Monthly Archives: August 2016

My Companion

So this week I’m going to write about my oldest, constant companion. It is both a wonderful gift and, at times, a trial, but even in the moments when it drives me crazy I also know I wouldn’t change it if I could. This companion of mine, always with me even in moments when it might be best if it wasn’t, is my imagination.

(This is going to be one of those kind of weird mind-rambly entries, so buckle up and/or bail out)

I have always – or at least, as long as I can remember – had a very active imagination. I’m not sure whether a good imagination is something one is born with, or learns to have, although I do know some people don’t have them. I grew up in a house with a very good example of that: my father has basically no imagination. (I write this secure in the confidence that he will never read this blog.) My dad never reads fiction because he can’t get past the part where the people don’t exist and the events never happened. I guess he just doesn’t see why he should spend any time on things that aren’t real. (Which is, to be completely fair, a solidly practical point of view on things) Even though he is deeply, deeply fascinated by World War Two, my mother failed to get him interested in a historical novel about a fictional WWII fighter squadron, because again: not real. Even though you could hardly have tailored a book more specifically to my father’s particular interests, I don’t believe he ever finished it. (I did. It was ok.) (I will read almost any book that isn’t actually on fire)

So I know some people don’t have much of an imagination, and therefore (I assume) not much of an imaginary life. I don’t know exactly where mine came from, whether through the genetic slot machine or learned behaviour – my mother always encouraged me to read and was immensely tolerant of imaginary games that routinely took over big parts of the house – but I have it now and again, for the most part, I regard it as a tremendous gift that I cherish.

I guess it isn’t a huge surprise that a fiction writer has a good imagination, and of course that’s where all the strange things I scribble down come from. A lot of times (as I think I’ve discussed in previous blogs) some fragment of the real world gets plucked up (for whatever reason) by my consciousness and dipped into my imagination before becoming part of a story. But obviously, it all comes from there or through there and as I love to write and increasingly love to share my stories with other people my imagination something I simply could not do without.

It has also given me a wonderful escape from the world and my problems throughout my life. It’s easy for me to wander off into a place that doesn’t exist and explore that for a while when the planet is too stressful or too disappointing or too thoroughly awful to deal with for a while. It’s a great coping mechanism and also just vastly entertaining; growing up I had space explorations and dinosaur Olympics and scientific expeditions and much more all without needing to go anywhere at all. It has let me go places and do things that I’m pretty confident no-one else ever has.

I think in some ways having a good imagination made me reasonably self-sufficient, because I’m very good at keeping myself amused and keeping myself company, or at least conjuring up imaginary people to keep me company. That’s also been a great gift, at times. I also wonder whether being able to spend so much time engaged with my own imaginings, and therefore not needing to interact with actual real people as much, helped make me into the rather shy person I am today. Probably the two things reinforce each other.

There are times when my imagination is not helpful. It has made me an elite world-class worrier. I can think of roughly 1000 worst-case scenarios for any situation or any decision, and experience them in gruesome detail. I can usually think of very, very many possible outcomes to any course of action I might want to take, which is sometimes good, but sometimes also leads to ‘analysis paralysis’ as I pause and consider all the various ways (some not good) that something might work out before doing it. There are times in my life where I know my imagination, and the many maybe-future roads it let me see, led me to wait and wait and wait before doing something, because I wasn’t sure how it would work out, and then the moment to do it was gone and will never come back.

It’s at times like these, or when I am lying awake in the night considering the 437th way that That Thing I Said will lead, inexorably, to my demise, that I can get very frustrated with my imagination, and wish it had an ‘off’ switch or at least a volume button. I have, in these moments, even tried negotiating with my imagination (look, can you cool it for a few hours so I can Get Things Done and then we’ll get right into it) but it is, I am sure, an inherently irrational thing and so they never work out.

In the end, though, if forced to choose I know I wouldn’t change it, at all. My imagination has been my companion for as long as I can remember, and it has made my life an endless amazing, fabulous, and deeply odd place. I’m grateful in many different ways for that, and can only hope it continues on for all the years ahead.

