Month: August 2019

On the Edge of Darkness

I hadn’t thought much about forest fires in Brazil until the country was offered $20 million to fight them by the G-7 nations. I wondered why my home province of British Columbia hadn’t been made a similar offer. I mean, we do get forest fires annually with last year (2018) a record-breaker; 2,115 fires and 1.35 million hectares of forest destroyed. It surpassed 2017’s record high of 1.22 million hectares of forest destroyed.

Long summer days from late May can, by mid-June, render the province tinder dry and ready for rapid conflagration sparked by lightning strikes, carelessly tossed cigarette butts and campfires neglectfully left smouldering.

So, it’s taken me a while to start paying attention to the wildfires now roaring through Brazil’s Amazon rain forest, destroying – so the news reports tell me – “a football pitch size” of forest every few minutes or so and using “fake” photographs to ramp up the drama.

BC is not alone suffering from wildfires on the West Coast of North America. Between July and late September, wildfires also ravage Alaska, the Yukon, and the states of Washington, Oregon and California – especially California – with intense ferocity.

These fires, like those in the Amazon, are spread over vast areas. In BC last year, the “big fires” burned for days or weeks in the Stikine, Kitimat, Bulkley-Nechako and Cariboo, and “not quite so large” in the Peace River, Northern Rockies, Okanagan-Similkameen and Central Kootenay.

Accompanying all major fires are air quality concerns. In 2018, BC was troubled with increased risk from added smoke drifting north from U.S. fires.

In BC, all air quality stations registered higher than seven on the Air Quality Health Index on at least one day, and several remained there for many days with warnings issued that children, the elderly and anyone with heart or breathing problems should reduce strenuous outdoor activities. In some regions, “above seven” warnings remained in effect for between 18 days (south Okanagan) and 32 days (Prince George).

It all set me wondering why Brazil’s fires should be attracting such widespread attention – and merit a gift of $20 million from G-7, of which Canada is a member. It didn’t take much research to discover that Brazil’s rain forests contribute heavily to the world’s supply of oxygen – the stuff we need if we are to breathe long enough to slow down global warming – and that without the Amazon’s lungs, our world would be seriously endangered.

Then, in reports from The National Institute for Space Research, came a series of numbers quickly sharpening the focus of my BC-biased mind. The NIFSR informed me that between January 1st and August 1st of this year, Brazil’s Amazon rain forest had been hit by 75,300 fires, an 85 per cent increase over the previous year. In the land of my birth, such announcements are appropriately termed “gob smacking.” The NIFSR does note that some of those fires could be small, but all had been “reportable.”

(In the name of accurate reporting, the New York Times has reported Brazil’s reported fire numbers “this year at 39,194 … a 77 per cent increase …” My numbers are from a table reproduced by the BBC from the NIFSR covering January 1st to August 21st. The NYT could have been quoting January to July, but 39,000-plus is still a helluva whack compared with BC’s two thousand.)  

Brazil isn’t alone among South America’s big burners. Venezuela has fought or is fighting 26,500 wildfires – up 19 per cent; Bolivia 17,200 plus – up 114 per cent. But, Brazil does appear to stand alone with its new deforestation policy of clearing rain forest to create arable land for commercial agricultural projects.

In a recent opinion piece, The Guardian quoted a science community warning that President Jair Bolsonaro’s plan to convert rain forest to farms will eliminate 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen supply – “the most valuable asset humanity possesses in our increasingly difficult battle to avoid climate catastrophes.”

That is Universal catastrophe, not just Brazilian.

And therein lies a problem. President Bolsonaro was surprisingly elected last November. His Environment Minister is Ricardo Salles who, last year while serving as a state environment official in Sao Paulo, was found guilty of “administrative improprieties” for having changed a map to benefit mining companies. He was fined and deprived of his political rights – including his right to seek public office.

It was just three weeks after his conviction that Bolsonaro appointed him to cabinet. Like Bolsanaro, Salles does not believe in climate change.

