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Two weeks ago. In a field of wild yellow grasses wanting to lean on legs like a loving cat, a crowd stood, most in the shade of tall ancient jackpine. Beneath one full-leafed tree, rare for the area, wider than the rest, cooler, its branches reaching out in a hug, a hole had been dug to accept the remains of my mother. 

Some of those standing on the yellow hillside had driven for two days to get here. Some faces were older, but familiar. Some faces had stepped out of childhood memory. Some faces I could not recall. Some faces had known mom as a uneducated logger’s wife, a mother of five. Others, who knew her much later, knew her as a teacher of First Nations children with a Masters in Curriculum Development. There had been tensions and there were even now. Some wanted a smudge done, one had brought sweetgrass, others were offended by it. Some were so wounded by my mother’s death they had not yet healed. The bagpiper finished, and introduced me. 

A few people were offended by comments made by some after the news Jack Layton passed, Christie Blatchford most particularly, who, as a journalist, with a journalist’s eye, called it like she saw it. As she should have. That is what journalists do.

I did as well. I was very much offended by the audience in the Roy Thomson Hall, during the Layton state funeral. Listening to the eloquent eulogy given by Stephen Lewis, the flag-draped casket bearing the remains of Jack Layton beside him on the podium, the crowd in that venue of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra burst in ovations as he spoke. It wasn’t that they applauded that offended me. It was the tone of the applause. At first I was puzzled why it all struck me as offensive. The understanding came to me later in a tweet.

“We are here, each of us, with our own special memories of Gen. Some remember as a brother. Some remember as a sister. Some as a son, some as a daughter, some as a cousin, some as a neighbor, some remember as a co-worker, some as a fellow teacher, some as a student, some as a friend. We understand your grief and that your memories are precious.”

One of those in the Roy Thomson Hall for the Layton state funeral, CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi (of CBC’s Q) who was a friend of Layton, tweeted from the Roy Thompson Theatre, after the end of the service, including the musical afterward:

I thought Stephen Lewis knocked it out of the park today. Strong. Sensitive. Powerful. Mood in the room was electric. #Laytonfarewell

In my offended state, I rattled off a tweet in response:

@jianghomeshi “Mood in the room was electric” Give your head a shake. It wasn’t a concert. It wasn’t a convention. It was a funeral.

But actually, my tweet was unfair. Ghomeshi, who was right there, was calling it as he saw it. As he should have. That is what radio-journalists do. As they should.

It was actually the same mood of the audience I’d picked up on but was offended by. I’d also tweeted:

I just realized what was missing at Jack Layton funeral. Mourners. Plenty of enthused ralliers, though. Mucho applause. #Laytonfarewell #jl

Ghomeshi was right about another thing. Lewis did indeed hit it out of the park. I listened to the live televised eulogy, then reviewed the printed version of his speech to really discover what had offended me. It wasn’t Lewis. I agreed with every damn thing the man said, and he said it so impressively.

Lewis didn’t encourage or pander to the rally-like applause. He was a man genuinely grieved, catching himself emotionally more than once. He was obviously dismayed by death, its unfairness, its swiftness, and the by loss of someone he knew and cared about. It must have been a difficult time on that podium, even for him,  one of the very best orators Canada has, with a vocabulary impressive enough, and a knack unique enough, to hit the nail on the head with such grace you want to listen to him. There was no one in the country that could have been better chosen to give the eulogy for Jack Layton.

(My favourite Lewis line- from some years ago- his talking about the mistake Americans make while addressing former premiers as Premier or former senators as Senator. That’s how it’s done in the U.S., but in Canada it’s viewed as very odd. Lewis had fun with it, skewering the American custom. I’m quoting from memory here, but it went something like: “Once a president, always a president. Once a senator, always a senator. The whole country is based upon titular self aggrandizement.” He sparked an immediate and appreciative roar from his audience with that.)

Beside me, on a hand-woven blanket, the beautiful box my brother, a carpenter, made to hold mom’s ashes. She had chosen her own urn. He built the box to carry it. 

He thought about how he was going to build that impressive wooden box for a week before he actually picked up a tool. The result was pure beauty. Old wood and new wood was included. Beautiful blonde grains shone from reddish hand-rubbed planks. A wooden cross decorated the top of the box that he curved for just the right effect. 

“A more feminine edge,” he said.

