Archive for the ‘Calgary’ Tag

A Different Way of Dying   3 comments



View from my balcony of the Beltline area of Calgary

Teaching has ended for a few months and so I have a moment to catch up with the events of this spring. If it was the winter of our discontent that just dragged on and on, the spring has been a tough one for me, with a few significant deaths I’ve had to process. The first was my brother Tom who passed away early in March in Regina. Then my friend Quenten Doolittle passed away in Calgary a month or so later. I shall write suitable eulogies to these two fine men in the next short while. For now, because time is of the essence, I wish to write about another death that is soon to happen as of the time of this writing in late May, 2018.

I live in the Beltline area of the City of Calgary, an inner-city neighbourhood just a few blocks south and west of the shiny office towers that comprise the downtown area. Most people only know this area as a few streets they drive through to get to work downtown from their homes in the suburbs.

Yet to those of us who live here, it is a neighbourhood in the truest sense. One of the first couples of this neighbourhood for years and years has been an elderly couple named Catherine and Theo. Theo was a lovely dignified man who wore a tie every day, even with a Tilly hat. He had been an aerial photographer in World War 2.

His wife Catherine referred to herself as a “wall-jumper” – she had been in the convent once upon a time but chose a different path for herself that eventually would include Theo. Following a career as a teacher, she has been the unofficial historian of this part of town for many years.

They were great walkers, who thought nothing of walking the bike path from Eau Claire to the bird sanctuary even well into their 80s. They went everywhere together, you rarely saw one without the other. Hardly a day would go by when I wouldn’t run into them somewhere in the ‘hood. Theo would likely make some observation about birds, had I seen many gulls on the bike path? Catherine would like have some historical tidbit to share, or some concern about the state of the world. They were active and engaged.

Catherine hosted a meal in Theo’s honour for his 90th birthday at the Lougheed House a few years ago. It was a great event, very well-attended. It was perhaps a year after that Theo had heart problems and died quite suddenly. They had no children, no family to speak of. There was no funeral or memorial. I guess that’s why Catherine had created that event for his birthday, so we could pay our respects while Theo was still alive.

That left Catherine alone, and after all those years together, you could feel the sense of loss radiating from her. She was quite lost. Suddenly she was a very lonely, even pathetic figure without her beloved Theo. When you ran into her on the street, she would only talk about Theo. There was nothing else on her mind. She wore her grief like an old and comfortable sweater.

A year or so ago, Catherine was diagnosed with cancer. Alone in the world, and older,  she never sought treatment. She had an entirely different plan. Rather, she decided it was time to die, but on her own terms.

As the cancer advanced, she looked into the option of Physician-Assisted death, which has been legal in Canada since 2015. It was approved. She found a doctor who would perform the procedure (for lack of a better word). She found attendants who would be with her at the end and then take care of her body after she was dead. This meant they would arrange transport to the crematorium from her apartment. Catherine would never set foot in a hospital during this entire process.

All that was left was to decide on was a date, and that date in now fast approaching, about a week away as I write this. She is monitoring her symptoms, her discomfort, her level of pain. When it all gets to be too much she will make the call and end her life.

A month ago she had a drop-in farewell party at her apartment. Lots of familiar faces from the neighbourhood were there, reminiscing, paying their respects, saying good-bye one last time. It was really an unforgettable event. None of us had any frame of reference for it. Small talk was rendered useless, and rightfully so. For all that, it was quite a joyous event after all. Certainly a tad surreal, one might say.

She had put out a few things that she and Theo had collected over the years for anyone to take. Otherwise, she had divested herself of all of her furnishings other than a few essential items. There was a rack of Theo’s ties, beautiful woolen tartan ties from Scotland. I took a couple of them. I don’t wear a tie often, but now when I do, I wear one of these ties and  think fondly of both Theo and Catherine.

Last Sunday morning, Catherine sat in Caffe Beano for a few hours. She bought coffee for all those who came in that morning. I guess she figured, what else was she going to do with her money? From what they say, you can’t take it with you. The Beano farewell had been scheduled to take place about a week hence. Catherine didn’t look well at all. I gave her a hug and thanked her for the coffee. I suspect it will be the last time I see her.

Many of us in the neighbourhood are talking about Catherine’s decision, even as we head into our later years ourselves. We’ve been paying attention, taking notes as it were. No one really looks forward to a slow and steady decline in a hospital or hospice. I think most of us admire Catherine and the path she has chosen to end her life. I suppose we all wonder if we will be so brave and decisive when our own time comes.

