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Small Talk

Our editor-in-chief eyeballs Hogtown snobs, political droning and the spiritual meaning of malls

7 minute read
Small Talk August 1, 2014  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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"The city whose skyline was once dominated by church spires is now a thicket of glass towers." So writes Marcus Gee about the extraordinary boom in Toronto's downtown, noting that a recent report said that from 2003 to 2013, there were 11,686 floors of residential construction planned or finished downtown — the equivalent of 74 CN Towers1. What happens to a city's soul when residents can no longer see the spires? It's something that our colleagues at Cardus have been thinking about for some time. What happens when churches disappear — or become marginal — in the downtown landscape or skyline? It's called the City Soul project and is one of our more fruitful initiatives, under the leadership of Milton Friesen.2 Seventy-four CN Towers is an enormous height. But even a lowly church spire points higher.

Marcus Gee is an interesting fellow. About 10 years back he was on the Globe's editorial board and showed something of a sensitivity to the role of faith in our common life. Then he was dispatched to Tokyo, where he confessed to weeping over the election of Barack Obama, likening it to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then something went wrong somewhere, and a few years ago Gee returned to write about the glories of Toronto. He has been having a hard time with Rob Ford. If Obama's election made him teary with joy, you can imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Ford. With Canada Day approaching — and Rob Ford's return to public life from rehab — Gee decided it was time for a little saccharine civic boosterism: "Toronto isn't Rob Ford. Toronto is more than that. Toronto is a Chinese-speaking man cooling his bare feet in the reflecting pool at Nathan Phillips Square as his small daughter playfully loops her frilly red purse over his shoulder. Toronto is the café in Kensington Market advertising 'vegan mocha.' Toronto is more than 100 same-sex couples getting married in the sun at Casa Loma. Toronto is the woman waiting at the streetcar stop in black head scarf and wraparound sunglasses, Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack slung over her shoulder. Toronto isn't Rob Ford. Toronto is more than that."3 Which explains why Ford, though manifestly unfit to be mayor, still maintains a certain constituency. Gee and his circle can't see beyond downtown — Nathan Phillips Square, Kensington Market, Casa Loma — to where most Torontonians live, far from downtown, where they can afford larcenous land transfer taxes and battle their way to work on congested roads and inadequate transit. Gee rhapsodizes about the Queen Street streetcar, which was most unpleasant when I had to ride it, and a vegan mocha would not have improved the experience. One hopes that Rob Ford and his dubious associates are soon to exit the scene, but all those who are not part of Marcus Gee's Toronto still need representation.

Kevin Diaz of the Houston Chronicle probably tells his family and friends with pride that he covers President Obama as part of the White House press corps. Yet not all assignments are equally prestigious. Diaz was sent to cover Obama's golf outing in Virginia. "POTUS motorcade departed at 4:45 from the gated, lakefront campus of Robert Trent Jones' signature golf course, which looked like a nice place to play golf, at least from the maintenance shed where [the press] pool spent the day."4 Yes, in order to preserve the privileges of the President, the press corps acquiesces to being locked in the shed for the afternoon. Court eunuchs are thought to be a relic of bygone days, when men were emasculated to make them suitable attendants upon the sovereign. No need for that today, when the press corps is more than willing to do the neutering all on its own.

Before the 2006 election, Stephen Harper promised that Canadian Armed Forces would get drones. After the election, he gave the go ahead. The Royal Canadian Air Force now reports that they will have drones in operation in 2023. Industry observers think that 17-year target is rather ambitious, and the RCAF admits that 2023 is "notional." 5 In unrelated news, Amazon announced plans to have pizzas delivered by drones within five years.6 And in further unrelated news, the Archdiocese of Washington became the first Catholic diocese to own a drone, which it first used to film overhead shots of a procession in honour of the newly sainted John Paul II.7 They used to joke that the West Edmonton Mall had more working submarines than the Canadian navy. But the Catholic Church with more drones than the RCAF?

