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Entries in Canada (4)


Coon Hunting, China and The Revolution


I am no Sinophile, nor a specialist on gender equality, nor a hunter.


But ignorance of the topic at hand has never precipitated self-restraint before - why should we suddenly change things up?


I've long wondered about China. I tried digging a hole to the place from our house in Toronto when I was small. And I took Mandarin lessons later in life, learning the hard way that the same false cognate word is used for pen, pencil, brush and pussy. Given that components for my smart phone find their origin in China, along with a desk lamp, eyeglass frames, truck differential, lawnmower, football sweater, painting canvas, tape-measure, notebook, steak knives, pen, pencil, and brush, it would be easy to say we are surrounded by all things Chinese - except poetry and words that rhyme with wussy.


On reflection, why I dug a hole, I'm not sure. Chalk it up to youthful exuberance. I would not do it again. Indeed, after investing $4 trillion on housing in the past decade and with 65 million housing units sitting there all vacant and lonely, the Chinese seem infinitely capable of digging their own hole. They need no help from me.


So we should not be surprised to learn that when it comes to China and the sexual revolution, suspicions linger. At the time of the event Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey posed the following cheeky question on Twitter: "What is it about the headline 'China launches woman into space' that makes me assume she did something wrong?"


Hua Lu (14 x 9 w/c)Multivalent is that question, casting doubt over the progress of women in the Middle Kingdom and their Long March to gender equity. Which, according to the New York Times, has stalled. Incomes of women relative to those of men have fallen 23 percent in rural China since 1990. In urban China they've dropped 10 percent. There is no woman in the inner circle of power, the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, and only one in 16 members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee is female.


By the Chinese government’s own measure of how women are faring — the Third Survey of the Social Status of Women in China (2010) — nearly 62 percent of men and 55 percent of women said "men belong in public life and women belong at home." So while no one said women should be launched, the numbers who want them at home have risen 7.7 and 4.4 percent since 2000 when Chinese folks last were asked where women belong.


Now it's true Chinese women are allowed to drive cars and trucks, something Saudi Arabian women are not free to do. But even in the People's Revolutionary Army, the world's largest by number of troops, women only fill support positions, and the PRA requires female recruits to demonstrate talent such as singing or dancing as part of the selection process. (Comet Over Dayan Footbridge 16x12 w/c)


All of this gender equality slow-boating by China is taking place against a backdrop of solid progress elsewhere. For example, in America women have joined men in that once exclusively male domain – the raccoon hunt.


There was a foretaste of this as Leon F Whitney and Acil B Underwood observed in their excellent 1951 guide on the subject: "Coon hunting in one respect is like politics or religion: a fellow thinks of the kind he knows – the kind he was born into – as the only kind. He often doesn't bother to investigate the other kinds." Such as coon hunting with women, or coon hunting by women, for example.


Although the progress has not been immediate, women have been breeding coon hunting dogs in the United States since at least 1958. "Any success I've had, I owe to my husband," Mrs. William Amos told reporters of her success as a breeder. (Not sure if her first name is William or if she has a first name, story in the Toledo Blade just referred to her as Mrs. William Amos).


Incidentally, Whitney and Underwood's Coon Hunter's Handbook is indispensable by anyone of any gender who aspires to excel at finding, chasing, cornering, treeing, bagging, executing, cooking and eating the standard North American raccoon.


First thing, man or woman, you need for coon hunting is a good dog with a pleasant voice. Square brackets below are mine for the purpose of advancing gender equity: "What old hunter can't close his [or her] eyes and still hear the lovely strains of hound music floating across a valley or steam? Surely no man-made [or woman-made] music can light the fires of imagination or bring a greater thrill of delight than can a hunter's best friend – his [or her] hound," the handbook says.


Finally, some sage advice (to those such as Mrs. William Amos) on cooking the coon and presenting it to the hungry mob at supper:


"It is not a bad idea to dismember the carcass in the kitchen. At every coon supper where someone carves, there will be remarks about how much the coon looks like a cat or a monkey, and inquisitive Johnny [or Julie] will ask if Daddy [or Mommy] is sure it is not a skunk. If our experience is worth anything, it indicates that when the coon is served in pieces on a platter and camouflaged as much as possible, it will be all for the best, because someone is sure to bite on a BB shot anyway, and that will start the conversation back to the coon hunt and what a good time everybody had. Then Bill [or Bonnie] will tell how the dogs stretched the coon, and Mike [or Mary] will describe how the coon squealed, and sure as shooting someone will have to get up and leave the table." And start a whole new revolution.


