monthly report 2005

Zach chillin' - thinking about his monthly reports

December 7, 2005

On October 27, two teenagers were electrocuted in the EDF (Eléctricité de France) yard in Clichy-sous-Bois setting off weeks of rioting that have shaken the country. In this most recent chapter in the age-old battle between the forces of order and adolescent males, the facts of the case have been distorted by both sides to defend their respective positions. Although the teenagers were probably guilty of nothing more serious than being where they were not supposed to be, they none the less did flee from the police provoking a chase which ended in their deaths. Nothing particularly original in this “fait divers”. What is of great significance, however, is the reaction that their deaths provoked first in the northern suburbs of Paris and subsequently in impoverished neighborhoods throughout the country. For weeks now, France has been gripped by nightly riots, a spate of violence that has left thousands of cars burnt as well as a host of schools and public buildings destroyed. What is important to understand is that the “Casseurs” (i.e. the Breakers) are not organized terrorists but principally unsupervised youth, and that the problem is not terrorist in nature but fundamentally social.

First of all, it is important to understand who the rioters are and what are their demands. Unlike the London bombings of July, 2005, the civil disturbance which has gripped France in recent weeks is not the fruit of a carefully planned attack, but rather the spontaneous eruption of feelings which have been long smoldering. The perpetrators of the violence in France are young men from the immigrant community, second or third generation children of primarily North or West African immigrants. Although their religious affiliation is generally Muslim, this civil unrest has none of the hallmarks of the London bombings. The situation in France is fundamentally different from that of England and that due in large part to the policies of the respective governments. In England, the policy of the government of Tony Blair is to attempt to control the immigrant communities by maintaining their institutional identities, favoring ethnic diversity, and by co-opting the religious leaders who become in effect agents of the government. The fundamental policy of France, on the other hand, is based on the long practiced social philosophy of integration. The reality, however, is that the immigrant community of France suffers from an economic, social and cultural seclusion due in large part to the indifference of the political class.

France has been and remains a country of refuge, perhaps the most open in the world. There are significant differences, however, in the situation of immigrants in France during the last few decades compared to the situation prior. The history of the North and West African immigration community contrasts sharply with that of its Polish, Italian, Portuguese predecessors. The factors contributing to this divergence of experience are multiple but can be reduced primarily to two factors: the evolution of French public education and the nature of the immigrant Muslim community itself.

The principal institution of French integration has traditionally been the public school. Confronted with a rigorous educational experience in which all students were considered to be and treated as future citizens, each with fundamental rights and fundamental responsibilities, the French educational system was the great leveler, the primary engine in the assimilation of immigrants. In the last decades, however, emphasis in the schools has been placed on diversity and the respect of ethnic and religious origins. In addition, the African immigrants have settled primarily in the northern suburbs of Paris, reinforcing the distance between themselves and the rest of the nation. Not only are their children missing the positive assimilative aspects of the education system, they are living physically separated from the rest of the French as well. It is not surprising that in these circumstances, fueled by high unemployment and racial discrimination, the 2nd and 3rd generation immigrant populations are filled with a sense not only of angry frustration but also of isolation. To this must be added a strong desire within the Muslim community to maintain its identity and to resist integration. During the recent brouhaha over the wearing of the veil in public schools, the Muslim community revealed its intention to maintain its distinct status in the nation. The political leaders of France, to their credit, insisted that no visible signs of a religions nature be permitted in the public schools, and therefore refused to allow the wearing of the veil. The French republic is a one size fits all, but this political philosophy is unfortunately not shared by a majority in the Muslim community.

It is to be noted that there were no Muslim religious or political leaders controlling the mayhem. The rioting was the result of a deep sense of frustration coupled with the rebellious nature of adolescent youth. The cars burned were those of the working class neighbors of the rioters, most or all of whom are themselves members of the immigrant community. The schools destroyed are the schools of the poor neighborhoods. The reasons for burning a school are primal. The school represents the society which excludes the young rioters, and its torching is a form of vengeance directed toward the system as well toward the institution. The torching of a school is a senseless act of vengeance. As is the burning of your neighbor’s car. And the kids who were doing the burning were doing so without parental supervision. Many of them are from mono-parental homes. Their parents are often unable to speak French fluently, living themselves on the margins of society, yet another element reinforcing the notion of exclusion.

And then there is the media. Not only has the media fueled the rioting by its typical sensationalized reporting, emphasizing the most violent aspects of the situation, but in addition, the fundamental capitalist nature of media commerce has contributed to a generation whose social conscience can best be defined by the promotional slogan of a film currently playing in Paris: “Get rich or die trying” Many of the kids in the ghetto who participated in the violence are part of a clandestine counter culture. One of the most intriguing aspects of the rioting is that the drug trade continued unabated in the effected areas, the rioters taking care not to disturb the lucrative commerce nor any of the other aspects of the clandestine counter culture: creation of false identities, traffic in stolen goods, etc. Which is not to say that the rioters are simply thugs on a rampage. The social ills revealed by the rioting are real and indicate a fundamental rift in French society. But the rioting is principally the product of a blind urge to destroy fueled in large part by a sense of exclusion. The rioting was the province of the immigrant youth culture abandoned by its elders and intoxicated by the illusion of its own self-importance. For many of the rioters, a night spent burning cars was first and foremost a joy ride.

The challenge is to give these young men a stake in the society. To incorporate them into the body politic, as the nation of France has been able to do for decades, absorbing other immigration communities whose children consider themselves simply to be French. The solution is in education, through the creation of genuine opportunity for the students of the ghetto through well funded and dynamic schools. Only when a majority of immigrant children have been able to overcome the barriers of incompetence which prevent them from having access to good jobs and a decent quality of life, will they come to feel that they have a stake in protecting their neighborhoods. Until then, there is nothing to prevent them from burning again.

Unfortunately the rioting has eclipsed everything in this news cycle including the recent verdict handed down in the case of José Bové et al convicted of destroying a field of genetically modified corn. Four months prison, no possibility of parole. M. Bové has vowed to continue the fight against the multi-national companies who are intent upon imposing GMOs in France as they have been able to do in the US and Canada with unknown and unforeseeable consequences for human health. Rust never sleeps. Bravo José.

November 2, 2005

Two days in the danger zone:

October 12.
The first thing that strikes one upon entering the hurricane zone is the odor. A stink upon the world and everything in it. Even a blind man would know there is a problem. The houses are filled with mold and mildew, the fields with rotting vegetation and the marsh lands, normally full of wild life, are curiously silent, the water nearly black and the smell the worst of all.

We began our visit in south Vermilion parish. The region was inundated by the storm surge and the towns of Delcambre, Erath and Henry were devastated. Never in the memory of man has salt water from the Gulf penetrated so far inland. In spite of the evacuation order, many people remained in their homes, convinced that they were out of danger. Once the water began to rise, they were completely isolated. Hundreds had to be rescued from their roofs by a make shift flotilla of sheriff deputies and volunteers, their mission complicated by the fact that their flat bottom boats continually ran into submerged objects, fence posts and farm equipment. Others residents were stranded in their cars, caught by the raging water unprepared, and had to been picked from the roofs of their vehicles or from the trees in which they were cast.

Miraculously there were no human casualties, but the salt water flood killed thousands of cattle and countless numbers of wild animals. The region will be years recovering. For farmers and cattlemen, the inundation of pastureland and fields represents a catastrophic loss. Luckily the first rice crop had been harvested. There will be no second crop, nor a crawfish crop this year. It will take months or even years of rain to wash the salt from the fields. The sugar cane crop is ruined and the recuperation of the cane fields complicated by the huge amount of detritus scattered hurdy gurdy. Refrigerators, trees, entire houses will have to be removed, a task impossible for tractors. . Much farm machinery was lost as well, ruined by the salt water. And no work can be done by hand until the winter chill brings on the hibernation of the poisonous snakes which lie under the reeds

In a mobile trailer, the mayor of Delcambre works to keep hope alive in his small community. He tries hard to convey a feeling of confidence, but deep in his steel blue eyes there is a hint of fear, the fear of losing his town. “Better wind damage than a storm surge,” he repeats. We follow him outside to the old city hall, a line drawn chest high on the wall to mark the height of the flood. In the street, four steel drawers full of paper folders lie drying in the sun, the only municipal records to have survived. The Red Cross trailer serves three meals a day in front of the church. The residents of the town will come to eat. They are hungry explains the mayor. But they are too proud to accept the clothes that have arrived by the truckload, afraid of what their neighbors would say. They come during the day to clean out their houses returning to wherever they sleep at night, once the light begins to fade. Lining the street in front of each house is a huge pile of refuse, carpet, furniture, appliances, all unsalvageable, whole piles rotting in the sun, each one containing everything that the residents owned.

In the surrounding countryside, the scene is repeated. In front of each house lies a huge jumble of stuff, the entire contents of the ruined homes waiting for someone to come and pick it up. We travel the country road toward Bayou Tigre, the hardest hit neighborhood in the area. Entire houses are laying yards, in some cases hundreds of yards off of their foundations. The fields are brown, the late summer grass rotting. Some fields are completely stripped of any vestiges of vegetation, the earth a drab grey color and cracked like the desert. The sugar cane, normally ten feet high and bright green, is laying on its side, its lush color faded to brown. The edge of the storm surge can be clearly seen, a line of detritus with green to the north and brown to the south. On one side life and on the other, death.

October 13.
We arrive early in the morning at the court house of Vermilion parish in Abbeville. There to meet us is Daly Broussard, farm bureau chief for the parish. He introduces us to the sheriff and to the commander of the national guard. But the most interesting meeting of the morning is when Daly introduces us to a small group of men sitting under the veranda of the courthouse. They are timid, talking amongst themselves, men in their 50s and above. They seem to be part of the local decor, local yokels with nothing to do but hang around the town square. They joke and laugh. Theses are some of the farmers who have suffered the most. Normally they would be out in the fields or busy with some project, but the hurricane has put their lives on hold and they sit waiting on the courthouse steps for some bit of information, looking like a pack of stray dogs not knowing what to do with themselves. These are not men who are in the habit of asking for help. They are not comfortable with their new status as hurricane victims. Helplessness shows in their faces. Since the hurricane, the world, and their place in it have changed.

The cattlemen and farmers of southwest Louisiana are a special breed, proud and independent. Since the arrival of the first Acadian exiles in the territory nearly 250 years ago, a tradition of self reliance is an fundamental aspect of the local culture. Before the Civil War, the residents of the prairies, unlike their cousins along the rivers and bayous, did not own slaves. Slaves would have only been a bother to cattlemen who could tend their herds with the help of their families. Unlike the plantation country, the prairies never knew the fabulous antebellum homes of the sugar and cotton aristocracy. Out here, a man’s wealth was measured by his herd, Descendants of those early cattlemen, like the men on the courthouse steps are fiercely independent and very proud, and uncomfortable with having to rely on others for help.

Daly introduces us to Pat Ménard, age 66, who agrees to show us his farm. In a metal shed ripped open as though by a giant can opener, Mr. Ménard shows us his rice combines and tractors, $150,000 of farm machinery completely ruined. His crawfish ponds are dry, the earth scorched and crackled. He, like most of the local farmers, had no flood insurance and is facing a total loss. We ask him what he intends to do. Speaking French with the rich accent of south Louisiana, Mr. Ménard replies, “At my age it will be hard to start over, it took all of my life to build up my farm, but what choice do I have?” Fortunately the first rice crop was good and at least he will have that money to help him along. His herd was relatively small, less than 50 head. He was able to save a dozen cattle but was forced to sell them at distressed prices not having enough hay to keep them alive.

