Reunions

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It’s been a good week for reunions. I’m up in Yellowknife, a place I lived for seven years and where I frequently go as part of my job as policy advisor to the Senator to the NWT. It’s not surprising that I would regularly run into people I know. But this week was special. The new government in the consensus system was being selected so there were a lot of people from all over the NWT in town for that. Others were attending a major conference on Aboriginal Wellness and there was the usual flux of people out and about simply because it is dark and cold and Christmas and staying inside seems a bit like hibernating.

As a result I saw people I hadn’t seen in years – including one former colleague who I lost track of when I left in 1991. He spotted me in the gallery of the legislature and was kind enough to come over and say hello – taking time out from the drama of finding out if his son was going to become Premier. He didn’t though he is in Cabinet. At lunch yesterday, I had not one but two former Premiers of the NWT stop by my table to wish me the best of the season. I’m sure that other people were staring at me, wondering who the hell I was. Reflected glory is still glorious.

Not all reunions take place in person. I recently reconnected with a friend on Facebook who I hadn’t seen in 20 years. This was an acting friend rather than a political one; we did a few shows together in the early nineties. You can read about one of them here. In any case, we have now reconnected on Facebook and I drew his attention to a photo from the night we won the one-act play festival in Calgary. Before long, almost every other member of the cast had weighed in and we had a fun time remembering the night and some of the antics we got up to in celebrating the win. It was a virtual reunion but one that almost prompted me to propose a reunion tour of the play – though I suspect adding twenty years or so to the characters in that story would make for quite a different play. Still, it was fun to all get together once more and remember when we were young. Well, some of the crew is still relatively young – you know, in their forties – but we are all still more mature. Well, I’m sure they are.

This weekend – once I’m back in Ontario – I’ll travel down to Burlington to reunite with family I don’t see often enough and then it will be time for all the Christmas and New Year get-togethers. It is the season I guess for remembering old friends and, whenever possible, touching base even if you can’t actually touch hands over the miles.

I hope all your reunions are going so well.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

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Mining

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In 1992, nine miners were killed in Yellowknife by a deliberately set explosive device, tying it for the fifth worst mass murder ever to occur in Canada. That may not seem like much to my American friends but we are, for the most part, a peaceful nation. For the City of Yellowknife, the event was shattering; it took years for many in the community to find some closure. Some, of course, will never get over it.

The blast came towards the end of a long and bitter strike that had divided the community for months. The striking miners fought – physically in some cases – with the replacement workers brought in to do their jobs. It didn’t help that a few of the strike-breakers were former union members. The mine itself had been running for decades and brought a lot of prosperity to the city and the country. But now it was on its last legs, run by an unscrupulous chief executive determined to wring the last dollar out the gold seam no matter what the cost.

The mine is now long closed but it still haunts the minds of Yellowknifers and the northern mining industry. Besides the labour strife, Giant has left behind a legacy of pollution more or less unrivalled in Canada. One of the by-products of gold mining is often large quantities of water soluble arsenic compounds. There is enough arsenic at the Giant Mine site to kill every rat in the world several times over. The Federal government – the corporation is long gone and in those days there were no reclamation security deposits required as is the case today – has spent close to a billion dollars on a plan to bury the arsenic back where it came from and then freeze it permanently (we hope) using self-sustaining heat pumps.

There has been a lot of community involvement in the clean-up plan and most – though not all – people think the remediated site will be safe enough. If it isn’t, it is hoped that leakage into Great Slave Lake will not exceed dangerous levels. As I say, most of us feel the project will work.

However, the history of Giant Mine is often raised as a scare tactic – or at least a stern lesson – on the dangers of all mining. In many parts of the north, mining projects are stalled or made excessively expensive by the mere mention of Giant’s legacy. The fact that times have changed and regulations are tougher is a hard sell in the face of a mountain of poison.

