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Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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Hell is Other People

Johanna Skibsrud, Helen Oyeyemi, Miriam Toews, Hosted by Michael Blouin

Sunday, October 23, 2011


The crowd was near capacity in the church’s main hall—an ominous sign given the title of the evening’s event.  Helen Oyeyemi didn’t help matters by beginning her reading with a grisly Old English fairy tale involving a stack of bloodied bodies, leaving audience members exchanging nervous glances.  As the reader-writers went on, however, their accounts of communication braved in spite of obstacles—from the fallout from severed relations to the barrier of language—took us away from tortured images of isolation. 


Oyeyemi moved from the fairy tale, a source narrative for her recent novel Mr. Fox , to a feisty epistolary exchange between writers that had showed their tender awkwardness.  Miriam Toews vigorously read a portion of Irma Voth where a passage is negotiated from an airport layover to the beach, revealing the vulnerability and resilience of her characters with touches of wicked humour.  Johanna Skibsrud then read an entire short story from her recent collection This Will Be Difficult to Explain where two characters persist in confronting “a mutual understanding of the perfect falsity of language.”


Michael Blouin was the host, and he kept his questions both thoughtful and crisp.  While interviewers who also happen to be writers can be obtrusive in speaking of their own work, Blouin showed humility and skill in how he kept the feature on the evening’s guests.  A few questions were somewhat predictable, although they had the virtue of allowing the writers maximal freedom in their response.  In other instances he nicely sidestepped the usual suspect to take an unexpected angle on a familiar question.  Rather than ask why they each became a writer, for instance, he asked instead why they continued writing.  The question surprised Oyeyemi such that she told him he’d have to come back to her as she really didn’t know.


Blouin was not the only one asking questions tonight, though.  After Toews responded to the first question on planning conflict between her characters, Oyeyemi quickly followed up by asking her, “do you like writing fights?”  Her vivacious curiosity extended to the interviewer himself at one point when she asked him if he missed his characters when he was done with them.  Blouin’s grace as an interviewer and Oyeyemi’s unpretentious eagerness to learn her fellow writers went a long way in leaving behind Sartre’s dark observation on the company of others. 


Later, Blouin observed the obvious commonality of the three writers’ recent works: they had each written about the process of telling stories.  Skibsrud referenced her collection’s title, stating that they shared an interest in what it took to overcome the limits of communication.  Her act of writing was itself a way “to confront that limit and overcome it through text.”  Proving her desire, she took a step back and confessed to sounding too “academic” just then.  Although having used an extended Roland Barthes quote in her reading’s epigraph and having been introduced as currently pursuing a PhD along with her next creative project, she clearly sought to speak with broad intelligibility herself. 


Oyeyemi next filled in the vivid background to her recent novel, speaking about the accumulation of news stories of women who had been murdered.  She recounted that she’d turned to fairy tales, reading them concurrently to try to find a way of responding to this harrowing reality.  It was the political interest of the Old English fairy tell she read at the outset, with its chilling depiction of Mr. Fox, that drew her to explore how language can be used to overwhelm and control another’s experience.  Hell indeed.


The authors were winsome and generously open about their writing processes—from preferred tools to eBook contracts.  When asked if writing required a touch of craziness, they nicely built on their colleagues’ answers.  Skibsrud began by talking about how “not being able to shut up” showed a certain delusion of the effectiveness of the craft in bringing about change.  Toews responded that a writer couldn’t really be crazy with the tremendous discipline involved, to which Oyeyemi suggested that the discipline itself could be a kind of mania.  Yes and no, in other words.


While the exchange was generally warm and open, Blouin himself met the limits of communication when he started angling for a preview of upcoming work.  Oyeyemi only revealed that hers was “a novel about disappointment.”  Toews: “about three women.” 


It took until the penultimate question from the crowd that a woman finally asked about Sartre’s statement on the infernal character of relationships.  At this point I, and I suspect the better part of the room, had forgotten the event’s stark title in relation to this friendly exchange.  Toews linked it to a question of Dorothy Parker’s—“what fresh hell is this?”—that she recalls being particularly useful in having kids around.  Skibsrud admitted the difficulty in people coming together, but affirmed the potential for “intense and meaningful understanding.”  Oyeyemi spoke about her novel as essentially a love story for the socially awkward, a call to arms that the attempt is worth it.  With that, these three skilled authors affirmed our deep-seated and persistent relational nature, consequent pains be damned. 


In A World Gone Mad: Writing the Canadian film

This past Friday afternoon at the Knox Presbyterian Church, a hungry lunchtime audience gathered, paper bags and sandwiches in hand, as Tony Burgess , Kenneth J. Harvey and host Martin Levin took to the stage. What happened next left me fascinated as these two writers presented different pictures of the screen writing experience, and yet concluded on a shared idea that calls out for more Canadian content in our national theatres.


Tony Burgess is the author of several works including The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, and Caesarea, while Kenneth J. Harvey lists his bestsellers as Blackstrap’s Hawco, Inside, and The Town That Forgot How to Breathe, and has been promoting his latest work Reinventing the Rose. They are both men of significant novel-writing success, yet have had strikingly different experiences while writing for the screen.


Tony Burgess, chewing gum and cracking jokes, launched into a brief 101 course on battling your way through a filming process. When approached to write the script for Pontypool , Burgess grabbed the opportunity despite his lack of knowledge in the film business. Suddenly he found himself transported to the world of commercial films, a place full of clashing egos and unwanted opinions. It was, in Burgess’ own words, “siege warfare.” He realized quite quickly that if he were to maintain any control over his own script (and remember, it’s a script deriving from his own novel too), it was necessary to fight.


