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    August 2009
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4 Days at Safeco

Safeco Field, view from the Left Field entrance.

Safeco Field, view from the Left Field entrance.

As part of my trip to Seattle, I visited Safeco Field to catch some baseball. The New York Yankees were in town to play the host Seattle Mariners from Thursday to Sunday, and I caught all four games between the two teams.

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then my photo gallery from the games tells the full story in 315,000 words. I recommend you check it out. What follows here is a much-abridged summary.

The Games
In case you’re curious, the Yankees won the first one in a blowout, earned hard-fought wins in the second and third, then the Mariners stormed back to win the final game of the series. The roof was closed for the first one (it had rained heavily earlier that day), but we had great weather for the rest of the series, so the roof was open. The games (and the city as a whole) were flooded with Yankees fans for the whole weekend. You couldn’t go anywhere inside the park, or outside of it without seeing Yankees apparel.

The Area
Safeco Field is located near the central district of Seattle. It’s situated south of the King Street Amtrak station and Pioneer Square, and just to the west of the International District. Qwest Field, home to the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Sounders FC, is directly north of Safeco. The surrounding freeways and railway lines isolate the park somewhat from the surrounding areas, making it tough to tell what, if any, impact it has had on redevelopment in the area. There is the Silver Cloud Hotel across the street, and up the street parallel to Qwest Field and the parking lot between Qwest and the Amtrak station there are refurbished warehouses and infill developments.

The Park
For better and worse, Safeco Field has most of the trappings of the post-Camden Yards ballparks.

First, the good. The brick exterior adds a nice retro touch (it’s designed to mirror Ebbets Field), and also meshes with the character of the surrounding area. Like most of the new parks, the sightlines are excellent, and most seats offer an unobstructed view of the field. There are a ton of food options, everything from hotdogs to sushi. I’m partial to the garlic fries from Grounders’. Also, there is one beer stand that offers imports/microbrews at a reasonable price. I indulged in Bard’s gluten-free beer, which was a pleasant surprise to find.

Mariano Rivera of the Yankees pitches to the Mariners.

Mariano Rivera of the Yankees pitches to the Mariners.

Leaving aside the constant gimmickry with attempts to rally fans on the video screen and through music, my main criticism of Safeco is that it feels like I could be watching a game….well, anywhere. There are a couple of nice touches that distinguish the park. First, from the first base side you get a nice view of the downtown Seattle skyline. Second, the adjacent railroad lines mean you hear a constant (and I mean constant – about every 5 minutes) honking of horns from railway engines as they arrive at or depart from the King Street station. But beyond that, the park itself feels like it could be anywhere. The other post-Camden park I’ve visited is Citizens’ Bank Ballpark, in Philadelphia. It’s also a great place to watch a game, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what distinguishes the two once you’re inside and watching a game. Safeco has a retractable roof, while Citizens’ Bank is open air. I guess that would be it.

Final Thoughts
For all my criticisms in the last paragraph, on the whole the experience was really enjoyable. As a huge baseball fan, I’d probably enjoy watching a game anywhere – I even have fond memories of the Big O. Nonetheless, Safeco is a very nice park, and offers a good atmosphere for watching baseball.


Weekend Reading and Entertainment: 08/29/09

While I work on a few upcoming blog posts, here is a collection of stories I’ve come across over the past little while:

– I wrote about the Pete Yorn show I saw in Seattle last week.
– Richard Florida always tweets interesting stuff. This week he posted stories about the vision of former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, a list of proposed high-speed rail projects in the US, and a 100 year old walkable, transit-oriented community.
– In the province of Alberta, where I live, we’ve gone from record surpluses to a record deficit. Daveberta has a good take on the situation.
– Third Eye Blind, one of my favourite bands from my teen years, is riding another crest of popularity.
– My friend Andy Grabia is blogging again, both on his own site and on The Battle of Alberta. On the former he has a great story about changes at the University of Alberta, and on the latter he’s asking tough questions about the proposed new hockey arena in Edmonton.
– Sort of funny, and more than a little awkward. Deadspin covers the issue of groupies at the Little League World Series.

Finally, like many I was saddened to hear about Senator Ted Kennedy’s passing. I haven’t read a lot of the coverage yet, but there are two pieces I have been told are must-reads: the Boston Globe 7-part series, and Michael Kelly’s 1990 GQ piece. I also enjoyed this New York Times piece about his relationship with his second wife, Victoria.

Enjoy your weekend.

Pete Yorn in Seattle

For most of the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on vacation, hence the lack of blogging. For 8 of those days, I visited Seattle and Portland. That trip, and observations/thoughts stemming from it, will be the subject of a few upcoming blog posts.

Officially, I had three objectives when planning a summer vacation. First, it had to be relatively cheap. Second, it had to be somewhere I’d never visited before. Third, it had to involve watching major league baseball in person.

Seattle met all three criteria. The Portland side-trip came later once I realized it cost about $60 round-trip to travel on Amtrak between the two cities. Also, once I’d investigated Seattle, and narrowed down a date range, a fourth objective was added to the list: I had to get tickets to one of Pete Yorn’s concerts at The Showbox in Seattle. I ended up attending his show this past Wednesday.

