The Olympics: humanity on display

Charles Hamlin at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Photo by Andrea Sirois.

Charles Hamlin at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Photo by Andrea Sirois.

As we approach the end of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the athletes, thankfully, have once again become the real story. More than just a competition focused on results, scattered amongst Sochi’s events are the sound bites, visuals, and actions that set us apart and show us as being, well, human.

Perhaps never before have the Olympics been held in as tenuous a location. Situated in the north Caucasus along the Black Sea, and part of a historical territorial dance between the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Russia, Sochi and its venues are wary neighbours to the more recent flashpoints in Chechnya, Georgia and newly formed Abkhazia.

It is a region of seemingly endless tension, whether political, cultural, religious or military. Before the Sochi games, indigenous Circassians were protesting the choice of site, claiming it was the scene of a 19th century Russian-led genocide. Recently, Islamic jihadist groups have threatened violence to further their quest for independence. Even with this backdrop, the Olympics continue to show the humanity born of competition, the highs, as well as the ever-balancing lows.

At the start of these Olympics, I found it curious when Canadian short track speed skater Charles Hamlin was quoted saying he was slightly disappointed with his performance at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, despite winning two gold medals and a silver. The reason given was his uncharacteristically poor performance in one event, the 1500 meters.

So, as if on cue, the Canadian would go on to win the 1500 meter gold medal in Sochi. He would then fail to even qualify for the finals in the next three events, events in which he reached the podium in Vancouver. Are his results a cruel irony? Perhaps. Is this an example of what some will call the balancing act that is life? Maybe. Are his feelings heading into the Sochi games those of athletes demanding the best from themselves in every race? Absolutely.

Even so, I have been surprised at the complexities of disappointment shown at these games. I cannot think of a more poignant contrast in mood than when United States snowboarder Shaun White congratulated Swiss-Russian gold medalist Iouri Podladtchikov for his victory in the half pipe event.

White had finished out of the medals in  a discipline he had dominated for years. Having made a number of uncharacteristic mistakes, he walked away with a glazed look, staring blankly ahead, while wondering where it had all gone wrong. Podladtchikov was victorious, yet gracious, referring to White as his inspiration. More importantly, he wished the victory  had come, in the true spirit of competition, against one of White’s usual bar-setting performances.

I admire the respect, as well as the desire for fairness, sportsmanship, and unhindered performance found amongst rivals in the highest echelon of sport. In just the latest example of competitors helping each other to combat equipment failure, Justin Wadsworth, the American head coach of Canada’s Nordic ski team, gave Russian athlete Anton Gafarov a replacement ski in the cross-country sprint.

Gafarov had broken his ski in a fall and, although out of medal contention even before the mishap, was doggedly trying to finish his Olympic experience to the best of his ability – broken ski and all. For the Canadian coach, it was the only thing to do, and represented a repayment of sorts.

In the 2006 Turin Olympics, Wadsworth’s future wife, Canadian cross-country skier Sara Renner was the recipient of a replacement pole from a Norwegian coach, allowing Renner and her partner to win the silver medal. In one of fate’s cruel ironies, that sporting gesture left the Norwegians in fourth place at the finish, and out of the medals.

The selfless, and spiritual essence of the Olympics was also shown by speed skater Gilmore Junio, who relinquished his spot in the men’s 1000 meters to teammate Denny Morrison. Morrison had missed qualifying for the event because of an untimely fall on the final turn during the Canadian trials.  Humbly, Junio said Morrison was simply skating better than he, and deserved the chance to race. Morrison repaid the gesture with a silver medal.

But ultimately, and for me, the beauty of the Olympics is more personal. Call it cliché, but the determination of athletes to perform to their very best – leaving nothing to chance, leaving every ounce of their mental, and physical ability out on the field of competition, and leaving the Olympics satisfied with their result – trumps all.

British downhill skier Chemmy Alcott, competing at her fourth Olympics in Sochi, had never won a medal. Her best result had been an 11th in both 2010 Vancouver, and 2006 Turin. Recently recovered from breaking her right leg for the third time, and having resumed skiing only a month earlier, the self-funded athlete finished in 19th place in the women’s downhill. Exhausted, but beaming while looking into the camera at the finish, Alcott’s only words were: “I’m so proud of myself.” And, so she should be.

