Pandemic Journal 19/7/20 — Summer in the city bricolage: masks and masculinity, two gardens, a nearby beach, a Chinese grocery, a market, and David Suzuki

A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.

Adrienne Rich

Bricolage

“According to French social anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the artist “shapes the beautiful and useful out of the dump heap of human life.” Lévi-Strauss compared this artistic process to the work of a handyman who solves technical or mechanical problems with whatever materials are available. He referred to that process of making do as bricolage, a term derived from the French verb bricoler (meaning “to putter about”) and related to bricoleur, the French name for a jack-of-all-trades.” Merriam-Webster

Human Contact

Seventy-seven new cases of COVID-19 were identified in Alberta Friday [July 10]. The latest update from Alberta Health shows active cases in the province now sit at 592, with 203 of those in the Edmonton area. Friday’s increase is the highest single-day rise since mid-May when numbers were jumping by more than 90 cases a day. By July 11, there are 96 cases in one day.

On Monday July 13, 230 cases were added for the last 72 hours. The numbers are increasing:

July 10 62
July 11 96
July 12 72

This is an increase from the week before:

July 3 29
July 4 52
July 5 49

[Update – the UCP avoided an update today Monday July 20. Calgary City Council is debating mandatory masks today so why reveal more incriminating cases.]

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw says: “I am strongly recommending that all of us wear masks anytime we are out and can’t maintain a two-metre distance from others, especially in indoor spaces. Wearing a mask is a common sense precaution that should be part of everyone’s new normal.” 

But COVID-19 does not have common sense and many people will avoid masks unless they are mandatory.

Why not mandate masks? Too many people are not wearing them here. In order to establish the kind of protection the collective requires, you need at least 70% adherence. Or is it 60%? At this moment in time, we have about 40% adherence – not enough. And a 54% rise in the number of cases among young people. The majority of the new cases are of unknown origin. The virus is lose in the city and unmanageable through contact tracing.

Masking is not happening. The discourse of common sense ignores the ideological differences between cultures that value the common good and others. If you live in some cultures, people take collective duty seriously and everyone wears masks. Many people in Asia lived through the SARS epidemic and learned the value of masks. Here in Alberta you need to mandate. Too many people are individualists with little care for others.

We should listen to the voice of Janice Riopel who heads up Edmonton’s Chamber of Commerce and advocates for mandatory masks. 

Unfortunately Dr. Deena Hinshaw provides Jason Kenney with language that opposes mandating masks. Kenney says:

“To quote Dr. Hinshaw, we can’t enforce our way out of the pandemic and the vast majority of Albertans I don’t think need to be told to do the right thing. But we all know by now that it’s our civic duty to reduce our risk of exposure and transmission as much as possible and that means wearing a mask in crowded indoor public space, where physical distancing is not possible.”

19 July 2019 anti-mask demo, Alberta Legislature

Jason Kenney announced a few days ago they are giving away a second round of masks – this time 20 million masks via fast-food restaurants. This plot is a boon to these businesses but not practical for many Albertans. This seems so typical of the self-dealing UCP.

In preparation for Calgary City Council debating mandatory masks, on July 19 small groups of people demonstrate in Calgary and Edmonton against wearing masks. COVIDIOTS. The Edmonton demonstration appears to be minuscule. Why does the media not report the numbers?


Masculinity & masks

Research on masks leads to the indubitable fact of gender differences. When not mandated, more women than men wear masks. One study attributes this to the overconfidence of men when it comes to assessing risks. Even though men tend to die more often from COVID-19, fewer men wear masks. Is this surprising? Who wins the Darwin Award for foolhardy (and avoidable) avenues to death? “Data from 1995 to 2014 showed that men made up almost 90% of the ‘winners’.

A BBC article on masculinity and masks notes:

“The scientific advice has been shifting in favour of masks as evidence emerges that the coronavirus is airborne – and may spread via tiny particles suspended in the air as well as larger droplets from coughs or sneezes.
The academics surveyed nearly 2,500 people in the US and found that men were not only less inclined to wear face masks than women. They also considered that donning a mask was “shameful, not cool and a sign of weakness”.
“This happened particularly in counties where face covering is not mandatory,” Dr Capraro explains.
[In the polarized U.S. for instance, you would think that politics would determine who wears masks, but in fact, gender is the factor that matters. However a May study found] “that 68% of Republican-supporting women frequently wore a mask outside the home.
The men? Only 49% said they put one on when going out.”

