April 29, 2015

Erin backs Blue Dot campaign for environmental rights

As published in The Erin Advocate

It was an easy decision for Town Councillors to declare Erin as a Blue Dot community, in support of David Suzuki’s bid to guarantee environmental rights in Canada’s constitution. It will not oblige them to spend money or doing anything different.

The real debate will be within the federal and provincial governments, which would have to endorse any change to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“I love this town – every part of it is bordered by rolling hills, woodlands, farms and waterways,” said resident Gerry Walsh, requesting council’s support at the April 21 meeting. “Together, everyone in our Town can declare this basic human right – to breathe fresh air, drink clean water and eat healthy food.”

Erin is the fourth municipality in Ontario to commit to these principles. So far, most of the support has been in British Columbia. Mayor Al Alls has promised to express his support for the Blue Dot Movement in a letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Supporters of the Blue Dot Movement celebrate after Erin Town Council
 passed a declaration in favour of a constitutional right to a healthy environment.
Left to right: Joanne Kay, Myrtle Reid, Gerry Walsh and Don Chambers.
Details of the campaign are available at bluedot.ca. Suzuki supporters hope to build grassroots pressure from local communities to support a Charter amendment. That would require the official support Parliament plus seven provinces, representing more than 50% of Canada’s population.

It is a very ambitious and idealistic plan, since senior level politicians will no doubt consider the many court cases that it will take to define citizens’ rights on air, water and food. Imagine the impact if anyone in a big city could claim a legal right to breath air unpolluted by cars and factories. Who would pay the cost of bringing clean drinking water to all First Nations communities or making good food available to everyone now living in poverty?

I did not get the impression that Town Council was signing up for a revolution. But faced with climate change, dwindling oil, over-population, erosion of our natural heritage and unsustainable consumption, that’s what we’re talking about.

At its core, the environmental movement is promoting a new culture with different expectations. Green policies may save money in some areas, but will require radical changes to our economy in the areas of transportation, energy generation, food supply, housing, health care, taxation and environmental protection.

“It reminds me of the industrial revolution,” said Walsh. “This is the next phase we’re moving into. Some people are going to suffer and some people are going to benefit, but we have to move forward.”

Efforts to enshrine environmental rights in the constitution were unsuccessful when the Charter was negotiated 35 years ago, but they are definitely worth advocating again. More than a hundred countries have them in their constitutions, resulting in progress rather than chaos.

Enforcement of legal rights will always be problematic, but in general, if a country enshrines its goals, they are more likely to be at least partly achieved.

It is important to remember that Charter rights are not absolute, but are subject to “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” This puts issues in the hands of politicians, the law-makers, which is quite proper. Some would argue that environmental rights could be expanded by the courts under the Section 7 right to “life, liberty and security of the person”, or by direct reference of a question from a government to the Supreme Court.

Judges, however, should not be creating major changes to the Charter of Rights. The most legitimate process is the more difficult one. If a political consensus for environmental rights can be built throughout the country, with sustainability as a widely accepted priority, a formal constitutional amendment will become a logical final step. That consensus does not yet exist, but it is interesting to see the construction work going on in our own town.

In the meantime, environmentalists need to continue doing what they do best – convincing the public and elected representatives to support policies that will help us weather the coming storm.

April 22, 2015

Improvements for end-of-life health care

As published in The Erin Advocate

The certainty of eventual death may bind us all together, but thinking about how and where we would prefer it to happen is a difficult process. Actually discussing our choices for end-of-life health care with family and friends is even harder.

The Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network (WWLHIN) Board of Directors has approved an investment of $1.2 million over three years to help individuals create a personal Advance Care Plan (ACP) – while they are still capable of doing so.

Health care workers will be trained to give patients and families an opportunity to consider what medical and social care a person would prefer, or refuse, during a crisis or period of time when death is expected. An ACP is a holistic record of a person’s needs and wishes, in a standardized format that is consistent with Ontario law.

“Improving end-of-life care is a significant priority,” said WWLHIN Chair Joan Fisk. “One of the key components of improving this care is engaging more residents in a conversation about their end-of-life care wishes.”

The initiative will be led by the Hospice of Waterloo Region, but apply to all of Wellington County as well.

According to a 2013 survey, 55% of Canadians had never had a discussion with a family member, doctor, lawyer, friend or financial advisor about their end-of-life care preferences.

“We know that when asked, many residents would prefer to die at home surrounded by their loved ones rather than in hospital,” said Bruce Lauckner, CEO at the WWLHIN.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t happening as often as it could. Improving Advance Care Planning practices in Waterloo Wellington will help more residents experience the end-of-life care that best matches their wishes.”

While a majority of people say they want to die at home, about 70% die in a hospital.

Dying at home may appear preferable, but in some cases it is not practical for providing the care and comfort that a person may need. Hospices can provide a good alternative, but there are only 271 hospice beds in Ontario. The Auditor-General says 1,080 are needed.

