Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for March, 2008

In My Hat

Monday, March 17th, 2008

“I don’t know if I mentioned that I love this hat,” I said, for possibly the twentieth time.

“Do you?” said Marjorie, her voice ringing with innocence and irony. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Oh yes,” I said. “I love this hat.”

I didn’t wear hats until about 20 years ago, when a dermatologist dabbed liquid nitrogen on the bridge of my nose to remove a pre-cancerous lesion.

“That’s sun damage,” he said. “Over the years you’ll probably develop a few more. Don’t let the sun do any more damage to your face. Wear a hat.”

The threat of cancer quickly gets one’s attention. I went hat-hunting, and soon discovered the Tilley hat, which Alex Tilley boasts is “the greatest adventure hat in the world.” I agree. I bought a white one, a blue one and a brown one, and I wore them all summer long, year after year. Eventually I gave the much-faded blue one to a friend who had done me huge favours. The brown one is still serving nobly. The white one has logged something over 10,000 miles at sea, and is about worn out. It’s guaranteed for life. Alex Tilley will send me a new one if I send him the old one. Fat friggin’ chance.

A Tilley hat won’t do in a Canadian winter, but I found nothing else I really liked. Toques are scratchy, and they don’t shade my face. A standard-issue baseball cap is no warmer than a Tilley. I have a huge Russian fur hat for really bitter weather. It makes me look like a fur-flavoured ice cream cone. I only wear it when survival trumps appearance.

My best all-purpose winter hats are what Marjorie derisively calls “goober hats” – insulated caps with flaps that can be turned down over my ears. I have a trim little black one that I wear often, and a bulkier dark blue one that I wear rarely, and a black one with a long, long bill and a chin strap that I hardly wear at all.

They’re good warm hats, and Red Green would love them, but they don’t accord with a suit and tie. They leave me sartorially-challenged at a symphony concert or a speaking engagement or a business meeting. But what else is there?

And then, one January day, my friend Ron Robichaud hove in view sporting a splendidly stylish full-brimmed hat made of heavy dark tweed, almost like a cloth fedora. Something about its cut and proportions gave the hat an indefinable air of insouciance and panache. Wearing that hat, Ron was hard-pressed not to swagger.

“Ron,” I said. “That hat. Marvellous. Where did you get it?”

“This?”said Ron, with an exceedingly smug smile. “It’s a Tilley Winter Hat.”

A Tilley Winter Hat? I was instantly aflame with envy.

Marjorie was chortling. I never covet clothes. I’d sooner visit a dentist than a haberdasher. When she comes home from a retail raid bearing garments for me, I am downright churlish.

“Look at this lovely sweater I found for you!” she cries.

“I’ve already got a sweater,” I object.

“I got it at half price. Look at the colour. Isn’t it beautiful?”


But now I was researching feverishly, and Marjorie was amused. The Tilley web site showed several dealers in Halifax. I went to The Binnacle. (Haberdasheries are one thing. Chandleries are quite another.) Late in the season, the hats were on sale. They came in chocolate brown and charcoal. I particularly liked the brown one, but the shop had no hats my size in either colour.

I phoned all around the city, looking for a 7 3/8” hat. No luck. Even Colwell Brothers had no Winter Hats left at all. Then I noticed a dealer named Atlantic Workwear in the Burnside industrial park – not a very likely source for insouciance and style, but I was desperate.

Jackpot. Having found that Tilley hats and orange safety vests did not make a coherent fashion statement, Atlantic Workwear were selling all their Tilleys at half-price. I scuttled over to Burnside and bought the only brown winter hat in my size – and a new khaki summer hat as well.

I enjoy the hat every time I wear it. Driving along, I’ll turn to Marjorie and say, “Did you know I just love this hat?”

“Really?” she replies. “I hadn’t noticed.”

So the other day I was playing one of my very favourite albums on the car stereo, Isaac Stern’s Vivaldi Gala, with a star-studded cast of players – Perlman, Oistrakh, Rampal and the like. The music was rippling and glittering like sunlight on a mountain stream, and I was grooving.

“You know,” I said, “this music is just exquisite. What a pleasure to listen to it.”