That means other world leaders will need to figure out how to handle Bolsonaro – without the help and power of the United States whose President Donald Trump – also a climate change denier.

It will not be easy. Brazil, in a free world, has the right to do what it likes with its natural resources. But what should the rest of the world do if a Brazilian decision endangers not just other nations but the world, the universe and possibly all humanity?

The scientists tell us the latter is inevitable unless we get some serious checks and balances on climate change. And, that we cannot hope to get even a slow down without the natural assistance the Brazilian Amazon District rain forest has provided since time began.

So, what should our leaders do? Wait and pray for the miracle of an awakening United Nations with the courage to challenge rogue countries with end-of-the-world threats? Or just hold hands and hope it will all go away as we march to the edge of darkness?

Or maybe as nation known for past leadership in United Nation affairs we Canadians could drop Prime Minister Trudeau a line reminding him it was Liberal PM Lester B. Pearson who was a leader among leaders when the UN was founded. A repeat performance on the international stage between now and our federal election in October could be a real World Cup winner.

Remembering Peterloo,

The day started well. Clear skies, warm sun and a crowd later estimated at “around 60,000, with many dressed in their Sunday best” exchanging pleasantries while waiting to see and hear one of the great orators of the day, Henry “Orator” Hunt, speak on the urgent need for parliamentary reform and better working and living conditions.

The day, August 16, 1819, ended tragically with 18 dead, 650 injured, many seriously. And “Orator” Hunt got to speak but a few words before he and his entourage were arrested. Carrying out the arrest was a force described in early reports as “local yeomanry, younger members of the Tory (Conservative) Party in arms.” London’s Times reporter John Tyas and other scribes were hauled away with Hunt’s group, to the alarm of already nervous magistrates.

Earlier in the day, the meadows near St. Peter’s Church, known as St. Peter’s Fields, had been described as “full of people in good humour, shouting and laughing and making fun; it seemed to be a gala with the country people … boys and girls taking their father’s hand to walk in the procession.”

A peaceful protest but with the occasional banner proclaiming “LIBERTY and FRATERNITY,” a reminder to the government of the day that the people of France, tired of tyranny, had stormed the infamous Bastille prison and replaced their government.

A memorial piece in The Guardian (link below) describes how the scene changed from a day in the country to see and hear a legendary orator talk about future hopes, to a terrifying mob panic and death and wounds by the sword.

The huge crowd was too dense for most to notice what was later reported as Manchester Yeomanry “approaching the edge of the crowd at a fast pace. They were the first troops to be called.  They had been milling in the back streets, drinking in local taverns, and were fired up, ready to unleash themselves on the subversives.  They clattered down Cooper Street, knocking over a 23-year-old woman … and knocking her baby son, William, out of her arms, onto the cobbles and under their horses’ hooves. He was the first fatality of the day.”

Any signs of peaceful protest died with the baby, and the joyous crowd became a mob fleeing for its life. When 340 regular cavalrymen from the 15th Hussars joined the mass, it drove everything before it – including the crowd control yeomanry. One of the Hussar officers, Lt. William Joliffe, later explained why the death count was so low at 18 after a full battle cavalry charge into a panic stricken mob.

“The charge,” he reported, “swept this mingled mass of humans before it; people, yeomen and constables in their confused attempts to escape ran over one another … The Hussars drove the people forward with the flats of their swords, but sometimes, as is almost inevitably the case when men are placed in such situations, the edge is used … I must still consider that it redounds to the humane forbearance of the men of the 15th that more wounds were not received.”

He was saying his men were not too happy with their orders and were swinging their sabres to hit with the flat of the sword, not the sharp edge.

And why should all this be of interest to people in 2019 some 200 years after the event? Well, maybe because he was courageously telling the government of the day that their army was not in wholehearted support of its conduct. That it wouldn’t take much to persuade a switch of loyalty.

