Flash Fiction

Mr. Penny’s Dream

How would you like to go to a Paul McCartney concert?

• 2,758 words

Illustration by Rolli

When Mr. Penny woke up that morning, his head felt like a vitamin bottle (plugged with cotton). “Nothing helps a plugged head except strong tea and a long walk.” Was it Mrs. Mickleson who’d told him that? Regardless, it was worth a try. After his third cup, he stepped out the door.

He made his way to the Central Library, one of his favorite places. The doors there opened automatically. There was an escalator. Mr. Penny admired escalators but didn’t like them much. He’d heard—this might not even be true—that an escalator had sucked a girl’s shoelaces up, once, and ripped her legs off. Rumor or not, he’d never trusted an escalator since.

Someone had told him (Mrs. Mickleson again?) that the sameness of a library’s odor is one of the few things in life one can depend on. It was true. The Central Library smelled . . . well, it was pasty and electrical. Dirty carpets—that was important. It didn’t particularly smell like books, though that had to be a part of it somewhere.

First, he looked at the magazines. That never took him long. There aren’t many magazines worth flipping through.

He tried reading a book after that, only the place was so noisy—it’s hard enough concentrating these days at the best of times—that he ended up putting it back on the shelf. Too bad.

After he drank from the water fountain and used the toilet, Mr. Penny couldn’t think of anything else to do. So he left. The librarian smiled at him on the way out.

Right across from the library was Victrola Park. It wasn’t a big park like (the name escaped him). There was a slide and a sandbox in the middle of Victrola, but never any children—just a lot of men walking by themselves and looking sideways at one another. Mr. Penny wasn’t sure about these men. If he looked at their eyes he could see the ideas swimming around in them, and they were never pleasant ones.

His favorite bench was the one in front of the war monument. He’d only just sat down, when—

“Hey bud,” said an older man with sparkling eyes, appearing.

“Hi,” said Mr. Penny.

“Can you give me a dollar, bud?”

Mr. Penny examined the man. His beard was white for the most part, but yellow around his lips. His teeth (there weren’t many of them) were yellow as well.

“No,” Mr. Penny decided—because he didn’t have a dollar.

“I want to go to the Paul McCartney concert,” said the man.

Mr. Penny had heard the name, he was sure. It didn’t ring the bell all the way, though.

“That’s my dream in life,” said the man. “Ever since I was a kid. To see a Paul McCartney concert.”

The man smelled like cigarettes and something else. It was unpleasant.

“This is probably the last time he’s gonna tour, you know? Or I could be dead soon. I take antipsychotics. I get . . . $350 a month and my rent is $350. If I don’t get to that concert, I’ll—oh man, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m lucid right now and I want to enjoy it.”

He looked so old and sad, this strange man. Mr. Penny guessed that he was eighty.

“Pop used to take great care of me, but he’s dead. He was a good man. He loved the Beatles. That’s where I got my love of the Beatles from. Hey, you know the song ‘Blackbird’?”

Mr. Penny contemplated. No, he didn’t.

A woman walked by with a shopping bag. The man turned to her.

“Say, do you have a dollar?”

The woman didn’t. Neither did the next one.

The man sighed.

“I’m not a lot different than other people. I have dreams. Fuck it, I have dreams. If I can’t get to this thing . . . Fuck. I might as well be dead.”

Mr. Penny nodded—though he wasn’t really listening. He was thinking. A dream. What had Mrs. Mickleson told him? “A dream keeps your blood running.” Something like that. “If you stop dreaming,” she’d said another time, “you might as well stop breathing.”


Had there been something like that in the past, something that kept his blood running? At thirty-five years of age, something must’ve kept him going for that long. It hadn’t been an easy life that he could recollect (he couldn’t very well), not by a long shot. There had to be something.



The next morning, Mr. Penny didn’t get out of bed till 11:00. He didn’t go outside all day, either. He just didn’t feel like it. He did his usual inside things (ate toast, listened to the radio) then looked out the window for a bit.

After lunch, he went across the hall to Mrs. Mickleson’s. When he sat in the blue armchair, he sank right down into it. It swallowed him up. A good armchair is always hungry.

In a minute, Mrs. Mickleson came into the room with the tea tray. She poured Mr. Penny some tea and added three lumps but no cream.

Mrs. Mickleson was the landlady. She was a nice woman, though she talked too much. As she went on about something, some sick relation, Mr. Penny imagined a fox peeping in the window at him, sticking its tongue out. That always made him laugh. Not this time.

Mrs. Mickleson was staring at him, now. Had she asked him a question?

“Something troubling you, Mr. Penny?”


“You don’t seem like yourself today.”

“Do you know who Paul McCartney is?”

Mrs. Mickleson jumped up—and disappeared. She reappeared a minute later with a big stack of LPs.

“I love the Beatles,” she said, dropping the LPs on the coffee table.

“Who?” said Mr. Penny.

Mrs. Mickleson dropped her jaw, this time.

“But . . . of course you’ve heard of the Beatles?”

Her tenant shook his head.

“Don’t be silly.” She held up one of the albums. “Meet the Beatles?”

Mr. Penny looked at her quizzically.

Abbey Road? You’ve listened to Abbey Road, I’m sure. Or heard something from it?”

He didn’t think so, no.

Let it Be?”

Mr. Penny shook his head.

“You’ve never heard” (she held out a brightly-colored album) “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?”

A Hard Day’s Night?”

Yellow Submarine?”