“And in your hat…” said Marjorie, with a sly, sidelong smile. “Can life get any better?”

– 30 –

Kabul on the Rideau

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

Not long ago, I received a warm and graceful fan letter from a Baptist minister in a small Nova Scotian town. He had just finished my most recent book, Sailing Away from Winter, and he had enjoyed it very much. He was puzzled, though, that I had included dismissive remarks “about evangelicals and their Bibles” without any explanation. Many evangelicals are very fine people, he noted, and he hoped I had not been soured by a chance encounter with a distasteful one.

Hmm. I did lob the occasional drollery at ardent and simplistic Christians, including a comment that I hadn’t found a wide diversity among cruisers. I expected — but didn’t find — “nature freaks camp-cruising in dinghies, young families poking south in dowdy old ketches, sleek stockbrokers in fast motor-yachts, drifting hobos in grotty ex-fishboats, students in cramped sloops, evangelists navigating by faith and laden with Bibles.”

Pretty innocuous. I assured the minister that I too know plenty of Christian fundamentalists who live generous and productive lives. But I also noted that evangelicals, by definition, evangelize, trying to convert others to their opinions. If that fails, they’re often quite willing to impose their values unilaterally.

And, I confess, I am intolerant about intolerance. I don’t care much for folks who believe they have The Truth and who don’t respect my right to disagree — and that applies equally whether the dogmatic proselytizer is a Marxist, a Catholic, a free-market fanatic, a tobacco totalitarian, a Wahabi Muslim, an environmental fanatic or a Holy Roller. I am not warm and fuzzy about people who want to dictate the way that my conscience and I will get along in this world.

Which brings us to the stunning example of Charles McVety, Stephen Harper, and Canadian film policy.

Canadian dramatic films generally require government funding, because films are ferociously expensive to make, and Canada’s small domestic market does not generate enough revenue to repay those costs. To have our own films, telling our own stories, we invest collectively in new film projects through public agencies like Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board, various provincial film offices and the CBC.

The process of financing a Canadian film is fiendishly complicated, involving broadcast licenses with TV networks, co-production arrangements with producers abroad, theatrical distribution deals, and much more. As a Halifax producer once told me, his job is “not about making the film. It’s about making the deal.”

The final ingredient in the deal – which comes in when all the other pieces are in place – is provincial and federal investment. Without that public support, we simply wouldn’t have a film industry of any importance, and we wouldn’t enjoy shows like DeGrassi, Bowling for Columbine, Little Mosque on the Prairie and Away from Her.

And that’s why the Canadian film industry is up in arms about proposed amendments to the Income Tax Act. The revisions provide for regulations allowing federal bureaucrats to withdraw funding for a film all by themselves, even after the funding has been committed by agencies like Telefilm. The funds may be withdrawn if the bureaucrats think that the project contains too-explicit sexual material, denigrates an identifiable group, portrays “excessive” violence without “an educational value” or is otherwise “contrary to public public policy.” Naturally, there’s no appeal.

And film producers won’t learn the mandarins’ opinions until they complete the film and file their tax return – and are denied the tax credit they were promised. At that point, the producers will presumably have to repay any government investment. Since few will be able to do that, many will face bankruptcy.

Sane producers will not put themselves in that position. Instead, they simply won’t make controversial, edgy films. Which – one darkly wonders – may be exactly what the Harperites have in mind. Paranoid? Enter Charles McVety, an evangelist, the head of the Canadian Family Action Coalition. McVety claims he’s largely responsible for convincing the Tory ministers, notably Stockwell Day, to implement this loopy idea.

“It’s fitting with conservative values, and I think that’s why Canadians voted for a Conservative government,” says McVety.

Well, no. Canadians voted to rid themselves of the Liberals, but, as the polls show, they remain wary of the Conservatives. And with good reason.

Today’s Conservative party is mainly yesterday’s Reform and Canadian Alliance parties, which were filled with zeal to re-make Canada on evangelical principles. Stephen Harper would never have been elected had he not managed to keep his nutbars in their wrappers. But now and again a Charles McVety gets loose, reminding us all that a nation which pleases the core Tory supporters will not really please anyone else.

