Saturday, 28 December 2013

(Poem) Between Two Parks

Allison and I driving south on the Icefields Parkway (photo by Allison Nichols)

The road south
from Jasper to Banff
is an engineering feat of genius
Eat your heart out, Mount Kailash!
Our pilgrims aren’t encumbered
by tinpot carryalls and clockwise prostration

The icefields shoot past
glistening, oblivious
to the fumes eating through their pores

The Alberta Strata mark the route
Jasper to Edmonton
Rocky Mountain House to Red Deer
Banff to Calgary
Like feeding tubes for the cities
A jagged wall of rejuvenation and postcard patriotism

Mother Bear peers out from her winter cave
scratches at the earth
Eagle is alerted

(Pincher Creek, AB, December 23, 2013)

Why Alberta Merits Two International Air Hubs

I've been meaning to write a response to Ed McDonald's opinion piece in the Edmonton Journal back on December 2 in which the self-described "professional airline pilot, professional engineer and aviation consultant" criticizes Edmonton International Airport's lofty ambitions to become a full-fledged global aviation hub to compete with Calgary International. In his article, McDonald alleges that Edmonton "never has been nor ever will be an airline hub, despite the promises and dreams two decades ago."

As a communications advisor for EIA, my job, among other things, is to iterate the opposing argument in keeping with the brand promise "more flights to more places." At least between 9 and 5, Monday to Friday, I have to do it because I'm paid to. But as an Edmontonian, and one fairly well acquainted with the issues facing the city's air transportation infrastructure, I also feel compelled to make the case in my free time. This, I should make clear, is not a piece of 'EIA' communication. These are purely my own views, albeit ones that are shared by a great many of the people I work with.

In his editorial, McDonald outlines two basic but different arguments. As one of Edmonton's die-hard City Centre Airport supporters (an issue that was finally laid to rest last month), he contends that Edmonton shot itself in the foot by closing its venerable municipal airport, and in doing so squandered an opportunity to establish itself as an important urban "spoke" airport akin to London or Toronto's City Centre Airports. He also makes the claim that Alberta, with its population of four million (as of this year), simply isn't big enough to support two major international airports, arguing that a single one requires a population base of at least three million.

Let's think about this for a moment. For starters, McDonald's argument appears to be self-contradictory in its allegation that Edmonton ought to have kept two airports open - in spite of the fact that the province as a whole doesn't have the population base to support two major airports. How does this make sense? Indeed, anybody well acquainted with Edmonton's modern history (and not emotionally over-attached to ECCA) will tell you that it was the city's failure to swiftly close and redevelop the Muni that both divided and undermined its status as an air hub, allowing Calgary to supersede what was once the undisputed air capital of the province, and hindered the city's downtown for decades by restricting building height, a factor in the mass exodus of corporate headquarters from the provincial capital to the province's now undisputed corporate capital to the south.

A Wagnerian opera finally over (source: Edmonton Journal)
Had the city of Edmonton closed City Centre Airport back in the 1960s following the construction of what was then (and still is) the second-largest airport in the country by land area, Edmonton might still be the province's primary air gateway. Certainly Edmonton's geographical position along the major transpolar air routes to both Europe and Asia and northerly position vis–à–vis Calgary (not to mention its proximity to major fuel refineries in Sherwood Park) still offer tangible benefits to air carriers, and had more corporate head offices remained in Edmonton, it's entirely likely that Calgary International Airport would have remained secondary to Edmonton had the city consolidated its air service early on and concentrated on building better transit links to the International.

But what's done is done, and with Edmonton's breakneck passenger growth over the past five years, it's clear that the airport's time has come once again. Which brings me to McDonald's second point, which is that Alberta, currently the fastest-growing province in the country, doesn't have the population base to support two international airports. Apart from the fact that his allegation is contradicted by the fact that Edmonton and Calgary are both enjoying both the fastest passenger growth in the country among major airports and the steadiest route expansion, this argument is also simply not supported by comparable international experience.

Three Overseas Parallels: Norway, Scotland and New Zealand

Were it an independent country, Alberta, with its four-million-strong population and thriving oil and gas economy, would be broadly comparable to Norway or Scotland. (Granted, the latter isn't technically an independent country, although it could potentially become one in 2014.) Norway, with its population of five million, its per-capita income of $55,000 and its booming energy industry, is arguably the overseas country that most closely resembles Alberta. It also, in stark contradiction to McDonald's assertion, maintains four international airports, each with passenger totals over four million, of which two (Oslo and Bergen) offer regular scheduled intercontinental air routes.

In the case of Norway, Oslo (Gandermoen) International Airport is by far the country's largest at 22 million annual passengers (and the second-largest in Scandinavia after Copenhagen), and offers routes to destinations all across Europe, as well as to intercontinental destinations like Bangkok, Cancun, Dubai, Goa, Islamabad, Lahore, New York (JFK and Newark), Oakland, Phuket, Seoul, Sharm el-Sheikh and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, secondary hub Bergen (Flesland) International Airport, while significantly smaller than Oslo, carries nearly six million passengers a year to destinations that include New York, Tel Aviv and Tokyo as well as seasonal charters to Hiroshima and Gran Canaria. Meanwhile, third and fourth-rung airports in Stavanger and Trondheim offer extensive European connections.

The case of Scotland is equally instructive, and perhaps a better parallel to Alberta given the similar nature of the relationship between its two primary cities. At a population of 5.3 million, Scotland is also roughly comparable to Alberta population-wise, and its petroleum-oriented economy and northern latitude also makes it a logical comparison. It is also a country centred on two main urban regions, Edinburgh - the country's political and cultural capital, and Glasgow - its traditional economic hub. Scotland also has an important third city, Aberdeen, which, as the country's main North Sea oil industry hub, serves a role roughly analogous to Fort McMurray in Alberta.

