Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for September, 2008

Four columns at once

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

This blog is a bloody nuisance, and never more so than when I’m on the road. I spent most of July in British Columbia, much of August helping to sail Queen Charlotte to Halifax, and the next time I checked, I had published four columns that hadn’t been posted to the blog.

So I’ve just posted all four. Since nobody commented on their absence, it may be that nobody cares anyway!


Queen Charlotte’s Progress

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

September 7, 2008 (HH0835)

In the pearly light of an August morning, Queen Charlotte putters across the calm waters of Point Judith Pond, her Perkins diesel rumbling below the wheelhouse. Queen Charlotte is a husky 34-foot Fisher motorsailer skippered by John Pratt and crewed by his daughter Liz, his son Ben, and me. Bound from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Halifax, we have spent the night in this idyllic waterway which meanders four miles into the low Rhode Island landscape.

As we turn behind two wooded islets, a family of swans scatters before us. The young ones take off, and soon the mother follows, her broad wings heaving her heavy white body into the air.

“I wonder what swan tastes like,” says the skipper pensively.


“I’m sure someone, somewhere, has eaten swan. I wonder what it tastes like.”

The idea cracks me up – not the idea of eating swan, but the idea of viewing the world through one’s stomach. John is a foodie, whose mind never strays far from contemplation of the next meal.

Queen Charlotte slips between the villages of Galilee and Jerusalem, which flank the pond’s narrow entrance, their wharves crowded with steel draggers. We emerge into the Point Judith Harbor of Refuge, an artificial lagoon formed by a V-shaped structure of enormous rock breakwaters, built in 1914 for the coasting trade.

Outside the breakwaters, Queen Charlotte rolls heavily in a sloppy sea with very little wind. Dodging some fishing boats, we raise the mizzen and roll out the jib to ease the motion. The boat lopes northeast towards Buzzard’s Bay, the coastline lost in the mist. Two hours pass. Three hours.

And then the engine stops.

The only thing that normally stops a diesel is lack of fuel. The fuel filter is probably plugged. While the boat rolls erratically, John replaces the filter. That leaves the fuel lines full of air, which we have to force out by pumping fuel in. John tries three different pumps. But no air bubbles appear.

“Is it possible that there’s no fuel in the tank?” I ask. John grabs a stick and taps the tank. Boing! The tank is empty.

All right. A gentle breeze has come up. Up go the mainsail and the inner jib, and Queen Charlotte sails into the mouth of Buzzards Bay, the light wind giving her a surprising five knots.

“I filled the tank last fall before I laid her up,” says John, puzzled. “Ninety gallons. We’ve run about 20 hours, and she uses a gallon an hour. So there should be about 70 gallons in the tank. It must have been stolen while she was laid up in Bridgeport.”

He calls TowBoatUS. Their nearest base is in New Bedford, Massachusetts, about 10 miles away. To minimize the cost of towing, the towboat skipper suggests that we sail to the harbour approaches, and then he’ll bring us in.

Fine. The wind is blowing straight up the bay, giving us an easy reach to New Bedford. The sun is warm, the sky clear. We have the demountable tiller fitted in the cockpit, so we can steer from outside, watching the sails. It’s a glorious afternoon.

“Should we be concerned about those black clouds over there?” says Ben, pointing to a greasy roll of smutch on the horizon.

“Nah,” I reply. “I don’t think it’s coming our way, and if it does, it’ll probably blow straight over.”

Whoops. Dead wrong. The light breeze dies, the black roll advances, and when it reaches us the wind hits like a wall. Queen Charlotte’s 14-ton mass heels far over. As John and Ben quickly furl the genoa, the boat straightens up and starts to sail. The sea is already carved and fretted. The anemometer shows the wind at 20 knots, gusting to 25 – and it’s coming straight from New Bedford.

Motorsailers aren’t designed for windward sailing. They normally sail downwind, and motor upwind. But we have no choice. Hunkered down with her lee decks awash, spray flying over her, Queen Charlotte settles into a long, slow slog to windward. Tacking back and forth through the eye of the wind, she doggedly nibbles up the remaining miles to New Bedford.