The mood of the crowd was as dry as the jackpine. As I spoke, Uncle Bob, mom’s last remaining brother, so long a young and healthy rancher, moved slowly, with the help of a new cane, from the hot harsh sun to the soothing shelter of shade. 

“Mom had asked me to choose something from her house. I said I didn’t want anything. She said, Choose something. So I looked in the kitchen and saw the beanpot. That old brown beanpot had been around since the early 60s, perhaps longer. I remember a bag of beans cost us 17 cents. She soaked them, then cooked them with tomato and pork or beef or game or whatever we had and I couldn’t think of anything more fitting to have than that old brown beanpot. 

“She said you can’t have it.

“I said why not?

“She said, because I’m going to be buried in it.”

The crowd, a moment ago as dry as the yellow grass, loosened, chuckled.

“I said, well, your use trumps mine. I was going to bake beans in it.”

Laughter. Friendly laughter, appreciative. In one moment, with one line, everyone was one. As we should have been. 

Aiming at the crowd at the Roy Thomson Hall, I tweeted:

I just realized what was missing at Jack Layton funeral. Mourners. Plenty of enthused ralliers, though. Mucho applause. #Laytonfarewell #jl

There is not one kind of applause.

There are as many kinds of applause as there are moods. The applause in the Roy Thompson Hall was holier-than-thou, angry, in-your-face applause, the kind of applause that says “yeah!” and “So there!” The flagged-draped coffin was not a focal point of sadness for mourners. It was a political prop, a piece of theatre furniture.

I was more than upset with the Roy Thompson Hall audience. I was disgusted. How dare they turn a funeral into an NDP rally? Once before I was nearly as offended as this time. In the Carter years, following a failed rescue of American hostages by a fleet of helicopters flying over the desert, but crashing into each other, an Iranian mullah stuck a knife or skewer into the body of a dead American would-be rescuer, and appeared to raise a bit of his uniformed, burnt crispy flesh on it as he made a point in a street-speech to a crowd.

I took out my grandfather’s Bible and read aloud his pencil marking on the inside. “Enlisted, August 18, 1940.” The aged, brown paperboard-covered Bible I held in my hand, he had carried throughout his service in World War Two. 

Born in times when horse and buggy were more common than cars, (in fact my mother’s very first memory was a horse-and-wagon ride from house to barn), he farmed, served his country, died after watching Apollo 8 astronauts circle the moon. He was buried nearby, as were so many other of our relatives here, generations of them. I had a passage marked in grandpa’s Bible. I read it aloud. 

After my blurb, a tweet response defended Ghomeshi. It was from a Halifax-area professor named William McMurray.

@jianghomeshi @wordbeeps With due respect to joining a convo, I need to 100% support Jian. You don’t like someone felt, back off & unfollow.

Back off? I beg your pardon? I called it as I saw it. McMurray disagreed. He belched back:

@wordbeeps @jianghomeshi There was nothing honest about your snip, nor could it be considered discourse. You dislike his feelings, disregard

He taunted in a further tweet:

@wordbeeps @jianghomeshi Then build up your voice & position. Don’t attack others for theirs. That’s not the Cdn way. Enough time on you.

“My mother was nine, on a Fernie street, and someone called to my grandmother in Kootenai, a language commonly called Ktunaxa now. My grandmother pretended not to notice. The woman called again and my grandmother, unable to ignore her again, answered her, and they spoke. There, for the first time, at the age of nine, my mother heard her mother speak the language she had never before spoken in front of her. Her first language, Kootenai. 

“We have come from a time when people were ashamed of their First Nation heritage and tried to hide it, even from their own children, to a time when people are proud of it, as my mother was, and spent her life learning about it and teaching it. She made a life of it. 

“How far we have come. 

“We are so glad Wilma is here, and come so far, for her presence aknowledges that part of mom’s life.”

A professor- a professor, for God’s sake- intolerent of dissent, even going so far as to say dissent isn’t Canadian? I’m glad he said it. I’m glad he tweeted those words. It put everything into focus. In that one intolerant tweet I finally understood the tone of the applause in the Roy Thompson Hall and what had disgusted me. McMurray had expressed it exquisitely, one flute perfectly in tune with that theatre orchestra. In one tweet the professor had erased letters to the editor, erased all protests, erased every idea or expression different than the majority view or or any dissenting viewpoint that gives challenge. And, what’s more, the professor did it in anger. With dismissiveness. With a school yard bully’s sensibility, with an in-your-face so there.

