A show of contempt for Canada

March 10, 2014 Leave a comment

A single strand has run through the Quebec separatist movement almost from the day in 1967 that Rene Levesque left the Liberal party to establish the Parti Quebecois as the vehicle by which sovereigntists hope to ride to independence. It is their contempt for Canada.

That contempt was well summed up by former leader and Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, who said “Canada is not a real nation.”

Canada was and is, however, a “real” enough nation to have guaranteed the continuance of the French language, religion, and civil law after the British victory at the Plains of Abraham. It is further “real” enough to have become a bilingual country under that son of Quebec, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and to engage in a massive tax transfer that since the 1950s has benefited Quebec to the tune of some $146 billion. Without the $4.5 billion  the province will receive from equalization this year alone, its deficit would be twice the shortfall announced by Premier Pauline Marois.

But numbers aren’t the real issue.It’s contempt that hurts.

This sentiment sank to a new low over the weekend (of March 9) when Premier Marois announced that Pierre Karl Peladeau, the controlling shareholder of Canada’s biggest newspaper chain — Quebecor Media — would be a candidate for the PQ in the April 7 provincial election. Quebecor’s properties include the Toronto Sun and Sun Media chain, plus the Sun News TV channel.

uooGS8hM2WuiOygSrHQEjBJkDsdIa0y-9e2WfALYwXiE804ouBng1L2alx2rE8uek7ho7g=s131Peladeau, whose wealth is drawn from a variety of newspaper and TV holdings in a business established by his father, declared “I am a sovereigntist” and said he was running so that his children could live “in their own country.”

While the law would require Peladeau, if elected, to put his shares in trust, he is reported to have said that he would not sell them, even if ordered to do so.

As one wag observed, Peladeau is the first billionaire to join the PQ. Aside from illustrating his contempt for all the Canadians who have done business with his papers and helped to enrich him, this sets up some interesting dichotomies which Quebec separatists are going to have to deal with.

Premier Marois touted Peladeau’s candidacy as evidence that the PQ will have a strong grip on the economy — previously a weak spot in the party’s armour. He’s seen as a “star candidate,” his candidacy hailed as a “game-changer.” It remains to be seen how Peladeau’s well-known pro-business — and anti-union — stance will go down with party supporters. The PQ is a social democratic party, and most of its followers. besides being Quebec nationalists, stand well left of centre.

The Peladeau adventure also has to set off alarm bells in the executive corridors of the National Hockey League. He’s been a prime mover in the scheme to build a $400 million, publicly-financed, hockey arena in Quebec City. The idea was that the NHL would bring a team to the city once the stadium had been built. The steel frame is already up. But the Peladeau connection is sure to be seen  as a negative by many NHL owners.

Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard is asking some interesting questions about Peladeau’s influence over Quebec media during the electi0n campaign.

It is too early to make predictions on the outcome of the Quebec vote, although the PQ apparently has an edge in the key francophone vote. Overall, according to a poll by CROP, the Liberals and PQ are tied at 36 per cent.

Premier Marois refuses to commit herself to holding a referendum if the PQ wins a majority. But neither does she rule it out. That could scare off nationalist voters who don’t want to see Quebec plunged into a third, and more divisive then ever, referendum.

But it’s Pierre Karl Peladeau’s contempt for Canadians that will count for most people outside Quebec — and many inside, too. He’s used our freedom of the press to gain control of a vast media empire that has given him power and profits.

Will Canadians be much longer interested in subscribing to or supporting Quebecor Media papers, knowing that profits will conti9nue to accrue to Peladeau through his controlling interest?

We have laws in Canada against foreign ownership of news media. Peladeau should think about this when he campaigns for an independent Quebec.

Family and fortune — what makes a memoir

March 6, 2014 Leave a comment

I recently heard Mark Medley of the National Post say that he receives four or five family memoirs a week, sent in with hopes of obtaining a review. There’s little prospect of this happening, considering that major newspapers receive several hundred books each week, each sent in with the hope of gaining mention.

I didn’t have reviews in mind when I began work on mt family memoir, which I call Lives of My Fathers. 

My intention, like that of other family memoirists, was to create something my children would enjoy, and hopefully pass along to their children.

