François Hollande is the first French president to make an official visit to Canada's West, being hosted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a State dinner in Banff. A sign perhaps that Europe might be more interested in Canadian energy than in protests about carbon emissions? For whatever reason, it is welcome that France takes an interest in Canada beyond Quebec, as it was in the days of Le Grand Charles. More recently, Nicolas Sarkozy was a frequent visitor to Canada, but usually in a private capacity, enjoying the hospitality of the Desmarais family, patrons of Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Harper is our first non-Desmarais premiership in decades, so the French president had to find something else to do. I hope he enjoyed the Rockies.
Rod Love was for three decades the late Ralph Klein's über-consigliere, if one might be permitted a bilingual appellation to describe a pair that adorned their exchanges with f-bombs rather than foreign words. He died on October 26, a few months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He planned his memorial before he died, telling his friend Jack Donahue that there would be no funeral. "If I see church pews, hear hymns, or smell incense, I am not coming."1 So his family and friends repaired to a country club to tell stories about the past, absent of hope for the future. A final message was passed on from Love himself: "The bar is open." Eat, drink and be merry, for the dead are, well, dead.
After Klein was forced into retirement, Alberta was underwhelmed by his successors, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford. Now my home province has a new premier, Jim Prentice, whose task is to breathe new life into the Progressive Conservative Party, the villain in the horror movie of Alberta politics—just when it appears to be dead, it returns to inflict more damage. The new premier just won four by-elections, including a seat of his own. He has repeatedly announced that his PC Party is "phalanged up," meaning that they are in "fighting trim." "Phalanged up" sounds enough like a painful medical problem to give one pause, but the premier apparently means "phalanx," of Greek origin, meaning a group forming "a compact mass, banded for common purpose." So the Alberta Tories are phalanged up. When I first heard it, I thought Prentice was going too far in rejecting the faux-conservatism of Redford, his fellow Joe Clark protegé. But it is unlikely that Prentice has become an enthusiast of the generalissimo, Francisco Franco, whose Falange party ruled Spain with an iron fist. After all, Franco is no role model for Prentice & Co. He was only in power for some 40 years. Alberta's Tories are at 43 years and phalanged up as they head towards their golden jubilee.
In the right order of things, fall means football, as one finds on the university campus. Professional sports-wise, Canada is all out of whack, with the CFL playing in the heat of summer—which, come to think of it, the NHL does, too. The whole matter is becoming somewhat untethered from reality. Literally. TSN has a tagline this fall: "Football is good. Fantasy football —even better." Actually, fantasy is not better than reality. Yet the marketing behemoths behind pro sports have elevated fantasy football – in which fans assemble fake teams in order to "compete" with each other – into something that grown men are now passionate about. In a sports bar in Washington a few weeks back, I asked our waiter if he was enjoying the game. "My team isn't doing well, but my fantasy team is fine!" Fantasy used to be something boys indulged in on the playground, pretending to be some star player. It is not progress that the grown-ups now play "let's pretend"; and they don't even bother to go outside but only online. Fantasy has its place. Reality is even better.
The War of 1812 is something of a misnomer, given that it lasted until 1815. The contours of the border upon which I live were determined in the settlement of the last British/Canadian/American war. The assignation of the various Thousand Islands—of which Wolfe Island, only named that much later, is the first and largest—was worked out after the War of 1812 to maintain both peace and security. So Wolfe Island was assigned to Canada, the border passing a dozen kilometres south of my church rather than a mile to the north. But for the grace of armistice negotiations, the parish would be American. Two centuries on, hostilities have been replaced with humour, and the British embassy in Washington thought to have some fun marking the bicentennial of the burning of the White House in August 1814 by celebrating with a cake in the shape of the presidential residence. "Only sparklers this time!" the Brits tweeted out with a picture. Tasty and cheeky. The Americans were not amused and the British hastily apologized. Americans should not be shamefaced though, for if it weren't for the British sack of Washington, Francis Scott Key would not have seen, by the rocket's red glare, that the star-spangled banner did still wave amid the bombs bursting in air. Yes, it's the bicentenary of the American national anthem, a product not of the Revolutionary War or the Civil War but of battling the British in Washington and Baltimore in 1814. The War of 1812 should be a happy memory, for it ended in what has been 200 years of peace and friendship between Canada and America. That's worth a song—and a cake with sparklers.
