How Mennonites Became Hipsters

When the Mennonites of the Canadian prairies all decided one day in 2004 to become hipsters, they didn’t even have to change their attire. Keep the beard and plaid shirts. Out-of-date sweaters with timberwolves on them? No problem. Hell, the young ladies could even keep on knitting.

Still, this transition from a lifestyle resembling the Amish to something hip and modern might come as a shock to some people. To many, the term Mennonite immediately conjures up images of buggies and bonnets. Today, however, there are increasing numbers of urban — urbane, even — Mennonites. How did this happen?

You might cite Miriam Toews’s character Nomi Nickel as the original Mennonite hipster. Toews’s bestselling novel A Complicated Kindness was set sometime in the 1980s in the fictional Mennonite town of East Village, Manitoba, and featured a sarcastic teenager who smoked pot and was obsessed with Lou Reed. Although the term hipster wasn’t really used in the ’80s, it may have applied pretty well to young Nomi.

Despite the fact that Mennonites are often characterized as rural and conservative, there has always been a strain of rebellion within the group. This has existed from the very beginning. I won’t bore you with a lengthy account of the entire historical context, which you can easily read on Wikipedia or wherever, but the Mennonites began in 16th-century Holland and Switzerland as a Protestant sect that felt Martin Luther just hadn’t taken things quite far enough with this whole Reformation thing. Mennonites baptized adults, refused military service, were chased around Europe for centuries, and later fled to the Americas to be free. But this persecution and isolation caused a number of idiosyncrasies within the group. Wherever they were, Mennonites were always outsiders, never part of mainstream society. Continue Reading →

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The Sun News Network’s Final Minutes

And then there was silence.

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Exploring the Postmodern at Winnipeg’s CMHR

In the sideFor those who love to hate Winnipeg, the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights last fall was yet another reason to despise the frozen Manitoba capital. Why would such an elaborate and expensive museum be placed in such a forlorn and insignificant city? If Canada’s new national museum had to be located outside of Ottawa, it should be somewhere, you know, hip and groovy — a city with an NBA team or something. Still, the museum raises more significant questions than its location. Like any government-supported building project, there were uncertainties about cost, architecture, content, and process. But long after these questions fade, the very substance of the museum will continue to interrogate. Questioning is at the very heart of a post-modern museum like this.

In both its architecture and theme, the museum provides no easy answers. It even eschews the very idea of what a “museum” is. In a traditional museum, the authority (that is, the curator) decides what story to tell and how it should be told; she collects artifacts and presents them to the public. Instead of displaying objects in glass cases (there are some), the Canadian Museum for Human Rights features interactive displays that allow visitors to engage in questions about human rights. This process emphasizes the subjectivity of personal experience in relation to the topics it presents. The museum begins by asking, “What are Human Rights?” and provides suggestions, but leaves the answer to individual visitors. At the same time, it’s clear that human rights, however they are defined, are a process — a process that has not ended with the completion of this building. For the first time in one of Canada’s national museums, the myth of objectivity is officially absent. Continue Reading →

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Let’s Talk About Drugs

Drugs can make you feel great. They can make you care less about hygiene. They can provide a moment of salvation in an unjust world. They can make YouTube videos funnier. They can lead to addiction. They can give you energy in the morning and help you relax at night. They can make friends, family, dentists, and members of the clergy distrust you. They can make you see things you haven’t seen before. They can become an expensive habit. They can precipitate death. They can be fun at parties.

Are things made worse by governments and societies that think some drugs should be illegal? Some people think so. The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition thinks so. They’ve got a new campaign going, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Check it out here. Let’s talk about drugs.

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Sun News Discusses the Issue of White Privilege

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Marshall McLuhan: With It, Then and Now

Half a century has passed since the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. It’s a difficult, important book — important yet difficult. Sample chapter titles include: “The Written Word: An Eye for an Ear,” “Ads: Keeping Upset With the Joneses,” “Radio: The Tribal Drum,” “Money: The Poor Man’s Credit Card,” and “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis.”