I also wonder if the old study of women’s psychology that noted how women’s psyche tended to be put together to value affiliations might have something to do with it. The fact that my mask-wearing protects you, draws on my sense of interconnection and responsibility. How to explain the women out demonstrating against mask wearing? Patriarchy? … Who knows?

Mandating masks may be one way to educate men. Men need to be targeted with facts and information about their vulnerability to COVID. Additionally, mandating masks tends to bridge the gender gap. Studies have shown that an equal number of men and women take up masks when they must.


8 July 2020

On my walk through the river valley, I head over across the white bridge through Rossdale, along the river towards Riverdale and then up through a park via a detour along Grierson Hill and then finally down circuitous route through Riverdale where they have sidewalks hidden between hill and back/front yards – they serve dual purposes as the wild of the river and the urban interface were torqued into a moebius loop.

Helen S.

By the time I wound my way around to Helen’s house near the North Saskatchewan River, I had walked more than seven kilometres. Upon arrival, she made me a delicious Italian coffee and toast. We settled into the back garden to talk about politics. Our favourite subject. For years we obsessed constructively about Omar Khadr. Now that he is settled into domestic life in Edmonton, we have other fish to fry. Today we complain about the rise of the right. About Jason Kenney’s horror show.

And we debate Trudeau’s WE volunteer controversy. It seems an ill-advised choice of organizations to orchestrate a program for Canadian students – but not outlandish. It does have international volunteer connections. This issue is a challenge but hardly criminal. We muse about how we both fear a national takeover by the Cons. Trudeau is not perfect and clearly he needs better advisers about volunteer organizations, but he has done a pretty impressive job during this COVID crisis to keep the citizenry afloat and alive. Meanwhile the CONs have such dim leadership candidates. What would they get up to but the usual neoliberal austerity and privatization program? No vision for a future beyond repeating the deficit myths of the past. Like Kenney and Ford etc. Ugh.

Then we talk about our children and life looks more cheerful.

In case the CONs get all wrapped up in their own virtue around the WE volunteer issue, Later, I’m happy to learn that the WE volunteer company is not a remote concern for the CONs. Witness the leading contender for the CON party leadership Peter McKay. His wife Nazanin was a WE speaker like many other advocates for human rights.


10 July 2020

Isabel

I make lunch for my friend Isabel. She brings some excellent sourdough bread from the Parisian Bakery just up the road. We are lucky to have such talented bakers in the neighbourhood.

I was inspired by the breakfasts we shared in Oaxaca, her homeland. They were utterly fabulous. I can’t compete. So no divorced eggs. No superb fresh papaya sprinkled with lime and home-made granola.

I do my best and sauté onions and lemon basil and oregano and chopped chilli an onion and garlic and ginger. Spinach thrown on top soon sinks into a moist covering that I top with two poached eggs and fresh cilantro from the garden. Ok – I am sad we are not in Oaxaca, but we agree it tastes yummy.

We talk about COVID and Oaxaca. How many cases there are in her family’s town at the very southern tip of Oaxaca. There are medical clinics but how adequate are they for a pandemic? Isolation is essential.

We talk about Mexico City. My newfound affection, and her more familiar love of the city. So much to remember and to imagine as a return in some post-COVID moment.

And we talk about the university and crisis in the province. The politics of corporate influence. And we muse about our lives – how to stay well, physically and mentally. And we talk about our children and their futures.

Conversations in this era often end like this – with us imagining the unfolding of our children’s lives in an increasingly difficult world.


10 July 2020

In the late afternoon a friend arrives for tea and a talk. He brings me a delicious treat, an almond pastry shell surrounding sweet red bean paste encasing salty egg yolk. Apparently you pre-order the dessert from the bakery that is then delivered to a shop on Whyte Avenue. I’m not exactly sure of the location. But this is an especially delicious Chinese pastry. One of the tastiest I’ve had here in Edmonton. Or is that I’ve been inside so long and away from my favourite Chinese stores and restaurants, that I am simply overcome with the pleasure of recognition. (My eagerness is evident in the photograph that couldn’t anticipate the moment before the first bite.)