“Never say I don’t know,” urges Burgess. Instead say, “No” to other people’s ideas as a first defence against the power plays. As he continues to reflect, it feels as though we, the audience, are being given fighting tactics. Forget your quiet writing habits, if you want to write for the movies, you need to become a warrior. Bull-headedness appears essential when dealing with movie-making egos. It’s enough to ruin any writer’s appetite. (As I sit in the audience and peel into my tangerines, squirting juice across the chairs.)


Contrast this discussion with Kenneth J. Harvey, who arrives on stage and kicks off his portion of the event with a few Zen jokes: “If you lend someone $20 dollars and you never hear from them again, then it was probably worth the money.” Clearly, he’s setting a different tone for the audience.


Recently, Kenneth Harvey wrote a screenplay so his daughter would have the opportunity to act. I’m 14 and I hate the world is an international success. Unlike Burgess, Harvey pursued the independent film route with his screen-writing, applying for the First Time Film Makers grant and winning $45,000 toward the project. While he needed to arrange everything in terms of logistics and money, he maintained “absolute control of this film.” With his family and crew on set, everyone keen to give support, his impression of film-making collaboration is truly positive. For Harvey, stepping beyond the novel into screen writing was refreshing.


While these two men presented different pictures of what it’s like to write for the screen, they both agreed upon one vital point: The Canadian film industry if floundering. With all content pouring over from the USA, Canadian ‘blockbuster’ films (think Men with Brooms) are missing the mark. We shouldn’t be focusing on presenting our culture, but instead, we should focus on presenting an entertaining, universal story. But even further than this, even when a zombie movie is made that can certainly appeal to a wide audience, the screens aren’t available (theatres won’t play it) and the money can’t be gathered. Without the ‘screens’, say both Burgess and Harvey, investors simply aren’t interested in giving funds.


At this point, the tone became dark within the room. My stomach was rumbling (two tangerines does not make a lunch) and the future of Canadian entertainment seemed doomed. But then light broke forth as Kenneth Harvey suggested a solution. “If 10% of screens had to be Canadian films, so many jobs would be created. The government could pull financing, the industry would boom.” Much like Canadian content regulations, the same concept could be applied to theatres. But first policies would need change, and how is that going to happen in our commercial, power-playing world of big money entertainment?


It was a woman from the audience who suggested (urged, actually) a way to make change happen. She stood in her black and white tweed jacket, red leather gloves, and raised her hand as she shared her thoughts: “Write letters to the editor. You’ll get heard. Believe me, the government pays attention to that sort of thing.” She used to be a media analyst for Justice Canada, and last Friday repeatedly insisted that writing letters to the editor (not bothering with the MPs) is how change can happen.


And suddenly the obligation was turned upon us, the audience, and on you too, the reader. So what comes next? Well, if you’re so inclined, write a letter to your editor. And if you’d rather stick with less regulations, then don’t bother writing anything.


Last Friday was fascinating and insightful. From two contrasting opinions derived a corresponding problem about Canadian films, and with the help of an audience member, a possible course of action was presented. Who knows, maybe it was the start of a Canadian film-making revolution? Or maybe it was just the end of a good conversation. Either way, it was certainly worth my skipping lunch.  


Air Farce with Don Ferguson

Imagine you had a friend for most of your life-some 50 years and for 40 of those years you worked closely with the same friend. Your careers were largely on radio, television and stage. You decide, the two of you, to write the story of your time together but before it can be completed your friend becomes gravely ill and dies. Such is story behind the story of the recently published Air Farce, 40 Years of Flying By the Seat of our Pants. The friends are Don Ferguson and Roger Abbott , who were members of Air Farce, the comedy troupe that was a success on radio and then television in Canada for almost four decades.


Barbara Budd introduced Ferguson. Barbara is no stranger to those of us who listened to As It Happens on CBC Radio One during the 17 years she worked there. Barbara read a testimonial by Rick Mercer about the Air Farce. Barbara had been a guest star with Air Farce over the years and was able to add ‘colour commentary’ as well as interview Ferguson at the end of the reading.


Before Ferguson read from the book he told us of the saying “there is no better place to have fun on a rainy day than in a bookstore” and by extension, in Ottawa on a rainy day, there’s likely no better place to have fun than a Presbyterian Church (the location of the reading).


Ferguson and Abbott signed the contract to write the book in November 2010 and delivered the first “batch” in March 2011 just before Roger Abbott went to the hospital. Roger Abbott died later that month. Ferguson spoke about Abbott with great fondness and respect. Ultimately Ferguson had to finish the book and he said he decided to do it sooner rather than later and in some way felt that the writing helped in his grieving.


Ferguson read excerpts from the book to an appreciative audience. He knit the segments together starting from the earliest days of the Jest Society, through Air Farce on radio, Air Farce on television and up to the eventual loss of original members and replacement with new members. There are contributions from friends and collaborators in the book as well as from Ferguson and Abbott. When reading a segment contributed by his friend Roger Abbott, Ferguson’s emotions were close to the surface. It was a testimony to their partnership and friendship and the fact the book’s success belongs to them both.

