100 Days of Blame

I am, by most accounts, a horrible partner, and I have the exes to prove it. I am self-involved, self-indulgent, and more often than not underemployed. I suffer from tunnel vision and insomnia. I enjoy adult beverages, some times too much. I write poetry. I listen to a lot of alt-country. A lot. This is why I am 35 and my folks still ask about the absence of grandchildren and RRSPs. This is why my LinkedIn profile notes that I am a freelancer, but follows the claim with a question mark. This is why my relationships last three months, and typically end in a furious and graceless blaze of glory. But despite my poetic endings and disappointed parents, I’ve always been good at admitting blame, of recognizing my faults, and celebrating my flaws. One day I plan on learning from them. During the 100 days of the Quebec student strike, all sides, all entities involved, have been unwilling to admit any fault, to believe that they may have made mistakes, to admit that they should not have come home three days late smelling of perfume and whiskey. So, as Montreal prepares for an important day and joins the protest century club, I’m taking the time to consider how to share some blame.

The Mainstream Media

The CBC, CTV, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, et al. have failed miserably in their coverage of this event, and rest assured it is an event. The journalistic coverage has been if not lazy than perhaps complicit. Over the weekend “a” Molotov cocktail became pluralized very quickly in many reports. All entities continually refer to the “students” protesting and marching, while in reality the students are on strike but much of the rest of Quebec are on the streets. They quote tired facts about tuition costs, but are guilty in omitting from the discourse what non-residents and international students pay. The images and arguments have been ones of violence, and all too willing to ignore the moving and inspirational story of the rise of an important social movement. Their coverage has the appearance of writing from afar, written on desks in Toronto and Calgary.

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The Op-Ed Remains the Same

Yesterday, the Quebec student strike claimed if not its first than its most prominent casualty. Line Beauchamp, Quebec Minister for Education, resigned her post in both Premier Jean Charest’s cabinet and the National Assembly. As for Ms. Beauchamp, rest assured I imagine she has some sort of severance package to cushion her fall into the private sector, and given her age and education I would further assume that her student loan debt, if she had one, has been paid off for some time. I’m sure a teaching gig awaits at U Laval, or U de Montreal, provided she returns to school for an MA or PhD. As soon as they reopen. Enjoy your summer, Line.

This was a calculated move on the part of the Charest government. It’s akin to the Canadiens firing their head coach during a slump. It’s a distraction. It gives the scribes and pundits (entities complicit in this discussion) something other than the issue at hand to feed the news cycle for a day or two while the franchise, in this case the Quebec government, regroups and plans their next course of action before the season (ahem, semester) is lost. Randy Cunneyworth was not considered for the position, Charest instead going with Treasury Board President Michelle Courchesne. I’m assuming she speaks French.

The intermediary should have provided a moment for reflection for both sides, and perhaps a more enlightened and calm discourse emerging on the other side. But no such luck. It has been fascinating to see how Canada’s op-ed columnists and political pundits have covered this story from afar, removed both from the university experience and Quebec itself. It’s difficult for me to understand why there isn’t more solidarity, why not just students but reasonable taxpayers aren’t more concerned with how the student strike has been reflected in the media, and furthermore how the mismanagement of subsidized tuition shares multiple parallels with other forms of social spending.

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Le Québec est le Canada que nous devrions vouloir

The following is a French translation of my post from yesterday, “Quebec is the Canada We Should Want” kindly and expertly translated by Murielle Cayouette. Ms. Cayouette is an M.A. candidate for a “maîtrise en littératures d’expression anglaise” at université Laval and her thesis is on Native American Literature.  She also teaches part time in Cégep FX Garneau in Québec City.

Ce qui suit est une traduction française de mon post d’hier, “Quebec is the Canada We Should Want” traduit aimablement et de façon experte par Murielle Cayouette. Mme. Cayouette est un candidat à la maîtrise d’un “maîtrise en littératures d’expression anglaise” à l’Université Laval et sa thèse sur la littérature amérindienne. Elle enseigne aussi à temps partiel au Cégep FX Garneau à Québec.

