A place is not a place until

From A Sense of Place by Wallace Stegner:

“A place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it – have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation. Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef.”


When I was ten years old I met Pope John Paul II. It was during a mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. I was attending the mass with my dad during a trip to Rome together.

The woman directly to the left of me in the picture shoved past my dad the moment the pope arrived by us. Not that it mattered much to my dad. As choir director at St. Patrick’s Catholic church in Markham, Ontario, he had several occasions to meet Pope John Paul II.

My dad is current director of the Office of Formation for Discipleship for the Archdiocese of Toronto. His boss, the Archbishop of Toronto, is Cardinal Thomas Collins, whom Pope Benedict appointed Cardinal just last year, and who was therefore a member of the papal conclave that voted in the new pope. (Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was appointed Cardinal by John Paul II, in 2001.)

My grandfather also met a pope in his day.

I am fiercely proud of my dad, just as I am proud of my grandfather, despite not sharing their faith and belief system. Granted, I know that the kernel of my ethical system is the remnants of the culture of Christianity into which I was raised. And I’m fine with that. (There are fellow Left-leaning atheists whose moral and/or intellectual frameworks are less appealing to me than my conservative Catholic parents’.) But that’s all that’s left — remnants.

I’m neither god-fearing nor church-going anymore. In the almost twenty-five years (!) since that picture was taken I’ve gone from suit-wearing Jesus fanboy to what a friend once called “the only real atheist” she’d ever met, so thoroughgoing is my non-belief.

Over the past year it’s become more of a radical agnosticism, although  a more apt term would be profound ambivalence.

But one thing I do care about is who the new pope is.

I don’t care about the new pope any more than I care about the next president of Venezuela. But it matters who these people are. The Catholic church in particular exerts social, political, cultural, even economic influence on the world, not just the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. (Though that number is dubious: are folks like me still on the list?)

So who is Pope Francis? (Exciting time to be a Wikipedia page!)

He picked his pope name in honour of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. He reportedly takes the bus rather than a limo, cooks his own meals, and thinks extreme poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth is a violation of human rights.

He’s also against birth control, abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

As the first pope chosen from outside of Europe in over a thousand years, perhaps he’ll make the elimination of exploitation and the alleviation of poverty and suffering in the global south a priority over banning condoms, banning married gays, banning married priests, banning women priests, and banning access to education, technology and medical services in Africa, etc.

To paraphrase former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, the church has no place in the bedrooms of the world’s nations. (Do with that what you will.) Jesus, after all, was concerned with overturning moneychanging tables, not riffling through bedside tables. In other words, the work of the church should be to disrupt the exploitative socioeconomic order of capitalism. Period.

Of course, I have as much hope as I have faith.

But as this new pope struggles to connect the gospels to the lives of modern believers, perhaps a new generation of believers will exert a counter-pressure on the papacy to modernize. To find Christianity’s kernel — social justice, egalitarianism, peace — and discard the rest.

Silent Auction: Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing

The Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians, Cape Breton Affiliate is holding a film-screening and Silent Auction fundraiser. The event is being held on Saturday, March 23, 2013, from 7-9pm at the Cape Breton University Art Gallery.

The silent auction will feature the work of local artists and businesses, including yours truly. Targett Design donated 5 hours of custom web design, which the lucky winner can put toward any website project of their choosing.

The film being shown is The Artist, a 2011 Academy Award-winner in the style of a black and white silent film.

The SDHHNS Cape Breton Affiliate is a United Way Member Agency. To learn more about what they do, check out this video (in sign with captions) from the organization’s director.

Funding Innovation in Cape Breton

Friday was the end of RRSP season, and the last day to invest in New Dawn’s CEDIF offering for 2013.

CEDIF stands for Community Economic Development Investment Fund. It’s a way for people to invest their RRSP savings in local economic development projects, rather than stocks and bonds elsewhere.

After all, what happens to the average RRSP dollar after it gets sent to a bank on Toronto’s Bay Street? It travels around the world — from Texas oil to Alberta tar sands, from pharmaceuticals to tobacco to weapons manufacturers — more or less leaving a path of environmental, social and world economic destruction.

