A Tale of Two Countries

IMG_1824Canada is a perplexing concept; our country can often be conceptualized in shimmering positivity, and then, upon closer inspection can be dragged through the dusty and bloody streets of reality. This has often been the case when we teach history or have been taught history — we try to dichotomize issues, cultures, and versions of history as an experiment in critical thought or controversy. MacLennan’s Two Solitudes is an obvious example of cultural paradoxes within the “narrative” of Canada, as is the the story of the Winnipeg General Strike.

In Manitoba we experience this in the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Many Winnipeggers are placing their hope in our new mayor to help bridge these colonial divides and painful scars — a most difficult task to say the least. A recent CBC poll suggest that the divide between indigenous and nonindigenous on prairies and in Red River is considerably and alarminging wide: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/people-on-the-prairies-less-tolerant-cbc-poll-says-1.2831876

In recent weeks, I have also been struck by an increasingly larger divide in Canada that is often left unarticulated – that is our image as a massive expanse of natural beauty contrasted with our 400 year history of resource exploitation. This really hit home when I attended the Hudson Bay Company Archives’ screening of Kevin Nikkel’s film Romance of the Far Fur Country . Nikkel has managed to splice together two hours of original HBC footage from 1919 and curate this silent footage in such a haunting way that the viewer really is able to situate themselves in the fur trade at the beginning of the 20th century.

As beautiful as the film is, however, there is a striking recognition that as the HBC enters into indigenous communities and encounters the immense landscape, that there is only one agenda: resource exploitation, both natural and human.

What follows in the film is a shocking barrage of the treatment of the first peoples of Canada and the land itself. Created by the HBC in 1919 as a celebratory film and ultimately an advertisement for its first department stores, the Company was simply not aware of its savage devastation of all systems on earth – at least this is what I hope.


As the film ended and everyone left the Archives of Manitoba, my friend (who I dragged out) and I silently sat in our seats trying to process what we had just witnessed.

A few days later, I came across this photo essay in the Globe and Mail encapsulating life in Fort McMurray. I was astounded at the level of consumerism, greed, and resource exploitation that is completely unabashed.

You will notice one photo of a gentleman in a cowboy hat drinking a Coors’ Light. At first glance I thought nothing of it, and then my uber critical thinker of a wife alerted me to the paradox: A cowboy hat is a symbol of freedom. It conjures up imagery of connection to the land, notions of freedom and autonomy, and a recognition of the interconnectedness of the natural systems that sustain the land. . The fellow in the coffee shop, however, who works for Suncor, is part of a  system of resource exploitation that destroys these vast and wild lands. He’s a slave to consumption and a dogged drive for wealth accumulation above all else. This is not the wild west. This is as well-engineered money generating machine with little room for cowboy antics.

But this does fit with our history. It sounds like the HBC in 1919.

And so, as Canada delves further into oil sands development, pipeline construction, and dependence on fossil fuels, so too continues the dichotomy of Canada. On one hand we have a country jam packed with scientifically-literate, empathetic citizens who cherish our land, water, and air. On the other, we are complicent in an economic and political system that is bent on exploiting natural and human resources. These are  the new two new solitudes of our time.

As Slavoj Zizek suggests, the ecological catastrophes of the present and future will not be solved by free markets and corporations. No, Canada’s sick duality can only be synthesized into a sustainable vision through social and political action. This begins in the homes in Fort McMurray, at the kitchen tables of local constituency associations, and ultimately at the polls in 2015.

Canada’s reputation in the global community has soured as of late; we no longer lead in peacekeeping (we are ranked 65th), we rank first in deforestation, and our record on treating our indigenous peoples speaks for itself. I would reckon that we have an opportunity to build a better Canada — one that is sustainable, innovative, compassionate, and inclusive. Our first step, however, is to take an honest look at what we we have become. Let’s take off our cowboy hats for now. We have to earn the right to wear symbols of freedom. First we need to take the collective action necessary to shed the dichotomies of the past and create one singular and positive vision based on respect for the land and each other.


What is History? Depends who you are?

Today in Canadian History we read the first chapter of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Granted, it does seem like a strange read for a Canadian history class, but I think that it does speak to our purpose this year and the purpose of historians. In fact, I think this chapter not only highlights the appalling events which occurred at first contact between Europeans and first peoples, but it also speaks to the debate that is required in the pursuit of History.

So what is History then? This is a question that has plagued western society for the past few thousand years, principally since Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War and Herodotus wrote The History. These historians took different approaches to history, and have been critiqued ever since.

