Sunday Morning Angels

Good things happen to men who do dishes and tidy up their rooms, especially if they listen to good radio stations. Here are a couple of highlights from a mere 90 minutes of radio (plus a little scrubbing, a little filing, a little man, look at this place!).

Hail to Jane.  How do we make cities work? Three radio guests offered their answers, their hopes and despair, about the state of cities in Canada, in everywhere. Reverend Bowtie (aka Michael Enright) was piloting The Sunday Edition, and navigating the airwaves with him were architect Brigitte Shim, a former Vancouver planner (was it Larry Beasley? Ah, the downside to writers doing dishes: poor note-taking), and Toronto’s William Thorsell, a former Globe and Mail editor and now head of the Royal Ontario Museum. They were talking cities, and responding to Enright’s how do they work questions. They decried city development that was piecemeal and commodified and developer-driven. They argued that density wasn’t a bad word, if it was combined with humanity and concern for the building of coherent and livable communities within a city. Shim, in particular, wondered how long it would be before we figured out that bulldozing prime farmland for sprawling one-family commuter suburbs might not be a sustainable practice. Thorsell, in particular, confessed his shame at being a Torontonian every time he visits Vancouver, a world model for urban sustainability. And Beasley – if I’ve actually got the right guy – was particularly humble in discussing what North American cities might be able to learn from what Vancouver is doing. (So why hail Jane? Because behind all this thinking and re-thinking about what can make cities the centre of art, culture, science, dynamic forms of human understanding, is the astoundingly clear and still-ringing voice of the late Jane Jacobs. The only reason I could even follow this morning’s conversation was because I finally read her brilliant book The Death and Life of Great American Cities last year. Few books have informed me like this one.)

Hail to Ingrid. Check this out. Not only is she a woman, not only is her name Ingrid, but she grew up as a devout Roman Catholic in Kitchener, Ontario. This seemingly ordinary constellation of facts becomes astonishing when you hear, as I did this morning for the first time, that Ingrid Mattson has been elected President of the Islamic Society of North America. (She had been a vice-president since 2001, and a good profile of her from that year can be found here.) She converted to Islam as a young woman, having rediscovered in Muslim practice the child-like wonder and reverence she had loved as a Christian child. She also found great scope and comfort for her brilliant mind, and she is now professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. What a calm and intelligent voice she has! And what a potent perspective she brings to Muslim communities around the world, and to those who wish to better understand Islam, as a woman of European/Christian heritage, Canadian upbringing and profound Muslim scholarship, a wife, mother, academic and Western convert to the Faith of Muhammad. I’m glad to know Ingrid is at work in the world.

Hail to Agnes. For a reason I didn’t entirely catch, there was a brief tribute to Agnes McPhail in my radio, too. In the first year that Canadian women had the right to vote — did you know it was 1921? — McPhail was elected to Canada’s House of Commons as the first – and for a long time, the only – woman Member of Parliament. She served nobly until 1940, and later spent five years as an Ontario M.P.P. I heard her voice for the first time this morning, a tape of a CBC interview from the late 1930s, I think. Here was another smart and serene (and quietly fierce) female voice. (It’s the same voice she used when, heckled by a fellow MP — “Hey Agnes, don’t you wish you were a man?!” — she fixed him with a cool stare and said “Why yes, don’t you?”) She had an eloquence we don’t often hear these days, and a flatness of tone that showed no evidence of media training or the search for the perfect sound-bite. Yet she was incisive, clear and almost unbelievably modern in her views, without the shrill extremes that often accompany contemporary quests for justice. Except perhaps for the diction, her discussion could only be dated by the laughably archaic worries of the male union leader she was quietly slaughtering in debate.

Hail to Wendy. The last thing I heard on The Sunday Edition was a repeat documentary, first aired last spring, on a fifth-grade teacher in an Ottawa Catholic elementary school. Her name is Wendy Alexis, and her voice was one of those reminders of the greatness of the good teacher. Our culture too seldom recognizes it, but the Wendys of the world are priceless gems. “Always keep a diamond in your mind…” This Tom Waits lyric rumbles through my thoughts in the voice of Solomon Burke, and today it refers to Ms. Alexis. Her classroom is one of those New Canada, New World places where the children come from 20 countries, speak 15 languages among them, and are often refugees from humanity’s greatest modern failures. So Wendy Alexis gets her kids to be quiet so they can listen, to clean up the floor, and to learn their times tables. Yes, and she has created a community that is a microcosm of a suffering but still-hopeful world, where children can tell and hear their stories and work for the betterment of a world that has done them harm. And these kids at St. Luke’s school have a small project. It’s called “One Angel at a Time” (, and it is a project of remembrance. They are collecting feathers, 800,000 feathers, one for each of the slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. I’m not sure what they’re doing with them, and I don’t much care. They are becoming angels of mindfulness and compassion. They have about 50,000 so far. They are learning to read and think and love and trust. I’d like to send some feathers for these angels. And you?

