Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween pumpkins and turnips

Photo: Jack o'Lantern turnips, by Paul Stainthorp, Flickr

Probably the original Jack o'Lanterns were made with turnips in Ireland.

It seems the Irish immigrants brought the tradition to North America, where pumpkins were plentiful, and the Jack o'lantern was adapted to the local conditions.

Carving pumpkins is fun, but there are other vegetables that work too. My personal favourite was an extremely large zucchini we grew one year when our daughter was about twelve.

The shape made it a fantastic lizard, and we carved it out easily. Because a zucchini is so much softer than a pumpkin, the teeth turned out better than I had ever been able to do with the stiffer, more brittle flesh of pumpkins.

Happy Halloween, vegetable artists. Those who are also interested in punctuation can watch a slide show called Pumpkins love punctuation, by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

Book cover photo from The Guardian

Reading Roddy Doyle's memoir of a ten-year-old recently, I felt my stomach knotting. The matter-of-fact violence of the boy's life, minor at first, kept escalating, and the tension with it. I was sure something terrible would happen in the end, and relieved that the climax and denouement of the story did not turn out much worse.

Doyle does a brilliant job of putting the reader into the mind and body of the boy, using what he sees, hears, smells and fears. Tough on the outside, Paddy is kind and loving within. Feeling helpless and responsible for the suffering of his parents, he bullies his younger brother, as society has taught him. At the same time, he longs to protect 'Sinbad' from the pain of marital discord.

The story is told simply, and mostly through the use of dialogue. Yet the bald childish descriptions are unerringly evoke the setting of Barrytown, just outside of Dublin, forty years ago. Glimpses of the TV shows and music of the time add a bizarre counterpoint of Hollywood mythology. 

This book is a quick read -- for me only a couple of commutes' worth. Roddy Doyle had been on my radar for years, and I'm glad I got round to reading his work at last. Published in 1993, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won its author the Booker, an honour richly deserved.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ladies and Escorts and a solo Gloria Steinem

Photo: The sign in the picture was placed ironically behind the bar in Leo's Pub and Grill in Pincher Creek, Alberta.

This used to be a common sign above small- town hotel doorways. The Men went into the bar through their own door, and the Ladies entered, escorted by men, through a different one. Weirdly, both doors led to the same room.

Not so very long ago, it was unacceptable for women to enter bars without men.

In one of her books, Gloria Steinem describes a moment in her life as a journalist that reflected the attitude of the times. A man she was scheduled to interview was late to arrive at the agreed on meeting place, which happened to be a New York bar. While waiting, she ordered a drink, and the barman asked her what business she had being there alone.

Anyone else might have slunk out, such was the strength of custom. But Steinem not only stood her ground, she told the barman she was a journalist, meeting a contact to do an interview for a prominent New York magazine. He backed down and served her a drink while she waited.

Ladies and Escorts signs were common when I was a child. For the most part, we didn't question them. I do remember my astonishment when I first entered the hotel bar I had seen only from the outside and discovered that both exterior doors led to the same room.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Long-awaited canna blooms in October

Photo: 2012 CT

When I left for Edmonton in the second week of October, the canna in front of our door was finally budding.

Away from the coast and beyond the Rockies, the prairie city was far colder. On the patio of the Macdonald Hotel, the potted cannas had been blackened by a killing frost, though the petunias in the same containers lived on.

Back in Surrey later in the month, I found to my delight that the long awaited canna by our front door was in full bloom.

Below: Frostbitten cannas droop outside the Macdonald in Edmonton, October 10.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Buffalo Jumps in Alberta

Photo: Cairn overlooks the Red Deer River 2012

Dry Island marks the northern boundary of the buffalo jumps. Natural declivities like this were used by Plains people for thousands of years to hunt buffalo by driving them over the cliff to where hunters waited at the bottom. At forty-five metres, Dry Island is the highest jump in Alberta.
Photo: Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump 2012

This UNESCO Heritage Site in southern Alberta is well worth exploring. The photo shows the edge of the horseshoe shaped cliff left by the last ice age. The buffalo were driven to the cliff edge and then harvested by hunters waiting below.

It was important to let none of the herd escape, lest they tell their buffalo brothers to avoid the place. Then people would go hungry.

Plains Cree and Blackfoot people appreciated their reliance on the bison. As well as eating the meat, they used the skins to make warm buffalo robes and to cover their tipi homes.

Before and after the hunt, these nomadic hunters revered the animals on which they depended. They showed gratitude by visiting Ribstone sites, of which there are many around Alberta.

The buffalo hunters did not have the luxury of choosing the jump where they would hunt; they had to follow the herd. Jumps might be inactive for many years while the buffalo grazed elsewhere.

