- Hi, my name is Andrew.
- This is
I’ve argued many times that the only reason there are so many interesting stories in the New Yorks and Londons of the world is they tend to have more storytellers. Start poking around anywhere and you’ll uncover something interesting.
Case in point: yesterday, I unveiled the story of Charles Sagar, an African-American actor and playwright from Chicago-turned-Prince George barber who fought back against the racist order to clean up N—–town (racial slur) in Prince George in the 1920s. This is, as far as I know, the most complete version of this story to be told despite the fact it happened nearly 100 years ago. So I thought it might be informative to share how I pieced it together:
Part one: The anecdote
Everyone hears these little anecdotes about the past that I’m coming to realize are just the tips to icebergs of fascinating tales. Last year I was speaking with a local history buff when he mentioned that in the 1920s there was apparently an African-American actor who ran a business in downtown Prince George. This intrigued me- how does a black American actor wind up in 1920s Prince George?- but it wasn’t much to go on. So I filed it away.
Part two: The hook
February is Black History Month. As it approached I realized it might be a good time to start trying to figure out who this actor was and get a little more about his life. I had no idea how much more information I would get, but if nothing else it would be a piece of history to go along with a current event so it was worth a shot.
Part three: The digging
I was directed to professor Jonathan Swainger at the University of Northern British Columbia, the man who had apparently uncovered this nugget.
Swainger first heard of Charles Sagar when a student of his was researching crime in Prince George in the ’20s. Specifically the student had uncovered a report from 1921 in which city council directed the police commissioners to crack down on crime, paying special attention to N—–town.
This floored me, just as it had floored the student and professor when they found it. First, that such a racist policy would have been enacted in Prince George in the ’20s, and second that there was enough of a black population in Prince George in the ’20s to even warrant such a racist policy.
Anyways, I talked to Swainger about what he knew, and he told me about the context of the time as well as what little he knew about Sagar, who had indeed been involved in the theatre community in the Chicago at the turn of the century.
Part four: even more digging
So I had more, but there were still lots of details to be filled. To start, I dove into a great resource: the Prince George Newspaper Digitization Project.
Seriously, I can’t stress how great this is. Decades of history preserved in a searchable online database. I’ve used it for stories about everything from churches to tennis courts to crime. It adds a lot of context to what you can do. I collected every story and mention I could find of Sagar to fill in more details of his life: when he arrived in Prince George, organizations he belonged to, the death of his wife, the day he left the city.
I’ve also used published and unpublished research papers from the university and the college in town, oral histories collected in databases, pamphlets stored away in people’s houses, and my growing collections of books about Prince George’s past. There’s all sorts of knowledge and context tucked away in these things, and they exist just about everywhere- they are a great tool when you’re on the hunt for stories.
NowI had all the information as I could find on Sagar’s time in Prince George, but I still wanted to know who was he before coming to Canada. So it was time for step five.
Part five: the Google
I know it seems odd to turn to the Google after turning to the library archives but we’re researching obscure local histories here- it makes sense. In fact, a Google search for “Charles Sagar” and even “Charles Sagar” + “Prince George” was pretty useless. But fortunately I had uncovered a few more keywords that I could add thanks to my newspaper searches, specifically the fact that the theatre Sagar had worked at in Chicago was called the Pekin. Once I started putting that in alongside his name I was able to find a few more research projects on African-American theatre that described a few of the productions he was involved in. Among them was one called “The Negro”, and that led me to Bethany Holmstrom, a U.S.-based professor who had written about this production on her blog.
Holmstrom knew nothing of Sagar’s life in Prince George but she did know a few things about his life in the United States. More importantly, she knew the context of his life and the sort of pioneering work being done around him.
Between Holmstrom and Swainger I had two people who could put together enough of a portrait of Sagar that I was able to produce a story about him, filling it out with my own research on Google Books and the library archives. You can listen to the result below:
Charles Sagar and N—–town, Prince George
Not every story is going to follow these exact steps, but they are basically the same. Hear something intriguing about the past and start digging, using every resource at your disposal. Make contact with people who search for these historical stories professionally and can provide context and ideas for where to go next. Hunt through used book stores. Learn how to do deep dives in Google using different search terms and filtered results.
I’ve got about a dozen other bits of history that I’m hoping to delve into and I’m sure there’s more out there. The past is a fascinating place and helps us understand the current world and where we live better, and uncovering a long-forgotten story from the passage of time is incredibly rewarding.
