Category Archives: Society

One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy. . .

One morning in Port Shoreham, back in the late 1980s, a young woman prompted by a profound sense of neighbourliness impressed a couple of city girls by showing off her new pony, all of 12 hands tall.

At the sight of the hoofed beast loping down the stone path towards our family homestead, my eldest daughter (who was eight at the time) exclaimed: “Yikes, get me outta here; there’s a camel comin’! I need to make a call.”

As I remember, so did I – but not about a horse.

Some weeks earlier, I had yanked my young family from the cacophony and congestion of Toronto and determined to live more convivially, though never impecuniously, in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia.

So, as my kid marvelled at the free-range livestock, I was on the phone attempting to explain to my editor in Ontario’s biggest metropolis why a paying gig in Yarmouth did not entail a mere 20-minute drive down the highway.

The conversation went something like this:

Rewrite Man: “What you mean you can’t file that piece on Wednesday?”

Yours Truly: “It’s already Monday.”

Rewrite Man: “So, it’s just a colour story. What’s the problem?”

I was about to give up when a disembodied voice joined the discussion.

“Look,” the grumbling male baritone said, “it’ll take him the whole day just to get there from here. Then, he has to do the work, jump in the car and spend another day driving all the way back. When do expect him to write the thing?”

To which I responded: “Uh, yeah. . .what he said.”

I did not know then (and I do not know now) who that fellow was, but his ghostly presence all those years ago confirmed for me another dimension of distinctly rural neighbourliness in the setting years of the 20th century in this part of the world: the party line.

I was reminded of this last month when the CBC reported the following: “Canada’s largest telecommunications group is getting mixed reviews for its plan (to) collect massive amounts of information about the activities and preferences of its customers. Bell Canada began asking its customers in December for permission to track everything they do with their home and mobile phones, internet, television, apps or any other services they get through Bell or its affiliates. In return, Bell says it will provide advertising and promotions that are more tailored to their needs and preferences.”

Nowadays, of course, we shrink in terror at the passing thought that somebody could be listening in on us. After all, shadowy hackers are always ready to steal our identities. The “Deep State” is perpetually out for our hides.

Still, once upon a time, before the Internet and depending on where you lived, almost nothing was private. In the days when two or more families shared a telephone connection, you could be sure someone – a stranger, an acquaintance, a neighbour – always knew at least a morsel of your business. Twitter didn’t invent the grapevine.

Naturally, it worked both ways.

I recall, for example, hearing part of an exchange between two people that, for sheer raciness, could easily compete with anything Kim Kardashian now chooses to post on Instagram. Of course, as prolonged eavesdropping wasn’t, and isn’t, my thing, I quietly cradled the receiver and went back to my episode of Coronation Street. (Oh, Percy Sugden. . .You’re such a busy body).

Days after my daughter’s equine awakening, she breathlessly shared her experience in a telephone call to a chum in Toronto. Not long after, she received a neatly-wrapped, locally postmarked envelope festooned with ribbons.

The card read: “Horses are fun, and so are you!”

For an evident breach of privacy, that’s about as neighbourly as it gets.

(Recently published in The Guysborough Journal)

Some kind of wonderful

Given the torrent of nonsense that masquerades as rational debate these days, it’s a miracle that anything useful ever gets done.

After all, when some random troll requires only a Twitter account to convince an alarming number of otherwise reasonable people that a certain U.S. president, who habitually equates lying with statecraft, is a breath of fresh air in a “post-truth” world, it’s tempting to flee the public square and hunker down for the coming dark age.

Still, despite evidence to the contrary, all is not lost: Not everyone is either running for cover or gorging on low-hanging fruit from the tree of absurdity. Consider a couple of recent and nearby examples.

Decades ago, Moncton’s burgermeisters decided, in their wisdom, to approve the construction of a causeway to join their city with communities on the other side of the Petitcodiac River. It seemed like a good idea at the time: Commuters would love the faster traffic; businesses would appreciate the more reliable and timely delivery of goods for sale. What could go wrong?

Within scant years, the answer was plain to see. The river – once home to dozens of aquatic species, and a recreational fishery worth, according to estimates, as much as $75 million a year – had become a muddy, silt-choked parody of its former self.