When the Sochi Olympic Winter Games close, I will be left with memories of joyous, and gracious victory, as well as the loneliness, and heart-felt disappointment of defeat. I will relive the excitement, and inspiration provided by competition at the highest level, regardless of the final result. But, most of all, I will remember Chemmy Alcott, and the athletes from 88 nations, large and small, who came to compete to the best of their abilities, and left me amazed at the images of our collective humanity they so powerfully displayed.

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Bombay is going green!

Bombay traffic India


Integrated transport, Bombay-style, in the downtown business district.
Photo by Mark Mauchline.

The earth’s axis must have shifted back in June of this year. And in this case, that’s a good thing – a very good thing. A Mumbai-based architectural firm won the urban planning and design category of the Cycling Visionaries Award at the Velo-city 2013 conference in Vienna, Austria.

Velo-city is an annual cycling planning and infrastructure conference for the global stage. Its mandate encompasses the more far-reaching aspirations of better urban planning, and greater liveability for all, while coming from a distinctly pro-cycling perspective.

At first glance, the truly amazing part of the winning proposal from Abraham John Architects is that it is designed, and hopefully destined for the city of Mumbai, often still referred to by its old colonial nomenclature, Bombay. Anyone who lives in, or has visited Bombay, will recognize the plan’s enormity. Currently, the north-south axis of the Western Railway bisects the metropolis in two. It creates both a psychological, and physical barrier to those trying to move from east to west, or vise versa, across the city. According to Abraham John Architects, 4000 pedestrians are killed crossing the railway lines every year, and seven million people use the Western Railway commuter trains daily.

The Bombay Greenway Project by Abraham John Architects, 2013.

The Bombay Greenway Project by Abraham John Architects, 2013.

The plan is to cover the above ground railway lines with a continuous multi-use greenway. In effect, the railway would become a subway, with its top platform becoming a 114 kilometer-long park: an area for pedestrians and cyclists to engage in human-powered transportation options, recreation, and healthier city living. The proposal calls for the creation of an area for Mumbaikers to relax, read, picnic and enjoy nature courtesy of some much-needed green space, complete with re-introduced native tree species.

It has been almost two decades since I was last in Bombay, 1997 to be exact, a virtual lifetime ago in the ongoing evolution that is modern India. Things have changed. The trains are busier – jammed to the gunwales would be an understatement I am sure – and the population rises to what must surely be an inevitable breaking point. Even so, I imagine much of what I remember is still relevant.

The railway was originally built during the time of the British Raj, and although some new rolling stock has been added in the last decade, most of its carriages date from the 1950’s, and often look much older. Faded red and yellow paint peels, clinging futilely to the indifferent, aged exteriors of trains hurtling down the tracks toward their destinations. Windows are wedged permanently open to combat the oppressive heat and humidity, with only the odd overhead fan working, albeit at a speed that generates little or no relief.

Vegetable vendors outside Borivili Station, Mumbai, India.                                                                                          Photo by Mark Mauchline

Vegetable vendors outside Borivili Station, Mumbai, India.
Photo by Mark Mauchline

My commute began in the northern suburb of Borivili, a sometimes terminus for certain lines. Waiting on the platform with my cousin as my guide, we watched as train after northbound train entered the station, stopping and exchanging passengers before trundling off towards the end of the line at Churchgate Station, the city center. Naively, I thought that boarding a Western Railways train at the northern terminus would be a relatively relaxed, if not easy affair at 7:00am. My poorly calculated assumption was based on the belief trains would start their southbound journey empty.

The daily commute for many residents of Mumbai, India. Photo courtesy of “A little world of my own” blogspot.

The daily commute for many residents of Mumbai, India.
Photo courtesy of Kavita Dadhe.

Herein lay the problem: the trains arrived virtually full. And, in an example of the quirkiness that can only be understood through experience, southbound commuters in Bombay often went kilometers out of their way, heading north in an attempt to get a seat, or even squeeze on board for the cattle-car equivalent of standing room.  Ironically, the southbound commute into Bombay often started by heading north from stations as far away as Andheri and Santacruz, almost halfway down the line.

Being a woman, my cousin would board a segregated “women only” car, and I would be left to fend for myself. I would launch myself into the sea of primarily male bodies clogging up the permanently open entrance of another carriage. I termed the experience “the crush”.