I heard rumours that in the 1920s, there was an African-American actor who had run a business in downtown Prince George. With a bit of delving I discovered Charles Sagar, an pioneer of the African-American theatre movement who later came to Prince George to cut hair on a floating barge. He also fought back against a city council who ordered police to clean up “N******town”. Here’s what I found out.
“I worry when I put music into a radio piece…sometimes music is like emotional fascism, telling you how to feel.”
I recently received this piece of listener feedback on a story I produced for CBC:
“As I listened to your report recalling the murder in Prince George, I wondered why you decided to add background music to the piece? Is there insufficient drama to a person, a real person, being killed in the streets of Prince George? Does report of the kind really need a musical background for your listeners to grasp the idea that this is serious business?”
The specific piece was the opening segment of my “At Home in the Hood” series. I was revisiting a daytime murder that took place four years ago. After a couple of minutes of music-free interviews with children who saw the body, I added a musical bed underneath my narration that was contextualizing the murder within the wider scope of the neighbourhood. You can listen to it below, if you want to hear for yourself how it came together.
At Home in the Hood: Introduction
At Home in the Hood: Introduction”
I definitely understand the sentiments of the listener. We are, after all, talking about a murder. Shouldn’t that be enough?
My own answer to the question is “maybe.” As I replied in the email, I went back and forth on whether I wanted to use the music multiple times. And I deliberately held off on using it until the “story” part of the segment was over and we were moving into the “talking head narrator” part. I felt the music was helpful to make the transition from one part of a story to another- from the personal drama of a dead body to a broader discussion about the statistics surrounding that death. The hope was to convey a mood, as well as continue to hold the listener’s attention for a rather lengthy amount of time. That’s often how I make my editing decisions: are my ears getting bored? Because it happens, no matter what the content is, and music can help alleviate that.
Of course, music can also be a crutch. In his piece on music for transom.org, Jonathan Mitchell writes:
“If you want to add music because you think the person talking is boring, you don’t really need to add music — what you need is better material. If you want to add music to mask background noise, what you really need is to make a better recording.”
This is absolutely true. I’ve listened to some of my old pieces and realize that I’d put in music to make something boring interesting- whereas all it did was draw attention to the interesting music without making the story any better.
At the same time, music is obviously an important and effective element to many types of storytelling. In the This American Life publication Radio: An Illustrated Guide, Ira Glass has this to say:
“Music is the frame around the picture. It makes it more real than real. More than just two guys talking.”
To which the book author Jessica Abel adds,
“To my surprise, this is actually true. Even Phillip Gourevitch can use a little outside help. With music, his words ring with truth, sound heroic and urgent. Without it, he’s a smart guy talking about some stuff.”
Radio is, ultimately, a form of entertainment. And we are so used to having our entertainment framed with music that not using it once in a while can put you at a huge disadvantage. Like it’s less real.
While the quote at the top of this post about emotional fascism is an obvious risk, so too is the risk of boring people by not using music when they are accustomed to having it. Look at movies like Pulp Fiction or TV shows like Breaking Bad. Music is used to ease or heighten the tension of a given scene. It’s a cue for how we should feel about what’s happening- whether the action is quirky or dramatic, humourous or hopelessly sad. Remove the musical element and it may be closer to what happens in real life, but it is less representative of how we are used to consuming the stories that tell us about real life.
Ultimately, everything about radio is musical. Silence, sound effects, pauses, cues- they all serve to draw the listener in to some sort of emotional arc. I wish I could say that I always knew the perfect solution: the exact right musical choice, the exact right words to use, when a breath is just a breath and when it’s an insight into the psyche of the person being interviewed, but unfortunately that is not the case. And so I’ll keep on listening and going based on trial, error, and experience.
I posted this photo to my Instagram/Facebook yesterday and it is getting a ton of likes and comments so I figured it would be nice to tell the story behind it.
The ferret on my shoulder is Glitch. She came to us a few months ago after she overwhelmed the family she was living with. She had a ton of energy and also a lot of fear, which led to her biting and basically scaring off inexperienced owners.
The reason she came to us is that a few years ago my wife discovered that there was nowhere in Prince George for people to surrender ferrets they could no longer care for. If they were brought to the local SPCA they would be transferred to the Lower Mainland. Consequently, the Lower Mainland had an influx of ferrets looking for a home.