Pete Yorn performs "Black" at the Showbox in Seattle. August 19, 2009.For those of you who have never listened to Yorn, do yourself a favour and get your hands on his albums as soon as possible. I will even lend you my copies if you’re too broke or too cheap to spend $15-20/disc, or too lazy to torrent them. Yorn is one of my absolute favourite artists, and I had never seen him perform live before.

I discovered his music early in 2002, not long after his debut album ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ was released. I heard his first single, “Life on a Chain”, on a compilation/mix CD whose origins I have since forgotten. Hearing that inspired me to track down the full album. Upon acquiring it, it quickly became a favourite.

His follow-up album, ‘Day I Forgot’, is solid, with a few stellar tracks – “Crystal Village”, “Long Way Down”, and “All at Once”. He followed a couple of years later in 2006 with ‘Nightcrawler’. I was initially unimpressed, and didn’t listen to it much for the first couple of years after it was released. In general, I listened to Yorn less during this period than I had for the previous few years.

This spring, I got word that he was releasing a follow-up album, titled ‘Back & Fourth’, and listened to the first single, ‘Don’t Wanna Cry’, which was available online. I enjoyed it, and between it and conversing with fellow Yorn fan Andy Grabia, I started to listen to his music again more and more. I even gave ‘Nightcrawler’ another chance, and it grew on me. In particular, “Alive” and “Ice Age” are strong tracks.

Pete Yorn in Seattle. August 19, 2009.

Pete Yorn in Seattle. August 19, 2009.

‘Back & Fourth’ was released in June, and really impressed me. Many of the songs have a rich sound, and it comes closest to recapturing the earnestness and energy that make ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ such a strong record.

Now, having missed him open for Crowded House in Edmonton a couple of years back, there was no way I was going to miss him if I had a chance while in Seattle.

The Show
The concert was held at the Showbox at the Market, a small Seattle club. Amazingly, Wednesday night’s all-ages show I attended wasn’t full, and there were signs that Thursday’s 21+ show was doing worse. Given that the Showbox is a small venue, and ticket prices were reasonable (I paid $22 plus service charges), there is no reason Pete shouldn’t have filled the place at least one of the nights. The crowd at the all-ages show was pretty mixed, especially age-wise. I was initially worried that the grown-ups would go to the Thursday show, and Wednesday night would be a crowd consisting of me and a bunch of 16 year old emo kids. That was far from the case; the bulk of the crowd looked to be in their mid-late 20s; there were even a couple of grey-haired guys standing near the stage. I ended up about 10 feet away, dead centre from the stage. Best spot I’ve had for a show in a long time, maybe ever.

Opening Acts
JD King was the first opener. Along with his band, The Coachmen, he played a traditional rock style, with a heavy country influence. I’m fairly ambivalent about his music. I would describe it as “okay”. It doesn’t really inspire feelings, positive or negative, in me.

Next up was singer/songwriter Zee Avi. Avi, from Malaysia, plays guitar and ukelele, accompanied by a bass player, drummer, and keyboard player. Avi plays an upbeat, pop-folk style, not unlike artists such as Feist or Sarah Harmer. Her music is very catchy; I wouldn’t be shocked to see her pop up in an iPod commercial or Starbucks promotion sometime soon. If you like the aforementioned two artists, make sure you check out her music. She played for about 30 minutes, going through songs off her new album such as “Honeybee” (which she noted is her favourite song), and “Bitter Heart”, the first single from the album, before ending her set with a great ukelele-driven cover of “I Fought the Law”.

Pete Yorn Set

Pete Yorn performs in Seattle.

Pete Yorn performs in Seattle.

Pete came out accompanied by a five-piece band (guitarist, bass player, drummer, keyboards, mandolin/assorted). Pete himself played guitar, along with harmonica on a few songs.

Pete Yorn plays harmonica at his show on August 19, 2009 in Seattle.

Pete Yorn plays harmonica at his show on August 19, 2009 in Seattle.

He opened with “Black” off of ‘Musicforthemorningafter’, my pick for his best song. Following that, he went right into “Shotgun”, off of his latest album. Pete then switched to an acoustic guitar, and introduced “Life on a Chain”. He was very good at interacting with the crowd, providing a context and backstory to many of the songs. Following this number, he played “Paradise Cove”, “Murray”, and “Burrito”, the last one with just himself on acoustic guitar accompanied by piano. The rest of the set was as follows: “The Man”, “Crystal Village”, “For Us”, “Social Development Dance”, “Closet”, “Bizarre Love Triangle” (New Order cover), “Don’t Wanna Cry”, and “Strange Condition”. A short break ensued, then Pete and his band came out for a three-song encore: “Last Summer”, “On Your Side”, and “For Nancy (‘Cos it Already Is)”, a song which, in his own words, has saved his life many times.

If you’ve read this far into the post, you won’t be surprised to read me say that I enjoyed it immensely. This was definitely one of my favourite concerts I’ve been to.