Following a quick stop with her family in the 1980s to observe the Petitcodiac’s world-famous tidal bore – historically, a meter-high wall of surf that ran twice a day – American humorist Erma Bombeck stood on the river’s banks and watched a meagre ripple wend its way toward the head pond. “What the heck?” she quipped. “I retain more water than that.”

Over the years, attitudes about the river cleaved and hardened. For one camp – notably, those who had purchased property along the waterway and who, therefore, had skin in the real estate game – the status quo was just fine. For another more progressively minded cohort, the Petitcodiac’s sorry condition was economically embarrassing and environmentally shameful. Tear down the fixed link, this group insisted, and let the water flow the way nature intended.

By the mid-2000s, you could illuminate the dark side of the moon with the degree of daylight that shone between these two factions – thanks, in part, to the use of social media (what else?) as handy platforms for off-the-cuff fulminations.

Then, something happened – something extraordinary.

People actually started talking to one another. In coffee shops and council rooms, they exchanged ideas – real, considered (gasp!) ideas. Eventually, a consensus began to take shape.

What if members of the community compromised? Environmental and economic assessments were clear. Replace a portion of the causeway with a partial bridge that would allow the river to recover. Bank-side properties wouldn’t be negatively affected. If anything, their values would increase.

That was two years ago. Today, with the provincial and federal governments contributing about half, each, to the cost of the $62 million project, the renewal is underway. As for the fish, they’re back, and so is the tidal bore. Since 2013, surfers have come from as far away as California to ride the wave. Thousands gather along the banks to cheer. As for motor traffic, it, too, still flows.

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is not as rare as many might lament.

Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library, which opened in 2014, have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?

In fact, according to the library’s website, the effort involved “five large public meetings (while) staff and architects met with a number of special focus groups to ensure that (they) heard the voices of a wide cross-section of customers and citizens: African Nova Scotians, cultural organizations, persons with disabilities, First Nations, new Canadians, the literacy and learning community, parents and young children, and teens.”

Of course, the new library never was, and is not now, everyone’s cup of tea. But as a product of rational debate, collaboration and cooperation, it is pretty convincing proof that, despite the nonsense regularly issuing from the meme merchants among us, useful things actually do get done.

Call that wondrous in this fractious age. On the other hand, the finest miracles are still the ones we work together.

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A bridge too far?

0044_Bridge-WalkThese days, when I cross the water between Halifax and Dartmouth, I sometimes find myself denying the existence of bridges, especially during rush hour. This is despite the fact that I am evidently travelling on one and, from my perch in the passenger’s seat, I can see boats in the harbour and buildings on the near horizon – that is, if I care to look.

Naturally, I don’t care to look because my eyes are otherwise occupied by my smart phone, that tiny blinking box about the size of an old-timey dime-store novel from which the “real” news of the world, the “true” nature of reality, froths forth by the microsecond thanks to so-called social media.

“Apparently, some guy has proof that climate change is a hoax,” I mutter.

“Is that so?” my driving companion inquires absently.

“Yup,” I reply. “He also rejects claims that the Earth is spherical, that NASA ever sent men to the moon and that ancient Egyptians built the pyramids.”

“Okay,” my friend says, “I’ll bite. Who did build the pyramids?”
“Aliens. . .I suppose you’ll want to know why.”

“Do tell.”

“Interstellar travel lounges.”

Why not? Who are we to begrudge weary Alpha Centaurians en route to Betelgeuse for the biannual lotus festival taking a well-deserved load off their tired dogs in north-Saharan Africa? Not everyone flies first class, you know.

I kid, of course. But there is a point.

In a world where fantasies increasingly supplant facts and rank opinions replace measured judgements, how long before we imagine that the state of things as they actually exist is far less absorbing (and, therefore, less legitimate) than the mechanics of our own tortured hallucinations?

Worse, perhaps, for the health of our public institutions, economy and the democratic rule of law, how long before this type of infantilizing meme-merchandising infects the body politic at the most basic level and in everyday ways?

How long? How does right about now sound?

In a 2016 piece, “Why are people so incredibly gullible?”, David Robson, a feature writer for the web magazine BBC Future, wrote, “Cast your mind back to the attack of the flesh-eating banana. In January 2000, a series of chain emails began reporting that imported bananas were infecting people with ‘necrotizing fasciitis’ – a rare disease in which the skin erupts into livid purple boils before disintegrating and peeling away from muscle and bone.”

