New Books and Featured Reading Lists

Each week on the 49th Shelf homepage, we highlight new releases. We also make theme-based lists and showcase lists from guest contributors and 49th Shelf members. This page archives these selections so they are always available to our members.

Show only:
New Non-Fiction for the week of May 29th : New: Books on Sport
Baseball Life Advice

Baseball Life Advice

Loving the Game That Saved Me
edition:Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

From Baseball Life Advice

On not being encouraged to be a baseball fan:

"Baseball is one of those things I was never told I should love. No one passed it down to me like some sacred family heirloom — I chose it for myself. Throughout my life I’ve been told I should love certain books and films, certain bands and fashions. I’ve struggled to love the jobs I did, the men I dated, family members who were less than lovable. But unlike most people and things, baseball never asked anything of me, and no one ever demanded I be loyal to it. I never played it, my parents didn’t strong-arm me into attending games, and I didn’t have a social group that insisted it become an integral part of my life. In fact, I would say that I was consistently discouraged from loving this pastime and culture built for men and boys, fathers and sons, that’s not always welcoming of my gender. There is no real template for loving baseball when you’re a girl or a woman, so you have to fumble around a bit to make it your own. I like to think I truly love the game because it made itself hard to love and I embraced it anyway. Because of that, it belongs to me in a way nothing else does."

close this panel
Hockey Night Fever

Hockey Night Fever

Mullets, Mayhem and the Game's Coming of Age in the 1970s
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : hockey, history
More Info
Sisterhood of the Squared Circle

Sisterhood of the Squared Circle

The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling
edition:Paperback
tagged : wrestling
More Info
Turning
Excerpt

A swimmer can sense the turning of the lake. There’s a moment in the season when the water changes. It isn’t something you can see, it’s something you can feel. In spring, the winter ice melts, and the warm and cold of the lake intermingle, flowing together. In summer, as the lake grows warm, a green froth of algae caps the surface of the water, and when it cools again in autumn, the green disappears. The air thins. The leaves flash red and gold. And the water ‘turns’.
     You come to know the  consistent  cool  of  spring  and the stagnant warmth at the top of a summer lake. When the water clears in the autumn, you can feel it: the lake feels cleaner on your arms, less like velvet and more like cut glass. And then winter comes, sharper than ever. Swimming year-round means greeting the lake’s changes.
     There is an English expression for the lake’s changes: the ‘breaking of the meres’. It describes the point in late summer  when  shallow  lakes  –  meres  –  turn  a  turbid blue-green, algae breaking atop the surface like yeast froths on beer. The Germans also have a word for the green of summer: umkippen. It describes the point when the water has turned to slick green, fizzling with iridescent algae.
     But the breaking of the meres and umkippen capture only that single moment of algal rupture, the death of the lake from too much algae and too little oxygen. We tend to notice the obvious thing – the emerging sheen of an algal bloom – and reduce a word’s meaning to that tiny moment, that fleck of green on the surface.
     The lake’s turning – ‘lake stratification’ and ‘overturn’ – runs deeper, taking in an entire year’s worth of changes in the water. Turning is perpetual. It points to the wider transformations in the water, as layers below billow and rearrange themselves beneath the surface. Even in winter, the lake is alive beneath the ice.
     I long for the ice. The sharp cut of freezing water on my feet. The immeasurable black of the lake at its coldest. Swimming then means cold, and pain, and elation.
 
 
When I was twenty-eight, almost as if by accident, I was sent to Berlin on a five-month research placement. I moved into a second-floor Altbau flat, one of the crumbling, enormous apartments that looks straight out of a Stasi spy drama. And from this old place with an old cellar that had once been used for escape tunnels, I set out into a world of pine and silken water, of craggy cobbles and peeling paint.
     Berlin resembled the other places I’ve called home – Canada, Britain – but only in glimpses: in the way the skeletal pines would edge the lake, in how the old stones would grow thick with moss. Pain, brightness, loss and renewal were layered in the landscape: in the lush shade of Tiergarten, which in my grandfather’s days was barren, razed and desperately carved up for allotments, and in the crooked edges of concrete that had slowly been dismantled as kids my age grew up. I was three when the Berlin Wall came down. I don’t remember it, but I came to know it in my own way.
     The footprint of the Wall was turned into a hiking trail. Pavements stopped you in your tracks, Stolpersteine, brass stumbling stones marking the lost. Roads radiated out like a dial, a stretched palm pressed on to the city. I thought the roads here had to be so wide, if only to hold the ghosts.
     Half a year later, as I was retreating from the deep end of depression, I surfaced with the bizarre notion that the solution to my problems lay in swimming. I felt furious that I had succumbed to the dark vacancy of my moods, as though it were my fault. My heart was broken. Above all, I thought that swimming might help me find some new place in the world in a year in which I’d changed address five times. A place in a city that wasn’t mine, and that held layered in its streets a century of change and grief, ghosts in the landscape. Naively, perhaps, I believed that if I could find that place in the middle of the lake where every feeling slipped away, I might undo the hurt.
     I’d moved again – this time into a stark white room with ceilings thrice my height – but spent only a few moments unpacking and settling in before turning my eyes to the map. The city at its centre, cut through by a fan of broad avenues and the rivers, the sudden countryside at its edges. Hundreds of spots of blue multiplied exponentially as the city lines crept into the surrounding land. These lakes and rivers – their intricate weave of water laid on to the flat North German Plain by retreating glaciers in the last ice age – had worked a tiny hook into my heart, and I could do nothing for it but swim.
     Perhaps it was a drastic response. In depression, I had become someone I hadn’t wanted to be, emptied and hardened. I felt that I had to respond to it in kind, as if lake water might blast away my sadness and fear. So I decided to swim for a year, in the hope of finding some reserve of joy and courage in myself. It was a means of greeting the ghosts – mine and others – as they appeared around unknown corners. I knew there was no untouched landscape here: there is hurt that cannot be undone. I wanted to find a way to negotiate it, to live with it.
     Of all the lakes near to the city, I planned to swim in fifty-two, a whole year’s worth, stretching my swims out through each season. Prone to rules, I kept the parameters simple: no cars, no wetsuits. I could take friends from time to time. My daily life would continue as normal. I was in the final year of my doctorate, finalising and refining a dissertation in environmental history. I was living an ocean away from family and home. There was pressure to hold things together. Swimming would be a way of staying with my fears, a way of staying in place. Above all, I sought to find some balance in it.
     The summer in Berlin began coolly and then arrived fully formed, hot. Bright swathes of sunlight stretched over the cobbles, and the sky painted itself cornflower blue. The temperature rose and the air thickened only slightly as a hot, dry June settled on the city.
     I looked at the map, traced my fingers over the lakes I knew – Krumme Lanke, Weißer See, Liepnitzsee, Bötzsee, Mühlenbecker See – and decided, as if by habit, to start at the beginning. Krumme Lanke, my first German lake.

