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JOHNSTON: Suicide should never be politicized, but nor should its root causes be ignored

This is not a political statement on the tragic event Monday afternoon in Edmonton. It’s the hard and honest truth about at-risk Albertans struggling to adjust to the changing economic situation in the province.

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I spent a week once with Alfred Alvarez. I learned of his friendship with poet Sylvia Plath which lasted until her now-famous suicide in February of 1963. I also learned of his own personal, lifelong struggle with melancholy and his failed attempt at suicide in 1960. Alvarez’s knowledge of literature, poetry, and philosophy was outstanding even when considered against other leading academics and public intellectuals – and his mastery of language as close to perfect as I have ever read. Why would a man like this be preoccupied with suicide?

I’ve never actually met Alvarez, though. I merely accepted an invitation to peek into his life when I randomly purchased a dog-eared copy of The Savage God: A Study of Suicide on sale in a perfectly shabby used bookstore for $1.75 – less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Alfred Alvarez (5 August 1929 – 23 September 2019) was an English poet, novelist, essayist and critic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tragic news Monday of a suicide in front of the Alberta Legislature made me think of this book and the time I spent reading its dense pages.

Most of us don’t know how to react to this news and instead wait for instructions from people who claim a superior understanding as to what an appropriate response should look like. We react to social media posts about the story with the “crying face” emoji and try hard not to comment in a way that might be deemed in bad taste before all the news is out – and, even then, we will thread lightly. Our caution is not out of respect for the family of the suicide – although that’s what we’ll say – but out of fear of saying something that treats the topic of suicide incorrectly or insensitively.

In The Savage God, Alvarez writes that most attempts to understand suicide are informed by two prejudices: “the first is that high religious tone which dismisses suicide in horror as a moral crime or sickness beyond discussion” and “the second is the current scientific fashion, which, in the very process of treating suicide as a topic for serious research, manages to deny it all serious meaning by reducing despair to the boniest statistics.”

The Savage God is not your typical study of suicide. The book focuses primarily on the treatment of suicide in literature and its prevalence among the literati. “If art has no power to do evil, then it has no power to do good either,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates in her review of the book.

I don’t know if Alvarez’s general treatment of suicide holds up well against current research and theory, but he wrote this book in 1971 and was witness to the transition in public thinking about suicide from religious concern with sin and salvation to a clinical treatment of the matter that deprives both the casual reader and scholar of any real insight into the human and social conditions that can influence self-murder.

Suicide is, of course, complex. That’s not only true but also something we must say before offering an opinion on the matter to signal our willingness to be corrected and scolded. For the family and friends the suicide left behind Monday, there may never be answers — but this does not mean we should not look for answers as to the general causes of suicide or attempt to understand the normative or sociological theories underpinning the topic. And in looking for answers, my instincts are almost always to look backward at the intellectual literature and not forward, as I see little evidence of serious thinking among intellectuals today – as evidenced by modern attempts to dismiss suicide as merely an expression of personal autonomy.

Emile Durkheim, the 19th century founder of social science as an academic discipline, believed there are three major categories of suicide: egoistic, altruistic and anomic.

Loosely explained, an egoistic suicide is one in which the suicide has little attachment to society and feels alone and abandoned. The altruistic suicide is one in which the suicide has too much attachment to society or, more specifically, to the frustrated ambitions of his or her in-group within society. And, the anomic suicide, of primary interest here, is one in which suicide is “the result of a change in a man’s social position so sudden that he is unable to cope with his new situation,” according to Alvarez’s reading of Durkheim’s seminal work Suicide.

I know nothing of the reasons the man who committed suicide in front of the Alberta legislature might have had for taking his own life – but if we take Durkheim’s theory of anomic suicide seriously, we can understand why too many Albertans have one foot on the terra firma and another in the firmament.

In September of this year, a research report by University of Calgary professor Ron Kneebone makes the connection between Alberta’s economic hardships and rising suicides rates in the province. A grim calculation in the report Suicide and the Economy shows that a “one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate increases the suicide rate by a statistically significant 2.8 percent.” This translates into approximately 17 additional suicides in Alberta each year for every one percent increase in the unemployment rate.