The scare was completely. . . well. . .bananas, but that didn’t stop scores of people from rejecting an official report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control debunking the bizarre story. Or, as Robson reported, “Within weeks, the CDC was hearing from so many distressed callers it had to set up a hotline. The facts became so distorted that people eventually started to quote the (Centers) as the source of the rumour.”

Still, you don’t have to be a flesh-eating banana to know how easily and far we are prone to slip. Here in the Canadian Maritimes, we regularly replenish our various silos of stupidity with the cloyingly sweet elixir of self-righteous certitude.

Somebody writing on the Internet declares that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas will kill us all – as will, indeed, fossil fuels in general. Somebody else, scribbling in the ethersphere, rejoins that environmentalists are nuts and that there’s nothing wrong with cracking slate to get at the good stuff to power our industrial lifestyle.

They’re both right and wrong – something they would know if they actually chose to talk to one another, rather than bury themselves in the popular “literature” of half-truths.

Fact: The science of climate change says we must reduce our consumption of petroleum products. Another fact: The science of engineering says we still need the junk to intelligently transition to a cleaner, more renewable future. The only question that should remains is: Can we walk and chew gum at the same time?

Fortunately, in many other ways many can and do here.

Consider the enormous amount of consultation, collaboration, tolerance and good will that was required to begin transforming the Petitcodiac River in Moncton, N.B., into a vibrant waterway that is quickly becoming the envy of nature lovers, commercial enterprises and local governments, alike.

While we’re at it, ask the question: Would Halifax’s state-of-the-art Central Library have stood a ghost of chance without the spirit of multi-sectoral cooperation – from community groups and educational institutions to businesses and municipal planning officials?

Think about the non-stop talking and sometimes-disputatious mediations that paved the way for Moncton’s freshly minted downtown event and cultural centre or the new marine sciences initiative on the Dartmouth waterfront.

These were not bridges too far to cross. And I can only assume that in the rooms where their construction began, all the smart phones were, for once, mercifully silent.

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Ignorance on the rise

Posters and flyers in Moncton recently depicted two women in politics as tethered to the whims of men. This is, of course, absurd in a putatively enlightened and generally progressive society.

Still, stupidity appears to be on the rise in this democracy of ours. What did the late, great Prime Minister of England, Winston Churchill once say, presciently? “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe,” he once reflected. “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Naturally, no one is perfect, least of all those who, last week, deposited handmade paper missives against New Brunswick Finance Minister Cathy Rogers and Liberal candidate for Moncton Northwest, Courtney Pringle-Carver. According to a report by Brunswick News Inc., “The message carried by hundreds of posters strewn about Moncton, insinuating two female provincial politicians are controlled by their male colleagues is insulting, says one of the victims of the caricature.”

To be clear, the report continues, the caricature displayed both women under the direct sway of the political boys of summer. All of which is broadly offensive and lamentably emblematic of an uptick in harsh and ill-informed speech. Is this the way we are suddenly leaning in this province?

Let us hope we are not. But, I fear, we might be turning that way. After all, we can’t seem to resist the western world’s latent lust for demagoguery, intolerance, outrage and sheer imbecility.

The evidence of a new enlightenment is sketchy.

Trumpism south of the border has galvanized, if not created, a seething disbelief in everything that is empirically provable. Consider these excerpts from a report a year ago by Canada’s public: “A study co-authored by University of Montreal researchers suggests that while 79 per cent of Canadians do not doubt the reality of climate change, 39 per cent don’t believe it is caused by human activity. . . Survey respondents seemed to be deeply divided on what is causing climate change. For example, only 33 per cent of people living in the Fort-McMurray – Cold-Lake riding in Alberta believe climate change is partly or mostly caused by humans. That compares to 78 per cent in the Quebec riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie, where the rate is the highest.”

Meanwhile, another study conducted by the Ontario Science Centre over the summer concludes, and I quote, “Nearly half of Canadians believe science is a matter of opinion”. Specifically, “Canadians are hungry to learn about new science but their trust in science news has declined to alarming levels. . .While Canadians understand the basics and have a desire to deepen their knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes, their mistrust in the way science is covered in the news has serious implications for society.