Of course these places contain thick layers of archaeological evidence. Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump was in use when the world's oldest literary work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was being written halfway round the world. When the pyramids were built in Egypt, buffalo were being hunted here.

This type of Winter Count Robe was inscribed with markings that served as a kind of historic calendar.

Photo: Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre, 2012

All photos taken by the author.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

North-West Mounted Police march west

Photo: Mountie talks with aborignal people, Library and Archives Canada

The force created by Sir John A. Macdonald's government had 50 whites and 150 Metis. All had to be literate in either English or French. In 1874 the first recruits rode west from Dufferin, Manitoba, heading for the junction of the Bow and Belly Rivers in southern Alberta. One Troop soon turned for the Hudson's Bay post at Fort Edmonton. After months of hard travel, the others reached their destination and established the police post of Fort Macleod.

The NWMP force was charged with the duty of serving the nation and treating all equally, "without fear, favour or affection." Their first  assignment was to find Fort Whoop-up and rout trouble- making American whiskey traders.

Times were bad for the people of the plains. The buffalo herds on which they had long depended were gone, and the Red River Rebellion had been suppressed. The previous year in the Cypress Hills, a grisly massacre of Assiniboine people had taken place, with both Americans and Canadians among the hunters.

It is widely accepted among non-aboriginal historians that the North-West Mounted Police earned the trust of the native peoples, helping them through some very bad times. Later, the government relied on the Mounties to persuade the native leaders to sign Treaties with the government.

William Henry Walden was born in 1857 in England and joined the new police force as a young man. The CBC digital archives have preserved an interview done with him when he was 109 years old. In it, he recalls his life with the North-West Mounted Police.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fort Whoop-up and Fort Macleod

Photo: Fort Whoop-up, University of Calgary

In 1869, the nation of Canada was two years old. BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were still part of the Northwest Territory.

In Europe, the declining popularity of beaver hats was slowing the fur trade. The main American fur company had collapsed in 1864.

In the spring of 1869, Canadian fur barons negotiated the sale of the British-granted "lands draining into Hudson's Bay," Rupert's Land, to the Canadian government for $1.5 million dollars.

In Montana, ex-fur traders had another money-making idea. They moved north and built a whiskey post on the Oldman River, where the Alberta town of Lethbridge now stands. There they prepared to sell liquor and firearms to the local native people at a handsome profit. The ensuing trouble was critical in the government's decision to establish a national police force.

Aboriginal lifestyles had been severely disrupted by the arrival of Europeans. The buffalo on which they had long depended were dying out, and European diseases had decimated their populations. The whiskey post at Fort Whoop-up was another in a long list of disasters.

The newly constituted North West Mounted Police force was dispatched on horseback in 1873. After an arduous journey, they arrived the following year. The fort they built was named after the Assistant Commissioner, James Macleod. Their assignment was to establish law and order, gain the trust of native people, and enforce a prohibition on alcohol. They were also asked to collect customs dues, to prove Canada owned the territory. 

At Fort Macleod, the first "redcoats" carried out their riding demonstration in 1876. Now known as the RCMP Musical ride, this well-known Canadian ceremony can be witnessed daily in its birthplace at the Fort between July 1 and Labour Day. (Photo: Parks Canada). 

In a 1969 broadcast, a 109-year old veteran recalled his life with the early NWMP. The interview is available on CBC (digital archives). 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

Image from rankopedia

The Chivers Audiobook I listened to was copyrighted in 1981, the same year Ian McEwan's second novel, The Comfort of Strangers, came out in book form.

As McEwan said when he spoke in Vancouver at the invitation of the Vancouver Writers' Fest in 2010, he intentionally set out to push the boundaries of the novel beyond the predictable and expected format.

He certainly did that with this novel, venturing into the territory just beyond the map of normality into the edge of the violence that accompanies sexual obsession, and probing the psychology of those who enjoy it.

Opening scene: a young couple on a romantic holiday in an exotic foreign city. The suspense begins when lovers Mary and Colin venture out after dark mapless, in search of a restaurant.

The moment an overly polite stranger called Robert grasps the wrist of Colin to lead the vulnerable tourists to what turns out to be his bar, he begins to draw them into his orbit. They drink with Robert for most of the night while he tells them stories of his ghastly childhood as the son of an oppressive and dominant diplomat father.

The novel, told mainly from the point of view of Mary, moves forward with slow inevitability. Mary and Colin have chance after chance to pull away from the unhealthy atmosphere of their self-appointed guide and his strange wife.

Yet in spite of increasingly dramatic warning signs that something is seriously wrong about Robert and Caroline, the holiday couple tacitly agree to let these peculiar strangers reel them in.

