How I learned to like the monarchy

As a ten-year-old, I was eager to see Princess Elizabeth when she visited Edmonton in 1951; a year before she became Queen. My parents and I lined the street along with hundreds of other Edmontonians to catch a glimpse of her, only a few blocks from where I lived.

  photo: Yousuf Karsh (1951)

I didn’t know anything about the monarchy. I probably would have been as enthused if she was a Disney princess. My parents probably understood the celebratory mood better. The pretty young princess and heir-apparent to the throne embodied both celebrity and power.

Older, I admired countries that had shed monarchies like the Republic of France with their evocative motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” I wanted Canada to be more like The Republic of the United States, our exuberant neighbour to the south.

Despite reservations about the monarchy, I liked the fact that Canada is part of a club: the Commonwealth of Nations of which Elizabeth is head. The motto of “free and equal” suited my sensibilities. In my twenties, I fancied myself as a citizen of the world. Since the Commonwealth spans the globe with 52 member states and one-third of the world’s population, it was a club worth exploring.

So in 1964, I quit work and spent a year traveling around the globe by ship visiting some countries in my Commonwealth: New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, India, and the United Kingdom. Looking back, I marvel at how easy it was to visit and find work in those countries.

I’m less thrilled with the Commonwealth now but more comfortable with the monarchy. The queen represents stability at a time when countries are rocked by politics.

When a crisis arises, such as in B.C. when former Premier Clark clung to power, the Queen’s representative in B.C. plays a critical role. After the BC Liberals were defeated in a confidence vote, Clark wanted to call another election -something no one else wanted. Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon sensibly refused the request and invited John Horgan to form an NDP minority government. Guichon’s decision was not arbitrary: it was the result of deliberation and consultation with others of the Queen’s representatives in Canada and in the Commonwealth club.

Now I’m less envious of the United States where government is mired in politics, a maniacal president runs amuck, and constitutional crisis looms. I’d be happy to lend them our Governor General to settle things.

The Queen is remotely located but locally represented by Lieutenant and Governors Generals. They represent a kind of glue that holds the Canada and the Commonwealth together in turbulent times. When their duties are not required, they sit on a stately ceremonial shelf; descending only to lend gravitas to public events, awards, and ceremonies.

The selection of the Queen’s representatives generates pride in Canadians. Julie Payette is just such a person. As an astronaut, she saw the entire Commonwealth in 90 minutes –something that took me a year to do and I only saw a faction of it. As a scientist she is an ideal role model for kids who look for inspiration from a remarkable Canadian.

Now I think that a constitutional monarchy makes eminent sense.

Canada is a young country. Or I’m old.

Canada is 150 years old this year. Since I’m one-half that age, Canada must be a young country. Or I’m old. It must be the former.

canada-150-horizontal-colour

We had humble beginnings, Canada and I. I was born in Jasper Place, now part of Edmonton but in 1941 it was a rudimentary town. We had no water or sewer. The bucket in the indoor toilet had to be emptied regularly to the outhouse in the back. The honey wagon would clean it out once in a while. Water was delivered by a truck to a cistern in the basement. A hand-operated pump supplied water to the kitchen. Milk was delivered by a horse-drawn cart.

Canada was born with only four provinces at confederation. Like Jasper Place, it lay outside the huge territory it would eventually encompass.

Canada was rebranded as much as it was born in 1876. John Ralston Saul, author of A Fair Nation, argues that Canada had already been a federation for 250 years before that. We are a Métis nation, comprised of indigenous people, English and French. Before 1876 our federation comprised mostly of indigenous people, numbering one-half million.

By 1947 we moved to a suburb of Edmonton called Bonnie Doon, Scottish for “pleasant, rolling countryside.” We lived only one block away from Saint-Jean College where Catholic priests taught students who were about to enter the clergy. Now it’s the only francophone University west of Manitoba, a campus of the University of Alberta. The college allowed neighbourhood kids to use their outdoor rink when they weren’t playing hockey. That’s where I learned to skate.

The broken hockey sticks made fine bows as long as they had a straight grain. We carved them with a draw knife and used them to hunt rabbits with bows and arrows in the nearby Mill Creek. The rabbits didn’t have much to worry about because of the thick bush and our poor aim. I wore horsehide moccasins in the winter which warm even on the coldest days. We would often spend entire winter days sledding on the hills in the ravine.

By the time Canada was officially born, our indigenous people had been decimated by disease which they had no resistance to, and by conflict with their European guests.

However, the 250 years of gestation of Canada left its imprint on the fledgling nation. Canada is not just a collection of its people; it is a product of our collective consciousness. John Belshaw, former Thompson Rivers University professor, puts it this way:

“Scholars draw a distinction between historical consciousness and collective memory. The former is something on which we reflect but often forget. History as a discipline consists of facts – – objective and recitable. Collective memory, on the other hand, is an ongoing process that builds a shared and more nuanced understanding of the past, (Walrus magazine).”

While not exactly a Baby Boomer, I identified with the Hippy Movement. I smoked my first joint in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, the birthplace of the counterculture movement. I naively believed John Lennon when he implored the world to “give peace a chance.”

We have done OK, Canada and I, but we’re still young and have a lot to learn. Happy sesquicentennial, Canada!

Uber Apploitation

When I fly to Los Angles next week, I was going to take an Uber taxi. Now I’m not so sure after reading Andrew Callaway’s article in the CCPA Monitor.