We accompany Mr. Ménard to his home in the nearby village of Henry. A Red Cross truck is serving hot meals in front of the church. The three workers, all ladies are cheerful. We refuse their offer of food, choosing instead to eat the sandwiches that we brought along. Under the porch of the Catholic church, we eat silently, the only people in town apart from the Red Cross volunteers. The church benches are all outside, drying in the sun, the water line visible above the seat. They are ruined and will not be salvaged. The church itself will likely be abandoned, as will the school and most of the town. The houses, like that of Mr. Ménard, will be bulldozed.

We accompany him to his home. From the outside, the house seems normal enough, a modest brick bungalow. The yard is a mess, but the structure seems sound enough. The interior of the house however, is a vision of the apocalypse. Everything is lying in the greatest disorder, furniture, appliances, canned goods, photos, clothes, all covered with dried mud. The carpet is still wet with inches of thick black smelly mud. The smell is overwhelming. Mildew climbs the wall. “My wife can’t come back,” says Mr. Ménard, “All she does is cry.” Like most of the people here, they will move out, leaving behind the memories of a lifetime and the sad souvenir of this storm.

Once we finish our lunch, we head south. Ron Gaspard, friend and cameraman, leads us on a visit of his home town, Forked Island. We leave the main road, Hiway 82, and head into the village. Everything is quiet, the sun is shining, but the atmosphere is very strange. In all of the yards, the grass has disappeared, giving place to naked earth, grey and crackled. In front of each house is the ubiquitous pile of garbage, rotting in the sun. Ron escorts us up to a house about one hundred yards back from the road. There are two old Cajun men under the car porch, sitting up like two turtles. One of them, aged 76, spent the hurricane in a tree. Fleeing his house when the water began to rise, his pick up truck was swamped and he was forced to swim. For 24 hours he was stuck in a tree, surrounded by floodwater. Somehow he survived the hurricane winds until a rescue boat found him. “I’m too good to die,” he chuckles. Most of the fauna, however, was not so lucky.

According to the first witnesses to return after the hurricane, the entire area was infested with the corpses of dead animals: mink, muskrat, raccoon, deer, cattle, rabbits, nutrea, all swept up and killed by the surge. Not to speak of the alligators and snakes. The water moccasins pose a continuing danger. Angered by the intrusion of salt water, they are everywhere, in any nook and cranny, underneath the broken reeds, hiding from the sun. Extreme care must be used while simply walking about.

We continued our journey, crossing the Intracoastal Canal headed toward Pecan Island. From the top of the bridge, the scene was one of desolation. To the north, the detritus line of the surge was visible, going up as far as Hiway 14. The disappearance of the levee contributed to the destruction. During Hurricane Audry (1957) the storm surge was probably as strong as that of Rita, but back then, the recently dredged canal offered a wall of protection. Over the last 50 years, the levee has been washed away by the continual wave action of the tugboats and barges which ply the canal. When the storm surge from Hurricane Rita arrived, there was nothing to prevent it from rolling miles inland.

Approaching Pecan Island, we encounter our first military check point: young soldiers, weapons at the ready, looking very serious. They ask me several questions and note my license plate number and the number of my driver’s license. Once the formalities finished, however, they relax, and we have a short conversation, joking under the crystal clear sky. They must be much more at ease here at home than they were in Iraq.

In Pecan Island, the nature of the destruction changes. Only a few miles from the actual coast, the town received the full force of the storm. Many houses are tossed about as though by a gigantic and evil child. Many others have simply disappeared, the foundation pillars are the only evidence that they ever existed at all. The amount of detritus is astounding and the army engineers are piling it up and hauling it off, work rendered hazardous because of the snakes.

Pecan Island is but a ribbon, the houses lining both sides of Hiway 82, the only street in town. It is built on a chenier ridge rising only a few meters above the surrounding marsh. There are many hunting camps, the area known as a hunter’s paradise. Today, however, it looks more like hell. I wonder what the water fowl, millions of ducks and geese, will do this winter once they arrive to find their feeding ground completely destroyed by salt intrusion.

To the west of Pecan Island lies the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge. For miles and miles, there is nothing but marshland stretching in all directions. The smell has become much stronger. The water is black. We see a few nutrea rats, about the size of a big cat, climbing out onto the road, in a pitiful state, head down, their normal brown color turned to black. Normally the marsh would be alive with birds, but we see only a few moorhens and a flock of grackles. I am surprised to see brand new electricity poles, installed, evidently since the storm. The older poles are still in place, bent over, some nearly touching the road.

The farther west we travel, the worse the destruction becomes. The Wildlife Refuge headquarters is a shambles. The Smith Ranch house, a beautiful raised cottage in the Louisiana style, survived well. Built on pillars twenty feet off of the ground, the house offered little resistance to the storm surge. The out buildings and fences, however, are gone. The scene is all the more desolate because the cattle have disappeared. Normally there would have been hundreds of black angus grazing near the road. Today, not a single cow is to be seen. Were they moved to safety or destroyed in the storm?

It’s in Grand Chenier that we see the worse. Of the small town, only the water tower and part of the church remain. There is not a single house standing. The foundations bear mute witness to their existence, brick steps leading up to nothing. Out in the field are the scattered the remains, strewn about in great disorder, here a refrigerator, there a television set. Around several trees, the frames of mobile homes are knotted like neckties. Although stripped of their leaves, the live oaks (quercus virginiana) remain, throwing their shade upon the empty yards. Palm trees also survived which is surprising given their shallow roots. I walk through the ruins and begin to cry.

Cameron is worse still. Downtown, the bank, the fire station, the wharf, are nothing but ruins. The steel frames of the buildings are still in place, but nothing else remains. The only building to have survived is the courthouse. It was built after Hurricane Audry and was designed to resist an atom bomb or a tidal wave. Its white shape can be glimpsed through the desolation from just about anywhere in town. We stop the car and walk around. Here and there are vestiges of the life as it used to be: a bathtub, a ceiling fan, a tool set, a little girl’s doll. Out in the field, a stray cow approaches, drawn to us, thinking, perhaps that we will save her. She eats the few remaining leaves on an oak tree, something she would never have done a few weeks ago. Without pasture or fresh water, she will not last more than a week. Unable to help her, we leave. As we walk back to the car, the setting sun just above the horizon, I begin to cry. I have been crying a lot this year.

Support hurricane relief:

October 6, 2005

Voyage of the Sedna IV, part two.

After our somewhat alarming visit to the National Water Research Institute of Canada (See report August, 2005), we sailed down Lake Ontario in the direction of the Welland Canal. This series of 7 locks is quite an impressive structure and made for quite an adventure although most of the day was spent simply waiting for the lock to fill with water and proceed to the next step, like slowly climbing a giant stairway to heaven. The first step is entering the lock itself, which resembles a narrow concrete canyon, the walls of which block the sun. Then, the enormous gates closed slowly behind us. Suddenly water would start gushing up from below the surface entering the lock from the next one up the chain, the water propelled by the force of gravity. Within a few minutes, our boat had climbed the walls on the surface of the water, dozens of yards higher up, reaching the edge of the lock and emerging once again into the sun, each lock bringing us higher toward Lake Erie.

The first Welland Canal was built in 1829 and opened with great ceremony. The canal, an engineering marvel, was touted as a great leap forward for the economy of the region and in fact was in large part responsible for the growth of what is in effect the 3rd largest economy in the world. (The economy of the Great Lakes, Canadian and American cities combined ranks third in the world behind the USA and Japan). What was less evident in the nineteenth century and is still unclear are the environmental consequences of the canal. Today, a similar project would be impossible because of the negative consequences on the ecology. Through the locks, thousands of ocean going ships enter into the ecosystem and until recently, they discharged their ballast water directly into the lakes, thereby introducing hundreds of foreign organisms which have disrupted the natural balance of the biosphere irreversibly. Like the petroleum exploration canals which perforate the Louisiana coast and which have had a tremendously destructive effect, the consequences of the Welland canal on the natural environment were as unforeseen as they have been dramatic. As has been the case throughout the technological revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries, mankind has implemented large scale engineering projects the effects of which were never imagined and even today are not fully understood.

The last lock was the least impressive, as we climbed only a few yards arriving finally at Port Colbourne and Lake Erie. Port Colbourne is a sad little town as seen from the canal. It could well serve as a symbol for the region. We tied up on the dock across from a huge mound of what we later learned was synthetic gypsum. This fine grey powder is the by-product of the industrial process of ridding factory chimneys of toxic substances and arrives at Port Colbourne from cities all around the Great Lakes. It arrives here by boat and is unloaded uncovered onto the docks. This huge pile of grey dust is a source of aggravation for the local residents as we were to discover.

The next day as our crew, including cameraman with camera, was leaving the ship, we were accosted by a very excited middle-aged woman. “Are you doing a film on the environment?” she asked. “I have some things that you should know!” We were taken aback by the encounter, suddenly confronted by a woman who was obviously furious about something.... but what? She appeared to be an otherwise normal and fairly typical Canadian gal. Her name was Gail. Our Norwegian director, Ole, took her name and would later visit her at her house, but in the meantime we headed off to our rendezvous with Dr. Susan Watson on board the Limnos which was tied up a few hundred yards down the canal.

The Limnos is the sole Canadian research vessel sailing on the Great Lakes. Dr. Susan Watson is one of the scientists who have occasion to work on board. Her principal area of research is algae. The run off from both agricultural fields and urban areas, including sewerage water, transports huge quantities of nutrients into the streams which, in turn, feed into the Great Lakes. Chemical fertilizers as well as wastewater from the cities and towns provoke rapid and excessive growth of vegetation. The fertilizers which are dumped on lawns and which are the drug of choice of industrial agriculture eventually wind up in the rivers, streams and lakes. They are responsible for the proliferation of certain toxic forms of algae. Nourished by phosphorus, nitrates and ammonia, these so called blue-green algae blooms threaten aquatic life and are toxic to land animals including human beings.

The ammonia and nitrates (nitrogen) contaminate both the surface water and the underground aquifer. In high concentrations, they represent a significant risk to human health. Nitrates are a major factor in the declining population of amphibians, while ammoniac derivatives have been responsible for massive fish kills. On the other hand, golf courses from Detroit and Green Bay to Toronto and Windsor enjoy pristine (and totally artificial) putting greens. And in Indiana, Illinois and Ontario, thousands of miles of perfectly green corn, are maintained with chemical fertilizers. And each time that it rains, more nitrogen will run down the leaves of grass and the leaves of corn into the brook which runs into the stream which runs into the rivers which run into the lake.

The problem, however, is even more complex. Remember the great ocean going ships that dumped their ballast uncontrolled for over a hundred years. Although the process is outlawed today (who’s checking?), the damage has been done. The introduction of foreign species into the water of the Great Lakes has provoked an environmental catastrophe and the star of the show is the Zebra Mussel.