The scene where Mary swims far out into the sea and Colin follows in a panic is brilliantly executed, as is the unspoken agreement between the two to get off the ferry at a place where they are likely to encounter their alluring tormentors again.

Even though the plot has a certain inevitability, the end is a shock when it comes. McEwan's flawless prose points to the darker aspects of human nature, the primitive association of danger with sexual excitement.

By no means a pleasant story, this is still a fascinating tale that evokes a shudder of recognition: one of the things humans do is to seek out the thrill of danger, often with disastrous results.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Louis Riel

Photo: Toronto Public Library

Orator, revolutionary and author, Riel remains ambiguous in Canadian history. To some, he is heroic; to others, traitorous.

The Manitoba Act was passed in 1870, providing for about one and a half million acres of land to be used by the Metis.

The previous year, as the North-west territory was being handed over from the Hudsons Bay Company to the two-year-old nation of Canada, the Metis, led by Louis Riel, stopped the surveyors from working and seized Fort Garry (site of modern Winnipeg.)

They issued a declaration of the people, set up a provisional government with Riel as its head, and imprisoned a group of Canadians who had organized armed resistance. In Ottawa, the delegation arranged for the Red River Colony to enter Confederation.

In this first Northwest Rebellion, the Catholic Metis used their new provisional government to execute surveyor Thomas Scott, who had mustered Scottish Protestant settlers to fight Riel's people.

The two groups had very different lifestyles. The Roman Catholic Metis, who were descended from French settlers and aboriginal people, followed the buffalo for part of the year, while the Scottish settlers of the Red River Colony were Protestant farmers who wanted to fence their lands. Meanwhile, the buffalo were being decimated, threatening the livelihood of local tribes as well as the Metis.

In the summer of 1870, the government sent a military expedition, a "mission of peace" to the Red River Colony. Riel, who had been denounced in Ontario as a murderer, now had a $5000 price on his head and he went into temporary exile in the U.S.   

In 1873 and 1874, Riel was elected by his people and went to Ottawa; however, the anti-Catholic Orangeman Mackenzie Bowell, who later became Prime Minister, raised a motion to have him removed from the House. Though Riel was re-elected, he did not attempt to take his seat in Ottawa again.

Riel, who had become a kind of visionary demagogue, led a second rebellion in 1885. However, the now completed railway and the newly formed Royal North West Mounted Police meant it was easy for the government to suppress this opposition in the formerly isolated and inaccessible West.

The fighting lasted only two months before the final defeat at Batoche, and Riel was tried for treason in Regina and hanged. He has remained a divisive and controversial figure in Canadian history, representing historical and cultural divides between Catholic and Protestant, French and English, European and Aborignal. 

In 1971, to celebrate Manitoba's centenary, a monument to Louis Riel was erected in front of the Legislature. Canadian author Joseph Boyden discusses Riel's history in detail here.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chief Piapot

Photo: Office of the Treaty Commissioner

Piapot was born of Cree and Assiniboine parentage in Saskatchewan in 1816. Both parents died of smallpox when he was young, and he lived among the Sioux with his grandmother until age 14, when a Cree war party freed them.

At age twenty-four, he became a chief and led the Cree into battle against the Blackfoot near Fort Whoop-up.

Even so, he believed in negotiating peacefully. Chief Piapot was a signatory to Treaty 5 and became known as a moderate voice. In 1875, he gave conditional approval to Treaty 4 provided that an economic base be provided for the Cree people. Although these promises were not fulfilled, like Chief Crowfoot, Piapot declined to involve his people in the North-West Rebellion of 1885.

Hunters of the buffalo, Piapot and his people resented the Hudson's Bay Company and the Canadian government for taking over the prairies.

In a non-violent protest against the incursion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, he and his people pulled up survey stakes and pitched tipis in the path of the railway workers. This protest ended when Piapot got travel concessions for his people. The town of Piapot, in the Cypress Hills of south western Saskatchewan, is named after him.

Piapot also resisted government efforts to suppress native culture and religion. He continued to hold sun dances even after they were made illegal. Although he commanded great respect among his own people, when he died in 1902, the Indian Affairs Department was in the process of trying to have him deposed as Chief.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Chief Crowfoot

Photo: Native Leaders of Canada

Also known as Isapo-Muxica, Chief Crowfoot was born in 1830 to the Blood Tribe near Belly River. He grew up among the Blackfoot and eventually became a respected chief. 

Though he fought in various tribal wars, Crowfoot made peace with the Cree and rescued missionary Father Albert Lacombe from a Cree raid.

He also welcomed the North-West Mounted Police when they arrived in southern Alberta to stamp out the whiskey trade which was doing so much harm to aboriginal people.

In his personal life, Crowfoot lost and grieved for many children. He also adopted Poundmaker, who became a great chief when he grew up.

In 1877, he took part in negotiations for Treaty 7, and in 1881 the Blackfoot people settled on their reserve. Though he was disillusioned by the government's actions afterwards, Chief Crowfoot wisely kept his people out of the North-West Rebellion of 1885.

In 1886 he was invited to Ottawa by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, but was unable to complete the journey due to ill-health. He died in 1890 near Blackfoot Crossing.

An orator and visionary as well as a diplomat and politician, he commented as an old man on the transience of life, calling it "the flash of a firefly in the night...the breath of a buffalo in the winter time" (Canadian Encyclopedia).

Friday, October 19, 2012

Nuruddin Farah speaks at World Lit SFU

Image from Goodreads

The Westminster Savings Lecture Theatre was packed tonight when Somali-born author Nuruddin Farah visited Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus yesterday to read to students and members of the public from his latest book, Crossbones. I glimpsed Anosh Irani, sitting in the front row.

Farah is a small and soft-spoken man, and at first the crowd, many of them young students, seemed hesitant, unresponsive to his humour. The audience was rapt when Farah read his opening scene, an encounter between a woman in a "body tent" and an illiterate teenage military recruit in Ray Bans and a baseball cap. The novel takes place in Mogadishu, Somalia.

After this reading, he took a sip of water and looked at the MC. "Shall I go on? What is the protocol?" Signalled to continue, he delivered his formal address, entitled "Green in the Salad of My Judgment."

In this personal essay, Farah spoke of his life as the fourth of eleven children in post-colonial Somalia. He related the trouble he got into with his first paid work as a writer. He was ten years old when, hired to write a letter for an illiterate adult, he deviated from the words the client dictated, with dramatic results.

He described being made to recite the Koran in Arabic in school though he understood it imperfectly, and he related an ironic situation in which he was accidentally offered hospitality meant for a devout Muslim Arab, and not a Somali with an Arabic name.

For his publications, works of fiction, Farah has been subjected to death threats, and exiled from his home country for over twenty-five years.

It was during the question period that the audience fully warmed to this remarkable man. In response to several queries, he expressed firm views and answered questions by telling more stories. A self-described secularist, he nonetheless believes that we are put on earth for a reason, in his case, to write.

It is a poignant reality that most of his Somali contemporaries are now dead. Some fell victim to the violence that rocked the country, while others died of preventible diseases for the lack of a simple vaccination. Thus, Farah meditates on why has he been spared.

It is in the nature of writers, he said, to take the side of justice, and writing a novel is a democratic act. He praised master writer Italo Calvino, who "could imagine a world greater than Italy." Really good stories, Farah said, could have happened anywhere.

This unassuming man, now in his mid-sixties, speaks Somali, Arabic, Amharic and English. He has published many novels and won numerous literary prizes. He has even published a re-write of the ancient Greek drama Antigone; his version features a suicide bomber. He lives in Cape Town and teaches for part of the year at at the University of Minnesota.

Kudos to SFU World Literature Program for bringing Nuruddin Farah to a Vancouver audience for the first time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky

Image from amazon

Like Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky's brilliantly executed novel Fire in the Blood bears witness to the culture of an insular segment of French society in the years before World War II. Published in 2007, it was widely reviewed.

The reader, Mark Bramhall, inhabits the character of Uncle Silvio with flawless precision as he unfolds this tale of family secrets, lies, and hidden passions. Silvio is old; in his youth he travelled to exotic places and wasted his fortune. Now he has turned his back on the memory of his early years. Yet when he is forced once more to witness the violence aroused by passion, Silvio is forced to thaw his frozen emotions and recall a past when he too harboured "fire in the blood."

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903 but at the time of the Russian Revolution, her family left for Paris and settled in France.

Nemirovsky was a successful writer long before WWII. She published a novel called David Golder in 1935, and penned many short stories and novels that bear historical witness to the world she inhabited before her tragic early death in Auschwitz in 1942.

The story of how her later novels survived is almost miraculous. Foreseeing the possibility of being taken to the camps, Nemirovsky and her husband David Epstein arranged with friends and publishers for the protection and education of their children in case they did not survive the war. Although they both died in the camps, a trunk containing the manuscript of Suite Francaise and other papers escaped German-occupied France along with Nemirovsky's two young daughters. Of the the planned suite of five novels, only two were complete, with notes made for the rest.  

Suite Francaise was published in 2006 after Denise and Elizabeth rediscovered it, nearly sixty years after they were spirited out of German-occupied France. In 2010, a life of Nemirovsky was published by two French biographers.

