Apologies we’ve been absent so long, but things have been busy. We’re doing a big presentation at Youth in Motion’s Courage to Soar conference in just over a week. But with all the engaging (and absurd) political theatre unfurling itself south of the border, we thought we’d take a minute to express our pity for the beleaguered and pitifully ignored dudes in Ottawa.

While the New York Times is snubbing John McCain and Paris Hilton is making campaign ads on Funny or Die, the federal Liberals and Conservatives are doing everything short of bombing their own House to get people to pay attention to them. The problem? It ain’t working. No matter what they do, Dion and Harper can’t make the poll numbers change – at least not in any meaningful way.

Dion has his Green Shift – a bold if controversial new policy that sounds like good sense but needs a half-hour to explain. Meanwhile, Harper, in an appeal to Quebec, has come out promising further decentralization.

Harper says “fish or cut bait;” Dion says “You’re on”. The Mexican stand-off begins, and yet, because we’re still in the lazy days of summer, and because the political race down south is a bit sexier (with all kinds of arguments over some amorphous notion of ‘Change”), few people actually notice.

This is one of the problems with today’s Canada and the increased emergence of a global consciousness: though Canadians, in general, know more than they ever have before about the goings on in the United States, Europe and the developing world, they are less and less engaged in their own national politics.

When I ask friends why they have opinions on everything from Obama to Mugabe to China’s right to hold the Olympics, but they don’t have anything to say about the Green Shift, people tend to say it’s because Canadian politics are boring or of little import. So here we sit, glued to elections in which we have no control, often favouring candidates who may not act in what those who care call the Canadian national interest. Meanwhile, our own politicians – uncharismatic, unsexy anti-celebrities – jump up and down for our attention and go largely ignored.

No one wants an election – fair enough. Elections are expensive, silly, and rarely personally rewarding. But it looks like we need one. The status quo can’t continue. The Conservatives don’t want a Sword of Damocles (if only a nerf one) hanging over their heads; the Liberals need to finally give Dion a shot, so they can move forward should he fail; and the NDP, well, they don’t really know what they need, beyond something.

But a fall election? Following a US one? The Liberals can pray for the wave of Obamarama to give him a residual push, but what if the skeptics are right and America gets cold feet? Then where does all that energy go?

It’s a conundrum to be sure. Because this US election, in the midst of the onset of recession, a spike in oil prices (though they’ve temporarily quieted down), and an international food crisis, has tapped into a powerful desire for a new type of politics. People aren’t entirely sure what that “change” is. They just think that it must look and sound something like Barack. So what do you do when you turn from the US electoral circus on CNN to CPAC, where “change” is ill-dressed and insufficiently slick?

The next federal election will offer Canadians a real choice. A great deal will be at stake – for the environment, the character of our international engagement, and indeed the idea of Canada itself.

Let’s hope we don’t all sleep through it.

An intriguing little piece from Marcus Gee in today’s Globe about natural gas engine-maker Westport Innovations Inc., one of the few Canadian companies to take advantage of the huge money to be made helping China green itself before the Olympics.

Westport and its US-based partner, Cummins Inc., have equipped 3,500 Beijing buses with natural gas engines, as the Chinese government scrambles to clean its air before the international media descends in August.

But where are the other Canadian companies? It turns out the Australians and Europeans are doing boffo business, while Canadian producers of green technology are sitting on the sidelines. Seems odd, no? We’re an international leader in clean coal technologies, among other things green and innovative, right?

According to David Fung, Chariman of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, it’s partly because we’re being so gosh darn ‘Canadian’ about it (my words, not his).

Of Canada’s predominantly small, independent environment technology companies, Fung says “They have the technology and the capabilities, but they refuse to set themselves up in a way that would allow them to succeed.”

Westport’s David Demers agrees, saying “a lot of Canadian companies go with a naive view that they’ll go over and spend a couple of days in a hotel in Beijing and get a big purchase order and then they’ll send a container of the stuff,” he says. “It takes a lot more sophisticated approach than that.”

The key, according to both men, is commitment and perseverance. Doing business in China requires time: months, maybe more, before serious agreements can be made.

It’s time, Gee argues, that we start pushing and stop waiting our turn.

While Alex and Andrew were off busting their butts on the road promoting the book, Paul was at home in Toronto working on his short film and getting addicted to Take Me Back. TMB is a web series created by Joe Baron and Seth Mendelson- two pretty talented dudes from Montreal. It’s the awkward but very engaging love child of Saw, The Twilight Zone and a still unmade Wes Anderson film.

The story? Al (played by Seth, the Plateau’s answer to Jason Schwartzman) is a pretty boring guy with a penchant for taking old electronics apart and fixing them. One day, he gets zapped with electricity by a man in a silver mask and thrown in the trunk of a car. The next thing he knows he’s stuck in a dingy basement full of junk while a mysterious doppleganger is living his life for him – and doing considerably better, I think he’d agree.

Why is Take Me Back so good? Let me count the ways?

1) It raises the bar for online series by not being yet another predictable and unimaginative spoof/satire/parody
2) It has actually taken the time to create a unique aesthetic for itself, which would be engaging enough if the writing or acting weren’t up to par
3) The writing and acting are up to par: no leaden dialogue or gimmicks here
4) It combines genuine artistic ambition with an attention to popular taste (by that I mean: to story)
5) Because these guys actually went out and did it

It’s amazing how good something can be when you’ve got the will to create something fresh and un-sucky. If these guys can make an engaging and unique piece of dramatic programming on a shoestring, what the hell is the CBC’s excuse?

The show is comprised of ten episodes, only eight of which have aired (does that term apply?) yet. New ones are posted every Monday. Get on board.

Here’s number 1

Paul’s been reading Noah Richler’s phenomenal This is My Country, What’s Yours? and it’s got him thinking. Maybe it’s his way of psychically connecting himself to his two western-bound co-authors (both of whom are busting their butts, while he “works on his film” in Toronto), but either way Richler’s book his unlocking a slew of previously only half-developed thoughts.

One such thought is this: Canada really is a kind of nowhere for most of the people that live here. Now, that’s not necessarily a negative thing. Who can deny that Canadians are among the luckiest inhabitants of the planet? Our country offers refuge and opportunity (though not enough much of the time) to new arrivals. We have won the resource lottery (though we often waste our winnings with too much relish) and have built a society that works about as well as any in the world. Though the winters can occasionally be a pain (and no, that’s not just another Torontonian complaining), we’ve got it pretty good up here.

But despite all that, too many Canadian live with the sense the path of capital ‘H’ history doesn’t run through our part of the world. We are spectators, not participants. If you want to participate in history, it’s best to go elsewhere: to the US, to Europe, to China, Abu Dhabi, etc. Canada is too small. Our politics don’t matter enough. We have few if any global brands. No one listens to us.

When Jim Balsille, the Co-Chief Executive at Blackberry, came out this week and said that Canada should speak up, many rolled their eyes. ‘No one cares what we say,’ I heard too many exclaim. ‘We’re a tick on the elephant’s backside.’

Okay, so yes, we’re small. Okay, so yes, we don’t engage in grand scale power politics. But that’s no reason to believe that we are Nowhere and that no one cares. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his debate with Adam Gopnik about Canada’ meaning: our size gives us power. Not as much power as a state full of nukes, perhaps. But power nonetheless.

The sooner we start thinking of Canada as somewhere – a place of innovators that the world pays attention to, a place where we know how to live with one another and live out great ideas – the more of a voice we’ll have. In other words, it’s time to realise that our little nowhere has become a somewhere.

The authors of Kickstart will be setting out on their cross-Canada tour this week. Find them at a city (or bookstore, or library, or university, or street corner) near you! If you know anyone from these places, please pass on the message. We’re very keen about teaching people across the country about the Kickstart project.

May 9-11: Regina, SK

EVENT: Sunday, May 11 at 2:00 pm: Reading and signing at the Book & Brier Patch, 4065 Albert Street

May 12: Saskatoon, SK

May 13-15: Calgary, AB

EVENT: Wednesday, May 14 at 7:00 pm: Reading and signing at the Calgary Central Library, 616 MacLeod Trail SE

May 15-17: Edmonton, AB

EVENT: Friday, May 16 at 12:00 pm: Reading and signing at Audreys Books, 10702 Jasper Ave NW

May 18-21: Vancouver, BC

EVENT: Tuesday, May 20 at 5:00 pm: Reading and signing at Blackberry Books, 1666 Johnston St.

May 21-23: Fredericton, NB

EVENT: Thursday, May 22 at 6:00 pm: Reading and signing at Westminster Books, 445 King Street

May 23-27: Halifax, NS

I know we shouldn’t bend over in reflexive reverence for the opinions of those who have left Canada for grander stages, but how can you help wanting to know what such gymnastic minds as Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik have to say about our national identity?

This morning on CBC Radio’s The Current, the New Yorker stalwarts (who will square off on March 30 at the University of Toronto as part of a discussion called Canada: Nation or Notion?) chatted (rather intelligently, if perhaps from a greater remove than they’d like to admit) about what Canada means in the 21st century.

Gopnik rightly points out that the two writers approach the question from wholly different perspectives: he from a sentimental and symbolic perspective and Gladwell from a more empirical, policy-related one. But what it boils down to for both writers is that Canada means far more in the international community than we give ourselves credit for.

Gopnik’s issue is identity and our lack thereof. To him, that’s a strength, not a weakness, because we show the world that a country can function (and well) without a set of shared beliefs and icons. We show the world that the Romantic model of nationalism under which so many other countries were born is unnecessary, if not often damaging.

Gladwell is far less interested in issues of identity and culture. He’s interested in potential policy power. In Gladwell’s mind, our smallness (in terms of population and military power) is gradually making us more important. He contends that problem solving today is less about consensus building and more about looking to successful models. As a result, the decline of Canada’s image as an “honest broker” is inconsequential. What matters far more is that our size allows us to do what larger states, with heftier populations and more entrenched fueding animosities can never do.

Example? If Canada took it upon itself to initiate the most effective and progressive energy policy in the world, we could. Not many states can say that. And if we did, our huge (and much in-demand) energy resources would give us power.

To Gladwell, small may not be beautiful, but it is powerful – because our scale (and our historical ability to move beyond divisions and differences) gives us the opportunity to take bold chances.

This is a powerful thought, but not one that many in the corridors of power seem likely to take onboard. Though they may listen to the CBC and Joni Mitchell in their New York offices, Gladwell and Gopnik still inhabit a separate sphere than most of those who still live and work in Canada. That distance allows them a certain lattitude that is inspiring on first listen, but may not stand-up to the realities we experience watching our government day-to-day. ‘Yes, that would work,’ we say to ourselves as Gladwell speaks (he’s not, by the way, the first to say such things). And it should. But for some reason it seems unlikely.

Perhaps that’s because we value our role on the international stage so little. Perhaps it’s because it’s easier to simply throw up our hands up and say ‘the problem is bigger than us.’ It is, after all. So why not grab at the money while it’s there, sell off our companies to foreigners who see Canada as a bargain outlet for resources?

Because, as Gopnik points out, we’ve managed to do some pretty remarkable things in the past. We’ve managed to present the world with a model for how to get along, for how to be a nation with dueling (or at least separate) nationalities. We’ve also managed to produce innovators and problem solvers that have left a significant mark on the world.

We’re bigger than we think. It’s time to start taking ourselves and our role more seriously.

Give ‘er a listen.

Oh, and the punchline to that joke? You ask them politely.

It’s a Book, soon to drop

January 30, 2008

Hello All, and welcome to Kickstart – a book, a web project, an idea we hope will soon escape its creators’ grasps and assume a free and vital form all its own.

Those creators are we: Paul Matthews, Alexander Herman, and Andrew Feindel.

We’re old high school friends. We used to like having absurd, eliptical arguments about Britpop, the Lewinsky scandal, and Dawson’s Creek. Or at least we think we did. It’s been awhile. When high school ended, we all went our separate ways. Paul dreamt and grew cynical among the spires of Oxford, Alex flew to Trinity College, Dublin and started sporting a Joycean monocle, and Andrew went to the Richard Ivey School of Business to learn how to support the rest of us.

A few years ago, as wide-eyed youths fresh from university and on the cusp of careers, mortgages, and all that loveliness, we met in an old haunt near our parents’ Toronto houses (where we were living at the time) to lick each other’s early employment wounds and address the big questions. Paul and Alex wanted to be writers – or at least that’s what they told fashionable girls at parties. They’d wrestled with novels and magazine pieces, but their minds were a mess of scattered and hilariously contradictory ‘what if’s’ and ‘I could nevers.’ Andrew was a burgeoning financial planner, but despite his initial success, he too was looking for answers.

Wasn’t success and fulfilment something you could just order?

As they navigated the standard, self-indulgent, quarter-life cliches, Andrew came up with an idea. That day, he’d taken a major player in Toronto’s financial community out to lunch. He had phoned his office, explained that he was looking for advice, and bammo, the man had agreed to talk to him. After sitting down to lunch, Mr. Man had spelled out his entire life story. And it was a good one. Not tedious at all. In fact, it was chock full of brutal honesty and the odd kernel of marvellous advice.

Was it that easy? You just had to pick up the phone? Maybe so.

So why not phone up some of the most successful Canadians we could think of, interview them, and compile their stories in a book?

The idea seemed a bit looney at the time, but Andrew kept pressing us to do it. In the end, Paul and Andrew caved. And they’re glad they did. Three years later, that book, Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started, is about to hit bookshelves across the country.

It wasn’t always as easy as phoning. Sometimes we had to stalk folks and camp in front of their houses and offices. But, in the end, we managed to sit down with everyone from Barrick Gold’s Peter Munk and Dignitas International’s James Orbinski to astronaut Roberta Bondar and photographer Edward Burtynsky. For more info, check out our website.

It’s been a very nice little side-project for us – one that’s allowed us to learn an exceptional amount about what it takes to make your mark on the world from this often-ignored northern nation. In the coming months, we’ll use this space to tell you a little more about our process, the book’s participants, and a myriad other amazing, driven and talented folks we didn’t have the time to interview for the book.

Till then,