I’d started work on my family tree in the 1990s. I had taped an oral history from my father about 1980 but otherwise,I knew next to nothing about his or my mother’s ancestors. That left me little to start with. I began by posting a question on a roots web site, telling what I knew from my father, Percy Argyle  — his birth in Derbyshire, England, First World War service, and emigration to Canada.

That began an incredible chain of contacts, enabling me finally to trace my father’s line back to the Rev. Richard Orgell (17th century spelling for Argyle), who became the Vicar of Lullington in the Church of England. I found his graduation from Oxford University in 1599 and his subsequent ordainment on a Church of England web site.I heard from Argyles across Britain and Canada and in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. All were very helpful. One sent me copies of letters written by a young Harry Argyle, a coal miner who died in a mine accident in South Africa during the gold rush of the 1880s. I travelled to England and met with cousins Sonia Smith, Patrick Smith, and Chris Argyle.

I had less luck in tracing my mother’s family.I was able to establish her birth in Yorkshire as Katherine Connor but I could find nothing on her Irish antecedents. So in writing my memoir I naturally chose to focus on my father’s side of the family tree.

When you set out to write a memoir you have a few choices. You can write the stark details of the types of events that used to go into family Bibles – births, marriages, deaths, with little narrative development. Or you can fill in the blanks with what is definitely known about your people — what they did, where they worked, the challenges they would have faced.

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I wanted to do more than that. I decided to regard the information I had turned up as nothing more than a skeleton. I would use my  imagination to put flesh on the bones — to write Lives of My Fathers as if I were writing a novel. It would be true to  all the hard facts, but I would draw on my imagination to create scenes and dialogue and maintain the narrative. All the while, I hoped, remaining authentic to the experiences they would have had.

I thought about the Australian  writer, Kate Grenville, who set out to write a memoir of her grandfather. She decided his story would  be better told as a novel. For that reason, she changed his name and wrote what was  entirely a work of fiction. Her events and characters are all adapted from the actual historical record.

I decided to use her model, but not to change the names. The Argyles of my historical records would become the Argyles of Lives of My Fathers. their stories based on things that really happened.

This meant doing a lot of research beyond the family tree. As there is a legend in my family that our origins were in Scotland, and that two brothers had travelled south to Derbyshire in the English Midlands on a religious pilgrimage, I decided to work that into my memoir.

But what about their origins? Again, I tapped into my research to imagine how the first Gaelic arrivals from  Ireland would have settled on the west coast of Scotland. Argyle, I learned, means “coast of the Gaels” in Gaelic.

My memoir is broken into four “books.” The first, entirely fictional, tells the story of a mythical Rothan who settles in the Argyle district of Scotland in the sixth century. Hundreds of years later, two descendants set out for England, seeking to become priests. One is burned at the stake for heresy. The other establishes the family line in Derbyshire.

The second book is about Richard Argyle the vicar of Lullington and Erasmus Argyle. the lord of Heage Hall. Thomas Argyle, the first to own this once great estate, has survived the Great Fire of London, just as his father has lived through the English Civil War that saw the execution of King Charles I.

The third book tells the tale of  Edward Argyle who journeys to Australia on a leaky ship, becomes a “squatter king” with thousand of acres under his control, and sires a future premier of the Australian state of Victoria — Sir Stanley Argyle.

The last book begins with William Argyle and his widow Catherine, who becomes a rag and bone collector to keep her family from starvation in 19th century England. I draw on census records that show her giving such an occupation, and later becoming a shop owner before her son, my grandfather John Argyle establishes  a tinsmithing business with his brother Thomas. After their business is done in by cheap imports of pots and pans from Germany, John sends his family, including my fifteen-year-old father, to Canada.

I end the memoir with my father’s service in the First World War, in which he takes part in the battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

With true events like these, I had no difficulty building scenes and dialogue that I believe give a true reflection of their lives.

I found myself with far more material than I could use. One branch of the Argyles converted to the Mormon faith and sailed to America. Joseph Argyle led his pregnant wife and several children across the plains in the first “hand cart” trek of the Mormons to Utah. Many of his descendants live there today. After writing several chapters about Joseph and the Mormons, I decided not to use them — it was all too much. Even without their story, the book I had printed through blurb.ca runs to 344 pages. If you’re so inclined, you can download an e-copy of my book here.

