Friday, December 18, 2015

Saying Farewell to "Farewell"

Soon, Halifax will be losing yet another bright young star.

Allison Sparling, my friend since high school and one of the most committed people to life in this city and province I have ever met, is leaving for Toronto. Like it did for so many others, Toronto offered her a better opportunity and a chance to finally put down roots.

But she leaves with a very heavy heart. If you have not already seen it, you should read her emotional goodbye to Halifax here.

I have lived in Halifax my whole life, and I have experienced a great many of these goodbyes. Each time someone leaves, there are generally two unspoken reactions that I see among those left behind. The first is self-deprecating, and suggests a provincial inferiority complex: "Well, of course she left. She's going on to bigger and better things." But the second is insidious: we pretend that it was fundamentally their choice to leave, and there was nothing we could have done to change their mind.

Allison's story is clear proof that all too often, people don't have a choice. She fought hard to cobble together a life here. In the end, she couldn't manage it. And you can accuse Allison Sparling of a lot of things, but accusing her of not trying hard enough is as wrong as accusing the ocean of being insufficiently wet.
People should always have the choice to stay, but they don't. Worse yet, we accept that.

Stephen Harper once infamously said that the Maritimes have a culture of defeat. He was wrong, but not for the reasons most people claimed. We don't have a culture of defeat; we have a culture of farewells.

"Farewell" is in the blood of Nova Scotia. Even in our most prosperous times, our economy was built on ships and trade – things that necessarily took people out of the province and sometimes never brought them back. For Halifax in particular, as a navy town, our identity was forged in sending young people away to Europe over the course of two World Wars.

When new people actually came, we didn't get our hopes up. If Pier 21 was the gateway to Canada, Nova Scotia was the foyer; somewhere to get dried off before proceeding to another room. But because we had already seen so many others leave, we accepted that this was the natural order of things.

Even our unofficial provincial song is called "Farewell to Nova Scotia". Few people seem to question how fatalistic this is. Imagine a country with a national anthem that expresses the sentiment, "I wish I could stay, but I have to go." In our own national anthem, we promise to stand on guard for Canada. In our provincial equivalent, we merely hope that Nova Scotia is still in one piece when we get back.

Perhaps this is why we are so averse to change. We think about all those who have left and want to make sure that when they finally come back, Halifax and Nova Scotia are still just like they remember them. To change is to betray them, to fail to "heave a sigh and a wish" for them.

We think so much about people coming back that we forget to think about why people might actually stay.


My own relationship with this province is one born out of happenstance. Although my mother grew up in Cape Breton, my father is from Germany, and even bypassed Pier 21 entirely to land instead in Ontario. They met in London, Ontario, and moved to a variety of places across the country, but never back to Nova Scotia. That only changed when, after my dad's unsuccessful stint as an entrepreneur in Fernie, British Columbia, my mother convinced him to move back east. I was born barely a year later.

I did very well in high school, so I had the opportunity to go to university virtually anywhere I wanted. For some reason, I chose to stay in Halifax – I don't entirely recall why – but I still entertained ideas of going elsewhere. Ottawa was a beautiful city with unparalleled political action; Montreal would give me the chance to be immersed in the French language and francophone culture; Vancouver offered the vision of another harbour city with seemingly infinitely more opportunities (and big-name concerts).

In my second year of undergrad, I applied for the Parliamentary tour guide program. I craved the opportunity to live in Ottawa for the summer and perhaps make connections there, even though I knew I would miss home. I made it through the initial round of interviews, but ultimately failed the telephone-based French proficiency test by a fairly slim margin. For the first time, I was stuck here against my will. I made the best of the situation, though I retained a lingering wanderlust.

My mind began to change a year later, when I became a page at the Nova Scotia Legislature. At the time, I only really paid attention to federal politics. They were flashier, more exciting, and dealt with "bigger" issues. Although I had gotten involved in the campaign that brought the NDP to power in 2009, I imagined provincial debates as little more than glorified municipal council meetings, a pale shadow of the House of Commons.

Being a page showed me how wrong I was. Thanks to our unique constitutional system, provincial legislatures are where most of the big decisions that affect people every day get made. Health care, education, transportation, and even municipalities themselves all fall under the jurisdiction not of the House of Commons in Ottawa, but of the House of Assembly in Halifax.

However, seeing Nova Scotia politics up-close also forced me to confront some troubling things about this province. I saw big, exciting ideas get attacked as being too ambitious, and therefore dangerous. I saw politicians of every stripe accept the grave challenges we face, but offer no solutions beyond empty platitudes. This happens seemingly everywhere, but particularly in Nova Scotia, it is emblematic of more than just the shortcomings of the Westminster parliamentary system. 

Within a year, I had also landed my dream job from two years before, with a twist: I was now a legislative tour guide, but in Halifax rather than Ottawa. Rather than the seemingly endless crowds touring Parliament Hill, I was responsible for the handful of tourists, business travellers, and cruise ship passengers who happened to see the "free tours" sign in front of the old sandstone building dwarfed by the office towers around it.

What struck me the most about giving tours at Province House (and Government House) was the number of locals who wandered in without even knowing it was there, or even if they did, not knowing what it was. It seems that all too often, even the people who stay are hesitant to get too invested in the city and the province, lest they be the next to be forced to leave.

