Category Archives: Personal History

A writer’s life

What I do is a little like skateboarding on thin ice, a cup of strong tea in one hand and a print-out of the local headlines in the other, searching for speed without managing to fall on my ass in the process. Some days it works; other days it doesn’t. Last Friday was the other day.

Out of the blue, and without warning, the news dropped: The Moncton Times & Transcript would no longer require my five-times-a-week column (occasionally six-times-a week), which I have been producing since 2010.

Oh well, I thought, this is merely the writer’s life: easy come, easy go. On the other hand, in this business, in this era, you had better grow a hide as thick as a rhinoceros’s. Otherwise, to paraphrase the late, great Warren Zevon, “They’ll rip your lungs out, Jim.”

From what I was told in a two-minute conversation, the decision had nothing to do with the quality of my work but rather an ephemeral policy shift governing the direction of the Op-Ed pages. And, to be fair, I did resign some months ago, expecting to move back to Halifax and be closer to my parents and kids, before being persuaded to hang in for the foreseeable future.

The future has changed, but the past is written. So, before I go, I’ll take this one, last opportunity to regale readers with some of my pithier comments this column supported over the past year

On New Brunswick politics, I wrote: “Every morning at about 5:30, after I awake and dress for the day, I embrace the singular displeasure of feeding an aromatic breakfast to ‘Sid the kid’. No, he’s not a hockey star from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, but in Moncton he moves like one. In fact, he’s a five-year-old house cat who can, and does, fly up vertical inclines as if he’s a dragon fly. He’s also a marvellous arbiter of important news during my morning coffee.

“Whenever New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant hits the early radio news, he rolls over and wants a belly rub. Whenever Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s latest spout from Ottawa arrives as the sun slowly rises, he arches his back, begging for a good, hard cuddle. Whenever, Donald Trump tweets the latest outrage from the fringes of American democracy, he runs to the barn, not to be seen until noontime.”

On New Brunswick economics, I wrote: “Be honest. Who doesn’t love a good acronym these days? Why, a whole generation of kids lives for them. They message them, tweet them and even pepper their casual conversations in coffee shops with them. Even POTUS (that would be ‘President of the United States’) prefers this short hand of the modern age over, say, actual sentences.

“Who am I to buck the trend? As the subject of what to do about New Brunswick’s anemic economy comes around, as it so often does, I will posit an acronym of my own. Call it HOT, which stands for Hope, Opportunity and Technology. Maybe this will grab some attention.”

On the general condition of Canadian democracy, I wrote: “Official pronouncements from the parliaments and assemblies of Canadian democracy have a tendency to send me into a deep sleep. I slept extraordinarily well last night. Then, I heard this from federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau in his well-timed fiscal update: We’re doing great; the country is going gangbusters; there’s nothing to see; move along people; go about your business.”

See you, dear readers, in some other version of the ‘funny papers’. This is Alec Bruce, still skateboarding on thin ice.

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The way things were

I spent my formative, misspent years in the scribbling racket grabbing coffee and cigarettes at 2 a.m. for an unruly crew of Canadian Press editors and rewriters ensconced at the old Roy Building in downtown Halifax.

I was what people once knew in that industry as a “copy boy”. I was 15 and right off the boat – literally. Prior to earning this august position, I had spent two weeks on a tall ship enroute from Halifax to New York just in time for the 1976 American bicentennial. I spent many days and nights clamouring up masts, rigging sails and booms and doing my level best to stay out of Davy Jones’s locker. As I was a small, nimble shite of a boy, I managed to save my own life several times in 30-foot seas.

In other words, it was good training for the rough and tumble of print journalism in the mid-1970s, when everyone in this industry seemed to think he was one acrobatic leap away from becoming another Woodward, another Bernstein, between cigarettes, coffee and hurricanes of bad breath.

Following my extended university career during which I majored in beer and minored in billiards, I managed to land myself a job at the Globe in Mail in Toronto. I was, to say the least, a fraud. I knew nothing abut the stock markets to which I was hastily assigned to cover. Banks, monetary and fiscal policy? Fuggetaboutit! Somehow, I survived.

They say the traditional newspaper is dead, and ‘they’ may be right.

As Paul Starr wrote almost 10 years ago, when the first clarion sounded, “We take newspapers for granted. They have been so integral a part of daily life in America, so central to politics and culture and business, and so powerful and profitable in they’re own right, that it is easy to forget what a remarkable historical invention they are. Public goods are notoriously under-produced in the marketplace, and news is a public good – and yet, since the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers have produced news in abundance at a cheap price to readers and without need of direct subsidy. More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems. It is true that they have often failed to perform those functions as well as they should have done. But whether they can continue to perform them at all is now in doubt.”

He continued: “Even before the recession hit, the newspaper industry was facing a mortal threat from the rise of the Internet, falling circulation and advertising revenue, and a long-term decline in readership, as the habit of buying a daily paper dwindled from one generation to the next. The recession has intensified these difficulties.”
Now, almost a decade later, the recession is over, the Bank of Canada assures that the economy is going gang-busters, and I still remember my ink-stained friends from my misspent youth: Dan Westell, who literally taught me everything I know about financial journalism; John Wishart, who taught me the value of grace under fire; and now that fine boy Rod Allen, who retired from the Moncton Times & Transcript at the close of business, October 31.

Wise, witty, acerbic, funny and a superbly talented scribbler, Rod has been a great friend to my good self over the years. He is also the best headline writer I have ever known (and believe me, I have known many).

It’s sad to see the finest moving along. But we’re no longer “copy boys”. New lives beckon. Grab them all.

Laird of the manor

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To get to what we call ‘The Place’ you drive through the middle of Nova Scotia, from Halifax, straight through to Antigonish, down the Monastery Road, and on into Guysborough. But the prettier, if longer, approach is along the Eastern Shore of the province.

You take the winding, sea-bound road from Dartmouth through Musquodoboit, Clam and Sheet Harbours on your way, by turns, to Ecum Secum Liscomb, Sherbrooke and Stillwater until you somehow find yourself entering the outskirts of a cartographic afterthought called Port Shoreham.

The Place sits on a 90-acre plot of land overlooking the grand Chedabucto Bay. It’s been in my family since Napoleon met his Waterloo in the breaking years of the 19th Century. Recently, my sister and I inherited it from our parents. It’s hard to explain what it means to me. Ask any Maritimer what his ancestral homestead – should he be lucky enough to have one – represents, and you’ll evoke the same quizzical expression.

A couple of years ago, John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail noted, not unkindly, “After decades of declining fortunes, the Maritime provinces now find themselves trapped in what one observer describes as ‘a perfect storm’ of economic and demographic decline. The cause of that storm is no mystery; governments have been grappling with it for years. ‘Everyone knows what the problem is,’ says Peter McKenna, head of political science at UPEI. ‘It’s just that no one knows what to do about it.’”

Mr. Ibbitson continued: “Because of their fading economies, PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are running out of people. Last year, 1,000 more people left PEI for other parts of Canada than arrived from them. The population of Nova Scotia has been falling since 2011, when it peaked at 948,000; over the next two decades, another 20,000 people are expected to leave. New Brunswick is in similar straits. Between the middle of 2012 and the middle of last year, the population dropped by almost 2,000, to 754,524.”

Guysborough County is, by all accounts, the most sparsely populated in the region. The irony, perhaps, is this is one of the locales that helped modern Canada get its start. A serviceable Wiki entry declares, “The Mi’kmaq name for the village of Guysborough was Chedabuctou. The Prince Henry Sinclair Society of North America believe (the explorer) landed at Chedabucto Bay in 1398. (A) monument was erected on November 17, 1996. It is a fifteen-ton granite boulder with a black granite narrative plaque located at Halfway Cove on Trunk 16 in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia.

“The village of Guysborough was first settled by Europeans in 1634 by Isaac de Razilly. He built a fort named Fort St François à Canso at the entrance to the harbour. In 1655 Nicolas Denys, governor of the new St Lawrence Bay Province, built Fort Chedabuctou on Fort Point to serve as his capital. The fort was later replaced and renamed Fort St Louis.”

Later, “In 1682, a permanent settlement was started by Clerbaud Bergier. A group cleared land and spent the winter with the first crops being planted in 1683. Louis-Alexandre des Friches de Meneval landed at Chedabouctou in 1687 when arriving to take up his position as governor of Acadia.”

Shy of people, but steeped in history, this part of the country remains – including our own piece of it. My sister and I may now own The Place, at least on paper. But I feel less the laird of the manor than I do the current generation’s steward. It shall be a living link to a vibrant past for future generations.

Have island, will rusticate

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Born and raised to the age of eight in the largest, noisiest, sharpest-elbowed city in Canada, I gave no thought to the pastoral life of country folk I’d occasionally see on CBC television during the supper hour.

All that began to change in 1971 when my father managed to acquire a 10-acre piece of land that belonged to his family’s ancestral homestead in northeastern Guysborough County, Nova Scotia. It was a peninsula of forest framed on two sides by a pond and on the other by beach frontage. He called it ‘The Island’, possibly because owning an island seemed more impressive than owning a peninsula. I certainly thought so.

As a new cottage rose rapidly near the crest of the property, which offered spectacular views of Chedabucto Bay and still does, I began to imagine myself as some sort of Scottish laird. On summer vacations there, I would spend every day patrolling the borders, searching for poachers and other interlopers. I dreamt of one day building my own cabin in the woods.

None of this will be new to anyone who ever grew up on a patch of land near any sizeable body of water. But unless I’m very much mistaken, recent interest in owning islands is on the rise. The Telegraph-Journal has featured New Brunswick islands for sale not once, but twice in as many weeks. The latest, apparently, will only set you back a cool $3.7 million.

As the story reported, “Sandy Robertson stepped out of his vehicle onto a snow-covered clearing to show off a beloved trait of his private island. The absence of noise, just wind whistling through the trees, complements the serene, panoramic view of where the St. John and Kennebecasis rivers meet.”

Not long ago a website called Notable Life devoted an entire feature to island life, beginning its write up thusly: “Thinking about buying a condo? If you’re in Toronto, the average one of those will run you about $370,000, or in West Vancouver around $590,000. But maybe you’re considering a stand-alone, single-family home in Toronto for an average price of just over $1 million?

“Or perhaps you’d like to land somewhere between a savvy investor, a lover of nature and tranquility, and a Bond villain, and buy yourself your very own island. You’ll probably be shocked to know (we still can’t really believe it) that across Canada, there are currently more than thirty islands on sale for under $500,000. Now, some of them have not been developed, so they’ll require some additional investment to make them ‘liveable’, but when you consider. . . (the) country’s real-estate market. . .it’s pretty amazing to imagine that for such a small price-tag, you could have exclusive access to such considerable beauty.”

Consider, for example, Nova Scotia’s Big Tancook Island, which Notable Life described in 2015 as “An absolutely stunning property Island, these 11.6 acres boast 449 feet on the ocean. Sub-divisible, this parcel might become a roomy family compound, grounds for the only hotel or campground on the island, or a sailing destination just six miles from the world-famous Chester Yacht Club.” At that time, the asking price was about a hundred grand.

I have a theory about all of this. Whenever the world takes an especially bitter turn (Donald Trump, Brexit, the rise of populist political parties in Europe), those with enough coin in their pockets will cast their eyes both wearily and jealously to a place they need a boat to reach – there to rusticate happily like the country folk we secretly and always wanted to be.

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Whither Mother Corp?

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Growing up in Halifax, I was a public radio nerd, and pretty much the only one I knew. I’d put myself to bed, listening to the honeyed voice of Allan McFee on CBC Radio’s “Eclectic Circus” just as the low, grumbling baritone of the harbour’s foghorns began to rise.

Other kids would tune into one of maybe three private stations, playing endless loops of Top 40 hits. Not me. Give me some academic yakking about the fall of the Roman Empire on “Ideas”, or a dollop of late-night jazz, and I was good to go, drifting sweetly off to la-la land.

When American radio icon Garrison Keillor announced earlier this year that he was formally retiring, after 42 years, from hosting National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” none other than U.S. President Barack Obama told the 73-year-old announcer, “One of the reasons I miss driving is that you kept me company. (The show) “made me feel better and more human.”

That’s a bit like how I feel whenever I tune into CBC Radio’s Moncton-based morning program, or the Maritime-wide afternoon call-in show, or the drive-time rolling-home broadcast out of Saint John.

So, I’m always momentarily alarmed when Mother Corp. – which gets the bulk of its money from taxpayers – enters one of its periodic phases of existential angst, as it has just recently. As a panel of Ottawa politicians examines the condition of the news industry in this country, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission has issued a statement that, in part, reads: “The emergence of new digital technologies has made access to news and analysis from around the world easier than ever and presents many new opportunities. Digital technologies are empowering individuals, allowing them to tell stories that are in the public interest and to share them instantly with millions of people.”

Still, the CRTC reported, “Many Canadians . . .emphasized that local programming, particularly local news, is of great importance to them and a primary source of news and information. In one survey, 81 per cent of Canadians indicated that local news is important to them.”

Within this mix enter the usual suspects of mostly Conservative critics. Tory leadership runner, Kelly Leitch, declared last week, “The CBC doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be dismantled. So long as the CBC continues to distort the market by consuming advertising revenues and having its operations underwritten by the taxpayer, the market is uncompetitive.”

Of course, the CBC’s own research tells a tale of relevance. (What would you expect?) A survey it conducted a couple of years ago reported “80 per cent of Anglophones and virtually all Francophones (98 per cent) who responded to the questionnaire feel that CBC/Radio-Canada is important. Seventy-three per cent of Anglophones and 91 per cent of Francophones who participated believe that public broadcasters will continue to be important in the future.”

At the same time, “42 per cent of Anglophone participants prefer that CBC/Radio-Canada provide the most appropriate regional services into 2020, whether they be online, radio, television, or a combination of all or some, while 38 per cent want continued regional services in all formats (TV, Radio, and Digital).

People like Ms. Leitch (indeed, there appear to be quite a few of them) are welcome to their opinions, but a public broadcaster plays an important role, especially in lightly populated areas such as the Atlantic Provinces. Through it, we know ourselves as members of a larger family of Canadians.

To snag the words of the outgoing U.S. president, it makes us feel better and more human.

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The sleep-walking cure

Oh to be a bluenoser now that the three-minute-long spring becomes us

It is one of those nights that occasionally afflict a man over a certain age when Morpheus refuses to show his drowsy face. I cannot get to sleep. Nothing works. Not chamomile tea. Not hot lemon water. Not even my regular go-to sedative: a good, stiff belt of New Brunswick’s very own gin thuya.

I think I’ll go for a walk.

One of my favorite observations about putting one foot in front of the other comes from American comic, Steven Wright: “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have time.”

Which is another way of saying the first rule of ambulating is to avoid destinations. If you know where you’re going, you’re not walking; you’re beating a deadline.

U.S. President Barack Obama once said, “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress,” which might have been a rejoinder to 20th Century author C.S. Lewis’s point that “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

Personally, I’m not all that interested in the progressive nature of my temperament. I’m going for a walk, and I’m going nowhere.

At 2 o’clock in the morning, my street is empty, and the air is as clear as my mind is cluttered. A mild breeze blows from the southwest, carrying on it the sweet scent of apple and cherry blossoms. I move down to the corner of Moncton’s Main West drag and Vaughan Harvey boulevard and head towards the new downtown event centre, rising lazily from the rubble.

I link my fingers through the fence and wonder what strange new structure will encompass the dinosaur bones of iron girders and cement foundation there. Will it be something the city’s citizens embrace, patronize, use? Or will it be another hockey arena? I begin to worry, so I move on. I am walking again.

I travel past the derelict storefronts just beyond the subway underpass, where restaurants and boutiques once delighted the urban core. Old signs about moving to new locations still festoon one window. I remember that time when, years ago, my wife and I entertained relatives at an early August lunch in that tiny, perfect district, and how we skipped home up Robinson Court, thinking about the little things that make life in a small city precious.

I trudge past the Capitol Theatre and stop, remembering my good friend, the late, great Marc Chouinard. As the General Manager there for many years, he was, in every important respect, “Mr. Downtown”.

I recall his acerbic wit and wisdom. Sometimes, he would turn to a patron of one of the city’s outdoor cafes and instruct: “Those pigeons up there aren’t going anywhere. I’m sure you don’t want poop in your soup. Tell the owner to clean up his act. We’ll all be happier for it.”

I laugh and head toward the river and remember the great effort to restore the mighty Petitcodiac to its former self – before the causeway of 1968. I conjure the image of California surfers riding the newly refreshed tidal bore 90 miles up from the estuary and into downtown Moncton.

As I walk home, I realize that I’ve been here longer than I’ve been anywhere – longer than the place of my birth and the place of my upbringing.

I crawl into bed, careful not to wake my wife, and as I drift into sleep, I realize that this nowhere is everywhere.

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A sweetly wonderful life in the Hub City

In the interest of full disclosure, growing up as a callow and ambitious youth Moncton never nestled into my top-five list of places to live. To be candid, it didn’t even reach the lower echelons of my top 50.

Why would it?

The Hub City and I first became acquainted during a blizzard in January 1975. Here, my father and I landed on a tarmac at the airport, en route to somewhere else. Ours was to be one of those dad-son adventures – a take-your-kid-to-work day for the peripatetic pater familias, whose writing career kept him jaunting from place to place, port to port.

Stranded under blankets of snow, there was nothing to do but arrange for a truck ride back to Halifax – a journey that in those days and under those circumstances took ten, teeth-clenching, white-knuckled hours.

Arriving more or less safely home in body and soul, Father Bruce poured himself a stiff drink, turned to me and asked whether I was still interested in becoming a commercial pilot.

“Sure,” I replied. “But not if I have to fly out of Moncton.”

Of course, today, some 40 years later, it seems everyone wants to fly in and out of Moncton. The Chinese send their most promising aviators to the flight academy here; Calgary-based WestJet has just announced a new training facility at the international airport; and sun-starved travellers leave daily from these environs for points south.

And, of course, that’s the point: Wait a few years and the Moncton of old becomes the Moncton of new.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my permanent residence in this vibrant, changing city. According to some, that still makes me a Johnny-come-lately, a come-from-away. But if you know anything about my family, or me, I’ve become the Rip Van Winkle of my kinder.

Almost from the day of my birth in downtown Toronto, we’ve been a rambling bunch – some or all of us bivouacking in southeastern Ontario hockey country, Ottawa, Halifax, Prospect Bay (NS), Port Shoreham (NS), Vancouver, Victoria, Los Angeles. (Family lore has it that I was actually conceived on a mountain pass somewhere in the Swiss Alps, or maybe Santa Monica. Who can tell? It was the 60s, for crying out loud).

But since May 1996, I’ve installed myself in Moncton and have been almost bizarrely happy to do so.

No, I don’t speak French the way I should. No, I don’t recall, off the top of my head, the history of every founding family in this community. And heaven forbid that I should go to church every time the bells ring along Gordon and Queen Streets (and they ring a lot).

Still, I feel at home here.

I feel at home in the cruddy, defiantly optimistic urban core. I feel at home with the constant existential angst over the fate of the Petitcodiac River and the causeway that bisects it and the wastewater treatment plant that tries not to defile it. I feel at home amid the plethora of open hands – and in the absence of clenched fists – that greet me wherever I go.

God willing, I’ll be here another 20 years, extolling it, criticizing it, observing its progress, forgiving its periodic failures, and defending its achievements against all detractors.

Nowadays, the Hub City nestles into the number one slot of my Top 50 places to live.

I’m not alone. KPMG routinely tells the world that Moncton is the place to be for business, quality of life, educational opportunities, and a little thing called hope.

You say it, come-from-away.

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Remembering school daze

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Sitting in my fourth-floor hotel room at the corner of Quinpool and Robie Streets in downtown Halifax some years ago, I watched as the bulldozers demolished what was left of my old high school.

The experience was surreal, requiring as it did a stiff drink to keep me company. After all, this was the place where I finally managed to prove to myself that I wasn’t a hopeless math dummy. This was the place where I actually scored a perfect 100 in one term of Grade 11 Geography. And, of course, this was the place where I met my future wife, who was now beside me peering out the window, shaking her head.

“Isn’t this weird?” she mumbled. “I can’t even see where I parked dad’s car. I think it’s under that pile of rubble, which used to be the French lab.”

Naturally, I had to correct her. “No, it’s where the auditorium used to be. . .Do you remember that play we were in? I think it was Grade 12. You had this scene where you had to slap me. During final dress rehearsal, you hit me so hard, you broke my glasses.”

She started to laugh.

“Oh sure,” I mused. “You giggle now, but when I got home I had to explain to mum what happened to my face and where my expensive spectacles were. I remember telling her something like, ‘No big deal. . .I got into a fight with a jock.’”

My beloved continued to laugh. “Remind me again,” she queried, “why you didn’t just tell her the truth.”

I looked down my nose as the last of the school’s library quite literally bit the dust. “What,” I said, “Tell her that I got beat up by a girl?”

I was reminded of this afternoon of reverie after reading, the other day, accounts of the sturm und drang associated with the future disposition of the downtown Moncton High School site. As far as I know, no one is seriously suggesting bulldozing the grand, old building, but rather “repurposing” (awful word) it in any number of ways.

Still, it doesn’t matter. Mess with a building as formidable as a person’s high school and you’re bound to elicit debate. As for me, I recall entering through Moncton High’s hallowed doors only a few times while my daughters were in roughly dutiful attendance.

The first was on an impossibly hot May afternoon sometime in the late 1990s to give a speech to my eldest child’s journalism class. (Since then, I have delivered many addresses to movers and shakers, power brokers and bankers; none, I warrant, was more terrifying than that one at ye old alma mater, as I looked down the business end of teenage derision for 40 minutes, which felt more like 40 years in purgatory).

All of which is to say I do not have the degree of connection to Moncton High as do the men and women of this city who are debating the disposition of its edifice. But I can sympathize. To paraphrase Canadian songwriting great, Neil Young, some places in life are where all your important changes occur.

That was certainly true for me and Vivien at Queen Elizabeth High School in the 1970s.

As we sat watching the old girl’s final humiliation, pouring ourselves another drink, mixed feelings overwhelmed us. So did the memories. It’s funny how we hadn’t thought about these things for years – the teachers we liked, the ones we didn’t.

Nothing lasts forever, of course.

But, in memory, the important stuff somehow manages to endure.

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The countdown begins

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A word to the wizened, if not always the wise: Only 35 shopping days remain before spring raises its lovely, garlanded head. Unless, of course, you count the weekends which, given the lack of money in various bank accounts around the region these days, why would you?

I like to pretend that in a little more than a calendric month, we in southeastern New Brunswick will be well on our way to a long, beatific summer. Of course, I like to imagine a lot of things that only rarely come true.

About this time last year, I was feeling pretty much the same way as I am today about the universe. In the first place, it looked like we had, for once, dodged the great, white bullet of winter. No more talk of polar vortexes, Alberta clippers and Nor’easters. Only sunny skies and gradually warming temperatures stretching ahead as far the mind’s eye could see.

We all know how that worked out. Two days before the official start of spring 2015, the Weather Network, with its irritating, trademarked cheerfulness, recapped the winter that was:

“According to unofficial totals as of March 18, this winter has now brought snowfall amounts that crack the Top 5 in Moncton, N.B., Saint John, N.B., and Charlottetown, P.E.I. As of Tuesday, March 17, Moncton was only 2 cm away from reaching the Top 5 with a snowfall total of 450 cm. As of 9:35 a.m. AT Wednesday morning, Moncton unofficially reported about 4 cm, which would put them in the no. 5 spot, knocking off the 1991-1922 winter.”

Still, what gives me hope that February and March of this year won’t, again, prove me a liar to myself is another Weather Network bulletin issued just last week. To wit: “The past two winters were dominated by a particularly resilient weather pattern, which kept the warm influence of the Pacific confined to the West Coast, and left the Eastern US open to persistent outbreaks of brutal Arctic cold. The winter of 2015-2016 finally looks to bring an end to this stubborn setup.”

Ah, yes. Good, old El Niño, the oceanic phenomenon that typically brings milder-than-average weather to the eastern seaboard, and chillier-than-seasonal temperatures to the southwest. The continent is experiencing an usually strong one this year. Or as the Weather Network reported a couple of months ago, “El Niño set a new record for heat in the central Pacific Ocean this week (November 24). Is it on track to become the strongest El Niño we’ve ever seen, and what could this mean for the winter?

“So far, El Niño 2015 has been very unusual. Teasing NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) orecasters with signs and signals through 2014, it ultimately procrastinated in its actual development until early 2015 and it has been growing since, into a rival for some of the strongest El Niños we have on record. As of now, it has already set a new record, though. Weekly measurements of temperatures in the central Pacific ocean are now 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for the very first time in the quarter century that these measurements have been taken.”

On the other hand, as in all things weather related in this region, we hold our breath in abeyance of any certainty that our faith will be rewarded. For my part, I’ve lined up my seven shovels on the front veranda as if to challenge the first truly big blow to hit the city.

C’mon, I dare ya!

Tomorrow, it’ll be a mere 34 shopping days till spring. And I’m on a roll to blossom time.

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How winter’s bone tests us

Permanent winter for a Moncton events centre?

We may remember the dreaded winter of 1992. Perhaps we choose to forget in the Hub City, which took the brunt of one of the worst white dumps in the recorded history of the province.

My sister was living here at that time and she remembers – so well, in fact, that she rarely sets foot in this fair town after the fall equinox and before the summer solstice.

The snow in 1992 reached the second-floor window of her apartment near Steadman Street. To escape, to get, say, milk and eggs, she crafted a makeshift bunny hill on which she slid to ground. (How she returned to her abode, I’m not entirely clear; something about climbers’ axes and pitons hovers into my long-fossilized mind).

The point is, as rough as we’ve had it recently in New Brunswick. . .well. . .it’s been rougher.

Nineteen-Ninety-Two was also the first full year of a brand, new tax introduced in a brand, new recession – the HST. As the snow continued to fall, joblessness in this province rose well above 15 per cent. Poverty and illiteracy rates were among the highest in the country. Violent crime was a daily occurrence in Moncton’s downtown core, which was, by the way, easily mistaken for certain boroughs of the burning, benighted southern reaches of London, England, where hooligans and punks roamed the streets nightly.

Last winter, one snowplow driver told Global News, “We’ve got as much snow now as we had then (in 1992). But then it came kinda all in like two or three days where this has taken a week. Then, we could not even drive with the truck with the wing down.”

All of which is to reiterate that notwithstanding last winter’s absurd “White Juan”, which seemed to last for weeks (trust me, it did; I have the pictures to prove it to my Los Angeles-based, Venice-Beach hovering, muscle-bound brother), we’ve actually had it pretty good in Moncton over the past two decades.

We’ve rebuilt our local and surrounding economies. We’ve diversified away from solitary, single industries and into integrated, diverse ones. We’ve embraced the notion of cultural and linguistic duality so completely that we’ve managed to host a baker’s dozen of major, international francophone events without materially or socially threatening anyone in this community who can’t (or doesn’t) speak and read the French language.

We have become, in effect, what we intended to become: a cosmopolitan city that welcomes newcomers with a shake of the hand and a slap on the back; an urban centre of 140,000 people that, on a good day, habitually behaves as if its region is ten times larger, as if its heart is 20 times as big, as its census data routinely reports.

We may one day remember the dreaded winters of 1992, 2015 or, indeed, the one we’re in.

In the meantime, the HST will surely rise. Toll fees will surely smack travellers on provincial highways. Income taxes might rise.

But all of this won’t stop us from inventing better tools for digging out from under an avalanche of debt and deficit. We are, in the end, remorselessly resourceful; we will outlast this particular winter.

And if we do eventually touch that rim at the edge of the world – on a hot summer day when the clouds gather over the ocean, and the sun shines through and onto New Brunswick – it will be ours to grab.

We will have sacrificed the memories of bad times to erect those of good ones, when winter’s bone does not so easily test us.

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