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Preparing for Michael Ignatieff’s visit to McMaster.

Communications campaigns have really been the focus so far this term!

In a couple of days, Michael Ignatieff will visit McMaster for an open conversation with students and faculty in a non-partisan, unbranded town hall-style forum. I am one of three Co-Chairs for the event, with Tyler Banham, a Hamilton lawyer and political organiser, Sarah Milne, president of the McMaster Young Liberals. We have organised a campus-wide communications campaign and are hoping for 300-400 people to fill McMaster’s beautiful Convocation Hall. We have had a booth, extensive flyering, postering, a successful Facebook and twitter strategy, banners and several email blasts to over 5000 people.

Now we wait for Wednesday, January 13: the day of the event.

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Classes begin. Teaching a new course: Communications for Not-for-Profit Campaigns and Elections

Classes are beginning very early this year, on January 4th! Good Lord. New Year’s was just a couple of days ago.

I am excited about this term. I will be teaching a fourth-year translation class for the Department of French. I love translation – I have done it as a consultant for government and private offices in the past. It is both an art and a science.

I will also be developing a brand new third-year course called Communications for Not-for-profit Campaigns and Elections. In it we will investigate how to do media relations in the context of political and not-for-profit campaigns. We are using the Canadian Federal Election of 2008 as a case study. Students have to design a campaign strategy and communications plan. They also have to develop a suite of campaign communications products.

I will update you periodically on this new course is unfolding. I hope it proves to be a good experience for the students!

Christmas and New Year’s Eves!

Christmas was a subdued affair at my parents’ home in King City this year. We had a quiet celebration with my aunts and uncles on both the French and the Macedonian sides of my family. We drank a little wine, ate a lot of food, and exchanged gifts just after midnight on Christmas Eve. This holiday is special, for two reasons: first, I am Catholic and I take great joy in celebrating the birth of Jesus; second, December 24 is my brother, Christophe’s birthday. So it really is two parties in one, which could be a downer for him, except for the fact that he does, indeed get two gifts, or at least a doubly-precious single gift. We had turkey and chocolate cake and we spent a lot of time reminiscing. This was a nostalgic Christmas, strangely enough.

The days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve were supposed to be productive for me, but all of the traveling that I did in the fall and early winter had wiped me out. I also found myself marking all the way up to Christmas Eve, which was exhausting. Immersing yourself in the minds of so many people, trying to understand why they wrote what they did and what spider web of thoughts underlie their arguments can be intricate and persnickety. It is a mental and emotional challenge. It takes it out of you. So I spent a lot of time sleeping between Christmas and New Year’s!

On New Year’s Day, I visited with some old friends at their hobby farm north of Toronto. It was a beautiful couple of days, full of good cheer, fun and music. My friends have a baby grand piano, so we listened to the kids playing songs and also played some board games, as we sipped port and cognac by the fire. On New Year’s Eve we went for a late-night stroll in the freshly fallen snow, under the moonlight through a farmer’s field and into a little wood. The spruce trees’ boughs were heavy with new snow and the slight wind picked up a swirling mist of powder snow that, when it caught the moonbeams around us, filled the air with fairy dust and little flying comets.

Because the children were small and New Year’s happens awfully late, we actually celebrated Nova Scotia New Year’s at 11pm with the children and had a second toast at Toronto midnight amongst the adults. The next day we had a great game of pond hockey, one family against the other. Myself and the other bachelor present were allotted, one to each team, to keep things fair.

It was a beautiful pair of days.

Two Days of Protest Against Four Days of Furlough at Lakehead University

[A version of this post was published in the December-January edition of the MUFA Newsletter]

On December 20-21, I went to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay as representative of MUFA to participate in a protest against the Lakehead administration’s decision to put faculty and staff on a four-day furlough to save money. The protest was very well attended, with representatives from across Canada participating. On the morning of Dec. 21, a group of approximate 300 people marched 1.5 kilometres from Lakehead University Faculty Association’s (LUFA) off-campus headquarters to the main university building to find locked doors. Rousing speeches were delivered by CAUT members, as well as members of other labour organisations about the regressive nature of furlough as a solution to Lakehead’s operating budget problems. In a moment of ironic levity, Santa Claus even made an appearance, delivering stockings emblazoned with the names of the senior Lakehead administration and filled with coal.  While the mood was quite positive, the resolve of the protesters was firm – everyone was united in condemning the actions of the Lakehead administration and the terrible precedent it would set if the furlough survived the appeal process. In his speech, James Turk, president of CAUT, highlighted the negative precedent set by the Lakehead administration’s decision to impose furlough and break the contract with faculty without negotiating with or consulting LUFA. The protest garnered significant local media coverage, as well as a widely read blog post by globecampus.com writer, Joey Coleman.

