In times of change

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It is never more important for us to be brave and present than in times of change.

This provincial election campaign has certainly shown that Albertans’ political appetites are changing. But that is just the manifestation of larger changes taking place around us. Our province’s population is growing incredibly fast. It is young, it is more urban than ever before, and it is nurturing a generation of young citizens – especially Indigenous ones – who aren’t willing to put up with business as usual. Citizens who are growing restless with being told that we must accept leaving 1 in 6 children in poverty while wealthy corporations plead, “Why is it always us?”

The Progressive Conservatives are saying – as they have said for my entire lifetime – that the time for change is not now. That our economy is too fragile. First of all, they share a good deal of responsibility for crafting it into a frail crystal house ready to shatter when oil and gas prices fall out from underneath it. But also. Also. There is no better time for change. There is, perhaps, no other time at all for transformational change.

One of the profound and simple ideas in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine is that in times of crisis, the ideas that will be used to solve that crisis are the ones closest at hand. For a generation, neoliberalism has risen to that challenge. Time and time again, economists prescribing savage cuts to public health care and education and indulgence to corporate power have put themselves at the centre of power after war, economic shocks, and social shocks. The collapse of oil prices right now is one of those shocks. And for once, the levers of democracy might give us all the chance to be the ones ready with new ideas for this province.

We have a chance to use this moment to remake our society into something stronger, and more resilient. A society that can look at the floodwaters of the Bow River and the generational challenge of climate change, the weakness of pinning all our prosperity to fossil fuels, and say, “Let’s build something that will really last. An economy and a society that acts like it’s here to stay, not here to pillage.”

When I think of Jim Prentice’s pleading that the PCs are the only party that can be trusted with responsible stewardship of this province, I think of Naresh Bhardwaj. Long before he was booted as a PC candidate over allegations of bribing a challenger to drop out, I knew him as an MLA who delivered one of those oversized cheques to the NGO I worked for. A few months later, an NDP MLA invited us to the Legislature so we could be recognized as guests up in the gallery. Bhardwaj ran into us in the lobby, and seemed offended when he found out we had come as guests of a member of an opposition party. He told us that wasn’t any way to make friends in the Legislature. He clearly thought that handing us a novelty cheque from the government meant he had bought our loyalty to his party. [Edit: To be fair, it just seemed like that was the implication]

And I think of a story we worked on at Terra Informa two years ago, about the Alberta Energy Regulator’s response to the bitumen leaks at CNRL’s oil sands site near Cold Lake. The Alberta Energy Regulator, this monstrous hybrid created by the PCs to both regulate the energy industry and approve its proposals for new projects. And how we asked them to explain why people living right beside one of the leakage sites hadn’t heard about it until two months after the it was discovered. And how they told us that they’d posted the information on their website, and if residents didn’t see it, it was their own fault.

I think of the representative I spoke to at Servus the other day, when I called to get an explanation for the $3750 they donated to the PC party this year. And how he said he felt uncomfortable about it, but paying to go to PC fundraiser dinners was the only way to get access to government ministers. And how I asked him whether it struck him as a corrupt situation, having to feed their party warchest before an election to get access to government officials. And how he genuinely pleaded with me to ask what the alternative was.

Massive changes are needed to the way we govern ourselves, to the way we treat the atmosphere, to the way we balance private power with collective prosperity. We’re going to need to move quickly now. The hour is already late. This is not a plea to vote NDP or Wildrose. You can make up your own mind about where to spend your vote. And addressing our generation’s challenges will take more than putting one new provincial government into office. But I am asking you to take Jim Prentice’s advice and look in the mirror. Who is going to shake the earth with a new vision? Who is going to have their ideas closest at hand right now?

As Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya once said, We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Nobody Does This Alone

I don’t consider myself a social media maven, but there’s something I really like about the hashtag #QTheFuture.

Picture of a microphone with text overlaid: #QTheFuture - Send us your insights and ideas. We're listening.

Not long after the revelations about Jian Gomeshi’s string of abuses came out, the team of CBCers behind Q started asking their audience to use it to make Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ posts with ideas for the show’s life post-Jian. Fans are tweeting about their favourite ideas for a new host (Piya Chattoopadhyay would be my pick – she’s such a great interviewer), whether the name should be changed to Zed, and how to change the culture of the workplace to protect staff from sexual harassment. I’m totally bewildered that Norm MacDonald seems to be the Twitterverse’s pick for the next host.