(Top Image: Huxingting Tea House 12 x 9 India Ink and Sepia)


Root Canal

River, Moscow (14 x 11 watercolours & India ink)

Because the truth will set me free, I confess that I was once a dentist.

Well, not a real dentist, as in someone who fills your cavity or relieves your pain. I was never that kind of dentist. But I would tell people, folks at cocktail parties for example, that I was a dentist.

And of course that was a lie.

But even today, like a drowning man clinging to an anchor, I maintain this was a necessary lie since I dared not tell anyone what I really did for a living.

In hindsight it's possible that I could have explained what I did for a living although it was all a bit mysterious. For one thing, I had a Top Secret security clearance. Though that probably wouldn't have stopped me from telling people what I really did. It was just that for the entire four years I toiled for government, no matter how hard I tried, I could never comprehend what I was supposed to be doing, or why.

Raison d'etre

So there you have it: the truth. The raison d’etre for my bureaucratic travails was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Maybe a higher-up mandarin knew my purpose. But I did not know my purpose. And I suspect now that the truth is laid bare, that I was not necessary.

To the cocktail crowd my job sounded exquisitely important. I belonged to a government secretariat within The XXX. Even the acronym for the organization carried with it the odour of sanctity. Indeed, after years of sleuthing in my previous career as a newspaperman I was well able to read eyes and body language. And it was plain. Any fool could see that people were impressed. “So, what do you do at The XXX?” they would ask.

I found as I described my function, that it all made no sense. “Oooh, a little of this, little of that. Non-partisan. Vicariously I have worked for the last couple of Prime Ministers.”

Beyond that I really was not sure what I was at liberty to say. And even if I was at liberty to say what I did for government, it was near-impossible, objectively, to assign any purpose to it. You could see the cocktail party people accepted the description of what I did, but, like me, they just couldn’t fathom why it would be necessary. Eventually I was forced to abandon efforts to explain my job. In conversation, all references to government vanished. Finally, because I had to say something, I found that when you said you were a dentist, people understood. Secret Agent (5 x 8 watercolours)

So, what sort of practice did this dentist run out of his government office? I read the newspaper. Occasionally I picked up the phone to sniff around or have a lunch with a contact. This was called a situation scan. At least once a week I wrote a report. My reports were securely sent to colleagues in The XXX. From there they were forwarded to important (I assume) functionaries in the PMO – the Prime Ministers Office, which we called The Centre. As far as I could tell, there was nothing in my reports that dozens of others – including highly partisan political operatives inside the governing party - weren't also feeding to The Centre.

There was a secure phone on a table near my desk. Trust me, it was amazing, similar to a Maxwell Smart cone of silence. It had its own power supply in the event of nuclear war or something. It took a crew from the Department of Public Works an entire week to install that phone and to test it. And then, after that, it never rang again. There also was a paper shredder and a safe. I almost caught my tie in the shredder one time, and so tended to avoid it out of wariness. I can't remember what I kept in the safe.

It was once explained to me that in the private sector, where I have worked most of my life, things are pretty much action oriented: you set a goal, you get things done. Whereas government – inter alia - is all about process. The real bureaucrats understand this and they are able to find meaningful work navigating their way through the process.

Road map

But for me, an outsider, the process was inscrutable. Sometimes I gathered with folks from other commissariats and we'd chat interminably about what needed to be done and how to put together a road map. And that was pretty much it. We never got beyond agreeing on the need for a map. We networked and brought junior people into the mix, so they might do some of the grunt work, stumbling forward in the direction of some hazy objective. This was called capacity building.

Now that I am a few years removed from this bullshit and free to speak as, say, the kind of dentist who neither fills your cavity nor relieves your pain, I can diagnose that this patient needs a major a root canal, extensive bridge work and several extractions, top and bottom, to relieve all the nasty symptoms that have appeared.

Allow me to adjust your chair for the x-ray: rot and arrogance is spreading like an abscess. This happens to every regime that doesn't look after the health of its roots. The regime reaches the point where it begins to believe that it deserves to be in power. And that is the beginning of the end, where the ruling elite are no longer connected to the reality that sustains them from below.

