Monday, 28 November 2011

Travel Archives: Ghost Hunting in Waterton Park

My "career" as a newspaper reporter lasted all of three months. It was the middle of 2008 and my wife and I were freshly returned from Japan when I worked for a brief stint as a reporter for the Waterton Boundary, a small summer weekly produced by the Pincher Creek Echo for distribution in Waterton Lakes National Park. If nothing else, it was a lot of fun. I got to photograph mountain goats, interview Parks Canada people and scold tourists for feeding the local deer - not things I get to do very often in my current line of work here in Edmonton. And for three months, I got to spend my working days in one of the most beautiful corners of North America.

Waterton, for those who don't know it, is Alberta's forgotten and most underrated national park. A far smaller park than Banff or Jasper, it nonetheless packs more wilderness per square inch than anywhere else in the country while remaining refreshingly free of the sort of aggressive commercialization you find in the province's better known mountain parks. It also has a fascinating human history, replete with tales of shipwrecks, bootleggers, dance halls, scandals and - yes - ghost lore. Waterton's iconic Prince of Wales Hotel, one of Alberta's grandest lodgings, is also one of the province's most famously haunted buildings, and during my summer in Waterton the hotel's manager was kind enough to give me a personalized guided tour of the place.

Did I see any ghosts, you ask? Alas, any disembodied souls that might have been loitering in the building were nowhere to be seen when I showed up. But the owner did give me plenty of material. Here is the article I wrote for the Boundary following my stroll through Waterton's haunted mansion.

Haunted Hotel: Ghost Stories from the Prince of Wales

(Waterton Boundary, August 29, 2008)

The Prince of Wales Hotel is one of Alberta and the Canadian Rockies’ most celebrated architectural landmarks. Built between 1926 and 1927, the Prince of Wales counts among the grandest of Canada’s grand railway hotels, standing alongside Quebec City’s Château Frontenac, Victoria’s Empress Hotel and the Banff Springs Hotel not far to the north

Sitting atop a windswept hill overlooking Upper Waterton Lake, the 80-year-old edifice is regularly battered by gale-force winds that rattle windows and rock the building back and forth, making creaking and whistling sounds through sliver-sized joints or cracks in the wood and in extreme cases slamming doors shut. This coupled by the rapid changes in cloud cover and occasional thunderstorms that often accompany such conditions can make for a decidedly spooky setting.

Considering the age and iconic stature of the building and its somewhat forbidding setting, it is hardly surprising that the Prince of Wales Hotel has, over the decades, cultivated a few enduring ghost stories. Indeed the Prince of Wales ranks among most famous allegedly haunted locales in a province rich in ghost lore.

While somewhat less famous as a ghostly abode than its northern cousin, the Banff Springs Hotel, the Prince of Wales is reputedly home to a handful of disembodied souls. So synonymous is the hotel with ghosts that the establishment is broken into by poltergeist hunters nearly every year. According to hotel manager Don Budgen, such break-ins normally occur in springtime before the hotel opens for the summer season. The hotel also has a famously haunted room - Room 510 - a room that Budgen asserts has in the past given guests enough of a scare that they have asked to be moved from it, while other guests specifically request the ‘haunted room’.
Prince of Wales hotel, Waterton Lakes National Park. (item 1)
Source: Library and Archives Canada

The hotel’s best-known ghost is that of a chambermaid named Sara, who reputedly worked at the hotel in its early years of existence and, after being spurned by her lover, threw herself off the fourth floor mezzanine to the lobby below. According to the book High on a Windy Hill: The Story of the Prince of Wales Hotel, Sara’s ghost has haunted the hotel ever since, making her presence known by “rattling liquor bottles and exhaling icy sneezes down the necks of wary guests.”

This story bears an eerie resemblance to a later incident, in which a gift shop employee named Mary committed suicide in a similar fashion in the late 1970s after having fallen in love with the hotel’s then famously dashing manager, Clifford Hummel, only to be turned down by him. According to the current manager, Mary leapt to her death from the sixth floor balcony wearing only a sheet, and to this day her spirit makes her presence known by pilfering and rearranging items in the hotel gift shop, something to which numerous employees have apparently attested.

While Sara and Mary are probably the hotel’s best-known ghosts, there are at least two others that allegedly haunt the corridors of the Prince of Wales. According to Budgen, a well-dressed gentleman who bears a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln is occasionally seen in the dining room and the basement, a ghost who announces his presence by way of a reflection in the windows and a distinct aroma of pipe tobacco. This is believed to be the ghost of a construction worker who fell to his death from scaffolding during the construction of the building.

