Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for August, 2010

A Million Futures

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

August 29, 2010

When Hamoon Ekhtiari came to Toronto from Teheran in 2001, he was just 17 and he spoke only Farsi. By January, 2009, he found himself speaking to former Prime Minister Jean Chretien at a large dinner at Power Corporation’s headquarters in Montreal. Hamoon was enrolled in a master’s degree program in mathematics and chartered accounting at the University of Waterloo, and he was already working in human capital consulting at accounting giant Deloitte. What he wanted to say to the former Prime Minister — on behalf of dozens of other students in the room, and thousands more elsewhere — was, “Thank you.”

A decade earlier, Prime Minister Chretien had been contemplating the millennium. As he said in his own inimitable way that evening, “The millennium, it’s something that comes only every one thousand years — so the next one, we might not be ‘ere.” To commemorate it, said Chretien, the government concluded “that we would create a programme de bourses, a bursary program. We would invest in the brains of the young people. And when I see the results today, that decision gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

The programme de bourses became the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, and its results were people like Hamoon Ekhtiari. The Foundation began with a $2.5 billion endowment and a 10-year mandate. It eventually gave out $3.3 billion — it had invested shrewdly — to more than a million needy and deserving students. It also did some trailblazing research on the obstacles that keep students out of post-secondary education, and about 5% of its funding went into a Millennium Excellence Awards program. One of the Excellence Award winners was Hamoon Ehktiari.

When Hamoon arrived in Canada, he had just finished Grade 9, and he was excited. He hadn’t wanted to move to Canada, but “if I’m here I want to get the most out of it,” he said. “I want to know what it is to live in Canada. I want to know what it means to be Canadian. So I chose the path of dropping myself, in my entirety, in every possible aspect, into the country. It was do-or-die having to take history and English.” He laughs. “And as an elective, I decided to take French. So I was sitting in a class where a teacher was teaching a language I didn’t know, in another language I didn’t know.”

After high school, he wanted to plunge deeper into his new life, so he applied to universities from UBC and UNB to the University of North Carolina to study anything from philosophy to architecture. He also applied for a Millennium Excellence Award, since his parents had made it clear that they couldn’t support him at university. To his surprise, he won the scholarship, and was drawn deeply into the other benefits that Millennium laureates were offered — national conferences, regional meetings, a national network of other student leaders, and backing from a superb group of young scholarship administrators.

“They recognize, they support, and they encourage, and they don’t stop doing it,” Hamoon said. “The money is important, nothing after it would have happened without the money, so that support piece is absolutely crucial. But the recognition and the encouragement is priceless. These people don’t give me the answer. They help me to ask the question. The lessons I’ve learned from some of these people in mere minutes have been worth more than spending months upon months in a classroom.

“And now, if you ask me where I’m from, I will tell you I’m from Toronto. I’m Canadian. If you ask me where I was born, I will tell you. But what I feel is, I’m Canadian, and this is my home.”

In 2008 I was asked to write the history of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. It’s a fascinating story, and the book — A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation – has just been published. The joy of the project was meeting so many fantastic people that I couldn’t get them all into the book. Hamoon is not in the book. But through the Foundation, Canada has shaped him and the leaders of his generation. Now they are shaping Canada. We will be a better, brighter country because of them.

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Silver Donald Cameron’s book, A Million Futures, is published by Douglas and McIntyre. It is available in bookstores, or online at

Farewell, Poirier’s Garage

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

August 22, 2010

Clem McDonald built the service station in D’Escousse soon after the Second World War, in his father’s front yard. His wife Madeleine ran a hair-dressing salon in a little trailer nearby. Bless their memories; they were lovely people.

In 1952, Lauchie Poirier bought the garage for his son Russell, a trained mechanic who was working in Sydney. Russell came home, cut some trees, hauled them to the sawmill, built a house, married and settled down. After raising two girls and two boys, Russell and Mary are in that house yet.

Russell was soon joined by his younger brother Claude, an auto-body virtuoso. Claude bought a tiny house across the road, cut some trees, milled them, and extended his house up, backwards and sideways. The house was built over a swampy dimple in the bedrock. Claude thought to improve the drainage by splitting the bedrock. He placed a charge of dynamite in the basement, covered it with explosive matting, and set it off. The house jumped. The windows blew out. Sandra’s hair turned white. The drainage was magnificent.