Anyway, where was I.

This year New Dawn launched the New Dawn Innovation Fund. It gives RRSP-investors in Nova Scotia the opportunity to invest in local, export-oriented, innovation companies. The goal is $1.6 million. The money raised is being invested in three companies:

  • MediaSparkaward-winning educational software development and publishing company. Their soon-to-be-released “GoVenture World” educational global business game was recently selected as one of the 50 brightest new startups in the world.
  • Advanced Glazings: designer and manufacturer of state-of-the-art daylighting glass, including a product line which offers R18 insulation value — the best insulating commercially-available glass product in the world.
  • Marcato Digital: developer of web-based planning and logistics software for music festivals. Their products are currently in use by world-renowned events such as the Celtic Colours International Festival locally, JunoFest in Canada, Berlin Music Week in Germany, and the Life is Good Festival in the United States.

(In 2012, $1.5 million was raised through the New Dawn Community Investment Fund CEDIF. Those monies were invested in Protocase, a manufacturer of custom enclosures for electronic prototypes.)

All four tech companies are Cape Breton success stories. Their founders and CEO’s — Mathew Georghiou of MediaSpark, Doug Milburn of Advanced Glazings, Darren Gallop and Morgan Currie of Marcato, Steve Lilley of Protocase — choose to live and work in Cape Breton because of the quality of life. And while starting a business here is hard, they’ve managed, at times against all odds, to create stable incomes for themselves, and pay good wages to staffs of highly skilled workers. And now they’re growing.

Cheers and congrats to all!

Community Character: city of villages

Paraphrasing Albert Einstein, urban-planner Howard Blackson says that “We continue to use the same suburban planning tools over and over again expecting different urban results.”

His research team looked at the patterns of modern North American city planning to discover sixteen “community character” types. The 16 ‘typologies’ helped his group answer the question of “How did this place end up like this?” and “What’s missing?” (where do we go from here to make this place better?).

But Blackson immediately proceeds to throw his methodology out the window. We don’t need a theoretical framework, he says, when the question of what we’re doing wrong is right in front of us:

“[O]verly-wide streets, large formal thoroughfares that go on and on in perspective, so that you don’t even see the architecture. The architecture then becomes monotonous… it says ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ because you’re going 49 miles an hour… or it says ‘Don’t look at me! I’m trying to hide from you’, because this juxtaposition is very boring — it’s one of this, one of that.”

Cities that were instead full of organic, village-like developments were seen as more successful, more livable, than cities where the “architecture is unseen and unimportant.” The last 5 minutes of Blackson’s talk has all the answers, which is, in a nutshell:

“Build for economic value by going through cultural and social value.”

I touched on the idea of how a city speaks to us (its body language) in this CBC interview.

Kimberly Rivera and the War Resisters Support Campaign

In Saturday’s Globe & Mail, there is a “Open Letter to the Prime Minister” from the War Resisters Support Campaign. The letter is signed by over 60 public figures, including Nobel laureate Dr. John Polanyi and the chair of the Council of Canadians Maude Barlow.

It describes the plight of Iraq War resister Kimberly Rivera, who was deported from Canada in September 2012. She was arrested upon crossing the border back into the U.S., and is currently confined at a U.S. army base, separated from her four young children, two of whom were born in Canada.

“Kim sought asylum in Canada in 2007 after she decided she could no longer be complicit in the war… a war which had no legal sanction.”

“Canada did not participate in the Iraq War. The majority of Canadians opposed the war. Our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, admitted on national television that the war in Iraq was ‘absolutely an error.’ Two parliamentary resolutions were passed in the House of Commons calling on the government of Canada to allow U.S. Iraq War resisters to stay here, and polls have consistently shown a majority of Canadians support the right of U.S. Iraq War resisters to stay.”

And yet, “members of the current Conservative government applauded when the news of Kimberly’s departure and arrest was announced in the House of Commons.”