This is not a political statement on the tragic event Monday afternoon in Edmonton — or at least it’s not intended to be one. It’s the hard and honest truth about at-risk Albertans struggling to adjust to the changing economic situation in the province, whether they are unemployed oil patch workers or public sector employees uncertain about the future.

And if you think I’m incorrect in any of this or that I’m being insensitive, my response is this: It’s complex, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for answers. The very public suicide Monday should not be exploited now, or even later as facts unfold, to advance a particular political narrative — but it should provoke a more serious discussion of a taboo subject.

If you are feeling suicidal contact Crisis Services Canada (tel: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645), Centre for Suicide Prevention (tel: 1-833-456-4566) or Kids Help Phone (tel: 1-800-668-6868.)

If you need immediate assistance call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.

Opinion

HARDING: Saskatchewan is still struggling to overcome 70 years of socialism

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has a vision: a province with 1.4 million people by 2030. It’s a worthy goal, and certainly achievable. The sad part is, it could have—and should have, happened a long time ago. The province grew like a weed from the start, and was already Canada’s third most populous province in 1911. But that growth flattened like its prairie landscape from the 1930s until early in the 21st Century. Socialism strangled Saskatchewan in the cradle, and the prosperity it exiled to Alberta only adds to the proof.

Both provinces had every reason to grow, blessed with a large land mass, abundant resources, and good farm land. The pioneers who settled Alberta and Saskatchewan were inherently entrepreneurial. The only handout the government gave them was a quarter-section of land. The rest was up to them. Faith, family, and a strong work ethic were combined with co-operation and interdependence. It was the winning combination necessary to survive, and later, to thrive. 

In 1920, Regina became the first Canadian city to have a licensed airport. As the decade ended, it even had a General Motors plant. Saskatchewan took the Western lead, with Alberta taking a similar course until the 1930s. At that point, Saskatchewan took the path less travelled – and that made all the unfortunate difference.

Fourteen years after the Winnipeg General Strike, Marxism staked its ground in Saskatchewan’s capital. In 1933, the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) penned the Regina Manifesto. It read,

The principle regulating production, distribution and exchange will be the supplying of human needs and not the making of profits.

We aim to replace the present capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated, in which economic planning will supersede unregulated private enterprise and competition, and in which genuine democratic self-government, based upon economic equality will be possible.

The CCF radicals didn’t catch on at first. Tommy Douglas failed to get a provincial seat when he ran for the party in 1934. Decades later, he reminisced about early campaign stops at country schools. 

“We encouraged questions, and people asked us if it was true we were going to take their farms, like the Soviets in Russia, and did we believe in God.” 

One year after losing the provincial election, voters made Douglas a CCF federal Member of Parliament. 

That same year of 1935, the Regina riot took place. Spurred by the Communist-affiliated Relief Camp Workers’ Union, hundreds of men left those camps and assembled in Vancouver to demand more from the government. Led by Communist Arthur “Slim” Evans, they decided to take their grievances to Ottawa. They rode east on boxcars. After they spent two weeks in Regina, the police decided to crack down. When the Mounties tried to arrest the ringleaders on July 1, a riot ensued. The police opened fire, injuring hundreds.

The CCF continued to gain momentum. Douglas resigned his federal seat in 1944 to run provincially again. This time, he was elected premier, a position he would hold for 17 years. He was also the first leader of an explicitly socialist government in North America.

“People thought the world was coming to an end,” Douglas said, “that this was the beginning of a Communist revolution and we were going to wreck the province, ruin the finances, repudiate all our debts. Imperial Oil were doing some small amount of drilling in Saskatchewan. They just picked up their drilling rigs and went home.”

Awhile later, Imperial Oil offered $20 million a year (two-thirds of the Saskatchewan budget) for an oil monopoly in the province. Douglas recalled, “I remember what I said to Imperial Oil: ‘Get lost’.”