Much has changed since the 1960s, McLuhan’s decade of popularity: Two members of the Beatles are dead, the Cold War is over, and television — one of McLuhan’s favorite sparring partners — is no longer the principle medium through which our society sends and receives information. Today, we’re online. We work on the internet, play on the internet, shop on the internet, date on the internet. We are the clickers, swipers, and likers. As Douglas Haddow put it in a recent essay on Adbusters, the world now belongs to the engineers of Silicon Valley — the rest of us are “just supplying the data for it.” Everything is, and always has been, experienced IRL.

And yet McLuhan’s ideas remain as vital as ever, if not more.

While Understanding Media is sometimes hard to understand, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (published 1967) is pretty accessible. According to the McLuhan Estate, the book was supposed to be titled after McLuhan’s most famous aphorism, the medium is the message, but the typesetter made a mistake. McLuhan didn’t mind, though. He said, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!” Now, apparently, the title can be interpreted in four (or more!) different ways: The Medium Is the Message, Mess Age, Massage, or Mass Age. Continue Reading →

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In Defence of Haters

Fifty years ago, Bob Dylan told the older generation of the time, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” Today, it seems, we are being told not to criticize anything at all.

Taylor Swift’s latest pop anthem, “Shake it Off,” for example, comes prepackaged with the ultimate lyrical shield against the very criticism she knew the song would face. Both its poor quality and the fact it’s a marked departure from the twang that made her famous meant she’d get some flack. Still, it’s a bit of marketing genius, really, to churn out some shitty music but fend off the inevitable and warranted reproach by repeating the line “haters gonna hate.” It was a preemptive strike against all them mean nasty folks who just can’t appreciate a twerkin’ good pop tune when they hear it. To be branded a “hater,” it seems, has become the harshest slight one can bestow in this age of Internet Correctness.

I mean, sure, there are assholes out there and a lot of them live in cyberspace. I certainly wouldn’t condone people, you know, saying mean things about Taylor in the comments below her YouTube videos. Those people are trolls and bullies and superfluous to society.

However, in an effort to rid the world of this sort of scum, we’ve overused the term “hater,” applying it to any and all people who don’t share our particular slant on the world. Taylor Swift is not unique in this. It appears that many people in our culture have become so hypersensitive that critics are universally regarded as “haters.” I would argue that some criticism is warranted; I’d even say it’s essential. Certain songs and movies just plain suck, and if we can’t say that anymore without being branded “haters” then I fear for the future of critical discourse. What will old men talk about in pubs? Continue Reading →

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High School Student Suspended for Selling Pepsi

No, it’s not a Coke-only institution of learning. It’s diet-only. That’s right — only diet colas are allowed on the premises of Winston Churchill High School in Lethbridge. Because children these days need better health.

That’s where Keenan Shaw (Gr. 12) comes in. He was caught selling Pepsi to fellow students, buddies, and pals. He stored the contraband in his locker. Now school authorities have suspended him for two days. Shaw was also told he was operating a business without a licence, and that he shouldn’t do that.

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Are We Atom, or Are We Data?

“…Like everybody else, I was lured into this radical new condition with the feel-good promises of connection, friendship, and self-expression,” writes sometimes Ballast Contributor Douglas Haddow.

What is this so-called radical new condition? It is Life 2.0. It is engagement and shareability and digital identity-creating. It is a “nerd paradise where the only problems that exist are the ones that you’re inspired to solve.” And it is a life that belongs to them — “we’re just supplying the data for it.”

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CRTC Considers Pick-and-Pay Cable TV

From the CBC:

What the CRTC is now suggesting is that consumers pay for the distribution of television, the pipes that bring it to your home, and a few local channels, many of which don’t get fees from subscribers. Everything else would be optional. You would pick and pay for the channels you want.

