monthly report 2004


Zach chillin' - thinking about his monthly reports

December 1, 2004

Ever since the election of November 2 past, I have attempted to remain philosophical. After all, the sun will probably rise again tomorrow. However, it seems to me now that the reality of the situation merits a more sincere response. The most galling thing to be heard since November 3, was that the election was won (lost) because of “moral values”, as if to say that the Republican right wing is somehow more “moral” than the partisans of the Democratic Party. It is hard to imagine how anybody can take such a distortion seriously. Let us begin with Fox News, the unofficial organ of the conservative right. This is the network that recently was fined for airing a program entitled “How to make love like a porn star”. Yet this program was not nearly as obscene as the distortion and barely disguised right wing propaganda that Fox News promotes as journalism. The true mission of this network and its demagogue radio kin is not to inform but to advance a political agenda. Maybe these people have not heard that lying is a sin. Apparently, according to their vision of “morality”, the end justifies the means.

The evangelical right wing is the base of support for George W. Bush, the far fringe “Christian” element which is intolerant of any opinion not its own. The most important political question for many of these people seems to be the question of abortion. They are fanatically “pro-life”. But just what “life” is it that they are so much in favor of? “Anti-abortion” certainly, “Pro-Birth” as well, but they do not seem to be concerned with the quality of the “life” that they are so intent upon preserving. The child which is born will need to be housed, clothed, fed and educated. The concern of the Republican right, however, seems to stop at birth. Witness the state of poor people in the USA. The unwed mother living in the ghetto will need help, but the Republican right seems intent on giving her as little help as possible. Witness the contraction of public assistance and the growing gap between the rich and the poor in American which has grown wider every year that George W. Bush has been president. Education has suffered. 40,000,000 (forty million) Americans are without health card. Is the Republican right concerned about any of this? Rather they enthusiastically support the tax reductions which have benefitted the ultra rich to the disadvantage of the poor and poorest.

And what is the “morality” that the Republican right pretends to be practicing in Iraq? There have been 100,000 (one hundred thousand) civilian deaths and over 1000 US deaths since the invasion of March 2003. How many of the dead were pregnant women? Where is the morality in that statistic? Every pregnant women killed in Iraq was in fact a military abortion. Pro-life indeed.

All of the promises of this illicit war, justified by lies (weapons of mass destruction?) and promoted by the president of the United States in arrogant disregard not only of international opinion, but of reality itself, are now so much sand in the desert. We were told that Americans would be welcomed with open arms as liberators, bringing democracy to a long-suffering people. Not even the Republican right can pretend that the lives of the people of Iraq have gotten anything but much worse in the last year and a half. President Bush is now preparing for an American withdrawal. He has said that if the people of Iraq do not want democracy, there is little else that he can do. What a joke. The Iraqi people would be happy to get electricity and to be able to go out in the street without fearing for their lives. And the worse is that the United States is no more secure. We have squandered lives and money and have gotten no closer to containing the terrorist threat. In fact, if anything, Iraq has become a breeding ground for terrorists.

What is most appalling in all of this is the hypocrisy of the political right. It would be easier to believe that the US invaded Iraq in order to secure a reliable source of oil. But we need only observe what is happening in Afghanistan to realize that the installation of democracy is not really what the invasion was all about. Much was made just before the election of November 2 about the “free elections” in Afghanistan. The first ever. “Free elections” however is not exactly what took place. It has been well documented that traffic in voter cards was rampant. In order to vote, all one needed was a voter card. It was not necessary to report to any particular precinct, but simply to have a voter card with photo....which could be purchased freely without photo. So anyone could vote as many times as he or she pleased and could afford. Not that it made any difference. There was only one viable candidate, the president elect. And he was viable only because he had the support of the US. Now that he has been “freely elected” he is unable to leave the palace without threat of assassination. The security of the country has been confided to the war lords. There are less that 20,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan, way too few to make a difference. In order to insure the security of the country, the US Army has gotten into bed with local war lords. Each one is a virtual dictator in his territory, which is good for security, but the security of whom? The economy is in shambles and the only viable export commodity is opium. And so the US Army governs the country via its relations with the war lords, who themselves have little interest in the well being of the local population and are up to their eye balls in the drug traffic. Democracy indeed.

It is not hard to imagine a similar end game in Iraq. Like George W. Bush says, we cannot impose democracy on a people which is does not want it. Maybe somebody should explain to the president that democracy will be hard to install in a country torn by civil war where the people fear for their lives. If we have any notion about exporting our political system, we should begin by insuring a comparable quality of life. The father of a family in the ghetto of Baghdad with Islamist killers on one corner and US occupation forces on the other has other things on his mind than American style democracy. This however, does not seem to make any difference to the thinking of the administration.

Since the re-election, there has been a rush for the door by a number of cabinet members. Beginning with John Ashcroft, the list includes Spencer Abraham (Energy), Rod Paige (Education), Ann Veneman (Agriculture) and finally, Collin Powell (Secretary of State). Same stampede at the CIA where Stephen Kappes, Director of Operations (chief spook) and Michael Sulick, Deputy Director, have headed for the door. The Pentagon is fighting to continue its control of the agency in spite of the recommendations of the 9/11 Congressional panel. So who’s actually minding the store? What is alarming as that in all of these cases, George W. Bush will appoint people ever closer to his limited orbit thus isolating the administration even further from any thinking not specifically in line with its views. Y’all are with us or agin’ us.

The United States marked a milestone in its history this November 2. The Republican right revealed itself to be reactionary, hypocritical and prepared to stop at nothing to achieve its goals. Which is the classical definition of fanaticism. Which is in keeping with American tradition after all. Remember the Puritans. They went to burning women in Massachusetts. Hopefully we won’t see any more of that. But there is an alarming tendency toward an unofficial, but none the less effective, censorship. And there have been those who have lost their jobs because of expressing their opinions. Which is also in the American tradition, the one called McCarthyism.

With the power of our magnificent country, we should be doing much better in solving the world’s problems. We could invade countries not to annihilate the population, but to bring instruction and help to solve the problems of poverty, and hunger, to help construct roads and schools, to bring hope instead of fear. It would seem, sadly, that these goals are not our national priority.

In closing, I encourage my evangelical friends to pull out your bibles: Matthew chapter 5, verses 9-12. Let us remember that this month we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. I cannot but wonder what He thinks about those who wage war in his name.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall posses the earth.
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.




November 3, 2004

In the 1930s and 40s, the logging industry in Louisiana invaded the cypress groves. In the space of 25 years, the bald cypress (taxodium disichum) was decimated. Today little remains of the magnificent trees, many of which were over 1000 years old. The first settlers to the region, Acadians and French créoles, used the heartwood of the bald cypress to construct their homes. Impermeable to the effects of high temperature and high humidity, there are several homes, like that of Louis Arceneaux at Beaubassin, which survive today, unpainted for nearly 200 years.

The exploitation of the forest by American logging companies went far beyond the effects of the local cutting, and was to have a catastrophic impact. The harvesting was destined to satisfy a national demand for timber. The result was the clear cutting of the Louisiana cypress forest and its ultimate demise. The lumberjacks worked during the winter season when the weather was more suitable. They worked from boats tied to the trees (Bald cypress grows best in swampy conditions and will actually grow submerged in water hence its extreme tolerance to humid conditions). The logs would be floated out in the spring, riding on the high water of the seasonal flood. Many of the trees measured 15 feet in diameter or more.

The destruction of the Louisiana cypress forest took place in a social climate where the disappearance of this natural resource was hard to imagine. Financial profit was the sole consideration. Most of the logging companies were owned by capitalists from out of state. Their mentality was that of absentee landlords, caring little about the consequences of the clear cutting for the natural environment or for the people who lived within it. We can only imagine today what the old growth cypress forest was like, the trees having no equivalent in North America except the giant sequoias of the west coast.

To honor the forest and all of the creatures who live within, below is a reprinting of a series of articles which appeared in the press of Québec, bemoaning the careless practices which are decimating the northern boreal forests today. The author is Richard Desjardins. I applaud his action. I hope that the people of Québec will hear his alarm cry and will act in consequence. I hope that Richard Desjardins and his allies will be able to save the boreal forest before it is too late. Hopefully the northern forests of Québec will not suffer the same fate as the cypress of Louisiana.

There exists but one prudent method of forestry: selective cutting. Until 1970, this is what was practiced in Québec. First of all, the cutting took place in winter on frozen ground. This insured that when the lumberjacks left in the spring, the regeneration of the forest floor, protected by the winter snow, was left intact. There was no need to replant. En 1940, it was decreed that no trees shorter that 8 inches could be cut, in an effort to protect the seedlings. Today we rejoice when we find a tree that tall. To find tall trees in Québec, one has to search in town.

The introduction of heavy machinery in the boreal forest was a colossal error. The ground cover is too shallow to support the ferocious effects of the machines.

In a single morning, the cutting machines can fell more trees than a lumberjack working all winter. But the machine chews up the earth and destroys the seedlings, causing the water table to rise. The result is a devastated moonscape where only bushes can propagate. Good for raspberries and little else.

Replanting was initiated in order to compensate for these losses created by the heavy machine cutters.

In the forest, everything is inter-related. From the smallest mushroom to the biggest white pine, from the microscopic bacteria to the mighty moose, everything functions together. All the parts of the whole influencing all of the other parts. It is not difficult to imagine the result of machine clear cutting on the biosphere. Not to speak of the 45 liters of used oil which each machine dumps into the environment periodically.

Responsible forestry exists. Visit the Forêt de l’Aigle (forest of the Eagle) near Maniwake. Miraculously this forest escaped the contracting of 1987. It is administered by a non-profit organization, which includes several native Americans (Algonquins), with an operating annual budget of one million dollars. Camping, hunting, fishing and a myriad of hiking trails all can be found in the Forêt de l’Aigle. Logging is also practiced, but by selective cutting.

When Marc Beaudoin and his team took over the direction of the 140 square kilometers of the Forêt de l’Aigle, they asked the government of Québec for guidelines regarding the appropriate amount of timber which could be harvested annually. They were surprised by the apparently excessive amount of the reply. Much too high. Instead, the team decided to perform its own analysis. In the course of which, they discovered that the government had no real idea of just what the actual state of the timber resource was. The discrepancies varied between 30 and 70 percent depending on the species of trees, i.e. the government overestimated the actual amount of timber by at least 30% and as much as 70%.

The Forêt de l’Aigle produces rough timber. Two forestry engineers and five technicians are employed full time, with an profit of $800,000 per year. And the forest is more and more beautiful and healthy.

If the forest had been left to the government contracted logging companies, the Forêt de l’Aigle today would resemble the ugly clear cut which surrounds it on all sides.

The contract concluded 15 years ago between the government of Québec and the logging companies which allows the companies to harvest timber on public lands is a scandal. The people of Québec should collectively seek compensation for what is the abuse of the public trust for the profit of a few companies.

For the period up to 1987, companies were able to cut timber without restriction. The volume of timber was guaranteed to them by the government and they did not have to renew the resource. The government went so far as to construct the logging roads at public expense. It was obvious that something had to be done to restrain the systematic pillage of public lands.

So everybody met in 1987. The amount of timber which can be milled was decided and each mill was allocated sufficient timber to keep it up and running all year. In exchange of which, the timber companies were supposed to execute “improvements” in the forest but which were actually (and continue to be) paid for by the government, i.e. the people!

This is the essence of the contract which regulates the forestry industry today. Referred to as CAAF (Contrat d’approvisionnment et d’améngagement forestier) it applies to the “harvesting and improvement” of the forest. 300 contracts were signed for the ensemble of the province. All of the trees. Today if you were to cut a Christmas tree on public land, you would be liable to a fine of $500. The tree belongs to the company.

The real problem is that the amount of timber which is allocated is calculated not on the amount of timber which can be responsibly harvested in view of protecting the resource, but the amount is calculated on the timber necessary to keep the timber mills in operation.