At dusk, as we approach the harbour mouth, the wind slackens. With her running lights on, the towboat emerges from what looks like a solid wall blocking the entrance – a hurricane barrier, the first one I’ve ever seen. The towboat skipper passes us a hefty line and pulls us through the gate to a mooring. He hands over 10 gallons of diesel, and John pours it in the tank.

“We’ll try the engine in the morning,” he says. “Right now I want some rum, and some food.”

I wonder what he wants to eat. Swan under glass, I suspect.

– 30 –

The Liberation of Halifax

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

August 31, 2008

“The Mayor of Halifax has very little actual power,” explained the Mayor of Halifax. “But he can use his office to bring people together, he can speak out on issues that matter, and he can lead by example.”

The year was 1968, exactly 40 years ago. The Mayor’s name was Allan O’Brien, and my profile of him was my first national magazine article, in the long-vanished Star Weekly. I quote O’Brien from memory, but I know the substance is correct, because I subsequently came to know him quite well. He was a splendid representative of Halifax, a deep-rooted Nova Scotian with a global vision and a powerful view of his city’s role in the world. He was a national vice-president of the NDP, a dedicated advocate for social justice and a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam war. Was it appropriate for the Mayor of Halifax to speak out on such matters?

“We’re all very concerned about our own local issues, as we should be,” he said. “But I don’t regard that as an excuse for ignoring the plight of our neighbours – anywhere in the world.”

O’Brien sprang to mind recently when I read a speech by Brian Flemming to the fledgling organization called Citizens for Halifax ( I don’t believe that the old City of Halifax was ever again led by a politician of O’Brien’s stature – and Flemming’s analysis of municipal politics today suggests that its clumsy successor never will be either.

As Flemming makes clear, Halifax Regional Municipality – let’s be blunt – is a disaster. I liked John Savage and I honour his memory, but his amalgamation of numerous smaller municipal units to form HRM and CBRM was a breathtakingly dumb idea. As Flemming notes, Nova Scotia politics is dominated by rural Nova Scotia, which is deeply suspicious of the capital. By including all of Halifax County in HRM, Savage ensured that the same dysfunction now exists within HRM itself – and compounded the problems by instituting an unwieldy 23-member council of which only four members are from the genuinely urban peninsula of Halifax, and none are elected at large.

The result is a city council in which the city has no voice. Decisions about pivotal urban issues are taken by rural councillors obsessed, says Flemming, with “potholes in Ecum Secum or Hubbards.” Among the great achievements of this camel of a council is the passage, after endless hours of debate, of an unenforceable cat-control by-law to set alongside the unenforceable dog-control by-law.

This is scandalous. Small though it is, Halifax is a world city. Its history is about cataclysmic conflicts, the clash of empires, international trade, culture and communication. Halifax is leafy and hard-edged, salty and intimate, bustling with students and artists and movers and shakers, small enough to be convenient, large enough to provide a genuine urban lifestyle. Its leadership needs to combine local pride with global vision, treasuring the city’s heritage while embracing its future as a model of sustainability and innovation.

Instead, it’s obsessed with cat control.

Flemming offers no prescriptions for structural changes in HRM, but it’s obvious that we need somehow to separate the truly urban districts ringing Halifax Harbour from the outer reaches of what was once Halifax County. HRM is a shotgun marriage that serves neither population well. In the meantime, Flemming has some useful suggestions to make about one of the major issues affecting the city, namely transportation.

Flemming chaired the Canada Transportation Act Review Panel of 2001, and he contends that core of the transportation system is still the road network. He suggests numerous useful improvements in road transportation – a tiered, closed-in highway along the railway cutting into the South End, a third Halifax Harbour crossing (possibly a tunnel), a bridge across the Northwest Arm, possibly the relocation of the two container piers to the Shearwater lands in Dartmouth.

His most important suggestion is the creation of an HRM Transportation Authority to plan and co-ordinate transportation in the municipality. The Authority would be governed by an independent board of directors, including representatives from such heavy users of the roads as truckers and commuters. Flemming would also give the Authority the power to support viable alternatives to roads, including fast ferries from Bedford and Purcell’s Cove, light commuter rail service to Bedford and Sackville, bike paths and busses.