Yet another ghost - that of the wife of a former hotel chef - began showing up in the common area of the hotel not long after the chef in question disappeared and was later found in British Columbia mysteriously without a wife. (The chef was apparently consumed with jealousy over his wife’s popularity with the hotel’s male employees.)

When asked about his own belief in the hotel’s famous spirits, Budgen, now in his third year as hotel manager, refuses to rule anything out. “I’m a skeptic at the best of times, but I’ve certainly been creeped out more than once,” he asserts. “There have been a couple of times where I’ve had to go out for a walk because I swear I’ve seen something. Mind you, all the creaks and gasps that this building makes doubtlessly contributes to this, but I’ve definitely smelled that smell of pipe tobacco - and then it disappears.”

Budgen also notes that he is not alone, and that a number of his employees have sworn they’ve seen something. “It happens to a lot of people here that they think they see things in the corner of their eyes,” he explains. “It happens to me, but I never see this sort of stuff anywhere else.”

(For more on the Prince of Wales Hotel, here is a link to an article I wrote on the hotel for the now-defunct Alberta magazine Legacy.)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Typos and Other Pubic Embarrassments

10 proofreading shortcuts for the lazy copy editor
'Public' relations were never this man's forte.
During my two years as in-house copy editor and proofreader for the Japan Financial Services Agency, I had a vast swath of documents grace my desk. Most of them were deathly boring and totally forgettable, but every now and again I would get something memorable. One such occasion was when I was asked to proofread a series of thank-you letters from the JFSA addressed to the now dead and deposed Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, his then minister of finance and several other members of his government. (I can’t remember exactly what these were for but I think one or another Japanese bank was opening a branch in Tripoli.)

What I do remember very clearly was that one of the letters had an embarrassing misspelling of the word ‘public’. (This wasn’t in the letter to the Colonel himself but to one of his apparatchiks.) For an instant I was seriously tempted to let it pass, thinking that the letter might cause an incident within the Libyan government that might contribute to destabilizing the regime – this was back in 2007, well before the Arab Spring. But in the end I did my job and corrected the mistake. After all, I didn’t really want some innocent government translator with the Libyan government to get shot over something like this.

This wasn’t the first time I had seen ‘pubic’ in a document instead of ‘public’. In fact, in my many years of editing and proofreading I’ve made a habit of doing a word search for ‘pubic’, especially when I’m faced with a large document wherein things like this can easily get lost or overlooked. Spellcheckers have made us all lazier and egregious typos like this that once wouldn’t have stood a chance now escape capture on a regular basis. I was once editing a document for the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Association which made at least one reference to ‘unclear power’. Granted, in light of the Fukushima disaster, ‘unclear’ is a pretty apt description for this particular organization’s PR modus operandi, but as a professional proofer you can’t let that sort of thing pass.

Most of the typos that slip the net are less amusing than these, but no less embarrassing for a client – and the proofreader assigned to catch them. The best way to catch the common ones is through a word search. Here are ten words I often, if not always, search for in a large document before I even start the laborious process of proofreading.

1) Pubic / Public – Seriously, look for it. I’ve seen it more than twice and there’s no more embarrassing a typo in the English language.

2) Than / That – This is, of course, a more common word than ‘pubic’ and will take you more time, but it’s a very common mistake and one that’s easy to glance over. Trust me – I’ve made this mistake before.

3) Form / From – This is a typo in the same category as #2. The word ‘form’ is invariably going to be less common than ‘from’, so it makes sense to look up the former before the latter.

4) World / Word – This is a surprisingly common one. I think it’s because the letter ‘L’ is located right underneath the letter ‘O’ on the keyboard. I’ve seen this mistake go both ways, so both words are worth looking up.

5) An / And / Nad – This one will usually get underlined by your grammar checker, so it’s perhaps not as much of a priority, and it’s going to take you quite a while to sift through all the ‘an’s’ in a long document. Still, I’ve seen it slip the net more than once, so it might be worth your while. And while last time I checked ‘nad’ is not an officially accepted English word (except in the Beavis & Butthead universe), I have seen it in print before, in places where ‘and’ was obviously the intended word.

6) Allot / A lot – Most of us had this one drilled into us by high school English teachers enough that we no longer write 'alot' - and in any case your spellchecker will catch this one. Nevertheless, ‘allot’ with two L’s is a correct English word, and if you’re typing at breakneck speed trying to get through an assignment, it’s easy enough to type that instead of ‘a lot’.

7) Wed / We – Especially when you're tying fast and writing something like 'We did it' you're liable to end up typing 'Wed it it' or something like that. Worth looking for.

8) Tit / It – Yes, this is a fun one that’s definitely up there with ‘pubic’ in the embarrassment category. I’ve been doing word searches for this one ever since a university professor of mine told me a horror story involving this particular word and the introductory chapter of his doctoral thesis.