Personally, I admire her decision.

May angels speed your way, Catherine. Please give my warmest regards to Theo.



A Sense of Home in the Heartland   1 comment

I took this in Moose Jaw on a trip back a few years ago.

I took this in Moose Jaw on a trip back a few years ago.

Last weekend I gave a reading and conducted a workshop at the Rascals, Rogues and Outlaws Writers’ Conference presented by the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild and the University of Saskatchewan at the U of S in Saskatoon. My fellow readers were novelists Catherine Bush from Toronto and Rosemary Nixon from Calgary (currently living in Saskatoon) and poet Alex Porco who now hangs his hat in North Carolina. I believe we all acquitted ourselves admirably and those in attendance seemed to come away with something to think about. Maybe even some of them were inspired by what they saw on stage to go home and take another shot at writing the Great Canadian Novel.

Beyond the conference itself, the weekend hit at me at a deeper level, at more or less a patriotic or nationalistic level, as for me in going back to Saskatchewan, I was going back home. Of course I’m from Regina, the Capitol, the Athens of Saskatchewan, and as such am normally bound by the traditions of the province to sneer at Saskatoon, but in this instance I was only too happy to dispense with that rather empty ritual. (Just this once, mind you.)

I am of the finest Saskatchewan pedigree. My father’s people came over from England in the very early days of the 20th Century. Grandpa, whom I never met, set up a forge in the bucolically-named town of Maryfield in the south-eastern part of the province. My mother’s people had homesteaded around the same time in the Alsask region. My grandma and grandpa eventually bought a farm in the Broadview area and that’s where my mother was raised.

My mom’s dad, William Hunter, was said to have been a mover and a shaker in the formation of the CCF Party, precursor to the NDP. I once heard a rumour that the Regina Manifesto was actually typed on his typewriter, but I have no way of proving that.  You can see I came by my politics honestly.

By the time my sister and brothers and I came along, our mom and dad were living in the old north end of Regina, in the shadow of Taylor Field. Well, two blocks away. When they moved in, it was a prosperous working class (with pretensions to middle class) neighbourhood. By the time they moved out, down to the south end, it was called by Maclean’s Magazine the worst neighbourhood in Canada. Well, things change.

When I was in university, at the University of Regina, I was a pretentious, mustachioed, tweed-clad, pipe-smoking twit with no greater dream than to get the hell out of Regina and move to Toronto. And I did that. I went to York University and got myself an MFA in playwriting and dramaturgy at York University.

It grieves me, as a westerner at heart, to say that I had a great time in Toronto and that I believe it’s one of the best cities anywhere, in any country. But it really is a wonderful place, at least it was back in the ‘80’s. And yet, I looked around me one day, actually I looked above me, and I couldn’t see the sky, and I realized I hadn’t seen it for some time. So I moved back home in the late 1980’s.  Really, on account of the sky.

I tried to make a go of it, but those were disasterous times for Saskatchewan economically.  I tried to make it but I just couldn’t. So when I had an offer to have a play of mine produced in Calgary, I did like hundreds of thousands (yes, literally) of my fellow Saskatchewanians have done over the decades and took the Trans Canada west to Calgary. And here I have been now for 20 years.

Where does the time go?

Coming to Calgary led to two of the best writing gigs in the country, at the time. First, as playwright in residence at Alberta Theatre Projects and then as a feature columnist for the Calgary Herald. (Sadly, neither really exists anymore, in quite the same way. This blog is in many ways a continuation of that column. I haven’t figured out how to get them to pay me for it, though.)

When I began at the Herald, my publisher told me there are over 300,000 people in Calgary originally from Saskatchewan. It’s often referred to as Saskatchewan’s biggest city. “So govern yourself accordingly,” he said. And I did. I wrote primarily to a Saskatchewan audience. Well, pan-prairie on any account. But don’t get me wrong. I never would have had the type of career I’ve had if I hadn’t come to Calgary when I did. I was in the right place at the right time.

I have many good friends in Calgary and I love the city. It drives me nuts sometimes, but any city will do that. It’s a great city, a great place to live.  After all, 300,000 of us Saskatchewan immigrants can’t be wrong.

Still, in going back to the homeland, something tugs at the heartstrings, some kind of inherent sense of kinship, of belonging, that exists quite beneath the realm of thought or awareness. I suppose no matter where you grew up, you feel it when you get back to your original home.

