Friday, October 30, 2015

When did we become a nation?

Just about three years ago now I penned an opinion where I defined my cultural nationality as "English Canadian". I'm still still true to that; in general, that's the space I've moved into. But just lately I've started thinking about when and how that came about, and not just for me, but for the community with which I identify. When did we become "us", and how did we know it?

I'm increasingly persuaded that that moment came for us in the early 1980s with the patriation of the Constitution from Britain, and in particular, with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms entrenched in it. Getting our own unique flag did what it did; cementing O Canada over the egregiously anglophile The Maple Leaf Forever as the national anthem did what it did... but finally having a statement of principles and values spelled out that we could all point to and read and see clearly laid out is what I think has really defined us.

When my parents were still young, Canada... more particularly, English Canada... was still happy to conceive of itself as a fixture of the British Empire; a significant part of a much wider whole. But I think even by the 1950s, this conception was already threadbare. We hadn't really had much to do with Britain for rather a long time, even at that point. We had long conducted our own international affairs, we decided separately which wars we would and would not support, we had inaugurated a separate citizenship. We shared a monarchy and some military history (and, of course, still do), but that was largely it by the 50s, and had been so for a couple of generations. What did it even mean to "belong" to the British Empire? It was never a formal institution. It was a catch-all name for a hodge-podge of relationships Britain had with other countries, and through it, those countries with one another (what did Canada really have to do with Australia, for example?). Members were either dominions like Canada -- in which case, they were effectively independent -- or they were colonies and not "members" by choice. Who were you in such a system? Member? Citizen? Subject? None of those words seems correct, although I suspect "subject" comes closest. In any event, by the 1950s, war-torn Britain was stepping down from the mantle and divesting itself of its overseas colonies. By the time I came around, the British Empire was, literally, history.

So when I was a kid in the 1970s, there was a real vacuum in the English Canadian identity. People my parents' age came though it from one side to the other, but people my age were born into the midst of it. What I remember about my nationality, as a child, was how shaky and tottering it seemed. TV shows and magazine articles wrung their hands unceasingly about "who are we?" and "what does it mean to be Canadian?"

What they should have asked, but no one really had the courage to back then, what "what does it mean to be an English Canadian?" In the 1970s, French Canada, particularly in the form of the province of Quebec, with its state and institutions, knew very well who it was; that it had an identity and a future and a sense of destiny. When they asked "what does it mean to be Canadian?", they weren't asking it the same way. They were asking it in the sense of "do we still want to be a part of this bigger thing outside Quebec?" Quebec sovereigntists were forever lecturing us that were we simply more Americans who'd missed the boat in 1776 and once they left, we could drop the pretense and get on with it, and we'd all be much happier. And there were a lot of us who looked around and believed that (after all, in the early 1900s, French political author André Sigfried characterized Canadian politics as "American actors on an English stage", though he was more enthusiastic as time wore on). I lived in the Maritimes back then and the common wisdom was that if Quebec left, we'd be isolated, and would have no choice but to sue to join the Union and just become so much more New England. Our whole identity seemed... fake.

Then Pierre Trudeau came back from the dead. Defeated in the election in 1979, he got his chance to come back when Joe Clark's minority government fell in a vote of non-confidence in his first budget. The election in February, 1980, put Trudeau back in 24 Sussex Drive. "Well, welcome to the 1980s," he said the night of the election, winning it just in time for him to fight the first Quebec referendum on leaving Canada and win it that May. Promising Quebeckers a renewed federalism, he got back to work on the project he'd had since taking office in 1968: giving Canada its own constitution and having a bill of rights entrenched in it at last.

That finally happened in 1982. We finally agreed on an amending formula and the British were happy to hand the thing over to us instead of wasting their own parliamentary time every time we needed a nip and a tuck made to the British North America Act. Countrywide consultation had shaped the statement of principles that were added to the Constitution at the time of its patriation: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For English Canada it was important in two respects. One was, as I said earlier, that it provided us at last with a statement of our core values. The other was that it was, to be honest, a statement of our core values, not Quebec's. It embraced a multiculturalism and theory of individual rights that were largely at odds with Quebec's "two founding nations" principles and an emphasis on collective, rather than individual, rights -- that the good of the cultural group trumps those of the individual and permits for greater curtailing of the individual's latitude. No government in Quebec, separatist or federalist, has ever officially endorsed the 1982 Constitution.