close this panel
Running to the Edge

Running to the Edge

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Run Better

Run Better

How To Improve Your Running Technique and Prevent Injury
edition:Paperback
More Info
The Guy on the Left

The Guy on the Left

Sports Stories from the Best Seat in the House
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
More Info
Ben Hogan's Tips for Weekend Golfers

Ben Hogan's Tips for Weekend Golfers

Simple Advice to Improve Your Game
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : golf
More Info
Sugar Ride

Sugar Ride

Cycling from Hanoi to Kuala Lampur
edition:Paperback
More Info
This week's recommended reading lists

Save Your Life Poems

0 ratings
rated!
rated!
View List
New Children's for the week of May 22nd : New Picture Books
Giraffe and Bird

Giraffe and Bird

illustrated by Rebecca Bender
edition:Hardcover
also available: Hardcover
tagged : friendship
More Info
This week's recommended reading lists

Go Jump in the Lake

0 ratings
rated!
rated!
View List

Funny Women

0 ratings
rated!
rated!
View List
New Fiction for the week of May 15th : New Fiction
Glass Beads
Excerpt

From “Stranger Danger”

 

Nellie was struggling with an English paper. She hated the class.  Her professor had intoned at the beginning of class: “There are no right answers, only answers that you had to argue for.”  Nellie hated open-ended shit.  She just wanted to know which argument would give her an A.

 

She called Everett.  There was no answer.  He had no answering machine but he had call display and it told him how many times she called.  Right now if he would see: twelve.

 

She had been angry six calls ago.  Now she was just disappointed.  And horny.   

 

She opened up her political science binder, it was filled with photocopied readings.  She had to read about Aristotle even though she’d already read about him in Philosophy.  It must be nice to straddle two subjects with the same boring writing.  She went to the kitchen to refill her tea.  She was drinking green tea these days, it was supposed to fire up her metabolism by getting rid of all the free radicals lurking in her body.  She didn’t know what those were but Oprah said they were bad.  Nellie hadn’t lost a pound but then again it was hard to eat healthy when the entire apartment smelled like pizza.

 

Nellie padded into the kitchen and saw a pizza container on the counter.  She squelched a scream of frustration.  She opened the pizza box; it was sausage and pepperoni.  The top of the box was rimmed in dark where the fat had soaked into the cardboard.

 

Nellie spit on the pizza and spread the spit over the top of it with her finger.  She was closing the box carefully when the front door opened.

 

She looked around the corner as Julie stalked past her.  Nellie hurried behind her.

 

Julie sat on Nellie’s bed, her head against the wall.  Julie’s bedroom was the living room so during the day she used Nellie’s. It wasn’t the best situation but Nellie didn’t feel like giving up the extra rent money.

 

“So?”

 

“He’s ok, I guess.”

 

Nellie started small. “Did you have fun?”

 

“I guess.”

 

“Did you make out with him?”

 

“No.”

 

“Did you want to?”

 

“I dunno.  He’s so… bleh.”  Julie made a damn-I-just-stepped-in-dog-poop-and-I’m-wearing-sandals-face.

 

“Okay then.” Nellie’s disappointment was writ clear. 

 

“He wants to see me this weekend.  So I told him I work this weekend and then he’s all like what about before work and so I said yes but I don’t want to go.  He wants to go hang out at the park - what the fuck is at the park?”

 

“There’s ducks.”

 

“You and Everett ever go to the park?”

 

Nellie and Everett never went anywhere together.  It was her house or his.  Sometimes she saw him at the bar and she would wave to him and he would act like he was gonna come over but he never got to where she was sitting.

 

One time she asked him to meet her at Place Riel at the University.  She saw other girls meet their boyfriends there.  She had explained to him how to get there, walked him through the streets one by one.  He never showed up.  He told her that he made it to the University Bridge but then some woman give him a weird look which made him feel weird so he turned around and went home.

 

“I don’t like ducks,” Nellie replied.

 

“There wasn’t a single Indian in that place.  Me and a bunch of white people.   I felt like everyone was looking at us and I couldn’t stop looking at his arms.  He had this blonde hair all over them.  Like lots of it.” Julie made a face that she saved for the smell of rotten garbage.

 

“That’s how white people are, I guess.” How would Nellie know? She’d never studied one up close. “Was he nice?”

 

“He asked me if I liked being called Indian or Native.”

 

“Always say Native.”

 

“I know that, Nellie.  But I don’t have to answer that question if I’m with an Indian guy.”

 

Nellie wanted to argue from the perspective of diversity and being open minded but she was tired and felt nauseated from the smell of pizza.  So, they walked down to the Rainbow cinema where movies were three dollars on Sunday afternoons.  As they stood in line for popcorn, Julie laughed suddenly and sharply.