I'm told that once upon a time someone from The Centre would actually pick up the phone and speak with someone on the ground, as they cross-checked reports, to see if there were reliable sources still on the ground, and, indeed, that the ground was still there.

But not today. I guess that's because you can get pretty high up at The Centre, or in The XXX, or in various ministries where only the Savoy Hotel is good enough and orange juice is $16 a glass and F-35 jets a mere $25 billion. That's pretty high off the ground. Stratospheric, actually.

(Top image: River, Moscow 14" x 11" watercolours and India Ink).


A Dark and Stormy Night

A Winter's Night (16x12 watercolour on board)

It wasn't a Kennedy assassination moment, or a 9/11 moment. But I quite vividly remember a morning 12 years ago when news came on the radio that a body had been found in a car in the city of Selkirk, just north of Winnipeg.

Call it premonition – you wonder where they come from - but I thought: 'Who do I know in Selkirk?' And in that instant Mark Stobbe bounced to mind. We'd bumped into each other a few days earlier and he mentioned he had recently bought a home in St. Andrews, not far from Selkirk.

I met Stobbe in the mid-1990s when he was a political operative in Roy Romanow's Saskatchewan government. As a PR guy he was impressively large and friendly and helpful to an interloping newspaper reporter trying to get a feel for the political imperatives in a neighbouring province. I was a bit surprised in September 2000 to see him on the streets of Winnipeg and to hear he was now working for Manitoba Premier Gary Doer.

Called to commiserate

Later, on that October day more than a decade ago, when I got to my office in the Globe and Mail bureau in downtown Winnipeg, more details trickled out about the body in the car in Selkirk. There had been a slaying. And the victim was Bev Rowbotham, wife of Mark Stobbe, senior communications advisor to the Manitoba government.

It was surreal as I reflexively called Mark's home to commiserate. I told him I could not believe what I had heard on the news. “It's shitty,” he admitted in his understated Stobbe-esque way.

Of course I knew, and he knew that I knew, that suspicion would fall on him for the killing. Nine times in 10 it's the husband, out of anger. Until he was ruled out as a suspect, Stobbe would have to be the RCMP's main man.

Since Bev Rowbotham's body was found some distance from the family home and the story was that Bev had failed to return home after a late evening shop to Selkirk for groceries, we were being asked to believe she was attacked and killed in a random act by an unknown perpetrator. Not very likely, but not 100 percent impossible either, I thought. At that time I did not know Bev was killed in the back yard of the family home. Nor did I know Bev had been bludgeoned repeatedly with a hatchet or hammer – apparently 16 times – an emotional outburst.

Before long Mark Stobbe no longer worked for the government. A dark cloud of suspicion hung over his head as he took to operating a candy route to support himself and two young children. I'll admit to feeling some sympathy: if the guy is innocent, he's tragically lost his wife, his job, his reputation. I tried to buck him up and we had lunch a few times in the months that followed.

Full of food

Several times I asked him if he killed Bev and, just as he repeatedly told jurors at his murder trial last month, he steadfastly denied any involvement in her terrible death.

As police leaked selective details of the case to the media, Mark gave me explanations for things that might cast suspicion. Why did Bev need to go shopping when the family fridge was full of food? The fridge was full of food because family members, friends and neighbours all brought food in the hours and days after the murder.

Months passed and Mark was bitterly frustrated that the focus of the RCMP investigation appeared to be only on himself as a suspect. He mentioned that around the time of Bev's killing a woman driving on a rural road near Selkirk had been attacked by two hammer-wielding women who tried to rob her as they pretended their car had broken down. How coincidental is that? Why weren't the Mounties chasing down that possible lead?

It was only at trial that the public were told DNA and bone fragments pointed to the back yard as the location of the killing. And so the question arose: Who had a motive after the fact to remove Bev Rowbotham's bodyand take it in the family sedan 15 kilometres to Selkirk, where the car and body were some hours later found abandoned?

Sometime in late 2002 Mark moved back to Saskatchewan and we lost contact.

In 2008 he was arrested and charged with second degree murder. Police apparently had shopped around for a prosecutor who would support a charge on the strength of not much more than suspicion. Four prosecutors who were  previously consulted said there was insufficient evidence to lay a criminal charge against Mark Stobbe or anyone else.

A wise conclusion

So then, last month, after a seven week trial, the testimony of 80 some witnesses, several gruelling days on the witness stand and 12 years under a cloud, Mark Stobbe was found not guilty in the death of his wife Beverly Rowbotham.