Ferrets are growing in popularity as a pet, but there is a lot of misinformation about them. Many people think they are like looking after a hamster or guinea pig, but the truth is they are much closer to puppies and kittens that never grow out of the puppy and kitten stage. Fun, but a lot of work- so a lot of people give them up.
We didn’t have ferrets at the time, but my wife did know about how to care for them since she’d had them earlier in life. So she looked at the options and decided the best bet would be start a non-profit society to 1. try to get people more informed about how to care for ferrets so there would be less surrenders and 2. provide an option for people in northern B.C. to surrender ferrets locally, as well as adopt locally rather than buy new ones from a pet store.
Five years and a lot of work later, Ferrets North is a recognized charity with S.P.C.A.-affiliation. It is a floating shelter, meaning volunteers take pets into their homes to rehabilitate and, if possible, send to a new forever home.
Glitch is becoming a success case. My wife has worked with her patiently, and while Glitch still has a lot of energy, she has largely gotten over her fear. Her biting is nearly a non-issue, and only occurs in times of extreme stress. This walk was another effort to get her used to being out in and interacting with the world.
We have had many ferrets like Glitch. Ferrets who were mishandled either deliberately or out of lack of information and needed experienced owners to help them overcome their issues and move forward. We’ve also had ferrets who were abused and abandoned. Or ferrets who came from loving homes whose circumstances meant they could no longer afford a pet. In some of the toughest cases we are effectively a hospice for pets on their last legs whose owners don’t want to deal with in old age.
I don’t want to take much of the credit, because I do very little compared to my wife and some of the other volunteers trying to help. There’s lots of good causes in the world and I’m not saying this takes precedent over any other. But it is rewarding when you take a little animal like this one who is absolutely terrified of humans and then see her willing to ride around on my shoulder.
Most of the money raised by Ferrets North goes to vet care for animals surrendered to us: shots, surgeries, medication, and sometimes when it is the kindest option, the difficult choice of euthanasia. If you’d like to learn more you can donate via Paypal and visit ferretsnorth.org.
Yesterday an Amber alert was issued when a truck in Grande Prairie was stolen with a seven-month-old baby still inside. Since I have a number of friends/followers in communities near Grande Prairie, I posted a photo of the truck along with a description and licence plate number issued by RCMP to help spread the word.
Within hours, RCMP announced they had recovered the child and the alert was rescinded. I deleted my previous posts, and wrote a new one saying “Amber alert is over, 7-month-old found. Since it is over, I have deleted previous posts, but thank you for sharing.”
I rarely delete posts (unless it’s an immediate correction of a spelling mistake I didn’t notice while posting), preferring to correct and update later while letting the record stand. The reason I deleted in this case is I did not want the Amber alert to continue to spread once it was over.
In a story about the potential drawbacks of Amber it is noted that police carefully consider when to issue an alert because they don’t want the public to become desensitized to them being issued. When one goes out, they want it to mean people should be on notice. My feeling is that if an inactive alert continues to spread through social media, it contributes to a general desensitization: if you keep seeing alerts that are no longer alerts, you’ll pay less attention when an active one comes up. So I delete in order to stop the spread– my hope is you’ll only ever be able to see an amber alert on my Facebook and Twitter pages when there is one active- the old ones are gone.
However, I received a good counter-argument to this notion from Tyler Neilson, another active social media guy and smart thinker. His argument (edited from a Facebook conversation) is as follows:
“I always wonder if the original post should just be updated to give the rest of the story, rather than deleted…. I look at my feed and there are still 10+ links to articles which warn of the Amber Alert, at least 1 of them coming in after the amber alert had been canceled…
“Your follow-up is the only one in my feed, and there are now 15 posts/shares about the amber alert that I can see …
“This post [about the alert being over] has not been shared, and your other post that had been shared could have been rewritten to instantly get the correct information out (and at a higher likelihood of being seen based on the existing interactions) … you already had the broadcast in place, and you could have updated the message. Now as people look back through their News Feed for your informative post about a breaking news situation they may or may not see this, they certainly won’t see the other, and they are likely to come across many other posts which have not been updated (nor deleted). My thought was that you had a chance to provide some balance …”
His point is that if I had updated, rather than deleted, the original post all the people who had shared it would have now been sharing the new information. By deleting, all I’m doing is taking away the old information- but since other people have posted the same old information it drowns out the new information. Plus my new information about an alert being over isn’t likely to be shared as much as the old information about the alert being issued.