However many there are.

(Don’t start, you.)

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

—–

In case you have somehow failed to notice the approximately 500 times I have announced this already, here is the cover for my upcoming novel, Bonhomme Sept-Heures.  There’s a blurb for it over in the ‘Books’ section of the blog as well if you’d like to give that a read.

I’m very excited about it and to have the book ready for you to read later in the fall.

bonhomme kindle cover

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Cover Reveal: Bonhomme Sept-Heures

I’m very excited to be able to reveal the cover for my next novel, Bonhomme Sept-Heures.  I think Renaissance Press has done another amazing job and I really love the look of this cover – I hope you like it as well.

bonhomme real final cover(1).jpg

The book should be ready to share with you later in the fall.  I’m looking forward to that very much.

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Farewell to The Hip

I had what I was going to write about this week all planned out and mostly written in my head. Then I watched the Tragically Hip’s farewell concert last night and even though I already wrote about Gord Downie a while ago, I’m gonna do it again this time too. I wrote some of these thoughts on Twitter, but as my long-suffering editors will know, my natural tendency is to write a *lot*, so getting things down to 140 characters is basically agonizing for me. This is my chance to do things more my way. (Sorry?)

It was, first of all, an amazing national moment. Obviously there are lots of people in Canada who aren’t fans of the Tragically Hip, but a big chunk of the country (I am now informed it was around a third of the nation’s TV sets) was gathered around watching one last show from a band they love Saturday night, which is a pretty amazing thing to think about. It was also very cool that most of the country (you needed a TV or an internet connection) could be a part of it, more or less free (see above) and without commercials. As lots of people pointed out, that’s why it’s good to have a public broadcaster. Thanks to the CBC.

It was the last time we’ll see the Tragically Hip perform. I wrote in my other Downie-inspired column that the Hip have been the soundtrack for big important chunks of my life, which has been wonderful and is a wonder to look back on. The band has been a great gift to me at times; perhaps most of all when I spent a year studying in England and Music@Work was my little piece of Canada that I could turn on whenever I needed to. And now they’re done. I’m too old to think about my youth ending (that happened, quietly, some time ago) but something has ended now that the Hip have finished their last tour. I got to see them live three times, I wish it had been more, and I’m grateful to have had the luxury.

Any band, and any artist, performing live is always a treat because you get to see an ongoing act of creation. I think artists never look more alive that when they are creating their art, and a concert is a chance to sit (and/or stand) and watch that go on. Downie is a special joy to watch because he loves to perform as much as he sings. He dances and fights with the mic stand and generally makes the stage his own. I have a tremendous respect and (as someone who constantly second-guesses whether I should say a thing or do a thing, until the moment has passed forever) envy for his confidence and his joy in performance that let him do whatever the hell he feels in a particular moment. It’s tremendous fun to watch.

I also loved that the Hip took a couple moments to share a message that is obviously important to them. Some people complained about ‘getting political’, (and it is jarring if you discover someone you doesn’t share your views on something) but I figure when you’ve reached the point where the attention is on you nation-wide, and this is your last moment in the spotlight, you’ve earned the right to say what you want to say. Downie chose to say something pretty powerful, too, calling out the Prime Minister and the nation as a whole to make things better for the First Nations communities that have been marginalized and ignored and kept in horrible conditions for far too long. As causes to give a signal boost too, that’s a pretty awesome one, and I thought it was great that the Hip used their moment to do that. (After I wrote this, a First Nations writer and artist I admire a lot, Jay Odjick, pointed out that Downie’s statement is really only a beginning and the next step is to listen to First Nations people about why things are bad for them and the solutions they need. I think it’s a great point and maybe having someone like Downie draw attention to things will put more people in a position where they’re willing to listen. I hope so. You can check out Jay’s comments starting here.)

