difficult time.

And yet, I feel uneasy about statements like that last one. Because on one level, it sounds like I’m saying, “Helping others through a hard time has helped me get through that hard time, also.” Which is great.

But if you dig a couple of layers deeper, you get to, “Other people’s suffering [in this case, their inability to buy food for themselves] has provided me with an opportunity to feel good and valuable.” And that’s … pretty ugly.

For those of us who enjoy doing “works of charity,” whether in our paid job or our volunteer work (I do both, as I work for a charitable-focused nonprofit), there can be an uncomfortable kind of equation happening here, where someone else’s misfortune equals my opportunity to shine as a “helper.”

I mean, if you’re going to make yourself feel good from the misfortune of others, it’s definitely better to achieve that by helping those others, rather than by causing their misfortune, which obviously some folks do. I’d always choose to be one of the helpers; most of us would. But being a giver of charity raises awkward questions about the reasons for that charity.

What would make the situation in my city better, so that hot meal programs and food banks weren’t required? Well, universal basic income would be a big one. Under a system with adequate UBI, would there still be people who would have difficulty purchasing and preparing food? Sure, but we could imagine a lot more societal supports being put in place to give people greater independence in meeting their food needs, so that the number of people who would have to rely on any kind of “charity” to put food on their tables would be far, far, far lower than it is now.

Which would be great. Only … what would us do-gooders do, if we had no soup kitchens to run, no food banks to organize?

In my day job, I teach at an adult-education centre, mainly serving young adults who did not complete their high school programs, often due to mental illness, physical illness, family dysfunction, or other issues. What would it look like to not need services our centre provides? Well, the school system would have to become much more flexible, much better at adapting to a variety of needs and learning styles.

And if they did? I’ve heard co-workers talk about plans for better student retention in the public school system and jokingly say, “Well, they’d better not get too good at retention or we’ll be out of a job.” And while it’s very important for me to stress that the co-workers who made those comments were absolutely making a joke and are in favour of more kids staying in school — there’s a kernel of truth there, for all of us in the “helping professions,” isn’t there?

If the public school system was creative and flexible enough that everyone could successful achieve a diploma, we wouldn’t need adult education teachers. If everyone had the money and skills to buy and prepare their own food, we wouldn’t need the volunteers who run soup kitchens and food banks. Are there times when we fall so in love with the act of helping, the image of ourselves as helpers, that we become shortsighted – we are OK with keeping people in a position of dependence, of need, because we want to feel needed?

In one sense, of course, this is a purely academic argument. No matter how much fairer our economy gets, how good our social services are, we don’t live in the Garden of Eden. There will always be enough people in need of help — some kind of help — to keep us chronic helpers busy, getting our fix of do-goodism. If everyone had enough money to buy food, I could probably have organized a personal shopping and delivery service anyway for the people who couldn’t get to stores. If public schools retained everybody and every kid graduated, I wouldn’t have a job in adult-ed anymore, but those public schools would need a lot more teachers skilled in dealing with, for example, high-anxiety students, so my skills could still be put to use somewhere. There will never be a shortage of people to help.

But there’s another way in which the desire to be a helper, to provide “charity,” can be a trap in and of itself — if we divorce charity from justice. If I’m happy to volunteer at the soup kitchen or the food bank without asking “Why are people hungry?”, campaigning for a higher minimum wage and UBI, supporting political candidates who will work towards those goals — then I don’t really want people’s lives to be better; I just want the thrill of being a helper.

If I am happy to teach people who’ve dropped out of school without asking, “Why are people dropping out, and what can I do to support those who are working to prevent that, to make school fairer and more accessible for everyone?” — then I’m not really working for a better education system; I’m just enjoying my own smug sense of “goodness” for being a teacher who helps “those in need.”

Maybe charity shouldn’t be necessary, but it is. And it’s important, and lots of us love doing it. But we can never see it as just an end in itself. While we’re delivering the food hampers or dishing up the soup or opening the doors of the shelter, we also have to be working towards the bigger picture: a world in which food banks and soup kitchens and homeless shelters are not necessary. A more just world.

It’s great to light a candle in the darkness, to brighten the corner where you are. I hope to always do that.

