17
Sunday
Apr

Concussion and the New Science of Brain Plasticity with Clark Elliott

Attendees at Saturday afternoon’s event Concussion and the New Science of Brain Plasticity with Clark Elliott were studious and engaged, despite the warm spring day and the sunshine streaming through the big skylights at the Christ Church Cathedral hall.  It was a diverse crowd people from all walks of life, many of whom had lives affected by brain injury.  Elliott’s book, a case study of his recovery from concussion using unconventional – yet scientifically supported – therapy, could pave the way for research developing treatments to improve the lives of many.  According to Elliott, over 6 million Americans have lasting injury from concussions, and “it’s worse in Canada, because of hockey.” 

 

Although Elliott is an unassuming man, his intelligence became clear very quickly while he spoke about the injury he sustained from a minor car accident, the subsequent ongoing symptoms, and his eventual recovery.  A computer scientist, professor and expert in the field of Artificial Intelligence with additional degrees in music, Elliot demonstrated a scientific approach to understanding the root cause of the symptoms and the rationale for the effectiveness of the neuro-optometric rehabilitation and cognitive restructuring, which he says led to a complete reclamation of the abilities and personality he had before the accident.  He presented his experience with the aid of a slide show, helping the attendees follow along with the complex ideas.  His story was moving as he described the loss and recovery of his ability to be himself after injury.

 

This was not light material, but the audience had their attention held by the promise inherent in Elliott’s remarkable recovery.  He read some of the responses to the book he has received from fellow brain injury sufferers, and it is clear that in sharing his experience he has opened a way for many back to a better quality of life.  Like Elliott, many of these people have been told, “No one ever improves.”  The loss of ability, frightening and painful symptoms, and incursions into daily life by the injury such as balance problems and fatigue are thought to be a life sentence. 

 

Elliott writes to present a possible alternative.  Perhaps due to his AI expertise, he was able to understand and document the input and processing errors that were happening in his brain.  When, after eight years of lasting effects, he met the therapists whose work would ultimately turn his life around, he was ready.  The audience reacted with amazement as Elliott explained the therapies that were used in concert to help him recover; they were little more than specialized prescription glasses and paper-and-pencil tests!  However, the tests helped him carve new pathways for cognitive processing in his brain – capitalizing on the principles of neuroplasticity to change the way the brain works.  Elliott described how his spacial processing was improved by adjusting for injury in the visual-spacial processing centers with corrective eyewear; this ability is required for bringing meaning to symbolic thought and sensory interpretation.  In short, these simple therapies rewired his brain to get around the injury and repair his cognitive ability and processing.  Throughout the talk, the audience was filled with nodding heads and a palpable sense of hope.  It is clear what a difference this therapy could mean.

 

Elliot’s story, though, will be a beacon of hope to many suffering from brain injury.  Although he was humble and quick to point out where his knowledge falls short - he provided resources, gave credit to the doctors, and let attendees know when he was theorizing and when his statements were backed up by studies, stressing the importance of further study - his case study will change lives.

 

17
Sunday
Apr

Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart with James R. Doty M.D.

James R. Doty, neurosurgeon and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, greeted the standing-room only attendees of his Ottawa Writers’ Festival event Mysteries of the Brain and Secrets of the Heart with a joke about the weather.  Within a few sentences, he had won over the audience by establishing himself as approachable, self-effacing, and in possession of a robust sense of humour.  These may not be exactly the traits one would imagine in a world-famous researcher and doctor, but then, Doty is not typical.

 

“I’m not a writer,” Doty said, waving his book in the air.  Into the Magic Shop is a memoir and a guide to the principles of mindfulness and their benefit to the human body.  A natural storyteller, Doty began his appearance by chronicling how the book came to be, and how it has been received since publication; it is being published in 19 languages and has blurbs on it from the likes of the Dalai Lama and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.  In his work with the Center for Compassion Research, he has made appearances with these and other spiritual leaders, psychologists and philosophers: Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh, Amma, Paul Ekman and Pico Iver to name a few.  Not the crowd you’d imagine surrounding a scientist, but studies validating the techniques Doty teaches are quickly accumulating. 

 

At Saturday’s event, Doty read from a portion of the book that tells the tale of one of his surgeries.  It was a graphic story, and he warned the audience before reading that he’s had people faint at events.  However, it was also profoundly moving and almost poetically written; Doty skates on the edge of insights about the fragility and beauty of humanity throughout the scientific description.  He was visibly moved while reading – the story concerns a 4-year-old boy with a brain tumour – and during pauses every exhalation of the audience was audible, their spellbound hearts slowing to anticipate the drama in the moments being described.  The story outlines the importance of training the mind toward calmness, and illustrates the power of a regular practice, for it is due to this practice that Doty was able to perform a lifesaving maneuver in surgery for this little boy.

