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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Welcoming Syrians to Toronto

Image result for welcome to toronto

It looks like Canada might be accepting a few more Syrian refugees than expected.  I would love for each and every one of them to have an experience similar to what the Abdou family had.  

So, let's think a bit about societal onboarding and how to make it the best process possible, resulting in new Canadians feeling welcome and empowered and existing Canadians feeling renewed and engaged.

What can we do right here in Toronto that could provide some best practices other communities could follow?

The first thing that came to mind was better service education.  What are existing best practices that can be expanded on?  How can we incorporate the lessons learned from other New Canadians?

Second thing was Jane's Walk.  New employees and new students get tours of their new places of belonging - why can't we do the same for Syrian refugees settling in as new Torontonians?  How about an Open Doors tour of education facilities, places of government, museums, etc. to make it clear that these are places they belong and that opportunities exist in many quarters here?  Who knows - by participating, established Torontonians may find out more about their community as well.

Culture!  Festivals! Toronto, at its best, is the best of everywhere else.  We're not afraid of differences - we celebrate them.  How can we establish this ethic from day one with celebrations of that diversity?

My last one, for now - green space and quiet.  Refugees landing on our shores will bring little baggage with them, but carry the great weight of often horrific experience.  It needs to be reflected upon; healing needs to occur.

As members of their new community, we can learn to provide the space needed to heal - we have lots of it - but be there when needed with support and encouragement.

I'd love to hear your ideas - and how to implement them.

John Tory Leading by Example

I don't think it's realistic to think that the politics will ever be completely left out - we are human, after all, and some people depend on politics for their livelihood.

Yet even for politicians, politics can sometimes be put on the backburner:

It is how we react to situations like this that makes us Canadian - a welcoming and compassionate city and country.

John Tory stepped up to the plate; he led by example.  He set a model for others to follow.  He even encouraged fellow mayors to do as he as done.

I'm sometimes ridiculed for my optimism.  On days like today, I know my belief in humanity is not misplaced.

Of course all this is just a step, but it's one that's being taken.  That's where it must begin.

Hero Within: The Syrian Crisis and Stories of Ours

Facts tell - stories sell.

Images have the power to move us in way words on a page do not.

When you put these two things together, we return to the ancient, pan-human tradition of oral story-telling.  

Story-telling has the power to create images, stir emotions and above all, build a bond of human recognition between story teller and audience.  It's powerful stuff.

I've been thinking about the Syrian refugee crisis.  I'm sure many of you have as well.  I've been thinking less about blame - who can be the culprit, who we can collectively chain our unease, anger and guilt to and throw overboard.  Righteous indignation and the resulting cognitive dissonance are just so tiring - I don't have the energy.  Besides, pointing fingers doesn't solve anything.  The question must be - and so far, isn't - what can we do to save the next Aylan Kurdi from dying needlessly?

There are all kinds of logical arguments to be made about how New Canadians have consistently bolstered the Canadian economy, or about how dead kids like Aylan Kurdi could have grown up to be the next Albert Einstein or Jonas Salk.  These are facts and potentialities, though - not stories.  

It's stories that sell.  Personal stories have power that facts and theories don't.


Missing/Murdered Indigenous Women.  Racialized youth blamed not only for the colour of their skin and the place of their birth, but their inability to circumvent an entire system that marginalizes them to find success.  New Canadians who find themselves living in squalid, sub-standard housing run by slum landlords who play the rules so as to avoid costly building upgrades.  Sex-trafficing, essentially slavery.  And all this is just domestically.

We know this stuff happens - at the very least, we recognize that it could happen, when we choose to think about it.  We don't want to think about it; we don't want our own lives to be negatively impacted by the tragedies or complications of others.  We love the idea that a simple, individual act can make a massive difference - like throwing a starfish back into the ocean - but the idea that we must change the pattern of our own lives, that's too much.  

At least, it's too much to do for a cause or a wicked problem - there's nothing in crises of such scale for us to relate to, to personalize, to internalize.  