That was when I had my epiphany. Ever since I was small, my main goal in life has always been to help people. I like finding ways to make other people's lives better, even if it is in small ways. And like so many others, I thought I had to go somewhere like Ottawa to do that.

What I realized is that in a smaller place, each person's impact is proportionally larger. In Truro and Lunenburg and Yarmouth and Sydney and even in Halifax, one person can change the entire town and create ripples from one end of the province to the other. In a place with so many people who accept leaving as an inevitable fact of life, the simple act of deciding to stay is profound.

That realization killed any desire I had left to bid my own farewell to Nova Scotia. As I let go of my previous ambitions, I found new ones, and I felt myself falling in love with this place more and more. By the time I was applying for law school, I had begun to shape my life and career plans around a question that is far too often a stumper: "How do I make sure I can stay in Nova Scotia?"


Halifax has the potential to be one of the most exciting cities on the continent. We are the largest population centre in an entire region of four interconnected provinces, and yet we are still small enough to retain a small-town culture. We have such a massive surplus of universities and colleges that we have to pull people in from elsewhere just to fill the rooms. We stand at a crossroads of history and modernity, of big and small. We are just the right size for one person to make a huge difference.

Which brings me back to Allison Sparling.

I will be perfectly frank. One of my biggest personal failings is my tendency to live inside my own head. Although I am no longer in university, I am still an academic at heart, delighting in ideas and concepts yet all too frequently failing to translate them into actions.

Allison Sparling, more than almost anyone else I've ever met, knows action. When she finds something that needs to be fixed, she puts everything she has into it. She makes sure the world knows what she thinks, not because of crass self-promotion, but because her actions speak louder than any words ever could.

She has always been this way. When we were in high school, Allison took up the cause of raising awareness of the genocide in Darfur. She and Erika Schneidereit (another person I was very sad to see go several years ago) founded and led one of the school's most vocal social justice groups, which went on to stage a wildly successful march that extended from the Halifax Shopping Centre to Grand Parade. I merely helped out here and there.

When it came time to introduce our special guests, who included both federal and provincial elected representatives, the megaphone was handed to me for some reason. Maybe my voice was louder. But without Allison's (and Erika's) actions, my voice would have been very quiet indeed.

Allison Sparling loves this city the same way I love it. In the end, the only difference between us is that I was lucky enough to have ambitions in a profession that offered more opportunities to stay in Halifax. It is a cruel irony that the one with the actions loud enough to make Halifax better was forced to leave while the wistful academic got to stay.

And therefore, I end this post with a challenge. A challenge to myself, and to everyone else who is still lucky enough to call this city home. Figure out some way you think you can improve life in Halifax, and act on it. Go to a public meeting on some municipal issue you care about. Do some Christmas shopping at a locally owned business. Introduce yourself to a neighbour. Take a walk through an area you haven't explored yet, and maybe take a photo or two while you're there. Anything that you feel would make this city a better place.

This city and this province are not just a stepping stone on the way to something bigger. Watching our friends and loved ones leave is not an inevitable fact of life. Things can and will change if we all embrace and become part of that change.

Halifax may be losing a bright star, but we still have 400,000 more that have the potential to shine just as brightly. We owe it to ourselves to turn this city into a galaxy.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Iron Man 3: In Defence of the Blockbuster

Image source: Marvel.

You might call me a fan of Robert Downey, Jr. I have not watched the TV series Sherlock because I cannot fathom Benedict Cumberbatch's performance rivalling Downey's in his own Sherlock Holmes movies. In fact, I fully believe that almost any movie could be improved by the inclusion of Downey. Star Wars? Sorry, Harrison Ford. Casino Royale? Get him playing both James Bond and Felix Leiter, and then we can talk. Maybe cast him as Le Chiffre too. Mean Girls? Put a wig on Downey and call him Lindsay Lohan if you have to.

My unhealthy levels of fanboyism aside, I still like to believe I can critically assess a movie despite the Downey factor. When I went to the advance screening of Iron Man 3 Thursday night, I expected Downey's performance to be entertaining, because I don't think he's been physically capable of anything else since at least 2007. But I also braced myself for the idea that the rest of the movie might not quite live up to its predecessors, not to mention The Avengers. I also knew that the movie was inspired by the Extremis storyline from the comics, which was a good arc, but certainly not my favourite. (I'm still waiting for some studio to greenlight a Superior Spider-Man movie.)

Thankfully, I was entirely wrong to doubt the movie, and completely blown away as a result. Of course, however, not everyone felt this way. One negative review that particularly caught my attention was that of Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. Dargis approaches the review from a perspective very different from that of, say, the late Roger Ebert. Rather than giving advice on whether or not the average viewer might enjoy the movie, she uses it as a springboard to launch a scholarly critique of Hollywood's entire contemporary approach to the War on Terror. I wish to respond to her criticisms of Iron Man 3, and perhaps even defend the Hollywood blockbuster as an art form in the process.

But first: If you have not already seen the movie, go see it right now. Don't wait a single minute more. And certainly do not read the rest of this post, because from here on out, spoilers will be legion.