9) Massage / Message – Not quite as suggestive as ‘tit’ or ‘pubic’ but just as potentially embarrassing – and surprisingly common.

10) Defence / Licence / Centre / Honour etc. – If you’re from the US or any other jurisdiction that opts for American spellings in English, you can disregard this once. But if you’re from Canada or elsewhere in the Commonwealth and using Microsoft Word (which always seems to revert to American English), you’re going to want to look for these, as Word has a nasty habit of switching them automatically.

BONUS: Typo / Type – Trust me, you don't want to misspell the word 'typo'. That's just plane plain embarrassing.

For a look at the far-reaching economic impact of spelling mistakes, read this BBC article.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Ten Essential English Language Books About Japan

Yesterday I got my first writing gig in over two years with a magazine for which I was once a regular contributor – Tokyo Weekender. A monthly magazine produced in Tokyo and geared for the city’s Anglophone expatriate community, Weekender was one of the most fun gigs ever. As a Weekender contributor, I got a chance to write about pretty much everything you can imagine – finance, real estate, health and wellness, travel, sports and the ins and outs of Japanese culture. Weekender helped sharpen my writing skills at a time when I was a whole lot less experienced than I am now and gave me a chance to write about topics that I probably never would have otherwise. It was always a pleasure, and having been away from Japan for over three years now, getting the nod from them to write yet more material about Japanese culture is a real honour.

Japan is a place that has impacted me greatly. I’ve spent a total of six and a half years of my adult life there, including stints as a research scholar, an English teacher and an editor-proofreader-translator for a translation firm in Tokyo. It’s the place where I began my freelance writing career, a place that continually fuelled my creative fires and a place that still occupies a lot of intellectual and psychological real estate in my mind – even after three years back on the terra firma of Canada. It was a great country in which to be a writer, and indeed it took my quite some time to find my stride again as a freelancer after returning to my native country. And it goes without saying that Japan has been even more on my mind since the terrible events of March 11 of this year, making me feel more compelled than ever to write about the place.

I’m also far from the only westerner to have this experience. Somebody once told me that Japan was the world’s most written about country, and while I have my doubts about this (How would you even calculate this?), the amount of writings purporting to explain the place is nothing short of phenomenal. Look up Japan on and you get 324,424 results. That’s a lot of ink. Part of that is that Japan is a big, wealthy and influential country in the world, but there’s definitely more to it than that. Japan’s beautiful and beguiling traditional arts and culture, fascinating and complicated history and always intriguing modern day idiosyncrasies continue make the country an absolute goldmine for the expatriate scribbler. Just when you think the well has been exhausted, another bucket of fresh ink is dredged up from the bowels of the Japanese archipelago.

There are literally thousands of English language books out there that purport to explain Japan to the outside world. Many of them are not particularly good and some are frankly annoying, particularly after you’ve stayed in Japan long enough to realize that many of the west’s stereotypes about the place hold little water in reality. However, there are some truly wonderful books about Japan that I would recommend to anyone planning on spending any time in the country or is otherwise desirous to learn more about this fascinating country. Here are my top ten – in no particular order.

A Lateral View by Donald Richie

Front CoverAt 87, Donald Richie is the granddaddy of ex-pat raconteurs in Japan. A US navy purser and medical officer during the Second World War, Richie first crossed paths with Japan during the postwar occupation, and never really left. He is best known in the west as an expert in Japanese film and is famous for having introduced Akira Kurosawa to western audiences. A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan was published in 1992 and spans several decades of life in Japan’s capital city. While much of the content is a tad dated now, particular as regards gender roles and societal expectations, his shrewd observations of social grammar and captivating snapshots of Tokyo life throughout the decades makes this a must-read.

Embracing Defeat by John Dower

Front CoverIt is rare that an academic treatise is so captivating that you’re compelled to read it from start to finish. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II is one such read. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, MIT historian John Dower tells the story of the short but profoundly transformative six-year period of US occupation following Japan’s defeat in World War II and its political, economic, cultural and psychological legacy on the part of the Japanese people. For anyone looking to understand the lingering ghosts of the war, the unresolved constitutional issues and the cultural insecurities that continue to bedevil Japan, this book is highly recommended reading.

Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma

Front CoverIf the year 1945 was a year of enormous consequence for Japan, the year 1854 was at least as consequential – and perhaps even more so. With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s ‘Black Ships’ in Edo (Tokyo) harbor in that fateful year demanding that Japan open its borders for trade, the country was transformed from an isolated, inward-looking pre-industrial domain into a country scrambling to catch up with the western powers. In Inventing Japan, Anglo-Dutch historian Ian Buruma examines that transformation as it played out over the period from 1854 to aftermath of the Second World War and how the forces set in motion by the Black Ships still underpin the country today.

