Ta gueule! Put up and Shut up!

This year during Montreal’s festive and joyous Gay Pride Parade, a moment occurred that crystallized the Quebec elections for me. The contingent from the separatist Parti Quebecois came to a halt in front of us and they immediately began chanting their election slogan: “À nous de choisir! À nous de choisir!”  In English, which they of course would never use: “It is up to us to choose!”  (The “us” being francophones of the proper pedigree.)

In that instant it became clear to me that they were bullies and bigots and, like all nationalists, as much about exclusion as inclusion.

"Choose your exploiter and shut your mouth for another 4 years" Defaced PQ election poster.

“Choose your exploiter and shut your mouth for another 4 years”

Of the dozen or so people who stood in our loose group, the majority started cheering, but three of us starting booing and giving the thumbs down. One of our co-spectators tried to swat our hands down while he shouted “Non! Non!”

And therein is revealed the sad and damaged state of Quebec politics. In any European country, if a group from the majority stood up and started chanting “France for the French!” or “England for the English”, the progressive left would immediately denounce them as racist and/or fascist. In Quebec, when a separatist party chants “Quebec for the Quebecois” the progressive left stands up and cheers. If political parties in the United States introduce unilingual anti-Spanish laws and voter literacy tests, the progressive left denounces them. In Quebec, they either justify such moves or remain shamefully silent. The progressive left in Quebec is fatally damaged by a willful blindness, a failure to see that all nationalism is inherently incompatible with progressive ideals of inclusion and equality of access for all.

Another moment that highlighted the pathetic trap progressive politics has fallen into in this province came on Aug 22. As I walked home I kept running into small groups of students and their supporters. There had been a march in favour of lower tuition fees, just as there had been protests of this type on the 22nd of every month since March. I noticed that the vast majority of students wore pins supporting one nationalist-separatist party or the other: Parti Quebecois, Quebec Solidaire, Option Nationale and I found this ironic and depressing.

Here are the students fighting for free, accessible education at the same time as they support parties that all in their own various ways want to limit student access to one of the key tools for success in this globalized economy: English.

Student Protesters want accessible education at the same time as they support separatist parties that would limit their options.

Student Protesters want accessible education at the same time as they support separatist parties that would limit their options.

In China they start teaching English to every student beginning in grade one. India has English as a secondary official language and is producing literally hundreds of millions of educated, bilingual youth. It is odd to meet a European under the age of 30 who does not have at least some proficiency in English. For better or for worse, English will remain the lingua franca of business, politics, science, academics and diplomacy for at least the next century.

The further cynical twist on all this is that the political elites of Quebec know this full-well and, at the same time as they promise to deny and limit the average Quebecker’s access to English education, they have all sent their children to private schools and/or foreign universities to ensure they have the skills — including English — that they will need to rule over the fiefdom should their separatist dreams ever come true.


Praised be tofu! Hallowed be the yoga mat!

“How do you know if someone is a vegan?


“Don’t worry. They’ll tell you.”

My friend Johnny Mac told us that joke this summer when we saw him on Prince Edward Island.  I loved it. It’s funny because it’s true.

Babybel rules!

Nowadays, proselytizing for religion is not considered cool – it is the domain of creepy Mormons in crisp white shirts, greasy southern Evangelical Christians, and fame-addled celebrity Scientologists.  People do, however, feel more than free to trumpet their diet and exercise regimes. Not only do these practices preserve and promote health, they, apparently, often heal the sick, and could even save the planet, if – dare I say it – they were to be religiously applied.

How long can it be before there is a diet to raise the dead?

Of course, dietary restrictions and religions have always gone hand-in-hand – kosher rules in Judaism, halal practices in Islam, prescribed fasting in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and on and on and on – so it should not be surprising that, even in the absence of direct religious influence, diet and exercise take on moralist, even messianic, tones.

Indeed, many popular diet and exercise regimes appeal to spiritual or metaphysical authority, especially – but not exclusively – when the scientific evidence is thin.  Macrobiotics is based on Chinese concepts of qi, yin and yang, and the five elements, as are Tai Chi and martial arts. Yoga, of course, invokes ancient Indian beliefs.  Vegetarians sometimes invoke Far Eastern notions of reincarnation as a rationale for refraining from eating animals. Uncle Izzy, is that you in the beef stew!