We talk about the pandemic. Here and in China where his family lives. We talk about America and their insanely tragic COVID rate. About comparative mask-wearing in Asia and here in Canada. About how lackadaisical we can be having never lived through a respiratory epidemic like SARS.

We talk about not talking about politics.

We talk about mutual friends. How especially far away they seem in Tokyo now that their return visit in August is impossible. About where we are and how we live at this moment in time. So far away even when we are close.

He has plans for further study and explains how this will affect his future.

I’m glad we are imagining a future of studies and work and expansion of understanding and of connection. At a certain moment, a young person planning for a future feels like nostalgia. As though an affirmative future were a script to be acted out not discovered.

We drink tea and nibble at the pale baked orbs, testing our taste buds with each layer as it unfolds. Nut. Bean. Yolk. Tender. Bitter.


11 July 2020

How can we live and die and never know the difference?

Clyfford Still (1904-1980)

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with a vision of a slow-motion car crash of a future. All foreboding and haunting and threats and horror. The other day I dreamt I was living in a large dormitory with strangers. I was satisfied there until I was not and found myself driving a car fast and far away. At one point the car pointed its nose down a steep hill and we descended. When I reached for the brake pedal, I suddenly took stock of my body now sitting in the rear cargo area of a station wagon, impossibly distanced from the steering wheel.

I awoke then. Safe and sound. Still, even now, paranoid psychosis seems a reasonable response to a pandemic these days.

Wesleyan UP, Spring 2021

At bare minimum, I’m keeping in mind the American artist Clifford Still’s homily above. Brent introduced me to this painter. Still was Born in North Dakota – even the statement seems uncannily haunted by a death that has already occurred. (I must be getting punchy. The writing night is long.) Still’s name such a trip: Still spent time in Washington State and California. He taught there. And he spent time in Alberta, but I don’t know why. (Do tell, if you know.)

Brent’s thesis on Post-Apocalyptic fiction is now a book with a cover illustrated by a 1940s oozing flaming Clyfford Still painting. That seems to sum up my sense of this moment “in the Age of U.S. Decline.”

“In the Age of Alberta’s Decline.” It does certainly seem so. Where are our Albertan Post-Apocalyptic novels to chart an imaginative warning of a doom that has already arrived? Do tell.


Mea Culpa, 11 July 2020

Today I could have gone to the demonstration against Jason Kenney’s Bill 1 at the Alberta Legislature. It was described by one of the organizers, filmmaker Lorna Thomas who invited us to be there today at 1 pm for the Kill Bill1 + protest. The + means you can protest whatever Bill impacts you the most. Our speakers include: MLAs, union reps, doctors, teachers, students.” Ordinarily I would of course attend. Instead, a fearful aging bourgeois subject, I went early to the market. I’ve decided not to attend collective public protests during this pandemic, but I feel quite guilty as ordinarily I would of course be there. Earlier I inquired if there was a car caravan but due to logistics this was not possible. Isn’t this perfect timing for Jason Kenney’s UCP to ram through 33 more bills in the next short while, some of them huge omnibus affairs with critical broad-based destructive effects. On writing this sentence after the fact of the demonstration, I feel guilty and irresponsible considering the seriousness of the issues.

Somehow venturing out to the market early this morning seemed a realistic move. I knew not many people would be there. I knew the entrance would be controlled by security. And I knew I could gain entry and leave quickly. As it turns out, the protest may have been similarly organized with a modest number of people there – 200 in Edmonton and the same number in Calgary – and entry and exit easy to accomplish. I have to plan my pandemic life with care and attention to health and politics. And clearly many Albertans feel similarly since so many of us, horrified about the UCP actions, remained at home today.


Strathcona Market: Why don’t Edmontonians wear masks?

During these COVID days, I don’t go out much. But when I do, I’m astonished how many people don’t wear masks in my city. For the first Saturday morning since March, this morning I went at 8am, the opening hour, to the Strathcona Market. For decades I’ve loved visiting here. For the first few years of my life in the city, it was an oasis of pleasure in a strange land, I have to confess.