Green Tea To Go by Leza Lowitz

While the canon of western writings on Japan has for the most part been overwhelmingly male-dominated, some of the most offbeat English language writings on the country – particularly in the fiction category – have been written by women. American ex-pat poet and short story author Leza Lowitz is one of the best known contemporary female writers in the ex-pat crowd, and her story collection Green Tea To Go: Stories from Tokyo is an absolute delight. Her stories delve deep into the masks of manners and unspoken truths that characterize Japanese social grammar, which she brings to the fore by way of a motley assortment of frazzled business executives, political extremists, self-conscious yakuza gangsters and lovestruck English teachers. Cultural difference made fun.

For more on Leza Lowitz, who is also a Tokyo-based yoga instructor, check out her website.

Losing Kei by Suzanne Kamata

Bicultural families may be a dime a dozen anymore in Japan’s larger cities, but expatriate parents of bicultural children in Japan still face challenges in a society long characterized by its racial and cultural homogeneity. One such issue is that of child custody following a divorce, wherein Japanese parents are overwhelmingly favoured in such cases and incidents where the foreign parent has effectively been denied access to their child are well known. In her debut novel Losing Kei, ex-pat American author and gaijin supermom Suzanne Kamata tells the poignant tale of an American woman who fights to regain access to her son following her divorce from her Japanese husband.

For more on Suzanne Kamata and bicultural parenting in Japan, check out her wonderful blog, Gaijin Mama.

Hitching Rides with Buddha by Will Ferguson

Click for larger image.Canadian readers know Will Ferguson as the wise-ass satirist behind such books as Why I Hate Canadians, Bastards and Boneheads and Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw. However, it is little known to most Canadians is that the Calgary author first cut his teeth as a writer during his years in Japan as an English instructor. Originally released under the title Hokkaido Highway Blues, Hitching Rides with Buddha is the hilarious and fascinating diary of Ferguson’s hitchhiking journey from southern Kyushu through Honshu to the far northernmost tip of Hokkaido. Delightfully self-deprecating and refreshingly cliché-free, the book paints a picture of an endlessly quirky country made up of ordinary yet surreal characters plying Japan’s highways.

Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr

Of all the authors on this list, Alex Kerr is arguably the most ‘Japanese’, not only due to his impeccable fluency in Japanese but also for the fact that his writings fit more within the context of Japan’s own cultural commentators and social critics than within the ranks of ex-pat lit. Lost Japan was originally written in Japanese under the title Utsukushii Nihon no Zanzō (美しき日本の残像, "Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan"), with which Kerr became the first foreigner to win the Shincho Gakugei literary prize (the Japanese equivalent of the Booker Prize) in 1994. The book examines in loving detail the traditional art forms for which Japan is renowned, while also lamenting the demise of much of Japan’s cultural and environmental splendour by a development-obsessed elite.

D&D ENG02Lost Japan, however, was to be but a warm-up punch for Kerr’s most provocative book to date, Dogs and Demons (犬と鬼, “Inu to Oni”), a book that amounts to a declaration of war on Japan’s political and business mandarins. Published in 2001 after nearly a decade of research, the book paints a disturbing picture of a country besieged by wasteful pork-barrel projects that rack up debt while destroying the country’s mountain, rivers, coastlines and traditional architecture, at the behest of corrupt bureaucrats in collusion with big business and elected officials.

While the book was slammed by some overseas critics as anti-Japanese, Dogs and Demons proved extremely popular in Japan, where it helped generate a groundswell of opposition to the practices excoriated in the book and a shift toward restoring traditional villages and old urban neighbourhoods, especially in Kerr's beloved Kyoto. Kerr remains an in-demand public speaker in Japan and has become something of an overseas tourism ambassador for the country. You can read the interview I did with Alex Kerr in early 2008 on the author's official website.

The Japan We Never Knew by David Suzuki and Keibo Oiwa

Front CoverIn what can only be described as a literary mid-life crisis, renowned Japanese-Canadian biologist and environmental crusader David Suzuki embarked on a journey to the heart of his ancestral homeland in the mid-1990s. Together with cultural anthropologist Keibo Oiwa, Suzuki sets about dismantling the clichéd picture of Japan as a homogenous cookie-cutter society. The Japan We Never Knew examines little known communities within Japan such as the Ainu (Hokkaido’s aboriginal people), the Okinawans, the Burakumin (the descendants of Japan’s former ‘untouchable’ cast), the Zainichi Koreans (Japanese-born ethnic Koreans) and other ethno-cultural groups, as well as a cast of environmental activists, educational reformers and others unafraid to rock the boat in famously conformist Japan.