George, 35, protests with other commercial drivers with the app-based, ride-sharing company Uber against working conditions outside the company's office in Santa Monica, California June 24, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT TRANSPORT CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3VKJ9

George, 35, protests with other commercial drivers with the app-based, ride-sharing company Uber against working conditions outside the company’s office in Santa Monica, California June 24, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson 

“Oh, Canada! I’m writing you from Berkeley, California to warn you about this thing called ‘the sharing economy.’ Since no one is really sharing anything, many of us prefer the term “the exploitation economy,” . . . Whatever you want to call it, the basic idea is that customers can outsource all the work or chores they don’t want to do to somebody else in their area.”

Since phone apps can be used to order just about anything you want from groceries and restaurant food to laundry pickup and house cleaning, the exploitation economy might be better labelled as the “apploitation economy.”

On the surface, the sharing economy seems ideal. Independent workers can pick up jobs whenever and wherever they want. But dig deeper and you find that drivers are not so independent. They certainly are not employees. If they were employees, they would receive fixed wages and benefits, deductions for employment insurance, Canada Pension Plan, and taxes.

If Uber drivers were truly independent, they could control their rates and  conditions of work. Callaway soon found out some of the drawbacks when he worked for a company similar to Uber called Lyft. He found out that, without warning, ride-sharing companies will lower drive wages. By the time drivers notice the cut, they have invested in cars and are stuck in the job.

Ride-sharing companies are careful not to send drivers to pick up specific passengers because that would make them employees. Instead, drivers are given red zones which supposedly indicate where passengers will likely be. But by the time that other drivers move to the zones, the likelihood is reduced. It’s inefficient for the drivers but avoids the company’s responsibility.

If drivers don’t like the arrangement, why do it? “Realistically, people aren’t driving around strangers because they love it. The most common defence of the sharing economy I hear is, ‘if it’s so bad, why are so many people doing it?’ Many do it out of desperation. I’ve talked to a number of drivers who will work over 30 hours every weekend in addition to a full-time job just to have enough money to pay rent and take care of their kids.”

And if drivers like conditions so much, why do they want to organize unions to protect themselves? Seattle City Council recently approved a bill that would allow drivers for ride-sharing apps to form unions. The vote is a victory for the App-Based Drivers Association (ABDA) of Seattle, an organization of on-demand contract workers that lobbied for the legislation. Union organizers in California have said that the Seattle vote could influence actions taken in their own cities.

Ottawa recently joined Edmonton as the second Canadian city to legalize Uber. The move will put pressure on others. Canadian cities need to pay attention to the American experience and get ride-sharing right by easing restrictions on taxis and reducing apploitation. If Uber really wants to provide a useful service, it needs to treat drivers fairly by allowing greater rate control and working conditions.

Pro-cavity groups proven wrong

Tooth cavities have increased in Calgary since the city stopped adding fluorides to its water in 2011 according to a study published in the journal Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology. Researchers from the University of Calgary compared the number of cavities in children for Edmonton, where water is still fluoridated, with Calgary where it is not.

natures-way-cause-tooth-decay

The lead author of the study is candid: “This study points to the conclusion that tooth decay has worsened following removal of fluoride from drinking water, especially in primary teeth, and it will be important to continue monitoring these trends.”

The pro-cavity groups –let’s call the anti-fluoridation groups what they are – ran a scare campaign against the fluoridation of Kamloops’ water supply in 2001 and won.

Like good scare campaigns, theirs contained an element of truth. Yes, fluorides are produced by chemical companies but to claim that they were dumping their toxic byproducts into our water was misleading. Yes, too much fluoride can lead to fluorosis but that would take much more than what was added to Kamloops’ water.

Let’s get the facts straight; ones that I challenge the pro-cavity groups to deny. All water is naturally fluoridated. As I said in my column of 2001 “All river water, well water, filtered water, reverse osmosis water, bottled water, and tap water is fluoridated.  The only water that isn’t is rain water collected in sterile containers, and distilled water.”

No wonder: Fluorine is the 13th most abundant terrestrial element. The concentration of natural fluorides depends on the acidity of the water and length of time in contact with rocks and soil. River water is less fluoridated than well water. Kamloops’ water is naturally fluoridated with more than one-half the concentration necessary to prevent tooth decay.

Fluoridation is nature’s way of reducing cavities. The benefits of fluoridation weren’t discovered by some mad scientist who experimented on his tortured patients by pouring fluorine down their throats. The benefits were discovered incidentally in the early 1900s by a Colorado Springs dentist, Frederick S. McKay, who noticed that many of his patients had brown stains on their teeth and reduced cavities. The brown stains were caused by too much fluoride (fluorosis). When the fluorides were reduced, the stains went away and the benefits remained.

If our water is already fluoridated, you might reasonably ask, why add more? At about 0.5 parts per million, Kamloops’ water doesn’t have quite enough. When I wrote my column in 2001, the recommended amount was 1 part per million but according the Calgary study, 0.7 parts will do.

Some countries act responsibly. I just returned from Mexico where I noticed that fluorine are added to salt, much in the way that iodine (another halogen) is added to ours to prevent of intellectual and developmental disabilities, and thyroid gland problems. Children in Mexico are protected from the pro-cavity groups.

I take the issue personally. While researching Kamloops before moving here, one of the appealing features was the city’s fluoridated water supply. My son grew up with flawless teeth due to fluoridation, dental hygiene, and heredity. I don’t know of any studies in Kamloops but my dentist tells me that he sees more cavities now, especially in low income families.

The dental health of Kamloops’ most vulnerable have been put at risk because of a misguided lobby.