Mr. Penny paused. That one looked familiar. He might’ve seen that somewhere. Or had he?

“I saw the Beatles play Shea Stadium in ’65. That’s how I lost this tooth.” Mrs. Mickleson pointed to a gap on her bottom row of teeth. Mr. Penny had never noticed it before.

She held up another LP. There was something scribbled on it.

“Look—signed. By their manager. He killed himself.”

Mrs. Mickleson leaned forward. She whispered:

“He’s coming, you know.”

Mr. Penny shivered.

“Who?” he whispered back.

Paul McCartney!” she cried, slapping him on the leg. “On the twenty-third. Just a couple more weeks. Of course I’ve got my ticket and—”

Mrs. Mickleson bit her lip. She grinned. She lay a hand on Mr. Penny’s.

“How would you like to go to a Paul McCartney concert?”

Mr. Penny thought about it. Paul Mcartney wasn’t his dream, he didn’t think. “Everyone deserves a chance,” though, as people were fond of telling him.

He shrugged.

“Alright,” he said.

Mrs. Mickleson’s eyes sparkled.


Mr. Penny dreamed, that night.

He was walking down the street, holding a briefcase. He was himself—but he wasn’t. He was someone like himself. A twin, or something. He was a successful man, a working man, with a spring in his step. He counted the smiles people gave him (ten). Mr. Penny hadn’t felt that happy since . . . He couldn’t remember ever being that happy.

When things can’t get any better, they like to get worse.

As he waved to a man in a blue car, his briefcase popped open and papers flew everywhere. Mr. Penny chased them down the sidewalk and into the street.

Tires squealed.

“Look out!” yelled someone.

Mr. Penny lifted his head off the pillow. It was morning.


A man of habit, Mr. Penny looked forward more to the things he’d done a hundred times than to any fresh venture. He’d never been to a rock concert, not that he could remember. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be enjoyable, not necessarily. It would be different, that’s for sure. He was almost looking forward to it.

On the day of the concert, he took a hot bath. Then he picked out his best suit (he only had the two) and slipped into it. It was baggy, but that didn’t matter.

There was a tall mirror in Mr. Penny’s bedroom that Mrs. Mickleson had given him. “It’s no trouble,” she’d said. “I was going to throw it out.” It was a perfectly good mirror, only something was the matter with it. It had gotten warped somehow and—well, when Mr. Penny stood in front of it, he seemed thinner than he felt and his head looked as small as a donut. It was amusing.

Mr. Penny tied his tie around his skinny little neck and buttoned up his jacket. He turned sideways—and laughed. His head actually vanished!

There wasn’t time for tea that afternoon (Mrs. Mickleson had to get ready), so Mr. Penny waited in the blue armchair for what seemed like three hours. Finally, she stepped out of the bathroom.

Mr. Penny’s eyes widened.

Mrs. Mickleson was wearing a grey suit, a man’s suit, and had on—it was a shaggy kind of black wig. He almost hadn’t recognized her. She looked like a man.

“You’ll understand when we get there,” she said. Then she grabbed her purse with one hand, and Mr. Penny with the other.

They drove forever. The city was bigger than Mr. Penny would’ve ever guessed. They parked at an enormous building, a stadium. Mr. Penny had felt just fine inside the car, but when he stepped out—well, it was like stepping into a river. There were so many eyeballs and people pressed together like fish. Mr. Penny thought of the aquarium at the zoo. He’d only ever been on the outside, before.

There was a kind of gate, and as he slid through it a large woman rubbed his pockets. He wanted to wait for Mrs. Mickleson, who was lagging, but he couldn’t’ve slowed down or stopped if he’d wanted to.

Once they found their seats, things calmed down a bit. They were an hour early, which gave Mrs. Mickleson plenty of time to tell Mr. Penny about her nephew’s leg and her sister’s emphysema.

Her tenant was about to nod off when he thought—he was sure of it—he could smell a skunk. He sat up straight. A skunk (this was years and years ago) had sprayed his uncle in the face and burned his eyes so badly he needed glasses after that. They were comical glasses that made him look like a Great Horned Owl, which was just as well: a Great Horned Owl is the only thing on Earth that will eat a skunk.

“She already has arthritis, the poor dear, so the goiter won’t do her a bit of good.”

Mr. Penny was about to nod off again when a scream jolted him awake. Now everyone was screaming and jumping to their feet. Mr. Penny jumped, too.

But it wasn’t a skunk they were wound up about. It was Paul McCartney.

He was an older man with a British accent. The skin on his neck dangled down. When he sang, he wobbled his head from side to side, like a bird. The neck skin wobbled, too. It was difficult to hear his singing, the music was so loud.

When the first song finished and a man behind him screamed “Play ‘Yesterday!’” Mr. Penny nearly died.

“Play ‘Yesterday,’” screamed Mrs. Mickleson, next to him.

By the end of the first hour, Mr. Penny’s legs were getting stiff. He wasn’t used to standing for so long. It bothered the one leg especially, the one with the scars. He had to stand, though, because everyone else was standing and he didn’t want to sit there staring at someone’s behind.

“Play ‘Blackbird’!” yelled the man behind him.

Paul McCartney must’ve done just that, as the man was so pleased when the next song started that he grabbed Mr. Penny by the shoulders and shook him like a terrier shaking a rat.

The whole crowd roared.

Mrs. Mickleson screamed.

Mr. Penny decided that his dream was not Paul McCartney.

