The Ides of March

It’s a bright but cold spring morning. There is still snow on the ground, especially along the tree lines at the edges of the fields, and the ground itself is still frozen underfoot. Once again those of us in the northern latitudes are getting ready for the official end of winter, the Spring Equinox, which takes place on 20 March again this year. Our clocks ‘sprang forward’ last Saturday night, and yesterday I saw the first pussy willow buds break out in the sunshine. These are all signs that the summer is coming, and with it the chance to get back into the garden. For those of you in the southern hemisphere who are getting ready for autumn, enjoy!

I have just been re-reading some of my old blogs. Two years ago, I was in self-isolation, having got back to Prince Edward Island just hours before the borders closed and the world seemed to stop.
Roger McGough, one of the Liverpool Poets of the 1960s, is still very much alive and well. He recently published a book of contemporary poems, entitled ‘Safety in numbers’ (Penguin Books).

The title poem is apt:

Safety in numbers?
Not any more.
The room starts to fill?
I’m out of the door.

A year ago, I was musing on the fact that I had only been off-Island twice since my return, two quick trips to our neighbouring provinces. Today, I have to confess that I have not been off-Island for the whole of this past year. The furthest I have ventured in the last twelve months have been Summerside and East Point, both of which are about 60 kilometres away.

That will change next week, though. I have had to book my car in for a service and oil-change, plus a dealer-recall fix, so that means a trip to Moncton. Two hours on the road, a passage over the bridge … into that terra incognito, where there be dragons. The car is going to be at the garage for about three hours, so I’m hoping that the nearby garden centre is open. Even if I don’t buy anything, it will be good to see a bit of normality in the world. Heaven knows we need it.

We are fast approaching the Ides of March, but I don’t think even Caesar would have seen one like this coming. In the past month, the eyes of the world have shifted from truck protests across Canada, and copied elsewhere, to the mass destruction of Ukraine. One only hopes that the attention-seeking antics of a few right-wing conspiracy theorists don’t draw inspiration from the crazed actions of a totalitarian megalomaniac. One can imagine the convoy leaders sitting around in their hot tub: “well, air horns and blocked streets didn’t work, let’s try some missiles and a tank convoy.”

The chaos of the convoy has been overshadowed by the events in Europe but should not be forgotten. The people who wanted the Governor General to dissolve the government and establish a ruling council of other parties, with their participation, are not simply misguided. They are driven by an ideology that resists and seeks to eradicate what they see as ‘liberal values’ – notions of multiculturalism, gender-equality, social justice, or anti-racism. They seek a falsely remembered ‘perfect world’ of the mid-20th century, when the Canada in which they lived was (mainly) white, well-paying jobs were available without the need for an expensive post-secondary education, and women stayed home to tend house and look after the kids.

Problematically, they are becoming increasingly militaristic in trying to achieve their goals. According to an article in The Globe and Mail newspaper, “26 Canadians have been killed and 40 injured by ideologically motivated people” since 2016. That is not a lot in absolute terms, but it is too many. As Canada prepares to welcome refugees from Mariupol and Kyiv, from Kherson and Chernihiv, the ethnocultural make-up of Canada will continue to evolve. The anger of those who see themselves as excluded from a socially responsive technological age will continue to grow as the demographics of the Canadian workplace change.

In the midst of this perfect storm of COVID, climate change, and conflict, both internal and external, let us not forget those who were our concern just seven months ago, the thousands of Afghans who were deserted when western forces left Kabul in disarray. They were to be prioritized for evacuation, our governments told us, and all resources would be brought to bear to facilitate their resettlement. Many of my colleagues are still there, still waiting. Their e-mails and phone calls to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) receive a generic “your file is in process” response, if the caller manages to get through at all. The Taliban are conducting house-to-house searches on a daily basis, upending people’s lives, looting and destroying personal property. Nearly 400 civilians have been killed in that period, and 7 million people in Afghanistan are facing famine. But now all our resources are being sent to help those trying to escape the slaughter in Ukraine.

The laser-sharp focus of IRCC is wobbly in the extreme. When I was part of a team working in the Balkans, specifically Kosovo, in the early 2000s, we were appalled when the Canadian emphasis (and funding) shifted mid-project to South Sudan. That was the area of focus for a while, then there was a shift to Syria, and then Afghanistan, and now Ukraine. What chaos will grasp the short-term attention span of our Ministerial advisors next? The hundreds perishing as they try to cross the Mediterranean or the English Channel? The people of Pacific Ocean islands rapidly being inundated by rising sea-levels? The hundreds of thousands fleeing extreme poverty and violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras? How can a government enact policy conceived in the crucible of reaction? Is there no plan?

This time last year I tried to refocus on the positives of our world. As we mark the second-year anniversary of the pandemic, I think its alright to repeat those reflections, although it is a sad state of affairs that I don’t have to actually change them, I can just cut and paste from 13 March 2021: “I hope that people continue to buy local, even when the big superstores get their supply lines straightened out. I hope that society invests time and money into resolving the staffing crisis at long-term residential care homes. I hope that musicians will be able to play live gigs again, and artists to have gallery openings. I hope some people will continue to work from home, and the number of daily commutes remains lower than it was a year ago. I hope that governments put as many resources into fighting climate change as they did into developing vaccines. I hope that Leeds United finish in the top six of the Premier League.”

I guess I do have to update that one: I hope that Leeds United don’t get relegated from the Premier League.

To the list, I must now add a couple that really should have been there last year, and a few new ones: I hope that there are no more bodies discovered in unmarked graves in the grounds of what used to be ‘Indian Residential Schools’; I hope that we manage to meet a few more, if not a whole lot more, of the Calls To Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; I hope that the war in Ukraine remains ‘conventional’ and that nuclear options are not selected; I hope that nobody accidentally (or on purpose) fires a missile into Poland or another NATO state; I hope that Pierre Poilievre doesn’t win the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada; I hope that China does not enter into a military support pact with Russia; I hope that China does not try to ‘liberate’ Taiwan; I hope that the refugees of the world, whether fleeing from conflict-, climate-, economic- or other catastrophe, are greeted humanely and with compassion by those of us who are living in more settled environments. Really, most of them just want to go home – as will we, once the unthinkable happens to turn our lives upside down. Because make no mistake, our time will come.

I was reminded of McGough’s work by a friend now living in Perth, Western Australia, who sent me this poem, written in the mid-1960s, post-Cuban missile crisis. Huge shout out of thanks to Simon Clarke for sharing.

I think about dying.
About disease, starvation,
violence, terrorism, war,
the end of the world.
It helps
keep my mind off things.


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