I also thought it was great what an essentially optimistic conclusion Downie left about it. “You’re gonna figure it out.” Their songs have always showed a great love for their country, and I think Downie showed it again there, believing that this is a problem that will be solved. Now it’s up to us to prove him right, for all kinds of reasons. Among them now is that these artists who we chose to make into our voice expect it of us. I thought it was a very Canadian way of talking about this problem they care about. There was another nice moment later when Downie talked about the band’s beginnings and said, “Our idea was just that everyone’s invited.” If we ever want to change the motto on the Canadian coat of arms, we could do a lot worse than ‘Everyone’s Invited’. Now let’s make it true, every day.

Not long ago someone asked me which one of the characters from King in Darkness was ‘me’; that actually comes up reasonably often. (For some reason a lot of people assume I’m the grumpy professor) As always my answer is ‘none of them, and all of them’ because none of the characters are self-inserts, but every character I write has a piece of me in there somewhere. (Yes, even the bad ones) I doubt I’m unique in that, and watching Downie on the stage I can’t help but feel the same is true for him and his songs, the emotion and life that’s in the performance can’t mean anything else. He had a teleprompter on stage last night, apparently because one of the effects of his cancer is that his memory fails him sometimes. The idea of Gord Downie forgetting the wonderful words to his own songs is intensely sad. Fortunately he rarely seemed to glance at it last night. I’m very glad he got to do all the shows of this farewell tour more or less on his terms.

While there were a few moments where a little frailty peeked through – and honestly, the sight of his bandmates supporting him as he went down the steps off the stage was more touching than anything else – on the whole he gave a vibrant, powerful performance that went far beyond what I think anyone would have expected from someone dying of brain cancer. He stood up there and lived the idea of ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’, and I admire the heck out of it. I imagine it helps him to do what he loves, but it was also a huge, courageous gift to his fans that I will always appreciate.

Downie always looks so very full of life when he performs, and full of the love of doing what he does. It seems impossible that he won’t be that way forever. He will be in our dreams, and I think all the Hip’s fans are profoundly grateful that he gave us one last glorious goodbye at a time when no-one would have blamed him, or them, for wanting to just worry about himself. I like to think it was good for Gord as well and I hope maybe they can draw some strength from all the emotion their farewell tour generated across the nation.

To reiterate a thought I tried to cram into 140 characters on Twitter: Downie’s talent for making words do cool, unexpected and memorable things is spectacular. In another age he would have been a poet who wrote for kings. His words would have been the ones furiously and meticulously copied with quill pens for audiences desperate to read and hear them. I’m so glad we got him in ours. Thanks for the words, Gord. I’ll treasure them.

All right that’s it – I got a little of what I was originally going to write about in there and hopefully there was some of it you enjoyed. If you want to kick some support towards the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer research, it’s a great cause and you can do so here.

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On Barb, and Hugh

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you will have seen me gush about the Netflix series Stranger Things, which is one of my favourite things on TV (or whatever we’re calling it when stuff ‘airs’ on Netflix) in a very long while. Stranger Things is a wonderful, creative piece of SFF and I hope there’s more in its vein to come. If you poke around on social media you’ll see lots of people having passionate reactions to the show and its characters, and there’s one in particular that has stuck out at me and that I wanted to write about today.

[[ IMPORTANT NOTE: The rest of this entry contains spoilers for some parts of Stranger Things, so if you are the sort of person who is bothered by spoilers as well as not having seen the show yet, stop reading now and I’ll see you next week, or after you’ve watched the series. By the way, if you read this blog and you haven’t seen Stranger Things yet, I heartily recommend going and doing so. It’s very good. ]]

And we’re back.

Fans of the show have reacted very strongly to the performances of Winona Ryder (who I thought was very good), David Harbour (who I also thought was great), and both the character of Eleven and the actor who portrays her, Millie Bobbie Brown (who is amazing). None of that surprises me, but there is also a reasonably vocal discussion centring around a character that does surprise me a little: Nancy’s friend Barb.