We love heroes.  We love bravery.  We love it when individuals are brave enough to tell their personal stories, express their vulnerabilities - it's almost a cathartic experience.  We all have stories of suffering, after all - we simply fear to tell them, lest we be judged by them.  As we judge others by their perceived weaknesses, whatever their cause.

Which is why the stories we love most are come-back stories of triumph, redemption, perseverance. We can live vicariously through the bravery and resilience of others.  Sometimes we can even be inspired to acts of such bravery ourselves.


Erin Kang is a hero.  She's a woman with a wild mane of hair and a laugh that makes the windows shake.  Erin has an infectious energy, a fierce determination and a passion for building strength in the world around her.  This strength isn't a shield to hide her vulnerabilities, a mask to cover her own emotional scars.  Erin's strength is a product of her personal story.

Through her initiative Stories of Ours, Erin has created a forum for individuals to tell their stories, humanizing themselves to others, creating bonds of fellowship with their audience/community that transcends differences of ethnicity, gender, language or belief.  It's empowering stuff that also builds bridges of understanding between communities.

Much like the picture of little dead Aylan Kurdi presents an image any parent of any background can relate to, Stories of Ours builds common ground and lays the seeds for a community of understanding - and engagement.


It's great that we're all taking about the Syrian Crisis.  It's like that time we talked about Haiti, or Nepal, and acted - for a while.  Then we moved on.  We'd done our bit, like casting a vote on election day - the rest is someone else's responsibility.

It's someone else's responsibility because it's an over there problem; it's a not-in-my-backyard problem.  They aren't us - they are statistics, news images, causes, crises.  They aren't people; they're narrative.  

People aren't narrative - they're story.  We're all story.  Stories are what humanize us, what bind us together, what motivate us to be more than words on a page but part of something greater.

So - how might we humanize the Syrian crisis, humanize the people that are suffering over there in a way that we can relate to them as neighbours, as clearly as if they were over here?  How do we do this when we're a community of strangers on our own soil?


Stories sell.  Stories create community.  Stories have the power to humanize the dehumanizing, just as the story of Aylan Kurdi has brought home the human consequences of the Syrian crisis.

There are a lot of Canadians with direct ties to the Middle East, to Syria, to family members and friends for whom the crisis isn't a news hit, but a lived experience.  These Canadians have stories to tell - about what it was like to be there, about what it's like now to lie awake at night worrying.

These are stories any one of us can relate to.  These are the stories that can turn an over-there narrative into a human connection.


We will move on from the Syrian Crisis to the next big thing, eventually.  We always do.  

Image result for ashley burnham first nationUnless it isn't a big thing, a crisis, a headline, a picture.  If what was really at stake was the safety and promise of people just like us, neighbours in our global village, that might be different.

We needn't stop there, either.  When we hear powerful stories about people who have endured hardship and found the strength to step up, raise their voice, become agents of change - like Erin Kang, or like Ashley Burnham, we can find something more than despair.  We can find hope.  We can be inspired.

For when heroes tell relatable, human stories, we realize they're not so different from any of us - and that we all have the power to make a difference, if we make that choice.

How might we empower the voices that speak to our humanity about the wicked problems that plague our society, our world?  How can we create a platform where such speakers can find both their voice and the confidence to raise it - and how can we share these stories far and wide?  Who has the power to do this?


We all have that power.  We have the power to be in practice everything we like to believe about ourselves as Canadians in theory.  We only need the motivation to exercise it.

If we can find those stories, share those stories, build those bonds and find the inspiration to step up ourselves, then we will have a story the world desperately wants to hear.

It's not about Canada setting a standard, or failing to meet a standard.  It's about how our story can motivate others to find their own hero within.


Talk to your neighbours, tell your own story online or in person.  You'll be surprised how quickly the sharing can spread, once it's begun - and you'll be amazed at how much you'll find in common with others as they tell their stories as well.

For inspiration, find out more about Stories of Ours here.  

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Chris Alexander Pulls a Vic Toews

Sense some similarities?

So, what gives?  How can Minister of the Crown so shamelessly lie right into the camera and denigrate the people calling them to account?

