Wednesday Night #1228: "Safe Skies" & "Crazy about Lili"

Written by  //  September 14, 2005  //  Aviation & Aerospace, Geopolitics, Herb Bercovitz, U.S.  //  Comments Off on Wednesday Night #1228: "Safe Skies" & "Crazy about Lili"

14 September 2005

Our good friend Colin Everard will be with us and we will have a mini-launch for his newly-published novel Safe Skies.
Some of you know Colin already and for those who do not, you will enjoy him immensely – his background is varied and includes unique experience in Africa stretched from locust control to research into Sleeping Sickness, prior to becoming Chief of Field Operations for Asia and the Pacific at ICAO. We originally met him through our mutual ICAO friend, Denis Chagnon. Colin has been to Wednesday Night before, notably when we gave him a mini launch for his previous book “The Guardian Angel” [Wednesday Night #806]
Meanwhile, Diana is committed to reading the one copy of the book Colin has with him and returning it in pristine condition. Will give a book report on Wednesday Night if there is an overwhelming demand.
There will be other topics, including, no doubt, the Egyptian election – a very tentative step towards democracy -, the German election campaign, Chirac’s mysterious illness, the visit of President Hu [“Hu’s on first…”] to Ottawa (we wonder about his official welcome from the Governor General, it must have been an interesting experience for him to meet a Hong-Kong-born Canadian GG ).
We also call your attention to a thought-provoking item in our favorite Maisonneuve MediaScout today on the subject of ethics: “As Michael ‘Brownie’ Brown has undoubtedly come to realize, a person’s past is fair game once they enter the public sphere. In the age of online CVs, Google searches and blogs, it’s not only easy to dig up elements of someone’s history, it’s also easy to spread the word. Which is why it is all the more distressing that politicians and other officials still seem to have a less-than-stellar understanding of the dangers of conflicts of interest. In the last week alone, Canadians have learned that Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier wants to fast-track the purchase of jets from a company that hired his former boss as a lobbyist; Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew’s apartment in Paris is currently being house-sat by a registered lobbyist; and today it was revealed that the chair of the CRTC used to sit on the board of directors of the company that became Sirius, one of the major stakeholders in the satellite-radio debate. [Note: we missed all of these in our preoccupation with Katerina and the fallout in Washington]. There’s no reason to assume anything untoward is happening in any one of these, or countless other incidents. The problem, however, lies in public perception. While in a court of law someone is innocent until proven guilty, in the court of public opinion the reverse is often true.” Let’s think about that ….

The Report (Photos of the evening)

Wednesday Night’s usual impeccable timeliness prevailed again this evening, with the predominant topic of aviation on the evening of the day when Delta and Northwest Airlines had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from their creditors. The evening was further enlivened by the most welcome presence after a long absence of Ghislaine Richard, formerly Canada’s official representative to ICAO, and subsequently Vice-Chair of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.

Two very different novels – and their authors – graced the Wednesday Night gathering, while the shadow of a third book, Peter Newman’s was also very present. Unlike Mr. Newman, however, our authors disclaim identification with the principal figures in their respective books, but each brings a wealth of knowledge and informed detail to his topic.
One of the most gifted chroniclers of 20th century Montreal, in his latest offering, Crazy about Lili , William Weintraub recounts the adventures of a star-struck young poet in Montreal in 1948, the heyday of burlesque theatre and other sinful pleasures. It’s the story of a 17-year-old McGill freshman’s struggle for adulthood, which is precipitated by a visit with his uncle to the Gayety burlesque theatre to see the stripper Lili L’Amour and a subsequent meeting with her in her dressing room.
Among other themes, Crazy about Lili brings to life the lost art of classical striptease, very different from what goes on in the strip clubs today. There was showmanship then, artistry, performed not in bars, but on a stage and the women who did it had reputations that often extended beyond international borders. Like Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand and others, Lily St-Cyr, Montreal’s Sweetheart, was a much-admired exemplar of the art. Once again, Bill’s love of Montreal and its history has created an endearing book and an appreciation of our wonderful past.
body of work includes the novels Why Rock the Boat and The Underdogs and also two volumes of classic non-fiction, City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and ’50s and Getting Started: A Memoir of the 1950s.
Colin Everard‘s lively first novel Safe Skies (which is dedicated to all people who board an aircraft) raises important issues regarding aviation safety in the developing world and the dangers of politicization of the agencies that oversee the implementation of international safety standards.