Barb is pulled into the Upside Down by the monster towards the end of episode 2, and unlike Will Byers is unable to survive long enough to get rescued (she’s somewhat disadvantaged by starting off in an Upside Down echo of an empty pool), apparently dying in episode 3 with her fate confirmed by Eleven in episode 7. Although Nancy is deeply worried about her friend, we don’t see the same reaction to Barb’s disappearance as there was for Will Byers, and I think this is part of what has led to people being upset or unsatisfied with how the story treats her.

(It is true that there is some narrative justification for this; the Shadowy Government Lab fabricates a story that Barb has run away rather than mysteriously disappeared as Will did, with only Nancy and Hopper being aware of the truth for most of the series. It is still probably a fair point that we don’t then see a lot of concern about Barb having ‘run away’, although it’s also fair to say the relatively tight schedule the show is on didn’t leave it a lot of room to show this.)

In any case if you poke around online you’ll find a lot of affection for Barb’s character, as well as dissatisfaction (some perhaps tongue in cheek) with her story, that we didn’t get more of it, and that she doesn’t get the (relatively) happy ending that Will Byers did. Part of what’s going on is that the Duffer Brothers created a character that was interesting and engaging enough that a lot of their audience bought in to her during episodes 1 and 2, so that they wanted more of her story and perhaps a different ending to it. From a writer’s perspective, getting the audience hooked into a character who is going to be a victim is exactly what you want – you want that loss or death to hit home and not get shrugged off. The dissatisfaction, though, isn’t what you want, and the two things are shades-of-meaning apart.

I had a slightly similar experience with my own writing, during the editing process for King in Darkness. There’s one character, Hugh, who I called into being solely for one specific scene. (Yeah, I’m restricting the spoilers of my own story. It’s my blog and I’ll be inconsistent if I want to.) You meet him slightly earlier to establish that he exists, then he does his scene and (I thought) he disappears unproblematically from the stage thereafter. I didn’t, to be honest, expect that anyone would get particularly interested in or attached to Hugh (sorry, imaginary person) and that he’d basically vanish into Stage Left, his purpose served, and no-one would mind one way or the other. (really sorry, imaginary person)

Didn’t work out that way. All of the editors for King in Darkness gave me notes to the effect of ‘need closure about Hugh’, ‘what happens to Hugh?’, ‘we need to see how things work out with Hugh’. Basically as soon as more than one editor calls for something, I figure it Must Be Done, and so I wrote a new scene that ties up Hugh’s part of the story a little more completely for the final draft of the book. I think it made the story better in the end and I feel like I have now done better by one of my imaginary people.

The more important part of the process, though, was realizing that people might latch on to characters that I didn’t expect them to, and didn’t intend them to. I’m still not sure exactly what it was that made people want to know how things worked out for Hugh in King in Darkness (I kind of wish I did, so that I could sprinkle that magic on future imaginary people) but obviously there was just enough there to get the people who read the manuscript to get bought into him, and his story, enough to want there to be more of it than I originally planned to give.

I suspect (and of course, it’s just a guess) that this is what has happened with Barb in Stranger Things. She’s not written as a major character, she appears to have been created as a way to get Nancy actively engaged in trying to solve the mystery of what is going on in Hawkins, and probably also to indicate to the audience in an impactful way that the monster that took Will is an ongoing threat. Lots of stories, horror stories and others, have these ‘victim’ characters in them that serve this kind of narrative purpose, as well as providing a moment of terror or pity when they meet their doom.

However, Barb’s fate, and the reaction of the world of Stranger Things to it, does touch on wider issues of female characters in fiction, and in SF/horror in particular, where they have all to often simply been used as recipients of violence and/or motivators for male characters. I believe I’ve touched on the Women in Refrigerators issue before, and people have made the argument that Barb fits into this pattern as well (despite not being a superhero, although the concept has I think been broadened to think about how female characters get treated in SFF in general). Looking at things from a plot perspective, the main thing Barb’s character does is to be a second (well, third) victim for the monster and thus provide Nancy (who is a main character) her motivation to get involved in trying to figure out what is happening in town, thus hooking her into the main stream of events leading up to the climax.  This does tick some problematic boxes, ‘female character as victim/motivator’ in particular.

