Tuesday, September 27, 2016

There are more shops for dogs than for poor people

When I was ten years old, my parents packed up their red brick duplex by the river, and their three young children, and moved the lot to Westboro. At the time, Westboro was a particularly underwhelming place; a mix of pensioners, light industry and the greatest concentration of used car lots in the city.

Today, I have come into Ottawa to help my parents move. A friend dropped me off outside and I saw the door open, but the car away. 'Well', I thought to myself 'one of them must be out.' They were both out. Inside, I discovered an energetic Quebecois woman ritually scourging the dusty furrows of the crown moulding. "Your parents just went out for lunch," She informed me "For your father's birthday." 

It's a good thing she told me, or I would have betrayed my complete ignorance when he got home.

We have never had a cleaning lady. I am familiar with the bizarre upper middle class tradition of cleaning up in preparation for the cleaning lady's visit. We have our own version of cleaning the main floor because company is coming. Our rooms, as private spaces, were exempt. Thank heavens for that, because I always had too many books to impose even a loose semblance of order on them. 

To say that Westboro has changed in the twenty years since we arrived would be a felonious understatement, actionable by anxious realtors. Westboro is transformed, but instead of turning from a sick semi truck into an equally sick anthropomorphic robot, it has turned from a rather run down inner suburb into an apocalypse of gentrification. 

When I was in university I would visit Westboro and play the condo game. I would point at parking lots, used car dealerships and motels of uncertain provenance, and guess how long it would take for them to become condos. They are all condos now, except for the motel, which must be owned by a biker gang because I cannot otherwise explain how it endures behind a brand-new condo tower.

Westboro was never a poor neighborhood; only boring. But I have watched it gentrify and seen it go from a place where people could live boring, affordable lives into a kind of monument to the absurdity of middle-class striving. 

It began with the Mountain Equipment Co-Op. The building was ecologically friendly! It was open concept! It drew aspirational outdoors types out of their cul-de-sacs and second storey walk-ups. And it must have worked some sinister magic on them because they came to transform the neighborhood. And here I am using transform as the same kind of polite, middle class euphemism as 'bowel movement' or 'living outside our means'. 

There are now more yoga studios than I am able to count. First there was a posh Italian restaurant but it has been replaced by a luxe Italian restaurant. There is a store especially for breastfeeding accessories. There are more shops for dogs than for poor people. 

When the first of the new bars opened up in Westboro, I imagined that as pubs proliferated they would come into competition with one another, forcing down prices. This was naive - Westboro operates by a topsy-turvy set of economic laws where businesses compete not by lowering their prices but by raising them. Following a successful book launch I went out with my colleagues at one such bar, and found that we had spent the entirety of our earnings and then some on a few meagre pitchers of mediocre beer.

I have never liked these changes. I am not a posh person. I will buy used what I cannot get for free. I will pack my life into a car sooner than I will spend money on rent. I panic when I see square plates at a restaurant because they mean you are paying for style. I cannot afford to pay for style. 

My parents - eccentric, university educated historians with leftish mores - fit very well into the old Westboro. They were the appropriate kind of shabby-genteel then, and they have grown only a little more respectable with the passage of time. Their house is too full of books. There is more furniture than you would find in the home of someone really modern. Everything looks like it was inherited from a childless Victorian uncle and in many cases, it literally was.

There are corners in this house where the dust has won. Much of the furniture reeks irreversibly of cat pee. The garden does not know if it is ornamental or agricultural but it produces some very acceptable tomatoes every year. Whenever my parents set out to de-clutter, they succeed only in shifting the clutter around. There are boxes of my deceased grandfather's pension performance statements, as well as his childhood toys. 

It is a house for people who live a life of the mind, supplemented by an irresponsibly large cheese budget. It is the kind of house where you grow up without realizing that you are rich because you have not yet been subjected to the brazen daylight robbery of a university book store, and so you do not realize that every bookshelf represents hundreds if not thousands of dollars. 

It was not a perfect childhood home although I think those faults belong to the inhabitants rather than the structure. But it has been an oasis of a kind of unaffected post-Victorian WASPishness for the sort of socialist who hangs a portrait of the late Empress of India while deploring her politics. I have moved from basement suite to roach-infested hellhole without a care in the world because my home has always been here.

But things slip away from us bit by bit. History has a nasty trick of moving whether we mark its passage or not. And so my neighborhood has been overrun by feral packs of yuppies, resplendent behind their luxury prams and immaculately groomed beards. They coo and preen and delight in the cultured decadence of a neighborhood with not one but TWO roof-top patios on which they may sip caesars and discuss pension prospects, mountain biking and the ever-present bugbear of the Phoenix pay system.