As a Globe and Mail letter-writer observed, at least this episode tells us what to do about our troops in Afghanistan. We should bring them home. The Taliban are already here.

– 30 –

What Nova Scotians Know

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

One of the greatest intellectual skills is the ability to ask good questions – which is a prerequisite for discovering good answers. Nobody asks better questions than GPIAtlantic.

The Faithful Reader already knows my admiration for this little research organization from St. Margaret’s Bay, which has done so much to help us think more intelligently about the world and the frantic social flux we live in. GPI, you’ll recall, stands for “Genuine Progress Index,” as opposed to “Gross Domestic Product,” which has become our conventional – but unsatisfactory — indicator of progress.

The GDP is only about money. Increased sales of cars and cannelloni make the GDP go up, yes – but so do crime, disease and disasters. When Hurricane Juan strikes, the GDP counts all the costs of clean-up as economic growth, and thus as “progress. The GPI, by contrast, counts things which are destructive and harmful as negatives and deducts them from our overall well-being. Sounds like common sense? Yes, exactly.

In the past decade, GPIAtlantic has issued more than 80 reports about Nova Scotian society on topics as diverse as the social costs of obesity and tobacco use, the unrecognized cash value of volunteerism and unpaid housework, the destructive irrationality of our treatment of forests and fisheries. Each report is a piece of the Genuine Progress Index of Nova Scotia. When the index is complete, we will have an unique description of Nova Scotia’s quality of life, and a solid set of benchmarks against which to measure future progress or decline.

GPIAtlantic’s most recent report, just issued, is entitled How Educated Are Nova Scotians? Education Indicators for the Nova Scotia Genuine Progress Index. Predictably, the study reviewed such data as test scores, literacy, student debt and research financing. It came up with some interesting findings – for example, that the increasing reliance of schools on fund-raising is slowly creating a two-tiered educational system, where schools in wealthy neighbourhoods are much better equipped than schools in poorer districts.

The study reported that Nova Scotian university students graduate with a very heavy debt load, and that they work longer hours during the academic term than they ever have. It also revealed, rather shockingly, that although Nova Scotians today have more schooling than ever before, they are no more literate than they were a generation ago.

The usual report on education would have ended there, basing its findings on the assumption that “education” means “what the educational system does.” Instead, the GPI report turned the process on its head, asking not, “What do students learn?” but “What do Nova Scotians know – no matter where or how they learned it?”

So the GPIAtlantic study considered modes of learning which lie beyond the formal educational system. “Life-long learning” is the intellectual progress that continues throughout the individual’s lifetime. Life-wide learning is the education that takes place in informal settings like the home, the workplace, and the community, and through advertising and the media.

The end result of life-long and life-wide learning is a wide range of “literacies.” The GPIAtlantic team therefore attempted to assess Nova Scotians’ command not only of languages and numbers, but also their understanding of science, ecology, health, nutrition, civics, arts, culture, statistics, indigenous knowledge, and the media. We don’t have much data on the general level of public understanding, but GPI executive director Ronald Colman notes that high levels of literacy in these matters should be revealed in wise collective choices and intelligent public policies.

Alas, the report found little evidence that Nova Scotians are particularly literate in most of these areas, and in some – civics and politics, for example – younger people are actually less literate than their parents and grandparents, although they have much more schooling.

As is so often the case, the research was badly hampered by a lack of information.

“We don’t know how literate our people are on all those dimensions, and we don’t know whether their literacy levels in these and other knowledge areas are improving or not,” said Dr. Colman. So GPIAtlantic Statistics Canada to begin administering a Canadian Knowledge Survey, which would provide an evolving picture of population knowledge and wisdom – clearly an essential step.

For me, however, the report’s greatest contribution is its deep insight into the purposes of education. Learning starts with data, but it soon progresses to information and then to knowledge – and its final destination is wisdom. Understanding – otherwise known as literacy – is the factor that connects all four levels.

Without a broad spectrum of literacies, there is no possibility of attaining wisdom. And without wisdom, there is no possibility of creating a truly humane society and a sustainable way of life. In its deepest and broadest sense, that’s really what education is all about – and by reminding Nova Scotians of that fact, a report like How Educated are Nova Scotians does us a signal public service.

– 30 –