Such an Authority would benefit every part of HRM. The province would have to create it, but it’s hard to imagine why any provincial politician would oppose it. Even more important, it might be a first step in liberating the capital from the paralysis that now grips it, a vivid example of the foresight and vision that a great little city so desperately needs.

Citizens for Halifax, this would be a great place to start.

– 30 –

The Book of Negroes

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

August 24, 2008

Maybe there’s something else out there as vile as racism, but I can’t think what it would be. I have just read Lawrence Hill’s magnificent, heartbreaking novel The Book of Negroes, and I am filled with horror, wonder and fury.

Horror at Hill’s crackling account of the unspeakable violence of being abducted and enslaved. Wonder that people can go through the hellfire of slavery and emerge with their minds intact and their hearts still warm. And fury at the persistence of racism, whose heat still scorches us all.

The Book of Negroes is the story of Aminata Diallo, a girl of 11 captured by slavers who murder her parents. After walking three months to the coast, Aminata is bundled onto a reeking slave ship and sold to a South Carolina plantation, then to a Charleston businessman. Escaping while visiting New York, she emigrates to Nova Scotia as a Black Loyalist, emigrates again to Sierra Leone, and ends her life in London as a living witness for abolitionists working to end the slave trade.

But that bare outline does not begin to describe the violence that Aminata endures. She is beaten and raped. Her husband repeatedly finds her and is torn from her. Both her children are ripped away. Equally painful is the cultural and psychological violence that she and her fellow-slaves suffer. Africans from dozens of different nations are tumbled together — Igbo, Ashanti, Yoruba, Fulani, Mende and many others – so that they are all isolated, unable even to speak to one another. It’s as though someone had captured Finns, Scots, Basques and Greeks, and lumped them all together as “Europas.”

Nor are the Africans permitted to generate a new identity. They are forbidden to learn, teach, read or write. They develop two languages:Gullah, which they speak among themselves, and a form of English to use with the “buckra,” the white people.

This robbery of culture and identity is not accidental, argues an unnamed writer on a website called

“Slave owners wanted our ancestors to think of themselves as nameless objects of property, plain and simple, like a chicken or a cow,” s/he writes. “I am convinced that this still impacts our people today, crippling our ability to know ourselves by connecting with our family’s past…. We have internalized generations of doubt and fears about who we are as a people and what we can accomplish, just as White racists wanted us to do. And we continue to pay a terrible price for this.”

Yes, exactly. Many of Aminata’s companions go mad, or kill themselves. No wonder that the effects of this horrific experience linger on. Afro-American slavery dates from the same period as the Highland Clearances, the deportation of the Acadians and the decimation of the Mi’kmaq. If the rest of us still feel the sufferings of our ancestors, how can we fail to weep at the anguish of the Africans?

But we do fail, to our enduring shame. Stories of racism bubble up in this newspaper almost on a daily basis: slurs in Digby, teenage battles in Cole Harbour, constant harassment for the offence known to black people as “DWB” – Driving While Black.

So it is no surprise that Aminata’s experience during eight years in Birchtown, Nova Scotia is one of exclusion, poverty, broken promises and lethal violence. And it is no surprise that she chooses to emigrate again to the new free colony on the Sierra Leone River – the very river where she was branded with a red-hot iron and thrust aboard a stinking slave ship 40-odd years before.

The Book of Negroes is hard, vivid and unsentimental, and Aminata is not a soft character. Though she is capable of great love, she is also tart and clear-sighted, shrewd and cunning. Her salvation is her adaptability, her skill as a midwife and her love for languages, which repeatedly allows her to eavesdrop on people who think she cannot understand them.

As a child, she learns a bit of reading from her father, whose copy of the Qu’ran is the village’s only book. Although she is a girl, she yearns to be a djeli – a village storyteller, a recorder, a magician who conjures with language. And she knows that in the end, her words are the tools to give meaning to her life of loss and pain.

“I have long loved the written word, and come to see in it the power of the sleeping lion,” she writes. “I will write down my story so that it waits like a restful beast with lungs breathing and heart beating.” Someday, “one of these people will find my story and pass it along. And then, I believe, I will have lived for a reason.”