In the 1960s, Lake Erie was declared “dead”. An excessive proliferation of algae had given the lakeshore a dreadful aspect and had depleted the water of oxygen. Thousands of fish and other aquatic organisms died. 35 years and a few billion dollars later (money spent on improving the waste water treatment plants of the Great Lakes’ municipalities), the level of phosphorous has been significantly reduced. In the western part of the lake (the “Dead Zone” downstream from Detroit) the concentrations of phosphorus have decreased by as much as 50%. In spite of which the condition of the lake have not improved. In fact, they have gotten worse. Popular opinion has identified the culprit: the Zebra Mussel.

Zebra Mussels were introduced into Lake Erie by an ocean going freighter in 1986. Since that time, the population has reached astronomic proportions. Zebra Mussels completely cover the substrata of the lake and are invading the surface of the sediments. These mollusks consume a very large part of the plankton. Which renders the water clearer, but modifies significantly the alimentary chain, inversely effecting the fish population, including several commercial species. Professional fishermen are demanding a reduction in the control of phosphorous claiming that the controls are too strict and that the attendant reduction in algae is adversely effecting the fish population. The residents of the lakeshore, however, are up in arms over the algae blooms which infest the beaches. Welcome to the tower of Babel.

Following our interview with Dr. Watson, the Limnos weighed anchor and sailed out onto the lake. We were not permitted to stay on board even though our next filming segment was to be on the Limnos. The ship’s crew was not very hospitable. Security considerations had them nervous (we were only of few days after the London subway bombings), and it was obvious that they were not crazy about having a French-speaking film crew on board. We were obliged to sail out to the Limos aboard our zodiac, climbing onto her in choppy seas with little or no assistance from the ship’s crew. Nonetheless, we were able to spend a little time with Dr. Michael Tissiger. Accompanied by his students, he was conducting research on the conditions of the plankton around the lake. In the hold of the ship, amidst his scientific equipment, I asked him to give me an evaluation of the health of Lake Erie on a scale of 1 to 10. I figured he would give it a 5 or a 6, an average score. After all, the waves rocking the boat seemed clean enough. There were cormorants flying above in a pretty blue sky. Nothing alarming except for a few dead carp floating on the surface. And yet, his answer surprised me: 2 out of 10. Oops.

As we headed back to the Sedna, we noticed several small fishing boats at the mouth of the canal and we headed over to have a look. They were three boats with about as many fishermen in each. They were oriental, Vietnamese probably. We wanted to know if they had a copy of the “Sports fishing guide” and a tape measure. The provincial government of Ontario publishes a consumption guide for sports fish. The list of species is divided into categories according to size with a corresponding recommendation. So many of a certain kind of fish per month. About a hundred pages in French and English. Pregnant women and children should not eat any fish caught in Lake Erie according to the guide. To be safe while fishing in Ontario, one should bring along the guide and a ruler in order to measure the fish. The bigger ones, being higher up the food chain and therefore subject to ever-greater concentrations of contaminants, are to be avoided. These fishermen, smiling and holding up the days catch to show us under their makeshift parasols, didn’t have a guide or a tape measure. Since they spoke neither French nor English, the guide probably would not done them much good, apart from chasing away the flies. They would certainly eat everything they caught, including the big ones. And serve them to their children.

The next day we had a rendezvous with Gail, the highly exited lady we had met in the street. On this day, however, she was very calm, a charming old gal with a hearty laugh. Her neighbor was with her and together, in Gail’s shady back yard, they told us of the history of synthetic gypsum in Port Colbourne. Regularly and for years, the local inhabitants have been subjected to dust storms of the stuff. Extremely fine, it takes only a slight breeze to send it flying. The town is often covered with it. Is it dangerous to human health? That is the question that Gail and her neighbors have been asking to their local politicians as well as to the owner of the gypsum importing company. (Synthetic gypsum is the primary component of sheet rock or wallboard).

The next day we went over to meet the owner of the gypsum importing business. An ordinary looking fellow in his 50s. Not your usual Simon Legree. His dad was in the office as well, but at past 80, he preferred to let his son do the talking. The son was leery of us and especially of our camera, but we were able to get him to talk to us. He furnished us with an evaluation of synthetic gypsum from Environment Canada which assuaged most, if not all, of our concerns. Chemically it resembles a fine grain of sand. Not much of threat. I asked him if he was aware that the Port Colbourne area had a rate of cardiac and respiratory problems much higher than the regional average. He replied that the few years of operation of his company could not have caused the problem. I had struck a nerve, however, and once the camera was off, he answered my question.

It was very curious, but throughout the filming, all of our subjects had two separate answers: one for the camera, and a second one for our ears only. Scientists as well as ordinary folks had some important things to tell us, but, for various reasons (holding the party line, not wanting to rile the neighbors, etc.) stopped short of saying them on the record. In the case of the owner of the gypsum company, he informed us that the serious health problems of the area were all directly related to the nickel plant which lay just beyond the big gypsum pile on the wharf. Since the 1930s, a nickel factory has operated in Port Colbourne. Heavy metals and contaminated industrial by-products were regularly dumped in the water, on the ground and, via the smoke stack, into the air.

I found the situation sad and not a little ironic. I could not blame Gail and her neighbors no matter how faulty their science. She is not a scientist, but a housewife, concerned about the health of her family and that of her friends and the risks posed by a substance which blows freely about the town (although during our stay, a water truck made more and more frequent visits to the gypsum pile, hosing it down to keep the stuff from blowing about). On the other hand, the owner of the gypsum company was sure that the real problem was Gail and her friends. “This is an industrial canal,” he exclaimed. Off camera, however, he confided that his own grandmother had died of lung cancer, caused, he was sure, by the pollution emanating from the nickel plant. I wonder what he would have thought about a rabble-rouser like Gail had she been kicking up the dust (no pun) back in his grandmother’s time. In those days, it was not known that the black smoke falling from the factory chimney was terribly toxic. Even today, we are in the dark about the effects on human health of many of the chemical processes which are part and parcel of our everyday environment.

In the Great Lakes are to be found hundreds of foreign organisms like the Zebra Mussel, that have completely transformed the ecosystem. On top of that, the introduction of massive quantities of nitrogen and phosphorous have completely altered the chemistry of the Lakes. And there are toxic substances like PCBs and DDT that represent a real danger for life, including human life, in the biosphere. Confronted with such a huge and complex problem, it seems that the ultimate fate of the natural environment is grim. In spite of which, there are those who refuse to give up and who continue to work tirelessly in the face of the hostility of corporate management and the indifference of government.

Our last interview in Port Colbourne was with Marguerita Howe and Doug Hallet. We met in the back yard of one of Gail’s friends. Ole, the director, had brought along a copy of Macleans magazine which was nearly 30 years old. Inside were articles dealing with the environmental movement and on two facing pages were articles on both Marguerita Howe and Pierre Béland. And here the two of them were meeting face to face for the first time.. Unknown to one another before today, their careers and their passions ran parallel. To hear them talk, one would swear that they were old friends.

Marguerita is quite a dame. Her eyes blaze like those of a schoolgirl, and her 80 plus years have not diminished her gusto one bit. She looks like the grandmother that she is, but her conversation is raucous and her vocabulary could make a sailor blush. “That &%*$(# George Bush!” she exclaimed, laughing. At her side was one of her dearest friends and a comrade from the environmental wars of the 1970s, Doug Hallet. Doug is in his 50s, a little chubby, like a cross between Buddha and a bear, with a round face and a big smile. They talked about their old battles, the few victories and the many defeats in the days when the three of them, Pierre, Marguerita and Doug, were thorns in the side of the Canadian government.

And today, I asked? Followed a long silence which was finally broken by Marguerita’s raspy voice. “People don’t give a shit anymore!” It was hard not to agree. Since the late 1970s, the environmental movement is at a standstill. Babyboomers have other preoccupations and Gen X and Gen Y seem to have abandoned the fight, faced with the enormous ecological problems that they have inherited. Governments (USA) are obsessed with terrorism while sweeping under the rug real and increasing natural danger in the form of global warming, and environmental contamination.

Something that Doug Hallet said sent chills up my spine. “I hesitate to say this on camera,” he began, “I wouldn’t want to give anybody any ideas, but this is important.” Finally, I said to myself, somebody who is not afraid to tell it like it is on-camera. In fact these three people were the only ones who did not come over to me once the camera had been turned off, whispering like drug dealers in a parking lot. They spoke with conviction, and without holding anything back.

“When I was working for the government,” Doug continued, “Already back in the 70s, we were briefed about terrorism, because the Great Lakes are a terrible target for a terrorist action. There are hundreds of ultra-contaminated sites. In any one of them, there is enough dioxin to contaminate the entire Great Lakes. One small bomb well places could contaminate the drinking water for 10s of millions of people. And what are the governments doing? Nothing. In spite of the fact that the technology exists to break down the toxins. To eliminate heavy metals, PCBs, everything.”

Doug Hallet left the Canadian government for the same reason as Pierre Béland: he was not able to speak openly about what he knew. Going over to the private sector, he developed technology which can eliminate toxic pollutants. He had a single contract, General Motors. No other companies followed suit. His contract with General Electric was cancelled and his company forced out of business. Nobody in the US or Canada was interested. In spite of the fact that his business would create jobs as well as rid the region of highly toxic substances. Nobody was interested. Nobody.

Doug Hallet moved his operations to Australia. Today that country is virtually free of toxic chemical contamination. A multi-millionaire, he is working now in Eastern Europe. To this day, he has yet to secure a second contract in the USA or Canada. Incredible.

In the cool of the shade in the middle of an afternoon too hot for this latitude, we visited. All of us sharing the same concern for the environment, and befuddled by the impasse into which the movement for its defense has fallen. The problems of the environment are no closer to finding a solution. In fact with the careless and shortsighted (stupid) policies of the Bush administration, we are headed back to the days of the robber barons. In the face of no national strategy, states are now compelled to act to curb green house gas emissions. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. George goes biking while Baghdad blows up.

I asked Marguerita how she could stay optimistic. “Optimistic,” she exclaimed. “I’m not optimistic, I’m pissed off! When I see a mother stuffing her kids in a big SUV which is contributing to the environmental disaster that those kids will have to deal with. Optimistic, hell, I am outraged by the stupidity of people.” She was laughing the whole time, and I had trouble believing that anger was her sole motivation. I am sure that she is outraged by the ignorance and indifference relative to the destruction of the natural environment. Like George W. Bush sabotaging the Kyoto accord. “What me worry, let’s drill more oil wells and invade Iraq”. Insanity. Marguerita, on the other hand, strikes me as totally sane, and also motivated by a concern for the environment and the quality of life. All life.

Our conversation finally headed into calmer waters, the wind out of its sails. I looked at my new friends. People who had started a lot of shit, and who continue to swim against the stream. I was reminded of the words of the old Cajun philosopher, when he said, “A few good people can change the world.”

September 7, 2005

I was only six years old, huddled in my mother’s arms, trying to make myself smaller, trying to hide from the wind. A few yards from the window of our glass porch, the two hundred year old oak tree was twirling like a dervish. The sound was deafening, occasional shrill piercing shrieks as the wind surged in through the cracks, on the background of a huge constant roar. With each gust, the floor would jump, the wood creaking loudly. My cousin was with us. He was just a teenager, sent to protect my mother and me in the absence of my father. I would look at him as each gust drove through my heart. In his eyes was the same fear that was choking me. This went on for hours.

