Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
The Break – Katherina Vermette
The People’s History of the Russian Revolution – Neil Faulkner
2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson
World of Apples – John Cheever
Legalizing Drugs – Steve Rolles
Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
As We Have Always Done – Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Policing Black Lives – Robyn Maynard
Neil Degrasse Tyson – Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
America: A Farewell Tour – Chris Hedges
Malcolm X: An Autobiography – Alex Haley
I think I’ll walk to the East End. Yeah, the East End. I got some stuff I need to get out there. I’ll come back down to Lester’s place later, ‘cause he’s got a place now. He’s not answering the door, but he’s not going anywhere. Can’t even walk. It’s only a hour and a half walk from downtown. I’ll go straight down and maybe warm up at the McDonalds. I’m already at the big trees around the hospital. Might as well keep on going.
Gotta step over that pile of snow that someone left. Just shovelled to the end of their property. Not a damn millimetre more. Give me a shovel and I’d shovel the whole block. Give me a house and I’d have a sidewalk to shovel. Give me $20 and I’ll shovel whatever you want for a hour. Give me $20 and I’ll shovel the bullshit coming outta your mouth.
…Click here to read the rest of the story…
To read a literature review on the topic of Managed Alcohol Programs, you can click the link below. The literature review was done by lead author Erin Nielsen and co-authored by Gabriela Novotna, Rochelle Berenyi, and myself.
To read CBC Saskatchewan’s coverage on it, you can click here.
The book review below first appeared in Briarpatch Magazine’s September/October 2017 edition.
Postcards from the End of America
By Linh Dinh
Seven Stories Press, 2017
Bob, a 60-year-old Safeway employee from Florence, Oregon, is counting on the store staying afloat. “At my age,” he says, “it will be hard to get hired again. I don’t want to move to the city to find another job.” Before working at Safeway, he worked 31 years in a sawmill. Bob blames environmentalists on the east coast, trying to protect the endangered spotted owl, for the death of the industry that once employed his town. “Since our logging industry is mostly dead, we have to buy lumber from overseas, from people who really don’t give a hoot about the environment.”
Bob is one of the many disenfranchised workers interviewed in Linh Dinh’s book, _Postcards from the End of America_. The book contains collected essays and observations made through several years of domestic travel, originally published in various online journals, like long, descriptive letters home from towns of crumbling infrastructure as though they were tourist hotspots.
While there was widespread controversy in the 1990s about West Coast logging, Postcards analyzes Oregon and other former industrial and manufacturing centres in the U.S. that have been hollowed out by governments and corporate rule. Rather than pitting environmental justice against economic justice, Dinh impresses upon readers that environmental and other progressive movements need to accommodate and support workers of all industries; the common cause of both economic and environmental precarity is capital, Dinh points out, not social movements.
Across the U.S., cities that were once economic boom towns are now facing unemployment, poverty, homelessness, addiction, and crime. Places such as Trenton, New Jersey, one of many visited by Dinh, is famous for the Warren Street bridge over the Delaware River adorned with the lit-up phrase TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLDTAKES; it is a reminder that Trenton was once a manufacturing hub for products used around the world. A hundred years later, the slogan reads more like a bitter homage to trade deals that have left towns like Trenton in the dust.
Dinh travels by bus and train, stopping in former and current industrial metropolises such as Osceola, Iowa; Kensington, Pennsylvania; and Williston, North Dakota, snapping photos of individuals he meets (20 of which appear in full colour in the book), to survey the social landscapes. He often wanders to the nearest bar, for no matter the size or unemployment rate of a town, there is always a vendor of cheap alcohol that carries with it a rough but undeniable sense of community. These places are often the best indicator of the health and economic state of a society. In bars and on street corners, in buses and under bridges, Dinh interviews individuals tethered to the rising and falling industries that have ruled and abandoned their hometowns. Dinh gives voice to those who are rarely heard in mainstream journalism, sharing their stories of underemployment and struggle, occasionally offering simple context for how things got to be the way they are in each particular city. Many he meets blame governments for their hardships, while others, like Misfit, a bartender in Chester, Pennsylvania, believe reports that the country is in an economic recovery. Dinh lays bare pieces of their stories, at times abruptly, without forcing too much commentary, allowing the weight of their lived experience to be felt by the reader.
Dinh never makes his way to Canada, but his portraits of urban and industrial America could easily be those of Canada’s industrial and extractive regions. With Trudeau’s Liberal government approving pipelines and maintaining their commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Canadian communities are not immune from being wholly abandoned by both government and its corporate rulers, leaving the Canadian countryside filled with towns and social-scapes like those in Dinh’s postcards; in fact, this is already happening. The resource bust in Western Canada has left thousands of people without work and entire communities struggling to meet their needs, even while political campaigns left and right hawk promises of prosperity. When the industries dry up, the companies that once put towns on the map move off to exploit the land elsewhere, leaving the communities with skeletal social supports and no means of income. One admirer of Dinh’s writing, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, refers to these areas as sacrifice zones: places in which entire communities are permanently impaired by profit-chasing corporations that fatally ignore the effects of their decisions on human life, the environment, and communities. In selling off public assets to corporate control and privatizating once-public services, Trudeau and his provincial and municipal counterparts are in many ways propelling Canada into an economic situation mirroring the one described by Dinh.
Each entry was written in the final years of the Obama administration and the beginning of the Trump campaign phenomenon. Dinh’s purposeful portraiture of the financial ruin and the concurrent rise of Trump are not coincidental. Canada, with a shallow, amoral federal Liberal government that sold out its own citizenry to pipeline interests, and broke its own promises for economic and racial equality, is only setting itself up for a Trump-like oligarch to respond to the discontented masses whose employment situations will reflect those highlighted in Dinh’s prophetic book.
Dinh has no illusions about what has put so many Americans into unrecoverable poverty and poor health, and his exposé of the decline of the American empire is a call to Canadians to organize for real and lasting change in our own social, environmental, and economic landscape.
“You in that house yet?”
“The one they were gonna work on.”
“Oh yeah, I’m in there. They’re not working on it yet.”
Click the computer a few times. Library worker stocks books. The Dewey Decimal System leaves no book without a home. They don’t lose books. Have you ever heard of a library losing a book? The man behind me mumbles, “Fuck sakes.”
“Yeah, I was gonna look into that Phoenix Group.”
“Yeah, but I’d be 80th on the wait list.”
“You been to SWAP? I had a few buddies who went through Souls who went there. They didn’t even have to go to Social. SWAP did it all for them.”
“No where’s it? Albert? Like by the McDonalds? Ok. No, Detox told me that Phoenix would do all the Social Assistance stuff for you, you wouldn’t even have to talk to them, which is good, since Social is so useless nowadays. But then you’re 80th on the waitlist.”
Spend fifteen hours in two days clicking the mouse around white farmer caps, calling people on farms asking if they are willing to be in a book about hats. Write short blurbs about hats and how they relate to institutional racism and amoral government. Brainstorm where you can donate the theoretical money from selling unsellable hat books to help alleviate the housing crisis. Remember that making books doesn’t house people and raising awareness is masturbation.
“Fuck sakes,” the man behind me mumbles. Can’t find a house. Housing with obstacles. Maybe there’s a book about that. Filed under the Dewey Decimal System:
How To Find an Apartment When The World Hates You and Denies Your Existence.
A Complete Guide to Budgeting for People Whose Rent is $400 More Than Their Cheque.
LOVE YOURSELF: Family Self-Esteem When The State Doesn’t Think Your Uncle Deserves A Funeral
Three blocks from the venue, down an industrial street in Denver like that in any North American city that boomed in the 1950s, was a small store inside of repurposed shipping containers that sold US-made backpacks, outerwear, and slacks. The store was clean and simple and catered to the young outdoorsy types who live inside but are able to sleep in tents in exotic locations outside.
“We were one of the first businesses in this part of town,” said the shopkeeper sitting bored behind a handmade counter, hair messily gathered in a bun on the top of her head like she had just crawled out of a tent in the Rockies that surrounded her city. “Since then all sorts of businesses have opened here, which is too bad, it used to be a cheap part of town. Now there’s a luxury hotel going up just up Larimer.” The woman expresses her displeasure just as I would. I agreed as I tried on a pair of outerwear pants behind the changing curtain. Their shop and brand are participating in making the neighbourhood more expensive by selling $150USD pants, but they are at least trying to create a manufacturing industry by making their products in the USA. I left without buying pants, wondering where the nearest goodwill was.
The next day, the venue was plopped in the same part of town, only in a city that was 500 miles away, a state and a half to the east. After load-in and soundcheck, the soundman asked “Where’d you go for food? The burrito place? How was it? I heard it wasn’t that good. Yeah, this was the part of town no one would come, until my boss opened this bar and the other one, we started booking shows here, and then other businesses started coming too. It was kinda the bad part of town, now it’s the up-and-coming part of town.” At the expensive coffee joint across from the bar arcade, next to the burrito place, they were giving out a free, one-page newspaper/zine/leaflet. In it read,
“Most American cities are run by real estate interests… In Omaha, the tactic for encouraging gentrification is Tax Increment Financing or TIF. TIF is a way for cities to return tax money to developers as an incentive to put up projects that the city wants (and the public makes up the difference). Unfortunately, no provision is made for the people who used to live in the cheap housing turned into gentrified apartments. The former residents are simply scattered to the four winds. Surprised by ‘shots fired’ near 108th and Maple? This is your City gentrification policy in action.”
A similar but more developed street newspaper in Seattle uses the G-word, gentrification, describing places like Africatown in Seattle being dismembered, breaking up the “home and haven for Seattle’s Black families and businesses”, and highlighting stories of people failing to maintain housing in a rapid-rehousing program because of the recent inflation in costs of rent. Large newspapers will only use the G-word when describing vandals in Montreal or Vancouver who are terrorizing business owners, as business is the uncriticizable holy grail of progress.
I am fortunate to be able to tour with world-class musicians, but each time I’m on the road I wonder how long such jobs will exist. How long will I be paid to burn fuel and watch music in ‘up-and-coming’ parts of American cities, while around the block, that neighbourhood’s previous inhabitants are clamouring to find shelter under a bridge or in a condemned building. I do it because there’s something in music and creation that is able to be unpolluted by corporate greed, though most times it has already been bought and sold.
When people ask what I got to see this trip, Linh Dinh answers for me in his book, Postcards from the End of America, in which he visits communities across the United States left with little or no economy:
You can’t really see a city or town from a motorized anything, so if you claim to have driven through Los Angeles, for example, you haven’t seen it. The speed and protection of a car prevents you from being anywhere except inside your car, with what’s outside rushing by so fast that each face, tree, and building is rudely dismissed by the next, next and next…Like television, the private automobile was invented to wean us off our own humanity. From each, we’ve learned how to amp up our impatience and indifference towards everything, and with life itself.
After tour ends I fly home to an ailing Saskatchewan. I’d heard of the government cuts while in San Francisco, when a friend texted saying WHAT. THE. FUCK. with a link to an article about the shutting down of the province-owned small town transportation and parcel shipping company. Now home, walking through the downtown, worried citizens are passing colourful clipboards around, asking passers-by to sign one of the multitudes of petitions that are circulating to Save Our Libraries, Save our Bus System, Save our Schools. I sign them all, knowing full well that no petition will be worth the millions of dollars that the government squandered on stadiums and tax cuts on resource extraction companies. The angry protests and province-wide campaigns might get them to preserve something, but the effectiveness of these actions will only go so far if we continue to work within the system that props up corporate interest over that of the public. Though it plays into the hands of the fearmongering government and high income class, one can see why smashing windows in Montreal seems more effective.
Government MLAs show their responsibility, boasting their 3.5% paycuts, which to them means 3.5% less income to spend on boats and cottages and home renos and filet mignon. The paycuts they make to those on social assistance, the paycuts they make to those once employed by the rural transportation system, the cuts they make to the libraries, all mean that thousands of low income individuals won’t have food, shelter, a way to travel for medical treatment, books, and significantly more.
Several years ago, after seeing Chris Hedges speak at the University, I worried that Saskatchewan was the next sacrifice zone—the places that are abandoned by industry, left in disrepair and a humiliating culture of dependency after being used and left behind because of their lack of monetary worth. This could be the beginning of that reality.
It starts with the desperate government selling its struggling assets to the highest bidder, then selling its most profitable assets. They begin begging oil companies to relocate to the province to help the crumbling economy, start giving public land to large corporate bidders. At this point, entire cities and provinces will be bloated with corporate-controlled land and buildings, and towns end up, in a way, like the middle-class urban centres of post-manufacturing North American cities, where no one can afford to pay rent. Eventually, when the government isn’t coddling big business enough, they’ll pack up and move to find a different government who will subsidize their existence. Thirty years later, when our industries have died and all that’s left is cheap bars and empty buildings, businesses that pander to middle class tastes will further move into parts of town with abandoned buildings and cheap rent and begin the process of displacement of those marginalized by the loss of industry, struggling to survive in the older neighbourhoods. We are no better than the economic destruction seen in the United States, we are just a generation behind.
All that will help in the midst of a breakdown of free, communal places of existence and of the breakdown of social programs, is the creation and maintaining of communities that support one another and support the other, the different communities who are similarly affected. I am the middle class that is being pandered to, and while being in these places, eating their burritos, buying their pants, is not inherently bad, it makes it all the more imperative to support and participate in the communities that are contrary to austerity. These communities—social groups, churches, activist collectives, sports teams, artist groups, musicians—must band together to build movements that support the racialized, marginalized, the poor, Indigenous, immigrant communities, who are most harshly affected by public cuts and an economy sucked dry.
Linh Dinh, states the obvious:
For any community to be healthy, local initiatives must be encouraged, nurtured and protected, so let’s reclaim our home turf, reestablish the common, and, in the process, regain our collective sanity and dignity.
“Hey, come over Saturday and we’ll watch the Canadiens play the Leafs. That’s my team! The Leafs,” Ivan tells me.
“Do they play each other this week?” I ask.
“They play every Saturday.”
I arrive at Ivan’s the following Saturday, ready to microwave each of us a bag of popcorn.
I turn on his tube television which sits at the foot of his single bed in the living room. Ivan lives on the main floor of an aging building across from the casino – one of those apartments where the landlord slaps on cheap laminate floors like bandaids to justify a 30 per cent rent increase. Next to the bed and in front of the TV is a recliner that I always encourage him to relax in instead of slouching on the sagging edge of his bare mattress. I’ve never once seen him sit in it. Next to the recliner is Ivan’s walker. One of the brakes doesn’t work.
Maybe when Ivan was younger Toronto played Montreal every Saturday, when there were only six teams. But it turns out they don’t play this Saturday. Instead, country music videos prattle on in the background while Ivan drinks from a bottle of port wine and I wheel back and forth on the seat of his walker.
“Oh yeah I used to play. In White Bear. We’d play in Carlyle sometimes. Home of the Cougars. White Bear versus them white kids in Carlyle, haha. You know, we weren’t half bad.” He winces at some painful on-ice memory tied to growing up in a province that is unforgivingly racist. He jokes about being a bit fat in those days, now he weighs half.
“I’ll pick you up on December 31st for Hockey Day at Carmichael,” I tell him as I leave.
“Sounds good, bro,” Ivan says. “See you then.”
“Love you brother. Lock up behind you.”
Sheldon stands at centre ice, eyes closed, visualizing his upcoming slapshot. Noel, the goalie, affectionately known as Ken Dryden, waits with knees bent as much as his battered femur allows. The crowd heckles from the side boards.
Hockey Day at Carmichael is a pick-up street hockey game played on the uneven, certainly dangerous parking lot of Carmichael Outreach, a crumbling drop-in centre in downtown Regina. On Hockey Day, members of the Carmichael family of hundreds, many of whom happen to be without homes, come to play shinny and eat a hamburger.
“Hey, Lenny! Keep your stick down, and stop saying ‘fuck.’ There’s kids around!”
Hockey Day is the only sporting event I’ve heard of where the inebriated and unskilled are encouraged to play. Where new renters can come and settle scores on-ice with their cousins who won’t stop trashing their apartment. Where those still healing from the abuses suffered in the residential school system can come and grind through their aggression. Where people who get ticketed in the mall under the city’s “unwanted guest” initiative come to forget the mall exists. Everyone is welcome to play.
Deano chases the puck into the corner, hits a patch of ice and lands on his face. He is escorted to the spectators’ bench for having one too many and is given a coffee, a smoke and a cheer from his teammates. Thirty people show up to play, another thirty to watch. The Lemieuxs and Leaches chase the ball with donated jerseys pulled tight over the five layers of jackets that are obligatory when one lives outside and sleeps at Sally Ann or Detox.
Ivan doesn’t make it as a spectator this time. He just got out of the hospital and being a spectator means sitting outside in the winter on a hard chair for three hours until burgers are ready.
“I knooow, I know. I still can’t figure out how I got pneumonia.” The week before while Ivan slept, some guests unhooked the smoke detector at his apartment and left the window open all night so they could smoke. “I never even left my bed!” Home care from the health region was supposed to start coming a month before but when he didn’t answer the door once, they permanently discharged him. When so many pieces of the health care, social assistance, and justice systems function in the same defective way, it points to the fact that these are purposeful features, rather than flaws, in the process of colonialism, designed to betray urban Indigenous people.
“I’m making breakfast. Come over!” Ivan says over the phone on New Year’s morning.
Ivan wheels himself into the kitchen, fries a pound of bacon, butters two slices of white toast and brings back our feast spread on two decorative plates on the stool of his walker.
“That’s my team!” Ivan says as the Canadiens walk from the dressing room at the NHL’s outdoor Winter Classic. We’d made a plan to watch the game, this time one that we knew was actually happening.
