Canada Will Be Okay


When Justin Trudeau’s Liberals started election night by first sweeping the East Coast and then into Ontario and Quebec, my youngest daughter, just turned 18 and a first-time voter, sent me a text.


I laughed out loud. And then I realized that actually, for her, it was. Her immigrant Opa and Oma always talked about the open and inclusive country they came to 65 years ago, and I have always extolled the virtues of Canada’s place in the world. But how to reconcile our words with what she has witnessed since she was old enough to be conscious of politics; bullying in Parliament, muzzling of scientists, attacks not only on the public broadcaster that gave her Mr. Dressup, but also aimed at the Supreme Court and all the institutions even a child can sense are important to a functioning democracy. And greater still a growing recognition that the Canadian flag on a back-pack no longer made us candidates for an instant welcome abroad.

The divergence of what we believed of Canada, and what was happening in the halls of power was bound to create a kind of fear of the future, and not the fear Harper was talking about. The thought of ‘another four years’ made my daughter anxious, physically anxious. I think most of the ‘progressive’ population felt that same gut deep terror that the country was at a kind of tipping point from which we could not return.

When the Liberal majority was declared, I received another text.


As were we all. I don’t think it mattered if you voted Liberal or NDP, there was a collective and visceral sense of relief at that moment. And when the analysts began to wonder about how Tom Mulcair’s NDP fell from the good graces of the anti-Harper vote, I didn’t have to look any further than my young adult kids. While the young and the ‘change’ people wanted progressive policies, I believe they were yearning even more for progressive politics. So when Mulcair’s reaction to his party’s drop in the polls was to climb into the pigpen with Harper and start flinging mud with the hope some of it would stick and make him look better than the other guy — well — the ‘change’ vote took one look at the two old guys wallowing down there in the same old shit, and went for the guy who rose above the fray.

Ironically, it was Justin Trudeau who channeled Jack Layton’s message of hope and optimism. It was Justin Trudeau who correctly read the zeitgeist and understood that for many Canadians this election was about so much more than taxes, security or even the environment. It was about who we are. About who we want to be at home and how we want to be perceived abroad. About being a Canada that is bigger than the sum of its geographical and political parts, a Canada that proudly recognizes its unique success as a truly multicultural society and recognizes also the challenges of keeping it so, and a Canada that is a bit of conscience in the larger world.

No matter a citizen’s political stripe, I think that Justin Trudeau’s speech at the end of a long campaign and a long night was a proud moment for this country. He made us all remember what my Mom and Dad felt when they first arrived in this country; that all is possible, that instead of spouting the hyperbole of fear we can speak with both the courage and the compassion that confidence allows, that we as citizens are able always to shape Canada into its best self.

At the end of his speech, I received one last text from that girl of mine.

“CANADA WILL BE OKAY (smiley face).”




An Editor’s Choosing

What a joy to read and help select the short fiction included in the most recent edition of Grain, magazine: Passing Signs/ New Fields. A joy and a challenge. Quite frankly a huge challenge.  Editor Jesse Archibald-Barber was wonderful to work with and did the bulk of the legwork, pouring through almost 90 submissions of fiction alone. HeGrain Cover 42 4 o narrowed those to twenty. From there I was asked, as Associate Fiction Editor for this summer 2015 edition, to select eight or nine, five of which you will find scattered amidst fabulous poetry and creative non-fiction and behind the intriguing artwork of Tara Krebs. There was a lot of fine writing in the hundreds of pages we read, good story-telling, engaging characters. So how to choose.

Something visceral happens when a story gets you in its grip. An opening sentence might tickle, a first paragraph flabbergast, or a long thread of scenes build into anger. Or. Laughter. Or tears. I don’t necessarily have to ‘get’ it, or even like it, as in it’s not the kind of thing I usually read. But characters that stay with me after the last sentence, a story that surprises or enlightens with its particularly unique turns, and writing that fills me up as my eyes eat words used with such clarity that no one else could say exactly that thing in that way — yeah, that’s the hook.

As you can imagine, I learned some things about my own efforts at short fiction from this difficult process of choosing.  The obvious: there’s a lot of good writing out there and it’s hard to get published. But also the ways in which a story stands out. Or not. Mistakes to be avoided that even the most published of us make: tense changes, unintended POV shifts, murky details. I know I have to work harder. I have to make my stories what I wanted to see in all those submissions that didn’t quite make it. I have to edit, edit, edit…..

