Read All Over - Book reviews, March 2014

By Kane Faucher
March 27, 2014

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Multilevel Governance and Emergency Management in Canadian Municipalities
Ed. Daniel Henstra
McGill-Queen’s Press, 2013. 221 pages

If tragedies such as the Alberta flood, or the Lac Megantic derailment, and other calamities that harm people and property are any indication, disaster management and emergency preparedness are critical. However, a coordinated response that can marshal all available resources in a timely fashion requires cooperation across all government levels, so the affected receive the support they need in a time of crisis.


As Robert Young’s contribution to this edited volume of essays underlines, local municipal preparedness is foundational, for it is at the level of municipalities that a knowledge of service capacity is uniquely indexed on the specific local conditions. It is for this reason, for example, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was able to coordinate emergency response during the major flood and direct provincial and federal assistance to pinpoint areas. By contrast, the Lac Megantic disaster response was partially hobbled by a lack of access to the manifest that would list the volatile contents in the rail cars.

However, as Young points out, emergency preparedness is generally not a major policy issue as it is largely an event-driven phenomena; i.e., only when disaster strikes that exposes the vulnerability of a region is there a sudden swell of attention given.

Another problem concerns the erosion of a volunteer base that otherwise functions as a critical component in any disaster response scenario. In many of the studies included in this volume, there appears to be a widespread view that, despite some resource mechanisms for emergency response provided by the federal government, there is a marked ambivalence about the effectiveness of the federal government’s role in providing support, and this is compounded by the plain fact of chronic underfunding of municipalities that has an impact on infrastructure to core services and their capacity. A poorly coordinated response at diminished capacity threatens knock-on effects, which precipitate further crises; a severe ice storm without staffed warming centres, a terrible flood with no plan or support for a fully coordinated evacuation or a tragic explosion without sufficient blood reserves at the local hospital all point to a ‘snowball effect’ with respect to crisis.

Although the authors give considerable praise to municipalities who carry much of the burden, and to some extent provincial governments that better engage municipalities to offset some of the disparities that exist in terms of size and capacity in the rural-urban split, the scale and complexity of some disasters require timely federal assistance. As factors such as climate change, increased population in hazardous areas, technological interdependence and other challenges are likely to increase, significant policy changes and evaluation are required that ensure multilevel government cooperation, nongovernmental service alignment, an increase in the volunteer base, a more robust inter-municipal policy for resource sharing, and high-quality training.

This book is essential reading for those who study public policy.

*   *   *

By Don Gutteridge
Borealis Press, 2000. 294 pages

As someone who has consumed a fair share of Great Depression-era literature, especially in the genres of American literary realism, it is precisely the conspicuous lack of Canadian regionalism concerning this period that provides a more ‘closer to home’ narrative.


In Gutteridge’s Bewilderment, we follow Gabe Goodfellow, a coal-man in Point Edward, Ont., who after speaking with a kindly gypsy, takes it into his mind that a carnival is precisely what would lift the spirits of the community, much more so than the ongoing construction of a bridge. His wife, Blossom – a portrait of stable matronly values, finds the idea absurd, while his daughter, Rosie, finds it does not mesh with her own struggle to determine her sense of self in the tempest of raging adolescence that so desperately navigates its way in haste from childhood to adulthood.

Inasmuch as the backdrop of the story is set in the Depression, with constant reminders of the poverty and high unemployment that marked it, this is not a gravid and hopeless narrative as one would read in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but a human tale punctuated by moments of humour and some sparks of joy that still maintain some of the aspects of an oppressive socioeconomic condition. Gutteridge’s prose style is erudite and so finely crafted one acquires the sense reading is akin to tracing the details of master craft cabinetry, and this is consistent with this entire series, of which this novel is but a part.

Although the story itself is fiction, Gutteridge’s meticulous attention to historical details as well as the quotidian impressions lend both a contextual believability and a vividness that makes Bewilderment, and the rest of this series, so easy to pick up and not put down.

*   *   *

From Calcedonies to Orchids: Plays Promoting Humanity in Health Policy
By Jeff Nisker
Iguana Books, 2012. 373 pages

Jeff Nisker is no stranger to leveraging the power of theatre in the promotion of health ethics and policy with human compassion at its core.


From the sterile and clinical environs of modern medicine, a great deal of the human condition appears to be lost or obfuscated by the presence of sophisticated diagnostic machines and a gallimaufry of medical terminology where patients can be reduced to white blood cell counts, recommended dosages, shuffled and processed through a bureaucratic gauntlet. Complicating this picture, and further obscuring the human beings themselves, would be the brave new advances in reproductive technologies and what they might imply in the ethical domain of what it means to be human.

Nisker does not blanche from confronting those implications directly, from a paralysis patient, IVF and egg donation with respect to the mother-child relationship, to an inadequate heath-policy response to psychological abuse.

The recurring theme of funding cuts is one piece of the medical industry backdrop that appears part hopeless and part dehumanizing. Nisker’s use of drama to bring these debates to the public preserves the unique and human qualities of each person that become so easily reduced to treatment metrics rather than focus on dignity and compassion that is tailored to each patient as a person. And, certainly, Nisker is not alone as there appears to be a movement of total patient care that opposes a somewhat cybernetic health system that faces its own pressures of fiscal restraint.

Nisker’s penchant for dialogue lends each of the central characters a strong measure of cleverness, wit and reflection, but does so without ignoring the bleakness of their conditions, nor sparing critical comment of the system in which they find themselves. As each of these plays are enormously touching and critically revealing, I was particularly struck by the play, Philip, about a 12-year old boy being administered amphotericin whose stoic precociousness and vivid awareness betrays his chronological age, leaving us to question our assumptions about younger patients.


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