 

The techniques will be familiar to a student of mindfulness.  Doty described the practice taught to him by an individual he encountered quite by accident in his youth: focusing the mind on the present moment, relaxing with the breath, separating from negative thoughts, practicing self-compassion and acceptance, and establishing clarity of intention before acting.  He also delved lightly into the science behind this practice, describing how brain function can be shifted through regular breathing exercises and contemplative practice to habituate toward decreasing stress hormones, relaxing the body and lowering blood pressure. 

 

Throughout his talk and in answering questions from the audience, Doty remained positive and thoughtful.  He enjoyed many moments of laughter with the group and radiated evidence of living in the practice that he is preaching.  His studies in his youth and as a young surgeon convinced him, “True meaning in life has to do with service to others.”  The messages in the book, which is indeed very well written, and Doty’s techniques to train the mind and bring about wellness in the body are definitely a show of service. 

 

17
Sunday
Apr

Martyrdom, Murder, and the Lure of ISIS with Mark Bourrie

People often throw around the word “ISIS” with a snarl and extra enunciation, to make sure their disgust for the group is clearly proclaimed. ISIS is known for its online recruitment of young people into terrorist warfare, Western journalist beheadings, foreign suicide bombers, and the general fear the organization has instilled into populations across the globe. I spent my Sunday afternoon listening to Mark Bourrie speak about ISIS: its propagandist recruitment activities, and the reasons we should be concerned about its existence – other than the obvious.

 

Bourrie started off the event by mentioning that his book, The Killing Game, is not a call to arms against the terrorist faction, or a display of good versus evil. Bourrie stressed that, like so many before us, the people involved in ISIS are simply in pursuit of higher meaning and fulfillment in a world they may feel has wronged them. In a society that is so highly connected online, but so fragmented in our face-to-face and community interactions, ISIS has sprung up as a response to socio-economic underperformance, inequality, and cultures that are fractured in many different ways.

 

Throughout the event, Bourrie accentuated the relationship between ISIS and Western media. Journalists have a duty to report what is important to its audiences, such as the gruesome killings and territorial warfare that ISIS carries out in the Middle East. But, when ISIS thrives on the fear and glory that is magnified with publicity, where should the media draw the line between public information and spreading propaganda? Further still, when the media chooses not to disseminate knowledge of horrific violent acts, is this censorship? 

 

The discussion at the event turned political at times, with Bourrie reminding us that the United States is successful at killing ISIS figureheads and fighters within the group who are the most useful as recruiters of young men in the West. However, stomping out members of ISIS also comes at the cost of civilian life. In sealing a Saudi Arms deal, the Canadian government has also opened up the opportunity for weaponry to fall into the hands of ISIS, due to their financial connections to Saudi royalty. Where do we draw the line? And do the ends – wiping out a terrorist faction – justify the means – loss of civilian life?

 

Though the subject matter of the afternoon was dark and often uncomfortable, Bourrie took a series of questions from the audience after the event that presented a somewhat positive outlook for the future. At an audience member’s suggestion, Bourrie spoke about the importance of engaging youth at a young age. By integrating young people into the welcoming communities that come with activities like sports, outdoor adventure, working with our hands, and improvisational theatre, we lower the chances of young people, especially second-generation Canadians, feeling disenfranchised from a country that might not always meet their expectations. 

 

17
Sunday
Apr

Safe and Sound with Paul Lynch, Abdourahman Waberi and Carol Daniels

“What is your background?”

 

“Where are you from?”

 

“What are your origins?”

 

How incredibly common these questions are in our daily human interactions!

 

On the opening night of the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival, three authors of markedly different origins came together in an intimate space within Christ Church Cathedral to discuss place, identity, and belonging in their own works of fiction. Paul Lynch, Abdourahman Waberi, and Carol Daniels each read a passage from one of their novels in turn. Each author’s appearance and presence was as distinct as the style and voice of their writing. Yet, as the evening progressed, the traces of a common impetus emerged between the three artists and their works.

 

First to read was Paul Lynch, from his much acclaimed novel The Black Snow. In a steady and captivating rhythm, he delivered potent, eloquent, and cleanly crafted prose. In the story of Irish emigrant Barnabas Kane, Lynch has woven what he hopes will be a myth for the current generation; a myth through which readers may come to sympathize with a common crisis of our time: the need to leave one’s mother county. Lynch also explores the unique experience of returning to your place of origin only to find you no longer belong, to be regarded as a “local stranger” by those who once knew you.