My father was working for the Boys Scouts and had left us, driving north to Bayou Courtableau to batten down the hatches at Camp Thistlewaite about 40 miles away. We would not see him for three days, not knowing if he was dead or alive. He was stranded on the roof of the mess hall for 24 hours, beating back the snakes with a canoe paddle

You remember your first hurricane like you remember the first time you make love. Her name was Audry. She came ashore south of Cameron, and took with her 100,000 buildings and 526 people. We were east of the eye, on the bad side. The day before the storm, people in the marsh had seen thousands of crawfish heading north. These were the days before Dopler radar when animals still had an advantage over man. Unfortunately, none of the inhabitants of the coastal marshes followed the crawfish out.

There was Carla in 1961. My mother and I took refuge across the street with a neighbor who had a brick house. I had just turned 11, still relegated to the women and children. Throughout the night, my mother and our neighbors prayed the rosary, their voices humming hypnotically, literally an island of calm in the storm. The eye passed right over us, and for a short time there was an eerie calm. I went out to look at the stars, my mother pleading for me to return. I did and in a just a few minutes the wind roared again coming without warning from the other direction at over 100 miles and hour.

There was Hilda in 1964. At that time my grandfather was suffering from throat cancer and we had gotten a generator to keep the pump for his tracheotomy running. I was 14 years old, and for the first time, it was I who was supposed to watch over the women and children. My father was Director of Civil Defense for Lafayette Parish and he would spend the night in the control center, directing operations. My uncles were all at the fire station, waiting like a swarm of bees to fall upon any danger. When the electricity failed, I had to climb underneath the house (a wood frame Cajun-victorian on pillars) and start the generator that would keep my grandfather from suffocating. At least the storm came during the day, which is always less frightening.

There was Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969, and when they started naming hurricanes for men, there was Andrew and Juan and Ivan. The last storm to visit us was Lilly in 2002. My wife and I fled the country when the winds began to pound at 7AM, seeking shelter with my parents in the same house, built in 1896, where I had spent Hurricane Hilda. At noon, once the wind had died down some, unable to restrain ourselves, my father and I road out to the country. Our house (built in 1981) had survived. We had lost trees and telephone poles and the wind had pushed water somehow into the house (probably down the chimney), but the house was standing. For two weeks we were without power, spending our days in the sweltering heat, cleaning up, sleeping at night with a wet towel draped over our backs.

I have seen hurricanes, but I have never seen anything like Katrina.

In 1718, Jean Baptiste Lemoyne, sieur de Bienville, governor of the fledgling colony of Louisiana, sought out a new site upon which to establish the capitol of his colony. He was seeking a site that would give him easier access to the river. The site he chose was on high ground on the banks of the Mississippi, with communication upstream to the Illinois territory and from there to the Great Lakes, the river Français, the Ottawa river and finally Bienville’s hometown of Montréal. From this site, via Bayou St. John and Lac Ponchartrain, he was able to reach the Gulf and the French posts in the Caribbean and finally France itself. He named the new city in honor of the Duc d’Orléans, and la Nouvelle Orléans was born.

What served the interests of the fledgling colony, however, has become the bane of modern New Orleans. Punching a hole in the 17th Street Canal, Hurricane Katrina has created the nightmare, which has haunted Louisiana from its first days:

La Crevasse. From its early days, Louisiana has had a love-hate relationship with water. The city’s wealth from colonial times to the present is irrevocably linked to the river, but its existence is maintained only by severely controlling the river and the lake. The waters are held like slaves in bondage and like every slave, have always dreamed of revolt. Katrina has provoked that which the people of Louisiana fear the most: levee break and its attendant flood.

Today, September 1, the lake water is no longer rising in the city, which means that the city is now part of the lake. The dimension of the human suffering is impossible to imagine, even for the veteran of many hurricanes like myself. We have all seen the heartbreaking images of a city devastated. My house, like most of those in Cajun country, has become a refuge. We are sheltering friends and family from the city as well as stranded tourists, who at our door, disheveled and lost, like flotsam from the storm. People arrive and we welcome them. That’s all. We watch a lot of television and once in a while we hug and cry. My cousins from Pass Christian, Mississippi ask themselves if their house was able to resist Katrina as it did Camille.

They are impatient to return and to begin cleaning up, and if necessary rebuilding. We will accompany them, giving them whatever help we can, just as they will do the next time the hurricane comes to Lafayette.

(This was written on Sept. 1. Four days later, the situation has finally begun to improve, but not before the city of New Orleans careened out of control. Federal and State government have failed miserably to protect the people of New Orleans. For three days, evacuees in the Superdome and the Convention Center were abandoned without food and water. Why was this allowed to happen? Why were no adequate precautions taken once the storm entered the Gulf of Mexico? Why has the Federal government neglected the levee system that protects New Orleans in spite of the fact that at least since Hurricane Betsy in 1965, it has been common knowledge that a major storm could wreak havoc upon the city? Why has the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) proven to be so ineffective? Why have we allowed the US government to wage an ill-conceived and counter productive war in Iraq and to reduce taxes on the wealthiest Americans while neglecting the ultimate responsibility of protecting its citizens at home? Can George W. Bush continue to pretend that global warming is not a threat? Can we continue to stand by while the coastal marshes of Louisiana disappear? I am shocked and saddened by the tragedy to which we are all witness. I am heartbroken, but I am not surprised. Shame. Shame. Shame.)

August 3, 2005

Voyage of the Sedna IV

This month, I had the pleasure of sailing aboard the Sedna IV. We were filming a documentary entitled “Vu du Large” (Seen from offshore) on the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Each of the five one-hour segments features an artist (myself) who accompanies several specialists, scientists mostly. My job consisted of visiting Lakes Ontario and Erie in the company of Pierre Béland and asking questions relative to the health of the ecosystem. Pierre is the former president of the Great Lakes Commission, a joint U.S.-Canada task force whose mission it is to survey the quality of the natural environment of the Great Lakes Basin. Pierre is well known for his groundbreaking research on the beluga whales of the lower Saint Lawrence. It was he who discovered that the source of the contaminants which were (are) decimating the beluga whales has its source in Lake Ontario. Absorbed by eels and fish, the toxins will descend the river with them to be absorbed in turn by the whales. Since Pierre’s discovery, the situation has not improved. The beluga population remains stable at approximately 1200 individuals, down from the estimated more than 10,000 which existed historically. And there is still as much pollution.

9 July, 5 AM. Heave to, leaving the port of Toronto. Behind the city, the sky is burning, the fire set by the rising sun. Apocalyptic vision in bright pink. We set sail for the city of Hamilton at the far western end of Lake Ontario. Once arrived and anchored in the harbor, we set out in a zodiac for the National Water Research Institute. Big cinder colored block of a building stuck at the entrance of the harbor. On the wharf, dozens of boats belonging to the coast guard and to Oceans and Fisheries, hauled up on trailers, looking very forlorn. Wonder who’s watching the Oceans.

We entered the building, a grey Soviet style block set back about a hundred yards from the guano covered wharf and the lonely patrol boats, and were greeted by a committee of scientists, including Alex Bielak, the director of the Institute, and his associate Mehran Alaee. Dr. Alaee is studying the contamination of the biosphere. We were issued into his laboratory filled with computers and a couple of mass spectrometers. The mass spectrometer, about the size of a kitchen cabinet, allows the isolation of a particular molecule. The process begins with essence of fish, a concentrated liquid taken from the flesh of a fish caught in the wild. With a cheerful smile and sparkling eyes, Dr. Alaee explained the function of the spectrometer. First the molecules included in the fish sample are made to run along a coiled cable, the equivalent of a molecular marathon. At the end of this effort, the molecules arrive at the end of the coil all tuckered out. The chosen molecule is somehow isolated and then bombarded with 8000 volts, which magnetizes it. It is then attracted to a nearby magnet and thus separated from its neighboring molecules ready for study. I am not sure that I have the science right, but the point is that, thanks to the spectrometer, the presence of particular toxic substances can be measured in the flesh of fish in the wild. Or in anything else for that matter.

It all seemed quite the science fiction movie: the friendly scientist alongside his multi-million dollar machine lost in the bowels of a nondescript cinder colored building in Hamilton Ontario doing research that nobody will ever hear about. Nothing too alarming in that. However, the information that Dr. Alaee gave us scares me still.

In any given fish sample, there can be hundreds (try 1500) toxic substances. On his computer screen, Dr. Alaee pointed to several graphs indicating the presence in the atmosphere of chemicals with names I will never be able to pronounce. There were lines moving up and lines moving down, somehow detached from everyday reality as though they had fallen from outer space. Of interest only to eggheads.

But in fact, the statistics express a dangerous reality all too close to everyday life. Even though the presence of certain substances (PCBs, DDT, toxaphin, dioxin, etc.) is diminishing, other substances as dangerous to life on the planet are on the rise. These substances present a real danger to human health, and they are currently so loosely restricted as to be uncontrolled. I am speaking of brominated flame retardants.

Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) protect against the rapid proliferation of fire and are everywhere: textiles, plastics, paint, electrical appliances. In the late 1990s, a Swedish study showed that in contrast to contaminants such as PCBs, levels of PBDEs (flame retardants) have increased exponentially in human milk since the early 1970s. Brominated dephenyl ether molecules (the most widely used flame retardant) are similar in structure to polycholorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which are classified as carcinogens and are known to cause birth defects, neurological damage and thyroid imbalances. Ouch.

These products are omnipresent in the modern environment: sofa cushions, children’s pajamas, televisions, computers, cars, airplanes. Designed to protect people against fire, these substances pose a significant danger to human health made all the more dangerous by the invisible nature of the threat. And they are everywhere including the Arctic. Thanks to their molecular stability (a necessary component to their commercial viability) they will be with us for a long time. A very long time.

How can these compounds wind up in the fat of polar bears? There are few computers or sofa cushions on the pack ice. The distribution of these substances is accomplished by natural meteorological phenomenon. Simply put: they are carried on the wind. They are sufficiently volatile to enter into the atmosphere and then it’s Katie bar the door. Neither the arctic seals of Alaska nor the polar bears of James Bay are out of harm’s way. You can run, but you cannot hide from this stuff.

These substances are controlled only in Europe and in 3 U.S. states, but this is largely irrelevant due to their ability to traverse any political or even natural boundary. Wherever the wind blows, you will find this stuff. A nightmare. After our experience with PCBs and DDT here we go again. These products, designed to make our lives safer, pose a significant threat to the survival of life on the planet. There has been throughout human history, a tendency to play with fire. Seeking chemical solutions to natural problems has been with us forever and particularly so in the modern post WWII era. The problem is not how to stuff the genie back in the bottle; it is that the genie has gotten so big and so out of control that he just might eat us alive. We are like junkies hooked by a never ending search for the magic potion that will make our lives easier and happier too. Why not? ......Why not indeed.

This is not a criticism of our collective desire to discover and implement technologies that render our lives more pleasant. I am writing this on a computer, and my house has running water and a television set. What I am bemoaning is the commercialization of chemical products without understanding their effects on the natural environment (which includes homo sapiens) over time. Never mind stuffing the genie back in the bottle, how about just holding him back some.

