Nothing. Not a damned thing. A deliberate and enormous dose of nothing at all.
That is the only accurate description for what the Harper government has done in response to this summer’s killing of Tina Fontaine and the resulting calls for an inquiry into this country’s more than 1,100 missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Nothing. Not hardly even lip service.
For roughly 10 days in August, the nation took a short break from not caring about these women, most of whom linger on the margins of society. The shattering horror of this 15- year-old girl’s murder — the way she was snapped and squeezed into a garbage bag and then disposed of casually — stirred some brief attention. Aboriginal groups, the country’s premiers, opposition leaders and editorialists caused a short-lived ruckus. There were calls for a formal inquiry to examine the root causes of this unstopping tragedy, the adequacy of the police response, and what might be done to better respond to and halt the frequent loss of life. Even some prominent Conservatives added their voices to this cause, including Brad Wall, the premier of Saskatchewan.
Stephen Harper said no.
He insisted that Tina’s death, and all the other deaths and all the other assumed-but-we’ll-probably-never-know-for-sure-what-happened-deaths are a matter strictly for the police. And that was pretty much all he had to say, silently suggesting that either he doesn’t believe there are root causes to such violence and murder or, if they do exist, they are better left to someone else to care about and deal with.
Quickly, others came forward with a host of reinforcing arguments as to why an inquiry would be a dreadful waste of time — that it would divert funds that could otherwise be dedicated to helping aboriginal women or that it would tell us nothing we don’t know already or that it would be an insult to the police or that it isn’t justified because statistics show that aboriginal men are dying at equally alarming rates. Not every argument against an inquiry was dedicated to doing nothing. But in their own way each ended up lending momentum to that cause.
Eventually, someone came up with the less uncomfortable idea of a national roundtable. Less out of a sense of embarrassment than a desire to simply shove the issue aside, the government agreed. It promised to get to work.
Then the news happened, as it always will. Mike Duffy lumbered into our lives again. ISIL released beheading videos. We went to war. Two soldiers were killed on our own soil. Sexual harassment exploded as a topic of national discussion. With every passing day these important matters dominated an increasing share of mind and, by default, Tina moved further and further from our thoughts.
It’s now been 96 days since her tiny, busted body was fished from the Red River. In the competition to respond to that tragedy, nothing is winning. And it’s winning by a mile.
When author Richard Flanagan finished his latest novel, relative poverty forced him to contemplate getting a job in the mines in northern Australia. His Booker Prize win has spared him a life underground for the time being, but he did not waste the opportunity to acknowledge in his speech that “writing is a hard life for so many writers.”
And it’s only getting worse, as Elizabeth Renzetti wrote wrote recently in these pages. Twelve thousand dollars – that’s the figure the Writers’ Union of Canada estimates as the average annual income writers make from their writing in this country. I remember what it’s like to live on $12,000. You live in a shabby apartment furnished with hand-me-downs from your parents and garbage-picked gems, you allot $25 a week for food and you wear a borrowed dress when you’re invited to a gala fundraising dinner for writers at a fancy hotel. You take the subway there. If you are in your late 20s, as I was then, it’s fine, you make do because you are doing what you love and most people don’t have that extraordinary privilege.
You don’t squander that privilege. You work your ass off. And hopefully you’re rewarded for that effort. It worked for me, as it did for many writers of my generation, perhaps the last for whom it was possible to live off their writing. In Britain, writers’ incomes have fallen by 30 per cent in the past eight years, collapsing to what one Guardian headline called “abject” levels.
So many writers I know are looking back at this point in mid-life and saying, “I had a good run.” A good run saw us earn increasingly bigger if still modest advances. (Yes, $75,000 sounds like a lot, but when it takes five years to complete a book and your agent is taking a cut of 15 per cent, you’re still below the poverty line if this is your sole source of income.) Publishers were once able to invest in a career, with income from bestsellers offsetting the less sensational works in a catalogue. Now, every book has to be a winner. If you fail to earn out your advance through sales, your next advance will be lower, or perhaps, as has become increasingly the case among my mid-career contemporaries, you will lose your publishing home.
Writing seems to have become one of the few careers where the more experienced and proficient you become over the years, the less you are compensated. And the humiliations of this are great. It does become difficult to uphold belief in the worth of your work. And since this is work intrinsically tied to one’s sense of self, it becomes difficult to uphold a sense of self-worth. It takes ego and adrenalin to work in solitude, through years of confusion and uncertainty, in the writing of a book. If you don’t believe in it, no one else will. Of course, there is reward in art for art’s sake, but few can sustain morale, motivation or mortgage on an income of private aesthetic fulfilment.
I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children. Obviously this makes me feel like a terrible person, because what’s the big deal about making less fortunate kids happy on a holiday? But it just bugs me, because we already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity, or is it legitimately a free-for-all in which people hunt down the best candy grounds for their kids?
—Halloween for the 99 Percent
In the urban neighborhood where I used to live, families who were not from the immediate area would come in fairly large groups to trick-or-treat on our streets, which were safe, well-lit, and full of people overstocked with candy. It was delightful to see the little mermaids, spider-men, ghosts, and the occasional axe murderer excitedly run up and down our front steps, having the time of their lives. So we’d spend an extra $20 to make sure we had enough candy for kids who weren’t as fortunate as ours. There you are, 99, on the impoverished side of Greenwich or Beverly Hills, with the other struggling lawyers, doctors, and business owners. Your whine makes me kind of wish that people from the actual poor side of town come this year not with scary costumes but with real pitchforks. Stop being callous and miserly and go to Costco, you cheapskate, and get enough candy to fill the bags of the kids who come one day a year to marvel at how the 1 percent live.
I just posted this photo Bridge City. I took it today while walking in Cosmopolitan Park by Saskatchewan Crescent. I thought it was some stuff that had been stolen out of a vehicle but then I noticed the gentlemen sleeping there. I was going to chat with him but he was soundly sleeping I snapped the photo and left.
Thanks to Hilary for this.