CLIR Workshop in Washington DC

From December 14-16, I had the distinct pleasure of traveling, with McMaster’s Chief Librarian, Jeff Trzeciak, to Washington D.C. for the annual workshop of the Council on Library and Information Resources. It was an amazingly good workshop, held in the Cosmos Club, in D.C. – a club whose members are all somehow linked to science, literature or the arts. It is an incredibly beautiful place, with a gorgeous stone elevation and rich hardwood floors throughout. The walls are all wainscotted in a tasteful fashion and the ceilings vaulted and marked by ornate mouldings. The Warne Room in which the workshop was held is palatial with a pleasant, sunny view out of splendid bay windows that face onto Massachussetts Avenue. The workshop itself was fascinating, with leaders from the world of library sciences from around America participating. We heard about many library innovations, including three-dimensional tours of ancient places and how the PhD in digital humanities at King’s College was founded. Most interesting to me was a talk about an American-style university that is being built from scratch in Vietnam by an American consultant, using the investment money of a prominent Vietnamese businesswoman. Since we at McMaster are contemplating building a new campus in Dongguan, China, hearing about how a similar institution is being built in another communist Asian society was very enlightening.

Also while in D.C., I visited the Newseum (my favourite museum in the world!) and had dinner at Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, which is always friendly and full of fascinating people. Another highlight was a late-night walk with Jeff and Marshall Breeding, Director of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. We went to take in the Lincoln Memorial, which is so beautifully lit at night and then, inspired, walked down to the White House and looked at the beautiful Christmas tree all lit up and festooned. Under the tree was running a very elaborate train set, which tooted and chugged along, round and round, all night while fascinated children and their parents watched and took in the quiet splendour of the White House in the background. There was also a giant firepit in which whole logs burned red-hot and filled the air with and homey smoke that made you think you were at a Christmas party somewhere in the bush. I love D.C. – it is one of my favourite cities. It is full of tradition and quirk, grandeur and a sense of home, all at the same time. Just like America.

Liberal Caucus Christmas Party

On December 9, I went to the Liberal Caucus Christmas Party, which was  a really nice time. The snow storm that hit on the day of the drive up something right out of an action thriller and a drive that should have taken about 5 hours took more like 7. I got a late start because I had to invigilate my Intro Comms students’ exam. At McMaster we aren’t obliged to invigilate exams – we hire professional invigilators for that task – but I like to stay for the whole time. The class has 350 students and for many of them, it is their first experience writing a major exam. So I stuck around. Then I got in the car and drove through rainy skies in Toronto and then terrible snow up highway 416. But I got there, just after Mr. Ignatieff’s speech, and joined the Gerard Kennedy table. I was happy to be there because I got to meet some old friends and catch up. I was also happy because I got to meet Hon. John McKay and converse with him – it was a great coincidence, since his daughter, Rachel was in News Analysis fourth-year seminar. The drive home the next day was a lot easier. I left late in the day, after spending some time with friends on the Hill and also visiting Mr. Erik Wessman, the father of Lars Wessman, one of my oldest and dearest friends, who now lives in Portugal. Overall, a great couple of days, and a big road trip adventure, to boot!

Terry Fallis Visits Hamilton

Today was a very literary day. I got a chance to meet Terry Fallis and listen to him read excerpts from his first book, The Best Laid Plans. Terry is a McMaster alumnus (Engineering), a former political staffer and organiser and is current one of the principals at Thornley-Fallis, a marketing agency based in Toronto. He also does Inside PR, a podcast about the Canadian PR industry.

