Sunday, 14 December 2014


I have always been a risk-taker. I climbed the tallest trees and crawled out onto the ends of branches so that I could make the tree sway. At 63, I rode bareback and raced with my 14 year old friend across a farmer’s field. In all fairness, we - our family and many others - grew up with risks – as a ten-year-old I was sent to look after my siblings at the creek, we rode on tractor fenders and in combine hoppers, we played unsupervised for hours climbing into lofts, walking on rafters and jumping into grain bins.

Today, I wonder about extreme sports and risk-taking.  How much right does one have to engage in extreme sports? – like base-gliding, mountain-climbing, back-country skiing, running rapids - some of you wouldn’t think of these as extreme sports but hear me out. Is it ethical? Moral? What of the social responsibility of the rest of us? Are we required to bale the participants out when they are lost or seriously injured?

These types of sports not only depend upon a host of suppliers – food, equipment, maybe support teams – but also for the individual, time-consuming practice and often expensive equipment. It means that most of the people engaged in these sports are monied and that a lot of resources are devoted to their sport or, as some say, obsession. Often the honours go to the individual.

The human race metamorphized, developed over some 100,000 years. During that time, people used extreme skills merely to survive. For some, maybe even many today, their survival depends upon their skills.

Are extreme sports the result of a bored dis-connected human race? So far from involvement with the natural activities of daily living that Nature is merely an adversary against which to pit technological gadgets.

What would people have done in eons past? The kinds of back-country white water trips that we have taken on rivers would simply be travel between places, sometimes looking for game or fruit, and the occasional lone or paired vision questers.

Is it ethical or moral to commandeer such a range of resources for the selfish experience of one person? Does the lost back-country skier get hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on him while the woman missing on a city street gets nothing? Is his value greater because he is male or because he is heroically pushing his limits? Worse, is his Everest conquering experience there for all of us to experience vicariously while no one wishes to share the experience of Syrians in refugee camps.

I'm only asking the question, a question about values.

About myself? I now consider consequences – at the time of the horse race, I briefly considered, in mid-gallop, the possibility that I might fall off the horse. I couldn't indulge in fear because I needed to focus on the business of staying on the horse’s back. I dredged up fifty-year old skills and we made it, a mile of stubble later, laughing and breathing as loudly as the horses, to the edge of the field.  By common unspoken consent, we never raced bareback again for that distance.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

What is My Culture?

What is my culture? I envy First Nations that the trip to their history and culture, albeit shredded by mooniyaw (that’s white people) and colonial policies, is still very short. Certainly culture adapts to changing times; but what happens when culture isn’t adapting, it is being imposed upon?

If I must go back to the roots of my culture, I would be time-traveling more than a thousand years. The Dewars (spelt joo-ers) were “Keepers of the Healing Stones” for the Clan McNab. Even at that time women were valued members of households (not as pictured by Western movies which always place the male in absolute dominance – witness movies about the Iroquois). For Celtic women to reclaim their place as partners in society is not feminism – it is cultural.

I think that it is wrong to adopt First Nations spiritual practices as if they are ours. Was sweet grass known to my ancestors? Was sage used for cleansing? Even as their drum circles move our hearts, they are not our drum circles. We can join them but we should not appropriate them. What did the Celts use for purification, for drums? How far into the mists of history do we need to time-travel to find the power of our spiritual journeys? 

In 2000, I did cross over, I used FN practices - largely because I didn't really have any of my own - in preparation to attend the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva, I fasted, attended a sweat, placed my words before the Spirit, and then, to my surprise, I was given a prayer by a medicine man. I would be allowed to “perform” it only once. Even as he gave it to me, I knew that the WGIP was not the right place to ask people to join in the prayer – or that I was the right person to lead the assembly in the prayer. An opportunity did come soon after.

Quaker Aboriginal Affairs Committee (represented by me) was asked to present one workshop at Friends General Conference. After consultation, we chose to hold the workshop on the Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A US Quaker, head of their First Nations committee and a local band member were present. There was one member of the group who claimed to be of FN descent – a kind of a know-it-all blond guy with a pony tail and lots of beads, ribbons, etc – who kept interrupting with trivia. By mid-morning when we had a “nutrition break”, I think that most of us were tired of his monologues.

When we re-grouped, I asked if I could say a prayer that had been given to me. I stood, the words came. The experience was so powerful – I felt that the person who had given it to me had opened the universe. I stood and addressed the four directions and their representations. Unexpectedly, the forty or so participants stood with me and turned with me. I felt connected to a thousand generations. As we sat down, everyone was silent. Not unusual in a Quaker circle but this time when the words came, they came from a changed, uplifted place.

I was given the prayer to use only once. It was frightening and awe-inspiring at the same time. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff, thinking about flying – and suddenly you are flying!