A few hours later, as they made their way out of the stadium—he’d never seen so many people—Mr. Penny checked for familiar faces. Lately, people seemed to know him and would wave to him or approach him even though he never had the slightest idea who they were. It was the strangest thing.

On their way home, they cut through Victrola park. There was an old man on the bench, with a yellowed beard. Mr. Penny recognized him. He would’ve said hello to him—only the man was crying.


That night, Mr. Penny had the briefcase dream. As always, he was sauntering down the street, himself but someone else, swinging a briefcase and feeling not like Mr. Penny but like Mr. Millions.

Whenever a pretty girl walked by—there seemed to be no end of them—he smiled.

One especially pretty girl stopped and talked to him. No matter what Mr. Penny said, she laughed and laughed.

The girl took his free hand. She leaned closer . . .

Of course the briefcase had to pop open and Mr. Penny to go bounding around like a rabbit after the papers. The last one blew right into the middle of the street. When he bent over to pick it up—

“Play ‘Yesterday!’” screamed the pretty girl, behind him.

He woke up.


As Mr. Penny stared at his toast, there was a knock on the door. He looked out the peephole.

It was Mrs. Mickleson. Holding a blue briefcase. When he let her in, she set it on the kitchen table.

“Go ahead,” she said, smiling.

Mr. Penny brightened, a little. “Even an empty container is full of potential.” Who’d told him that? As he tried to remember, he popped open the briefcase and—

LPs. It was full of LPs. Beatles LPs.

“I was going to leave them to my daughter but she doesn’t even like the Beatles.

Can you imagine that?”

Mr. Penny watched the fox curl up in the briefcase while Mrs. Mickleson told him all about her daughter’s financial problems.

“Anyhow, they’re better off by far in your hands, in the hands of a fan.”

Mr. Penny’s hands started to shake. He put them behind his back.

“I only hope they make you half as happy as they’ve made me,” she said, kissing him on the cheek.

The second Mrs. Mickleson closed the door behind her, Mr. Penny, breathing hard, dumped the LPs onto the floor. He took the briefcase to his bedroom and flung it on the bed.

He changed into his good suit—it took a while, he was shaking so badly—and dug his dress shoes out of the closet. Then he picked up the briefcase and stood in front of the mirror.

He looked like the man. The man from his dream. He looked skinnier, of course—there really was something the matter with this mirror—and his legs were like zigzags. Still . . .

Mr. Penny turned. In profile, he looked handsome. Like a million dollars. Even if he’d lost his head.

Mr. Penny laughed. He hadn’t felt so good in . . . It must’ve been forever.

He dug some papers and pens out of a drawer, stuffed them into the briefcase and snapped it shut.

He opened the door . . .

And off he went.

Rolli (rollistuff.com; @rolliwrites) is a writer and cartoonist from Regina. His most recent story collection, I Am Currently Working On a Novel, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and short-listed for the High Plains Book Award. Rolli’s cartoons appear regularly in the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Adbusters, and other popular outlets.


Sophie: #Elbowgate's Collateral Damage

Much ado about Justin’s elbow—while forgetting his overworked spouse

• 1,330 words

Photograph by Robert J. Galbraith
Robert J. Galbraith / CC BY-ND 2.0 Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.

NDP MP Niki Ashton called Justin Trudeau’s elbowing of her caucus mate Ruth Ellen Brosseau on Wednesday the “furthest thing from a feminist act.” Conservative MP Lisa Raitt went further—indirectly comparing Trudeau’s actions to those of Jian Ghomeshi. Left and right apparently are now in agreement that female Canadian parliamentarians need protection from our prime minister.

One sad irony of this outburst of politically weaponized feminism: the country has completely dropped an important issue of real, practical significance to the prime minister’s own wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.

After the federal election last October, Grégoire-Trudeau found herself the spouse of a world leader—a position that, in Canada, comes with no clearly defined responsibilities. Her predecessor, Laureen Harper, had taken a low-key approach, maintaining a relatively modest public profile while focusing on select interests, such as animal welfare. But in the case of Grégoire-Trudeau, the people of Canada, the Liberal party—and, to some degree, the rest of the free world—have come to expect much more.

Without some officially designated position, prime ministerial spouses will always be vulnerable to petty political attacks.

She has obliged, but the effort apparently has taken its toll. There are few Canadian women who could sit for Vogue, and act as spokesperson for various philanthropic organizations promoting health care, the environment, education and the arts, all the while serving the many protocol functions associated with her husband’s role in public life, without a little bit of professional assistance. With just one dedicated staff member, Grégoire-Trudeau found herself in the awkward position of crying out for more help last week during an interview with Quebec City’s Le Soleil newspaper.

If Grégoire-Trudeau had found herself running a new branch of a growing company within the private sector, this staffing issue would be straightforward. The HR department might hire a consultant to perform an analysis of comparable positions, identifying an industry-standard support structure for the job in question—all based on the incumbent’s deliverables and work experience. So consider that Michelle Obama has a staff reported to be as large as forty-three. Among Duchess Catherine Middleton’s and Prince William’s permanent staff of eight is one full-time nanny (a sometime contentious issue in regard to the Trudeau household).