The question, though, is if all this is coming too late. People are not watching television like they used to. Times are changing. Smartphones, tablets, Netflix, YouTube, etc. The CRTC knows this.

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Stephen Harper Vs. Sociology

According to our Prime Minister, there are good times and bad times to commit sociology. Bad times include April 2013, when authorities accused two men of planning a terrorist attack against a Via Rail passenger train. Another occurred after the Boston Marathon Bombings, when Harper took issue with the idea of investigating the root causes behind the event. Now, while speaking to a crowd at Yukon College in Whitehorse, he said we should not view the many cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women as a “sociological phenomenon.”

In Stephen Harper’s mind, presumably, acts of violence are crimes, and crimes exist outside the realm of spreadsheets and data and general trends that themselves are the result of several knowable factors. Only individuals divorced from all reality but their own commit crimes, and laws are what fix that — not a bunch of sociologists in the library.

On the recent homicide of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose lifeless body was found in Winnipeg’s Red River, Harper said, “Obviously in the particular case … we want to extend all our sympathies to the families and friends. This is a terrible crime, clearly a crime. But first and foremost it is a crime, and the most important thing is to make sure we have a thorough police investigation.”

Earlier this year, a report compiled by the RCMP and Statistics Canada revealed that while aboriginal women account for just 4.3% of Canada’s female population, they compose 16% of the country’s female homicides and 11.3% of the cases for missing women. Other figures from Statistics Canada suggest that aboriginal women are victims of violence at a rate of three and half times more than non-aboriginal women. They’re also seven times more likely to be murdered. But that’s just what the numbers say. Why they’re like that, no one knows. Continue Reading →

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The Day’s Big News

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A List of IPAs Other Than Alexander Keith’s

When Alexander Keith’s concocted the slogan, “Those who like it, like it a lot,” the brewer was implying a couple of things. First, that there was something different about its beer. Second, that only a sophisticated few could appreciate its wondrous bounty.

It’s brilliant marketing, perhaps, but not entirely accurate. Anyone who’s tried Alexander Keith’s signature IPA knows that it’s not nearly as unique as the slogan suggests. And despite pressure from an online petition to change its “India Pale Ale” (IPA) description, the Halifax-based brewer has insisted on retaining the label even though its beer does not meet industry standards for the IPA style. Alexander Keith’s IPA is, by all appearances, a standard blonde ale.

For many, this might not be a big deal — until you try an actual IPA and discover that Alexander Keith’s version has more in common with Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue than it does with a Flying Monkeys Smashbomb Atomic IPA. In simple terms, a real IPA is all about the hops. The style originated when English brewers dramatically increased the amount of hops in their pale ales to survive the long voyage to India. The result was a beer with an amber body and, most importantly, distinct bitterness. The hops also impart flavours and aromas of pine and citrus.

The IPA style has since become one of the most common among craft brewers in North America, and as consumers become more familiar with it, Alexander Keith’s stubbornness to change how it identifies its beer grows more and more absurd. Continue Reading →

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Is Knowing Your Neighbour Necessary?

Last week, Maclean’s posted an article about modern life and living titled “The End of Neighbours.” Subtitle: “How our increasingly closed-off lives are poisoning our politics and endangering our health.” The big numbers that appear in the opening paragraph are as follows:

  • Over 30% of Canadians report feeling disconnected from their neighbours.
  • Around 50% of Americans report that they don’t know the names of their neighbours.
  • About 33% of Britons report that they couldn’t identify their neighbours in a police lineup.

Pretty brutal. But that’s not to condemn those involved in the aforementioned studies. This problem be systemic. Friends move. Technology alters how we interact. Fashion changes how we perceive. Advertising influences. Scientific discoveries occur. Other people are often annoying and just talk about themselves, anyway. They’re disappointed rather easily, too.