There are easier ways, of course, to write a family memoir. I hope you’ll write one for your family. Understanding our origins helps us to better understand ourselves.

My Afternoon in Emergency

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Like all accidents, the one that sent me to the Emergency ward of Hotel Dieu Hospital on a cold February Saturday should never have happened. I should have known better.

Throughout this worst of all winters, layers of snow, ice, and more snow had built up on the streets of Kingston, Ontario. Despite the good job done by the City to keep streets open and sidewalks clear (yes,. we even have a sidewalk plow come by after every snowfall), walking has been treacherous. I’d put crampons on my hiking boots and ventured out to walk Morag, our lively Wheaton Terrier, on her midday outings. But even those I’d given up after Christmas when no amount of plowing was able to remove the ice from our sidewalks. I stopped the daily walks.

Having done that, I should have been more careful when I went to the front doorstep to pick up the morning paper. I’d put Morag out in the backyard and the patio there seemed clear of any fresh precipitation. Ah, we’ve dodged the latest storm, I thought. I should have checked the front doorstep more carefully before stepping out blindly. I’d hadn’t noticed that a thin layer of fresh ice covered the concrete landing at our front door.

As we all know, these things happen in a flash. One foot on the ice was enough to upend me. In a stark moment of terror, I realized I had done it! Of course, I put out a hand to break my fall. I came down hard on my left hand, and found myself sitting dazed, partway in and partway out of the door. I dragged myself back inside, reached for a chair, and struggled to my feet. I knew I’d done some damage, but I hoped I had nothing more than a sprain.

Two hours later, having wrapped my wrist in ice, Deborah and I decided I would have to go to Emergency. We arrived at the hospital about one o’clock and after a quick clearance by the triage nurse, settled down to wait. There were not many other patients, and in a few minutes I was taken to an examining room. X-rays were the next order of business, and after no more than an hour’s wait, the on-duty doctor came to examine me.

Dr. Reed was brisk, efficient, and pleasant. Bald headed — or perhaps shaven. Yes, I had a fracture — I’d jammed my radius bone into the carpal bones of my hand. There were some splinters. He called in the resident intern, Dr. Litt, who turned out to be a darkly handsome young man. His speciality was radiology, and he was going through the prescribed period of emergency duty before dedicating himself to that discipline.

GetAttachment-1 The thought struck me: what wonderful names for two doctors attending a writer — Reed and Litt!

Next order of business – injection of freezing. That took only a moment, followed by a twenty-minute wait for it to take effect. Then the two doctors went to work to try to unjam the damage I’d done. Dr. Reed held onto my elbow while Dr. Litt, pulling as if the two were in a tug of war, hauled on my hand. Eventually satisfied, Dr. Litt wrapped my arm almost to my elbow and applied plaster to the wrapping. Soon I was encased in a sold — and heavy — cast. All of it had been virtually painless.

Now it was time for more X-rays. Dr. Reed let me see them on the computer screen on my way out. The difference in the before and after X-rays — before the tug of war and after — was easy to see. They’d gotten my wrist bones almost back to their normal sites. You could also see a small piece of bone that had broken off.

It was now about six o’clock. In five hours, I’d been through all the procedures involved in Emergency treatment, and been attended to by helpful nurses and efficient, caring doctors. No unreasonable wait time. No forgotten existence in  the limbo of hospital bureaucracy.

Also, thanks to Canada’s public healthcare system, no astronomical bill to pay on the way out. I gave silent thanks to the pioneering spirits like Tommy Douglas who brought public healthcare into Canada fifty years ago — and the principled politicians who have stood by it ever since. No wonder Canadians regard our health system as our single greatest source of pride in our country.

My emergency visit was two weeks ago and I’ve since made two follow-up visits to the orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Mark Harrison. We were not strangers. Three years ago he gave me a new right knee joint to substitute for the one I’d injured in a cottage mishap many years previously. Dr. Harrison warned me it might be necessary to put a pin in my wrist to ensure the bones stay where they belong. And I was not to complain! He reminded me it was not he who had broken my wrist. Happily, as it turned out no such pin was needed.

Day by day, I’m enjoying the small triumphs of making increasing use of my injured hand.  I’m even able to use fingers of both hands to type out this blog. The cast will come off in four weeks, Spring will be almost here, and life will look better again!