The initial members of Air Farce were Roger Abbott, Don Ferguson, John Morgan, Luba Goy and Dave Broadfoot. We heard about the early years when times were lean and John Morgan became a partner in a pub back home in Wales. He made the investment as he thought the work at Air Farce would not provide a sustainable income. Abbott and Ferguson spent time at the pub. Abbott worked at the pub on occasion, waiting tables. And from that experience came the character, Pierre, waiter at the House of Commons.


Equally enjoyable were the stories of talented Luba Goy who was “lovely and late, always late”. She always had reasons-one was an account of how her cat ate her bird and all that was left was the head. The story goes on….you need to read the book to get the whole picture. On a personal note, Luba Goy was on the same train as me a number of years ago. She worked the car for most of the trip Ottawa to Toronto much to everyone’s delight. She may possess the best Donald Duck voice!


And finally Ferguson gave us the history of the TV segment known at The Chicken Cannon. It started as a casual conversation with the special effects people at CBC where they said they shot a rubber chicken across the shop every once in a while when they felt like letting off steam. And the rest, as they say, is history.


The interview portion of the reading was interesting. Budd asked how the troupe, with its very different characters and backgrounds and age differences was able to work together so well. Ferguson talked about how there were differences and someone was “always in the doghouse” but they worked through things and moved on.


Ferguson talked about the successes, the challenges, the good and not so good of working in the Air Farce collaboration for those many decades. That is what you will find in the book-along with a lot of great pictures. His presentation at the book reading was sincere; the interview with Budd was friendly and engaging. Ferguson was hoping to take questions from the audience but time ran out as another Writers Festival Event was setting up.


If you want an opportunity to get up close to people who have written or performed on the Canadian scene, the Ottawa International Writers Festival is the place to do it. A great venue and in this case to hear about the inner workings of the Air Farce that Ferguson said was once described as “brilliant political satire followed by a fart joke”.   


The Business of Invention

Poetry Cabaret with Dionne Brand and Patrick Lane, Hosted by Stephen Brockwell

Saturday, October 22 nd , 4 pm


Even at this stage in the careers of accomplished Canadian poets Dionne Brand and Patrick Lane, invention is no bare fiat. Their observations, both of our world’s brutalities and its finer gestures, must first be painstakingly gathered. Once their poems have been written, published, and set on the podium for a public reading; the process of observation continues. This was shown in Dionne Brand’s opening reading, where her introduction was tentative: “What can I tell you about this book? I really don’t know; I’m learning about this book.” After a long pause, she read the title of the poem she would be reading next—to herself as much as to us.


While she claimed to be about “the business of invention,” Brand made clear that this task set her in opposition to the general producer-consumer culture and its effects on language. “Ordinary speech is so collapsed,” she remarked, and a poem must take the opportunity to open language out, “undoing” it from imposed constraints. This was amply shown in her homage to four favourite jazz musicians and her regular unsettling of clichés, such as when she spoke of having “lived and loved” as a “common oxymoron.” Such liberating work required long and careful attention to both experience and the words we use. Describing herself as a “note-taker,” she spoke of her rapt attention to the world’s moment, even naming her own culpability in it.


Brand’s goal of “undoing” language was well matched in Lane’s own reading, beginning as it had with his well-known line that “a bird is a poem / that talks of the end of cages.” He introduced a later piece with a playful excursus on the unacknowledged pleasures of language. After several feigned attempts to mouth the next title, he imagined the first invention of the word “moth,” a term which in its primal nomination proved so obviously and joyfully apt.


Host and interviewer Stephen Brockwell contributed his characteristic enthusiasm for the craft as well as for these practitioners. There was certainly a good deal to engage here—selections from Lane’s prodigious output had been gathered in the recent publication of Witness: Selected Poems 1962-2010, and Toronto Poet Laureate Brand’s Ossuaries was recently awarded the Griffin Prize. Brockwell’s introductions made clear his appreciation for their work, and his questions always showed thoughtful familiarity, both as a fan and a fellow writer.


While Brockwell’s observations about the poets’ work were well informed, I thought that occasionally his opinions about the trajectory of their work led his questions too much. His instigating characterizations of the “smoothing” of Lane’s later voice or Brand’s growing “coolness” would, I feel, be better left to the poet’s own descriptions or displayed in the works themselves. While the tone of both poets may have changed, it became clear that their earlier “rage” was still readily externalized. As one example among many, Lane ended the session with reference to “one last anger”—in this case, the lack of mention of the toll on non-human life in Japan’s tsunami. That being said, I very much appreciated Brockwell’s agility as an interviewer, such as when a comment of Lane’s evoked his skillful recounting of a Robert Pinsky improvisation at the last festival. He also had several memorable phrasings, such as when he reflected back the poets’ comments about how they navigated between intention and invention.


One significant highlight from the interview came when the poets were asked about how they related to their personal and cultural “demons.” Lane began by describing the blessing and curse of growing up in the Interior (of British Columbia, a reference coupled with a call for easterners to visit the west of their country rather than opting for New York or Europe) and the violent men he’d observed. He went on to speak of how difficult stories stay with us, such as those carried by an acquaintance who had come from the Horn of Africa having witnessed ten thousand people die. With that, he broke into this disturbing verse:


Because I never learned how

to be gentle and the country

I live in was hard with dead

animals and men I didn’t question

my father when he told me

to step on the kitten’s head

after the bus had run over its hindquarters.