The Museum of Jewish History in New York created an exhibition about this remarkable Woman of Letters.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Calgary Herald alive and well but for how long?

At a gas station in Bragg Creek, I bought a copy of the Calgary Herald and threw it on the front seat of the car before heading into the Rockies. The first incarnation of that paper came out as a weekly in 1883. Of course, today it is also available in digital format.

Several hours later, when I flopped exhausted on a motel bed in Revelstoke after driving through two high Rocky Mountain passes, I was delighted to note the healthy condition of this historic paper. Along with news, it has lots of comics, crosswords, and book reviews.

The Calgary Herald is a survivor, as traditional newspapers fade into the past in our era of ubiquitous internet access and burgeoning numbers of smart phones. Propping myself on my pillows with the Herald spread out before me felt good. It was part of a long and comfortable tradition.

The Vancouver Sun is the hometown paper, and we still subscribe, even though it has grown thin, and even though as I travel to work, there are people in the train stations trying to give away both the Sun and the Province. Continuing to take the paper by subscription is our vote of support for professional journalists -- a dying breed, we sometimes fear. It's also a continuation of a long-held ritual: the morning paper and coffee.

The newspapers of Canadian cities have long histories, but their lives are increasingly threatened. While visiting Edmonton, I learned that The Edmonton Journal has just gone through another round of layoffs and is down to a tiny staff. In fact, some of their writing is now done in the Philippines. This helps the publication to stay alive as the paper experiences ever smaller profit margins.

What will happen to Canada's historic papers when the baby boomers die out? Will long-established papers like The Montreal Gazette, The Ottawa Citizen, The Globe and Mail and the Regina Leader-Post  continue to publish paper editions?

Will The Telegram (St. John's) still be with us? This paper is very old: it began as the Evening Telegram in 1879 when Canada was only 12 years old and Newfoundland was still 70 years away from joining Confederation.

What will happen to Le Devoir, begun in 1910 by Henri Bourassa in Montreal? And what will be the future of The Winnipeg Free Press, established 1872, now that the meaning of free in its title has taken on a new shade?

Not so very long ago, there were hundreds of small newspapers in Canada, and almost as many owners. Now newspapers are owned by large conglomerates, and share a certain homogeneity. But that's already an old challenge. The current one is even more enormous.

When people no longer pay for papers, and advertisers turn to the internet, what will happen to journalists? Will aspiring writers still train in this field? Who will be the journalists of the future? Will they attempt to report the news in a balanced way? Will they follow a code of journalistic ethics? These are important questions.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Justified in my philosphy of anti-ismism

On Sunday while listening to Tapestry on CBC Radio, I was struck by the notion that atrocities done to others arise from and absolutely rely on a sense of moral certainty. So said Bertrand Russell. Producer Frank Faulk began the show with this idea that accounts for so much.

For instance, explains York University Professor of Moral Philosophy Susan Dimock, it tells us why in Canada's past native children were collected in residential schools and treated so badly. This was done not out of a monstrous desire to hurt and punish these children, but with a misguided sense of moral certainty that they must be reformed to the ways of church (and state) for their own good.

Humans commit atrocities only in seeking to ensure their own safety or to secure what they believe are the best interests of others who do not know what is good for them.

Economic or territorial ambitions, explains Professor Dimock, are insufficient causes for people to overcome their natural rapport and sympathy with others enough to allow them to commit atrocities. Those others must be dehumanized or demonized, and that takes moral certainty.

This idea has fascinating implications. For me personally, it reframes my own stance toward my longstanding lack of moral certainty. Far from marking me out as a wimpy waffler who refuses to commit fully to a single religion or set of principles, my openness and flexibility are positive traits.

The fact that I am unprepared to judge behaviour and people with a categorical certainty is a healthy indication that I make no hubristic claim of being in possession of the only truth. Anti-ismism. I support nothing that ends in ism. Ironically, I call myself an anti-ismist.

Viking ribstones re-visited

Photos: CT 2012

On my first visit in the summer of 2010, the Viking Ribstones lay quite undisturbed among the grass, as they had long lain.

A recent visit revealed the sad fact of vandalism. As well as removing the informational plaque from its stand, someone had tipped one of the stones out of its resting place and it lay exposed on the ground.

On the other hand, there was evidence of recent ceremonies: decorated bones and feathers lay near the stones, and coloured banners had been tied to the surrounding fence.

For many generations, these carved stones have been a place of pilgrimage, representing the Spirit of Old Man Buffalo.

Cree people and others come here to express their reverence and gratitude for the gifts of the natural world that sustains us all. As before, I saw offerings of small change and tobacco scattered around the place. When I put my hand in my pocket as protection against a bitter cold wind, I found a quarter. Pulling it out, I noticed the caribou image on its face, and added it to the other coins at the ribstones.