A trifling experience like a broken wrist — the second in my lifetime — makes one realize how fortunate most of us are. My fall at the front door could easily have been far more serious — like a broken hip or a fractured skull.

To paraphrase a Quebec poet, my country is winter. That said, can Spring be far behind?

How to make the Senate really useful

January 29, 2014 Leave a comment

We’ve been waiting for Justin Trudeau to make the big moves of which we know he’s capable. This morning (01/29/13) he took an important first step by cutting all Liberal Senators loose from the parliamentary caucus, thereby committing himself to a non-partisan Senate.

For those of us who have regarded the Canadian Senate in its present form as a useless and costly appendage, Trudeau’s decision represents a dramatic break with the past. Not as good as abolishing the Senate entirely, perhaps, but at least it’s a formula to create a more meaningful, respectful, and effective “chamber of sober second thought.”

Under Trudeau’s proposal. future Senate appointments would be made from  a process similar to that used now to award the Order of Canada to distinguished Canadians. Gone would be the days of filling the Senate with tired party hacks, bagmen, and assorted creatures obliged to follow the Prime Minister’s orders.

Of course, the Conservatives don’t see it this way. They say they’d like Senators to be elected, but as Trudeau points out, that’s virtually impossible without getting involved in a long, tiresome, and potentially pointless Constitutional negotiation between Ottawa and the provinces. The Supreme Court is now hearing Ottawa’s referral on Senate matters but whatever it decides, it’s unlikely the Court will find any magic formula to shake up the Senate in a painless and effective fashion.

That’s why Justin Trudeau’s proposal is so exciting.

image2-300 “I have come to believe that the Senate must be non-partisan,” Mr. Trudeau said at his news conference. “Composed merely of thoughtful individuals representing the varied values, perspectives and identities of this great country. Independent from any particular political brand.”

“I challenge the Prime Minister to match this action,” said Mr. Trudeau. “As the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing. To join us in making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.”

So who could we expect to see in the Senate if Justin Trudeau were to become Prime Minister and have the opportunity to  implement his reform plan?

There’s no shortage of excellent candidates. Here I offer up a few suggestions:

  • Chris Hadfield, Canada’s thoughtful and smart ex-commander of the International Space Station
  • Jack Diamond, the brilliant Toronto architect who understands the connection between city-building and saving the environment
  • Margaret Atwood, author and advocate of progressive ideas
  • Prem Watsa, the brilliant chief of Fairfax Holdings, a man clued into the need to build world-class Canadian tech companies
  • Heather Reisman, who’s running the big Chapters-Indigo book chain
  • Marc Carney, ex-governor of the Bank of Canda (now at the Bank of England)
  • Kirstine Stewart, ex of the CBC, now head of Twitter in Canada
  • Pierre Beaudoin, CEO of Bombardier, the train and plane builder
  • Mike Lazaridis, far-seeing co-founder of Blackberry

Imagine what a Senate made up of these personalities and others like them would look and sound like! Freed of the obligation to follow orders of the Prime Minister. Equipped with the long-standing Senate authority to review Parliamentary legislation, and suggest changes where it sees fit.

Perhaps we’d then get serious discussion of important issues — like how to educate Canadians for the 21st century, how to reduce the wastage of lives trapped in our prisons, or how to reclaim Canada’s position in the world as a tolerant, fair-minded, progressive contributor to the family of nations. Ideas on how to renew Canada.

In the short term, it will be instructive to see how the 32 former Liberal Senators conduct themselves in the Red Chamber. More significantly, Justin Trudeau’s proposals represent a break with the traditional tired politics of the old Canada. A first step toward renewing this great country to make it capable of facing the challenges we see ahead.

Trudeau’s new idea should play well with voters. He has put forward an innovative policy in a positive, forthright manner. Just as he has called for the legalization of marijuana, he is breaking new ground while answering critics who have derided him for not putting out policy ideas.

Justin Trudeau’s proposals offer a welcome contrast to the tired, personality-driven dirty politics so cleverly practiced by the Harper government. Perhaps he really has found a way to do politic differently.

The woman who knew too much

January 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Guest blog by Barry Francis

If it had been left to the mainstream media, the conspiracy surrounding the assassination of John Kennedy and the massive cover up that followed might never have been revealed. It has taken the unheralded, and often ridiculed, research efforts of citizens like Mark Lane, James Hepburn, Josiah Thompson, David Lifton, Dick Russell and Jim Marrs, not to mention New Orleans DA James Garrison, among others to expose the monstrous evil behind America’s first and only coup d’état. The mysterious deaths of many who knew too much underscores the courage and determination of these citizen-patriots who set out to expose the convenient fabrications of the Warren Commission.

Now, the name Peter Janney, son of a career CIA operative, can be added to this distinguished list. Janney’s landmark book Mary’s Mosaic exposes the facts behind and reasons for the assassination of Kennedy’s lover Mary Pinchot Meyer. The book is exhaustively researched and beautifully written – aided by the fact that Janney personally knew Mary, her family members and many other principals in the case.

Janney gained access to the papers and notes of author Leo Damore (author of Senatorial Privilege) whose planned book on the Mary Meyer murder was never published due to his mysterious suicide. Damore had obtained a copy of Mary’s diary and had identified her killer.
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Mary Meyer was a beautiful, intelligent society woman, artist and mother. She was also a confidant, friend and lover of John Kennedy. At the time of her death she was divorced from Cord Meyer, a former peace activist who had gone over to the dark side with the CIA. She was brutally executed as she took her morning jog along the towpath alongside the Potomac river in Washington DC, just 11 months after the Kennedy assassination.

Reminiscent of the Kennedy assassination, within minutes a poor black “patsy” (Ray Crump) was identified and charged with her murder – despite little or no evidence of his guilt. The CIA’s fingerprints are all over this narrative and in fact the whole book. Fortunately, for Crump, the brilliant efforts of defense attorney Dovey Roundtree poked holes in the State’s case and got him acquitted. Rountree took the case pro-bono and financed expenses out of her own pocket. On his release, Crump gave her $1 in payment, representing two-thirds of his entire worth.

Janney outlines the lives and relationship of the ill-fated lovers whose paths first intersected as students during the 1930s and led to a serious partnership in the 1960s. He weaves the story of Mary’s life, loves and death through the geopolitical events of this period and shows the interconnection of those events.

Unfortunately for Mary, she was outspoken – a definite no-no for a CIA wife. She was also dabbling in drugs, including LSD, with JFK, Timothy Leary and the wives of important Washington power brokers and kept a diary covering her relationship with Kennedy (described as the “Hope Diamond” of the Kennedy assassination) and the “mosaic” she had put together on the assassination. In short, she knew too much and was liable to talk.

The book reads like a fiction thriller and contains a great deal of interesting information, some of which has not been published elsewhere, including:
• the name of Mary’s alleged CIA killer – William L. Mitchell;
• Mary’s brother-in-law, Ben Bradley, helped facilitate the cover up of Mary’s death and the subsequent disappearance of her diary;
• Mary’s role in, and support of, Kennedy’s bold peace initiatives with the Soviets;
• the suggestion that the CIA may have purposely brought down Gary Powers U2 spy plane in 1960 to scuttle President Eisenhower’s peace summit with Chairman Khrushchev;
• First hand information that, in April 1963, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson asked that he be given greater Secret Service security protection than the President (suggesting pre-knowledge of the assassination plot);
• JFK’s comment to his secretary Evelyn Lincoln three days before the assassination that his choice for running mate in 1964 “would not be Johnson;”
• The 1964 Moscow mission of Bill Walton on behalf of Bobby Kennedy to convey the Kennedy family’s true feelings about the assassination conspiracy and Bobby’s future plans to KGB man Georgi Bolshkov; and
• the publication of an editorial by former president Truman that appeared in the first edition of the Washington Post in December 1963 just one month after the assassination arguing, in effect, that the CIA was out of control and must be reigned in and restricted to its original mandate of intelligence gathering ─ rather than carrying out covert operations and making foreign policy. The piece indirectly implied that the CIA may have had something to do with the assassination. Shockingly, this important editorial was dropped from subsequent editions of the Post and was never picked up by any other media outlet.

Thankfully, Janney is not satisfied with simply telling Mary’s story and exposing the events surrounding her death. In a post script, he outlines his plans to campaign for a reopening of the Mary Meyer murder investigation which would compel the chief suspect in Mary’s murder to testify under oath. Let’s hope he’s successful, Mary deserves at least this much!

Barry Francis

If Kennedy had lived …

December 17, 2012 Leave a comment

A few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the U.S. Information Agency produced a commemorative film, Years of Lightning/Day of Drums. The narration concluded with these words:

Some day, there will come a time when the early 1960s will be a very long time ago.”

In 2013 the world will note the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death — November 22, 1963 — and today, the early 1960s are truly a very long time ago.

And people still ask: What would the world be like today if Kennedy has escaped death on that fateful day in Dallas?

Writers of “virtual history” – where the what ifs of history are examined to find alternative outcomes to real events – have produced books envisioning a world where the Nazis won World War II, and an America where the South won the Civil War.

On the wall of my office hangs the papier-mâché matrix from which the front page of The Toronto Telegram was printed the day of the assassination. The headline reads, KENNEDY SHOT, DIES. Each time I glance at this now historic artifact the thought is renewed in my mind: “What if Kennedy had lived?”

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The pursuit of this thought led me into the arena of virtual history, and has resulted in my new, short e-book, “Kennedy After Dallas: JFK’s Return to the White House for an Epochal 2nd Term.”

While I am admirer of John F. Kennedy and revere his memory, I have not attempted to portray an idealized version of the man, free of faults and absent of mistakes.

In speculating on what might have transpired had Kennedy not been killed, I have built on the historical record of his administration to project the logical outcome of policies set in motion by JFK before Dallas.

For example. JFK had shown considerable skepticism about the wisdom of U.S. military policy and had expressed his apprehension about the consequences of another Bay of Pigs or Cuban missile  crisis.

For example, there was the time when he walked out of a meeting of his National Security Council as it debated the merits of a preemptive first strike on the Soviet Union. “And we call ourselves the human race,” he said later to his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk.

If Kennedy had lived, history would have unfolded differently. Our narrative sets out the alternative reality that would almost assuredly come to pass had fate allowed JFK to return to the White House after Dallas.

Across a range of areas — foreign policy, civil rights, civil liberties, outer space — JFK set in motion attitude and ideas that would after his death come to be accepted as conventional wisdom.

“The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city.” he says in Years of Lightning/Day of Drums. It was a recognition of an unwelcome truth in a demonstration of realpolitic that has been unmatched by any succeeding president.

Vietnam, of course, was the greatest challenge of the Kennedy years and those that followed. Would he have done things differently if he had lived?

Vietnam was already a divided country when Kennedy took office in 1961. The old French colony of Indochina had been cut in half – communist and non-communist – at the Geneva peace conference of 1954.

In a debate in the Senate that year, young Senator Kennedy set out the view that would guide his future presidency. It would be “dangerously futile and self-destructive,” he declared, “to pour money, materials and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory.”

Less than three  months before his death, Kennedy told newscaster Walter Cronkite: “In the final analysis it’s their war. They’re the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors but they have to win it. The people of Vietnam against the communists … I don’t think the war can be won unless the people support the effort …”

There was a quicker and cheaper way out of Vietnam than that which was finally followed by the United states. I am convinced JFK would have found it, and Kennedy After Dallas describes how it might have come about.

A reviewer of my book has challenged me on what Kennedy would have done to inquire into the attempt on his death. The reviewer suggests he would have gone all out to find out who was behind the actions of Lee Oswald Harvey, and suggests it might have been Lyndon B. Johnson. I do not accept that judgement, not because I think Johnson incapable of leading such a murderous mission, but because I believe Kennedy’s commitment to the sanctity of the American political system would have deterred him from seeking such an earth-shaking explanation.

Kennedy had a strong fatalistic streak. On the day after the settlement of the Cuban missile crisis, he told his brother, “This is the night I should go to the theater.” He left on his desk a slip of paper on which he had written a line from a prayer of Abraham Lincoln: “I know there is a God – and I see a storm coming. If he has a place for me, I believe that I am ready.”

“Kennedy After Dallas” is downloadable as an e-book for $3.03 from Amazon.com. In the U.S. here and in Canada, here.

A publishing industry on suicide watch

November 9, 2012 Leave a comment

In 1920, the poet Ezra Pound moved from London to Paris to “save American letters from premature suicide and decomposition.” In 2012, is there someone who will move to Toronto to save Canadian letters from a similar fate?