But if the reason our corners are dark is because lights are burning out all over the house, then maybe we could also screw in a few new bulbs here and there? Or, at the very least, hold the ladder for someone else to do so? Maybe if we all do that, there won’t be so many dark corners in need of candles, and we can all see our way to a better world.


The Great Tunnel Fire, and a Return to “Normal”

Today, we are 9 or 10 weeks into pandemic “lockdown” — numbers vary depending on where you live and what your personal situation is like. Where I live, we are on the path to a gradual re-opening that is, predictably, far too gradual for some people and much too fast for others. Amid all this there has been a lot of talk about “returning to normal” and “the new normal” and what all that may look like. Which, by a thought process I won’t bother to try to trace, took me back to the fall semester of 1982, my first year in university, and the tunnel fire that devastated the underground pedestrian/locker network beneath Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The day of the fire is burned (haha) into my mind, but what I remember even more vividly is what the tunnels were like before the fire (which fortunately resulted only in damage to property, no injuries or loss of life). I had just arrived at MUN as a 16-year-old (that was the age we graduated high school here in those days), fresh from a tiny Seventh-day Adventist school, aware of most of the vices of the world but innocent of them myself. The tunnels, which ran (and still run) in a labyrinthine network beneath most of the main buildings on the south side of campus, were far more than a way to get from class to class without being exposed to Newfoundland weather. They were truly an underworld, one that was amazing and invigorating and a little bit intimidating to someone as easily intimidated as I was in the fall of 1982.

I didn’t drink or smoke or play cards or play electric guitar, but I found it oddly exciting that people did all these things and more in the tunnels, between and sometimes instead of going to class. Sitting on the floor in front of your, or someone else’s, locker was so common that at busy times, especially during lunch, it was often hard to pick your way between the river of moving bodies and the forest of stretched-out legs. Those were the days of smoking indoors, and the air was blue with smoke as well as with laughter, curse words, and often music. Impromptu tunnel parties were common. The tunnels were intended as corridors, but they were also lively, barely-regulated spaces of human contact, truly common areas whose atmosphere I soaked up even while not actually participating in most of it.

It never occurred to me that the tunnels would be any different.

Then, one day towards the end of that semester, a fire broke out in the tunnels. They were swiftly evacuated (in one of my rare acts of defying authority, I turned back to get my backpack and jacket out of my locker when I was ordered to leave the tunnel at once, and was always glad I did). The immediate result was that lot of people’s lockers and books got destroyed, and deadlines for end-of-term assignments got extended, and lots of people claimed their books had been destroyed even if their lockers were in untouched sections of the tunnels, so they could take advantage of extended deadlines. But the long-term impact went much deeper.

The front-page article from the student newspaper above tells the story well. “Following the tunnel fire last semester…” wrote Joan Sullivan (now editor of the Newfoundland Quarterly) “a severe set of rules is being enforced on those who use the tunnels.” The severe rules included no smoking in the tunnels, no keeping flammable materials in lockers, and “no loitering or congregating in the tunnels.” Student security guards would patrol the tunnels, while the main section from the TSC to the Science Building would be closed for repairs during the winter semester, according to student union VP Danny Breen (now Mayor of St. John’s). Student Union president Ed Buckingham (later a provincial MHA) expressed some concerns: he thought the rules were “a rather strong reaction. I don’t know how practical they are.”

The closing paragraph of the MUSE article identifies a key issue: “Where the students who usually ‘congregate’ in the tunnels will go is one problem no-one seems to be looking into.”

The semester during which the tunnels were closed for repair turned out to be my last as an undergraduate at MUN. I left the province to attend university elsewhere, and when I returned later as a visitor — and later still, as a graduate student — the tunnels were unrecognizable. Clean, empty, silent. If you passed through between classes you’d walk along with several people going from class to class, and maybe see a few students chatting while they stood at their lockers getting books and coats out. Certainly no-one was sitting on the floor playing cards, or perched on an amp busting out tunes on an electric guitar. And, of course, no-one was smoking (even though they would continue to be allowed to smoke in the buildings above the tunnels for years to come).

Obviously, a hideously dangerous fire-safety situation had been resolved. And something had been lost — a communal space, a benevolent anarchy, a pattern of behavior no-one had even questioned until a disaster struck.