I see the point, and I think I would use it in most cases, but I think I’ll continue to delete in cases such as this one. Happy to hear other thoughts, though!
One of the most-listened to, most-shared interviews I ever conducted was with Chris Dias, who goes by the online handle “Prince Gastronome.” Way back in the olden days of 2012, Chris was partway through the process of eating at and reviewing every non-franchise restaurant in Prince George. One of the things that stood out to me about his process is he had no intention of being kind. He wasn’t giving bonus points for trying- he figured that the restaurants of Prince George should be held to the same standards as in major cities, so he was quick with the criticism where he felt fit.
Two years later, he has done exactly what he set out to do and is now doling out the awards for the best of the bunch. I don’t agree with everything on his list, but I do agree with the process, and I find his personal take a lot more interesting than the mass-vote “Best in PG” lists that hand out awards for best burger to McDonald’s and best icecream to Dairy Queen. It’s also interesting to see someone rate local businesses on such a harsh standard- I see the need for boosterism, but I also appreciate a review that doesn’t give points for trying. I’m also fully with him that the best sushi Prince George (and possibly Canada) has ever seen was the now-defunct Suzuran- it remains the standard to which I hold all other raw-fish makers to.
I had another great conversation with Chris about his findings this morning. You can listen to it below:
Chris Dias on Daybreak North, February 25 2014
The list so far:
BEST FRONT OF HOUSE
Still to come:
A while back, I wrote a post lamenting the fact that European settlers had changed the name of the area I live from “Lheidli T’enneh” (meaning “people of the confluence” or “people of the confluence of the two rivers”) to “Prince George” (meaning Europeans were in the habit of naming places after monarchs who had very little to do with anything in this part of the world). I much prefer the meaning contained in the original name over the colonial nature of the latter.
Prince George Citizen editor Neil Godbout has called for Prince George to be renamed Lheidli T’enneh for the same reasons. I don’t know whether this is likely to happen, but after noticing that Vancouver-based radio producer Garth Mullins says he lives on the Salish Sea in his Twitter bio, it occurs to me there is nothing stopping me from taking a similar step.
So now my homepage says I live in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T’enneh, and my Twitter and Google+ locations are set to “Lheidli T’enneh/Prince George”. LinkedIn and Facebook don’t recognize custom location names, so on Facebook I’ve added “Lheidli T’enneh” as one of the places I’ve lived and also made it my home address in the “contact” section, and I put “…in Lheidli T’enneh traditional territory” at the end of my LinkedIn tagline. I plan to update other profiles as I come across them (I have a lot).
I love this city, but the name “Prince George” evokes no meaning for me. “Lheidli T’enneh”, on the other hand, is location-specific, is tied to a long history, and actually describes the place I live and who I am: a person in a city at the confluence.
By making this change, all I’m doing is typing a few words into online profiles. But it feels like there’s a whole lot more meaning there now.
What a difference a month (and some internal analysis) makes.
In January the city’s superintendent of operations Bill Gall delivered this report on snow removal (emphasis is mine):
“Over the years, some residents have come to expect immediate relief after a snow fall…
The City’s snow clearing efforts have not changed. What is changing is the weather events and the volume of snow per storm event, and more importantly, resident expectations.”
So the big difference was my expectations were too high? This surprised me, because I thought the conditions I was seeing were worse than in the past. As I wrote:
“we are closing in on a month since you could drive on our street at anything over 20 km/h, if at all. And we’re not alone, there are many other streets as bad as ours. People haven’t been receiving UPS deliveries because of ‘hazardous weather conditions’ and more than one Amazon package hasn’t come to our house because the driver doesn’t want to come onto our road.”
Well, a month later and a more in-depth report from the city and it turns out maybe, just maybe, unreasonable resident expectations weren’t the reason people were saying snow clearing was worse than usual. According to the report, snow clearing was, in fact, worse than usual. Some highlights:
- The Operations Department was unable to gain access to the additional level of snow and ice clearing equipment that was required as a result of the significant volume of snow. For an equipment perspective, with the intensity of the snow events and intermittent breakdown issues with the City’s equipment, Operations failed to react by leasing additional graders. Management should have made greater effort to enter into short term leases to have graders available, and this should have occurred immediately upon realizing the City would be short its regular contracted graders.
