Category Archives: Politics, Policy & Governance

I Am Not Your Negro

The question you have to ask yourself, White America needs to ask itself: Why was it necessary to have a nigger in the first place? ~ James BaldwinI Am Not Your Negro

In a neighbouring village more English than England and whiter than white, I found Agatha Christie’s book in the stacks of the church’s charity book sale. I was shocked to a degree commensurate with my liberal leanings. Then I bought it for a dollar. Continue reading I Am Not Your Negro

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More Than Enough Refugee Blues to Go Around

Refugee Blues was published by writer and poet W.H. Auden in 1939, at the start of World War II.

It’s safe to say not much has changed and, perhaps, it never will if war and hatred continue to be our modus operandi. The million dollar question is this: Are we doomed as humans to this destructive cycle of scapegoatism and righteous indignation? Or is there truly a possibility – a probability – for something else?

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

Continue reading More Than Enough Refugee Blues to Go Around

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Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 3

Click here for Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 1

Click here for Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 2

Not Set in Stone: Memorials for the Future

The National Park Service (NPS), the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), and Van Alen Institute collaborated on Memorials for the Future, an international ideas competition that took place between March and September 2016. The goal of the competition was not to directly produce new monuments, but to reimagine how we think about, feel, and experience memorials. 

It called for designers, artists and social scientists to develop new ways to commemorate people and events that are more inclusive and flexible, reflect the country’s diversity in history, heritage and culture, and that enrich Washington’s landscape while responding to the limitations of traditional commemoration. 

The jury chose four finalist teams –  Climate ChronographAmerican WildThe IM(MIGRANT) and VOICEOVER – who offered distinct concepts and approaches.

Continue reading Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 3

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Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 2

Click here for Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 1

Having finally seen Washington, DC for myself this summer, it was great to connect with this presentation by Marcel Acosta, Executive Director of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the Federal Planning Agency for America’s Capital. In it he discusses how the city came to be shaped, and how it will continue to be shaped in the future.

Acosta and Beth White, NCPC Commissioner, were guests of the National Capital Commission (NCC) in Ottawa, presenting in September as part of the NCC’s Capital Urbanism Lab public lecture series. Continue reading Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 2

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Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 1

In spite of the oppressive heat and humidity of August in Washington, D.C., I did what I like to do best: I walked around, looked at things and talked to people. This being my first trip to the capital, I focussed on the National Mall, exploring adjacent neighborhoods, and my relentless pursuit of Guastavino tile

In D.C., security is the conversational opener in the same way people elsewhere talk about the weather. 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing were cited as the salvo, the traceable moments in time when Everything Changed. Reduced accessibility was visible on the streets, in screening procedures employed at every public building, and in architecturally-based security features. And what you couldn’t see – the behind-the-scenes invisible – hung in the air. Continue reading Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 1

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Alex Janvier at the National Gallery of Canada

Alex Janvier is among the most important figures in the development of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada. This retrospective presents more than 150 works created from 1950 to the present day and recounts the story of a life devoted to art and the re-empowerment of Indigenous cultures. Over a prolific sixty-five-year career Janvier has produced thousands of paintings and many public commissions, all in a unique style, recognizable for its calligraphic lines, vivid colours, Dene iconography and forms that evoke land, sky, galaxies and microscopic life. Janvier is part of a distinguished group of artists in Canada who have brought Indigenous beliefs, issues and aesthetics to the foreground and successfully combined them with Western art styles and techniques. ~ National Gallery of Canada website

Yesterday marked the opening of painter Alex Janvier’s gorgeous retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada. I slipped in for the members tour before catching the 6:00pm opening ceremony, which included traditional dancing, honour songs, prayers and a speech by Janvier in his signature white cowboy hat and black suit. Continue reading Alex Janvier at the National Gallery of Canada

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Don’t be like this idiot

On the gravel shoulder of the road sits an abandoned clothes dryer wrapped in official-looking crime scene tape bearing the words “Under Investigation.”

Beside it, a canary-yellow lawn sign screams DON’T BE LIKE THIS #IDIOT. This curious tableau did what it was meant to do: It caught my eye and stirred my imagination. Continue reading Don’t be like this idiot

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24 Sussex Drive is Falling Down

Contrary to opinions offered by former tenants of the building, reality television stars, CBC listeners, and social media commentators, there is no single right answer to the question: What should become of the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive?

