tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Unfelled: A Naxal Encounter

A forest in India. (Photo by Richard A. Johnson / 2011)

The creative non-fiction short story "Unfelled: A Naxal Encounter" by Richard A. Johnson (me) appears in the online edition of THIS Magazine for November/December 2012. It is the second-prize winner in the magazine's annual Great Canadian Literary Hunt.

The story traces the contours of a man called Sudhir in a place called Kandhamal in southeastern India; a rough etching of the confluence of grassroots development work, aboriginal communalism and anarchistic violence set at a roadblock in the forest.

Excerpt from "Unfelled: A Naxal Encounter" (THIS Magazine):
On a mountain road deep in the Indian jungle, a pair of tree trunks blocks the passage of a jeep. Inside, a wary driver and a terrified cameraman, both town dwellers hired by a local non-governmental organization to ferry us into the district of Kandhamal—the Kashmir of southern India, for its verdant highlands swathed in misty luminance—and shoot footage of a development project. 
Behind them sits Sudhir, whose restless eyes appraise the scene, darting into the thick forest all around us, then back to the roadblock. In each man’s mind a common fear unfolds: at any moment cadres of armed Maoist rebels—Naxals—will emerge to rob them or worse, alleging them to be spies or profiteers or corrupt bureaucrats, kidnap or even kill them. 
The Kandhamal forests—lush with teak, cashew, mango, bamboo, neem, jackfruit and the wizened banyan—emit a foreboding coolness, shrouding sunlight and vision. They hide well those who would gladly withdraw from the world.

I am grateful to the judges of the Great Canadian Literary Hunt for their mention of this story, as I am grateful to my various hosts in India who made it possible. Congrats to the other winners of the Great Canadian Literary Hunt.

Also by Richard A. Johnson in THIS Magazine: "A Dramatic Revival"

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On the Importance of Mother-Tongue Early Childhood Education

This video tells the story of the work being done in adivasi (aboriginal) communities in India's Odisha state to develop preschool learning materials for children in their native language, Kui. Government preschools, where they exist in the region, offer curricula only in Odia--the state language. So when adivasi children come to school, they can't speak or understand the language of instruction, and as a result often dropout and never return to formal education.

(For more background, see this earlier Tuque Souq post: Child-Based Community Development)

In the film--called Ganugun Bati Ahangna (Learning with Dignity)--a 5-year-old girl named Jhili overhears her friend Geeta singing a song in Kui. Jhili wants to know where her friend learned this song, and Geeta tells her that she learned it in the anganwadi centre, a new kind of preschool where children are exposed to the fundamentals of education in their mother tongue. The classroom environment was fun and supportive, and Geeta decided to keep attending.

Jhili says that she once attended the government preschool, but there was no singing and dancing, and there was no instruction or activities in Kui. She received a meal and learned the alphabet in Odia, but because she could not understand her teacher, and because the school was so far away, Jhili dropped out.

In the next part of the film, an ebani (social worker) comes to talk to the parents of Jhili's village about the importance of early childhood education for children under six years of age, and how starting to learn in one's mother tongue--and in a supportive, culturally contextualized environment--adapts the child to the learning process that will enable her or him to have a successful life in school and beyond.

The parents agree to support the new preschool and send their children to be educated.

For more information, see the Facebook page of ECE-MT (by Odisha Adivasi Manch) and the Bernard van Leer Foundation, which supports this initiative in Odisha.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Journey to Manitoulin Island

Toronto to Manitoulin Island via Guelph, Tobermory and Bruce National Park.
Photographs with the indomitable Holga + Fuji Neopan 400.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

New eBook from the National Magazine Awards

This summer I helped develop and edit an eBook anthology for the National Magazine Awards Foundation. The result--Best in Magazines 2007-2012--is, I think, quite a page turner, and it's available completely free via the iTunes app store exclusively for iPad users.

The collection includes more than 30 award-winning stories, covers and photography/ illustration collections: 4 of the top winners from this year's National Magazine Awards, and the rest collected from among the best of the past 5 years.

You can download the app directly to your iPad here and read more about it on the NMAF site here.

One of the most striking elements of the collection is that each individual piece maintains the look and feel of its original publication (The Walrus, Explore, This Magazine, Maisonneuve, etc), while the platform allows for some dynamic interface with the content. It's an example of where digital magazine publishing is now, and a set of ideas as to where it may go in the near future.

The portability of the content is the other great feature. The NMAF maintains an online archive where most of the finalists and winners from the past 5 years are available for free download in PDF format. The eBook is, in part, a repackaging of that archival content in a more user-friendly platform, one that travels well as both an educational tool and a leisure pursuit.