So, to all the writers whose stories I read, thanks for the chance to read your work. Thanks to Jesse and all the people at Grain for this opportunity.

And, of course, to the readers. As Jesse writes in his Editor’s Note to the edition, “In this shared process of selecting and editing, I am made keenly aware of how this work reaches out to a readership still hungry for art. You, the readers, are part of this process and the work now falls to your hands.”


Grain can be ordered through their website at GRAINMAGAZINE.CA, or found in good bookstores everywhere in the magazines section. Enjoy!

What the Bison Man Knows

Wes Olson, Grasslands National Park
Wes Olson, Grasslands National Park

(This is the first installment in my series: Things Canadians Should Care About)

Wes Olson pokes the spaces between the rocks on the grassy hillside, checking for rattlesnakes, before letting us sit down. With that potential threat out of the way, he warns us about the bison. There are a few standing a good half mile away and the massive beasts are not likely to run you down for no good reason. But Wes tells us a good rule of thumb, literally, is to hold that digit out in front of you, look at it through one eye, and if any bison parts are visible on either side of your thumb, YOU ARE TOO CLOSE! Bison are deceptively fast, and given their size, well you just don’t want to be in the way.

He looks like his name sounds. Wes Olson: tall, rugged, sun-baked and mustached. I suppose that could also describe an outlaw, but his quiet and intelligent confidence speak to a character comfortable in his own skin and his own knowledge, and mostly at home in the nature that surrounds him. He is very, very wise and speaks of the bison as an elder might, with wisdom and grace. I have a sense that if he were to get a chance to actually talk to the politicians who decided not to replace him when he retired from Grasslands National Park in 2012, he would simply shake his head in wonder at the ignorance of humankind.

Bison, Grasslands National Park
Bison, Grasslands National Park

Because Wes knows bison. After thirty years of working with these ungulates in various parks across Canada, he’s come to understand and admire the bison in a way only someone truly in tune with them can. Their mating rituals; how their habit of constantly moving while grazing maintains native prairie grasses; how a bison’s skeletal structure supports its massive head and chest while giving it lightning speed; the ways in which bison manure supports dung beetles which in turn support bird species; that bison hair is the second warmest fibre in North America and is also water repellant; how the unique olfactory masking of this hair used in bird nests enhances chick survival from predators. These are just a few of the facts he shares with our eclectic group which includes authors, ranchers, scientists, and environmentalists, all interested in preserving grasslands and the species they support both within and outside the park.

Along with other senior staff in the park, the position Wes left was not filled. He has no one to pass his wisdom to, no one to care, in a single-minded way, about the bison which were re-introduced to the park in 2006. At that point there were 71 bison. In 2013 the total numbers were at 344, according to Wes. The objective was to hit 350 and study their effect on the native grasses in the park, how their grazing habits might help sustain pristine native prairie that is vital habitat to a multitude of species-at-risk. But this year there will be few park staff to watch, to count or to care.

IMG_3435 - CopyGrasslands is a long way from anywhere. It’s one of few dark sky preserves in the world. It’s a huge expanse of hills and draws covered in grasses and shrubs and lichens and wildflowers whose numbers I can’t begin to count. There are more than 12,000 archeological sites in the area, including teepee rings, effigies and burial sites. It is wondrous place, impossible, really, to comprehend. But that’s the point. It is only when you look out over the vista and then get up close and personal with the bison through the knowledge Wes offers, that somehow you too can feel it, just a little. A sense of history that remains little marked by the present, a feeling that here we have something awesome in the truest sense of that over-used word, a national treasure.

Much as Wes Olson is. More than one of the group referred to him as such, their faces crumbling in despair at the thought his knowledge and skill will be lost. But apparently if you live in a place isolated by geography, a national treasure means little and the bison he watched over even less. It is worth the trip to the grasslands of Southwest Saskatchewan to see and judge for yourself; see the animals, listen to the birds, touch the grasses and the flowers. They will make your heart sing. And when you’re inclined to dance to the rhythm, remember to let others know and to insist an apprentice is hired for Wes to mentor, and to understand that we are all responsible for the protection of those things worthy of preservation.