After raising four girls and a boy, Claude and Sandra are in that house yet.

The service station had two bays, a tiny stockroom, a terrifying toilet, a minuscule office. The bay with the pit was Russell’s. The bay with the solid concrete floor was Claude’s. The garage became the men’s social centre in D’Escousse. Just like the Halifax Club.

Between them, Russell and Claude could fix anything from a broken cylinder head to a broken heart. I once took Claude my geriatric Volvo, lacy with rust. Could we get one more year out of it? A month later, Claude had patched it up with sheet metal, pop rivets, tar, roofing shingles and other improbable materials. From a moderate distance, the car looked good.

“Used half the ductwork in the house,” Claude said proudly. And did we get another year of life for it? Claude pursed his lips and smiled.

“I think we got two,” he said.

Russell and Claude never had much money, but they had a wonderful life. I don’t think they ever charged more than $10 an hour. They both owned big, brutal old Jeep pick-up trucks that would haul anything — trailers, stumps, boats, you name it — and they kept them going with the same skills that saved the Volvo. Claude drove a school bus. They foraged for clams, fished for mackerel, cut their own firewood, raised chickens and turkeys, planted extensive gardens. In the great rural phrase, they put together “enough to get by.”

In fact, they lived very rich lives, at the swirling heart of the village, connected to everyone, an essential part of their neighbours’ lives. In an emergency, Claude would spring from his bed at 3:00 AM and pump a tank of gas for you — and on credit, too. When my car needed service, I walked over and gave Russell the keys. When he was ready, he took the car from my driveway, did the work, and drove it back. I paid him whenever I got around to it. Customer service? You never saw anything like it.

At various times both Poiriers owned pleasure boats. I once came by the garage and found a big new shed beside the building, a new addition to Claude’s matchless collection of sheds. It had come from a lighthouse on an offshore island. Claude bought it from the federal government, filled it with oil drums and saplings, floated it home and dragged it up to the garage.

On another occasion, the boys created a snowmobile from miscellaneous salvaged parts — Skidoo, Arctic Cat, Polaris, whatever. So what make of snowmobile was it? Claude shrugged eloquently, cast his eye around the shop, spotted a nameplate, and screwed it on the snowmobile.


Russell quit in 2004, at 72. Claude painted a few more cars and then stopped. The garage slowly crumbled. It became an eyesore bulging with memories. Last month, an excavator dropped its bucket through the roof, tore it apart and spread earth over the spot. Gone.

If you listen closely, though, I swear you can still hear the echoes of tall tales and tears, lies and laughter, the warm echoes of human fellowship.

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Silver Donald Cameron is host and executive producer of the environmental web site His new book, A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, will be published by Douglas and McIntyre next month.

The Ugly Government of Canada

Monday, August 16th, 2010

August 15, 2010

I’m always wary of the words like “fascism” and “dictatorship.” People on the left have a tendency to use such terms too casually, which simply erodes their power. So when I find myself deeply disquieted by the attitudes and actions of the Harper government, I’m not in a rush to apply those names.

And yet… At what point in the 1930s should Germans or Italians have begun to use those terms, and to treat their own governments with distrust and suspicion.? Hitler was democratically elected, after all — with a minority government — and then employed what one commentator calls his “blend of political acuity, deceptiveness and cunning” to transform Germany’s feeble democracy into the murderous Third Reich.

At what point did the majority of Germans — who were not Nazis — definitively fail to stop him? And what should they have done? And how would Canadians recognize a similar moment in our own country, if one should occur?

I am not saying that the Stephen Harper is another Hitler, even in embryo. But as I watch his masterful and ruthless manipulation of his situation as a minority Prime Minister, I am certainly struck by his “blend of political acuity, deceptiveness and cunning.” He dodges defeat by proroguing Parliament — not once, but twice. When the Supreme Court rules that his government has infringed the Charter rights of Omar Kadr, he ignores the Supreme Court. He treats politics as a perpetual state of total war. He loads up his budget bill with all manner of contentious, non-budget items, and dares the Opposition to defeat the bill and precipitate an election. The smaller parties might accept the dare, but the Liberals — never a party of principle — are terrified of an election, so they become Harper’s enablers.