 

Abdourahman Waberi’s In the United States of Africa is a radically different novel, but Waberi too is seeking to affect the reader’s perspective. Waberi, though raised in Djibouti, was a denizen of France for much of his life. As years passed, Waberi grew tired of people failing to see past the image of an African immigrant (even – he claims –when he started saying he was from Normandy).  He fondly describes his novel as a work of philosophy which evolved, at least in part, in reaction to these attitudes. Spritely and satirical, his philosophical fiction reverses the fortunes of Africa and the Western World to create “a whole new geography; a whole new world view” (as our host Neil Wilson so wonderfully put it). Waberi intentionally uses the language of story-telling to invite readers into this new world view; he believes people respond to stories better than they do preaching.

 

Just as Lynch and Waberi provide unique lenses for readers, Carol Daniels is no exception with her novel Bearskin Diary. Daniels hopes her novel will afford readers a glimpse at common experiences in the lives of many indigenous peoples. Daniels, of Cree and Chipewyan descent, intimately understands how our sense of belonging can be dramatically affected by society’s perceptions of our origins (origins that extend beyond where we are born to whom we are descended from). With edge and honesty Bearskin Diary tells the story of Sandy, “the only First Nations child in a town of white people1”.

 

There is a common motivation in these artists’ works I am sure you have noted. Lynch, I think, best expressed the reason for it. Writers, he believes, often live with a sense of not belonging, of feeling that their perspectives and opinions do not quite match those of their families, their communities, or their cultures. Yet, when you sit down to write, you inevitably find that your family, your culture, your local context, are all undeniably part of you. Embracing this, each author draws inspiration from his or her own origins and belonging, welcoming readers to immerse themselves in a differing perspective, to understand someone else’s origins, to further explore experiences of belonging and identity.

 

Origins are very often touchstones for our reading of another person’s identity. Everyone has a beginning, and beginnings are not all the same, so our individual origins become a basis for comparison. From our differences as well as our similarities we seek to discern the foundational palettes, the base colours of each other’s character. Individually, in the daily babble and flow of our interior lives, the questions What are my origins? and Where do I belong? may surface separately, but we will find that the answer to one rather reliably has bearing on the other.

 

From Harbour publishing’s book description of Bearskin Diary.

 

16
Saturday
Apr

Contained In Time Past with Alissa York, Daniel Poliquin and Katherine Govier

A church whose roots reach back to the early 19th century seems a more than appropriate setting for a discussion of historical writing. It is a blessedly mild Saturday evening in April, and a large crowd is eager to hear from three of Canada’s most esteemed writers of fiction, to learn about what the concept of time has meant to their writing.

 

Stephen Brockwell presents us with an introduction to the historical novel, a genre that goes back to The Iliad. He wonders why we as readers are so interested with the past, musing on a few possible answers. For him, historical fiction may represent an illusion of the so-called golden age, serve as a way for us to reflect on the past, or lastly, provide a vessel for us to criticize what we have come from. The answer is likely to be a combination of all three.

 

Each guest is introduced briefly, a daunting task considering their combined honours. First we meet Katherine Govier, a much-lauded author and chair of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. Her latest novel, The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel takes place in early twentieth-century Banff, a setting rife with interesting characters, or as she describes it, a ‘novel begging to happen.’ Katherine is brief, explaining that she tends to frame her historical works with beginnings and endings that are grounded in the present. The excerpt she chooses to read is equal parts charming and atmospheric. She captures the voice of her main character, a poacher-turned-trail guide, with expert precision.

 

Next is Daniel Poliquin, a novelist, translator and recipient of the Order of Canada. His latest novel, The Angel’s Jig, tells a story set in New Brunswick in a time long after the abolishment of slavery when orphans and the elderly poor could be auctioned off into indentured servitude. He goes into greater detail regarding his process, explaining that he views his works not as histories, but as stories. He cautions that writers must be careful to avoid anachronisms in their historical writing, especially when it comes to language. Language hides ideology, he warns, citing Hollywood’s tendency to push American ideology on otherwise historical settings. His excerpt is brief and light, despite the subject matter. His main character Fidèle appears somewhat ambivalent towards his servitude, and has a wry but simple sense of humour. Fidèle’s voice, more than anything else, effectively transports the reader to an entirely foreign time and place.