The Japanese Have A Word For It by Boyé Lafayette De Mente

Front CoverIt is often said that in order to understand a culture you have to have an appreciation for the language that goes with it. And nowhere is this adage truer than in Japan, whose native language is replete with colourful expressions and concepts found nowhere else. The Japanese Have A Word For It explains such quintessentially Japanese concepts as wa (, “harmony”) and the relationship between honne (本音, “deeply held beliefs”) versus tatemae (建前, “publicly stated opinions”), while also delving into some of the language’s more colourful insults and bedroom talk. An excellent introduction into the linguistic underpinnings of Japanese society and culture.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Should you do freelance work that's related to your day job?

Don't rock the industry boat unless you're self-employed.
I just completed an assignment for Alberta Venture on competitiveness issues in the construction industry in Alberta, with a particular focus on labour productivity and cost control strategies. This article, which will be appearing in the January 2012 issue of Venture, marked my first ever freelance assignment related to the construction industry – and industry in which I have been working as a communications specialist for about two and a half months.

I initially balked at the assignment when I was first offered it, thinking that it might be problematic vis-à-vis my day job. However, to my surprise, my employers actively encouraged me to take it on, thinking it would be good for both the company and for my own professional development. In terms of the latter, it definitely was educational for me, imparting me with a deeper understanding of the issues facing the industry than I previously had. As for the former, it remains to be seen if the article will result in any positive PR for my employers, but my boss was certainly happy with what I wrote.

Over the course of my seven years as a freelance writer, I have frequently been asked to write about topics closely related to my day-job activities. During my two and a half years at Native Counselling Services of Alberta, I produced a steady stream of articles on Aboriginal topics, most recently for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s quarterly magazine. (See my November 1 entry.) During my years working for a Tokyo translation company there was considerable overlap between my freelance and salaried work life, although my day job at the time covered so many different domains, ranging from finance to industry to tourism, that enforcing a strict separation between nine-to-five and freelance topics would probably have meant giving up freelance writing altogether.
Nevertheless, any experienced freelancer knows full well that taking on freelance work that’s closely related to the work you do for a company or organization as a salaried employee is a delicate affair. At the best of times, taking on extracurricular work in your nine-to-five bailiwick can improve your stock significantly. However, as an employee there are invariably issues facing your company or organization that you don’t know about, and a well-meaning but uninformed treatise with your name on it can backfire disastrously. And in today’s wired world, you can be pretty much certain that whatever you write will get back to your employers.
Should you do freelance work that’s closely related to your day job? It really depends on the situation. Sometimes it’s not only fine but in fact beneficial to your employers, and they may well actively encourage it. However, it may well be that the political and business sensitivities of particular issues are such that the messaging needs to be tightly controlled – and as an employee you have no business writing about it outside your role as employee. At the very least, a policy of transparency with your employers is always the best solution. If you’re considering writing about your day-job subject matter, make sure you clear it with your employers beforehand – and be prepared for the fact that they may say no. A $500 writing gig is not worth a world of hurt at the office for months afterward.
As a freelancer, I have always made a point of being open with my employers about my extracurricular writing activities so as to avoid any unwelcome surprises on the part of the people I work for. In the era of Facebook and Twitter, everything gets around, and so will your writings. Even if what you’re writing about has nothing to do with what you do from nine to five, it can still ruffle feathers at work if you’re not careful.
Beyond this, here are my top five advantages and disadvantages of doing freelance work that’s related to your regular gig.
1. It’s easier.
You typically know more about the subject to begin with and contacts for interviews and so on are rarely hard to track down.
2. It’s faster.
Ready access to research materials and relevant contacts make it easier for you to complete assignments that require fast turnaround.
3. Clients are more likely to accept your pitches.
Writing about a topic which you also deal with in a professional capacity, with an official organizational or corporate job title to advance, is a definite selling point when pitching stories to magazines, newspapers and copywriting clients, increasing your likelihood of getting the work you’re looking for.
4. It can make you better at your job.
Especially if you’re a relative newcomer to a field (like myself in the construction industry), taking on relevant writing work is a great opportunity to get yourself educated and broaden your knowledge of a field with which you’re still becoming acquainted. And even if you’ve been working in a field for years, freelance work is a way of branching out of your regular focal points in the same way that a sabbatical allows an academic researcher to change gears in their research.
5. It can boost your professional reputation – and that of your employers.
A well-written article in a magazine or newspaper that’s consistent with your employers’ objectives but not so close as to be construed as a PR piece can do wonders for your personal relationships with your stakeholders and your overall esteem within the profession.
1. It can get boring.
If you’re singularly passionate about your field and want to do nothing but write about that specific topic, this point doesn’t apply. However, if you’re like me, you like some variety in your freelance life and being stuck writing about the same things that you write about 40 hours a week can get frustrating.
2. You run the risk of being seen as a one-trick pony.
Again, some writers market themselves as specialists in a specific field. However, if you’re marketing yourself as a diverse operator and want to be open to all manner of assignments, getting too embedded in a single field, especially if it’s also your day job, can be detrimental.
3. You may have a slanted viewpoint.
There are certain advantages that come with taking on a totally fresh topic, or at the very least something relatively new. Among other things, your viewpoint on it is likely to be relatively unbiased. Conversely, if you’ve been writing on a topic for years, it can be hard to divorce yourself from the filter through which you’ve come to see it. And even if you can see past said filter, you may not be in a position to do so for the reasons outlined in #5.
4. There is little – if any – margin for error.
While any writer worth their salt endeavours to be as informed and accurate as possible, we’re all human beings and we all make occasional mistakes. If you make a mistake in an article about a subject matter that you don’t have to deal with outside of that particular context, said mistake probably won’t follow you around like a bad cold. If it’s a topic wherein you’re expected to be an expert by virtue of your position with an organization or company, it’s a different story completely.
5. The reverse of Advantage #5 is equally true.
For all the reasons outlined in the introduction, you have to be very careful when writing about your day-job subject matter, at least when you’re writing something that will have your name on  it or will otherwise be traceable back to you. Fortunately I’ve never had to deal with a situation like this, as I’ve always been careful, but an imprudent article will at the very least cause bad blood at work – if it doesn’t actually get you fired.