Life did not go back to normal after the tunnel fire. Classes went on; extracurricular activities continued; the university sailed blithely on aboveground, but one key piece of student life changed forever, overnight.

Not everything goes back to normal.

When I tried these thoughts out on my husband and daughter, they were able to think of other examples — most strikingly, the changes in airport security that we all accepted after 9/11. Of course, our “normal” is changing all the time, both for worse and for better, but most of the time it changes gradually. I grew up in a time when people smoked indoors, didn’t wear seatbelts, didn’t use sunscreen, and had no computers, cellphones, or internet. The world changes constantly, but every so often a cataclysmic event comes along, disrupts our “normal,” and brings overnight changes. Changes we would have thought unimaginable before the event, that we simply accepted as normal afterwards.

So it’s interesting now, living in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, to think about Life Afterwards. Not only after we’ve “flattened the curve” but even after herd immunity, after a widely available vaccine, after most of us never think of dying from COVID-19 anymore than we think about dying from the flu. What will that “after” look like? What parts of normal will have changed altogether? What will we accept as commonplace that we never could have imagined living with up to February 2020? What will be gone forever that we assumed we would always have?

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COVID-19: The Ambiguous Image


I was very young, probably in early elementary school, the first time someone showed me the image above and asked “What do you see?”

I saw two people looking at each other, of course, because what else would you see? Until someone pointed out there was a vase there as well, and after that, I couldn’t un-see the vase.

There are many such ambiguous images, and it’s always interesting to me how our mind grasps on to one picture first, and then, once we’ve seen the second, seems to shift back and forth between the two. Then of course in 2015, the entire internet learned the same phenomenon works not just with shapes but with colours, as we collectively lost our minds over a photo of an obviously white-and-gold dress (spoiler, in case you slept through 2015: the dress was blue and black).

Lately it feels to me like the COVID-19 pandemic, as I’m experiencing it both in real life and on social media, is a bit like The Dress, or Rubin’s Vase, or any other ambiguous image. Either way, of course, it’s an undeniable tragedy, with over 250,000 people confirmed dead worldwide (as I write this on May 5), millions of jobs lost and lives uprooted. There’s no positive spin to this virus. And yet, when I look at it one way, I can only see:

  • incompetent politicians making bad decisions
  • angry people showing up with guns and without masks to crowded protests
  • poverty, hunger, depression, domestic violence all on the rise
  • people being rude and even violent to essential workers
  • frightened, desperate people unsure how things will ever get back to “normal”
  • dumb, arrogant people blatantly disobeying sensible public health orders
  • judgy, self-righteous people criticizing others for disobeying public health orders
  • everyone being angry, sad, indignant, outraged, despairing at a problem for which there’s no end in sight.

All of that is true. All of that is really happening. It’s as real as the two faces staring at each other, implacable and opposed and identical.

But if I stare at the picture I’m living in just a little longer, I see the vase, and what it’s holding. I see:

  • health care workers risking their own lives daily to care for others
  • minimum-wage frontline workers continuing to serve with warmth and kindness despite the risks they face
  • teachers finding creative ways to connect with students from home
  • community groups putting together innovative solutions to reach out to people struggling with hunger, homelessness, mental illness, and domestic violence
  • governments and public-health experts doing their best to lead through a crisis where the information is constantly changing
  • doctors becoming unexpected social-media stars just for telling us what we should and shouldn’t do
  • people reaching out to their neighbours with acts of kindness and generosity
  • senior citizens learning to use Zoom to connect with friends and family
  • churches developing new tools for worship so people can continue to feel connected to their community
  • rainbows, hearts, and messages of hope painted and pinned in people’s windows to keep us all filled with encouragement

I’m not saying the things on the second list are an “upside” or that we just need to “look on the bright side.” There is no “bright side” to a global pandemic that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people.

But there are two ways to look at our human responses to this pandemic, because the human responses run the gamut from the literally sublime to the literally ridiculous. Just like the ambiguous pictures, both extremes of the response are real, and are actually happening all around us. But when all I can see is the negative response, I have to remember to shift my perspective sometimes and see a different picture. Shifting that focus helps me remember that, in the immortal words of one local encouraging sign-painter:


Graffiti on Duckworth St., St. John’s. Photo credit: Dave Sullivan. Artist: Unknown.