Yet mining continues to be a key part of the northern economy and probably will be for decades to come. And for those who see it as the same as that other great extractive industry – oil and gas – answer me this: what exactly do you thing solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars and public transit networks are made of? Done right, mining has less of an impact on the ecosystem than any form of farming or forestry.

As I’ve said before I’m a rational environmentalist and responsible mining is part of my vision of a sustainable future.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

The Dark

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The sun is shining this morning – though it won’t last, not with freezing rain forecast for later today. On the first day of December I am eagerly waiting for snow to come and cover the ground. Winter is coming but it hasn’t brought its mantle of white with it. Why would someone wish for snow? Because it provides some relief from the darkness of the next two months.

The dark of winter didn’t always bother me. I lived in the North for nine years and while I hated the cold, the darkness didn’t bring me down. In December, the sun would rise by 10 a.m. and set again by 3 in the afternoon. Farther north, it would go down at the end of the first week of December and not come back until January was well underway.

But I felt no different in December than I did much of the rest of the year. It is true I had more energy in June and July when it essentially never got really dark but the winter blahs? Not for me.

Things have changed. November is dreary. Long grey days and endless damp. The trees shed their leaves and colour leaches from the world, not to be replaced by white but by dismal browns and greys on land and black water in the river. I begin to long for snow simply so I can have the reflected light of sun in the days and streetlights for the 16 hours that don’t qualify.

December provides a bit of a break with Christmas trees and tinsel reflecting candle light. In fact as soon as it grows dim I close all the drapes and turn down the lights, filing the room with candles. Our candle bill gets quite staggering by March.

It seems the dark inside is better than the dark without. But it is the dark inside, really inside, that seems the worst. I know I don’t suffer much compared to some. I feel tired all the time and lack much in the way of ambition. I start later and finish sooner. It could be – it undoubtedly is – age. And it doesn’t take a lot to raise my spirits. For some, it is a heavy burden they carry all through the winter.

They even have a name for it – SAD: seasonally affective disorder – which reflects the way many people feel at this time of year.

Maybe that’s why in winter we fill our days with as much artificial light as we can. To call back the sun and stave off the darkness. It sort of works. But by January, the days are still short and the only relief is to pretend you like winter sports or to flee to the sunshine of Mexico and Cuba.

Or you can bury yourself in work and Christmas (or whatever light bearing holiday you prefer) and keep telling yourself in an ominous voice: Summer is coming.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Northern Elections

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Today is Election Day in the Northwest Territories. Given my long association with the North, it is not surprising that I know many – though certainly not all – of the candidates that are seeking office today. Some of these friendships go back decades. Paul Andrew, for example, had a lead role in the first play I ever had staged, Hemingway Crosses the Mackenzie, while Ben Nind was my ‘brother’ when we acted together in Melville Boys. Meanwhile, Randall Sibbeston is the son of my boss, Senator Nick Sibbeston. I’ve known him since he was a teenager.

Many of the other candidates I’ve worked with or consulted with over the last fifteen years. Many of course were part of the last or previous governments. One of those, Glen Abernathy, is the son of a man I worked with in the mid-80s. Man, sometimes these blogs make me feel old.

For those who don’t know – the NWT doesn’t have political parties. Every MLA is elected as an independent. Subsequently, the elected members meet to choose a premier and Cabinet from among themselves. The Cabinet becomes the government but is in a permanent minority situation, requiring the support of some of the ‘ordinary’ members to get measures passed the Assembly. Often, though certainly not always, that support is unanimous, as the Ministers and the members work together in committee to craft legislation and budgets that are acceptable to all.

This system is called consensus government and has operated, more or less effectively (depending on who you ask) ever since the 1970s when fully responsible government began to be developed in the NWT. The government of Nunavut uses the same system. Yukon, on the other hand, uses the more familiar (to southern eyes) party system.