It’s also true that Barb is not used to motivate a male character – in fact part of the issue people have with what happened to Barb is that some of our male characters don’t seem to particularly react to what happens to her. Her disappearance is a motivating factor for another female character, one who does not settle into a passive role and becomes an active part of driving the plot forward. I would argue that’s an important distinction. (I also think that although Hopper doesn’t really seem to react much to what happens to Barb, he’s already pretty fully engaged in trying to figure out what’s going on in Hawkins by the point, and Will’s disappearance probably has more personal impact for him because Will is closer in age to his deceased daughter) I don’t think the intention of pointing out the Women in Refrigerators issue was to say, either, that you can’t ever have a female character who is a victim in a story, just that it can be a lazy plot device and that it seemed to happen to female characters in comics disproportionately. For what it’s worth I think Barb’s role in the plot is both important and handled with relative care (we don’t see a lot of fallout from her disappearance, but it’s more than Benny gets!). I think, overall, Stranger Things presented some really strong and interesting female characters and so, overall, I think the Duffers deserve far more praise than criticism here.

I also wonder if, since Barb is not one of the ‘cool kids,’ and appears to fit kind of awkwardly into her social world, that since SFF tends to attract a reasonable proportion of the socially awkward, shy and introverted to its audience (definitely include me in that number), that audience saw ‘themselves’ in her a little bit, and that’s part of why her fate has attracted as much discussion as it has. Barb is kind of like many of us in the audience, so we want to root for her a bit and are extra disappointed when things end badly for her. Which gets us back to the idea of the audience getting attached to characters you maybe didn’t expect them to, as a writer. In the end, to me, it’s a really cool feeling when someone reads my stuff and feels a connection to it. One of my favourite things in the time that King in Darkness has been out has been hearing from people who read it and dug one or more of the characters; sometimes ones I expected people to like and sometimes ones I didn’t.

I think it’s a great gift as a writer to have your characters end up having an impact on people and mattering to them; it’s very hard to think of a better compliment from a reader. (Aside, perhaps, from ‘please write more’) I hope that’s how the Duffer Brothers are taking the reaction to Barb in Stranger Things. They created a whole cast of characters that their audience really bought into, and left many of them wanting a little more about one of them. I hope they continue to give us the same rich selection of imaginary people in their next project.

And perhaps I’ll write a little more of Hugh’s story one day.

Thanks for reading.

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Me vs. The Speckled Band

As part of working (slowly) on the Easter Pinkerton project I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I have been re-reading some Sherlock Holmes stories (a thing I tend to do anyway) and a night or two ago I got to ‘The Speckled Band’. I am told that Conan Doyle considered it the best of his Holmes tales, and while I don’t agree with this (something Sir Arthur and I can no doubt debate when I reach the great Writers’ Hereafter) it is a good un.

There is an issue, though. (This next bit is arguably spoiler-y but I think the Holmes stories are old enough that I don’t care) At the climax of the story, Holmes discovers that the murder weapon in this particular case is a swamp adder, ‘the deadliest snake in India’, as our hero describes it, that has climbed down a bell-rope into the bed of its victims. Which is pretty cool.

The problem is that there isn’t actually a snake called a ‘swamp adder’ in India or any place else, nor indeed a snake that looks all that much like the one Conan Doyle describes. Herpetologists and Holmes fans have wrestled with this problem and come up with a few snakey options for what the creature might actually be, but there’s a larger issue yet. Apparently snakes can’t climb ropes. (I didn’t know that either!) Thus, the whole premise of Conan Doyle’s story is impossible. Despite this, ‘Speckled Band’ was his favorite (I assume he didn’t know it was impossible) and despite the problems with the made-up snake and the made-up snake behaviour (the snake is also trained to respond to a whistle, which is also a problem because snakes are, apparently, deaf) people have been reading ‘Speckled Band’ for over a century, and it is routinely mentioned as a favourite.