 

“What’s so funny?”

 

“I was thinking about the date.  You know when he asked me if I liked Native or Indian.”

 

“What did you say?”

 

“I asked him if he liked white or honky.”

 

Nellie rolled her eyes as Julie laughed at her own joke.

 

When they got home, Nellie checked the phone: Ball, N. had called.   She showed it to Julie who shrugged and then turned on the TV.  Nellie went back to her homework.

close this panel
You Are Not Needed Now

You Are Not Needed Now

edition:Paperback
More Info
The Slip

The Slip

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : humorous, literary
More Info
Excerpt

Monday, November 2

I would have run to little Naomi when she cried out, except I had to get the poppy to stay on. That seemed paramount as I stood in the master bedroom at 4 Metcalfe Street, getting ready for my TV appearance. The producer at CBC’s Power Today had emailed us all with her fourth reminder since Friday morning. Okay, folks: We’re in Remembrance Day mode as of Monday, so we ask all on-air guests to have the poppy prominently displayed for broadcast. We won’t have a box of them in the studio yet, so please bring your own. Should go on the left, over your heart. Yes, yes. I had a track record for being one of these careless dolts who loses four or five poppies to the wind and just gives up somewhere around November 7. I imagined hundreds of those plastic-and-felt florets I’d bought over the years clogging the gutters of Cabbagetown and the Annex, and the goddamn veterans counting up their gold like Scrooge McDuck. The things were clearly engineered to fall off. It became critical, in that moment, to get it fastened correctly. More critical than whatever else I planned to wear — brown tweed over blue shirt and some pleasantly centrist slacks — or my efforts to sooth the ginger flare of comb-over that sprang across my skull like the facehugger from Alien. (Cheryl Sneed, my fellow panellist and long-time nemesis on the Right, would make some green room remark about it, regardless. Either that or the wisp of PEI accent that still warped my rhotics — which I hammed up whenever I was in her presence, because I knew it annoyed her.) And, perhaps, more critical even than what my three-year-old daughter was screaming about down the hall, in the bathroom. Grace was on it, anyway. I heard her fly out of Naomi’s bedroom with a panicked Sweetie, are you OKAY? followed by a quick gush from the faucet. I plucked the poppy off my bureau, fluttered it like a parasol in the mirror. Wait — where was my tweed? Oh right, of course. I hurried into the hallway.
“Philip. Philip, are you there?”
I was not. I bounded up the stairs to my third-floor office, zagging around the Dora the Explorer doll lying on the hardwood beneath my feet. Entering my office, I found the tweed where I last left it: thrown over the arm of the futon. I nabbed the jacket and laid it flat across my desk, moving manuscript printouts from my next book (tentatively called “Christianity and Its Dissidents”) out of the way. I bent over and manoeuvred the flower over the lapel. I poked the steel pin into the pure virgin wool and pressed the poppy in as deep as it would go. Then I raised the jacket up and looked at it. Already the plastic blossom had slid a few millimetres out of the lapel.
Grace’s voice echoed from the hall and through the open office door.
“Philip — seriously, are you there or not?”
Just a minute, dear. I returned the jacket to the futon arm and then moved to the overflowing bookshelf on the opposite wall. I pulled down my author copy of Corporate Canada Today (Tuxedo House, 2014) and quickly confirmed a few facts about ODS Financial Group, which would be the subject of this afternoon’s Power Today interview. Yes, yes. Managing partner since ’99: Viktor Grozni. CFO: the lovely and talented Glenda Harkins-Smith. Market cap before the 2008 crash. Market cap just before Friday’s announcement. Number of Canadians with pensions directly managed by. Number of ancillary businesses shareholders had no idea existed. Amount of direct subsidy from the Harper Conservatives since 2011. Yes, yes. It was already there, all of it, in my head. Cheryl Sneed didn’t stand a chance.
Time to throw the jacket on and quickly help Grace with whatever she and Naomi were dealing with in the bathroom (the child had stopped screaming, but continued with a kind of hiccupy crying that seemed to reverberate through the whole house) before heading downtown. I turned and reached for my tweed, only to have my gaze hauled to the floor. There on the hardwood lay my poppy, face down like a drunkard.
Oh, that is it, I thought. Fucking veterans.
I grabbed the tweed and picked up the poppy before storming back down the stairs. Time for Plan B.
“Philip — Philip can you please come here.”
I hustled down to the main floor. Stole a glance at the clock on the kitchen wall. Oh God. I hurried to the door leading to our basement. My basement, since Grace and the kids rarely went down there. More oubliette than man cave, it had a set of stairs that descended almost vertically into that dark, unfinished gizzard. I marched down and popped on the light, which only marginally diminished the darkness, then went to my small workbench with the poppy and jacket in tow. I rested the tweed flat and placed the scarlet bloom onto the lapel. Then I grabbed the industrial stapler I had bought at Canadian Tire to assemble some rather complicated birthday party decorations for my stepdaughter, Simone, when she turned thirteen a few weeks ago. The tool was heavy in my hand, like a weapon. I clamped one end of the nozzle over the flower and tucked the other under the tweed.