There is a lot to be learned from the consensus style of government. For example, the process of pre-budget consultations that used to be very secretive and limited has now become commonplace in Canada. But it was pioneered in the NWT where it was a necessity to keep the wheels turning. Did it always work? Not at all. There were certainly stumbles along the way – I still recall a Minister losing his job for passing a note threatening a project in a Member’s riding if he didn’t cooperate.

Still, the system has lasted despite numerous failed attempts to introduce party politics into the mix. In fact, several times when candidates have run as a slate in a proto-party fashion, every single one of the candidates was defeated. It may be that they were lousy candidates or it may be that the people really don’t want a change – despite the frequent grumbling of some people in the media. I think they miss the rough and tumble of partisan politics.

In any case, it will all be decided today – or at least the first part will. In a couple of weeks the government will be formed and I’ll either be working with the same old crowd or with a whole bunch of new faces – even if some of those faces I’ve known for decades.

Good luck to all the candidates.

And that’s ten minutes.

Treasures

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I’ve spent 23 of the last 33 years, living, working and travelling in the North. I’ve visited about 40 of the 75 or so communities in the three territories – as far north as Grise Fiord, as far east as Broughton Island, as far west as Whitehorse and as far south as Sanikiluaq. I’ve been to a couple of national parks, visited mines and oil rigs in the Beaufort Sea. I’ve come in all seasons of the year and flown in all kinds of planes from single engine floats to jets, travelled by truck, car, snowmobile, boat and dogteam. But I’ve never been to Nahanni Park.

Until yesterday. Well, almost. We tried flying in and did get into the park’s airspace but rainstorms and lightning forced us to return early. But what I did see was stirring. The accompanying photo is Little Doctor Lake right outside the park boundaries. But we also flew over the Ram River and the Ram Plateau. It was magnificent.

The history of Nahanni is an interesting one. Years ago it was proposed that a massive hydroelectric project be built on the Nahanni River which includes the spectacular Virginia Falls. An environmental group persuaded then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to go there and meet with the people and see the place for himself. He sat in a circle around a camp fire and listened to what the elders had to say. Then he got in a canoe and paddled the river. When he came back he declared the area too valuable to be economically exploited. The Nahanni Park Reserve was created. Can one even imagine our current Prime Minister – who prefers to visit the North with military aircraft and pretend to shake his fist at Vladimir Putin – ever doing anything so human?

I am not a particularly avid outdoorsman. I much prefer a city boulevard to a flowing river. But I am a rational environmentalist. The wilderness has values that transcend the oil or minerals we can take out of them. They support the entire eco-system that makes our cities and towns liveable.

I’m not particularly anti-development either. Canada’s wealth – our wealth – mostly comes from the resources that lie under the surface of the land. Development is needed but it needs to be sustainable and, sometimes, it needs to be refused. Some people cannot look at a beautiful landscape without wondering what treasures lie under the surface. It is good to wonder but not to the point where it blunts your ‘sense of wonder.’ While not every bit of land needs to be locked away forever in a national park, we do need to do a better job at preserving wild spaces and large eco-systems. Despite the claims of the government to be doing that, Canada, in fact, ranks abysmally low on protecting our vast resources of water and land. We can and should do better not be stopping development but by being more selective in where and, especially, how it is done.

Sometimes we should stop worrying about the treasure that lies beneath the ground waiting to be plundered and simply treasure what we have.

And that’s ten minutes.

Flying into History

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In 1937 Amelia Earhart flew into history, disappearing in the Pacific during an attempted solo flight around the world. While I have no desire to emulate her, I am, as I write these words, flying in history. Making my way from Hay River to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories I am currently aboard a DC-3, one of the stars of the reality show, Ice Pilots.

The last DC-3 was built in 1953; the one I’m flying, I’m told, was built in 1942, making it older than the Senator I work for. The plane is unpressurized so it doesn’t fly high, affording a good view of the scenery below. Not that there is a lot to see as we make our way over the frozen expanse of Great Slave Lake. Still, it is high enough to make your ears pop.

