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Wednesday, 15 April 2020

cool Canuck flicks from Judy Haiven's blog (quarantine time)

Judy, I'd like your permission to repost the list of films you recommend on this posting. I'm not so sure my limited blog readership would be interested in the opening suggestion about an NDP film club, but the movie suggestions are so good that I'm sure a few of my readers will view some of them. I remember finally watching "Goin' Down the Road" many decades after it was released. As I was living in the east end of TO, and occasionally hanging out with Cabbagetown poet Ted Plantos, the local scenes especially resonated  : )

A recent Canuck film I really enjoyed was "Sleeping Giant". It's a summertime coming of age film about 3 teenage boys in the sleeping giant region near Thunder Bay. On my two recent visits to my friend Sylvia in TBay we visited the sleeping giant park, which is an awe inspiring place. The drive to TBay on the trans-Can highway reminded me of what a thinly populated country we inhabit, and how vulnerable we are to Amerikan control or - our old paranoia - invasion!

The Film Club

What if the NS NDP posted a list of films and programs they recommend we watch in the next few weeks.  Every four or five days, at a regular time, the NDP could ask a prominent professor, or media personality, or writer or comedian to host a one hour webinar to field questions and comments and start a discussion about each show we have recently watched.
Example in week one:  We could all watch the excellent Four Feet Up (2008) by award winning filmmaker Nance Ackerman.


Four Feet Up is about a poor family in rural Nova Scotia today. It focuses on the 8 year old son, whose short life is hemmed in  by trips with to the food bank with his mother, visits from prying social workers, and even police interventions. Watch it for free here.

A social justice activist, or a social work prof could lead a spirited discussion about the film, the role of social services, social assistance and discuss the pros and cons of a Guaranteed Income.
A series I suggest we all watch is Tribal here.  Thanks to my friend Jim for suggesting Tribal, an eight part series about an Indigenous woman police chief from a reserve near Calgary.


She has to work with the mostly male (and racist) city police force on some serious cases involving crimes against Indigenous people.The series is well written, and plots are believable. 

The NDP could ask an Indigenous activist or a panel of them to comment on the series and then open it to the home audience to phone in, or write in. 
Another film that could generate discussion and even activism is 24 Days in Brooks here.  It’s a 2005 documentary film about a strike at what was one of  the largest meat packing plants in Canada, Lakeside Packers in Brooks, Alberta.

Though once a predominantly white prairie community, Brooks had changed. The strike was organised and supported mostly by workers of colour – often new Canadians — employed at Lakeside.  Twenty years ago, the Canadian government encouraged Lakeside and other large employers in rural areas to recruit people from overseas who wanted to move to Canada. However the workers at Lakeside were not prepared to trade their civil liberties for a life of exploitation in a very tough and dangerous workplace.  They struck at Lakeside – and the film details what happened. Excellent.  The NDP could ask a trade unionist, or an industrial relations prof (don’t look at me!!) to introduce the film and start a discussion about unions, their value today, and what happened to workers at Brooks.

And finally, I’d recommend Goin’ Down the Road the 1970 classic by Don Shebib here. This is a film about two unemployed young men from Cape Breton who drive to Toronto going1

to start a very different life than what they had back home. The acting is great and I’m sure the NDP could find a community activist from Cape Breton, or a lively social historian to chat about the film and then start a conversation.

If the NDP started a Film Club – they’d  be doing something wonderful, and something people across the province could appreciate and take part in.  The NDP, for more than half a century, has been reticent to initiate, or even engage, in any activity outside of the electoral sphere. This was brought to light as far back as 1965 in the book A Protest Movement Becalmed by sociologist Leo Zakuta.  Zakuta, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto at the time, noted that the radicalism and the socialism which had been knitted into the CCF (the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) unravelled when the CCF was remade into the NDP.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

rip Mel Watkins (Indigenous ally and Canadian economic nationalist)

On April 2nd, political economist and giant of the Canadian left, Mel Watkins, passed away.