Jane and Ingrid and Agnes and Wendy. Good morning!

Jane Jacobs

My wife, Environmental Avenger and all-around Sustainable Cities Babe, has been educating me for about ten years on Jane Jacobs and what she has meant to urban planning, urban thinking, urban renewal. It’s been a good but fairly steep learning curve. After all, for this small-town Baptist –especially after spending a dark and deeply annoying decade in Toronto one year – cities were nasty and brutish places where stays should be short. Scrape the grime and the moral sleaze off on your way out. Park your principles. Pick up your smile on the way out the door….

Maybe I’m growing up, though. There are wisecracks about Ottawa as the City That Fun Forgot, but it is a city and I mostly like it here. I also understand better some of the wretched costs of our pursuit of Country Living for Everyone! I still can’t get used to going to a supermarket and knowing nobody there, but when the news of Jane Jacobs’s death came through yesterday, I had sufficient respect for cities, and knew enough about her work to improve them, that I felt a real pang of loss. Diana was her neighbour for awhile in the Annex in Toronto, but I only knew her as a deeply appreciative reader. I had finally read her classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, under professional pressure. (When I worked for Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, I was forced to read all kinds of magnificent stuff; here, we were preparing together for the William Kilbourn Memorial Lecture she was giving in Toronto.) It entirely changed the way I looked at cities and suburbs, it astonished me as the work of one citizen opposed to the way her city (New York, at that time) was developing, and it impressed me with the clarity and power of its writing. Gosh, she was good.

Now she’s gone. She left us with several remarkable books, and her final one, Dark Age Ahead, needs to move to the front of my next-to-read line. Citizen Jane was a ferocious and compelling example of civic activism and intelligence, and we’ll be referring to her for a long time.

Caledonia Gets Interesting

Back in 1996, when I was dragging my new wife back to my little town, she was worried. A city girl, she wondered, “Does anything happen there? Will there be any interesting people?” But my roots were deep and my sons were there, as was my job teaching and coaching at my alma mater high school, so we packed up our honeymoon kit (and the caboodle) and moved back to Caledonia, Ontario. “A Grand place to live!”

I’d always thought so, but influenced by my Diana, an environmentalist and Jane Jacobs admirer, I’d come to see how suburban sprawling my childhood village had become. (It’s three times bigger than when I was a boy, but its downtown struggles. There were, as of our 2002 move to Ottawa, three stoplights in town. Too much!) And my bride did find it dull, and though there were lots of JamesHowdenHistory and family there, interesting people were hard to come by, let alone excitement. Now that Caledonia and its eternal neighbour, the Six Nations reserve, are at the centre of Canadian attention, Diana flings her hands in mock dismay.

“I lived there for six years and now it gets interesting?!” Well, my blissful life sentence in Caledonia was commuted after thirty years, so I know what she’s talking about. And I’d like to be there right now. I know these people, on both sides of the barricades. For our shared six years, Diana and I lived in the town’s first condominiums, built by Jack Henning (father of John and Don, the developers at the centre of the current dispute) in the 1970s at what then seemed an absurd distance south of the river; the town’s business area and its older homes were all on the north side. Now, the Zehrs and Canadian Tire superstores that have been appearing in national newscasts are farther south still.

John Henning played first base on Caledonia baseball teams the age group below mine, and was the first kid I knew to have a proper trapper. (Rumour was it had cost forty bucks. John also had the country habit of spitting and rubbing in its pocket while he played; it stank to baseball heaven.) He was a rookie on the Caledonia High football team in my glorious senior year – we nearly won the league after years of being a patsy against larger schools – and became a touchdown machine as the star running back when the Blue Devils actually won.

And John and I, like his brother Don and generations of white kids from Caledonia, had the experience of sharing science labs, hallways and playing fields with guys from the upper end of Six Nations who came to town for high school. I played four years of football with Ben Thomas and Alfred Logan, and was a teammate for shorter periods with various Hills and Bomberrys, Porters and Martins. So were the Hennings. And I can’t help but wonder who, among these young men from a parallel world with whom we all “went to war” as adolescent athletes, might now be on the other side of that barricade.

It’s a divide between the town and the proud and struggling nations that have watched it grow from nothing along the banks of their cherished Grand River. Today, the barrier is vivid and tangible, tense and angry, but it is not new. It just used to be quieter. It used to be that, if you wanted to, you could pretend it didn’t exist. For some Caledonians, like many Canadians, it was easy to live as if the reserve itself wasn’t there.

That time is over, for now, and that’s not all bad. There’s great potential for entrenching suspicions and stereotypes in the heat of this conflict, but – and call me naïve, if you like – there is also the chance in this standoff to build understanding: of the tangled history along the banks of this lazy river, and of the needs and aspirations of the two communities that share it. It’s an interesting place now. It’s a piece of geography that shows us a great deal about Canada, and what happens in the days and months to come will tell us a whole lot more.

[This entry was later expanded into a Hamilton Spectator Forum piece that you can find here.]