Some things I enjoyed:
– The aforementioned crowd interaction. I always like to learn more about the background of songs
– The ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ cover. I like hearing things at a concert that I can’t on an album.
– The exhaustive merchandise stand. Lots to choose from in terms of T-shirt designs, and he had all his albums available on CD, and at least ‘Back and Fourth’ on vinyl. I picked up a t-shirt which you’ll probably see me wearing around sometime soon.
– He played songs from all of his albums. Some artists tend to predominantly play their most recent stuff, which I feel is an attempt to get you to buy their latest CD. The best strategy, in my opinion, is to play your best stuff. If people enjoy your set, they’ll buy your music and merch.
– Further to that point, here is the count of songs from each album he played: ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ – 7; ‘Day I Forgot’ – 2; ‘Nightcrawler’ – 2; ‘Back & Fourth’ – 5, plus the New Order cover.

Pete Yorn in Seattle

Pete Yorn in Seattle

This show lived up to my expectations, and then some. I’m looking forward to the next time I can catch Pete Yorn in concert. It was worth the trip.

Roots Music Infused With a Punk Ethos: Edmonton Folk Festival 2009

Following my trip down to Calgary for their Folk Festival two weeks ago, I made a much shorter trip this past weekend to attend the Edmonton Folk Festival on Friday and Saturday. I didn’t attend Thursday or Sunday on account of other commitments, but I managed to catch a number of talented acts – some I was familiar with and was looking forward to, and others who I had never heard of before, and blew me away.

I’ve uploaded photos from the festival to my Flickr page. Here’s a recap of my experience at the festival.

Friday Night
I arrived on Friday in time to catch the last 30 minutes of the workshop featuring Neko Case, Kathleen Edwards, and Chuck Brodsky. I’d heard some songs by Case and Edwards and generally liked them; I’d never heard of Brodsky.

Chuck Brodsky performs at a session also featuring Neko Case (left) and Kathleen Edwards (right)

Chuck Brodsky performs at a session also featuring Neko Case (left) and Kathleen Edwards (right)

Brodsky acquitted himself well, playing a standard folk style. As a baseball fan, I was disappointed to find out I missed his song “Dock Ellis’ No-No”, about the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter while allegedly on LSD. Turns out Brodsky writes a lot about baseball – he made an album titled “The Baseball Ballads”. Case and Edwards also sounded good, though I didn’t recognize any of the songs.

The mainstage acts followed. First up were The Wailers. Only 1 original member of Bob Marley’s legendary band remains, but the current lineup represents the Wailers’ reputation well.

They played a number of classics such as ‘Exodus’, ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, ‘Jammin’, and ‘One Love’, mixed in with other numbers. They were what I was hoping they would be – fun, energetic, and true to the band’s history. A solid set; if you have a chance to see them live, do it.

Neko Case
I’d heard the odd Neko Case song (and made a point of listening to music available on her MySpace page Friday afternoon), but wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Neko plays a folk-country-rock style that was mostly mellow with a few upbeat tracks thrown into the mix. She is an excellent live performer; I especially enjoyed her interaction between songs with sidekick Kelly Hogan.

Neko Case performs on Friday night at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Neko Case performs on Friday night at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Raul Malo, formerly of The Mavericks, closed out the night. Anticipating a long day on Saturday, I headed home before his set. Apparently I missed a good show; Malo, according to Andy, plays a country-rockabilly style along the lines of Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak, and was a lot of fun.

Saturday Sessions
This was the day I was looking forward to, mostly because of the two Joel Plaskett sessions.

Talkin’ Bout My Generation: Ben Sures, Joel Plaskett, Jill Barber, Johnny Flynn
I made my way to this session to start the day.

Sures, playing a traditional folk style, hosted the session, and kicked it off with a humourous song titled “My Last Girlfriend”. Plaskett, accompanied on guitar by his father Bill, followed with “Lyin’ on a Beach’ off of his album ‘La De Da’.

Jill Barber performs at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Jill Barber performs at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Next up was Jill Barber. I first heard Jill last spring on the Sibling Rivalry tour with her brother Matthew, and was impressed with her – she has a really good voice. She opened with a song called ‘Measures & Scales’ – she played guitar, and was at times through her performances accompanied by violin, piano, and accordian.

Last to perform in each round was Johnny Flynn. This was the first time I had heard him, but he came highly recommended by a co-worker. Flynn did not disappoint; he opened with just himself on steel guitar, and accompanied by a cellist, and played a roots-style that was full of passion. I don’t remember the name of the first song, but the second one he played is “The Wrote & The Writ” off of his debut album “A Larum”. My note, not knowing the name of the song at the time, was simply “jf-this song is off the hook”. Pretty much captures how I felt at the time.

Each artist played 3-4 songs. Other highlights include Plaskett breaking out his $7 electronic keyboard (from Value Village) to play “Rewind, Rewind, Rewind”, then playing “Happen Now” (with Jill Barber on backup vocals), my favourite of his songs, to close. Barber herself sang a song in French, “Toutes Mes Reves” (All My Dreams), then closed with a pretty wicked cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry”.