As a professor at the University of Toronto in 1963, Mel published a landmark academic article called “A Staple Theory of Economic Growth.” To witness the madness of the Jason Kenney government in Alberta today—the utter capture of policy-makers by oil companies and inability to diversify out of resource booms and busts—is to understand the enduring relevance of his Innis-inspired work on the staples trap.

Mel, an MIT-trained classical economist, came to prominence in a movement of Left Canadian nationalism in the 1960s that included other luminaries like Charles Taylor and Kari Polanyi Levitt. He eschewed the narrow economistic approach of his field instead dedicating his intellect to political economy. To read his work is to understand he was always interested in power, in justice, in protecting human dignity and furthering the collective interest. 

Mel was steeped in great economic thinkers like Polanyi, Minsky and Keynes. But he was well read in many realms, in literature and environmental and climate science . In short, he was an intellectual. But one interested in material change for people, not mere prominence in the academy.
It is interesting to reflect on Mel’s rejection of corporate power concentration and foreign ownership of key Canadian industries in today’s light. What became known as “the Watkins Report”, the Task Force on Foreign Ownership and the Structure of Canadian Investment, was struck by former Liberal finance minister Walter L. Gordon and led to what little protection of key industries remains today.  

One can find striking similarity between Bernie Sanders’ campaign speeches with Mel’s spirited rejection of NAFTA and unbridled free trade at the expense of worker rights and protections. Indeed, he was on the front lines of the battles against nascent, then dominant, neoliberal shifts in the Canadian economy since the early sixties. 

Many will remember Mel for his prominent role in the Waffle movement, for his Left nationalism that envisioned an independent socialist Canada and a more radical NDP. I’ll remember that his thinking evolved, ahead of many on the white Left, to include Indigenous rights and sovereignty. His role working with the Dene in the fight against the Mackenzie pipeline during the Berger inquiry clearly shaped his politics and worldview. It gave a new and vital dimension to his thinking on staples, through the lens of how resource development depends on (ongoing) dispossession of Indigenous land.

Mel gave generously as a mentor to me in the early 2010s. I was introduced by his family friend, Nick Hutcheson. I was lucky to interview him and Kari Levitt, for a piece on the Tar Sands Trap and what he termed the “Canadian disease”, for Maisonneuve Magazine. 

While most of our relationship took place over email (an archive I now cherish), we met several times at Hart House in Toronto over beer. What I remember most about him was his kind temperament, and his curiosity. Unlike many intellectuals, he was not captivated by the sound of his own voice. In fact, what I remember most about trying to interview him was that he was more interested in what I thought, what I was driven by, and passionate about.  (An interesting personal footnote, he encouraged me to apply for a job with the Broadbent Institute, changing the trajectory of my own life and thought when I became the research director between 2013 and 2017.)

Mel leaves legions of friends and generations of Leftists influenced by this thinking, those of us fighting for a more just country and world. He’ll be sorely missed!

Jonathan Sas is the Director of Communications for the BC Federation of Labour and, formerly, the Director of Policy for the Broadbent Institute. For those looking for an introduction to Mel Watkins’ writing, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives put together an impressive tribute to him, his work and legacy.

Mel Watkins is dead and Canada is the poorer for it.

This is not a dispassionate assessment, but nonetheless true. He was my friend and an important influence and example for me and so many others who had the good fortune of knowing and working side by side with him. 

He was a man of great accomplishments and a full accounting of those is the work of his fellow academics, biographers and encyclopedia writers. I admired Mel for his output, but it was his enormous humanity, and his commitment to making his knowledge accessible to those who needed it in their everyday struggles for justice and equality, that stands out for me above all.
I met Mel in the early 70s when, as research advisor to the Indian Brotherhood of the NWT (soon to become the Dene Nation), I was casting about for a person who could give academic credibility and profile to our efforts to build the basis for a new kind of Aboriginal Rights claim, a political, not just property, settlement.  

Those were the days of “action-research” and we believed federal research funding, if deployed properly, would help reclaim Dene history and raise the political consciousness of the North’s First Nations. We needed an academic sympathetic to that perspective, someone willing to share the research experience with the subjects of that research. Such individuals are a scarce breed. Mel was a perfect fit.