Even inside the Western Railways carriage, the “crush” continues. Photo © Arko Datta / Reuters.

Even inside the Western Railways carriage, the “crush” continues.
Photo © Arko Datta / Reuters.

Myself, and many of my fellow commuters left Borivili platform invigorated by the relative coolness of the morning, dressed in crisp, freshly pressed clothes. But, once inside the trains, the quest for a space to call your own became a struggle of epic proportions. Forcing yourself aggressively through the sea of jam-packed bodies was nothing personal, it became a matter of survival. Eventually, you became part of an almost gelatinous mass of people, sandwiched in on all sides, multiple bodies pressed up against one another, sharing a common exchange of heat, sweat, and periodically, the aroma of the previous night’s spice-infused dinner.

Stability in the otherwise instable world of the Bombay commuter train passenger. Photo by Mark Mauchline.

Stability in the otherwise unstable world of the Bombay commuter train passenger. Photo by Mark Mauchline.

If you were lucky, you had grabbed one of the few overhead handholds – handholds that could accommodate two or three hands, but had countless others grasping those same hands, or the arms attached to them, in search of some form of stability. The hand and arm tentacles falling from a single handrail often led to six or more people. Personal space was non-existent, with not enough room to even protect your pockets, or bags should you have reason to do so. I can only imagine it to be similar to being buried in an avalanche, with matter the density of concrete pressing on all sides, and you, unable to move. When there was movement, it was done in unison as the collective body swayed to the train’s back and forth, and side-to-side inclinations.

The term “standing room only”, taken to the extreme. Photo © Pal Pillan / AFP.

The term “standing room only”, taken to the extreme.
Photo © Pal Pillai / AFP.

Proximity to a window or door offered a portal into life’s reality for many Bombay residents, including amazing bits of resourcefulness such as the countless vegetable plots planted alongside the railway’s right of way. No available space was allowed to go to waste. But, I was often wedged inside the middle of the car, catching only glimpses of fingers, hands, and sometimes feet protruding inwards from the barred windows, with the people belonging to those appendages gripping the outside of the train as best they could.

Lunches soon to be delivered by dabbawallahs, and commuters exit Churchgate station. Photo by Mark Mauchline.

Lunches, soon to be delivered by dabbawallahs, and commuters exit Churchgate station.
Photo by Mark Mauchline.

Eventually, the train rolled into the southern terminus at Churchgate, exhaling its load of human cargo, all looking a little worse for wear in their now sweat-dampened, and wrinkled attire. Masses of people would off-load, along with the odd bicycle, and the thousands of tiffen carrier-packed lunches, which would be delivered to workers for the midday meal by Bombay’s dabba lunch delivery service. Off we all went, to wherever, to do whatever, only to come back and do it all over again in reverse later on that day.

The end of the line, as well as the beginning of another journey for Western Railways commuters: Churchgate station. Photo courtesy of the Windsor Star.

The end of the line, as well as the beginning of another journey for Western Railways commuters:
Churchgate station. Photo courtesy of the Windsor Star.

So, as we in Vancouver fret about how to re-commission a small section of want-to-be expressway known as the Georgia Viaduct, perhaps we could learn something from this proposal half a world away. Our worries about the potential effects on traffic flow, and changing the status quo really amount to nothing compared to what is being proposed for Bombay. Regardless of what actually happens, and there are many hurdles to clear in the Bombay proposal, the beauty of it is in the possibilities presented to better urban life for all sectors of society. And, isn’t that what it’s all about? Dare to dream Vancouver. And in this case, let’s gain some inspiration, and insight into possibilities from perhaps the most unlikely of sources: Mumbai, India.

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Beyond the headlines: Svein Tuft at the 2013 Tour de France

Svein Tuft leading the Orica GreenEdge train during the team time trial, stage 4, 2013 Tour de France. Photo © Cor Vos.

Svein Tuft leading the Orica GreenEdge “train” to victory during the team time trial, stage 4, 2013 Tour de France.
Photo © Cor Vos.

198 riders started the 100th edition of the Tour de France this year. Along with each rider comes a story. Given a chance, all would delve into the perseverance, dedication, sacrifice, and circumstance that landed the participants in cycling’s premier event. All would be deserving of recognition.

But, out of the 198 riders, three are Canadians, and one of those Canadians, Svein Tuft, has a story that truly defies imagination, even as its latest chapter is being written at this year’s Tour.