A central argument throughout the Maclean’s article is that it’s healthy for us as a society to mix. It’s important for a dentist to interact with her carpenter neighbour and a Liberal to wait at the same bus stop as a Conservative. Two nearby families that may not like each other should learn to solve their differences, or at least compromise. It’s good to face the Other.

Here’s a quote from the piece: “The evolving modern definition of a good neighbour is no longer someone who is part of your life, someone you chat with over the fence, a reliable shoulder in good times and bad, but someone who doesn’t bother you, either in your enjoyment of your home or by threatening its property value.” Rings true.

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Canadians Using Less and Less and Less Cash

We’ve said it before, so let’s say it again: Canada is on its way to becoming a cashless society. Canadian Business reports that “non-cash instruments” now “account for 90% of payments in this country.” That means Canada is one of the world leaders when it comes to purchasing goods and services with plastic.

That said, cash still comprises over 40% of all transactions. But that’s mostly for the small stuff. Think Snickers bars and hair gel. Today, more and more items that cost an amount of money you’d hope would give customers pause are being exchanged for no physical money at all.

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Some Questions About Outfitting Police Officers With Body Cameras

From the Toronto Star:

How much will it cost to store a massive library of audio-visual recordings? If audio-visual equipment is only to be activated in situations in which footage might be needed for court evidence later on, who makes that decision? Who decides what footage should be kept and what can be thrown away? Who pays for the extra time it will take officers to go over the audio-video evidence so nothing is left out of their notes?

The implied question that looms above all else: Who’s going to pay for all this?

Meanwhile, in America.

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Mystery and Romance Still Exist

Music blogs have been talking about a man named Lewis. He is a Mystery, a Romantic. His songs are slow-tempo and synth-soaked. His singing voice is full of distressed feeling and non-naive hope.

What is known about the pseudonymous Lewis is not much. Some evidence suggests he’s from Canada, but that’s far from proven. Apparently, in 1983 a man who “stayed in the Beverley Hills Hotel, drove a white convertible Mercedes, and dated a girl who looked like a model” recorded an album titled L’Amour. He then disappeared. About 30 years later, a copy of L’Amour popped up in an Edmonton flea market. Lewis was reborn.

Earlier this month, someone found a second Lewis LP titled Romantic Times. On the cover, a man in a suit with cigar in hand stands before a private jet. An engineer credited for working on the 1985 album said that while he remembers little about the session, he does recall Lewis appearing to be “under the influence.” The one known copy of Romantic Times recently sold on eBay for $1,825.00.

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Can Hitchbot the Hitchhiking Robot Make It Across Canada?

This is an experiment to see not if humans can trust robots, but if robots can trust humans, says Hitchbot’s co-creator Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor at Ryerson University.

Hitchbot’s mission: to hitchhike from Halifax to Victoria, presumably while making new friends and having plenty of adventures along the way.

Hitchbot is programmed to converse about many things, but let’s hope for the mission’s sake Hitchbot steers clear of prodding discussions on politics and religion. Let’s also hope Hitchbot is programmed to be quiet when the occasion calls for silence. No one likes a needy passenger.

Judging by Hitchbot’s Twitter account, the little guy has already been promised a ride into Quebec, despite starting the journey just yesterday. Then again, homeless drifters of the human variety rarely get this level of positive press coverage.

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A Look Back at the Drive-Through

Maybe you’ve heard: Today is National Drive-Through Day. There’s a time to commemorate almost everything these days, it seems!

Anyway, to honour the occasion Canadian Business has assembled a short history of the stay-in-your-car convenience. Did you know, for example, that Canada’s first drive-through arrived in 1975 thanks to the good people at Wendy’s? Apparently so!

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Andrew Coyne on the State of Canadian Democracy: It’s Bad

This video is a few months old, but worth the watch. Even if you already have, you shouldn’t feel bad for watching it again. There are more pernicious ways to squander your time.