In one tweet Professor McMurray had also erased the purposeful role of the New Democratic Party as the Conscience of the House- and guess who led that party of late? Someone obviously wasn’t listening the eulogy given by Lewis. It also begged these questions: Do we really have a Canadian professor who despises both honesty and dissent that much? And also, if he had been recognizing Jack Layton, then what, pray tell, was he recognizing him for?

I read from the Bible carried through my grandfather’s war service as he his life on the line to preserve our freedom from tyranny, the ultimate act of dissent. 

“Our Father. Who art in Heaven,” I read.

The crowd was silent. 

I paused and said, “It’s a prayer,” and began again. This time everyone, old, young, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins, neighbors, friends, and people I didn’t  recognize but were there, spoke the words with me as I read from grandpa’s care-worn Bible:

“Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. 

“Amen.” 

If you were a mourner, and felt genuinely sad about the passing of Jack Layton, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, perhaps the state funeral wasn’t the place for you. The masses need their flesh even when it is cold. And on this day, they got it.

The Layton family did their duty. Their grief was best narrated by Sarah Layton’s loving reminiscences about her father, simply put in a quiet voice that stilled the Roy Thompson Hall, a venue that badly needed to be stilled. Her quiet voice reminded those who applauded so enthusiastically and so many times as Stephen Lewis, a good and decent man, an icon in his own right, who was obviously and genuinely grieved, but in his address mourned the loss of a politico more than a man. It took Sarah Layton’s memories to remind that this was a funeral and they all had gathered because her father had passed,  a man with family, an individual who was taken too soon by  a cruel and unforgiving disease, a man who is deeply missed, and someone whose lifetime moments are remembered like a treasure.

I never voted for Jack Layton, but did, when I was young, vote NDP. I was a union organizer, and in that capacity met many hard-wired NDP members. The NDP is unique to Canada, its loyal membership recognizing that party gave us socialized medicine, stood up for worker’s rights, and consistently and solidly stood by their beliefs come hell or high water.

Layton impressed, even so recently, as so healthy and so strong, even with that cane in the last election, as he recovered from hip surgery, which may have weakened him enough that his prostrate cancer was given enough chance to spread. In a shocking television appearance in which he appeared gaunt, defeated, and sickly, his eyes had the death look of late-stage cancer patients. His great confident voice was gone. It was a shadow voice as he announced he had to take time from work to get better. I seemed to be one of the few who had the dread that he would never return to work at all.

Jack Layton impressed with passion and dedication. How cruel to have won the keys to Stornaway, taking the New Democratic Party to become Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition for the first time in its history, and just three short months later to lose his life to cruel cancer. Our thoughts are with his family. Jack Layton impressed as the one man in Canadian federal politics that was on your side, come hell or high water.

Someone, God knows who, bought my breakfast this morning. I went to pay and the waiter said, “It’s covered.” I have no idea who paid for it. Thank you, whoever you are. You made my day. It’s been a great morning.

I drive a lot to write.

From home, 3 1/2 hours north, hoping the weather is good, so it takes only that long and not more. Last week a 2 1/2 hour trip I take regularly became a six hour slog. I gave up at one point and pulled over for a sleep until the blizzard quit. I watched small cars and larger trucks, most with hazard lights blinking, as they powered through the flurries. Across from me, on the rural intersection, a commercial haul truck did the same thing I did, pull over until the flurries calmed. Why take a chance? I slept for an hour or so. When I woke the snowstorm had passed. I took to the road again.

When there is snow on the road, light snow whips up every time a heavy truck goes by. It makes seeing the highway impossible for a few seconds. Two or three trucks in a row make it harrowing. You can’t speed. Some do. I don’t know how they do it. Speed, and it will catch up to you. Once, years ago, I counted 27 cars and trucks in the ditch in a a half-hour stretch I’d driven a thousand times. Winter driving is different.

Yesterday the roads were good for the entire drive, no snow fell, and for the most part the roads were clear. Only on  a few sections did light snow swirl up and make seeing impossible for those precious few too-long seconds when the highway cannot be seen.

I came up to take a single photograph. There is more to that, a story I could  tell another time, perhaps, but how it was taken is simply the way things happen in the communities I cover. Then, after talking to people I knew, jotting things in my small notebook, taking a few more spontaneous photographs, I drove another hour and a half to an office to type and to download my photographs to the print shop where they were published this morning. It was a sparse day’s work: four stories and a half dozen photographs. I started late, 7:00 a.m., and finished the day at 11:30 p.m. First days of the week are typically long.