This is what happens in a spiritual journey – finding that sense of awe, being in touch, however briefly with power outside of ourselves, knowing that it is there and then living so that it can become part of everyday life.

What is my spiritual culture? 

I realize that I’ve thrown my lot in with Quakers because silence is the medium by which Quakers find God, the Light, the Spirit within, Allah, or merely the transcendence that occurs when “two or three” meditate together. That is certainly ok for the journey but what of ceremony in my own life?

And what is the difference between a culture of an individual and the culture of a people? My Celtic ancestors were subdued by the Anglo-Saxons but their religion lived on for awhile underground as Pagan; by the time the Dewars were kicked off the land for the enclosures, they were no longer considered Celts.

Finding my personal spiritual culture is my journey of old age. It is the time when we should  be devoting ourselves to our next journey, that of the after-living. Perhaps our sole responsibility is to leave the world in a better condition than we found it. Finding a way to a right relationship with the spirit, with the land and with people rests with us, indivually and culturally. The mooniyaw have a long road to travel.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Remembering War

Bille Jo Gardner visited Wynyard this summer and did a little digging around history. She spoke of the Wynyard area’s Gunnery school North of Dafoe in a long letter that she wrote for the Wynyard Advance. I wrote the following for publishing the week of November 11th. It was not published and perhaps with references to local people meant that it should not have been published. I do not have the same inhibitions.

When I first saw the RCAF #5 Bombing and Gunnery school, there were buildings and a firing range still standing. At that time it looked remarkably similar to the air force training sites near Dauphin, Manitoba, one of which was within a mile of the farm upon which I spent my youth. The pilots flew their circles over the pasture and back to “touch and go”.

An ancestor of ours lost two of her sons to WWII – and her first husband to WWI. In the 1950's, our family “celebrated” Armistice Day seriously – we really believed that WWII was the end of war and that the United Nations ushered in a new era, one in which nations spoke to one another and resolved their differences. We believed that weapons would be hammered into plowshares.

The only winners had been the arms manufacturers, the wealthy, not the farmers, the women, or the children. There was comfort in believing that those sons and husbands did not die in vain - and that  they were the last Canadians to be sent to kill or be killed.

When I moved to Wynyard in 1980 as a physician, I inherited a number of WWII veterans. Some of them had stellar careers in the military and some were ordinary guys who survived. Two were suffering from PTSD – the long term version of “shell shock”.  When I asked one of these about his role during the war, he said, “they shouldn’t make us do that”; he suffered from formless nightmares. The really sad thing was that the nightmares continued even though Alzheimer’s meant he could no longer remember why he had them! The other gentleman was obsessed with various minor ailments, all of which he related to experiences during the war. I dutifully completed endless forms which we sent to Veterans’ Affairs, all to be denied. None of the people from WWII received debriefing – they were just sent home, having served their time, discarded veterans.

A friend of ours wrote about his father:  "Some of my earliest memories are of him pulling weights from pulleys attached to the ceiling in his recovery from polio. I also remember asking my mother why dad "yelled during the night". She told me not to worry about that "it's from the war" she said. That "yelling" continued until he died at the age of 83."

A friend of a soldier said, "H... and I were best friends in school. He was full of devilry and loads of fun. When he came back from the war he was a changed man. I never knew him after that and we never got close again".

In 2012, I attended Remembrance ceremonies in Ottawa at the same war memorial at which Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was standing when he was shot in 2014. I felt my ancestors – and the souls of those who fought in WWII - turning in their graves. The 45 minute service did not mention peace once.

As we approach another November 11th, let us honour those who died, value those who survived and re-gird our determination that they not have died in vain. We must encourage our government to build civil society instead of bomb infrastructure.

Grandma was right. Grown men and women should not be resorting to guns to solve their differences.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Iraq and us

Canada going into the fray? The West supporting the guerrilla Peshmerga? The Peshmerga have been fighting a generations-long battle for an independent Kurdistan. The US was killing them a short decade ago. How could Western Intelligence get it so wrong? How could they failed to predict the rise of ISIS? The joke we’ve had for years is reality: “Military intelligence is an oxymoron.” (an internal contradiction.)    

Canada should not be adding violence to violence. What should we be doing? We should be recruiting hearts and minds by prominently supplying humanitarian aid to victims; we should be supplying well-trained peace-keeping troups to provide security. We should be searching for ways to decrease the levels of violence, to give the next generation less fertile ground for extremism. We should supply teachers and community development workers, mental health counselors and “lady health workers”. Diverting the cost of those CF-18’s to decreasing violence would be far more courageous than dropping a bomb from an airplane.