A true inventory of the forest does not exist. Statistics do, but they are unreliable.

Those statistics (voodoo forestry) were entered into a software program by the government in a program named “Sylva”. The results were extrapolated over a period of 100 years, but the whole process is are since the original information is faulty, just a guess really. In fact no one knows what the forest will be like in 100 years. No one really know the actual state of the forest today.

This process, however, is the basis for the calculation of the allocation which each timber company receives annually. Since 1987, not one of the 300 companies has lost its contract. The forest, on the other hand, is dying.

Action Boréale was founded in 2000. It is an independent citizen’s group dedicated to the preservation of the forest ecosystem and the promotion of responsible forestry. It has over 2000 members.
For the time being, its efforts are concentrated in Abitibi-Témiscanmingue, where Action Boréal has achieved real success. Thanks to its efforts, eight individual forests will be protected. This represents only 5% of the region, but the group is resolved to protect 25% of the territory, the minimum necessary to maintain a critical level of biodiversity.

Action Boréal is hoping to spread its efforts throughout Québec.

Responsible forestry? After 150 years of timber cutting, Québec produces only lower grade products: two x fours, pulp, paper and plywood. This is because the timber mills were constructed to produce this and nothing else.

In the province of Québec, the publicly held power company, Hydro-Québec returns 2 billion dollars to the public treasury. Loto-Québec (public lottery) 1.5 billion. The provincial liquor board (Société des Alcools) nearly as much. On the other hand, the forestry industry costs the public treasury 10 million dollars per year. The people of Québec are subsidizing an industry which is destroying a public resource, even though it returns $1 per tree to the government.

It is absurd that in Abitibi-Témiscanmingue, in the heart of the forest, lumber wholesalers cannot purchase stock from the timber mills. All of the wood is shipped to Toronto where it is graded. The best crosses the border into the USA.

Wholesalers in Abitibi-Témiscanmingue must send their trucks south to purchase timber products, and have access only to the lower grade stock. The result is that lumber in the heart of the forest is more expensive than anywhere else in the country.

And what about jobs? Since 1950, the forestry industry has lost 9 out of 10 jobs, while production has increased dramatically. The mills are busy installing technology which produces more and more product while creating fewer and fewer jobs.

What will happen when the resource is completely exhausted in a few years?

The forest of Québec belongs to the people of Québec. A situation unique in the world. But although it belongs to the public by law, in reality the benefits accrue to a small group of companies who have no regard for the resource which they exploit.

The forest belongs to the people of Québec. Even if one lives in the heart of Montréal, the forest creates your oxygen.

Action Boréale




October 6, 2004

During the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, amidst the news reports from the reporters “embedded” in the field which resembled more jingoistic cheerleading than actual news reporting, there was a local news report which touched me deeply. In the few minutes that the television cut away from the obscene images of this so-called “smart war”, a friend of mine was interviewed. He was speaking from the local charity hospital where his wife was awaiting treatment for a heart problem. The couple did not have health

According to government statistics, the amount of people in the United States of America living in poverty has increased steadily over the last three years. The health care of senior citizens, on the other hand, has not improved. Pharmaceutical companies are doing very well in the America of George W. Bush. As are most of America's Richest citizens.

I am astounded by the level of support which our country continues to give to this president whose legacy will include cutting government subsidies for education and for local police. And whose administration has been criticized most harshly by its own former members. The problem, it seems to me, is not even political, but cultural. The United States of America has devolved into a culture of sound bites where any reasoned and rational examination of reality has given way to the manipulation of image. It is difficult to explain the current situation in America otherwise. How else to explain that “No child left behind” really means “Less money for education.” Or that the actual dismantling of environm that the so called “Patriot Act”, which no one, including the legislators who voted it into law, has seemed to have read, should more appropriately be called “Big Brother is watching you Act”. It seems that in this culture if you call a hot dog a filet mignon, people will believe that it is in fact a steak. The true danger of this administration is its ability to manipulate facts for its own political agenda. And the trueem to either know or care. Or both.

Americans are no longer interested in understanding the nature of things. And they (we) have the president that we deserve. Everything must be condensed to a sound bite in order to capture the attention of the general public. Anything resembling a careful examination of the facts will cause the viewers to pull out the zapper and change to the wrestling channel. So the best manipulator of the public imagination becomes the most effective communicator. Never mind whether he has the best idea or not. And never mind whether he makes a big mistake.

There remain in my mind a series of images which I find particularly disturbing. Remember the banner on the aircraft carrier onto which George W. Bush had flown in the cockpit of a small Air Force plane. The banner read "Mission accomplished". What in fact has been accomplished in Iraq since the foolhardy and precipitous invasion of March 2004: Iraq has become a breeding ground for terrorists and we are no closer to seeing an end to the quagmire, $200 Billion and over 1000 U.S. lives later. What in fact is the “mission” that was accomplished?

Remember also the images of George W. Bush dressed in a flight suit cavorting with the sailors on the aircraft. He then joined a very select group of national leaders wearing military garb which includes Manuel Noriega, Mohamar Khadafi, Augusto Pinochet as well as the dictator of North Korea. This event seems alntly close to shore to enable the president to use the customary helicopter. But that was certainly deemed not spectacular enough. In addition, the aircraft carrier was turned 180 degrees so that what appeared behind the president when he made his speech was the deep blue sea rather than the city of San Diego.

None of this seems to matter in a culture where image precludes substance. Never mind the declarations that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and the clear inference that he was in league with Al Queda, how about the promise that the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms, as liberators? Even this administration does not pretend that the U.S. forces in Iraq are anything other than an occupation force by now. But remember the looting of the Baghdad museum of archeology where thousands of disappeared while U.S. soldiers looked on. They were too busy defending the Ministry of Petrol to be bothered with the treasures of human civilization.

What ever happened to the museum? Not much news. On the other hand oil has hit an all time high of over $50 a barrel. It is much too cynical to suggest that the U.S. invaded Iraq for oil, but with Venezuela careening out of control and Saudi Arabia wracked with its own problems, a good case could have been made (was made?) that by invading Iraq the U.S. could insure a reliable supply of oil as well as some lucrative contracts for Haliburton. But as William Shakespeare knew all too well, even the best laid plans of mice and men can often go awry. Which doesn’t bode well for the poorly conceived and half cocked plans which have characterized this administration.

And how about the terrorism which George W. Bush is so intent on defeating. Why in the world did U.S. wait two months after September 11, 2001 to go after Ossama Ben Laden? Why in the days following the attack on the World Trade Center with all aircraft grounded in the U.S. were chartered flights able to leave the country with Saudi relatives of Ben Laden on board? Was it because George W. Bush had only one thing on his mind: Saddam Hussein? The invasion of Iraq was based not only on faulty information, it was based on bad reasoning. From a president who has little experience outside of the U.S. and who tends to oversimplify everything to the absurd, it is no surprise that he put into place a policy which had little understanding of the long term consequences of its implementation. The theory of preemptive strike is by now discredited even by conservatives. The notion of creating democracy around the world is a laudable one, but the policies of this administration have done little to insure its realization. In fact we are getting deeper and deeper into a quagmire from which there seems no way out.

Much of the furious debate which took place at the United Nations in the days leading up to the invasion was over whether inspectors were capable of disarming Iraq, but what really divided the United States from its chief critics on the Security Council were two diametrically opposed scenarios of a post-war Iraq. The American scenario, dubbed "new dawn," saw a transformed Iraq leading a democratic revolution in the Middle East that would sweep away monarchs and dictators, end the isolation of Ariel Sharon's Israel, boost oil production and bring in high-tech industry. The French and Russian scenario, dubbed the "gates of hell," foresaw a rise in Islamic radicalism and terrorism and in global economic and military instability. No one could really know what this war would bring but a year and a half after the invasion, the Mideast more closely resemble the gates of hell than the new dawn.

John Kerry himself has never dared to make such a bald charge: that President George W. Bush failed to adequately grasp the threat of Al Qaeda in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks, then followed up with an ?unnecessary and costly war in Iraq that strengthened the fundamentalist radical Islamic terrorist movement worldwide.? That was the stinging indictment of Bush?s own former top counter terrorism advisor, Richard Clarke. Clarke is only one of many former Bush aides who have harshly criticized the president for his lack of desire to actually understand the consequences of his policies. To a president who has reduced the world into “yer either with us or agin us”, this is sadly no surprise. But rather than respond to this and other critique, the president chooses to attack the character of those who criticize him. How sad.

Remember the Sept. 11 commission? Its report states that on the phone to Vice President Cheney 40 minutes after the attack, the president said “It seems like we have a little war here. Somebody’s going to pay” That somebody seems to have been Saddan Hussein even though he had nothing to do with the attacks. As early as Sept. 18, 2002, Bush continued to harp on Irak, insisting that some evidence be found linking Saddam to 9-11. For 2 months, nothing is done in Afghanistan to find Ben Laden. Before the attacks, leader of the Afghan resistance is told by the CIA not to kill Ben Laden but to bring him in alive. His response: “You are crazy”. Instead, it was he who was killed the by Al Quada on Sept. 10, 2001.

Although George W. Bush is certainly sincere in his effort to protect the people of the United States, his inability to understand fundamentally what is going on in the world makes him fundamentally unable to lead the United States out of the mess that he has put us in. The world is more complicated than a shoot out at the O.K. corral. There has got to be more subtlety to our policy than to just “git the bad guys.”

Instead of real governance, this administration has been intent upon imposing its policies with little understanding of the way the world actually works. The result is the largest deficit in history which this president will pass on to the children of America. And increasing poverty. And no real solution of the health care mess. And a war in Irak which has actually done the opposite of what it was supposed to do.

In the meantime, the U.S. is no more secure in the long term. In spite of the Office of Homeland Security and the color coded alarm system. The color has fluctuated between orange and yellow since its inception. Don’t expect to see blue or green any time soon. And probably not red either. What are we supposed to think of a system which does nothing effectively but increase anxiety in our society. Shouldn’t the people who are responsible for our security be devoting more time to thwarting terrorists than in creating angst among us by fluctuating the color code? But then, its all about how things appear. So it appears that with an orange alert, if nothing happens then somebody must be doing something. The whole sytem is absurd. We are maintained in a climate of fear. But then again, the climate of fear serves the political purposes of George W. Bush. This may be overly cynical, but George W. Bush is not a ?war president? as he claims. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a war president.

I want to live in an America where we act out of courage and not out of fear. Where we call a spade a spade and we don’t try to manipulate image to political advantage. Where America shines its light in the world and serves as a beacon for liberty and democracy. Not a place of fear. In the days following 9-11, the United States gained the sympathy and good will of many nations. That good will has been squandered. We have become a pariah, feared, but not respected.

I have certain questions about John Kerry. He is not the candidate that I would have preferred. I think that his reluctance to criticize the war in Irak early on does create a problem of credibility. But on the other hand, it is only fanatics who refuse to change their minds. In any event, the Democrats collectively did not live up to their responsibility as an opposition party. There was not real questioning of the rationale of going to war. And of its consequences. But then the Democrats are not an opposition party in the real sense. There are, however, sufficient differences, between the two parties, the most apparent to me being the Republican inability to imagine the consequences of their policies. What will happen further down the road with the huge deficit left for future generations to resolve? (In the space of four years, the U.S. went from its largest surplus to its largest deficit.) What will happen to the environment once the carefully constructed protections evolved over the last decades are finally discarded? What will happen to the food supply with consumers unable to have access to any foodstuffs not contaminated by GMOs? (In the U.S., consumers cannot even find out which foods, if any, are GMO free.) What will happen to the Middle East? (Remember the Road Map to Peace? What ever happened to that?)

George W. Bush and his policies are the equivalent of slash and burn agriculture. Things can seem to go along pretty well for a while, but eventually one cannot continue to slash and burn forever. Comes a time when the piper must be paid for the tune. Hopefully we will still be able to find a solution to these problems before it is too late.