Plenty to dance about at Glasgow International Airport

Like Edmonton and Calgary, Edinburgh and Glasgow both have a metro areas of roughly a million people. And both cities also maintain thriving international airports, in spite of being far closer together geographically than Alberta's twin cities. With annual passenger totals of over nine million, Edinburgh International is Scotland's busiest airport and the sixth busiest in the UK - and the second busiest outside the greater London area. Edinburgh is also not hard up for intercontinental routes, enjoying non-stop connections to Cancun, Chicago, Doha, Marrakesh, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia and Toronto. Glasgow's airport is smaller, but only just (and growing faster than Edinburgh), serving over seven million a year - roughly the same number as Edmonton - to destinations that include Calgary, Dubai, Halifax, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto and Vancouver.

Another interesting overseas parallel to Alberta is New Zealand. At 4.5 million, New Zealand is only slightly more populous than Alberta, and is roughly the same size geographically. It is also a  prosperous resource-driven jurisdiction that shares Alberta's propensity for commodity-driven boom and bust cycles. In terms of air traffic, New Zealand has a primary international air hub in Auckland as well as a secondary international hub in Christchurch. As the main urban centre for New Zealand's South Island, Christchurch has maintained its role as an important aviation centre over various economic ups and downs (as well as two devastating earthquakes in 2011), and today enjoys non-stop connections to Bangkok, Dubai, Singapore, Tashkent and Tokyo, and with China Southern Airlines soon to commence non-stops to Guangzhou. So much for needing a minimum of three million people for a single international air hub.

What Edmonton Could Be: The Australian Example

So if size and location haven't held Edmonton back from becoming a bona-fide international hub, what has? The twin culprits, as many Edmontonians both inside and outside the industry know, are a hidebound national carrier determined to limit all of its international traffic in and out of Alberta to a single hub and a protectionist national aviation policy that has worked to limit international carriers' landing rights at Canadian airports. (These problems are further compounded by prohibitive landing fees and tariffs which conspire to make Canadian airports uncompetitive internationally - and drive as many as five million Canadians to stateside airports like Bellingham and Buffalo in pursuit of cheaper fares.)

What would Edmonton's airport look like were Canada to loosen its protectionist airline policies and ease the financial burden on its airports? While Bergen and Glasgow are still worthwhile points of comparison, the best parallel is to be found in the Asia-Pacific country most readily comparable to Canada.

YEG Down Under? (source:
Adelaide, the capital of the state of South Australia, is very much the Edmonton of Australia. It's the country's fifth-largest city and has a similar population at 1.2 million. Like Edmonton it is also home to the country's fifth busiest airport, and one that, like EIA, serves a strategically important function as the closest air gateway to the country's mining sector, largely concentrated in country's vast geographic centre, straddling South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. It is also similar to Edmonton inasmuch as the country's national carrier, Qantas, has always made it a policy to use Adelaide International as a "spoke" rather than a hub, opting to funnel international traffic through its main hubs in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

However, the Australian government's embrace of open skies legislation broke Qantas' monopoly on international flights to and from Down Under, and with that opened up opportunities for the city of Adelaide. Result? By June 2013 Adelaide was enjoying year-on-year international traffic growth of a staggering 14.8 per cent and now has non-stop flight to Dubai with Emirates, Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia X and Singapore with Singapore Airlines, as well as Bali (Denpasar) and Auckland with Aussie low-cost carrier Jetstar, which this year established a new pilot and cabin crew base at Adelaide - a clear sign of things to come at this growing air hub.

At the risk of milking the Edmonton-Adelaide parallel to death, the two cities share a remarkable amount in common. Adelaide, in spite of long being Australia's 'forgotten' city, is an industrial city known known increasingly  for its thriving arts sector and festival scene (the Adelaide Fringe Festival is the largest arts festival in the southern hemisphere). In terms of liveability Adelaide as been repeatedly listed in the Top 10 of The Economist's World's Most Liveable Cities index, and has also been repeatedly ranked as the most liveable city in Australia by the Property Council of Australia. In other words, it's the city people tend to forget about unless they actually live there, in which case they can't imagine living anywhere else. Sound familiar?


Cities like Adelaide, Bergen, Christchurch, Glasgow and Edmonton all clearly have the demand, and the need, for good international air service. It's also colossally myopic - and frankly untrue - to assume that such air service necessarily comes at the expense of other centres, or in Edmonton's case Calgary. The numbers clearly indicate otherwise. Of Canada's major airports, Edmonton was the fastest growing in 2012 at 6.4 per cent. The second fastest growing? Calgary at 6.0 per cent. Similar trends can be seen elsewhere. In Norway, Oslo-Gandermoen grew by 4.8 per cent in 2011-2012 while Bergen-Flesland grew by 3.8 per cent over the same period. Meanwhile in Australia, overall traffic at Adelaide actually dropped in 2011-2012 (due to the collapse of domestic carrier Tiger Airways) but international traffic surged across the Big Five airports, even as the country's largest carrier continues to suffer labour difficulties and sliding profits.

Rovinescu: he's not your boyfriend (source: Toronto Star)
Last month in Vancouver, Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu rebutted Vancouver International Airport's calls for open skies legislation, arguing that unrestricted competition in the airline industry would harm Canadian business interests and reduce airports like YVR into 'feeder' airports for global carriers. In it he specifically mentioned the Australian case, in which he alleged that the country's open skies policies had effectively allowed Emirates to run roughshod over its airline industry. "Now, there is a choice for Australian customers (travelling abroad), as long as their choice is Dubai," he said. Personally I have my doubts that many Australians outside the Qantas board room share his sentiments, particularly in cities like Adelaide where, until recently, the only choices for international travel were Sydney, Melbourne or Perth.

