Month: October 2014

On Becoming Aware Of Terror

A few events that shocked the world, touched off brief convulsions of hysteria when they happened, then faded as time and other happenings swallowed them.
In 1839 Britain engaged in what is called the First Afghan War. It ended in 1842 but the peace was not an easy one. In the 1870’s they were at it again in the Second Afghan war during which Britain suffered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, defeat its army had ever suffered in the nation’s long history. The Second Afghan war ended in 1880
In 1919 the fighting started again, but this time for only a few months from May to August with the signing of a peace treaty and the recognition of Afghanistan as an independent nation. Significantly before that treaty was formally signed the Afghan government signed another – a friendly treaty with Russia, newly minted by the Bolshevik revolution.
Russia and Afghan stayed friendly until Afghan Communists formed the national government and quickly became unpopular with the Muslim majority. In 1979 the Afghan communist government was facing rising Muslim militancy and Russia decided to aid its Afghan comrades.
Ten years later in February 1989 Russia pulled the last of its fighting troops off the battlefields and ran for home. It left behind arms and ammunition, tanks and trucks and fuel supplies and 15,000 dead.
Without the Russian prop the Afghan Communist regime fell quickly to Muslim factions and became “home” for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations threatening world stability. Action switched briefly to Iraq and the Gulf War to unseat Saddam Hussein. Ended with an allied army claiming a victory over Hussein and having el-Qaeda on the run.
It was an oft repeated claim until September 2011 when in a matter of minute’s el-Qaeda destroyed the famous American symbols, the Twin Towers of New York, and in the process killed close to 3,000 people. In Afghanistan the Taliban was in power and the Taliban protected el-Qaeda. Western democracies moved quickly. Within a month of 9/11 Afghanistan was once again having its destiny shaped by foreign powers.
On October 25, 2014, seven years after Allied forces landed in Afghanistan, all but a handful of advisors had left the country satisfied their mission was over. Canadian soldiers had departed some weeks earlier. They had lost 158 personnel. The now departing British had lost 453 dead, the United States 2,349.
Just a few days’ earlier two self-proclaimed Jihadist sympathizers had killed two Canadian soldiers in their home country. National emotions overflowed with outraged cries of “how could it happen here?”, and laments that the world had changed, that Canada had awakened at last to face the reality of terrorism.
On June 23, 1985, 329 passengers and crew were killed when a bomb blew Air India, Flight 182, out of the sky and into the North Atlantic Ocean. Some 160 of the 329 were Canadians, 60 of them children under the age of 10. The bomb was made in Canada; the terrorists who made it and planted it were Canadians.
Their cause was religion and politics in the far away land of India – and it left us shaken but not awakened. Apparently it took just two crazy fanatics and two dead soldiers to do that.
A few hundred service personnel will now remain in Afghanistan to act as transitional advisers and instructors to help “stabilize” that always unstable country. British Rear Admiral Chris Parry said as two military camps – the British Camp Bastion and the USA’s Camp Leatherneck – lowered their respective flags prior to evacuation: “It’s been worth it. We’ve got rid of el-Qaeda and the bulk of the Taliban.”
I’ll leave my readers to be the judge.
(Several readers have asked for a personal contact number. My e-mail address is and I welcome and appreciate your views whether by “comment” on the blog or by e-mail.)

Another Retrospective

More advice from a nonagenarian viewing the latest attempts in Ottawa to interrupt and influence our parliamentary process: keep things in perspective.
The attack is to be lamented, but not equated with Guy Fawkes of 1605 infamy or the 9-11 tragedy of New York’s twin towers. It’s a wake-up call for complacent Canada, but, sadly, only a meager catch-up date in a world long tormented with assassins who believe in their own “rights” but have no respect for others; and who believe the bullet and/or the bomb the best method of persuasion.
My own country of birth, supposedly the birth place of modern democracy, has been fighting terrorism for so long I can remember, courtesy annual November Fifth fireworks, only the big one from half a millennium ago; and, with the aid of Wikipedia’s “Attacks on the London Underground” more recent violent attempts on society starting in 1885 with Gower Street (known today as Euston) bombing and exploding at irregular “underground railway” intervals to the present.
Most of the attacks have been aimed at the general populace gathered in jostling crowds on the London underground. But the UK was not the lone target. In recent years commuters and tourists in Paris and Madrid have also been victims of wholesale slaughter while going about their daily lives in what they thought was peace and security.
I do not treat the Ottawa attack on Parliament lightly. Just ask, as I have asked before and will continue to ask as long as I have the ability; keep the event in perspective. Let us understand how fortunate Canada has been since the day of its birth, and remember that seeking revenge is not the same as seeking justice.