The story of his novel, The Best Laid Plans, is quite amazing. He self-published, first through podcast, chapter by chapter, and then in print. After that he won the Stephen Leacock Award for humour. Amazing. His novel follows the adventures of Ottawa political staffer extraordinaire, Daniel Addison, who convinces Angus McLintock, a professor of engineering at the University of Ottawa to run as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada in one of the greatest Tory strongholds in the country. Much hilarity ensues and, needless to say, it is a pleasure to read a book that treats of subject matter – Canadian political communication – that I am so close to and enjoy so much. I read the book ahead of time and was looking forward to Terry’s reading. He didn’t disappoint. He read with aplomb and vigour – and even tried to imitate a Scottish accent for Mr. McLintock’s speaking parts.

Many members of the ADFW Federal Liberal Riding Association were present (it was the association’s annual Christmas volunteer appreciation event) and there was pleasant conversation over punch and cookies. A surprise during the evening was the calling to order of the meeting by the Dundas town crier! That was certainly unexpected, but comforting and familiar at the same time. A good night was had by all.

Communication Studies and Multimedia Christmas Party 2009!

Tonight was the CSMM Christmas Party, organised by the Communication Studies and Multimedia Students Society. It was a great time. The students booked a room in 1280, McMaster’s newly-renovated undergraduate student pub, which used to be called Quarters. At first, there was a little noise, as just beside us, the Social Sciences students were having their annual charity auction, but that ended quickly and soon we were able to converse comfortably. Our students had bought some great Two Oceans cabernet wine and a few trays filled with tasty cheeses and nachos. We all had a chance to connect and reconnect with each other, professors and students alike, in a casual and elegant setting. A wonderful night. I love our students. They are so full of life and optimism and passion and creativity. They inspire me.

Jeanine Krieber is wrong. The Liberal Party will survive.

It sometimes feels good to give vent to personal bitterness, but before sounding off, critics must carefully consider that what they are saying is correct.

Recently, Jeanine Krieber expressed several personal concerns about the Liberal Party’s impending demise, adding that she does not want to support a party that ‘could end up in the dustbins of history’.  Had these concerns been based on solid facts, she would be right in what she says.  But her opinions – they are not solid facts! – do not hold up to careful examination.

For instance, the Party’s current challenges do not signal that the “Liberal Party is falling apart, and will not recover” nor that “like all liberal parties in Europe, it will become a weakling at the mercy of ephemeral coalitions”. On the contrary: these challenges signal the need for radical recalibration of Liberal policies to place the party again at the centre of the Canadian psyche. This is not something new.  The Liberal Party of Canada has always drawn its strength from and for the needs of the people of Canada.

Canadian Liberalism has always represented the middle ground of the hopes, fears, dreams and ambitions of Canadians. It has given the world peacekeepers, following the trauma of two world wars. It created the Canada Pension Plan, as our society moved toward a culture of greater individualism and senior Canadians wanted to feel secure in their ability to maintain their independence. It welcomed immigrants following a model that was unique in the world – multiculturalism – that enabled new Canadians to keep what made them feel at home from their cultures of origin, but also the freedom to shape their own individual identities within the Canadian mosaic. Liberals gave Canada a well-funded and well-organized health care system that is the envy of the world.

Liberalism has always united Canadians, made them feel secure, given them economic and cultural hope for themselves and their children. That has always been its strength.  How the Party has done that has changed with the ages.

In the 90s, Liberalism meant giving Canadians the financial security they needed. While other countries were burdening themselves with debt, Liberal governments were maximizing Canadians’ freedom by reducing our debt load and restructuring government spending to reduce the burden on future generations. Through  serious investments in higher education that created opportunities for Canadians from every social class to comfortably engage in postgraduate studies, Liberal policies enabled a boom in science and culture in Canada that, yet again, made us a beacon for the world.

Today, things have changed again. Radically.

Information and communication technologies, ranging from smart phones to computers to GPS, biotech and social media, have turned society on its head.

Our society is aging and that brings new challenges and opportunities.

Add to this that Capitalism has changed. Information and communication technologies have transformed the economic landscape.

This is the new reality. And it is terrifying for many.