Since the Liberals are jellyfish, the true opposition must come from outside Parliament. A petition now circulating begins, “Since 2006 the Government of Canada has systematically undermined democratic institutions and practices, and has eroded the protection of free speech, and other fundamental human rights. It has deliberately set out to silence the voices of organizations or individuals who raise concerns about government policies or disagree with government positions. It has weakened Canada’s international standing as a leader in human rights. The impact and consequences for the health of democracy, freedom of expression, and the state of human rights protection in Canada are unparalleled.”

All true, and you can find the petition here. I’ve signed it, and I hope you will, but it’s too general to be very effective. Fundamentally, it calls on the Harperites to be nice and play by the rules. Fat chance.

But that, perhaps, is the importance of the census brouhaha. The census is an unlikely flashpoint, but the issue once again reveals this government’s sneakiness, and its preference for ideology over information. And it turns out that accurate census information is important to a far wider range of interests than the government ever suspected. Furthermore, a courageous public servant was prepared to resign over the issue. This is an odd point to be drawing a line in the sand, but if that’s where the push-back begins, so be it.

Fundamentally, Harper doesn’t like Canada very much. It’s too liberal, too loose, too polite. It values community as much as commerce. The Prime Minister wants Canada to be harder, more aggressive, less forgiving, and he has set out to make it so — whether the country likes it or not. That doesn’t make him a fascist, but it doesn’t make him much of a democrat either.

As Lawrence Scanlan recently wrote in the Ottawa Citizen, “Our government freely spends tax dollars on prisons, police and war machinery, while insisting ‘taxes’ is a dirty word.” He reeled off his own list of embarrassments. “The tar sands, our pathetic stance at the Copenhagen conference on climate change, the prison farms/super prisons debacle, ongoing asbestos mining, the shift from peacekeeper to major player in a dubious war, Afghan detainees: what’s appalling, and indeed what has perhaps enabled all this, is our apathy. And there’s a price to be paid for apathy.”

Yes, there is. This is the way your own government steals your country. Just ask the Germans.

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Silver Donald Cameron is host and executive producer of the environmental web site His new book, A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, will be published by Douglas and McIntyre next month.

Satish Kumar and the Dancing Economy

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

August 8, 2010

“If you are protecting the environment for the benefit of humankind, valuing the natural world in terms of nature’s usefulness to humans, that is a shallow ecology,” says Satish Kumar. “If you see intrinsic value in nature, and you say that a river has intrinsic value that cannot be measured in terms of its usefulness to humans, that is a deep ecology.

“But when you say that rivers and trees are sacred, and that we need to revere the earth, that is a reverential ecology. You receive the gifts of trees — like fruit, or wood, or oxygen — but you receive them with gratitude. And gratitude is the essential quality of reverential ecology.”

Satish Kumar knows about reverence. Since 1973 he has been the editor of Resurgence, the leading British environmental magazine, but he was born to a devout family in Rajastan, India, and became a Jain monk at the age of nine. At 27, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Bertrand Russell, he set out with a companion to walk to the capitals of the four then-existing nuclear powers — France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States — in a “pilgrimage for peace.”

The two began at Gandhi’s grave in Bangalore, and ended at John F. Kennedy’s grave in Washington. They had walked more than 8000 miles, carrying no money and depending on the goodwill of the people they encountered. They had met with the leaders of all four nuclear nations, and had given each one a packet of “peace tea,” which they had received from the women workers in a tea factory. Tell the leaders, said the women, that “when you think you need to press the button, stop for a minute and have a fresh cup of tea.”

Reverential ecology, Kumar says, represents “a reciprocal, mutual and respectful relationship with the entire natural world,” recognizing the interdependence of all living things. All species belong to our family. The wolf is our brother, the eagle our sister. We can take from nature what we need — but no more. And we must take it with humility and gratitude.

This philosophy resonates powerfully with aboriginal thought, giving thanks to the plants and animals for what they provide to us, and wasting none of the gifts that nature confers. It is a dramatic contrast to our current economic model, based on continuous obsolescence, which takes materials and energy from the earth, transforms them into products, uses them briefly, and then sends them to the landfill as indigestible garbage.

This economy, Kumar notes, is “linear,” but the life of the earth is cyclical. Things die, decompose, regroup and return. Everything recycles. We need a circular economy based on “elegant simplicity,” a “joyful economy.”

Joyful? Well, yes. Mass production, Kumar notes, requires mass consumption and mass wastage. Since our economy produces far more than we need, what motivates us to buy? Fear and insecurity. We’ve been sold the idea that accumulation makes us more secure. That’s another illusion. Beyond a certain modest level, possessions are simply a burden.

