The Death and Life of the Experimental Lakes

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The day the government announced it was getting rid of the Experimental Lakes once and for all, Mike Rennie and his crew were packing the trucks to head out into the field for the day. It was about ten past eight when an e-mail came in, instructing everyone to be gathered for a call at 8:30. So that’s what they did.

The scientists knew that any call like this wasn’t going to be good, but no-one was expecting it would be this bad. Sitting around the table, their bosses back in the city told them that not only were their experiments being cancelled, but the facility was going to be closed down, the staff bought out or reassigned, the buildings threatened with being ploughed back into the bush.

The Experimental Lakes Area is famous now, but even in May of 2012, the general public had no idea they were there, even though they were superstars in the world of science. There is only one place like it in the world: an isolated region of entire lakes that scientists can experiment on, with acids and chemicals and substances.

Over the past fifty years, the research conducted there had affected the whole continent, if not the world. The work done at the Experimental Lakes led to international agreements and sweeping industrial regulations. Its research helped prove the existence of acid rain, and led the United States and Canada to change their laws to control it. It showed how phosphates in laundry detergents were turning lakes green with algae; and led governments around the world to restrict or ban them. It became one of the world’s best sources of data on freshwater lakes, in an era when fresh water is becoming the most valuable resource of all. And the Canadian government, which ran it, just kept trying to get rid of it.

On that morning in 2012, some scientists simply headed on their way into the field, dazed, because going out into the field is just they did. Others, like Rennie, a cheerful, bearded new dad, went to war. Like his colleagues, he’d been told they’d get fired on the spot if they spoke out personally, but they had allies. “We essentially left that meeting, got on our personal computers, and on our personal e-mails started raising alarm bells,” he said. Within hours, a bush-fire of protest had spread around the world.

Their boss, Mike Paterson, a patrician scientist and a twenty-year veteran of ELA, was on the way back to Winnipeg from the lakes’ field station, some four hours away, when the news hit. He pulled over on the side of the road to take the call from a colleague, and ploughed on to the city, where his bosses were based.

“I immediately ran into my director of science’s office and said, what the hell is going on?” He got the same message: The government was getting out. The Experimental Lakes might have changed the way the world handles its freshwater, but now, it was over.

 

**

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Two years later, on the edge of Lake 222.

“It’s so beautiful,” Andrea Conine says, rinsing the toxic bottles in the lake, and chucking them one at a time into the boat. She’s from New Hampshire, a slightly reserved PhD student, and now here she is, dosing a Canadian lake with silver particles. “Sometimes I look out and say, what are we doing?”

The contraption beside her rumbles to life, and under the dock, a plume of silver-brown muck blossoms into the water. “You have to do something out here in the lake to see what happens,” she says. “There’s just so many things you can’t control for in the lab.”

Her colleague, Graham Blakelock, a masters student who has an aggressive beard and a trucker hat and keeps insisting this place gives him “a boner for science,” spent the morning cooking the stuff up. This meant taking a little vial of silver powder and blending it with lakewater in a gigantic, precariously-mounted industrial mixer until it’s frothing with shiny bubbles, like someone made a milkshake out of a liquid Terminator.

This is nanosilver: tiny anti-bacterial particles that are going into more and more products, like gym clothes, where the silver particles prevent odours by killing microbes. But compounds that start in clothes don’t always stay in clothes. They come out in the wash, and nanosilver particles are ending up getting dumped into rivers and lakes. What happens to these particles after that, though, is a mystery. Do they just sink to the bottom? Do they kill the bacteria in the lake? Do they get eaten by tiny creatures, which are eaten by bigger creatures?

So for the past few years, a team from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario has been trying to answer this question, by actually putting the nanosilver in the lake itself. They are, in a very literal sense, experimenting on a lake. It would be hard to do this anywhere else in the world: If government regulators didn’t cry blue murder, than cottagers would.

For decades, the Experimental Lakes Area was a secluded government research station, a sort of secret colony of scientists who, for a time, had wiggled free of the bureaucracy’s deadening grip. Founded in 1968, the 58 lakes are physically isolated from the outside world, hidden near the border between Ontario and Manitoba. Its founders, a team first put together in the early 1970s, conducted audacious studies that influenced the way entire continents handled their freshwater.

It was the ELA that proved that acid rain was harming real lakes, and they did it by actually adding sulphuric acid to a lake, and watching as lower rungs on the food chain died out, leaving fish malnourished and shrunken. Acid rain had become one of the most burning issues, as it were, of the late 1980s, and the ELA’s research strongly contributed to high-profile deals struck between Canada and the United States to control it.

Before that, in the 1970’s, it was the ELA that proved that phosphorus from detergents was turning the world’s freshwater lakes a toxic green – by adding phosphorus to turning one of its own lakes green with phosphorus-loving algae. (There was much debate over whether it was really phosphorus that was causing the blooms, or whether nitrogen was to blame. So the ELA partitioned off a lake, and boosted the phosphorus levels on one side – which promptly turned green.)

More recently, by adding a special, traceable form of mercury to a lake with a crop-dusting airplane, it proved that mercury was getting into fish from rainwater, and that expensive scrubbers on coal plants were worthwhile.

For all that, the experiments with real-world pollutants don’t poison the lakes irrevocably – the total mercury that was added in that experiment was about a teaspoon. Rather, the most of the experiments simply replicate the damage that’s done to real lakes in industrialized areas, and allow the researchers to watch closely as the lakes recover over a period of years.

What’s more, by spending decade after decade taking the measure of the lakes it wasn’t tampering with, it amassed an incredible store of data about what goes on in a pristine lake, and how they change from year to year.

To Mike Paterson, the place is like the uncle in a family that nobody knew much about until they died. “Then you go to the funeral, and you find out that they had all these incredible lives and done these amazing things. I feel like people only found out about ELA after we were dead – or, as it turns out, not quite dead.”

The Experimental Lakes Area is still there. In mid 2014, it took the unusual step of being taken over by a policy institute – the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, while having its work bankrolled for the next five years by the Ontario government, which perhaps saw a way to make a statement about supporting science without spending too much money.

Paterson – a gregarious, bespectacled figure who works in a t-shirt, shorts, and socks pulled up – is still its chief scientist. But their future isn’t guaranteed just yet. ELA has a five year lease on life to find its footing in the non-profit world. That means doing things that even they’ve never done before.

 

**

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There is a buzz around the camp this week is all about the kids coming on Friday. It used to be a relatively isolated government shop, but now it needs all the outreach it can get.

So, for the first time that anyone can recall, the elite science institution is opening its doors to real, actual kids, middle-schoolers from nearby Kenora, for a day of field-science lessons. By trade, the staff are scientists and not educators, and so there’s some trepidation on exactly how to do this. There are many meetings.

The long, winding road into ELA leads past a meteorological site full of oddball instruments – a big crystal ball that inscribes the arc of the sun; an assortment of slightly mystifying whirligigs – then past a big generator, a dozen ATVs in a neat row, to a little university campus deep in the woods: residences and laboratories, some of them gleaming new, the kind of place only a government would build and then try taking down.

Nobody here locks their doors. In the mornings, people make their beds and put little wooden chalks into their doorjambs, propping their room doors open. In fact, not much is locked at all – not the labs, not the trucks. The cafeteria hall door never shuts. At night, when the cook is asleep, scientists pad in and out the side door to raid the walk-in freezer and drink the fountain juice.

On Monday mornings, the place comes to life. The scientists want to show you what they do. In fact, they’re almost absurdly welcoming, like an isolated tribe of researchers that hasn’t yet learned to fully mistrust journalists. They want to bring you along, to throw you in their tin boats, to show you how to tie an “ELA knot” (an ingenious boat-hitching daisy-chain that no-one knows how to describe otherwise), to make you put on hip-waders and hold the net, to hold the water-level meter, to show you how the fish-tracking mechanisms work.