It's been more than 25 years since I was last in the West Edmonton Mall, but June travels took me past and I stopped in to see what, in my youth, was called the world's largest shopping mall. Perhaps it still is. The submarines appear to be gone, but it is still there, teeming with people, a testament that mall culture has a tenacious hold in Canada — popular with all those people who don't buy vegan smoothies at outdoor markets. The mall has outlived many of the chains it once housed — Woodward's, Zellers, Eaton's. It has a faux beach, a faux Europa street and a faux Chinatown, even if it has lost the faux submarines. To my knowledge, the more than five million square feet of space does not have any spiritual space — at least I couldn't find any. There is not a chapel, faux or otherwise, amid the casino, bingo hall, gym, Canada's first Victoria's Secret and the world's largest parking lot. For the 24,000 employees and more than 30 million annual visitors, there is nowhere in the 48 city blocks of mall to pray, reflect, worship. Or maybe worship is what the 800 stores are for? Our Cardus colleagues may think about starting a project called Soul of the Mall.

Dimitri Soudas is engaged to Conservative MP Eve Adams, the member for Mississauga-Brampton South. She will lose that seat in the next election when the riding is split into several new ones, so she is trying to win the nomination for the recently created riding of Oakville-North Burlington. Soudas had been named executive director of the Conservative Party last fall by Stephen Harper. He was fired in March 2014 because he allegedly breached his contractual promise not to get involved in his fiancée's nomination battle. Soudas explained himself in May to CBC Radio: "You know what? I'll rip up any contract that says I can't help my family. I will breach any contract that says I can't help my family."8 Soudas is devoted to his family. When he announced his departure from the Prime Minister's Office in June 2011, he tweeted that "priority 1 is my wife and 3 kids," intending to devote himself to his young family, including a baby girl born in March 2011. By fall he had deleted that tweet and had left his wife and young family. He was by then with Eve Adams, who earlier that same summer had still been married to Peter Adams. The Conservative Party postponed the May 24 nomination vote in Oakville-North Burlington in order to investigate allegations that Adams and Soudas were not following the rules. Who would have thought that Soudas and Adams would not honour their commitments?

Desmond Tutu, the emeritus Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and all-purpose international grandee, alighted in Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 31, rather a long way from the more chic salons where he usually holds court. He came to tour the oil sands, which he pronounced as "filth" and inveighed against their development. A lot of international celebrities come to condemn the oil sands, but this did catch my eye as a quasi-original contribution: "Do you want to live in a barren, treeless, flowerless desert?" That might be a relevant question to ask oil producers in Saudi Arabia, who actually live in a desert. To be fair, the Arabian desert was barren, treeless and flowerless long before they found oil there, the discovery of which has made an inhospitable desert a livable home for millions. One expects that the flowerless desert of the Arabian peninsula might even provide jobs for some South Africans looking for opportunities not readily had at home. Did the retired Archbishop look out of the window of the helicopter on his visit? I have been taken on the same tour myself, and the most striking thing one sees from the air is not the actual oil sands facilities but the absolutely vast forest, an immensity that stretches out to the horizon and beyond. The forests of northern Canada are in fact some of the largest on earth. Some people can't see the forest for the ideologies.

I have spent a few weeks in Kraków every July for the past six years, teaching a seminar on the Catholic vision of a free society. After the defeat of communism in 1989, the relevant question was whether Poland's robust Christian faith could become the foundation for a free and virtuous society, or whether a liberal democratic culture would erode the faith that had shaped Polish culture for a thousand years. The latest results are not encouraging. A recent survey put Sunday Mass attendance at 39 per cent — the first time the annual survey by the Polish Institute of Catholic Church Statistics registered a result under 40 per cent.9 In 1992, the figure was 47 per cent, so in 20 years, a significant decline in religious observance has occurred. The Canadian visitor is still deeply impressed with levels of religious observance far greater than that in Canada, but for how long?

I didn't watch MuchMusic back in the 1980s when it was the newest big thing. My parents were leery enough about cable TV, let alone specialty channels, to say nothing of those devoted to music videos. It was not a genre friendly to wholesome Christian entertainment. But it was impossible to escape the effect of MuchMusic, Canada's answer to — and in some pop-culture measurements improvement upon — MTV. It loomed large in youth culture. Bell Media, which owns MuchMusic (now called Much), along with MTV Canada and M3 (MuchMoreMusic) has announced that 91 jobs are being cut and the three channels have essentially been gutted, no doubt in preparation to be shut down.10 The future — music video channels — lasted 30 years. It's now the past, with no one waiting on a TV channel to play videos that are readily available on demand on YouTube. The newspaper and magazine world has been rocked by the Internet but not as much as what used to be called the new media: music videos, movie rentals, cable news and all the rest that was shiny and new in the 1980s. It is obvious that the Internet is changing everything, but it is changing it more for some than for others. Radio stations still survive. Let's hope that magazines of faith and common life do, too.


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