But for English Canada, there it was. That's who were are. That's what we believe. There is what we can rally around and point to and nod to one another, and most importantly, recognize in one another. It gave us permission to be us, and the empowerment and embrace of judicial review to work out what that means when we disagree. The questions about who we were, and were we just Americans who were inordinately fond of the Queen or something, all dried up around the time I was in high school. Even when Quebec held its second referendum in 1995, which was defeated by a gnat's eyelash, I wasn't hearing the same doom predictions as in 1980 that without the Quebec glue, the rest of Canada would fall apart and just collapse into the arms of the United States. We'd get by. We would find a way to adjust to the new normal and move on. We knew who we were, and what we stood for, and what we wanted and didn't want, and Quebec leaving wasn't going to change that. We'd grown hard and proud like a spouse who's been threatened with the other's leaving once too often. We were finally brave enough to say, "then, if you really must... go." I do believe that when we stopped whining and begging Quebec at all costs not to leave us, but started talking about what the practicalities of that came down to, it shocked a lot of them. I think the quiet acceptance of federalism in Quebec in recent years, the recognition that they have a lot of elbow room in this federation and it's not all that bad a place to be, is in part a function of their partner, us, finally growing up. We are a good, strong, confident partner now, and maybe that's a little sexy. And even though we did it in a way that kind of alienated them, after a couple of generations, maybe that's what counts.

I'm ready to be "Canadian" for as long as Quebec stays, but fully functional as an "English Canadian" if they go. I think that's finally true for us all. Because in 1982, we declared to ourselves and the world who were are and what we stand for. Take it or leave it, everybody: this is us.

Friday, October 23, 2015

O Photoshop, My Photoshop!

This morning I happened to be going through an old disk a friend returned to me earlier this year after many years, and I came across, of all things, an installation set for Photoshop. Photoshop 3.05, to be precise. The installation came in the form of eight folders, which represented the contents of the eight 1.44 MB floppy disks that Photoshop 3 shipped as. I was curious to see if it would still be possible to install and run Photoshop 3.05 on a computer made a dozen years later and running Windows 7.

It is.

This was a real kind of delight for me because it's the first version of Photoshop I ever worked with. I did an abortive stint on the fringes of the animation industry in the mid-1990s that, at what I guess I would call its apex, involved creating content in Adobe Photoshop 3 and animating it in Macromedia Director 4. In my case, this was done using a PowerMac 7200 running some flavour of System 7.

But Photoshop 3 was only the second version Adobe cross-platformed to Windows, and despite the fact that we were a Mac shop, a few of us were Wintel users at home. Someone got hold of the Windows installation and suddenly, unlike our Mac-preferring coworkers, we had Photoshop at home. For nerds like us, it was like being given a Mustang to swan around with.

Photoshop 3 was the first version of Photoshop to feature layers. Prior to that, the closest you got was when you pasted a copied selection into a document, it would float above it, temporarily, until you committed it, at which point it would drop down and replace the pixels beneath it. And unless you immediately used the single undo, those pixels were lost forever. But with version 3, you could simply create a new layer and paste into that instead, and lose nothing. I only became aware of this when I found an old demo installation of Photoshop 2.5 at work and read the manual, and was astonished to find it didn't have layers. Even in 1996, that seemed primitive.

I spent thousands of hours of my life, professionally and casually, working in Photoshop at that juncture of my life. I adored it. It was almost like my religion. And even though it's been vastly improved since then and superseded in essentially every particular, I still find myself with that first-love attraction to the simplicity, and yet unlocked power, of Photoshop 3. Frankly, if you just have the skill, patience, and knowledge, there's still not all that much you can do pushing pixels in Photoshop CC 2015 that you couldn't manage in Photoshop 3.05.

In kind of futzing around with it today, I noticed two things. One is that I still miss the keyboard shortcut for loading the alpha of the current layer! I spent well over a year of my life pressing CTRL+ALT+T to load the opacity of the current layer I was working on as a selection, and still miss that. It was removed in Photoshop 4 and has never come back. Ever since then, you've needed to hold down CTRL and use the mouse to click the thumbnail of the layer whose opacity you want to load as a selection. To me, that's retrograde. I went from being able to do it using the thumb, pinkie, and index finger of my left hand, with my eyes closed, to needing both hands and second piece of hardware. Even if you rewire the keyboard shortcuts, the best you get now is a dialog that asks you what you want to load as a selection, and you still need the mouse to click a drop-down and select current layer. There might be a way back, but I've never found it, and they long ago wore me down to doing it their way. But I swear, I've never once clicked one of those thumbnails without feeling sulky resentment, and I've never quite forgiven Adobe for doing that.

The other thing came as I was just fiddling with the layers. When I created a new layer, I happened to notice the Group with Previous Layer check box. I thought, hmm, I wonder what that does. So I clicked it. Oddly enough this never seems to have occurred to me in the couple of years I used Photoshop 3.05. What does it do? Well, today, we'd call it creating a layer using the layer below it as a clipping mask. Same thing. When I started drawing in the new layer, I was astonished to see the pixels only appeared if they sat over an opaque region of the underlying layer. I had no idea that was possible in Photoshop 3! Or at least, if I ever did, I made no use of it and long ago forgot about it. But till this morning, if you'd asked me, I'd have said that was a comparatively recent feature of Photoshop, and would have guessed it was introduced no earlier than, say, Photoshop 7... if then!

One undeniable limitation of 3.05 relative to today is the lack of editable text. Until version 5, text was rasterized as soon as you committed it, and ceased to be "text" in the sense of being characters as far as the computer was concerned. You could read it, but to the computer it was just a bunch of pixels like any other. If it weren't for that drawback, I'd say that 3.05 would still be perfectly serviceable for most things casual users could possibly want to do with Photoshop. As it is, taking into account a handful of other features I've found a need for over the years, I'd say my personal bottom line for must-have features is Photoshop 7 (the last version before we started this awful "Creative Suite" numbering revisionism).

In truth, I'm probably not going to use Photoshop 3.05 beyond the next couple of days or so, just to sort of wander down Memory Lane. I have a subscription to CC 2015, and that's the face I've grown accustomed to. But there's no reason not to swing by the old stomping ground, look up that gal you shared that first kiss with, and spend a few hours laughing and saying, "remember when..."


I went looking for this photo this morning. Took me a while to find it. Wasn’t the year, or camera, or event I was expecting to find it. But I do remember taking it. I remember it as the first time I seriously thought, “we just might be seeing a lot of this guy in the future”. It was, as it turns out, May 28, 2005.

I’m old enough to remember mentions of Justin Trudeau by dint of the fact that he was the son of Pierre Trudeau. The first time I was actually aware of him as a person rather than a footnote was when he gave the eulogy for his father in a state funeral at the end of 2000. Inspiring both warm laughter and bitter tears, it moved and impressed me. I suppose it was his emergence onto the national stage in his own right, at the very moment his father no longer lived to cast the shadow that he did.

Five years of just living his life went by, and he got married. When he did, it was front page news. Another three years went by before he ran for Parliament and won a seat. Another five before he made a run at the leadership of the Liberal Party. And now, after the longest election campaign in Canadian history since, I’m told, 1872, here we are. On November 4th, Justin Trudeau will become the 23rd Prime Minister of Canada.

Seventy-eight days. I was fed up with it in September. Honestly, I don’t know how Americans put up with it… the campaigns for the presidency seem to start two years in advance. But put that aside. A typical Canadian federal election runs about five weeks. This one ran eleven. The thinking at the outset was that Stephen Harper, prime minister through nearly 10 years and three previous elections, was making a cynical move to cause the Liberals and the New Democratic Party to run out their war chests half way through the campaign, and then just bury them in Conservative ads that went unopposed and unanswered… the Tories have far more money to spend. My guess is that kind of “yes, strictly speaking, it’s allowed, buuuut…” trickery left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of his supporters, and not just those of us hoping to evict him from 24 Sussex Drive.

There was also some idea that the more Canadians saw of Justin Trudeau, the colder their feet would get about voting Liberal. The thinking here clearly was that more time meant more clips of Trudeau screwing up, flopping around, and proving what Tory ads were saying about him: “Justin Trudeau: he’s just not ready”. The Conservatives bought their own message here, and it looks like it backfired on them. As it turned out, the more Canadians saw of Trudeau on the hustings, the more we realized he was ready. He had answers. He could think on his feet. Harper’s long campaign in fact simply gave Trudeau more and more opportunities to demonstrate himself as a credible prime minister… and more importantly, one we could actually like.

I have to confess that there were things about his performance in Parliament that gave me pause. I did not like the fact that he supported the Conservative government in passing the egregious C-51 anti-terror bill. I’m still not sure why he did. It caused me doubts about supporting him, and I decided to support the NDP. We have never had an NDP government at the federal level, and I admit, I was… I still am… curious to see what kind of country they’d give us over four or five years. In August, the NDP was riding high and it was in no way unreasonable to imagine they would form a government (albeit a minority one) for the first time. I remember trying out the phrase “Prime Minister Mulcair” and seeing that it didn’t sound outlandish.

But the fact is that when you have more than two parties in your system, a split vote between similar parties has a tendency to send the one you don’t want up the middle. I remember that happening in 1988. Most Canadians did not want the Free Trade Agreement the Tories were foisting on us. 57% of us voted for parties opposed to it. But there were two of them. They split that vote, and the other 43% of Canadians who voted for the only party pushing it, the Tories, got what they wanted instead. That memory was clearly at work in this election, and deep down, 70% of the country knew that this time, we had to watch and see who was going to make it happen, and then vote strategically. As we moved into September, Justin Trudeau seemed more and more energetic and positive… Mulcair increasingly staid and cautious. A bit too much like Harper. A bit too much like what most of us wanted to replace. And so support for the NDP began to ease down, and transfer to the Liberals. By October there seemed no stopping it, and support for the NDP, at one time around 34% in some polls, dropped to below 20% by election night. When I realized my own riding was polling over 50% Liberal, I knew voting for the NDP was a wasted vote and, in fact, one that might just hurt the Liberals and help the Tories if things got slippery. So sometime in September, I had a change of heart, and decided to help Justin Trudeau achieve that destiny that perhaps glimmered in 2000, and then broke the surface of my mind in 2005.

Watching the returns that night, and seeing every single riding in Atlantic Canada go Liberal, I started feeling confident we would see a Liberal minority government. But when Quebec abandoned the NDP for the Liberals, giving them over half their seats, and the major cities in Ontario blazed Liberal red, their numbers soared. By the time British Columbia was chiming in with its count, we were all stunned as the number topped 170 and kept on climbing. And here we are. A Liberal majority government, unthinkable even as people started casting ballots, and the projected seat count for the Liberals we were seeing all that week hovered around 140.

“Sunny ways,” Justin Trudeau said at the top of his victory speech, citing the campaigning style of Wilfrid Laurier, our first Quebecois prime minister, just over a century ago. He was right. We were tired of Stephen Harper’s wedge politics and admonishments that we needed to be afraid of The Other, here and abroad; and that our economy was supported only by the might of his Atlas-like shoulders, prone to fail without. When Trudeau evoked Abraham Lincoln as he spoke of “the better angles of our nature
, he hit the nail on the head. We wanted optimistic things again… a shopping list: We wanted a government of people, not a person, again. We wanted to be inclusive and accepting again. We wanted to trust rather than bully again. Care, and help, and – yes, I’ll say it – be admired and worthy of admiration again. We wanted our old Canada back. I hope we just gave it back to ourselves.

In 2005, Justin said yes to Sophie. Last Monday, Canada said yes to Justin. I hope we’re all as happy ten years down the road as she is.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Reconnecting Bathurst Street

As promised... about three weeks ago... a digest of the changes on the closed portion of Bathurst Street in the vicinity of Holland Marsh.

This is most of an hour north of Toronto. Bathurst Street is a major north-south street in Toronto, but it also extends northward through most of York Region as well. It's in the process, right now, of being completely 4-laned all the way up to where it meets Yonge Street... which runs parallel to it, most of the way north, until heading west to intersect it near Holland Marsh. What you'll be seeing here is roughly a kilometer south of that intersection.

This stretch of Bathurst, running not quite half a kilometer, was closed about 1995 because the road was just too rough and, as you'll see, the little bridge crossing the creek down there is in phenomenally bad shape, especially its retaining walls. Prior to that, it was a twisty, windy little country track down to the creek and back up. It doesn't give the impression it was ever paved, or even adequate for two lane traffic. I'm really surprised it remained open as late as it did.

There was a write-up about it in the Toronto Star in the summer of 2013 that sent me and P-Doug out there for a first time on an overcast Saturday in July.

The view above looks back down south in the direction we've just come from.

The view above shows where we finally head off "the road" you could still (technically) drive on, and out into the part that had been closed for 18 years or so at that point.

Above, you can see the the little bridge that once carried Bathurst Street traffic.

Notice the concrete barriers that were added at some point in the past to keep cars from falling off the bridge. On the right, you can see just how badly the bridge's own barriers have deteriorated.

Heading north up the hill from the bridge.

This view looks back south toward the hill we'd just climbed.

In the distance, above, you can see the telephone poles of the other end of Bathurst still open to traffic.

This is just about as far as we got. The ground was very wet, and we'd had enough trouble with treacherous mud that we decided to abort the trip (slip?) down this hill to the other extant end of Bathurst, and leave it for another day. As well, the light sprinkling of rain graduated, also about this point, into real rain. We turned around, and headed back. Long before we got back to my car, we were in the most profound downpour I can actually remember being outdoors in. It was so bad I was actually fearing for my cell phone and the cameras. Fortunately, they came through it all just fine.

These views face south, back the way we came. They're meant to suggest the trip back, but in fact were taken when we arrived at the bridge, earlier. By the time we were actually back down the hill and crossing the bridge again, the rain had reached the point of precluding taking more pictures. We just wanted to make it back to the safety of the car.

I came back on my own two months later, in early September, and did that northern leg we hadn't done in July. I only went as far as the bridge on my own, figuring that between the two trips, we'd covered the whole length of the close part of Bathurst Street.

This is the view of Bathurst north from the road closure, which is behind me in this view. Those are the phone poles we only glimpsed through the rain from the hilltop in July.

Facing south, this is where the road closure began. Previously, you eased up the hill in a curve off to the left, as seen below.

This view marks the approximate location where we called it quits in July.

A view of the bridge from the east side, showing the gaps in its retainer railings.This view basically looks back north up the winding hill I'd just descended to reach the bridge.

I took many more photos than I'm showing here, of course, and with that accomplished, I decided we were good until they actually got around to building the bypass that was mooted in the Toronto Star article that spring. I figured it would be quite a while. As it turns out, I'm glad we made these trips when we did.

I didn't bother with the place throughout 2014 but at the end of March this year (2015), P-Doug and Larry and I went out there just briefly to see if any work had been done. Returning to the north end, which I had visited alone in September, 2013, we were greeted with views like these.

This view looks south up a whole new path for Bathurst Street.The hazard sign you're seeing here is not in the same position as the one at the foot of the scrubby little hill, which was off the left in this view, about 50' away.

This was the view looking north down Bathurst by late March, 2015... the direction we'd just driven in from (the intersection with Yonge Street is in the extreme distance, not really visible in this view). You can see that Bathurst swings to the left under the telephone poles. The previous course was off the right, on the other side of the telephone poles.

Needless to say, at that point, we decided we'd need to come back from time to time and see what kind of progress was being made. And we did.

In July, exactly two years and four days after our first trip, P-Doug and I returned.

Climbing up, we came to a sudden drop...

...that overlooked the new culvert being constructed for that same creek the little bridge (out of sight, off to the left in this view) crossed. 

This view corresponds very roughly with the views of the muddy hill heading south back down to the little bridge...

...which itself is just out of sight in the trees at the bottom of the hill here, above.

We speculated about whether or not the bridge would have survived all the construction. I had read in PDFs that the Region had issued that it would be spared and left off in the wilderness. P-Doug was doubtful but we were both pleased to find it was still there when we got down the hill.

This view looks northwest into the construction of the culvert. What a different view compared to the lush vegetation seen on the west side of the bridge that first, rainy July we stood here.

The above two views show the rise back up from the bridge heading southward. The last time we did this, it was pouring rain. There was also rather more of the road veering off to the west here. You can see the clearing of the new road course just beyond the rise. This was more or less as far south as we ventured on foot. We turned around and went back to the car, and decided to drive around to the south end of the construction.

This is that south end, and the view is south, back in the direction we'd just driven. Far off in the distance you can see the four-lane modern road that Bathurst is at the crest of the distant hill... soon to be the same in this view, above.

This view looks north, toward the distant intersection of Yonge and Bathurst. That's the extant part of Bathurst in the distance.

I decided to use my cell phone to figure out where we were. The blue dot shows our approximate location. As it turns out, this is very close to where we got out of the car and started walking north that first time we were here. The view has changed so much there's no way of telling that just to look, though. Oddly enough, the aerial view Google was using at the time still shows the old, pre-construction view. You can quite clearly see where the road closure was established, and the line of the creek on the right. The location of the bridge is only just cut off at the very bottom of the Google search bar. Compare that to this "updated" view, which is already considerably out of date, but shows something like the status of construction sometime between when we were there in March and returned in July...

You'll notice, above, the little bit of a road just off to the right side towards the top of the image. That's the original course of Bathurst, and the shadow line snaking through the forest on the right shows where the creek is. Where they meet is where the little broken bridge still sits.

Most recently, we returned in mid-September, again coming in from the north side and heading south. I'll let these pictures speak for themselves (for the most part), other than to say you can see the tremendous amount of work that's been done accommodating the new culvert. I can only imagine what this is going to look like by this time next year.

 Above, facing west.

Above, facing east toward old bridge. Yes, that's a barbecue, apparently.

The old bridge, safely off to the side. Just.