It will be another long day today. I’m chasing stories all day. I have a municipal meeting in this community at 7:00 p.m., then I’ll be writing it up right after.

It is -36 Celcius in the community I just left yesterday. Here, an hour and a half south, it doesn’t feel that cold. But this morning it was at least -30. I could tell by the clear clank when I closed my truck door; it makes a different sound when it gets cold. When it is warmer it is a much fuller sound.

It’s almost noon. The Environment Canada website tells me the temperature outside is -29. It’s a beautiful day. No cloud. Full brilliant sun. Gorgeous virgin-white snow covers everything, everywhere. It is the sort of day you thrill to be alive just to see it.

And now, back to work.

It takes one thousand years to build a democracy.

At the turn of the first millennia King Canute of England bravely displayed his inability to hold back the tides. He declared he was not divine, kings were human, fallible. Two hundred years passed. In 1215 another English king was forced to sign the Magna Carta, a public declaration the law of the land was supreme, not the king. From this point on the king could not raise taxes without consent from a Royal Council. Two hundred years of progress and democracy was still hundreds of years away.

Over 400 years passed. In 1628 another king, Charles 1, was forced to sign the Petition of Right, of which two “rights” were standouts: 1) no taxation without representation and 2) no one could be imprisoned without cause. The building blocks of democracy were beginning to be set in place. So far, it had taken a slow 600 years.

The road to democracy moved more quickly in the late 1700s. The times were not kind to monarchists. The American Revolution forever displacing thousands. The French revolution was unimaginably bloody, 12,000 executed without trial, 17,000 more with one.

Democracy almost didn’t happen in the United States. At the end of the War of Independence, the army was largely unpaid, definitely embittered and ready to defy Congress. The threatened mutiny was pulled back by their chief general, George Washington. He had already spurned an offer of a crown, and in one of the key speeches in American history he turned that near mutiny into loyalty. In a third act of leadership, he declined to run for a third presidential term. Every American president since has retired peacefully and gracefully from office, a basic but necessary tenant of democracy.

Another 70 years passed. An American president was elected who had already noted one-sixth of Americans did not have the vote- they were slaves, deemed mere property. Another 70 years would pass again before women would get the vote. The road to democracy is paved with the blood of martyrs. It took a war and the deaths of almost 700,000 to free those slaves, but a half century would pass again before blacks in America would begin consider themselves free. Their Tahrir Square would be the Lincoln Memorial, where a religious leader became a national leader with the words, “I have a dream.”

Democracy has had its setbacks. Democracy was a seed that withered in post Soviet Russia. Organized crime stole it and still possesses it. In the Philippines, in November, 2009, 21 Philippines office seekers and campaign supporters were massacred.

But there have been inspiring victories. In China, an unknown young man, during the face-off of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, carrying what looked like a white plastic grocery bag in each hand, stood in front of a tank that was leading a column of tanks, that tried to move around him. The act gave the pursuit of freedom one of its most enduring images. In South Africa a one-time prisoner of conscience was freed after 27 years, then invited his jailors to his presidential inauguration.

And now in Egypt, today, this victory of a people who were subject to oppression we in democracies cannot understand, and after being told to go home, they declined, and over the 17 days that followed these ordinary souls braved shootings, thugs, molotov cocktails, lawlessness, the destruction of national relics, the emptying of shops and stood their ground, sharing bread, tending wounds, sweeping the ground, waving flags, sleeping by passive tanks, tweeting, organizing, getting stronger by the day. They turned a Cairo square, more a triangle, really, called Tahrir, into the most famous centre in the world, a monument to history, by showing what democracy is, a voice of the people, determined, resolute, where the most earnest desire is to simply heard and not ignored by ones own government, and to have peace and freedom and democracy.

Thousands of years ago in Egypt, the word ma’at had various meanings, including the sun rises, or the pharaoh speaks, or truth. This one word illustrated how important the king was that the sun rising was emblematic of truth, of law declared by merely being uttered by the royal mouth. Now ma’at has another meaning. It means Tahrir, liberation, the people have spoken.

The Egyptian people are jubilant tonight. They should be. As one, they have taken some final steps of a thousand-year road. Tahrir is a new dawn.