Moreover, even if your employers are amenable to such extracurricular work, you may find that the sensitivities with which you are forced to contend place so many limitations on your work that you’re better off passing on it and doing something completely different. Again, it totally depends on the situation.
None of this, of course, applies if you have a bone to pick with your employers and are actively trying to undermine or sabotage them. But it goes without saying in this case that you’ll be using an assumed name and an IP address that’s not traceable to you. You may even consider a 90's-style zine that you photocopy and distribute by hand on a streetcorner. Just don't let your boss see you doing it.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Gross National Sexy

10 things we could do to boost Canada's international sex appeal

Can't we do better than this?
In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan coined the term ‘Gross National Happiness’, which he touted as a truer measure of a society’s level of well-being than Gross National Product. The notion has since gained some currency beyond Bhutan, with some western academics (notably American anthropologist Jared Diamond) calling for governments to look beyond conventional economic indicators when assessing the well-being of their countries.

The popularization of the concept of Gross National Happiness begs the question: what other possible metrics could one use to rate nation states? Gross National Guilt would be an interesting one, with former Axis powers Germany and Japan obviously on top of the pile, possibly followed by former dastardly colonialists like Portugal and Belgium and recalcitrant former cultural génocidaires like Australia and Canada not far behind. Gross National Pomposity also has potential, although few countries could touch the French in that department.

However, a far more fun one, to my mind, would be Gross National Sexy. There is, of course, nothing scientific about this metric – it’s just a vibe. The winners? Brazil would probably take the top rank, followed by the likes of Spain, Greece, Argentina, Italy, Jamaica, Russia, Israel, Thailand and at least one Scandinavian country. (My vote would be for Iceland.)

Canada, of course, would be way down on this list. We’re not a particularly sexy people and we know it. But we could change all that. Here are ten practical steps we could take as a country that would boost our international sex appeal.

1) Spell ‘Canada’ with a K.

The name ‘Canada’ originates from the Iroquoian word kanata, which translates to ‘small village’ or ‘settlement’. So why did we change the spelling? Whatever the reason, ‘Canada’ sounds plodding and slow-moving, akin to a garbage ‘can’ or a ‘can’ of spam, whereas Kanada with a K sounds oddly exotic. Besides, spelling our country’s name with a K would put us between Jordan and Kazakhstan in the World Almanac, both of which are, if not sexier than us, certainly more alluring and exotic.

2) Make the Carnaval d’hiver a national holiday.

Let’s face it – there’s nothing sexier than a pre-Lenten holiday. Brazilians have their samba parades; the revelers of New Orleans have their brass bands and naughty necklaces; and the fine citizens of Quebec City have their erotic ice sculptures and drunken bacchanals in the old town. Would it be that much to ask of La Belle Province to share this festival with the rest of Canada?

3) Adopt Cree as a national language.