Even my parents feel pushed out. They have picked a very fine Victorian home in the country where they can shed their boomerang offspring and finally live in the kind of sentimental gentility that middle class socialists love - surrounded by books and thoughtful people. I can't blame them for wanting to get away.

But it is very strange to come home and see that room by room, our house is losing its excess furniture. That cardboard boxes, having sat unopened on shelves for twenty years, are suddenly hurried away into storage. That the dust and the spiders, too comfortable in their long entente with my parents, are being chased away by the astringent chemicals of the cleaning woman. 

The house is to be sold by a 1980s ski villain with lopsided blond hair. He has told them to take down everything personal - paintings, keepsakes and family photos - and they reluctantly comply. He tells them they will get more than twice what they paid for it, and this seems definitely immoral to my parents. They were hoping to get out of the rental market and maybe have something to retire on. They did not set out to be speculators.

But my parents belong to a different world: an era of steady government jobs, robust social democratic institutions and a boundless optimism that the horizons of rights, freedoms and prosperities would go on expanding in every direction. They have grown up and grown old with a faith in the value of our civilization.

But that world - by no means universal at its height - is falling into the widening gap between rich and poor. Either you are programming apps that put taxi drivers out of work or you are doing the job of a taxi driver with none of the expertise or security. Either you are sub-renting six apartments on AirBNB or you are living in a decaying SRO in some converted hotel. As I said - the logic of the economy in these places is topsy-turvy.

I don't fit in this new version of my parents' house - without clutter or character. It is so depersonalized that I am not even sure of my own personhood. It all seems to cry 'abandon ship' and of course, that is exactly what they intend. But their new home in the country is a retreat into a sentimentalized ideal of their own childhoods, just as their house is a sentimentalized ideal of my own. I cannot retreat into an interbellum nostalgia haunted by the ghosts of Victorian idealism. And I have no hope of hiding any longer in my own childhood, now in the process of being sold out from under me.

When I was growing up I believed the pendulum would swing back. That the world would return to how it was. Stability and government jobs will be had by all, or at least, all of us who live in the first world. I would have a pension and summers in Europe and great comfort in knowing that I was not alone in prosperity. In short, I imagined that the Bush-Harper years were ephemeral, that 9/11 and all its children were a bad but fleeting dream.

But here we still are. The gap between rich and poor keeps growing. The shackles of the security state tighten around our wrists. Pop songs get simpler and louder and we dance harder because we know we need to keep moving. But what are the movements? 

Good riddance to Westboro. Everything I loved about it died a long, slow death. I cheered its death but now the corpse begins to rot and I realize what I was celebrating. I do not want to hang on at the periphery of some colony of the rich in a swamp of urban blight. I am not going to live in a poured concrete box in the sky. 

The death of Westboro is the story of my past. The sale of my childhood home is the ending of that story. But it's time for new stories. Stories about doing things differently, not longing for the past. Stories about pushing back instead of giving up. Stories about winning because do we even know what winning feels like? 

I want to make sure that all of you do, so I promise to tell all the stories I hear. You just have to promise to keep living them.

Monday, June 15, 2015

What I saw in northern Manitoba

This is an incomplete attempt to spill out a small portion of my experiences in Northern Manitoba this past week. It is a personal reflection as much as anything and I am sharing it because I am not going to have time to have every conversation I would like to. My heart is full to bursting.

All the background you need on this piece is to understand that since the 1960s, Manitoba Hydro has run roughshod over the treaty rights, human rights and wishes of indigenous communities across northern Manitoba. They have flooded hundreds of square kilometers of Cree territory, destroyed sacred sites and polluted the waterways of the province. The Cree are doing their best to confront this situation but the greed, rapacity and dishonesty of Manitoba Hydro and successive provincial governments (many of them NDP) has made it a difficult task. For more information, watch Green, Green Waters.

                There are really no words for what I saw in Northern Manitoba, which is awkward, because I was engaged to come on the trip in my capacity as a writer. Unlike words like ‘self-involved’, ‘pretentious’ or ‘alcoholism’, ‘humility’ isn’t a word generally associated with writers. For me personally, it’s also a word I might know socially but rarely have into my home unless I am making a general invitation and it would be rude to exclude it. But this is a trip that humbled me. So I guess that’s the first word I have for it: humbling.

