Month: June 2020

A World Turned Upside Down

When British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington at Yorktown in 1781, he wanted to leave the field of battle in smart moving formation, but Washington turned down his choice of marching music. He did accept a second choice and history records the defeated British Army left the field, not to a smart stepping military piece but to the subdued, even sombre, tones of an old song The World Turned Upside Down.

Whether by design or accident, it proved to be an accurate theme for the birth and early history of the United States of America. And, it could be re-played today without serious challenge as the foundations of the nation – laid with such hopeful promise close to 240 years ago – tremble as the Republic is threatened again. The world was then and is today turned upside down.

In recent days, the statue of first USA president, General Washington, was toppled from its historic pedestal, besmirched with muck, and daubed with paint and badly written insults. He is not the first American hero to be ripped from a place of honour. Privately, Washington supported abolition, but carefully. He once told members of his cabinet he feared eventual conflict between northern and southern states and warned should that happen he would support abolition. But, he still owned a hundred or more slaves to work his farmland. Many were buried in unmarked graves on his land. Historians say he treated them well in life and his will granted all of them their freedom when he died.

But, Wikipedia states: “There is no indication Washington ever favoured an immediate end to slavery. His abolitionist aspirations were confined to the hope that slavery would disappear naturally over time.”

One of the first American heroes once revered and then irreverently removed from a place of high honour was General Robert E. Lee. He was the man who led the Confederate Army in the great Civil War that would decide whether slavery should continue as a flourishing, brutal business or be ended with emancipation guaranteeing equality of life for all U.S. citizens as promised by then-president Abraham Lincoln.

Lee was an ardent defender of the right of white citizens to buy and own black slaves. They were citizens of South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas and joined later by Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. The Confederate States lost the four-year (1861-65) blood bath and eventually lost their right to own other human beings as slaves.

But many have never given up the belief that black people are, by virtue of being black, inferior. And that white men, who fought and died for the right to own slaves, are deserving of something close to sainthood. Confederate soldiers were honoured with statues and shrines and the old Confederate flag continued to fly in many of the Confederate States.

The campaign for equality is being waged more stridently than ever been these days – and the possibility of success is more encouraging than ever.

It was in June 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, that Dylan Roof, 21, entered the Emmanuel African Methodist Church, joined a prayer group and pulled a handgun to shoot and kill nine worshippers as they held hands in prayer. Roof was captured, tried, found guilty and remains in prison.

Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans at the time, decided strong action was required to awaken a public that seemed to be increasingly indifferent to Roof’’s murder spree, his trial and punishment. He decided to remove from a place of prominence a magnificent statue of General Lee, triumphant on his battle horse, defeated in a cruel Civil War, but still a warrior to be publicly admired. It took Mayor Landrieu two years to remove Lee and his horse. In a comprehensive report published this month in Vanity Fair, the former mayor was asked if seeing more statues being banished pleased him: “No. It makes me feel sad, actually, that it

took so long. There is no defence for having a monument in a place of reverence to a person who fought to destroy the country in order to preserve slavery.” 

Mayor Landrieu didn’t stop with a single action. After leaving the mayor’s office in 2018 he has travelled the country to talk about being “divided by design” and the confidence he has that the current wave of “Black Lives Matter” mass protests signify “a change is coming.”

We can hope so. It’s been a long and often bloody wait for an answer, in a world turned upside down, to a question we should never need to ask.

No Eye To Pity – No Arm To Save

Those of us who were around in the 1980s and old enough to be paying attention may recall a brief eyebrow-raising moment when we read in our daily newspaper that our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, had lost his seat on the prestigious United Nations Security Council. Eyebrows were probably raised again a few days ago when we read PM Justin Trudeau’s bid to recapture the seat had failed.

For the sake of accuracy, I should write “Canada’s seat” and note that it had been earned – won if you like – by an earlier First Minister Mike Pearson. He was the Canadian leader who joined a handful of power brokers to bring a shattered world out of the darkness of the Second World War into “the sunny uplands” of the peace upheld by the Security Council of the United Nations.

The United Nations was a dream then, and remains a dream today, hard to capture, even harder to hold, especially if you lean toward dullness as PM Harper did so often. If he cared about losing Canada’s seat at the most powerful Security Council table to Portugal, he didn’t show it.

To be fair, neither did the procession of PMs who followed him. Between 1979 and 1993 we had Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau (back for a second time), John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, and Jean Chretien. Two of them broke records to be remembered but not for great triumphs. Kim Campbell came close to superheroine status as the first female PM but survived for only six months; John Turner racked up only a few days more than two and a half months and holds the distinction of being the only PM to never sit in the House while in session.