What I like about it is that is essentially hopeful, and it makes obvious that nobody does this work alone. I know I’m not the only one who feels conned realizing that so many of our favourite interviews with people like Caitlin Moran and Rich Aucoin were hosted by a man with a shadow life of brutal sexual aggression. But every great interview you ever heard Jian do — and any that sound retroactively sleazy now — was the product of a team. There were people racing through books to find brilliant authors, people calling up bands and doing fastidious pre-interviews, people writing up scripts for Jian to read on air, and people continuing the conversation on their website and social media. Hosting is an incredibly important role, but it’s just one among many that create great radio.

Recognizing that fact, I’d like to recommend a few ways you can help great artists make some great work. First of course, you should definitely shout out to Q with the hashtag #QTheFuture.

Next, you should donate to help Radiotopia and Canadaland thrive. Radiotopia is the luminous new podcast network that brings together shows like 99% Invisible, Strangers, Theory of Everything, Love + Radio, and more. They’re really close to their goal of 20,000 backers on Kickstarter, and it’s going towards really worthwhile things like subsidizing health care for 99% Invisible producers (single payer rules, but kudos for working with what they’ve got) and bringing new shows online to make sure half of them are now hosted by women.

Meanwhile Jesse Brown’s Canadaland was a show I’ve been listening to mostly because there is nobody else making podcasts about comedy writers from Northern Alberta, the wonder of Kate Beaton, and the CBC’s attempts to cover its cutbacks in futuresauce. But seeing his work uncovering the Jian Gomeshi scandal and interviewing Glenn Greenwald about Canada’s spy agencies monitoring our own citizens, I feel very prescient for becoming a monthly Canadaland supporter on Patreon.

Lastly, you should pick up a copy of Paddlenorth: Adventure, Resilience, and Renewal in the Arctic Wild by Jennifer Kingsley. I have the honour of being a friend of hers, and I’m really adoring this guide to her journey paddling down the Back and Baillie Rivers in the tundra. Ordinarily I wouldn’t find a book about someone else’s journey gripping, but she really sells it by peeling back layer after layer of skin to reveal little truths about herself, and about how we relate to wilderness.

When she’s talking about her pre-trip anxiety, it shows as much about her as it does about what it means to survive. There’s a scene where a trip companions named Jen wants to fire a test shot from a plastic pistol meant to scare away bears, and Jennifer’s picturing herself trapped out in the wild with a bear circling for days to slowly hunt them down.

It would be my turn to hold the bear off, and I would reach into the plastic bag, powdery and acific, only to find we had used every little packet of sound and light.

My irrational fear and mumblings of complaint continued as Jen jammed the cartridge in place and fired.

“There,” she said. “Easy.”

And she was on to the next thing, dinner, while I stood on the bank, trapped by my imagination.

Or how about this gem: “Going into the wild is like going to sleep; you get there in stages.”

Paddlenorth is her first book, and I think it’s a fantastic read.

Nobody makes a book, or a podcast, or a great interview, alone. So let’s give some love to the people making great stuff out there.

Edit: I feel embarrassed seeing that my last post before this lauded Jian Gomeshi as a great host. This is the pain many Canadians are feeling right now – those of us who he didn’t directly hurt: that radio makes a host seem intimate and knowable, but dark water of fame and distance can hide what they’re really like.

Give Me Homework

Before I worked at CBC, I used to think hosts like Eleanor Wachtel and Jian Gomeshi were superhuman. Not only had they read all the books they were interviewing authors about, they had beautifully well-developed questions ready in a tidy narrative arc. Then I started working as a producer behind the scenes and realized I’d be pre-interviewing the guests and coming up with a lot of those beautiful questions.

But the achievement still stands that these great hosts are doing a massive amount of reading to be prepared to talk to their guests. I’ve been doing a lot of preparatory reading for stories myself lately. It’s eerie how much of a thrill it is to know you’ve done your homework when you pick up the phone or start prattling on in front of a microphone.

One of Raymond Biesinger's outlandish illustrations in She of the Mountains
One of Raymond Biesinger’s outlandish illustrations in She of the Mountains

This week, you’ll be able to read a story I wrote for Vue Weekly about Vivek Shraya’s fantastic new novel She of the Mountains. I interviewed Vivek a few years ago about his documentary What I LOVE About Being QUEER, and She shares many of its themes in exploring race, sexuality, and searching for a sense of belonging. I guarantee you’ve never read a novel like it, though. It’s an almost minimalist love story about a man searching for a way to reconcile his love of both men and women, learning to love himself, interwoven with the domestic blisses and bloody battles of Hindu gods and goddesses.