To call Tuft a late bloomer would be an understatement. As a 36-year-old rookie he continues to live the “We will never be here again” motto tattooed on his right forearm, a mantra that has inspired him his entire pro cycling career. When I wrote about Svein five years ago, I suggested the choice of the pronoun “we” was no accident.

Tuft is an eight-time Canadian national time trial champion, a world championship silver medalist – despite a flat tire and a bike change, and a 7th place finisher at the Beijing Olympics, amongst numerous other top results. Since 2009, Svein Tuft has been leaving his mark on the pro peloton of cycling’s World Tour in a subtle, but steady fashion.

After one particularly epic performance during the 2012 Tirreno-Adriatico multi-day race, where Svein “pulled” the entire group of riders for almost the whole length of the day’s stage, fellow rider and World Champion Mark Cavendish tweeted: “Ride of the day…No, make that ride of the millennium goes to GreenEdge’s Svein Tuft. 200km ALONE controlling the peloton! Respect.”

So, getting back to the “we”, despite his individual successes, Tuft is, and always has been the ultimate team player. Fast forward to this year’s Tour and we see his team, Australia’s Orica GreenEdge, winning the fourth stage team time trial by less than one second. Little mention is made of the role this unpretentious Canadian played in that victory. He was singled out by the team’s race director for his huge effort, but there was barely a mention in the press, Canadian or otherwise, as to his invaluable contribution.

Truth be told, he was instrumental in the team’s success, leading his teammates for long stretches from the outset, pulling them to victory, and in so doing, helping to place one of his teammates in the yellow jersey of the overall race leader – a first for the upstart Aussie squad.

Interviewed after the stage, Tuft was his usual laid-back, understated self: “I had a dream day. I felt that good. I knew, coming home, I was just going to bury it, and if I got dropped, I got dropped. But,  I had to get the guys going as fast as they can. I tend to accelerate slowly, so it can save the guys, getting up to speed. I knew my job, and I just had a great day.”

As a further testament to his unassuming nature, he was content to remain slightly off to the side as the team assembled on the podium to receive their honours for the stage win, finally being coaxed up when space was made available for the requisite team photo – typical Tuft.

On Wednesday July 10, Svein Tuft will ride stage 11 of the 2013 Tour de France, a 33km individual time trial from Avranches to historic Mont Saint-Michel. According to team director Matt White, it is a stage Tuft has targeted. No doubt, he will approach the ride the way he always does, aiming to leave everything out on the course, testing the limits of, as Svein likes to say: “How much I’m willing to hurt.” He will ride the time trial as part of his team’s Tour goals. But, perhaps more importantly, he will get to ride it for himself.

As a cycling enthusiast, and a Canadian, I’ll wake up earlier than normal, riveted to the television as Svein Tuft continues to live his dream, competing at the highest level in his sport. He may not be making the big headlines, and for Svein, that’s probably just fine. But, his is a great story, and one that deserves to be shared.

Bonne route Svein. Allez, and chapeau!

Svein Tuft in his wheelhouse, on the front during the team time trial, 2013 Tour de France. Photo © Cor Vos.

Svein Tuft in his wheelhouse, on the front during the team time trial, 2013 Tour de France.
Photo © Cor Vos.

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Truth, and winning at all costs.

In a sport often decided by thousandths of a second, competitors jockey for position to gain an edge in the women’s 1000-metre short track speed skating semi-final. Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. Photo courtesy of Andrea Sirois Photography.

Within the span of a week, Olympic speed skater Simon Cho has admitted to tampering with an opponent’s equipment, and cyclist Lance Armstrong’s history of denying use of performance-enhancing drugs has been undeniably laid to waste by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. And, as if these examples of cheating weren’t enough, the recently broadcast documentary film 9.79* has brought back memories of Ben Johnson, a 100-metre sprinter who became Canada’s hero in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, only to come crashing down with a nation’s hopes and dreams two days later with a failed drug test.

These men are examples of the extent to which some athletes will go to win. All three are now labeled as cheaters.

Although their exploits occurred at different times over the last quarter century, all represent not only the sad truth about what sometimes goes on in sport, but the equally sad truth about the choices some of us make, athletes or not.  It is hard not to be cynical, and many of us are. For me, it is equally hard to miss the connection between similar decisions made in both the corporate and political worlds.

All three cases present explanations, reasons as to why their impact against fairness and truth should be mitigated. Cho claims his coach instructed him to damage Canadian skater Olivier Jean’s blade, and the coach’s position as an elder in South Korean culture made it a fait accompli.

9.79* exposes the fact that most of those involved in the Seoul race were found to have doped previously, or were caught in later competitions. It helps foster Johnson’s own misconception that he is more a scapegoat, than the author of his own demise.

Lance Armstrong, 7-time Tour de France champion, iconic cancer survivor, role model and virtual demi-god to millions afflicted with the disease around the world, continues to deny using performance-enhancing drugs. Business advisors and a legal team second to none laud Armstrong’s position. Their platform is based on the premise that he never tested positive, and that their man is the victim of a witch-hunt that serves only to damage the reputation of someone who has done so much for the fight against cancer. In short, the allegations are nothing more than hearsay, without any evidence of truth. Many Armstrong supporters justify his actions by using a clouded rationale: at the time, everyone was doing it.

According to USADA chief executive Travis Tygart, speaking to the report implicating Lance Armstrong:

“The evidence shows beyond any doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”

Accusations against Lance Armstrong are not new. Only this time, he has been implicated by no fewer than 26 individuals, 11 of them his former teammates, and one of them his most trusted lieutenant and friend, George Hincapie. The evidence is truly damning. So damning that it seems to be just a question of when, not if, he is officially stripped of his wins by cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). This will leave cycling’s once undisputed king with a gaping hole in his palmarès, the cyclist’s résumé.

So, what have we lost in all of this? It is more than just the sense of fairness many of us are taught by our parents, which hopefully manifests itself in play, and then life, as some emulate their role models, and heroes. We’ve lost that basic tenet shared by many a society, regardless of their geographic location, or socio-economic standing. I refer to the truth.

Armstrong may become the Ozymandius of his sport. Like the fictional ruler in the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, he was at the top of his game, while simultaneously establishing an earthly kingdom with an amazingly successful personal brand, rich in hubris, and built firmly on the back of the sport he seemed to transcend. Only now, like Shelley’s “king of kings”, his legacy is in the process of crashing down around him, and possibly disappearing. It remains to be seen what the ultimate impact of this will be on his foundation, and the support for it given by millions of those who are, or have been affected by cancer. His legacy could be relegated to what remained of Ozymandius’ once-great empire, a broken statue surrounded by “the lone and level sands”.

The saddest part of Armstrong’s story is his seeming inability to do the honorable thing, the right thing. Perhaps it is naive to think that someone as lawyered-up as Lance Armstrong would ever risk the financial fallout from admitting the truth – and I’m not talking about the planned, calculated, hollow, least damaging, and self-preserving type of admission suggested by legal and/or marketing teams.

Those who continue to believe in him and his foundation, regardless of the allegations, will continue to do so; those, including major sponsors who have disassociated themselves from Armstrong as a spokesperson, have separated the actions of the man from his foundation. They are showing you can support the troops, and still not agree with the war; they are showing the end doesn’t necessarily justify the means.

But, it is the men, women and children around the world that have regarded him as an icon, and a role model, who now sit in disbelief, crushed at the fall of their hero. Along with the millions of dollars his foundation raised with the help of his celebrity, there now comes a personal responsibility to all those people who truly believed in him. These are the real victims of his actions. They, above all, are owed the truth. And nothing should ever compromise that, least of all, winning at all costs.

“Those of us who doped and lied and those who were accomplices and witnesses remained silent for a long time in a misguided attempt to protect our jobs, our reputations, our teams’ sponsorships and the image of the sport. It was wrong. We followed a code of silence guarding an unhealthy culture. Riders, staff and officials must not fear speaking the truth. When they do, real reforms will follow.” 

-   Taken from an essay by Michael Barry, admitted doper, former member of the U.S. Postal cycling team, and teammate of Lance Armstrong. Published in the New York Times October 15, 2012.

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What goes around comes around: Vancouver relives its cycling history

Riding south on Granville Street approaching Dunsmuir Street, which is the current location of one of Vancouver’s separated bike lanes. Photo circa. 1900, and courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives.