Aviation safety
When Safe Skies was launched in Vienna, it was introduced by the British Ambassador who underlined in his speech that not only has Colin written a book that is a great story, but more importantly he has stimulated the average person to think about air safety, including the critical need for implementation in the developing world of international aviation safety standards, aviation infrastructures, investment in training of local staff, and monitoring of the systems.
Citing Indonesia, with its 40+ local languages as an example, Colin reminds us that everything must be done in English, the lingua franca of aviation, but which is spoken (and understood) with varying degrees of fluency by the local authorities who must cope with the legal requirements for airworthiness and the interpretation of those requirements. Indonesia is but one country, however some 80% of the world is in this category, and while North Americans or Europeans do not often think of air safety as a factor, it is a very present one in the developing world.
The fatality rate for air accidents is extremely low. 2004 was the safest year since the founding of ICAO in 1944; out of some 1.8 billion passengers carried, last year’s death toll was 37 people. Contrast this with road transport in Quebec! However in August 2005 there have been five major accidents, four of which claimed at least 330 lives.
Aviation safety is by its very nature an international preoccupation. ICAO has developed the international standards to which the world’s governments are expected to ensure adherence, however effective enforcement is impeded by questions of sovereignty. Only recently has it been decided that the results of the safety audits that ICAO conducts will be published and circulated to all 189 contracting states in an attempt to shame countries into doing something about the often abysmal airworthiness situation. This is nonetheless a sensitive issue particularly in the developing world where countries will feel under attack, without at the same time being given the means to overcome their deficiencies.
Is privatization (‘liberalization’) a guarantee of higher standards? Possibly, if outside investors insist on better standards in order to improve the bottom line. Some countries such as the U.S. and France have simply refused landing rights to airlines that cannot prove that they (and their home countries) meet certain standards.
Another point illustrated in Safe Skies is that many countries do not initially comprehend the immense investment that must be made in the purchase and installation of aviation (or other) systems, along with the training of nationals to run the systems. Much of the infrastructure may be donated. Training generally can be done in-country by foreign consultants (who will be paid in U.S. dollars or equivalently stable currency), or senior staff will have to be sent abroad. Either way it is a drain on the exchequer – and in the latter case, there is the danger that the newly qualified staff will seek more remunerative or challenging positions outside his/her country. Thus, you find instances of top quality equipment unused because there is no one trained to operate or maintain it.
Colin deliberately chose Bhutan, one of the world’s least developed countries, as the example of a country to which access was limited to 4-wheel drive not so long ago. Suddenly the government decides it needs an airline, but that decision cannot be taken without due consideration of the cultural impact that easier access for foreign tourists and business persons will have on centuries of culture. But this begs the question of whether many developing nations need a national airline – in most cases, it is a matter of prestige rather than real need.
On the other hand, this is a difficult judgment call; when one Wednesday Nighter first visited Singapore, it was a backwater. Today not only is the country a major economic force, but Singapore Airlines is one of the finest and most successful in the world.
In Safe Skies, a fictitious organization, based in Chicago, is responsible for the maintenance of air safety standards throughout the world. This organization is immensely successful as long as it remains totally apolitical, however, as the story unfolds, the organization becomes politicized and the ability of the dedicated professional managers to do their jobs, increasingly limited. Unfortunately, this is an illustration of what is happening today, whether in international organizations, government authorities or industry associations, with the same disastrous consequences as in the novel

Foreign Aid
Foreign aid, in the view of many, has been based for many years on a misguided concept of handouts. Misguided because if you spoon-feed a country, it will just go on being spoon-fed: Third World countries have to have the will to develop themselves. Many of them do not have this will, when they run out of money they simply ask for more. And often it suits the purposes of donor nations to maintain the state of thralldom created by this dependence, especially when much First World aid is tied to purchases by the recipient of goods and services originating in the donor country.
The initial response of the U.S. State Department to the offers of disaster aid from countries around the world is indicative of a luxury that most Third World recipients of foreign aid do not have. When asked why the U.S. had not responded to all the offers of international assistance, the State Department spokesman said, “We are evaluating the needs against the offers”. Although this may have sounded arrogant, it was in retrospect a sensible answer – even had there not been such a crisis in disaster management as we have witnessed. [When doctors from neighboring U.S. states, not to mention Canada, were prevented from giving urgent medical assistance because they were not “federalized”, how could the 1,100 doctors offered by Cuba have been put to work effectively? Ed.]
Often, although well intentioned, foreign aid is not suited to the recipient country’s culture or the local availability of either human or natural resources. We need to learn how to give aid so that it is a tool for development, rather than a (sometimes useless) handout. Aid organized by locally-based NGOs or independent leaders of the community is much more likely to meet the local needs than something dreamed up in a meeting of international bureaucrats. As has been graphically illustrated in Louisiana, common sense is the most important asset in any form of aid – and often the least prevalent.