 

Lastly, the audience is introduced to writer Alissa York, a Giller Prize nominee for her 2007 novel Effigy. She speaks the least, offering up only that her books require an exhaustive amount of research. She explains that she must be fascinated with a subject matter before deciding to write about it. Her latest novel, The Naturalist, is set in the Amazon partly because of Alissa’s deep interest in the river. What she lacks in introduction is more than made up for when Alissa reads her excerpt. It is a scene in which her characters are winding their way along the vast river to collect live specimens. Alissa creates a world that breathes and comes to life. With a narration the borders on omniscient, the specific voice of her characters is harder to pinpoint, but it isn’t necessary, the audience is spellbound regardless.

 

Stephen Brockwell returns to the stage to lead a round of questions, which range from each authors representation of time to each authors use of nature as a framework. He is a practiced interviewer, building upon previous queries to dig deeper and elicit a more layered response. 

 

By the end of the night, three authors of history occupy the stage, representing a collection of stories that span centuries. Each has deftly given a voice to the past and brought to life the dead and forgotten for a new audience. T.S. Eliot wrote: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future.” It isn’t hard to see our authors as commanders of all three.

 

16
Saturday
Apr

Radical Empathy with Sara Baume, Sunil Yapa and Joan Crate

The questions from the audience began with a strike to the heart: “should there be a limit to forgiveness and empathy?” Posed to three authors on the first night of the Spring 2016 Ottawa International Writers Festival, the woman’s question evoked a passionate response: “empathy is not absolution”; to seek understanding does not have to lead to forgiveness. The theme of this third event of the evening was “radical empathy”, a common thread running through the works of Sara Baume (Spill Simmer Falter Wither), Sunil Yapa (Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist), and Joan Crate (Black Apple). Baume, Yapa, and Crate’s novels and characters were vastly different, as the audience would soon realize, ranging from a lonely man and his dog in Ireland to seven perspectives of one day during the 1999 WTO Seattle protests to a Blackfoot woman who grew up in the Canadian residential school system. All, however, explored the idea of deep loneliness, empathy, and humanity deprived.

 

        To situate the packed room at Christ Church Cathedral, each author read a short excerpt from their novels. There is something special about storytellers being the ones to breath life into their own words, and this night was no exception. In a soft Irish lilt, Baume spoke in the voice of Ray, a man in his fifties, as he talked to his sole companion: his dog. Yunil followed, and we heard the thoughts of seventeen-year-old Victor as he gets caught up in the brutality of the chaotic anti-globalisation protests. Last was Crate, who introduced us to Mother Grace, the troubled Mother Superior in charge of St Mark’s Residential School, and one of her charges, a seven-year-old Blackfoot girl re-named Rose-Marie by the system.

 

        After the three readings, the authors joined Artistic Director Sean Wilson on stage to go deeper into the concept of radical empathy and the creation of their characters. The consequences of compassion, the fragility of the human life, and simple weariness were key topics pondered, and the authors, particularly Yunil and Crate, emphasized the importance of having no intentional villain to the process of writing empathy. To write from the perspectives of police during a violent protest and a Roman Catholic nun who was complicit in the vile residential school system was a challenge for Yunil and Crate, but they recognized the complexities of each and were determined to better understand the different perspectives.

 

            The difference between loneliness and solitude was also considered. A young child cruelly ripped from her family, a motherless boy estranged from his father, a crippled old man and his equally crippled dog seeking refuge from damaging loneliness – and storytellers writing in solitude, not quite lonely, comforted by the characters they put on paper, and yet still alone.

 

            In the comfortable cathedral room, the community gathered was far from lonely, a group full of different textures of people with their own silent stories. Contemplating the limits of forgiveness and the power empathy brought a sombreness to the crowd. With the smell of stale coffee lingering and the soft rustle of neighbours fidgeting, the authors assured the concerned woman that yes, there is a limit to forgiveness, and that their stories were not intending to say we ought to forgive those who inflicted grave harm upon others. But one cannot help but wonder – perhaps radical empathy means there is no limit to forgiveness.  

 

15
Friday
Apr

The Long and Short of it with Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Kris Bertin and Danielle McLaughlin

Friday evening's celebration of short stories at Ottawa's Christ Church Cathedral brought together what host Susan Birkwood called "stories that dealt with the dual nature of human experiences: longing, and loss, but also hope and love."  The Long and Short of It, as the event was aptly named, delved into the microcosm of these emotions through the individual experiences of characters from seemingly different strata of society.  