The question arises in the wake of two developments that are disturbing to Canadian writers and independent book publishers: The slide toward bankruptcy of the leading independent Canadian publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, and the merger of two of the world’s largest publishers, Penguin and Random House into a single entity owned by Germany’s Bertelsmann & Company.

Vancouver-based D&M, facing a debt load of $6 million, has taken the first step to file for bankruptcy protection. The prospects of finding an independent buyer to pick up this debt, or of working out a settlement of a few cents on the dollar with creditors, are slim, in my opinion. Sadly, the company’s creditors include many writers, one of whom is owed more than $50,000 in unpaid royalties.

Penguin and Random House have operated competitively in Canada for many years. They’ve been prestigious outlets for many Canadian writers, while also distributing in Canada the lists of their parent companies. Together, they own 40 per cent of the Canadian book market.

The worry is that the merger, even if it leaves the imprints standing, is likely to result in the publication of fewer books by Canadian authors.

The merger also raises serious questions about Canada’s existing policy on foreign investment in the book publishing industry. The Harper government is known to favor a more open approach to foreign investment generally. Its a fundamental of conservative thinking that such investment creates jobs and stimulates the economy. That’s why the test for a foreign buyer — in every other industry — is to show that the transaction will bring a “net benefit” to Canada.

That’s not the case of the cultural industries. They were intentionally left out of the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement, and its follow=-up, NAFTA. Too important to allow the sector to be swallowed up by foreign buyers, the thinking went. But now, there’s growing pressure to allow foreign publishers — like U.S.-based Simon & Schuster — to buy out or set up their own Canadian publishing companies.

Then came the Internet, and behemoths like Amazon, offering instant access to book buyers all over the globe, including Canada. A turning point may have come when Ottawa allowed Amazon to set up its own distribution centre in Mississauga, Ont., to better serve Canadian buyers.

While more book  buying shifted to the Internet, the advent of the e-reader further undercut traditional book stores, especially the dwindling number of independent book dealers. The Chapters-Indigo chain fought back with its own online presence, and by launching its own e-reader, Kobo, since sold off to a major buyer.

As a consequence of all of this, you’ve got observers like The Globe and Mail’s John Barber declaring that the “phoenix (of Canadian publishing) is now officially extinct.”

Consolidation at both the publishing and the retail levels is nothing new — every other industry has gone through it in the past few decades. The economics that drive monopoly practices — low profitability and stagnant sales — are even more obvious in book publishing than in, say yoga making or hardware retailing.

For authors and publishers, three realities are clear:

  1. People seem to be reading less, distracted as they are by social media and web surfing.
  2. The shift to e-reading shouldn’t hurt that much – authors are still needed to create the content.
  3. The printed book is still the basis of literary life – the indispensable building block for public recognition , author success, and publisher survival.

So how do we avoid suicide and decomposition in Canadian letters?

Writers will write and readers will read. How to connect the two is the question. The Awards programs — Giller, Writers’ Trust , BC Non-Fiction, Taylor — are fantastic because in additional to their cash value, they draw attention to the winners and boost sales. It’s great to see the Giller go to an unconventional choice, Will Ferguson’s thriller 419. But the key, I think, is more effective promotion and marketing by publishers. Too many books are published unheralded, shipped off to the stores unaccompanied, and little or nothing is done by the publisher to make the public aware of their existence. Publishers are leaning too much on authors to do this job. This has to change. Readers have to be made aware of a book before they’ll buy it.

No book should be published unless the publisher (and the author) have a clear, effective, and unique marketing plan to support it. It’s not just a matter of dollars. Example: My recent book, Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer, has joined the hundreds of other biographies on the book shelves, without any extraordinary effort being made by the publisher, Dundurn, to sell it.  Memorial University in St. John’s might have been talked into putting on a seminar on the Smallwood legacy – a reappraisal of his life, 21 years after his death. Every book has something unique about it, and that uniqueness needs to be better exploited.

An online voice, Andrew Losowsky of the Huffington Post, recently asked why  is it that we like to take books on vacation? Because “we read to be transported away from ourselves.” Adds Losowsky: “A great book is the very definition of a de-stress tool. It says, ‘Let me take you away from this for a while,’ and then, like a mystical masseuse for the mind, it does so.”

And don’t people need this now, more than ever?