This is the situation Edmontonians continue to face. Although a major victory was achieved this fall with Icelandair's new Edmonton-Reykjavik non-stop, our flag carrier's refusal to offer any international non-stops out of Edmonton (apart from the now-downgraded London-Heathrow service) and the federal government's still restrictive policies regarding international carriers, comes at a colossal disadvantage for non-traditional hub cities like Edmonton. Not only would we love to have more intercontinental non-stops out of Edmonton, but we've shown we can support it. Statistics from the UK's Civil Aviation Authority clearly show that Air Canada's Edmonton-London flights have remained competitive compared with comparable flights out of Calgary and other centres, in spite of claims to the contrary, and early sales for the Icelandair's services out of Edmonton were enough to persuade the airline to launch the route earlier than previously planned.

None of this need come at the expense of Calgary's steady aviation growth, and there is clearly a need for two major airports in this province. While YYC and YEG will invariably continue to joust for passengers and routes, at the end of the day the two airport authorities are on the same team, as both are important drivers of Alberta's economy. Ed McDonald's view of the Alberta aviation scene might have held water back in the 1970s when the province's population first cracked the two-million mark, but it's clearly woefully out of date now, contradicted by both local demand and international parallels.

More flights to more places: it's not just a corporate mantra. It's a raison d'être. And while we at EIA will invariably continue taking pot shots at our rivals down the QEII, at the end of the day what's good for Edmonton is also good for Calgary. Open skies legislation may not be good Air Canada share prices, but more choices for Canadian air travellers and overseas business people and tourists wanting to come to Canada is a good thing all around. And at the end of the day, isn't that the whole point of aviation?

Thursday, 26 December 2013

5 Reasons Northern Alberta Needs A Tourism Makeover

For the record, I love the new Travel Alberta marketing campaign "Remember To Breathe." It's a great catchphrase for a province with an enviable treasure-trove of awe-inspiring scenery and interesting things to do. Here's my problem with this ad, though. The imagery in it is overwhelmingly biased towards the southern part of the province. (For the record, I'm referring to the Edmonton-Jasper corridor as 'central' in this post.) Not to disparage the beauty of the province's southern prairies and Badlands or the majesty of Waterton and Banff or even Calgary's ever-more-impressive skyline, but is there really nothing north of Edmonton worth visiting?

Endless forest, dancing lights in Wood Buffalo National Park
(source: National Post)
Alberta, it's worth mentioning, is enormous. At 661,848 square kilometers in size it's larger than France or Ukraine and it would be the 41st largest country by land mass (between Burma and Afghanistan) were it to be independent. And like the aforementioned countries, Alberta's land mass is one of epic diversity, but as a result of a number of factors (relative population density, proximity to the United States and major rail lines, the economic ascendency of Calgary etc.) tourism in the province has been all but limited to its southern half. It's as though the southern half were France and the northern half were Afghanistan or Burma!

But unlike the latter two countries, northern Alberta's tourism woes cannot be blamed on wars, banditry, local insurgencies or xenophobic dictatorships intent on shutting out the world. Nor can it be blamed on a lack of attractions. Take, for example, Wood Buffalo National Park: Canada's largest national park and the second largest in the world (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983), home to the world's largest herd of free-roaming wood bison and one of only two nesting sites for the whooping crane. Or Peace River Country: a vast stretch of aspen parkland spanning northwestern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia and crucible of the Fur Trade. There's the historic hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta's oldest continually inhabited settlement and governing hub for the region's largest First Nations, the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan.

Grass dancers at Lac La Biche Powwow (source: Facebook)
There are great festivals too, like Slave Lake's North Country Fair - a hippie love-in/folk music festival on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake and Fort McMurray's YMM ArtFest, as well as the region's numerous Aboriginal-themed festivities (most notably Fort Mac's Métis Fest and National Aboriginal Day festivities). There are fishing, hunting and nature tours all across the region's endless lake-studded boreal forest landscape, including trips to remote fishing camps where your chances of encountering another human being are next to zero. And, of course, there are aerial tours of the region's most economically important - and controversial - feature, the Athabasca Oil Sands, tours which do much to quell the notion that the entire region (as opposed to a fraction of one percent of it) resembles a bomb-blighted wasteland.

Yet in spite of this, tourism in northern Alberta, as well as promotional muscle behind it, remains negligible at best. Apart from simply historical habit (the south has always been far more synonymous with tourism), this may be simply due to the fact that the region, with all its resource wealth, has never felt the need to develop a tourism sector. After all, with Fort McMurray Airport passenger traffic growing at an annual rate of 29 per cent (by far the fastest in the country), it's not as though people aren't coming to the region - they're just not doing it for pleasure. Which is a real shame, because in addition to the region's truly stunning physical landscape and abundance of things to do, northern Alberta would also benefit from a greater focus on attracting tourists for the following reasons:

1) Tourism is a truly recession-proof industry.

Still the only game in town (source: National Post)
Alberta economists talk about "boom and bust" economics with the same fatalistic tone that Japanese architects talk about earthquakes. And while this is unlikely to change anytime soon, a more diverse economy makes for less severe busts. And tourism, perhaps more than any other sector, is a great recession insurance policy. Not only does an abundance of local attractions provide more affordable alternatives to overseas travel in times of greater economic hardship (in turn pouring capital back into local communities), recessions make a country more affordable to overseas visitors. A vibrant tourism sector is therefore a great insurance policy for a region, particularly for one so prone to big economic ups and downs.

2) Tourism keeps people around.