More recently, I got to race through Edmonton political affairs commentator Satya Das’ book The Best Country: Why Canada Will Lead the Future in anticipation of moderating a panel talk for ACGC. I love hosting events like this, because there’s so much research and craft that goes into guiding a conversation among speakers with vastly different perspectives live with an audience.

And my last blast of preparatory reading this summer was for Terra Informa. We had a summer reading club, where we reviewed wilderness journey Being Caribou, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Year of the Flood, and the dense eco-poetry book Kill-Site. It’s exciting to have a springboard in front of me with sticky notes and scribbles in the margin, from which I can leap off into questions about That Moment You First Heard Pierre Trudeau Speak, or What Stories From Your Childhood Inspired This Battle Scene.

In summary, feel free to give me homework that I can turn into a story or an engaging conversation in front of an audience. I crave it.

Radio Geeks Wanted

A group of radio hoodlums hug around a sign with the fundraising total from their FunDrive show. No windows are present, because CJSR is forever cursed to live in the basement.
The Terra Informa team from our CJSR FunDrive show in 2013.

I’m about to take a big move. After two years working at the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation, I’ve decided to take a leap into a job in radio. This month I will become the News Coordinator at CJSR 88.5 FM, the Edmonton community radio station where I’ve been working on Terra Informa.

I love my team at Terra Informa. It embodies many of the best things I like about storytelling and volunteering. Our team is willing to take risks, like traipsing around in the snow and rattling the fence outside a planetarium after dark to narrate a whole episode about night. Everybody genuinely cares about each other, and recording together always feels like friends sitting down to have a good conversation. Now I’m going to be managing the current and new rosters of volunteer contributors for all of CJSR’s Spoken Word shows, from our queer community anchor GayWire to University of Alberta partnerships like The Gateway Presents.

I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work with CJSR’s impressive base of volunteers and community supporters and build on our legacy of independent, award-winning spoken word programming that challenges the status quo. My predecessor Matt Hirji has a gigantic mural of Ira Glass on his wall, good-naturedly watching out, eyes clearly curious and hungry as all get out. Ira will be hovering over me too on my new journey. Wish me luck.

Red Mountain Fragments strewn across Whyte Ave

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Finn Sound’s paintings are riddles in geometry, abstract symbol, and colour. They’re like individual cells of an unseen body, each one containing the DNA of the larger coded and playful landscape.

Finn Sound is my boyfriend. And this weekend, that landscape is on display at Art Walk on Edmonton’s Whyte Ave.

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When I first met him, he told me he was working on about 20 different canvases, piece by piece, all at the same time. It makes sense when you see the twisted arms, peaks, and scraps of memories that keep making appearances.

I love his stuff because it’s usually both tense and whimsical. Mad god-like creatures, ceolocanths, squid, his family, churches… they all intrude, and he doesn’t seem to be able to predict when they do.

I’m helping him show off his work this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10-5. We’re on the south side of Whyte Ave, between 105 and 106 Street. Come by and see the body of work he’s calling “Red Mountain Fragments.” It’s a world worth swimming in.

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Scott Vaughan, What Páll Makes, and Life Without ID

This spring, I’ve had the chance to peek into what life without ID looks like in Canada, interview one of Canada’s most interesting authorities on environmental policy, and produce the most music-centred story I’ve ever done for Terra Informa.

A close-up look of the stone harp.
A close-up look of the stone harp that Páll invented.

First off, the story I made for the many people who asked to hear the recordings I made of artist Páll Guðmundsson while I was in Iceland. This story was a mix of liquid luck and preparation that paid off. If ferry workers hadn’t been striking in south Iceland where we originally wanted to go, our friends at the tourist bureau in Reykjavík would never have recommended we go check out Páll’s rock sculptures in his tiny summer village of Húsafell. Fortunately I had packed my pocket-sized Zoom audio recorder just in case I met someone life changing, whose story I absolutely needed to tell.

Have you ever gone somewhere new and had the feeling that you’ve been there before? Imagine going away on a trip and finding that everything you see reminds you of home: the stores have the same shape and sell the same clothes, the restaurants serve the same sort of food, the people listen to the same kind of music…

What about somewhere embraces its own character and qualities? That’s what I saw in Páll Guðmundsson, an artist whose local and naturally inspired work makes his home feel one-of-a-kind. Listen from about 10:18:

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Scott Vaughan, plus my hand.