                I know the kind of poverty porn that people expect to read about the north. I am sure I could do a very credible imitation of George Orwell writing ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ if that’s what I wanted to do. Why not wax poetic about the evils of modern life and how it has ruined the pristine wilderness? If so inclined, I could tell a tragic tale about a simple, honest folk ruined by the sinister machinations of industrial civilization. But I have another word for that: no.
                That is not the story I am going to tell because it is not what I saw in the north. That isn’t to say things aren’t bad in ways, up there. But it would be a faithless thing to spin a sad story for guilty southern consciences. People in the north live for themselves, after all, not to provide fodder for human interest stories. So here is what I saw:

                Hope. I can’t count the ways that this is the word I have carried south with me. I am the kind of person who, if confronted with a stubborn jam jar, will give up on croissants altogether. In northern Manitoba I met people who were fighting their own band councils, the provincial government, the provincial hydro utility and the federal government all while coping with the legacy of the residential school system and the damage caused to their way of life by the flooding of the north. Croissants were not even on their radar.

                I will say very plainly that I saw more fight in any given pair of eyes up there than I usually see at a year’s worth of protests and demonstrations in Toronto. For me, determination is when the liquor store is closed and I have to walk the extra few blocks to the Beer Store.

                If I am in the process of applying for a job and I see that their ideal candidate has a qualification I don’t possess, I get discouraged and lie down to nap in a pile of comics books. If animals returned to my trapline after a long absence only to be driven off by Hydro cutting another fucking power line corridor through the heart of the boreal forest, I'd be done. I would not keep fighting.  If my cousin was out on the lake my family had fished on for generations and died when he hit a tree left there by the ecological disruption caused by hydro dams, I would never go back on that lake. If there was an international scientific debate raging about whether or not the level of mercury in the fish I caught would kill me, I would likely pre-empt it by drowning myself in a river of gin. I would not keep fishing. I would not keep trapping. I would not keep fighting. But there in the north, so many are doing exactly that. How, I can’t help but wonder, do they do it?

                So there’s another word for you, though it’s just my pet theory: community. When I was a little boy I would see my aunts and uncles, my nana and papa, at Christmas, Easter, etc. I did not live every day with them. They were not a part of my immediate family or community. In the north I saw older children minding younger ones, grandparents caring for grandchildren, elders treated with the quiet reverence that they’d earned in their long lives.
               I come from a world where many people couldn’t tell you their grandmother’s maiden name. I came across a collective memory that stretched back almost to contact, where family was an essential fact of life in the same way as food and shelter. In some of these communities, food and shelter were less of a given than family. When you are living in a world where the state is pursuing a deliberate policy of kidnapping your children, severing their ties to the community and sending them to grow up with strangers, I think family must take on an importance it is difficult for us to understand – especially when that genocidal policy has been in place for generations.
        This has been an emotionally exhausting trip, but it has also been very encouraging. When we filed into a school auditorium to hear fiddling, watch square dancing and subsequently cram our faces with moose stew and bannock, it was a comfort. There were parents and grandparents attending the assembly, held indoors due to inclement weather. The kids watched eagerly and as attentively as kids can manage. The adults beamed with pride. I felt at ease and there wasn’t even an open bar!

                At another school, we watched a keen music class work their way through the Cree Hymn (I think?) on violin. They begged the teacher to be able to perform, maybe because their former pottery teacher and all around art world rock star K CAdams had made a triumphant return to their lives. She was practically mobbed by eager children as we made our way around the school accompanied by the the acting chief and a councilwoman. I have spent more time smiling in the past week than the rest of the year to date.

                Truthfully, I think the kids had a lot to do with that. They were everywhere we went, in people’s homes and public buildings, playing and swimming and ever in abundance. Even where they weren’t, the children and grandchildren occupied a place of importance in political discussions. There was mourning for what had been lost, and acknowledgment of traumas endured. But nothing seemed so important to elders and activists as the future, and the children to whom it would belong. In our society I think that ‘won’t somebody please think of the children’ is a sneer at moral panic. In the communities we visited it was a sacred trust. I wish I could have brought it south with me.

                There’s a word for all that, even though it’s awful old fashioned: love. So mostly that is what I saw in the north, because it filled my eyes in a way that made all the pain and hardship and crimes of the south seem ephemeral. I did my best to bear witness and maybe I got the wrong idea but I that I sincerely believe that the love I saw in those communities – love for each other and for the land – is going to win out over whatever bullshit the south ships north. Do what you want with that.
                So that’s what I saw in the north. If you want to know what I heard in the north, there are two things I’d suggest. The first is to wait for us to publish our comic on hydro-impacted communities in the north, so you can read what I heard elders, activists and damned decent people say about their communities and the history there. The second is to listen for the sound where you expect a waterfall to be, but hear only silence.

Monday, April 29, 2013

You Only Wish Your Mother Wore Army Boots

                In city streets, or more accurately down alleys, one sees from time to time the figure of a crust punk picking through dumpsters for a bite to eat.  To take an archetype, the figure is clad head to toe in black, blanketed in patches that range from anti-fascist agitprop to punk band logos.  Between the hoodie and black bandana, there’s scarcely a face to be seen.  Piercings, stick and poke tattoos and black combat boots round out the ensemble.  This is probably pretty close to the popular image of an anarchist.

