Sunday, December 29, 2013

Short story, "A Christmas Letter"

My short story, below, "A Christmas Letter", was published in Canadian Stories, (ISSN 1496-4511) Vol. 16, No. 94, 2013/2014

by Ruth Latta

Late one December afternoon, Daddy arrived home after dark looking like a snowman. His wool coat and cap were plastered white from driving the open tractor against the wind, on the three mile trip from his brothers' farm. Mummy shooed the children into the living room and shook his coat outside while he warmed his hands at the cookstove.

"There's mail in the pockets," he said.
"The family allowance cheque?"
"No. But Dorothy got hers so yours will probably come soon. The lads said, if it does, they'll take me into town to shop."
Pat, in the living room archway, noticed a small flat package.
"Ah, something from Caroline Walker!" Mum exclaimed.
"Tell me again who she is."
"My old friend from Normal School. Oh, and card from your mother. You got paid!"
In the card from Gran was a five dollar bill. Mum studied it.
"Where's the rest of your pay?"
"Mam said the rest went for our tractor payment."
"But you've worked all fall for them, clearing land. You've paid for the tractor three times over."
Dad shrugged. "Not according to Mam."
"So all you get is five dollars and a Merry Christmas."
Mum pocketed the money, seized the lifter, raised the stove lid, and dropped Gran's card onto the flames. She put Mrs. Walker's present on the kitchen shelf, then bent to take a pan of hot biscuits out of the oven.
"Supper!" she called.
Jay, who was five, spotted the thin parcel in brown paper. "A present!" he cried. "Open it."
Katie, groggy from her nap, came running to Daddy, who lifted her into her high chair.
"We'll wait till Christmas." Mummy spooned vegetable stew into bowls.
"When is Santa coming?" asked Jay.
"Christmas is December 25th, but this year Santa isn't coming till January." Mummy said. They ate in silence.

That evening, Pat dried the dishes while her father brought in wood. She would have washed them, but she couldn't lift the kettle of boiling water off the stove and pour it into the dishpan. Usually she and Mummy talked while doing the dishes but that evening her mother was busy sweeping and putting away clothes.
After the younger children were asleep, Pat lay in bed and watched her parents in the living room. The door was open to admit warm air from the Quebec heater. Daddy and Mummy weren't fighting, but they weren't talking either. They were reading the bundle of North Bay Nugget newspapers that Gran had saved and sent with Daddy.

Gran kept the local post office in the farmhouse she'd once shared with her husband and three sons. Uncle Bruce still lived under her roof, and, a few yards away, Uncle Bob, Aunt Dorothy, Bobby and Barbara lived in a bungalow. Years ago, when Mummy was a teaching boarding with a family, she caught a ride into town when Daddy was taking the mailbags to the train. That was how they met.

"Daddy said he wanted to be independent," Mummy had once told Pat, "so I took all my saving and bought us this farm. I wish we'd chosen a different location."

Things went well at first. Together, Pat's parents had gardened, cut both fire wood and pulp wood for the forest products company and raised a variety of farm animals. But Pat came along, then Jay, then Katie, and Mummy had no time to work outdoors any more.

Daddy helped his brothers on seasonal projects like haying and threshing, so that they would help him, in turn. Back in the spring, using money he'd earned cutting pulpwood, he made a down payment on a tractor. Pat had loved the summer evening trips by tractor and wagon to visit the relatives, especially riding home after dark, lying back on cushions on the wagon, looking up at the stars.

Then Daddy asked his brothers to finish paying for the tractor in return for his help clearing land. Every day he'd worked, cutting brush and bulldozing scrub trees into windrows, leaving Mummy to cultivate the garden at home. Now, his folks hadn't paid him anything beyond what was owed on the tractor.

"When you children get a little older I'll go back to teach and get us on our feet again," Mum often said. Pat could hardly wait. The kids who teased her about her bulky brown snow pants wouldn't dare mock her if her mother was there. And maybe there would be money for a new red parka with matching pants in Eaton's catalogue.

She closed her eyes and pictured everyone in her family in new clothes from the catalogue, and next thing she knew it was morning. She could smell porridge and hear Katie and Jay's high voices in the kitchen. Through the frosted window, she saw a blue pickup truck crawling down the lane.

"Mummy, someone's coming!"
Mummy rushed into her room  and came out wearing her slacks and a sweater over her pyjamas. The door opened, and a blast of cold air hit the children as Daddy opened the door for Uncle Bob.