Sadly, the answer is a simple one - as partisans (and the CPC as egregious examples of this) focus more and more of their energy on messaging, they're losing the ability to think critically.  There's no emotional intelligence in these responses; it's all pre-programmed messaging and knee-jerk aggressive reactions.  A strictly top-down society is a failed society.  

Good messaging regularly repeated can help win elections, sure, but policy isn't about winning.  It's about leadership.

That's something we desperately need right now, but none of our supposed leaders seem able to provide it.  Why?  Why does the culture favour and reward people who put self-interest before the public good?

When the answer to that question is widely accepted, we'll know exactly what needs to be done next.

I Hate Being Right

People who tried to find sanctuary in Canada were rejected.  Now, this.

Thanks to the rapid-fire nature of modern media, the impact of Aylan Kurdi's death is being felt in real time.  Chris Alexander can't afford to punt the issue down the field, as happens way to often with big issues.  Sadly, his first instinct was to circle the wagons and point the finger of blame at someone else when what was required was leadership.  

We can focus on the gotcha politics game, but all that really does is reinforce the game as it's played already.

None of that changes the past, nor brings back the dead.    

We can only hope that, this time, some real lessons are learned.

The Motivation of Ashley Burnham

If you're running for political office and have any experienced advisers on your team, they will always ask you to answer one basic question - why are you running?  

There's no one right answer - it can be to ensure a specific issue gets addressed, or because you feel the representation your riding/ward/community has had is inadequate, or because you want to be part of a party that does good stuff for a broader constituency.  The key thing is knowing why you feel voters should entrust you as their voice rather than someone else, which means knowing why you believe you are the best person to be that voice.

It's not as easy a question as one might first think.  Not everyone runs because they have a burning cause, after all.  Some like the idea of being in power, some feel it's just a natural option for them.  I've known a couple of ex-political staff to who ran for office because they couldn't seem to get work anywhere else - it's what they knew, and it worked out for them.

Ideally, the reason your running isn't you and your personal interests, but something that is beyond you.  It's a bit like throwing a punch; the goal isn't to be the one hitting, nor to hit the target - to land a solid, earth-shaking punch you need to aim past your target and see yourself as a conduit for the kinetic energy of the punch itself.  Whether you're a politician, a fighter, a singer or an advocate, that's the kind of power that propels people to do great things.

Which is why I love Ashley Burnham.  Like the best advocates for anything, she has taken her life experience and decided "I want to create better conditions so that those who follow me won't have to go through the same hardships I did."

She didn't want to be Mrs Universe; that was simply a platform for her to achieve her goals.  With this motivation, she brought things unique to her - her culture, her life story - and infused her Miss Universe activity through that lens.  This allowed her to excel, bring forward something unique and interesting to broader audiences.  It also allowed her to tell a powerful story to an audience that hadn't heard it before.

Now, as Mrs. Universe, she is carving out a role for herself as more than just a pretty face, but as an ambassador and as a public figure.  When she speaks, her voice resonates.  

She's no partisan spewing over-blown rhetoric for strategic political gain.  She's a real aboriginal women expressing real concerns based on her own experience, using her platform to channel the voices of countless others, including Canada's missing/murdered indigenous women.

Hers is a voice not so easily dismissed by a government that likes to frame everyone as either unloyal employees or enemies of the state.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Human Starfish: "'Everyone is the media'

"I pretended not to have seen, I pretended not to have heard because I didn't want to be responsible."

- Adalbert Lallier

The picture above came to mind as I read this article on the controversy caused by viral pictures of a drowned Syrian child, barely more than a baby.

It's a picture of Buchenwald Concentration Camp post-liberation; the well-dressed folk walking by the stacks of dead bodies are residents of Weimar, the centre of culture for Germany where Goethe and Schiller worked and lived.  

Weimar is a short drive down the hill from Buchenwald.  The smoke from the crematorium chimneys would have been visible from town.  The gunshots would have been heard.  More than that, inmates were transported through town.  There was no way the people of civilized Weimar could not have known something inhuman  was happening on the hill where Goethe took walks and thought.