Last week, Niki Ashton—the same NDP MP who is concerned that Justin’s elbow has set back the cause of feminism—accused Grégoire-Trudeau of being insensitive to “the feeling that Canadian women face on a daily basis of being overwhelmed.” But one of feminism’s founding precepts, surely, is that “Canadian women” must be judged on their qualifications. Grégoire-Trudeau—bilingual, telegenic, a trained media personality, and working mother—is arguably the most qualified “first consort” in Canadian history. Indeed, she would stack up well against international competitors. By comparison, consider how much value America might get out of, say, Donald Trump’s wife Melania, a former model whose primary interests, broadcast on social media, were summarized by the New York Times as “beauty rituals, private jet rides and [her own] bikini body.”

Whereas the first lady of the United States has an official position (complete with her own officially designated mandate and budget), the traditional role of the Canadian prime minister’s spouse has varied with time, political party, and individual personality. The records show that we, and they, have always complained. “After morning service, I dressed for my ‘day’ & belonged to the Public until six o’clock,” wrote Lady Agnes Macdonald in February 1868. Mila Mulroney—perhaps most comparable to Grégoire-Trudeau in terms of her public and philanthropic profile—had to defend her use of the public purse. In 1983, she told the Globe and Mail‘s Stevie Cameron that she received 500 letters per month. “After her son Nicholas was born on Sept. 4, 1985, she received more than 6,000 letters and answered all of them.” Her staff numbered three—two secretaries, and one personal assistant. On loan from the PMO, they floated when not required; in response to the media storm following Grégoire-Trudeau’s statement last week, the PMO issued a release to the effect that a similar policy is in place.

The problem is not necessarily a lack of bodies; it is a lack of mandate. Without some officially designated position, prime ministerial spouses will always be vulnerable to petty political attacks when they try to assemble the resources necessary to apply their skills and stature in a meaningful way.

What should be the role of the prime minister’s wife in 2016? A look around the world yields some common factors: philanthropy, public appearances, support for their husband’s causes. But unfortunately, many of the primary duties are increasingly image-based. Upon Kate Middleton’s marriage to Prince William in 2011 she emerged as a kind of sample size model for a job that she continues to play to perfection. Carla Bruni’s marriage to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy also helped to glamourize the profession, if we may call it that. Even Michelle Obama (who has arguably done more to professionalize the role of the first lady than anyone in recent history) is not immune. At the state dinner in March, where the Obamas welcomed the Trudeaus to Washington, she and her daughters wore embroidered designer gowns that made headlines, as much for their $10,000 price tags as for their fashion cred. Thanks to what might be called the democratization of celebrity culture, female political spouses are expected to act as you-go-girl role models for a nation’s entire female tribe—providing visibility to locally produced designer labels.

The elephant in the room here is gender. When did the world paparazzi last catch Prince Phillip attending the opening of a nursery school or a tea party without the queen? On the Obamas’ April visit to London, he did drive them 400 meters to lunch. (Bizarrely, both men sat in the front of the vehicle, per bourgeois convention, while the women—one of whom happens to be her husband’s sovereign leader—sat in back.) More typically, what we ask of a female political spouse is to be something of a diplomatic Barbie—smiling and perfectly coiffed (which in itself takes a lot of time—more than most men think—and more hands). British prime minister David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, has a “special advisor” whose duties include wardrobe styling.

Dolling yourself up for newscasts in the high-definition age requires professional help. Ask anyone who rises at 5:00 a.m. for hair and makeup before morning TV, followed by a full day of activities that includes everything from a ribbon cutting to an evening dinner, whether it “takes a village.” If that is the function we see a woman such as Grégoire-Trudeau playing—effectively, the star of a seven-day-a-week reality show representing the best of contemporary Canadian life—then surely she deserves the infrastructure necessary to pull it off in a competitive and professional way.

But more wisely, what we could all do is allow her to write her own job description. As was noted in the Toronto Star, “Grégoire Trudeau is not asking for another employee to lessen her workload, but to increase it.” The Trudeaus have taken abuse for being (as some in the foreign press have called them) the “world’s hottest couple.” But many of us, if we are being honest, will admit pride in this country being seen as we have always wanted to be seen: dynamic, modern, conscientious (though perhaps temporarily less so after #Elbowgate), and, yes, glamorous.

Some may call Grégoire-Trudeau a tall poppy. But if so, she is perfectly on brand for the Canada of 2016. Perhaps once we have all finished talking about the husband’s elbow, we can address the wife’s workload.

Jessica Johnson (@thegoodshopper) is a National Magazine Award-winning writer and a former books editor of Saturday Night and the National Post.


Heavy Weather

Fort McMurray is a humanitarian disaster, not a climate change talking point

• 2,206 words

Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey
NASA Landsat 7 satellite image of the Fort McMurray fire on May 4, 2016.

One afternoon last June, I witnessed a distinctive ritual in the parking lot of a suburban Fort McMurray high school. It was a Friday during Ramadan, and the city’s devout Muslims were streaming into the school’s gymnasium for midday prayers. They arrived in twos and threes and in extended families of eight and twelve. They came wearing hijabs and taqiyahs, embroidered salwar kameez and immaculate white dishdashas and stained work overalls and clunking steel-toed boots. They were Sunni, Shia, Ismaili. They were Nigerian, Sudanese, Jordanian, Syrian, Pakistani, and Indian. More than 2,000 people came—the downtown mosque is far too small for Friday prayers during Ramadan—and they were a time-lapse photo of the last quarter century of Canadian immigration.

Most Canadian cities took fifty years to reconfigure themselves into some of the world’s most brazenly multicultural metropolises. And now here was a small frontier city that had undergone the whole process in barely a decade, producing a polyglot Muslim congregation unlike any in Canada.