While Fort McMurray continues its steady evolution from seasonal work camp to a real city, it still maintains a disproportionately high "shadow population" of seasonal workers. A more substantial tourism industry would be a further step in the city's evolution. As the Municipal District of Wood Buffalo's only real urban settlement, Fort Mac is the logical hub for a full-fledged Wood Buffalo tourism industry, and it's not hard to imagine the place as a new Jasper or Banff, replete with superb eateries, lodgings, coffee shops, retail outlets, live music venues and art galleries, which would not only create jobs but also curb the outflow of people following their two weeks on the oilpatch.

3) It would be a great boon for the region's Aboriginal people.

Northern Alberta is not only home to tremendous cultural diversity among its First Nation and Métis communities, but it also some of the country's most economically successful Aboriginal groups. While the oil sands continue to cause much consternation and division among the region's First Nations, there's no denying their positive impact on many communities. The Fort McKay and Fort McMurray bands are amongst the wealthiest First Nations in the country, and the Fort Chipewyan region's Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations have both built successful groups of companies that encompass everything from trucking to ecotourism. Some of the region's Aboriginal tourism drivers, such as the wonderful Mikisew Sport Fishing and the fantastic Aboriginal hotelier group Sawridge, are very much market-ready, while others need more time and support to reach that point. Considering the widespread interest in Aboriginal culture and traditions among European and Asian tourists, this would seem to be a natural magnet - and a huge potential benefit to the local population.

4) It would help combat the region's enduring PR problem.

If only Fort McMurray looked like this! (source:
When Neil Young compared Fort McMurray to Hiroshima, my initial reaction was that this was a rather unflattering thing to say about one of modern Japan's prettiest and most hospitable metropolitan centres. It also reminded me of one of the other great benefits of tourism: combating unfounded negative stereotypes. When it comes to shedding a bad image, nothing beats tourism. The latest issue of National Geographic Traveler lists former hellholes Rwanda and Sarajevo among its top twenty "must-visit" destinations of 2014 (together with the now recovered and rejuvenated New Orleans, ranked at #1), and tourism looks to help lift long-beleaguered Burma as it emerges from fifty years of despotism and destitution. Tourism also stands to help northern Alberta shed its unfounded reputation as an environmental disaster zone akin to western Kazakhstan's nuclear test zones (see Kazakhstan's noble attempt to reinvent itself as a tourist destination), which in turn would do wonders for Alberta and Canada's reputations abroad.

5) Northern Alberta is Canada writ small.

The current state of Northern Alberta's economy is very much reflective of Canada as a whole - thriving but woefully under-diversified. Once a global leader in the tourism industry (ranked second behind Italy as recently as the 1970s), Canada has become a colossal global underachiever, with tourism revenues having dropped 20 per cent since 2000 and the country now ranked 18th in overseas visitors, behind the likes of Saudi Arabia and Ukraine. There are many reasons for that, including the high cost of internal travel, prohibitively high aviation fees and tariffs, protectionist airline policies, unfriendly visa regimes and a plethora of emerging market competitors, but the main reason is simple: it hasn't been prioritized. Many observers have pointed this out, and yet political will to curb Canada's international tourism demise remains in short supply.

Financial basketcase turned tourism darling. Skál!
(source: National Geographic)
Why should any of us care? See Reason #1. Consider the case of Iceland, which in 2012 was ranked 16th overall in spite of having less than one per cent of Canada's population. Prior to Iceland's 2008 banking meltdown the country already enjoyed an international reputation as a "cool" destination thanks to its otherworldly landscape, surprisingly temperate climate, fascinating ancient history and hip modern art, music and design scene. Then when the country's economy collapsed (taking its overvalued currency with it), the country's government and private sector sprung into action , promoting Iceland as a fashionable alternative gateway to Europe, together with its enterprising national air carrier Icelandair, offering transatlantic passengers the option of flying to Europe from smaller hubs (like Halifax and Boston) via Reykjavik and stopping off in the land of Erik the Red and Björk at no extra cost.

Result? When Icelandair launched non-stop flights out of Edmonton International Airport to much local fanfare, the airline quickly found no shortage of demand on the Alberta side for travel to Iceland as well as to continental destinations like Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona. Filling the planes on the way back with anything other than Canadians returning to their regular lives, on the other hand, has proven to be more challenging. That could change. Northern Alberta, and indeed western Canada as a whole, has at least as much going for it tourism-wise as pint-sized Iceland. Edmonton, with its multitude of arts festivals, resplendent park network and increasingly ambitious architecture, makes a compelling foil for Reykjavik, and the haunting landscape of boreal Alberta, as well of course as the Rockies, the Badlands and the postcard cowboy landscapes of the prairies, ought to be drawing Europeans by the thousands. They're not. Not even close.

Let's try to do something about this in 2014. Starting with Alberta's neglected north.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

26 Signs You Were A History Major

 Yes, I'm a history major - and fiercely proud of it. Other people have master's degrees in things like communications, marketing, business administration etc. I have one in modern Japanese history and I've never regretted it - either personally or professionally. And as far as I may have strayed from the academic path as a historian, it's still in my blood. And if you too are an incurable historian, you'll probably recognize more than a few of these personality quirks.

1. Your Mexican holiday travel plans include the National Archives in Mexico City.

2. Your credit card and online banking PIN numbers are dates of battles or obscure treaties.

Source: @1066TheMovie

3. You edit Wikipedia content on a regular basis.


4. You acknowledged that the TV show Deadliest Warrior was a horrible show and you cringed while watching it - yet you continued to watch it religiously.


5. You've used Ancient Sparta and Alexander the Great as arguments in favour of gays in the military.


6. You get positively tetchy when people joke about the French being cheese-eating surrender monkeys and immediately bring up William the Conquerer, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Battle of Algiers and other examples of Gallic bellicosity.


