Letter to my Mother: Writing the Next Chapter

When we were together last September, when in the afternoons we’d sit in the backyard, near the weeping birch, and talk, we discussed the idea of you telling a story. In those warm days of September neither of us could imagine what you would soon face; then we were rebuilding our relationship after so many difficult years, and you were emerging once more, my mother.

We talked then of you writing the story of your childhood; of growing up in a gold mining town in Northern Ontario, and of losing your father at the age of five. Too young to really know him or have much in the way of memories; instead, you were raised by your mother and older brother. It wasn’t an easy upbringing. We talked about how to write that story; without bitterness or guile. People aren’t inspired by resentment; what they want to read is a story of hardship, honest, simple achievement and of what life was like in a very interesting place, and time.

I asked you: what is the story you want to tell about the first chapters of your life?

When I drove you to the airport and said goodbye at the gate, I was filled with hope and love. You and I haven’t had an easy go of it. It’s nobody’s fault. I wasn’t a very good kid when I was a teen: I drank, and snuck out of the house a lot and was moody and angry. You drank too, and didn’t want to let go, or face your own fears. We clashed. For a long time we were at each other’s throats; it wasn’t easy on either of us.

But over the last decade we’ve started to grow back together. We’ve both grown up a little, and time can take the edge off; make it easier to forgive.

When I left the airport I called your partner, Ernie. I was excited about your future, and wanted to share that with him. He was excited too, and I could feel the hope he shared for the future.

He proposed to you when you got off the plane. Who says you don’t get second changes, or third?

Six weeks later you got married. And four weeks after that, the ailment that had forced Ernie to sit during your wedding ceremony was confirmed as cancer.

And now he is gone. And you are alone once more. And it leaves you, and me, heartbroken.

The last year has been hell. There’s no other way to say it. In and out of the hospital during the rapid decline of your third husband, the second to be stolen by cancer in a decade. The last few weeks were more than anybody should have to endure; to lose a soul mate, one you hoped to have in your life for a few more years: just a few more years to love, to debate (and yes, argue), to share tender moments with, to discover what life’s true purpose is.

It would be understandable for you to sink lower, deeper into despair. You’ve spent a lot of your life living with regret, and its made you angry at times, lonely at others, and most of all, bitter about what could have been, but hasn’t become.

And now you have a choice to make: what do you want the next chapter of your life to be?

You can write this chapter any way you want. Yes, there are limitations: you’re struggling with a lot of physical challenges. Some of these there is nothing that we can do anything about. Some we can find treatments for, and some you can control wholly.

But within the confines of these maladies, you still have a choice. You can choose to accept control over your decisions and the consequences of those choices. You can choose to be happy; unreasonably so if you have to. Nobody would blame you if you decided to slip from mourning into a deeper despair, and resentment. But if you’re going to author this next chapter, why not choose to make it about service, about a modicum of joy, about peace?

You have it within you. I know you do. I told you at lunch before I left Hamilton that what I wanted more than anything was to see you smile again; for you to know happiness. You’re not alone; you have Chantel and I and you have friends. But the sort of happiness you must seek now can’t be dependent on others; you’re going to have to find it within. It might be centred on community, or on faith or service, but at the end of the day, you’re the one holding the pen: only you can write the story.

Respect, not Contempt, needed from Ottawa for Idle No More

My MP in Ottawa is an earnest young man from Airdrie named Blake Richards. He’s a backbencher with the Conservative Party, and I get a lot of mail from him extolling the virtues of his efforts on my behalf in Parliament, and those of this Party.

It’s pretty rare that we agree on much of anything. We’re both in favour of open, accountable government, but he isn’t a part of one. The F-35 fiasco has proven that beyond a doubt. Apparently we’re both in favour of responsible spending, but the Conservatives hand $1.4 billion dollars every year to oil and gas companies in Canada, which in turn record massive profits at the expenses of our environmental and health: hardly a wise investment.

Otherwise, I find that my voice is completely absent from Ottawa as my MP could really care less about someone like me: fish-kissing, gay-rights supporting, pro-democratic-reform whack-job from Wildrose.