Finally, it's a great way to extend the naturally long life of quality magazine content, as well as to promote those writers, artists and publications who produce it. Readers, I'm sure, will find themselves introduced to new mags, writers, photographers and illustrators that they might not otherwise have encountered.

Unfortunately, for now this eBook is only available to iPad users (not other eBook and ePub platforms), which is as far as our resources could stretch in the initial development. The hope is that this is the start of something bigger, both for the NMAF and for Canadian digital magazine publishing.

If you have any comments or feedback on the eBook, post them here or send them to me at

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Aching for the Portage: A Week in Algonquin Park

The first of twenty-four portages feels like the chaos wrought by a summer storm upon a beach; the last, like an imperturbable old friend come to lean on your tired shoulder.

Everything in between is no more and no less an addictive progression of ache.

Before we began our Algonquin paddling adventure, I'd wondered whether the portage ache--the unique stiffening soreness of schlepping first a 55lb backpack and then a 42lb canoe over crooked forest trails as long as 2km in between each lake--would, like its counterpart the alpine ache, come to be felt as both agony and ecstasy.

When the very thing that is the cause of physical pain is also the cause of metaphysical joy, one tends to long for it, as with nostalgia. Like looking a photograph of childhood, one experiences both pleasure and pain.

For seven days in August we assailed the portages of Algonquin's northwest frontier, embarking our seventeen footer at Kiosk for a charted clockwise loop across no fewer than twenty-one lakes, from Kioshkokwi to lakes called Mink, Club, Mouse, Erables, Maple, Ratrap, Three-Mile, Mangotasi, North Tea and Manitou, among others.

Yes, we felt the ache. It was a great ache, attacking sharply with the inversion of the boat on our shoulders, pulling us out of breath, throbbing through our backs and legs and feet, and lingering in the form of evening spasms and morning stiffness. I miss it already.

Algonquin Park, Northwest Frontier from Kiosk (Click to enlarge)

Day 1: Kiosk to Mouse Lake via Kioshkokwi, Little Mink, Mink and Club lakes. 13km paddling + 4 portages (2900m total). Portages are gentle trails cushioned by pine needles; a great way to start. We faced fierce, east-blowing crosswinds and white-capped rollers crossing Mouse Lake to a good campsite on the southern shore, though it made for a mucky evening swim.
Paddling out on Kioshkokwi. Photo by Richard A. Johnson.

Day 2: Mouse Lake to Maple Lake via Big Thunder and Erables lakes. 9km paddling + 4 portages (3700m total). Erables is a beautiful and peaceful paddle, with good-looking campsites. The island campsites on Maple Lake are justifiably popular, but we arrived too late to snag one, and so took a decent alternative on the western shore.
Dawn over Maple Lake. Photo by Richard A. Johnson.

Day 3: Maple Lake to Three Mile Lake via Ratrap, Boggy and North Sylvia lakes. 8km paddling + 4 portages (3100m total). Despite the toponyms, this is a beautiful stretch of landscape. The portages get a bit steeper and twisting as the day progresses, but the last one ends at a great beach. The rain began this day, and we scarcely saw the sun thereafter for 4 days.
Island campsite at Three Mile Lake. Photo by Richard A. Johnson.

Day 4: Three Mile Lake to Biggar Lake via Upper Kawa, Kawa and Sinclair lakes. 7km paddling + 4 portages (3200m total). A monotonous day, as the scenery between Three Mile and Biggar is unspectacular, and the paddling in between each portage is shorter than the portages themselves. Biggar is beautiful, and the campsites on the north shore of the main channel (9 in total) are about as sublime as this part of the park has to offer.
Early morning on Three Mile Lake. Photo by Richard A. Johnson.

Day 5: Biggar Lake to Manitou Lake via Hornbeam, Mangotasi and North Tea lakes. 14km of paddling + 4 portages (1100m total). The portages around the rapids between Biggar and Mangotasi are quite photogenic. We spotted moose on the western shore of Biggar, then beaver and blue heron on Mangotasi. The sandbar between Mangotasi and North Tea lakes was barely covered with low water levels, so we had to drag it. The island campsites on southern Manitou are the way to go.
Wooded campsite on an island on Manitou Lake. Photo by Richard A. Johnson.

Day 6: Manitou Lake to Manitou Lake. 4km paddling, no portages. We'd planned a more robust route to the northwest, via Lorne, Kakasamic, Fassett and Shada lakes, then back onto Manitou. But health issues directed us to the more direct route northward. Nevertheless, Manitou's famed headwinds and storminess (especially travelling north) made the journey a slog in the cold drizzle. The northern Manitou campsites are not quite as memorable as their southern counterparts.
Pulling the canoe into a campsite on northern Manitou Lake. Photo by Richard A. Johnson.