When he ended the ensuing stanza with a glimpse of “the small of Dad’s back / as he walked tall away,” he’d left the audience transfixed. It was a powerful turn, and as they returned to conversation I wondered from then on why the interview segment wasn’t interspersed with more poetry. The readings are properly set apart to open these cabarets, which was made clear by the powerful extended reading Lane had given on memories of the war, compelling a spontaneous eruption of applause from the crowd. Still, what would it look like to intersperse the interview itself with readings—or, better, impromptu recitals—related to certain questions? There clearly were ample references to other poets or to Lane and Brand’s own bodies of work to warrant it.


In their descriptions, both poets showed the elaboration, the sheer work, that their writing required. Lane vividly rendered his early attempt as a wordsmith when he tried to get some thirty-five words to “obey” him (as they seemed to obey Shelley or Keats) only to find them acting as “unruly servants.” His life’s memories proved no more tractable, it turned out, when in his sixties he turned to the work of his autobiography. Although he had earlier described poets as a culture’s memory-keepers (or computer “memory sticks” in his crude analogy), he found his own life’s events elusive. Committed to recalling one event for each of his sixty years, he realized that there were some years where he couldn’t, incredulously, remember a single event. So, true to form, he invented something.


Asked about the interrogating element of his creative process, Lane commented that it didn’t extend to struggle with his work’s meaning. “Words will find their way,” he said with the confidence of a veteran craftsman, however ordinary or ridiculous their object. With that, he took an imaginative excursion to another originary moment. Previously he had recalled the Adamic coinage of a creature’s name, but here Lane recalled when the most common of kitchen implements was first fashioned. As he enthusiastically recounted how it must have taken place it was clear that in both poets’ work the business of invention continues in fine form.   


Saving Room with Adrienne Clarkson

The evening started with the recurring yet enduringly moving tribute to a dissident writer – whose photograph, mounted on a frame lay still and intact on an otherwise empty chair – by Andrew Cohen on behalf of PEN Canada. The ever-active Adrienne Clarkson had written another book, and on this last pre-festival event before the flood (which is the upcoming fall edition of the festival).


 I had the chance to speak briefly before Mr. Cohen about Adrienne Clarkson’s impact on me. I have read both her memoir Heart Matters and her biography of Norman Bethune; both beguiling and personalised works. I like her. Which is why there was a tinge of disappointment in what I felt. Despite cogent points and interesting narratives, a certain blandness persisted when it came to the discussion of identity, immigration and citizenship.


Ms. Clarkson is accomplished by almost anyone’s standards. There was ringing praise about her unique trajectory which caused her to search out and present a selection of similar paths taken by fellow sojourners in Canada. The result is the profile of eight prominent Canadians who have more than climbed atop the pole; grease notwithstanding. Her criterion seemed to be those who ended up in Canada by fate: thrust out by dispossession and loss. One can certainly agree that this is the script of many new Canadians, particularly refugees. Yet this also excludes the greater number of economic migrants who desired and endeavoured to arrive in Canada, met the criteria of the ‘points system’, waited however long it took and made their way. In the same way that business class investors, also claim their place by choosing to put their money where their person hopes to be. These people will certainly not wish to be nor consider themselves to be “losers”. It is true that historically Canada was not the play-field of the privileged, that it gave many who had nothing except potential to actualize it. However, these weren’t the sole actors occupying the stage. A more nuanced perspective of the actual role of “elites” with backing from the mother country could have distended the storyline.


It was heartening to hear Ms. Clarkson offer a paean to both families and public schools as the pillars of success. The egalitarian model which public schools served which then propelled the talented and industrious, seems muted to a contemporary casual observer of public schools today. A call for strengthening the system which seems beset with eroding standards and lack of results, apparent.


“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent,” said Carl Jung, whom Ms. Clarkson quoted. The sense of expectation in parallel with fierce, unwavering parental support is what buoys many an immigrant (or professional athletes in sports such as golf and tennis where skill – acquired only through early and expensive training – take precedence over sheer athleticism). While this debate on parenting style has been set afire last year with Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, there is no question that parenting itself plays a primary role in an individual’s success. Ms. Clarkson drew attention to the renewal of community and family as key lessons immigrants have to teach Canadians.


The success of Ismaili-Canadians were deserving of special mention – Naheed Nenshi, the intrepid mayor of Calgary and Nadir Mohamed, the CEO of Rogers Communications both being featured in Room For All Of Us.


Canadians have a reputation for possessing an air of dignified modesty, yet it breeds a strange and not all too unfamiliar sense of smugness especially when making comparisons vis-à-vis our American counterparts. For instance, Canada has been touted as having the highest citizenship uptake in the world, at 80%. On the surface, this is marvellous. But questions abound as to how many stay and contribute after acquiring said citizenship. This was brought to the fore when the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006 lead to the (re)prominence of the term “citizens of convenience” when many Canadian citizens residing in Lebanon seemed to not have any real ties to Canada apart from their documents. The aforementioned demographic would an interesting statistic to consider. Moreover, the anecdotes of frustrated immigrants choosing to leave Canada after not being able to find an occupation in their field, doesn’t embellish the picture. It’s more important to consider not how many people become citizens, but rather what happens to them after they do. Racism is also seen as of different notes in Canada while being more of a primarily black and white issue in America due to their heavier burden of slavery. Yet this does disservice to the gradations of variety, even in the spices of racism in America. The discrimination of the Irish (and Catholics by extension), Italian and eastern Europeans in the early twentieth century and Latinos today indicate a complex racial jungle inhabited by the Americans as much as Canada ever has.


