Close to Home: What’s Up on Whitton?

[5-minute read]

They must be wind-protected. (Photo from National Candle Association, literally not metaphorically.)

It was a relief when the police tape came down, but it hasn’t felt the same, not yet. Maybe it’s just imagination, but Whitton Crescent seems a lot less lively now. Shocking violence can do that to a neighbourhood, and it’s not only the besieged and grieving family that will never fully recover from that terrible morning in early September. The perpetrators — just kids, really — and their families are also ruined in their own particular ways. It was another sad day in, and for, Overbrook, my little piece of Ottawa, where a curvy little street is named for Charlotte Whitton, first female mayor of a Canadian city.

It’s a question that came up in my living room on the weekend: Aren’t you afraid to live here? The answer, sadness aside, is a simple No. We chose this area when we moved to Ottawa. We love it. My family lives two blocks from the murder scene, and from the shooting the week before, which we learned to our dismay injured a lovely woman we know well. We’re a two-minute bike ride from the shooting at the “four corners”, where the convenience store and the pizza restaurant have seen too much of this kind of criminal traffic. Though we don’t fear for our own safety — without a doubt my daily commute across town to my high school coaching gig is more dangerous than where my house sits — it’s unsettling. As for everyone in Overbrook, but especially those on Whitton or near the four corners, these events feel far too close to home. So what are we to do? My wife and son and I are privileged folk in many ways, including our relatively easy option to move out, but that has never crossed our minds.  Nor have we considered extra home security, spending less time walking or biking the streets, or (God forbid!) getting suspicious or cold towards our neighbours.

Just the opposite, actually. If darkness has sometimes fallen on my part of town, the thing is to get to work and create more light. “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” as the ancient proverb says. When violence strikes at the heart of community, if the threat of it erodes our hopefulness and our trust in each other, then we have TRULY lost. The better course? Build more community. We started by asking what we might be able to do for the victims’ families? We’re trying to go beyond that: what are we already doing that involves us with Overbrook folk or local development? How do we do more of that? We wonder, What’s missing in this area? and then look to take some small action to begin to fill in that gap. Doing something helps us, first, and let’s hope it ripples outward, but mindset is critical.

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Better Read Than Never: Saul’s Unconscious Civilization 4

My first look at this book (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the first and second chapters were summarized – in 500 words or fewer – here and here. Wow. I’ve been two months getting to this chapter since the last one. Sorry.

The middle lecture of the 1995 series of five Massey speeches was titled “From Corporatism to Democracy”. If you have read some John Ralston Saul, or even my previous summaries, you won’t be surprised at his opposing of these two currents of civilization. Indeed, much of The Unconscious Civilization dwells on the insistent, apparently inextinguishable rise of corporatism – the elite groupings that oversee the manipulation of capital –  and its constant undermining of the democratic process and principles which Western nations allegedly hold dear. (I resisted using the word “zombie” in that last sentence. Decorum, and so on.) However, corporatist “self-interest” erodes the “disinterest” that broad expressions of conscious citizenship produce, which are aimed toward the general good. Saul defines such thoughtful, big-picture citizenship as the expression and the consequence of humane individualism, which he contrasts with bands

Milton Friedman, RIP. In 1995, Saul ridiculed his equation of democracy with capitalism, among other things. He is gone now, but his economic disciples remain strong.

of minority elites pursuing their corporate agendas.

As was done for the previous two lectures/chapters, here are 500 words that try to capture Saul’s argument:

  • Individualism is not isolationism; we live in society, and “the most powerful force possessed by the individual citizen is her own government(s)”. This source of social legitimacy encourages citizenship; “gods, kings or groups” diminish it.
  • Advocating reduced government for the sake of personal “freedom” puts “artificial limits on their only force”; the power vacuum will be filled by corporate interests and their bureaucracies.
  • Hume’s assertion that people are “governed by interest” is misused by advocates of market forces to “suggest that the public good is a fiction”. Hume urged civic duty as a replacement for the superstitious rule of the Church, not to substitute the marketplace as a new deity.
  • Democracy is independent from economic theories, and citizens (and governments) must not become corporate subjects.
  • In the rise of humanism, “democracy and individualism have advanced in spite of and often against specific economic interest”, while anti-democratic corporatism is always aligned with economic power. Market theorists and demagogues like Mussolini share an “inability to see the human as anything more than interest-driven…[or] to imagine an actively organized pool of disinterest called the public good”.

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Theodore Roosevelt (on deeds-not-words, on *Jihad*)

* In the Islamophobic (and Islam-ignorant) West, we tend to have a hostile perspective on the Muslim concept of jihad, often translated as “holy war”; we think of burning towers, violent coercion and hate. I’m no Islamic scholar, but I think Roosevelt’s famed “Man in the Arena” speech, quoted partially below, is actually a pretty good description of the highest meaning of jihad, as I have come to understand it. I wrote about my efforts in understanding Islam here, plus two other posts that immediately followed. The particular discussion of jihad is in the second one. Roosevelt was talking, in gritty and athletic terms, about citizenship, and I’m fairly sure he wasn’t thinking of jihad at all! It fits, though, and here is part of what he said, the most often-quoted and beloved bit. I love this:

“It is not the critic who counts,…the man who points out how the strong man stumbles….The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,… who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions,…so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt, from a speech titled “CITIZENSHIP IN A REPUBLIC”, given at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910. A fuller quotation of this part of the speech, along with my commentary about it,  can be found in an entry in the “On First Glance” section of, November 22, 2010.