They are not big on titles, or even on last names. At breakfast, Chandra Rogers and Lee Hrenchuk, two the fish researchers, introduce themselves, waving across the table.

“We’re the fish people.”

Next to them, Lauren Hayhurst, an undergraduate from the University of Manitoba, nods.

“I’m the fish student.”

The fish people are close to ELA’s heart. Permanent staffers rather than visiting students, they keep track of the fish populations on both the lakes that are being manipulated, and the ones that are simply being closely observed. They go to enormous lengths to keep their fish alive – implanting $700 trackers in some, which keep pinging for years, measuring out their fish lives; putting little hole-punch nicks in the fins of others, and counting how many are caught again later.

Mike Rennie – the senior scientist amongst the fish people – says that it’s the very fact that they do the same thing year after year that makes their research so valuable.

“In a lot of these lakes, we’re noticing that lake trout are spawning two weeks later, on average,” says Rennie. “This is the thing with monitoring data: You don’t know it’s valuable until you’ve got 30 years of it.”

On this particular day, however, some fish will need to be sacrificed, dissected for a study on radioactivity; this is the fish people’s least-favourite thing. Most will die in the net, but the remainder need to be humanely dispatched by being thwacked on the head with a sawn-off foot-long steel pipe. It is the fish-thwacking pipe.

In the meantime, the day-to-day work of maintaining records of the lakes is all-consuming. Up and down the dozens of lakes, there are water-levels to be checked and instruments to be recalibrated by hand, and nick-finned fish to be caught in a seine net and measured on a Staples ruler. There is the lake whose outflow has been diverted by way of dynamite to check on, and the lake where a contractor is testing an insanely jury-rigged contraption that can, with computer-controlled accuracy, hydro-acoustically scan a lake for life that varies in size from plankton to pike.

At night, the scientists sit by the campfire on Lake 240, they swim around the little island in the middle, they play UNO with tequila shots as stakes, they pad out to the labs to fetch pitchers of homemade beer that at least two of them are making, possibly with the help of laboratory equipment. They talk about research papers and date and occasionally fall in love. More than one described the place as “summer camp for scientists.”

The past lingers. On cabinet doors, scrapbook pictures of the hundreds of students who have come and gone over the years, fanning out across the country and the world. Scientists like giving each other awards, and they linger on mantlepieces and shelves long after their recipients and inventors are gone. On one shelf, The Platinum Sandbag (“I think she filled a lot of sandbags one year?”) On another, the Orange Ravishing World Championship, awarded in 1970, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1989, and 2013, at the variety show that caps off every season.

The next day, Andrea and Graham and the crew of nanosilver students are back. They’re a six-person crew from Trent University, in their mid-20’s, three girls, three guys. It’s easy to put silver into a lake, but harder to determine exactly where it ends up.

Science involves a lot of schlepping. The students cart the silver liquid in backpacks, twice a week, across the lakes – into one tin boat, across a hiking trail, into another tin boat, across another trail, into a third boat – until finally it reaches the little lake. Then it gets fed into a hand-made silver-dispensing machine – a hand-built assembly made of a solar panel, marine battery, household thermostat timer, pump, and gas tank that they didn’t have time to test before putting it out there.

And then there’s manner of sampling. Today they’re drawing from the lake bottom, looking for larger invertebrates. It means getting into hip-waders and doing what appears to be a frantic ritual dance, kicking muck from the bottom into a net, and then dredging it up. They call it “kick-netting,” as in “you are brutal with your kick-netting.”

The kick-netting dredges up all kinds of macroinvertebrae – terrifying, bitey dragonfly larvae, katydids, or at least the little cylindrical houses they build for themselves, and the occasional fleeing leech.

“Aw, he’s a pretty one.”

“What are we going to do with him?”

“Put him in a bag.”

“Sorry, leech.”

“If I was a bug, I would just run at the sight of scientists.”

Back in the lab later on, the muck is carefully pawed-through for insects and other large invertebrate, before being pressed through a fine sieve and put in bottles that will be analyzed back in the university lab in Peterborough. Everything is catalogued.

“What’s Latin for ‘leeches’?”

This leech, meanwhile, keeps knocking over its little canister, and making an escape attempt across the counter. Andrea crab-walks past, having flooded her hip-waders in the lake. Graham, who has been unenthusiastically cross-referencing journal citations in the adjoining office, emerges. “Hey, are you going to say that this place gives me a boner for science? That quote was gold.”

 

**

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The Experimental Lakes Area is covered in little cairns and memorials. One, in a forest grove, marks the time, in the 80’s, when the place was burned to a cinder by forest fires – the scientists, according to legend, kept single-mindedly stopping at lakes along the escape route to take their measurements as they evacuated. Another sits at the top of a rise overlooking the site, where the scientists climb up to get a bar of cellphone reception, commemorating the most recent time the government tried to kill the place.

Why does the government keep trying to do away with the ELA? Surely it wasn’t the cost: The whole site runs on between $2 million and $3 million – by comparison, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the department that axed it, spends well over $1.5 billion a year. The attempted shutdown in 2012 became a media sensation, despite the fact that few Canadians had heard of the place. It quickly became a symbol what critics called the current Conservative government’s hostility towards science. The ELA, they argued, was coming up with inconvenient truths despite its tiny budget, and shutting it down sent a pro-business message to regulators and corporations alike.

The truth might be a bit more nuanced. The 2012 shutdown wasn’t actually the first try – previous governments, of different political stripes, had at various points in the 80’s and 90’s tried to shut ELA down as well.

In its way, ELA was always a rough fit with the government bureaucracy that ran it, which might explain how such a free-wheeling culture emerged at a government lab. Physically isolated from their minders for decades, it was a place where scientists could escape from the absurdities of bureaucracy and, if something needed to be done, simply go out and do it. “I guess I can say it now: I always thought ELA was an island of sanity in a sea of insanity,” says Mike Paterson, the chief scientist.

In later years, especially, there didn’t seem to be much love lost between the research institute and its cash-strapped departmental bosses, who were under increasing pressure to deliver industry-focused results. Paterson says that more than once, he was criticized for being a “cowboy.”

The station’s near-closure became a lightening rod for anti-government sentiment, but out at the field station, nobody seems entirely sure why the government tried thwacking them. “I never have really gotten a good explanation, and to be honest, I’ve given up even trying,” says Paterson. “The range of explanations vary from the lowest level to the highest level, and even given how close I am to this, I still don’t know.”

It could be that, rather than victims of a government conspiracy, ELA found itself at the confluence of simpler, duller enemies: A bureaucracy that it didn’t mesh with, and a government looking for easy savings and didn’t know what it was getting into by trying.

Around camp, there’s a good deal of optimism about IISD, the policy non-profit that’s taken on the ELA. Paterson argues there’s still a role for government-run science, but for now, the scientists seem to be enjoying freedom from its various miseries: the paperwork, the political pressure, the political isolation.

“We want this place to be a part of the community,” said Matt McCandless, the executive director of IISD-ELA, the non-profit’s point man for the lakes, as the vans full of schoolchildren rolled in. “The biggest message is that ELA is open for business. Everything is up and running.”

They’ve got five years to make sure it stays that way.

 

**

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Like a forest after a fire’s been through, little green shoots of life are returning to the Experimental Lakes Area. The next morning, the middle-schoolers had arrived, and appeared to be having a good time, despite a slightly lumpy journey up the ELA’s hills and dales courtesy of a van driver who wasn’t used to them. The Experimental Lakes still aren’t really geared for the outside world.

Standing on a porch by a door to the chemistry building, Mike Rennie was holding court for a crowd of students.