Quand j’étais petit, j’adorais les cartes géographiques.  J’aimais rêvasser devant ces représentations tangibles d’endroits mystérieux que je ne pouvais qu’imaginer.  Quand j’avais huit ou neuf ans, mes parents m’ont acheté une mappemonde pour afficher sur mon mur de chambre.  Chaque pays sur la carte était coloré selon la langue officielle de chaque nation.  J’ai un souvenir très tendre de l’affection que je portais au Canada sur cette carte, avec ses vives rayures bleues et rouges représentant l’anglais et le français.  En fait, je crois qu’il s’agit de mon premier souvenir de fierté, en particulier en comparaison avec la grosse masse juste au sud, les États-Unis, qui eux n’étaient que rouges.  Ce n’était pas seulement une question linguistique : c’était une question d’unité, de diversité, et de ce que c’est d’être un Canadien.

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Quebec is the Canada We Should Want

A French translation of this post may be found here.

Une traduction française de ce poste peut être trouvé ici.

When I was a kid I loved maps. I loved the element of the unknown, physical and tangible representations of places I could only imagine. When I was about 8 or 9 my parents bought me a map of the world for my wall. Each country on the map was coloured to represent the official language of each nation. I have this fond recollection of an affection I had for the Canada of that map, bold in its red and blue stripes representing French and English. It might be my first memory of pride, especially as the big red blotch below us, the USA, was simply red. It wasn’t just about language, it was about unity, and diversity, and being Canadian.

As I grew up, and visited much of the country, living for many years in a few of its corners, those feelings reconciled. But in the past few months, having left Quebec after seven years and relocating to Toronto, and after being witness to the protests of Quebec students and the offensive manner in which the mainstream media has treated them as spoiled children, that notion I had of Canada as a child has dwindled a bit. And it has led me to think that Quebec, a province so often concerned with what makes it distinct from Canada, is in fact the last bastion of what I believe Canada to be, what I was raised understanding it to be, and what I saw in my reverie as I stared into the heart of those maps as a child.

The student protest is just one element of the Canada I see in Quebec. The Globe and Mail’s editorial board wrote this morning that Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s compromise with the students was “sending a message that Quebec’s social entitlements will not last forever.” They went on to describe these entitlements: $7-a-day daycare, lowest tuition in Canada, subsidized hydro-electricity, and reasonably priced pharmaceuticals. The use of the word “entitlements” was a poor choice, but one the Globe obviously choose as a slight of those who believe that such “entitlements” are an essential part of the fabric of this nation. Here, it has a negative connotation that suggests that Quebec is Canada’s petulant child. Instead, I see these as the social necessities that are fundamental to not only the human condition, but also the success of a social democracy.

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Dear HBO: Writers Are Not Interesting, Pass it On

The most interesting person I’ve ever met happens to be a writer, but I’m going to go ahead and guess that was just an instance of happenstance. For the most part, the writing industry is equal parts dullards and Dos Equis men just as the accounting industry, or animal husbandry industry, or the bible repair industry. Unfortunately, the writing world has never been lacking in ego or narcissism, and as a result the general public is subjected to many a film, TV show, play, novel, novella, short story, sestina, villanelle, and haiku by writers about writers for writers. Writers are given a forum with which to share their narcissism. Admittedly, I’m on occasion guilty of this myself, but I’m relatively unsuccessful and those who have been subjugated to my work heavily rooted in the self have more often not complained, but rather bought me a drink or seven, and patted me assuredly on the back. “There, there,” they say, “there, there.”

The problem starts early on in the writer’s evolution. The institutionalization of writing has meant that writers now learn to write in MFA programs, as opposed to the old route where aspiring writers would simply read books, get drunk, find a pen, and see what happens. There are certain tropes of the creative writing pedagogy. One, of course, is using the term pedagogy as often as possible. Another is to tell students to “show don’t tell”, which is indeed great advice for writing, yet bad advice for flirting. Recently, the term “learnable moment” has become very popular, but I still have no idea as to how that’ll help me write a good paradelle. But the most dangerous and misleading teaching is the notion of “writing what you know”. This, is where we’ve gone wrong. So horribly, horribly wrong.