The recent Velo-city Global conference is an event I have been working with for the last eight months, and is a new undertaking for the City of Vancouver. In so far as this gathering of cycling infrastructure expertise, and the sharing of transportation and urban planning best practices may be new, and even cutting edge, Vancouver’s connection to the bicycle is actually old news.

The backdrop for this year’s Velo-city conference is the City of Vancouver’s recent announcements on the permanent status of its separated bicycle lanes, improvements for existing cycling infrastructure, and the go-ahead for a public bike share program. The result has been the expected public debate, filled with a multitude of opinions. As with any democracy, all of them share the same entitlement, and not all of them agree.

But, these initiatives are just the latest in a long history Vancouver has shared with cycling. So it is perhaps the best type of irony that finds delegates of Velo-city Global 2012 discussing background research, experiences in implementation, and the merits attached to these same initiatives from all over the world.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Vancouver was a virtual backwater. A frontier type town born earlier of a national railway known as the Canadian Pacific, it was literally the end of the line. According to longtime City of Vancouver archivist Major J.S. Matthews:

The bicycle “craze” was prevalent in Vancouver, as elsewhere, about 1900; almost every family had at least one, some had more; nearly all young men, and most young women, many elderly men and some elderly women rode. It was a convenient mode of travel in a city as yet unprovided with a full street car service; a growing city badly scattered, and among a people who, as yet, had acquired no individual wealth to speak of. Motor cars were still some years off, many had neither facilities, room, nor means to possess stables or buggies. The bicycle was no longer the unwieldy “penny-ha’penny,” big wheel small wheel affair. The “safety” bicycle had come, and with it the Dunlop pneumatic tire; and the “coaster brake” was soon coming. Both wheels were the same size now; it was easily mounted and dismounted, and a fall from it rarely gave much hurt, as the old high wheel, hard tire “wheel” did.

The bicycle became so popular that racks were put up in the vestibules of the small office buildings to receive the “machines” of those employed there and who had business there. At the City Hall, there was a long rack which would accommodate perhaps two dozen bicycles. Similar racks existed at the C.P.R. Depot, and also public places such as parks, post office and hotel lobbies. At the corner of Pender and Granville streets, where now stands the Rogers Buildings, a school for bicycle riding was flourishing…

The “machines” were so numerous that the City Council ordered special bicycle paths constructed on those streets which were most frequently used. These paths were invariably cinder surfaced, and rolled flat, and ran along the edge of the street between the gutter and wooden sidewalk. They were about six feet wide, and constantly kept in order, level and smooth, by city workmen.

The bicycle paths led to and from some well-frequented area, or beside streets where there was considerable vehicular traffic. One ran from Seymour Street, along the north side, to the entrance of Stanley Park; another on the west side of Seymour from Robson to Pacific Street; a third from Granville Street South (from the Third Avenue Bridge) from the bridge, along the north side of Third Avenue to about Maple Street, where the track turned off in an indeterminate direction through the clearing until it reached Greer’s Beach. This cinder path ended at Maple Street. There must have been others; I think there were, perhaps on Pender Street West, to the Park, on Powell Street, on Westminster Avenue leading to Mount Pleasant, and on Beatty or Cambie streets to the bridge, and then up the hill on the south side of False Creek. These cinder paths ceased as they approached the centre of the business section of that day.

Gradually, the bicycle craze died down, and the street car system was extended into even remote and sparsely settled districts; then the motor car came. The bicycle paths fell into disrepair, and finally mysteriously disappeared.

Of course, the story does not end there. Call it cliché, but cycling, and bicycle paths have fallen back into fashion. Maybe the old ways have something to contribute to our new way of life, and in the case of the bicycle, what was old is new again. In an age where it is easy to lose sight of the common, and perhaps universal social benefits in the court of public opinion, the Velo-city conference aims to keep the discussion trained on the finish line of benefits that cycling represents.

Approaching the finish: high wheel bicycles race at Brockton Point, Stanley Park, circa. 1890’s. Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives.

With Vancouver’s hosting of Velo-city Global 2012, what goes around has truly come around. With discussions ranging from research and planning to best practices and inspiration, the realities of  global urbanism, inherent in  nations spanning the developed, newly developed, and under-developed world is there for all to see, and hear. And, with an international conference composed of almost 200 speakers over four days and delegates from around the world, a 19th century human-powered invention is once again being heralded as an important and necessary aspect of transportation policy, and urban life – a fitting tribute as Vancouver moves forward a century and a half later.