                One sometimes sees a different sort of figure – collared shirt underneath a sweater, pressed slacks and a generally immaculate presentation of middle-class respectability, marred only by a pin or two.  This is where I fit into the spectrum and it is more common than one might expect, although infinitely less visible.  I have taken flak from some crustier comrades for my pinstripes and paisley approach, being advised that it is impossible to be an anarchist without making your outward appearance a rejection of the values of capitalism.  At the same time, I have sometimes said no one should be allowed in front of a camera without getting a haircut.  

                If a rose by any other name smells as sweet, surely we all have the same reek of rebellion and stale cigarettes, regardless of our clothing.  There is a certain temptation to construct a polarized debate around the issue, then wave the black and white flag in favour of ceasefire.  It won’t be much of a movement if we implement a dress code.  I’m reminded of the lyric “Is this resistance or a costume party – either way, black with bandanas is a boring theme.”  Needless to say, requiring we all get decked out in business suits and preppy chic is batting for the other team.  

                The reason for the debate is that it is self-evident that clothing is political.  If the argument for dressing like a punk is to make an outward statement of defiance against conformity, then the counterargument is that doing so makes us permanently marginal.  People will be so put off by the aggression of our wardrobes they won’t be prepared to engage with our ideas.  I think there is some merit to both of these perspectives, but I also think there is a weird authoritarianism about saying *this* is the way anarchists should dress.  Such a matter of elementary self-expression is best left to the individual.

                Still, I do think there is a way anarchists should dress: honestly.  We don’t all think any one way – we can barely agree on what anarchy means!  Why should we all adopt a uniform, whether it’s covered in studs or ornamented by cufflinks?  Personally, I’ve never been to a punk show, and in leather and chains would be a baboon in a tuxedo more than an insurrectionary anarchist.  Conversely, I’ve seen some of my scummier friends squirm underneath collared shirts.  But there is more to it than that.  If the point of having a debate about clothing in anarchism is to control the representation of anarchists in popular media, then diversity is a thing to be celebrated!

                An anarchist should wear scrubs to the hospital.  They should wear hip-waders into the marsh.  They should be recognizable across the construction site in their bright orange helmet.  They’re fine in blue jeans and a mustard-stained white t-shirt, watching the game after a day at the factory.  The only thing an anarchist needs to look like is themselves, whatever the hell that is.  We’re people, not caricatures.  The punk thing is a media-hyped caricature of what anarchists should look like and if you wanna dress that way, that’s cool.  The suit thing is an embarrassing mimicry of the bourgeois crooks whose rule we aim to overthrow.  Arguing for either one as a dominant mode of sartorial expression is insisting on being caricatured.   The way we ought to look is like people.

                I think there is something to be said for visibility. Whether you stitch a patch into your leather jacket, slap a bumper sticker on your 18 wheeler or stick a pin through one lapel, having the circle A somewhere on your person is a great way to increase the visibility of the movement.  This is especially true in your workplace where it helps to differentiate the obtrusive branding of your employer from your identity as a worker.  Of course, it might also get you fired.  That’s the class war for you.

                It does strike me that the central issue of representation of anarchism in media is something we’ve left to corporations.  There is a political attitude among many anarchists that the media is inherently biased against them, that it’s impossible to get good press, etc etc.  This hasn’t been my experience, but I do also think there’s a limited amount we can do within the confines of corporate media.  My broader point is that anarchists seem almost totally disinterested in the problem of publicity.  Given that politicians, corporations and – particularly worrying – the police all have public relations divisions, this seems like a strategic oversight.  I don’t know if there’s some swelling moral belief among anarchists that we represent the little guy and so we can count on them to know that they’re being lied to.  I think that’s a cop-out.  Our public relations efforts don’t need to look like theirs, but it doesn’t mean we can afford to turn our noses up at the idea.

                I’ll have more to say about how that might look another time.  It relates to clothing in a fairly immediate way, though.  If we can show people that anarchists are workers, parents, artists, homeless and everything else in between, we can contest the narrative that we are some kind of culty fringe movement with an exclusivity complex.  Mind you, I’m not convinced there aren’t some anarchists who don’t like it that way.  There is always the anxious virus of individualism at play in people’s motives, and I suspect there would be a lot fewer teenage anarchists if they had to go to pickets with their moms.  For the rest of us, though, I think it’s probably best to dress like yourself.  Just make a little space in that to let people know that your ‘self’ includes anarchy.  No gods, no masters, no problem.