Concert: Danny Michel
There was half an hour between the previous session and Joel Plaskett’s concert at 1. On the way there, I stopped by Danny Michel’s concert for a few songs. I’ve heard his most recent album, ‘Feather, Fur & Fin’, which is pretty solid. He played the title track as soon as I got there, then a couple of other songs I didn’t recognize before playing ‘Sweet Things’ Danny often plays with a loop/sound machine, but it was just himself on electric guitar at this point. I left a bit early to get to the Plaskett show in good time.

Concert: Joel Plaskett

Joel Plaskett at his concert on the Saturday of the Edmonton Folk Festival.

Joel Plaskett at his concert on the Saturday of the Edmonton Folk Festival.

As I was expecting, he delivered a really good set. Accompanied by his dad at the start, he played some songs off of his latest album ‘Three’, mixed in with standards from his previous albums. His set list, in order: I Love This Town, Pine Pine Pine (dad leaves at this point), Nothing More to Say To You, True Patriot Love, Work Out Fine, You Let Me Down, Through & Through & Through, Television Set (on keyboard), (dad returns) Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’, Wishful Thinking, and finally as an encore, Nowhere With You (solo).

Joel is always engaging with the crowd between songs, giving preambles before songs such as ‘True Patriot Love’ and ‘Work Out Fine’. He’s an energetic live performer, and probably won himself a lot of fans (as did most performers). I especially liked that a good amount of his set came off of albums besides ‘Three’ (by my count, just over half the set). I always enjoy hearing from an artist’s full catalogue, rather than just hearing the latest work.

As Oysterband played on the mainstage from 2-3, I took the opportunity to browse the merchandise tent, get food, and wander the festival grounds. The merchandise tent was full, and had an excellent catalogue of artists’ CDs as well. Some had already sold out. There seemed to be less food vendors than at Calgary, and local non-profits (save radio stations such as CKUA and CJSR) weren’t present either. One other thing that’s different from Calgary is that the site is much larger and spread out. I enjoyed the compactness of Prince’s Island Park; you could get anywhere quickly, and you could still enjoy the music perfectly well from the Beer Gardens, which isn’t possible in Edmonton. On the other hand, the hill at Gallagher Park offers outstanding views of the stage and the downtown Edmonton skyline. The hill alone makes it worth the trip.

Megatunes: Danny Michel, Jill Barber, Fred Eaglesmith, Loudon Wainwright III
Danny Michel hosted this session, which was recorded for CBC Radio 2’s Canada Live program, and will air on Thursday, August 27th. It will be available on-demand on the Canada Live website and in podcast form on iTunes as well. This was a fantastic session, and I recommend you catch it in one of the above listed formats.

Michel opened with “White Lightning”, and Jill Barber followed with a song I didn’t recognize. Fred Eaglesmith was up next. Fred, for anyone who has never seen him before, likes to tell stories. Each song he performed was preceded by a 2-3 minute (at least) introduction. The first song, “Wilder than Her”, was recorded by Dar Williams, who considers it a lesbian anthem. Fred made a couple of jokes, including one about how all we writes now is lesbian anthems (once the royalty cheques started coming in), before segueing into the song.

Loudon followed. He prefaced his song by introducing the Charlie Poole Project, dedicated to preserving the memory of the aforementioned musician, who has not yet been inducted into the country music hall of fame. Loudon’s new album “High, Wide, & Handsome’, pays tribute through covering Poole’s work.

Danny followed with “Sweet Things”, and Jill played a song accompanied by piano and clarinet. Fred was accompanied by the Ginn (sp?) Sisters from Schulenberg, Texas on the next song, which was preceded by a long story and a joke about the last supper.

Danny Michel joins in on Loudon Wainwright III's "The Swimming Song"

The next round saw Danny play “Whale of a Tale”, which I also caught at the morning concert. Jill Barber followed with an excellent rendition of her hit song “Oh My My”. I didn’t catch the name of Fred’s next song, which was his last before Loudon played a song about Tonya Harding.

To close out, Danny played “Feather, Fur, and Fins”, before Loudon got to close the show. He played his famous hit, “The Swimming Song”, and Danny jumped in to sing a couple of verses. It was a great rendition, and a great way to end the session.

All four performers acquitted themselves well. I particularly enjoyed Jill and Loudon. Fred is an entertaining performer, and Danny is good enough to share a stage with anyone.

Concert – Alex Cuba
Alex Cuba followed. I caught a bit of him on Friday night as he played between Neko Case and Raul Malo on the mainstage.

Cuba played electric guitar throughout the show, some songs by himself and some with a three-piece band. The highlight was definitely his cover of “Bad Timing” by Blue Rodeo, with the lyrics sung in spanish. Cuba was fun to listen to, though not one of my favourite few acts of the weekend. He’s coming back to Edmonton (or St. Albert, to be precise) on February 4th, and I would consider seeing him again.

Saturday Mainstage
Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit
After his stellar performance in the morning session, I didn’t want to miss any of Johnny Flynn on the mainstage, so I left Cuba’s set a little early to make my way back to the hill.