Or maybe because a journalist named James Wroe, a reporter who covered the event and coined the immortal title “The Peterloo Massacre,” published the clear, brutal story of what he saw and emphasized repeated calls for change in government’s understanding of democracy. The government certainly paid attention. In double-quick time, it closed down Wroe’s newspaper – the Manchester Observer – charged him with seditious libel and sentenced him to one year in jail with hard labour.

Or maybe, because following Peterloo and over too many years there came a steady progression of hard-fought reforms in parliament, incredible improvements in workplace conditions and, for most people, living standards far beyond the Peterloo generation’s dreams.

In Manchester this year they unveiled a new multi million dollar memorial. It features 11 concentric steps featuring the names of the 18 who died and the towns and villages they came from. It is hoped it will convey the idea of the 18 walking up the steps to a speakers podium to continue their still active fight for electoral equality and social justice.

The Guardian:

Sceptre and Crown Come Tumbling Down

When Governor James Douglas was appointed boss of what we call British Columbia, he had the authority to raise and train a small army and dispatch it to wherever it was needed on the new frontier. Fortunately, he lacked the bodies and the money to do anything meaningful with that power.

In a dispatch on August 24, 1858, with troubles brewing among gold miners on the Fraser River, he asked Royal Navy Capt. Montresor of HMS Calypso based in Esquimalt for help. There was a degree of urgency in the message, a detectable edge of panic:

“Intelligence has just been received here of an alarming collision between white miners and the native Indian Tribes of Fraser’s River. A sanguinary war of races, the inevitable consequence of a prolonged state of misrule, may plunge the Government into the most serious difficulties unless steps be taken to immediately avert the evil. I therefore propose to visit that country as soon as the necessary arrangements can be completed.

“A military force is essentially necessary on that occasion, to represent and sustain the dignity of the Queen’s Government; and I make the appeal to you, sir, in Her Majesty’s name, for a detachment of one officer and ten marines … to be placed at my disposal …”

Capt. Montresor replied immediately. He was sorry, but couldn’t help having been given orders just that day “to proceed to sea tomorrow morning.” He promised to relay the Douglas request to his replacement on station, one Capt. Prevost of HMS Satellite.

Two weeks later, Douglas was able to inform London of the actions he had taken. Again, there is a nervous edge to the note addressed to the Rt. Hon. Lord Stanley, MP dated August 27, 1858: “My Lord, since I last addressed you … an alarming report reached this place of the murder of 42 miners by the Indians of Fraser’s River …”

Douglas went on to say he had immediately gathered a force of Royal Navy Marines to suppress any thoughts of native rebellion and was now happy to report “the alarming report has since been contradicted” and that “two men only were killed by the Indians instead of the larger number previously reported.”

He added that he still intended to proceed with his military mission up the Fraser, although “the military force is absurdly small for such an occasion, but I shall use every exertion in my power to accomplish the great object in view, and to assert the rights of my country, in the hopes that early measures will be taken by Her Majesty’s Government to relieve the country from its present perilous state.”

The report, dispatched August 27, was not received in London until October 11, by which time Douglas was sorting the blame and writing London asking for help on the disposition of “white men engaged in mining pursuits” who had been found guilty of murder “and sentenced to transportation for life.” Unfortunately, he wrote, “there is no penal settlement within reach, and I have no means of forming a settlement for that purpose.” He asked London if it would “permit the removal of any convicted criminal to any penal settlement in Australia” and if so, how “the expense of their removal is to be defrayed.”

I haven’t yet been able to find a response to that request – or what the Aussies thought of the idea. I am just reciting a “blame game” trail which started with reports of insurrection on the Fraser with 42 miners “murdered”, morphed into two killed in a fight (not an unusual happening in gold mining camps) and finally into serious problems created by “white men…who have been found guilty of murder.”