 

The evening's first guest writer, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, set the tone for the exploration of such contradicting and powerful human emotions in her latest publication, The Stone Collection, where she explores the idea of how even the most marginalized members of our society are able to transcend the darkest of human experiences, despair and alienation, and how ultimately their survival is possible through a deep-rooted sense of heritage, community and above all, humour. As Akiwenzie-Damm explained the inspiration for her stories, the “dark, heavy, subject matter” reflects the daily lives of Indigenous communities, including the tragic realities of Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women. In the excerpt she read from Calcified Horses, a story set in Ottawa, the audience was able to obtain a glimpse into a life inspired by Minnie Sutherland, her story made powerful by Akiwenzie-Damm's juxtaposition of the character's inner strength in defiance of her perceived vulnerability. 

 

The evening's exploration of the themes of loss and hope continued with Kris Bertin's The Eviction Process, a short story dealing with the gentrification of a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Halifax.  Bertin's chosen excerpt from this story captured the forceful nature of his writing, direct and honest, very similar to the characters' will to overcome transition even if this might represent a sense of loss. For the characters, continuity and belonging are then sought through the more permanent bonds found in relationships. Chris Bertin's own interest in questions of human agency and whether we actually have any control in our lives placed his character's experiences in The Eviction Process in this greater context of the arbitrary or transitory elements often found in life. 

 

From a neighbourhood in greater Halifax, the audience was then taken further east to Ireland, the homeland of Danielle McLaughlin and also the setting for her short story collection in Dinosaurs on Other Planets. Here we came across Kate, a middle-aged woman caught in the midst of an existential crisis where the rest of the world seems to continue to move on its axis while she is at a standstill. It is only when the possibility of the unknown could offer something greater than herself like the idea of dinosaurs on other planets, does Kate feel a sense of hope in finding her place in this world.  As McLaughlin mused about this idea during the question and answer period, she wondered at the possibility of bridging the distance between our world and others. This notion of the will to find a connection with different eras and places is strongly hinted in the title story with the element of the discovery of an animal skull, taken to be the fossil of a dinosaur by Kate's grandson, the idea for which had come from McLaughlin's own experience with her son.  

 

By the evening's end the audience had been taken on a journey from a familiar story setting to others that were more distant.  Despite this, each story was able to bridge the geographical distances between the characters as a recurrent theme was found.  Perhaps the human experience is to be full of contradictions, but it is the will to hope in defiance of a darker reality that makes us transcend this truth.

 

15
Friday
Apr

All In This Together with Farzana Doctor, Nadia Bozak and Christine Dwyer Hickey

After a sadly unanticipated foray through Ottawa constructions detours, I was, as always, delighted to see the blue Writers Festival banner standing tall in the evening sun on Friday. Not only did the banner direct me to the correct location (which was a concern in light of my being new to the venue), but it also served as a reminder of the delightful energy and discussion of the Writers Festival events.

 

Friday’s event at Christ Church Cathedral was hosted by festival social media manager Nina Jane Drystek, and began with a reading by Nadia Bozak , an assistant professor of English at Carleton University. Bozak read from her upcoming publication Thirteen Shells , which is a series of short stories that can be read individually or as seen with a unifying arc throughout. 

 

Importantly, Bozak’s reading included a brief musical interlude, wherein it became clear that parenthood can serve as an excellent comfort buffer when it comes to singing Raffi songs you’ve (perhaps regrettably) written into your short story collection. It was clear that everyone in the room knew precisely to when in history Bozak was referring in light of the songs referenced in her work. Bozak later explained that pop culture serves as an important piece of the memory landscape in her work. 

 

Second on the docket at Friday’s event was Farzana Doctor , a part-time psychotherapist and author based out of Toronto. Doctor was reading from her recent work All Inclusive , providing selections from two different characters. Not dissimilar from Bozak’s work, Doctor also used apropos musical selections to contextualize her stories in time. Hearing Duran Duran or Katy Perry will make fairly clear to a listener what time in history the story takes place in. Despite the featuring of music, Doctor commented that she needs to be reminded that listening to music is good; she finds it helpful in marking characters in time but frequently forgets its goodness for her own real life.

 

Last but certainly not least in Friday’s event was Christine Dwyer Hickey , an Irish playwright gracing Ottawa with her presence by way of Culture Ireland . Dwyer Hickey was reading from The Lives of Women , a story which has similarities to Bozak’s Thirteen Shells, likely due less to happenstance and more to excellent festival scheduling. Dwyer Hickey read a selection that the audience related well to, especially her depiction of a nosy elderly neighbour lady who hardly gave the protagonist a chance to think during a phone call. Most of us, I imagine, have talked to this particular neighbour lady at least once in our lives (or perhaps this lady is our grandmother).