Ms. Clarkson’s exhortation to “not forget where we come from” is a sincere reminder to not relinquish our generosity and it is a point noted. As a new Canadian myself, insisting that “we’re all immigrants...except for the Aboriginal peoples” by extension, muddles the contemporary challenges facing identity in that it implicitly implies there is no such thing as a Canadian since even generations of presence in this country still means that one in an immigrant in perpetuity since somebody, somewhere got here from somewhere else. If one extrapolates this notion then no one could ever become a Canadian. If Ms. Clarkson simply wants to revive empathy for newcomers, there are other avenues to do this effectively than to flag the flimsy trope that “we’re all immigrants”.


A sense of weariness seems to have befallen Europe with its own experiment with multi-culturalism with several of its leaders, most notable British PM David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel describing it as a “failure”. Ms. Clarkson clearly miffed at this supposed eye-roll inducing notion, declared “they (Europeans) don’t know what it (multi-culturalism) means!” It would be beyond the scope of this blog post to detail the changes, concerns and standings of minorities in the Old World. But this castigation is less than fair. Ms. Clarkson has no qualms with having a Citizenship Exam and imparting Canadian values of parliamentary democracy, freedom of association, religion and the legal system (values, ironically we inherited from Europe – although John Ralston Saul in his A Fair Country persuasively argues that Aboriginal culture’s influence on these very European ideals finally shaped the distinct Canadian one). In this case, there is a sense of wanting to ensure that immigrants can “integrate” (that lifeless word again) but that can only happen if there is a distinct value system to partake in at all. The lack of civic literacy is an issue which plagues the population at large – perhaps new Canadians can remind older ones of their need to remember both their history and values, if only to be able to tell it back to them.


Stories resonate with us as few other modes of literature do. The profiles are sure to be engaging and a valid testimony to the various lives it witnesses to, as well as countless others which it doesn’t feature. Ms. Clarkson’s message of inclusion, that “no one is more human than anyone else” has a spiritual depth and origin which resonates. A caveat emptor acknowledging that the book and message stand well on its own merit; that simply stretching it to make wide-ranging pronouncements become problematic, needs to be understood. This would be a wonderful place for a perspective of the life, times, trials and triumphs of immigrants to start, but it should not and cannot be where it ends.

Chris Turner's The Leap


The thought of jumping from one speeding train onto another is not something on my bucket list.  Yet, this is the central metaphor that Chris Turner is using in his new book The Leap.  This is hardly something easy to encourage everyone to do, but that’s what Turner is hoping – that we all will make a leap.  Perhaps, it’s overly dramatic, but he does make his case that the direction our current society is going is questionable; and for many, it looks like we are headed for a cliff.  So what is this other train we are to jump onto?  It’s the sustainability train. 


Turner starts this book with a critical analysis of what he feels are the three biggest issues facing humanity now: economic collapse, energy scarcity, and climate change.  While the book contains the usual apocalyptic visions if we don’t change how we deal with these three issues, that’s not definitive of what this book is about.  Fundamentally this is a book about sustainability in its truest sense – a situation that can maintain itself indefinitely.  I’m a big fan of the ideas shared in this book, and have read about many of them previously.  To be honest, I’m a cheerleader for sustainability.  What I think is original about The Leap is that Turner is making an economic case for sustainability.  In many senses the message of this book is this: sustainability is far better than anything we have now regardless of the environmental benefits that would come as a consequence.  Moreover, he does a good job when he isn’t in environmental evangelism mode.  Thankfully this language is limited in The Leap.  It’s the use of this evangelistic language that I worry which could be a barrier for those who need to hear about these ideas.


Turner spends a considerable amount of time talking about energy, the policy surrounding it, the way we generate it, and the way we use it.  Rightfully so, as it is what drives the modern economy.  In many senses, it’s the track underneath the train.  Turner does a good analysis of why certain policies that are in use in Canada and the US are limiting the growth of renewable energy generation, and why in Germany and Denmark they are succeeding to a point that they have become integral to the growth of these economies. Turner makes a great case for the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) model, and how it’s been central to the growth of the renewable energy industry in Germany.  Case-in-point, the FIT effectively is a user pays model, such that the average user pays an extra 50€ per year, but Germany now produces 20% of its energy from renewables and is on track to generate 35% of its energy needs by 2020.  The jobs that have been created from this industry have made whole-scale change in the unemployment situation in the Former East Germany, generating 300,000 jobs in this sector alone.  The solar industry in Germany generated revenues of more than $13 billion dollars in 2009.  Germany is not a particularly sunny country, but the Feed-in-Tariff has transformed the nation. It’s not just this piece of legislation, but the fact that the whole country has had a mind-set change to see a new model for power generation. 


This book is about success stories, and I appreciate that.  They are good stories, and hopeful ones.  But as I was reading, I was thinking about some failures in the sustainability game.  Not too long ago, I read about some of the policies that Brazil is trying to implement.  Most notably, Brazil has implemented a “car-free day” policy that requires people who own cars to not use them one day a week.  The side-effect of this policy is that it has just encouraged people to go out a buy a second car so they can continue to drive[i].  In The Leap, Turner makes the point that for the world to make the leap to a sustainable engine, it’s not about technology or legislation, but it’s about a change in mind-set.  To use his language, it’s not about a disruptive technology, but a disruptive technique.  Here, Turner is describing “a fundamental shift in point of view” that allows everyone to see what is trying to be accomplished, so that everyone buys in and don’t just think that they are losing out.   


The Leap contains plenty of anecdotes (some historical) to show how a “leap” of this scale is made, and many that are in progress now: showing how businesses like Wal-Mart get it, countries like Denmark and Germany get it, and even some communities in the US get it.  I like that The Leap is not a prescription.  While there are some things that work, Turner isn’t trying to suggest that every city try to become Copenhagen or Melbourne.  There are elements of these cities that everyone should emulate, but they aren’t specifically the cycling infrastructure, or the laneways. Speaking of Copenhagen, Turner states: “Copenhagen is not perfection, not some tidily packaged finished product of flawless city living, because sustainability is a process of change and adaptation, not a destination.”   I like this approach to sustainability because it can be a conversation about what we are trying to accomplish, not a fixed way of doing things.  For every example in The Leap, Turner makes an effort to look at the underlying reasoning so that the reader can take away the good and apply it to their own situation. 


I enjoyed reading this book, but it’s not without its flaws.  Turner is no Annie Dillard, and the language in it is forced at times (I understand his use of “FAIL”, but it really made that section feel more like a blog post than a book).  However, these ideas shared in the book are still great.  It’s the kind of book I wish could be required reading for everyone in politics, and the public service, because more people need to see alternative options to current policy.  In the wake of Steve Jobs’ death, The New York Times had a great post that I think connects well to The Leap.  In the article, Jobs is quoted to have said “it’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want”[ii].  The same can be said of cities, and economic policies – people know at a high level what they want, but don’t expect the most voters to understand the intricacies of the carbon pricing, or energy policy.  “Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer; he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand a specific solution just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk.  This is what’s commonly known as leading.”[iii]  After reading The Leap, it will guide those in the position to make decisions to understand what technology and new thinking can do to solve the problems we are facing in modern society.  Then it will just be up to them to lead as we take the Leap.



[iii] ibid.

Guitarist, songwriter, performer and producer treats fans to an evening of music and stories



By Jean P. Labelle


I first heard of Randy Bachman when he was with the Canadian rock group Bachman-Turner Overdrive, better known as BTO back in 1974.


With hits such as "Takin' Care of Business", "Roll on Down the Highway", and "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet", the group and Randy, would be forever remembered by the kids of that generation as one of Canada's musical legends.


Fast forward 37 years and I find myself in the company of Randy Bachman and about a hundred other fans at the Southminster United Church in Old Ottawa South.


For the past few years, Randy has been hosting a radio show called "Vinyl Tap" on CBC Radio to play his favourite songs and tell stories from his life on the road and in the studio.


He has now released a book containing many of these stories and took the stage last night to share some of them with us.

Randy seems to have an endless pool of material and the man is a fantastic raconteur!


Tales of his travels, how his songs came to be, dropping names of some of the greatest rock-and-roll stars of the world; all told in full colour and humour to spare kept us all rapt, keen and hanging on every word.


He is the type of person that you could imagine yourself sitting in the pub with over a few cold ones and just be mesmerized for hours on end by his stories. One interesting fact that I did not know was that Randy has never smoked, drank alcohol or taken drugs of any sort - definitely not the picture you may have of your typical rock and roll star. So Randy, if we ever do end up in that pub one day, I'll buy you endless glasses of Ginger Ale or Cola!


Of course Randy had his guitar with him and he demonstrated how some of his greatest hits came to be by showing us the initial chord progressions and even a song that came to be by simply tuning his guitar.


It was a great night and I enjoyed myself immensely as I'm sure everyone else did.


You can catch Randy on the CBC here:


And be sure to be on the lookout for his book:




Truth-telling in Layers: An evening with Kevin O’Leary

The Scene

Kevin O’Leary’s cultural currency (pun intended) is such that the NAC’s Panorama Room was abuzz with eager business students and their older evolutions, as well as those of the type whose curiosity would lead them to visit a zoo. Like him or not, his message resonates. His candour which you think should emanate that overdone after-shave scent, instead refreshes like a Gatorade shower. O’Leary was in the house promoting his recently released book ‘Cold Hard Truth’; part-memoir, all-polemic.


The Revolution, Televised

 While much has been said about his built-from-scratch development of The Learning Company – whose sale to Mattel made him a billionaire – it is even more remarkable that he has reinvented himself the past decade as an indispensable TV personality. Ask Mark Cuban if this is as easy as O’Leary makes it look. By revealing a clip of outtakes from Dragon’s Den to the audience, O’Leary stated that the main reason he gets on television as much as he does, is the sheer pleasure of meeting new people with interesting ideas, who can give him a return on his investment (naturally). A trip to a screening of Dancing with the Stars led to his purchase of the stock of the suppliers of Apple components, after a meeting with Steve Wozniack – apparently a massive fan of said show. Not a bad deal at all. Some of the viewership numbers to his show Dragon’s Den is truly astounding – 2.2 million viewers, almost 1 in 3 families in Canada! The question he fervently posed was “why?” to this phenomenon.


What’s It All About O’Leary?

The heart of O’Leary’s message is that the pursuit of wealth is ultimately the pursuit of freedom since having wealth enables you to do whatever you want to do. “This is true freedom.” One is tempted to dismiss this as too simplistic, but as O’Leary would point out later – those who do so “aren’t exactly starving”. The impulse to make a better life is a story repeated everywhere, at once, as always. To be either employees or entrepreneurs were both painted as legitimate paths: though the latter being the only one that make’s someone rich, creates jobs, leads to millions in tax revenue and the one that O’Leary espouses.


Failing and fixing the gaps

O’Leary stressed the importance of knowing one’s weaknesses as an indicator of seeking partnerships where the gaps can be filled with other’s strengths.  He even speaks of marriages and his own relationship to his wife as an example. O’Leary’s repeated admonitions had the phrase “for your children, for your family” as a reason for the entrepreneurial drive. This struck me as charmingly old-fashioned; much like how the ruthlessness of the Don Corleone belied tenderness for his kin. I mention this only because it appears quaint when juxtaposed to the prevailing hyper-individualism today – in business and vice. Indeed, the book is dedicated to his mother Georgette, who wasn’t solely praised for her kindness but also her business savvy. In an audience question which would appear later, O’Leary implied that women would have to make the same level of sacrifice that men do while proclaiming that women were better investors. It’s unfortunate that the dearth of women in top executive positions in the corporate world didn’t provoke a more thorough discussion. In terms of failure being a spur to change, O’Leary’s views carry more than anecdotal water. In a recent issue on education, the New York Times Magazine spoke at length on why children need not be shielded from failing, how it is necessary even - in developing resilience and other favourable character traits for success. Failure is seen as a value-neutral term in the Israeli business culture, leading to impressive growth in the amount of start-up companies in that country; more than any other.



A CEO of a bank was upbraided by O’Leary because he chose to distribute funds to selected charities without allowing shareholders to make a profit first. O’Leary critique that a business’s sole purpose is to increase the value of its profits for its shareholders is right. Losing sight of this would mean dismantling the DNA of the entrepreneurial spirit. While praising the pursuit of profits rubs the heart the wrong way, this was in no way a negation of munificence. He stated that it is a personal responsibility whereby every individual should take a percentage of their income and give it away, not something which a CEO or the government has to force one to do.


Adrian Harewood

Adrian had another stellar performance as the interviewer whose “yes, but” follow-ups made the discussion richer and made O’Leary through his responses seem...well, more human.


Family and the balanced life? Bad news.

O’Leary was frank about how there is a cost of being an entrepreneur who is competing on a global market. He spoke to length about the sacrifice he made along with his wife but even if he had missed out on family time, the price had been worth it. Adrian’s rejoinder that “families need more than money” merely merited a shrug. O’Leary stated that while it was true that divorce, unhappiness and great personal cost were to be expected, it would all be worth it. I’m not so sure it always would be. The very powerful impact of finances (or lack thereof) on relationships and families is tremendous – second only to adultery in conjugal breakdown. O’Leary’s message of respecting money enough to treat it with realism did strike a chord.


Ethics of investing

When Adrian challenged O’Leary about his seeming disregard for the politics of the states where he invested, an interesting discussion followed. The familiar scenario of “with hindsight, would you invest in Nazi Germany” was brought up. O’Leary’s contention was that no collective investment of monies into an unjust state - which treats its own citizen’s poorly – takes place. It’s fair to say places like North Korea, Zimbabwe and Burma aren’t exactly magnets for foreign investment. There has been instance of where economic growth having moral implications. While China seems to be the paradoxical communist state which plays (rather well) at capitalism, it remains to be seen whether its rising middle-class can be put in a corner, gagged of dissent indefinitely.


Regulation Smegulation

O’Leary’s admits that much of what the banking sector in Canada being less risky and under stricter rules has been a good thing in weathering the recession, but any desire to clamp down too much was seen as an impediment to competing globally. An interesting idea of (since O’Leary believe a third of every dollar spent by government is wasted) making bureaucrats receive a bonus of 15% on every dollar they save conjured up images of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s “well that’s unheard of!” Min. Tony Clement’s recent announcement of “at-risk pay” for the public service indicates that this idea does have traction with the current federal government.


What freedom gets you

Perhaps the best question from the audience was about how this freedom that O’Leary keeps touting looks like: a sample of things O’Leary does with his time – since it, not money has become more important. A visit to Angkor Wat with his children to show them how simple river folk live and a trip to Miami for LeBron James’ birthday party, were offered as slices.


All this to say...

The preaching of hard work, fiscal responsibility, entrepreneurship indeed have merit, especially when addressed with O’Leary’s bracing honesty. Canada does need more entrepreneurs and to forge farther alliances with emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China. 

At a personal level however, something still felt as if it were missing from O’Leary’s worldview. The last word (literally) belonged to Adrian Harewood whose “you’ll still die though” to O’Leary’s “...that way you can die rich!” lingered.

Getting a taste of Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen


Chef Michael Smith is back on the shelves in time for Christmas with his newest cookbook, Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen, 100 of My Favourite Easy Recipes. Filling his book with no-fuss directions and simple flavour punches, this is another addition to his collection that’s sure to please both the newly initiated and old-hand in the kitchen.

Ever encouraging us to relax in the kitchen, Michael Smith places emphasis on the joy of cooking rather than recipes themselves, and in turn suggests that through food, stories can be weaved. But instead of recounting the time he discovered caramelized chicken, or remembering his farmer friend who grows tomatoes in Tim Horton cups, Michael Smith encourages us, the readers, to form our own stories . This cookbook is our outline, and we are the ones who compose the narrative.

“Our food tastes best when we taste its story. When our cooking becomes personal, it grounds us to our community and connects us to life.” Encompassed within the creation stories, Michael Smith has hidden some big ideas amongst his 100 easy recipes. Tucked between his pages are cues for forming a connection at every stage of the meal: from meeting those who produce food, to the experience of cooking, to the joy of a dinner shared with friends of family.