Tommy Douglas and Thérèse Casgrain (Source: Wiki Commons)

Saskatchewan’s loss was Alberta’s gain. Imperial Oil was determined to strike oil in Wild Rose Country no matter what. They spent millions of dollars in 133 desperate and unsuccessful attempts. Finally, they decided if nothing was found in another half-dozen attempts, they’d just stop trying.

Then, early in 1947, Vern Hunter made a find near Leduc, Alberta that looked promising. Imperial Oil asked him to set a date for a well to be dug. “The crew and I were experts at abandoning wells but we didn’t know much about completing them. I named February 13 and started praying,” Hunter said. Five hundred people watched as the well brought up oil.

Edmonton and Calgary doubled their population in a short time. Dan Claypool worked at Leduc #1 in the early years. 

“You couldn’t get a hotel room … roughnecks were living in granaries, and even the energy regulators from the government had no place to live. So Imperial Oil lent them a skid shack. It was crazy, trucks were coming and going day and night on the highway. It was the greatest economic event to ever happen in Canada. It was really a boom.”

By then it was impossible for any entrepreneur in Saskatchewan to boom – the government owned everything. Tommy Douglas told the House of Commons in 1943, “We believe there should be government ownership of monopolistic enterprises.” When he became premier, he made that happen. When he opened the legislature on October 19, 1944, he introduced 76 pieces of legislation that put the government’s fingers on everything. It brought in mandatory health insurance, a provincial bus company, SaskTel, SaskPower, SaskWater, SaskEnergy, regulations galore, and the highest taxes in Canada.

“We told people,” Douglas said, “if you’re going to build schools or hospitals or roads, you’re going to pay for it. Now!”

In 1951, Douglas told the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, “The inescapable fact is that when we build a society based on greed, selfishness, and ruthless competition, the fruits we can expect to reap are economic insecurity at home and international discord abroad.” 

The CCF brought economic security all right – a constant, stifling government presence everyone could count on to bring mediocrity – or worse. Even a government-run shoe factory and woolen mill in Moose Jaw went broke. And the army of civil servants hired for this massive socialist experiment became better paid than the taxpaying residents.

Douglas declared in 1960 that laissez-faire capitalism had ended in Saskatchewan, just as the Regina Manifesto had envisioned. The Berlin Wall was built a year later, and Saskatchewan would have needed a similar structure to keep its own. 

“Our best export is our people,” residents came to say. Others joked, “Will the last person to leave please turn out the light?”

Canada’s breadbasket – which had 921,000 people in 1931 – still had just 968,000 in 2006. Meanwhile, Alberta grew from 731,000 people to nearly 4.4 million today. Saskatchewan ex-pat oil executives in Edmonton and Calgary jokingly called their former province, “the old country.” Proof of the Saskatchewan diaspora was made evident by fans wearing green at Roughrider games in every city. Some still left in the homeland, drove with novelty license plates which read, “Soviet Saskatchewan Smothered in Socialism,” complete with a hammer and sickle.

Then, less than fifteen years ago, the socialist chokehold lost its grip. 

In December 2006, public opinion polls showed over 50 per cent support for Brad Wall’s right-leaning Saskatchewan Party. Investors realized that a more business-friendly government was imminent and started investing their money. By the time Wall’s Sask Party ended sixteen years of NDP government in November of 2007, the boom was already underway. The average price of a home in Regina rose from 131,000 in 2006 to 228,000 in 2008—a telltale sign that the province had escaped a cocoon it had been stuck in for far too long.

Saskatchewan has grown substantially during the Sask Party era, and now boasts 1.71 million people. Moe’s ambitious goal of 1.4 million people by 2030 seems ambitious but well within reason, especially if the province can meet its other target: 600,000 barrels of daily oil production. Of course, Alberta is already there. It drills nearly eight times as much crude oil as Saskatchewan, above and beyond its oil sands.

Had Saskatchewan never embraced socialism, would Alberta have ever become what it is today? Would it have had two NHL teams, and a long line of Stanley Cup winners? Or would those teams have been based in Saskatoon and Regina instead?