BLAM! BLAM!
There. Perfect. Well, not perfect. I held the jacket up once more. Hopefully the CBC’s cameras were not so HD that they would pick up the tiny planks of metal that now held the poppy in place.
I hiked back up to the main floor, throwing the jacket on as I did. Moving to holler upstairs to Grace, I turned to see that she and Naomi were already in the kitchen, waiting for me. My wife leaned against the counter, arms folded over her chest, her bottom lip tucked under her top teeth, her head tilted. Oh, she was mad. I briefly scanned the kitchen for the source of her rage. Surely I hadn’t forgotten to clean up the wreckage of the Bloody Joseph (my third since breakfast): the inedible stump of celery sequestered in the compost, the tin of tomato juice washed out and blue-binned, the celery salt resuming its place in the spice rack, and various other accoutrements returned to their sentry posts in my bar fridge. But no. The kitchen was spotless, as per our agreement.
“Oh, hey,” I ventured. “Look, I’m running late but would you mind —”
“Did you not hear me calling you?”
What was I to say to that?
“I’m pretty sure you did hear me calling you, Philip,” she went on, “because I could hear you shuffling in the hallway outside the bathroom as I did.”
“I wasn’t ’shuffling,’” I said. “I was getting ready for this CBC thing. Look —”
“The tub faucet upstairs still isn’t working right.”
“Yes, it is,” I disagreed, stupidly. I had showered earlier in the day, as had Simone before she’d gone to school. (It wasn’t apparent whether Grace had had her shower yet.) But she was, technically, right — the tub faucet was still plagued with a peculiar problem: the cold water tap would spew piping-hot water for nearly a minute after you turned it on. It was the latest in a series of bathroom issues we’d been having. You’d think that for the ungodly sum I paid for 4 Metcalfe Street six years ago when we got married, we’d have a fully functional bathroom — not to mention a finished basement. But no, no.
“You were supposed to get it fixed,” Grace said, “like, three weeks ago. And now —”
“It’s on my list. You know it’s on my list.”
“And now what I feared would happen — what I knew would happen if you didn’t get it fixed — has happened. Naomi went in there before I realized and turned on the tap and scalded herself.”
“I had to take a pewp,” Naomi informed me with a sniffle, and displayed her reddened right wrist.
I looked at her. “Did, did you poop in the tub, sweetie?”
“She didn’t poop in the tub,” Grace barked. “Philip, you’re missing the point. Did you not hear your daughter scream out and start crying?”
I did. Of course I did. But I knew — or at least assumed — that Grace had things well in hand. Which she did.
My eyes flicked to the wall clock. Jesus.
“Look, what do you want from me?” I tried a half smile. “I fixed the sink up there, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you fixed the sink — after I nagged you about it for five months. What, do you want a medal for that?”
“Grace —”
“I’m serious, Philip. Would you like a prize for fixing the sink? We could write to the French government and get them to create a new international award for plumbing, and give it to you. They could call it the Douche d’Or.”
“You’re hilarious,” I deadpanned, but then chuckled on the inside. She must have been sitting on that joke for weeks.
I shrugged at her. “Look, what can I say? I’m not handy. You know that. This kind of stuff stresses me out, and I have enough stress in my life right now. I’m teaching two courses this term. I’ve got the new book. I’ve got the thesis defence I’m chairing in a few weeks, and …” My eyes floated back to the clock. “I’ve got this CBC thing this afternoon.”
“So you don’t have time to pick up the phone and call a plumber, is what you’re saying.”
“It’s not about calling a plumber, Grace. It’s about having the headspace to figure out if there are any plumbers left in this city who haven’t screwed us over.”
“You weren’t teaching in the summer,” she pointed out. “You could have done it then.”
“Yes, but I had a breakthrough with the book, and …” I pinched my nose, sighed. In that moment, I longed for my old life, before we bought this huge, and hugely expensive, house in Cabbagetown. For sixteen years prior to marrying Grace, I had lived in a loft in the Annex. If the sink broke, the landlord came and fixed it. Which felt like something that only happened in fairy tales, now.
“Look,” I went on, “just because I wasn’t teaching doesn’t mean I had the capacity to deal with …” And yes, I said it then; the words just flew out of me. “… a bunch of domestic trifles.”
“Wow,” she said, long and slow, and blinked at me. “So I guess what you’re saying is it’s really my responsibility, because you’ve got all that,” and here she mock-furrowed her brow at me, “deep thinking to do.”
“Oh, come on, Grace.”
But she took a step toward me then, her backside leaving the counter. In one fluid motion, she jutted her hip out, picked up Naomi, and parked the child upon it. Engaging, she was, in that most basic act of motherwork: to hold her child close. Then Grace threw back her thick, curly hair — sporting a henna dye job she’d acquired a few months ago, one I thoroughly approved of when she first modelled it for me, burying my face in its waves later that night, in bed — and looked at me with those wild, emerald eyes of hers.

close this panel
This week's recommended reading lists

Swim-Lit

0 ratings
rated!
rated!
View List
New Non-Fiction for the week of May 8th : New Books on Politics
The Unbroken Machine

The Unbroken Machine

Canada's Democracy in Action
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

The machine is not broken. It has a defined purpose and it works — it works well, in fact. At the municipal, provincial, and federal levels, candidate nominations are held. Political parties hold conventions to decide policy and elect leaders. Elections are held in towns and cities across the country to elect councillors and mayors, provinces and territories hold elections for their legislatures, and nationally, federal elections to select MPs, and thereby, a government. Following all of these elections, the various politicians and the government bureaucracies work to keep all of the offices and agencies of state running smoothly.
But many of the people who operate it seem to have forgotten just how it’s supposed to work. They keep coming up with ways to “improve” it, to somehow change its outcomes — creating something that will be fantastic and magical, like unicorns. However, when they don’t use the machine properly, and when they have unrealistic expectations about what it’s supposed to be producing, well, they deem it to be “broken” and in need of an overhaul.
Welcome to the state of Canadian democracy, something that many claim needs reform. While for decades now it has often been said that ours is an age of reform, it would also seem that ours is also an age of civic illiteracy. The demands that we see for electoral reform often spring from unfamiliarity with just how the system operates, and some blatant misrepresentations about the nature of some of our institutions. It doesn’t help that we are bombarded by depictions of the American political system in our popular culture, depictions that have created a distorted image of our own system — a fiction that involves elements of the American system mapped over ours in people’s minds. Things are made worse by the fact that many Canadians are wrapped up in American political concerns, never mind that they can’t actually vote in their elections.
For some Canadians, the level of illiteracy is pretty extreme — you might even say that it is alarming.
“Stephen Harper’s the mayor, right?” asked one constituent of a prospective MP who was knocking on doors in a Calgary riding during the 2011 federal election.
Many can’t tell you the three levels of government, who the head of state is, and you might be lucky if they know who the prime minister is at any given moment. Others can’t distinguish between the public service and the elected officials, between government and Opposition, or between the roles of an MP versus the role of a minister. To them, everything is just “government.” Many people don’t know about the nomination process that political parties use to select candidates, or the policy conventions that parties hold to draft election platforms, or the roles that parties play within our system, and may instead believe a narrative that fits their world view, which often involves belief that a small cadre of powerful elites pulls the strings and makes our democratic institutions dance to their machinations.
This general confusion about Canada’s electoral system and belief that it is “broken” is often encouraged by the very people who do know better. They do this because they have their own ideas about how the system should operate instead, which usually involves changes made for their own partisan advantage. They sow additional confusion into the system and then declare it to be broken because it is in their advantage to do so. Of course, they may not actually have engaged in enough of a consequence-based analysis of just what would happen if they should implement their “reforms,” but that doesn’t stop them from trying to push their own vision or agenda. “Reform,” they feel, will benefit them in the long term.
And more often than not, their visions will go unchallenged by the media or the general public because of a pervasive lack of knowledge of how the systems of our democracy operate, or how they would be affected by changes that may sound novel or interesting.


For many Canadians, this lack of knowledge of our system of government stems from inadequate education in the primary and secondary levels. Most provinces don’t require civics education or its equivalent in their social studies curriculums, and when students are offered civics education, they are often taught only a few basic facts without being given an accurate representation of the mechanics of a system. In some cases, such as in Ontario, it was found that the civics course being taught in high schools was imparting wrong information about the roles and responsibilities of the different institutions of government.
Not only are our students being given an inadequate education in civics but they are often being taught by instructors who have a bias against the system as it exists. Studies have shown that teachers with the greatest interest in politics are also those with the greatest belief in the need for reform of the system. This bias among many teachers and political scientists for reform of one form or another, means that students often graduate with a distorted understanding of the system and how it operates currently.
One of the most damaging misunderstandings about how the system operates stems from a pervasive misuse of the term democracy, or rather, democratic. This leads to the completely false notion that things can be made “more democratic,” as though there were a way to assign a point value to the “democraticness” of systems or proposed reforms, and the first one to get to a hundred, wins.
The most popular notions for making things “more democratic” tend to involve adding more votes to the process — votes by the general public, or by members of the House of Commons — or require positions currently held by appointment be made elected ones, or that certain decisions that would ordinarily be under the purview of the Crown be similarly put to a vote. And while votes are a good thing, they need to be held with a specific purpose in mind and within a specific framework — what is this vote going to accomplish and what does the democratic weight behind it mean?
Part of the problem with many of these proposals to hold more votes is that the resulting votes are simply votes held for the sake of holding a vote to put a coat of “more democratic” paint over decisions that are, in fact, foregone conclusions based on how the seats break down in a majority government in the Commons. Others are votes structured in a way to artificially create a “50-percent-plus-one” result, even though that was not the intent of the votes being cast. Still others ignore one of the most fundamentally important mechanisms inherent within the Westminster democratic model: accountability.
As things are currently structured in the Canadian parliamentary system, there is a healthy tension between democracy and accountability. When voters elect MPs, they hold them accountable for their conduct at the next election. When MPs form governments, those governments are held accountable to the Commons by votes of confidence. And when decisions are made by governments, they are made accountable to both the Commons and to the electorate.
But this is where the demand for more votes can turn into a problem. When individual MPs start voting on decisions that the government should make on its own, it dilutes accountability because it means that when things go wrong, those MPs share in the decision. When an appointed position is instead made an elected one, it starts to lose its ability to speak truth to power because it must satisfy the demands of voters rather than holding the government that appointed it to account. The delicate balance between democracy and accountability tilts toward “more democracy,” and inevitably what results is less accountability. But unless one understands that the balance exists within the system, then it gets easy to be swept up in the romanticism of “more democracy,” and the accumulation of imaginary points toward the supposed perfect one hundred.


Our collective lack of understanding of how the Westminster system — the parliamentary system that Canada inherited from Britain — operates has also allowed for a more presidential political discourse to develop here, and as a result, the role of individual MPs has been reduced in favour of an expansion of the power of party leaders. It’s rare to hear anyone discuss the election of local MPs; instead, we focus all of the attention on the leader. Despite the fact that policy is supposed to come from the grassroots membership of a political party, we have become used to the expectation that leadership candidates will develop their own policy platforms during party leadership contests, and so we are now seeing the rise of candidates with no history of political involvement who suddenly decide that they should run for leadership because they have policy ideas they want to present. Never mind that there are already mechanisms in place for parties to decide policy, the fact that the focus has shifted entirely to leadership means that the avenues for ordinary citizens to contribute to the process are being steadily sidelined and starved for oxygen.
This same kind of lack of oxygen for the role of the grassroots also affects MPs. The lack of civic literacy is not only a demonstrated problem for voters but for the MPs they elect as well, and there are studies that show that the vast majority of MPs don’t even know their own job descriptions. Canadian politics and elected office has become an exercise in winging it, while all eyes are on the leadership. Backbenchers are increasingly treated as puppets or ciphers for those party leaders. They have become little more than a chorus, background actors who only do as they are told in Parliament. With their reduced status in Ottawa, they are encouraged to take on a vastly inflated role at the constituency level that focuses on “customer service,” work that the permanent civil service should be doing, while the work that MPs should be doing — holding the government to account — is left by the wayside.
And a perhaps more damning indictment is that the media itself largely doesn’t seem to have a firm enough grasp on civic literacy and the importance to accurately reflect the system. The prorogation crisis of 2008, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper used a procedural tactic to avoid a confidence vote, was a prime example of how the media was largely unable to offer informed commentary on just what prorogation meant. Even fewer offered challenges to the Conservatives who delivered talking points about going over the head of the governor general to take the question of a coalition to the people — in fact, Don Newman seemed to be the only journalist who challenged a minister on that very point. The fact that prorogation became synonymous for an illegitimate attempt at shutting down a legislature from that point on indicates that the media as a whole still hasn’t come to terms with a routine operation of Parliament or legitimate power of the Crown.
During elections, media comment immediately moves to a “winner takes all” mode rather than relying on the actual parliamentary process — the election of MPs, the summoning of Parliament, the giving of the incumbent the first opportunity to meet the House of Commons, and the selection of a new first minister only once they inform the governor general or lieutenant governor that they intend to resign in order to let someone else try to form a government that can command the confidence of the chamber.
Media attention is leadership-focused, and as a result, recognition of the importance of individual MPs is reduced. Most MPs gain no attention from the press unless they do or say something outrageous. There is an inherent dichotomy in the competing demands that MPs have a bigger role, while at the same time any glimmer of independent thought or action is immediately accompanied by headlines that the party leader is losing control of the caucus. Policy is written about as being decided by leadership candidates rather than grassroots membership, especially as leadership contests take place. In day-to-day parliamentary coverage, much of the coverage revolves around personalities, in part because of the dramatic narratives that can be drawn from it. Many other aspects are dismissed as “process stories” which, it is assumed, people will not read — despite the fact that the heart of democracy is process and that understanding how that process works and how the issues of the day fit into that process is a critical component of civic literacy and a gateway for citizen engagement. Debate or argument is written off as “squabbling,” despite the fact that the Opposition is an inherent and important feature of our system because it is a built-in mechanism for accountability. Entire segments of the parliamentary process are treated with outright derision, in particular the Senate, while there is little awareness of the role of the Crown-in-Parliament.

close this panel
Sir John's Echo

Sir John's Echo

The Voice for a Stronger Canada
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
Excerpt

1
The Founder’s Intentions

John A. Macdonald was gone. He had missed nearly a week in the pre-Confederation Canadian legislature. A drunk and dishevelled Macdonald yawned open his rooming house door and squinted through watery eyes at a young man who demanded his immediate return to duties. Macdonald mumbled that if the governor general was responsible for the message then he could go to hell, but if the gentleman was there at his own behest, then he could take the trip himself. The door slammed. The tale is either endearing or disturbing.
Sir John is tough to love, but tougher to hate. The lanky man with the high forehead, wiry and unruly hair, prominent nose, and dancing eyes was a rogue, but he was our rogue. He was a charmer and a ruthless operator. Macdonald can be applauded for efforts to afford more rights for women and for promoting better understanding between the French and English, but he should also be condemned for racist attitudes and policies toward Chinese workers and Aboriginal nations. A scoundrel and a scamp, Macdonald was a hail-fellow-well-met, a loyal friend, and a fierce enemy. He was Canada’s indispensable man because nation building is both mechanical and organic and so demands both architects and gardeners. Structures might be put in place, but as with any venture involving unpredictable and often irrational human beings, it is slow growth and adjustment to changing conditions that test and either strengthen those structures or tear them asunder. Fortunately, at its birth and through early, perilous years, Canada enjoyed the perfect marriage of man and moment. Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada’s architect and gardener, with the personality, skills, and vision to be expert at both.
In the fall of 1864, Macdonald was in a small, high-ceilinged, ornate room in Charlottetown. He knew, as did the other delegates from the British North American colonies of Canada (Quebec and Ontario), Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, that they were in trouble. The Americans had been butchering themselves in a civil war for three years. Confederate spies openly operated from Toronto and Montreal, and unscrupulous crimpers were tricking and even kidnapping young men to become Union soldiers. American generals, newspapers, and powerful politicians were advocating an invasion that would quickly overwhelm the thin red line of British soldiers and undertrained colonial militia. Meanwhile, British politicians were falling under the sway of those demanding an end to military and financial support for their expensive and troublesome colonies. Britain had withdrawn from a trade agreement that had greatly benefitted the British North American colonies and the United States had pledged to do the same, with both actions contributing to economic hardship. Beyond all of that, the political structures that had been created in response to disquiet in the Maritimes and rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada had proven themselves dysfunctional and clearly unequal to the challenges of the day. In the face of economic, political, and military hazards, the colonial governments were broken and broke.
After just a few hours of discussion, the Charlottetown delegates agreed that to save themselves they needed to create themselves. Unification was the answer. The question was how. There were two models upon which they could base their new country. The British parliamentary system of government was most appealing to the loyal British subjects around the big table. However, Quebec delegates agreed with those from the Maritimes that, unlike Britain, a new Canada needed not just a central government but a federal system to allow sub-national governments to protect local rights and identities. The essential question quickly became how much power should be placed with the central government and how much should be apportioned to the provinces. It is the question that has shaped our history and haunts us still.
On this matter, the United States offered a compelling and alarmingly negative example. While the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the booming Union and Confederate cannons, shattered cities, and armies-worth of mourning widows demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. Sir John and others said the American Constitution’s problem and the main reason the United States was currently eating its young was that too much power had been located in the sub-national state governments.
Macdonald explained to Confederation delegates that he admired the U.S. Constitution and respected the work and vision of its framers. However, he observed, “The dangers that have arisen from this system will be avoided if we can agree upon a strong central government — a great central legislature — a constitution for a Union which will have all the rights of sovereignty except those that are given to the local governments. Then we shall have taken a great step in advance of the American Republic.”1 He repeated the point when the conference moved to cool and rainy Quebec City. Perched in grand rooms offering spectacular views of the thundering St. Lawrence, delegates drew closer to hammering out the new Constitution’s details. Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States, Macdonald said, “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”2
The Charlottetown and Quebec City conferences were spectacular successes. Despite the fact that Newfoundland and, ironically, Prince Edward Island decided not to join, the delegates had undertaken a peaceful, respectful state-building project like few in the world had ever done. No armies marched. No shots were fired. No one died or, for that matter, was threatened, beaten up, or arrested. We began our national conversation by talking ourselves into a country.
As the process moved to the ratification stage, Macdonald repeatedly used the American example to remind the wavering and unconvinced of his reason for locating so much power with the federal government. In a speech to the Canadian legislature, he said: 
The American Constitution … commenced, in fact, at the wrong end. They declared by their constitution that each state was a sovereignty in itself, and that all the powers incident to a sovereignty belonged to each state, except those powers which, by the constitution, were confirmed upon the General Government and Congress. Here we have adopted a different system. We have strengthened the General Government. We have given the General Legislature all the great subjects of legislation.3
When Queen Victoria signed the British North America Act in 1867, the provinces were as Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier, Alexander Galt, George Brown, Charles Tupper, Samuel Tilley, and the other founders intended. They were akin to municipalities. Section 92 of the new Constitution ceded only 16 powers to the four original provinces. They included education; the regulation of hospitals, asylums, and charities; the issuing of shop, saloon, tavern, and auctioneer licences; the solemnization of marriage, as well as the protection of property and civil rights; the administration of justice; the management of public lands, including the sale of wood and timber; and, finally, direct taxation within each province. The only addition was that Section 95 rendered agriculture and immigration as concurrent or shared powers in which the federal and provincial governments would co-operate. It is interesting that while the primary reason Cartier and French-speaking Quebecers demanded a federal system was to protect their language and religion, Section 92 was silent on both.
Among the powers allocated to the federal government in Section 91 were the militia, military, and naval service; defence; navigation and shipping; the postal service; criminal law; marriage and divorce; immigration; and the responsibility for Aboriginals and Aboriginal land. The federal government’s financial powers were immense. They included responsibility for currency and coinage, banking, bankruptcy and insolvency, trade and commerce, public debt and property, and in a phrase that was potent in its ambiguity, “the raising of money by any mode or system of taxation.” By giving the federal government the power to levy direct and indirect taxes and limiting provinces to collecting only direct taxes, the federal government was rendered fiscally powerful and the provinces set up to be poor cousins.
The lists made clear where the fiscal and legislative power would lie, but there was even more. In the United States, to balance legislative representation between big and little states, it was decided to base the House of Representatives on representation by population but to allocate two seats per state in the Senate. In 1867, and until 1913, state legislatures appointed senators. Macdonald and his centralist colleagues determined that House of Commons members would be elected through representation by population. As in the United States and Britain, the upper house would be filled by appointment. However, unlike in the United States, the federal government, really the prime minister, would do the appointing and the Senate would reflect not provinces but regions.
There was more. Provincial premiers were constitutionally bound to work with lieutenant governors, who were appointed by the monarch but became federal government appointees in practice. The BNA Act gave lieutenant governors reserve power. With this power, rather than being obliged to sign all provincial bills into law, lieutenant governors could send questionable ones to the federal government for consideration. Provincial bills could then be killed through interminable delay. Sections 55 and 56 also gave the federal government the power of disallowance. That is, it could deem any provincial law in contradiction of the best interests of the county, and even if legally passed by a provincial legislature and signed by a lieutenant governor, simply rip it up.
Also in Section 92 was the declaratory power that gave the federal government the right, whenever it determined that a particular public work would benefit Canada as a whole, to take control of a project and land, regardless of the provincial government’s opinion or constitutional power over the matter.
Finally, the federal government was given residuary power. While the wording of this portion of the Constitution was infuriatingly vague, its intention was clear: anything that fell between the constitutional cracks or that came up later that the Constitution did not specifically address (who would regulate the Internet or airports, for example) would automatically go to the federal government.
Sir John was a late convert to the Confederation idea. He lent support only when it had become politically expedient as well as the best way forward. Even then, he had opposed a federal state, arguing instead for a more efficient and more British style of legislative union with no sub-national governments. He later relented when Quebec’s George-Étienne Cartier and Ontario’s George Brown made federalism a condition of their support. It is clear that with the new country’s Constitution, much of which was written in his hand, Macdonald had won the next best thing to a legislative union. The provinces were as weak as they could be while still having any power at all.

close this panel
Should We Change How We Vote?

Should We Change How We Vote?

Evaluating Canada’s Electoral System
edition:eBook
tagged : canadian
More Info
Stories Best Left Untold

Stories Best Left Untold

Tales from a Manitoba legislator
edition:Paperback
tagged :
More Info
Brand Command

Brand Command

Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
More Info
A Man of Parliament

A Man of Parliament

Selected Speeches from Joe Clark
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian
More Info
Democracy Rising