Corruption is a huge problem in many countries, most often in former colonies. [Editor’s note: not that corruption is unknown in the developed world, as recent events related to Hurricane Katrina have shown, but it is often in a more subtle form of cronyism.] Donor countries are complicit in the process, participating in the chain of corruption and justifying their actions by “that’s the way it is done”, offering huge grants or gifts to Third World countries in return for access to needed natural resources, turning a blind eye to the aid that winds up in corrupt leaders’ bank accounts; and often the Third World becomes a dumping ground for equipment that is donated because it is not compliant with developed nation standards (i.e. aircraft that do not meet western noise standards are shipped off to Africa).
There is much hypocrisy surrounding the issue of corruption. Every country has it to some degree, including the corporate scandals of huge magnitude in western nations. The OECD signed an anti-corruption convention to prevent First World companies from obtaining privileges in the Third World. While some of the ambassadors at the time were calling for sanctions against the small baksheesh given to functionaries in the Third World to accelerate a process (as we all know, most of these people are so underpaid that they depend on these small gifts to support their families), the U.S. let it be known that there would be no objection to large gifts of money to maintain friendly heads of government in power. This is clearly an indicator of the collapse of good governance.

Staying on topic of recently published books, the evening could not have been complete without reference to the just-published Peter Newman book The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister One Wednesday Nighter interviewed Peter Newman some six weeks ago for a forthcoming documentary on Terry Mosher (Aislin) who was obsessed with Brian Mulroney (a political cartoonist’s dream figure). He regrets that at the time of the interview he knew nothing about the bombshell that was about to be dropped. While the jury is out on Peter Newman’s seemingly crass rush to publish in light of the former PM’s illness, Mulroney’s statement that he felt betrayed – after giving Newman 98 interviews – does seem a bit over the top. On the other hand, there was a written contract that specified that Mulroney had the right to see the book before publication. No matter whether the promised documents were made available to Newman or not, there was still a valid assumption that nothing based on the tapes and interviews would be published without Mulroney’s review.
The profanity and crude remarks about political foes and former friends should not arouse much surprise – not only was Mulroney well known to be vindictive, but these expressions are used by many individuals, not to mention leaders. The single quotation that seems to have annoyed most people is Mulroney’s claim that “You cannot name a Canadian prime minister who has done as many significant things as I did, because there are none.”
Probably the most accurate comment about the book has been that “the people who like him now will like him better; the people who loathe him now will loathe him more”. However much one may dislike Mulroney, it is undeniable that he made important contributions to Canada’s well-being: especially the NAFTA and the acid rain treaty; he also contributed significantly to ending South African apartheid, to the creation of La Francophonie and to improved relations with the G-7 and Russia. Was the introduction of GST a good move? Wednesday Nighters’ opinions vary as much as they do outside the room.

[Editor’s note: In a recent National Post piece historian Michael Bliss commented that “Perhaps the most appropriate political role for a social-climbing, glad-handing, profane Irishman — also a sober, hard-working family man — would have been in American municipal politics. Brian Mulroney would have had a more secure place in history, and more respect from his constituents, if he had been mayor of Boston in the 1940s.”]

Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath
The topic of Katrina arose in a number of contexts this evening, particularly in the context of lack of leadership. Wednesday Nighters, like the rest of the world, remain dismayed by the confusion and mismanagement exhibited at every level of government,- municipal, state and federal -, the bungling by FEMA amidst revelations of the cronyism that permitted incompetents to rule the day, the new horror stories each day of wasteful and stupid bureaucratic decisions, the “blame game” that has started amidst frantic attempts to shore up president Bush’s image, rumors of Haliburton’s involvement in the no-bid contracts, Karl Rove (!!!) officially in charge of reconstruction, and the dangerously precipitate talk of undertaking the rebuilding New Orleans without effective planning or any notable consideration of the need to restore the shore line, wetlands and outer islands. However, there was no concentrated discussion of the week’s developments, perhaps because it is difficult to absorb just how badly things are being (mis)managed, or to engage in semi-civil discourse on the topic.
Footnote on Disaster Relief
In the week following the disaster, there has been unrelenting criticism of the failures of President Bush, the federal government and FEMA to quickly address the acute problems. (see:
Despite President Bush’s (ungracious) statement on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the United States could take care of itself [the actual quote is: “this country’s going to rise up and take care of it,”], there has been an amazing outpouring of offers of assistance from other nations.

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