To help us with this question, let’s take a look at a contemporary issue where history might help us. Recently the Quebec Parti Quebecois government as proposed a new charter that would disallow the wearing of any religious symbols in government buildings and seems to, as some have said, a pro-secular offensive.

Here is the CBC’s At Issue Panel giving us a breakdown on the Charter (and among other things):

 Here are a couple of opinion pieces on the Charter of Values. One is from Ian Henderson, an SJR grad and a professor at McGill University. The other is from Edward Greenspon from the Toronto Star. Read both, and then comment on how the doing of history can help us understand this contemporary problem. What pieces of history do we need to know? Why might history be important in this case? What would happen if we took an A-historical look at this issue?

Lastly, let’s do some history of our own. How did Quebec get to this point? Why would Premiere Marois advocate for such a policy and why would Quebec have a different Charter of Rights?

I look forward to your insight!

Solar Powered Learning

Photo from Rona

My friends and I had one of those ideas; the kind that starts at lunch or coffee and leads to something strange. Heather Ragot and Craig Campbell, two teachers at SJR who I see as master teachers, and myself are trying to create an experience for our Grade 9 students.

Let me step back. A few months ago I acquired a grant to place solar panels on top of my classroom. It was one of those ideas inspired by a ski, a late night snack, or a restroom break: What if? At the time, I didn’t really know anything about solar energy and the viability of it in a place like Manitoba where energy is so cheap because of the abundance of hydro electricity. The first thing I did was consult my good friend Mike Phelan, who is the owner of a business called Rogue Machines – it’s an engineering and design firm. I have known Mike since I was 15 and trust his judgement in this area. My good friend Dave Hill, my former water polo coach who now lives off the grid in Ontario, also chimed in. Here’s the conversation on Facebook:

 So this was of great help and I am grateful for having friends like Mike and Dave – a testament to the close community that is Winnipeg. In any event, I passed on the project to one of my Grade 12 students who was interested in doing some research for his Praxis Project in Global Issues. But my wheels continued to spin. I started to think of the big questions related to alternative energy and our addiction to energy itself. I heard this great broadcast on the CBC from Cape Breton Island about a couple living off the gird, and it inspired me. What if we could teach off the grid?

I knew I couldn’t do this alone, so I started to bug Craig and Heather – the two master teachers at SJR who I respect dearly. Craig teaches Science, mostly Physics, and Heather teaches English Language Arts. They are two of the most committed teachers I have ever met. Heather and I had already been collaborating since September as we both teach the same group of kids for English and Social Studies. When I approached her about doing a holistic study of energy, we immediately knew that Craig had to be involved, given his energy and the fact that he teaches the same group of kids.

From there, the ideas began to flow. In January, Craig will start teaching the kids about the Science behind solar energy and electricity itself. These students will help my Grade 12 student actually install the panels and batteries and navigate the logistics.

Heather is going to start reading Lord of the Flies with the students and have them start to investigate our relationship with the biosphere and all systems on earth. She will then take the students through the process of writing a research paper in order for the students to start looking at alternative energy, energy policy, and current debates. The students will gain research skills, an understanding of APA formatting, and a thorough knowledge of issues related to energy production and consumption.

From my end, I will start investigating democracy in Canada with the students. The end goal will be a mock parliament whereby students from different political parties attempt to create a national energy policy. I am super excited about this.

Craig Campbell 

Our hope from this project is that students will gain an ecological literacy through a systems thinking and multidisciplinary approach. My hypothesis is that the students will develop a deeper understanding of the science, an appreciation of the political realities when developing policy, an understanding of the need for civil disobedience (Idle No More), and gain some tremendous skills. From my end, I get to learn, plan, assess, and hang out with some pretty cool colleagues.

Please let us know, via the comment thread, about things you have done that might help us or similar projects that you have done. We would love to learn (rip you off) from you and hear your stories.

To be continued…

Commodity Snapshot – Demand & Supply

Here is the Commodity Snapshot from last Saturday’s Globe and Mail:

High on the Hog
“Hog futures have been rising as many consumers choose pork over more expensive beef, which is selling near an eight-year high. Disease outbreaks in Asia have also lifted North American hog prices.”
90.4 cents – Price, in US dollars, per pound of lean pork on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Friday.
15 – Percentage increase in the price of beef over the past 12 months.
7 – Percentage increase in the price of pork over the past 12 months.
21.1 million – Number of hogs slaughtered in Canadian packing plants in 2010.
Here is your task:
1. Represent this scenario graphically.
2. Provide a written explanation of the shifts and changes in supply and/or demand.
3. Email me a picture of your graph and explanation and I’ll post it.
4. Feel free to comment on what your peers are thinking….


photo (4)Leanne