“We’re going to be doing an activity called PONDERING LIFE. We’re going to take you down to the pond where we’ll – ”

Here, Mike Paterson burst through the door behind him, knocking him forward. “Oh! Sorry.”

Paterson scuppered off. Rennie continued.

“Who here has seen a dragonfly larva?” he said. Some had. “The cool thing about dragonfly larvae is that if you look at them closely, they don’t have gills. They bring water in through the abdomen – right in through their butts!”

“Whoaaaa!” said a kid.

Across the way, on the porch of the fish lab, a younger set of teachers were giving a basic lesson in fluid dynamics, including an illustration of the way that water layers of different temperatures don’t mix, and a lesson in mixing acids and bases. The kids, cheered and wide-eyed, shuffled off to the next station.

“Who had fun?” called out a scientist.

“I did!” said a young girl in a pink shirt, toddling off with her beaker full of tinted acid/base solution. “I might drink this.”

Three scientists yelled at once.

“DON’T DRINK THAT!”

The afternoon ended under northern Ontario’s deep-blue skies. The scientists piled into a shuttle van for their weekend in Winnipeg. Graham Blakelock packed up a truck with a canoe and a friend for a weekend camping trip around the isolation of the experimental lakes. He hadn’t been sure about pursuing another degree before coming out, but ELA was having the same effect on him as it had on so many before him. “If I could just do this for the rest of my life, I’d be very, very happy.”

 

A version of this article was published in Oak Street Magazine.

With many thanks to Guillaume Simoneau, for originating this project.

 

At Ford Fest, an Army of the Alienated

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The amazing thing about any given Ford Fest is the diversity of people who will tell you the exact same things.

Old white ladies and young black men, long-established Scarborough residents and newcomers from Nigeria, the loudmouths and the philosophical, the leery and the cheerful. “I’ve been watching politics for 40 years, and it’s only once in a long while a sincere politician comes along, who really cares about the people,” a thoughtful, soft-spoken 85-year old woman told me as evening turned to night, pausing en route to her car.

Many years ago, she’d canvassed for the NDP under Stephen Lewis – another man of the people, who she said once sat down next to her and expressed his admiration for conservatives who were true to their principles. She doesn’t see much contradiction in liking Ford today: He’s real, she said.

I arrived at Ford Fest just as things were coming unhinged on the side of the hill. Thousands of people had shown up at the gathering, which was held in the big green bowl of Thomson park in Scarborough. It had also attracted protests from the increasingly restive anti-Ford citizens, including a few from the city’s queer community, finally fed up with the mayor’s passive-aggressive taunting.

There formed an enormous, screaming knot of people, cellphone cameras raised above heads, and TV cameras hoisted above those. In the centre, an elderly Ford supporter in a battered Canadian Forces uniform had his arms held protectively to either side of an even tinier young woman, a LGBT protestor. (Over the hill, one Ron Bannerjee, a garrulous pro-Ford, anti-Muslim activist, had actually put his hand to a protestor’s throat, before he appeared to realize that he too was being filmed, and scurried away.) Presently, a wildly gesticulating man was screaming at the old soldier about how Liberals were turning Canada into a socialist third-world country.

The crowd broke itself down like a stadium concert: There were hangers-on, there were fans, and then there were the super-fans, the costume-wearing true believers in whom something snaps in the midst of crowds and pressure. Small packs of excited individuals were running from one happening to the next, barging into the frame of any TV interview they could spot, waving flags and hollering “Rob Ford! Rob Ford.” I caught one, a thoroughly muscled young man in white t-shirt and greet baseball cap, as he came off one of these. Quickly becoming conversational, he gave a précis of what I heard over and over from other attendees.

“He’s a down-to-earth guy. He’s a real guy,” said Desmond Carr, the young man. “Everybody in this world is not perfect. We all make mistakes. He admitted his mistake, we’re moving on. This is what the world’s about. Everybody has their own points of view, and what they believe, and he has his own point of view, and what he believes in.”

A circle of his friends materialized behind him, chiming in.

“I just think he’s doing something for the city that other mayors couldn’t do, even though he’s not perfect, right?” said Daniel Barrett, who spoke gently and deliberately. “He’s making it more recognized internationally, to other cities.”

“He got Jimmy Kimmel,” someone said.

“Maybe he’s doing it in a phoney way, but he’s putting the city out there,” said Barrett.

Another young voice called out from the back. “They hate him cause he’s homophobic.”

“Everybody doesn’t have to agree with that stuff. Everybody doesn’t have to be okay with homosexuals,” said Barrett. There were murmurs of approval.

A stone’s throw away, thousands of people stood placidly in two great lineups, one to meet the mayor, who was being mobbed in a small tent in the distance, the other for hamburgers.

“That’s not the real Ford Nation,” said Bev Underhill, a Scarborough resident standing in line, sunglasses over his face, gesturing to the ruckus behind him. Most people, he argued, don’t care about Pride one way or the other. So what does it mean to be a part of Ford Nation, then? He shrugged for a second, then said, “It means the real people.”

The word “real” kept coming up, which is odd where it comes to a mayoralty that’s only vacillated between unreal and surreal. Everybody wants a “real” mayor, and everyone wants to be the “real” people. Suburbanites like to say they’re the real people, but then, downtowners do the exact same thing. The whole notion of “Ford Nation” is just as much a creation of progressives who’d like to lump their foes into one handy bucket that can be waved off, as much it is of the Fords, who’d like to pretend they actually have a nation.

But Ford’s core constituency is not a group of any given colour or creed, but a coalition of people who feel they’re on the outside of a booming, changing city. There are lots of different ways to feel alienated – geographically, economically, culturally, ideologically – and Ford appeals to all of them. Those alienations will still be there, even if Ford goes away – they just won’t be so conveniently gathered in one place.

His supporters aren’t dupes. They know they’re backing a guy whose chief talent is causing all hell to break loose downtown. Ford doesn’t offer them solutions, but he does offer them attitude. And since that attitude is sincerely held, the dishonesties that crop up along the way are incidental. This is Rob Ford’s great realness: he believes his own swagger, and he’s got just the swagger that his supporters crave. Finally, somebody’s honest-to-god swaggering for them.

 

This piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail

George Takei: Living in fear, good urban planning and William Shatner

There’s no pinning George Takei’s life down. As a child, George Takei was imprisoned in World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans. As Sulu, he helped transform the portrayal of Asians in American television. And in later life, he’s become an equal marriage crusader, voiceover star, friend to Howard Stern and nemesis to William Shatner, and septuagenarian sex symbol.

Now, “Being Takei,” a new documentary playing next week at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, ties these threads of his life together, drawing them back to his life with his endearingly fretful husband (and partner of 25 years) Brad Takei.

 

I watched the documentary last night, then watched an “Adventure Time” cartoon to relax. Ten minutes in, there was your voice again. You’re everywhere these days.

I’m really not as ubiquitous as I used to be. I need my afternoon naps now. As a matter a fact, in four more days, I’ll be celebrating my 77th birthday.

Why did you make the documentary?

I have been a social justice advocate, whether it’s the civil rights movement, or the peace movement during the Vietnam war, or the campaign to get redress and an apology from the US government for our unconstitutional incarceration. Now I’m active in the equality movement for the LGBT movement.

When [director] Jennifer Kroot approached us with the idea for this documentary, Brad and I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to do away with the perceptions that people have about same-sex marriages. We’ve been together for more than a quarter-century. We have a genuine partnership. This is an opportunity to show the normality of our loving marriage.

It was a very difficult decision for Brad. Brad is profoundly camera-shy. And in some scenes he might look like that proverbial deer caught in the headlights. But bless his heart, he agreed to do it, even though it was an excruciatingly uncomfortable proposition.