7. You actually know what the Latin motto of your university means - and you've tried to mess with people by making up obscene alternates to it.


8. You've had sexual fantasies involving Queen Boudica. Or Abraham Lincoln.

Sources: /

9. You know that the "Meiji Restoration" isn't a digital data recovery function.


10. You think the History Channel has sold out by pandering to religious zealots and conspiracy nuts and you scoff at its mere mention - and yet you continue to watch it.


11. When somebody asks you what historical figure you'd like to meet you can't give a straight answer, prefacing that it's a "complicated question."


12. You wish that they would make a Star Wars movie set immediately after Return of the Jedi centred on the "Coruscant War Crimes Tribunals" wherein the surviving Imperial officers are tried for war crimes Nuremberg-style - and have actually thought about writing a piece of fan fiction along those lines.

Source: (originally)

13. You can't watch a sci-fi or fantasy movie without deconstructing it along the lines of what historical civilizations inspired it.

Source: /

14. You've been on holiday in a foreign country and found yourself explaining the origins of place names in that country to people who live there.


15. You know Napoleon wasn't really that short - and that he was actually an Italian guy named Napoleone di Buonaparte.


16. You've reached for a condom in a moment of passion and your mind immediately starts to fixate on how bad a name "Trojan" is for a condom given that the Trojans were indeed "impregnated" by the legendary wooden horse.


17. You "celebrate" Columbus Day by raging about colonialism and cultural genocide via social media.


18. You've used the word "historicity" in conversation without even realizing it.


19. You know that the Iroquois Confederacy served as a model for the United States of America and its constitution - and was far ahead of the latter in racial and gender terms.


20. New-age bookstores and alternative healing fairs make you angry - not for all the pseudoscience but for all the brazen cultural appropriation and modern inventions that purport to be "ancient knowledge and practices."


21. You actually know what the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World are and get mad when people get them wrong.


22. You understand that Tintin au Congo, a comic book widely condemned for its caricatured portrayals of Africans, was actually an anti-colonial statement by an author who was deeply critical of his native country's abuses in former Belgian Congo.


23. You have a pet historical figure who is traditionally maligned but you are convinced has gotten a bad rap  (e.g. Richard III, Neville Chamberlain, Jan Smuts). Likewise you have a historical figure you love to hate while the rest of the "historically ignorant" world loves them (e.g. Christopher Columbus, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Che Guevara).


24. You own the complete Blackadder DVD set - and tend to preface ideas with "I have a cunning plan."


25. Niall Ferguson's face make you want to throw things.


26. When you're asked if you could time-travel to either the past or the future you choose the future without a second's doubt because you know enough about the past to know how horrible 99.9 percent of it was.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

(Poem) Eastside Requiem

Source: The Tyee
look into my eyes and
see the lost horizon
step across the line, your world to mine
and you'll wizen

under fading streetlights
winter chills and night frights
somewhere east of where you ceased to care
where the earth blights

and you don't shed a tear
while my friends disappear
without warning
one more dark winter's eve
one more lost life to grieve
in the morning

another daughter of the eastside
nothing but someone else's problem

yes you knew the story
knew we were the quarry
knew he was bad news, yet you would choose
to ignore me

in this urban blister
every stolen sister
had a tale to tell, she cried and fell
you dismissed her

who was she, you don't care
she was used, disrepaired
and foresaken
but the faces and names
and the loved ones remain
ere to waken

daughters standing in procession
one day to stand in vindication

(Vancouver, 2007)

This week the children of three women who were murdered by Robert Pickton filed lawsuits against the police and the serial killer, marking the first such cases involving women Pickton was convicted of killing. This brings the total number of cases filed since May in relation to the Pickton slayings to nine, alleging the RCMP failed to properly investigate their disappearances.

The families and loved ones of these missing women continue to fight for justice, even as this crime has now faded from public consciousness. This unspeakable crime against the city of Vancouver's most vulnerable and downtrodden residents, and the apathy that surrounded their plight until the horrible reality of the situation was revealed to all, must never be forgotten.

I wrote this poem over six years ago. The fact that any news story on this and similar stories involving murdered women on the fringes of society are either shut down to comments altogether or have close to half the comments blocked due to offensive content tells me that the bigger fight against the prevailing social attitudes that abetted this atrocity is far from over.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

10 Asian Bands You Should Know

When academics assert that the 21st century belongs to Asia, they're generally talking about economics - not rock 'n' roll. And yet, if the current global musical landscape is any indication, it would appear the same can be said about rock and pop music. Pity, though, that the western world has yet to really take note. The global phenomenon of Psy's 'Gangnam Style' last year launched South Korea onto the forefront western pop music, but as I noted in a post back in December, foreign-language hits in the Anglo-American world tend to be flashes in the pan - as indeed he is proving to be. While Park Jae-sang deserves much credit for raising the profile of Asian pop music in the west, there's only so much one tuxedo-clad Monty Python horse-riding Korean rapper can do.

Sadly, North America is a veritable Hermit Kingdom when it comes to popular music. K-Pop, J-Pop and all its other regional variants are old news in much of the world, especially within Asia, where language differences have proven to be of little barrier onslaught of Japanese, Korean and Chinese pop and rock acts across the continent at large, with growing numbers from other Asian countries adding new vectors to the continental music picture. Beyond East Asia, artists from Korea, Japan and elsewhere are making waves in countries as divergent as Turkey, Poland and Brazil, places where, unlike in Asian countries, cultural proximity can in no way be counted on to compensate for language gaps.

While most of the Asian pop music taking over the world's airwaves is of the candy-coated teen pop variety, this is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Virtually all of the continent's major cities abound with punk, funk, prog, metal and electronic music, much of which seems to possess a rawness and energy that seems to be lacking in the Anglo-American west. A major factor, no doubt, is the fact that most of these countries are relatively young democracies with deeply rooted socially conservative mores, where tattoos, wild hair and loud music still count as acts of rebellion. Whatever the case, Indonesia's skatepunks and Vietnam's headbangers could well teach their North American counterparts a lesson on how to rock 'n' roll.

A list of must-hear contemporary Asian bands could well run into the hundreds. Here is my own semi-educated top ten.

1. Galaxy Express

Origin: Seoul, South Korea
Style: Alt-Punk
Recommended for fans of: The Ramones, Manic Street Preachers, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon

Anyone who thinks the idea of Korean punk rock sounds absurd needs to better acquaint themselves with Korea. And punk rock. We're talking a hard-boiled country with a tumultuous modern history whose present-day economic prosperity (in the South, that is) has done nothing to soften its people's flinty temperament. It's a country where student protests are practically a national sport and parliamentary democracy is (literally) a bloodsport, with debates on national security occasionally degenerating into fisticuffs that would make Tie Domi blush. The language is gutteral, the profanity colourful, the food fiery and the road etiquette borderline homicidal. It don't get much more punk than this!

That said, South Korea's domestic rock scene hasn't always had it easy; as late as the 1980s the military government regularly censored various acts. But after a quarter century of democracy, K-Rock has truly come of age. And of the current crop of bands, indefatigable alt-punkers Galaxy Express are generating the most attention, with a Best Band award at the 2011 Korean Music Awards, three US tours and a major following in Japan. Since forming in 2006, the trio of guitarist/vocalist Park Jong-hyun, bassist/vocalist Lee Ju-hyun and drummer Kim Hee-kwon have built a reputation as one of the hardest working bands on the planet. Punk passion meets Confucian work ethic - that's the Galaxy Express trademark!

2. Dachambo

Origin: Yokohama, Japan
Style: Jam Rock, Psychedelia, Neo-Prog
Recommended for fans of: Phish, Juno Reactor, I Mother Earth, Hawkwind, Fela Kuti, early Santana

For a country with such strict drug laws, Japan has a remarkably enduring love affair with psychedelia and all things hippie. A straight-laced society on the surface, the country does indeed possess a strong granola-crunching, Gaia-worshipping streak, as is evident in the Lorax-on-acid visions of Hayao Miyazaki, the peace-love-dope lyrics of bands like dub reggae legends Audio Active and the hemp-clad denizens that congregate every year at festivals like the Fuji Rock Festival, Asagiri Jam and so on. It's also a country with a longstanding devotion to progressive rock, with some Tokyo record stores seeming to specialize in rare King Crimson and Magma bootlegs as well as those of J-Prog legends like Hikashu, Shingetsu and the Ruins.

Combining these two national predilictions is Dachambo, Japan's premiere psychedelic jam band. Dachambo burst onto the local scene in 2004 with their debut album Dr. Dachambo in Goonyara Island with their mesmerizing brand of classic jam and psychedelic rock, and have since been a fixture at the Fuji Rock Festival, Japan's biggest rock music festival. Combining Santana-inspired guitar riffs and Latin percussion, Hawkwind-style space rock synth patches, a heavy dose of Afrobeat (including a memorable cover of Fela Kuti's 'Zombie' on their debut album) and their trademark didgeridu, this Yokohama sextet manages to sound like the entire globe - if it were ground up, stuffed into a bong and then smoked. By Japanese hippies.

3. Matzka

Origin: Taidong, Taiwan
Style: Folk Rock, Reggae
Recommended for fans of: Michael Franti, Burning Spear, Shokichi Kina, Ry Cooder

Taiwan is a small island with a big, complicated personality. An independent nation state in all but official designation, it exists in political limbo while it continues to grapple with its legacy of Japanese colonialism, Cold War-era Guomindang authoritarianism and enduring friction between the 'native' Taiwanese (of Han Chinese descent), newer settlers from the mainland and the island's non-Chinese indigenous peoples. Add to that the influence of rapid economic growth and the wholesale urbanization of a once overwhelmingly agrarian society - coupled with political factionalism that, like in South Korea, occasionally results in parliamentary punch-ups, and you have a combustible culture ripe for artistic expression.

While Taiwan's aboriginal tribes represent only two percent of the island's population (and a significantly smaller portion of its economic pie), Taiwan's first people nevertheless occupy an outsized position in the country's contemporary music scene, producing international pop stars like A-mei, Difang, Samingad and Landy Wen. With an indigenous cultural resurgence now gaining strength, a growing number of aboriginal artists are loudly proclaiming their roots. Of this new generation, the most successful has been Song Weiyi (aka Matzka) and his quartet by the same name. Mixing reggae, folk rock and traditional vocals, in a combination of Mandarin and the Paiwan language, Matzka has proven to be a hit not only across the island but on the mainland as well.

 4. Radioactive Sago Project

Origin: Quezon City, Philippines
Style: Funk, Jazz-Rock, Punk, Ska, Spoken Word
Recommended for fans of: Soul Coughing, P-Funk, early Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

When it comes to absorbing western musical influences and making them their own, the Philippines have had an enviable head start over all their Asian neighbours. With 300 years of Spanish colonialism followed by a half-century under Stars and Stripes, the land of jeepneys and adobo chicken manages to be simultaneously Asian, Polynesian, Hispanic and Yankee without any apparent friction. Moreover, the presence of large overseas Filipino communities in virtually all parts of the world has helped the motherland remain on trend, which helps explain why Korean soap operas, European art films and American rap music compete for the attention of this forever easily distracted country.

The Philippines' abiding love for jazz dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when the US wrested control over the archipelago from Spain, blossoming in the swing era with ensembles like the Pete Aristorenas Orchestra, the Cesar Velasco Band, the Tirso Cruz Orchestra, the Mabuhay Band and the Mesio Regalado Orchestra. In recent years Pinoy jazz has seen a resurgence thanks to groups like Johnny Alegre Affinity, Akasha and its most outlandish practitioners, the Radioactive Sago Project. Founded in 1999 by journalist/gonzo poet Lourd De Veyra, RSP combines slam poetry on sex, drugs, corruption and life in Metro Manila with a fierce, punkified blend of funk, ska and trashy Pinoy pop with some of the capital region's top session players. Fantastic stuff!

5. Modern Dog

Origin: Bangkok, Thailand
Style: Alt-Rock, Shoegaze
Recommended for fans of: Belle & Sebastian, Placebo, Mojave 3, My Bloody Valentine

Thai rock music is one of Asia's best kept secrets. First introduced to the country by American GIs, rock 'n' roll was embraced by the Thais like few others, and more than anywhere else in the continent it has served as a protest vehicle. Most famous among Thailand's early rock rebels are the veteran folk-rock quartet Caravan, a group that emerged amid the 1973 democracy movement with their distinctive blend of rock and traditional folk music and more than anybody else established a uniquely Thai rock sound. But despite this and the countless other bands ranging from metal to shoegaze, Thai rock 'n' roll hasn't travelled very well - perhaps owing to the fact that Thai artists can't count on the kind of overseas diasporic support that their Filipino and Korean counterparts enjoy.

One of the few Thai bands to achieve success outside their homeland is Modern Dog. Established in Bangkok in 1992, this stripped down Brit-rock-influenced trio consisting of vocalist-rhythm guitarist Thanachai 'Pod' Ujjin, lead guitarist May-T Noijinda, drummer Pavin 'Pong' Suwannacheep and a rotating procession of bass players has been hailed as the leading lights of Thai indie-rock and have developed niche followings in Japan and the United States. While not an international household name, Modern Dog has earned the respect of many in the international musical community; their 2004 album That Song was produced by Tony Doogan (of Belle & Sebastian and Mogwai renown) and featured cameos by Sean Lennon and Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda.

6. Ngũ Cung

Origin: Hanoi, Vietnam
Style: Progressive Metal
Recommended for fans of: Tool, Queensrÿche, Porcupine Tree, Queens of the Stone Age, Rush

What is it exactly about the old Soviet Bloc and its near-universal prediliction for heavy metal? Is it the Soviet Brutalist architecture? The labour camp atmosphere? The bad fashion? Whatever the reason, from Minsk to the Mongolian steppe, Stalin's children have in vast numbers traded the hammer and sickle for the pentagram and collective farming for collective hair-thrashing. The land of Ho Chi Minh, it turns out, is no exception, although it took a bit longer for it to gain a foothold there. Vietnam's nascent 1960s rock scene, concentrated in wartime Saigon, was all but quashed by the communists following their victory over South Vietnam in 1975, and even with the Đổi Mới reforms of the 1980s it was slow to resurface.

The past decade, however, has seen Vietnamese rock music blossom like never before. And given that the country has all the requisite ingredients - a tortured past, a socialist present, a melancholy culture with a flair for melodrama and a language full of cool diacritical marks (Eat your heart out, Mötley Crüe!) - it was only a matter of time before Vietnam emerged as a metal powerhouse. Of this new generation of Vietnamese hard rockers, the most prodigious are the prog-metal quintet Ngũ Cung (lit. 'Pentatonic'). Made up of graduates from the Hanoi Conservatory of Music and led by operatic vocalist Hoang Hiep, Ngũ Cung first gained attention through a national talent show in 2007 and then drew international praise for their epic debut album 365000. Expect more from these guys!

7. Biuret

Origin: Seoul, South Korea
Style: Alt-Rock, Goth/Emo
Recommended for fans of: Evanescence, Flyleaf, Garbage, The Gossip, Muse

Sadly, Asian rock, like rock music everywhere else, remains a very male-dominated affair. All across the continent, female performers have tended to be relegated to the bubblegum pop/male eye-candy category, wherein performers are judged more on their looks than their musical ability and tend to fade from the public eye after a brief halcyon period. While a few countries produced their own equivalent to the early 1990s Riot Grrl scene, with the exception of Japan (where female-led alt-rock units like Buffalo Daughter, Shonen Knife and Cibo Matto achieved substantial success), female-driven punk and alternative rock has largely remained underground, and information on such bands (in English at least) is hard to come by.

There are, of course, a few welcome exceptions. Of the current crop of hard-hitting Korean band taking Asia (and to a lesser extent North America and Australia) by storm, among the most incendiary is goth-punk outfit Biuret, led by charismatic frontwoman Won Moon-hye (who also maintains a double-life as a musical theatre performer). Established in Seoul in 2002, the band first gained prominence by opening for Oasis in the Korean capital and in 2009 shot to the top echelons of Asian rock by winning the Sutasi Pan-Asian Music Award, followed by festival appearances in Australia and the UK. With their gothic intensity and manga-esque style, Biuret have become helped elevate the stature of Korean rock abroad while combatting gender clichés at home.

8. Tengger Cavalry

Origin: Beijing, China
Style: Black Metal, Folk/Pagan Metal
Recommended for fans of: Turisas, Burzum, Hellthrone etc.