 

A great concluding question to this event’s discussion was regarding how to go about doing the work of writing. Dwyer Hickey’s advice was to “sneak it up on yourself”; more specifically, to start by writing thirty minutes per day—no more, no less. She made the important observation that, even if you aren’t physically writing, the act or process of writing still continues as you go about your day. Hopefully, other attendees of this event were as encouraged as I was—not only to write more, but also to read the work of these talented authors. 

 

15
Friday
Apr

On Not Leaving the Table Before the Bill Arrives: Canadian Foreign Policy with Hugh Segal

The spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival was off to an auspicious start with a standing-room only reception at Social in the Byward Market for Hugh Segal’s book launch. Segal has been a respected public figure for many decades, and left the then burning house of the Senate to become the Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, a position he still holds.


His new book is part of a series by Dundurn Press, called Point of View, and is titled Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future .The eponymous dual liberties detailed by Segal are: the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.


In a brief but insightful conversation with Jennifer Ditchburn , the Editor-in-Chief of Policy Options/Options Politiques, Segal touched on a number of issues that believes are necessary for Canada to address if it is truly to be “back” on the world stage. All these issues hinge on the basic foundation of having material well-being and security.


There were intimations of his preference for devolution—outlined in his previous book The Right Balance —that NGOs on the ground, and Canada’s diplomatic corps in the field should be the first actors to engage. He favourably mentioned Canada’s working with an organization in Malaysia, Sisters in Islam , which seeks to balance shari’ah law with common law within a democracy. He also pointed out the benefits of organizations like the Commonwealth of Learning , housed in Burnaby, BC as an excellent tool in using technology to promote education, and how it was useful more recently in Pakistan. Not dealing with these smaller agents and channelling funds instead to state actors was derisively referred to as “Auditor Generalitis”; a risk-averse posture to simplify domestic book-keeping.


Segal also has numbers. 0.7% of foreign aid, the Pearsonian ideal, and 2% on defence. The latter includes a 100,000 regular force army, with 50,000 reservists. When Ditchburn probed as to what Canada was to do with such a force, Segal’s explanation was primarily to do with the capacity to deploy for humanitarian missions. It would have been good to have him talk more about combat roles, and if they were effective and relevant roles for Canada to play, as it did in Afghanistan. Further, his thoughts on how this could all be paid for were vague at best. It’s hard to imagine this policy, if taken, not having an significant impact on taxes , no matter how gradually it’s rolled out.

A line of questioning that could’ve been elucidated further is what appears to be his realpolitik: his freedom from fear is held in tension with the balance of power in regions. So while there are allies who fully share our values, there are others who only partially do­­—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, for example. It was fairly tough to accede to Segal’s calling Turkey “a loyal member of NATO,” while keeping in mind its thin-skinned leader whose tyrannical tendencies extend beyond borders , and its double-minded approach to security.


Finally, the question always remains as to how Canada can preach to the world, while there are mounting problems at home. Segal states that for all its problems, Canada still has a healthy self-criticism and an independent judiciary that, for instance, ruled in favour of Métis and non-status Indians. We can walk and chew gum at the same time; domestic responsibilities need not make us shrink from our international obligations.


Oh, in case you were wondering, like Ditchburn did at the end, Segal is in favour of the current government’s approach to reforming the Senate and hopes that they succeed. Of course, if everyone were a Hugh Segal, reform wouldn’t be needed.

The questions from the audience began with a strike to the heart: “should there be a limit to forgiveness and empathy?” Posed to three authors on the first night of the Spring 2016 Ottawa International Writers Festival, the woman’s question evoked a passionate response: “empathy is not absolution”; to seek understanding does not have to lead to forgiveness. The theme of this third event of the evening was “radical empathy”, a common thread running through the works of Sara Baume (Spill Simmer Falter Wither), Sunil Yapa (Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist), and Joan Crate (Black Apple). Baume, Yapa, and Crate’s novels and characters were vastly different, as the audience would soon realize, ranging from a lonely man and his dog in Ireland to seven perspectives of one day during the 1999 WTO Seattle protests to a Blackfoot woman who grew up in the Canadian residential school system. All, however, explored the idea of deep loneliness, empathy, and humanity deprived.