Traumatic memories, of course, abound at the World Trade Center site, which only a few weeks ago saw the first office workers move into One World Trade Center. It's billed as a moment of triumphant resolve, but it is hardly that. It took a sclerotic 13 years after the 9/11 attacks to get the memorial built and the office tower up and occupied. During the Depression, the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world, went up in 15 months. The new Freedom Tower is impressive to be sure, but the giant holes in the ground marking the original Twin Towers are an odd sort of memorial. Solemn to be sure, but an enormous emptiness is neither defiant nor resolute. One World Trade Center itself is about 58 per cent leased, housing in itself a considerable emptiness, too. Rents have been cut recently in the hope that what patriotism does not accomplish, more pecuniary reasons will.
When the south tower collapsed on 9/11, it crushed St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey promised to facilitate rebuilding the church, but like everything about the reconstruction of the World Trade Center (WTC) site, matters got bogged down in bureaucracy. Approaching the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Orthodox Archdiocese of America filed suit. Prayers and a lawsuit were evidently more effective than prayers alone, and within months an agreement was finally signed to rebuild St. Nicholas. Construction has now begun on a new church, which the architect has modelled on the Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Saviour, both in Constantinople. When completed in a few years, St. Nicholas ought to become what the WTC site needs more than a return to commerce and an ambivalent memorial—a place of prayer for those killed, and for the peace that the world cannot give.
They used to pray where the students at Concordia now study. The Grey Nuns, founded by Saint Marguerite d'Youville, Canada's first native-born saint, used to be an enormous presence in Montreal. No longer, and they have sold their downtown motherhouse to Concordia. The last nuns moved out in May 2013, and this fall, after extensive renovations, some 600 Concordia students have moved in. The chapel has been kept largely as it was, complete with religious statues, but has been converted to a library. It's not a bad metaphor for Canadian life—the architectural footprint of religious charities shrinks, while that of State-funded bureaucratic education expands. Saint Marguerite was the widow of a rumrunner, which caused her much distress. The Catholic Church publicly campaigned against selling alcohol to Aboriginal peoples, as Monsieur d'Youville did. After his death, Marguerite became a nun, and in 1737 founded the Sisters of Charity. They cared for the poor, taking in the sick and the drunkards in need of a place to dry out—and to be offered a conversion of life. Montreal high society gave Saint Marguerite's sisters the nickname les soeurs grises, not only in reference to the sisters' grey habits but to the bootlegging past of d'Youville's late husband. In French, soeur grise was then slang for a drunken woman.2 Things have come full circle. There are drunks—women and men—back at the motherhouse, but this time as student residents. Is conversion still on offer? Unlikely. The confessionals in the chapel are now locked.
Jian Ghomeshi's attempted pre-emptive strike (read more on Ghomeshi in "Sea to Sea"), detailing some of the allegations forthcoming against him, was described in one report as appearing in a "Facebook confessional." 3 The old confessionals, which Concordia students likely think are elaborate storage lockers, offered forgiveness, mercy, anonymity and confidentiality. The Facebook confessional offers recriminations, hostility, public shame and embarrassing exposure. The Grey Nuns of yesteryear could teach the black sheep of today something about how to deal with the dark side of life.
One detects signs of Christmas creeping up earlier each year. We have our Santa Claus parade on Wolfe Island on December 6, which is early but at least in Advent. Upriver in Amherstview, the children were not allowed to sleep in after Halloween lest they miss their Santa Claus parade, which took place on November 14. Next year, the burghers of Amherstview might be advised not to wait so long. Hold the parade in early October, and a combined Thanksgiving-Christmas dinner could be served, relieving so much stress in December. A blessed Christmas to all!
1. "Family and friends pay loving, laughter-filled tribute to Rod Love," Calgary Herald, 2 November 2014.
2. "Get thee to a stunning nunnery," Maclean's, 10 November 2014.
3. "Sex, lies, and the CBC," Maclean's, 10 November 2014.
4. "Santa rolls into Amherstview," The Kingston Whig- Standard, 2 November 2014.