Other than that it’s a pretty smooth ride. The bench seats are comfy if you don’t have to share and there is more leg room than business class in most southern airlines. The pilots/flight attendants/baggage handlers (yes they do all the jobs) are friendly and we get a snack and a drink in the forty five minute flight. BTW, the jet I took down on Thursday took only 22 minutes but the ticket cost twice as much so there is a kind of justice there. Besides we left 12 minutes early – once all the passengers showed up, there was no reason to wait around.

This is not my first flight on a DC-3. I flew them a number of times back in the 80s when we both were a lot younger. I’ve also flown them in Mexico. While I think Buffalo Air is the only airline in Canada that still carries passengers on these planes, they remain workhorses in much of Africa and Latin America.

The reason is simple. They are not terribly sophisticated machines with little in the way of electronic or even hydraulic parts; the tail flap is controlled by a wire, clearly visible over the top of the plane. When you board, you walk up hill to your seat – because the plane is designed to have the least stress on the wheels and body. Only in flight does the body level off somewhat.

The engines too are a very basic design, meant for reliability rather than speed. I already mentioned the longer time for the flight today but things could be even slower if there was a headwind. Once, when I was flying from Yellowknife to Rankin Inlet (a very long flight for a DC-3) we passed a herd of caribou running beneath us. Well, we sort of passed them. There was a strong headwind and for a while the caribou kept pace with the plane. That was a slow flight – but also one of the roughest I’ve ever been in. I managed to keep down my breakfast – but I can’t say the same for the person sitting next to me.

Still, I’m not worried. This plane can land safely almost anywhere that is reasonably flat and we’re flying over ice most of the way. So even if something goes wrong, we should be able to set down okay. What happens after though – well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I still have some history to make.

And that’s ten minutes.

Faking It

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Some years ago there was an Italian doctor stationed in the small town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Doctors were hard to come by and even harder to keep so folks were pretty happy to have him. He practiced there for over a year before it was discovered — when he was called on to do an emergency appendectomy — that he wasn’t really a doctor. He had gone to medical school for a year or two but never finished. He faked his diploma and took up residence, so to speak, in Inuvik.

People were shocked, of course, but at the same time generally agreed he was the best doctor they ever had — attentive, knowledgeable enough for everyday purposes and quick to send them south to Yellowknife if something serious cropped up. What more could you ask for than a genuine fake?

Clearly, this guy was smart, could do research on the fly and knew his limitations. Equally clearly he was able to fake the rest with great confidence. Fake it well enough that for over a year he was, for intents and purposes, a doctor.

There is a life lesson buried in here somewhere, one that a lot of alpha type males figured out at least sub-consciously some time ago. If you don’t know, pretend. In fact pretend so hard you actually believe in your own competence. Apparently this works. A lot of men succeed not because they are prepared but because they are prepared to act as if they were — at least until they can catch up. This ‘faking it’ has been postulated as one reason men have an advantage in competitive situations.

One study showed that women will look at job qualifications and if they don’t feel they meet the vast majority — say 80 or 90% — they won’t even apply. Men on the other hand have a lower pass mark — 50-60% — before they throw their name in the pool. That means they apply for a lot more jobs than they get interviewed for but, they figure, nothing ventured, nothing gained. All they need to do is fake their way through one process and they are all set. Better qualified women who would get the job if they were competing with ‘that’ guy aren’t even in the running because they screened themselves out.

Recently a friend of mine was lamenting that he wasn’t sure if he knew how to write or how to even be a writer. My wife — smart person that she is — suggested that he ‘fake it.’ Pretend you know how to write and start putting words on paper. I think she was a little tongue in cheek but he seemed to think it was a good idea (guy, remember) and felt inspired to get back to his work-in-progress.

Last week he announced that he had just sold his first novel.

Good advice, apparently. Fake it until you make it.

And that’s ten minutes.