Presumably at least some of that is the readership not knowing about swamp adders and snakes, and thus not knowing where Conan Doyle has gone wrong. However, I still enjoy it very much even knowing the issues with it, because Conan Doyle was right and it is a very good story. The central mystery is good, we get some opportunities for Holmes to show his deductive brilliance, as well as the somewhat rarer example of Holmes being (temporarily) mistaken. The atmosphere and tension of the climactic scene is very well done. In other words, the thing works, if you can put aside or cheerfully ignore all the snake-related issues.

This gets me to wondering (probably in part because I’m writing a story that will be set in the Victorian period, a period I am not expert on) whether we get too hung up on factual precision, getting every fact and word exactly correct, when we create. The example of ‘Speckled Band’, along with very many others, suggests that if you’ve got a good story, your audience will follow you, even if there are cases where you have an, ah, elastic relationship with the truth.

If you have a good story, I wonder if it might not be better to just write the thing and worry less about the facts. I know an overriding concern with accuracy can kill creativity. I think I wrote here a long while ago about a story of mine I wrote for a creative writing class with an opening scene that I set in Vladivostok, purely because it sounded like a suitably William Gibson-y place to stick a cyberpunk-ish story. My teacher pointed out (probably accurately!) that Vladivostok looked nothing like that. The story, which was meant to be the first piece of a novel, never recovered and I hardly did a thing to it or with it after that, because I couldn’t let the Vladivostok thing go. In this case, I don’t think the world lost a great story (I’ve written elsewhere about why my phase of trying to write cyberpunk was irredeemably bad) but the point I’m thinking about at the moment is that from a creative point of view, it probably would have been better to cheerfully ignore the whole issue with Vladivostok and just write the story. If it was a good story (it was not a good story), most readers would have cheerfully ignored it right along with me and enjoyed the narrative they were being given.

There is probably a minimum standard here somewhere, some tipping point past which even a well-written story gets dumped down from ‘enjoyable’ and ‘entertaining’ into ‘unbelievable, and in a bad way’. Some things do (to judge from internet reactions) seem to get particular subsets of readers particularly energized – getting facts wrong with guns seems as though it will get a reasonably large number of people excited, and computer-y people routinely point out all the problems with any kind of scene involving the internet and hacking. I freely confess to being scolded for ‘ruining’ the Clive Owen King Arthur movie by objecting to its problems with the truth throughout the film. (I still maintain that movie was pretty much self-ruining, though) If you get certain parts of your story wrong, people will notice, and it may bother them enough that they either give up on your story, or switch focus to finding all the other mistakes you’ve made, and then (often) pointing them out, a task which the internet certainly assists.

Part of this is (I think) that we love to point out our own knowledge. Part of this, though, is that places where a story strays from the factually possible is kind of a challenge to the reader: how ‘in’ are you, with this story? Are you bought in enough to stay with me through this, er, creative interpretation of the truth? You can, I think, only challenge your audience in this way so many times, or to a certain degree of severity, before the answer becomes: ‘nah, I’m out’.

I’m not sure if this is some precise calculation that a writer needs to constantly make, or (as I suspect) that this is one of those intuitive processes where you have to decide how essential certain facts may be to your story and to what extent they can – or in some cases must – be fudged in favour of your story. I am sure that in the end, if you have a good story, you probably have an audience that will follow it despite any factual blips that may be in there. If you have an immaculately researched, factually unassailable piece of work that isn’t a good story, all the research doesn’t matter because people won’t want to read it. I guess the more I think about this issue, and how to budget my time and energy as I work on this current project, the more I think I need to spend it on creating rather than on graduate-level research into the Victorians. I gotta have a good story before I need anything else. If I have one, I think my readers will forgive me for any swamp adders.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week.