This would really make a difference. Ireland is altogether sexier thanks to the promotion of Gaelic as a national language and some oh-so-gorgeous Sinéad O’Connor tunes in the old tongue, and Israel just wouldn’t be the same without its millennia-old official language, brought back to life by a generation of young and virile kibbutzim. And Cree probably has more claim to being a national language than either English or French, being the traditional language of a vast territory stretching from Labrador to Alberta. That and as Ojibwe author Drew Hayden Taylor explains in his book Me Sexy, Cree is hands-down the dirtiest language in the world.

4) Get rid of the monarchy; bring back Michaëlle Jean.

Mme Jean certainly did her best to boost our country’s GNS during her five years as vice-regent, but that still didn’t quite compensate for the fact that she was a stand-in for the British monarch. And in spite of Will and Kate’s best efforts, the House of Windsor is about as sexy as, well, the House of Windsor. Getting rid of this anachronism and bringing back the elegant, sophisticated former journalist with the sexy accent in both official languages as president would definitely be a step in the right direction.

5) Do something about Stephen Harper.

Regardless of what anyone may think of his performance as prime minister, there can be no denying the fact that Stephen Harper makes the royals look sexy. He’s got to go.

6) Bring back compulsory military service.

This might sound a tad retrograde, but the fact remains that many of the sexier countries worldwide still have mandatory service in the armed forces. Think Turkey, Israel, Thailand and parts of Scandinavia. I’m not sure what it is about conscription that’s conducive to sex appeal, but it’s probably the physical exertion combined with the uniforms.

7) Annex Cuba.

This one would be trickier than the rest, but it’s not without precedent. Newfoundland was an independent dominion until 1949 when it was absorbed by Canada. And the current state of the Cuban economy is not unlike that of the Rock circa 1949 except that Newfoundland had no tourism to speak of. Moreover, parts of Cuba are virtually Canadian colonies anyway thanks to tourism. And it goes without saying that absorbing Cuba into confederation would boost our GNS overnight.

8) Legalize marijuana.

Once upon a time, the Dutch were viewed worldwide as a stodgy bunch of clog-wearing pancake-chomping Calvinists. Not anymore.

9) Promote our real national sport in a serious way.

Contrary to popular belief, Canada’s official national sport is lacrosse, not hockey. And lacrosse, a sport invented and perfected by the same petulant Mohawks who took up arms against the Sureté du Québec and the Canadian military in 1990, is a far sexier affair than our beloved hockey game. Elevating the sport to its intended stature would not only give us a sinewy, bad-ass national sporting brand along the lines of New Zealand’s All Blacks or Brazil’s Seleção but it would also rid us of Don Cherry as a public figure, which alone would be a significant boost to our GNS.

10) Mismanage our economy and watch it all fall apart.

The sad fact of the matter is that the majority of countries that rank highly on the GNS scale are also economic basket cases. Perhaps GNP isn’t such a bad metric after all.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Fresh Off The CCCJ Press!

The Canadian is the quarterly magazine produced by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan. Their fall issue featured an article of mine on Canada's growing Aboriginal business sector - and its recent move towards bona-fide 'nation-to-nation' trade with China, Japan and other East Asian countries.
Trade Winds Across the Pacific

Canada’s Aboriginal business sector is growing in strength and ambition – and East Asia is increasingly paying attention.

It is tempting to wonder what western Canada would look like today if the Chinese had stayed put. Chinese historical records indicate that a monk named Hwui Shan sailed northward around the Bering Strait and along the northwestern coast of North America a full millennium before Columbus’ voyage, and modern scholars have presented further evidence of pre-Columbian Chinese exploration of the continent. Needless to say no lasting relationship between China and indigenous North Americans came of this contact, but with Asia once again at the forefront of international trade, this relationship that never was looks to gain a second shot at life.

This summer saw a major breakthrough in Asian-Aboriginal relations with the launch of the First Nations-China: Transforming Relationships strategy, which in November will send a trade mission of some 100 First Nation, Métis and Inuit business leaders from across Canada on a four-city tour of China. The announcement received extensive coverage in Canada’s daily newspapers, as it not only underscored China’s new-found status as an apex export market for Canadian natural resources, but more importantly signalled the arrival of Aboriginal Canada on the world stage as an economic powerhouse in its own right.

While China’s rise has received outsized media attention over the past decade, the other story, that of the economic ascendency of Aboriginal Canada, remains as little known to most Canadians as it does to the outside world. The clichéd view of Canada’s original inhabitants as a tiny, beleaguered minority clinging to the fringes of confederation remains stubbornly prevalent, but holds little water nowadays. Canada’s Aboriginal population currently stands at around 1.2 million, surpassing all but three of Canada’s metropolitan centres, and is growing at a rate 1.5 times that of the rest of the population. Aboriginal people also claim sovereignty over a vast patchwork of reserves and traditional territories that account for over half of Canada’s total land mass, and much of the country’s resource wealth.