And what about GMOs? Genetically Modified Organisms. Following our visit with Dr. Alaee, we met his colleague, Chris Marvin. Chris is studying the presence of pesticides and insecticides in the Great Lakes Basin. He began by showing us a map of the region carved up into different colors. Red equals high levels of pesticides and/or insecticides, green equals low. Plenty of green on the map, but the red zones shine brightly like lighthouses strung along misery’s shore.

The problem of pesticides and insecticides in the environment is well known and popular outcry has obliged national and local governments to act. On the other hand, the effectiveness of the action undertaken is not well understood. But, at least we are aware that there is a problem. None the less, something that Chris said gave me a chill. It was more the way he said it. He stated that most of the products utilized stay in the environment for only short periods of time, breaking down into their less offensive component parts. I asked if Round Up was used and how long it stayed in the environment. (Round Up is widely used in Louisiana, giving rise to the local axiom: “Plant concrete, fertilize with Round Up”). Chris replied that Round Up was indeed the most popular herbicide in the Great Lakes Basin, and that it remained in the environment for only a short period. He continued on, referring to “Round Up Ready” seed, which is to say seed that has been genetically modified to resist the effects of Round Up.

It was the way Chris spoke about these products that disturbed me. There were no surprises in his statements, but the detachment with which he spoke about these thing sent a chill up my spine. “We study the products that society chooses to use.” Chris Marvin is a scientist whose job it is to study the presence of toxic substances in the biosphere. His work is critical and his sensitivity to ecological questions was very apparent. None the less, something about the way he spoke, using as he did the language of the scientist as opposed to the language of the human being, was profoundly troubling to me. I did not expect him to spread the anti-OGM doctrine of a pinko tree hugger like me, but there was something so detached in the phrase “products that society chooses to use”, that made me want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him up, and ask him if he has any children and if so did they breathe air and drink water? WE are the society that “chooses to use” these products. Me and Chris and everybody who owns a car or mows a lawn or goes to the grocery store. It is we who are poisoning the environment through indifference and ignorance and complicity. We are the associates of the petro-chemical companies who manufacture the poisons. We are the ones who subsidize the destruction of the biosphere via our SUVs (I have one) and our lawn fertilizer (I don’t use) and our lack of political responsibility. And we are the ones, or our children, who will pay the ultimate price.

In the darkened hall of the Water Research Institute, we hung around like adolescents after school, cracking jokes and being friendly. But the subject of our conversation was anything but a joke.

“There is no canola seed in North America that is not genetically modified,” said Mehran. None. (See monthly report June 2004). Thanks to the aggressive propaganda of the petro-chemical companies. And this without any long term research on the effects that OGMs will have on human health.

Following our visit to the Water Research Institute, we departed once again in our zodiac, destination Randol’s Reef. At the foot of a monstrous, rusting steel mill, amidst the three foot swells arriving from all directions (cross currents) lies one of the most polluted sites in North America. Chris gave us the history of the pollution and explained the details of the project to contain it. Beginning next year (really?) a solid steel barrier will be put around the sediment. Big sheets of steel will be driven into the harbor floor until they reach the hard clay, effectively (we hope) containing the pollution forever. A nice little island will be created, home for yet more seagulls. At the cost of 45 million dollars. Paid for by the government, that is to say the Canadian taxpayers. Chris lamented the reduction of funds for this and other environmental projects. During the 1980s and 1990s, public investment in the restoration and protection of the natural environment had increased steadily. Then along came George W. Bush who prefers to squander our national resources on an ill-conceived war rather than the health of his fellow citizens. The U.S. military is among the largest if not the largest user of brominated flame retardants. The point of view of the current U.S. president is that of an absentee landlord, and is characterized by an ignorance of established scientific fact. According to George W., there is no problem. Human milk is contaminated by PBDEs, while women in North America are suffering an epidemic of thyroid problems, and asthma is rising exponentially among the young. In the meantime, our national forests are being handed over to logging companies and nobody in the government is even beginning to construct a coherent policy for the reduction of our dependence upon fossil fuels. No problem.

I think that it is remarkable that scientists like Chris Marvin and Mehran Alaee are keeping an eye on the biosphere in the name of all of us. The technology they are using is indeed phenomenal. But I deplore the lack of coherency implicit in this approach. They are scientists. Their research can serve the cause of those of us who sincerely desire a solution to the ecological problems created by human activity. Provided that we are sufficiently aware and sufficiently concerned to use the information that these and other scientists furnish to us. Without understanding the problem and without the courage necessary to confront the multi-national companies whose social conscience is defined by making a profit (Do you own a mutual fund, which invests in Monsanto? Or G.E.? Or Ford? Or Haliburton?) and without the intelligence to imagine and to implement alternatives to our mass consumption slash-and-burn life style, the information furnished by the scientific community will not do us much good. The problem touches all of us and can only be solved collectively. But first we must be aware that there is a problem.

Like the contaminated sediments at the bottom of Hamilton harbor, or like the toxins concentrated in polar bear milk, ecological problems are easy to miss. But under the surface, they continue their evolution. Silently like a thief in the night, toxic pollution is advancing toward a point in the future where it will be impossible to reverse its deadly effects.

Hopefully we will wake up before it’s too late.
Whales on line
Arctic Social Sciences
Portrait of endangered beluga whales in Quebec
Diseases of Beluga Whales in the Saint Lawrence Estuary
Species at Risk: Beluga Whales

July 6, 2005

Back to the cave: By a significant majority (55%) French voters have said “non” to the European constitution, throwing the government of Jacques Chirac into disarray. In a campaign which was defined by its lack of definition, the overriding theme became “just say no”. I wonder how many French voters actually understood the contents of the proposed Constitution. I had been in France during the beginning of the counterattack by Chirac. He appeared on television in front of a very polite crowd of young people and did little in the course of two hours to convince anybody of anything. In this referendum, there were one third of the people (including Jean-Marie LePen and the far right) who adamantly refuse to have anything to do with anything called “Europe”, and there is another third of the population convinced that the future of France is within a large multinational conglomerate which can protect their common interests and compete with the United States and China. The remainder of the population had no real opinion on the fundamental issues, but felt better or more secure by voting “Non”. What will happen the the concept of the greater Europe in the face of the refusal of one of its primary (along with Germany) proponents. Probably nothing in the short term. The long term picture is not so clear.

The voting was characterized by class differences. In Paris, the wealthier neighborhoods voted for the Constitution whereas the poorer neighborhoods voted against it, confirming the “Polish plumber ploy”. A significant fear among the working class, was that the European constitution would open the door to a flood of immigration, thereby making the already difficult economic situation even more difficult for the working poor. And then there was Turkey. The far right portrayed the “no” vote as a means to prevent muslim Turkey from joining the European Union. The political interests were varied and many components of the “no” camp, such as the Communists and the Front National have conflicting political philosophies. The bottom line, however, is that a majority of Frenchmen rejected the concept of a larger Europe basically out of uncertainty and the sentiment that by voting “no” they would maintain more control over their own destinies.

In the meantime, a month long conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty ended in complete failure, with the nuclear and non nuclear states so far apart that they never actually engaged in a detailed discussion of how to fix the gaping loopholes that many experts say have allowed a resurgence in the spread of the most dangerous nuclear technologies. For most of the four weeks of the meeting, non nuclear states insisted that the United States and other nuclear powers reduce their nuclear armaments, while the Bush administration tried to focus the conference on the question of dealing with North Korea and Iran.

A number of nations, led by Iran and Egypt, demanded that any change in the system of restraining the spread of nuclear arms technology begin with assurances that no nuclear power would ever attack a non nuclear nation. They also wanted an agreement to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The US refused to even discuss the issue.

While the conference was ending in failure, the US Air Force was trying to convince the cowboy president that we should put big guns on the moon or somewhere out in space. Not that he needs much convincing The theory being that if we have a big stick, everybody will give us a wide berth. This is the Bush vision of the world: everybody hates us so we should hate everybody. This is in such conflict with the tenets of Christianity that one must question the nature of the faith of the current president of the United States. In a curious turn of events, George W. Bush was castigated recently by fundamentalist Christians, although admittedly from the Christian “left”. They criticized him for having sacrificed the environment and the interests of the poor to the interests of the very rich. Love thy neighbor as thyself, provided he belongs to the same country club.

In Iraq, dozens of people are killed every day in a war which was ill conceived and has had a negative impact on the restraint of global terrorism. And yet the only course that George W. Bush can conceive of is more of the same. I hate to say “I told you so”, but, I told you so. Remember Viet Nam anyone? I do. In North Korea, meanwhile, the dogs of war are barking.

It would seem that we have not climbed too far out of the cave. For all of our science and technology the basic nature of life seems yet to be understood. Given the 2000 years of Christianity and the 1500 or so of Islam, as well as the 3000 years of Buddhism, there doesn’t seem to have been much of a change in the fundamental nature of human beings nor our addiction to fear and greed. We have yet to understand that we are all on this little blue ball traveling through the universe and that the well-being of one is the well-being of all.

What if we consecrated as much money to education and eradicating poverty as to developing new weapons? What if....?

June 1, 2005

On May 30, my dear friend, the poet Gérald LeBlanc passed away after a valiant struggle with the devil Cancer. He was 59. The last time that I saw Gérald was in April. I had gone to Moncton to attend the Northrup Frye literary festival. One of the evening performances was dedicated to Gérald’s work. We were several poets reading his poetry and the atmosphere was all the more charged because he was too ill to attend. The musical group les Païens performed with their habitual elegance adding just the right notes to the readings. For the next few days, all anyone could talk about was Gérald and the state of his health. Will he make it? No one knew.

The day of my departure, I was finally able to spend some time with him. We spent an hour talking in his apartment surrounded by a life time’s worth of books. There were books everywhere, on the floor, falling from the shelves, on the table, on the chair, the detritus of a life spent loving words. He was frail and suffering but the disease had not dampened his spirit nor taken the edge off of his ironic sense of humor. He was, as always, irreverent, caustic, intimidating and tender. I left him a sample of a melody and asked that he write the lyrics. Both of us knew that this would be our last visit, but we played the game to the end, planning to get together once he had some ideas.

Gérald walked me to the door and we hugged. I didn’t hug him too hard, afraid that I might hurt him. He was not a big fellow to begin with, and the disease had shriveled him up. He felt like a bird in my arms, or a ballerina that I could have tossed easily into the air. Maybe I was just feeling his soul preparing to take flight.

The first time that I met Gérald LeBlanc was in 1975, during my first ever trip to Acadie. He was part of the Moncton counterculture which was shaking the cage of that mid sized small town with its reactionary English speaking anglo dominant style. He was with us that fateful August 15 when in the honored Acadian tradition, we took to the streets in a “tintamarre” making riotous noise. I am not sure how the tradition started, but in every Acadian community in the Canadian maritimes, the tintamarre is celebrated on important occasions, people taking to the streets with pots and pans and whatever else they can get their hands on to make noise. Legend has it that the practice started simply as a way to let the Anglos know that the Acadians were still there and still alive. The tradition lives on in every Acadian hamlet. But Moncton is not an Acadian hamlet. Our tintamarre earned us a visit from the city police. It was that night that I encountered for the first time the racism which permeated the English community (and still does although not as blatantly, it’s more indifference and impatience now rather than KuKlux style hatred which defined AngloAcadian relations during much of the 20th century in New Brunswick) . The police officer who hauled Rhéal Drisdelle off to jail spoke the words I will never forget. When Rhéal told him that we were celebrating the Acadian holiday, the policeman replied, “I don’t give a fuck if it’s Christmas.” And there were Gérald and I and a handful of other crazies, watching as they pushed him into the police cruiser and hauled him away.