In fact, it doesn’t matter whether the building is razed or retrofitted. Either way, there will be gains and losses, which is the nature of choice. The answer lies in the the more difficult question: What do we want 24 Sussex Drive to be? Continue reading 24 Sussex Drive is Falling Down

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Walk for Reconciliation

Until last Sunday I’d never done this kind of thing before.

By 3:45am I was driving through rainy blackness heading to the Sunrise Ceremony on Victoria Island, in the middle of the Ottawa river. The ceremony would mark the beginning of the close for the six-year-long Truth and Reconciliation Commission examining the effects of Indian residential schools on Aboriginal peoples and culture.

I stood amongst 200 or so souls, shivering under unsettled skies, feeling awkward. I wondered about my right to be at such an important event, wondering if I was taking up someone else’s space, mildly terrified I would do or say the wrong thing, feeling the weight of my ignorance. I needn’t have worried. Almost immediately a woman gathered me under her red umbrella, included. I watched and listened as the lighting of the sacred fire unfolded, but my role wasn’t an entirely passive one. As I would learn over the following days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, through my presence and attention I was being called as a witness to the past and a bearer of knowledge into the future. Because we can never un-know what we know, we must move forward.

A few hours later I caught the shuttle from Ottawa’s City Hall to Gatineau to join in the Walk for Reconciliation. The walk was:

…designed to transform and renew the very essence of relationships among Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians. It sounds so simple, but just the act of gathering and walking and sharing our stories can join us all in a shared commitment to creating a new way forward in our relationships with each other. Our future depends on being able to simply get along, respecting each other for the unique gifts we bring.”1

I didn’t expect the walk to be magically transformative and it wasn’t. My goal was to show up, stand up, and begin to wake up to the legacy of Indian residential schools and the Canadian government’s assimilation policies. I’m tired of my own ignorance and of feeling useless in the face of the inevitable racist cloud that forms whenever the “Indian subject” arises. I don’t wish to pontificate, but it’s important to be able to explain my point of view and separate fact from fiction.

So last week I walked knowing it marked the beginning of a journey and not the end. It was a small, tangible action I could take in the face of such massive devastation.

Watch TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson speak about the purpose of the Commission and why it’s about Canadian history and not Aboriginal history.

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So You Want to Lead a Community Project?

You have a ‘good idea’ and want to start a community project. Good for you. Or maybe not. Here are ten things you need to know to keep the ‘unity’ in ‘community.’

I’m going to assume that you already know that leading a project in your neighbourhood is a yin-yang experience: equal parts pleasure and pain, cooperating with strangers and people you like and/or normally avoid at all costs, that even with a talented team, you will be the first to arrive, the last to leave, perform countless hours of invisible work, and at the end some boob will announce: “Well, that was easy!”

And I know you know how important it is to complete what you start and not leave it hanging in a zombie-like state of purgatory, and, to borrow from the Infinite Monkey Theorem, that ideas are a dime a dozen but people who can finish are worth their weight in gold, that starting small and building cred is critical but not sexy, and everyone wants a little sexy, right? And preferably right now.

So before you whip out your great big idea and start waving it around, here’s a dose of tough love for future community leaders.

1. The nature of an idea

In the beginning, an idea is just that: an idea.  It remains words, a concept of limited use, until it has been thoroughly researched, documented, communicated, and assessed by the community it potentially serves.

Saying you’re going to do something isn’t enough to give you ownership of the idea. How often do people talk about what they’re going to do and not do it or, worse, not do it well?

Ideas provide an adrenaline rush with minimal effort. That’s why, in the beginning, they feel so good.

2.  Feasibility of the idea

First, define your end goal and write it down. Ask a dozen random people to read it and verbally describe what they think you mean. Here’s a hint: You will be surprised by their answers. Rinse, rewrite and repeat.

Second, you need to quickly figure out whether the idea has legs over the longterm. An idea becomes a feasibility study before it can be (or not be) a project.  The study will be modest or complex depending on the size and scope of the idea and will address the five w’s: who, what, where, when, why and provide informed, credible options on how to proceed.