That high school parking lot scene was what I thought of first, when the frantic reports started rolling in the day the wildfire forced the evacuation of the whole city. Perhaps it was because the sight was the most unexpected thing I encountered on repeated visits to Fort McMurray over the last eighteen months while researching a book on Canada’s oilsands. Even as a Calgarian, with more direct connections than many to the place, I’d absorbed enough of the distorted myth of Fort McMurray—the brawling frontier boom town, the outsized work camp, the fast-money capital of “dirty oil”—that its real face was a surprise.

The people of Fort McMurray are long past done being the symbolic weapons in someone else’s rhetorical war.

It’s been heartening, amid the still unfolding horror of a fire locals have come to call the “Beast,” to see much of the reporting on Fort McMurray present that human face to the rest of the country and the world. The powerful stories of courage and compassion have been too numerous to track. School bus drivers on fifteen-hour salvation journeys, the tireless stoicism of the firefighters battling the blaze, a teenager riding her beloved horse out of town ahead of the flames. And on and on.

It’s sadly ironic that the city had to empty out in an emergency for the rest of Canada to come to properly understand it. But we are trying now, at least. And the one-dimensional myth surely can’t survive the brash humanity revealed daily by the disaster. That myth is the one thing I’m glad to see devoured by the flames.

But there has been another track to the media’s coverage of the wildfire. It grows more pronounced the further you travel away from Fort McMurray, and its persistence is worth examining, because it speaks so clearly to how using the city as a symbol erases its human face. And here I mean the burgeoning discussion of the fire’s root causes—in particular, the role played by climate change.

On the surface of it, this conversation is reasonable, even necessary. Climate change was undoubtedly a factor feeding the Beast to some extent; climate change, in any case, promises many more disasters like this one in our future. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker, this discussion of root causes might seem insensitive while the fire still burns, but “to fail to acknowledge the connection is to risk another kind of offense”—a failure to take proper responsibility for our role. “We’ve all contributed to the latest inferno,” she notes. Emphasis on all implied, if not explicitly stated.

Kolbert’s analysis was mostly measured and careful. Many others, which I’ll come to in a moment, have been much less so. But even she insists on making reference early on to “a Florida-sized formation known as the tar sands,” which points at the difficulty with this approach to the wildfire coverage.

In my research, I’ve encountered dozens of stories about Fort McMurray that traffic freely in boom town myths, and not one neglects to note the overall size of the total bitumen deposit in northern Alberta—often described as “the size of England,” though Florida will do—nor fails to differentiate between the total deposit and the scale of current operations. There is an implicit point being scored here: imagine the images you’ve surely seen of tailings ponds and open-pit mines. Now imagine all of Florida, all of England. By contrast, the “oil sands mineable area cleared or disturbed,” as the Alberta government refers to it, covers an area the size of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Urban area, not metro.

These boom town dispatches also tend to studiously avoid the term “oilsands,” even though that is the more common term locally and in the industry (and the preferred one in the Canadian Press style guide), and it has been used interchangeably with “tar sands” since long before the first major mining operation established itself under the moniker “Great Canadian Oil Sands” in the 1960s. Another implicit point scored: the writer will not be caught doing what is presumed to be Big Oil’s bidding by using a term that might make the industry seem less intrinsically dirty, helping to spin-doctor the tar out of the sands. (You see less concern, when discussing cookery, about using “rapeseed oil” to avoid the taint of Big Canola.)

Many other quick takes on the Fort McMurray wildfire and climate change have been, as I said, nowhere near as careful as Kolbert’s. On the day the fire first roared into the city, my Twitter feed started to fill with breathless updates and retweets—first from locals and Alberta-based journalists, but soon after from climate advocacy types far distant from the province. This is a section of Twitter in which I’d only ever seen Fort McMurray mentioned as the root of all climate evil. And that resonance, whether intended or not, matters.

Within days, frequent climate change commetators soon filled international media outlets with reasons why we simply must discuss the link between climate change and Fort McMurray’s peril—immediately, explicitly, repeatedly, ad nauseum. At Slate, Eric Holthaus wrote about the fire twice in the first four days of the disaster. “This is Climate Change,” read the first headline. “We need to talk about climate change,” read the second. Holthaus appeared mainly to be addressing an intransigent U.S. audience – rather than try to figure out what Alberta’s political culture might actually look like, for example, he simply made passing reference to “petrostate politics” with a link to a Slate story about President Obama. But his story joined a growing viral flow of contentious online posts and comments insistent on turning the fire into climate action agitprop before it was even contained.

At the Guardian, Montreal-based writer Martin Lukacs was even more strident. He placed the blame for the fire entirely on the oil industry’s “corporate arsonists,” listing six by name: ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Total, CNRL, and Chevron. The selection is rather odd, in that it names only one Canadian company (CNRL) and skips the two biggest names in the oil sands—Suncor and Syncrude. Perhaps this is because Suncor and Syncrude are more difficult to fit into an argument predicated on the existence of a detached and uncontrollable enemy force. The two companies, who together proved the oil sands concept commercially and built the industry as we know it, were nurtured by massive public funding and public support and functioned somewhat in the same vein as Crown corporations for years. Lukacs, though, appears mostly interested in hurrying through Fort McMurray’s fire en route to linking it to the corporate deceit of ExxonMobil. The city is primarily a cluster of corporate oil logos in this narrative.