Now Is Not The End

The 49 freighters in Convoy HX 79 left Halifax Harbour on October 8, 1940, bound for Liverpool and other UK ports. They were loaded with supplies for the armed forces of Britain and European allies recently driven from continental Europe and held in virtual armed-camp isolation – except for supplies by sea.
HX 79 was a relatively fast convoy, one that could crank up more than nine knots an hour. It departed Halifax on schedule three days after Convoy SC 7, a fleet of 35 merchant ships with a theoretical top speed of eight knots but held below that by older ships capable of little more than six.
SC 7 had sailed from Halifax on October 5 loaded with everything from pit props for British coal mines, to desperately needed steel ingots and iron ore to build weapons of war, and grain to feed both soldiers and civilians. The largest ship was the British Admiralty’s MV Languedoc, a fully loaded 9,512 ton oil tanker heading for Scotland and the River Clyde with fuel for the Royal Navy.
HX 79 overtook SC 7 on the far side of the Atlantic on October 18, but had little time to sympathize with survivors of what had become a badly mauled and shattered convoy. On the night of the 18th a German U-Boat “wolfpack”, which had been slashing at SC 7 for days, launched an all out night attack on both convoys. The day before that battle the Languedoc with its precious cargo of fuel-oil had been sunk by U-48.
Royal Navy escort sloop HMS Scarborough had attacked U-48 away and driven it to maximum depth. But the action had taken time and left the now disorganized convoys without protection. Six U-boats launched a coordinated attack.
The “engagement” lasted around six hours. By dawn on the 19th of October 74 years ago Convoy SC 7 had lost 20 ships with 12 more lost by HX 79. It ended the worst 48-hours recorded in the battle of the Atlantic. A sad day, and worthy of remembrance.
I was reminded of it a few days ago when west coast media became excited about a Russian freighter, the Simushir, drifting about in the Pacific and threatening to destroy, if the popular press could be believed, every kilometer of coast line between Cape Scott and Prince Rupert.
Not quite hysteria, but close to shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre…
Like most people I’m concerned when large scale damage to the environment is threatened. But before we get to “end of the world” panic reaction I think we have to ask ourselves:
How did planet earth handle the close to 500 freighters – including many fully loaded oil tankers – lost on the WW2 Atlantic run?
How did – does – planet earth handle the thousands of other deep sea, shore and other maritime tragedies in and since WW2?
Because it wasn’t just ships loaded with pollutants that sank to ocean depths near shorelines or just beyond. Coastal Command, the British Allies air arm logged one million flying hours it WW2, flew 240,000 operations during the course of the war, sank 212 U-Boats, 366 German transport and in the process lost 2,060 aircraft and 5,866 Coastal Command personnel killed. Not all would be lost in the ocean, but the very nature of their mission meant most were claimed by the sea.
So what am I suggesting? Just that when we talk about danger to the environment, we keep our heads and our perspective. Preserve and protect should be, must be, our positive theme song; but not accompanied with the pessimistic Lemming-flavoured chant of Beyond the Fringe – “Now is the end, the end of world.”
That will come soon enough, and too soon for some, but it will take more than a wrecked oil tanker to bring it about.

It will cost more, anyway

A few notes to file for future reference as the great debate on British Columbia’s fight to become a competitor in the international market for Liquefied Natural Gas continues.
While the Liberal government in BC stresses urgency to build a liquefaction plants and docks to handle giant tankers to ship their product around the world to countries starved for energy, Australia is already out of the gate and reaching for world leadership in LNG exports. It has three plants in production, seven under construction and nearing completion “several other projects under consideration.”
We have yet to build a stable and buy the horses let alone enter the race – and that may be a good thing. The Aussies, although light years ahead of BC in the LNG International stakes, are finding international market demands difficult to balance with the price charged natural gas users, domestic and industrial, at home.
In simple terms LNG is expensive to produce. The main buyers of LNG, China and Japan, like all good shoppers for “must have” products, have market loyalty only for the producer offering the lowest price on long term LNG contracts. Producing nations jockeying for those long term LNG contracts must stay competitive, while nudging up the price of natural gas for at home domestic consumers.
Australia’s North West Shelf Venture started shipping LNG in 1989. Its annual production is now 16.3 million tonnes of LNG. In 2006 Darwin LNG came on line with 3.5 million tonnes a years. A third plant, Pluto, entered the fray two years ago with annual production of 4.3 million tonnes of LNG.
By 2018 it is estimated Australia’s production, with the seven new plants on line, will top 84 million tonnes and place the country among world leaders in exports. When that happens international investors forecast Australia will overtake Qatar as number one in LNG exports.
And there’s the rub, or double rub. The first is the nervous multi-billion dollar investor who can only wait and watch BC and Canada continue to parade their LNG pony with promises of untold wealth for all once it gets into the race for LNG dollars.
The second rub comes with warning signals that while all seems well in Australia as the LNG moneys rolls in, there is a growing problem on the home front. At present Australian manufacturers pay $3 to $4 per gigajoule for natural gas. (A gigajoule is roughly the equivalent of 27 litres of fuel oil; 39 of propane; 26 of gasoline or 277 kilowatt hours of electricity). Chinese and Japanese buyers are happy to pay $18 for the same measure and absorb the cost of reconverting the LNG.
Experts forecast that as the price of LNG continues to increase with supply locked into long term contracts, domestic prices will also rise even as the domestic supply gives way to the richer international, higher priced, product.
In New South Wales where the bulk of Australian domestic users live natural gas prices are expected to top an 18 percent increase this year.
A year ago the Grattan Institute, a think tank similar to BC’s Fraser Institute, forecast Australian household gas bills would increase by around $170 a year for the next several years as a result of the LNG boom. During the past two years household energy costs in Australia have increased threefold and the trend is expected to continue.
And there is very reason to believe a similar pattern will follow in BC if we, courtesy our politicians, get what they wish for.