I was reading an article in which Kroot described your marriage as a “functional-dysfunctional love story.”

[laughs] Yes, we are opposites. Brad is almost infuriatingly organized and a neat freak. We met in a gay running club. He’d run a few marathons and he was the best runner in the club, and stunningly good looking. I thought, I’ll get him to train me for my first marathon. He was very successful. I finished my first marathon, and he became more than my trainer.

I hope you won’t take it the wrong way if I suggest he’s the star of the film. 

He steals the movie, I think.

When did you go from being famous for being Hikaru Sulu to being famous for being George Takei? 

I think that was when I was persuaded to be the official announcer for the Howard Stern show. Via my periodic appearances on the Howard Stern show, people started to recognize me for me, and not a character on Star Trek. And certainly, that’s accorded me that much more megaphone volume in doing my advocacy work.

You seem to have a rapport with Howard Stern. 

He can’t tolerate dishonesty. He’s got a keen antenna for that. He was particularly interested in our sex lives, and I must say I am often stupidly honest, and I pay the price for that when I get home.

Was gay rights even on the public radar when you were first doing Star Trek, in 1969? 

No, it was not even talked about. Everything was very secretive. The gay bars of that time were usually down very seedy-looking alleyways. Even in gay bars, people had to have their guards up, because periodically, police would raid gay bars, and they would march the clients out, load them onto paddywagons, take them to the police station, photograph them, and fingerprint them and put their names on a list. They had leverage over you then. If they let that list out, your career was in jeopardy, and maybe even your membership in your family. For me to be pursuing a career as an actor was the most dangerous, foolhardy, risky thing to be doing.

Were you scared? 

I was passionate about acting, and I took that chance. And people in the business are sensitive people. Certainly most of my work colleagues from Star Trek guessed that I was gay. They knew that they could destroy my career if they made the announcement that George Takei is gay. So they were all very cool about it. Only one person had no idea of my sexuality. It went right over his head.

Are we going to name names?

Oh, he’s one of yours. He’s a Canadian.

Who appears in the documentary, no less. 

I had to bargain with him to get him to do the interview.

So much gets made out of this running animosity with William Shatner.

Isn’t that silly?

Does it really exist, or is there an element of performance here? 

There is an element of that now, but Bill was not the easiest person to work with. If you know who he is, he’s supremely self-obsessed. There’s a thing called actor’s etiquette. That did not apply to him.

I didn’t realize that you had been so politically active. You worked on governor’s races and presidential campaigns, starting with Adlai Stevenson.

All my campaigns failed, except when I got behind Tom Bradley for mayor of LA, and when he won, he appointed me to the Southern California Rapid Transit District board. I had been an architecture and city planning student at Berkeley. The mandate from mayor Bradley was to get started on building a subway system.

In Canada, when I fly over Toronto, I can always peg where your subway stations are, because that’s where you have your high-rise areas. You organize your city in a way that’s much more efficient and salubrious.

Salubrious! 

Well, that means healthy.

You were on that board for over a decade.

Eleven years. The reason I stepped off was, an actor doesn’t need to be wildly popular, but he cannot afford to be hated. And when you start putting up detour signs and residential neighborhoods get flooded with traffic, I didn’t want people demonstrating in front of my home.

What’s it like being Internet-famous? 

It’s useful. It began that when we developed “Allegiance,” a musical based on the internment of Japanese Americans. It’s a subject that very few people know about.

We needed to prepare an audience, and I thought social media would be the best way to reach a lot of people. I had no idea it would grow that fast. My base was primarily made up of sci-fi geeks and nerds. I started with trial and error, and I found that humour was what got the most likes and shares. Then, as the audience grew, I thought, why not try a social justice issue: equality for the LGBT community. I did that, and it exploded.

Do you see yourself as a culture warrior?

No, I just see myself as an advocate of justice and equality for all people.

 

This piece was originally published in The Globe and Mail

America: A Service We Don’t Get Here

On the day that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favour of Barack Obama’s health-care plan, Environment Canada issued a nation-wide Smug Alert. You could see it floating across the border, a cloud of self-satisfaction with America’s foibles. And who can blame us? It’s nice to have something that the family next-door doesn’t, especially when half the family really, really wants it but the crazy uncle screams blue murder every time they even talk about it.

But before we go out and get our health cards framed, let’s pause tomorrow,and celebrate this 4th of July by acknowledging what we all, in our hearts, know to be true: Americans have stuff we want.

Everyone has their list of envies, tucked away in the back of their heads. I asked around. For instance, I’m told Americans have something called Dramamine (“Like Gravol without the dopeyness”), and a fake meat product from a place called Morningstar Farms. (“Loudly, proudly synthetic, in a weirdly tasty way. Also very flammable.”)

They have CVS pharmacies that stay open 24 hours a day, rather than Shoppers Drug Marts that have pictures of a moon and stars on their logos to boast that they’re open all the way to 9. They have milk in a jug, for jug fans. There’s “Nordstrom’s Rack,” which cleverly doesn’t tell you exactly what’s on the rack. Ties? Shoes? Prisoners?

I know what Americans have that I myself covet. Americans have reasonable cellphone contracts. Smartphones are not built to pass the test of time. I wish they were, but they’re not; their hardware and software slows to a sludgy halt after two years. That, coincidentally, is the length of most American contracts.

Canadian contracts, on the other hand, last seventeen years or until you cry, whichever comes first. Americans also have many cellphone providers, who compete for customers’ business, rather than relying on the knowledge that consumers will only have it worse if they go to the other guys.

Americans have Waffle Houses. Waffle Houses combine all the grease of your local greasy spoon (usually very greasy) and endow it with the consistency and ubiquity of franchised national operation. An all-night greasy spoon at every interchange! Canada, my friends, has a waffle housing crisis. It is time for a national waffle housing strategy.

Americans get a real working Internet, with the moving pictures and everything, delivered the way it was meant to be. This is because they make all the moving pictures themselves. Netflix Canada is a great service if you want to enjoy the entire six-year run of “The Nanny.” It’s not really Netflix’s fault that Canada is the place where digital content goes to die. Licensing agreements hamstring everyone. Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, Amazon, Sony all grind to a halt at the border. Even Siri, who’s liable to break into a monologue from your pants, gets verklempt if you ask her for directions within Canada.

Americans get unsweetened iced tea. Americans understand that not everything needs to have a cup of refined sugar forcibly dissolved into it to make it palatable; merely most things.

Americans have nice drivers on their highways. The country that gave the world cars actually knows how to use. I’ve driven America up and down, from the freeways of Los Angeles to the New Jersey Turnpike, from Illinois to Texas, and do you know where the drivers suddenly become terrifying? As soon as you cross the border into Ontario. Are you merging onto an American Interstate? Americans will pull over to let you in. In Ontario, driving instructors teach youth to wave their arms in the air like Muppets and yell GERONIMO! as they plunge down the onramp. It’s the only way.

Americans have highways, period. The Interstate system is a wonder of the world. Canadians grudgingly twin their highways where populations demand it, before they taper off into ribbons of asphalt through the bush. Americans twin their highways because they’re in America. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the furthest tip of Northern Michigan, hundreds of miles away from anything resembling a city. You’re in America now, and that blue sign is a seal of quality.

Americans have one-dollar pizza, if you go to New York. They also have New York, which is generally considered a plus. Americans have the spirit of competition and self-promotion, which also seem to be subject to licensing restrictions, because we don’t get them here either. Americans like a soapbox, like a sales pitch, like a person who goes out there and tells you why he’s top. (And it usually winds up being a he.)

Americans have Hillary Clinton. This means that they not only have a muscular foreign policy, but someone in the inner circle of power who is smart enough and strong enough to stand up to their head of government. Americans get WiFi on planes.