I recall our first meeting with him in the North. We sat outdoors on the ground on a mosquito-ridden spring day by the Cameron River, east of Yellowknife. I remember marvelling at Mel, so recently a national public figure, in the news as a leader of the Waffle faction of David Lewis’ NDP, and not long before that, as the brave author of the Pearson-commissioned Watkins Report on foreign ownership of the Canadian economy, sitting in those remote and humble surroundings and listening intently to the young Dene gathered there.

It was the start of an important and fruitful collaboration. Mel took a leave from U of T and he and his partner, Kelly Crichton, a journalistic force in her own right, moved their young and growing family to Yellowknife, a move of evident solidarity. Our families’ respective trajectories have been intertwined ever since.

In 1974, Justice Thomas Berger and his Royal Commission on the terms that should govern construction of the proposed Arctic Gas Pipeline – a public inquiry so successful it has never been repeated – provided the stage on which to demonstrate Canada’s internal colonialism and the justice of a negotiated settlement recognizing the Dene’s political right to self-determination.  In addition to travelling widely throughout the MacKenzie Valley and encountering the reality on the ground, Mel worked tirelessly to raise awareness in southern Canada, and to bring his network of academic and civil society colleagues to bear on the issue. 

Both the Berger Report and a book of essays, Dene Nation: The Colony Within, edited by Mel, bear the imprint of his influence. In the history of the fight to re-establish Indigenous rights in Canada, they stand as landmarks whose impact is still felt today in that unfinished business.

I dwell on this personal anecdote not because it is exceptional of Mel’s life, but because it speaks to his generosity and humility in the service of others. I know similar stories could be told of his work with trade unions, his campaigns and candidacy, often Quixotic, on behalf of the NDP, and his readiness to aid colleagues or students in distress. Perhaps it was his rural Parry Sound origins that taught him that urban isolation among like-thinkers was an unhealthy elitist temptation, but Mel always had time for those who could put his ideas to good use. 

Economics is not a forgiving profession where politics are concerned and Mel’s social democratic inclinations were often judged infirm or unacceptable by colleagues of narrower perspective. Despite that, Mel was a bridge-builder, able to communicate and win the friendship of less liberal and even conservative academics who couldn’t help but respect his work, authenticity and commitment. He loved the opportunity to debate the likes of John Crispo or Simon Reisman on his favourite topic, the downside of free trade.

Mel’s production was a phenomenon in itself. One of the world’s fastest readers, he would incorporate the very latest writing in whatever paper he was immersed in. He never stopped writing lucidly up to the end. And his wide interests ran from political economy to Jungian psychology and the world of art and cultural criticism. An evening with Mel and Kelly could be certain to cover a lot of territory!

Despite his ever-present sense of humour, Mel struggled all his life with a monkey on his back, the Black Dog of inescapable depression. It could disable him unpredictably and lay him low. All his considerable efforts to find some way out from underneath were of no avail. It makes his successes all the more remarkable.

His loving family was also key to keeping Mel grounded. An accomplished wife to challenge him and three, as might be expected, sharply intelligent and curious children, all making their own impressions on the world. And Mel was also a devoted grandfather, doting on his grandkids, engaging with them and their worlds with enthusiasm. It was a recipe for keeping his dismal science humane.

This year, Mel was awarded membership in the Order of Canada, belatedly, but so justly deserved. I can think of few people who better embody the values and actions that should make us, as citizens of this country, proud.

Peter PuxleyEdmonton,  Alberta

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Quarantine (Anna Yin)


  anna yin @2020/3/30

behind the door
unreachable hugs ...
clouds float by the window

night becomes longer
WeChat deferring
good night

into a dream...
cherry blossoms bright
i think of you

rapidly increased cases...
straight line like the shortest distance
but the longest wait

spring arrives with grasses green
and warblers seen, all noble or humble...
will God send mercy?

waiting in silence
the cure for panic
except for poetry and a distance hope?

ups and downs...
who will light up
the far starry night?

in the balcony
someone plays a saxophone
till dawn