Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice. He also knew that there are evil men in the world, who seek to thwart that benign curve and push us all back into darkness. Because of those men, there are moments in history when the great struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight, in one place, which is waged for all of humanity. In 1863, that place was Gettysburg. In 1940, it was the skies above Britain. Today, in 2022, it is Kyiv. — The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister of Canada
As I am watching, reading, and doomscrolling these past three weeks, what has surprised me most is the resurfacing of long-buried fears. A lifetime ago, when I was in high school, the marches were about nuclear disarmament, not the climate crisis. We had long class discussions about the chances of a nuclear holocaust wiping out the human species. The last gasp of the Cold War was a fearful time to be a teenager.
Same song, different century.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is reminiscent of another war waged in the last century, but recent enough to bring up familial memories for those of us who came to Canada from Europe. My mother was born in Nazi-occupied Holland. I often wonder what impact living through war the first five years of her life had on her psyche.
What memories of this war will Ukrainian children carry for the rest of their lives?
I have long known that my mother’s family had been forced out of their home by the Nazis for the last winter of World War II. But a month ago, I was shocked to learn that the neighbourhood where they spent that winter underwent an artillery bombardment by the Canadian army in its fight to liberate the city. Pamphlets were dropped from the sky to warn the residents of the upcoming shelling, which went on for hours. Nineteen people died. I was so floored by this revelation that I spent the next week wondering how it was I’d never heard about it.
Floored, because I had also long known that my thirteen-year-old uncle was killed the same day. A stray artillery shell had landed in the street and bits of shrapnel went flying. My mother remembers being thrown down the stairs into a cellar by an uncle after the explosion. But I was never told about a bombardment. How do you forget undergoing an hours-long artillery barrage?
Then I remembered the Sunday afternoon I spent with two cousins some months ago. As we looked through old family photographs, I came across a letter in which a relative of my mom’s described her memories of that day — the day my uncle died. She wrote how the extended family had been all together in one of their homes, but in the next town over. Several relatives were injured that day; the letter writer’s sister had a piece of shrapnel embedded in her leg for years afterwards. Perhaps my mother and her family were there not to celebrate their liberation (as my cousins had always been told), but to escape the shelling where they were living?
It still leaves unanswered questions. How did the family know when it was safe to return home? What was left of that home when they returned?
More than three million Ukrainians are wondering when it will be safe to return to their homes. Are wondering if they have homes to go back to.
When a girlfriend and I travelled around Europe in the mid-1980s, we spent a long, cold night on a Yugoslavian train filled with drunken conscripts on their way to boot camp. That’s how I learned that almost every European country had compulsory military service at the time. That’s when I realized only a simple accident of geography — and my gender — kept me from going through a similar rite of passage.
The NATO-aligned countries abandoned conscription after the end of the Cold War. Ukraine did too, in 2013, and then reinstated it in 2014. We’ve all heard how men aged 18 to 60 are not permitted to leave Ukraine right now. What isn’t getting anywhere near the same attention is that almost a quarter of Ukraine’s soldiers are women. Many of these women are bringing their children to the border, handing them over to distant relatives, and then going back to fight in a war they didn’t want, a war they didn’t ask for.
When you grow up on the Canadian prairies, you are deeply aware of the significance of the Ukrainian-Canadian community, so I was not surprised to learn that Canada has the second-largest diaspora of Ukrainians anywhere in the world. What I did not know is that Vancouver and Odesa have been sister cities since 1944. Like Vancouver, Odesa is a port city. Like Vancouver, it has beauty — its historic centre is a World Heritage site. But unlike Vancouver, it is piling sandbags in front of its monuments and lining its beaches with landmines in anticipation of a Russian attack. Half a million of Odesa’s residents have fled. What is remarkable is that the other half million have stayed.
As we watch the Ukrainian people suffer and die in real time, it is difficult to not feel despair. I fully expect the repercussions of this war to be as consequential as anything we have lived through in our lifetimes. As a teenager, I feared the outcome of a Cold War that had been going on for so long I never expected the Berlin Wall to ever come down. As a child, my mother fled her home and watched bombs rain down on her city right up until the day they danced in the streets to celebrate their liberation.
One day the people of Ukraine will rise up again to celebrate.
Because the alternative is unthinkable.
Here’s a landscape I never get to see in Vancouver: the wide open prairie with its big, big sky. I took this photo about a month ago, well before the first snowfall.
Who of us knew walking would become a thing when this pandemic first hit? Not me. Such a simple act, which has been my balm in Gilead these past nineteen months.
And yet, who of us by this time are not bored to tears with their neighbourhood, having explored every corner of it?
Even me — and I live next door to one of Canada’s most spectacular urban parks.
And so, on this Thanksgiving I am grateful that the stars have aligned and I have a (temporary) change of scenery. I’m in Central Alberta for some weeks, which at the moment is stunning in all its fall glory. There are lots of trails and walks to discover, too. Last Sunday, I spent the afternoon walking around Elizabeth Lake, in the centre of Lacombe.
Here’s some of what I saw.