“This breakdown in trust has serious consequences for Canada because our future health, prosperity and security all depend on making important, sometimes difficult, decisions based on scientific findings,” said Dr. Maurice Bitran, CEO and Chief Science Officer, Ontario Science Centre. “If we don’t trust the sources, or don’t understand the information we are receiving, we can’t make informed decisions. The findings of this 2017 survey demonstrate a vital role for authentic scientific voices in public education on critical issues that affect public policy and human health and wellbeing.”

Good luck with that. Stupidity and intolerance tends to stick like fly paper, even here, even now.

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The meaning of leadership

You can find them in all walks of life, in all fields of endeavour. They seem to walk taller, though not necessarily speak louder, than the rest of us. They rarely shout, but they always inspire through their deeds and words.

They are the leaders among us.

I was reminded of this while reading a short piece in the Telegraph-Journal about Scott McCain, owner of the Saint John Sea Dogs, who addressed his team before a recent play-off game in Windsor, Ontario.

According to team forward Bokondji Imama, “He told us that he was already proud of us and that we’ve had a hell of a season, so that kind of gave us back our confidence. He said that whatever happens, he’s always going to be proud of us and he’s always going to love us.”

Added team captain Spencer Smallman: “He came in and just wanted to reassure us that from a organization standpoint, he had full confidence in us. He definitely psyched the boys up. It means so much. He’s a powerful guy. He’s right at the top, and none of this would be possible without him. We’re very grateful for him, and to hear those words and see it in his eyes how confident he is us, I think the confidence spread through the room.”

I know Scott McCain personally, and he has always struck me as a natural leader. But are leaders born or made? As U.S. business consultant Erica Andersen wrote in Forbes Magazine a few years ago, “What I’ve learned by observing thousands of people in business over the past 30 years, though, is that – like most things – leadership capability falls along a bell curve.  Some people are, indeed, born leaders.These folks at the top of the leadership bell curve start out very good, and tend to get even better as they go along. Then there are the folks at the bottom of the curve: that bottom 10-15 per cent of people who, no matter how hard they try, simply aren’t ever going to be very good leaders. They just don’t have the innate wiring.

“Then there’s the big middle of the curve, where the vast majority of us live. And that’s where the real potential for ‘made’ leaders lies. It’s what most of my interviewers assume isn’t true – when, in fact, it is: Most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become very good, even great leaders.”

This must be indisputably good news for New Brunswick and the rest of the Atlantic Provinces. It’s doubtful there’s ever been a time in the recent past of this region when good leaders have been in heavier demand. And the possibility that most of us, given the chance and under the right circumstances, can become the heroes of our lives is, frankly, comforting.

So then, what shall our leadership qualities look like? Think about Donald Trump’s nest of psychological predilections and reverse them.

Good leaders are not narcissists. They are empathizers, because to motivate people, they must understand what makes others tick.

Good leaders are not bullies. They are negotiators, because to get anything done well, they must inspire, not threaten or cajole.

Then there’s the usual shopping list of characteristics business magazines and related websites are fond of trotting out: honesty, confidence, the ability to delegate chores, passion, a sense of innovation, integrity, authenticity, patience, open-mindedness, determination, decisiveness.

We can observe genuine leaders in all sectors of our society – government, education, health care, the arts, business.

Just take some time and look closely.

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Compelled by joy

FullSizeRenderWith the world the way it is, that simple and sweet feeling under the sun is elusive and almost unnameable. What is it? Walk down any street in Moncton as the season turns and it comes to you: a fleeting moment of actual joy.

Keep walking, and it grows in your breast. If only we could bottle it. Is the suggestion that this should be the organizing principle buttressing Moncton’s economic and social development too naive, too radical?

‘Joy’ is one of those funny words in the English language. Often, people assume it is a permanent state of being – something to which we must aspire. Some link it, exclusively, to a theistic condition of thought. Consider, for example, this excerpt from 20th-Century scholar C.S. Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy: Top of Form

“You must picture me alone. . .night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

He continued: “I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words ‘compelle intrare,’ compel them to come in, have been so abused be wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”

Nicely said, though I lean towards secular rather than scriptural salves. When U.S. President Donald Trump floods the Twitterverse with his absurd, xenophobic epistles, I go for long, meandering strolls.

Moments of joy: Listening, on my IPhone, to the Bare Naked Ladies and The Persuasions jam with complete, hopeful abandon; listening to anything by The Strumbellas; listening to Neil Young trill ‘Old Man’ now that he his just that guy; listening to Leonard Cohen’s last album, because, yes, I want it darker; listening to K.D. Lang sing ‘Hallelujah’.

Moments of joy: Watching, again on my IPhone, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie eviscerate establishment predicaments.

“Hugh: Underneath the bellied skies, where dust and rain find space to fall, to fall and lie and change again, without a care or mind at all for art and life and things above; in that, there, look just there. No right, left, up, down, past, or future, we have but ourselves to fear.

“Stephen: Hugh, you chose that poem; for God’s sake why?

“Hugh: I chose it for a number of reasons.

“Stephen: I see, the most important one being?

“Hugh: because it was short.”

Time is, indeed, short. But, somehow, it gets deliciously longer when we begin to rebuild the world one community’s brick at a time. That simple and sweet feeling under the sun – as often fleeting as it might be – is ours to recognize and embrace.

Here, as I stroll, Moncton wants to rebuild its downtown even as it strives to welcome newcomers from strife-riddled parts of the world. Keep trying.

Joy is just around the corner.

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Vanity, all is vanity

Alec-2008

I’m thinking about getting a special plate for my absurdly small, 2012 Nissan Versa, because, you know, that’s how I roll: Like a cheapskate.

But what I lack in financial muscle, I more than compensate in my desperate desire to be noticed by complete strangers. As for the plate, I have a few ideas: ‘BGBRN’, ‘FAKNWS’, ‘TRMPHTR’, ‘MUDTWNIE’, and my current favourite, ‘CRFRSALE’.

Fortunately, I haven’t chosen from the list of officially banned varieties in the province of New Brunswick. According to reporter Michael Robinson of Brunswick News these include: ‘BACON’, ‘FORSALE’, ‘GUILTY’, ‘LUV BUG’, ‘OMG/OMG’, ‘RZNHELL’, ‘SAUCY’, ‘SPYDR’, ‘TEQUILA’, and ‘YWA’.

BACON? Really people? Even the vegetarians I know don’t consider bacon real meat. It’s more like a garnish on a fine Caesar salad. No?

Still, that’s nothing. Consider this report from the U.K.’s Daily Mail last December: “Some people express themselves through fashion, others their taste in music. And for a smaller cross-section of Americans, there are those that take great pride in their creative vanity license plates. In 2007, some 9.7 million cars in America had vanity license plates – with the largest percentage of these plates in Virginia, Illinois and Nevada. While many vanity license plates reference family names or inside jokes, there are others that are meant to appeal to every driver on the road. Jokesters who come up with these license plates use just a handful of characters to spark a ‘Ha’ or a full on bout of laughter from their fellow drivers on the road.”
Here, according to that report, are just some of the ‘vanities’ approved: A Nevada licence plate that reads ‘IH8PPL’; a Virginia one that urges you to “eat the kids first”; a Texas one that rather existentially declares that it is, in fact, affixed to a car; and an Alaska one that rudely suggests ‘UFARTD’.

In this vein, then, gentle reader, CTV news reported only two days ago: “Nova Scotia’s transportation minister is standing behind a decision to rescind Lorne Grabher’s namesake licence plate, even if the province is forced to defend their actions in court. The Nova Scotia Registrar of Motor Vehicles informed Grabher they would be revoking his custom ‘GRABHER’ plate. Grabher’s lawyer said he is planning legal action, citing freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, unless the Department of Transportation overturns the decision by Thursday.”

The news item further explained: “Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan confirmed it was a single complaint that triggered the review. He said the decision to revoke the plate reflects the best interest of Nova Scotians.

‘If court is the ultimate process, then we’ll let the court do their work,’ said MacLellan. ‘We certainly feel for the gentleman, and the family, but the reality is that there are a set of procedures and a decision making process.’”

I’ve always wondered why we, in Canada, have not adopted the rural English habit of leaving our licence plates entirely alone in favour of ‘naming’ our domiciles. There, across the pond, you will find pretty, little (and large) country houses called Mulberry Lodge, The Old Vicarage, Bag End, and Oakroyd. The postal service arrives promptly, and so does the milkman. No numbers need be recorded.

Here, in New Brunswick, where we are desperate to be noticed by people we don’t know, we could begin by attaching monikers to our over-taxed dwellings: ‘An idiot lives here in this crescent’, ‘I went to Las Vegas and all I got was this lousy, leaky bungalow’, ‘I came, I saw, I lost my nest egg’.

Now, that’s how real vanity rolls.

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Calling occupants of interplanetary craft

Atlantic Canadians are notorious for their sightings of unidentified flying objects in the night sky. For years, we’ve topped the list of the UFO Survey produced by the Winnipeg-based group, Ufology Research. And, frankly, what’s surprising about that?

Consider the terrestrial problems we encounter daily in New Brunswick, alone: A perennially high annual deficit that would choke a horse brimming with Trojan warriors; a long-term debt that nearly tops $14 billion; and a government that seems to think (until recently) that ignorance about the property-tax assessment process is an ethical virtue.

Now, consider the following from the CBC five years ago: “A Saint John man says he’s still shaken by the mysterious object he saw flying over the city and near the Irving Oil Ltd. refinery last week. (The man) says his heart was pounding as he and his girlfriend watched the bright object from his uptown apartment window on Oct. 20, at about 10:30 p.m.

“(He) said the bright object flew over the city and swooshed down on the east side. ‘It was terrifying. I was hiding behind the curtain,’ said (the man), who captured the unidentified flying object on video using his iPhone. ‘I almost felt like whatever it was knew I was watching with my camera,’ he said. ‘It was really a weird creepy feeling. But it circled around at that point and came all the way back and went across the street basically and watched us through the window.’ (The man) says it felt like an invasion of privacy.”

Now, there’s this from Ufology Research’s 2016 annual report: “Close encounter cases are in the minority, but high on the strangeness scale. Those included a man in Cornwall, P.E.I., who reported that a thin, six-foot-tall, long-fingered white alien in a black suit spoke to him in his bedroom before leaving by walking through a wall.”

Are you sure he wasn’t a debt collector, buddy?

If I may pontificate, for a moment: Television lore suggests that of all devotees in Canada to the late and sorely missed ‘X-Files’, the most loyal resided in this region of the country. That tracks nicely with other (ahem) research, which indicates that we, on the East Coast, are the last adults in the nation to disabuse our children about the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. We are also the last to teach our kids how to read, balance a bank account, and figure out what to do with four dollars and change.

According to a CNBC post two years ago, “The tooth fairy left $255 million under pillows in 2014 and averaged $4.36 per lost tooth, up 25 percent from $3.50 in 2013, according to (a) Delta Dental survey. First-time tooth losers, however, received an average of $5.75.”

What’s more interesting, perhaps, is this observation from the same source: “In 11 out of the past 12 years, the trend in tooth fairy giving has been an accurate indicator of the S&P 500’s movement. Last year, double-digit gains were recorded by both the S&P 500 and the average tooth fairy gift, with 11.4 per cent and 24.6 per cent growth, respectively.”

Well, isn’t that just perfect? To be fair, there’s no word on the performance of Canada’s major stock exchanges against this wholly reliable metric.

What does seem clear, though, is that magical thinking, fantastical flights of fancy and utter delusion remains alive and well in Atlantic Canada, where ghost stories and tales of alien abduction still abound.

And, given the state of the world, what’s surprising about that?

Death and taxes

In the ‘hold-on-and-wait-your-turn’ category of official absurdity, the Canada Revenue Agency recently declared a New Brunswick man dead before serving his ‘estate’ with a bill totaling $500. The problem was (and is) Peter Harwerth of Campobello Island, 64 years young, is still alive and kicking. And, not for nothing, he doesn’t yet have a post-mortem dime to ding.

I know it’s tax time, people. I know the nation faces rolling deficits that would make even the most progressive NDPer weep. But, honestly, have we really come to this?

According to Simon Davis, writing for Vice.com last summer, “Each year, about 1,000 living people are erroneously added to the Death Master File, a database of every American who has died since 1936. A few weeks ago, Barbara Murphy was having dinner with her husband at a restaurant in Utah when her credit card was declined. Her husband paid the bill, and when they got home, Murphy’s granddaughter called the bank to see what was wrong. ‘Of course, it’s been declined,’ the bank’s representative told her. ‘She’s been dead for two years.’”