All of this is within the realm of fair comment, I suppose—a tragedy on this scale is going to invite a wide range of debate from any number of angles. But it’s deeply disingenous for commentators eager to link the fire to climate change to presume they arrive at the disaster site without their own baggage. Within a seventy-two-hour stretch, for example, climate activist Bill McKibben solicited donations for Fort McMurray’s displaced in his Twitter feed and co-authored an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun calling for a permanent moratorium on “tar sands pipelines.” To presume solidarity with the people of Fort McMurray and actively campaign against their livelihoods requires a remarkable feat of compartmentalization.

As just about anyone in Fort McMurray will readily tell you, their city long since vanished as a real place in such conversations. Once the proposed Keystone XL pipeline became the proxy for all the world’s climate destruction, Fort McMurray was reconfigured as the “carbon bomb” looming over virtually every climate change debate, the impending disaster to be avoided at all costs. And built into that rhetoric was an implication of complicity. If it was not always stated, it was self-evident nonetheless, especially to Fort McMurray residents: to make your living packing explosives into the carbon bomb was to be part of the plot to commit the worst of climate crimes. If you didn’t feel like that accurately described your job as a heavy haul truck driver or millwright or geological engineer—let alone schoolteacher or nurse or city planner—you learned to tune it out. You maybe wondered why it was still okay to be on the demand side of the oil equation but now criminally complicit to work on this particular piece of the supply side. But mostly you understood these were not people trying to engage you in an honest discussion about your hometown.

Still, it couldn’t help but grate on the locals and their allies, especially in the midst of the worst natural disaster in Alberta’s history. This is how a single imbecilic tweet about climate and karma by some long-forgotten Alberta NDP candidate came to make national news, as cranks on the right treated it as the true expression of all progressives everywhere. The cranks did themselves few favours, but the sentiment resonated nonetheless, because Fort McMurray has been so badly misconstrued for so long. It has carried such symbolic freight over the past decade, mostly against its will, that it felt necessary to say it: “Fort McMurray is a place.” This was the opening sentence of Edmonton Journal political columnist Paula Simons’ first piece on the fire. This inferno is a tragedy of human scale, house by house, block by block, before it is anything else. Long before it is anything else.

Why, in any case, would now be exactly the time to talk about Fort McMurray and wildfires and climate change’s connections to both? What point could only be made while the fires still burn? With what intent, if not to imply the complicity of the employees of “corporate arsonists” in an oil boom town? And who exactly is engaged by such a conversation, if not the same people who clucked at the last climate-connected disaster and the one before that and wondered smugly when these foolish people would ever learn? Who, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, stops to talk at length about policy? So score rhetorical points with the choir from Fort McMurray’s plight if you really must, but at least cop to it.

As I write this, the thousands of Fort McMurray residents who filed into a high school gym last summer for Friday prayers are all homeless. So are the thousands who came from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and Ontario and British Columbia, and the thousands more who have lived in the city for a generation or more. All were drawn by the opportunity to be part of a resource town’s story of success and prosperity as old as the country itself. If that story is flawed, it is flawed the same way it is in Yellowknife or Yarmouth or any of a thousand other resource towns in this resource-rich country. The residents of Fort McMurray are no more complicit than I am or you are in the calamity that fell upon their city. (To her credit, this was Elizabeth Kolbert’s final point.)

Fort McMurray is not a work camp, and these people’s homes were not temporary. And they are long past done being the symbolic weapons in someone else’s rhetorical war. One story you hear often from longtime Fort McMurray residents is one of a hard-won existence, of the resilience and tenacity it took to carve out an industry and a community in the face of great doubt and long odds. The resource for decades unyielding in its refusal to become a commodity, the industry marginal, perpetually on the verge of abandonment, the climate unforgiving at every turn. I suspect the city’s collective response to this tragedy will fit this narrative better than those imposed on it from afar.

Chris Turner (@theturner) published How to Breathe Underwater: Field Reports from an Age of Radical Change in 2014.


Bidding on the Future

Could hosting Expo alter Toronto’s destiny?

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During a panel discussion at the Toronto Region Board of Trade last week, an after-work audience of a few hundred people listened to four local worthies sing the praises of an opportunity of, well, a (civic) life-time.

The investment product they were touting apparently cuts stress, improves well-being, boosts the economy, fosters the technology jobs of the future, builds connections, helps the poor, and restores Canada’s place in the world.

It may even prevent suicides, one speaker intoned, citing research findings.

The elixir on offer is not some new wonder drug; rather, it’s Toronto’s sorta-kinda-maybe bid for the 2025 Expo, the city’s latest Sally Field-esque attempt to win validation on the world stage, or at least from the projected millions of tourists who will dutifully troop to 6ix-ville to explore national pavilions designed around the sorts of blue sky themes—“Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”—beloved of the mandarins who run the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions.

With the bid window for 2025 now open (it closes in November), Mayor John Tory’s executive committee this week will consider a report that ostensibly proposes “a bidding and hosting strategy for significant special events,” but is really about Expo, and the city’s umpteenth attempt to launch a campaign to win it.

Okay, I admit I’m overstating things when I say umpteenth.

But Toronto pols have turned this shiny object over before—pawing at it tentatively before either deciding against a bid or embarking on a kind of half-hearted approach that died the predictable death. Then during Stephen Harper’s turn at the helm, the feds curtly cancelled Canada’s membership in Club Expo, which makes Toronto (or any other Canadian city for that matter) ineligible to bid until the Trudeau government decides to renew and proffer the largely symbolic fee.