Ordinarily I’ve been having groceries delivered by the excellent Spud.ca from Blush Lane, a local organic store. (They also deliver in Calgary, Vancouver, and Victoria.) Just now I discovered Steve and Dan’s, a local market company, that delivers market produce to your door for a fee. This would accomplish the distribution of good produce during the pandemic. But I was so gratified to see the human beings in a public space who tend and grow my food. The sense of community and presence is a COVID luxury to be sure.

As usual I wore my mask. And I made use of hand sanitizer while shopping and touring the hall. As a senior, I gratefully bypass the socially distanced wait for the priority line of one, me. Grey-haired and grateful, I am ushered ahead into a very sparsely populated market. I plan on going at this opening hour again since, by the time I left, the lineup and number of people inside had increased – though the entrance was tightly controlled by a security guard at the door.

The quiet of the market filled up with amplified music. A bit of Howling Wolf or Reverend Gary Davis. Across the street, a wonderful blues musician blasted out his guitar and voice. The market was populated by enough vendors to offer a phantasmagoria of essentials including Mona’s mushrooms, Four Whistle meats, and lots of veggie vendors.

BC fruit sellers were there, all wearing masks. I can’t say the same about all of the vendors. About 1/3 of the vendors wore masks including these wonderful women at Pasta Delight selling fresh pasta, sauces and delicious bruschetta. Their Hong Kong origins gave them experience with the SARS respiratory epidemic. And millions wear masks in Asia as a result, they continues. I said I was so grateful for their care of all of us.

Pasta Delight, Strathcona Market, Edmonton, AB

The Greek vendor Theo sold me a fresh walnut cake to die for – (thanks to Myrna Kostash who brings these cakes to my house for lunch ;)…


11 July, 2020 A Summer Sunday

I called my friend Sheena to see if she wanted coffee early Sunday morning but she and her family were already en route to Pigeon Lake Provincial Park to go fishing. I tagged along rummaging through my drawers for my bathing suit and donning a big hat for the sun and shoes for walking through water as the small private beach they perched on at the edge of the water required some litoral navigation en route. It was a splendid morning clouding about 1:30 so we drove back to Edmonton. People on the public beach were distancing in groups. And a group of people gathered in a meadow with drums and guitars – they too seemed to arrange themselves in social groups though this distancing dissolved from time to time.


As I drove through the city, I passed T&T, a large Chinese grocery now owned by Loblaws. In response to the invitation at the entrance, I donned my mask and sanitized my hands; the entry to the store was monitored by someone keeping track of numbers. Inside I gasped with delight – the usual gorgeous produce was on display. I bought fresh lichee and mushrooms and greens. Fish and fish sauce. The groceries are from all over Asia – Indonesian and Thai and Chinese and beyond. I indulge in prepared Chinese food – eggplant and tofu and delicious fish with tons of garlic.

Next time I’ll buy some of my favourite bbq duck. I lived on that when my home was a loft on Spadina in Toronto’s Chinatown while I was in graduate school. That was my idea of heaven. Such a wonderful place to be. And now my daughter has just moved into Vancouver’s Chinatown with two of her housemates. They are sharing an apartment and so excited at the prospect of living downtown after a few years in Burnaby near SFU. Now that class this term will be on line – her last term before graduation, she can manage downtown Vancouver. Their apartment is a relative postage stamp but such is the pragmatism of negotiating the outrageous Vancouver real estate market.

That night friends came for a bbq outside. It was a splendid night and the meal was wonderful. Nathalie made delicious quiche. And Donia bbq’d skewed chicken and vegetables. The chicken had been marinated in yogurt and special Lebanese spices. Kim brought berries and whipped cream. I made a delicious fried rice with delicate mushrooms and chopped fresh bok choy from T&T and Indonesian soy sauce Ketjap Manis and garlic chilli sauce Sambal Oleg and Thai Golden Boy fish sauce and other delights. Below are the wares. And my fried rice on the left and the prepared eggplant and tofu with rice on the right.

All the time I am in T&T, I miss my friends Noriko and Jun now back in Tokyo. I loved following Noriko around seeing what she was buying. Now I miss the fun we had snacking on lunch at the small table around the corner from the cashiers. That area is closed now. And in the garden, I imagine their ghosts dining with us. I have no photos of ghosts but his archived snapshot will do….