Americans get America. They get its size, its scope. The more you travel America, the more you understand why Americans don’t get out see the world as much as they might, because their country is a world unto itself. If you like big cities – and I mean, really, truly big ones – you can get them any style you want! Metropolitan, metrosexual, tight, sprawling, post-industrial, historic, artificial-and-probably-doomed.

On the coast of Florida, in the middle of a housing bust, you can get your head around the fact that somehow these people pulled the country together and built rockets that went to the moon with a million moving parts, and none of those moon rockets blew up, even though they were using the Imperial system. The Soviet moon rockets, by comparison, blew up over and over again. It was really something.

Imagine it from the American’s perspective. It’s one thing to know that man, in the abstract, went to the moon. It’s another to know that it was you, your government, your parents, the guy down the road, that made that happen. Suddenly the place seems like a fortress of unlimited potential – invulnerable, if not insensate to the storms it has unleashed upon itself.

Canada and the United States are separated from us by the world’s longest one-way mirror. Americans look and see a slightly greyer version of themselves; Canadians survey the landscape and see the world’s largest, best-armed shopping mall.

We might do them a disservice that way. There are things, from here, we just don’t get. America is a service not available in Canada.

(This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.)

So long, and thanks for the yurts: The end of Occupy

In the end, it came down to a single yurt. The police, who were going to great lengths to smile at everybody, had formed a circular cordon around the library yurt, wherein a sole resistor had holed himself up. After what may have been the world’s longest police negotiation with an unarmed man in a yurt, he was arrested with equal parts delicacy and manpower. The half-dispersed crowd stood around, occasionally mustering a chant of “Don’t hurt the yurt!”

The yurt was not hurt. The unions had paid good money for it. It was dismantled – colourful outer skin, construction grade weather-proofing, a hairy inner layer and then wood skeleton – and piled into a rental truck that had been backed onto the lawn. All the other tents had already been carted off. One guy had climbed a tree, and was yelling “Occupy your trees! Occupy your trees!”, to little evident effect.

Workers crowbarred up the wooden crates that the yurt had sat upon, and crushed them in the back of a garbage truck. Across the park, police processed their handful of detainees on the spot. A young woman slid in to rake up the leaves that remained, and Occupy Toronto – a day earlier, a roiling little community – was gone.

On the surface, we’d seen so much of it before: The willy-nilly assemblage of activists, the jumble of beliefs and demands, the cocktail of idealism and grievance. Yet Occupy managed to become more than the sum of its parts. Far from the camp-site, I kept hearing comfortable members of the middle class who, in other years, would have rolled their eyes and changed the channel, voicing their support.

Perhaps the best way to understand Occupy wasn’t to look at it too closely. Up close, it was too easy to get caught up in the vivid details: The cacophony, the squabbles, the characters, the “characters,” the prayerful quality of the assemblies, in which hundreds would amplify a single speakers’ voice by repeating it en masse, phrase-by-phrase, sounding very much like the congregants in St. James Cathedral above them. In theory, this was a democratizing action. In practice, one wondered if mass-recitation had the same pacifying effect on anarchists as Anglicans.

In New York City, Zucotti Park had been transformed into a solid, malodorous mass of tents, but Occupy Toronto had built an impromptu village, with little cottages, larger structures, common spaces and thoroughfares. The local dog-walkers may have disagreed, but it was an intriguing use of public space. As attractions go, a semi-autonomous self-policing quasi-anarchist state is a pretty good way to animate a park.

Like the Occupy movement in general, the encampment was a Rorschach blot. A visitor – especially a visitor with a column to write – could find evidence for pretty much any take they wanted. If you wanted to find a wingnut so you could complain it was populated by wingnuts, you could. If you wanted to find an achingly earnest student so you could complain it was run by the entitled, you could. If you wanted to find an anarchist, so you could ask what anarchists actually believe (it’s hard to pin down, but it never quite seems to be anarchy), there were plenty of those, too. It was a street movement, and it embraced the unruliness of the streets and those who live on society’s fringes.

But, of course, it was more than just a bunch of people hanging around in a park. The Occupiers brought with them an entire system of governance, like colonists bent on enacting utopia on virgin shores.

One night, not long before the eviction, a squabble broke out between the folks at the south end of the park, who were having a great rumpus around the drum circle, and the folks at the gazebo who were trying to talk strategy. A delegation went down to the drum circle to entreat them to kindly shut up.

This was done in the best Occupy spirit. Arguments went back and forth through the “people’s mic,” interspersed with heckles, asides, and furtive thumps from the one guy who wouldn’t put his drum down. The leaders patiently explained that it was late, the neighbors would be upset, and other Occupiers were trying to work. When this didn’t wash, other arguments were trotted out.

“We’re prototyping a new society here!” said one young man.

“I’m a hippie!” shouted a boomer on the fringes. “I’m not going to take any bullshit!”

Insisting on drumming, said another, “is kind of a 1% thing to do.” The speaker suggested that Occupy values might best be expressed by chanting. There was a bit of humming, and then silence. But the drumming had stopped.

There was more than a little gong-show to the process. But on the other, here were these people, engaging in the messy business of organizing a scraggly assortment of citizens through the most peaceful of means. Consensus-building is not an inherently flawed way of doing business; merely a tricky one.

Which brings us back to one of the basic contradictions of Occupy: Was this a protest against injustice and inequality, or an experiment in creating a new community? The Occupy answer to this, as to everything else, seems to be “Both! At the same time! Everything at once!”.

This was part of their argument for being allowed to stay in the park on Charter grounds: The values they espoused at the camp, they argued, were an enactment of the changes they wanted to see in society, and so the camp itself was an act of expression.

And while this was an intriguing thought, it was an odd move for a protest movement: If they’d been legitimized, it wouldn’t have been an occupation; it would have been a camp-out. And if the Charter recognized the creation of utopian micro-states as an act of free expression, then I would waste no time barricading the Dufferin underpass with Canada Post boxes and declaring the People’s Republic of Parkdalia.

This would not be a workable precedent. But the Occupiers had a point: You can’t separate the protest from the camp, because the peaceful, engaging, talkative, inclusive values they espoused there were critical to their appeal.

Occupy achieved something that the general activist movement has failed at doing for years: It mounted a sustained, peaceful protest that caught the attention and sympathy of the comfortable middle classes. It was formed in a moment of profound popular distress at the way the world is unraveling; it was at once a symptom and cause of unrest. Its presence sparked a million dinner-table conversations, and became a platform for political action in other parts of the system. It’s helped to reopen discussion about bigger items of social consensus that had long-since been assumed to be closed.

The fact that Occupy decided to decamp without violence has left its legacy intact. It has social capital to spend, even if it’s short on real estate. But then, I think Occupy had a bigger agenda than occupation: It was building a big-yurt movement. May it continue.

 

This piece was originally published in The Toronto Standard

In Parkdale

parkdale
One thing about hanging out with a dead cat in Parkdale is that people talk to you.

“I went to try to get latex gloves,” said the burly guy with the Jamaican accent, who’d seen the cat get hit. But there were no gloves at the store, and by the time he got back, the time for helping the cat had come and gone.

“It’s life, I guess,” he said.

I called 311 when I saw it, looking at first like a big squirrel in the gloom. I gave a yelp when I realized it was cat. It was almost gone, barely breathing, lying on its side. There was no collar. You could see how it had made it from the middle of the road to the curb, but no further.

I’d never called 311 before. It’s the number you call when you need the city to do something, but you’re not entirely sure what.

The operator said she’d pass me over to Animal Services. She said she’d need my name, and quoted me the bylaw that required her to record it. It’s alright, I said, you don’t need to quote me the bylaw. She explained that she had to quote me the bylaw, and quoted me the bylaw that required her to quote the bylaw. The cat gave a last spasm and died. I hung up, and then it was just me, and the body, in a puddle of shadow on King, waiting for something to happen.