- Too much time off was approved. Management allowed employees to have the three statutory holidays off during the snow event. In addition, management approved vacation days, requested both before and during the snow event. Furthermore, some employees refused overtime. This resulted in the lack of operators, which meant not all equipment could be operated at all times, thereby contributing to delayed snow removal.
- Management staff and unionized supervisors failed to adequately monitor completed routes. Some residential streets were cleared multiple times, while other streets were not cleared at all.
I highlight the issue of equipment because there was a little dust-up where after being told that all the city’s equipment was operating at all times, councillor Brian Skakun snapped a photo of parked equipment and posted in on Facebook, questioning whether this was true or not. Turns out it wasn’t.
I’m also interested to learn that the practice of clearing some streets multiple times while ignoring others (like mine) was a mistake and not, as had been implied throughout the near-month my road was ignored, a matter of priorities. It’s a lot nicer to hear that living on a near-impassable road in the main part of the city for weeks is an error, and not just a matter of my expectations being too high.
If you want the complete comparison, here’s report numer one and the new report number two.
“How good are you at skiing?”
That was the question asked of me when I answered my phone while grocery shopping a couple of weeks ago.
“Um… I’m OK?”
“Are you speedy?”
“I can be, kind of, I guess?”
“OK, you’re in.”
The caller was a friend of mine, and the “in” was as the skier for a team in the Prince George Iceman, an annual competition where racers ski, run, skate, and swim in the midst of a cold February day.
I’d thought about doing the Iceman before, but always found that by the time sign-up rolled around I hadn’t trained, wasn’t ready, couldn’t do it this time. Now on a whim a group of friends had decided to form a team and put me on it- one week before the race.
* * *
“We’ve also also had a couple presenters drop out, so there’s still room for more! We’re looking for stories about the impact of play, sport and movement in your life.”
This was four days later. The Facebook page for PechaKucha Prince George was looking for more people to take part in its inaugural event. For the unfamiliar, PechaKucha is sort of like “TED” on speed: presenters get twenty slides that last for twenty seconds a piece, amounting to a six-minute-and-forty second talk on a diverse range of subjects. The theme for this was “The Power to Move You” on how activity has influenced your life.
I’d thought about taking part, but was pretty busy with various work and home projects. But I wanted to see the night succeed so tentatively emailed- was there anyone talking about biking? There wasn’t. So I was in. I had two weeks.
* * *
I’d been fighting a cough, so didn’t get out skiing in the week leading up to the Iceman. In fact, my first day of training was the day before the race. I had to borrow some racing skis, and find a volunteer to show me where the course was.
The next day, people watched anxiously as the temperature dropped below the minus twenty cut-off point where the race was cancelled. Things were pushed back to a later time, but ultimately it was too cold, and so the Iceman was called off for only the second time in its twenty-seven year history.
But my friends wanted to go for it anyways. So we drove out to the track, and I did the race by myself. I then spent the rest of the morning watching the rest of my team complete their sections. I later looked at my time and found it was nearly twice as long as some of the top competitors in previous years. Overall, I would have been right near the bottom.
* * *
The fears I had about being too busy to prepare for PechaKucha had come to pass, as well. I had lots of ideas drafted up in my head, but I didn’t have a chance to start writing them down until the day before I was supposed to speak. I hastily completed the slides the day of, and only got a chance to run through them once before I was supposed to do it in a room full of strangers. In the end, my timing got muddled and I had to drop a big portion of what I’d prepared in order to fit into the time limit.
* * *
So I had one of the slower times in the Iceman, and one of the worse presentations in PechaKucha.
Do I regret doing either? Not at all.
I figure, the worst is over. Now that I’ve done the Iceman without any training, I can no longer use the excuse of “I haven’t done any training” to get out of it. All I have to do is practice twice and I have a leg up over this year.
Same goes with the PechaKucha. I know where I went wrong, and I have a better idea of how to prepare for the next time I take part (assuming there’s a theme I can fit in). It certainly makes me feel more comfortable with public speaking, knowing that I can do it with very little time to prepare.
In both cases, all I needed was a push. Now it’s time to keep going.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been taking part in something called “You Should Listen to Friday” on Twitter,where radio people highlight favourite pieces of audio. This week my pick is definitely Garth Mullins’ “End of the Dial“.