However, we must not overlook the fact that Canada helped build the infrastructure for modern commerce, with world-beating companies like Nortel Networks, Research in Motion, Open Text, SoftImage and too many others to name. And Canadians will not stop there. We must surf the international wave of change and use our education advantage to be producers of high quality content to fill the bandwidths our engineers have created. We are quiet people of great innovation and great humility. But much of that potential is dormant.

Every generation or so, the Liberal Party of Canada has re-centered itself on the common ground of Canada’s social, economic and political life and then lighted a hopeful, moderate path forward through dark forest of an uncertain future.

Laurier did this. Pearson did this. Trudeau did this. Chrétien did this. Martin began to, but was cut short.  And now Michael Ignatieff must do the same.

This is not the time for ideological certainties and simple solutions to complex problems.  These are not visionary and will not make Canada a world leader and beacon of hope for the next 50 years – a position we have enjoyed for the last 50 years. This is nothing new.

In the past, the Liberal party has been the one that saw past the ideology, saw past the short-term political fixes, and had the courage to sound out the Canada public. To find out what is making it work, what is holding it back, making it dream, terrifying it. And then to propose a set of policies that take what is best and most widely applicable to most Canadians.

Liberal solutions have always been an elegant compromise between practical needs and visionary idealism.  There is no defensible reason to believe that things are any different today.

Ms. Krieber rightfully says that the “time for choices is now.” But she is wrong to despair. The current rudderless feeling that Canadians are experiencing will become a part of the past, a part of the PREVIOUS generation, when Liberals look boldly toward the future and – yet again – set an example for the world.

She says that she feels members do not know Ignatieff because, presumably, they have have “not done their homework”, “did not read his books” and “were satisfied that he would be charming at cocktails”.  She also says that “Stéphane would have been willing to take all the time and absord all the hits needed to rebuild the party”.  If these conjectures are correct, they do point to squabbles and shortcomings that need to be addressed.  However, this is not the time to “absorb all the hits needed to rebuild the party”; rather, it is the time to recognize that the Party has moved on, that it is facing today’s challenges head on.

Liberals must stop squabbling among themselves and with the other parties and get to work. They need to step back and think about what Canadians want.

It is time for a new vision. Mr. Ignatieff has the smarts, the vision and the generosity of spirit to guide Liberals toward it.

In the past, it has been Liberal policies that have awakened the dormant giant of Canadian creativity, enterprise, social justice and foreign affairs innovation. The Party will do so again but to get there, Liberals must engage the Canadian citizenry with an open mind and an open heart.

Canadians are waiting to be inspired and moved to action by a new Liberal vision for the next twenty years.

A Day of Contrasts

[This piece was originally posted as a Facebook note on Tuesday, 04 August 2009 at 19:23]

I spent the afternoon, a while back, at the Orange Alert Café, a pleasant, unassuming organic coffee spot kitty corner to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. I was there with a few friends, talking about the happy coincidences of their family lives, their children’s successes and challenges, the ups and downs – mostly downs these days, sadly – of their investment portfolios, the longing of some to go back to school for various things: creative writing, marketing, pottery, accounting, sculpture, and so on. It was warm and pleasant.

Everyone left around 5pm to go back to their busy lives – close up shop, pick kids up from after-school activities, buy fresh fruit and flowers for dinner that night. I was feeling calm and happy afterward, so I decided to spend a little more time there, on my own, with a book and a jasmin green tea. I like watching the business day end and people hurrying to get away from the lives they lead at work to transform into the people they are at home. You can almost see it happening in their faces, as they lug briefcases and rolly bags through revolving doors, down the sidewalk, and then into streetcars, buses and subways, en route to domesticity and the delicious luxury of personal time.

After an hour or so of this, I decided to join a friend for dinner in Richmond Hill, north of the city. We went for Korean bbq – one of my favourites, because you have an incredible variety of meats and veggies and also there is a lack of pretension because everyone has to roll up sleeves and get cooking. It’s like having a casual bbq, but in a chic, modern decor that would normally be reserved for mid- to high-end restaurants. I like the contrast.

After dinner, we hung out casually for a drink and chatted about our lives – the fact that we’re both still single and looking, the challenges of living and working near Toronto, a great metropolis in which it is difficult for people to connect, like electrons flitting around a great atom smasher, never quite hitting one another quite right to stick. We talked about our careers, our extended families and exchanged stories about our friends’ lives – catching up on the nothing news that makes life pleasant and gives Torontonians a feeling of connection, despite the city’s vastness and the loneliness of our cars and cubicles.

