Sunday, November 29, 2009

His Community's Voice

Common passion and common language are the roots anchoring the tree of “community”. A common passion is a powerful bond, for even without a common language, a Bulgarian cattleman and a rancher from Manyberries can share their appreciation for a top-notch bull. Common language opens the door to greater understanding. A Leduc teenager and an English-speaking senior from Thailand can readily build bridges of common interest.
The real magic happens when a common passion is expressed in a common language. Common language articulating the shared passion sharpens the sense of “community” and deepens the linkage. That makes the gifted souls who can articulate the passions, pains and perplexities of a community in a common ‘voice” incredibly important.
Why? They give voice and credibility to a community’s values. With their use of words- spoken, written and in song, they capture a community’s essence.
Alberta singer-songwriter Corb Lund is one of those gifted souls. His songs capture the fundamental nature of the joy and angst of his community- the ranchers, roughnecks, and mavericks of rural western Canada.
Part of Corb Lund’s genius comes in his use of the everyday language spoken by his community, as his lyrics are or become part of their speech patterns. Who in rural Alberta hasn’t heard the phrase “Mighty neighborly- mighhhhty neighborly” used in kitchen or bar table conversations? While the phrase has been around since John Deere wore steel shoes, Corb Lund’s song, “The Truck Got Stuck” song, fixed it for generations in the community vernacular of rural western Canada.
I’ve been a fan of Corb Lund’s for quite a while. He speaks of the life I’ve known- unspoiled landscapes and good horses, vet clinics and ranch wrecks and bullzipping at the crossroads with a neighbor. That’s why I eagerly bought his latest CD, “Losing Lately Gambler” and slipped it into the CD player to have a listen.
When the last song ended, I sat in awed silence. If I had been wearing a hat, I would have taken it off in respect. One song in particular, “This Is My Prairie”, brought tears to my eyes. Every Albertan who gives a damn about the prairie landscape should listen to this song.
I know that I’m a good writer. My informal writer’s “voice” comes from who I am and where I come from. Two national awards for writing for rural audiences proudly hang on my office wall. I know that for my community and for my money, Corb Lund is the best writer – prose or song- working in Western Canada today. He is our community voice, and its’ scribe. I salute him.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Strength Through Diversity

Nature teaches us simple yet powerful life lessons. These lessons are so potent that their implications apply to the broad spectrum of human existence.
Yesterday I received a chain e-mail that reminded me of one of nature’s lessons. This little gem was one of the thinly disguised anti-immigrant rants currently floating around cyberspace like bad breath.
Some Canadians fear that “the others” – immigrants to Canada- are overwhelming and changing Canadian society. It appears that those immigrants who are non-Caucasian and non-Christian are of special concern. The writers of these messages appear deeply troubled by the fear that Canada may become a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society.
Yet anyone who has lived close to Nature will tell you that she performs poorly in monocultures and thrives in diversity. In plant and animal communities, genetic diversity is the best possible insurance against catastrophe.
It is no different in human communities. Diversity gives societies and cultures a richness and strength that builds enduring civilizations.
In today’s world, that community diversity is inevitable. Spend some time in a shopping center and take note of the multiracial young couples you observe. Many of today’s young people do not see racial or religious differences as impediments to relationships. This cross-cultural intermingling is the bridge across which tomorrow’s Canadian identity will pass.
Yet there are good reasons for frustration with the outcomes of recent Canadian immigration policies, for those policies have not always worked in our best national interests. It is important to review what has historically worked and what has not worked in terms of immigrant absorption into Canadian society.
One of the best examples of successful immigration absorption was the immigrant settlement of western Canada at the dawn of the 20th century- the western Canadian pioneers. Many thousands of new Canadians from all over the world came together to fulfill old dreams and build new lives. Today, the success of that experiment is obvious across western Canada.
Contrast that success with the sprawling urban immigrant ghettos in our major cities that often trap new Canadians in social and economic isolation. The walls separating these immigrants from mainstream Canadian society are hard to scale. Sadly, many of their own leaders have strong interests in preserving the status quo.
There is a huge social and economic benefit to ending that status quo. We need immigrants, for Canada urgently requires labor for its depleting work force. The economic and social diversity we will gain from these new Canadians will add huge value to our social and economic bottom line.
All Canadians, no matter their age or faith or culture, have an interest in breaking down the walls of separation and harvesting that social diversity. Let’s hit the “Delete” button on those toxic emails and then “Send” the hand of friendship to new immigrants- wherever they may come from.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Clock Is Ticking

It’s less than a year before the next municipal election, and the clock is ticking. A majority of Albertans will once again have their triannual opportunity to ignore their democratic right to vote for their community’s political leaders. A minority of Albertans will once again exercise that democratic right and cast their ballot. And there is a wee tiny slice of that minority who will actually considering running for their local Councils.
It’s a tough decision to make, for local politics is a very tough game. There is no other form of politics as close to the day-to-day lives of constituents. If one can survive and succeed as a Councilor, you can survive and succeed in most political arenas.
It’s even tougher here in Alberta, where we continue our passionate obsession with “Strong Leadership”. Peter Block, in his marvelous book, “Community: The Structure of Belonging”, talks about what happens when all that counts is what leaders do. The effect is to let citizens off the hook and breeds feelings of citizen dependency and entitlement. Why would any busy Albertan spend time or energy on voting when the folks who do get involved will elect a strong leader and we can snooze for the next three years? Wouldn’t we better spend our time shopping or papering our Facebook walls?
We don’t even think much about the definition of “strong leadership”. Is a “Strong Leader” a person who is “one of us”- the kind of guy or gal with whom we’d share a few beers? Could someone with extensive education or experience outside the community be trusted to lead a community of “common folks?
Speaking of definitions, does electing a “strong leader” make sense when that leader has to work together with other “strong leaders”? How many Municipal Councils are hamstrung because we elect “strong leaders” who don’t play well in groups?
So how do we find citizens with good credentials who can work together with others to find pragmatic, effective solutions to community problems? How about becoming politically engaged and looking around us for the people we know who fit that description? They may already be Council incumbents, for many Alberta Councillors have those skills. Ask these people to consider running for Council next fall and volunteer to help them with their campaigns.
I know this is radical stuff. Getting engaged in local politics is truly scary for most Albertans. Yet we also know that we get the leaders we deserve. That leads to one final question: If we citizens invest nothing in the political process, what should we expect?