The question about the relentless pursuit of these kinds of international extravaganzas isn’t just about money, although that’s a huge issue, given that the ROI depends on attracting millions of people to attend an event that seems stuck in the era of wide-eyed twentieth-century modernism. It’s also about whether the much-touted legacy benefits (Infrastructure! Tourism! Civic branding!) actually alter the city’s destiny, or merely bring us to the same place by a different route.

Most Canadians know something of the psychological back-story to Toronto’s ceaseless striving: Montreal and Vancouver had successful Expos, in 1967 and 1986, while Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver all hosted the Olympics. That centennial year fair, with its geodesic dome and Habitat, has long laid claim to a separate chapter in Canada’s compendium of nation-building moments, up there with Paul Henderson’s miracle goal and the intergalactic grasping of the Canadarm. Somewhat ironically, Vancouver’s Expo, which focused on the redevelopment of False Creek, had a far greater impact on that city’s future growth; the storied Montreal Expo site, on an island in the St. Lawrence, has become a workaday casino and parking lot.

Downtown councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam, the city’s leading Exponent, made it clear at the panel that her interest is in the infrastructure that comes with the event: new LRT lines, housing complexes on the city’s waterfront, and a billion-dollar flood protection berm that’s needed in order to proceed with any development on the largely derelict Portlands—an 880-acre swath of semi-fallow industrial landfill. All those infrastructures projects, she said, are already on the books. An event, however, create a sense of urgency for policy-makers and delivers giant contracts to the private sector. “The focus is on development and that is the most exciting thing at the moment,” CIBC economist Andrew Grantham told the audience.

But other Expo boosters said they feel the city needs to aim much higher, with a theme that sets off rockets under everyone’s imagination. The goal, opined former Ontario premier David Peterson, should be “to create the most technologically advanced city in the world. We have to sell this vision. If it’s just about 880 acres, it won’t fly.”

A Toronto Expo, he added aspirationally, “isn’t just about Serbian dancing.”

Peterson, of course, was most recently the chair of the Toronto 2015 PanAm Parapan Games, which, he said, was success from an attendance point of view. But the event kind of sleep-walked its way through the city’s civic consciousness. There was the predictable griping about traffic restrictions, and some last minute fretting about ticket sales, and then it was over. As for the legacy? Condos in a gentrifying part of downtown (!), and a big swimming pool complex next to one of the University of Toronto’s suburban campuses. It’s all a bit underwhelming.

Wong-Tam argues that because a Toronto Expo would take place entirely on the Portlands, the city or some development agency would have to do much-needed environmental remediation on hundreds of hectares of pristine waterfront land, leaving it ready for redevelopment after the national pavillions are packed up and sent to communities across Canada to become libraries or other civic buildings.

What’s far less clear is whether the city could build that massive berm and do all the necessary clean-up in time for 2025. One of the most ambitious infrastructure schemes in the city’s history, the project involves re-constructing and naturalizing a twenty-acre swath of the Portlands and the Lower Don River. Smaller projects have taken more time, and not because the construction crews are dragging their feet.

No one at the panel discussion last week articulated that specific concern, although there was much world-weary discussion about the naysayers and media cynics (see byline above) who are waiting in the weeds, eager to pounce on both inconsequential spending misdeeds as well as the lofty dreams of the proponents.

“Every city has its Pollyannas and its curmudgeons,” observed the moderator Sevaun Palvetzian, who heads CivicAction and has advised Tory (the former head of CivicAction) on hosting large events. “It would seem we have a disproportionately high quantity of curmudgeons. Why is that?”

Peterson nodded emphatically. “The grief you will take along the way is unbelievable,” he said, rhetorically lifting his shirt to show a flank marked by political scars and welts. His advice to Tory: Go for it, and brave the slings and arrows. “The rewards are unbelievable, but I’ll tell you, it’s tough getting there.”

John Lorinc is a senior editor at Spacing, and a frequent Walrus contributor.


Canadians Are Better than Other People

Alone among Western nations, our country has completely rejected the global trend toward shrill nativism

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In Canada, and even many parts of the United States, Donald Trump is dismissed as a joke. Many of the policies he has proposed—make Mexico pay for a giant wall, ban Muslims from entering the US, institutionalize the use of torture—would be impossible to implement. In a way, Ted Cruz was a scarier Republican presidential candidate, because Cruz backed policies that, while extreme, could theoretically be achieved under an administration run by true right-wing zealots.

But the Trump phenomenon seems less of a joke when you consider that his brand of xenophobia has become a political growth industry across many parts of the world.

Canada arguably already had its Donald Trump moment: Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

The Brazilian version of Donald Trump is a sixty-one-year-old presidential aspirant named Jair Bolsonaro. Like Trump, he laughs off torture perpetrated against enemies of the state. And he takes Trump’s sexism and bigotry to another level. During a recent session of Congress, he taunted a female legislator: “I would not rape you. You don’t merit that.” (He then mocked the woman for leaving before he had finished berating her.) And like Trump, he is phobic about migrants, describing new arrivals as “the scum of the world.”