Broadcast on CBC’s Ideas for World Radio Day, ”End of the Dial” is like a loveletter to the golden age of radio… although it’s not clear if that’s in the past or the future. It also contains one of the loveliest descriptions of the power of radio I’ve heard. It’s transcribed below, but I suggest you listen to it (a fitting showcase of how much more powerful audio can be than the written text, sometimes).
End of the Dial: Introduction
End of the Dial Introduction
We listen to radio…
Alone in a car, at the kitchen sink, or with earbuds holding back the noise of the city.
Or maybe lying awake across an endless, sleepless night. It’s just you and me.
I’m talking to you a few inches from the mic. A voice in your ear, keeping you company or maybe just occupying a fraction of your attention. Either way, thanks.
Sometimes we listen together and it feels like the entire community, or even the whole country is listening, too.
Maybe it’s the fall of a regime in part of the world that we’re from.
Maybe it’s a scandal tearing at the fabric of our own government.
Or maybe it’s the hockey game.
When radio is good, when it really, really works, we stop, we pull the car over, just to listen. We’re jolted out of whatever we’re doing and become totally hooked.
And sometimes, radio is the only voice in a cold apartment during a Christmas blackout.
It’s a lifeline in a flooded city.
You can listen to the full piece on Garth’s Soundcloud or get from the Ideas website or iTunes podcast. You can also read more about it on his website. But if you’re interested in radio, I highly recommend you set aside an hour, put on headphones, and have a listen.
Following my post on bike riding and designed exclusion (aka what I learnt about prejudice after an SUV swerved to hit me), I was alerted to a few other interesting posts on the subject of biking and car culture. Here they are:
Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists? →
Written by Daniel Duane in the New York Times, this touches on the same thing I’ve noticed: regardless of laws, the dominant culture favours drivers over cyclists. Most interestingly:
“Laws do forbid reckless driving, gross negligence and vehicular manslaughter. The problem, according to Ray Thomas, a Portland, Ore., attorney who specializes in bike law, is that ‘jurors identify with drivers.’ Convictions carry life-destroying penalties, up to six years in prison, Mr. Thomas pointed out, and jurors ‘just think, well, I could make the same mistake. So they don’t convict.’ That’s why police officers and prosecutors don’t bother making arrests. Most cops spend their lives in cars, too, so that’s where their sympathies lie.”
Of course, it’s not just the laws. It’s the design of the road, which Duane also points out. Well worth the read.
Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer supports Calgary cycle track network as way to combat rising health care issues/costs →
A letter issued three days ago saying that better roads for cyclists would be a great way to combat health issues (and lower health care costs). I’m sure this applies all over North America.
Unfortunately there’s no audio to go with this presentation, but you still get a pretty good idea of the point being made. Cities have been remade and designed to accomodate car culture, resulting in low-desnisty, flat, square spaces that are sprawled out over great distances, all but eliminating the choice to go car-free.
There’s many other great thoughts on these subjects. I’ve previously recommend “The Modern Moloch” from 99% Invisible, and the other night I saw Jillian Merrick give this presentation on how her life has changed since going car-free.
In 2015, the city of Prince George turns 100, and the University of Northern British Columbia turns 25.
When February 2015 rolls around, Prince George will be celebrating these events as well as the arrival of the Canada Winter Games and the Coldsnap Music Festival.
I don’t know that there’s ever been such a convergence of events- or a better time to have outside eyes take a look at the city.
Since I work at CBC, I’ve been asked a few times about getting the very popular Jian Ghomeshi and his show “Q” to come visit for one of a handful of remote broadcasts they do every year.
We have extended an invitation and the team there has been gracious in fielding the requests and suggestions.
It can’t be easy for them- “Q” is huge now. They can sell out events in Chicago and New York and Montreal and I imagine they get dozens of requests for appearances every few months (likely more). So I appreciate they can’t just drop everything, and I totally understand if it doesn’t work out.
But in the meantime, there’s a movement underway to demonstrate just how much Prince George would like to have Jian and crew come celebrate in 2015. Find it at facebook.com/bringqtopg. If nothing else, it has lots of pictures of Mr. PG attempting to infiltrate CBC HQ in Toronto.
Oh, and it turns out Jian has been to Prince George once before, as well. And he liked it, so there’s that!
When an SUV swerved to hit me, I realized riding a bike in a car-dominated culture is an inherantly political act.