I got the message out on Twitter, but it must be being tweeted over and over by the millions now.

I was looking at Drudge and the screen changed with the headline, ‘Mubarak to step aside’.  I can’t tweet from my location in the wilds of Northern Alberta, Canada, but I needed to be among the first to get that story out. I can hit ‘retweet’ and did exactly that.

I have been following  this story from day one, busy following 200 tweeters (that I can’t read from here, unfortunately) many on the ground in Egypt and in Tahrir, tweeting descriptions of what I see on Al Jazeera and other news feeds, and retweeting important news I see.

Anyway. When I get back to a place where I can read tweets, I’ll be happy. Meanwhile, I hope those tweets of mine got though. They’ll be well received.

The last time I smoked tobacco was years ago on an Alberta plain sitting cross-legged in a semi-circle with members of the Alexander First Nation. The tobacco was in a long, decorative peace pipe. The ceremony was solemn- I was not allowed to take photographs. To my left was the then local member of parliament, John Williams, also sitting, suit jacket off, on the plain of dry yellow grass under a hot sun burning down from a cloudless blue sky. After puffing, I passed the peace pipe to him, or it could be the other way round.

I ran into him again yesterday in a doctor’s office waiting room. I was in for a check-up, he as well, but his woes were serious- he had fallen off his roof shoveling snow and he was using a cane, just promoted from walker minutes before. He had not fallen into a soft puffy snowbank, but instead onto his frozen wooden deck, (he calculated how fast he had hit the deck from the roof: 15 feet per second) broke his hip, dragged himself to his car, somehow got in it, and drove himself to the hospital. He was there four days.

He stood, leaning on cane, declining a seat in the semi-crowded waiting room. We talked politics, of course. A third gentleman, very pleasant, whose name escapes me, unfortunately, was knowledgeable about both politics and real estate, and so we passed the time in talk until our names were called.

Williams was born a Scott, as was Canada’s first prime minister. He is also an accountant, starting in 1962 in Scotland, perched on a stool at a tall angled desk before a thick ledger, ink well, and nibbed pen where he added up 50-column sums without a calculator. It was closer to the era of Charles Dickens than Facebook.

Williams has aged a little, as have we all. But he still has it. He still has the fire, stoked by indignation over unfairness. His right hand still grips his right lapel when on a verbal roll before a rapt audience. His bugbear since he left parliament has been corruption, and how it’s fostered by a lack of accountability and therefore  is corrosive to democracy.  He travels widely to that end, speaking to that issue. (A mention: Speech notes were tossed aside  when he was taken by an over-charging taxi driver in some foreign country. His speech instead started with that example. Who is accountable? Who can a person overcharged go to? If you can’t end that corruption by going to an accountable official, even a police officer, or his superior, or your member of parliament, corruption is systemic.)

We talked about the recent upheaval of Alberta politics, his memories of parliament, international politics, and, of course Egypt, and he drew parallels of politics of present in Alberta and Egypt.

He knows I’m a writer, and he has too much good perspective not to record what the experienced political war-horse had to say about leadership.

“Once you say you’re gone, you’re gone,” he said. Alberta Premier Stelmach had announced in recent days he is leaving, as has President Mubarak of Egypt. Both want to hang on until about September. It is not a secret Stelmach and his finance minister had a disagreement over the budget coming down. The finance minister quit, Stelmach will have to support the budget (“Or what was the disagreement for?” Williams said, hand gripping his lapel,) and members of the legislative assembly will line up behind who will best lead the party. (Another Williams pearl: “You never know the support you have in politics from politicians. Someone could promise you the strongest support and it could be gone in an hour.”) Lining up behind Stelmach is a line to oblivion, as he’s announced he’s leaving. Likewise Mubarak of Egypt. If you are not a power, you are a lame duck. Politics abhors a vacuum. “Once you say you’re gone, you’re gone,” said Williams. Politics is like that.



  • None
  • wordbeeps: No, he doesn't deserve an apology. Who tweets during a funeral? If you do, expect feedback. I didn't say the mourners were faking it. I think they we
  • Holly Stick: Look you fuckwit, are you too stupid to realise that Ghomeshi was an actual friend of Layton's, when you tweeted to him that the mourners were faking
  • aardvarkcola: Thank you. I see the rest of your message now. i'm honoured to to have your words on my blog. That alone is a delight. Lawrence

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