We need what Kumar calls “a dancing economy” that takes only what’s needed, and returns its wastes to the earth in usable forms. Soy inks on recycled paper, compostable auto bodies, aluminum that cycles through a hundred uses. An economy that does not starve a billion people while making another billion people obese. An economy that allows us to live “beautifully, but simply,” enjoying lovely hand-made clothing, furniture, housing, art, music and drama.

Can such a transition occur? Satish Kumar is certain it will. The onrushing, multi-faceted environmental crisis will force us to change — and the change may come very quickly. Who ever predicted the collapse of the British Empire, the Soviet Union, apartheid? In the 1960s, when Kumar visited Martin Luther King, he was thrown out of a segregated restaurant at gunpoint. But today there is a black man in the White House, and a national holiday named for Dr. King.

“The true superpower in the world is the power of people,” smiles Satish Kumar. “When people change, governments will follow.” He knows it’s so. He’s seen it happen.

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Silver Donald Cameron’s hour-long interview with Satish Kumar was recently posted online at

The Sea Cook of the Schooner

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

August 1, 2010

I read Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous when I was a boy, and I loved it. It was among the books that shaped my life by fuelling my interest in the sea, and in fishing, and in schooners. Later, after moving to a fishing community and actually meeting some of the men who had built and sailed the saltbankers, I read it again. That’s probably 30 years ago now, and I might see it differently today, but I still thought it was a fine book.

The essence of the story is simple. A spoiled young man named Harvey Cheyne Jr. is travelling with his wealthy family on a luxury liner from Europe to New York. As the ship crosses the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Harvey falls overboard. He is rescued by the Gloucester fishing schooner We’re Here, whose skipper, Disko Troop, tells him flatly that they’re not taking him ashore till they’ve filled their holds with fish sometime in the fall. In the meantime he can earn his room and board by working as a fisherman.

The boy is furious, and he resists and complains — but ultimately, for once in his life, he has to do what he’s told. Naturally, the impact on him is profound. He grows up and fills out both in body and in soul, and he learns how to conduct himself as a man among men. He develops a deep respect and affection for the working men he lives with, and when he’s eventually returned to his family, the spoiled boy has become a capable and responsible man.

When I read it the second time, I was struck by the book’s fidelity to reality, and by the really specific references — one decrepit schooner goes by, “full of gin and Judique men,” says Disko Troop, not the only reference in history to a certain Cape Breton predilection for the sauce. But when I read that the cook on the schooner was a Gaelic-speaking black man from Cape Breton, I thought that Kipling had trusted his imagination too far. No doubt Kipling knew that Cape Bretoners spoke Gaelic, and that Nova Scotia had a large black population. So he added two and two and got five.

I was wrong. Kipling was right.

Since then, I’ve run across the story of the black Gael in several places and in several forms. As I understand it, the story begins in Halifax, where Captain David Smith, the patriarch of Port Hood, met a black orphan boy on the docks, took him home, and raised him with his own family. The boy — whose last name was Maxwell — grew up as a Gaelic-speaking Cape Bretoner and married a black woman from Guysborough County. According to a 2003 article by Rannie Gillis recently re-printed in the Gaelic magazine Lasag, the Maxwell family lived on Cameron’s Island, just off Marble Mountain. Among their children were twin brothers named George and John, both of whom went to sea on separate fishing schooners.

The two had never experienced racism in Cape Breton, says Gillis, but the international schooner fishery was a different environment. Though the twins were big men, George was retiring, while John was more assertive. When the two met on the Banks one day in their dories, George complained about the harassment he was getting from two new crew members. John suggested they switch clothes and dories, and he returned to the ship in George’s place.

When the two new crewmen taunted him, John taunted them right back. When one of them rushed him, John flattened him. When the other one attacked, John knocked him cold.The next day the twins met again and switched back. Neither was ever harassed again.
Some time later, George Maxwell met Kipling in Gloucester, and the two spent several evenings together. Kipling was fascinated by Maxwell’s experiences, and the result was the black, Gaelic-speaking sea-cock of the We’re Here — the one I thought was impossible.

W.O. Mitchell once said that in a work of fiction, every single word is the literal truth, and the whole damn thing is a lie. Yes, I actually know that. And so did Rudyard Kipling.

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