People came and went. Some saw the cat and looked away. Some mumbled sadly to themselves. At least two passerby leaned in and gasped, “I hope that’s not my – no, no it’s not,” and walked on.

A couple of younger guys passed by with their three-legged dog, a wolfy-looking mutt the colour of steel wool. They stopped and looked down, commiserating. The three-legged dog hopped over and gently sniffed at the cat, then looked up at its owner and backed away.

The owner, in his toque, came back a few minutes later to ask if I wanted a coffee or something while I waited.

People passed. “OH KITTY!” yelled a shrill, tall woman in heels, over her shoulder, but didn’t break her stride. Across the road, Nabi, the convenience store cat who sleeps on a flattened box atop of the potato chips and serves as an ambassador of zen, peered out from behind bars.

This stretch of King is an anachronism in a gentrified Toronto, a block that makes a display of poverty, rather than tucking it away in living rooms and motel rooms and restaurants. A concentration of medical institutions and an assortment of housing for the challenged, the addicted, the ill and the down-and-out sustain the establishments that cater to them.

Even the dive bars are institutional: Spartan rooms with simple tables that open in the morning and host their charges all day long. They are not welcoming places. (“There is no pizza at Nick’s Pizza Bar,” begins an outraged review on Yelp.) Regulars cluster outside the front doors of each, all day and all night, smoking, yelling, hurrying from one to the next, working through the block’s dramas.

At the payphones, a man will finger the coin slot for returns, or call the hospital and ask for a friend. At McDonalds, people hang around the planter out front, holding onto their medium-soft-drink cups so they can go inside and get another drink later. At the little plaza, sometimes people ask for money, other times they just fix you with stares.

On good days, you can float past it. On bad nights, it will get to you. City folk have a bad habit of making a fetish of the scruffy aesthetic and sneering at forbearers who fled for the suburbs. But people didn’t flee urban blight because they were unenlightened and had yet to receive the good word of Jane Jacobs. They left because urban blight can be genuinely difficult. The imaginary bohemian past is every bit as hollow as the sanitized gentrified present.

It’s 2011, though, and you can’t go too far wrong in downtown Toronto. It’s safe to live here. There are kids everywhere in the afternoons; the place is alive and they sell chocolate pastries at the Hasty Market. (In this way, I tell people, Parkdale is very much like Paris.)

And if, at night, you sit on the curb with the conversation piece of a cat that looks like it could be asleep, but is not, you’ll see people teeter on the line between keeping to themselves and nosing in, like we all have to do each day, having made the choice to live so close to so many other people.

One man appeared behind me when I wasn’t looking. He nudged the cat’s paw with his boot, and I wheeled on him. He was rumpled, maybe drunk.

“I had a cat,” he said, a bit apologetically, and stumbled onto the street. “I had a cat.”

In Parkdale, you can see the grandness of people in close quarters – the group homes, the hospitals, the community groups, the tutoring centres, the soup kitchens, the churches, libraries, the merchants, the fact that you can call 311 in the middle of the night and the municipality will do a dead animal the dignity of collecting it within an hour, because everybody’s dignity is bound up in it. And you can see that the world will stay its course anyway. It doesn’t mean that any of it is futile. Sometimes life is a harm-reduction strategy.

Animal Services arrived within an hour, at around midnight. It was a van full of cages with police lights on top. They put the lights on, and an attendant in a blue work-suit hopped out with a bag for the cat.

“It’s already stiff,” she said.

“I’ve been here a while.”

“We were up at Sheppard…” she said.

And as she bent to gather it up, a young woman on a bike rode up, looking a bit gaunt. She was one of the ones who had wondered if she knew the cat earlier. This time, she looked closer.

“Oh!” she said. “Oh no! Is that my kitty?”

“Was he neutered?” asked the attendant.

“My kitty! My kittybones!” she said, voice rising to a shriek. He’d never gone so far from home, she gasped. The attendant assured the woman that the city would keep the body in case they wanted it.

But the woman looked closer at the cat, thinking back on her own, and unsteadily reassured herself. She suddenly seemed cheerful. “I think he had white on his paws. He’s a big boy. I have to check my apartment.”

She smiled, and rode off.

Call 911: The juggernaut’s gone missing

For all the lunacy we’ve seen this week, the most striking image of Rob Ford had nothing to do with the mayor calling 911 on a TV comedian, and everything to do with sharks.

On Tuesday, Toronto’s city council passed a ban shark fins, which are often brutally harvested from live fish. It was an odd debate, which went on for hours in a packed chamber. Council, which is more used to considering rights-of-way, was suddenly considering motions – projected on a storey-high screen – like “Amend the Licensing and Standards Committee Recommendation 1 by inserting the word “illegal” before the word “shark”.” One young man, bearded and wide-eyed, showed up in a shark outfit. All the reporters asked him for a quote.

Rob Ford was not in favour of the ban. Believing that municipalities should stay out of their residents’ business, adventurous regulations that would take the city into uncharted legal waters was never his style.

But the moment of truth arrived and council finally voted, and there was a gasp in the chamber. The giant screen lit up in green “Yes” votes. Almost the entire council had voted for the ban – and against the mayor. Only three of his staunchest supporters, including the deputy mayor and Giorgio Mammoliti, his outspoken right-hand man, had voted with him.

An enormous cheer went up, and it went on, and on. Members of the Chinese community, rallied for restaurateurs’ lucrative cause, hurried for the exit. The media and public both rushed down to the edge of the council floor. The city had just made a move that would make headlines around the world, and put pressure on other levels of government. Councillors rushed to the camera lights, arms over each others’ shoulders in the crush, relishing that rarest of moments in Rob Ford’s Toronto: A good-news story.

All the while, in the empty corner of the council floor, Rob Ford sat glumly with Mammoliti, fidgeting in his chair and looking on from afar as his colleagues celebrated. In that moment, he was very much the councillor he’s always been: The guy who sits at the edge of council and the edge of town and says no, over and over, according to his principles. An outsider.

This isn’t to say that Ford is a spent force, even though the putative Ford Nation appears to have evaporated as a political entity. Just the day before, he succeeded in pushing through a contentious new round of privatized garbage collection. He will win votes and lose votes. But six months ago, he was a juggernaut, hardly losing on a single question.

In defeat, he didn’t seem to know what to do. The image of Ford looking on while formerly unwavering allies clamoured for attention was impossible to ignore.

Two days later, the 911 imbroglio erupted. The mayor had previously been rudely set upon in his driveway by CBC comedian Mary Walsh and a cameraman. After asking to pass by with a couple of nervous chuckles, Ford retreated back through his front door, where he called 911. When the police didn’t show up fast enough, Ford got agitated and called 911 again, venting his frustration on the operator.

Everyone wants to know what happened next – did Ford curse out a female 911 operator, as the CBC reported? Did he merely express his frustration in salty terms, as he and his brother claim? (When Doug Ford is doing damage control for you, and not the other way around, you know you’re in trouble.) As the claims and counter-claims escalated, a ridiculous run-in gained real stakes: Either a public broadcaster is mis-reporting damaging claims, or the mayor of Canada’s largest city is lying to protect his reputation. And either way, embarrassing personal information leaked from the city’s law enforcement.

But for Rob Ford’s relationship to the city, the damage has been done. The fact remains that, confronted by a pair of media wahoos – one of whom bore a camera, and the other he mistook for one of his old adversaries, the men-who-dress-as-women – he ran inside and dialed 911.

Days after the city was noted in the global press for the shark-fin ban, it had reclaimed its rightful place as a national laughing-stock. Mel Lastman called in the army to deal with a snowstorm because he was worried that blocked roads would hamper emergency services, and he didn’t want to risk an unnecessary death.