If Saskatchewan’s pain was Alberta’s gain, what’s left for the lesser of two provinces? Potentially quite a bit. While it may be true that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, Saskatchewan seems to have undergone a permanent change in its attitude and political stance. Residents can only hope that Victorian novelist George Eliot was right: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

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NAVARRO-GENIE: It is politics, not geography landlocking Alberta

Regressive and oppressive Iranian Shiite mullahs have proven to be more reasonable business counterparts than former World Wildlife Fund apparatchiks in Ottawa, populist nationalists in Quebec City, and the rigid eco-zealous alliance of Greens and New Democrats in Victoria.

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When it comes to trading in markets beyond its boundaries, Alberta would have better options as an independent state than under the status quo currently blocking some of its resources. 

Alberta is landlocked, and landlocked countries depend on their neighbours for access to trading seaports. It is the reason some people quip that an independent Alberta would remain landlocked. But the core problem is uncooperative provincial cousins, not the fact of being landlocked. 

Pipelines, highways, air corridors, waterways and canals are among human solutions to landlocked territories. They are created to move people, goods and services. But two uncooperative Canadian provinces are committing constitutional mutiny, Quebec and British Columbia. They are preventing Alberta from further developing solutions to being landlocked. In that sense, it is worth repeating that being landlocked isn’t the problem. 

Access, not geography, is the central issue. The access problem is made worse by the ineptitude of Canada’s central government.

Twenty percent of the world’s states are landlocked, and only three among them are enclaved, meaning surrounded by only one country. Ottawa has artificially enclaved Alberta when it vacated its national leadership role by effectively granting vetoes to provinces for major infrastructure construction across internal borders. And Alberta also requires Ottawa’s consent to deal with our neighbour across the international southern boundary. 

Alberta is naturally landlocked, but the neighborhood’s attitude is terrible. Alberta must therefore urgently find ways to free itself from the enclaving subjection of its Laurentian and Pacific cousins. 

How does Alberta do that? 

Having coastlines alone doesn’t make countries (or provinces) wealthy. Honduras and Nicaragua – among the poorest in the hemisphere – have enviable access to Atlantic and Pacific coasts. If coastline alone were the determinant of economic wealth, Nicaragua (with more coastline in relation to its size) would be richer than Brazil and Nova Scotia would be richer than Saskatchewan. 

Conversely, Switzerland and Austria, two of the richest countries in the world, lack natural access to sea. 

While most countries with no coastlines are poor (50% of them are in Africa), the difference of Switzerland and Austria when compared to other landlocked states such as Lesotho or Bolivia is access to markets. Put differently, Switzerland and Austria are richer because their decent neighbours do not blockade their infrastructure and access to markets (Remember how Newfoundland and Labrador was blocked from building electricity distribution lines through Quebec?).

An independent Alberta can’t transform its blockading cousins into decent folks. 

But if Alberta were independent and cultivated good relations with the United States, it would no longer be politically enclaved inside its own national home. Alberta could on its own work with the states of Montana and Washington to develop a trade corridor for exporting and importing goods through Seattle. 

Underlining the importance of the neighborhood, consider the example of landlocked Kazakhstan, which became independent in 1991 after breaking away from the most murderous regime in the history of peoplekind. 

Kazakhstan is security-challenged. It inhabits one of the most treacherous neighbourhoods on this planet. From the outset, Russia resisted Kazakhstani oil exports to other countries and attempted to control the outflow of their oil. Sound familiar?

But within two decades, despite a potentially ignitable Muslim majority, neighbours like China and Russia, with Chechens nearby, and with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran not very far south, Kazakhstan has managed to develop capacity, building upgraded pipelines and exporting oil to the four cardinal points. They export hydrocarbons to Russia in the North, to China in the East, to Europe with lines as far as Gdansk on the Baltic Sea, and South through the Persian Gulf.  