Dinner in the pre-pandemic July 2019 with Kim, Noriko, Jun, and Donia


A Japanese garden, 8 July 2020

On Wednesday morning, I walked with Helen G and Kyla along the river to the university. Circling back, I took them to the beautiful Japanese garden at the south side of the Humanities Center, where my office was for 32 years. In fact during my first decade or so, my office was directly above this garden – in advance of its creation. Over the years, I moved to a more spacious office on the east side where I could see streaks of dawn when I arrived early to work. And finally to the prestigious river-side view where I met with students, graded thousands of paper, and wrote when I could.

This COVID day, I stood for a while admiring the blossoms and listening to the flow of water over the stones. And then I wept. At the beauty that can be created in the world. Like this oasis in a prairie city, one of the largest and best Canadian universities. A garden of knowledge of here and what exists so far beyond this place. To the stars and into deep space back again through the microscopic organisms that make up our beings.

This Japanese garden means so much to me. For years I taught Obasan, the first novel about the internment of the Japanese in Canada to my first year students – during the early decade, few were informed. I thought about the beet fields south of Lethbridge where Joy Kogawa’s family was banished from the West Coast to work under a hot prairie sun. I remember the stories in the next generation of writers like Hiromi Goto’s wonderful Chorus of Mushrooms set in southern Alberta too.

The garden reminds me of a letter I once wrote about Dr. David Suzuki.*

Japanese Garden, Humanities Centre, UofAlberta

I stood at this garden and wept. I cried for my colleagues working in a university under attack. I mourned for the students whose experience of university will be radically altered through Jason Kenney’s UCP cuts.

A few days later, a news article informs everyone including those who work at the university that the UofA administration will be closing up many buildings. This must mean that much of the teaching will continue to be delivered electronically (a surprise to the professors.) The article mentions the Administration Building is irredeemable. And the Humanities Centre as well. I can imagine the administrators putting up a fancy building where English and Philosophy Departments once stared across the river. Or perhaps it will be condominiums for the rich?

I weep for you Alberta. The electorate is having second thoughts. But it is too late for…

  • ,,,the 40% of the doctors who want to leave the province.
  • Or the 2500 education workers without jobs.
  • Or the children now schooled without support for the deaf or blind or speech impaired.
  • Or the workers at risk of losing their pensions to a government pension regime that lost $2b dollars in the past two years.
  • Or the contract workers laid off in a budget deficit.
  • Or the professors strapped with fewer resources and more students.
  • Or the naive subject to cynical government propaganda that disparages expertise and knowledge.
  • Or the nature lovers losing their camp sites and their parks to coal miners and oil drillers.
  • Or the future of privatized healthcare where the lapsed “universal” puts the poor at risk.
  • Or the bitter busted oil sands workers with no alternative to rear view-mirror delusions than condemning others with jobs.
  • Or the bill that makes it illegal to protest from a public sidewalk among many other places.
  • Or Bill 1’s wide-ranging attack on Alberta democracy, unions, healthcare, etc.

I should have shaken my furious fist at the hateful ignorance and vengeance the reign of the stupid accomplishes here in Alberta.And I should have attended the public protest at the Alberta Legislature today. If I can brave a farmer’s market, I can avoid contact with people at a rally during a pandemic. Perhaps the speed and flurry of UCP changes psyches me out. Is resistance futile? a part of me asks.


a pandemic breakfast for one

19 July 2016 (a memory)

My efforts to invigorate myself with various Pilates-style exercise and long fast walks have been very productive. To the point where I am utterly flattened with my newly rotated hips and shoulders and stretched out this and that here and there all through my body in places I had no knowledge of until they became the jelly that is my physical being. I remember feeling like this as a child after running through the fields and climbing trees all day. If I keep this up, I’ll be up in the Linden tree in the front yard calling to the big breathed balloons that are suspended in flight over the river valley even as I write this. Their flames sound with a rhythmic exhalation as though the houses around me are expanding and contracting in and out with fiery breathe. But outside and through the ravine I see multicoloured balloon shapes flying across the tree tops on a perfect bright prairie summer evening preparing for late dusk. A version of bliss.

19 July 2020 (an observation)

Well that was then. And this is a pandemic and I’m walking (not as fast). And I’ve just started doing yoga under a tree twice a week at the local community centre with my neighbour Kyla whose voice and instructions drift through the wind and dappled shadow to guide me. By the end of the 75 minutes, the earth has opened up beneath me welcoming me in a firm embrace. A haptic happening. (I no longer do pilates with Sheena and my wonderful teacher Tracey who fortunately fled Alberta before the pandemic selling her wonderful Edmonton studio and repairing to tango dance in Rio with a handsome architect she met there. Tracey trained as a dancer originally and found her way to a country where everyday pleasures of music and embrace could fill her up.

I on the other hand remain in situ feeling filled with revulsion at the government.

My gardening has become a kind of rescue. Nonstop rain and flooding in the river valley have made my garden jungle-like and overgrown. One day a hailstorm threatens the tender flowers. But the damage experienced across the city, misses for the most part my garden. I pick what feels like the last of the summer blossoms. Imagining I the chill of autumn in the night air, I skip over August like a leaf. Such is the gloom I work to dispel with my gardening labour. Gardener’s avoid by dementia by 36%, an enthusiast’s green thumb column chirps cheerfully.

My neighbour Ella gardened until she was about 95. She died shortly after she couldn’t dig anymore. She also smoked half the night til 2am for decades and for her past 2 or 3 years dragged behind her a long plastic tube to provide her emphysema-wracked body with oxygen. She never tangled her lifeline with her rows of produce. She always gardened to under a very large hat. She didn’t have a garage. Just a huge flower and vegetable garden.

My motto. Be like Ella. In reality. I haven’t done enough gardening this summer. But yesterday I whacked away at weeds and dragged heavy things here and there and made the last bouquet of peonies and took in some roses before the storm. The bouquets I gather collect pink peonies and soaring Prussian blue delphinium stems and rescued bush rose blooms. Their colours light up the house. This morning I feel my body floating with the delicious weight of land labour.

In the heat of the afternoon I enter into the front garden mess and pull up purple loosestrife and thistles, beautiful blossoming noxious weeds. I use bare hands. The texture of the plants keeps me on edge. Taking hold of thistles below the sharp thorns on their tend stalks just above the earth’s edge puts me in touch with the plants. Yesterday I pulled my vigorous hops up out of the wrong spot, wrapping their twining vines around my wrists. So powerful, they ripped my bamboo trellice from the fence. This morning, the looped rope of vine has left red welts, a haptic memory of their hot stinging juices.

One night I dream an old friend from work crushes me in an embrace, her breasts press against mine. Surprised I look up and recognize her as someone I knew in my twenties, an athletic blond on a dance floor celebrating in crinolines and tight jeans. Of course, she denies she made the first move.

On the way to a dog walk in the ravine, I stop by a neighbour’s house and chat briefly with a woman friend who tells me she cannot socialize as she is in such a foul mood. I sympathize. I’ve been chatting with friends over the course of this pandemic how up and down we are from one day to the next. On Friday, we can be active and busy as though all is well with the world and then by Saturday, we plummet into despair at what has been lost, what we are losing, what losses will befall our children.

World news is a horror. The virus speeds through the U.S., through Brazil, and India. Trump is losing ground in the U.S., now a caricature of a caricature, such a fabricated adventure in human subjectivity that even his most sycophantic supporters are becoming unglued.

Here in Canada, a controversy about the distribution of funding for student volunteers has created a scandal for Justin Trudeau. The youth organization is one that has enjoyed great success over the years with regular rallies at local high schools to generate energy for volunteerism. As well, famous Canadians from all political parties have been active in doing talks and appearances for the organization, including Trudeaus’s own family. And the wives of Stephen Harper, past CON leader, and Peter McKay, future CON leader, it seems.

Trudeau’s apparent conflict of interest is under investigation. I forgive much of this stupidity – it does feel like the naive indulgence of enthusiasm blinded by privilege. There is no doubt the WE organization was in fact ideally situated to distribute To students volunteer positions around the globe. Trudeau has apologized and the opposition continues to go for the throat. I’m desperate to keep the federal CONs out of power. They too will want to dismantle expertise, intelligence, and thought.

At home in Quebec, a man murders his two young daughters in an act of recurring femicide. Their mother buried alive in grief addresses their ghosts: “When I look up into the night sky, you will be the stars that will guide me through my immeasurable pain.“ The man remains at large, lost in the bush or elsewhere.