I want to live in an American in which I still have hope for the future, one in which our society operates through courage and not fear. One in which education and the environment are respected. One in which health care is guaranteed for all of its children. One in which foreign policy is based on cooperation with other nations and not unilateral arrogance. One in which I can be proud to live.

For the above mentioned reasons, I am voting for John Kerry for president.




September 1, 2004

15 August, on the Citadel Hill, Halifax.

It is very difficult for me to describe the feeling that I felt during the Fête des Acadiens (Acadian celebration i.e. holiday) this year. I’ll start with the details. We arrived in Halifax on Aug. 14, driving in from Cap Pelé, New Brunswick with Jean-Claude Bellefeuille and his assistant Oana. They are the producers of the documentary on North American bird migration which I have been working on since the spring. The weather was cool and cloudy. Grey sky. The night before, we played in Shédiac in the rain. The crowd was wildly enthusiastic, but the weather put a damper on the evening. In spite of the reception we received, it was very hard to continue. I kept asking myself whether we should call it quits, looking about the stage at my musician comrades who were getting soaked, the wind blowing the rain right up onto the stage. We struggled through the set, but sitting at the piano to find the keyboard completely wet, made me realize that we were fighting a losing battle. My problem was not with the humidity, but rather the specter of death by electrocution which was looming larger and larger. We left the stage, not to return for an encore. Lina Boudreau was standing by and I was hoping to have her join me for a version of “Réveille”, but it was not to be. Discretion being the better part of valor.

The next day, Saturday, it did not rain, but it was cold and grey. We traveled to Halifax in silence. I was lost in my thoughts. I had never traveled this road before. In fact, I had never been to Halifax before. Passing through Windsor and Truro, I could not help but think of what these cities, small drab maritime towns, would be today if they were still called Piziquid and Cobéquid (the names of the original Acadian settlements being changed after the Deportation).

I was happy to arrive in Halifax. My parents had come from Louisiana to attend the Congrès Mondial (Acadian World Congress), in spite of a health problem earlier this year. They looked fit and seemed very please to be there, in spite of a little fatigue. They hauled me off the the Richard family reunion, the descendants of Michel Richard, dit Sans Soucy (nickname: No Worry, i.e. carefree) who arrived in Acadie from his native Saintonge (western France) in 1651. Family reunions are generally not my things. The idea of finding myself with 600 people with whom I share little but a common ancestor does not inspire me particularly. However, I was touched by this gathering. Touched by the dedication of these people to celebrate the life and struggle of the colonial Acadians whose lives were defined by resilience, adaptability and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. The crowd was split about 50-50, English and French speakers. There was a real warm feeling in the crowd. Long lost cousins who had never met, gathering to laugh and eat and drink. Charming. At least I was charmed.

Claude and I were unable to stay very long. The rehearsal for the closing concert began at 7:30 PM. It was still cold and rainy, but once again the ambiance was very warm. Normally when this many artists collect in one place, there are liable to be several ego traffic jams. Not here. It felt like a big family. Feel the love. Everybody was sincerely happy to be there, and there was a real complicity, a friendship, and a shared sense of pride.

The rehearsal finished very late, in the wee wee hours between midnight and dawn. The night was reduced to a few tatters of sleep. The wake up was hard the next morning. At 10AM we were back on the site. There was a run through followed by the dress rehearsal with just enough time for a sandwich and a cup of tea in between.

There were many new faces for me, Acadians from Nova Scotia: the bands Grand Dérangement and Blou, the singer songwriter Lenny Gallant, and the rappers Jacobus et Maléco. And there were old friend: Suroît, Paul Hébert, Marie-Jo Thério, Edith Butler, the young fiddler Dominique Dupuis, Wilfred LeBouthillier, and Marc Beaulieu who was leading the band. The most amazing discovery for me were the young dancers from La Baie Sainte Marie, young girls doing an Irish style gig. There is a tradition of this style which exists only in county Clare, which is home to the largest Acadian community in Nova Scotia. This dancing tradition exists nowhere else in the maritimes. I was constantly amazed to see them, their torsos stiff like pine tree trunks, hands at the side, feet going 100 miles an hour like beetle bugs gone mad.

I was really glad to see my Louisiana buddies, Waylon Thibodeaux and Bruce Daigrepont. Between the run through and the dress rehearsal, we got together in the dressing room trailer for a Cajun jam session which was a real treat.

My folks were able to attend the show. I was happy they would be there, but with the cold weather and the fatigue, I figured they would be leaving before the end of the 2 hour spectacular. But they stayed to the very end. Lina Boudreau and Jacques Normandeau were very kind to take care of them, helping them push through the crowd to find a good spot.

How to describe the feeling that I got singing “Réveille” at the foot of the Citadel of Halifax, the Acadian flag floating on the breeze. First it is important to understand that the Citadel of Halifax is the symbol of British arrogance in North America. It was from this place that the Deportation order was promulgated. You would have to look long and hard and dig deep to find a French speaker for miles (hundreds) around. The idea of a show celebrating Acadian pride at the foot of the Citadel would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. But the 400th anniversary of the founding of Acadie became the occasion for a reconciliation of sorts. Even in this loyalist stronghold, Acadian flags were everywhere. It is certain that tourist promotion had a lot to do with all of this, but I think, or at least I hope, that there was a deeper sentiment among the English speakers of Nova Scotia, who have historically been less that tolerant with the French speaking minority. I hope this will be the occasion for the Anglophones of Nova Scotia to recognize and appreciate the history and heritage of the Acadien minority, however difficult that history is for them to accept. To be Acadian means, in a very real sense, to have forgiveness in one’s heart. It is time for the descendants of the oppressors to recognize the feelings and struggle of the descendants of the oppressed. Everywhere the English population of Nova Scotia seemed to embrace the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Acadie as part of their heritage. Next year is the 250th anniversary of the Deportation. A more meaningful occasion for the reconciliation of the two communities is hard to imagine.

And here we were, 249 years after our ancestors had been driven from these shores in the most important (numerically speaking one time shot--the treatment of the American Indians being a longer running though not necessarily more devastating event) ethnic cleansing in North America. And here I was, with two Acadians from a new generation, Jean-François Breau and Wilfred LeBouthillier, singing a song about resistance and revolt in the face of oppression.

From the stage, the scene was incredible. Organizers had expected 3000-5000 people. There were over 15,000 people, over half of the Acadian population of Nova Scotia. (The Acadian population of Nova Scotia is approx. 30,000 scattered throughout the province. The largest group is in Baie Sainte Marie on the Bay of Fundy, with important groups settled in the tip of the peninsula at Pembomcoup, and in the north on Cape Breton Island, Chéticamp). Nearly everyone was holding an Acadian flag. On the hill, smoke machines were pouring out a fog which become surreal in the atmosphere of the colored lights. Incredible. And we sang a version of “Réveille” as moving as any I have ever done. Pour sauver l’héritage, to save the heritage.

Coming off stage, I gave a huge hug to Ronald Bourgeois, the organizer and the person most responsible for what was happening here. And we cried. I can’t remember exactly, but I must have cried a dozen times during the evening. Why, I am not sure. But I was overwhelmed by emotion. And pride. Proud to be here. Proud to bear witness to the resilience and the strength of the Acadian people, who in spite of deportation and disease and oppression and ridicule and assimilation, are still here and still sing loudly.

The most magical moment was the last note of the last song. The weather report had been worrisome: “thunderstorms, possibly violent during the evening”. During the whole show, rain drops fell on occasion, but nothing too severe. At the end of the show, we all gathered on stage and Edith Butler led us in a rousing version of l’Escaouette, an old traditional song. And then on the last note of this the last long, the skies opened up and the rain started to pour, like a vertical flood, the breaking of the dam of heaven. A torrential rain, a biblical storm. As though the angels could no longer hold back their tears.




August 4, 2004

I cannot remember the first time that I came to consider myself “Acadien”. But although the exact date is lost to me, I can say with certainty the event which provoked my epiphany: it was the moment that I understood the events of the Deportation of 1755. As a child and later as a teenager, I had no notion of belonging to any particular ethnic group. I knew I was Cajun (Anglicized spelling) or Cadien (as we prefer), but I was (and still am) American. My life was school, my friends, my family. I never asked myself any questions regarding my “Cadien-ness”. Nobody did. But when the realization of what had taken place in 1755 and the influence that the “Grand Dérangement” (the Big Nuisance as the Acadians refer to the Deportation with a great deal of irony) had on my family, I began to consider myself Acadian (Acadien). Beginning in 1972 with the acquisition of my first “Cajun” accordion, I plunged into the the French language musical universe of Louisiana. I did not grow up listening to Cajun music and was only vaguely aware that it existed. It was the sound track of the Sunday dinners at my grand-mother’s home, the French television program Passe Partout playing in the background. But once I got my hands on the accordion, I was plunged headfirst in a cultural soup that changed the way that I looked at the world. I wound up with the accordion almost by accident, motivated by an vague curiosity and a desire to go “back to the roots”. The discovery of the rich musical tradition of French Louisiana, the song-poems of Ira Lejeune, the warm sweet sound of Ambrose Thibodeaux and the accordion acrobatics of Aldus Roger, pushed me toward a second any more profound discovery: that I am part of a community which exists inside and outside of the society of which it is part. There was also the understanding that the identity which had come upon me like a flame was defined by the memory of a human tragedy. But this second realization was a little longer in coming.

Enter Donald Doiron. Donald is the first Acadian from the Canadian maritimes that I met. He had hitched down to Louisiana with the idea of teaching French. God only knows what had given him the idea. How did he know that Codofil (The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) was seeking French teachers to fill the local vacuum? It had been many years since the commemoration celebration of 1955 (200th anniversary of the Deportation) during which the Acadian elite of Louisiana had sent a delegation to the Canadian maritimes. The memory of that celebration did not even exist for Donald or me. We had been but 5 years old at the time. No, what had inspired Donald to come to Louisiana was the same thing that had inspired the original Acadians who left Halifax in 1764. It was a ray of hope, a glimmer of light, or a voice that one hears whispering in the deep woods. He had left, as they had, with the confidence, deep in his heart, that he would find safe harbor, that at the end of the trail, he would be welcomed by friends. And so Donald left New Brunswick with only the clothes on his back and came to Louisiana to teach French and to rearrange my world. He was the first Acadian (Acadien du Nord--of the North) that I ever met. The fact the he existed and that his community existed, hidden in the woods somewhere in Eastern Canada was like a cherry bomb which blew up in my heart.

The third member of my Holy Trinity of Acadian Revelation was history, or rather history books: The Acadian Miracle by Dudley LeBlanc, and the History of the Acadians by Bona Arsenault, the first a romanticized version of Acadian history by the colorful Vermillion parish politician, and the second a more “serious” work of history by a passionate Acadian genealogist from Bonaventure Québec. With these two books, I had everything I needed to start my crusade. All this struck me like lightening, right between the eyes. French language Louisiana music was the spark which set the house on fire. The musical tradition South Louisiana dragged me by my long hair toward the realization that I was part of a long and long-oppressed culture. The story of the Deportation and of the shame which was heaped on the Cadien language and the Cadien people in Louisiana burned inside my young heart. And the encounter with Donald Doiron was the proof that the Deportation had taken place and that we, the children of the exiles, were still here. And finally the details of the actual history which I learned from these two books (Acadian history was not in the schools of Louisiana while I was a student and today, if it is taught at all, is reduced to a caricature, the Cajuns portrayed more often than not as beer drinking buffoons) resonated so strongly in my heart, that I can still hear the call.