Here’s how you can help:

1. Contact Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration & Multiculturalism asking him to make a provision to allow Iraq War resisters to stay in Canada.

Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration & Multiculturalism
325 East Block, House of Commons
Ottawa, ON
K1A 0A6

Phone: 613-954-1064 | Fax: 613-957.2688

Email: jason.kenney@parl.gc.ca, minister@cic.gc.ca

2. Send a letter of support to Kimberly Rivera. The support she is receiving from Canada, the U.S., and internationally is helping her during this difficult period while she is separated from her family and awaiting court martial. Letters can be sent to:

Kimberly Rivera
c/o All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church
730 N. Tejon Street
Colorado Springs, CO

3. Make a donation to help support the campaign to allow U.S. war resisters to stay in Canada.

I wrote about another U.S. Iraq War resister, Darrell Anderson, after he visited CBU in 2006 as part of a national speaking tour. Canada denied his claim for refuge status, and soon after, Anderson surrendered himself to U.S. authorities. He received less-than-honourable discharge from the army, and was shortly released. He did not receive prison time or a court martial.

This was originally published in the Caper Times, CBU’s campus newspaper, of which I was an editor from 2002-2006.

Broken Contract: American War Resister Seeks Sanctuary in Canada

When an unidentified Iraqi car came screeching to a halt a few feet away from American soldier Darrell Anderson, sparks flying and just moments after it had a run a blockade, he was ordered to open fire. He refused, and by doing so, may have risked his own safety and the safety of his fellow soldiers. Scared, but sure he was doing the right thing, Anderson’s conviction was rewarded when the car’s black-tinted windows came down and he found himself face to face with two small children.

Despite the perceived threat, his instincts told him not to fire, Anderson says, while recounting the story to a rapt audience in CBU’s Royal Bank lecture theatre last week. Thanks to him, that family lived to tell the story too.

The story of how non-combatants (the American military’s classification for innocents) are nonetheless considered “guilty by proximity” (if not lawfully, then practically speaking), and how their only crime seems to have been being scared and confused.

Anderson was reprimanded for his actions, and told in future to “shoot first, ask questions later.”

Now it was his turn to be confused. “These were innocent people,” he says. How could what he did have been the wrong thing?

He was beginning to become convinced that this was not the war he had signed up for. And later, while on leave, and telling these and other stories to family and friends, he knew it was not a war in which he could continue to participate. He didn’t return, and instead fled to Canada, just as 50,000 draft-age Americans did between 1965 and 1973 when they refused to participate in what they believed to be an immoral war. Then Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Trudeau welcomed them, saying, “Those who make the conscientious judgment that they must not participate in this war… have my complete sympathy, and indeed our political approach has been to give them access to Canada. Canada should be a refuge from militarism.”

Thirty years after Vietnam, Canada is faced with the same moral choice to give refuge to those who refuse to be accomplices in the U.S.-led war on Iraq — a war which many legal opinions have deemed illegal under international law. However, this time around, resisters such as Anderson have been forced to apply for
refugee status.

According to the War Resisters Support Campaign, which is funding Anderson’s speaking tour, this barrier serves only to punish objectors who exercise their conscience by refusing to continue to fight once they witness first-hand the unbearable conditions in Iraq.

Despite having to sign a contract as part of his service — which, loosely speaking, includes not talking to the media, or even holding dissenting political views — Anderson is on a speaking tour of Canadian universities. His goal is to raise awareness of the human rights violations being committed in Iraq on behalf of the American government, and the obstacles facing those who refuse to participate in that war.

During his presentation at CBU, he described first becoming involved in the military. Coming from one of the poorest neighbourhoods in his city and with an equally poor excuse for an education, but with a newborn daughter to raise, he simply needed the money. He says he easily fell prey to the unfair advantage the military has in being allowed to send recruits into schools in the most impoverished parts of American cities, whereas peace advocates are often considered “too radical” and denied access to those same high-
risk kids.

