Past-Blasting: The Climate, 2007

This piece from February of 2007 was called “Citizenship, Climate Change…and Hockey?” It’s an orphan piece that never found a publication to call home, so now I offer it here. My nearly six-foot tall teen was then only seven, and merely bilingual. The NHL was struggling to recapture fan interest outside of Canada after losing an entire season to labour squabbles. Canada was still part of the Kyoto Accord. (We bow our head in shame, and remember when Canada deserved its reputation for internationalism.) I was not long removed from writing for Canada’s Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, who had been succeeded in that office by Michaelle Jean.

We hadn’t imagined coming to China at all, and now we’re wrapping up five years on the edge of the Middle Kingdom. Look back. Waaayy back…

Last week saw a series of events that, after a whirl in the cerebral blender, yields a thoughtful stew on citizenship. It’s a bit like the musical “mash-up”, but without that unpleasant ringing in your ears. Here are some not-quite-random reflections on the meaning of the modern Canuck.

Two years ago last Friday, the National Hockey League finally suspended the 2004-2005 season. Canadian men (and a few women) grew more gloomy and resentful. No major sporting league had ever ditched an entire schedule, and the North American cultural divide widened. Canadian lovers of other sports hoped for a silver lining to the lockout, but were dismayed to find that hockey still dominated jock talk and writing. Meanwhile, American sports media – and the great majority of fans – barely noticed its absence.

And the citizenship connection? Well, you might have missed this surprising bit of civic mindfulness, but several NHL players declared the February 16 anniversary as “Save Hockey Day” – not so much to recall the lockout as to pay attention to the Kyoto Accord on climate change. ‘Bout time!

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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.

Grey Cup Sunday: Football, Canadian Style

I’m not the CFL fan I was in the days of Garney Henley and Joe Zuger, Ben Zambiasi and Chuck Ealey. (Does anyone out there know what I’m talking about?) I’ve seen some highlights from the Canadian and National Football Leagues (interesting how the “national” league claims it plays for the “world championship”, isn’t it?), but I haven’t actually watched a game this year. I was determined to at least see the Cup. (I make the same general rule for the Super Bowl, which usually has ten times the hype and half the excitement.) Anyhow, I apparently don’t move in the right circles to wangle an invitation to a Grey Cup party with a decent television, so I ended up working my magic on the rabbit ears and the mighty CBC telecast came through fairly well. Had the living room all to myself. (Sigh.)

The first half was like a lot of Super Bowls, filled with tense athletes and careful coaches and defences preying on the timidity of both. 10-1 at half, a bit of a yawner. Halftime was one of those weird spectacles, where dancing girls and extras are brought around a stage – tiny in the midst of a football field – and the camera operators keep a tight focus so that we at home can’t see what they can: stick figures on a stage playing to a hundred people, acres of turf and half-empty stands (there are more beers and goodies to be inhaled, and incredible quantities of urine to be leaked).

So home’s the best seat in the house, which matters not a whit if you have to watch the Black Eyed Peas. This was my second BEP sighting, and I don’t get it at all. Sure, I’m a forty-something guy who had a James Taylor phase, but I can get hippity every once in a while. Eminem’s a bit toxic, but he’s a talent. I’m getting to know dear old Public Enemy a little, and I actually dig Buck Sixty-Five with a fairly large shovel. But the Peas? Please. Somebody has to explain this to me. (Unless it’s all about a blonde singer grinding with men of colour. Nah. Couldn’t be.)

Anyhow, the second half made me pay attention again: play upon play, lead change after lead change, overtime thrills, a bonehead play by a brainy quarterback. My joint was jumping and I  was the only one there. So I may not get the halftime show, if I ever did, but I still get football, Lord help me, and nothing beats the big-balled Canadian version (with its imported American stallions) when it’s at its best.

(Just one more thing: Madame Jean, nice to see you there for the presentation of your predecessor’s famous gift to Canadian football. But if the Governor General is going to honour the champs with Lord Grey’s famous mug, she shouldn’t do it while playing Vanna White — is she still alive and flipping? — to the CFL Commissioner’s Pat Sajak. I’m just saying.)