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Abdirahman Abdi

Ok, so I have said several times in the past that this is a writing blog and that’s what it is going to stay, and that I know (or think I know) that those of you who read this don’t come here for my ideas on politics or morals or whatever else. However, last week something happened in my home city that I feel very strongly about, and after Orlando I also wrote here that I was going to try not to stay safely silent on such issues any longer, and so here we are. I’m going to write about an issue I think is an important one today, and if you absolutely don’t want to read it I both respect your choice and promise that I’ll be back to writing about the odd things my brain does next week.

The thing is that the police killed a man in Ottawa last week. That seems like an overly dramatic phrase but it is the unvarnished truth. They came to arrest him, most accounts agree that he tried to escape, and most accounts also agree that he was punched, pepper sprayed, and beaten with a baton. It’s not clear exactly when he died, although some reports – which I have not seen directly contradicted – say that he was dead 45 minutes before he got to hospital. The man’s name was Abdirahman Abdi. He did not have a weapon.

We are told, by various authorities, that we must all keep our thinking relevant to this matter on pause until the Special Investigations Unit is done investigating and releases its conclusions. However, as Desmond Cole pointed out in the Citizen yesterday, although we do need to wait for the wheels to turn on any legal consequences, it is ridiculous to say that we shouldn’t think anything yet, and cannot yet say that anything is wrong. Among other things, as we are frequently reminded by the verdicts from courts here and elsewhere, there is ever a significant difference between what is legal and what is right.

And it seems so very clear that what happened to Abdirahman Abdi was not right. Before we get to any other issues, one very basic, and it seems to me inescapable, conclusion is that if the police cannot take a single unarmed suspect into custody without killing him, then we have a serious problem. The night Abdirahman Abdi died, the chief of Ottawa’s police was on TV saying that his officers receive training in ‘de-escalation’ and resolving situations peacefully, as though that settled matters. However, that only leaves more disturbing problems, because if these officers received such training, and the training was good, then they should have been able to make their arrest without loss of life. But Abdirahman Abdi still died. Is it more disturbing to think that police are not being properly prepared, or that they are prepared, but choose to ignore what they are taught? Neither is acceptable. Even if the officers are legally exonerated, what happened was clearly not right, and we need to confront that and respond to it.

And of course there are more issues enmeshed with this one. Abdirahman Abdi is described in most reports as ‘mentally ill’ (I have not seen a specific diagnosis), and so we return to the question of how police, and our society in general, deal with and hopefully take care of people with mental difficulties. Not very well. Last week we also saw a verdict (now under appeal) in the trial of a Toronto police officer who shot another young man with a mental illness. We haven’t, it seems, learned much since then It is often said that police are not social workers, and that it is not in their remit to handle such people gently. However, as Nicole Ireland’s article for the CBC pointed out last week, this is a perspective we can’t afford to accept. Officers can’t be psychologists, but if they’re meant to interact and intervene with the public in a meaningful and useful way, then knowing that in some situations pointing a gun and shouting commands won’t be effective and may make things work is knowledge they need. We must insist on it. Everyone knows it is a super difficult job that most of us couldn’t do, but it’s not good enough to say ‘tough job, things gonna happen.’ Police are supposed to be our helpers and advocates and protectors, they are the ones sanctioned to use force in our society. We need to insist that they fill these roles carefully and with empathy and with respect and with consideration. Anything else must be unacceptable. Last week something went terribly, irretrievably wrong, and that must be unacceptable too.