Clearly, as part of its mandate, the LHIN is spending money in hopes of saving even more. Dying in a hospital is an expensive process, and as the baby boom goes bust, there will be a huge strain on the health care system.

According to a report by Health Quality Ontario, by 2026, the number of Canadians dying will increase by 40%, to 330,000 every year. Of hospitalized Canadian elderly, 70% reported wanting comfort measures rather than life-prolonging treatment, but more than two-thirds were admitted to intensive care units.

The Auditor-General recently reported that palliative care costs $1,100 per day in an acute-care hospital bed, $630 to $770 daily in a palliative-care unit, $460 in a standalone hospice, and about $100 when at-home care is provided.

The process of dying will never be an easy one, but it is within the capacity of our health system to provide consistency in the provision of high quality palliative care for everyone who needs it, and better support for families in their time of need.

April 15, 2015

Ravenscroft a whirlwind of devious deceptions

As published in The Erin Advocate

At first, when presented with a comic gothic murder mystery, one might be tempted to keep track of all the plot details, in hopes of predicting who dunnit.

However, in the current production of Ravenscroft by Erin Theatre at Centre 2000, it soon becomes apparent that the entertainment lies in the lies, and that the truth has only a bit part.

Set in the parlour of a 1905 Yorkshire manor house, the play features a huge staircase that is central to the story, in an attractive set designed by Susanna Lamy. Original music by Howard Lopez creates the mood very well.

The action is a series of interviews by Inspector Ruffing, played with most suitable exasperation by Chris Reid, trying to extract the truth about two mysterious staircase deaths from the five resident females. The process drives him to drink, an unfortunate encounter with an urn and a most unlikely romance.

The plot is like a machine, swapping all manner of crazy stories in and out of the limelight as the women try to convince the inspector that there were no murders, or if there were, they were done by someone else. In an effective bit of staging, characters not involved in the current scene do not exit, but sit in an elevated row of chairs like an audience, reacting to the play.

The motives for the ladies’ webs of lies include the usual suspects: money, jealousy, arrogance, tensions between the upper and lower classes, insecurity, visions of ghosts, callous disrespect for police authority, protecting little children, the need to escape into bizarre fantasies, and above all, to avoid talking about sex (and cross-dressing).

Laura Schnablegger plays Marcy, the beautiful governess who is the prime suspect in the death of a manservant who had been making advances on her (and as it turns out, everyone else). She has the confidence to drive the action in its required circles.

Director Kathryn DeLory has clearly urged her cast to keep up a brisk pace, which is quite essential. At times, though, they go so fast that they’re tripping on their words. They need to keep up the energy, but slow down just enough to get the lines out cleanly.

Part of the difficult challenge presented by Don Nigro’s script is that it is mainly words about things that might have happened in the past. There’s many a witty aside, but little in the way of current action.

This is allayed somewhat by the antics of the subservient servant Dolly, played delightfully by Denise Rowe with lots of facial expressions and physical stage business as she struggles to reveal her story.

At the April 9 performance, Assistant Stage Manager Angela Gibson did an admirable job as the domineering servant Mrs. French, filling in for Carol McCone Day who was ill.

Carol Beauchamp is very good as Mrs. Ravenscroft, who embodies many a clich̩ about the upper classes Рaloof, conniving, lecherous, abusive to the servants and preoccupied with keeping up appearances.

Paulina Grant shows considerable skill in the role of Gillian Ravenscroft, a teenager who appears to have lost touch with reality, but who is actually quite devious and knows more than she lets on.

So if you go to see Ravenscroft, don’t be expecting a mystery built on revealing the truth, but rather one that has fun with the notion that the truth is boring, elusive and quite possibly irrelevant.

Performances continue Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, and Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm. Tickets are $20 – call 905-873-686, or go to erintheatre.ca for more information.

April 08, 2015

Singer’s stories bring underworld memoir to life

As published in The Erin Advocate

I’m reading a book called Davy the Punk, a tribute to a famous Toronto bookie, published by Porcupine’s Quill in Erin.

It was written by his son Bob Bossin, one of the founders of Stringband, an independent group that had its heyday in the 1970s with songs about Canada and issues of politics and the environment.

“Bob is a great political singer-songwriter,” says Erin’s Jay Mowat, who knew Bossin from the folk festival circuit.

Bossin retells stories about his dad, and by his dad, some of which are probably true. Davy the Punk was a Jewish bookie who ran a horse racing wire in the 1930s and ‘40s, broadcasting information to other bookies using the telephone system.

He was a “bookie’s bookie” who connected Toronto’s underworld to the North American betting racket and later ran a talent agency that brought in big name performers.

Davy the Punk is about anti-Semitism in Canada, the mob and the colourful characters that played their parts on the flip side of Toronto the Good.

Tim Inkster of Porcupine’s Quill was acquainted with Bossin when they both freelanced for the Varsity newspaper at the University of Toronto in the late 1960s.