This morning I will walk to forget.
Xox…


*David Suzuki’s UofAlberta Honorary Degree, June 2018

At the Japanese garden in front of the UofA Humanities Centre, I thought of my breakfast as a guest of the Provost to celebrate the 2018 honorary degree for Dr. DDavid Suzuki. This was awarded for his lifetime of work in science literacy and education. I was delighted to be there.

Those who opposed Dr. Suzuki’s degree included the then Dean of Engineering, a hyperbolic tar sands booster, who fictioneered that this was “the worst crisis…we’ve faced in more than three decades.” And the Dean of Business wrote a more measured note of apology to those who “understandably feel disappointed and betrayed….” [Note: the link to the “Canada Action” Albertan opposition group that published a critique of the Suzuki degree now requires a password so I was unable to review it.]

As Equity Chair of the University of Alberta Academic Staff Association, our union, I wrote a letter of support for the honorary degree to members on April 25, 2019 — a modest counter blast to corporate oil and/or anti-science calamity makers that resisted Dr. Suzuki’s nomination. The letter:

A world-renowned geneticist and environmentalist, Dr. Suzuki’s many accomplishments have been recognized with 29 other university honorary degrees, the Order of BC, UNESCO’s Kalinga Prize for Science, the United Nations Environment Program Medal and the Right Livelihood Award to “honour and support courageous people and organisations offering visionary and exemplary solutions to the root causes of global problems.” He was also awarded the Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honour in our country for : “his unwavering dedication to sustainable development and for his criticism of human activities that threaten our planet.” He has been called Canada’s “environmental conscience.” 

A popularizer of knowledge, Dr. Suzuki is the author of 52 books about science and nature including a memoir and 19 books written for children. Committed to the public good, his engagement ncludes his important work in science literacy and education that began in 1970,  his hosting of CBC-Radio’s “Quirks & Quarks” which he created, and his hosting of CBC-TV’s The Nature of Things, broadcast to fifty countries and now in its 58th year. In 1990, he founded the David Suzuki Foundation that “through evidence-based research, education and policy analysis, …works to conserve and protect the natural environment, and help create a sustainable Canada.”

Dr. Suzuki ‘s public intellectual work also includes a lifetime commitment to human rights that testifies to the importance of affirming diversity with equity in Canada. The historical travesty of Dr. Suzuki’s early life provides us with a powerful national teaching story.

The University of Alberta has a long history with Dr. David Suzuki. His first academic appointment was at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Science in 1962. And his accomplishments were many during his subsequent distinguished forty-year career UBC’s Faculty of Science.

In 1942, at six years of age, third-generation Japanese Canadian Dr. Suzuki was interned with his family for the duration of WWII along with 22,000 other Japanese Canadians, which at the time accounted for 90% of the Japanese population in Canada. Over the course of his life, Dr. Suzuki has demonstrated the remarkable resilience of the Japanese Canadian community and foregrounded the brutality of Canadian WWII Japanese Canadian internment, what Dr. Suzuki calls “one of the shoddiest chapters in the tortuous history of democracy in North America.”

 In honouring Dr. David Suzuki, we are not only acknowledging his influence as a scientist and an educator,  we are also celebrating his work as a public intellectual dedicated to human rights and anti-racist mentorship and education. Dr. Suzuki’s critical thinking about climate change and sustainability are the work of one of Canada’s most engaged and accomplished  public intellectuals.  The decision to award an honorary degree to Dr. David Suzuki affirms how knowledge is generated through the creative exchange of diverse points of view.  

I had also signed a second letter circulated by political science professor Laurie Adkin who was another invitee to the honorary degree breakfast. (I believe we were the only faculty from Arts, but I may be wrong.) This letter’s concern was spelled out in the Edmonton Journal headline: “Energy Industries Must Not Be Allowed to Bully Universities.

After breakfast we all assembled to walk onto the platform of the Jubilee Auditorium where the science student’s convocation was talking place.

Meanwhile outside the Jubilee, a small disgruntled posse of mainly aging White men protested Suzuki’s environmentalist critique of the fossil fuel industry. A faculty member sitting next to me on the platform behind Dr. Suzuki’s ceremony informed me that some of them were long-standing oil company executives who had driven up from Calgary. Lost in this display was Dr. Suzuki’s brilliant career making this world a more environmentally sound and science-savvy planet.