        To situate the packed room at Christ Church Cathedral, each author read a short excerpt from their novels. There is something special about storytellers being the ones to breath life into their own words, and this night was no exception. In a soft Irish lilt, Baume spoke in the voice of Ray, a man in his fifties, as he talked to his sole companion: his dog. Yunil followed, and we heard the thoughts of seventeen-year-old Victor as he gets caught up in the brutality of the chaotic anti-globalisation protests. Last was Crate, who introduced us to Mother Grace, the troubled Mother Superior in charge of St Mark’s Residential School, and one of her charges, a seven-year-old Blackfoot girl renamed Rose-Marie by the system.

        After the three readings, the authors joined Artistic Director Sean Wilson on stage to go deeper into the concept of radical empathy and the creation of their characters. The consequences of compassion, the fragility of the human life, and simple weariness were key topics pondered, and the authors, particularly Yunil and Crate, emphasized the importance of having no intentional villain to the process of writing empathy. To write from the perspectives of police during a violent protest and a Roman Catholic nun who was complicit in the vile residential school system was a challenge for Yunil and Crate, but they recognized the complexities of each and were determined to better understand the different perspectives.

            The difference between loneliness and solitude was also considered. A young child cruelly ripped from her family, a motherless boy estranged from his father, a crippled old man and his equally crippled dog seeking refuge from damaging loneliness – and storytellers writing in solitude, not quite lonely, comforted by the characters they put on paper, and yet still alone.

            In the comfortable cathedral room, the community gathered was far from lonely, a group full of different textures of people with their own silent stories. Contemplating the limits of forgiveness and the power empathy brought a sombreness to the crowd. With the smell of stale coffee lingering and the soft rustle of neighbours fidgeting, the authors assured the concerned woman that yes, there is a limit to forgiveness, and that their stories were not intending to say we ought to forgive those who inflicted grave harm upon others. But one cannot help but wonder – perhaps radical empathy means there is no limit to forgiveness.  

27
Sunday
Mar

When the Wildebeest Learn to Roar, the Lion Fights Dirty: An Evening with Micah White

Humans do not all live equal lives; history shows this and all sensible philosophers concede this truth. There are strong ones among us: smart, rich, powerful, cunning.

 

The rest, the strong considers weak, and it seems a given that most injustices perpetrated flow from the “strong” to those they consider “weak”: religious intolerance, tribal and ethnic violence, “casual” sexism, economic instability, Jim Crow. There is also within all humans a sense of justice, that we are all of us entitled to freedom, the realization of our true selves, and possibly, transcendence. It is in valuing these rights that the oppressed lash out at their oppressors. One of the more readily available and viable forms of righting societal wrongs is protest. From the protests of the citizens of Uruk against Gilgamesh’s despotism to the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution to the British abolition of slavery, the most important injustices have been met with the cries of the oppressed and the will to act against the powers that be.

 

Consider this: More than half the nations on the face of the earth were birthed out of protest movements; over eighty percent of sub-Saharan Africa was, as were the U.S. and Scotland. Slaves against masters, vassal states against suzerains, the weak wrestle against the strong and break their yokes and the strong either repress or relent. It is simply the world we live in.

 

Like Spartacus, the Martin Luther namesakes, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, and the Ekitis of the old Oyo Kingdom in Western Nigeria, Micah White understands this tool and has deployed it to great effect. He is credited as a co-founder of the Occupy Wall Street movement, perhaps the most visible protest movement of the last twenty-five years, and is by extension an uncle to similar uprisings elsewhere. This he has achieved alongside Kalle Lasn, a Vancouver native, using the provocative Adbusters magazine as a launching pad. White, however, considers the Occupy movement a constructive failure, and in a talk given at the Southminster United Church, Ottawa–and further explained in his new book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution he explains why he holds this opinion and the possible futures of protests in this era.

 

Here are a few things about Micah White. Thirty-four, he is of mixed heritage–half African-American, half Caucasian– and he speaks in a river’s rumble of a voice. He likes to keep his hair–which is more a young lion’s mane–together using a bandanna. He has been an activist since he was thirteen and in public schools, once founding an atheists’ club and eventually landing on an episode of “Politically Incorrect.”[1] For him the visual imagery of Adbusters, combined with its rich symbolism and creativity, was what drew him to the magazine, and eventually a memo he sent out became the blueprint of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On the eventual fallout between Adbusters and the Occupy movement Micah is reticent.

 

In Ottawa he speaks of his work with Adbusters and the e-mail that shook the world and engendered protests in at least sixty countries, and he opines that the success of all social movements come from a combination of an established social network, a contagious mood, and creative tactics. He focuses mostly on this contagious mood and in the talk, the Q&A session and his book he is enthusiastic about the role of what he calls “spirit–the inner force that grants patience, perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity.”[2] Like the Luther-named leaders and most of his African-American predecessors, White firmly believes that a spiritual element is key to the success of all protests, and that the very act of protesting is capable of opening doors to transcendence for its participants. The absence of this element is a major critique of his for the Black Lives Matter movement, which to him has lost its way by rejecting the deep spirituality of its predecessors.