Day 7: Manitou Lake to Kiosk via Amable du Fond and Kioshkokwi Lake. A great finish: wild raspberries grow in abundance near the du Fond beach, the start of the portage. The portages of lower Amable du Fond are beautiful and (in our direction) all downhill; you can do them all as one single portage, or paddle the middle section (even in low water, as we faced). The cove out into Kioshkokwi is studded with grounded drift logs, making it a bit of an obstacle course.
Portager's view of the trail near Amable du Fond. Photo by Richard A. Johnson.
View complete photo gallery here.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dog Days of Spadina

Toronto, August 15, 2012. The Spadina Avenue corridor from Bloor to King Streets is a brocade of barriers, hard hats, steel beams and jackhammers, as the TTC's construction teams retool the streetcar infrastructure to conform to the new trams arriving next year.

King Street
Adelaide Street
Richmond Street
Queen Street
Sullivan Street
Dundas Street
Nassau Street / Kensington Market
College Street
Harbord Street
Sussex Street
Spadina Station / Bloor Street

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Stewart-Colbert Road Map for Middle East Peace

This month the Comedy Central duo of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert released an advance draft of their highly anticipated Road Map for Middle East Peace, and there is no questioning where the comic cartographers sit on the controversial issues of land dispute between Israel and Palestine. As revealed recently in broadcasts of their respective and influential political shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, having assessed the facts of the heretofore intractable quarrel, Stewart and Colbert appear united in their drawing of Israel:

Notice that on both maps, what appears to be a beaver-toothed bite taken out of Israel's eastern border is indeed the fullest extent of the West Bank along the so-called 'Green Line' of the 1967 ceasefire, right down to the Latrun pimple dangling just northwest of Jerusalem, which was one of the first areas of the West Bank to be commandeered by the Israeli military after the Six Day War conquest. 

Quite clearly, the Stewart-Colbert Peace Plan envisions a free Palestine at the 1967 borders, not along lines drawn since by Israel's settlements in Judea and Samaria, nor by the infamous separation wall

Furthermore, we notice that beyond a doubt the Stewart-Colbert map does not grant even the so-called Jerusalem suburb settlements (Ma'aleh Adumim, Pisgat Ze'ev, Ramot Allon, Neve Ya'akov, Gilo, Har Homa, et al) to Israel, even though Israel effectively annexed East Jerusalem in 1980.

The Gaza Strip, to be sure, is carved out and served to Palestine in the Stewart-Colbert plan, but Israel has long wished away that parcel of poverty. 

More subtly but just as critical to a comprehensive settlement in the region, the Stewart-Colbert Road Map for Middle East Peace evidently has not awarded the Golan Heights to Israel, either. Israel formally annexed the upland region of its northeastern frontier in 1981, after having captured it from Syria in '67 and held it in '73. 

Perhaps this is a nod to the hoped-for liberation of Syria by the rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad: in a post-Arab-Spring Middle East, Israel will, say Stewart and Colbert, gladly return the Golan to its previous owners.

Will this latest attempt at a two-state solution in Israelestine be as laughable as those of earlier shuttle diplomats and political cartographers. Stay tuned to your favourite comedy shows to find out the truth.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Summer Travel Reading, from the NMA Archives

A friend dropped us a note recently from his travels in Austria: “I never imagined this place would be so stimulating: the mountains, the gardens, the café life; even the stodgy old Habsburg homes have some life to them.”