About his personal experiences in Iraq, Anderson spoke simply yet passionately, including details of the two years he spent in Germany before war broke out. He was in training, totally cut off from all outside media. As a result, all he knew going into the war was what he had heard from other members of the military.

His most disturbing yet moving stories were about getting to know those other soldiers while in Iraq — hearing about their families and friends, husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, sons and daughters — and the grief involved in knowing some of them wouldn’t return home from duty.

Finally, he shared his gruesome impression of how “non-combatants” were dealt with in the area. For emphasis, Anderson recounted how a soldier from another company, when asked whether innocent women and children had been among those killed during an attack, replied: “We don’t know; we just count the bodies.”

Maybe not surprisingly then, what with the “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that so shocked him at first, it wasn’t long before Anderson found himself refusing, as he puts it, to “take part in war crimes.” Ultimately, this is what kept Anderson from returning to duty. The reasons are different, obviously, in the case of each individual resister. But if refused refugee status in Canada and forced to return to the United States, all face the potential for persecution, incarceration, and possibly even the death penalty.

Due to the severity of the possible punishment, it rests with the War Resisters Support Campaign to enlist the help of local groups sympathetic to the cause, who can then be counted on to take the message out to their communities, and raise awareness of these and other issues facing war resisters.

A handful of CBU students took up this cause and set up information booths on campus and at local malls, from which they continued the country-wide circulation of a petition aimed at Canada’s federal government to give refuge to US war resisters who refuse to continue to fight in Iraq.

The refugee claims, however, reach beyond the soldiers’ own personal cases, and challenge the very legality of the entire war. For example, Anderson’s contractual obligation as a soldier in the American military, which he went against when he fled to Canada, is the basis for his criminal status in America. But Anderson argues that the United States is fighting an immoral and illegal war, thus breaking their end of the bargain first and invalidating the contract.

Anderson reminds us how the removal of Saddam Hussein and his regime was first marketed by the Bush administration as a necessary campaign to rid the country of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and when it turned out that WMD’s were not present in the country, the spin on the war became that of a mission to bring democracy to America’s favourite part of the Middle East.

But it didn’t take long for these claims to be considered farce by, among others, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who deemed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq “illegal”.

The sentiment is increasingly being shared by American soldiers, including war resisters, but also those who remain in service despite growing opposition to the cause they represent (perhaps, according to Anderson, due to a very real fear of persecution).

Granted, Anderson says, Canada opposes the war. But “not enough”. Few still hold the American government’s claims about Iraq to be true. But despite the fact that the majority of Canadians did not support the war in the first place, and nor did the Canadian government, Anderson wonders what it will take for Canadians to really take notice of the atrocities occurring in Iraq. And more importantly, for them to take action.

The War Resisters Support Campaign is calling on the Canadian government to “demonstrate its commitment to international law and the treaties to which it is a signatory, by making provision for US war objectors to have sanctuary in this country.”

As for those who oppose the war but continue to “support our troops,” Anderson has a few final words: “If you really want to support these troops, bring them home safe.”

Using Twitter in university research

@CBUresearch recently shared a “Guide to using Twitter in university research, teaching, and impact activities” [PDF]. It’s published by the London School of Economics.

Twitter is a free social networking service that lets you write 140-character messages, called “tweets”. These can be read by anyone in the world, and they look like this:

You might ask:

“…how can such a brief medium have any relevance to universities and academia, where journal articles are 3,000 to 8,000 words long, and where books contain 80,000 words? Can anything of academic value ever be said in just 140 characters?”

In fact, Twitter is quite versatile. It can be used to promote your research, and related events like public talks. It can be used to solicit feedback on your research. It can even be used during the research phase itself:

“Twitter provides many opportunities for ‘crowd sourcing’ research activities across the sciences, social sciences, history and literature – by getting people to help with gathering information, making observations, undertaking data analysis, transcribing and editing documents – all done just for the love of it. Some researchers have also used Twitter to help ‘crowdsource’ research funding from interested public bodies. You can read more about crowdsourcing at the LSE Impact blog.