Voilà for the beginning of my Acadian identity. Very early in the process, I came to the conclusion that one of the most important, if not the single most important element of this identity was the French language. This second discovery was the beginning of my career as a French militant à la Québec of René Lévesque. I do not believe that the Cadiens of Louisiana who have been assimilated into the anglo-American mainstream and have lost the ability to speak the traditional language, can have the same depth of feeling relative to their identity as Acadien-Cadiens as those Cadiens who still speak French. There is a fundamental dimension to the experience that is missing unless understood in the language of our ancestors. But that is another story. What I am curious to understand is that “thing” which make us identify ourselves as Acadians, that thing, that feeling, that experience which are common to a lobster fisherman of Caraquet, New Brunswick and to a shrimp fisherman of Golden Meadow, Louisiana. Acadia (L’Acadie) is a virtual reality. It is not a country with boundaries, and a government and a passport. It exists only in the minds and hearts of those who consider themselves to be Acadian. And there are many who consider themselves to be, scattered all over North America. What is it that we share, beyond a few family names and a love of celebration?

I am currently in the middle of filming a 26 part documentary series which deals with the question of Acadian identity. We have visited or will visit just about every community which declares itself somehow Acadian. We will visit New Brunswick, obviously, but also the North Shore of the Saint Laurence, and the Magdeleine Islands (Les Iles de la Madeleine), both of which are in Québec, as well as New Foundland, Prince Edward Island (Ile Saint Jean), Nova Scotia (which in spite of being the original Acadian homeland, has only a small minority Acadian population, none of whom live on the sites of the original settlements), and Louisiana (where the descendants of the exiled Acadians intermarried with French, French creole, Spanish, German, Irish and English immigrants to form the Cajun people as we know them today).

One has to look hard to find a common link amongst all of these communities scattered throughout North America. (We will also be filming in France where the vestiges of the passage of the Acadians is still in evidence in the province of Poitou, the city of Nantes and on the island of Belle Ile en Mer.) Between a crab fisherman of Natashquan (North Shore Québec) and a shrimp fisherman of Bayou Lafourche, Louisiana, there is a world of difference. Barriers of geography, politics, history, culture and even climate separate the various Acadian communities. The “Cayens” of the North Shore of the Saint Laurence are among the most hard-core Québec separatists while still fiercely proud of their Acadien roots. To the Acadians of New Brunswick, however, the separatists of Québec are, at least in a political sense, kin to the devil himself. To the Cajuns of Louisiana, these questions are totally unknown. So what is this “thing”, if indeed such a thing exists, which unites all of these different Acadian communities, that component of their shared identity which surpasses nostalgia and folk-lore. The answer, I believe, begins with the Deportation.

Before I discovered the books of Dudley LeBlanc and Bona Arsenault, I knew nothing about the history of my ancestors. According to historians, for at least one generation, or longer, the exiled Acadians who settled in Louisiana continued to recount the story of the Deportation. At weddings and other gatherings, story tellers would keep the memory alive. By the time I was born, however, this tradition had completely disappeared. I seem to remember having heard of the “Grand Dérangement” (the Acadians describe the Deportation with considerable irony in a phrase which is best translated as “The Great Nuisance”), but the memory is not clear for me. I wonder whether I didn’t just invent the whole thing in a sub-conscious effort to romanticize my heritage. One thing is for certain, if indeed my family (it would have been my grand parents) spoke of the “Great Nuisance” it was only very sporadically and with only the slightest comprehension of the actual history. But between my discovery of Cajun music, my encounter with Donald Doiron, and the books of Bona Arsenault and Dudley LeBlanc, a powerful image of my Acadian identity took hold of me. During my first visit to Acadie in 1975, I was touched so deeply that I have never really overcome the shock.

The first thing that strikes Acadians who visit another distant Acadian community is that all of the family names are the same. It is always very surprising to find the same Arceneaux (Arsenault, Arsenau, Snault, etc.), Cormiers, Comeaux, and Boudreaux (Boudreau, Boudrots, Boudreaults,etc.). Next, there is the physical resemblance. Take an Acadian from anywhere and plop him down in another Acadian community anywhere else, and if he doesn’t open his mouth, nobody would ever guess that he is from out of town. But it seems to me that looking alike and having the same family names is not sufficient reason to create a bond that is worth maintaining.

I will never forget my first Frolic Acadien in 1975. On the Butte à Napoléon (Napolean’s hill) in Cap Pelé, New Brunswick, I met an elderly Acadian woman named Mrs. LeBlanc. I was stupefied by the fact that she resembled my own grandmother (there are LeBlancs a-plenty in my family tree). I was ever more touched by the fact that she talked like my grandmother. There are real differences between the French of New Brunswick and the French of Louisiana, even though these two accents resemble one another more closely than any other two accents in all of the French speaking world. But what struck me was what Mrs. LeBlanc was actually saying. She had heard that there were Acadians in Louisiana, and wanted to know if it were true. She had a long list of questions which were very down to earth, the kinds of questions that my grandmother would have asked, such as how were the seasons and what did the farmers grow, and how did we live, etc. When we parted, she promised to pray for me, just like my grandmother had done when I had last seen her. This encounter touched my in the deepest corner of my heart and I cannot think of Mrs. LeBlanc to this day without getting emotional. It is this emotion which is the source of Acadian solidarity, or rather this emotion is the manifestation of that “thing” which is the source of Acadian solidarity.

In all of our history there is something which remains unexpressed and unexpressible. It is an emotion so powerful as to be overwhelming. This is the emotion which overcame me as I was driving my car in 1973, forcing me to the side of the road to compose Réveille, sobbing with tears. This is the emotion which overwhelmed me during my short visit with Mrs. LeBlanc in New Brunswick. And this emotion is universal among all who consider themselves to be Acadian. And this emotion is attached always to a souvenir of the Deportation. I do not believe that Québécois are touched by so strong an emotion when they consider the conquest of 1759. I do not think that Americans feel such a strong emotion when they (when we) consider the American revolution. One can be very strongly attached to one’s country, but it is not the same as imagining the suffering of one’s ancestors during a brutal forced expulsion from their homes, what in modern parlance would be called ethnic cleansing. The Acadians have no country to be attached to. On the other hand, all Acadians have been moved to tears by the image of the Deportation. In the scope of things, the Deportation of 1755 is perhaps not as significant as the recent genocide in Rwanda or not as horrible as the holocaust of the Jews, but how does one evaluate human suffering? To consider oneself Acadian, I believe that a strong personal relation to the Deportation is fundamental.

The second important element of Acadian identity is the French language. There is, none the less, a “grey zone” of culture. I am referring to Acadians and specifically Cadiens (Cajuns) who are assimilated anglophones and who are unable to speak the traditional language of the community. I have often asked this question of Cadiens, “Does one have to speak French to be Cadien?” The answer is always an unequivocal “Yes!”. When I ask the same Cadiens if that would exclude their own non-French speaking children, there is always an awkward moment, which is finally resolved when they exclaim, “No, they are Cadien too!” This contradiction does not seem to bother us particularly. It is certain, however, that the depth of Cadien or Acadian experience is tributary to the French language. There is most definitely a spirit, a style, a world view, a character, something intangible but none the less real, which transcends the loss of the traditional French language, but it is also clear that something fundamental is lost with the loss of the language. If we can be touched by the history of the Deportation while not understanding the traditional French language, I am convinced that the depth of the emotion is not as deep. For a non-French speaker, even should he consider himself “Cajun” or “Acadian”, that identity is diluted by his attachment to an over-riding anglophone (American or Canadian) culture.

There is also a question of territory which is part of the puzzle. There are families in New Brunswick with names like Ferguson, McDonald, or even LeBouthillier who are not of the pre-dispersal Acadian lineage, but who consider themselves and are considered to be Acadian. In Louisiana, typical Cajun names can be of Spanish, German, Irish and even English origin. Assimilation worked in favor of the Acadians in Louisiana until well into the 20th century and in the Canadian maritimes for a long period as well. Let me make it clear that I am no proponent of any notion of “ethnic purity”. Remember my definition of an Acadian is someone who considers himself to be, rather than someone who is part of any particular blood-line. What interests me is to understand why is it that anyone would consider himself to be Acadian in the first place. There are various reasons why someone would attach himself to this identity. Those reasons are complex, but it seems to me that two elements are essential: the French language and an emotional experience relative to the Deportation of 1755.




July 7, 2004

7 June. Flying to Moncton. Alain Clavette is at the airport to meet. Cold and grey. The crew gathers in the production office. Eli, Georges, Martin, Alain and I and director Roger LeBlanc suffering from a bad hip, which will plague him during the entire shoot. We motor to Saint Jean and take the ferry to Grand Manan late afternoon. The sky has cleared, but it is still very cold. We arrive early enough on the island to find a heavy sweat shirt and a pair of woolen gloves. I had come prepared for the cold, but not prepared enough. Dinner of fish and chips on board the ferry. We install ourselves in a row of cabins in Grand Manan, overlooking the bay. A picturesque up East post card scene disturbed only by the salmon pens floating just offshore. Although a boon for the local economy, the technology of salmon farming has not developed sufficiently to deal with the attendant pollution problems, not to speak of the quality of the fish itself. A recent scare has put the salmon farmers on their toes. It is not yet clear, but there is something disturbing about penning up thousands of fish in a restricted area and feeding them fish food make from other fish. The impending doom, however, is not enough of a worry to keep the boys from having a Canadian night of hockey and beer. Tampa Bay wins the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, I try to get some sleep.

8 June, Grand Manan. Up at 4AM in the dark and the cold. We have breakfast in the cabin and head down to the dock. 5AM departure on board the Island Bound, captain Russell at the helm. On board is the local birding expert who is headed out with us to restock the gull chaser on a nearby island. In an attempt to fend off the voracious herring gulls and protect the fragile tern colony on one of the small islands of the archipelago, a young woman has been installed. Her days consist of attempting to scare off the gulls to protect the tern colony. The herring gulls cluster about the edge of the tern nesting site with the look of serial killers in their beady eyes, just waiting for the chance to feed upon the tern eggs or chicks. The terns don’t have much of a chance against the carnivorous gulls who are at least five times bigger than they. And so the local birding community supports a summer long effort to help the fragile tern colony. A young woman from Vancouver answered the advertisement and will spend several months alone in a small trailer without electricity or running water, spending her days yelling at seagulls. In an attempt to make her solitude easier to bear, we are carrying to her a cargo of flowers to be planted as well as a week’s supply of water.

We are headed to the next island over where Bowdoin College has a research station. For most of the summer, a team of scientists will study the behavior of several species, particularly the tree swallow and the savannah sparrow. For nearly thirty years, information has been gathered here. There is a station to study the fog. The PH is getting better from its all time acid laden low of 2, but is not nearly anywhere near what is was before the infamous acid rain became a serious problem. Another disturbing statistic is that of the 100 swallow cages, only 37 are occupied, a significant reduction from the historical average. A natural cycle, or evidence of stress in the population of the tree swallow. Too early to tell say the scientists. We accompany a very charming young lady who proceeds to sneak up on a swallow cabin much like a cat on its prey. She pounces on the cage, covering the entry hole with a cloth. Opening the side latch, she reaches in and very delicately removes the mother swallow. The bird will be weighed and measured and banded if she is not already, and then released, none the worse for wear.

While we are there, we request that a banding study take place for the purposes of our filming. Mist nets are installed and in the space of a few minutes, several small song birds are captured: yellow warblers, American redstarts, black throated green warblers and a very rare (for this part of the world) white-eyed vireo. The birds are carefully removed from the nets and placed in bags for transport to the banding station. We make a critical mistake, however, and keep the birds for an inordinate period in the bags in order to film the process. Normally this would not be a problem, but due to the cold and to the fact that the birds are recently arrived with little fat reserves, we are in for a bad surprise. Once the banding has taken place, weighing, measuring and attaching the small band (in this case the smallest gauge) and recording the number, the birds are released. Instead of flying off, however, the birds flutter to the ground, evidently in a stupor. We are in as much distress as the birds and carefully scoop them up and place them inside of our coats to warm them up. Fortunately after a few minutes inside of our jackets, the birds recover and fly off. The sun finally peeks out from behind the clouds and with great relief we see our last capture flying off with no apparent ill effects apart from perhaps a less than cheerful memory of its experience with documentary film-making. I am in no better shape than the birds, suffering from the damp cold. My hands and feet are freezing.