It’s summer, deep summer, which means most of us are either travelling or dreaming of travelling. We of the latter shade perhaps are undertaking dozens of vicarious journeys on Facebook and Pinterest. And whether we’re actually on the road or just imaginarily so, we like our travel reading: none better than the collection of award-winning travel stories at the National Magazine Awards Archive.
A few suggestions for your summer pleasures and days:
The Big Blue” by Charles Wilkins, explore (2011 Gold winner in Travel)
Sixteen brave souls, one uniquely engineered rowboat, 5000 kilometres of open ocean. The author–the unsinkable Charles Wilkins, admittedly not the youngest or fittest of oarsmen–spent 18 months training for this record-breaking attempt to cross the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados without the aid of sail or motor. This blogger felt almost guilty reading of this adventure from the comfort of a Toronto patio, as Wilkins dispatched:
“I was cold, I was exhausted, I was starved… What’s more, I had been beaten up–slapped around by waves that sometime before midnight had started coming hard out of the east onto our port flank… At one point, when for the briefest of moments my focus had lapsed (my brain having detoured into fantasies of my former life as a human being), an uncooperative wave had snatched my oar, driving the handle into my chest, pinning me with savage efficiency against the bulkhead that defined the prow end of the rowing trench.” [Read more]
Walking the Way” by Timothy Taylor, The Walrus (2009 Gold winner in Travel)
A fixture of bucket lists for centuries, Spain’s Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail seems, by the grace of those who walk it, an uneven plane of surrealism, uniting disparate senses of faith and devotion on a single, very literal path. And few writers put pen to trail as evocatively as Timothy Taylor:
“Nobody talks about religion, faith, metaphysics… Nobody says, because not long ago at a party I got into a drunken argument about philosophical materialism–the belief that the only thing that exists is physical matter–and found myself yelling at a woman, ‘Then why are we here? Why are youhere?’ Nobody would admit to that. To losing it. To getting belligerent over the possibility of transcendence. Nobody would admit that, because it would indicate that you somehow needed to walk 800 kilometres across Spain.” [Read more]
St. Petersburg the Great” by Noah Richler, enRoute (2008 Gold winner in Travel)
A mindful travelogue in the modern mold–a studious writer eager to discover what lies beneath; a photographer (Robert Lemermeyer) with a keen sense of place–it satisfies both the memories of those who’ve already been there and the desires of we who long to go. Not just restaurants–ingredients. Not just vodka–conversation. (Not just English–bilingual; it’s enRoute after all.) Richler keeps the reader at his elbow:
“In St. Petersburg, the noteworthy is either tawdry or a few steps underground or magnificent and palatial beyond imagining. It is as if Peter’s lofty dream and the lowly serfdom that made it possible persist in the soul of the city because neither ever existed without the other.” [Read more]
Read these travel stories and more at the National Magazine Awards archive: magazine-awards.com/archive
[Cross posted with the Magazine Awards blog]

More summer reading from the National Magazine Awards: Essays | Sports & Recreation

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Fine Art of Magazine Cover Virality

When did we all become so completely obsessed with magazine covers?

It seems none of us can get enough suggestive poses, egregious photoshopping, bold breastfeeding, Zuckerberg hate-ons, Demi rip-offs or wholesome conservative cleavage (not exactly Maxim is it?).

Indeed, this recent AdWeek retrospective of arresting magazine covers is mostly T&A, and no where does it suggest that you actually read these mags.

The new cover of Foreign Policy, a so-called Sex Issue (wait, wasn't this issue sexy enough?) would be an arrestable offence in many countries (which is essentially the point of author Mona Eltahawy's cover story).

The recent Cover of the Year winner at the American National Magazine Awards? Yup, not exactly Martha Stewart Living.

There's even more to the cover craze: covers that didn't make it to print but we still want to go viral; covers that exploit your infatuation with non-print media; covers that test your capacity for irony, and covers that suggest a certain someone is gee-ay-why.

(Before being outed Obama was also a tiny-headed Jewish Mullah Rodin sculpture.)

There are even covers that aren't even covers yet, hence this masterful mash-up of future magazine covers from New York magazine.

And then there are covers that circumvent breasts and rainbows and go to right to subliminal messaging for a certain Canadian Prairie town (suck it, Winnipeg!).

What do all these covers have in common? They appear to be based on the idea that going viral (which all these covers have to varying degrees, except those Martha Stewart eggs) is the best way to sell a magazine brand, if not an actual magazine.

And you know what? It works. Will you ever forget the images of breast-munching chair-boy or body-paint burqa, even after Twitter has short-circuited your temporal lobe? No. Will you actually believe the American president is a homosexual when you pull his lever in November? Maybe.

Will you remember that these covers stood in for forward-thinking social debates on post-feminist parenting, post-nationalist feminism and post-stupidity human rights? Probably not. But then, you (and I) probably hadn't read the issue by the time you helped its cover go viral.

Hooray for the new magazine model: look, but don't touch!

Oh, and while I've got you panting for magazines, check out the Best Cover nominees for the Canadian National Magazine Awards. The winner will be announced June 7.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Memorable Mag Covers: Maisonneuve's Crème brûlée

It's May 1 that the Canadian National Magazine Awards will reveal the nominees for the 35th anniversary awards. Counting down the days till the announcement, they're showcasing some of the cool creative from the past few years. One award we never tire of reviewing: Magazine Covers.

