A Season of Gratitude for What Really Matters

blogimage2Participation at this year’s winter solstice gathering on December 21st at the home of Tony and Fran McQuail bestowed the gift of one of the most loving, beautiful, and spiritual, Christmas season gatherings that I ever have experienced in my entire life. Being welcomed by this Quaker family into their circle of family members and friends has been an experience of soulful, loving fellowship. We sat huddled together in Tony and Fran’s cozy stable, all seated on haystacks, their gorgeous horses nearby, and also accompanied by a large sleeping dog and several, playful kittens. Tony recited the Nativity story punctuated by brief interludes in which we sang carols. We then relocated to another festive building to enjoy a potluck feast followed by games and sharing stories.

Is not such a fellowship, and embracing the original Christmas story, at the essence of the meaning of Christmas? Indeed, the sanctity of life itself is what really matters.

How the honouring of this sanctity of life is played out is through the love and caring that we give each other, and all other earthly creatures and planetary life in our midst, all of which we so vigilantly must protect, as a human family.


Doing so is what we hold in common, and our diverse actions to protect, heal and restore all forms of life offer us opportunities to heal, as well, regrettable divisiveness both globally in regard to the human family, and personally in our familial, professional, volunteer, and community interactions.

The best New Year’s resolutions, indeed, can be focused on promising to take actions through the coming year in the spirit of healing and reconciliation, for good relationships, whether within one’s personal family, a workplace, an organization, or the community where you live, and also offering financial, or simply emotional, support to those folks committed to activities that serve humanity and the planet’s well-being.

The healing begins through each and every small, random act of kindness. Too often, however, the behaviour patterns that tend to reside in various layers of our unconscious obstruct us from expressing our better qualities.

One common example – usually unconscious – is passive-aggressive behaviour, such as rejecting affection and offers of assistance, so that the giver feels unwelcomed and unvalued by those who exclude the person who wishes to participate in their lives. This happens in family dynamics, organizations and, undoubtedly, at all levels of power and control in the world.

A second common example, related to the first, is the denial and refusal, consciously yet more often unconsciously, to recognize with honesty and humility one’s own responsibility to make amends for causing harm, even when not intended. Regardess, harm is caused by omissions and thoughtlessness. Sadly, such behaviours impact all levels of relationship, from the personal to the global.

These foibles in human nature are universal and why transformation of consciousness is what I identify as the essential first part of our 21st century human project in order to evolve, and develop our ways of being, to carry out the second part – restoration of an imperiled planet.

The challenge, meanwhile, is for us to rise above the personal outrage we so justifiably can feel, but which can paralyze us into inaction and blaming. Sometimes, we need to grieve about who and what we need to let go, and shift energy away from fretting about other people’s hurtful behaviours. Instead, the preferred task is to redirect energy to focus on life-affirming reflection and activities.


Indeed, what can be more productive than awakening our Higher Self, where our emotional, mental and physical energies can be mobilized from a place of spiritual outrage through acts of caring that proactively confront what is hurtful and destructive.

For example, through the past two years I began to participate within a coalition of concerned local citizens to become one of the oral intervenors at two public hearings, in order to fight against the potential licensing of a proposed deep geologic repository for nuclear waste next to Lake Huron, in the Great Lakes Basin.

Each of us, in our own ways, had to rise above our anger – and disbelief that such as an environmentally risky project even could be proposed at all – to channel our respective energies, instead, in the pursuit of various types of research. The task, ultimately, was to provide solid evidence for all the reasons why this project is scientifically indefensible, as well as identifying ethical issues, based on the many uncertainties. Our struggle continues.

Indeed, what sustains me through many years are: longstanding personal friendships; having a sense of purpose for my existence that goes beyond personal comfort and pleasure; a place of belonging; the fellowship of like-minded colleagues who stand together, in extensive volunteerism, to confront various types of injustice; and the willingness to see one’s life journey as a spiritual quest in which to continue growing, learning and deepen one’s caring.

Despite financial poverty, I therefore feel very rich because of feeling embraced within a circle of caring people. First of all, on an emotional level, at times I have felt so vulnerable that, without my close friends who share my spiritual beliefs and environmental concerns, I have come close to falling apart. Their love most of all sustains me through the `dark nights of the soul’ that have visited upon me on several occasions.

Choosing such a life journey, and engaging in the protection of whatever sustains life – for that is the spiritual essence of environmental activism – offers continuing opportunities to meet caring individuals. I am strengthened through these beautiful relationships, and pray that my reciprocal offerings reinforce the strength of other caring individuals.

In recent months, for example, I joined fellow local citizens and agencies in lobbying against the removal of protection for “locally significant wetlands” in my county. Each of us submitted letters to our county council, to challenge its new amendment to remove such protection, as did regional conservation authorities and other agencies.

Regardless, the Council was considering a vote to remove protection, until a December public meeting in which two citizens – me and a retired science professor from the northern peninsula – both showed up to give oral presentations that helped better inform newly elected municipal councillors. We won, as proactive, concerned citizens! Council terminated the amendment, and agreed to pursue a more complete environmental mapping as we had requested.

The lesson here is to: be aware of the issues wherever you live that could threaten the health and safety of future generations; be persevering; prepare your research; and last, but definitely not least, show up and speak your truth, because that is how life-affirming changes can happen – in the unexpected moments and through the actions of just a few caring folks.


Indeed, we, collectively as a human family, have arrived at a historic moment that calls us to action, to affirm life. What are the ways in which we, across cultures and across diverse religious paths, can demonstrate the essence of perennial spiritual teachings that preceded today’s major world religions, and originated in, for example, Indigenous belief systems whose teaching still have value today?

The essence of such original teachings were grounded in respect, and love in all of its expressions, directed to and embracing the basic earthly elements and species that make human life possible. As the Indigenous teachings tell us – albeit misunderstood and undermined through most of Euro-western cultural history – we human beings are the youngest brothers and sisters of all Creation on Earth. Therefore, we need to relearn that our very sustenance depends upon all other planetary life.

For many weeks, since the mid-October Thanksiving celebration in Canada, I have pondered how I could best present this message. But, a series of crises, personal and otherwise, repeatedly delayed this blog post. Regardless, I chose to focus on urgent activism since the early summer, discerning between the timeliness and wisdom to act rather than simply write about issues here, when either immediate attention was needed or ongoing intervention through other forms of writing.

As I now complete this message a few hours before the New Year bells ring in 2015, I sincerely hope it offers inspiration, hope and possibility in your life.

May you choose to offer kindness and generosity to others, and feel gratitude for everyone and everything that enriches your own life.

May you also feel inclined to co-create a world in which all of the human family can experience love and dignity to enjoy a life worth living. Collaborate across genders, generations, and cultures, to heal and restore an increasingly wounded planet, so that the children yet unborn also can experience a life filled with beauty, meaning and love.

Blessed be.

POSTSCRIPT: Visit The Meeting Place Organic Farm to be inspired by the loving example of the McQuail family in the produce and knowledge they contribute for the well-being of all life, holistically.

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Then they came for us – How “strong and free” is Canada?

blogimage2Dear fellow Canadians, do not ever take freedom of expression for granted. Many years ago I had my eyes opened to the various levels of social injustice in Canada, working fulltime as a freelance journalist. My previous rose-tinted eye glasses as a complacent Canadian shattered into countless pieces on the earth of a Canada praised in our anthem as “The True North strong and free.” These days, increasingly, we all need to pay attention to a few more lyrics in that anthem, such as: “we stand on guard for thee.” In short, more of us need to get off our duffs to demand, and safeguard, freedom of expression that continues to be diminished by Harper’s federal government.

Our national news media, God bless them, are paying attention, telling us about the latest targets of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), which include PEN and OXFAM. These actions ought to outrage anyone who cares about freedom of expression, and who needs to become more aware that the CRA net is widening to capture and lessen the grassroots power of organizations which support social and environmental justice.


Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay must think Canadians are idiots to believe what she said, cited on cbc.ca online, in a news item by The Canadian Press, dated July 10, 2014: “CRA audits occur at arm’s length from the government and are conducted free of any political interference. Our government is committed to ensuring that our tax system is fair to all Canadians.”

Those words espouse a blatant lie. How do you explain the pattern of organizations selected by the CRA to undergo expensive audits – following the 2012 federal budget which bequeathed 13 million [taxpayer] dollars, increased from the initial eight million to the CRA dedicated to this task? Contrast those selections with non-selected organizations, such as the Fraser Institute which “can happily enjoy immunity from any challenge under Canadian charitable law,” according to Warren Bell.

Warren Bell contributes thought-provoking opinion columns to The Vancouver Observer. Dr. Bell is a family physician and Past Founding President of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

In his brilliant exploration of the Anglo-Saxon history of “charitable status” – whose origins were in 1601, based on an enactment from the British Statute of Elizabeth – an insightful article which I advocate that every Canadian read, Dr. Bell concludes:

Charitable tax law affords an opportunity for the federal government to attack groups it doesn’t like, while cloaking its behaviour in hoary anachronistic enactments… On the other side of the coin, charitable tax law allows groups which lobby for things that a particular federal government favours to steer clear of CRA disapproval.

The Fraser Institute is a prime example, Dr. Bell informs us, of a “prominent corporate lobby group,” who promotes itself as an “independent public policy research and educational organization.” Moreover, in its materials and presentations, the institute always identifies its “educational purpose” or “research finding.” Important to note is, the Fraser Institute espouses the beliefs and attitudes of the Harper administration.

Compare the above with what befalls charitable organizations, increasingly, which have challenged the Harper government on a number of fronts, domestic and international. In doing so, any intelligent person can discern a pattern of those organizations being targeted for audits, and more aggressively since 2012.

This pattern is a serious threat to freedom of expression in Canada. The reason is, loss of funding diminishes activities that enable our democracy to thrive through protection of, and strengthening, the safety and health of humanity within and beyond Canada.


Some audits can take more than a year. These intrusions not only raise the legal costs of the targeted organizations. But, as well, they distract staff from operating effectively and raising funds, because the auditors want to see all documents and correspondence. Furthermore, even the threat of having to undergo an audit can cause confusion and upset, not knowing what the CRA will label as “political” to then revoke charitable status.

The consequence of this audit pattern is rightly called “advocacy chill,” by Gareth Kirkby, a former journalist and now graduate student in communications. In Kirkby’s 2014 MA thesis, he maps this pattern, based on research including interviews with the leaders of 16 such organizations. The Canadian Press cites Kirkby’s thesis:

The data suggest that the current federal government is corrupting Canada’s democratic processes by treating as political enemies those civil-society organizations whose contributions to public policy conversations differ from government priorities.

In The Canadian Press interview, Kirkby identifies three particular charitable sectors that appear to be singled out for CRA audits: environment, development and human rights, and charities receiving donations from trade unions.

This moment in Canada is not the first time in history that such sectors have been attacked. The words “Then they came for me,” have an origin so chilling that the entire piece of prose in which these words first appeared has been used repeatedly since 1945 by diverse groups, and individuals, to challenge various forms of oppression.

Martin Niemoller (1892-1984), regardless, was the German Protestant church minister who first composed them. He created several versions of his longer `statement’ for diverse audiences to whom he preached reconciliation and disarmament through the rest of his life, after seven years in Nazi concentration camps until liberated by the Allies:

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

The above version of Niemoller’s famous statement can be found on the website of The [American] National World War II Museum, in a lesson plan for teachers titled “Resistance Movements, Partisans, and the `Righteous Among the Nations’.” The lesson plan identifies the various German resistant groups, and concludes by inviting reflection on Niemoller’s statement as related to the universal issue of individual and collective responsibility.

If any of my readers believe that I am overstating the comparison between then and now, consider this fact. On May 27, 2014, Lawyers Rights Watch Canada sent a written statement (several pages) to the 26th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, titled: “The Shrinking Space for Dissent in Canada.” It revisits the themes of concern that I identified above – and much more!


Let us look at PEN Canada, a nonpartisan organization of writers. It is renowned for defending persecuted writers and fighting censorship – both abroad and within Canada. John Lorinc, journalist and PEN member, wrote an excellent opinion piece on PEN’s political advocacy titled “PEN audit will come back to haunt Tories.” (Here’s hoping.)

What’s immediately more heartening is that within days of news breaking out about the CRA auditors arriving at PEN offices, PEN Canada received a number of new memberships, plus six generous financial donations.

The very exercise of auditors deciphering whether any organization’s activities – when explicitly nonpartisan as is PEN – meet the government’s definition of political activity should give us pause about what is going on here.

The exercise is utterly ridiculous when the mandate of these targeted organizations is to protect the freedoms that enable a democracy to function as a democracy, which fundamentally means protecting freedom of expression as a basic human right.

Let me be clear. When the production and distribution of knowledge, to raise awareness on pertinent issues of our time, is diminished because the government actions targeted to limit funds for knowledge production, doing so is called “political repression.”

Regarding OXFAM Canada, member of an international humanitarian confederation, the government bafflegab that attempts to dissect OXFAM’s mandate, in questioning whether it is “preventing” poverty rather than “allieviating” poverty, needs to be read to be believed. See “Canada Revenue Agency says ‘preventing poverty’ not allowed as goal for charity.

The political targeting of a longer list of organizations that focus on humanitarian and environmental advocacy is painful, given the harsh reality that we now occupy an imperiled planet. Such organizations are trying to wake us up to pay attention about restoring the wounded life support system of the planet before it is too late in regard to safeguard the well-being of future generations.

Interestingly, and sadly, the only organization thus far that actually did have its charitable status revoked in 2012 is, incredibly, Physicians for Global Survival (PG). Read that organization’s name again – Physicians for Global Survival.

Who could be more important to support than physicians (and like-minded scientists), who are dedicated to study, gather, analyze, produce and share knowledge critical for human survival on our environmentally-imperiled planet??? Actually, value the creative professionals too, who create stories based on this knowledge to engage our attention.

The reason to revoke PGS’s charitable status, identified by the CRA, was “excessive political activity.” PGS is a member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

PGS’s mission includes: Abolish nuclear weapons; Prevention of war; Non-violent conflict resolution; Social justice; and A sustainable world. In other words, this nonpartisan organization of physicians realizes that every aspect of life, in regard to peace, safety and health, for people and for eco-systems, is intertwined.

The CRA perceived the above as “excessive political activity.” Can we not interpret the PGS mission, alternatively, as focusing on efforts to protect, and restore where necessary, a world worth living in?

Fortunately, some people recognize and value PGS’s tremendous efforts and – even without receiving charitable tax receipts – continue to support Physicians for Global Survival, so that it can pursue its life-affirming activities.

My hope today, in restoring the Canada in which I once felt proud to be a citizen, resides in a larger number of fellow Canadians at the grassroots level having the courage, the integrity – and taking the time – to challenge the undemocratic actions of the Harper government. These include, yet reach beyond, the current, federally-influenced, CRA preoccupation.

Reflect on the freedoms that you cherish. Consider various ways to offer support to – and perhaps even join – specific causes, to ensure that fellow human beings can enjoy these freedoms as well.

The well-being of the human family and our planetary home depends on active caring.

PHOTO CREDIT: afagen via photo pin cc, for image of sign shown outdoors

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Still Point Where Activism and Contemplation Meet

blogimage2I heard an ominous thud on the window, and saw a bird drop into the bushes. In early spring, the twigs are dry, brittle and sharp. Would the bird still be alive? I donned boots and gloves to rush outside and extricate a stunned, very startled, yet blessedly still living bird. He was entangled in a jungle of twigs crushed by the heavy, relentless snowfalls of a long winter. I spoke to him softly, and tenderly lifted him out, so as to avoid further injuries. One eye was closed. His head darted side to side, while his racing heart thumped visibly.

The bird’s talons had grabbed onto my gloved finger, and held on for dear life, or so it seemed. According to a later internet search to identify it, the bird looked like a juvenile downy woodpecker, precisely as the bird looks here in the photo. I gently stroked his head and back, a red cap covering his head fully (unlike the adult male).

I continued to express my affection and reassurance that he is safe now. In no way did I want the feral cats of the neighbourhood81282832.JDJVumSn.IMG_2439 to have him for lunch. These cats prowl my land, and keep down the mice population. But, seeing them prey on birds is not pleasant.

What if the woodpecker can no longer fly? I decided to seek the advice of my neighbour Bob, a retired farmer. The bird and I took a stroll down the road, although I kept hoping that he would feel strong enough to fly away. As Bob and I discussed the situation, the bird finally flew off my hand. He reached a nearby tree, hooking his talons onto the trunk about eight feet off the ground, his heart still visibly thumping. Bob reassured me that his barn cats rarely climb trees.

Living immersed in the world of Nature, every day I am reminded of the sacredness, and vulnerability, of all creatures. This is not Disney World. The uncertainty of life is a fact, and a teaching, to learn how to be fully present in each moment of beauty and joy.

A rather large raccoon in my barn appears to have met a fate less fortunate than my woodpecker. Some days ago I began to explore my barn regularly, the nearby creek’s overflow reaching the eastern barn door. Empty of domestic animals, my barn’s intermittent wilder occupants recently included a raccoon that I initially hoped was only sleeping. Each visit I looked through the doorway of the large stall area, not getting closer to it, because raccoons can be vicious and/or carry rabies. The visible raccoon, in the same position through several days, at least found a dry, final resting place.

For the flooding in my region this early spring has been major. Time alone will tell how the web of life in the natural environment has been impacted, as well as farmers’ crops. My small pasture beside a creek had transformed into a pond, while neighbours’ larger fields and woodlots became small lakes. The land must dry out, or thaw out (after the most recent snow and sub-zero temperatures), before deceased animals can be buried, or be relocated in the bush to rejoin the cycle of life in the natural world’s food chain.

So, you may ask, how do these encounters relate to the still point where activism and contemplation meet? What is so different today from my earlier life – swallowed up by non-stop activism – is paying attention to self-care, and also being present in the moment more often.

Hence – the still point. The simple act of rescuing a bird filled my heart with joy. As for the raccoon, I felt compassion and serenity in acknowledging that the animal’s life had ended in reasonable comfort, given the bed of straw indoors.

At the `still point,’ our consciousness merges with the sacredness of life itself, in which acts of caring are in the moment yet timeless, with no thought about past or future. We also let go `attachment’ and control over the cycle of life and its mystery.


          “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
          Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
          But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
          Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
          Neither ascent or decline. Except for the point, the still point,
          There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

The above passage is a renown excerpt from the first of four poems by 20th century poet T. S. Eliot, known collectively as Four Quartets, the first poem titled Burnt Norton. Looking up references to Eliot’s “still point,” many online sources exist. However, I found the fewer number related to Eastern philosophy the most illuminating.

Eastern scholars point out Eliot’s study of Sanskrit and Eastern philosophies, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. These scholars, furthermore, have explained at length how symbols and imagery from such Eastern sources influenced his writings, including the Four Quartets.

Eliot Scholar Nidri Tiwari, in her book Imagery and Symbolism in T. S. Eliot’s Poetry (2001), uses “archetypal criticism.” She identifies this form of criticism as having a parallel emergence in an age torn by the anxiety of two World Wars and, moreover, an age dissatisfied with scientific and materialistic concepts of humankind. Hence: “The archetypal approach sought to restore to man the entire humanity.”

(The late James Hillman’s classic work Re-visioning Psychology (1992 edition), which I recently read, similarly illuminates the significance of archetypes. Hillman argues why they ought to be paid much more attention in the field of psychology.)

P. S. Sri’s T. S. Eliot, Vedanta, and Buddhism (1986), reviewed by Alan Jacobs, calls for more recognition of such Eastern influences upon Eliot’s vision, a vision that was implicitly spiritual and a fusion of Indian themes with a Western worldview.

In contrast, a Wiki entry on Burnt Norton, regrettably, totally omits mention of the Eastern influences upon Eliot’s writing. Worse, the Christian themes in his work are characterized by several critics as diminishing the greatness of the writing. George Orwell, for example, said as much.

The criticisms in the aforementioned Wiki article illustrate to me once again, – as I have stated a number of times in earlier blog posts – the fractured consciousness of Western culture. The Western mind has been socialized to be overly analytical and dualistic, and does not comprehend holism with ease.

By the way, Eliot is not above criticism; for he had human flaws including prejudice. Regardless, as a man of his time, he made an effort to make meaning of the plight of humankind, and seek some resolution through his particular spiritual quest.

So often these days I hear references to this historic moment as Orwellian. Indeed, Orwell was a visionary about what would befall human beings, if we were to succumb to authoritarian oversight inserting its ubiquitous presence into our daily lives, in various insidious ways. `Big Brother’ is evident, and increasing, because of too much human complacency, rather than more of us proactively acting on moral responsibility to protect democracy, where it still exists and is slowly being chipped away.

As for activism and contemplation, you may next ask me: “How can a person seek to make a difference while, apparently, living “away from it all”? My answer is, sad to say, there is no “away from it all” or safe place on this planet any more.

My purpose of relocating from a large city, in fact, seven years ago was not to run away from an urban environment so obviously out-of-sync with the planet’s life support system. Rather, my intention was to journey towards a deeper understanding why we, as a human species, have become so misguided in how we live on this earth.

To become a more effective helper in the wider world, I intuitively recognized that I needed an environment that would provide opportunities to pull me out of my head – emotionally stressed out, overly analytical, and intellectual – into my body.

Indeed, I wrote a doctoral thesis on this very topic, how helping professionals and activists tend to overwork in helping other folks, and burn out repeatedly, because we ignore our own inner emotional and spiritual needs. Renewal of energy is essential.

Meanwhile, since early last year, I now find myself deeply engaged, with a local group of concerned citizens, actively fighting against the insanity of a proposed nuclear waste dump, planned close to the shore of Lake Huron. (Among several blog posts last year on this topic, read “The Yin-Yang of Democracy – Use It or Lose It.”)

While still living full time in the city, I had begun the practice of contemplation. Choosing to embark on an inner journey, in other words, can be initiated anywhere. For my own pursuit, I chose studies and training in the concepts and practices of psychosynthesis, which I have woven into my daily life.

Wherever we live, restoring the planet’s health requires honest awareness of the incompleteness within each of us, and the willingness to develop practices that guide us towards wholeness.

The journey of personal transformation is inextricably linked to global transformation. The reason is, we experientially – in our bodies – come to appreciate how human life is interwoven into planetary life at multiple levels of energy.


One simple revelation, for me, has been the discovery that life-affirming physical labour in a natural setting not only grounds a person’s whole being yet, moreover, lifts the spirit. Physical work on my homestead also instills humility, gratitude and grace, to feel blessed in experiencing cleaner air, the beauty of the stars at night, and witness the rhythms of Nature replete with the freshness of surprises each day.

Activism and intellectual contemplation, meanwhile, could be said to be two sides of the same coin. Both pull our minds into the past and the future, to challenge the status quo and how it became established, in order to transform what the future can hold.

Yet they also differ, and offer a counterpoint to each other. Activism often incorporates public, group expression to advocate for external changes within the collective society. Its focus is outward, to challenge institutional structures, considered to be rational systems. At its best, activism seeks the larger good by advocating for more effective social and environmental justice.

Spiritual contemplation, although possible to practice silently in groups, can be a private, individual, inward journey, whose process and outcome is organic rather than constructed. Its focus is the understanding and transformation of one’s own consciousness. Paradoxically, a person then can begin connecting with different levels of consciousness – that also could be referred to as different levels of energy – to experience the interrelatedness of our individual soul with other beings and the cosmos.

My personal belief is, the weakness of much well-intentioned activism is the omission of understanding how the external forms that we create are profoundly influenced by the invisible and internal patterns of our unconscious. Without this recognition, the same flaws in human systems and institutions get repeated, even if their external forms look different. Authentic global transformation calls for healing the split in human consciousness.

Today, what holds back individuals from co-creating a better world is not a lack of technology, a lack of money, or a lack of information. What holds back any person is simply a lack of caring, and a lack of will to make a difference.

Transforming our consciousness, regardless, is possible to begin every minute of every day, through a simple act of will.

That possibility is a story for another time.

PHOTO CREDIT: downy woodpecker (juvenile male) by Liz Stanley – Check out her website www.overlookcircle.org, an impressive example how a citizen can engage in environmental awareness regionally, and creatively.

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Heather Robertson’s Life Deserves Remembrance

blogimage2Heather Margaret Robertson will go down in Canadian history as the representative plaintiff in, and driving force behind, two class action suits that set a precedent in protecting the rights of freelance writers. The legacy she leaves us, following her death on March 19th, her 72nd birthday, is multi-layered. It includes not just the 16 or more books she wrote, grounded in cultural and geographic history, and her prolific writing for major newspapers, magazines and CBC-radio work. Her legacy, moreover, resides in her generosity to fellow writers throughout her professional life.

Her accomplishments speak for themselves. But, who was Heather Robertson, the person? The deeper questions to ponder are, how and why do certain individuals become standard bearers, manifesting qualities that can teach us about what really matters?

Individuals such as Heather Robertson – who focus on the larger good rather than their own success, and who choose privacy and personal dignity over blowing their own horns endlessly – are those heroines (and heroes) who too often depart this world unheralded altogether, or without being appropriately recognized in the national news media.

Close to two weeks after Heather’s life ended, locating mainstream news sources which paid attention to the loss of one of Canada’s most courageous writers has been a challenge.

Those omissions perhaps do not matter to the departed individual. What I suggest, however, is that they are our loss, collectively as a society, and individually at a soul level. How do we rise to who we can be, without examples of authentic heroism? Where do we learn about those individuals who fought the battles that had looked impossible, and won?

The most well-known public battles, which Heather took on with fierceness and tenacity, were the legal fights against huge media corporations in two class action law suits that she led. In doing so, she won millions of dollars to benefit hundreds of freelance writers.

These cases included Robertson v Thomson (which went to the Supreme Court of Canada), followed by a second class action settled out of court, and popularly known as Robertson 2, in which she took on several other large media corporations together. The issue was the reproduction of freelance writers’ published work on electronic databases – for corporate owners’ profit – without permission or reimbursement to the original authors.

These two battles continued through 15 years of her life. Think about it.

As her close friend Elaine Dewar identified, in a11929068227070 recent phone conversation, to do so called upon Heather’s inner resources of “courage, grit and all kinds of patience. There were lots of points where we didn’t know whether we’d win or not, and it was a constant source of worry for Heather.”

I had a glimpse of the stamina and endurance required by Heather to get through the tedium, the uncertainty, not to mention the offensive arguments from the Thomson corporation’s army of lawyers. They exhibited a willful ignorance in regard to how the electronic database exploitation violated, and undermined, the ability of writers to earn a decent livelihood.

For I sat in the court room every day of that first legal case, in a row further back, watching, listening, and consciously giving my energetic presence to support Heather. She never forgot, and expressed her gratitude in our occasional future encounters.

Important to mention is that her two stalwart friends, and fellow award-winning writers – Elaine Dewar and June Callwood – also were present. They sat on each side of Heather every day in that court room, and stood by her through everything.

The victories, by the way, won against these media corporations, was not simply about money. For Heather Robertson, winning was about the principles of fairness and giving respect. Heather’s own compensation from Robertson v Thomson was a mere $5,000.

This revelation is given on Slaw, Canada’s online legal magazine, in a blog post by lawyer Simon Chester, a few days after Heather’s passing. He also praises her diligence as a highly informed and proactive plaintiff.

Regrettably, neither The Globe and Mail nor The Toronto Star have yet shown the courtesy to provide any journalistic acknowledgment of Heather’s passing, to date.

Among the few news sources that were quick to do so The Winnipeg Free Press was the first. Indeed, this newspaper is where Heather began her vocation as a professional journalist. CBC-Radio One’s program As It Happens acknowledged her passing later the same day.

Where she and her husband Andrew Marshall have lived for many years, King Township, Ontario, the local York Region news also acknowledged it. A previous York Region interview with Heather, in 2012, more descriptively revealed her passion for history, and her years of local volunteerism to promote interest in it.

Firebrand” – the title saying it all – is an outstanding feature interview with Heather Robertson, published in the Ryerson Review of Journalism‘s Winter 2012 edition. Regan Reid’s article gifts us with chronological highlights from her life, that help us understand Heather’s strong character and early influences that shaped her life’s pursuits.

To honour Heather in my own bricolage of gathered facts about who she was more fully as a person,Heather Robertson I also have inserted three photographs. The first photo (above) shows Heather more formally, elegant yet reserved. The second photo brings a smile to my face; for I see a sparkle in her gaze, a glimmer of the inner person, relaxed and joyful in natural settings. The third photo (below) shows Heather’s grace and dignity, despite the affliction of cancer.

A lot of detective work was needed, to cobble together Heather’s extensive achievements, and to discover the many awards. Even the Wikipedia entry does not name all of them.

One award missing on Wiki, for example, is the 2011 NMA Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement, bestowed on Heather by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Its online awards page for her includes a list of accolades from fellow writers.

Heather also was honoured by fellow writers in receiving the 2011 Graeme Gibson Award from The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), and the 2003 Lawrence Jackson Outstanding Achievement Award from the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), formerly called Periodical Writers Association of Canada). She was a founding member of both national writers’ organizations.

Heather generously gave her time to many individual writers, including me 25 years ago. That’s why I was there for her in that court room. And, yes, I was fortunate to be one of the hundreds of freelance writers who benefited financially from both class action suits.

She also graciously accepted my invitation to participate in one of several public forums that I organized on media literacy at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre Forum in the 1990s.

That public forum “Is Diversity of Expression Under Siege by New Technologies?,” sponsored by PWAC, was moderated by then Metro Morning, CBC-radio host Andy Barrie. The Forum panelists included Heather, veteran journalist Doris Anderson, internet expert Jim Carroll, and Even Solomon, then an expert in new media and social impact, one of CBC Newsworld‘s news anchors, and current host of “Power and Politics.”

A few days ago, yet another recognition of Heather Robertson’s life appeared in The Winnipeg Free Press (WFP), which speaks to why she received awards from fellow writers (on top of a number of book awards). The fact that respect does come full circle is evident by Gordon Sinclair, Jr.’s WFP article titled “Writer’s best legacy: respect for her peers.”

Mr. Sinclair’s article is deeply touching; for he relates some details from her early life, her noteworthy feisty spirit, a spirit that nourished Heather’s capacity to survive through a series of cancers in the later years.

Remarkably, given these very private battles, Heather produced one more book, titled Walking into Wilderness: The Toronto Carrying Place and Nine Mile Portage (2010). It received an unusual award, the first of a new Speakers Book Award, established in 2013 by Ontario Legislative Speaker Dave Levac.


Heather’s passing in her sleep may appear to be sudden and unexpected. Yet, given the battles that she had fought so courageously for so long, perhaps the still, small voice within said: “It’s time, Heather. You have done enough. Be at peace now.”

She departed this world without fanfare, without further suffering, yet with her dignity intact. She did it her way.

God bless you, Heather, for everything you were and everything you contributed in this earthly world. We will not forget.

PHOTO CREDIT: (top photo only) Aaron Marshall

POSTSCRIPT: Finally, on April 3rd online (April 4th, print edition), a feature obituary appeared in The Globe and Mail, contributed by freelance journalist David Hayes.

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War on Knowledge – Part 2: Cultural Workers Devalued

blogimage2I fear what the future holds for younger generations, when so many societal trends appear to be pointing them in a direction away from deep understanding and pathways to develop one’s human potential. Factors include devaluing creative work and  higher education in the arts and humanities. The third factor, a society whose cultural and historical foundation continues to be undermined (at least in Canada) by federal government cuts, in which educational institutions now are choosing to undermine the livelihoods of veteran and emerging cultural workers.

I speak from the perspective of a cultural worker, more specifically here as a writer, yet also as a documentary filmmaker.

First of all, I want to distinguish `cultural workers’ from `knowledge workers.’ The term `knowledge worker,’ similar to the related term `creative class,’ has been co-opted. It no longer refers to the longstanding societal role of creative thinkers and practitioners who have mapped cultural history since the earliest cultural productions in rock art and clay tablet writings, by our ancestors worldwide.

`Knowledge workers,’ in the online Business Dictionary, refers instead to “data analysts, product developers, planners, programmers, and researchers who are engaged primarily in acquisition, analysis, and manipulation of information as opposed to production of goods or services” – to give the impression that today’s globalized, and digitized, world is somehow more advanced than life lived in real time and real space.Tri

The so-called `knowledge-based economy’ is a lie being fed to the human family by the small number of technological elite, very financially powerful, who want to reduce everyone and everything alive on this planet to consumers, commodities and marketplaces.

Something else is being forfeited in the pursuit of everything technological that reduces all human activity to marketing, particularly when doing so in quick, superficial, and endless, sound and video bites that require as little thinking as possible.

In other words, the challenge that we confront,6a00e008cd59778834014e88a5eac5970d-pi as a human family, is not only that our social, economic and political lives – not to mention the planet’s environment – are in major transition. But, more importantly, in moving as fast and as superficially as possible, we are losing our moral radar.

To clarify, `cultural workers’ are thinkers and practitioners in professions which include all forms of media, the arts and education. At their best, the production of images, words and music provoke us beyond mere entertainment to educate us as well.

Cultural production, since the earliest storytellers, requires a huge investment of time and serious intellectual exploration, as well as holistic energy, to help us understand who we are, why history unfolded through particular events, and how we have the potential to evolve into a more caring species.

The best educators who teach in institutions full-time or part-time (some who also are artistic creators) – on salaries, unlike independent cultural workers – use course materials daily. These are based largely upon someone else’s media and art forms of cultural work, whose creation required much research time, deep thought and energy, as well as the well-honed craft of shaping the eventual cultural production, whether written work, film, etc.

The materials used in classrooms can range from cultural productions by the sages of historic times to works by, for example, contemporary writers/researchers, who still are alive and whose livelihoods depend upon the educational purchases of their work, in sales, reprints and royalties.

Sumerian Tablet with Cuneiform Script

American author David Korten, founder of YES! Magazine, identifies these cultural workers too, and even includes the field of religion, in his article titled “Are You a Cultural Worker?” In reference to religion, by the way, he refers to those faith institutions willing to undertake transformation that, in turn, speaks to the moral awakening of our time, in which they too can participate “to teach love for all beings.”

Love and respect go hand-in-hand. Love means honouring the contributions of cultural workers who, again, at their best, aspire to life-affirming cultural production, yet most of the time with limited financial assistance as well as eventual limited income. Honouring calls upon users to appreciate creators through decent economic recognition. Respect means cherishing the efforts invested in such cultural contributions.

A recently discovered article titled “The creative class is a lie,” published online in Salon by arts reporter Scott Timberg, October 1, 2011, identifies the essence of what I mentioned earlier, about who benefits from the present knowledge-based society, and who does not:

“… For many computer programmers, corporate executives who oversee social media, and some others who fit the definition of the `creative class’ – … things are good. …

“But for those who deal with ideas, culture and creativity at street level – the working- and middle-classes within the creative class – things are less cheery. Book editors, journalists, video store clerks, musicians, novelists without tenure – they’re among the many groups struggling through the dreary combination of economic slump and Internet reset. The creative class is melting and the story is largely untold. [my bold]

The above societal landscape is the back story to what I now want to identify as a key example to illustrate how our society is losing its moral radar – namely, fair dealing. The fact is, the practice of `fair dealing’ is abused and misinterpreted by many users, the abuses now coming as well from educators in post-secondary institutions.

`Fair dealing’ is something that concerns everyone, because everyone uses someone else’s “intellectual property” several times a day, with or without permission. And, yes, the internet offers a lot of content that is freely given by the original creator.

The point is, many folks today take for granted the predominant free culture philosophy as applying to everything on the internet. Creators, meanwhile, keep trying to figure out new ways to monetize some of their respective works available there for that purpose, sometimes giving away selected work as a marketing strategy to sell other work.

Meanwhile, I cannot emphasize enough how the so-called free culture movement is not free at all, but instead has a high cost of destroying freedom of expression by silencing a large number of independent thinkers who gather and make meaning of complex, and controversial, areas of knowledge, in order to raise individual awareness, deepen and broaden understanding across cultures and nation states, in the pursuit of creating a more hopeful world for the larger good.

To illustrate, the latest blow against cultural work in Canada comes from organizations that ought to know better. Yet, therein, resides our societal crisis – a lack of respect exhibited by salaried educators in post-secondary institutions towards independent thinkers and creators whose work these educators are using daily in classrooms.

Such organizations include The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) who announced in December 2013 that they would withdraw their participation from the Post-Secondary Educational Institution Tariff (2011-2013) hearing before the Copyright Board of Canada.

CAUT outlines, in its December bulletin: “Universities and colleges across Canada are opting out of licensing agreements with Access Copyright, relying instead on open access journals, fair dealing, and direct licenses with publishers.”

To add insult to injury, here is an excerpt from the statement by the Canadian Federation of Students: “We will continue this fight on our campuses and in our classrooms until students’ right to use materials for educational purposes takes precedence over private profits.” Unbelievable arrogance is evident here.

When I was a post-secondary student, attaining one arts diploma and three university degrees including a doctorate, I always expected, and happily, to pay for all course materials. Paying the authors of all of our educational materials was the norm – totally acceptable to, and respected by, students. What happened???

Students are endowed not only with rights yet, moreover, with moral responsibilities to pay for course materials, as well as recognize – through citations rather than plagarism – the sources that help them produce their own academic work.

As for the language used in the CAUT bulletin, note the terms such as `licensing agreements’ and `tariffs.’ What CAUT calls tariffs, in fact, are related to the `royalties’ that creators deserve to receive. The reason is that, for most cultural workers (who are not celebrities, yet who could be better acknowledged), their income tends to be modest and intermittent, rather than upscale and steady. Copyright has an essential purpose.

I strongly recommend reading a clearly presented description of `fair dealing’ – as per how it ought to be understood – prepared by The Writers Union of Canada, titled “WHAT IS – AND ISN’T – FAIR DEALING.”

canadian-copyrightAnother excellent resource is iCopyright, for creators, publishers and users, about how to understand copyright. Check out its services. Also see “The Copyright Blog, Valuing Content in a Digital World,” for example, tips for bloggers to protect your content.

Important to note is the longstanding fact that educational sales are the major sources of revenue that enable cultural workers to continue their respective creative livelihoods, not just for writers yet, as well, for documentary filmmakers.

As for CAUT, I find two contradictions. First, the organization has spoken out against the federal government cuts to the jobs and research of environmental science and closing libraries. CAUT also criticizes how “Universities sacrifice integrity in pursuing deals” in its December 2013 bulletin, Vol 60, No 10, regarding secret university collaborations with corporate industry and, moreover, restrictions of freedom of expression of academic staff to publish their research findings. These are honourable concerns.

But, at the same time, CAUT does not want to provide economic support to independent cultural workers who raise the types of provocative questions, based on deeply researched knowledge – in course materials for students to develop critical thinking skills – to identify and debate the dangers of particular government policies and increasing corporate influences and controls that limit the engine – freedom of expression – of any authentic democracy.

I am here to spell out, therefore, that the beginning trajectory of educational institutions, now trying to back off from enabling cultural workers to receive royalties as a legitimate and essential form of income, is the tip of the iceberg.

Reneging on such payments would cause a cultural meltdown of enormous human and societal costs, which already are visiting upon the lives of individual cultural workers.

A poverty-level pension based upon an underpaid journalism profession, and reduced royalties in recent years, for example, already is causing me harm in regard to serious poverty and increasing health problems as a consequence. Hence, the long delay in producing this blog post.

Regardless, I felt it important to put a human face on this dilemma. How many hundreds or more of fellow cultural workers are struggling later in life to survive, wishing still to contribute in meaningful ways, yet no longer acknowledged for a lifetime of efforts to make a difference in a troubled world?

How can younger generations even hope for a viable livelihood as cultural workers, if economic reward for their hard work continues to be so difficult to attain? Who will be the storytellers of the future, decently given the financial means to research and document what is happening around us, and to inspire and fuel a transformation of consciousness to become more fully who we can be?

We are witnessing one of the tragic paradoxes of our time, bestowed with the largest bounty of human knowledge through the ages readily accessible to us – that genuinely could enhance the evolution of human consciousness – while the messengers/cultural workers (across all living generations) dedicated to producing it are marginalized, devalued and even silenced.

We all are much more than mere consumers, while some of us also are creators. Let our voices be heard to encourage misguided educators – and students – to appreciate the knowledge content that they study and use. Persuade them to recognize the time, energy and gifts of creative insight, well-informed perspectives and thoughtful practice invested in producing this educational content.

Ultimately, in protecting the livelihoods of cultural workers, we strengthen human civilizations and the hope that, through life long learning and the evolution of our consciousness, we can stand together to heal and co-create a healthier and more peaceful planet that offers dignity to, and compassion for, all beings.

PHOTO CREDIT: Araldo de Luca/Corbis – See above Sumerian tablet in cunieform script, the earliest known type of written language.

POSTSCRIPT: See a two-minute video, posted March 26, offering food for thought – tongue-in-cheek – to value the rights of writers, titled Canadian University Degrees Now Free.




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