In 1857, while Douglas was fielding nervous twitches on Canada’s west coast, there had been a cataclysmic revolt of natives in India against their British overlords. At Cawnpore (now Kanpur) the British garrison was overrun. After surrendering to the native forces, survivors were first promised passage to safety then massacred – soldiers and civilians, women and children. Last to be killed were three women and children; their bodies tossed down a well.

There were other outrages echoing to all corners of the British Empire in sufficient strength to provide righteous justification for the revenge to follow; the humiliation and slaughter of prisoners and civilians by British troops when Cawnpore was recaptured – and in other areas where the Sepoy Rebellion had early success. There has never been an accurate count of the thousands massacred by both sides, but at the time only the brutality of the rebels made the dreadful headlines.

It would take another hundred years or so to complete but the greatest empire the world had ever seen had begun its collapse. Watching its fall and considering its possible world power replacement is fascinating and frightening.

We don’t seem to have made much progress in humanitarian beliefs since those days when an eye for an eye was regarded as balanced justice. Revenge is too often what we seek even when, as polite Canadians, we dress it up as the nicer sounding “reconciliation.”

A Lost Press and Protector

It was in 1935 that a well-organized group of unhappy citizens decided to try for foothold representation in the Alberta general election. The group waved a relatively unknown political flag named Social Credit and voiced strange theories about new ways to finance government.

It had no president, but a leader in the rank and file who was a fire and brimstone evangelist named William Aberhart. He was among thousands of other citizens stunned when the votes were counted, and the returning officer announced Social Credit would form the new government with 56 seats in the 63 seat Legislature.

The Liberal Party held five, Conservatives two. The United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), in power since 1921, elected zero. It was the first time a sitting government had lost every seat it held.

Within a few days, a seatless Aberhart called for a general meeting of the victors who enthusiastically elected him their party president thus automatically making him premier without a seat. That problem was quickly solved with the resignation of a newly elected Socred and polite agreement of Liberals, Conservatives and the UFA not to contest a byelection.

Premier Aberhart was in by acclamation, and the temporary truce was over. Aberhart had bigger fish to fry than seven MLAs who could be overwhelmed in the Legislature. His larger enemy was “the press” which was already challenging his strange ideas on banking regulations and economic theories.

In 1935, radio as a means of transmitting news and information was weak, and television was not a factor. The press – large circulation dailies and modest rural weeklies – were all that stood in the way of dictatorial government decrees and stepped up to meet the challenge.

Edmonton Journal Publisher John Imrie and Editor A. Balmer Watt dismissed Aberhart and his Socred economic theories with derision and references to half-baked populists seduced by pseudo-economic theory.

Aberhart fired back from every pulpit he could find. In words (that echo in 2019) he said they were just “the mouthpiece for financiers … publishing falsehoods that are entirely unfair and untrue. If this is done in the name of liberty of the press, we must question that liberty. The calibre of the men who are managing these newspapers is so low … they should not be at large!” (Not quite “lock her up,” but close).

Aberhart backed his rhetoric in 1937 with three pieces of legislation – two dealing with financial matters, and a third draconian law to bring the press under government control. All three moved through the Socred-dominated Legislature under heavy attack, but safe on the final vote in the legislature.

The Accurate News and Information Act required newspapers to be government licenced, compelled reporters to hand names and addresses of their sources to government investigators, forced editors to permit government-appointed editors to have final say on the wording of all political reporting including editorials and opinion columns – and the right to suspend the publication of any newspaper indefinitely.

There was a list of substantial fines for violators.

Lieutenant Governor John C. Bowen slowed Aberhart’s grab for press control by refusing to grant Royal Assent to all three bills, but that didn’t quench the premier’s desire to test his strength against existing law.

On March 24, 1938, the provincial government issued a warrant for the arrest of Edmonton Journal columnist Don Brown. He was to be taken to Lethbridge provincial prison and held there without trial “at the pleasure of the legislative assembly.”

Officials from the Journal were called before the Legislature for questioning and informed their columnist was going to be charged with “scandalous misrepresentation.” He had poked fun at two MLAs, they said.