This one, which can best be described as "spacemen walking on crème brûlée" from Maisonneuve, was the 2007 winner for best magazine cover in Canada. View more here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Saturday Evening Post Ads, 1968

Few of us were alive and/or cognizant during the glory era of The Saturday Evening Post, the bedrock of the American magazine publishing establishment from, say, 1903 (when the mag famously introduced readers to Jack London's The Call of the Wild in serialized form) until 1969 (when a defamation lawsuit shuttered the publication, if temporarily). While the Post re-emerged in 1971 and has continued to exist in various forms since, it's more homage to its former grandiosity than it is vanguard of the magazine institution.

That said, the Post's innate aura of nostalgia (Norman Rockwell aside, please) draws one to its yellowing pages even today, and one can't help but breathe musty fumes of historical embers from one page to the next in, for example, the April 20, 1968 issue which I happened upon recently.

Most remarkable for a condensation of the grandiloquent Canadian-born economist and statesman John Kenneth Galbraith's novel The Triumph and a cover story on how America's police were honing their crowd-busting skills in the midst of the race riots of the Civil Rights era, one also finds comfort in the now-quaint historicity of its ads. To wit:

Ah, the Record-Club trap. Sure, you can get Sinatra for 99 cents. Then Dean Martin will cost you more.

This image tugs on more heart strings than you knew you had.

What happened to the guy who thought it was a good idea to print "Pay More" in size-144 font?

A 1968 ad that refers to 1907 as the good old days. Ah, the good old days.

These fictional barkeeping ballplayers are now a huge draw on eBay.

Click here to view the full album of 29 bourbon-shilling, muscle-car-bragging, cigarette-filter-innovation-boasting ads from the April 20, 1968 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Why Greg Mortenson's Shame is on Us

Now that self-made humanitarian and "stones-into-schools" false prophet Greg Mortenson has been ordered to repay more than $1-million to the charity he founded, exploited and financially mismanaged, it's as good a time as any to assess the disgraced Three Cups of Tea author and his crumbling empire of goodness.

Quick recap of Mortenson's (true) journey:

  • In 1993 Mortenson allegedly took a wrong turn (how prescient) while descending from a harrowing and unsuccessful summit attempt of K2 in Pakistan's Karakoram Range, into the village of Korphe where he discovered his inner altruist; 
  • In 1996 he founded the non-profit Central Asia Institute (CAI) with seed money from a Swiss millionaire to fund educational development in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan;
  • In 2006 he co-authored the best-seller Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time, and became a huge draw as a motivational speaker while all his expenses were being paid by CAI;
  • He collected no fewer than thirty-nine literary and humanitarian awards and honorary degrees between 2004 and 2011;
  • In 2010, US President Barack Obama donated $100,000 from the proceeds of his Nobel Prize to CAI;
  • In April 2011 the investigative news show 60 Minutes exposed the fact that Mortenson's famous 1993 sojourn to Korphe, as well as other claims made in the book (such as his capture by the Taliban, and, er, building lots of schools) almost certainly never happened;
  • A day after the 60 Minutes report, celebrated journalist, mountaineer and CAI donor Jon Krakauer released his own damning investigation of Mortenson, Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, detailing Mortenson's rap sheet of hypocrisy and how he (Krakauer) was duped into investing.

Charity fraud doesn't often come with the kind of alarm bells as Three Cups of Tea, a nauseating read whose obnoxious aggrandizement of Mortenson is both its marketing genius (it was published by Viking Press) and its flashing red warning light.

That is not to say that its millions of readers should be (solely) blamed for seeing a halo form above the author's head. Our appetite for such tales is as ravenous as our wallets are fat and our secret shame of wealth is heavy. Greg Mortenson created a religion and made himself its prophet. And like others before him, things didn't quite pan out the way he'd prophesied, if mainly because, as Nicholas Kristof noted, "Greg is more of a founding visionary than a disciplined CEO."

Krakauer and others concede that Mortenson is not pure evil (Bernie Madoff is the cited contrast), just someone in whom we invested an unholy amount of unearned trust.

That is why, we must conclude, bold promises attached to fabricated tales of education-starved children in Asia resulted in tens of millions in book sales and funds raised, a charity-funded book tour, private jets, disgruntled donors, shoddy financial statements, deliberate misinformation, and yes, a few schools.

In other words, Greg Mortenson did what he did because nobody stopped him. Nobody checked the facts, and nobody tempered his idealism (or our own) with a dose of reality. Or if they did, it didn't work.

His real success was not in exploiting his unique encounter with poverty in Pakistan to build schools, but in exploiting our naïveté with respect to encountering poverty. Greg Mortenson's shame is on us.

May we think about that before we write our next cheque to charity.