It’s healthy, I think, to celebrate that feeling. I always say, if you want to know where your home is, look at your health card. That will tell you all you need to know. But when I look to my heart, I know that my true home will always lie a few hundred miles east of here.

There’s a poem that I made from a monologue from a play of mine that I meant to read on the weekend, but that I never got around to. Don’t worry, I’m not about to keel over and die, at least I hope not, but the poem sums up the elegiac feeling I’m referring to. So here it is again. (Looking over at my poetry page, I am reminded I read this as part of my eulogy for my mother at her funeral a few years back.)


It’s an issue of space.

You start out on the farm,

That great, vast prairie

To run and tumble in

The endless horizon

And the great dome of the sky

Boundless, unfettered.

But your mother calls you back

Back into the house

And it’s a big fine house

With many rooms

Sheltering a family, a home.

And then you muddle around and

The space around you expands and

Contracts to the seasons of your life

Your enterprise.

Yet at a certain point

You feel the walls begin

To close in around you

From a house

To an apartment

To a room in a home

Until finally

You are left

In just the smallest of spaces

A wooden box

And the prairie opens up

And you are lowered down into it

Home again

The circle complete.


Thanks for reading.

Here’s my old buddy Jack Semple, one of Saskatchewan and Canada’s finest musicians. This is from the Ironwood here in Calgary, but he still lives back home. We went to Scott Collegiate together, back in the day.

Art and Oil in Alberta   12 comments

An arty shot of downtown Calgary. The Calgary tower was originally known as the Husky Tower, emblematic of the importance of the oil and gas industry to the city.

An arty shot I took of downtown Calgary. The Calgary tower was originally known as the Husky Tower, emblematic of the importance of the oil and gas industry in the city.

Neil Young and his Honor the Treaties tour is moving west, arriving in Calgary this Sunday evening. The tour has certainly opened a conversation here in the heart of oil country, and in my own case, raises questions about the sponsorship of the arts, and in some cases of individual artists, by companies in, as it is known out here, the oil patch.

This is a topic rarely discussed by artists, other than privately, over a few beers, as it speaks to an uneasy tension that we have learned to live with – the need for funding for expensive art forms such as theatre on one hand, and on the other, an uneasy and growing awareness that this money represents some very serious devastation of the environment, especially in the Fort McMurray area in the northern part of Alberta. Not to mention the ongoing and similarly uneasy tension between oil companies and first nations people in the area.

It’s a balance that is so delicate that it is rarely “officially” spoken of by artists; nor is it often dealt with as content for artistic expression. I can attest to this. I set a play of mine, Midlife (2002) in the corporate offices of a Calgary oil company, but it was hardly critical of the industry.

Except I have to admit that the play contains this speech, made by Jack who is an oil company executive to explain (lie) to his wife why he is coming in at 5:00AM:

There was a situation . . . A crisis. Yeah. There was a crisis. In production. That sounds reasonable. A crisis in production. International implications. A corrupt dictatorship. Violations of human rights all over the place. Atrocities. They hung a poet. Same old story . . .

An oblique reference to Ken Saro-Wiwa that probably got a laugh.  Although obviously meant to be ironic, I’m not sure how I feel about that now.

I published around 250,000 words in the Calgary Herald in a column in which I could write about anything I chose, but I never chose to the write about the oil patch. My writing appears in many other publications, as well as this blog, which represents another 100,000 words or so. But I have never written about the situation. Until now.

I arrived in Calgary 20 years ago. I made a splashy entrance, having written a hit play for Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites ’94 Festival (titled Some Assembly Required)  which at the time was sponsored by Shell Oil.  Oil company sponsorship of the arts was all new to me. I had spent my formative years in Saskatchewan, where there was very little in the way of oil production and not a lot of talk about it. It was all about wheat and potash, back in the day.

I left Regina to attend York University (MFA, 1984) in Toronto and remained there essentially throughout the ’80’s. I suppose I was a typical self-absorbed young artist in those days, more concerned about making my mark in the world than anything else. One organization I worked with at the time, Frontier College, got involved with Imperial Oil for sponsorship of one of its programs, but that certainly didn’t lead to any awareness of where oil came from or how it was produced, Imperial or otherwise.

I don’t know if I was simply naïve, but I had very little frame of reference for the political or business climates of Alberta when I arrived on these shores a few decades ago.  But make no mistake: when you live here, it’s all about oil and gas. It drives the economy and to a certain extent the entire culture of this city and the province as a whole.