– 30 –

The Planes and the Trains

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

August 17, 2008

Soaring over Manitoba in a Westjet plane, I’m reading a Globe and Mail report on Westjet’s corporate performance. The company’s second-quarter profit jumped 162% to $30.2 million, and the company is about to launch a series of ads taunting Air Canada, though the ads won’t mention the rival airline.

Westjet allows two checked bags for free, and makes no charge for booking through its call centre; Air Canada charges $25 for each. Westjet’s charges are lower for all manner of things, says the Globe, “from overweight luggage to transporting pets.”

All true. Our dog MacTavish is in the belly of this plane, and he’s a deal-clincher. Air Canada won’t carry pets at all, nor will it carry unaccompanied children. So, given a choice, our family will never again fly Air Canada.

We also find Westjet’s people refreshingly good-humoured and accommodating, just as their TV ads promise. For example, during our three-hour stopover in Toronto, can we take MacTavish out to stretch his legs, drink and relieve himself?

You bet, says the Westjet agent. It’ll take about 30 minutes to fetch him, and you have to return him an hour and a quarter before the flight, but that still gives you lots of time. Wait right over there. I’ll call the baggage handlers.

The last time we tried this on the dour bureaucracy of Air Canada, the response was No, Absolutely not. Go away. Don’t bother us. We’re busy – we’re running an airline here.

Hello, Air Canada? You’ve made it very clear that you don’t want our business – and we got the message. We’re gone. And you’re losing money, while Westjet turns a profit. Can you connect the dots?

Still, Westjet is merely the best version of a fundamentally nasty experience, and an environmentally-reprehensible one as well. Airliners, says George Monbiot, produce emissions per person-mile which roughly parallel those from car travel – but the number of miles a passenger flies is enormous. On one family visit to Vancouver, Marjorie and I probably covered as many miles as we would in an entire year of driving in Nova Scotia.

In Europe, by contrast, high-speed electric trains are beating the airlines hands-down on trips of 1000 km or less. This development is directly due to shrewd investments by the French government, which poured money into Trains à Grande Vitesse – electric trains which can travel at 320 km/h, and routinely average 280 km/hr. The next generation will be faster; prototypes have hit 575 km/hr.

Trains race from the heart of London to the heart of Paris, via the Channel tunnel, in just over two hours. The TGV network runs all over France, and has revitalized the relationship between Paris and the provincial cities. The system now reaches London and Brussels, and will soon reach Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Similar trains operate in South Korea, Japan and Spain, and are planned for Argentina, Italy and Morocco.

Imagine such a service here, in a country once laced with railways. At 280 km/hr, a TGV train could take you from Halifax to Charlottetown or Fredericton in about an hour, to Quebec City or Boston in under four hours, to Montreal in under five. Downtown to downtown. No long waits at security, no humping your baggage on and off buses or limousines, no trouble with your ears. Leave Halifax at 8:00, arrive in Charlottetown by 9:00, do a day’s work and be home for a late supper.

Even to Montreal, a TGV train would challenge the airlines. A flier spends at least an hour getting to and from the airports, another hour or more getting through security and waiting for the flight, and ninety minutes on the flight itself. Three and a half hours minimum, and most of it spent waiting, being herded or undergoing indignities. Personally, I’d rather spend five hours watching movies, reading a book or working at my laptop.

But a TGV is one thing in France, with a large population and short distances. In Canada, could a TGV compete with intercity air travel?

It might. Air travel is affordable while fossil fuel remains cheap and available – and $140 a barrel is still cheap. When oil is $400 a barrel, how affordable is the plane? Electricity for the TGV can be generated from fossil fuels, yes – but also from wind, sun, running water, the waves, the tides. And while oil prices are rising, the cost of renewable energy is falling.

With a Maritime TGV network, one big airport could serve the whole region. How much would that save? And if the airlines had to bear the true cost of their massive emissions – and sooner or later, they will – their ticket prices would, um, soar.

Someday, this country will wake up and hear the train whistle. Meanwhile, book me on Westjet.

– 30 –