Next, my interview with Scott Vaughan, Canada’s former Environment Commissioner and the new President and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). IISD just took a big leap forward for themselves, and for aquatic science in Canada, by successfully negotiating to become the new operator of the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario. It’s one of Canada’s most important (and most famous) scientific research facilities.

There, scientists have a unique ability to conduct experiments on entire lake ecosystems — in some cases, their research lasts over decades. The research there has caused major changes in the way we live in Canada: like how acid rain affects freshwater fish, and how phosphates in our detergents can cause algae blooms.

But in 2013, the federal government said it felt the Experimental Lakes Area’s research was no longer necessary, and to be be shut down. That set off a mad scramble from environmental groups, activists, and researchers around the world to find a way to keep it alive.

I got a chance to meet Scott Vaughan at the Zero 2014 sustainability conference in Edmonton to discuss how the year of upheaval will affect the research at the ELA, and what he learned about the federal government’s attitude towards research during his time as Canada’s Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development. We had a frank talk about whether he and the other parliamentary officers who’ve irritated the government ever get together and commiserate, but regrettably I had to cut it out of this Terra Informa story. The rest still makes for a fascinating story, I think. Listen from about 1:28:

Finally, this week I finally got a story out that I’ve had in my head for a long time. Last year, I noticed a flyer up in the Stanley A Milner library in downtown Edmonton, advertising an ID storage service at Boyle Street Community Services. I was intensely curious why anyone would need to have the centre lock their ID away. It led me down a rabbit hole of the frustrations that face seniors, homeless people, the recently-incarcerated, anyone who wasn’t born in Canada, and ultimately, our democracy.

You can check out the story online or on newstands in Vue Weekly.

Win the Argument

We’re at an interesting moment of history in North America. Many people are convinced that the women’s rights and queer movements have done their job, and can basically pack up and go home now. We keep forgetting that there are huge battles still to be won: sexual violence is extremely pervasive (even moreso in Edmonton than other cities), and trans folks still have no legal protection from being fired for how they express their gender. A fascinating article in the Atlantic this month argues that as our ability to communicate with each other through digital media has increased, unpopular and poorly informed opinions about these issues have become more visible. Our reaction to this, says author Jon Lovett, has mostly been to tell people with those unpopular opinions to shut up. Think rape is mostly an issue invented by women who regret sex the morning after? Shut up. Think protecting trans people from discrimination means that men will sneak into women’s washrooms for fun? Shut up. These are both ridiculous ideas, of course. But I agree with Jon Lovett that there is more to be gained in the long-run from winning the argument, rather than saying the argument is too offensive to be had. yegsecret hard talk To that end, twice this month I’ve dived into the discussion on how to solve gender-based discrimination and violence. Last night, I moderated a panel for the Sexual Exploitation Working Group at Edmonton’s Santa Maria Goretti Centre. #YEGsecret Exposed- A Hard Talk Panel on Rape Culture was a chance to negotiate strategies on ending a culture where rape is normalized. Our speakers had amazing things to share from the perspective of the police, sexual violence education, surviving a sexual assault, working in broadcast media, and more. You can view the panel on YouTube here (start around 5:43):

As well, I had a chance to zip to Montreal last month for ACGC to go to a conference that our sister council was hosting on the accomplishments of its committee working on gender and international development issues. Afterwards, I reflected on some fascinating strategies I learned about how to start a conversation about gender. You can read my post on the Canadian Council for International Cooperation’s blog here.

A Space for Us

A massive boulder is carved into the shape of a contented man with closed eyes. It sits in a field of stone and snow.
One of Páll Guðmundsson’s sculptures outside his studio in Húsafell.

It wasn’t obvious at first. The snap of the wind off the Atlantic, and the sheer scale of the mountains plunging into the sea all around us, didn’t initially suggest that Iceland’s landscape was one that invited people in very much. Our first glimpse of a highway outside of Reykjavik was covered in slush half the way, and it was hard to look out the car window, because the snow in the fields was so bright.

My partner Finn and I were in Iceland last month trekking around snowy peninsulas, saga museums, and glacial creeks. I caught the bug so many of us have, listening to Björk’s music in high school, and then urgently needed to see the land of eruptions and emotional landscapes she sings about.