Early on in my tenure as Playwright in Residence at ATP, in 1995, over in Nigeria the above-mentioned writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed and the reportage at the time and since certainly implicated Shell Oil in what has since been recognized around the world as an extreme travesty of justice. Obviously, we writers are a little sensitive when one of our fellow scribes gets strung up, and suddenly I was a little uncomfortable with my new gig.

One evening, I had the opportunity to ask an executive from Shell about the situation and he explained to me that the incident had nothing to do with his company, Shell Canada – that it was Royal Dutch Shell, or Shell International, or some such. And he agreed with me that it was a terrible situation, but there was no sense at all of culpability on behalf of the Canadian company.

Well, friends, so much for my inquiry. If I felt any moral outrage I suppressed it. Here in Calgary, I was in an extremely fortunate position, the envy of playwrights around the world, to be paid to write plays, and not only write them, but then to see them produced by a good theatre company in a beautiful theatre. After all, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Shell gave way to PanCanadian Petroleum which doesn’t exist anymore which in turn gave way to Enbridge.  All of these companies have supported the arts in Alberta. In the case of Enbridge, no one can deny their generosity or their community spirit. They are, as they like to think of themselves, good corporate citizens.

On one occasion, I happened to be in the office of a senior VP at Enbridge, interviewing him for another publication. It was a cold morning in Calgary. From his office high above the city in one of the glass towers downtown, we could see the smoke rising from the chimneys of a thousand offices and homes, and as we looked out at the city from his office, he said to me, “Everyone loves to hate us. But no one wants to wake up in a cold house on a day like this.”

Looking back at the situation here only a few years ago, you could say there was a golden time in Alberta. Oil production was driving the economy, making it probably the strongest in Canada, and beyond, and there was sufficient support of the arts and other community endeavours so that those of us not involved in the industry could see the benefits and overlook the problems.

But lately, it’s become harder and harder to overlook the types of concerns that Neil Young and company are addressing as their Honor the Treaties tour wends its way west into the heart of oil country. Even an impartial observer would have to agree that the mega projects up in the Fort McMurray area are hardly beneficial to the environment, to put it mildly. And as the environment of the northern boreal forest is very delicate, the risk of irreversible devastation seems very great: an accident waiting to happen, if it hasn’t already.

Factor into the equation the fact that these lands are the home and habitat of first nations people, who may or may not be benefiting from this industrial activity, depending on whom you talk to.

And then, if things weren’t complicated and explosive enough, we now find that our federal government seems intent on shutting down all scientific monitoring of the situation, leading many Canadians, especially those close to the scene, to believe that the fox is now monitoring the situation in the hen house, and will be sending us impartial reports from time to time.

At times, it’s hard to believe we are talking about Canada — the true, north strong and free — and not some third world dictatorship.

Enter Neil Young. He is certainly not making any friends for himself in the oil patch, but I hardly think that was his goal. Whether you admire him or revile him, he has opened up a dialogue and done what we like to think an artist does in our society – he’s held up a mirror for us to see ourselves from a different perspective. But this could only have been done, I think, by an artist who doesn’t live in Alberta (or even in Canada) and who is in no way dependant on our economy for his own survival.

Like many of my colleagues and friends, I am not comfortable with the development of the tar sands, the way it is happening and its effect on the environment. I am deeply troubled by the war on science currently being waged by our federal government, which will make it increasingly difficult to know just what is happening up there, exactly. And I am concerned about the fate of aboriginal people in the area.

Yet at the same time, I am not prepared to be a total hypocrite about the matter either. Most playwrights I know, for example, (myself included) would find it extremely difficult to say no to a production on account of support from the oil patch of the producing company. I haven’t heard of it happening yet.

For my own part, I’ve been working on a novel this last year which to a certain extent shields me from the question of corporate sponsorship which I suppose is a blessing and a curse. And yet, I received a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts to complete that novel last summer. I’m not so delusional to think that that money didn’t come, one way or another, from the oil patch.

At a dinner party the other evening that was attended by a number of people, none of them directly involved in oil and gas production,  I asked if any of them (if any of us) could honestly say there is no oil on our money, no smears of bitumen on the bills in our pockets. No one could.

So where does that leave us?