The highlight of the day is our encounter with a Leach’s storm petrel. These are tiny pelagic birds who spend their lives at sea, coming on land only to reproduce during the short northern summer. They nest in holes in the ground. On the island is the world’s foremost authority on these birds. He has spent his life studying these graceful slate colored sea birds. With him in the lead, we trek off into the forest. At one point, he bends over and on hand and knees reaches into a small cavity in the ground. He begins to laugh. “It’s biting me,” he says. His arm disappears up to the shoulder. Finally he begins to pull his arm from the hole, the beak of a small grey bird in his grip. The bird is examined to the delight of all. A beautiful creature with extra large wings, a black beak surmounted by the olfactory tube and jet black webbed feet. After we have had the chance to examine the bird, it is placed delicately on the ground. The bird ambles back into its hole, wondering, certainly, what the hell all that was about.

The smell of the bird is unforgettable. A deep musky odor, very strong, but not unpleasant. These birds use their highly developed sense of smell to help them navigate.

With the low tide, we are obliged to haul all of our gear across the flats and climb aboard the skiff which will take us back to the Island Bound. A cold and dreary and very memorable day.

9 June. Up at 6AM (late start) and off to a location which will remain undisclosed. Not for the sake of mystery, but rather to preserve the tranquility of the heron rookery which was the target of our expedition. Herons are notoriously skittish. Repeated visits to their nesting site could eventually result in its abandonment. And in this ever tightening world with fewer and fewer areas isolated from the reach of all terrain vehicles (four wheel ATV), you won’t be getting any more information from me. I will say, however, that the spot was infested with mosquitoes. Once we walked into the woods we were hit by a wall of the voracious bugs. Thank the gods for insect spray. In the space of the minute which it took me to slime up, my head was turned in to a replica of the moon, with bumps and craters abounding. Canadian mosquitoes seem to like me a lot. The rookery itself was incredible. Above us in the canopy we could hear the “quock, quock” of the big birds and see the parents as the swooped on to the nests to feed the young. The one nest that we were able to see had four nestlings. According to statistics, probably only one will survive long enough to learn to fly.

10 June. Filming chez Alain Clavette in the beautiful Memramcook valley. The list for today:

Bald eagle (two males including one immature)
Common yellowthroat
Black throated green warbler
Black throated blue warbler
Magnolia warbler
Yellow rumped warbler
Black capped chickadee
Hermit thrush
Red-eyed vireo
Solitary vireo
Golden crowned kinglet (displaying the golden crown)
Evening grosbeak (a lifer for me)
Tree swallow
Cliff swallow (another lifer)
Song sparrow
Chipping sparrow
Purple finch
Ruby throated hummingbird
Robin
Eastern bluebird (a solitary male, singing like crazy, trying to attract a mate. At this latitude, the northern rim of its territory, he will have quite a time)
American crow

A visit to the sewerage lagoon reveals:
Black duck
Ruddy duck (what a great bird with its pale blue beak)
Green winged teal
Blue winged teal
American widgeon
Mallard
Northern pintail
Ring-necked duck

I learn with great sadness the passing away of Ray Charles.

11 June. On our way to Caraquet and the Acadian peninsula, stopping off at Tracadie to see the endangered Piping plover. On the beach camouflaged by its sandy colored coat, a single plover atop its nest. Like its cousin the kildeer, the piping plover will lay its eggs in a depression just about anywhere and usually right in the middle of someplace that somebody will need to go. A few years ago I had to reroute traffic coming to my house to avoid a kildeer nest which was right in the middle of the gravel road. The piping plover employs the same careless philosophy in choosing its nesting site, relying on its “wounded display”, feigning a broken wing to attract predators away from the nest. The choice of nesting sites explains to a great extent why this bird is an endangered species. The single plover that we saw seemed quite lonely, perched atop its nest out in the open sitting on the precipice of species extinction. In spite of valiant efforts to save this bird, the accessibility of the human population and particularly the nefarious effects of all terrain vehicles (ATV) on its nesting sites (open beaches), has created a very bleak future for the piping plover. We leave the little mother atop her clutch of eggs, saying a little prayer for her and for her tribe. The list for the day includes:

Great cormorant
Piping plover (a lifer for me)
Herring gull
Ring billed gull
Common loon
Black scoter
Black duck
American widgeon
Northern pintail
Eurasian widgeon
Blue winged teal
Green winged teal
Northern shoveler
Gadwall
Bonaparte’s gull
Greater scaup
Lesser scaup

12 June. Caraquet. On board the Eric Robert with Captain Donat Lacroix at the helm. We set sail into the bay in search of Northern gannets. We are not disappointed. A few miles off shore, we find them feeding just below the horizon. Amazing birds, they will plunge head first at incredible speed, folding their wings in classic W, and striking the water, sometimes diving to 40 feet or more to the dismay of the fish swimming below. After feeding, the birds will sometimes float on the surface, too heavy to fly. The trip is doubly entertaining because we get to visit with Donat. Donat Lacroix is an Acadian renaissance man. Singer, songwriter, he is known for his charming and vivacious style. But he is also a professional fisherman, an a jack of all trades. After the boat trip, he takes us to his house which he built himself from lumber that he cut from his own land. He shows us the fence he recently built from cypress that he cut as well. Upon leaving he gives us each a bottle of his own maple syrup, thick as motor oil and nearly as black. We can’t resist popping the top on the jar and helping ourselves to a delicious sweet little snack.

13 June. Percé. Sleeping in until 7AM. The crew is already filming on Bonaventure Island without Alain and I, so we have a leisurely morning at the Manoir Percé (try the home smoked salmon) before heading off aboard the Felix Leclerc. It is very cold on the water and once again I am saved by the foresight of my comrade who loans me an additional layer of fleece. Bonaventure Island is home to over 200,000 nesting seabirds in this season. Razorbills, Black legged kittiwakes, Common Murres, Black Guillemots, and about 90,000 Northern gannets. The tour boat is able to get in close to the cliff on the north side of the island. The cliff falls straight down into the sea and the depth is over 100 feet right up to the rock face. We are able to get right up under the gannet colony. Alain spots a pair of Atlantic puffins, the only two we will see. One of them takes off and flies right over the boat before heading back to his designated spot on the cliff face as though saying hello. The birds are lined up like sardines in a can. Every square inch of ledge is occupied by a nesting bird, although “nesting” may give a false impression of the scene. The birds lay their eggs on just about any spot which can hold one without having it fall into the sea. Not much nesting material, mostly just bare rock. The boat makes the tour of the island and we disembark and make our way to the gannet colony. Amazing site, thousands and thousands of birds parked right next to each other like cars in a shopping mall parking lot. The distance between each nest is determined by the length of two bills. The birds are separated by the distance of their own bill and that of their next door neighbor. Should any bird get closer than pecking distance, all hell breaks loose. As these birds cannot just take off in flight, but must have a little running room, or preferably the top of a cliff face, there are constant squabbles as the birds cross the colony to fly off to feed. There are two parents per nest, who will take turns. The pair will remain faithful to the nest, returning year after year to the same nest to find the same mate, although they will separate during the winter migration, always returning, however, to the same nest and the same mate. The landings are not particularly graceful, the birds careening into the vicinity of their particular nests, and once again all hell breaks loose. In spite of which, the colony gives the impression of a well ordered society, most of the birds sitting placidly atop their nests. The ratio of inter-gannet violence is certainly much lower than what would result if you put 90,000 human beings into a square mile.

After lunch we boarded a zodiac which takes us back underneath the colony. The seas were choppy and the trip was less than serene, bouncing in the water a little too high for my taste, but the experience was incredible. Above us floated thousand and thousands of birds, Northern gannets mostly, but also razorbills and murres and kittiwakes. A huge maelstrom of birds, some just a few yards above our heads, and layer upon layer far up into the clear blue sky.




June 2, 2004

In the one-step-forward-one-step-back department, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favor of Monsanto in its suit against Percy Schmeiser. Mr. Schmeiser was accused of infringement of patent because his canola field was contaminated by Roundup Ready seed. Monsanto owns the patent on the genetically modified seed which allows the plant to resist treatment by the herbicide Roundup (Monsanto owned). At question was the fundamental right of farmers to control their seed, as well as the basic notion of whether living organisms, seeds, plants, genes and ultimately human organs, can be owned and protected by corporate patents on intellectual property.

In a five to four decision, the justices of the Supreme Court sided with multi-national Monsanto, but the decision was not an absolute victory for the producers of genetically modified organisms. Mr. Schmeiser was not required to pay damages, penalties, court costs, and most importantly, he will not pay the $15 per acre use fee demanded by Monsanto. It is questionable whether Monsanto or any other producer of GMOs will be able to use this decision to sue other farmers in the future, since the court noted that Mr. Schmeiser’s profits from his canola crop were the same whether from traditional or Roundup Ready canola. Thus it will be hard to prove that a farmer “profited” from the unauthorized use of genetically modified seed. It should be remembered that Mr. Schmeiser’s canola field was contaminated and 50 years of development of his own canola seed was destroyed by the accidental contamination of his field.

The Supreme Court sided with lower court rulings by confirming that no matter how the seed winds up in a farmer’s field, whether via cross-pollination or direct seed movement, or human intervention, the resulting crop is the property of Monsanto due to the ownership of the patent on the GMO. In his statement after the decision, Mr. Schmeiser remarked stoically that the ruling must be accepted. The agricultural, economic and social question for Canadian farmers will now be played out in the parlement. Will the lawmakers representing the people of Canada realize the significant long term impacts on the health and well being of the Canadian people of GMOs and take measures to restrict their proliferation? Or will they submit to the pressure of the multi-national companies, with considerable financial resources, who stand to make considerable profits from the sale of GMOs?

It should be noted that there is no longer any non-GMO canola or soy beans in North America. The entire continent has been contaminated via wind born pollen. In the biosphere, there is no such thing as containment. Once you introduce a life form into the environment there is no turning back. We cannot contain the wind. We cannot contain seed movement through cross-pollination, or transportation by birds, bees, and other animals. Once the genie is out of the bottle, as she is on the North American prairie, there’s no getting her back in.

In the U.S., home to most of the multinational companies which produce GMOs (which are coincidentally the same companies who make the herbicides and pesticides which they require), several major drugs are being produced with plants. The pharmaceutical plants are primarily sunflowers and corn, or maize. There is already cross-pollination with related species. These prescription drugs include vaccines, industrial enzymes, blood thinners, blood clotting proteins, growth hormones and contraceptive drugs. All of the plants in question are cultivated in the open, and are thus subject to cross pollination by GMOs. And this without any important research on the long term hazards to human health posed by GMOs.

In Europe, the EU is considering lifting its ban on the import of GMO food stuffs. With the current world situation, the turmoil in the Middle East and a reckless American administration attempting to control a situation in Iraq spun out of control, the question of genetically modified organisms seems of little consequence. But in fact, the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada is closely related to the current geopolitical situation. The priority given to multinational companies bent on exploiting the market (in spite of propaganda touting the benefits of GMOs in curing hunger in the third world, GMOs are actually contributing to poverty by displacing the small farmer with mono-cultural industrial farms which are able to afford the excessive expense of GMO agriculture) is inspired by a philosophy which values profit over life. Maybe we can continue to destroy the rain forest and pollute the atmosphere and wreak havoc with natural cycles through the imposition of monocultural agriculture based on chemical based herbicides and fertilizers. Maybe we can continue to emit hydrocarbon gases and warm the globe. Maybe we can continue to exploit the natural environment with no regard for the life forms which it contains. Maybe we can. Maybe we can’t.