Now I’ve found something else Mr. Richards and I can staunchly disagree on: I am one Canadian who has NOT grown “increasingly frustrated and disappointed with the actions of those who blockade highways and railways” as Mr. Richards suggests in his January 18 “Richard’s Report.”

“There can be no doubt that Canadians have had a lot of patience with the recent Idle No More protests taking place across our country,” he says in his Report.

I’m pretty sure that the First Nations people he’s referring to are also Canadians; the First Canadians in fact.

The MP then goes on to say that thanks to the dedication of the Conservative Government, 80 land claims have been settled and 10,000 units of housing built on reserves. This is all well-and-good, but it doesn’t seem to have helped the poorest people in Canada pull themselves out of poverty, nor does it address some of the fundamental concerns that have lead to the Idle No More movement across this country.

Bill C-45, among other pieces of federal legislation, is at the centre of this dispute. The massive omnibus bill threatens to further destroy Canada’s environmental protection by gutting the Navigable Waterways Act. Already the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act have been reduced to shadows of their former selves. The Species at Risk Act is next. First Nations people argue that the federal government has a duty to consult them on the most recent desecration of Canada’s environmental safeguards, and that destroying those provisions amounts to a violation of their treaty rights.

Mr. Richards concludes his newsletter by saying this:

“Our government respects the rights of all Canadians to legal, peaceful protest. In the case of Idle No More, this movement has done a lot to engage our First Nations citizens. This sort of awakening can be useful in helping us make progress on matters of mutual concern like economic opportunity, housing, education and accountability.”

So true: what the Idle No More movement has come to realize is that as Canadians we can have our awakening and “make progress” until the cows come home, but it’s not solving the problems that lead to the moment of reckoning in the first place. The rest of us Canadians should be out there in the cold with our First Nations colleagues, neighbours and friends fighting for what makes Canada great: the vast beautiful green land that until recently was considered one of the most pristine on earth, but is rapidly becoming a toxic sewer, ever fast now under the Conservatives.

Mr. Richard’s government is running Canada into the ground. We’re an international pariah on the environment, deliberately sabotaging any effort to curb green house gas emissions and make meaningful progress on other important global issues such as poverty and meaningful aid to developing nations.

And meanwhile, this nation’s First People’s are still living in government sanctioned squalor. Yes they have problems; some of their fiscal management is almost as bad as our federal and provincial governments. But for ten thousand years these First Canadians lived good lives on in this extraordinary landscape of prairie, forests, lakes, mountains, tundra and sea-shores and in the last two hundred years all of that has been ruined for the sake of profit and the progress that Mr. Richard’s espouses. Nobody expects First Nations people to live as they once did; but nobody should expect that when our country continues to break promise after promise made to them that they will sit still and say thank-you for building a few houses and settling the occasional treaty.

What the Idle No More movement seems to be saying – at least to me, an outsider who shares many of their concerns – is that respect is as important as anything else that we can share with our First Nations countrymen and women. And what Mr. Richards makes clear on behalf of his government is that he has very little of it when it comes to his relationship with this country’s First Peoples.

Addressing what Slickrock Paradox does not

I’m one of those authors who always reads his reviews. I don’t get a tonne of them: five or ten for each of the six books I’ve published so far, so it’s not an onerous commitment. Two of every three reviews I’ve received since starting to publish books in 2006 has been positive, and as Meatloaf crooned, that ain’t bad. I like the ego-massage of reading good reviews, and knowing that my intention as an author is hitting the mark, and I take heart when a reviewer points out where I could improve either the content or the style of a book. I’m new to this, and committed to learning as much as I can about the craft of penning novels and non-fiction alike.

The recent review of The Slickrock Paradox in Briarpatch Magazine hit on a third topic: what I apparently missed completely in penning the novel.

In The Slickrock Paradox Silas Pearson is looking for his wife Penelope de Silva in the searing heat of the American desert. De Silva went missing three-and-a-half years before while working on a clandestine conservation project in the canyon country of Utah and Arizona that centred on the writing of Edward Abbey, the iconic and controversial desert rat who penned The Monkey Wrench Gang and other books.

The reviewer, Yukata Dirks, seemed to enjoy the central mystery of the book, and has very nice things to say about how I portray the landscape of the Canyonlands, but points out:

“Unfortunately, Legault never addresses Abbey’s reprehensible racism. In 1963, Abbey wrote: “I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals.” Just as insidious were Abbey’s racist, colonial ideas about Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land he fervently defended. Midway through The Monkey Wrench Gang, the gang destroys a coal train and plants false leads around the site to point the blame at Red Power radicals. Indigenous people don’t have a place in Abbey’s narrative of eco-resistance, even if it is their traditional lands that are being destroyed.”

I can’t say I’m shocked by this feedback. Edward Abbey was a controversial figure in American literature and the life of the American West in many ways. In addition to being racist, he was misogynistic, crass, anti-social and at times bordered on abusive. He had five wives and it’s probably fair to say that the first four were happy with being left in the rear view mirror as he carved his path through life. He fathered five kids. He was a complex writer and a complex person, and just like the rest of us had plenty of demons to grabble with, more than a few created by his own hand.

I consider racism reprehensible and unjustifiable. If I were writing a book of literary criticism, or a critical biography of the man, it would be shameful not to mention these character flaws while praising his prose and his depth of feeling for life. But I’m not. The Slickrock Paradox is a mystery novel that is centred on Abbey’s nature writing. My protagonist, himself a critic of literature, openly states his distaste for Abbey’s writing; he prefers Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy (all of whom I love). It was a bone of contention between Silas and his missing wife.

Briarpatch goes on to criticise my portrayal of the American Indian in the book:

“Sadly, although Legault’s plot turns on the discovery of the ruins of a Pueblo gathering place by a young Hopi woman, The Slickrock Paradox suffers from a similar, though less crass, erasure. Despite his realistic portrayal of the political and economic landscape of the Southwest, the role of Native Americans in the defence of their land and water rights goes unmentioned, and Legault’s few Indigenous characters are treated as objects more than actors: victim, grieving sibling, spiritual Elder.”

It’s true that there are no American Indians among the leading characters of this book. It’s not a book about tribal water rights or the efforts of the Navajo or Hopi to defend their traditional lands. Characters like Darla Wisechild, the sister of one of the deceased in the book, are much like other supporting characters in the novel; they help carry the plot. In a book of 85,000 words there isn’t time to create in-depth portraits of every person that appears and still maintain a fast pace with lots of suspense. These characters are foils for Silas’s investigation. The fact that so much of that investigation involves the discovery of Ancient Pueblo ruins, artifacts and mythology merely reflects the reality that life in the Southwest today is an overlay of an ancient culture that has existed there for ten-thousand years and there is no place you can turn without confronting that.

In my 2008 novel The Darkening Archipelago Archie Ravenwing, a “Northern Salish” elder is a complex and flawed leading character fighting salmon farming on traditional First Nations territory in BC’s Broughton Archipelago. Every book can’t be about everything.

All of this reminds me of the curious moment when, after publishing Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership, that I read a review that criticised my portrayal of the Tao te Ching for not including a discussion about Taoist sexuality. Really? I tried to imagine about how I could have shoe-horned a discussion of ancient sexual energy into the book between chapters on strategy, fundraising and leadership styles. I recall thinking at the time that 1) my book was about leadership and activism, and not about sex; and 2) that sometimes reviews are a good way for the reviewer to make a tangential point only peripherally related to the topic at hand.

I used Edward Abbey’s writings as a centre-piece for The Slickrock Paradox’s mysteries because I love his passionate description of the landscape and because of his iconic stature among the canon of western literature. It doesn’t mean I endorse everything about the man, or his life, or even every word that he has written.

All of that said, every review I read gives me something to think about, and I’ll certainly been considering this feedback while penning the second book in the series, Black Sun Descending, due out from Touchwood Editions in 2014.

Have your say. Should Edward Abbey’s racism necessarily be part of any discussion of his writing? Or can we accept that he was a good nature writer and a passionate man without investigating his other character flaws?

Malformations of the human species

The news that former criminology and psychology student, and convicted animal-torturer, Karla Bourque was released from prison last week is unsettling news. Kayla Bourque was convicted of cruelty towards animals and sentenced to eight months in prison, six of which she had already served. The judge in the case gave her the extra two months so that a long list of complex parole conditions could be prepared. These parole conditions included a ban on owning knives, needles or duct tape.

It raises challenging questions: this is a woman who has admitted wanting to kill homeless people, and who has shown to take pleasure in torturing her family pets, so why is she being released from prison after serving just eight-months, and what can be done about it? How do we protect ourselves and our communities against people who feel no remorse for their actions, and experience none of the moral constraints that prevent them from committing terrible crimes?

This story strikes a nerve with me because my 2011 book The Vanishing Track is about a male version of Ms. Bourque. In this mystery novel, set in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, a young man named Shawn Livingstone graduates from juvenile delinquency to torturing and killing animals, stealing cars, burning down a neighbourhood grocery store to stalking and killing the homeless. Sean is a psychopath – a human abomination incapable of feeling the most basic emotion: empathy – and that makes him capable of committing the most heinous crimes without feeling any remorse. He, like all psychopaths, is intelligent and superficially charming, but he lacks the ability to feel. He can mimic normal human emotions, but as Dr. Richard Hare of the University of British Columbia, and the world’s foremost expert on psychopathy, says “he knows the words but not the music.”

I don’t know if Kayla Bourque is a psychopath, but the odds are in favour of it. Dr. Hare has developed the standard model for assessing this severe form of mental deviation. It’s called the Hare Phychopathy Checklist and it includes two main categories: personality “aggressive narcissism” and case history “socially deviant lifestyle.” Under the first category are behaviours such as having a grandiose sense of self worth, pathological lying and the failure to accept responsibility for his/her own actions. In the second category are historical habitats such as a need for constant stimulation and tendency to experience boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioural control and juvenile delinquency. Twenty questions in all, the checklist is administered by a trained professional and each of the twenty categories is scored on a scale of 0-2 (zero meaning no evidence of the trait is displayed, 1 meaning there is a partial match and 2 if there is a reasonably good match). The maximum score is forty; different administrators have varying thresholds for the label psychopath but it is usually in the range of 25-30.

Screenings of the general population using Hare’s checklist suggested that around 1% of the people in North America are potentially psychopaths. One in a hundred people demonstrate the behavioural or historical traits of psychopathy. Not all psychopaths turn to criminal behaviour: in fact Dr. Hare, along with Paul Babiak, wrote a fascinating book about what many psychopaths end up doing called Snakes in Suits: when Psychopaths go to Work. Think about the collapse of Wall Street in 2008 and the lack of remorse shown for the suffering that caused and you’ll understand Hare and Babiak’s thesis.

Many psychopathic individuals are content to live non-violent lives, but they are almost never without victims. Some male psychopaths express their parasitic tendencies through casual and exploitive sexual relationships; others prey on families and associates through petty crimes or mental, financial or emotional abuse.

The cause of phychopothy is not known: researchers speculate that a chemical imbalance between testosterone and cortisol may be to blame; others suggest environmental factors such as abuse during childhood while others say poor socioeconomic status might be a factor. No one has yet stated categorically that there is a definitive cause.

Psychopaths are gross malformation of the human species; so like us in so many ways, but lacking the moral fibre that we associate with humanity, and therefore not quite fully human.

There is no cure. One psychologist who spoke with the troubled Ms. Bourque before she was released said that the young woman will likely require supervision for the rest of her life.

Ms. Bourque has admitted to wanting to kill people, and is intelligent enough to study criminology at Simon Fraser University to learn how to do it in a manner that she will not be caught. Consequences have little meaning to psychopaths: they don’t fear being caught because they will be punished; they fear being caught because it will spoil the fun.

It was only Ms. Bourque’s inflated ego that led her to being arrested: she bragged about her cunning to a fellow student who called the police.

The question remains: what do we do with people like Ms. Bourque? She hasn’t yet committed a crime that warrants locking her up for the rest of her life, but obviously the judge in this case feels that she is likely to re-offend or he wouldn’t’ have imposed such strict probation. Our judicial system prevents us from locking Ms. Bourque and others like her up for crimes she has yet to commit, and monitoring her behaviour for the rest of her life will be a costly and human-resource consuming operation for police and social service providers. If we don’t watch her she will almost certainly commit additional crimes. And what do we do with all of the others?

There is no easy answer. I’m open to your ideas: