Thoughts from the river

Elizabeth May
Water was not just splashing; it was being shoveled into my lap as a team of keen, and somewhat inexperienced paddlers set out to conquer the event called the "dragon boat race". The Race on the River Event this weekend in New Glasgow raises funds for the Canadian Cancer Society locally, as well as for Special Olympics, Prostate cancer and other good causes. I was signing a friend’s pledge sheet when she asked if I wanted to join the team, which was short a paddler or two So, that’s how Victoria Cate and I ended up paddling on Saturday as part of the Bank of Montreal Paddling Pirates team! Yesterday afternoon was our practice run. We actually got pretty darn good. Mike, stood at the rear of the boat, controlling the tiller, and calling out the strokes, teaching us simple commands. Only Mike could steer; the rest of us tried to paddle in something approaching perfect unison. I always love the shift in perspective that comes from seeing a familiar place from the river instead of the road. The first time I paddled the Margaree River, after years of living on its banks, was a revelation. The same with taking a river tour, my dad’s idea and a gift for his 80th birthday, from Quebec City to Kingston. There are still parts of the St. Lawrence where you can imagine it as unchanged from when Jacques Cartier first saw it. Yesterday, paddling on the East River, suddenly the stretch between banks seemed wider, the hillsides gentler and the homes with river frontage the very fortunate! New Glasgow seemed greener. As I took my deep, reaching strokes, my thoughts turned to Rideau Hall, wondering what portfolio Peter MacKay would receive. I had spent much of the day doing radio interviews about the Cabinet shuffle rumours. Reporters needed people to speculate, a practice I characterized as a "mug’s game" before suggesting a thought or two. Turned out the speculation wasn’t far wrong. No really dramatic change, such as moving Flaherty. Shifting Peter MacKay to Defence could be a smart move for Stephen Harper. Peter is better on his feet than the average Harper Cabinet member. His relative hierarchy in cabinet is slightly downgraded, but nothing like the tumble of General O’Connor whose demotion to National Revenue is just short of being pitched out of Cabinet altogether. The best political analysis on the issue likely came from the out of work Trenton Works steelworker with whom I was sharing a table at the local (great) pub, The Dock, last evening. He figures it is all about getting defense contracts for Trenton Works. Peter MacKay is quoted in today’s paper talking about "the big announcements that have benefited the region, such as the $3 billion frigate program and there will be more." My friend from Trenton Works said he wouldn’t want to work as part of a war machine. I want to see the men at Trenton Works, a plant that used to employ 1200 men building rail cars, back at work. Short term work refurbishing tanks would provide some respite, but would not constitute the kind of investment in sustainable long-term employment that rebuilding our national rail system could. Defence as a portfolio is ultimately only peripherally about local economic development. It is about life and death choices. It is about the issues of war and peace. It is about Canada leading the world by example, as we did in the Suez Crisis, when Lester Pearson won a Nobel Prize, or more recently in the Land Mines Treaty, when Canada pushed ahead without U.S. support. War is an unacceptable way to build an economy. Former U.S. President Eisenhower warned Americans against the new "military industrial complex" in his farewell address. Eisenhower, himself a former general, saw that the creation of a permanent dependency on arms and military preparations contained enormous risks: "Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions." We must not allow the promise of short term economic benefit to lure us away from our role as makers of plowshares. When we need to beat them into swords, we must. But no one should forget that making and selling instruments of death is not without risk to those who use them and those who make them. I will cheer a Peter MacKay who makes banning nuclear weapons his top priority. Canada should go to our NATO allies and urge that NATO embrace nuclear disarmament. The arguments have all been made. The peoples of the world want to see the end of nuclear weapons. Canada should take the lead. Will Stephen Harper actually let any of his ministers set a new course? Or are his Cabinet members like those of us in the dragon boat? We all paddle hard, but only the man calling the strokes is allowed to steer.