As has been the case for so many of us, one of the outcomes of this pandemic was me having to adjust my travel plans for 2020. Obviously, postponing a holiday is about as far down on the scale of hardships as you can go during this crazy year, so I really don’t want to give the impression that I am complaining.
But it did mean that the one year I finally decided to spend a longer chunk of time visiting my extended family in Alberta did not happen. Hanging out with at-risk relatives or family who need to be extra cautious because they work in health care would not have been smart.
Instead, I once again made my semi-annual trip to Alberta a quick one, with a whole lot of driving to get there, a few select physically distanced visits once I arrived, and then a whole lot of driving to get back home.
But the long drive was worth it. Seriously. The scenery between Vancouver and Red Deer is so varied; I personally think it rates up there as one of the most scenic road trips on the planet.
And on my way home, I also had one glorious day in Banff.
Who knew Banff was at its best in the fall? If I could guarantee great weather every year, I’d take all my mountain vacations in September.
Since I had only the one day, I planned it carefully. The 7 km hike up to Lake Agnes Teahouse is maximum bang for minimal effort and is a hike I used to do as a kid with my family when we spent our summers camping in the Rockies.
Plus, the trailhead is at Lake Louise, easily one of the most photographed lakes in all of Canada.
The hike up to Lake Agnes starts off with a long steady climb through the forest above Lake Louise, with a couple of spectacular peek-a-boo views of the lake far below. Then comes a series of switchbacks until you reach Mirror Lake. Looming over it is the Beehive.
While stopping to catch my breath, I ducked as a Clark’s Nutcracker skimmed by just inches above my head and took its perch on a tree branch nearby. Only a second later, I overhead a father and son near me lamenting the lack of wildlife.
Look up, I wanted to say. (But I didn’t.)
A kilometre past Mirror Lake is Lake Agnes and its famous teahouse. The lake was named after Lady Agnes MacDonald, wife of Canada’s first prime minister, who visited the lake in 1886. The tea house has been in operation since 1905.
By this point, I’d climbed 400 metres and was pretty much done, but those who have energy to burn can climb the Beehive for a bird’s eye view of all three lakes — Lake Agnes, Mirror Lake, and Lake Louise — that make up the Lakes in the Clouds.
As I drove away from Banff National Park the next morning, the clouds were rolling in and the rain was starting to fall. I had timed my one-day vacation perfectly. And as far as following the directions of my provincial health officer (“fewer faces, bigger spaces”), I had done all right by that too.
I love me some hay bales. I also thought this was an appropriate photo for Thanksgiving, which is being celebrated across Canada this weekend — albeit much differently than in other years.
Last month, I made a quick trip to Alberta to visit family. Everywhere I drove, there were signs of the harvest. This was taken along Highway 2, just south of Red Deer. Highway 2 is Alberta’s busiest highway, but, most happily for me, there was a roadside turnout located at this very spot.
I know, I know. Here I go again, talking about the weather.
For the benefit of my non-Canadian readers (in case you haven’t figured this out yet), talking about the weather is a bit of a national obsession.
The western part of Canada is in the middle of a polar vortex. I got outside today to tramp through the deep snow that arrived overnight in Vancouver, but in this post, I’m going to talk about the next province over. That would be Alberta, where a lot of my family lives.
They’re cold, to put it mildly. My sister in Calgary was faced with a commute this morning in temperatures of –40° C.
In fact, it’s been too cold all week for the Penguin Walk at the Calgary Zoo. That’s right. The zoo’s king penguins, native to the sub-Antarctic, had a Snow Day. And Calgary today was colder than Antarctica.
I took these photos of the Calgary Zoo penguins almost a year ago, when I visited the zoo on a much balmier day than today.
It’s the end of an era today. At midnight tonight, Greyhound is suspending all services in Northern Ontario and Western Canada. The decision is justified, says the American-owned company, by a 41 percent drop in ridership since 2010.
Greyhound moves millions of Canadians every year, and has done so in British Columbia and Alberta since 1929. For those rural Canadians who don’t or can’t drive, losing the Greyhound means losing their ability to get to larger centres for services not available in their communities, like specialist medical appointments. It also prevents them from connecting with friends or family. And during our snowy, icy winters, travelling through mountainous BC is far safer by bus than by car.
It’s already being reported that 87 percent of Greyhound’s routes will be covered by smaller, private operators — including Indigenous-owned companies — which are ramping up as we speak. This morning the federal government announced funding to help fill the gaps and that it is working on a long-term national transport solution.
My student days of 18-hour Greyhound treks between Edmonton and Vancouver are (thankfully) long behind me. (I assure you, there is little that is more depressing than a 3 a.m. rest stop at Blue River in the dead of winter.) But I still regularly take the Greyhound for short hops between Calgary, Red Deer, and Edmonton. I typically take it during non-peak hours and the buses are always full. My fellow passengers are people of all ages and social classes. Many are tourists. Some of us choose to take the bus, while others don’t have a choice, In a country like Canada, with too much geography, public transit is not just a service. It’s a right.
This photograph is of the last Greyhound I will ever take in Canada, which I rode from Calgary to Red Deer last month.