Over the years, I kept in touch with Gérald, but it wasn’t until 1996 that we became close. He had become the editor of Perce-Neige and I was looking to publish my second book of poetry. It was in a small hotel room overlooking Times Square in New York City (a town that Gérald loved) that we collaborated on the collection which became Faire Récolte. My French is somewhat hampered by the fact that my childhood and education were conducted largely in English in spite of the fact that my grandparents never spoke the language of Shakespeare and that French was still the language of choice of most of my family. And because of that, my French, while rich with the sonority of Louisiana speech, suffers from a syntax style which is very much English derived and therefore quite often complicated and hard to understand. With this book, I wanted to preserve the sonic wealth and the colorful dialect of Louisiana French, but I also wanted to communicate with an international French speaking audience. Gérald led me through the labyrinth of French syntax. The result earn me my one and only literary prize, le Prix Champlain in 1998.

Gérald organized the book launch in Montréal what was attended by the literary elite. It was that night that I met Patrice Desbiens, who I believe to be the greatest French poet in North American today. I had not even heard of him before. This was one of Gérald’s great gifts to us all. He was a “rassembleur” an “assembler”, one who assembles. And he was a breaker of boundaries. For Gérald, the spoken word, melody and the visual arts were not separate disciplines, but just so many ingredients in his own spicey gumbo.

After that time, I saw Gérald often, at literary festivals and other assorted happenings in France and in Québec. He visited us in Louisiana on several occasions. Often I would hear him before seeing him, his high pitched laugh unmistakable. Until the end, he maintained an innocence, a spontaneity, what the Zen masters call “beginner’s mind”, which made of him a true artist. He lived his life like he wrote his poems, with intelligence and with heart. As he said of himself, “I write to save my soul”.

Originally from Bouctouche, New Brunswick, Gérald LeBlanc was born September 25, 1945. A prolific poet, he was awarded the Prix Pascal Poirier in 1993 by the government of New Brunswick for the ensemble of his literary work. A bibliography can be found below. His career included numerous appearances at literary festivals throughout Canada, and Europe and in the U.S. as well. He was one of the founders of Perce-Neige, the only French language company currently publishing in New Brunswick. In 1991, he became its literary director, a post which he occupied until March 2005.

Although certainly the most well known Acadian poet of his generation, Gérald was more that a writer, but quite literally an ambassador of contemporary Acadian culture. Throughout the French speaking world, his promoted not only his work but Acadian literature generally. His influence on the younger generation of Acadian artists was paramount. He was the driving force behind numerous performances which assembled musicians, poets and visual artists, events that will mark forever creative Acadian culture . Thanks to Gérald, young Acadian poets are not isolated, but collaborate freely with their colleague musicians and painters. He united artists from all of the disciplines, a legacy which will live on in Acadie thanks to his work.

parfois nous écrivons
sans trop savoir pourquoi
sauf que nous écrivons
nous imaginons qu’une phrase
peut nous emmener
au bout du monde
et parfois elle le fait
entre le rythme du coeur
et le rythme du lieu
entre le noir et le blanc
le bleu guette constamment
comme le silence
je veux nommer jusqu’au vertige
tout ce qui m’a touché
les traces indélébiles
de certains moments
les épiphanies du quotidien
au long de la longue complainte
de mon appartenance

sometimes we write
not knowing why
except that we write
we imagine that a phrase
can bring us
to the end of the world
and sometimes it does
between the rhythm of the heart
and the rhythm of the place
between the black and the white
the blue waits constantly
like the silence
I want to name until the vertigo
all that has touched me
the indelible traces
of certain moments
the epiphanies of daily life
all along the long ballad
of my belonging

From: Complaintes du continent, Perce-Neige, Moncton, 1993. Unauthorized translation

Publications :

* Techgnose, poésie, Moncton, Éditions Perce-Neige, 2004
* Géomancie, Éditions l‚Interligne, 2003
* Le plus clair du temps, poésie, Moncton, Éditions Perce-Neige, 2001
* Je n’en connais pas la fin, poésie, Moncton, Éditions Perce-Neige, 1999
* Moncton Mantra, roman, Moncton, Éditions Perce-Neige, 1997
* Méditations sur le désir, livre d’artiste en collaboration avec Guy Duguay,1996
* É loge du chiac, poésie, Éditions Perce-Neige, 1995
* Complaintes du continent, poésie, Moncton/Trois-Rivières,
Éditions Perce-Neige/Écrits des forges, 1993
* De la rue, la mémoire, la musique, poésie, Montréal, Lèvres urbaines no. 24, 1993
* Les matins habitables, poésie, Moncton, Éditions Perce-Neige, 1991
* L’extrême frontière, poésie, Moncton, Éditions d‚Acadie, 1988
* Lieux transitoires, poésie, Moncton, Michel Henry Éditeur, 1986
* Précis d‚intensité, poésie, en collaboration avec Herménégilde Chiasson
Montréal Lèvres urbaines no. 12, 1985
* Géographie de la nuit rouge, poésie, Moncton, Éditions d‚Acadie, 1984
* Comme un otage du quotidien, poésie, Moncton, Éditions Perce-Neige, 1981

May 4, 2005

I spent most of this month on the trail of the Acadians of France. First stop: Nantes. It was from this port town that, in 1785, 1596 Acadian exiles, the great majority of the Acadians living in France, departed for Louisiana. 30 years after the Deportation, these Acadians were still searching to establish themselves permanently. Their experience in France had been difficult. Most of the exiles who left Nantes had come from the Ligne Acadienne (the Acadian Line) in Poitou. In an effort to settle this uprooted people, the King of France had granted a concession to a nobleman for the development of agricultural lands in Poitou. The only trouble was that the lands in question were barren. Less than two years after settling in Poitou, the Acadians left en masse for Nantes. They had heard about the success of the Acadian settlements in Louisiana and conceived of the possibility of immigrating there and reuniting with long lost relatives. They were ultimately successful in their attempt. It wound up taking 10 years, however.

With the help of Rosemonde Cormier, and Acadian from Caraquet, New Brunswick, who works at the Municipal Archives of Nantes, I was able to examine the original passenger lists of the seven ships which sailed in 1785. It seemed like just another day at the office for the staff, but the experience was very moving for me. With a pale grey light falling on the table from the large windows, accompanied by Rosemonde and Gérard Marc Braud, historian and genealogist, I was able to actually hold the original documents in my hands.

There were many moving stories told in these yellowing pages, like the story of the 3 Richard sisters, Marguerite, Madeleine and Elizabeth. They were all unmarried, in their 30s and 40s (had they been widows, the document would have mentioned the fact). What was the destiny of these three sisters, departing for an unknown land without husband, father, brother or son.

There was also the family of Etienne Boudrot and that of his brother Marin. Of all of the Acadians who arrived in France after the Déportation of 1755, it is to these brothers that I am most closely related. Their grandfather was Michel à Claude à Michel Boudrot (the original Boudrot who arrived in Acadie in 1632 from LaRochelle). He was also the grandfather of Olivier Boudrot, who is my direct ancestor.

On the passenger list was also the Acadian most responsible for the entire project, Olivier Thériot. He as born in Acadie the year of the Deportation. He was a cobbler in Nantes and an educated man, having studied for two years in the Seminaire at Morlaix. In spite of his education and his standing in the Acadian community, it was not easy task to convince the Acadians to embark on the project. First of all, it was necessary to swear allegiance to Carlos, king of Spain. It was Carlos who financed the project in the hopes of settling Catholics in his colony of Louisiana who could thereby resist the incursion of the English settlers who were arriving from the East. Many Acadians feared that by the entire project was but a scheme of Louis XIV who desired to rid himself of the Acadians. Olivier Thériot was threatened and even attacked, but he persisted. The other major problem was the creditors. Many Acadians had borrowed heavily in France and the fear of the creditors was that should they depart for America, they would never pay their debts. For years, Olivier Thériot worked to bring the project to a successful conclusion. Eventually Louis XIV paid the Acadians’ debts, and Olivier Thériot was able to convince them to embark. As the documents I was able to examine bear witness, most of the Acadians living in France departed aboard 7 ships from the port of Nantes (an additional ship departed from St. Malo). In the course of the year 1785, they arrived in New Orleans and began a new chapter in their lives.

Thanks to Rosemonde and to Gérard Marc Braud, who along with his wife Maryannick, has brought to light most of the information that is known about the Acadian presence in Nantes, I was able also to discover the ultimate fate of Abbé LeLoutre. LeLoutre was a missionary in pre-dispersal Acadie. He was, in fact, as much agent provocateur as he was priest. With the capitulation of the French forces at Fort Beauséjour in the summer of 1755, LeLoutre fled, but his destiny remained absolutely linked to that of his former parishioners. Imprisoned on the Ile of Jersey during the war, LeLoutre was able to return to France in 1763 where he worked incessantly to improve the lot of the exiles.

At the moment of his death, LeLoutre was at Nantes working on the immigration project. The cemetery in which he as buried no longer exists. His remains were removed and placed in a common grave. The site is today a small square, which as fate would have it, is near to Rosemonde’s apartment. We visited the square with a certain nostalgia, remembering this long lost hero of the Acadians who devoted his entire life to their well-being. From there we headed to the Place Royale and the Carnaval des Enfants.

In Nantes today, three carnaval celebrations are held in April. The first, the Carnaval du Jour, (Day Carnival) is primarily a family event. The second, the Carnaval de Nuit (Night Carnival) is more along the lines of what we normally associate with carnaval, a wild celebration of hedonism. The third carnaval is devoted to children. Most if not all of the small children of Nantes participate. There is a parade with floats, but the real action is in the crowd where a multitude of young children in costume go on a rampage.

Following our Nantes adventure, we headed for Belle Ile en Mer, a small island off the Brittany coast. We were met by Maryvonne Le Gaq, president of the Belle Ile-Acadie association. The Acadian presence at Belle Ile was considerable as well and there are still many here who are proud of their Acadian heritage. Following the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in North America) the Acadians who had be imprisoned in England were able to depart for France. These long suffering people had been deported from Grand Pré (Minas Basin). In the fall of 1755, they arrived in Virginia, but that colony refused to let them disembark. For six months they remained on board, with insufficient food and bad water. An epidemic of small pox broke out and many died. Finally, the government of Virginia sent the refugees to England, where they were detained at Bristol, Liverpool, Falmouth and Southampton. They were approximately 1200 souls. When they departed for France in 1763, however, they were less that 800 and that including the births which had taken place in the 7 intervening years.