The more exotic the rational, the better.  Personally, I am waiting for a diet and exercise protocol based on the four humours of ancient Greek physiology – and the accompanying bloodletting.  Perhaps the International Olympic Committee should get on that.

Ancient Greek Humours

Failing that, I’d settle for the application of Aristotle’s golden mean and some moderation in dietetic rhetoric. Just because I enjoy a slice of bacon, doesn’t mean I go around strangling kittens in my spare time.

And yes, I am fully aware of where bacon comes from. When I was about 10 years old, I watched for the first time as my grandfather slaughtered a pig. Next, I watched my grandmother roast up a chunk of it. Then I ate it. Delicious.

Beheading the Birds, Burying the Flowers

I saw him stooping down to pick-up a twig with blossoms on it. I had just left my house on my way to work. The branch might have blown off in last night’s wind and rain, or someone may have snapped it off and then abandoned it. I was impressed that he retrieved it from the gutter and I thought of Lin Daiyu from the Dream of Red Mansions and her famous burial of the fallen blossoms.

What I was doing when I noticed him was shepherding one of the neighbourhood cats. More often than not, it was waiting for passersby beside the bush at the end of the back alley. When you did pass it, it would race along side you until you reached the door to the apartment building where I assume its owner lives. The cat would mew and purr, encouraging you to open the door. I usually tried, but 9 times out of 10 it was locked and so I would leave the cat to hopelessly entreat the next passerby.

Having rescued the fallen flowers, the stranger noticed the cat and, as I moved on, he crossed the street, crouched down and addressed the animal. It has always struck me as odd that people are so willing to address unknown animals that do not understand their speech, yet are so hesitant to talk to strange people who just might comprehend them. We both talked to the cat, but did not speak to each other.

Further along Laurier Ave, I was startled by the sight of a homeless person who had wrapped himself in a blanket and bedded down in an alcove for the evening.

The white shape reminded me of the decapitated pigeon I had seen lying beside the sidewalk the previous day. Someone had taken the trouble to wrap its corpse in paper towels and its tapered, white form mirrored perfectly the shape of the shrouded, sleeping homeless guy. Was it out of a sense of respect that the pigeon had been swaddled, or was it an attempt on the part of the beheader to hide the results of his or her actions?

Retracing my steps home that evening the headless pigeon, the homeless man, the flower-rescuer and the disappointed cat were all gone. I expect to see, and disappoint, the cat again.

The Strange Sea Creature of Little Pond

If you go down to the seashore you will definitely see something dead. The little deaths commemorated by empty shells: crabs, snails, clams and oysters. The deaths of the finned and the feathered leaving tell-tale signs, fragments of skin, bone and flesh. The shore marks the space between sea and land, between this world and the next. The urge to stoop down and scoop up these fragments is overwhelming; beachcombing is a much-loved form of momento mori.

Occasionally, a spectacular death occurs. In 1987 we went to Nail Pond on the far eastern shore of Prince Edward Island to view the corpse of a beached 80-foot blue whale. This enormous rupture of the two worlds overwhelmed all our senses, including our sense of smell. It was decided to bury the whale. (The video of the attempt to bury her, can be seen here: http://youtu.be/830ccuIf9XI)

Two decades later, she was exhumed and her restored skeleton can now be seen on the campus of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, a post-mortem sea-to-shining-sea transport − beachcombing and grave robbing on a monumental scale.

This year on my annual pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island, my friends and I discovered a smaller, but no less intriguing death. On the shore near Little Pond on the western end of the Island, we discovered a 6-foot long skeleton.


Photo by Ken Monteith @ken_monteith

Debate instantly raged as to what type of creature it had been in life. Was it a seal? It didn’t appear to have a rounded rib cage, or the distinctively human-looking skeletal structure of flippers. Was it a halibut? Its eyes appeared to be pointed up. Was it a giant eel? A dragon? A survivor from an alien ship that crashed offshore who had crawled ashore to die on a strange, inhospitable world?

Not all deaths are easily identifiable and most go completely unremarked, so at least this creature, whatever it may have been, has had its passing noted.