“Writing what you know” has led to creative writing workshops filled with pieces about bad university dorm experiences, the problems with parents and mean boyfriends, and the increasingly popular “things that happened to me yesterday while on Ritalin”. I had one professor who thankfully went the other way on this, suggesting “if it happened to you, don’t write it. It’ll never be as interesting for anyone else.” He would also take aspiring writers writing what they knew to task, telling many that their pieces should be titled “My Name is (insert name) and This Once Happened to Me”. Of course, he also advised that I own more knives, took Viagra recreationally and not for sexual purposes, and then asked to borrow my girlfriend, so…

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Where Did Journalism Wente?

Tuesday morning, venti Pike Place in hand, I sat in my local Starbucks as I do most days. I plugged in my earphones, connected to the WiFi and tuned into CBC Radio’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, then opened up my various inboxes and feeds to try and catch up on what I missed whilst asleep. A normal day would typically progress as such: discover nothing happened, post clever tweet, ‘Like’ friends Facebook post, confirm that the Leafs still suck, reply to my mother’s suggestion that I get a real job, order second venti Pike, write something for my blog that 42 people will perhaps read, poke at freelance projects. You know, a Tuesday.

And if it wasn’t for a message in my inbox from colleague Ian Orti with a link to Margaret Wente’s op-ed on Quebec students (or rather, as Peggy calls them: the baristas of tomorrow) my Tuesday would’ve merrily skipped along, ending in beer and whiskey, eventually becoming a Wednesday where the whole thing would repeat itself. Instead, I quickly wrote a response to the offending Wente column, posted it, the thing went viral, Maisonneuve picked it up, I went on CJAD radio, and for a few days my parents left me alone about the freelance life without a wife or children. It was a good week.

But that was Tuesday, and my 15 seconds of notoriety was fleeting. By Friday night my folks were again asking about the absence of wife and grandchildren. Whiskey and beer supplies were dangerously low. Wente continues to write. So here I sit Saturday morning, same Starbucks, same venti Pike, and unfortunately stuck reading the same newspapers that employ the likes of Wente to lazily write hypocritical and poorly constructed pieces that negligently fit into the modern paradigm of what passes for journalism in 2012.

A friend sent me a piece by Wente from early April, in which she celebrates her Boomerdom and notes that she left university debt free, got a job quicker than an arts grad can whip cappuccino foam, a bought a house in the Beaches with a small loan from her mother that is now worth a small fortune. Easy-peasy. And yet just a short month later, she was condemning students for just wanting just a fraction of the same advantages she had. And it led me to wonder, how does this tripe make it past the editing process? How, in this day and age, are we subjected to newspapers that fail to subscribe to the simplest virtues of journalistic integrity?

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Margaret Wente Hates Herself

I wasn’t going to say anything. I was just going to keep my mouth shut. I spent the entirety of April writing poetry, and feeling okay about myself, about my current station. I discovered charcuterie as a meal. I’ve cut back on my smoking. Spring sprang. Life was good. In the background, the Quebec student strike flickered in philosophical disagreement with much the rest of the country, at least those with jobs and educations already paid for. I kept informed, but remained quiet. Even when under the influence of argument inducing whiskey, the loose lip encouragement of good wine and free vodka, I was, for the most part, silent.

While I supported the virtue of the students protest, I wasn’t entirely on board with them. Their tuition is, comparably, reasonable. But as the month progressed, and my poems got more self-indulgent, I found myself starting to lean more and more to the side of these selfless young people, standing up in Quebec for those who won’t, or can’t, stand up in the rest of Canada. But still I kept it mostly to myself. And then, this morning, Margaret Wente provided her unsolicited thoughts (in the increasingly disappointing Globe and Mail) on the students’ demand for tuition control and responsible spending by post-secondary institutions. And once Wente published her column, and with my month of poetry over, I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. Wente offended me from my slumber. Good morning.

I’ll preface my argument by noting that I hold two degrees from a Quebec university, a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing and an MA in the same disciplines. Was my tuition, as Ms. Wente notes “the lowest tuition fees in all of North America”? Yes. Am I debt free? No, not even close. I’m in better shape than most, but I am underemployed and frustrated both by my university experience and the life I’m trying to build outside of it. But I wouldn’t trade my time in university for anything, and I owe what quiet moments of success I have had to that education, and how it has made me a better writer, a better person, and a better citizen.

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