And while the social and economic ills that have plagued Aboriginal communities for generations remain enormous challenges, hard-won legal and political battles by native bands in the 1980s and 1990s presaged a new generation of Aboriginal entrepreneurs with unrivalled access to Canada’s resource wealth. The effect has been truly transformative. A recent study by Toronto Dominion Bank estimated the total revenue of First Nations households at $24 billion in 2011 (up from $12 billion in 2001), and is expected to rise to $32 billion by 2016.

Just as the Aboriginal economic footprint has been growing slowly over the past two decade, so too have Aboriginal Canada’s international economic engagements. Japan-Canada Oil Sands (JACOS) Ltd. has been active in northern Alberta since the late 1970s and over the past decade has cultivated strong ties with First Nations and Métis Settlements in the Fort McMurray region, with counterparts from China and South Korea following suit. British Columbia’s coastal First Nations have also been at the forefront of cultivating economic ties with Asia (and China in particular) in fisheries, forestry and mining, with the Vancouver-based Native Investment & Trade Association (NITA) taking a leading role in promoting Aboriginal-Asian economic relations in the early 2000s.

Author, entrepreneur and NITA President Calvin Helin asserts that current constitutional law makes it advantageous for companies to work directly with Aboriginal people. “Companies know they have to consult with First Nations,” explains Helin, the son of a hereditary Tsimshian chief from BC’s northwestern coast. “This burden is on industry and it can slow down projects. Companies are now realizing that they can get around this by working directly with First Nations.”

While the legal environment has without doubt played a central role in fostering international business conducted by First Nations, it is Aboriginal peoples’ inseparability from and commitment to their land bases that has made them key stakeholders in the Canadian economy. “The resources the world needs are found on First Nations’ traditional lands,” says Mel Benson, former director of the Fort McKay Group of Companies and current Suncor board member from central Alberta’s Beaver Lake Cree Nation. “We’ve got the raw product and we’re also part of its history. (Asian companies) are matching that with business experience and capital, and when that works, the opportunities are limitless. What we’re looking for as First Nations is economic certainty, same as industry and government.”

Helin echoes this view, adding that First Nations’ dual vested interest in economic development and preservation of their land make them uniquely suited for the role of stewards of the country’s resource economy. “We’ve been here for 10,000 years, and we’re not going anywhere. We want development, but at the same time we’re not going to destroy our own backyard. In the future, Aboriginal people are going to play a huge role in footing the cost of running Canada.”

While mutual economic need has been the primary driving force behind the convergence of East Asia and Canada’s First Nations, factors beyond simple economics hold the promise of long-lasting relationships across the Pacific. Although Aboriginal culture remain a largely unknown quotient in much of East Asia, tourism is doing much to change this, and interest in Aboriginal culture in Japan, China and elsewhere is on the increase. And in a similar fashion, Aboriginal entrepreneurs involved in Asia-Pacific business have become increasingly cognizant of the resemblances between Asian and Aboriginal Canadian culture.

“In our culture, the emphasis has always been on relationship-building rather than simply on money and details, same as in Asia,” says Helin, a well-known Japanophile and a Shudokan karate expert, who sees commonalities everywhere, from respect for elders to gifting protocols to non-verbal communication. “My coastal people are particularly ‘Asian’ with our emphasis on formalities, rank and status, but you see many commonalities across all Aboriginal societies.”

After over a century of struggle against cultural suppression and economic marginalization within confederation, Canada’s Aboriginal people find themselves in the odd position of building relationships with the emerging power bloc of the 21st century. However, this legacy of marginalization, coupled with growing concerns about environmental degradation – particularly in traditional territories adjacent to the oil sands – has imparted Aboriginal business leaders with a deep sense of caution. Many Aboriginal leaders remains adamantly opposed to industrial development on their lands, and those who do support it advocate a cautious approach.

“The problem moving ahead is making sure these are truly joint ventures,” asserts Mel Benson. “This kind of business is new to us, and if we’re not careful we’re going to get sidelined. But there are a lot of small partnerships on the ground now, with China, Korea and Japan, and as long as there’s capacity building and direct cash flow, I think it’s going to work.”

While reticence on the part of Aboriginal leaders is understandable, this new wave of trade missions and partnership does indeed hint at a new chapter in Aboriginal Canadian history, one characterized by mutually beneficial relationships in keeping with the original spirit of the Treaties and genuine ‘nation-to-nation’ exchange.