The study seeks to understand community capacity for the potential project and, critically, ends with a ‘Go/no-go’ decision point that asks:  “Does the idea have the appropriate people, skills, and resources to move forward as a project over the longterm? Is the timing right?”

3.  Defining community support

Asking for support is an exercise in semantics. The purpose is to clarify precisely what people are being asked to support. It’s not enough to ask “Do I have your support?” or “What do you think of the idea?”  If the goals and  tangible benefits to the community have not been clearly defined BEFORE the idea proceeds to project form, it will be perpetually undermined by mistrust.

And if you have to beg or bully for support – volunteers or approval – then it’s a red flag that the idea is not feasible (and may never have been).

Ignore this step at your peril. 

community project warning


4.  Understanding community capacity

Does your community have the capacity to manage the project? If you struggle to find volunteers to organize a potluck, fundraising dinner or community picnic you are highly unlikely to be successful with complex projects which require specific technical and business expertise. Stretch goals are good but it means the idea leader must be prepared to step up their game, to secure the appropriate level of resources before proceeding.

As the idea leader, you need to ask yourself the really tough questions: Am I the right person for the job? Is my presence making the project unpalatable to others, particularly high-performers? And, for goodness sakes, don’t berate the community for not meeting your personal expectations.

It may be ego-bruising, but It’s a positive, not a negative, to grasp the existing limits of community capacity.

 5.  Know when to fold ’em

There’s no shame in shutting down an idea or accepting that the timing may not be right. Setting a one year time frame for discovery is ample to assess community interest, capacity, leadership, financial potential and to draft a rudimentary, but useful, business plan. If the basics haven’t been crafted in this duration, chances are they never willIt’s time to enforce a ‘no go’ decision.

Allowing infeasible ideas to drag on – sometimes for years – chisels away at the unity of the community it is supposed to serve (see #10).

6.  Attracting high-performing volunteers

Don’t expect the best and brightest in the community to drive your idea or project (that’s your job), especially when they are already driving other community endeavours. High-performing individuals have established interests and priorities and your project needs to excel across the board to attract (and keep) their attention.

A ‘good idea’ is not enough but strong, effective leadership may be.

7.  Consultation and communication

Communicate to educate, engage and inform but don’t be a press or political whore, demanding attention for an idea that’s half-baked. Be modest because things can and will go wrong. Get some tangibles under your belt before leading a parade.

When you need public feedback produce a strawman proposal based on solid research so there is a basis for discussion. Asking people to attend a meeting to “gather ideas” willy-nilly, without proper structure or handouts, wastes their time and undermines your credibility.

Goodwill has a limited shelf life before people get frustrated or bored and tune out.

8.  Funding is not the most important thing

The difference between a small and large volunteer project is complexity (more steps/dependencies) and size of budget. But the principles of effective leadership, communication, volunteer management,  project planning and risk management remain the same and determine success. Financing is, of course, important but it doesn’t supersede all else. It’s easier to ask for (and receive) money when you’re knocking it out of the ballpark with superior research and documentation.

And speaking of money, don’t accept private or public funding before your project plan is solid. Arguably, it’s morally questionable and can create long-term problems for your community (see #10)

9.  Leadership is hard, not glamorous, work

Which is why it’s (generally) easy to find volunteers to complete tasks but hard to find people to take the lead in a community project.

But if you deeply believe in what you’re doing, then you’ll be the one who bucks up, doing what needs to be done, learns new skills, reads everything you can get your hands on, becomes the subject matter expert, and refuses to take your eyes off the prize – the defined end goal.

You will definitely not be that person who hides in the cloakroom when it comes time to push a broom.

If it all seems a bit too much like work, then you’re better off saying ‘no’ than saying ‘yes’ and failing to work to completion.

10. Success matters

Project mishandling can leave a troubling legacy for a community project. Failure can sully a good idea rendering it unusable, leave financial messes for others to clean up, antagonize stakeholders, negatively impact community reputation, scare off volunteers and other resources, and create division within a community.

But you’re not going to be that person, are you?

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