Well, as artists, you would have to say in admiration of Neil Young for shining a light on a dark and ugly issue. As citizens, it becomes a little more complicated. Everyone likes to have a roof over their head, everyone likes to eat, everyone likes to drive their car or truck to work. (An addiction I overcame 2 years ago, for what it’s worth.) How you can accomplish any of that in Alberta in 2014 in isolation from the oil and gas industry is a mystery to me.

Personally, I doubt that it can be done.

And so, it would seem that the uneasy tensions will persist. But at least now, thanks to Mr. Young and company, we’re talking about it.

Thanks for reading.

I wanted to share my favourite Neil Young song here (Powderfinger) but would ask you to watch this brief video on Ken Saro-Wiwa instead.

RIP, Ken. You deserved better.

Shopping Locally   6 comments

It’s hard to imagine but it’s almost a year and a half since I decided to live life in Calgary, a car-centric city if ever there was one, with no car. It seemed like a major decision at the time, and for a while I couldn’t help but remark on how things were different as a result of my decision, harder in some cases, surprisingly not harder in others.

I may have gone through a holier-than-thou phase when I felt myself to be morally superior to all drivers anywhere in the world, not unlike how many of my friends come off when they have managed to quit smoking. By and large, that has subsided and I don’t really even think about it much anymore.

I realized yesterday that there are subtle changes that I could not have imagined when I became a pedestrian and a cyclist and a rider of the C Train, and the most significant of these are the changes in my habits as a consumer.

There was a flurry of snazzy pimped-up sayings on my Facebook page around Christmas encouraging me and everyone else to shop locally and to support independent locally owned businesses. I don’t know if anyone really pays attention to those things, it seems to me we click “Like” on things we already believe anyway and then happily ignore the rest.

For my part, though, I have always tried to support local businesses.


Sandwiched between my two favourite playwrights at Shelf Life Books.

It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a fixture at Caffe Beano – in part because I like the coffee and the people there, but also because it isn’t a national or international chain. I have known all the owners over the years and I am happy to support them with my patronage.

On any account, yesterday (which was a Saturday) I found I had a few extra dollars in my pocket and felt like engaging in a bit of retail therapy. Back when I was a driver, at such times I would get into my car and drive out to West Hills (or some such) and relieve the retail itch in big box stores, almost always with the result of spending far more than I had intended on things that I didn’t really need.

The ink!!!

The ink!!!

But yesterday, I did the same thing on foot, starting out at my favourite Calgary bookstore, Shelf Life Books. Recently, my brother, Tom,  turned me onto the novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I had read The Prisoner of Heaven and there at Shelf Life they had The Shadow of the Wind, and so now it’s mine.

When I bought it, they gave me my customary writer’s discount, and if you are a published writer and you tell them that at Shelf Life, you can get the writer’s discount as well. It only amounted to a  few dollars, but it’s a nice touch and who doesn’t like saving money?

From Shelf Life I went to my favourite store on the planet, Reid’s Stationers. While I have had a fetish for fountain pens (and now mechanical pencils) almost since I could walk, I am now developing a serious ink problem. They have some Japanese stuff at Reid’s (pictured here) but it’s so expensive (even with my preferred customer discount) that I have been trying out several of them before I commit myself. I bought a plastic binder for $1.50, but I came away with a pen full of the precious Japanese ink.

There’s a clothing store I like a block west of Reid’s on 17th Avenue called Dick and Jane. Last time I was in they had a coat I liked, a Warrior Brand jacket from Great Britain with fabulous red tartan lining. I felt that I needed a little spring spruce up, something other than the drab black thing that I’ve been wearing for at least three years now. So in I went and out I came with a fabulous spring jacket. They even gave me a discount at Dick and Jane – “just for being who you are,” said the lady at the till – so it clearly doesn’t suck to be me.


I don’t begrudge the money I spend at the store of a local merchant. I somehow think it comes back to me. I paid less for all of these items than I would have, had I driven 5 miles in my car to a big box outlet mall. They all mean more to me, because of the process I went through in buying them.

Cars do nothing towards fostering community. Setting out on foot, supporting local merchants, interacting with one’s friends and neighbours is what community is all about. I encourage you to try it sometime, you just might like it.

Thanks for reading!

PS. I believe Divine is having their big annual sale next weekend and it’s time for a new pair of Chucks. (Please see my post from April 21 of last year.) Anyone want to join me in the afternoon of Saturday March 30 to go on a Chuck-hunting expedition? Leave a comment if you do and we’ll make it happen!

The fabulous tartan lining of my new jacket!

The fabulous tartan lining of my new jacket!

%d bloggers like this: