Hanging on: my first crit race

Clipipty-clop, clippty-clop, whoosh! I almost slipped on the tile floor of the swimming pool lobby as I dashed out of the bathroom and back to my bike. Fighting off a cold and dehydrated, I had chugged a bottle of Gatorade half an hour before, and, of course, the need to pee didn’t arrive until right before my group was supposed to stage. I clipped in and rode the three blocks to the start line just as other riders in my group were finishing a warm-up lap. My Garmin watch told me my heart rate was at 160bpm. I guess I’m warmed up.

It was my first criterium race.

Criterium races (or ‘crits’) are like cycling’s version of Formula One: riders race around a circuit for a set time, and then a set number of laps after the time has elapsed. Being in the beginner ‘C’ group, we were to go for 20 minutes and then three additional laps. While this wasn’t a formal race (but, rather, a ‘midweek’ race that is more for training and practice), I was sick, thirsty, tired, and jittery.

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A photo from a Midweek Mayhem race I watched in 2013.

I made a mental checklist of everything the race organizers covered at the orientation session the day before.

“Keep your head up and your hands in the drops.”

“Don’t overlap wheels.”

“Pick your line and stick to it.”

The race manager gives us the go-ahead, and we were off to a neutral start for the first lap.

We took off at what seemed like a reasonable pace. (I had my watch, but I was smart enough to not look at it during the race.) After the first turn, I checked in with myself. “Priority one is to not crash out. Priority two is to hang on as long as you can before you get lapped.”

We quickly rounded turn two–the 80 degree one–and came a slightly downhill sloping section of the 1.2 km course. The pace seemed to quicken ever so slightly.

Two more turns and we passed the start line, and then one rider immediately attacks. The pack gets stretched out, but I see a handful of riders take off after the attacker. There are two riders in front of me who didn’t seem like they were going to give chase, so I passed them on the outside to try and hold on to the chase group.

I lost track of what happened after that. All I can remember are sensations and fragments of thoughts–my heart racing, my ragged breathing, my parched throat, the burning sensation in my legs.

I stayed more or less in the same area of the pack throughout the race. I traded places with one guy from Dead Goat and another guy from Speed Theory a few times.

When we passed the twenty minute mark, and the pace picked up for our first of three final laps.

Going into the second lap, I noticed myself feathering the brakes more often. Were we going slower? Are these guys tired, or holding back?

Bam! As soon as we rounded the first turn of the final lap, someone jumps again. I don’t see who, just a thinning pack in front of me. I jumped on the pedals and passed a couple of riders who weren’t as quick to respond. Things settled going into turn three.

I remembered that I should be near the front for the final sprint, so I moved up right before turn four, and as we rounded that final turn, I stared pedaling harder, only to see more than a handful of bodies pass me through to the finish line.

Still dizzy from the effort of the final lap, I laughed. “Still not much of a sprinter,” I say to myself.

But the sprint training can wait another day.

The pack settled back together for the warm-down lap, and there were smiles all around as we congratulated each other on a great first race. I was pleased that I managed to not be lapped–at least this time around.

Looking at the stats afterwards, I was surprised–not with how fast the pack was going, but that I had been able to keep up. In less than half an hour, we covered 16km, and averaged 37km/h. On the final lap, we were averaging 41km/h, which is still a far cry from the Strava record set on that course, which had an average speed of 51km/h, but, given that I hadn’t even participated in so much as a Gran Fondo, I’m happy with how I managed.

I stayed around to be a course marshal for the ‘B’ group, which was amazing, given that they were going noticeably faster than us. As I watched them zip around the course, I recalled how, last summer, I went to watch one of the midweek races and thought wistfully how amazing it would be to do that. Less than a year later, and less than a year after I started cycling again, I had done my first crit.

Maybe it seems overly sentimental to write about participating in an informal midweek race, but I learned a lesson that day that has nothing to do with cycling: even if I had come in dead last that day, I would have still been ahead of not starting the race. Racing sports only ever have one winner, but there is a reward for pinning the numbers on, lining up at the start line, and suffering beyond money or trophies or fitness or health–the value of starting something that’s difficult and finishing it.

My grandmother, the mountains, and being tough

Sunday, February 9, after a five hour slog across Bow Lake, onto the Wapta Icefield and up the unnamed glacier behind Crowfoot Mountain, I trudged up the ridge to its summit, looking down at the Icefield Parkway a kilometer below my feet. Despite the -30C temperature, my exhaustion, and the host of other thoughts that circulate in a mountaineer’s mind, what stuck out most for me was how much I missed my grandmother, who had passed away late in 2013. My mind drifted back to three-and-a-half years ago when I stood on top Mount Athabasca, just half an hour up the same road. What was different (beside a much more agreeable temperature in 2010) was that, then, she was in a hospital, and, now, she is no longer of this earth.

It would be trite to say that I was inspired by my grandmother. Who wouldn’t be inspired by a person born into poverty, was unable to complete primary school due to her mother falling ill, farmed and sold produce at the local market, survived the horrors of World War II while running a safe house for the Philippine Resistance, managed to send several of her ten children to university, and lived long enough to help raise her grandchildren and to see the birth of her great-great-grandchildren?

Growing up, I intermittently shared a room with my grandmother. At first it was so she could keep an eye on me, then it was because we had no other rooms in the house, and, by the time I was in university, it was so I could keep an eye on her. To say I was close to her is an understatement.

While many remember my grandmother’s hospitality, or her sense of humour, or her devotion to her family, what always sticks out in my mind is her silent determination. Perhaps it was the product of her generation, which experienced far more hardship than my generation could fathom, or perhaps she was just one of those people who was tough as nails (it is likely a combination of both), but she never complained. She could gripe about other things, but she never implied that she had been hard done by.

Simply put, she is the hardest badass I have known.

She also loved the mountains and loved that she had several opportunities to visit the Rockies during her time in Canada. She was too old, too physically scarred from a life of hard labour to see them as close as I have seen them, but I had started venturing onto the mountains early enough that she could see the photos from my trips.

…which brings me back to Crowfoot Mountain.

The view of the Wapta Icefield from the ridge of Crowfoot Mountain. Kelly and Ted can be seen descending.

The view of the Wapta Icefield from the ridge of Crowfoot Mountain. Kelly and Ted can be seen descending.

For the first couple of hours, all I could think about was how incredible the scenery around me was, or how much I was looking forward to getting in some turns. By the time we hit the glacier, I was cursing my lack of training.

And the cold.

And the wind.

And how I was not eating enough that day.

But on the summit ridge, as I was looking across the Waputik Icefield towards Mount Temple to the south, I muttered to Ted, “Holy shit, this is amazing,” to which he replied, “And this is in our backyard!” It made me think about the joy that being on a mountain brings me and how my grandmother was content enough to gaze at them from a crowded tourist vista. That got me thinking about how soft I had been on the ascent, and how people fly from across the world and hire guides to take them up the same routes I enjoy with friends on my days off.

Having no children of my own, I cannot claim to live a life of noble self-sacrifice as my grandmother did. However, having begun to process how the loss of her has affected me, I can strive to live the virtues that she embodied, and she embodied many. I used to think her generosity was her greatest one, but I am seeing more and more that it is from her iron will that everything flowed. Without it, she would not have lived to 97, raised her family or helped as many people as she did.

She was a hardwoman, if I ever knew one, and I’d be tougher than most people if I was half as tough as she was.

Lessons from Roubaixgate, or why Cafe-Roubaix won

Aside from being a cyclist and netizen, I am also a former PR guy, and I wanted to share some thoughts on Roubaixgate.

But first, a primer…

ImageSpecialized unleashed the online fury of cyclists worldwide this weekend when it came to light that they had threatened to sue the owner of a very small bicycle retailer in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, alleging that the shop infringed one of their trademarks because the shop (Cafe-Roubaix Cycles) was eponymously named with a famous cycling race (or was it a bike Fuji makes?) a bike model Specialized makes. (Cochrane is a small town near Calgary, Alberta, which was the location of the final stage of the 2013 Tour of Alberta.)

Within hours, the story had gone viral, with stories being written on cycling, news and blog sites and cycling netizens berating Specialized on their various social media channels. While, it eventually ended peacefully after the real owners of the “Roubaix” trademark, Advanced Sports International, publicly admonished Specialized, resulting in Specialized CEO Mike Sinyard personally called the owner of Cafe-Roubaix to start discussing an agreement without the threat of a lawsuit, the consensus across the internet is that this has been a public relations nightmare for Specialized.

I am not an “old pro”, but my time in PR did include the resignation of a premier and a leader of the opposition and major health care scandal, so I have seen enough action to be able to say that Specialized’s actions are a textbook case of what NOT to do. Here are some observations.

1. Can =/= should

While there is debate on whether or not Specialized’s could sue Cafe-Roubaix (their lawyers say yes, ASI CEO Pat Cunnane says no), the real question is whether or not they should. The decision to sue should have based on a cost-benefit analysis of whether the cost of the suit (in terms of loss of revenue due to the loss of patronage) is less than the loss of sales from potential customers buying from Cafe-Roubaix instead of Specialized. If that last sentence did not make sense, good, because the only Cafe-Roubaix branded bike components are their custom carbon fibre wheels, which are most definitely the same thing as an endurance road bike and are branded differently than Specialized’s Roval wheels. Moreover, Dan was willing to compromise, but Specialized wanted nothing short of a complete rebranding of the store, making them seem even more unreasonable. From a cost-benefit standpoint, I do not think Specialized would have lost any sales to Cafe-Roubaix, and, instead, they have lost current and potential customers due to their unreasonable position.

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It’s not good when your company’s actions spawn internet meme. Image from Buffalo Bill’s Bike Blog (http://buffalobillbikeblog.wordpress.com/)

2. Don’t hide under a rock

The textbook case of effective public relations during a crisis is Johnson & Johnson’s response to the “Tylenol Scare of 1982.” The effectiveness of Johnson & Johnson’s response is attributed to their swift and decisive actions and their acceptance of responsibility for what happened. The results is that, not only did the Tylenol brand recover, but it continues to be a successful product today.

Specialized, did the exact opposite. Their twitter account went silent.

Their Facebook account not only went silent, but had the settings changed so that posts from others were hidden (I’ve overridden their default setting in my link so you can see the vitriol they incurred). Of course, that did not stop angry netizens, who took to commenting on every post with links to the original Calgary Herald story about Cafe-Roubaix. Supporters of Cafe-Roubaix even changed their names and profile pictures in solidarity with the shop and created various image macros and hashtags lampooning Specialized. The worst was when the CEO of another company responded before we so much as heard from a nameless spin doctor from Specialized.

The lack of a response is all the more baffling given Specialized’s past of being very prompt with communication. I have sent emails and tweets to them before and have received responses within twenty four hours.

Either their lack of a response was a deliberate part of their strategy (which is a big no-no) or they did not anticipate or were unprepared the backlash that occurred (which is a different issue, but a failure nonetheless). Granted, the story did co

me out on the weekend, but their PR department would have had some kind of an alert to notify them of responses.

My guess is the communications personnel were caught off guard by the public response and notified their managers, who responded the same way turkeys respond to decapitation.

3. Don’t be a repeat offender

This is not the first time Specialized has acted like a bully. Remember Volagi? Remember Epic Wheel Works? No wonder there are threads dedicated to discussing Specialized’s litigous streak. With every lawsuit or threat thereof, the response has been swifter and more acerbic. The fact that Cafe-Roubaix owner Dan Richter was a veteran (a fact irrelevant to the validity of the lawsuit) stirred passions even more. Once is isolated. Twice is a coincidence. Thrice is a pattern, and no one buys Specialized’s legal arguments and only sees them as a bully.

4. Eat crow, prominently

Specialized CEO Mike Sinyard personally spoke with Cafe-Roubaix Dan Richter to work out some sort of a deal. That is a positive step, but is still short of a sincere mea culpa. Given their litigious streak (see #3 above), paying lip-service will only fuel customers’ cynicism and reinforce the perception that Specialized did not want to back down and only did because they were afraid of losing money, rather than because it was the right thing to do. Charles Pelkey has a great blog post about what Specialized needs to do in order to recover as a brand.

5. Perceptions are reality

Business is like politics and in that what is true is not always as important as what appears to be true. There is a great post on Red Kite Prayer about the lingering questions about the Roubaixgate affair. like why did the Calgary Herald article not address the fact that Cafe-Roubaix makes wheels or why the Canadian patent office issues a “Roubaix” trademark in the first place. Moreover, there is the larger issue of whether or not place names should be trademarked at all. However, none of that matters.

Dan Richter played the only card available to him. The columnist who wrote the Calgary Herald piece, Tom Babin is a cyclist and a commentator on cycling issues. He is also paid to write columns that sell newspapers, and his angle is transparent. The reality is that business, like politics, involves asymmetrical ‘warfare’, which has given the Davids of the world and advantage over the corporate Goliaths. This was not so much a battle about trademarks as it was a story about about a bully and an underdog, which is why the technical aspects of the fight, important as they were in a legal sense, did not get much play. Thus, the power of a compelling narrative won over the power of the law.

Final thoughts

The big question people are asking is: Can Specialized recover? A better question is: Do they have to?

Strong as they reaction was online, hyper-engaged cycling netizens are likely only a fraction of Specialized’s market, and are likely not the ones keeping them in business. (I am not certain, but, if I had to guess, the customers buying $700 Hard Rocks and could care less about a bike shop in small-town Canada are). If Specialized can avoid getting in this kind of trouble too often, they will emerge relatively unscathed in the long run.

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With my soon-to-be-defaced S******** Allez in B.C.

Where do I stand? In full disclosure, I am a Calgarian, and Dan Richter is an acquaintance of mine who I visit every time I am in Cochrane via bike. He provides excellent customer service, and helped me patch a tube when I flatted multiple times on a ride. I also took the time to post on Specialized’s wall and Twitter feed. Why? Because I’ve owned a Specialized Allez since 2004 and feel ashamed to ride it around Calgary now…at least until I get some Cafe-Roubaix stickers and use them to cover up the Specialized logo.

 

 

 

 

And, in case someone from the Big S reads this post: These opinions are mine alone and are not representative of what current, past or future employers, clients, friends, family or other associates of mine believe.

Juana San Andres de Guzman

ImageBorn: July 12, 1916 (Valenzuela City, Philippines)
Died: December 2, 2013 (Calgary, Canada)

Juana San Andres de Guzman passed away peacefully in the company of her family in the early morning of Monday, December 2, 2013 in Calgary, AB.

Juana is survived by her children, Pacing, Ruben (Zeny), Bining (Fely), daughter-in-law Fe, Mar (Nene), Rick (Lorna), Maria (Boy), and Ana (Rene). She also leaves behind 35 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and 2 great-great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her husband of 42 years, Bernardino; sons, Greg, Santy and Simeon; son-in-law Arturo and daughter-in-law Lita.

Born in Valenzuela, Philippines in 1916, Juana and her husband Bernardino had a farm where they raised their family. Despite making a meager living as farmers, they were able to send their children to school, four of whom would immigrate to Canada.

She would eventually move to Canada in 1982 after the passing of her husband. She was known as a loving, doting matriarch to the de Guzman clan, who always put her family’s needs before her own. Her legacy inspires all of us to live the virtues of compassion and self-sacrifice.

The family extends its thanks to the wonderful staff at Extendicare Cedars Villa where Juana spent the final three years of her life.

A Prayer Service and Visitation will be held at Foster’s Garden Chapel, 3220 – 4 Street N.W., Calgary (across from Queen’s Park Cemetery) on Thursday, December 5, 2013 from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. A Memorial Service will be held at Holy Name Catholic Church, 2223 34 Street S.W., Calgary on Saturday, December 8, 2013 at 11:00 a.m. Expressions of sympathy may be forwarded to the family via the website www.fostersgardenchapel.ca.

Backpacking on a budget

I recently went on a short overnight trip with some friends of mine, two of which had not been backpacking in a while and one of which had never been backpacking at all. As is the case with many trips outdoors, we had a conversation about how expensive it can be to get geared up for an outdoor excursion. Having started building up my own arsenal of outdoor gear while in university, I know how expensive it can be, so I felt compelled to write a post about how to amass quality gear without breaking the bank. For the sake of brevity, I have organized this into a list of tips.

  1. Mountain Equipment Co-op is your friend. MEC, or its American analogue (and inspiration) REI, is a cooperative, so it is not hell-bent on milking every last dollar out of you. They sell good gear at reasonable prices, and they even have a house brand of clothing and gear that can get you quality approaching that of premium brands like Mountain Hardwear or Arc’teryx, but at half the price. (There is a difference, and the premium exists for a reason, but if you can afford North Face, you probably should not be reading this post.) Common trade-offs are weight, packability, specialization of design. Quality and durability can be issues too, but rarely. Still, if you are going to Everest, chances are you can either afford the fancy brand names or you are sponsored. Surprisingly, even things you can get at a department store are cheaper at MEC (like fuel).
  2. End-of-season sales are your friend. My two-person backpacking tent cost me less than $150 because I bought it in September. It is not a department store special, but a Mountain Hardwear Drifter 2. Had I bought it in summer, I would have paid over $200. I do shop at Atmosphere, but I refuse to pay full price because whatever I want to buy will usually go on sale at some point.
  3. “Cheapest now” is not always “cheapest in the long run.” Case-in-point: I have a friend who bought cheap hiking boots that literally fell apart on the first trip he took them out on. Tents are another example–I know people who have bought cheap tents that either leaked or did not breathe, leading to a miserable night and an inevitable upgrade, or worse yet, giving up on camping.
  4. Sometimes, cheap is good. I have a pair of $20 hiking poles from Army and Navy that are still kicking around. They are not the lightest things pair and the twist lock is not as convenient as a flip lock, but they cost a quarter of the price of brand-name poles.
  5. The used market is a great source for deals. I bought my Scarpa mountaineering boots through Kijiji for $100, or a third of what the list price would have been. The MEC Online Gear Swap is another great place to look. There are also community gear swap sales. MEC holds one of these annually, and I picked up my crampons for $70, or about half off. While you do have to be careful with some used gear, you can find good stuff for cheap if you look and bring someone along to screen your selected items before you fork over cash.
  6. Shop online. I recently discovered Department of Goods, which is an online clearance outlet for outdoor gear that sells for 30-70% off retail price on brand-name gear. (I normally like to support my local stores, but even I could not turn down a deal like 50% off a gore-tex shell, much less a student on a budget.
  7. Prioritize purchases. You do not need to own everything right away. Chances are someone you know has gear that they can share with you (like a tent or stove) during a trip. If you have a group of friends you regularly go with, purchasing group gear can be spread out. Finally, you can also rent expensive items, which allows you to try-before-you-buy or to have a stop-gap measure to deal with a specialized situation (like a one-time winter camping trip; really, when is the next time you would need a -20C sleeping bag?).
  8. Find other creative ways to save money. I switched to white gas from propane for car camping and some backpacking trips. I am outdoors enough that the long-term savings from using white gas offsets the increased cost of a white gas stove. Making your own dehydrated meals is cheaper than buying expensive freeze-dried ones. (And no, I do not mean buying a dehydrator. Think more along the lines of ramen, minute rice, and egg powder. I have even heard of uber-minimalists who just eat boiled quinoa, but that is too much even for me.) A couple of granola bars is cheaper than a Clif Bar, and, honestly, probably tastes better too.

Being outdoors should not have to break the bank–in fact, the consumerism that has infected outdoor pursuits is rather antithetical to the whole point of experiencing the simplicity of nature. That, however, is another post.

I hope you have found this list helpful. Please feel free to share your comments or your own tips about backpacking (or camping, hiking, etc.) on a budget!

Canada Day 2012 at Cataract Pass

Despite being an avid hiker, scrambler, and car camper, and despite having wanted to go backpacking for some time, this 2012 Canada Day Long Weekend was my first backpacking trip.

And what a trip it was.

The destination: Cataract Pass, 2484m, on the border between Jasper National Park and the White Goat Wilderness Area. We started on the Nigel Creek Trail (which is part of the larger Continental Divide Trail system) in Banff National Park. At Nigel Pass (which is on the border between Banff and Jasper National Parks) we followed the Brazeau River to its headwaters just below Cataract Pass.

The group: Mostly alumni from VIRG Edmonton’s Thursday Night January to March 2012 ASPIRE climbing class.

Our group on Cataract Pass on Day 3

On paper, the trip seemed straightforward. A distance of 13 kilometres and an elevation gain of 650 metres are not Herculean targets, but I underestimated the effect of pack weight, and our group collectively underestimated both how much snowfall the Continental Divide receives and the terrain we would encounter. I made a liberal estimate that the hike in would take six hours. It ended up taking nine.

After Nigel Pass, the rest of the route was above treeline in the Brazeau River Valley and heavily snowed in.

I wasn’t kidding about the snow. This is the Brazeau River at Nigel Pass.

Pretty much the entire Brazeau River Valley was snowed in.

The terrain was also quite rough, and we had to cross a boulder field filled with fridge- and shed-sized talus. This section was my favourite, since it was pretty much a scramble, minus the elevation gain.

The boulder field

After the boulder field, we trudged through a snow field and then up a mix of snow and scree up to the pass. Even doing the ‘rest step’, I still had to pause for breath here and there, and a recurring thought in my mind was, “Next time, I won’t be this tired!”

Looking back from just before Cataract Pass. This doesn’t look like summer to me.

Chris was the first to summit (the group has since concluded he is a machine) and the rest of us arrived in intervals of a few minutes. More than eight hours after leaving the Nigel Creek trailhead, we had reached our objective. My contribution to the group was to build a fort out of our packs, so we could huddle together and take some shelter for the wind. After a short break for a snack and to catch our breath, we descended more snow and scree slopes towards the Cataract Creek Valley in order to find a place to set up camp.

Descending into Cataract Creek Valley

We reached the creek in a little less than an hour, only to find that Mother Nature—having covered most of the valley with snow—had already chosen our site for us.

Our campsite

The neat thing about camping in a wilderness area is that you are not limited to designated camping sites. On the flip side, there are no outhouses, and you have to carry in a bear canister to store your food. After setting up camp and having a quick meal, Rachel taught us how to play Kaiser. We managed to play a few rounds before the sun set and we decided to call it a night.

No one had much energy the next day. Well, at least none of us mortals—Chris “The Machine” went for a stroll up to the ridge above our camp. Garvin had brought some art supplies and did some painting (there was no shortage of inspirational vistas). Tony brought the second book to the “Game of Thrones” series. We played some more cards, shared some stories, watch avalanches on the neighbouring mountain, and take naps.

An avalanche on the mountain above us. Avalanches would occur about every half hour.

We also drew up an exit strategy. Knowing that the hardest part of our return trip was at the beginning, we decided to leave for Nigel Pass the next day and decide then whether we would stay an extra night or push all the way back to the cars.

The conditions on day three were less-than-ideal. It was cold, windy, and raining, I led the assault on the snow slope above camp, kicking steps along the deceptively steep slope.

The ascent back to Cataract Pass

Front-loading the difficult portion meant we were back on the pass in a little over an hour. The best part about the descent back into the Brazeau River Valley was that the snow-covered slopes made for fun glissading.

We made quick progress across the snow and boulder fields back to Nigel Pass. Tired, and lured by the prospect of hot food at the Saskatchewan Crossing café, we decided to finish our trip that day. Seven hours after packing up our camp, we were packing our gear into our cars.

Reflecting back on the trip, I am happy things played out as they did. Had the weather been hot and the route free of snow, we would have been fighting dehydration, heat stroke, and hordes of insects. It is also rare to have a trip with as much varied terrain as what we encountered. We started off on a muddy trail, crossed a river, scrambled on talus, and trudged through snow. Depending on which pictures you look at, the trip could have been in either summer or winter.

However, a trip is about much more than just the terrain you conquer (or, rather, Mother Nature allows you to endure) or the destination at which you arrive. Unless you are Ueli Steck, you are probably travelling with companions, and hearing a buddy make a funny joke is a welcome morale booster when your toes are sore from kicking steps up a steep snow slope. Even more than that, when you are in a remote area in unforgiving terrain, who you have with you could determine what the outcome would be if things were to take a turn for the worse. Other than some slight delays and some gear problems here and there, our trip went smoothly. Having belayed and been belayed by my companions, I think there was a certain level of trust that existed between us that not all friendships are not able to cultivate.

Perhaps I speak only for myself. Perhaps I am romanticizing the mountains, which I must admit is one of the places I love the most. The entire drive home, I thought about the trip and hatched ideas about the next adventure.

The last thought I had as I crawled into my warm bed after a hot shower was, “This is nice, but huddling in a tent playing Kaiser and passing around a bottle of Fireball whiskey would be even nicer.”

Thanks to Chris, Tony, Rachel, and Garvin for an epic trip.

Minority rights, reasonable limits, voter turnout, and the Quebec student protests

As someone with libertarian sympathies, I can appreciate the furor over Quebec’s Bill 78, which places limits on protest activities, such as a minimum distance from post-secondary facilities and the requirement of advance notice before a protest takes place.  Moreover, I also see the potential of this bill backfiring on the Charest government. Even a cursory scan of news reports following the bill’s passage shows that parents and older Quebeckers have joined the ranks of students in the streets, and as the scope of the protests continues to expand from the original raison d’être of accessibility of post-secondary education.

On the other hand, I am also puzzled, particularly by the support of leftists/progressives in English Canada.  Why? Because Bill 78 is arguably quite Canadian, and progressives tend to lament the ‘Americanization of Canada.’

Regardless of the ultimate underlying political reason for Bill 78, one of the things it accomplishes is to protect those students who are not protesting and wish to continue attending classes. The protection of minority rights and the strengthening the standing of traditionally disenfranchised groups in Canadian society (women, visible minorities, First Nations, the handicapped, LGBT groups, etc.) are key issues for many of the Canadian left, and key objections of the new Canadian right. I do not know the exact proportions of students protesting and not protesting, but it seems counter to principles the left has historically stood for to oppose allowing conscientious objectors to the protests the right to attend classes—something for which the ‘scabs’ have applied and won via a court injunction.

Moreover, as anyone who has read the Charter of Rights and Freedoms knows, it “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”  I am no lawyer or constitutional scholar so I cannot comment on whether or not Bill 78 would pass the Oakes Test, but the fact still stands that it is within the purview of governments in Canada to place limits on freedoms outlined in the Charter, assembly and expression included. One need not be familiar with Seymour Martin Lipsett’s writings on Canadian and American societal development to know that, on the issue of “rights versus order,” Americans lean towards rights and Canadians lean towards order. The difference is spelled out in the respective constitutional documents: American society seeks “peace, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” whereas Canadian society seeks “peace, order, and good government.”

Perhaps Canadians are simply becoming less deferential, as argued by Neil Nevitte. Or, perhaps, for the left, the value of challenging the establishment trumps the value of protecting the rights of the minority of students who are not protesting.  Or, perhaps the answer is a lot simpler; maybe this has been about the self-interest of students wanting cheap tuition all along.

My vote is with the simple explanation. While tempting to say that the Charest government’s decision to raise tuition by a few hundred dollars is a betrayal of the principles of the Quiet Revolution, as MNA Geoff Kelley explained to CBC’s As It Happens on Tuesday night, even with the increase, the percentage of the total cost of post-secondary tuition that Quebec students would be paying remains at the 17% level set after Le Révolution Tranquille.

That is not to say there is anything necessarily wrong with acting out of self-interest; it is perfectly within the rights of Quebec students and student organizations to do so. Perhaps this issue will help mobilize young voters, who likely made up a large percentage of the 54 per cent of voters who stayed home in Quebec’s 2008 election. After all, if the Charest government really is as intransigent as the student leaders say it is, then no amount of protesting will equal the power of showing up to the polls as a bloc and “throwing the bums out.” The students cannot forget that, as much as some of them would like to compare themselves to the Arab protesters of last year, as much as some would like to call the government tyrannical for imposing limits on the freedoms of expression and assembly, the society in which they live is still democratic and still has free elections, and they should avail themselves of that avenue that so many Arab civilians died to bring to their societies.

If turnout in Quebec’s upcoming provincial election does not substantially rise, if there is no significant expansion in the number of citizens exercising the fundamental freedom guaranteed by democracy upon which all others are based on,  then what message does that send about all that they have fought for in the last hundred days?

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