I'm relieved and impressed that 12 citizen jurors reached this wise conclusion.

From what I could parse from news reports at trial, there wasn't evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mark Stobbe was connected to the killing.

Oh, you may have your  suspicions. But our justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict.

So a finding of not guilty was the correct verdict, in law.

In the end, Mark Stobbe may be the only person to know whether it was correct in fact.

(A version of this was published in The Winnipeg Free Press on April 20, 2012.)

(Top: A Winter's Night 16 x12 Italian watercolour pigments on board)



A Thorn among the Rosies

Red Jacket (15x11 watercolours and India Ink)

A straw poll among my extended family suggests the emergent Wildrose party will win by a landslide when Alberta elects a new government in less than two weeks.

I was in Alberta for a funeral and as a Winnipegger who long ago married an Alberta girl, I thought about how often I've made that westward trek from Manitoba and how Alberta has always seemed a welcoming and perplexing place, at once both strongly kindred and strangely foreign.

Opinion polls suggest Premier Alison Redford's Tories are about to take a whuppin' at the hands of a surging Wildrose party: a political force with serious backers and serious money, led by my former journalistic compatriot Danielle Smith.

Change in the air

The Tories were some 10 to 13 percentage points behind the Rosies in popular support at the Easter break, though that gap appears to have tightened in the time left before the April 23 vote.

And so I asked my salt-of-the-earth Alberta relatives, farmers, entrepreneurs, business-folk all -- those who made up a big chunk of the 420 in the little church in Duchess -- to predict the election outcome.

Unless they change their God-loving minds between now and then, I venture a good 90 per cent of my in-laws in Medicine Hat, Brooks, Calgary and all the way up to Vegreville and Leduc will cast their lot with Wildrose.

The feel of a quite-revolutionary change is in the air.

"The NDP infiltrated the Conservative party, buying up memberships and the like," one of my nephews whispered, implying Redford's Tories have become too socialist-red for their britches and the people's voice is echoed in the neo-conservative, libertarian, freedom-loving Rosies.

Others in my family of election prognosticators said the PCs have simply been in power too long. With that comes the odour of cronyism, wild spending of taxpayers' money and legislation in areas where the government has no place.

Several of my Alberta family said they like the Wildrose idea of being able to recall malfeasant MLAs and have citizen referendums on important issues.

A fart in the perfumery

Proof of the profligacy and arrogance of Alberta's political elite was the pre-election news MLAs collected thousands of dollars for sitting on a legislative committee that had not met since 2008. This transgression came up often, and people's noses curled as they spoke of it, as if they had just sniffed a fart in a perfume factory.

It seemed a bit odd none of my relatives had raised their voice in protest of these things before now. At the same time, no one expressed fear over the future of medicare or threats to the Canada Health Act and whether their arthritic bones would be properly looked after if Wildrose wins.

"I haven't heard that," said the nephew. It seems Albertans don't worry about the same kinds of things we do in deficit-addled Manitoba. They have a deficit, too, but they will deal with it by 2013.

At one level, Alberta is unlike any other province in Canada. When it comes to politics, even Quebec, I dare say, has more in common with the rest of Canada than Alberta.

Because Alberta, at least in modern history, has been a political monolith. One voice, the Progressive Conservative party, has dominated since 1971.

Except from her infant crib, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, born in 1971, has never seen anything other than a PC government in Alberta. Now she has a chance to install something other.

Cool Libertarian

A poverty of vigorous public-policy options in Alberta is something I know Danielle has long lamented. We had many discussions about the events that shape our nation and our world when she and I worked together in Calgary to make the national current-affairs TV program Global Sunday.

Danielle lives and breathes public policy. She is cool under pressure. She is a fiscal hawk but socially progressive. She is interested in good ideas.

She is honest and reliable.

Danielle also leans toward the libertarian view that with personal freedom comes individual responsibility. Everything she has done in her life has led to this moment as the political momentum tilts toward change. Alberta politics suddenly resonates with potential impact for all of us, even here in Manitoba.

Public discourse in Alberta is no longer boring and predictable. It is unpredictable and fascinating.

(A version of this was published in The Winnipeg Free Press on April 12, 2012). 5CAH63JZR7XE

(Top: Red Jacket: 16 x12 watercolours and India ink on Cold Press paper)