The Filipino version of Trump already has been elected president. Rodrigo Duterte has confessed openly to dictatorial tendencies. Like Bolsonaro, he is an open homophobe who makes jokes about raping women, and who postures as a defender of the hard-done-by everyman. “[Duterte] presents himself as a simple man fed up with the system, vowing to fix the nation at all costs,” notes Filipino novelist Miguel Syjuco. “He has been linked to more than 1,000 extra-legal executions of petty criminals during his time as mayor [of Davao City]. Not only has he admitted to supporting the killings, he has promised that as president he will ‘turn the 1,000 into 100,000’ and dump their bodies in Manila Bay.”

Duterte, Bolsonaro and Trump have different backgrounds and platforms, reflecting their different societies. (Violent crime is a far more serious problem in, say, Manila and Rio de Janeiro than in any large American city.) But the overall pitch is the same:

I am here to blow up the established political class. I am beholden to no one, and the proof is that I will say things that horrify people with power and education. I will eliminate the threats that terrify you by using tactics that others are too weak and politically correct to consider.

These Trump-style populists promise voters that they will return their society back to a more noble, authentic, orderly, old-fashioned, hard-working version of itself. In doing so, they assume the posture of manly, old-fashioned patriarch—an alpha-male role that, as they imagine it, gives them license to crassly belittle anyone who seems weak or effeminate.

The examples of Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin demonstrate that aspirationally democratic societies can be dragged back into autocracy by charismatic strongmen who focus popular agitation on outside threats. The Trump phenomenon shows us that even wealthy, well-established democracies are now at risk. The next president of once-sleepy Austria may well be Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party. Analogous anti-immigrant movements have seized control of the political agenda in Poland, Hungary, France, Germany, and even the UK.

In all cases, these populists advocate a return to culturally rooted values, and push back against the forces of globalization. Hofer says he would block implementation of an EU–US trade deal. Donald Trump has even railed hard against NAFTA, something no leading Republican presidential candidate has done since the days of Patrick Buchanan.

Not so long ago, isolationist movements of this type typically were fuelled by anti-Semitism—since Jews were seen as the human embodiment of rootlessness and financial opportunism. But since 9/11, nativists have moved on from Jews to Muslims. Open hostility to Arab and South Asian refugees is a universal constant among today’s populists—and sometimes is expressed in the form of out-and-out hate speech, which casts Muslims as inveterate rapists whose animal-like reproduction rates will swamp Western host societies.

Typically, anti-immigrant politicians are described as “far-right.” But that’s misleading. In Europe, men such as Hofer oppose Muslim migrants typically because they believe that the newcomers will challenge liberal Western social norms, and bankrupt the welfare state. The same is true of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. In the US, meanwhile, Trump supporters are just fine with trade barriers, social security and even socialized medicine (at least in the form of Medicare), so long as these big-government policies help the “right” people—which is to say, people who look like they do. In his definitive Atlantic magazine cover story on the crack-up of the GOP, David Frum quotes Harvard researcher Theda Skocpol to the effect that pessimistic Republicans “judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients.”

And what about Canada? I always check myself when I feel the urge to write a column about our moral superiority. But on this issue, Canada really does stand apart. There is no mainstream anti-immigrant party in Canada. Nor any mainstream anti-immigrant media outlet. Nor advocacy group. One of the most disastrous decisions Stephen Harper’s government made was to appear heartless in response to the 2015 migrant crisis. When Justin Trudeau was elected, he personally greeted incoming refugees at an airport—a masterstroke that would have been treated as political suicide in many other countries. Nor do any of the major Canadian political parties advocate a substantial rollback in free trade or investment. We are perhaps the only nation on earth whose politicians and media have unanimously made peace with the forces of globalization.

To the extent that Canada ever was going to have a Donald Trump moment, we arguably already had it. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives railed against niqabs and foreign-funded NGOs, created an old-stock patriotism cult around the War of 1812, and promised ever-harsher treatment of criminals. But it never quite caught on as a long-term political strategy among anyone under fifty. When the Tories tried to take health care coverage away from asylum seekers, they were soundly rebuked by judges and pundits alike, and retreated. In the end, Canadians simply had no real appetite for this sort of policy. In fact, under Justin Trudeau, we increasingly have come to embrace the outward rejection of narrow-minded nativism as a defining feature of our national brand.

Why? Firstly, our immigration policies—which emphasize job skills—encourage more rapid assimilation into Canadian society than in Europe, where migrants often languish in ghettoes. Second, unlike the nations of Europe, we are a difficult destination for Muslim refugees to reach, which means we always will be less receptive to fears that our society is under “siege” from hordes of newcomers. And third, unlike the US, we are no longer a self-consciously Christian society—so the idea of newcomers changing the religious balance of Canada does not lead to Cruz-style apocalyptic rhetoric about “creeping Sharia” and so forth. And finally, there is the fact that few nations have benefited more from free trade over the last twenty years than Canada: Even the NDP is hard-pressed to put up much of a fight against open borders.

Arguably, there is a fifth factor as well: For as long as any of us can remember, Canadians have enjoyed defining themselves, at least in part, in opposition to the American identity. And so as the US becomes the land of fear, we become the land of hope.

All this may help explain why we Canadians are deriving so much schadenfreude from Trump’s phobic antics, even if the global problem he represents is real and worrying. He reminds us that, in this way at least, we Canadians truly have created a more tolerant, pluralistic, welcoming, even-keeled society than the US (and, in fact, the rest of the world more generally).

To assert our moral superiority feels like a trite and even obnoxious thing for a Canadian pundit to do. But every once in a while, Canada deserves to come out and take a bow.

Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is the editor-in-chief of The Walrus.