Clip summary: For nearly 40 minutes, Andrew Coyne talks into a microphone about all the bad things in Canadian politics today. Voting, lies, media, debates, lies, too much PM power, too little MP power — all topics are addressed. It’s a situation, Coyne argues, all parties have helped create.

A few good lines he delivers near the beginning: “We should be aware, of course, of falsely idealizing how politics used to be in this country. There never was any golden age. But we should equally steer clear of the lazy assumption that it’s always been this way. It hasn’t. It’s worse now.”

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An Eternal Tweet

A violent incident occurred in a home along Selkirk Avenue in the not-so-gentle City of Winnipeg. What happened exactly is not known. The article doesn’t reveal much beyond mention of two ambulances, two victims, and one knife. But is any act of violence ever fully known? It’s unlikely. Government authorities may put a person in prison for her or his transgression, but the motives, the desires, the minute-by-minute history of the world until the incident occurred — these are the timeless questions.

Early this morning, a similar event took place in Winnipeg’s North End. In a back lane near the 200 block of Salter Street, a few blocks away from Selkirk Avenue, police found a person with multiple stab wounds. This person is in critical condition.

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How to Fix Edmonton’s Image Problem

Alberta’s capital, if you didn’t know, has an image problem. Proof: When Oprah Winfrey came for a visit, someone gave her a pair of truck nuts. According to a recent study conducted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Edmonton is also one of the worst places in Canada for women. That’s pretty awful.

Now, the Make Something Edmonton initiative is trying to return the city to its former glory — or, at least, create a new form of glory. Do something that evokes glory.

Writer and Make Something Edmonton member Todd Babiak thinks that rebranding the city with a slogan that involves words such as dynamic, innovative, creative, sustainable, and diverse will do no good for anybody. So they got that going for them.

Maybe now is the time to get serious about erecting that Wolverine statue.

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Will Tornadoes of Fire Become Our Future?

“There was at times a wall of flame a couple of storeys high,” he says. “There were literally tornadoes of fire in the treetops and when they were crowning, they’d literally explode in front of us.”

This quote comes from a CBC story about large and larger forest fires in the Northwest Territories. The article’s scientist expert — Mike Flannigan, University of Alberta — says climate change is responsible.

If human-induced climate change is real — some say it is — the whole planet may adjust in a way that isn’t pleasant for people. While the lifeless water and rock of our planet might endure super floods, extreme cold, and tornadoes made of fire, civilization as we know it might not. Maybe some of the non-human animals will. Maybe they’ll go on to create a new society built upon love, trust, altruism, and kindness. They will host parties and admire art. They will breed in sustainable quantities. The future of Earth will be in their capable paws.

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Maclean’s Provides a List of 5 Films Every Canadian Must See

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Why Literacy Is More Than Just a Job Skill

Jian and Team Q explain.

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Conservative MP Asked if Being Raped Is a Form of Personal Expression

Prostitution is a complicated thing that happens in society. Different people advocate different approaches to making sure no one gets hurt.

What New Brunswick Conservative MP Robert Goguen recently learned, however, is that being raped is not an example of freedom of expression. He knows because he directed this line of questioning towards a woman who had been trafficked, raped, and worked as a sex worker. Goguen’s making a bigger point, presumably, but that happened.

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The Grid Is Done

After a few years of serving Toronto’s youth with interesting facts worth knowing about and winning a number of awards along the way, The Grid is finished. It couldn’t generate enough revenue — which is a not-unheard-of problem in today’s media reality. Too bad.

Does anybody know how to fix this? Can Twitter alone inform the public?

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The 50 Greatest Canadian Books of All Time

For years, Canadian literati have bemoaned a lack of global recognition for Canadian literature. Heck, even Australia has won the Nobel Prize for Literature — and more than once! This past fall, however, Alice Munro, Canada’s finest purveyor of short stories about females, became the first Canadian to win the prestigious award. Her victory in Sweden means that others are just now starting to take notice of the stuff we write and have written. As Canadians, though, we always knew our books didn’t suck.

With summer finally here and the cost of fuel making boating and jetskiing increasingly costly, it may be that more of us page through a book or two in the coming months. So here is a list of the best Canadian fiction and, for those who prefer to read things that are true as opposed to made-up, a list of the best Canadian non-fiction, as well. Enjoy!

The 25 Greatest Canadian Novels of All Time

25. The Stone Carvers (2001) — Jane Urquhart
24. Alias Grace (1996) — Margaret Atwood
23. Dance Me Outside (1977) — W.P. Kinsella
22. A Jest of God (1966) — Margaret Laurence
21. Such Is My Beloved (1934) — Morley Callaghan
20. Who Has Seen the Wind (1947) — W.O. Mitchell
19. Beautiful Losers (1966) — Leonard Cohen
18. The Stone Diaries (1993) — Carol Shields
17. Barney’s Version (1997) — Mordecai Richler
16. Generation X (1991) — Douglas Coupland
15. A Complicated Kindness (2004) — Miriam Toews
14. A Fine Balance (1995) — Rohinton Mistry
13. Kamouraska (1970) — Anne Hebert
12. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) — Stephen Leacock
11. The Stone Angel (1964) — Margaret Laurence Continue Reading →

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The State of Toronto Hip Hop in 1994

Over at The Grid, Del F. Cowie wrote a short history about what Ghetto Concept and Saukrates were up to in 1994. Here’s an excerpt without any preceding context:

Kwajo recalls that the group was more surprised to win the Best Rap Recording Juno for “E-Z on the Motion” than the first time they won for “Certified” the year prior.

“I remember getting to my seat and not being even able to sit down and they called our name as the winners of the Best Rap Recording,” says Kwajo. “We were baffled. That was a big look. Again, we shocked the industry. The crazy thing is, after winning two back-to-back Junos, we could not get a major record deal. We had to continue independent. If an independent group in the States won two back-to-back Grammys, they would have been signed right away. That shows you how slow our industry was.”

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Hockey Night in Canada: The Last Days

With each passing game of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, the final episode of Hockey Night in Canada loomed closer. My imagination ran wild with a tornado of scenarios as to where I would be and whom I would be with when the cup was awarded and HNIC, as we’ve come to know and love it, passed into the dark arena of history. Wearing nothing but a towel in the locker room lounge of the gym I belong to on a full-moon Friday the 13th while helping a completely nude senior citizen to his walker was not one of them. Imagination does have limits.

As a production of the publicly owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Hockey Night in Canada was ours. Depending on how you look at it, the show was either stolen from us by Rogers Communications or given away by lazy CBC execs without the guts to captain a corporation that has fallen on hard times. Does the CBC still deserve our tax dollars? Is the Harper government intentionally cash-starving our public broadcaster into extinction? There are many opinions and much has been written about the current woes of our nation’s voice, so you can form an opinion elsewhere. In the end, it really doesn’t matter — Saturday night will never be the same. The show will return in the fall when a new NHL season begins, but I won’t be there to see it.

Hockey has an odd sense of values when honouring tradition. It seems that every year there are new rules, new ways to end the game, and new jerseys with logos that make a mockery of time-tested design. The NHL’s greedy dismissal of the CBC’s 83-year claim to covering hockey action in Canada, however, might be their biggest gaffe yet. Although the league existed some 17 years without a broadcast deal from our public broadcaster, it was the editorial voice of our government’s tax dollars that helped contextualize the men who played hockey as heroes, the assembled crowds as tradition, and the action as our game. Will that kind of heritage be safely transported into the future by a privately owned cellular telephone company with a $5.2 billion cheque in its pocket? If the answer proves to be no, then the argument could be made that on the evening of Friday the 13th, 2014, under a full moon, hockey in Canada died. Continue Reading →

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