“I was a bit of a fan of Stringband, and especially their big hit, Dief Will Be the Chief Again,” said Inkster. The 1974 song was a jowl-in-cheek tribute to former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, based on a comment made by Bossin’s buddy Bob Rae after watching Muhammad Ali regain his boxing title.

Stringband never had a deal with a major record label or much play on commercial radio, but developed a loyal following through performances. They were also known for their independent methods, including an early form of crowdfunding – soliciting donations from friends and fans to finance an album in 1977.

Porcupine’s Quill has developed a national reputation for publishing memoirs and was in a good position to present Bossin’s stories (and historical photos) in an attractive format. The book came out last year and they have just completed the first reprint. For more information, go to davythepunk.com or porcupinesquill.ca.

I am about halfway through the book so far and it is quite engaging – a mix of family history, horse racing, the scramble to prosper in hard times and a culture in which criminals could earn public respect. It is about corruption in business, law enforcement and politics – and the crusaders who were determined to stamp out the evils of gambling.

Bossin has done his research and included many factual details about organized crime and Toronto’s sporting scene, but readily admits that he cannot be certain about how much his dad may have embellished the truth. It doesn’t really matter though, since it is a story about storytelling. The outrageous tales give the book some real sizzle.

More than 10 years ago, Mowat made a contribution to a fundraising effort for a Stringband album. In thanks, Bossin promised him a performance, but they were never able to arrange it, until now.

I’m looking forward to Bossin’s touring one-man show, coming to David’s Restaurant in Erin on Saturday, April 25, at 8 pm. The Winnipeg Free Press calls it “humorous and sentimental”, and Eric Stein of the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto says, “Bob’s intelligence, erudition and folksy charm combine in an intimate musical theatre experience.”

Tickets are $20 and can be obtained by calling Mowat at 519-833-3383 or emailing info@willowcreekonline.ca. The price does not include dinner, but reservations can be made for dinner before the show by calling 519-833-5085.

April 01, 2015

Atheist provocative, but unconvincing

As published in The Erin Advocate

Professor Douglas Cowan came to Erin last week to speak about atheism, preaching to a congregation much larger than any church in town could attract.

The former United Church minister, who teaches religion at the University of Waterloo, was invited to the popular Extended Learning Opportunities lecture series at the Legion Hall.

Why Atheism Matters was entertaining and thought provoking, but ultimately unconvincing. Regarding the big question, he argues that the burden of proof lies with believers.

“If you want me to believe in your invisible friends, the onus is on you to prove it,” he said.

Of course, no one is obliged to prove anything. The fact that something cannot be scientifically proven with available data does not mean it is untrue. In earlier times, we couldn’t understand how blood kept our bodies functioning, but we knew it did.

Progress is possible in both religion and science. Religion is an easy target for critics, since it is riddled with elements of violence, arrogance, greed, coercion and genocide.

Same with the bible, criticized for being contradictory and unbelievable on a literal level, not appreciated as a diverse collection of literature that attempts to make sense of the relationship between God and humans.

With glee, Cowan quotes Steven Weinberg: “For good people to do bad things, that takes religion.” That’s not entirely true, just as religion is not a necessity for doing good. But even the criticism that religion rightly deserves is a condemnation only of the evil or misguided humans that have abused it, not of a God who does not step into make everything right.

Cowan conveniently ignores all the good done in the name of God, and the substantial joy and consolation that spiritual practices provide. To characterize billions of people as delusional based on the extreme views of radical religious leaders is unfair, deliberately ignoring evidence that spirituality is a basic need for many people.

As a minister and professor, of course, Cowan would know all this. He chose to give a provocative presentation rather than a balanced one. He claimed his right to be offensive, which is probably better for book sales.

About a quarter of all Canadians profess no religion, but relatively few care enough to be atheists. Most of this group are either disillusioned with organized religion, totally private with their beliefs or just don’t feel the need. That is their right, but it does not diminish the creator.

This Friday, my parish will pray for atheists. Of course, they might find this amusing or condescending, but I mention it to make a point, which Cowan ignored – that many Christian churches no longer claim that their way is the only pathway to salvation. The prayer says:

“Let us pray also for those who do not acknowledge God, that, following what is right in sincerity of heart, they may find the way to God himself.”

So, is my need to praise God a weakness, a genetic flaw dating back to cave-dwelling days? If so, I’m willing to accept it along with all my other weaknesses, in order to remain open to the healing power of divine grace. It is a way of thinking that I impose upon no one, and harms no one.

People are truly different. Everyone deserves a home in terms of their way of thinking, where they can share with people of like mind. The fact that I have embraced a faith passed on from previous generations of my family does not mean I have done so blindly.

No one is in a position to control or pass judgment on another person’s thoughts, but society does need to guard against harmful actions that can emanate from beliefs. Cowan said matters of faith should not be considered off-limits for public discussion, and on that we agree.

Fortunately, we live in a country where freedom of belief is balanced with protection of the rights of others. Open debate and criticism are accepted, helping protect against abuses of power and making sure that people have choices. I see atheists in that context and I am glad to live with them in mutual respect.