Yet clearly, these people were disturbed and horrified by what they saw in Buchenwald, when it was right in front of them and impossible to avoid.

They couldn't pretend they didn't know something was going on next door to them, hidden behind the birches.  

"I can recall back in the '60s and '70s when we would see photos like this posted in newspapers regarding the Vietnam War," he says.

"We simply now have media that can reach more people and it's becoming more difficult for people to avoid seeing them."

The most famous example of these Vietnam War pics is at right.  The girl in the picture, Kim Phuc, is now a Canadian Citizen.  Her napalm scars remain.

Pictures like that have an impact that statistics or sound bites can't.  We're looking at real people, moms and dads, sisters and brothers, seniors, children - like anyone's family.  And the people in these pictures are enduring horrors that are uncomfortable to see.

We don't like pictures like this.  They make us feel despondent, or angry; they may even give us cause to worry about what the future holds for our own children.

Isn't it great that we can make that unease go away by reminding ourselves we have our own problems and our own solutions?  Or by making a donation to a cause and then comfortably changing the channel knowing we've done our part?

Thing is, there should be save venues, known venues for this kind of gruesome communication to happen; the news, which can be avoided, or magazines with marked pages that can be skipped over. Other people's tragedies have no place in the Facebook pages or Twitter feeds of the nation - that's a bit too much like suggesting that world and our world are one and the same.

That really makes us feel uncomfortable.

I've been to some corners of the world where bad things happen on a regular basis, where poverty and the consequences of poverty are dire.  Of course, being a Canadian, I don't need to travel far - there are First Nation reservations where conditions are pretty bad.  There are even communities and buildings in our big, civilized urban centres that reflect conditions that would make us feel uncomfortable to see in a magazine.

The truth is, we are as wilfully blind in our own way as the people of Weimar were in theirs.  We can tout the wonders of free market capitalism and talk about how it's improved the whole world, skirting over marginalized workers in places like Bangladesh that hold the free market pyramid up.

We can point to federal missions or donations or the loss of Canadian soldiers in places like Afghanistan and say "we've done our part, the rest is up to someone else."

Embedded image permalinkThis dead kid?  Honestly, it sucks to be him, but it's his parents' fault he's dead, no one else's - right?  Or bad luck to be born into a war-ravaged region of the world, but that's their own problem to solve - isn't it?  

As Westerners, we have a ridiculous amount of power that we neglect to use.  We can shape the policy of our governments - not resort to picking platforms and pitches sold to us.  We can stop buying products from companies who's practices overseas we dislike, and encourage good corporate ethics as a result.

We can decide to be allies to peoples in need in various capacities, and we can accept the risk that comes with such actions as taking on a small portion of the burden they should not have to carry alone.

But no one can force us to do these things.  No one has the power to persuade us, if we choose not to be persuaded.

At present, we lean towards laissez-faire engagement as a global citizen, despite holding the power to change everything by the choices we make.

Online, in person, through our efforts, our conversations and our consciousness, we are the message.

Right now, the message isn't particularly comforting.

If pictures of dead children bother you, great - that means you're human.

When the medium is everyone and what we choose becomes the message, all of these seas of troubling issues will eventually wash up against your shores.

What are you prepared to do to help keep future children from suffering the fate of starfish?


More important to describe reality than to have labels, now.

Labels were totally fine, then.

No, Harper's trouble with labels only come when it refers to matters of which he likes to claim knowledgeable superiority, such as economics and recessions.

This is the same Harper who accuses his opponents of saying and doing whatever they feel will get them elected.  It's a line tribal Tories will probably lap up, but for the majority of Canadians, it is simply more evidence that "they're all the same" and "not to be trusted."

Harper may very well win this election again.  At the end of the day, it's going to be one of the parties, or a coalition (for at least the short term).  So long as they keep playing this game, however, the sustainability of this system of democracy will continue to erode.