May 5, 2004

15 April. Rolling across the prairie in the early morning light, patches of grey fog laying in the low spots. Sunrise in the Lacassine Wildlife Refuge. Near the entrance, a gaggle of herons feeding in the shallow: blues, greens, great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, bitterns and roseate spoonbills, their wings purple in the early morning light. I leave my colleagues behind and take off down the path which marks the northern perimeter of the refuge. The sun at my back throws a golden glow on top of and into everything I see. In the scrub which lines the small canal, a kingbird sits in nearly every tree. They spring from their perches in a wild contorted aerial dance and settle back, a hapless insect clamped firmly in the beak. Red-winged blackbirds are everywhere, their raucous calls punctuating the morning like little foghorns on a little sea. The marsh is alive with sight and sound. A small green heron bursts from the path just in front of me, calling out his name in Cajun as he goes. “Kop kop” he says. Then its the turn of an American bittern, catapulted from the bush and flying gracefully over the marsh. A little further, hundreds of tree swallows swoop in tight circles feeding on the insects rising off the water, attracted by the warmth of the sun. I keep on walking, my colleagues now far behind. At the western edge of the refuge, the path turns abruptly to the left, headed south and directly to the Gulf. Under the shade of a hackberry tree, I stop to rest. The ground is still damp with the dew and I stand quietly, alone in a sea of green and brown. Suddenly a Louisiana heron swoops down on me. Startled, I have only a few seconds to make out its dark head and white belly before it disappears into the bright blue sky. The trek back is not pleasant, the sun beating straight down, the heat and humidity just a taste of what is to come. I had forgotten to take a cap and so I pull my windbreaker over my head for shade, concentrating on my breathing and keeping a steady pace. It is now mid-morning and the world has settled down, most of the birds fed and resting until the cool of the evening will bring them out again. I finally reach the shelter to find my comrades, and I plop down heavily, grateful for the shade. Barn swallows flitter about, their blue backs and rusty colored throats gleaming in the light. A common yellowthroat bursts into song in the bushes, his canary colored breast and black masks barely visible in the leaves. That evening in Lake Charles, we talk about the morning with quiet awe, recalling the beauty of the marsh at the Casa Cancun, eating fajitas and drinking Mexican beer.

16 April. My good friend and marsh ranger, Tommy Michot, introduces us to a contact in Cameron. His name is David Richard. His official title is biologist, but his real job description is land steward. David administers thousands of acres along the lower western Louisiana coast, dealing with cattle, and alligators, and oil, and gas, and watermelons, and wildflowers, and documentaries and with all of the people that deal with all of the above. He obviously loves his job and knows all of the people and who has the keys to all of the doors. David leads us to the Natural Gas processing plant in Johnson Bayou where we meet the public relations officer, Pat. Pat is very friendly but very serious about his job. We are briefed on safety procedures and made to sign in with proper ID. “Things have changed a lot” he says, referring to the world since September 11, 2001. Pat leads us out of the plant proper and through the gate which leads to the edge of the nearest chenier. He is obviously happy to get off the plant site and into the woods. The cheniers are geological formations which hug the Louisiana coast forming a forest line whichs parallels the water’s edge. The land rolls in gentle ridges, the high ground followed by a swale, followed by another ridge and another swale, the elevation of each different only by a few feet. Here the land imitates the waves with which it shares the world. Atop the ridge stands a forest, the oldest ones of live oak, quercus virginia, from whence the ridges get their name (chêne=oak, chenier=oak grove). On the younger cheniers, hackberries and honey locusts and small mimosas dominate. But on the older cheniers, the oaks take over. They are twisted and bent by the hurricanes, bent over like old people, heads pointing north, looking as though they would like to pull up and head that a-way. They never attain the great size of the live oaks farther inland, but along the coast, the oaks have a rugged character and a wild beauty which makes up for lack of size. The oaks are able to resist the salinity of the climate and their lateral roots spread well beyond the drip line and protect them from even the fiercest of winds. Eventually they weave their branches together closing the canopy and creating a mysterious atmosphere worthy of medieval lore. Pat leads us deep into the chenier where we come upon a gaggle of University of Southern Mississippi graduate students busy banding birds. Small gauge mist nets are thrown up to the canopy, trapping the small migrants as they fly though. The birds are freed from the nets very carefully by the students and placed in cloth bags to be transported to the camp where they are then weighed and banded before being released. The nets are checked every half hour. A Kentucky warbler and an indigo bunting were captured while we were there. A pretty calm day, according to the group leader. The weather was balmy and the wind from the south. Under very specific conditions, a strong north wind and rain, the birds will literally fall from the sky, the proverbial migratory “fall out”. Good for birders, but not so good for the birds. Once the migrants have traversed the Gulf of Mexico on their 1000 kilometer journey from the Yucatan, flying from 18 to 24 hours straight, provided they have a good tail wind and sufficient fat reserves, they will just keep going. If, however, they encounter rain, or a strong head wind, or both, they will fly into the first available shelter, the coastal cheniers, and hole up, desperate for a place to rest and a good meal. No chance of a fall out today, but we wish the graduate students some bad weather and head back to the gas plant. With David in the lead, we visit several more cheniers, sloughing through the muddy swales, before finding the perfect one. A crested Caracara is sighted and several white-winged doves, species colonizing from the west. Tommy Michot and I head back to Lafayette, leaving our Canadian friends at Holly Beach, scanning the flocks of shorebirds for a rare black skimmer.

20 April. Filming begins in earnest with the arrival of the crew. Until now we have been filming without sound, Éli LaLiberté carting his 20 pound 33x lens mounted on the 35 pound camera and the 75 pound tripod through the mud, accompanied by director Roger Leblanc and naturalist Alain Clavette, and me. Today, the rest of the crew, Georges, Martin and Sam arrive. The filming today will be chez moi. The action takes place in my own backyard with my own backyard birds: cardinals, mocking birds, brown thrashers, my dear purple martins, the ubiquitous house sparrows and the new sensation in the neighborhood, a mating pair of bluebirds. I explain what I have done to attract birds (plant more than 900 trees on 10 acres, preparing feeders for migrants and building houses for the purple martins and the bluebirds, etc) and what birds mean to me. A good time was had by all.

21 April. We set out from McGee’s landing with swamp guide Curtis Alleman into the Henderson swamp. The water is very low, particularly for this time of year, and we will not have access to the remote areas of the Atchafalaya Basin. In spite of which we have a great time. Curtis brings us to an Osprey nest. The parents are both on the nest, a young fledgling certainly inside. We approach carefully and pull away once the birds get alarmed. On the north side of the Interstate Bridge we visit the canals which had contained so many egrets the week before. The water is better now, and the birds have left. When the oxygen content of the water is low, the fish will swim closer to the surface which is a good thing for the wading water birds and not such a good thing for the fish. Since our last visit, the water quality has improved and the birds have departed. We do manage to sight a great crested flycatcher, and Alain nearly falls into the water trying to get a better look. This afternoon, we accompany Curtis to Lake Martin where we are all thrilled by the rookery. Just off the road in the cypress swamp is one of the most important heron rookeries in the world. Great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, little blue herons and roseate spoonbills nest in great proximity and profusion, resulting in a fabulous display of color and nuptial behavior. The birds are in full nesting plumage, hormones raging. Their colors are at an intense peak with their nuptial feathers trailing behind them like the gown of the Queen of England. They go through the mating rituals, dancing their love dances, the males passing sticks to the females who build the nests and then sit patiently over the young hatchlings. The alligators lay silently below waiting for an unfortunate fledgling to fall. Good for the alligator, not so good for the bird.

22 April. We return for another sunrise in the Lacassine Wildlife Refuge. The sky is overcast, however, and the sun doesn’t peek from behind the clouds until mid-morning. The mosquitoes are out in swarms, driving us crazy. There is a good south breeze, however, and as long as we keep heading into it, the mosquitoes are not such a problem. Problem is we can only go so far south.

22 April. We meet Bill Fontenot early in the morning at Johnson Bayou. Bill is a big friendly bear of a birder and one of the most respected naturalists in Louisiana. He will accompany us onto the chenier today. But first we have to get there. There was some rain since we last came, a good sign. The reports are of a good “fall out”. Birds were sighted in good numbers yesterday. The weather is still drizzly, which is good for the birders, but not too good for the crew. The equipment has to be carried by hand. The road in is a mud pit and we sink up to our knees in the swales. There are dozens of alligators in the ponds looking at us curiously, hoping that we fall in. We are able finally to get onto the chenier. There are not as many birds as we had hoped, but we are able to spot some very special visitors: a worm-eating warbler and a grey cheeked thrush, as well as a mysterious sparrow that even my expert birding friends are unable to identify. We have lunch in Johnson Bayou at the only store in town, general store come hamburger joint and pick up on some rubber boots. After lunch we stop at the Audubon Society refuge at Peveto. The place is crawling with birds. The weather is a steady drizzle, not too hard to fog up the glasses, but hard enough to keep the birds low: Rose breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles, yellow throated vireos, all in their flamboyant nesting plumage, the colors made even more vivid by the intense green of the canopy made even greener by the overcast sky.

A northern peewee sits on a branch just above the trail the entire time we are there, apparently just arrived from Mexico and apparently completely worn out. He sits on the branch barely moving, catching his bearings, resting up from the long haul.

27 April. Having slept in Hattiesburg Mississippi, we arrive early at the home of Dr. Robb Deal. Robb is one of the leading researchers using radar technology to study bird migration. Ever since the pioneering research of Sidney Gautreaux, radar has been used to study bird migration in North America. With more and more sophistication has come more and more understanding of the phenomenon of bird migration. Why do birds migrate? A procreation strategy, replies Dr. Deal. By flying north to zones less populated with competing species, the birds increase their chances of procreating successfully. Are bird numbers declining? No reliable evidence, says Dr. Deal. It would seem that several species are declining but there is no reliable information for the population numbers. New technologies will provide new information. For example, until now, only waterfowl species, ducks and geese were able to be followed by satellite, having transmitters attached to their legs. Now with smaller and lighter transmitters, the passerine species will be able to be tagged and their migrations followed more closely. Do the transmitters bother the birds? Does your wrist watch bother you, asks Dr. Deal. Ducks and geese follow regular pathways, but the passerine species (songbirds) are pushed by the wind to a great extent and there can be no such notion as that of a “flyway” when referring to songbirds. Plus the waterfowl do not cross the gulf. When do birds migrate? At night, replies Dr. Deal. To avoid predation primarily. He reaches over and opens up his laptop. On the screen is a radar image of the Louisiana coast. Not much shaking. He clicks on the mouse and suddenly the screen comes alive. Springing up from the waters edge, a great cloud of something fills the screen. Sunset, says Dr. Deal, the birds are heading out. The cloud glows brighter and brighter filling up the radar colored sky. The clouds move slowly northward, the patterns growing less and less dense, the clouds breaking up into smaller masses, which climb further and further north, eventually disappearing from the screen. Radar was first used by the British during the Second World War, explains Dr. Deal, in order to watch for invading aircraft. When clouds of birds began to appear, no-one knew what they were. It took a long time before somebody figured out that the images on the screen were flocks of birds. Until they finally understood what the images were, they called them “Angels.”

Click here to see the Migration Photo Gallery




April 6, 2004

Upon leaving Montreal, a light snow was falling. We had a great time, in spite of the cold. I was busy with several projects which included hosting a television special dedicated to Acadie, with singers from all around the French speaking world gathered together to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the colony. Although there is no longer any world map which includes a country called Acadie, she lives in the hearts of her children. The cast included Linda Thalie (Algeria) Mélanie Renaud (Haiti), Isabelle Boulay (Gaspésie), Florent Vollant (The Amerindian nation of the Innu), Wilfred LeBouthillier (the Acadian Peninsula), LIna Boudreau (the Memramcook Valley), and Betty Bonnifassi (France). I had a great time with the band which included some old friends: Justin Allard (drums), Kevin DeSouza (bass), Francis Covan (accordion and violin), Eric Sauviat (guitar) and Simon Godin (guitar), under the remarkable direction of Marc Beaulieu. It was a pleasure to work with such a beautiful group and to collaborate with many old friends in the production crew, including Michel Gaumont and Sanders Pinault.

Following this enchanted evening, I went into the studio to record a song for an upcoming Acadian compilation, produced by the Festival Acadien de Caraquet. Another in what will certainly be a long list of events celebrating the founding of Acadie by Pierre Dugua de Mons and Samuel de Champlain in 1604. The concept of the album was to collect Acadian singers and to have everybody sing somebody else’s song. I chose “Louis Mailloux” by Calixte Duguay. I have always loved the song. I first heard it in 1975 during my very first visit to New Brunswick, and it was very special to be able to do my own version of this song which was inspired by a difficult and relatively little known period of Acadian history. At the end of the 19th century, New Brunswick was torn apart by a political conflict which was spurned by the school board law of 1871. The government of New Brunswick attempted to enforce a poll tax destined to finance the public schools. The trouble was that, in spite of the fact that the public schools were purported to be non-denominational, they were in fact anglo-protestant institutions. The French speaking Catholics of the province, as well as the Irish Catholics, were outraged since they were being obliged to finance schools at which their children could and would not attend. There was a period of civil unrest which included the arrest of the Irish catholic bishop of Frederick ton. There was resistance to the poll tax by Catholics throughout the province. In Caraquet, rioting broke out when anglophone president of the school board called a meeting from French speaking Catholics were excluded. An English speaking militia was formed in nearby Bathurst and on January 27, 1875, Louis Mailloux and John Gifford were killed during an armed confrontation. To find out more, read “L’affaire Louis Mailloux” by Clarence LeBreton, les Editions du Franc-Jeu, 1992. Unfortunately I do not know if a translation exists. From my very first visit to Acadie, I have been inspired by the story of Louis Mailloux. Finally I have had the chance to sing the song his story inspired composed by Calixte Duguay. I myself have written a song which makes reference to the story of Louis Mailloux. It is called “Chanter ma vie” (Sing my life) and was recorded by Wilfred LeBouthillier on his last album. The lyrics and translations of both songs are attached.

We had a great time in Montréal, but it was a real treat to return to Louisiana . Spring has indeed sprung. My yards is a profusion of wild flowers and the trees are chock full of songbirds singing: mocking birds, brown thrashers, cardinals, bluebirds, blue jays, meadowlarks, all singing full out. Next week I begin the filming of a documentary which will explore bird migration in North America. We begin here in Louisiana during the spring migration. Come back next month for more. In the meantime, check out http://www.badbirdz.com/ to get a daily report of the migration coming over from Cuba.




March 3, 2004

In the section “Déjà vu all over again”, the French minister of Agriculture has banned the sale of the pesticide Regent. In an effort to placate the multi national chemical companies, while attempting to respond to the overwhelming evidence of a significant danger to public health, no further sales of the chemical will be allowed. However, farmers who possess sunflower or corn seed treated with Regent will be able to liquidate their stock, i.e. be able to plant the treated seed until 2005. Which means in effect that the French government is sanctioning the use of an ultra-dangerous chemical agent which has decimated the bee population of France and is a known carcinogen. The half-assed reaction of the government prompted the occupation of the ministry of Agriculture by José Bové and the Association Paysanne. Barricaded in the offices of the Ministry and perusing the official documents, they were removed by CRS in full riot gear who broke through windows with their riot sticks to grab the protesters. This was only the latest episode in an ongoing tragedy of errors in which the French government has repeatedly attempted to placate the chemical companies in the face of irrefutable evidence that both Gaucho and Regent were potentially lethal to birds, bees, mammals (including human beings) as well as the insects they were designed to control.
The concept behind this new generation of insecticides is that of “death from the inside”. The seed is imbued with the chemical agent which is absorbed into the actual plant, and transmitted by the plant itself through its entire system: roots, flowers and all. The poison was supposed to stop itself short of the actual pollen, but that part of the plan didn’t work out so well. In fact since 1996 when Gaucho was utilized for the first time in France, each summer, millions of bees, coming in contact with the pollen from the treated plants, were subjected to an agonizing death. These agents are neurotoxic, attacking the nervous system of the insects it was designed to kill. Unfortunately, the poison is not able to discriminate between one nervous system and another, and kills pretty much anything that it comes into contact with. The active agent in Gaucho is Imidaclopride. 10 grams is enough to treat one hectare (about 3 acres)!. The new generation of poison, Fiprinol, the active agent in Regent, is stronger still.

Faced with an ever growing catastrophe, bee keepers began to organize several years ago. In 1996, 5 billion (yes, billion) bees died under suspicious circumstances, in 1997 it was 10 billion. In 1998, 12 billion. In 2000, 15 billion. For 2004, the projection is that 100 billion bees will die from exposure to Gaucho or its vicious step child, Regent. Since the beginning of the catastrophe, 10,000 professional bee keepers have been forced out of business. 500,000 bee hives have disappeared. The honey business in France generates but .95% (less that one percent) of the income of the agro-chemical industry. It is not hard to imagine in which the scales of justice lean. With very deep pockets, the Bayer has been able to attack the bee keepers in the courts, attempting to wear them down financially as well as destroy their will to resist. In a tactic which is common to agro-chemical companies worldwide (see last month’s report), the first arm of defense utilized is intimidation.

Since becoming one of the leaders of the apiculture defense movement in France, Frank Aletru, previously a simple bee keeper from Vendée, has been audited by the French tax service, investigated once by French customs, twice by the Urssaf, five times by the Competition and Fraud Bureau (Concurence et Repression des Fraudes). He is visited once a month by the inspectors of the General Information Bureau (Renseignements généraux). In August 2001, Bayer instigated law suits against the leadership of the French apiculture association in three separate courts, Châteauroux, Mende and Troye claiming that they had defamed Bayer’s product, Gaucho.

The intimidation also is directed against scientists whose findings contradict the publicity of the agro-chemical companies. Take for example Dr Marc-Edouard Colin (INRA Avignon) whose research proved that even infinitesimal doses of Imidaclopride, far lower than the recommended amounts, are fatal to bees . One of the leading specialists in bee research in the world, he was reassigned and is no longer engaged in the field. Dr Jean-Marc Bonmatin (CNRS) was able to prove that the active molecule in Gaucho infuses the entire plant, from root to pollen. At the request of Bayer, his findings were challenged seven times. His financing was crippled to the point where he is no longer able to continue his research. Using the radioactive isotope Carbon 14, Dr. François Laurent (biochemist pharmacologist INRA) was able to prove that Imiclopride is present in the pollen of treated plants in amounts more than twice that reported by Bayer. His findings were ignored by the Commission on Toxicity (Commission des toxiques) of the Minister of Agriculture. The most telling arguments, however, are those of sunflower and corn farmers themselves, who have found their yields decline rather than increase, after the use of Gaucho. And the cost is 28 Euros more per hectare (about $10 more per acre)! The farmers are facing smaller yield from the use of Gaucho and Regent at greater cost.

From the beginning of the catastrophe, Bayer has consistently lied about its product. First it was stated that the active agent did not enter the flower. When this was found to be untrue, Bayer stated that Imidaclopride could enter the flower but not the pollen. When this was found to be untrue, Bayer stated that Imidaclopride killed insects but not bees. And finally, Bayer stated that the problem exists in sunflowers, but not in corn. On December 29, 1999, the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) rejected the request of Bayer and imposed a moratorium on the use of Gaucho for sunflowers. After another year and a half of bureaucratic wrangling, the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat), 9 October, 2002, over ruled the decision of the Minister of Agriculture which had allowed the use of Gaucho in corn. The Council of State advised the Minister of Agriculture to reexamine its findings. The result was a press release by the new Minister of Agriculture, Hervé Gaymard proposing new experiments which could release new findings “in a few years, on the multifaceted causes” of catastrophic bee mortality!

The restrictions placed on the use of Gaucho, however, are all but meaningless. While all of this was going on, Aventis CropScience was marketing a new product, Regent, filling the void left by the reduction of market share by Gaucho. The active agent in Regent is Fiprinol which poses significant threats to human health. As explained by Dr.Jean-François Narbonne, one of Europe’s leading ecotoxicoligists, Fiprinol is so dangerous because it does not break down. Once it enters the food chain, Fiprinol will never lose any of its lethal potential. As employed in Regent, the dangers of human inhalation are dramatic. Also since it does not break down in the food chain, it could very well end up effecting human health for a long time (forever). Imagine the case of the milk of a cow exposed to Regent. Anyone (a child for example) consuming the milk of the exposed cow will absorb Fiprinol (since it did not break down in the cow) which will then attach itself to the fat cells of the milk consumer (the child) who will thereby suffer the neurological effects of the agent. In the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence of the toxicity of these products, the French government has finally declared a moratorium on their use. Not, however, until actual stocks are used up. Meaning that the government will allow for another year the release of ultra dangerous chemical agents into the environment. There was a poster boy farmer on TV being interviewed. He said he was going to use up all of his Regent treated corn, because nobody had proven that it was dangerous at all. Stay tuned.

Albert Einstein once said that should the honey bee disappear, mankind will have but a few years left. Responsible for the pollinization of over200,000 plants including apples, peaches, pears, cherries, plums, apricots, pecans, walnuts and watermelons, the honey bee is one of Nature’s more impressive creations. Honey bees are in fact, the canaries of our collective coal mine. Indicators per excellence of the health of our natural environment, the honey bees of France are calling out to us.

Why is it that for over eight years the government of France has dragged its feet and looked the other way while the public health of its citizens was being compromised for the benefit of a few multi-national chemical companies? Are in fact the multi-national chemical companies more powerful than nation states? Is there something here that we just don’t understand? Is there something that they don’t want us to know? Listen to the honey bees to find out more.

Report drawn in large part from
Quand les abeilles meurent, les jours le l’hommes sont comptés
(When the bees die, the days of man are counted)
By Philippe de Villiers
Editions Albin Michel, Paris, 2004




February 4, 2004

Under the heading of “World gone mad”, is the case of the chemical giant Monsanto versus Percy Schmeiser. Who is Percy Schmeiser? He is a 73 year old farmer from Bruno Saskatchewan. He has been farming since 1947. He was a member of the provincial legislature of Saskatchewan, as well as mayor of his community and councilor for 25 years. As he says himself, “All my life I’ve worked for the betterment of farmers and rules, laws and regulations that would benefit them and make their farming operations viable.” Trouble is, the wind blows out on the prairie, and some Monsanto patented genetically modified “Round-up ready” canola wound up in Percy Schmeiser’s field. Trouble is, Percy Schmeiser is in the cross hairs of Monsanto as it attempts to control the world market for its genetically modified produce.

In August, 1998 (GM plants were first marketed in Canada in 1996), Percy Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto for acquiring Monsanto’s GM canola seed without a license. According to Monsanto, the ditches along Mr. Schmeiser’s fields were 80% genetically modified (his fields, however were found to contain only small amount of GM canola). In fact, the Monsanto seed had contaminated Schmeiser’s fields. He and his wife have worked on improving their pure canola seed for 50 years, making the stock more resistant to climatic and soil conditions, and the contamination of their fields was a catastrophe. How the GM modified strain wound up in Percy Schmeiser’s field is anybody’s guess: wind, bees, birds. Mr. Schmeiser maintains that not only was he not responsible for the GM strain landing in his field, but the introduction of GM modified strains destroyed 50 years of his hard work in developing a more resistant canola through natural hybidation.

Ultimately Monsanto withdrew all allegations of illegal acquisition of seed, but the case evolved into one of patent infringement. In June 2000, the case went to court. At stake for Mr. Schmeiser and for small farmers around the world is the issue of control of seed. If, as Monsanto hopes, certain seed varieties can be patented and controlled, it will become illegal for farmers to keep seed from year to year. To plant GM seed, upon which a patent is in force, a farmer would have to acquire the seed every year from the patent owner. The judge ruled against Mr. Schmeiser. In his decision, he stated that it doesn’t matter how GM modified plants get into a farmer’s field, whether from the farmer’s operation or from cross pollination or direct seed movement via birds, insects or the wind. According to the judge, the prevailing legal question is ownership of patent. The organic or conventional farmer could thus lose a crop and seeds overnight from the unwanted introduction of GM pollen and have no recourse. In fact, according to the ruling of the judge, the contaminated crop would become the property of the patent owner, in this case Monsanto.