"Hello, kids," he said "Alice, your family allowance cheque turned up. It had fallen behind the sorting table." He held an envelope out to her.
"I'm so glad your mother found it," Mummy said.
"If you sign it, Tom can come to town with me today and buy what you need. A government cheque is as good as cash."
"Fine. Have some tea while I make a list."

As Mummy got her pen and writing paper from on top of the wardrobe, and Daddy shaved at the sink, Uncle Bob sat down between Jay and Katie.
"What are you two nippers planning for the day?" he asked. His own "ankle biters" were helping Aunt Dorothy make cookies. "Oh, I just remembered!" He took a folded paper from his pocket and handed it to Mummy. "You wanted stamps."

"Thanks. Be sure Tom gives you money out of the family allowance to repay your mother."

Soon Daddy was ready, and, with Uncle Bob, stepped out into the cold dazzling morning.
That morning, Pat dried the dishes and entertained the children while Mummy did some hand washing. When she was out at the clothesline, Pat climbed onto a chair to get Mrs. Walker's card and letter. She could read cursive handwriting.

"Season's Greetings to you and your family," wrote Caroline Walker. Then she told about her work. She had volunteered to organize a Christmas clothing and toy drive in her office. Though social work was often "heart-rending" at times, she was encouraged by the generous donations of good quality items received. Her office meeting room was overflowing. Pat was still reading the card when Mummy came in, on a wave of cold air, to warm her chapped hands.

"Let's start a card clothesline over the door," Pat exclaimed..
"Fine. Get some string."
"Tell me about Caroline Walker," Pat urged, as she cut a length of cord and attached two thumbtacks.
"Save Caroline's envelope for the return address," Mum ordered. "Put it on top of the wardrobe with my fountain pen and writing paper."

While securing the string over the doorway between kitchen and living room and draping cards over it, her mother explained that she and Caroline had been friends at Normal School. Caroline went to teach north of Toronto where her aunt lived, and wanted Mum to come too. But Mummy chose the north where boards offered higher salaries.

"We went to summer school together for several years. Then I got married and she switched to social work. I'm surprised she keeps in touch, our lives are so different."
"What's a social worker?"
"Someone who helps people."
"Who gets the stuff she's collecting?"
"Poor people."
"Could we get some?"
"Absolutely not!" Mummy glared. "We're not poor. We own a farm, though we owe taxes on it. But we won't beg. We haven't sunk that low yet." Her voice broke.
"I'm sorry, Mummy."
"Just - go and read. And put away that catalogue."
Pat obeyed, jutting out her lower lip.
"But we are poor!" she said to herself. "We have nothing for Christmas."

When she saw Mummy busy peeling potatoes, she found a pencil and crept into her parents' room. Taking a sheet of writing paper, she began a letter:

Dear Mrs. Walker.
I am Pat, your friend Alice's girl, aged nine. Mum wants me to thank you for your gift. This year we aren't getting much for Christmas as there is not enuf money. Can we have some used clothes and toys? Katie is 2, Jay is 5.

Carefully she printed Mrs. Walker's name and address on an envelope, and applied one of the stamps. She hid the letter in her snow pants pocket, and on Monday, she asked Miss Martin, who commuted from town, to mail it for her.

"Certainly," said her teacher, and put the letter in her purse.

Christmas concert rehearsals were in full swing, and Pat forgot about her letter as she went with the others to the community hall at the top of the school to practise carols and recite her poem.
Time raced by and soon it was December 22, the last day of school, and Concert Day. At final rehearsals that morning, Pat sat with her classmates on a bench facing the stage, breathing the freshness of the big spruce that the older students had decorated. Under its branches, near the piano, were bushel baskets full of paper sacks of candy and nuts provided by the Women's Institute. Each child in the community got one, including Katie and Jay. The principal's wife was picking up Mummy and Jay at noon so that they could attend.
The concert passed in a glorious dream, a blur of music, dancing and drama. After the last chorus, Santa emerged from backstage to distribute the candy. Some little children were afraid of him, but Jay was not shy; he happily sat on Santa's knee, wished him Merry Christmas and thanked him for the candy.

Then the room hummed with conversation. Mummy was soon surrounded by neighbours.
"So nice to see you out," someone said.
"Come to the next Institute meeting," a lady urged. "I'll pick you up."
"Can you substitute for me when I have my wisdom teeth out in January?" asked the principal.
Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Bob came up, smiling, with the message that Mam wanted them to come for Christmas dinner.
"Thanks, but we'll celebrate at home," Mummy said. "Katie gets cross if she doesn't have her nap."

Pat bit her lip. Last year at Gran's there had been roast beef. There would be none at home. If one of the hens became Christmas dinner, only eleven would be left to lay eggs. There were lots of carrots, potatoes and turnips, but she was sick of vegetables.

Travelling home in the warm car, Pat dozed. At home, Katie ran to Mummy as if they'd been parted for months. Daddy had set up the tree, and Mummy promised to get the ornaments out after supper.

As Christmas grew near, Pat tingled with excitement, and nervousness. She helped her mother stir the carrot pudding, watched her singe the chicken and helped the younger children decorate the tree and learn some carols for Christmas Eve. They kept them out of Daddy's way. He was cutting firewood, not in a good mood.
The night before Christmas, Mummy opened the thin flat box from Mrs. Walker to reveal candied orange, lemon and grapefruit. As they were eating them beside the tree, Jay cried, "Car's coming." Sure enough, a dark whale of a vehicle ploughed through the white foaminess beached near the house. They rushed to the door. On a blast of cold air, a big cardboard box with mittens and arms around it came in, followed by Uncle Bob, who was carrying it. He set it on the kitchen floor.

"This came in today's mail, from Walker in Toronto."
Pat was stunned. She wished she could vanish. Inside that box would be a note that began: "When I got Pat's letter..."  Mummy might say that Pat had brought shame to the family. There might be a fight, a spanking. Christmas would be spoiled, and it was all her fault.

"What a surprise!" Mummy said. "Thank you for bringing it over. Have some tea."
Uncle Bob said he ought to get home, but would drop by later in the week. After he left, Jay wanted to open the box, but Mummy said no.

That evening, when the younger children were asleep, Pat peeked around the bedroom door, watching her father cut the twine and her mother unfold the flaps of the box.
"We've hit the jackpot!" Dad exclaimed.
"Listen to this." Mummy unfolded a sheet of paper.

"Dear Alice. After writing to you about the overwhelming donations of good used clothing and toys, I realized that your growing children might be able to use some items. Sincerely, Caroline."

Daddy was digging.
"Here's a truck, a doll, and a book. Canned cranberry sauce, ham and a cake tin."
Mother took out folded piles of clothing. "Look! Two complete outfits for each child. And this sweater is man-size. It's for you."
"And this one is for you." Daddy held out something pink. "Try it on."
Mummy threw her arms around Daddy and began to cry.
"It's a miracle," she sobbed. "Maybe we were meant to have these things. After all, they had an overwhelming quantity."

Pat crept back to bed. How kind Mrs. Walker was! Smart, too, to read between the lines. Someday Pat hoped to meet her. Meanwhile, she could hardly keep her eyes open.

A red parka and matching ski pants, both gently used, waited for her on the rocking chair.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The NFU Convention, Part 2

The keynote speech of the National Farmers' Union convention in Ottawa, November 2013, was open free of charge to the public. Jim Stanford was invited to speak on "Defeating Austerity, Reclaiming Canada." Whenever the CBC news has a panel on the economy, we pay attention if Stanford is among the panellists, and so do others. An Ottawa area organic farmer who sat near us said he'd seen Stanford on TV and thought he made sense.

Stanford is an economist for UNIFOR (the new union formed this year when the Canadian Auto Workers united with the Energy and Paperworkers' Union.) He was educated at the University of Alberta, in fact, was a classmate of Stephen Harper. He then studied at Cambridge and got his Ph.D from the New School for Social Research in New York City.

Stanford was an amusing, entertaining speaker. He began by saying that economics is too important to be left to the economists. Then he quoted Lord Robbins's classical definition of economics as "the relation of given ends to scarce means which have alternative uses." Orthodox economics, then, is based on the idea that scarcity is central, something that Stanford would question.

In our own time, the modern day ideological spin on scarcity is "austerity."  Austerity, said Stanford, is "the response of the rich and powerful to the effects of the financial meltdown which they caused in 2008. The wealthy gambled with other people's money. Then they take advantage of moments of crisis, which they caused, to reinforce their position. They try to promote an ideology of powerlessness.

Stanford said that there is nothing preordained about economics, and that the old phrase that "it's all a matter of supply and demand" isn't so.  Wealth comes from gifts of nature and physical and mental work. Our Gross Domestic Product comes from human effort. The economic crisis of 2008 wasn't caused by working people, but by private finance, speculation, and profit-driven credit creation. Instead of subsidizing the problem, government should solve it.

"What is scarce?" Stanford asked. Not capital; companies in  Canada are sitting on 600 billion dollars of capital. Not revenues; governments can raise money in various ways. Not people; two million Canadians are unemployed if you include those waiting for jobs to start, involuntary part-timers and those who have given up the search and therefore don't appear in the statistics. "The only thing scarce," concluded Stanford, "is our ability to work and the ability to ensure that the fruits of our labour are used to better the human condition." Stanford contended that if we put two million Canadian back to work, each would produce labour worth $100,000 per worker per year in productivity. This would produce a Gross Domestic Product of $200 billion. The government share would be $70 billion; therefore, concerns about government debt wouldn't hold us back.

The Conservatives are not good managers of the economy, Stanford said. In the five years since 2008, Canada's population has grown by 2 million. Employment has decreased if we consider the number of employable people. Job creation under the Conservatives has failed.

To the Conservatives' claim that Canada's economy survived the 2008 crisis better than other economies in the world, Stanford said, "I don't think so." The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) employment rate ranks us Number 20 out of 34, in the lower half of the countries with the largest economies. 'As for productivity, Canada has had the worst productivity performance in history under Harper.

Canada's free trade agreements are not working for us, Stanford contended: Exports as a share of our GDP have declined during the Harper years.

The worst claim made by conservatives, [both small c and big C] in Stanford's view, is that corporate tax cuts stimulate investment. Tax cuts to corporations equal 12 billion dollars a year, money "thrown down a deep dark hole leaving us nothing to show for it... We have spent $4 on tax cuts for every dollar the business community has put in," he said. This, in his view, ought to be a bigger scandal than the current Senate scandal.

The answer for Canada is that we do more work and do it more valuably. Under the Conservatives, work is being devalued and the environment is being destroyed.
How to fight back? Stanford suggested four ways:
. Debunk the ideology of austerity. (For example, Bay Street has been arguing to take away the public pension system, and already, for no good reason, the age of eligibility has been raised to 67.)
. Reject the human and social consequences of austerity.
. Increase the political cost on those who push austerity.
. Remember that work is the answer, not gambling on changes in prices of paper assets. Demand our right to work.

To build a winning movement, Canadians must educate, organize and mobilize, and we must do it better.  Education involves exposing the flaws of the current system. Organizing means helping Canadians fight for their rights, using new organizing models like internet campaigning. Mobilizing means picking winnable battles and fighting focused and disciplined battles. (Stanford suggested that a fight for expansion of the Canada Pension Plan would be winnable even without the defeat of the Con. government, because the RRSP model of a pension plan has failed.)

Stanford spoke of UNIFOR, the largest private sector union in Canada, formed on Labour Day 2013 with the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian Electrical and Paperworkers.  Unifor has 300,000 members in 20 sectors of the economy.  It is also the largest union in ares regulated by the federal government.

Unifor has a new structure, with regional and industry councils. Ten per cent of all revenues are going to organizing. Its president, Gerry Diaz, is an example of the new leadership being brought forward in the union. An advertising campaign has been launched to reboot the image of unions as a force fighting for all workers
The formation of "community chapters" in Unifor is a new development for trade unions and is intended to broaden the base. Any group of workers with a common economic interest and a desire to fight for change can join the union. They don't have to be members of a certified bargaining unit as used to be the case. Freelancers, people in non-traditional jobs, anyone doing precarious work can join with dues set at a lower rate than those members in certified bargaining units. The community chapters can be nation-wide; for example, there is one for freelancers in the media industry, and, possibly, there will be one for ministers in the United Church of Canada.

Stanford concluded that the system, not ourselves, should be on trial, and that we should go on the offensive and be audacious. [He gave similar advice to young people facing bleak employment prospects when he appeared as a panellist on "The National" of December 3, 2013. The other three panelists, from the right of the political spectrum, focused on personal solutions, advising young people to take the "right" subjects in school, network, take any job and reduce their expectations.]

During the Q and A period, Stanford got more deeply into the problems with free trade, and potentially with CETA. (At present, CETA is an agreement in principle that no one has ever seen.) The conventional wisdom that free trade is always good is problematic, because the agreements allow corporations to sue governments. It's really about more power to the corporations.

Stanford believes in trade; that is, local production of valuable goods that the world wants to buy. Instead of "pillaging the environment", which isn't currently growing the economy, he recommends "less extraction, more value-added, and clean-up of pollution sites."

I left the convention thinking that Stanford's speech, and the panel presentation in the afternoon, were well worth the price of admission - that is, the conference fee - which my husband kindly paid as an anniversary present for me. One sign of a good presentation is that the audience is left wanting more. Of course there are books and the Internet. But I wish the CBC would give more time (one might say "fair coverage" or "equal time") to the viewpoints I heard that day at the conference.

National Farmers' Union Conference, Part 1

I didn't tell many friends that we were going to the National Farmers' Union conference in Ottawa, November 2 to 30, 2013, because I didn't want to deal with their astonishment. They know we live in an Ottawa townhouse with a back yard the size of a living room, where our last tomato plant was devoured by slugs. We are hardly farmers.

So why attend the NFU conference? Because farm concerns are our concerns. Assuring the country of a safe reliable food supply should be a concern of all Canadians. Although I have not lived on a farm for years, I grew up on a mixed farm in Northern Ontario and a member of the extended family farms the property that my grandparents pioneered on. Attending the conference was a way of honouring the past and keeping current with important issues.

The conference was held in the Travelodge Ottawa. When we registered we received as part of our convention package a copy of the NFU 2012 policy statement, a booklet available from the national office of the NFU at 2717 Wentz Avenue, Saskatoon, SK, S7K 4B6, 306-653-9465,

"We must address ourselves to the solving of human problems created in a technical age," the statement beings. "Our capacity for food production is functioning at less than maximum while malnutrition and poverty continue to prevail in large sectors of the Canadian population and much of the world...It is in the best interests of our nation to maintain a sound rural community on the strength of an efficient and economic farming industry and broadly based ownership and control by farm families of the basic resources for food production."
"Growing Resistance" was the conference theme. Panel presentations followed by discussion were presented on the subjects of: "Resistance and Dissent in a Healthy Society"; "Rooted in Resistance: Food Sovereignty"; :Our Seeds, Ourselves"; "Seed Sovereignty"; "Feeding the World: Countering the Corporate Spin" and "Big Oil Versus Food Sovereignty: Threats to Food, Land and Water."

My favourite panel presentation was the one on "Resistance and Dissent in a Healthy Society". I was interested in seeing in person the panellist Dave Oswald Mitchell, former editor of Briarpatch, who used to publish my book reviews. More recently he co-authored Beautiful Trouble. I was also eager to hear from Sheelah McLean of Idle No More, and Anne McGrath, former chief of staff to Jack Layton, the late leader of the New Democratic Party.

I took notes during their presentations, and below is my distillation of what they had to say.

Mitchell, who spoke first, talked about Beautiful Trouble, a book and website he created with co-author Andrew Boyd. The information on the site is free to share, and is an ongoing project. Anyone with ideas about effective techniques for political organizing  may contribute. The book and website are about "what works and why it works." The site has four sections: Principles, Tactics, Theories and Case Studies. Among the  Principles are: "Choose your target wisely"; "Choose leadership from among those most impacted" and "Shift the spectrum of allies."

Mitchell spoke about "points of intervention"; that is, the wisdom of intervening where you have the greatest impact, like holding a strike at the point of production, an environmental demonstration at the site of destruction, or a boycott at the point of consumption.

Regarding tactics, Mitchell emphasized the value of "reframing the issue." He explained that if you give people information that doesn't fit their world frame, they will discard the information unless you present an alternative world view to them. Rather than just protest the status quo, it's good to "prefigure" your vision of a different, better future.

I wished that Mitchell had more time for his presentation and hope that people at the conference went home and looked up Beautiful Trouble on the Internet.

Sheelah McLean, of the Idle No More movement, spoke next. From some Internet research I learned that she describes herself as a "third generation white settler"; she is not an indigenous person. She is an educator and Ph.D. candidate focusing her studies on colonization, racism and the effect of these forces on communities. When she taught native studies in high school her aboriginal students kept talking about the racism they experienced in the school and community," and she developed an organization called "Students against Racism." She is one of four women colleagues who co-founded Idle No More by setting up  a website and tweeting about the idea. The other three co-founders, Nina Wildon, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon are aboriginal women.

Sheelah McLean began her talk by speaking of her paternal grandfather, Gus Olson, a farmer who ran as a CCF candidate in Saskatchewan, and who organized a system of community health care prior to Tommy Douglas's Medicare. Members of McLean's extended family still farm near Wadena, SK. Her family's success has been due not only to their hard work, but also because they had access to a number of government policies, programs and institutions that helped them, such as health care and public education. Success or failure in our society is not entirely dependent on people's work ethic.

McLean said that people in Canada have always had to fight for their rights and that the unions, now demonized by the right and in the media, have been crucial in this fight.Inequality and poverty are "legislated", she said. They happen because of policy. Canadians are socialized to believe that inequality and poverty are normal. She, and the Idle No More movement, see public education about inequality as central to change. In her view, teachers being trained today are not being given what they need to teach students how to push back.

Idle No More, said McLean, is a movement for everyone; both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people want to stop Canada from being turned into an "extractive state." She mentioned the warning signs of fascism - the dismantling of unions, the militarization of society, and the privatization of formerly public institutions. How many of these signs do we have in Canada? The trend toward an "extractive state" with cuts to the social safety net began prior to the Harper administration and will still be harmful if they continue when Harper is no longer prime minister.

The final panellist was Anne McGrath, who spoke of resistance and dissent from the electoral perspective. As former chief of staff to Jack Layton. McGrath is credited with  professionalizing caucus operations and contributing to the NDP's historic breakthrough to Official Opposition status in 2011. From 2006 to 2009 she was NDP party president. Previously she was an activist and a trade union employee.

McGrath outlined key things to keep in mind when planning any campaign, whether it be on an issue, in an election, or in Parliament.
The first is "message clarity." There is no room in a campaign for a complicated "layered and nuanced" message. The message must be clear, compelling, with strong visuals, and the campaign must stick to it.
"Focus" is next: "Don't get distracted, and don't listen when people say, "It's time to let that go."
"Be broad-based in enlisting support," she added. "Don't focus on what divides us progressives, but on what we have in common."
Finally, strong values are necessary. "We must not become what we want to defeat."

I wrinkled my brow at this last point because earlier, she recommended Brad Lavigne's Building the Orange Wave, a book about the strategy and tactics that brought the NDP to official opposition status. While reading Lavigne's book I winced a couple of times where it appeared that tactics came ahead of principles.

McGrath ended by quoting Jack Layton's deathbed letter to Canadians, which ended, "Don't let them tell you it can't be done."  In the question and answer period that followed the presentation, most of the questions were directed at McGrath.  Many of the questions were critical, even hostile, and I admired her for her calmness and even temper.

Two audience members suggested that the (official opposition) New Democrats and the (third party) Liberals should work together to defeat the Conservative government. (Presumably they imagine a 2015 election resulting in the NDP and Liberals together, but not separately, having enough members to form a government. Or perhaps they picture some sort of NDP Liberal cooperation during the election. Apparently they don't imagine the NDP will win a majority government.)

McGrath replied that, in 2008, when Jack Layton succeeded in getting all the Liberal and NDP members of Parliament to agree to the terms of a coalition, to form a government to replace the Harper Cons., Michael Ignatieff, then Liberal leader, walked away from it.  If all the coalition members had stayed strong and stuck with what had been agreed upon, the coalition wouldn't have collapsed, but that the Liberals thought "they could do it alone" - that is, defeat Harper.

One questioner said he didn't care about 2008 but only about 2015. Calmly and courteously, McGrath explained again that there is currently no interest on the part of the Liberals to work with the NDP, as shown by Justin Trudeau's remarks following the Toronto Centre by-election. Trudeau quoted from Layton's famous deathbed letter to Canadians and turned his words about love, hope and optimism against the NDP.

The woman at the microphone, who called for "cooperation between our two progressive parties", and the other three convention participants who questioned McGrath along these lines may have been Liberals. One questioner accused the NDP of overreacting to, (or was it "obsessing" over) Justin Trudeau's appropriation of Layton's message. McGrath said, calmly and politely, that the NDP wasn't, and pointed that Olivia Chow's reaction was very low key; she said she was "disappointed."

One elderly man at the mike lectured McGrath about debating techniques, telling her that she should concede a few points to her opponent, and then objected to "partisan politics" at a NFU convention. Someone should have reminded him that McGrath did not show up uninvited, that NFU conference organizers asked her to appear on the panel.

One audience member asked why the NDP was not taking a stronger stand against CETA, the "Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement" between Europe and Canada, which, he believed, will be harmful to farmers. McGrath said that the NDP wanted to see what was in the trade agreement before coming out against it. At that point, Dave Mitchell interjected a thought that provided a good conclusion to the discussion. He said: "Our strength within the system is only as strong as our strength outside it."

More about the NFU conference in my next blog.