They have developed an exporting network through challenging societies and some of the most hostile territories in the world. Kazakhstan even manages to deal with Iran to sell oil out of the Persian Gulf, thousands of miles away across more than one international border. But Alberta cannot bring its oil across Quebec to sell out of New Brunswick shores, inside the very same country! 

While it is true that independence is not the only option for Alberta to solve its induced enclave condition, the crucial lesson here is difficult to miss. Regressive and oppressive Iranian Shiite mullahs have proven to be more reasonable business counterparts than former World Wildlife Fund apparatchiks in Ottawa, populist nationalists in Quebec City, and the rigid eco-zealous alliance of Greens and New Democrats in Victoria. This is Alberta’s problem! 

Kazakhstan didn’t wait for its economic welfare and future to be determined by questionable people outside its borders. Neither should Alberta.

Marco Navarro-Génie is a Columnist for the Western Standard, President of the Haultain Research Institute and senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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Jean Charest would have pushed the West out of the Conservative Party

In the discontent Jean Charest would cause, there would no longer be any political party at the federal level that Westerners could see any hope in of carrying their banner to Ottawa.

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Jean Charest is out, and with him a potential unwitting ally of the Western independence movement. While the Laurentian media have cooed his credentials as just the kind of man to make them swoon, it is precisely his credentials that could have added a tanker of fuel to discontent in Western Canada.

Charest has been testing the waters of a Conservative-to-Liberal-to-Conservative hat trick since Andrew Scheer announced his resignation as Tory leader in December. News that the corruption probe into his actions as Quebec’s Liberal Premier certainly didn’t help him believe that he had “winning conditions” for the job, but neither must have anyone serious he was consulting with in the West.

However much the Brian Mulroney era may be fondly remembered in Laurentian Tory circles, it is not looked upon as a golden era in the West. Westerners with older battle scares than me remember Charest’s time in the Mulroney government as marked by the F-18 maintenance fiasco, endless constitutional pandering to Quebec, and wild deficits that nearly bankrupted the country.

However much Laurentian Tories may see Jean Charest as the Captain Canada that fought back Lucien Bouchard, many Westerners see him as a Quebec Liberal who fought for special status and more federal (namely, Western) money.

Media point to Jean Charest’s progressive credentials in enthusastic support of unfettered government-funded abortion, the Kyoto Protocol, the carbon tax, and the long-gun registry. These credentials may make Charest popular with the Laurentian media and even a few Liberal voters, but they are anathema to many conservatives, and Western conservatives in particular.

Anyone with their ear to the ground honestly advising Charest on his chances in Western Canada must have had discouraging news for him. Since the CPC leadership operates on a point-based system, Charest would have needed to utterly dominate the Atlantic, Quebec and Ontario to offset his extreme weakness in the West. With Peter Mackay from Nova Scotia and both Pierre Polievre and Erin O’Tool from Ontario, even this narrow path to victory was not plausible. Add to this a renewed corruption investigation into his time as premier, and it was an easily predictable outcome that he would not run.

While Peter Mackay pops champagne, Western sovereigntists sip hard whiskey.

As the re-election of Justin Trudeau looked to many Westerners as rejection by the East, the nomination of Jean Charest as Conservative Leader would have looked to Westerners as a rejection by their own Conservatives allies in the East.

The Tories dominated Western Canada despite any commitment to do much beyond build TMX and repeal half of the carbon tax, because they were still viewed as the home team. Even many left-leaning voters on the Prairies that vote NDP provincially, opted to vote for the federal Tories as the party not out to get them.

Jean Charest as Tory leader would have left them with a liberal, Laurentian elite from a by-gone era of endless Quebec appeasement. In the discontent such a leader would cause, there would no longer be any political party at the federal level that Westerners could see any hope in of carrying their banner to Ottawa.

In this vacuum, Western sovereigntists would have their chance to thrive.

The Tories may well nominate as their leader a Laurentian progressive without an ear to the West, but none of the remaining contenders are likely to prove as incendiary to a region already at a low boil.

Derek Fildebrandt is Publisher of the Western Standard and the President of Wildrose Media Corp.

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