I’ve written before about how I like to think myself as a person who rides a bike, rather than a bike rider. The distinction, in my mind, is I’m not a hobbyist fiddling with gears and multiple rides. I’m just a guy who gets from point A to point B on a bicycle.
I also never had any intention of biking to make a statement about car culture or the environment or anything along those lines. But something I’ve realized over the past four-and-a-half years of bike riding is that riding a bike in a car-dominated culture is an inherantly political act.
What do I mean by this? Well, let me tell you a story.
A couple of years ago I was riding to work, and I was doing everything right.
I had a helmet, I had a high-vis vest, I had lights on the front and back, I was fully in a bike lane- I was following all the laws and rules of safety.
And then suddenly I hear this honking and I turn my head and there’s this SUV and it swerves towards me like it’s going to hit me.
And then it drives off.
That shook me. It shook me a lot.
I’ve thought about why this moment stands out for me so much, and it’s not just the obvious – that I could have been hit.
And it’s not just that some jerk decided to scare me, even though that’s part of it.
The reason this shook me so much is that it was one of the few times in my life I’ve been on the receiving end of prejudice.
And this is a weird thing for me to talk about, because I am a straight white male in North America and so prejudice is not a thing I know much about on a personal level (which is part of the reason why that moment has stuck with me so much).
The person driving that vehicle didn’t know me. They didn’t know my name or my life situation or why I was out on that road. What they knew is I was a person on a bike in a place where cars rule supreme and they knew that they could scare me if they wanted to… and so they did.
And when I think about that I think about the other times I’ve been honked at or yelled at or treated as an annoyance or obstacle by other drivers, even though the law states that as a bike rider I have a right to the road, too.
And I think about the comments on stories about bicycle riders who die after a collission and how there’s always a certain amount of people who will place blame on the bike rider for being on the road in the first place- why don’t they get in a vehicle where they belong?
And I realize: if this is what it feels like for me- as someone who could buy a car or take a taxi and blend in to the rest of our society- what must it be like to stand out and not be able to do anything about it?
And never know who’s going to be mad at you simply for being somewhere they don’t think you belong?
I was talking to a local comedian a while ago, Brian Majore. He’s First Nations and he told me that a lot of people are surprised when he gets up on a stage because they aren’t used to seeing Aboriginal people in that context. And he said being First Nations with a microphone is an inherently political act.
And it’s not a perfect analogy, but that’s why I say being a bike on the road is an inherently political act, as well. It kind of automatically challenges a lot of assumptions in our society about who belongs where and how we should all get from point A to point B. And there’s issues of class and poverty and who our society is made for all tied up in there.
I recently did some reporting on life in one of Prince George’s poorest neighbourhoods. One of the things that kept coming up is how people walked everywhere. And that comes at a real cost- one woman told me that to get her kid to daycare and then herself to university was a three-hour round trip almost every day. There’s a transit system, but it’s not always fast or even where you need it to be.
But with a bike, and I know this from personal experience, those sorts of trips can be much much faster.
When you can’t afford a car, a bike can turn a twenty minute trip to get groceries for dinner into a ten minute one. It can be the difference between being able to get to a job interview across town or not. For the price of a couple tanks of gas, you have a method of transport that can make a huge difference in your life, available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
And yet we have a road system that, while it may not be designed to DISCOURAGE bike riding, it certainly doesn’t encourage it, either.
Most of the drivers I encounter are fine.
But I still don’t feel like I belong on the road, and it’s not just because of the occassional jerk. It’s the way things are designed.
Next time you’re driving, I want to you to imagine what things would be like if you didn’t have access to a vehicle.
Or I want you to imagine someone you love riding their bike alongside you- your twelve-year-old kid, your elderly mother.
What do you think when you pull off a highway and there is no dividing line between the traffic and the narrow band of road where the bikes are supposed to be?
How do you feel about bike lanes full of loose gravel in the spring, and snow in the winter?
How comfortable are you with the fact that at any time, a handslip on a steering wheel or a small wipeout could mean tons of metal moving at high speed colliding with a fragile human body sitting on an aluminum frame?
One of the most fundamental way most of us move around our lives, our cities, is on the roads.
And one of the things I’ve realized riding a bike for the past four years is that no matter what the laws are, the roads I’m riding on belong to people in cars.
And what that really means is that roads aren’t for kids, they aren’t for students… they aren’t for the poor.