It should surprise no one that the tough denizens of the nation founded by Genghis Khan have developed a profound love for heavy metal. Metal bands began emerging in Mongolia almost immediately after the fall of the communist regime in 1990, led by acts like Hurd, Kharanga and Niciton. Veteran Mongol metalheads Hurd ('Speed'), with their trademark wolf pelts and portraits of the Great Khan, heralded the emergence of an eastern equivalent to Scandinavia's viking metal, and in doing so provoked a modicum of panic in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where in 2004 the authorities cancelled a Hurd gig on fears of ethnic unrest and riot police were forced to disperse a crowd of 2,000 irate fans.

Ironically, the most extreme of the Mongol Horde-inspired metal bands originates from the other side of the Great Wall in the city that Genghis conquered and made the centrepiece of his Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty. Named after the chief deity in traditional Mongol shamanism (Zh: 铁骑), Tengger Cavalry was originally formed as a one-man project by a multi-instrumentalist known as Nature Zhang, and has since grown into a six-piece behemoth, incorporating Tibetan/Mongolian throat singing and traditional North Asian instruments into Scandinavian-style doom metal - to terrifying effect. While the band has yet to tour outside China, they have begun attracting significant overseas attention, opening for Finnish pagan metal Turisas in Beijing this spring.

Fans of this genre should also check out the Kazakhstani band Aldaspan, who, like Tengger Cavalry, have married metal with the traditional sounds of the steppe to make music that will make you want to loot and pillage your way along the Silk Road.

9. Billfold

Origin: Bandung, Indonesia
Style: Hardcore/Skatepunk, Riot Grrl
Recommended for fans of: L7, Suicidal Tendencies, Bad Religion, Fugazi, Rancid

It's worth noting that in the vast majority of Asian countries, being a punk rocker (or any other breed of rocker for that matter) is considerably easier today than it was a generation ago. Of the artists profiled here, all but two hail from electoral democracies, and the two countries that aren't are nonetheless much more socially and culturally permissive now than they were 20 years ago. That said, socio-political challenges remain. In Indonesia the past decade-plus of uninterrupted democracy has also seen a rising tide of Islamism, which is making life increasingly difficult for the country's famously passionate hardcore/skatepunk community. In Medan in Islamist-dominated Aceh Province, 65 punks were arrested over a year ago and sent to re-education camps, and even in the liberal capital Jakarta religiously motivated crackdowns on punk venues have occurred.

In spite of rising religiosity, punk continues to thrive in the world's largest Muslim country, aided in no small part by the country's wholesale embrace of social media. (Jakarta alone produces 2.4 percent of the world's tweets.) Among the latest crop of Indo punk acts, one of the most compelling is Billfold. Founded in 2010 in the hardcore hotbed of Bandung, West Java, Billfold is everything the local Islamists love to hate - a female-fronted social media-savvy skatepunk outfit. While information on the band in English is hard to come by, the writhing masses of punked-up youth prostrating at the feet of frontwoman Gania Alianda and their 31,000-plus Twitter following (nearly half of Rancid's tally and nearly 20 percent of Henry Rollins') suggests these kids are on to something. Allah be praised; punk is not dead!

10. MIDIval PunditZ

Origin: Delhi, India
Style: Electronic, Trip-Hop, Jungle, Drum 'n' Bass
Recommended for fans of: Massive Attack, Daft Punk, Gorillaz, Lamb, Talvin Singh, Leftfield

For a country that has long been placed on a pedastal by western artists, India's ascendency as a legit force in contemporary popular music was a long time coming. With the notable exception of prodigal son Farrokh Bulsara (better known to the world as Freddie Mercury), Indian artists have long chafed under western preconception of uncoolness, either lumped in with classicists like Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain or with the cheesy morass of Bollywood. This finally began to change in the 1990s with the emergence of diasporic artists like Talvin Singh, Sam Zaman/State of Bengal and Asian Dub Foundation in the UK and Karsh Kale and Monica Dogra in the US, whose varied crossover projects heralded a 21st century 'Cool India' renaissance.

In the meantime, social change and rapid economic growth have transformed the motherland's music almost beyond recognition in the past decade. In the late 1990s, Delhi boys Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj founded the electronic crossover combo MIDIval PunditZ at a time when the Indian capital still barely had any nightclubs. Today live music venues abound in India's major cities, and the scene that Raina and Raj helped establish has created a powerful bridge between the diaspora and homegrown artists. With five studio albums under their belt, numerous overseas festival appearances and an impressive list of collaborators, including Karsh Kale, Anoushka Shankar, Monica Dogra and Assamese folk rocker Angaraag 'Papon' Mahanta, Indian music has never looked more enticing.

And one honourable mention

One country notably absent from this list is, not surprisingly, North Korea. I did so try to find a North Korean band to include here, but alas I came up empty-handed. The People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam may still be one-party authoritarian states, but the fact that bands like Tengger Cavalry and Ngũ Cung can not only operate openly but also perform overseas attests to their countries' increasing openness and social liberalization. Sadly, musicians inside the People's Democratic Republic of Korea enjoy no such freedom, and while closet punks, headbangers, emo kids and ravers may exist, there's little likelihood of any North Korean bands reaching western audiences anytime soon.

The video below was the best I could do. Given that official party functions are about the only gig to be had in this country, this type of thing is the closest thing to a rock concert any North Korean is likely to attend. I have no idea who these musicians are or even the significance behind this particular rally (possibly a missile launch, if the film footage a behind the band is any indication), but at the very least these ladies have a chance to make some music. And the pyrotechnics on display here are vaguely reminiscent of Kiss. That aside, the only silver lining is that China was just as despotic as present-day North Korea under Mao Zedong. Hopefully in a decade's time I'll be able to write about a rock renaissance in Pyongyang. In the meantime, though, you'll have to content yourselves with this.

Happy listening!