Feeling a little bored and antsy, we decided to meet another friend to see an film at one of the giant suburban movie theatres that ring Toronto and have absurd names like Colossus. I like the work of the director, J.J. Abrams – it is stylish, moving and sometimes even profound. The film didn’t disappoint – in fact, the casual suburban crowd in attendance gave it a rousing ovation once the credits rolled! So that was great. When I dropped my friend off at home, he was excitedly going on about flaws he had found in the film. I drove off into the night, back towards my home in Hamilton.

Then I got a terrible phone call.

You see, there was a very poor man. I will call him Simon. He worked beside me as a volunteer on a community campaign a long time ago. He has a slight mental disability and is a little obsessive at times. He can be very trying, even vexing to speak to because he always wants to talk to you about the same things: his broken family background, infrastructure funding – especially public transit systems – and municipal politics. Sometimes Simon would come to the office and sit with us while we worked. Sometimes he would be quiet and read a magazine or snack on the home-baked goodies that we always had in the front lobby, provided by kind neighbourhood grandmas. Sometimes Simon would find internet sites about improvements to the city’s systems and tell me: “Professor, if you get a chance, you should bring this one up with the Mayor or those big shots in Ottawa – it would be great to have something like this in Toronto”. I was always patient with him and often enjoyed his enthusiasm for the topics he brought up with me.

Well, the voice on the phone said that it was from the hospital and that I should come. It was a nurse. She said that Simon had identified me as someone who would come to see him. I turned the car around and drove down to the hospital. Apparently Simon had been beaten almost to death. I waited in the cracked plastic chairs until they called me in and then I saw him, his face a swollen mess. One of his eyes was bandaged. And his cheeks were raw and bruised. He had wisps of dried blood at the corners of his mouth that the nurses had missed, I guess. When he saw me, his face lit up and he gave me a big smile with his good eye twinkling. He said: “Thanks for coming, Professor. I thought you might.” Then he coughed hard. A furrowed look of worry passed across his face and then he asked “Have you heard about the new VIA Rail plan for Hamilton, where you live?” And so we talked for a bit about the city and its systems until he had quieted down and the nurse told me he was ready for sleep. She said to me: “He had a big panic attack when he came in here and asked for you. He said you were his friend and would come. That you would understand. I guess you did. Thanks. He has no one.” She shrugged and turned away. And then I left to drive home.

When I got home, I had a real mix of thoughts. What a crazy, weird, unfair world we live in. One minute I am in a suburban theatre with the well-heeled Abrams fans watching an engaging fiction, the next I am in Toronto with a destitute, solitary old man, suffering from panic anxiety disorder who had been beaten to within an inch of his life.

We must work to fix this world.

It has to be better, more hopeful, more loving: less navel-gazing, less fake – more real. In Simon’s suffering lie the missions of the political progressive and the person of faith – the reminder that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. That we must overcome our selfish anxieties and strive be a light to others. To be bringers of light: the light of hope and inclusion. A politics of hope, aimed at building a loving society, must reach out to and embrace all of its members. We must find ways to create roles and places for everyone, both emotional and economic. At the heart of a life of poverty lies a profound loneliness and alienation – a feeling of rejection that can lead to hopelessness.

Someone very dear to me asked me once if I was ever jaded by my volunteer work in politics. It can take up a lot of time and offer little tangible reward. Often its emotional costs are high. So why am I not jaded by politics? Am I a hopeless idealist? I think not. Politics is visceral – it is the negotiated story of people’s dreams and fears, anxieties and hopes. It is a practice that lays the road for human potential in a society.

It is by helping and sharing of ourselves that we are transformed and liberated from our fears and insecurities. A certain joy can only be experienced in the giving up of self to others, in humble service. It makes one light of step. It is freedom.

I can answer that I am not jaded by politics – it is because of those who cannot represent themselves that we engage.

I left the hospital energized and feeling light – not heavy hearted – because Simon was not defeated. For Simon, as he told me, beatings may be a part of life, but a moment of friendly support is the star that guides him forward toward hope.

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