Thursday, August 06, 2009

Time, space, and the suburbs

Last week I saw a movie at the Cineplex Odeon Queensway, a huge multiplex in Etobicoke. I have often enjoyed two pieces of sculpture on the property: a metal canopy by Jean McEwen entitled Between Heaven and Earth, and a soaring spiral tower (I don't know the artist's name or title) that has a weird resemblance to Tatlin's Monument to the Third International.

On this visit I noticed something I hadn't seen before: a row of beautiful old maple trees lining the parking lot to the northwest of the theatre. They were evenly spaced, with trunks I would guess about two metres around, and generous , spreading branches. From the leaf shape I think they were some less common type of maple, maybe mountain maple or striped maple.

I found it intriguing to speculate about who had planted them in such a regular way, and why. Had this row of maples lined the driveway of some vanished farmhouse? Unlikely, since there was no answering row of trees. Were the maples planted by some enlightened factory-owner to provide shade for picnicking workers at lunch? More likely, especially since this was, I believe, an important area for defence industries in World War Two. Or were the trees planted by the municipality to line a street, now swallowed up by the entertainment complex?

In any case, the trees provided a graceful link to an earlier time, a puzzling yet powerful reminder of the existence of the past amidst an instant landscape.

My second experience, somewhat related, occurred today. I visited Woodbine Racetrack (again, in Etobicoke) for the first time, accompanied by young lady, in order to watch the races and bet on the horses (we bet $40 and won $32, not a bad price for an afternoon's entertainment for two). The race track forms part of a very large complex. The building that houses the stands is a large, modern facility, impressive in many ways, with its horse-themed photomurals and super-efficient staff.

However, in some ways the building's slickness made it seem more like a mall--one felt this especially in the food court. It didn't have exactly the kind of rakish excitement that I associate with horse races in old Hollywood movies.

What fun then, to step out of the sliding glass doors, and find just the kind of simple, uncomfortable, outdoor stadium seats that one might see in a 1930s drama. The racetrack designers made a conscious design, in this part of the facility at least, to stick with tradition. We sat down, felt the cool breeze and we knew that our horse was going to win!

Drunk driving and the purpose of justice

In sentencing Garth Drabinsky, Madam Justice Mary Lou Benotto clearly appealed to a widely accepted principle: that the punishment for a crime has purposes that go beyond just the offender. We jail murderers even if we believe they will never in their lives kill another person. We jail perpetrators of corporate fraud to make the point that, as Ms. Benotto said in her sentencing, society does not allow individuals to make their own rules. In other words, the law employs retribution as communication. The courts express the displeasure of society with harmful actions, they communicate our prospective disapproval to any other people who might find the behaviour tempting. So many authorities have laid out these foundations of retributive justice, the expression of our collective outrage at a crime, and the deterrence of others, that they hardly need repeating.

Models of justice other than retribution clearly exist, and have much to recommend them. In his book Dancing with a Ghost, Rupert Ross describes the First Nations understanding of justice approvingly, and notes that we have the justice system we do because "we live in a society of strangers." He clearly finds the First Nations concepts or restorative justice attractive, and quotes a First Nations elder: "we know you have a legal system; we aren't sure it's a justice system." I worked in prison literacy for a long time. I have shaken the hands of child killers and taken flowers to the parents of murdered children. I know some of the limits of the justice system. Retribution does not bring anyone back. It offers catharsis, or "closure", more often in fiction than in fact.

But I know this too: that the justice system makes no sense at all when it makes distinctions not between harms but between instruments. The law ought to discriminate between harm done by negligence and harm done by malice. But the courts ought not to make a distinction between a child killed by negligence with a car bumper and negligence with a Glock. I have read about drunk drivers leaving a trail of death and getting lenient sentences, and of defence lawyers allowed to argue before juries that "any of us" could have driven drunk and killed. From time to time, I read a variation of the bitter comment that if you want to kill someone, you can best do that by getting drunk and running them over.

It does not do to blame this state of affairs on the courts; the courts simply reflect a more general unwillingness to face up to the responsibility that operating a machine as potentially lethal as a car entails. We make excuses for drunk drivers that we would never make for someone who went into a convenience store to get the money and ended up shooting the clerk. Whether we want retributive justice or restorative justice, we should apply it fairly and consistently, and without regard for the instrument by which the criminal committed the offence. We should not have one law for a thief with a pry bar and another for a thief with a calculator and an account book. Similarly, we ought not to have one law for a killer with a gun and another for a killer with a car or truck.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Union buys future division to settle now...

I don't think the mayor won this strike. And I know the people of Toronto, particularly the children who went without pools and summer programs, the students who went without jobs, and anyone within smelling distance of an "emergency" garbage dump lost. So quite a few commentators argue that the union won, that the city "caved". In the short term, that may very well hold true. But in the long term, the unions signed onto deal that prolongs the problems with the sick bank by postponing a resolution. In effect, union negotiators, and the members who ratified the deal, have kicked a problem down the road to their successors.

The city negotiators who first accepted a contract with the sick day bank provisions might have hoped the city would prosper enough to fund the eventual payouts with no difficulty. Unfortunately, the union should have no illusions about the problems that the compromise they have accepted will create. Whether future contracts come up for renewal in good times or bad, in every future contract the union will have to face the option of giving up the sick bank for all employees in return for a larger pay increase, or perhaps even a smaller pay cut. In other words, until the union finally accepts the end of the sick day bank, members will face the same choice at each successive contract: fight to keep the benefit for some of the workers, or trade it for something for all the workers.

Allowing a contract clause that keeps a perk for some workers but not others flies in the face of what unions represent; it creates a permanent division and conflict of interest in the workplace. That would cause enough trouble, but for the next few contracts, the greatest conflict will take place between new workers and those hired in the 1970s and early 80s. Given the demographics of Toronto, this means a conflict between a young and very multi-cultural cohort entering the work force, possibly with an actual majority of workers of colour, and a more "white" cohort nearing retirement. Unless the poisonous legacy of two centuries of modern racism evaporates over the course of this contract, CUPE has bought a serious challenge to solidarity over the next two years.

I don't call that much of a win for the union.