Democracy Rising

Politics and Participation in Canada
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In 2016 two political events have been like an earthquake, shaking the waters of public life. The first was the Brexit vote by the British people to leave the European Union, and the second was the long campaign of Donald Trump and his election to become the president of the United States.
Many political leaders, the corporate elite, and the media have been in a panic. All of their predictions have been wrong. Trump was dismissed at the beginning of the primaries as being a lightweight, and yet he went on to win the presidency of the most influential and powerful country in the world. Britain’s exit from the E.U. was thought to be so remote a possibility that a referendum was called to put the issue to rest. It was believed that ordinary people would not leap into the unknown and vote for political options that could lead to chaos and disaster, but in both instances the public defied the elites.
The media is still puzzling over what happened. They blame those who have been economically left behind and say that these votes point to the rising influence of right-wing politics. Age, ignorance, and gender are other factors, apparently. In both Britain and the United States, it was older males lacking post-secondary education who voted for these marginal candidates and causes. In fact, the roots are much broader and deeper than this.
There is a common element that runs through both of these events. Vast numbers of people are fed up with the elites who control the political process and engineer government policy for their own interests. Decisions are being made that threaten their jobs, their families, and their communities, and no one is listening to their concerns. They want it known that they are hurting, and that the political system is not working for them. People are struggling, and their children face a diminished future. They don’t like it one bit.
But above all, they are tired of prosperous members of the elite telling them what is good for them and how they should be voting. They have rebelled in the only way they can — the only way the system allows them to rebel — by voting for a know-nothing, self-centred political demagogue, and by rejecting the E.U., a political power centred in Brussels that they know little about.
There is deep dissatisfaction among the followers of the left, right, and centre, and it goes through all parts of the developed world, Canada included. People are not happy with the cozy relationships their governments have with the elites. The message that they have delivered is that they want something done about the way governments are run, or there is going to be hell to pay.
That is what this book is all about. It spends time diagnosing the reasons for the political and social malaise that we are facing, it takes a close look at the groups that have struggled for social change, and it examines the rising demand for a new type of participatory democracy.
The route through this maze is via historical Canadian events and movements, but what is offered is a very different type of history than what you might read in conventional texts. Historical examples are used to demonstrate both how elites built special privileges, and how people have built opposition groups to express their grievances and to right wrongs.
And let me warn you of another somewhat unusual thing that you will come across in this book. The typical view of politics held by Canadians is that it is something restricted to elections, or to the activities in Ottawa, the provincial capitals, or city hall. This is too narrow a view, in my opinion. I believe that politics is an ongoing process that all of us are involved in — whether we know it or not. It happens whenever people talk about political, social, and economic issues that affect us: things like debates at union meetings, discussion of a new development in a neighbourhood, a corporate committee meeting to discuss regulations influencing the company, or a government finance meeting.
The participation of citizens in politics is, or should be, at the core of civic life. The problem is, there are large numbers of people — the vast majority in fact — who have no real ability to influence our political life. Not only are they excluded, but their concerns and issues are ignored. That is the malaise that has affected us. Democracy is the promise of government by the people, but we have developed a government dominated by elites, particularly economic elites. I believe the only way we can change that is by creating a participatory democracy. It is within our grasp, and we must do it.
At heart I am an optimist and this is an optimistic book. There are disturbing things included in these pages that some people will not like. But there is hope, too. And, I must admit, there is also a good deal of personal opinion. Any book like this is hard fact and opinion. Even what a writer chooses to write about and what to ignore is a choice shaped by opinion. But the core idea in this book is “Democracy Rising.” The long arc of Canadian history shows that we are developing a more participatory, more inclusive political culture, and this is all to the good. We must do more to make this a truly participatory democracy.

A POINT OF VIEW

Now that I have thrust myself into this discussion, let me tell you a little about myself so you can see what has shaped my understanding of this country. I have been a writer most of my adult life, but I come out of an academic tradition, like many other writers in this country. I was trained as a sociologist and studied at McMaster in Hamilton. Today I live on Toronto Island — one of the islands just offshore the Toronto mainland and a unique place to view the political scene — but I grew up in London, Ontario. I lived for a time in both Alberta and Nova Scotia, and spent ten years teaching in Montreal. It is hard to get a grasp on this enormous, sprawling country of ours. I don’t pretend to understand everything about Canada, but I do have a feel for the country and all of my writing has been about some aspect of Canadian life.
I have written fiction, novels for young people, and books, like this, about politics, but my interest in all of these things is what I describe as a “view from below.” It focuses on ordinary people by looking at how history and social experience shape people’s lives.
Over my career I have been involved in many different groups. I was an organizer with a welfare rights organization in Hamilton in the early 1970s and active in the NDP in that city. In Montreal I taught at Vanier CÉGEP and was on the local union executive at the college. I participated in the Montreal Citizens’ Movement and organized political campaigns. Back in Toronto, I worked for the Bob Rae NDP provincial government for four years, 1991–95, and was assigned as political staff to the minister of municipal affairs, where I learned a lot about community groups and their impact on provincial politics. For decades I have been an active member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, and served as its chair in 2004–05.
One of my major preoccupations as a writer has been cities and grassroots organizations. I wrote my dissertation on Local 1005 of the Steelworkers; it was turned into a book titled 1005: Political Life in a Local Union. My most recent book, The New Urban Agenda: The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, has material about urban issues and communities.
In recent years, community groups have become a major interest of mine. I have been active in my own community and involved in the long and difficult fight against the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. I follow as best I can what is happening in community groups, environmental organizations, and co-ops because I find that world of citizen politics fascinating.
Through my involvement I learned that the practice of politics and community engagement takes an inordinate amount of time and patience. This has led to stress and worry in my life, with more defeats than victories, but along with many others, I have helped to shape decisions that affected communities that were very important to me. In the process, I have made deep and lasting friendships that are central to my life.
I have been a political activist all of my adult life, working in the trenches for political change and that, more than anything else, has shaped my views on democracy, participation, and the ideas in this book.

close this panel
Permanent Campaigning in Canada

Permanent Campaigning in Canada

edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook
More Info
This week's recommended reading lists

Embed our weekly title selections from 49th Shelf on your own website. The embed will automatically refresh with new books each week.

Width: px
Height: px
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...