Rob Ford, on the other hand, dialed 911 because he was either scared of or irritated by a TV personality with a plastic sword in his driveway. Then he called back because the police hadn’t arrived fast enough. Fear and entitlement are not winning qualities in a leader. Mary Walsh’s act might be obnoxious, but Rob Ford’s helplessness is even harder to watch.

As columnist Rob Granatstein pointed out in the Star, Ford would have made a great ombudsman, using his bull-headedness to help citizens to get good customer service from city hall. He was, by many accounts, a great constituency guy. But his personal amiability didn’t scale, and he doesn’t seem to know how to handle the curveballs his job throws at him.

We’ve gone from a mayor who operated by juggernaut, to a man who, at times, hardly seems to be a mayor at all, peering in from the edge of council, peering out from his front window. We have three years left on the clock. That leaves us with two questions: Can Rob Ford learn to become a leader on the job? And if not, how will our system pick up the slack?

 

This piece was originally published in The Toronto Standard

Jack Layton: Downtown Canadian

Where the two main roads of Hilton Beach, Ontario meet at an angle in front of the Hilton Beach General Store, there is a floral planter (maintained by the St. Joseph Island Horticultural Society) with a flagpole in the middle. The flag is at half-mast.

Hilton Beach is the smaller of two villages on this island, possessed of a general store, LCBO, a large, modern marina, and a couple of waterfront patios that cater to island cottagers who come in for a meal, and the big-city crowd that boats down for the day. The big city is Sault Ste. Marie. This is where we are.

The flag at the crossroads is at half-mast for Jack Layton. It’s hardly the only flag at half-mast up here. I’m not even counting the poor Legion Hall in town, whose flag barely gets a chance to reach the top these days. The Husky truck stop at the edge of Sault Ste. Marie – a truck stop! – the kind with the flag the size of a football field, has lowered theirs too.

I want to shake these people. I want to say: Do you have any idea who you’ve lowered this flag for? Do you know where he lived? Do you know how close that place was to the CN Tower? Have you lost all sense of parochial grievance? If so, what do you have left that qualifies you as Canadians?

The fact that Layton achieved a national breakthrough in life while coming from exactly the wrong place for electoral credibility is just as remarkable as the outpouring of national emotion after his death. It’s worth remembering that his success this spring came – perhaps not despite, but at least while being – exactly the kind of person who is not supposed to win elections in 2011.

Never mind the fact that the guy was from Toronto, that great receptacle of negative emotions. The guy was from downtown Toronto. The guy was a socialist from downtown Toronto. The guy was a socialist who lived in a brick house in downtown Toronto with his socialist wife and spent his time pursuing a day-to-day socialist agenda of eating Chinese food and installing solar panels and worrying about the homeless. He rode a bike, for crying out loud. A bike! He wanted other people to ride bikes. He put little places to park bikes on the sidewalks and run bike lanes down the roads. He was a fussy downtowner who fussed about downtown.

Twenty-two years ago, U of T was trying to do one of those things it does, and demolish some stately Victorian houses so it could build a luxury hotel on campus. A group of students – some of whom lived in those houses – decided to try to put a stop to it, so they called Jack Layton.

Layton had an idea. To rally the community to their cause, the students needed to give a sense of what a tower would do to the area. So, at his urging, a group of students congregated on what was then a field south of Bloor, and started blowing up black balloons filled with helium. They tied the balloons to 150-foot long tethers, and tied them at intervals around the perimeter of the proposed tower, creating a virtual tower, billowing in the sky. Then they called the media.

If you dig through the archives of the student newspaper at that college, you’ll find a special edition they printed when city council killed the project, a picture of a young Layton on the cover, holding forth in chambers. (The OMB eventually overturned council’s decision, but by that point the market had soured and the deal fell through.)

It’s a small-potatoes story, but I’m fond of it because years later it would become my college, and my college paper. And all small potatoes are very big potatoes indeed for the people who own them.

Jack Layton was a city councilor. Maybe he never stopped being a city councilor. Even once he was leading the NDP, you could still get him to call you for an earful about U of T or the industrial zoning snafu in Riverdale.

And this is the stuff a national leader is made of?

Well, yes.

Somehow, Jack rolled on past the tiresome identity politics that define this and every other country. As he became a national figure, nobody was ever able to tag him as a Toronto Elite, even as everyone south of Eglinton got tarred with that brush. Even as he remained proudly and intimately entwined not just in his city’s affairs, but in its way of life.

He was a downtowner. He lived the way that people live in downtown Toronto. We know what this means; it involves bike helmets and whatnot. In the last year, there’s been all kinds of political sport made of demonizing people who live like this, in goofier and goofier terms: Socialists became Toronto Elites became “not real” Torontonians became bike-riding pinkos became communists became communists who are plotting a takeover. And as easy as it is to write this all off as unhinged grandstanding, rhetoric seeps its way into reality. There was a warning beneath the silliness: Downtowers can’t connect with real people, and certainly won’t win elections.

Well, sucks to that.

Jack never ran away from his downtown background; neither did he run on it. He wasn’t an obnoxious urbanite (and we all know the breed). He didn’t go to Ottawa as the Honourable Member for Universe-Centre. For all of his activism for cities, the urban agenda – perhaps frustratingly – wasn’t at the core of his electoral pitch. I’d like to think he represented the best of downtown, not its occasionally-myopic worst. He was cosmopolitan in the sense that he wasn’t just a citizen of the whole world, but also of his whole country. Downtown Toronto was the place he came from, not the place he wanted to turn the country into.

What he did was remind us that if you want to put your fingers to the pulse of the country, to understand what makes its people tick, and work to capture their imaginations and their votes, then you can come from a fishing village; you can come from a prairie homestead; you can make it in Calgary, or represent the low-lying beauty of Lake Huron’s north shore, where I sit now.

Or, you can make your home in Chinatown in the shadow of the tower and in the midst of all that is good and great about the city, and work from there.

Everyone comes from somewhere. Jack came from downtown. The flags are at half-mast across the country, and for a moment, it’s almost as if we’re Canadians.

Losing it

If one were to look back at this week a year from now, this most surreal of weeks, I’ll wager that the most significant moment was the one where the mayor’s press secretary started waving her arm in front of a CTV News camera.

The CTV reporter was taping a sit-down interview in Ford’s office, while Adrienne Batra, the mayor’s all-seeing, all-controlling press secretary, sat off-camera to one side. Having wrapped up an interview on a presumably serious matter, the reporter had the temerity to change topics, and ask him about the talk of the day.

You, like every man, woman and child in Canada, may have heard. Apparently, a motorist had seen Ford illegally talking on a cellphone while in traffic. Rolling down her window, she and her six-year-old daughter gave him a thumbs-down and told him to get off the phone. The mayor is said to have responded by giving the pair the finger, and mouthing a message whose particulars went sadly unrecorded.

The mayor’s climb-down from this position will not be remembered as one his more graceful maneuvers. A post on his Twitter account – written in the first person by a staffer – explained that the account was “not accurate,” and while not denying that it happened, explained that “this is a misunderstanding.”

This led many to ask exactly what kind of misunderstanding it could have been. Perhaps it was a culture gap, in which the motorist didn’t realize that in northern Etobicoke, extending the middle finger is actually a good-luck gesture, wishing the recipient fruitful progeny and smooth roads. It might have been a nasty finger-cramp, or a game of itsy bitsy spider gone tragically awry.

Eventually, some journalists cobbled together a theory under which Ford thought his finger worked as a cell phone antenna, and that he’d get better reception if he extended it and waved it around a bit. At that moment, he was simply struggling to use voice dialing function. “DIAL… MAMMOLITI! (wave, wave, frown) DIAL MAMMO– ”

It was that, or he’d totally flipped off a six-year-old.