And of course there is yet one more issue at least, because Abdirahman Abdi was black. Now, the head of Ottawa’s police union was on the radio last week saying that it is ‘inappropriate’ to suggest that race may have played a part in how this incident played out to its ghastly conclusion, but this is a ludicrous thing to say. To say that, in light of all that has happened to visible minorities at the hands of police in recent days and weeks and months, is either wilful blindness or simply one of the most unrealistic things I have ever heard. To expect anyone, especially members of minority communities, not to wonder if race played a part in how the police reacted to Abdirahman Abdi, in their decision to use force on him, and in how he was treated afterwards, is simply divorced from common sense. Again, last week we saw all charges dropped in the case of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in the custody of Baltimore police, with a severed spine that (apparently) no-one is responsible for. Time and time again we see these cases, we get the same assurances, and – it seems – nothing changes. The questions the police find ‘inappropriate’ are asked because they have, as yet, received no satisfactory answer. They will continue to be asked until one is forthcoming, and especially until the dying stops. Possibly Abdirahman Abdi’s race had nothing to do with what happened to him, but of course people will ask the question, and given our recent bloody history, we are likely to doubt that it didn’t without compelling evidence to the contrary. To do otherwise would be, to say the least, inappropriate. We are told today that the SIU may not consider whether race was a factor in what happened to Abdirahman Abdi. That seems crazy to me, because the rest of the community will and is considering just that. We have to. We need to.

It is often far too easy for us (or at least me) to sit here in Canada and watch what happens in the United States and think ‘well that’s there, not here’, and to think that we don’t have such problems here. I shouldn’t think that, given what people from visible minorities say about their experience with police here in Canada, and Abdirahman Abdi’s death is a stark reminder that the problems of use of force by police, and how police react to and against visible minorities are our problems too, and of our own racial divisions, that we like to pretend don’t exist or aren’t meaningful. There was already plenty of evidence of this from the many cases of how people from First Nations communities have been abused by officers who were supposed to protect them from harm. We can’t pretend that these problems are safely south of the border or overseas, they are here at home and Canadians must confront them and grapple with them. It may take away some of our comfortable illusions, but people are suffering so it doesn’t matter, and in the end we will be better for it.

That’s one of the main reasons that I don’t like the ‘wait and see’ response from authorities here. However the legal issues around Abdirahman Abdi’s death are eventually determined, it was terrible and sad and wrong and we should have a sense of urgency in our response to it. That happened on a community level, but it would be good to see it from our political and civic leaders as well. Jim Watson, our mayor who I am generally a fan of, has not displayed his usual vigorous response this time. When someone parked in a bus lane and caused a traffic jam he immediately ordered a parking crackdown; when it was revealed on Twitter that OC Transpo directed its bus drivers to stop in bike lanes for timing stops, he publicly shamed them and ordered the practice to cease. When someone got in his face about flying the Pride flag at city hall, he flatly told them he didn’t want their vote. It would be great if that Jim Watson had shown up demanding action and answers, but instead he issued a rather bland statement of condolence and said nothing else. Again, there’s a difference between waiting for the legal process to run (which we must do) and simply doing nothing (which I think we must not do). It’s okay, and I think important, to point out the things that the death of Abdirahman Abdi shows us are not right in our city and our country and our society, and to point the way towards change. That’s leadership, or would be.

There are so many issues attached to this one awful moment. It’s like some kind of prism that casts a terrible light no matter how you turn it. It has revealed, or freshly illuminated, a great many problems. I don’t pretend to know what the solutions to all these problems are; I wish that I did. I do know that at a minimum wrongs and abuses in our society need to be pointed out and we need to insist that they are not okay and that change happens. What happened to Abdirahman Abdi was not okay. Whatever the issues were that lead to his death, there has to be change to prevent it happening again, in Ottawa or elsewhere. We can’t just call it a tragedy and end up saying that things are fine as they are: they aren’t or an unarmed man would not have died on a sidewalk.

We need especially to listen to the people from communities who find themselves mistreated by authorities. We mustn’t try to silence them or to reassure ourselves by pretending that what they are saying cannot be true or that it doesn’t matter. Our fellow human beings are telling us that they don’t feel safe, that they feel under attack in the place that is supposed to be their home and that they don’t feel able to trust the people who they are told to look to for protection. We need to hear them and believe them and do what we can to make it better. I believe them, and I know there has to be change on their behalf, and for Abdirahman Abdi.

I’m not sure if writing this was helpful in any tangible way, but I feel better for having written it. Thanks for reading.

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