And when people give up on their democratic elected government, it ain't a pretty sight.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Good Comms is Bad Policy

This makes no sense to me.  Which is probably why I'm not a war room kinda guy.

Voters are smart: they know that - for the big ticket problems, and particularly the economic ones - the problems are myriad, and the range of solutions are myriad-er.  Ipso facto, Keep It Simple Stupid: keep talking, over and over, about two or three easy-to-understand ideas about making the economy better.

Is that like saying "cut taxes, oil solves everything and tough on crime?"  Cutting taxes means more money in people's pockets, right?  Oil - that's something everyone needs, so a logical basket to put all one's eggs in?  Getting tough with crime forces more legit economic activity, or some such?

What about health care costs, the baby boomer cliff and severe weather events?  Or mental health, oil price fluctuations, ISIL?  Or reduced public services due to reduction to accommodate tax breaks cutting many Canadians off at the knees, leading to presenteeism, poverty, mental health, etc?  Or the frequency of mental illness and marginalized persons in our prisons, a bell-weather of social failure that impedes success for all?

Complex, inter-connected problems require complex, cross-sectoral solutions.  They require diversity of opinion and buy-in to work.

Then again, good politics isn't about nurturing the long-term sustainability of the economy or society - it's about winning.  Over the past couple of decades, the short-term win has come to eclipse all else.
Which probably helps to explain this: It's the last day of August... and the survey says the electorate don't really want anyone to be government. 

Our political class by and large doesn't believe in tipping points - at least other than the kind that propel them to power or cast them out.  For most, it probably hasn't occurred - really occurred - that they are helping to weaken both our democratic system and people's faith in democracy as a model.

Rob Ford - great sound-bite deliverer.  Donald Trump, same.

Where that rabbit hole leads, though, is not something we want to be exploring.

Our parties need to step up - but we need to expect more from them as well.

Open Government, Responsible Society.  The alternative choice won't be pretty.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Open Data, New Perspective, a Whole Lotta Challenged Thinking

One of my big arguments is that confidence does not necessarily equate with competence, and that far too often it's ego, sales ability and aggressive positioning that determines positions, policy, etc. - not evidence.

As such, we often end up with lesser-than solutions, avoidable problems and conflict that impedes necessary progress.

Team Harper is an excellent case in point.  Harper is confident, short-sighted, ideological and belligerent to those who disagree with him.  His team acts in much the same way; countless public servants have found their meticulously crafted policy analysis shot down or re-written by political people who feel they know better.

Then there's the fact that in general, human beings aren't that hot understanding or managing complexity.  Especially when we focus on simple narratives and five-point plans, we ignore the broader picture.  As such we end up with wheelchair inaccessible public transit, legislation that can't fly because it breaks existing laws, Duffy scandals, the morass of the Middle East, etc.

On campaigns, there is a lot of emphasis put on the sign war.  The theory is that people with signs are more likely to vote for a candidate and, if a community is awash in signs, people are more likely to go with the flow on election time.

It's a decent theory, all things considered, but there is no statistical evidence to prove the sign war has any impact whatsoever.  As all the big players do the sign war, it's easy to equate lots of signs with political victory, but as Kinsella points out, there's lots of evidence to the contrary.

Thing is, no one wants to take the risk of saving countless dollars and person-hours by avoiding signs, in case they do make a difference.  It's the equivalent of an athlete wearing lucky socks to every game - you don't want to risk that they do help, right?  The immediate win matters more than a broader analysis of causation, etc.

Open Data and the aggregation of Open Data have the power change a lot of assumptions.  You'll have instinct, you'll have bluster, but then you'll have clear information that can paint simple pictures from complex data.  

We're going to find that much of what we've been investing time in has been a waste; many of the solutions we've invested in are incredibly inefficient, etc.  It's going to be very uncomfortable, with an unprecedented level of accountability becoming unavoidable and a real urge to point fingers.  

Thing is, it will increasingly be clear that we're all part of the same inefficient system; it's pretty hard to throw stones in a transparent society.

Politics, in particular, is going to have to change its MO.  A lot.

A sign of the times,