Mr. Schmeiser appealed the decision which was upheld by the three judge appellate court. The case is now before the Supreme Court of Canada. At stake are several very disturbing questions:

1. Can living organisms such as seeds, plants, genes, or even human organs be owned and protected by patents on intellectual property?
2. Are chemical companies such as Monsanto responsible for the evolution of noxious plants which develop more and more resistance in the face of stronger and stronger herbicides?
3. Can traditional farmer’s rights to grow conventional and organic crops free of the introduction of genetically modified strains be protected?
4. Can farmers keep the ancient right to save their own seed?

The authorization of GM “Round-up ready” wheat is pending in Canada. If approved, the introduction of GM wheat will destroy organic farming. There is not such thing as containment, the “buffer strips” propaganda of the chemical companies is patently false, as the farming of soybeans and canola proves. There is no longer any non-genetically modified soybeans or canola in North America, cross pollination having contaminated the entire stock of those plants. The result has been the disappearance of many family farms as the Japanese and European markets have been lost to North American produce. (Japan and the EU will not allow importation of any food crops suspected of genetic modification).

Part of the promotion for GM food crops is the reduction of the use of chemicals. Since WWII, American farming has had to rely on greater and greater quantities of herbicides and insecticides. Anything that could reduce the ever growing dependency on chemicals appeals to farmers everywhere. The use of genetically modified plants does not, however, decrease the use of chemicals as promised. In fact the opposite may well be true. Remember that the patents of genetically modified food crops are held by the companies that produce the associated herbicides: Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and DuPont. In its report of May, 2003, Action Aid, a UK based development agency, stated that GM crops are "irrelevant" to poor farmers' needs and could push them deeper into debt as they become more reliant on expensive seeds and chemicals. The over-riding concern of these chemical companies is not to insure a safer food supply or to cure hunger in the Third World, but to make money for their shareholders.

In the United States, the situation is, if anything, worse. The United States Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, has declared that it is legal to claim utility patents on plants. The December 10, 2001 ruling states that the Plant Patent Act (PPA) of 1930 and the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 (PVPA) are so broad that they can cover any type of plant that is “new, distinct, uniform, and stable.” No exclusivity is granted to genetically modified plants. In fact, companies such as the plaintiff in this case, Pioneer Hy-Bred, can claim utility patent on any seed it breeds, making it illegal not just for you to propagate and sell that seed, but even for a farmer to save seeds from the previous season to plant next season.

Watch out, here comes the seed police.

And even more disturbing, is the introduction of prescription drugs from GM plants. There were approximately 300 test plots in North America in 2003. In the U.S., six major drugs are being produced by from plants such as sunflowers and corn. These pharmaceutical crops are being grown out in the open, in full contact with wind born pollen. The potential for catastrophe is frightful. The U.S. and Canada persist in their effort to prevent their citizens from making informed decisions about the food they feed to their families. No information is available on genetically modified food on the labels in the super-market. Why? because consumers just might not consume products of which the effects on long term health are still unknown, thus hurting the bottom line of the multinational corporations which produce these products. Watch out here comes the food police.

Support Percy Schmeiser.

Fight Genetically Altered Food Fund Inc.
Box 3743, Humboldt, SK, SOK 2A0 Canada

http://www.percyschmeiser.com/
http://www.bioteach.ubc.ca/Bioengineering/GeneticallyModifiedFoods/
http://www.vivelecanada.ca/article.php?story=20040112003902197




January 7, 2004

On December 11, 2003, the Government of Canada adopted a Royal Proclamation declaring “July 28 of every year as A Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval (the Acadian deportation) commencing on July 28, 2005”. The proclamation was greeted with enthusiasm throughout the Acadian community, including by many of those who felt that it did not go far enough in recognizing the responsibility of the British crown in the Deportation of the Acadians. In fact, the proclamation refuses any such responsibility, stating that “this Our present Proclamation does not, under any circumstances, constitute a recognition of legal or financial responsibility”. The Queen of England is in fact recognizing (nowhere does the word “regret” appear) what the Acadians have known for 250 years: that the British government undertook the brutal deportation of its own French speaking subjects from their homes in Nova Scotia and that the deportation had “tragic consequences, including the deaths of many thousands of Acadians-from disease, in shipwrecks, in their places of refuge and in prison camps in Nova Scotia and England as well as in the British colonies in America”. On a more positive note, the proclamation does express her majesty’s hope that “the Acadian people can turn the page on this dark chapter of their history”.

The timing of the proclamation was a little fishy. It came in the twilight of the mandate of a lame-duck prime minister in a Council of Ministers meeting attended by only three members of his soon to be ex-cabinet with the notable absence of the Governor-General, the Queen’s representative in Canada. No political risk taking here. All in all, though, I support the proclamation and do think it is a positive step for the Acadian community of the Canadian maritimes. What strikes me, however, is that the proclamation and its effects will be restricted to Canada. The effect of the proclamation upon the descendants of the Acadian exiles who ultimately settled in Louisiana will be little to none. In a political sense and to a greater and greater extent, in a cultural sense, there is more that separates the Acadians of Canada and the Cajuns of Louisiana than unites us, for all of the history that we share. On the day that the proclamation was being celebrated in Ottawa, a French immersion program was being sabotaged in Saint Landry Parish. The reality of December 11, 2003, in Louisiana was that 70 school children at South Street Elementary in Opelousas were scattered like the deported Acadians into unfamiliar circumstances while their former teachers were exiled to other schools, and this with no warning. The school principal, new to the job, has no patience for French in her school apparently, and with the complicity of the school board, was able to whisk away, practically under the cover of darkness, the French immersion program, thus throwing the lives of 70 children and their families into confusion. Not the Deportation of 1755, but a callous act none the less. (By the way, Canadian historian Stephan White has determined the average age of the Acadian exiles on the transport ships to have been 14 (fourteen) years old). As far as the Royal Proclamation itself, apart from a small article in the local Lafayette newspaper giving well deserved credit to activist Warren Perrin for starting the ball rolling, the whole thing passed undetected. Which is the way that the British would prefer it, I am sure. In perpetrating any despicable act, no news is always good news for the perpetrators. Take Diego Garcia for example.

Four decades ago, during the height of the cold war, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were fighting for global dominance and scrambling to establish toe-holds in every region of the globe including the Indian Ocean. The Americans asked their allies, the British, who had colonies in the region, to find them an uninhabited island. There were, unfortunately, no islands uninhabited enough to fit the bill, and so the British simply removed the people from one of “their” islands, Diego Garcia, and shipped them off 1,200 miles to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Back when the island was a British colony, Marcel Moulinie managed a coconut plantation. “Total evacuation, they wanted no indigenous people here”, says Moulinie, “When the final time came and the ships were chartered, we weren’t allowed to take anything except one suitcase of clothes. The ships were small and they could take anything else, no furniture, nothing.” The people of Diego Garcia were dumped in the slums of Mauritius. They were unable to bring any possessions, and as fishermen and farmers, they had no skills which would allow them to live adequately in their new and hostile surroundings. No one helped them to resettle. They received no compensation for the homes they had lost. In order to force the last people out, their pets were exterminated, using the exhaust fumes of American military vehicles. Jeannette Alexis was one of the last to leave. “We were crying, hanging on to our mother’s skirts and crying, because although we were very young, we understood that we were leaving something very valuable behind, and that was our home,” she says.

No outsiders are allowed into Diego Garcia, and so the story remained untold for 30 years, until one of the exiled islanders, Olivier Bancoult, started to organize. He was angry from years of misery, three of his brothers drank themselves to death, dispirited by poverty. His sister committed suicide. So three years ago, Olivier traveled to London and took the British government to court. His big break came when he and his lawyer, Richard Gifford, found secret documents that had recently been declassified. The documents related to the agreement between the United States and British governments to build the base on Diego Garcia.

“Here we have the legal expert in the British foreign office, speaking about “maintaining the fiction”,” says Gifford, referring to the fiction that Diego Garcia had no native people. “These British documents reveal that colonial officials thought no one would notice if they deported the islanders. Here we have an interesting memorandum of the British Government: There will be no indigenous population except seagulls, it states”. Another British document confirms that “evicting the people and leaving the island to the seagulls" was done at the request of the United States. It reads: "The United States Government will require the removal of the entire population of the atoll by July." "And the British were happy to oblige," says Gifford.

What did the British get in return for providing the Americans a population-free island? Polaris missiles for their submarines. The U.S. reduced the price by $14 million dollars, or 5 million British pounds. Uncovering the paper trail brought Gifford and Bancoult a stunning victory. Britain's highest court ruled that deporting Diego Garcia's native population was illegal. But the euphoria didn't last long because the court did not impose a remedy -- neither money nor what the people wanted most - to return home and have the right to earn a living on the base. “The position of the islanders is that they never objected to the U.S. base on Diego, but the islanders are extremely bitter that they are denied employment on the base. Precisely because they come from there," says Gifford. The base currently employs several thousand civilian workers from other countries like the Philippines - and they don't want visitors. When the islanders asked to visit their family graves, they were told from the British government that the U.S. had to grant permission.

So last August, the islanders appealed directly to President Bush. The Bush administration, however, said it was Britain's call: "Because of the vital role the facility plays in the global war on terrorism, British authorities have denied permission to visit Diego Garcia. We concur and support the decision.” say the Americans. Caseem Uteem, the former president of Mauritius, has written to President Bush on behalf of the islanders. He believes that both sides are passing the buck. “That's what they're doing,” says Uteem. "I think it is not only inhuman but illegal. They should never have expelled them from their land.”

If it can come as any comfort to the people of Diego Garcia, there is hope that in 250 years, the Queen of England (she’ll probably still be on the throne) will issue a Royal Proclamation recognizing what they will have known all along: that they were forced from their homes and sent into lives of suffering, and that she is not responsible judicially or financially, but hopes they can turn the page on that dark chapter of their history. Hopefully, too, they will be able to reconstruct their shattered lives in the meantime.

One final note regarding the Royal Proclamation. The French document reads:

“Attendu que la déportation du peuple Acadien, communément appelée le Grand Dérangement”.

which is translated as:

“Whereas the deportation of the Acadian people, commonly know as the Great Upheaval”. What is interesting is that “Grand Dérangement”, is translated as “Great Upheaval”. In fact “Derangement” is better translated as “Inconvenience”, upheaval being “boulversement” in French. I wonder about the term “Grand Dérangement”, the “Great Inconvenience”. Even as a child, that term struck me, not as odd, but as special. I wonder if the Acadians who suffered the “Great Inconvenience” were aware of the irony of the term, and wished to diminish the extent of their suffering by referring to it in an almost off handed manner. The English translation is false to the idea contained in “Grand Dérangement” as though the Acadians have gone through history wringing their hands at the thought of the “Great Upheaval”. Whenever I hear of the “Grand Dérangement”, it doesn’t nearly sound so threatening. It sounds like something difficult, even tragic, but something that can be overcome none the less. Like Elisabeth Brasseaux. Following the sinking of the transport ship carrying her and her family into exile near the mouth of the Saint John river, she felt the almost unbearable sadness gripping those she loved. With nothing but the clothes on their backs, they were surrounded by British enemies and in a state of fear and shock. Little Elisabeth Brasseux, seeing the tearful expressions of her family and friends stood and said, “That’s enough crying, we have work to do”. In treating their plight as the “Great Inconvenience”, the Acadians took away some of its force. An inconvenience is not as hard to overcome as an Upheaval. Even a Great Inconvenience.

Read the Royal Proclamation.