Women are still having babies under those drones and fighter jets – and they and their babies are dying for lack of care. For eight years, the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada (SRPC) sponsored a project in Northern Iraq. We were teaching emergency obstetrical skills. Now would be the time to launch another project, one of "working with" doctors, nurses, midwives and others struggling under difficult circumstances to care for the women and newborns. The previous project was cut by the Harper version of CIDA. Maybe it could be revitalized in the light of Harper’s verbal commitment to the health of women and babies.

In 2003, we met a convoy of trucks, Iraqi building contractors who were returning from a fruitless attempt to repatriate the contracts for rebuilding infrastructure. The spokesperson said, “Around the construction site are hundreds of young men with nothing to do. If they aren’t given jobs they will make trouble.”  

Well, they didn’t get jobs. Billions of dollars went to US contractors to do shoddy work on bridges, sanitation systems, etc.  ISIS was predictable.  The weapons manufacturers are rubbing their hands in glee – how marvelous that both sides are using the same weapons! Addicted to a never-ending escalation of new bullets.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Simplicity Home After CYM

Our home is twenty-six kilometers from the nearest small town of 2000 people; our nearest neighbour is one and a half miles away. It is on a land trust, the vision of which was a working collective some members thought would be dependent upon the produce of the land. (Never part of my vision, I planned to work in Wynyard as a physician.)

Times changed, the other couple moved away, their children really required on a more intellectually challenging academic setting in the city but Bill and I carried on. We’d fallen in love with the site in 1969 and were determined to live there, even without close neighbours. We’re still in love with the site and the home we’ve been privileged to plunk down here but nearer neighbours would be nice. Elizabeth, our daughter, and her partner, Erin, are in the process of purchasing the three season house but this is pretty ambitious for them – both of them need a certain population density for their talents.

Canadian Yearly Meeting’s Bible study on Simplicity was very thought-provoking. Is this home simple-living?

The chickens provide us with eggs – in return, we feed them oats, purchased feed that looks like kitty litter, and kitchen scraps. There are too many chickens to overwinter in the coop so we will have to make a decision. The first step is to see who is laying; count the eggs daily – there can be up to ten brown eggs, seven white eggs, two blue eggs and one green egg. Maj lays the green egg and she is very interested in “setting” these days – she figures she has laid enough eggs and she will “sit” on them until they hatch. Sorry, Maj, wrong time of the year for chicks, we'll take those eggs right out from under you!

The garden is overrun with “friendly weeds” – dill, coriander, calendula, poppies and chervil. In fact, the potatoes, corn, onions and carrots are practically choked. The raspberries need picking – always a pleasure, I usually do it when I want to eat them as well. Dealing with gooseberries is an urgent matter – it is one of two jams that I like, the other is strawberry. (And, of course, marmalade – the kind that Brenna and I and a host of others make.)

The door of the chicken coop – intended to last the time that we were away – barely lasted the week, the temporary hinges more temporary that I had expected. Coop also needs cleaning. Chicken fence could be moved so that the “pasture” was more friendly.

The tasks that I would like to outsource (in other words, pay someone to do) are: cutting down the trees that are encroaching upon our house, clearing the weeds in the paving at the front of the house and shingling the roof of the greenhouse. (This spring I came to the realization that I am afraid to climb up there. The slope is just enough to disturb my sense of security.) And then there is the guy who is supposed to be fixing our well – excuses, excuses – maybe time to find someone else.

Indoors the piano needs tuning and the cracks in the living room needs plastering followed by painting.

Making things simpler includes de-cluttering one’s brain. If we can really put teachings of the Spirit into action, it means really living the Biblical phrase “take no thought for the morrow”. This doesn’t mean, don’t plan anything; it means don’t worry over it – it also means be ready to always change as “moved” by the Spirit.

Making things simpler means disposing of things not useful, things not used, and this includes all the things that we keep around ourselves for the “just in case, I ever want to (insert whatever activity eg. SCUBA) again. I think that it means living the uncluttered life. It means disposing of the cumber. I don’t think that means that we become obsessively tidy – besides disposal of the physical items, it could also mean “disposal” of the attachment to the items.

Making things simpler may also mean giving up some cherished beliefs of right and wrong, of “right” or “wrong” ways to do the task, of “right” and wrong directions to travel. It means contributing to the greater good, the commons of the world by our ethics, morals and philosophy.

We should all be living more simply; in fact, it is the only way in which the human race will survive. We must have fewer children, and less possessions. We must learn to contribute less CO2 to the atmosphere and poisons to the water. Not just a good idea – this is a “must”. This is not an onerous task – the corporate capitalist economy makes it sound as though everyone must give up all their pleasures when what they really mean is that the richest 1% is going to have to give up luxuries. Most of the rest of us already fail to contribute much to the global climate chaos.

“In Nature’s economy, the currency is not money, it is life.”   Vandana Shiva