Maybe the first hint of the vision was how reverently our guide that day talked about the creek we were about to swim in. Called Silfra, it is a small watery crack in an expanding continental fissure between two tectonic plates, and that 4-kilometre long plain grows as fast as your fingernail. Over the centuries, the drift opened up this channel wide enough for groups like us to snorkel in. Before we slapped our snorkels and drysuits on, our guide cautioned us to let the current from the glacial melt push us along, and take time to meditate as we peered down to boulders many metres down through the ghostly blue-green light of what he called “the cathedral”.

Finn in front of the inimitable Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik.
Finn in front of the inimitable Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik.

Or maybe the first hint was seeing Hallgrímskirkja, the towering Lutheran church that overlooks most of Reykjavik, with its narrow pillars sweeping up to its belfry. The architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, is said to have been inspired by the shape of the basalt columns left by volcanic eruptions around the island. It certainly became more clear when we swished our fingers around in a hot spring pool that had been built about eight centuries ago. It was hard to deny when we visited a geothermal plant helping deliver Reykjavik’s supply of electricity and steam heat — almost entirely collected from boreholes deep beneath the earth channeling superheated water to the surface.

But it was impossible to ignore when we met an artist named Páll Guðmundsson. Páll was initially described to us as a pretty interesting sculptor who made faces out of rocks. When we drove into his village of Húsafell though, and saw stone cairns in circles along the road leading up to a workshop nestled beneath a grassy hill, we knew it was something more.

A friend of his from a nearby museum called ahead for us and asked Páll if he could show us some of his art. There, in the shadow of icy slopes overlooking farms and broken lava fields, this gentle man in a knit toque opened the doors of his workshop for us, and walked us past his sculptures to a musical instrument I didn’t recognize – because he had built it. On long tables against the walls, he’d laid out rows of narrow stones, some with lichens or charcoal faces. He called it a steinharp (or stone harp), and he told us he found the rocks himself in the mountains and canyons nearby. Then he pulled out two handfuls of mallets and played us Bach, and a composition he wrote himself.

Through the clear, hollow notes of the steinharp and the rocky faces he showed us in the fields outside, I realized I was literally seeing people in a landscape, and seeing their image built out of the land itself. I couldn’t stop saying “Wow,” over and over.

What Páll showed me, and what I saw in that power plant, and in the church columns, was a model of how to imagine a world with space for humans. Many of us live in spaces that say nothing about the land we live on, or its history. If you drive to the outskirts of any urban centre in North America, you’ll see roughly the same drab squares of home improvement and furniture stores. Our finest buildings could be plopped down anywhere (and in Edmonton, they’re often designed for a Californian climate). Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to imagine living like we’re part of the land.

There is a space for us everywhere we are, though. Our homes don’t necessarily have to be made out of handfuls of rocks and lichens from the creek down the street. But we can find ways to carefully observe what’s around us, what we can add to the land to make it better, and how we can reflect our histories in ways that respect the place they play out on.

There are stories to be told about the land here in Alberta. We can live like we’re here for good.

A Family and a Wild Sage-grouse

On the advice of my mentor, I am sharing more small updates about what I’m working on. In the past couple of weeks, my thoughts and stories have been with a remarkably caring family on the streets, and with a bird desperately in need of friends in Alberta.

My story for the CJSR Homelessness Marathon was quite a challenge to put together. I can’t remember ever before spending a whole afternoon recording hours of tape, then whittling it down to a 20-minute mini-doc for radio. In this case, we had many months of time to prepare for the national marathon of community radio programming about homelessness in Canada. I used some of that time to get to know the people on the Boyle Street Community Services winter outreach van, which roams all over the city offering people a chance to warm up, get some hot food and supplies, and share the company of people who care about them. I discovered that it isn’t just people on the streets who benefit from this van’s work, though. Together with the staff, they make a caring family that feels it deeply when one of their own is lost:

This week on Terra Informa, my friend Danielle Dolgoy and I chased down a story about one of Alberta’s most threatened species. University of Alberta researcher Mark Boyce estimates that over the past few decades, the number of greater sage-grouse in the province has dipped from the thousands to a few dozen. There are so many reasons this is happening – oil and gas development, farming pressures, hawk predation… millions of reasons why the federal government sat on the sidelines for so long before issuing a special protection order under the Species At Risk Act to dramatically protect the bird. We were curious to know what finally motivated some of the parties involved to see what’s in it for them to protect the greater sage-grouse:

I’m headed to Iceland soon, and will be back near the end of March with some good stories about the archetypal land of Ice and Fire.