So it was that a CTV’s Naomi Parness, sitting in his office, tried to ask the mayor what had really happened. The mayor turned pink and started laughing. His press secretary did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances: She started waving her hand in front of the camera. Batra’s plan was to spike the footage, and render it unsuitable for air. We know this, because she explained what she was doing as she did it.

“You’re done!” she said. (Wave, wave.) “See? You’re not going to be able to use it, because I’m just going to keep talking.”

CTV aired it anyway.

This came in the midst of the parallel fiasco of Doug Ford’s foray into literary criticism. Doug Ford, we can now conclusively say, is the best thing that ever happened to liberal Toronto. After the spectre of library cuts was raised by the service review process, the mayor’s brother waded into the fray with a series of incendiary pronouncements, each one more bizarre than the last, only to end in an embarrassing climb-down of his own.

First, he variously declared that there were more libraries than Tim Horton’s in his ward (there aren’t) including one in an industrial area (it’s not), which he’d shut in a heartbeat (he can’t).

This led him into a public feud with Margaret Atwood, who had been assembling a petition to save the city’s libraries. Margaret Atwood! “Good luck to Margaret Atwood,” he said. “I don’t even know her. She could walk right by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.”

He added that if she wanted to be taken seriously, she should be democratically elected – presumably, like him. This did not go over well. He appeared to take Atwood as the coddled product of the downtown elite, which would make her a safe target. He missed the fact that Margaret Atwood has clout because she’s succeeded beyond his wildest ambitions in the arena he reveres most: The free market.

But those who suspect that he’s a calculated provocateur (and sometimes, I’m among them) should also consider the damage he’s done to any hope his administration had of closing libraries. Instead of taking the line that, regrettably, times are tight and efficiencies need to happen, his attention-grabbing first statements defined the administration’s position as actively anti-library, anti-book and anti-author. Many city councilors will have a hard time supporting that line.

By Wednesday night, having evidently been hauled back into line, he’d clarified his statement, explaining that he meant the exact opposite of what he said.

“What I was saying is, everyone knows who Margaret Atwood is. But if she were to come up to 98% of the people, they wouldn’t know who she was,” he said. “But I think she’s a great writer and I look forward to her input.”

His clarification, it should be noted, also says the exact opposite of what his clarification says. Misunderstandings! They’re tricky.

This kind of stuff is the Fords’ schtick. But the media’s forbearance about their goofiness is starting to shift. Constitutionally, broadcast news is the blandest, most broadly uncritical of the news media. It’s also the most likely to reach the busy, politically disengaged citizen. When you’ve lost them, you’re in trouble.

I understand that on Global’s national news Wednesday night, the Fords were compared to the Trailer Park Boys. Even members of Ford Nation might not appreciate the implication that they’re living in a trailer park. I feel for the Fords’ media wranglers: The brothers have seized control of their narrative – and this is the story they’re telling.

 

This piece originally appeared in The Toronto Standard.

John Graves Simcoe, this is all your fault

This week at city hall, Rob For- oh, to hell with it. Let’s talk about the weather.

Canadians are big on seasonal differentiation. A surprising amount of the world muddles through a nondescript cycle of vaguely-differentiated seasons, but not us. Toronto takes marking the seasons very seriously, in that Presbyterian way that holds that if a little misery isn’t involved, the lesson probably won’t stick.

I think about this a lot, whenever Toronto hits another climactic nadir, which it does every few months (miserable cold / miserable heat / miserable rain / cold miserable rain). The hint of masochism is strong. Why else would five million-odd people choose to live in such unwelcoming climes?

In a humid heat-wave like this, the city’s brick houses absorb heat until their hallways are warm to the touch, radiating inwards like so many pizza ovens. Cans of soup can be opened and discovered to be pre-heated. Cats lie sprawled outside on the pavement at night, long past the point of caring. If there was any substance to the theory of evolution, Torontonians would have gills by the end of the week. I could even deal with this, but in four months it’s going to be pitch black and pelting with freezing rain, yet unable to muster up a proper snowfall.

Here’s the question I always ask myself at times like this: Whose idea was it to put a city here? Sometimes the placement of cities is accidental, incremental, or lost to the shadows of time, growing from ancient sites or agrarian settlements, for whom nobody can properly be blamed.

Not Toronto. On days like today, let us remember that we’re under this weather because, long ago, a man planted his finger on a map and said, “here.” That was John Graves Simcoe. Today, it’s 38 degrees outside and 3,800 degrees inside and here we all are, stuck. It is John Graves Simcoe’s fault.

It’s true that the area had seen earlier settlements – a couple of First Nations villages up along the Humber, and an isolated and ultimately abandoned French trading post along the western lakeshore. But for the most part, Toronto was a straight-up forest before 1793.

Now, Toronto wasn’t Simcoe’s fault alone. The governor of Upper Canada, Sincoe felt that his existing capital, the border town of Niagara-on-the-Lake – called Newark at the time – was perilously to the United States, which had only recently come into being and was still kind of cooking.

His first choice for a new capital was a more defensible spot in the middle of the province, which he’d optimisically named “London,” but his boss in Kingston, Lord Dorchester, nixed the plan. So Simcoe picked out a spot on Lake Ontario that was sheltered by a yawning peninsula, offering a natural harbour and the perfect spot for a nude beach. The locals called it “Toronto.” He called it York.

Perhaps Simcoe didn’t honestly know what the weather was like here before he made his call. That’s alright; everyone makes mistakes. That’s no excuse for not fixing them. After spending a full year here, why didn’t he announce that the whole thing was a botch, pull up camp, and establish a capital somewhere else? There were plenty of places that were far from the American border. The interior of British Columbia is nice. So is Bermuda. Why aren’t we there?

Simcoe persisted. Upper Canada’s administrators and aristocrats had to be dragged from comfortable Newark, grumbling all the way, and installed in the muddy, boggy, stumpy settlement of York, which had literally just been hacked out of the woods.

As it turned out, Simcoe’s hunch about the border was right. When things with the Americans eventually got bad in the War of 1812, Newark got completely flattened. (If you go to Niagara today, you’ll see that much of the architecture is of an 1813 vintage.) The catch was, it didn’t stop the Americans from flattening York too. An army under the command of one General Zebulon Pike landed in the west end, overwhelmed the small local force and marched on Fort York. The British withdrew, setting fire to the powder magazine as they left. The enormous explosion that followed didn’t halt the Americans, but it did kill Pike, making him the first man named Zebulon to get blown up while attempting to invade Toronto.

At any rate, there is very little since then that cannot be blamed, for one reason or another, on John Graves Simcoe. The Christie Pits riots would not have happened if the Christie Pits had not existed. Hurricane Hazel could have been averted by not putting a city in the path of a hurricane. The waterfront would not have been such an imbroglio if it was still trees.

And the weather. Most of all, I blame John Graves Simcoe for the weather. This is why, on the hottest and coldest days of the year, I propose we acknowledge Simcoe’s contribution to our daily lives, by declaring it Fuck You, John Graves Simcoe Day. This is better than the existing Simcoe Day, which contains no obscenities and nobody really celebrates anyway. Let’s give it some meaning in our lives. In fact, let us name today the very first Fuck You, John Graves Simcoe Day.

As you swelter on the street or shiver by the air conditioning, reading news about a city whose chief problem seems to be with the fact that it exists when its leaders seem to rather wish it didn’t, take a moment to curse the man whose fault this all is in the first place. Damn you, John Graves Simcoe. It’s hot, and they’re talking about selling the zoo. This is all your fault.

 

This piece was originally published in the Toronto Standard.