Johnny Flynn on steel guitar performing at Folk Fest.

Johnny Flynn on steel guitar performing at Folk Fest.

Flynn is a talented, versatile musician. He played steel guitar through most of the set, but also played mandolin on a couple of songs, as well as banjo and trumpet at times. Rounding out his band are a bass player, cellist, piano/keyboard player, and drummer.

Johnny Flynn was the surprise, and therefore the highlight of the festival for me. I knew what to expect from Plaskett, but Flynn exceeded any expectations I had. Ok, maybe they get 1a and 1b status. Anyway, I highly recommend Flynn’s music. I don’t know how to best describe it, though the phrase I jotted down during his set was “roots infused music with a punk ethos” (hence the title of this post), which for me captures its spirit well.

The set itself was outstanding, as he ran through most of the songs from “A Larum”. Unfortunately, the hill was largely empty, and many fans in the audience (including the ones on the tarp beside me) spent much more time talking amongst themselves than paying attention. Their loss, in my opinion.

Beer Gardens
After Flynn, I went to the beer gardens to meet up with friends as Patty Griffin set up. I intended to return for Iron & Wine (who was after her), but ended up getting sidetracked and didn’t return until the final act was taking the stage. So let’s just skip ahead. One thing to note: I like the proximity of the beer gardens to the stage at Calgary; you can hear (and see on the big screen) the bands perfectly fine. In Edmonton, you can barely hear the music coming through the speakers and you’re a good distance away. On the other hand, a hot day calls for some Rock Creek Cider, so I don’t regret this decision at all.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings at Folk Fest

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings at Folk Fest

Pleasant surprise, part 2, of the evening. Jones and her band play an old-school 60’s/70s style of R&B/Funk. Having never heard them before, I didn’t have huge expectations, but I had been assured that they would be worth sticking around for. They were, and then some.

The Dap-Kings opened with a couple of instrumentals, before bringing Sharon out. If you aren’t familiar with her background, stop right now and read it. It’s a great story of perseverance and determination to succeed.

The music in this set was good, but the performance was even better. Sharon danced all night (she’s 53 years old!), and the Dap-Kings know how to perform on stage as well – right down to dressing up. Sharon pulled guys on stage to dance with her (I call this the “Reverse Springsteen”), and invited a group of girls to join her as well. The performance highlight was towards the end, when Sharon showed off her dance moves talking about her ancestors (don’t remember the name of the song). Unfortunately, a lot of fans had left by the time they took the stage, and many more continued to file out throughout the set. They missed a fun hour of music.

One of the great things about going to festivals or shows (or really, anything in life), is the beauty of the unexpected – when you go into a situation not knowing what to expect, or having low expectations, and then seeing something phenomenal. For me, Flynn and Jones’s performances rank near the top for “best unexpected performances” at a live show. Seeing Matthew Barber open for Chris Isaak in 2007 probably rounds out the list. Their shows, my first time hearing Flynn’s music, Plaskett’s excellent sets and a great rendition of “The Swimming Song” with Loudon and Danny are what I’ll likely remember when I think back to Folk Fest ’09. It was a great (half) weekend of music, sunshine and friends; I think I’ll be back next year.

Weekend Reading and Entertainment: 08/07/09

Here is a collection of links to interesting items I’ve seen over the past week, many of which I tweeted about.

– My four part blog series covering the Global Youth Assembly, along with my Flickr set.
– A new report produced by Accenture called Web 2.0 Collaboration Tools for the Next Generation of Public Service.
– A great interview from the Financial Times with Rory Stewart, Director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard. Also, for any readers fluent in French, his interview in the current edition of L’actualité is a must read.
– The Canwest Papers ran a five-part series titled ‘The Next Spike’, about the prospects of high-speed rail in Canada.
– It’s Edmonton Folk Fest this weekend! I’ll be there Saturday afternoon to see Joel Plaskett, and might be around for part of Friday night as well. Sandra Sperounes has a good review of Wednesday’s show with Sarah McLachlan and Tracy Chapman. Hopefully she’ll have more coverage as the week goes along. If we’re really lucky, maybe Andy Grabia will resurrect his Folk Fest blog.
– Video of Mos Def covering Billie Jean. He even moonwalks at the end!
– Finally, in memory of John Hughes, if you haven’t watched the video montage set to “Baba O’Riley”, here it is. I love his movies; especially Christmas Vacation. My dad and I (and often other family members as well) still watch it every Christmas.

Enjoy the weekend; I’ll have a new posts in the next few days about my trip to the Glenbow and Edmonton Folk Fest.

Global Youth Assembly 2009: In Review

Over the past few days, I blogged about Craig Kielburger, the Apathy is Boring panel on politics, and Governor General Michaelle Jean at the Global Youth Assembly. I have also posted photos on Flickr and a video of the Governor General showing off her dance moves. Now, to wrap up, here are thoughts from sessions I haven’t already covered, as well as some general thoughts about the conference.

I attended a few excellent workshops, and a couple of less impressive ones. I’ll skip over the latter, and comment on the former.