“Out of the night that covers me….”

The cabin was quiet with most of the other passengers already asleep when Bill Bennett, the 27th Premier of the Province of British Columbia (1975-86), eased into the empty seat beside me to re-open a conversation started days before in Nagasaki, Japan.
We were en route from Tokyo to Vancouver and traveling in the cathedral-like calm of First Class courtesy an upgrade from once famous Canadian Pacific Airlines. For me, used to travelling at “the back of the bus” the upgrade was a welcome mercy after days and nights traversing Japan strengthening, so they said, economic ties.
A few days earlier Premier Bennett had joined me in the lobby of Nagasaki’s Hotel Toyokan. I was staying awake to do a promised freelance radio report with CBC Vancouver “around 3 am” Nagasaki time. It was now around 1 am, the Premier said he couldn’t sleep, his room “stuffy” and he needed some fresh air. Did I feel like a walk?
So, we walked around Nagasaki, it’s streets still brightly lit and alive, and talked about where we were born and grew up; about what life was like in heavy air raids during WW2; about life as a newlywed, and then as young immigrant in the 1940’s; about life as a father and about life in general. His and mine.
That was the conversation we finished in several hours of conversation as we flew home through the night skies and across the Pacific.
A few years earlier, sitting in the lobby of a small motel in the BC Interior, I had talked for hours with then BC Premier Dave Barrett on the identical theme – what our lives were like as children, teenagers and young, married, family men. It had started as a group discussion among half dozen people. It ended well after midnight with just me left to listen to Dave Barrett talking about social problems, especially among young people and how important it was to find ways to resolve them.
As a journalist I learned more, over the years, from and about both men in the quiet conversation times than I did when, ablaze as sounding brass and often feigned anger, they entertained and dismayed those who knew that behind the political masks they wore both were men with kinder, gentler thoughts.
Bennett and Barrett were both tough guys, and both kind when kindness was required. They were more alike than they or their families will ever thank me for saying. Unfortunately, they could never close the gap of birth. Bill Bennett was born to affluent parents and raised in a political family already touched with legend; Dave Barrett entered life with more humble beginnings, a life that required extra zeal and determination to achieve success.
In his early days as Premier Bill Bennett told me he had once invited Dave Barrett the man he had recently defeated at the polls, and his wife Shirley to dinner with he and his wife Audrey. I don’t know if Dave ever replied but I did once ask why the dinner invite was never accepted. “The invitation was gratuitous and condescending”, he said.
I understood his reaction. But I think it was wrong. The invitation may have been badly timed and phrased. But, I believe, it was intended as an olive branch but its rejection became a declaration of the war. The often bitter words that followed continued for more than a decade.
Too late now to know the truth of intent. Both men now live in Alzheimer’s ever changing shadows. Both have left their mark on the province they loved. If they could still talk to us both could proclaim with justification the proud theme of Henley’s Invictus: “Out of the night that covers me,/ Black as the pit from pole to pole,/ I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul.
“In the fell clutch of circumstance/ I have not winced nor cried aloud/ Under the bludgeonings of chance/ My head is bloody but unbowed.
“Beyond this place of wrath and tears/ Looms but the horror of the shade/, And yet the menace of the years/ Finds and shall find me unfraid.
And, with one or two words modified, the finale: ”It mattered not how strait the gate,/ How charged with punishments the scroll,/ I was the master of my fate,/ I was the captain of my soul.”
I hope that sometimes in the quietness of their times the darkness lifts and, even though they can’t tell us, they can remember. And, who knows, maybe hear our thanks for lives well lived.