Citizenship at the Centre

I wrote yesterday about two significant Canadian anniversaries and neglected a fascinating third. On July 1st we’ll be celebrating the country’s 140th birthday, but it was only 60 years ago yesterday that the first formal Canadian citizenship was granted. (Pour maple syrup on absolutely everything if you can name the first citizen to be formally recognized as such. *Answer below.) I may have heard this before, but was still lightly startled nonetheless to be reminded that it was only in 1947, 80 years in to the Great Northern Experiment, that we were regarded technically as anything other than British subjects. Imagine how French Quebeckers felt about that, when the thought crossed their minds. Or the Chinese or Ukrainian immigrants. Or the Irish.

And so our blazingly attractive Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, herself an immigrant from Haiti, spoke to new citizens yesterday. They gathered in the halls of the Supreme Court, welcomed by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s frosted beauty and class. They came from all over Canada, and they came from all over the world – the usual Canadian story, at least for the last 40 years or so. Their smiles were wide, and their comments afterward were uplifting and sweet. But even 60 years on, as they followed Madame Jean in reciting their citizenship pledge, they said one jarring thing before promising to obey Canadian law and fulfil their duties as citizens. The Oath begins with the affirmation “that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors…” I shuddered, just slightly, though there are elements of our civic structure that are much more harmful than this small anachronism. Yet symbols do matter.

I stand with those who suggest that quietly, upon the death of the Queen, in a dignified and quintessentially Canadian way, we should end the designation of the top British royal as our Head of State. There is value, however, in separating “pomp from power”, in having the symbolic head of the country distinct from the leader of the government. The institution of the Governor General fits this bill beautifully, and maintains valuable ties to traditions both deep and more recent. (We may need to revise our selection method, which despite its partisan potential has sent some marvellous Canadians to Rideau Hall, including but certainly not limited to the last two.)

Former GG Adrienne Clarkson, for whom I wrote during the last years of her mandate, was honoured Thursday at Rideau Hall with the unveiling of her official portrait. Prime Ministers past (Mr. Chrétien) and present (Mr. Harper) were there, along with most of the chief politicos of Ottawa, but more interesting to me were the artists and the throat-singing Inuit sisters; I’d never heard a live rendition of this eerie, sometimes guttural, viscerally powerful vocalizing before. I also got to hang out with my ol’ buddies and colleagues from the days when I left my house (and my sweatshirts) to go to work.

The Clarkson portrait is striking, a combination of nostalgia and toughness. She is calm and just a touch defiant, actually, as she stands on a frozen Canadian lake and stares down the horizon, or dares the future. It is the first vice-regal portrait to have snow in it. (Only in Canada, you say?) The warmth in it comes from a deep and sturdy friendship between Ms. Clarkson and the painter, Mary Pratt – the photo on which it was based was taken over 20 years ago – and also from the soft blue parka that she wears. I’d seen it (and that steely gaze) before. She has worn it since it was hand-made for her by an Inuit women’s collective thirty years ago, and she swears she always will.

It’s a good day to think a little about being a citizen. It reminds me that I need to flood our Tiny Perfect Backyard Rink® tonight, maybe just after seeing the legendary Willie P. Bennett and the ukulele wizard James Hill play their music tonight at the National Library and Archives. But first, a little Saturday afternoon hockey — good for the northern soul.

* And get those crèpes cooking if you somehow knew that Canada’s then-Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was the first official citizen of this evolving country on February 16, 1947.

Barnabus Quotidianus

BQ is a web log that I recently stumbled upon. (It’s written by a guy older than me, which I find encouraging and consoling.) If your grasp of Latin is even shakier than mine, I’ll tell you that it means something like “The Daily Barney”.

But no, worry not, there is no annoying soundtrack and zero appearances by purple cartoon dinosaurs. Barney is a British writer who comments on community and spiritual development, primarily – all the places where social concern, citizenship, faith and activism converge – but he also writes appealingly on a wide range of personal stories and interests. He’s a good read. He manages a fairly difficult thing with ease and style: he can write about matters of religion, for example, with refreshing plainness, sense and even fun.

It’s a personal log, so it doesn’t carry any official stamp, but Mr. Leith is a prominent member of the Bahá’í community of the United Kingdom. So, there is a fair sense of how they approach issues from gender equality to religious discrimination, along with the Barnabus take on technology, media, writing, family and a long list of other interests. It’s a pleasant cyberspace stroll that you might enjoy, as I do.