On Thursday afternoon I attended a talk by John Siebert, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares. This was by far the most informative session I attended. Titled ‘Is Canada Still in the Peace Business?’, Siebert spoke about the changing nature of Canada’s foreign involvement from its latter 20th century tradition of peacekeeping to a practice he calls “peacebuilding”. Peacebuilding combines aspect of combat and peacekeeping, and reflects the nature of the conflicts we find our troops in.

The trend away from peacekeeping is prevalent throughout the west since 9/11. To put it in perspective, worldwide military spending in 2007 is estimated to be $1.3 trillion (US). The UN peacekeeping budget for that year was $6.8 billion, a fraction of what it was a decade ago.

On the Canadian front, our spending on UN peace operations has dropped an astonishing 90% this decade, from a high of $94 million in 2000/01 to $8.5 million in 2006/07 – Canada’s military spending in 2007 was $18.5 billion. Now, this is not to diminish our current contribution to the UN. We contribute a number of high-expertise personnel to UN operations on a regular basis.

Focusing on broader trends, Siebert also noted that the number of conflicts worldwide has dropped 40% since the mid-1990s. He attributes a lot of this to development aid, which he sees as reducing several of the factors that contribute to conflict. Overall, this was informative and engaging; I learned a lot about Canada’s current role in the world.

Delegates at the Global Youth Assembly 2009

Delegates at the Global Youth Assembly 2009

The first of two workshops on Saturday focused on campaign organizing. This was the most interactive of all the sessions I attended, which I greatly enjoyed. Led by Erin Harrison of the Canadian Labour Congress and Angelo Dicaro of the Canadian Autoworkers Union, the session intended to teach delegates the nuts and bolts of why and how we run campaigns. The crux of the workshop was a case study – the audience was given an issue, then split into groups. Each group was assigned a different aspect of the campaign, and asked to come up with a plan for how to handle it. While only given 10-15 minutes, it was an interesting exercise to come up with ideas, in particular because we didn’t know what the other groups were working on (this apparently happens regularly when organizing large-scale campaigns). This session was both informative and fun.

The second workshop, led by a Katherine Walhaven of TakingITGlobal, was about using Web 2.0 for social change. I’m familiar with the concepts of Web 2.0, and most of the material that was presented. It was, however, helpful to see a handful of successful Web 2.0 examples from the non-profit world, and to hear the ideas of the other delegates who were present, in particular how they use social media and some of the opportunities and downsides they see to it.

By and large I enjoyed the workshop sessions I participated in. There were a number of others I was interested in, but they unfortunately conflicted with these sessions. Ideally at future conferences, more sessions would be offered in more than one timeslot.

Keynote Sessions
I missed the Thursday and Friday morning keynote sessions on account of other commitments, but I caught all four keynote sessions on Saturday.

Josh Thome of 4Real and Liz Evans of the Portland Hotel Society

Josh Thome of 4Real and Liz Evans of the Portland Hotel Society

Saturday morning started with a session about 4Real, hosted by producer Josh Thome. 4Real is a television show that matches celebrities with community activists, taking them around the world to participate in the activists’ work. Thome talked about the show and showed clips from a few episodes, and covered his own history in activism as well. He was followed by two of the activists profiled on 4Real, Alyssa Dawamana Macy of NVision out of the United States and Liz Evans of the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver, BC, who talked about their respective work. Aside from getting to watch clips of 4Real (which is a fantastic show, and likely a subject of a future blog post), I enjoyed Josh talking about the use of media to promote causes and involvement. He also promoted 4Real Flow, a tool to raise money for your favourite causes through the web.

After lunch, Dev Aujla spoke. Dev created his own non-profit, Dream Now, that helps other young leaders achieve their goals. Having seen him speak at a previous leadership conference, I was familiar with Dev’s work. On top of an overview of Dream Now, he provided a lot of valuable advice – in particular about the importance of asking questions, and about making a habit of working for change. His session had more of a “how-to” approach than the others, which made it incredibly valuable.

Ocean Robbins closed out Saturday afternoon. An activist since his teenage years, Ocean traced his (and his family’s) roots in various causes. Ocean has focused his work on environmental causes. He talked about what he sees as the biggest problem of our time, the notion that ‘we live separate from each other, and from the earth’. He also argued against materialism, saying that ‘by living more simply, we may find ourselves richer’.

Mariatu Kamara at the Global Youth Assembly 2009.

Mariatu Kamara at the Global Youth Assembly 2009.

Saturday night featured an Ethical Fashion Show. The real highlight, however, was a keynote address by Mariatu Kamara, a 23 year-old refugee from Sierra Leone. Kamara is an activist for peace, children, and women. She is also a victim of the diamond wards. At the age of 12, still living in her native country, she was kidnapped by rebel soldiers, who then cut off both her hands. She eventually escaped, found her way to Canada a few years later, and is now a college student, published author, and founder of a charitable foundation. Her incredible journey in overcoming hardship is inspiring.

Closing Thoughts
Overall, I had a great experience at the GYA; it has given me a lot to think about, and a lot of ideas and experiences to draw on going forward. I got to know some interesting people, I participated in some really engaging workshops, and I listened to some inspiring speakers. The speakers and presenters were awesome, and the delegates were as well – as evidenced by the talent they showed off at a couple of open mic sessions.

Global Youth Assembly 2009 delegates having fun in between sessions.

Global Youth Assembly 2009 delegates having fun in between sessions.

In my experience, the most valuable part of a conference is always the informal interaction with other delegates outside of the sessions. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of this time. Since it was in Edmonton, I wasn’t staying at the hotel with most of the other delegates, and I had a few other commitments over the three days, which meant I didn’t have much time to spend at the conference outside of the sessions. I definitely missed being fully immersed in the conference, which for me is always one of the best parts. On top of this, much of the informal time during the days was taken up by sessions running over time.

The third installment of this conference is scheduled for 2011, and will be held in Winnipeg – the first time it’s outside of Edmonton. I’ll be right on the cusp of the advertised age range (depending on which days they pick for the conference), but I hope to be involved in some capacity. This is a great initiative, and I’ll continue to support it and be involved however I can; I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to do so as well.

Michaelle Jean Rocks the Global Youth Assembly

Canada's Governor General, Michaelle Jean, at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Canada's Governor General, Michaelle Jean, at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Friday night at the Global Youth Assembly featured a special appearance by Canada’s Governor General, Michaelle Jean. The Governor General appeared in Edmonton as part of her Youth Dialogues series. She spoke, listened to the crowd, and then finished by showing off her dance moves (video provided later in this post). I was impressed with her speech, and find a lot of characteristics in her that I can learn from and draw inspiration from.

Canada's Governor General dances as People's Poets perform.

Canada's Governor General dances as People's Poets perform.

Her ability to connect with an audience is readily apparent. She took the stage while the local Edmonton hip-hop group People’s Poets performed, dancing alongside them through the performance. She then spoke for about 10 minutes, focusing on the importance of supporting youth and giving them opportunities, as well as the importance of the arts, particularly how she has seen people “find hope, resilience, self-affirmation and healing in the arts – especially hip-hop”. She also talked about how youth are finding hope in the urban arts, such as rap, sculpture, and graffiti, and how they ‘act as an instrument to raise awareness about serious social ills’. Later in her speech, in relation to hip-hop, she talked about the importance of how you use the power you have, saying gangsta rap, and it’s tendency to encourage homophobia, misogyny, and gang culture, should be a cause for alarm. She stressed that despite this, we must stand in solidarity with the artists contributing to the community, and gave a nod to Edmonton for naming Cadence Weapon as its Poet Laureate.

Following this, she finished by focusing on youth. Some of the highlights including statements like “one child in the clutches of crime is one too many”, and “every time we fail a child, we fail as society. We cannot be indifferent to their plight”. She implored us to stay involved, since Canadians are “good at fighting indifference”, and closed by once again stressing the power of the arts and other tools to lead to positive outcomes in people’s lives. I especially liked the note of “other tools”. It’s important to remember that there isn’t a single avenue or tool that will resonate with everyone. The arts can be a powerful channel for people, but others will identify (better) with things like sport, work, or volunteering, for example. The arts are merely one part of the solution.

Michaelle Jean sits in the crowd and listens to the youth dialogue at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Michaelle Jean sits in the crowd and listens to the youth dialogue at the Global Youth Assembly in Edmonton, July 31, 2009

Jean then took a seat front-row centre and turned the event over to the audience and the hip-hop panel on stage. While this produced a good dialogue, I felt like the tagline for the event was misleading; it was a speech from the Governor General followed by a dialogue with hip-hop activists and the audience, not a dialogue with the Governor General. I think it’s great that a public official is willing to sit and listen, it just would have been nice had it been advertised as such.

This was the first time I heard our Governor General speak in person. What impressed me most, as I mentioned at the outset, is her ability to connect with people, largely through her willingness to relate to their culture and habits. In her speech she referenced her “journey of solidarity with the north”, leading to activities such as eating a seal heart that have received criticism in some circles. She showed a willingness to relate to youth culture as well, dancing on stage alongside two hip-hop activists at the end of the panel discussion.

I was also impressed with her willingness to talk about social issues, and some of the challenges faced by youth, especially in at-risk and remote communities. It was the kind of speech you rarely if ever hear from elected officials. It’s not the type of subject that’s necessarily going to win a lot of votes, nor will it necessarily produce quick results. Nor do elected officials constantly facing the specter of non-confidence votes and elections have a lot of ability to plan for the long-term. But they are incredibly important, and it is necessary for the health of our country that prominent figures like our Governor General raise awareness and advocate for them.

Finally, I want to talk about the value of symbolism. The position of Governor General is often dismissed as merely being a figurehead or a symbol; I think Jean proves that an active, passionate Governor General is anything but. Nevertheless, there is incredible power in a symbol. Beyond all the good work she is doing, the symbolic value of a visible minority and former refugee rising to be Canada’s de facto head of state is very powerful – and I imagine it’s especially true for marginalized and minority groups. Bringing inspiration to anyone, especially at-risk and vulnerable populations who need it the most is invaluable. Her term is a little more than a year away from ending, but in her time she has made a big impact on our country. I worry that she’ll be remembered in history for agreeing to prorogue parliament in December 2008. We need to ensure that, like with any person, her truly valuable contributions are remembered and celebrated. Her willingness and ability to connect with different cultures and to advocate for at-risk, vulnerable, and isolated communities – those who need a champion the most – should be celebrated. The more citizens we have willing to do this, the stronger our country will be.

More GYA: Craig Kielburger; Apathy is Boring, Politics is Not

Global Youth Assembly: Apathy is Boring, Politics is Not

(From Left to Right) Lewis Cardinal, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Don Iveson, Ilona Dougherty

(From Left to Right) Lewis Cardinal, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Don Iveson, Ilona Dougherty

Friday afternoon at the Global Youth Assembly featured a panel discussion on politics and building community. Hosted by Apathy is Boring (Executive Director Ilona Dogherty emceed), it featured Edmonton City Councillor Don Iveson, Edmonton community activist and past/present candidate for office Lewis Cardinal, and community activist Nazanin Afshin-Jam. This is the only session I’ve seen focusing directly on involvement in politics; following some of the thoughts in my head after Thursday’s sessions, I was keen to see what came out of this.

Ilona Dougherty started by giving an overview of her organization, then turned it over to the panelists. First up was Don Iveson, who had the best and most relevant things to say about the topic at hand. He focused his opening remarks on two ideas: first, that you should be asked to run, rather than desiring to do so yourself, and second, that when you run early in life, mentions of your name will be prefaced with “young”, the key is to achieve a desirable second adjective behind that. Lewis Cardinal focused his comments on the idea that everyone is unique, and has their own journey and voice. Nazanin talked about the situation in Iran, and some of the history dating back to the revolution of 1979.

Following the opening remarks, they opened up the floor to questions from the audience. In her remarks, Nazinin used the term “Islamist” to refer to the Iranian regime. She received pushback on this from a couple of audience members who stated that this creates negative stereotypes about Muslims. Nazanin defended her comment by claiming that “Islamist” is used to differentiate those who use religion as a tool from true followers of Islam. She expressed her frustration with those who use religion to oppress others, and correctly pointed out that it can give all followers of that religion a bad name.

Some of the other highlights from the Q&A:
• Both Nazanin and Don gave good answers to a question about how democracy could fit in with the ideas and beliefs of people worldwide. Nazanin stressed that you cannot impose democracy, you can merely empower people within a country to take control of their own situation. Don talked about how democracy looks a little different from place to place since the local characteristics need to be respected, saying that it’s not something that can be put on a pamphlet (Thomas Paine might disagree).
• In response to a question about lowering the voting age to 16, both Lewis and Don expressed support for this.
• This was followed by a question about having designated “youth representatives” in government, which Lewis and Nazanin support. Don gave a thoughtful response arguing that this wouldn’t address the root of the problem (ostensibly that the views of youth aren’t being represented well), and it raises the issue of who else do you extend special representation to? He also correctly pointed out that elected officials should represent everyone, not a specific group that they fit in with demographically.
• In closing comments, Don pointed to the power of online organizing, noting that social media played a big role in Edmonton City Council’s recent decision on the City Centre Airport.

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about how I can best affect change on issues I care about. Given the number of different avenues (such as politics, government, non-profits, media, academia, etc.), it’s tough for anyone to easily figure out where they can best apply their skills. One thing that never came up was the issue of why the panelists are in politics (and chose to run for office in a couple of cases), as opposed to pursuing a different path. In fairness to them, though, the question was never posed directly. It’s just something that struck me after the fact.

Certainly a number of the delegates present are involved in politics. For example, I got to know one who is an organizer of the Canadians for a Progressive Coalition campaign, and another who works for a non-profit in Mozambique that monitors government corruption. Nonetheless, in most of the sessions, politics was an after-thought, and most delegates I encountered were more likely to talk about their own projects, or about initiatives they wanted to start to affect change – most of which had absolutely nothing to do with the political process. This isn’t uncommon for leadership conferences I’ve attended in the past (save for the ones put on by political advocacy groups), and there is rarely more than a token participation from political parties or their staffers. If you’re asking ‘should there be?’, I would say if nothing else a lot of decision-makers and their staff would have benefited from being in the room at this conference. When I started formulating this post on Friday night, I was watching Richard Florida on The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos. At the end of the segment, Strombo asked him when he’ll run for politics. Florida laughed, and said he’s having too much fun in his current role. I wonder how many activists in the room on Friday might give a similar answer when they get that question.

This was an excellent session, but if there was one more thing that could have come out of it, I wish it had been more about the ways in which you can make an impact in politics. Not just in attaining office, but in what you can achieve once you get there. It’s not the answer to every issue, nor is everyone well-suited for it. But on some issues you can get a lot done working as a political advocate/activist, a public official, or in the civil service. I hope talented people don’t lose sight of that.

More GYA: My post about Craig Kielburger’s speech.