The transports which brought the exiles from England deposited them at St. Malo and Morlaix in Brittany. There they found Acadians who were already established. After the fall of Louisbourg in 1758, the English undertook the whole scale deportation of the Acadian population of Ile Saint Jean, renaming it Prince Edward Island in the process. These Acadians were transported to France and left at the French ports of the English channel: Le Havre, Cherbourg, Boulogne-sur-Mer and in Brittany. When the Acadians imprisoned in England arrive in France in 1763, they found the Prince Edward IslandAcadians already established. Liberated as well at the end of the war, Abbé LeLoutre returned to St. Malo and began immediately to work for the improvement of the Acadians’ situation.

One of the last battles of the Seven Years War was the English attack on Belle Ile. Even though the war was effectively over, the English decided to storm Belle Ile. The motivation was vengeance and the desire to improve the English position during the peace negotiations. It as clear that France would be more amenable to cede territory abroad rather than to relinquish an island in full view of her coast. In 1761, the English invade and conquer Belle Ile, provoking a catastrophe for the local population, many of whom fled the occupation. For several years, the lands were left abandoned. Once Belle Ile was returned to France under the terms of the treaty of Paris, Louis XIV decided that the island should be repopulated and who better to do the repopulation than the exiled Acadians.

In 1765, 10 years after the Deportation, 78 Acadian families leave Brittany and arrive at Belle Ile. The reception is less than friendly. The Bretons of Belle Ile regarded these impoverished exiles with a suspicious eye. And relations did not improve once the lands were distributed. For the first time in the history of France, the King distributed lands to common people rather than to noblemen. This process, called “afféagement” enabled the inhabitants of Belle Ile to own their land, but created rivalries and bitter feuds between the Bretons and the Acadian “interlopers”. For the Acadians, however, it offered the possibility of establishing their families and ending their perennial peregrination.

The Acadians who arrived at Belle Ile had no civil documents, no parish registers, no record of their families. In order to establish their legal situation, the king ordered that sworn affidavits be taken, listing the family members. Each head of an Acadian family listed his family members, which often included not only his wife and children, but also his siblings, his parents, his grandparents and quite often his great grandparents.

The documents are incredible. More than 800 Acadians are listed. Take the example of Pierre Richard. He was able to trace his family roots back four generations, mentioning his first ancestor to arrive in Acadie in 1651. He was able to list the birth dates and places of birth as far back as his great grandfather. The family memory that the Acadians possessed was phenomenal. These people were for the most part illiterate yet they were able to remember details of their family history that seem astounding to us today. Including the birth dates and places of birth of many of their siblings. The most haunting detail for me was the notation which ended many of the statements: “parti dans la colonie anglaise...........”, departed for the English colony.............. Most of these people had lived at Grand Pré. They knew that their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and often their mothers and fathers were deported to a British North American colony, but they did not know which one. The deportees themselves did not know where they were headed until they arrived.

At the end of each statement are the signatures of the witnesses. There were three or four witnesses per parish (there were 4 parishes). These witnesses were in fact the Acadian delegates, the representatives of the people. The final signature was that of Abbé LeLoutre. In a very small script, he signed “LeLoutre, prêtre et missionnaire”.

The person who presented these registers to me is an Acadian herself, Madame Lucie Gautro. Her story is as enchanting as the documents. In 1936, at the age of 20, she began to work for the municipality of Le Palais as secretary. As such she was responsible for the archives. For many years she lived above the archives in the city hall. Although she is retired and no longer lives in the building, it was with profound conviction that she greeted us with a “Bienvenue chez moi”, “Welcome to my place”.

Lucie Gautro is a small woman seemingly as frail as the pages of the registers. She gave off no air of fragility, however, as she turned the pages with a non-chalance which left me aghast. I hardly dared touch these old documents, while Lucie flipped through the pages like she was looking for a number in the telephone book. She would stop periodically and begin to read aloud. EVen though she must have done this dozens if not hundreds of times, I could tell that she was moved. When she would come to the testimony of one of her ancestors, she would stop and look at me with her steel blue eyes and say, “Celui-là, c’est mon ancêtre”, “This one here is my ancestor”.

Her little voice resonated in the room filled with the records of hundreds of years of births and deaths, marriages and law suits. It was a wonderful experience to be able to actually touch the original documents deposited by the Acadians, to hold them in my hands. Their words reverberated in my heart, the words left by cousins two hundred and forty years ago, testimony to their suffering and to their hope. I cannot describe the emotion that this provoked. I can only say that it was strong. I could see that it was the same for Madame Lucie Gautro. We are of different generations, of different countries and cultures, and yet, sharing this moment, it was as though we had known each other forever. I could tell that she felt the same. I could see it though the little tear in my eye.

April 6, 2005

What a shameful spectacle to which we were recently exposed during the last days of Terry Shiavo. During what should have been the most private of moments, the moment in which a human being leaves this world, this poor woman was the object of a voyeuristic media circus. Shame on the press, and shame on our government for introducing an element of the ridiculous in what should have been the most sacred. In order to gain political ground and galvanize support with the religious right, demagogues, among whom can be counted the president himself, attempted to make political capital on the back of a poor afflicted woman who should have been permitted to die long ago. And in the name of the “sanctity of life.” Incredible.

Among these same people, those who pretend to defend the “sanctity of life”, we are certain to find the most ardent defenders of the death penalty. And of the invasion of Iraq, a military and social fiasco which has been responsible for the deaths of countless women (including pregnant women) and children and diminished the quality of life of everyone in that beleaguered country. Sanctity of life indeed.

The best thing that could come out of this sorry affair is that everybody will pull out pen and paper and write a living will. And thus protect themselves from being manipulated should they ever find themselves unable to care for themselves. I wonder how many of those who were clamoring to keep Terry Shiavo alive would chose to be maintained in her condition. I would not. Nor do I know anybody who would. Maybe all of those people intent upon prolonging that poor woman’s misery would like to be kept alive in a vegetative state. Somehow I don’t think so.

What is so distressing is the public spectacle of the mad-dog politicians who did not have the decency to refrain from exploiting what should be a totally private matter for political gain. Thank God and the Constitution, and all of the federal judges (many of whom were conservative Republicans) who had the integrity to prevent the government from introducing a right wing agenda into what needs to remain very private business.

In the Canadian press (I was in Québec at the time) much attention was given to the Shiavo affair. It was pointed out that there have been many cases in Canada in which a family was forced to grapple with the very hard decision regarding the life support of a loved one once there is no longer any hope of recovery, and the terrible pain caused by letting go. One of the doctors interviewed pointed out that often the family is unable to come to terms with the decision for an extended period, often as long year. In light of these comments, the situation of Terry Shiavo becomes even more disturbing. Fifteen years. Fifteen years that poor woman was kept alive. Perhaps she was able to recognize her surroundings, perhaps she was able to feel something, even though the doctors pronounced her brain dead long ago. But that is not the point. Who would want to live like she was living for fifteen years. Unable to do anything, unable to enjoy any aspect of her life. True love in a case like this consists of letting go, of being able to realize that prolonging someone’s suffering is not an act of love but a selfish and cruel one.

My mother and I were recently confronted with a similar decision. We were asked whether we wished to keep my father, who was dying, on life support if it were possible. We did not hesitate for one second. It was impossible for us to imagine prolonging my father’s suffering one moment longer than necessary. It is very very hard to come to terms with the death of a loved one. It is terrible to have to make the decision to allow a loved one to depart. In our case, however, there was no hesitation. Such a decision is very personal and I do not sit in judgement of anyone who has been in a similar situation. In fact the the situation of my father cannot be compared with that of Terry Shiavo. The circumstances of Terry Shiavo’s condition were not clear cut. She was not on a respirator, but being force fed. None the less, the basic question remains the same : how to love and care for someone who is facing death. It is not my place to pass judgement. All I can to is to bear witness to what I would do (and did) in a similar circumstance.

What is truly shameful is that the whole world got involved. From the political demagogues to the rabid Catholic priest who accused Terry Shiavo’s husband and her doctors of murder to the voyeuristic press who reported every pitiful detail of that poor woman’s death. The politicians would have done better to intervene in the lives of their constituents by improving health care and education. And the press would have done better to refrain altogether from turning Terry Shiavo’s death into a freak show. Shame on them all.

March 2, 2005

Eddie Richard was born in Scott on Sept. 14, 1922, the son of Joseph Feregus Richard and Sarah Sonnier. He graduated from Scott High School in 1941. While in high school he was a Louisiana state champion distance runner, holding the mile record for the state. He received a track scholarship from the Southwestern Louisiana Institute (SLI, today known as the University of Louisiana). His education was interupted by the Second World War. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

He served for 4 years as a flight engineer in a B-17 "Flying Fortress." From 1942 - 1946 he was stationed at the Panama Canal Zone. Returning to Louisana he resumed his education at SLI where he graduated in 1951 with a BA degree in Education.

He married Marie Pauline Boudreaux on June 13, 1946. They have one son, Ralph Zachary, born September 8, 1950. Eddie Richard began his career as a field executive for the Boy Scouts of America. He worked for the Boy Scouts for ten years professionally and served as a volunteer Cub Master, Scout Master, and Explorer Advisor.

Eddie Richard was the first Juvenile Officer for the Sheriff’s Department of Lafayette Parish under the administration of Dick Harson, attending training at the University of Southern California in 1960. He subsequently worked as a director of the U.S. Law Enforcement Assistance Program directing operations for the state of Louisiana. He was the Civil Defense Director of Lafayette Parish in 1965 and served as the first CEO for the Lafayette Parish Consolidated Government.

He was elected Mayor of Scott in 1978.

Active in the administration of St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Church in Scott, he served as trustee for 15 years. He was the recipient of the Diocese of Lafayette Service Award.

A member of the Rotary Club of Lafayette, he served as president in 1970 and received the Outstanding Rotarian Award. He served as District Governor of Rotary International 1978 -79. He served as Rotary Club team leader for several group exchange programs leading Louisiana business professionals on expeditions to Belgium (1972), France (1989), and India (1993).

Eddie Richard served as chairman for the Family Reunion Committee of the 1999 Congrès Mondial Acadien (Acadian World Congress) held in Louisiana.

Eddie Richard served on the Organizing Committee of the Congrès Mondial Acadien held in Nova Scotia, Canada in August, 2004. He was a founding member of CAFA (Confédération des Associations des Familles Acadiennes) and served as chairman of CAFA's Education Committee which provides financial and logistical support to French immersion programs in the Lousiana Public Schools. He was a founding member of the Richard family international association, Les Richard de Partout.

He served as Board Member of the Acadian Memorial Foundation in St. Martinville.

He was president of Zach-Rich Inc., an international media company whose operations include music publishing, recording and professional management of Louisiana singer songwriter Zachary Richard.

All who knew Eddie Richard were touched by his generosity and his good cheer. His life was dedicated to the service of his family, and his community.

He was preceeded in death by his brothers, Zachary Richard and Valex Richard, and by his sisters, Maria Thériot, Nola Domingue and Martha Leger.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Marie Pauline Boudreaux, his son Zachary Richard, his daughter in law, Claude Thomas, his grand-daughter Sarah Lattès, his great grandson Emile Cullin, and by his brother J.B. Richard.