On this occasion, after a visit to Elk Island Park, I knew exactly what a bison looked like close up.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Chief Poundmaker

Photo: The Canada Site

Pitkwahanapiwiyin, also known as Poundmaker, was born in the Battleford area of Saskatchewan around  1842. His father was a Stoney shaman and his mother Metis. In 1873, he was adopted by Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot. He became a head man and spoke at the Treaty 6 negotiations at Fort Carlton, and later when the government failed to honour treaty promises.

The Blackfoot people sold rights to collect firewood, travel through, and even build forts on their territory. Yet for them, like for other first nations peoples, private land ownership made no sense. Given by the creator, the land was meant to be shared.

At Cut Knife in 1882, Poundmaker and his band routed the Canadian militia. Yet this chief urged restraint upon his young warriors, and avoided a massacre like that of the Little Big Horn in the Montana territory in 1776.

Right: Painting of Chief Poundmaker by Edmund Morris, 1910, First Peoples of Canada

Poundmaker was one of the chiefs who negotiated Treaty 7 and eventually signed it, along with leaders of the Peigan, Blood, Sarcee and Stoney nations. According to First Peoples treaties, their willingness to make this treaty arose in part out of a sense of trust for the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, who, led by James McLeod, had kicked the American whiskey traders out of southern Alberta. The famine that followed the widespread slaughter of the buffalo and the fencing of the plains for settlers were additional motivators.

Like Big Bear, Chief Poundmaker was put on trial and sentenced after the Riel Rebellion and spent time in prison. He died in 1885 from a lung haemorrhage at age 45.

His name lives on in the Poundmaker Trail, now known as Highway 14.  In Saskatchewan, a Cree first nation and reserve bear his name. A film called The Trial of Poundmaker was made in 2002 by Gil Cardinal and the National Film Board of Canada.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Turnips and gingersnaps

 Photo: CT 2012

Along with the season of Thanksgiving, there is something about the light, or the smell in the air at this time of year that makes me want to cook and eat turnips. They can be a great addition to a nice turkey barley stew, or they can be boiled and prepared as a simple mash, either with butter, salt and pepper, or boiled with green apples and garnished with a touch of maple syrup. What could be more redolent of traditional Canadian fall fare?

Autumnal weather also urges me to bake. It's a bit early in the season for gingersnaps, which tend to appear closer to Christmas, or at least closer to Halloween, but when I saw my daughter's moose, bear and hedgehog cookie cutters, I was a goner. This year, my usual gingerbread dogs with sugar bead collars get a rest. We stopped making gingerbread men years ago -- eating them felt too cannibalistic.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Bison sanctuaries: Elk Island and Wood Buffalo National Parks

Photo by Chris Perkins

Elk Island Park began when five friends pooled their money to ensure a home for Alberta's elk.
Today, it's known as an "island" home for two large herds of bison. The Plains Bison live on the north side of the highway and the larger, heavier Wood Bison on the south. Like the Plains bull in the picture, bison graze along the park's roadways, unconcerned about who is watching them forage. When the herd grows too large for the range, the Park makes animals available to establish herds elsewhere.

There are plenty of hiking trails for visitors, who can see animals, beaver dams and enjoyable views of the park's many lakes. Several hundred moose also call the park home, along with numerous beavers. The descendants of the original elk are shy of humans and rarely show themselves.

Wood Buffalo National Park sustains a herd of 5000 wood bison. These are the largest mammals of North America, and the park is also Canada's largest. Totalling 44,807 square kilometers, it is bigger than Switzerland. Straddling northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories, and including the huge Peace-Athabasca delta, it is also home to a huge flock of whooping cranes and the world's largest beaver dam, which took forty years to build and is visible from outer space. Not surprisingly, Wood Buffalo Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Before Europeans came to North America, the prairie was thick with bison. According to Dale S. Lott, they probably numbered in the millions before the "Great Slaughter" that culminated in the late nineteenth century.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ancient symbols with us still

Photo: MobilLubeExpress

This ram's horned head is ubiquitous as the logo of the Dodge pickup truck. This symbol is not new. At the ancient Egyptian temple of Karnak, the Ram-headed Sphinx symbolizes the god Atun, as shown below (

According to Herodotus, the Scythian culture also held the ram in high esteem. As shown in the teaspoon below, it was supposed to symbolize prosperity and protection for its owners. (Bottom photo

The Scandinavian god Thor had rams to pull his chariot, and the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians also attributed symbolic meaning to the ram.This animal was represented in ancient Minoan and Mycenian art too. Today replicas of a Minoan ram sculpture (original dated circa 1500 BCE) are sold in the National Archeological Museum of Athens.