The piece continues: “When Murphy was listed as dead, her bank flagged the activity in her account as fraud. The bank has since unfrozen her account, but now Social Security is trying to recoup two years of payments – about $20,000 – that it claims shouldn’t have been paid out since she is listed as dead. She’s now contacted a lawyer and gone public, hoping to apply pressure for a quicker resolution. She (said) she’s been getting calls from all over the country from others in the same predicament.”

If you think errors in property assessments in New Brunswick are infuriating, walk a mile in Ms. Murphy’s and Mr. Harwerth’s imaginary funereal slippers. This just might be the ultimate example of identity theft, as in: You don’t exist and I have a piece of paper to prove it.

As Mr. Harwerth told the Telegraph-Journal’s Colin McPhail earlier this week, “We (my wife and I) were really amazed that this could happen. I’ve never received a letter assuming I was dead, so this was a real shocker.” Recounting his ‘posthumous’ conversation with a CRA agent, he added, “How can it be that I am a deceased person when I’m talking to you?”

Well, you’d be surprised. The degree to which some people in officialdom want others to get off the planet is simply breathtaking. Writes Vice.com’s Mr. Davis: “In a 2015 Senate hearing, Alabama resident Judy Rivers described the harrowing ordeal she faced after she was added to the DMF in 2008. Even though she had about $80,000 in her bank account, the bank froze the funds because the account was marked for fraud. Every time she needed to apply for something – a credit card, a job, an apartment – she was declined, since her ‘identity could not be confirmed,’ or her ‘social security number was inactive.’ Rivers ended up living in her car, and then later in a trailer, struggling to find employment beyond low-wage work, despite having a long and impressive résumé.”

On the other hand, knowing that you will be dinged one day by the tax man for the temerity of dying, take a note from this 2004 item in the U.K.’s Telegraph: “The widow of an expert on vintage shotguns had her husband’s ashes loaded into cartridges and used by friends for the last shoot of the season. Joanna Booth (asked) a cartridge company to mix the ashes of her husband James with traditional shot.”

That’s right. Go out with a bang, not a whimper.

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What’s a Canadian value?

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Given that more than two-thirds of residents of the Atlantic Provinces support screening potential immigrants for ‘Canadian values’, we’d do well to unpack that enormously loaded phrase in search of a little more meaning, a wee bit more specificity.

A Corporate Research Associates public opinion survey released last week found that 68 per cent of those asked generally or strongly support some sort of test of the degree to which newcomers are sufficiently. . .well. . .Canadian in their outlook. Said the Halifax-based firm’s chairman and CEO, Don Mills, in an interview with Global News: “It’s probably not surprising that we would ask this kind of question given what’s going on in the Western world. There’s a lot of concerns in western countries about values and protection of values.”

He hastened to add: “I don’t think that that means that Atlantic Canadians are in any way anti-immigrant. I don’t think that. It has nothing to do with that. I think it’s the protection of our core values that make us Canadian that people feel are important to make sure that we are attracting people that agree with those values.”

On the other hand, he acknowledged in a statement, “While the definition of Canadian values is yet to be determined, the need for such a definition is clearly evident by the majority of Atlantic Canadians who support screening potential immigrants for Canadian values before allowing them entry into the country.”

This is, of course, one of the problems with open-ended questions. What, exactly, is a Canadian value? The nation’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms provide some clues. Under the ‘Fundamental Freedoms’ section, “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;

(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and

(d) freedom of association.”

Then there’s this assurance: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of the members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”

And this: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada. Every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right a) to move to and take up residence in any province; and b) to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province.”

And this, also: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (This) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

All of which sounds fair enough. But even if we can settle on a generally acceptable set of definitions, how do we ascertain the level of a potential immigrant’s commitment to Canadian values? In effect, what would the actual screening process entail?

This question seems to have stumped even federal Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch who first bandied the phrase about several months ago in her bid to appear patriotic and wholesome.

Perhaps the best we can do is follow our instincts and trust that our own grasp of Canadian values unveils the truth about others, but mostly about ourselves as a kind, tolerant, rational people.

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