This isn’t just a cookbook, for Michael Smith, it’s a philosophy for life. (Though he’s hidden his message of gathering, preparing and sharing next to food that looks so darnned good, I blame no one for becoming swept up with imagines of Raspberry Red Cabbage or Apple Pie Rice and failing to notice his championing of food as a catalyst to better living.)

One of Canada’s top chefs,  a host of several cooking shows, and with several cookbooks under his belt, Michael Smith has a dedicated following who store their spices in jars and love to keep things simple. In Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen they’ll find familiar flavours mixed into new meals as Michael Smith puts forth 100 of his favourite newest recipes. (Including the concoctions produced on Iron Chef, so you can personally sample his food and decide who really won that battle.)

But with every cookbook the final word on quality (regardless of overlapping philosophy) is all down to the food. And it’s a pleasure to see that supporting his good ideas, the chef has infused his book with recipe after recipe of delicious yet simple meals. Selecting several items from Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen we prepared and enjoyed a beautiful menu (which, listed below, will read like poetry to any writer or foodie):

Baby Spinach and Bacon with Spicy Pickled Red Onions and Feta, 

Slow-Baked Salmon with Honey Mustard Glaze, 


Apple Pie Brown Rice. 

Not only was the food “delish”, but it was simple (honest: it was easy and quick to prepare), with the majority of items already in our fridge and most of the recipes involving only a few key flavours. When Michael Smith says this cookbooks is for everyone, he truly means it. No master chefs are necessary, everyone who’s willing to pick up a teaspoon (or tablespoon, depending on quantity) can prepare some excellent food.

With the book divided into eight sections ranging from breakfast to salad to mains to treats, it’s quick to dip into the pages and retrieve a needed idea. The pictures are lovely and in themselves instructive, and the recipes are simple to follow. But it’s crucial to remember – as Chef Michael Smith consistently emphasizes – that the recipes are solely a starting point. What happens between reading the book and making the meal is up to you. Remember, this is all about building a story and connecting with the food. Experimentation, diversion, and adventure are encouraged.

My own story during this past Michael Smith (à la Catherine Brunelle) meal involves my grandmother who’s ninety-two asking for second helpings of the honey-glazed salmon, my aunt commandeering the book, to pour over recipes, and my husband high five-ing me on another awesome meal (after which I high-fived him on another awesome clean-up).  It involved time with family, and gathering around the dinner table. Ours was a good story with happy diners.

Following the chef’s tribute to those who “gather, prepare, and share food”, and cooking from the pages of his latest book, Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen, 100 of My Favourite Easy Recipes,  he invites us readers (i.e. cooks) to become involved, try new ideas, connect with food, and give ourselves a break. Along with 100 recipes of simple deliciousness, how can this not be a cookbook for your shelves? It’s certainly found a place on mine.

Frances Itani's Requiem


You are youngest, number-two son, born in the year of the tiger. A tiger may be stubborn, but can chase away ghosts and protect […] But because your time of birth was at the cusp of the year of the rabbit you are destined to be melancholy, and you will weep over nonsensical things.


So notes Bin Okuma’s father in the opening chapter of Frances Itani’s most recent novel, Requiem. This dubious fate is made more complicated by the wide sweep of history. Born to a Japanese-Canadian family in the years leading to the Second World War, Bin and his family along with thousands of other Japanese-Canadians are deemed enemy aliens by the government and forcibly relocated to an internment camp in the B.C. interior. There they are forced to live in primitive conditions for the duration of the war, stripped of their possessions and their freedom. 


A talented artist struggling in the wake of his wife’s recent death, the adult Bin continues to be haunted by both this collective betrayal as well as an individual betrayal that shattered his family. His impulsive decision to revisit the site of the camp and subsequent journey from Ottawa to the Fraser Valley mirrors his psychical journey in which he strives to reconcile grief, memory, and history; themes that are conveniently bundled in the figure of his dead wife, a history professor in life. 


Switching among multiple time periods, which serve to mimic the fragmentation of memory, Itani explores the short and long-term impact of the internment; both practical and psychological. While she successfully conveys the day-to-day details of camp life, the harshness of the environment seems paradoxically minimized due to the efforts of the internees as they attempt and largely succeed in forming a functional community. The hardships faced by internees are not glossed over but they make do. Still one gets the sense that from the viewpoint of another character, or a slightly older protagonist, even more hardships would be evident. 


Interestingly, it is Bin’s experiences in the immediate post-war period that prove most compelling and the reader is left wishing that more attention was given to this phase of his life. Indeed, this failure points to the core weakness of the text; namely, the generally dull characterization of the adult Bin who dominates the narrative. Unlike the joyful realization of Grania O’Neil, the protagonist of Itani’s 2003 bestseller Deafening, the characters in Requiem sometimes struggle to transcend the weighty themes that the author explores making for a ponderous and slow-moving first half. The repeated symbolism of rivers and continual references to Beethoven, though providing insight into the development of Bin as an artist, occasionally prove irritating, not to mention Basil the dog. Similarly some specifics about the wider internment policy might have been better left in a postscript as they pull focus from the narrative’s momentum. 


Fortunately a significant revelation at the halfway mark creates a much more engrossing story as the reader gains greater insight into Bin’s psyche. Seemingly secondary characters are thrown into sharp relief and Bin’s conception of himself as a husband, father, and son are more deeply enriched. Moreover in the end Bin’s fate, the fate of the tiger-born, is finally realized.