In front a full attentive theatre, Dr. Suzuki, now a youthful 82, delivered a splendid address to the students: “Our numbers, our technology, our consumption and our global economy have exploded to such an extent that we are now the main factor shaping and altering the physical chemical and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale. We have to find ways of living that do not undermine the very things that keep us alive.”

Faculty of Science Convocation, Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Edmonton, June 2018

He went on to describe what he learned as a professor at the University of Alberta: “It was here that I began my scientific career in genetics, began my concern about environmental consequences of the way we live, began my realization that television is a very powerful means of communication.” At the time he worked on a university television program called “Your University Speaks” – would that we had a direct means of televisual communication to Albertans at this moment in time.

In response to the controversy, Dr Suzuki responded:

“This is not about attacking a particular industry or way of life. …It’s about recognizing the reality of global warming and our role in it. …It’s about finding solutions that provide economic opportunities for everyone, not just owners and shareholders of large corporations.

“It’s about ensuring that our economic models are ‘relevant to the contemporary world.’ It’s about measuring progress in ways that account for sustainability, human happiness and well-being rather than economic growth.”

President of the University of Alberta David Turpin wrote a defence of the honorary degree that included this:

“Universities must not be afraid of controversy. Instead, we must be its champion. Stifle controversy and you also stifle the pursuit of knowledge, the generation of ideas, and the discovery of new truths. Take uncomfortable ideas, debate, and conflict out of the university and its fundamental role in society disappears.

There are few, if any, organizations in society that can tolerate the discord that comes along with freedom of inquiry. That is the university’s special role. To preserve it, we must allow our people, and honour others, who pursue ideas that sometimes trouble us, shock our sense of the true and right, and even provoke our anger. The university must give people the space and support they need to think independently without fear of external control or reprisal. Otherwise the constraint on the imagination and the intelligence will slow the speed of change and innovation, if not suppress it altogether. Our students will learn that conformity, rather than creativity and innovation, is the goal of learning and education.

…Alberta’s energy industry is what it is today precisely because scientists, thinkers, entrepreneurs, and educators have had the independence and ability to pursue ideas that many thought were absurd, perhaps even disrespectful. Today, researchers continue to ask difficult questions and teach their students how to do the same. The U of A supports research that both strengthens Alberta’s energy industry and examines the environmental evidence, holds the industry to account, and leads to innovations and policy that make it more sustainable.

The U of A is home to many such contradictory and conflicting modes of inquiry, research, and teaching. Each year, that diversity is reflected in the nomination and selection of honorary degree recipients. We recognize that for many Albertans David Suzuki is an unpopular, untimely choice, but his very nomination is an indication that for many others he is a worthy, timely choice. That contradiction and controversy is a sign that the U of A is what it should be: an independent, autonomous institution of higher learning that champions freedom of thought and academic integrity above all else.“

For an account of the opposition to this honorary degree including by the UCP leader Jason Kenney, see David Climenhaga’s blog post. Jason Kenney’s original facebook post denouncing the appointment is no longer visible. But apparently it focused not so much on Dr. Suzuki himself but on the context and occasion. Kenney noted that all of the “political pedigree” appointments like Labour Party Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark and Nettie Wiebe, a former Alberta union president and Raj Pannu, “a former NDP leader of Alberta” are “from the left of the political spectrum.” Kenney bemoans the fact that this is a “major politicization at one of our major institutions that has no place there.”

However as David Climenhaga points out, ideological purity did not determine the University of Alberta nominations for honorary degrees. For example, Doug Goss, a well-connected Progressive Conservative lawyer and the former chair of the University of Alberta board had recently been awarded an honorary degree. And Goss had very publicly proclaimed along with four other Edmonton business leaders that Albertans should vote Progressive Conservative a few days before Rachel Notley won her astonishing NDP victory that ended the 42-year rule of Progressive Conservatives in 2016.

You can see in this controversy the issues that continue to play out today in the concerted effort the UCP and Premier Jason Kenney have made to destroy the University of Alberta, a site of both fossil fuel research as well as critical thought that goes against the grain of Alberta’s Petroculture and propaganda.

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