Ivan squints hard at the TV, at times mistaking the white and blue vintage sweaters of the Habs for the black and yellow of the Bruins. He needs glasses, he’s asked for them several times himself, but whenever he has an appointment to see any medical professional he refuses to go.
Montreal dominates Boston in a game of shinny not unlike Hockey Day at Carmichael, except the 80,000 spectators are drunk in some apparently socially acceptable way. He remarks on Carey Price, the world’s greatest goalie, who sits on the bench with a bum knee. Ivan knew the feeling. He recently had a broken upper tibia and a full-leg cast for eleven weeks, half of which he slept at Party Tree, an empty lot furnished with a plank of wood and two broken office chairs.
“You should see my grandpa’s rink in North Weyburn. Best ice in Saskatchewan,” I tell him. “Sometimes I go there to skate just to get rid of stress.”
“Oh, for sure. Weyburn, hey? The Red Wings!” he says, referencing the junior hockey club. “They’re a good team. But the Bruins, now that’s my team! Estevan. I lived there eight years. You’re my Estevan Man. I bet I know your family down there.”
He lists distinctly white surnames. I don’t have any family left in Estevan but since he found out I was born there we never stop talking about the place.
“I’d walk around with a wagon picking up empties. Ho boy, I’d make a lot, haha. No one down there doing it then. I wasn’t drinking then, could make $60 a day. Could see Boundary Dam from my place.” Ivan sits on his bed, arms crossed, blinking at the TV, wearing an Estevan 1985 Heritage hat I found him for Christmas. The coffee table next to him is littered with insulin pens, empties hiding under his bed. He’s lived in this apartment for three months. Before that he lived nowhere.
“No guests at all,” Ivan responds in agreement to my suggestion of having no guests after 11 p.m. Too many guests means noise complaints and an empty fridge. He just got out of Medical ICU.
“Whatever you want,” I say. “And the other part of the agreement is our part. We, as your support workers and friends, agree to respect your privacy, help you get groceries, do laundry, y’know, the stuff we already try to do. And we agree to take you out for coffee once a week. Get you outta your place.”
“Oh right on. That’s great, man.”
“I was thinking of getting us tickets to a Pats game. Maybe against Brandon,” I suggest. Ivan spoke of Brandon, Manitoba, another former home, on a daily basis. It was where he and his mind went when he tired of Regina.
“Ohhh hey, yeah. Alright! Maybe in that agreement put, ‘Take Ivan to a skin show.’ Haha. Jeez, I’m joking!”
It takes us a week to print the agreement — an attempt to keep his place safe and quiet and keep him housed. It takes another week to laminate it. By then he’d had guests and was in and out of the hospital again. He never did sign it.
There’s an ambulance outside his apartment as I drive past, so I stop and let myself in with my keys. A paramedic is holding an intravenous bag that runs into Ivan’s arm while Ivan sits eating his first meal in three days, microwaved by the paramedic himself.
“Heyyyy brother!” Ivan shakes my hand.
“And who’s this now?” asks the paramedic.
“That’s my counsellor.”
“Oh good,” he says to me. “He needs to make sure that he takes his insulin for sure the next day and a half, or he won’t make it. But he can’t take his insulin without eating.”
He speaks as if Ivan can’t hear. “I’m surprised he’s still kicking. Last time we saw him we were taking bets as to how long he’d last. Glad he’s got some help. If not, these kinds of guys would plug up the system.”
The health professionals place bets on his existence and call him one of ‘these guys’. Six months later the health region that employs them releases a job posting with blatantly racist language, then rescinds it and claims that racism is not an inherent issue within their institution. I begin to understand why Ivan skips every possible interaction with medical professionals.
The paramedics get him to sign a release stating that he is not willing to come with them to the hospital to get checked out.
“Ivan, do you have any other health concerns we should know about?” they ask.
“Yeah. I’ve got rabies.” Ivan says with a pause, his face earnest. The paramedics look at one another, unsure of what to say. Ivan laughs at them and they leave. Ivan finishes up his microwaved fettuccini alfredo.
“Hey bro, should we have some tea?” I say yes and go to the kitchen to find the coffeemaker topped up with teabags and the coffeepot already filled with warm tea. I grab the last mandarin orange from the counter, and he and I sit and watch the news and hockey highlights. We drink day-old tea, eat a few orange segments, and as I leave, we exchange our pleasantries one last time.
“Lock up behind you.”
I go home and grab my skates and head to the outdoor rink. I skate until my lungs burn, my legs noodle. My head still feels like there’s a bench brawl going on inside, so I skate laps until my head feels nothing. And then I skate more.