On the north door of the French Cathedral at Chartres, begun in the 1100s, the ram appears as a Christian symbol. A ram appeared in the thicket, caught by its horns, and thus provided a handy sacrifice after God had tested the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac when so commanded.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Many reasons for Thanksgiving gratitude

Photo: Sunday roast

For the first Thanksgiving in many years, I did not cook a turkey dinner. Instead I partook of a festive meal prepared by my daughter and her partner. Time passes, conditions change, customs evolve. There were no turnips at our table, but there were brussels sprouts.There was no stuffing, but there was gravy and Yorkshire pudding, even though the roast was lamb rather than beef. There were, of course, potatoes and carrots, both essential vegetables of the harvest season.

In the midst of our meal, cooking being done elsewhere in the building caused the firebell to ring. Fortunately, this led only to a brief alarm, until the cause was known and resolved.

Hearing the fire alarm and then discovering that all was well was also a salubrious reminder of how very much we have to be thankful for, starting with the basics: safe homes and food shared with those we love.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Chief Big Bear

Photo: Our Legacy

The Cree Chief Big Bear was born in 1825 near Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan in a time of great historic upheaval. His Cree name, Mistahimaskwa, name came from a vision of the venerated Bear Spirit. In French he was called Gros Ours.

In the 1860s, Hudson's Bay traders reported him as living near Forts Carlton and Pitt. In 1870, he was involved when the Cree fought the Blackfeet at Belly River, near present-day Lethbridge.

In the years following Confederation, the buffalo populations were dwindling, threatening the traditional livelihood of the plains people, including the Metis. In 1874 a Hudson's Bay trader was sent to the camp of Big Bear to distribute gifts of tobacco and tea and explain the coming of the Northwest Mounted Police, who were supposed to keep peace in the West.

Later the Lieutenant Governor came to negotiate Treaty 6 and found Big Bear disinclined to sign. He foresaw the coming calamity represented by the imminent demise of the buffalo, and knew that in this situation, the treaty money the government was offering would be of little use.

As conditions worsened in the 1880s, Big Bear determined to go to Ottawa. He travelled east with a band of 500 in 1884. They stopped at the camp of Poundmaker for a Thirst Dance, alternatively known as a Rain Dance. By then, the government had expressly forbidden such ceremonies. At this large gathering, hostilities broke out between a young warrior and a white farm instructor. Thanks to Big Bear and Leif Crozier of the Mounties, peace was maintained.

Big Bear's demands for his people were set out in speeches he made at Duck Lake and Fort Carlton the same year. Sadly, the government was not only unresponsive, but dismissive. A few months later, the NWMP under Crozier were routed at Duck Lake by the Metis. This was the beginning of long and difficult hostilities.

Big Bear tried to keep the peace and protect the interests of his people. Instead of espousing force, he employed wisdom and reason in his efforts to unite the Plains people and resist white control.

During the Riel Rebellion, he'd avoided taking part in the hostilities, but after Batoche, he was tried for treason in Regina, sentenced and imprisoned in Stony Mountain. As his health worsened, Crowfoot and others petitioned for his release, and he was allowed to leave the jail. By then his health was broken and the buffalo gone. Big Bear died on the Poundmaker Reserve in 1888.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Lynda Barry teaches creativity for writers

"Writing the Unthinkable." It was a thought-provoking title for Lynda Barry's workshop offered last weekend as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest.

Lynda talks about the different brain aspects she calls front of mind and back of mind, and teaches how to tap into the non-thinking side of the brain to promote creativity. Lynda herself is a cartoonist, a novelist and a teacher. As a presenter, she is sincere, engaging and hilarious.

Participants were given food for thought. We humans are changing our brains as we do less and less of such brain friendly activity as rhythmic movement and singing. Throughout history, every culture has sung and danced, but now, we believe creativity is owned by talented entertainers, so we suppress our individual creative gifts.

Lynda's creativity, though, is in full swing. This year she has made a coup in her inroads into academia. "I have wormed my way into the science department," she said. The University of Wisconsin at Madison didn't know where to offer her course. Last year it could be counted as an arts elective, or an English course. This year, it can also count as a science credit.

"Everybody should know this stuff," she said, as with a few tricks she got her audience writing short vignettes we didn't know we had in us.

Want to journal but don't have time? Try Linda's quick and easy version. The four-minute daily journal, she says, is a practice that promotes creativity. Check it out here. If you do it every day, Lynda promises, "you'll start to notice what you notice."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Buskers back at Broadway


Commercial-Broadway, I should say -- I still think of my transit station as Broadway, the old name I knew it by for so long.

