Can we talk about the Quints?
April 5, 2017

There are things you remember when you are little. When I was in grade two, my family moved to North Bay, Ontario. My dad wanted us to live away from the hustle and bustle of Toronto. I wasn’t so sure.

You see, I could walk to school, our condo complex had a swimming pool. I could be with my friends while still being close to home.

I thought I had it made. Then, on March break, they took me to the new house in North Bay. New school, new neighbourhood, new town. Exciting on some fronts but scary on others.

It meant that I wouldn’t have to take my bike up the elevator to park on the balcony. It meant I could have my own room. It meant I could take the bus to school. All pretty exciting.

What I didn’t quite understand is that I was living in a community famous for many things. Winter, for one. The Dionne Quintuplets for another.

I’ve been following this delicate file as the now Heritage Commissioner in my own town. The year I left for university, the Dionne home was moved to a “strategic” location on the new bypass to increase its exposure.  A visitor centre was built and managed by the local Chamber of Commerce. Seems it worked for awhile but, of late, the whole thing took a negative turn.

I visited North Bay this past summer for a family reunion. I drove by so many times. Nothing to see here. An abandonned visitor centre and an empty Dionne house.

Wait, what, how could my home town turn its back on the thing that made it famous by proximity. The Quints weren’t actually born in North Bay but in a tiny French Canadian village nearby. That didn’t stop them from taking credit, I suppose. It appears it certainly didn’t keep them from taking responsibility for it either.

It was a miracle they survived. What followed what not so much miracle as opportunism.  The five girls were put on display for all to see. Opportunistic at best and, as it happens, devastating for the girls themselves. What you think brings pride can actually be terribly destructive to those who lived it.

All this BS about moving it to a heritage park upsets me. Move it back to where it should be: in the small village. Those who want to make the pilgrimage can. Those who don’t, won’t. I think about the quints. Only two of them left. Our approach to their impact on history pretty much ruined their lives. Don’t trust me. Ask them.

We commodified five little girls for our entertainment. And we should be ashamed of ourselves. Move the house back to its origins. Tell the real story of a poor family burdened with the birth of five identical children that the government, for lack of appropriate words, f’d up.

It’s a lesson. When I saw the stories (yes, more than one) in the New York Times, I was ashamed that a town that I was so proud of, a town that had shaped me as a young person, could screw up such an important issue, it made me question my origins. Have the Dionne’s been so comodified that we’ve forgotten they are people.

That’s on us. If I had a wish, it would be that the council of the day make a deal with the original property owners where the Qunits were born and return the home to its origin. Then, it’s a history, not a travesty. And we’d learn rather than earn.

The Age of Extraction
August 6, 2014

This column first appeared in the August 2014 All Month Edition of the Friday AM in Salmon Arm, BC

In the last decade, Canada has spent most of its time focussed on fixing its economy rather than strengthening its society. 
 
As a result, in my view, we now stare down the barrel of  income disparity like it’s a new danger. It’s not new. It’s just made worse by what’s happened to our economy these last ten years. And while income disparity will always be global as corporate forces search endlessly for cheaper labour and greater shareholder value, now it’s noticeably regional and local as well. 
 
How many of you are separated three weeks out of a month so dad can work away and earn the money in the patch? That sacrifice allows the extra money to fuel the economy with home renovations, new trucks and trips away. Income disparity also means that working and living in the same place is a luxury few of us can afford not just in third world countries but in small Canadian rural communities as well.  Ironically, our stronger economy is also leading to a weaker society. We can’t be there for one another as much as we once were. We’re too busy making money. 
There is a difference between money and wealth. The economy is focussed on money. Society is focussed on wealth. We build a society’s wealth with money from the economy if we use it right. Income disparity tells me that we aren’t using it right. We’ve elected a steady stream of leaders – Harper, Clark, Ford – who promise us more money, rather than more wealth. 
History reminds us that Canada has always been a resource economy. Wood and water once upon a time. Oil and gas now. And, as a society, we’ve always handsomely rewarded those who were prepared to take that risk with money. But in turn, once upon a time, they built wealth – wether it was a foundation, a museum, a hospital, a university or a city park – their riches created wealth. I’m not sure that’s so much the case today. 
Do the rich have an obligation to create wealth rather than just spend money? In the Age of Enlightenment, this was called “noblesse oblige” – the obligation of the nobility to create wealth. Maybe we will call this century the Age of Extraction where we’ll remember all the oil, gas and money we extracted from the economy at the cost of a society of well-being. 
 
It’s not enough to just make money and trust the government to spend the tax revenue appropriately. It starts at the ballot box and it continues at city council meetings and volunteer efforts with community groups. We all have a role to play. If we stand back and complain governments aren’t doing a good job, yet make no personal commitment to the decision-making process, we are the problem. Ironically, some leaders would prefer this laissez-faire approach as 100% of us pay taxes and fewer than 50% of us bother to vote. No wonder the balance is off. 
It’s my suspicion that Steven Harper longs to be the King of the Canadian economy rather than the Canadian society. He thinks it’s his golden ticket to perpetual power. I hear he is a military history buff too. I hope he remembers the fate of those who proceeded him so many centuries ago.
In the 1600s, the conquest of the new world garnered Spain a massive fortune. In fact, they were the richest country in the world but the King of Spain insisted on hoarding all the gold for the rich which led to the entire country’s demise. They’ve yet to recover. In the 1700s, the King of France lost his head because of the price of bread. The price of bread is heavily regulated to this day in France. Seems they learned that lesson, at least. Complex dysfunction can manifest itself in very simple ways. 
No doubt, economics is integral to a society’s well being and worthy of our significant attention. Trouble is, sometimes we get it wrong like Spain and France once did. And when it goes wrong, it goes terribly, terribly wrong and everybody pays. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of paying for those mistakes. Sure we need money but we mostly need wealth. You cannot isolate one from the other. And if you do, you could lose your crown, your country and possibly your head. Are you listening King Stephen?