The family requests that donations be made to CAFA, Treasurer : Loubert G. Trahan, 9515 La. Hwy. 92 W., Maurice, La. 70555-3239

February 2, 2005

The Louisiana winter has been mild enough until now. Except for a short period when temperatures dipped below freezing, the winter has been tropical enough. This can explain certain migration phenomenon's (while leaving others unexplained). The yellow rumped warblers which usually arrive in large numbers are present but much diminished. For several years now, their “chek chek” call resonated in the late afternoon amidst the oaks like popcorn popping. Not this year. I love these little birds. They are the most common of the warblers and the first to take up winter residence in my field. It took me several years of careful observation to identify them (birders like myself learn from looking) particularly since they are quite small and flitter about incessantly and look like a few other species as well. This year we again have an orange crown warbler, a bird which is rare chez moi, but appears annually about now. On the other hand, the pine warblers are present in larger numbers than I have ever seen. Until this year, I had only observed one in my yard, feeding in the pines (giveaway). This warbler is easy to identify as it is the only with a bright yellow breast and two wing bars. And this year they are numerous, adults and juveniles. There is another interesting behavior which I am observing for the first time: a mixed flock feeding on insects, passing from tree to tree. The flock consists mainly of bluebirds, and pine warblers with several yellow-rumped warblers. There can be gold finches as well which is particularly interesting since they are seed eaters. When the mixed flock nears the house, the Carolina wrens and cardinals can join in. And once in a while, this years “star bird” an eastern phoebe.

For several years the phoebe has returned. Every afternoon he (she) can be easily found perched in the branches of the still leafless trees fly catching. Another bird has become a “regular”, the ruby crowned kinglet. It’s quite difficult to know if the kinglet takes part in the communal feeding. It is very difficult, especially in the diffused light of the Louisiana winter, to distinguish the kinglet from the warblers. But its “jidit jidit” call is unmistakable.

And for the sparrows, it seems to me that the numbers are down as well. I have seen a song sparrow, a marsh sparrow and have heard a white throated sparrow, but not in the numbers of last year. I have not traveled over to the scrub patch where I was able to identify several species of sparrows last year. Each time that I have gone over, I was only able to find song sparrows, and in small numbers. The shrub wren which lives in the shrub, however, was easy to find. He presented himself to me the very first time that I went over, behaving rather brazenly for his normally stealthy species, hanging on a reed showing his chamois under tail.

The robins, which we call “grive” in Cajun french (pronounced greeve, meaning “thrush”) are as numerous as last year, about one hundred roosting in the verbena. They fly in a few at a time around sundown coming in well after the blackbirds. There are about one thousand of them, a mixed flock of mostly redwings, but also a few starlings and quite a few more brown-headed cowbirds than last year. A half hour before sunset, they swoop into the naked branches,squawking noisily, before roosting in the bamboo.

Voilà for the bird report. Do the population changes have any particular significance?

It seems to me that the reduced numbers of certain species can be explained as a result of global warming. Notably absent are the chickadees. Although my trees are not big enough to attract them, there were several in the small woods which line the Coulee Mine in back of my house. This year I was able to hear only one. As far as the the return of certain species and even of individual birds, this is due to the fact that the hundreds of trees that my father and I planted have become an attractive habitat.

The birds of prey are also notably absent. So far, I have seen one red-tailed hawk and one crecerelle. Although I believe that a merlin is helping himself to the all-you-can-eat blackbird buffet in the bamboo. I saw what I believe to be a merlin, given the form and color, swooping low under the oak trees near the blackbird perch. Whatever it is, is leaving little piles of black feathers all around the yard.

On top of the pleasure of observation, it would seem that birds are a helpful part of the ecosystem as proven by this article which appeared recenly in LE MONDE. Thanks to Erik Charpentier for turning me on to it:

At least 10% of all birds species will have disappeared by the end of the century. The extinction of such a large number of birds could provoke an epidemic of infectious diseases like Lyme disease in humans. About 1200 species (10% of the total) living on the planet will be extinct by the 22nd century, victims of global warming and the destruction of habitat largely though urbanization, as well as over-hunting and disease.

This carnage risks provoking a rise in epidemic diseases which will have severe repercussions for the forest ecosystem and agriculture. This is the result of a study by researchers at Stanford University, which appeared in the Journal of the Academy of American Science.
“We project that from 6% to 14%, or from 700 to 2500 of all of the know bird species will become extinct by the year 2100. One species in four risks being in danger of extinction,” explains Cagan H. Sekercioglu, head of Biological Conservation research at Stanford (CCB). Worth noting: “The processes important to the ecosystem, particularly biological decomposition, pollination and distribution of seeds will as a consequence be diminished.”


The results of this study follow the publication in November of the report of the World Conservation Union (WCU) in which it is shown that 12% of all known bird species on the planet are facing extinction. The WCU concludes that nearly 25% of all mammals, one third of all amphibians and 42% of all turtles could have become extinct by the end of the century.

Although only 1.3% of all bird species have disappeared since the year 1500, the total number of birds has dropped by 20% to 25% during the same period. “Given the global warming in progress, and the increase in the number of predator species, this tendency should become more pronounced in the future”. The loss of 10% of bird species by the year 2100 is a “best case scenario”, which would result from environmental protection.

“Insular species are most at risk”, explain the researchers. “From one third to one half of all of these particular species will have disappeared by 2100. Birds with particular nutritional requirements are most at risk as well as the plants for which they serve as pollinators,” they explain.


The disappearance of certain species of birds will provoke an increase in certain infections in humans such as Lyme disease. The extinction of the passenger pigeon was accompanied by an increase in the case of this disease which is carried primarily by wood mice which were the favorite prey of this species of pigeon.

In India, the dramatic drop in the number of vultures in 1990, caused an explosion of the rat population and the wild dogs a large number of which were infected with rabies. More than 30,000 Indians died from that disease in 1997, more than half of the world total.

The report also cites the critical role that birds play in the control of the mosquito population and other destructive pests which attack agricultural crops and/or carry infectious diseases. The report is based on the analysis of the 9787 existing bird species and the 129 which have become extinct regarding their evolution and their biological role.

And so a few more reasons to love our feathered friends.

January 5, 2005

The news from the Great North is very disturbing. The ice pack drifts farther and farther off shore each summer. The polar bears are thus obliged to swim farther and farther to find food (seals). It is estimated that if the current trend continues, polar bears may well be extinct in 50 years. Global warming will eventually melt a channel between Hudson’s Bay and Alaska, finally creating the Northwest passage so dear to early European explorers. The result will be the destruction of the Arctic. The permafrost is no longer permanent. Entire villages are sliding off into the mud where mud had never existed before.

The worst of the situation, however, is the human cost. Recently we observed the horrible spectacle of young Innu (Montagnais) children sniffing gasoline in order to get high. They would fill up a plastic bag with gas, hiding the bag under their clothes, pulling it out once in a while to take a sniff. The Canadian government decided that the situation had spun far enough out of control to remove the children from their parents and transport them to treatment centers. Ten year old children.

I have a long and strong relationship with the aboriginal people of Québec. I first met the Innu in 1978 during my first and last (the mine shut down and took with it the town) trip to Shefferville. During our stay, we were invited (kidnapped is more like it) to the chief’s house. His apartment was part of a block of buildings which resembled an urban ghetto more than anything else. Square blocks of housing with little or no vegetation and graffiti on the walls. I was touched by the children. They seemed so carefree, laughing all the while. Their eyes were full of innocence. Their teeth, however, were rotten, and they seemed to suffer from a myriad of health problems in spite of their delightful demeanor. I will never forget the chief’s refrigerator, filled to capacity with cheap beer. There was not an ounce of food in sight, but a pile of beer cases were stacked up six feet high, just in case we ran out.

That night after the show, I got my first taste of drunken Indians. My memory of the encounter is profoundly sad. Yet at the same time, I developed a real and lasting affection for many of the people that I met. Their situation remains difficult. Let’s start with the statistics. (This statistics given are those of the aboriginal people of Québec).

10 native languages have disappeared since the 19th century, and at least a dozen others are menaced with extinction. On the reservations, the unemployment rate is 29% and one person in five is on welfare. In 1996, 54% of native people above the age of 15 had not finished high school. Nearly half of the native population (44%) live underneath the poverty line and one third of the children live in a single parent household.

Native people represent 3,3% of the population of Canada, but only 1.1% of the population of Québec. Over one third of the native people of Québec are under the age of 15, and only 4% are over 65. The Indians and the Innuit (Eskimos) are 6.5 times more likely to die from traumatic wounds and poisoning than the general population.

75% of native women have been victims of domestic violence and as much as 40% of the children of certain communities have been physically abused by a member of their family.

The concentrations of PCBs in the Innuit newborn and of the Innu of Québec is 4 times greater than that of the provincial average in 1999. These levels are associated with cognitive deficiencies (learning disabilities). Levels of mercury are from 6 to 14 times higher than the provincial average and are associated with neurological damage.

The rate of tuberculosis is 16 times higher among native peoples. Because of crowded living conditions, Indian people are more likely to develop the disease.

In Nunavik, 50% of the population is less than 20 years old. 95% of violent crime is related to alcohol and drug abuse. Between 2000 and 2003, 25% of deaths were attributed to suicide.

The rate of suicide in the native population is 3 times greater than the general population. Among the Innuit of the Northwest Territories the rate is 6 times higher. Alcohol is a factor in one third of the suicides.

Life expectancy among the Innuit is 68 years as opposed to 82 years for the general population. For men, it is 70 as opposed to 76 years.

This is the portrait of the self destruction of a people. The reasons for this human catastrophe are easy enough to identify: the inability of a nomadic people living close to nature to adapt to the consumer society of the White world. The problem is first and foremost a health problem. Diabetes is rampant. In the space of one generation, the native people of the Canadian north went from a diet rich in Omega 3, consuming essentially raw meat and fish (meat was boiled or consumed raw) to a diet rich in processed sugar. People used to migrating with the seasons were installed in permanent villages (white people had to build the houses, the natives did not know how), each with its corner grocery filled to the ceiling with white bread and candy.

The fundamental problem is one of identity. Unable to maintain a traditional life style, and unable to integrate into the dominant white culture, the Indians of Québec are stuck in a no-mans land. The result is alcholism, domestic violence, suicide and despair.

I highly recommend the franco-german documentary One of Many by filmmakers Doris Buttignol and Jo Béranger. It follows native american Sally Tisiga on her search across western Canada for her roots. The film examines the hard consequences of the Reservation Schools. During the 20th century, young native children were removed from their parents (and social milieu) and brought to pension schools. The prevailing educational philosophy was to transform the Indians into good White people, and to remove from their psyche any vestige of native identity. As explains one of the priests in the film who taught in one of the Reservation schools, the young Indians lost their traditional beliefs and could never truly accept the beliefs of the White man, ending up without any basic philosophy with which to confront the vicissitudes of life.

There is a very important moment in the film in which it is stated that what the native people need most is to be able to dream again, to be able to imagine a future which is better than the present. To be able to imagine confronting the White world on anything like equal footing would already be a significant step. There are reasons to hope (see the links below). Native americans will never be able to recreate their society as it existed before the White man, but over 80% of the natives in Québec feel the need to return to traditional values in order to promote the welfare of the community. Just how to go about it remains the question.

The problem of the Native american is essentially one of identity. They must find a way to maintain their unique society in a world which is dominated by White culture. In order to end the destructive cycle which characterizes native society, independence and its attendant confidence must be instilled, adapting the traditions to the modern world. No easy task. We can only wish them tenacity and courage.

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