An hour before midnight on March 25, 1938, Liberal MLA Gerald O’Connor quietly ended debate with a motion that the charge be withdrawn. And without objection it was, but with a warning note from Aberhart that while he was pleased to offer Brown clemency, he wouldn’t hesitate to take further action against the writers and publishers of “false information.” Any opportunity for him to do that was denied when all three bills were declared unconstitutional.

Six weeks later on May 2, the United States Pulitzer Prize committee awarded a special bronze plaque to the Journal for its defence of press freedom plus special certificates to the Calgary Herald, the Lethbridge Herald, three smaller dailies and 50 Alberta weeklies for their robust defiance of bad law. They were the first Pulitzer awards outside the USA.

This story is retold here as a memorial of times past when newspapers were strong, their reports reliable, the communities they served the richer for their presence. And, with regret that the electronic world has drowned so many once clear voices with its endless vanity of social gossip.

And the people who once supported their strong collective voice don’t seem to know what they have done – or care.

Take Sol’s “McWord” For It

My copy of Sol Steinmetz’s book There’s A Word For It is a little tattered these days after close to a decade of heavy use.

It is a hardcover, pocket-sized book jammed with a dazzling array of new words as they were created, and records the year they were born and grew to become part of everyday English. Thus, I learned a number of new words and discovered many I thought new had been around for decades before I adopted them into my vocabulary.

For example, I started speaking and writing Ms. as a safe title of respect for women back in the 1970s when feminists insisted a word as neutral as Mr. – for married or unmarried men – be coined for women. Thus, Miss for single women and Mrs. for married women were blended into one size fits all Ms. I was one of the ancient males who struggled through that little transformation clinging to Miss and Mrs. until we realized Ms. was here to stay.

I was quite prepared to accept the change as another feminist triumph until Steinmetz informed me “the Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of Ms. to 1901, when a writer in the Humeston, Iowa newspaper New Era reported that ‘as a word to be used in place of Miss or Mrs. when the addresser is ignorant of the state of the person addressed; the Sunday Republican (a newspaper of Springfield, Mass) suggests a word of which Ms. is the abbreviation with a pronunciation like Mizz …”

It was a surprise to find that Ms. had been around for 70 years when women’s lib claimed it for themselves and persuaded male dinosaurs it was an acceptable form of address. (I should note that as far as I know, Humeston was not founded by my branch of the Hume family. But in this age of genealogical discovery, who knows?

Steinmetz is fun to read as he takes his audience through more than a century of new word creations, many of which delight and educate the reader. At least for me, there were very few pages lacking a new word – or a history of a word which surprised.

As the dust jacket promises, Steinmetz “takes us on a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (1949) joyride (1908) through our cultural history as seen through the neato (1951) words and terms we’ve invented to describe it all.” The bracketed dates mark the years the word was first used.

He estimates that by the 1900s, the English language had adopted around 90,000 new words since dictionaries were born and that by the end of the century, the list had grown to 500,000. He admits that is just a guesstimate (1936).

I found Steinmetz most fascinating when he moved into the 1950s, and I learned how many of the words I thought commonplace were newly minted. Academia was coined in 1956; nerd a few years earlier. The world didn’t have paralegals until 1951, and while we were aware of traffic jams, gridlock to describe a big one wasn’t used until 1980, the same year we added the high-five to describe congratulatory greetings – and infotainment became an acceptable way to present television news. And regrettably shows no signs of changing.

So it was that in the past few years I have learned a metrosexual is “a fashion-conscious heterosexual male;” a flexitarian is “a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat;” and, that tanorexia “is the condition of being addicted to tanning.”

There’s A Word For It can still be found in a good book store or quickly ordered. Come to think of it; I should find a new copy before the one I have disintegrates. I need one close at hand to prevent further decline to the status of a McWord – “a writer who serves up words as standardized as fast food.”

Please resist the impulse to comment.Thank you.