This article was originally posted on the website of the European Cyclists’ Federation, and can be found here: http://www.ecf.com/news/falling-back-in-love-with-cycling-a-glimpse-at-vancouvers-bicycle-past/

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A First Nation’s call for help

The author at 15 years old, just past the halfway point on the 8.5 mile long Grand Portage linking Lake Superior with the Pigeon River, and the namesake for this 1977 expedition.

On Thursday, February 23, 2012, the last of 22 new modular homes arrived in the Attawapiskat First Nation of northern Ontario. To the Canadian federal government, it signaled the trumpeted end of a crisis that began almost a full four months earlier.

Minister of Aboriginal Affairs John Duncan issued the following statement: “The arrival of these modular homes demonstrates our government’s commitment to the residents of Attawapiskat First Nation.”

Not trying to look a gift horse in the mouth, I can’t help but think that maybe this type of band-aid solution, although well intentioned, is only masking the reason why Attiwapiskat, and many other First Nation communities find themselves on the precipice of marginalization.

Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada, 2011. Photo by Oakland Ross / Toronto Star.

On October 28, 2011, Attawapiskat, an aboriginal community on the shores of Canada’s James Bay, declared a state of emergency. The reason was not one of natural disaster, or act of God.  Instead, it was a human act: that decidedly oxymoronic, and inhumane human act known as neglect. Attawapiskat was, according to Chief Theresa Hall, suffering from inadequate housing.

What makes this so hard to stomach is that it is happening in one of the wealthiest countries on earth, and I can’t help but think not much has changed in the 35 years since I viewed my first northern First Nations’ community from the middle thwart of a canoe.

The long-haul transport rigs of Canada's fur trade: the voyageur canoe. Painting by Frances Anne Hopkins. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As a high school teenager, one of my unconventional school’s requirements was paddling the historic trade routes shared by the voyageurs, and the companies vying for control of the fur trade: The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay, which became the Hudson’s Bay Company; and its rival, the Montréal based North West Company.

These corporate entities provided the drive and determination needed to open up the interior of the continent through exploration and mapping, linking great watersheds like Hudson’s Bay, the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River in the process. Ultimately, their competitive zeal would lead to this vast landmass’ improbable birth as the nation known today as Canada.

Our trips were up to four weeks in length. On top of giving myself, and my fellow students an up close and personal view of but a small portion of the huge tracts of wilderness that made up our country, it allowed us the opportunity to truly experience its history.

Paddling the Grand Portage Route: the roughly 800-mile fur trade "highway" from Fort William (present day Thunder Bay, Ontario) to Lower Fort Garry (Winnipeg, Manitoba), 1977.

After a week or more without seeing a trace of human existence, we would often paddle our 22’ Chestnut Freighter canoes around a point of land, exposing First Nation communities the likes of Wabaseemoong, Little Grand Rapids, Bloodvein, and Berens River. We were offered only a fleeting glimpse into the world of the Saulteaux, a branch of the Ojibwa, or Anishinaabe people. But it was a glimpse I remember with sharp clarity.

Clusters of pre-fab style homes would be grouped together overlooking the shoreline, often with newer buildings set amongst what looked to be their decidedly older, dilapidated brethren. Not all buildings were in such a sad state of repair. But the overall impression was one of poor quality, and disposability, as opposed to longevity.

When a building reached a certain state of disrepair, it was replaced. Left to the elements, it became an empty gutted shell of a structure that neither grew old gracefully, nor accurately portrayed the proud history and culture of its former inhabitants.

The sign that adorned many of the Hudson Bay Company's former northern stores in Canadian First Nation communities. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The locals would look on, perhaps offering a friendly wave and smile, as we cut through the water, and paddled out of their sight. Sometimes, we made a brief stop at the Hudson’s Bay Company store. These were often white washed buildings boasting impressive signs done in immaculate script, pronouncing the birth date of what is today, still the oldest company in North America, and one of the oldest in the world. The Northern Stores, as they were known, served as the last vestiges of the fur trade era, and stood in stark contrast to the worn, tired buildings many locals called home.