The buskers are back. Monday I rode down the escalator to the sweet sad strains of Farewell to Nova Scotia. A tall thin fiddler was giving his music to the crowd. Today, a musician was playing an instrumental piece.

The 2010 Olympics put a damper on transit station busking, when some bureaucratic busybody decided that buskers had to audition and pay licencing fees. For a long time after that, I saw no buskers at all.

I've missed these musicians, and feel they should have the right to play in public places for tips. If they want to make music enough to stand in the cold and hope someone will throw in a coin, they should be allowed to. Music makes the commute so much more pleasant.

Welcome, Broadway buskers. Good to have you back.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

His Illegal Self, by Peter Carey

Photo: Peter Carey life

This is the amazing tale of a boy who is "accidentally" kidnapped. Anna Zenos, nicknamed Dial (for Dialectic) is an SDS operative who is taking the child from the custody of his grandma to his radically revolutionary parents when a violent explosion derails her plans. Now fugitives, the woman and child are on the run: from New York to Philly, from Seattle to Brisbane and beyond. On the way, Anna and the stolen child fall for one another.

Told by turns from the point of view of the brave and intelligent eight-year-old Che (or Jay, as his Park Avenue grandmother prefers to call him) and Anna, this novel places the reader (or listener) in the heart of sixties activism.

Anna's planned life has been interrupted by her revolutionary politics. Instead of becoming the Vassar prof she was meant to be, will she become the guardian of a child whose fate is determined by his birth into a particular place and time in history? And how is her fate tied to that of her Greek father, a revolutionary himself?

Brilliantly conceived and lushly executed, the book conjures up the era, the characters and the Australian landscape in a way that awakens the senses. The plot twists and turns to the very end. Will Che grow up in a remote hippie commune at Remus Creek, or will he return to the privileged American life that awaits him, the same one his mother so violently turned her back on? We're kept guessing until the very end.

Peter Carey was born in a small town in Australia in 1943 and moved to New York in 1990, where he continued to write novels. His other titles include Illywhacker (shortlisted for the Booker in 1985), Oscar and Lucinda (Man Booker Prize, 1988) and The True History of the Kelly Gang (2001).

His Illegal Self was published as a book by Knopf in 2008, and the audiobook, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, came out the same year.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A few good events for readers

This is a good week for readers to meet writers and hear their stories. Yesterday evening in Surrey, Anita Rau Badami read at Central Library.

This evening at VPL Central, MG Vassanji will be reading at 6:30 pm. Those unable to attend can hear him interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel on an archived CBC radio podcast: the Vassanji interview follows one with the British military historian John Keegan here.

Thursday at Cottage Bistro is the monthly TWS reading series. This month, writer Jane Silcott and poet Daniela Elza are featured, along with Esmeralda Cabral, who has just returned from the Disquiet Literary Program in Portugal, and several other readers. It promises to be a great evening.

On Wednesday, October 10, the well-known Canadian historian Daniel Francis will be talking at the monthly CAA meeting at the Alliance for Arts and Culture on Howe Street at 7 pm.

We're now on the run-up to the annual SIWC and the Vancouver Writers' Fest, so it's a great time for readers to get out and see the people whose work they love to read. Great days for the literary arts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Alexander Mackenzie


"Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand, seven hundred and ninety-three."

The inscription was painted in a mixture of vermilion, a natural pigment, and grease on a rock near Bella Bella.

Arriving at the Pacific Ocean was a triumph for this Scottish-born explorer. While others sought the elusive Northwest Passage to the orient through the Arctic Ocean, Mackenzie remained determined to find the "Western Sea." In 1793, with a North West Company partner and native guides, he achieved that ambition.

The English king, George III, knighted Mackenzie, out of recognition that he was the first European explorer to reach the Pacific Ocean by an overland route -- at least the first one to do so north of Mexico.

By the time the Americans Lewis and Clark duplicated his feat in 1805, arriving at the Pacific near Portland, Oregon, our protagonist had been Sir Alexander Mackenzie for three years. The Mackenzie River and the town of Mackenzie, BC, bear his name. Several schools have also been named after him, in Vancouver and  Hagensborg, BC, and Cochrane, Alberta. Sir Alexander Mackenzie School in Inuvik, which opened in 1959, closed this past June, along with another school named after explorer and naturalist Samuel Hearne. The two will be replaced by a larger, more modern facility.

Alexander Mackenzie was also the name of Canada's second Prime Minister, a Liberal, but that Mackenzie was not born until 1822, long after our fur-trading explorer had accomplished his most memorable feats. His memory continues to be honoured by BC Grizzly Tours.

Photo: Mackenzie's inscription, from Beyond the map.