You are an expert. And Twitter is a medium people often turn to, to find experts in the field of their interest. If you’re not there, they can’t find you! Those people might be PhD students, other researchers, or lay people. You can use Twitter to not only strengthen your reputation as an expert, but to expand your reach beyond the confines of the university.

“Making links with practitioners in business, government, and public policy can happen easily. Twitter’s brevity, accessibility and immediacy are all very appealing to non-academics.”

The guide starts with the basics:

  • How to create an account
  • Useful terminology
  • Examples of writing styles, and the pros and cons of each style
  • Tips on how to increase the number of people who might read your ‘Tweets’

Read the guide, experiment a little, and see how Twitter can work for you.


I’ve watched this short film more times than I can count. Warning: adult language… the only language… and only for about 2 seconds.

It was shot by friends Jono Hunter and Darcy Campbell, and stars friends Ian MacDougall and Victor Tomiczek.

It’s 2 minutes of cinematic referential perfection.

The crooked, Crumb-esque telephone polls. The desolate, Burton-esque trees. The too-white, Gollum-esque hands(?!). The Trailer Park Boys meets French indie film piano music at the end.

The reflection in the ditch water. The glaze on the wet sidewalk. The ATV tracks in the mud. The car lights blurring in the fog. The reverse-backward gait of the actors.

(By the way, it was only after I watched it a bazillion times that I noticed that Victor’s character seems to strike an outstretched-arm SUPER MAN pose, as he walks away from the camera, after having encountered Ian’s original SUPER MAN. It’s contagious.)

Mayor Clarke’s “Reorganization Plan” for CBRM

CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke’s “Reorganization Plan for Positive Change” takes his election campaign and repackages it in the form of a 13-point to-do list. Each point raises an issue, and lists immediate, short-term, and long-term actions Clarke’s administration will take to address it.

Read it online: Mayor Clarke’s “Reorganization Plan”

The original document is only available as a PDF on the CBRM website. I was frustrated that you can’t comment on it, share it on social media, link individually to any of its 13 sections, or read it with ease on a mobile device. So I put together a quick website that allows all these.

Reading the plan, the first thing you’ll notice (if you haven’t already) is how much Clarke differs from his predecessor. Former Mayor John Morgan was a radical populist, presenting himself as a man of “the people”, always and firmly against the elite. Clarke, on the other hand, wants Municipal leaders to get out in front.

The plan is ambitious. Simply calling it a plan for reorganization is a tacit criticism of the status quo. But with the actions it outlines, it raises the bar for the Municipality (legislatively and organizationally). If Clarke and his team are successful, it could very well prove transformative.

But it also assumes — and creates room for — the participation of the community at large. There’s a lot of overlap here with my own campaign “platform”. And I had originally set out to write a blog post detailing some of the similarities. But I’d rather hear what others think, which is why I made the website.

Read Clarke’s Plan. Leave a comment. Share it with your social networks (#ClarkePlan on Twitter). Encourage your Councillor to make comments. And most importantly, refer back to the website over the next four years, and hold Clarke accountable.

New Year’s Resolutions, Here We Come!

A “debate” between Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and Tim Ferriss of Four Hour Work Week on the virtues and vices of setting goals. And some things to be wary of as we prepare our New Year’s Resolutions (admit it, you do it, too).

Babauta’s argument is that goals prevent you from living in the now (the familiar journey > destination philosophy). And not only can a fixation on the destination distract you from the journey, it can set you up for failure. After all, most of us never reach the destination!

Ferriss’ argument is that failing to reach the destination is only detrimental if you expect to make it one hundred percent of the way. His advice, paraphrasing Google’s Larry Page, is that rarely do we fail completely — if we aim high enough. So aim high, but expect only to succeed partially.

This year, don’t plot your resolution in a straight line culminating in life-changing success — and where any point along the continuum, if you happen to come up short, equals utter and complete failure.

Instead, think of your resolution as a terrain in which to wander. Start off in a pre-determined direction, sure. But don’t expect to make it all the way to the other side. Better yet, remain open to opportunity along the way, so as not to miss anything by fixating on the destination.