Category Archives: History

One great heart, united


It’s a truism that bears repeating: We all came from somewhere else. Canadians remember this to their credit as they prepare to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees this year and early next.

Of these, New Brunswick is on tap to resettle about 1,500 in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton. In fact, all regions of this country are old hands at this form of humanitarian aid.

According to one federal government web site, “Our compassion and fairness are a source of great pride for Canadians. These values are at the core of our domestic refugee protection system and our Resettlement Assistance Program. Both programs have long been praised by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).”

The system works this way: “Refugees selected for resettlement to Canada have often fled their homes because of unimaginable hardships and have, in many cases, been forced to live in refugee camps for many years. When they arrive in Canada, they basically pick up the pieces of their lives and start over again.

“As a member of the international community, Canada helps find solutions to prolonged and emerging refugee situations and helps emerging democracies try to solve many of the problems that create refugee populations. To do this, Canada works closely with the UNHCR.”

Crucially, “Under our legislation, all resettlement cases must be carefully screened to ensure that there are no issues related to security, criminality or health. Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) works with its security partners such as the Canada Border Services Agency to complete this work as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile, “Private sponsors across the country also help resettle refugees to Canada. Some are organized to do so on an ongoing basis and have signed sponsorship agreements with the Government of Canada to help support refugees from abroad when they resettle in Canada. These organizations are known as Sponsorship Agreement Holders. They can sponsor refugees themselves or work with others in the community to sponsor refugees. Other sponsors, known as Groups of Five and Community Sponsors, are persons/groups in the community who are not involved on an ongoing basis but have come together to sponsor refugee(s).”

All of which is to say that despite the appearance of cultural homogeneity along the East Coast, the Maritimes remains one of the most diverse and hospitable places in one of the most welcoming nations in the world for people in trouble. Well, most of the time.

“Even before the attacks in Paris last week, some Canadians were already chattering about security risks and the threat of insurgents sneaking through,” notes Robert J. Talbot, a postdoctoral fellow in history at the University of New Brunswick, in a recent piece for iPolitics. “Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, in particular, made political hay out of the crisis.”

But, Mr. Talbot adds, “the British refugees of two hundred years ago wanted the same thing that the Syrian refugees seek today: to settle down to quiet, peaceful and productive lives, for themselves and for their families. . .The year 1783 is far removed from the here and now, but the fact remains that many of us and our ancestors – my own Loyalist ancestors included – came here as refugees. French Huguenots fleeing religious fundamentalism, Iroquoian First Nations fleeing American expansionism, British Loyalists fleeing radical republicanism, Irish Catholics fleeing famine, German Mennonites (perhaps some of Brad Wall’s ancestors) fleeing Russian nationalism, Europeans fleeing fascism, Vietnamese fleeing communism, Kosovars fleeing ethnic cleansing, and now, Syrians fleeing suicidal nihilism.”

At the centre of this nation is a great heart that understands implicitly that these truisms do, indeed, bear repeating.

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Bridge over troubled waters


Local activists spent decades twisting the right arms of federal politicians getting approval, five years ago, for a full-time, functioning fish passage through the causeway that connects the communities of Riverview and Moncton across the Petitcodiac River.

Now, it’s time to twist their left ones.

Provincial Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Roger Melanson may be a tad opportunistic (this being an election season, and all) when he asks national party leaders what, if anything, they intend to do about the second phase of the river’s planned restoration – a bridge that will replace a significant chunk of the existing fixed link – but he’s not wrong.

The permanent gate-opening has produced efficacious results that not even the most optimistic of riparian ecologists could have predicted back in 2010: The river is dramatically wider around The Bend; fish species have returned in droves; and the famed tidal bore has never been higher.

As a result, tourists have once again designated the banks of Atlantic Canada’s Big Muddy a choice destination on their calendar of things to do when hanging about southeastern New Brunswick in summertime.

Long-board surfers from California now routinely make the 6,000-kilometre trek, from their sun-bleached bivouacs, to “ride the tide” from the Petitcodiac’s mouth, near Fundy Bay, to the shores of Riverside Park (a 90-minute journey, by some accounts).

One of my sons-in-law – a marine biologist with a masters degree in environmental management, and as avid a surfer as God ever made – had never heard about the river’s “tidal bore, version 2.0” until he saw a lengthy clip on You Tube a couple of years ago.

“Alec,” he told me, “You know, I just have to do that.”

I have no doubt that he will.

All of which points to the obvious truth: When a community heeds, and invests in, the integrity of its natural splendors, the local economic impact can be as substantial as twinning a highway.

According to Parks Canada’s website, nationally protected areas make “a substantial economic contribution to (the country’s) economy. Through the spending of the organization and the visitors to Parks Canada’s National Parks, National Historic Sites and National Marine Conservation Areas, a significant and widespread economic impact is felt throughout the country.

“In 2008/09 Parks Canada’s organizational spending and visitor spending totalled $3.3 billion. Of this amount, visitor spending accounted for $2.7 billion and $587 million was spent by Parks Canada on three program areas. The overall national economic impacts derived from the spending attributed to Parks Canada on the Canadian economy are: Gross Domestic Product, $2,988 million; labour Income, $1,925 million; employment, 41,720 fulltime equivalents; tax revenue, $218 million.”

By my calculation, that’s a four-to-one return on public investment, which renders Parks Canada one of the most successful “businesses” in recent Canadian history.

Why, then, can’t the same logic be applied to the Petticodiac River – surely one of the most deserving heritage sites in this country that has not actually received designation?

It would begin with a bridge over the waterway where the causeway now stands. That edifice, with federal support, would further facilitate the natural flow of the river. Eventually, silt and mud would find their way to the coastal estuary and out into the sea.

Meanwhile, our duly protected riparian banks would become magnets for the environmentally sustainable development of public spaces – especially those that would support and augment a new downtown events centre complex.

In 20 years, or less, we might just well engineer a world-beating river restoration and find, to our astonishment, that we did something right.

Indeed, no arms needed to be twisted.

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A walk to remember


The day began, a year ago today, under the hard light of an uncertain spring. That day was not for strolling or cavorting in the newly opened playgrounds and parks of downtown Moncton. The mercury barely touched 12 degrees, and the sky, thick with cloud, lingered and loomed like a certain threat.

Still, my wife and I, in our early 50s and determined to amplify our expectations of a happy life together, set out as usual on our fast walk around Jones Lake in the west end of the city. As we did, we spoke of many things.

We spoke of our children, and how lucky we were to still have them in our orbit. Our Melinda in faraway Toronto was thriving as a professional practice analyst at the Ontario College of Early Childhood Educators. Our Jessica was less than a year away from completing her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at the University of Prince Edward Island.

What’s more, our sons-in-law (Richard Whittall to Lindy; Myles Thompson to Jess) actually seemed to like us, as did their kids (Lindy’s and Rich’s James and Isla; Jess’s and Myles’ Euan and Ruby).

We were fortunate, indeed, we agreed, as we turned the corner where the late, great Reuben Cohen still lived.

How many more blessings, we wondered, could we count on our way around and past the coffee shop that used to be a liquor outlet, not far from the paint store where we once bought buckets of latex to coat our walls, right next to the kid’s emporium of puzzles and games and books where we once spent happy hours pretending to be grown-ups on behalf of our grandchildren?

We had arrived in this town on a wink and a prayer in 1996. And from the moment we landed on a hot, thundery May afternoon, we knew we had found the home, the community, we had always wanted together – not the cold, grey doom of Toronto where we had spent five, penurious years; not the fatuous, underwhelming promise of Halifax where we had spent far too much time fruitlessly chipping away at the fossils of calcified privilege and money.

No, Moncton – with all its gloriously openhanded enterprise and entrepreneurial vigour – hit us like a lightening strike. This absurdly ugly, magnificently beauteous burg was where we belonged. We would always own its Petticodiac, its struggling downtown, its bewildering ex-urban ribbons of big-box stores, its mysteriously neglected riverside parkways and byways.