When roads belong to people in cars, what that really means is roads belong to people who can afford them.
When you ride your bike, you are making a statement, whether you like it or not.
You’re saying the road belongs to me, too.
The road belongs to everyone.
This post was adapted from a talk I gave at the first ever PechaKucha Prince George with the theme “The Power to Move You.” To take part in future events, visit the PechaKucha Prince George page.
Brian Majore is a pretty funny guy. You can find him at thebloodysavage.com.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled “How many people should we expect to die in car accidents?” An excerpt:
“I’m trying to imagine any other activity that could claim eight lives in just over a week without there being some sort of public outcry, moratorium, or investigation. As a society, I feel like we’ve become so used to the idea of people dying in car accidents that we don’t really think about it.”
Turns out I’m not the only one to think this. Ian Johnston is a road safety expert who appeared on CBC’s The Sunday Edition yesterday. It was a fascinating interview that I highly recommend you listen to.
Since audio doesn’t go viral, I’ve excerpted some highlights from the first part of the interview. I’ve edited it to make more sense in text, and removed the prompts from Michael Enright. Here’s how Johnston starts:
“The crisis of complacency is that we accept where we are today…
“Let’s take Canada. The number of deaths from road crashes today is 40% less than it was 20 years ago and we go, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ But we don’t stop and look at what that means. We’re still after 20 years of modern technology and the like, we’re still at 60% of where we were 20 years ago, and that means two thousand plus Canadians are being killed every year… and for everyone that’s killed there are about 10 disabling injuries…
“We would not tolerate that level of trauma coming out of either rail travel or air travel, but we tolerate it on the roads. Over the last few years I’ve come to wonder why we tolerate such a high level, and I think there’s a number of reasons…
“The first is that we blame the victims. We say road crashes really only happen to people who misbehave. They’re speeding like crazy, they’re drunk driving, they’re on drugs, they’re using their cellphone all the time. And of course the whole system of police investigation is always looking for some behavior, somewhere to blame. Insurance companies are always looking to shift the blame around. And the media only report the dramatic crashes… it’s what I call the Bad Behavior Myth.
“I think we have an imperfect system. We’re asking people to make judgements, very complex judgements. You’re coming to an intersection: is that car going fast enough? Can I clear him? Will he clear me? And these are judgements that very difficult for human beings to make. And yet we’ve designed a system that is encouraging error, if you like.
“Compare it to industry. We would never allow a company to leave machines unguarded that people could put their feet into or their hands or get their hair cut or their loose clothing. Yet we drive on roads where if you have a microsleep because you’re tired, you shut your eyes for two seconds or you turn to yell at a child that’s screaming in the backseat, just momentarily and run off the road, you’re likely to hit a tree or a pole. So we’ve got an unsafe system if you’d like.. and the question is can we improve that system? And the answer is, well, yes we can, but it will cost a lot of money to develop a really safe system.”
Johnston goes on to say what that system might look like and the reasons he believes they aren’t already in place. Roads kill one and a quarter million people every year,one of the biggest killers in the world, and Johnston it doesn’t need to be this way. Highly, highly recommended.
I spent part of this morning writing about the series I did portraying life in Prince George’s inner-city VLA neighbourhood. I’m in a celebratory mood. I pulled off a big project and I feel good about it.
As I was writing this, the major developing news story was the fact that actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman has been found dead of an apparent drug overdose. My Twitter feed is full of people mourning the loss of his life.
A week ago, to cap off the end of the series, we held a public forum at the Youth Around Prince George centre. We chose it because it offered a mix of the ability to host the event, and the fact that it is a service centre for at-risk kids, many of whom live in the VLA neighbourhood.
The day of the event, the woman who runs YAP told me not many of the kids who use the centre would be taking part. In fact, she hadn’t seen much of them in a while. It seems one of the regulars, a young man, had recently OD’d and the rest were in mourning, in their own ways. This is something that had happened before- it was to be expected that it would take a while for the kids to get over it.
I’m not disputing the sadness people feel at the death of a well-known actor. I know that celebrities can touch your life and the loss you feel when they’re gone is absolutely legitimate. Hoffman will be celebrated and remembered and mourned for being gone so young, just 46 years old. I have no issue with his death making headlines around the world.
The kid who overdosed in Prince George? I don’t know how old he was. I don’t even know his name.
Not every tragic death gets a headline.