Canada bumbled along building on Lester B. Pearson’s peacemaker model which saw Canada’s armed forces shipped to trouble spots around the world to maintain law and order. They were proud years for the nation, with red and white bars and the Maple leaf prominent on the white bar; fluttering from a tall pole or stuck on a battered rucksack or lapel button miniature. They made us feel welcome and we were proud.

But, as with most good things, times changed, and as the new Millennium edged its way into our lives the image of Canada as peacekeeper started to fade. The Harper Conservatives had different spending priorities; the army, navy, and air force suffered.

For more than 40 years, Canada had shipped 80,000 trained personnel around the world on peacekeeping missions. The success rate was high, but each mission seemed a little more expensive than the last. And, there was a growing danger that the Canadian “peace police” were being maneuvered into taking sides.

In the mid-1990s, Somalia became a troubled hot spot with rival tribes vying for control. Already plagued by drought and famine with rival tribes raiding and killing rival villagers for their meager food supplies, strong countermeasures seemed called for from the UN.

Canada’s answer was to call on the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment. A Battalion-sized force 1,400 strong from the battle-trained parachute brigade, hit the ground in Somalia in December 1992. Its assignment seemed clear: Bring order to the area. Convoy food and medical supplies to where they were required and make sure they got to people who needed them not the tribal leaders who filled their own food needs then sold what was left at exorbitant prices,

It would be years before details on how those orders were carried out were made public. Readers will find a calm telling of the story via Google – Somalia Affair/The Canadian Encyclopedia. My warning that it is unpleasant reading, is not given lightly.

Canada’s “best of the best” soldiers had a novel trap to catch thieves. They placed food and drink just inside the wire perimeter base with an easy to spot gap in the wire. One night they arrested a 16-year-old lad in the act of stealing the food.

Arrested in the act it was later admitted at trial the boy was … “tied up and beaten and tortured … the soles of his feet burned with a cigarillo … his shins struck with an iron bar as he pleaded with the soldiers to stop … crying “Canada, Canada, Canada … he was dead by morning … Much of his suffering was photographed by his abusers.”

Among them were Master Corporal Clayton Matchee and Private Kyle Brown. Three days after his arrest, Matchee attempted to hang himself with his shoelaces but succeeded only in permanently damaging his brain. He never left hospital. Brown was tried, found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in jail but was released after less than two years. Only one officer was ever charged with a minor offence of “encouraging a culture of aggression.”

In November 1994, then Prime Minister Chretien ordered the disbandment of the entire Canadian Airborne Regiment. In 1995, a Commission of Inquiry into the deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia commenced hearings – mostly televised. Military historian David Bercuson called it “the darkest era in the history of the Canadian military since the Second World War.”

Then toward the end of 1996, Chretien abruptly shut down the inquiry saying the people had lost interest and declining further comment.

Maybe he was right and still is, but there are also a lot of people in this world who don’t like unfinished business. It could be that some of them know that the “final report” of the Chretien commission in the summer of ’97 was not final at all but was, as Canadian Encyclopedia describes it, “an incomplete accounting of the scandal because the $25 million inquiry was shut down before it had even investigated the details of the actual atrocities in Somalia. As a result, the report focuses mainly on what it considered to be the institutional failures of the armed forces that led to those crimes, and what is described as a cover-up by military leaders.”

I’m sure many representatives of small countries voting last week at the UN had read every word there is to read on the Somalia Affair with special attention to the “evasion and deceptions which were apparent with many of the senior officers who testified before us (and) reveal much about the poor state of leadership in our armed forces and the careerist mentality that prevails at the Department of National Defence.”

And if they read that just before they voted on the Security Council seat – no wonder the UN delegates opted for Norway and Ireland. Canada and its peacekeepers got lost somewhere along the way.

Trump -The Antithetical

It didn’t take long to clear the placard-waving, chanting crowd from Lafayette Square and neighbouring streets on the first day of June. The small park in Washington DC is close to the White House and just a short walk from the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, better known as “The Church of the Presidents.”

Since the early 1800s, when the church was built, all but one sitting president has attended services at St. John’s or just dropped in to sit quietly and maybe ask for guidance in affairs of state.

And, on June 1st, President Donald Trump needed St. John’s, not for worship or prayer – but simply as a backdrop for what he felt would be an uplifting speech for a nation being ripped apart by dissent.

With a cluster of sycophants, the president strolled the now-empty street. As his ego demanded, he was a few steps ahead of the group until they reached an official St. John’s notice board with an outer wall of the church as background.