Little did I know that the situation I saw as a teenager would become symptomatic of the welfare state we have created for the First Nations people of Canada’s north. No doubt, a lot of money is spent at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the department tasked with ensuring the Government of Canada meets its obligations and commitments to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. But, there does not appear to be much change in the housing situation since my youth, other than the fact that communications and media allow for more well-intentioned Canadians to become aware of the problem.

Our government’s first response always seems to be laying the blame for deplorable conditions squarely at the feet of the chiefs, and band councils, citing fiscal mismanagement. But, then that same government offers another temporary solution to what appears to be a systemic issue, by throwing more money at the symptom, rather than fighting, and eliminating the cause of the problem. It is oxymoronic, bad business practice, and plain wrong on so many levels.

Attawapiskat is not the first cry for help to be heard from Canada’s First Nations, nor unfortunately, will it be the last. But, my hope is that the plight of these communities becomes a greater priority to all Canadians, and by extension, the federal government that claims to represent our views, and serve our needs. Because up until now, our collective actions prove the old adage that we have learned nothing from history. As a Canadian, this is embarrassing, unacceptable, and very sad.

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On being Freshly Pressed…

In essence, it was an awakening. Photo by Andrea Sirois.

A wonderful thing happened to me one year ago. Barely six months after the launch of Cyclelogical, my on-line repository for thoughts on a variety of topics, I published a post entitled The Human Spirit. A short time later, I received an e-mail from WordPress.com congratulating me on being promoted on Freshly Pressed.

Freshly Pressed? What did this mean? I was new to the blogging world, and I used Cyclelogical, in part, as a virtual storage facility for some of my previous writing. It was my library of travelogues, thoughts and yes, even opinions that shared a sometimes obscure, at least to the outside reader, connection with cycling, and the role it has played in my life. But, perhaps more than anything, it was a treasure chest of memories that was unlocked by the subjects I wrote about, subjects that truly spoke to me.

On March 1, 2011, while contemplating two seemingly divergent news events on opposite sides of the planet, I was riveted on what appeared to be, at least to me, their commonality. The Arab Spring had well and truly begun, and  the city of Christchurch, New Zealand was reeling as it tried to deal with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake.

As I wrote, the thoughts and words flowed with an easy continuity. Jumping from one story to the other,  I thought about the nature of the two life-altering events. I thought of the wave of pro-democracy protests building energy across North Africa and the Middle East. I thought of my time spent in Christchurch years before, working as a cycle tour guide, and frequenting areas of the city that would now never be the same again.

Emotion welled up inside me as I pictured friends from New Zealand: people who shared important times and places in my life; places shrouded in time past, and now laid open by the tragic, present day reality. Ironically, the feeling I was left with after the initial rush of emotion was not one of angst, or despair, but one of hope. The strength, and resilience exemplified in the actions of the people from these two far-flung regions, dealing with drastically different issues, in markedly different situations, would ultimately result in my title.

Within minutes of the WordPress notification, my Inbox began to fill with comments: some insightful, some knowledgeable, and some very personal. But, their common trait was that they were overwhelmingly positive. This continuous two-day stream of reaction was joined by perspectives and subscription notices from fellow bloggers the world over, some from the very regions being affected.

To say I was surprised at the response would be an understatement. Overwhelmed would be closer to the mark. But, the thing for which I was totally unprepared, and for which I am most grateful, was the extent to which people shared their feelings upon reading my words. It was these raw, honest, and sincere reactions that spelled out for me, in no uncertain terms, the strength and power of this medium we call the Internet.

Today, an average, ordinary person’s ability to communicate, to share insights, opinions and thoughts that can truly affect others, is remarkable. Call it cliché, but the world really is a much smaller place than even a generation ago.

Thank you to all who read The Human Spirit. Thank you to all who shared a bit of themselves with me through their comments. And finally, thank you to all who unknowingly contributed to my very personal awakening to the power of the written word, which made this ordinary person’s day one year ago, well, nothing short of extraordinary.

Lest I forget, the biggest thank you goes to my life-partner Andrea, who is the person responsible for initially suggesting I use this blog as a writing tool, and as a purposeful reason to hone the craft, and write more. Her amazing photography graces many of my posts, including this one.

Paix , Friede , Vrede , Solh , Ειρήνη , 平和 , Shanti , Pax , Shalom , Kapayapaan , Santiphap  , Ukuthula , Salaam , Wolakota , Paz  , Peace   .

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