When my wife and I finished our walk around the neighborhood we call home, the word came down through local, national and international media, through Google alerts and Facebook, through Twitter and Instagram that the unthinkable had happened in the northwestern part of Moncton. A maniac had killed, in cold blood, three officers of the law.

We shed tears for the RCMP who had lost their lives as they had executed their duties – for their parents and wives and children. We mourned the passing of time in the brevity of life.

We grieved for those who must endure the unendurable: The sudden loss of the cherished; the abrupt absence of the beloved.

As we counted our blessings, we considered those of others in this fine town of a city; and then we went for another long walk. We walked in memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the rest of us.

The day ended, a year ago today, when the sun finally began to shine softly – the pain still daggered, the shock still stunning – and we held onto each other, speaking of many things.


The Franklin find: genuine history turned political theatre


Since 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has authorized Parks Canada to spend millions of dollars on six polar searches for the wrecks of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus – the two British, Hecla class bomb vessels that ferried the expedition of Captain Sir John Franklin to its watery grave 169 years ago.

On Tuesday, having heard that one of those ships (no word yet on which one)  had been found resting under barely 11 meters of the Victoria Straight, off the coast of King William Island, far from the fabled Northwest Passage it and its sister ship had been commissioned to sail, Mr. Harper might have body-checked his own mother had she been blocking his access to a microphone.

“For more than a century this has been a great Canadian story, a mystery; it’s been the subject of scientists and historians, writers and singers,” he fairly giggled before a hastily arranged press conference in Ottawa. “So, I think we have a really important day in mapping together the history of our country.”

Indeed, as he reminded his fellow Canadians last month at the height of one of Parks Canada’s annual hunts for all things Franklin-rated, this “ultimately isn’t just about the story of discovery and mystery and all these things. It’s also really is laying the basis for what’s, in the longer term, Canadian sovereignty.”

In fact, on the face of it, Mr. Harper’s enthusiasm is both endearing and justified; amateur and professional historians owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. The find does, indeed, solve many mysteries, even as it will almost certainly raise tantalizing questions to vex and titillate scholars for years to come.

But does it really have anything to do with Canadian sovereignty, as Mr, Harper claims? According to at least one authority, that’s stretching the truth almost to breaking.

“The discovery of two historical wrecks from the 1840s that sailed under the authority of Britain before Canada was even a state doesn’t really extend our claims of control over the waters of the Northwest Passage,” Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, told the National Post. “This myth just had another chapter added,” he further commented for the Globe and Mail.

What it does do, however, is send another message to the international community – notably Russia and the U.S. – that Canada’s claims to Arctic region are historically valid, if that was ever in doubt.

It also ensures, as Mr. Huebert points out, that “the Arctic is going to be one of his (Mr. Harper’s) major legacies when people look back on his leadership period.”

In the broader sense, the Prime Minister’s interest in, and willingness to support, ventures like the search for Franklin repudiates some of the harsher criticism of him as a by-the-books politician with little or no interest in research and science. It all depends on what research and which science we’re talking about.

The Globe and Mail’s lead editorial yesterday congratulated the Harper regime for demonstrating both leadership and collaboration – qualities that, at least, helped searchers find the wreck – even as it castigated certain government members for cracking down on researchers who go off message.

Remember, the piece instructed readers, “The government that allowed journalists open access to the scientists looking for the Franklin ships is the same one that has routinely gagged government scientists since taking power. It is now impossible in Canada for a reporter to speak with a federal scientist without going through media relations officers, a lengthy and often fruitless process. The policy has been condemned  by the British scientific journal Nature and the American Association for the Advancement of Science”

How, one wonders, has that worked out for them?

Nope, unless some crafty spin doctor with a soft spot for unfettered free speech, environmental stewardship, and basic research for the sake of basic research can figure out a way to dramatize all science to good Conservative Party effect, this prime minister’s interest in science, while genuine, will remain politically discriminating.

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