 

An important part of White’s work are his Four Theories of Revolution: voluntarism, which works on the premise of human action being the only way through which lasting change can come and under which most contemporary activists work; structuralism, which teaches the insignificance of human intent on the creation of lasting change and instead credits economic and natural forces for any changes; subjectivism, which teaches that outside change comes from inward change, and; theurgism, a somewhat mystical and largely forgotten theory which credits lasting change to divine intervention. White believes that all four theories are needed for effective protest, and history mostly avers. America’s Founding Fathers, actively seeking to break out from under the British monarchy, invoked divine will, called for human action against the perceived oppressiveness of the monarchy, wrote magnificent works on the “American spirit,” and provoked a British crimping of Boston’s commerce, all of which led to the American Revolutionary War. Nearly two centuries later African-American civil rights movement fought redlining and the Jim Crow economy, borrowed liturgical language from Jewish and Christian canon to state the case for equal rights, marched in the streets, and leveraged whatever economic power they had to see that they and their descendants were guaranteed equal treatment by the US government.

 

White also sees the current forms of protest as largely corrupted by the media and contemporary activists who prefer online rants to actual grunt work. He derides the degradation of protest into performance art, an inevitable occurrence given the way such protests are covered by media conglomerates as expressions of mostly-youthful belligerence, often with insidious racial, religious and ideological undertones. Conversely, he criticizes online activism as a form of narcissistic justification without, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it, “skin in the game.” He is right to put it that way, however unpleasant it may sound. The rise of hashtag activism and “spreading awareness” campaigns do little to confront actual, lived realities as much as comfort the keyboard warrior that one has played a part by “supporting” a cause, however far removed an individual’s immediate reality actually is from said cause. Awareness of a given injustice is a byproduct of the work done to right that injustice and should never be the goal nor a tool of any protest group, he argues.

 

Since he considers most of contemporary activism either too deeply rooted in certain ideologies to be pragmatic or just plain ineffectual, White looks to the rural areas, feminist activism, and protest-bots for the future of activism. These possible hotbeds have largely been overlooked, he says, and he is convinced that the perceptions of bourgeois and liberal urbanites of the rural communities as largely conservative and racist hotbeds are misguided. Rural communities are well aware the way the wind blows the world, he says, and because of the ineffectiveness of the urban, liberal-leaning left it will be they who will eventually decide how the world reacts to the winds of change. He also envisions a global female movement fighting for women’s rights the world over as a welcome future of protest, and he believes in the use of technological advances to further activist causes. However, the excessive presence of a thing inevitably signals its devaluation, and he argues that the ubiquitous nature of the Internet has served as a double-edged sword for protest movements in these times. Protest should never be easy, he says, admitting to being scared every time he has to protest.

 

The key to understanding Micah White and his work lies at the intersection of the mystical and the physical realities and his reasoned understanding of the machinations of our world. While his work has shown how potent human activity can be in creating global change he is keenly aware of a spiritual input to the success of his work and in no unclear terms states that all protest is fundamentally spiritual. He is loath to completely endorse one given worldview, preferring to learn as much as he can from all and adapt as needed, chameleon-like. But perhaps the deepest truth we can glean from White’s important work, no less an unhappy truth, is that protest without backing power is limited in its possibilities. An example: the global antiwar march of February 15, 2003. In an interview with Justin Campbell of the Los Angeles Review of Books, White points out the naïve assumptions made by the protesters who assumed that large numbers of protesters corresponded to increased influence over President Bush’s decisions[3]. The age of mass marches and public protest as the ley tools for effective change is drawing to a close, he argues, citing the failures of the People’s Climate March to achieve any meaningful results concerning climate change and the more recent Black Lives Matter movement to stem the nationwide killing of young black males in the U.S., amongst others.

 

It is the way of the world that the strong mostly win, and that the perceived weak are entertainment for the strong. But protest against injustice all humans must, remembering it is also the way of the world that few lions can survive repeated kicks to the head from a wildebeest’s hoof.



[1] Mattathias Schwartz (2011, November 28) “Pre-Occupied”. The New Yorker. Retrieved March 21, 2016.

[2] Micah White (2016). The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution.

[3] Justin Campbell (2015, September 17). “The Challenge of Protest in Our Time. Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved March 21, 2016