He stood for a moment, trying hard to convert a smirky grin into his version of a confident leader’s smile. In his right hand, the president held a book but didn’t open it. His support group shuffled to one side, knowing better than to intrude even peripherally when the king is on camera.

The cameraman capturing this shameful photographic opportunity was filming a rehearsed vanity in praise of Trump. He may also have been shooting the opening of one of the final chapters marking the fall from grace of a once-great nation – the United States of America.

It has never been acknowledged who ordered the small army of police officers, secret service personnel and fully armed National Guard soldiers to charge the crowd in Washington on June 1st. But, charge they did with nightsticks and batons swinging, shields used as battering rams.

Stunned by the ferocity of the charge, the crowd fell back as smoke, tear gas, pepper balls, and a few high-noise density firecrackers burst among them. If protesters fell or were knocked down, other protesters carried them away or tried to drag them from the path of the advancing juggernaut.

When the street was proclaimed safe, and President Trump did his victory stroll to St. John’s Church, his public relations department termed it “a brave walk” with a Winston Churchill look. They have no shame.

Neither does President Trump who laced his mini-speech at St. John’s – and later on Twitter – with a promise of more militant solutions to protest marchers. He was really a man of peace, a law and order man and would settle dissent. The people wanted calm, he said, and he would bring it even if it took trained soldiers to achieve his aims.

Suppression by force of arms is the ultimate solution in his playbook. When the message was delivered outside St. John, the president and his acquiescent ego-chamber strolled back to the well-protected White House.

I leave it to the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Mariann Budde, to politely comment on the June 1st decision to drive protesters from the streets. The bishop said it was wrong to use tear gas and other weaponry “as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”

“Antithetical” was a new word to me. The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides this definition: “Being in direct and unequivocal opposition: directly opposite.”

 Amen.

“Here Mate, Let Me Help…”

It’s 5 p.m., a bright warm promise of a summer evening. The spacious courtyard approach to the main entrance to Victoria General Hospital has a clean-swept deserted look. A few well-washed wooden benches where patients with mobility can sit and converse with visiting family are empty in the sun.

Well, not quite empty. One man and two women are sitting far apart waiting for friends, or maybe they’re staffers taking a well-earned break from the pressure cooker of a large general hospital in pandemic times.

The glass entrance doors hiss open and clank shut as the three, their sun break over, precede me into the main lobby where their identity as patient or staff is confirmed. A nod from security staff, followed by what has become the ritual washing of hands with germ-killing lotions, and they are on their way down the long corridors to wherever they belong in the hospital labyrinth.

I bring up the rear to answer a brief, polite questioning. Do I have a temperature? Have I travelled outside Canada in recent weeks? Have I been in the company of anyone known to be inflected to COVID-19? Half-a-dozen other easy-to-answer questions from runny nose to routine feeling unwell follow, and my negative responses lead to the final: “Are you here to visit someone or as an outpatient?” I respond: “The latter and looking for directions to Medical Imaging.”

Then comes the wash hands routine and, as I’m already wearing a mask, I’m on my way “down the main corridor, past the gift shop, keep walking until you see the electronic imaging sign. It’s clearly marked.” It is, and I’m right on time – 20 minutes ahead of my 5:30 appointment.

Check-in is simple once I can flash my relatively new BC Services Card issued a few months back when I “surrendered” my treasured driver’s licence for the BC Services Card and my new BC Identity Card.

Waved through to a waiting room across a corridor lined with patients on beds or stretchers, I carelessly dropped my wallet spilling ID cards across the floor. For a 96.6-year-old, that spells disaster because the floor is no longer as close as it used to be. There was a time, and not so long ago, that I would have just bent over, scooped the wandering cards up and carried on. Alas, the floor these days is a long way away, and any attempt to reach it, slowly or in haste, is extremely hazardous.

As I contemplate the scene, there’s a stirring in one of the corridor beds where a young man waits to be moved for treatment or a procedure. Before I can make what would surely be a disastrous lurch, he rolls off his bed, takes three or four steps and says very quietly: “Here, mate, let me help you,” and with one motion swoops down, picks up the straying cards and is back in his bed before his attendant knows he’s been up and about.

I have to pass his bed to get to my rendezvous with the imaging machine scheduled to take an inside look at a lung that tends to misbehave with COPD. It gives me time to thank him for his kind help. “No problem, mate. A pleasure to be able to help.” 

“Stay well,” I say. “You too, mate,” he replies with a face-wide, genuinely joyful grin. 

I wanted to share this story today in the hope that in this vastly troubled world we find ourselves living in, it might just bring readers a little of the joy it brought me. Just a vignette, the briefest of scenes, but we can dream that one day it might become as contagious as COVID-19.