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title Up Front

December 3, 2001 Issue Full Text

by Colby Cosh

The miracle worker

Twenty-five years ago, 60 schoolchildren from Langley, B.C., got together in a gymnasium to play and record some contemporary pop songs under the tutelage of a hippie music teacher named Hans Fenger. Although kids aged eight to 12 were more normally taught worn-out campfire standards by music instructors back then, the exercise was not terribly unusual. Mr. Fenger had some vinyl records of the session pressed at a local plant, which is a little more unusual. But what is most unusual is that the resulting record has, in 2001, been released on CD by an independent label and praised by Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and songwriters whose work appears on it, including David Bowie and Richard Carpenter.

The record was discovered by New Jersey radio personality and author Irwin Chusid, who specializes in "outsider music"--meaning, generally, naive or untutored music from unexpected places and people. He heard the LP now dubbed Innocence & Despair: The Langley Schools Music Project and was captivated. The singing, as David Bowie rightly says, is "earnest, if lugubrious." But combined with ingenious, Phil Spector-inspired production by Mr. Fenger, it creates an indescribable, thrilling effect. Songs like the Eagles' "Desperado" are given reworkings that arguably have more life than the originals. (On-line clips are audible at

After a quarter-century as a teacher, Hans Fenger has become an internationally celebrated genius. No one is more surprised than he is. When he answered Mr. Chusid's first phone call, his first thought was, "Uh oh--am I being sued?"

"I was fresh out of university [in 1976] and I had no experience of teaching music, only of playing it," he says. "So, naturally, I formed the kids into a band." He was fortunate, he says, to be teaching at a time of monumental pop-songwriting talent; Bowie, McCartney and Brian Wilson were still in the air and still relevant. The familiarity of the music allowed the children to play and sing it spontaneously.

"These kids, even the very young ones, liked to sing about heavy things," he says. "They don't like this 'Bow wow wow, my doggie's up in a tree' stuff any more than adults do. They embraced dark, introspective music, even if they couldn't spell 'introspective.'" His instinct apparently worked: of the 80 students on the record, at least six are professional musicians today and many more sing in amateur choirs.

But why has this odd, poignant music re-emerged now? "Timing is everything," says Mr. Fenger. "People have reached a saturation point with slickly produced commercial music. Everything's so pre-packaged. You can only see so many movies full of explosions and car chases before you get a craving to see something shot on Super-8 in Iran, something with real people in it."

More than anything, Mr. Fenger feels lucky. "After all, this could have happened after I was dead," he jokes. "When Irwin asked me to locate two clean copies of the LP, since I didn't have the original tapes anymore, I panicked. Guess who had them? My mother!" He laughs. "I was relieved, but a minute later, I went 'Hey, how come you never played these, Mom?'" Oh well. Phil Spector probably had the same problem.

Expensive pumpkins

Denis Lapierre of the Alberta education watchdog Schoolworks has kindly tipped Up Front to a edu-scam disclosed by provincial Auditor General Peter Valentine in his recent 2000-01 annual report. Alberta's Department of Learning pays out $80 million a year to schools for Career and Technology Studies (CTS). These are supposed to be vocational classes, and they are supposed to be graded and administered just like regular classes. But Mr. Valentine says a lot of the money is being snapped up by unscrupulous administrators for bogus programs.

One school received $409,000 in funding for 1,250 students in CTS classes; curiously, all these students emerged from the course with the same mark, a fact the department had not noticed. Another school received $130,000 for courses that turned out to be "based on student self-assessed participation in school activities such as pumpkin carving and door decoration." Other schools wrongfully claimed CTS funding for instruction provided "with" existing courses, in the same amount of time (a no-no); another claimed it had mysteriously provided vocational instruction in 12-minute blocks four days a week to 91% of the school population.

No doubt some portion of Albertans' $80 million is well spent, but the learning ministry apparently has no way of checking. Mr. Lapierre is trying to find out which specific schools bilked the taxpayer. In the meantime, when you hear teachers and administrators bleat about underfunding (or the evil of home-schooling), think of pumpkins.

A proud heritage

One from the "missing context" department. Here is an excerpt from a November 10 Canadian Press story on the 80th anniversary of a great Canadian institution:

"The Communist Party of Canada--which last had a member elected to the House of Commons 56 years ago--has never formed the Canadian government. But members argue it has influenced the country's social landscape...'I think our strength has been, generally speaking, our ideas,' said Liz Rowley, who is visiting Winnipeg from Toronto for the gathering. 'We're a small party with big ideas.'"

One scans the story in vain for the name of the aforementioned Communist MP. It was, of course, Fred Rose, who "influenced the social landscape" by passing nuclear secrets to the Russians. Unmasked by defector Igor Gouzenko in 1945, he was convicted of espionage, ejected from Parliament and jailed. But Stalinism certainly qualifies as a "big idea," we suppose.


From this magazine November 12, 1990:

The British Columbia Report checks in with young Vancouver Mayor Gordon Campbell, seeking a third term in the November 17 civic election (successfully, as it will turn out). Opponents mock the mayor for his "fence-sitting" campaign slogan of "Hard Work and Decency," but observers admit to being impressed by the lack of scandal surrounding Mr. Campbell as B.C.'s Social Credit provincial government crumbles from within. "One day, some are suggesting, Mayor Campbell could become Premier Campbell," predicts BCR reporter Ellen Saenger. The Socreds would love to have him, but "the Kid" will have to start at the bottom as a regular MLA, they say. One idea no expert suggests to BCR: that Mayor Campbell might take over the inert provincial Liberals. Hey, some things are too far-fetched to put in print!

A guilty illiberal pleasure

This year, voters on the Gemini Awards for Canadian TV excellence made a brave choice, giving the Best Comedy Direction statuette to an animated show so politically incorrect that no American network will buy it. John Callahan's Quads, which airs here on Teletoon and also in Australia and Europe, is a scathing, funny account of a quadriplegic's life based on the bitter, brilliant cartoons of the American "quad" humorist John Callahan.

Technically groundbreaking but lo-fi, the show is made entirely on computer with Macromedia's Flash program, the same one your 15-year-old neighbour might use on his Web page. Computers have opened doors to animators, but it is Mr. Callahan's sensibility that makes this show guilty fun. The scatological modern-day Thurber is, to say the least, not afraid to satirize the disabled: the infirm heroes of Quads call themselves "The Magnificent Severed," and one is so messed up that there is nothing left of him but a head on a skateboard. Familiar territory for a cartoonist whose punchlines routinely incite death threats. (Chinese couple: "Let's wok the dog." Bosomy secretary to colleague: "Remember, it's only sexual harassment if they're not dateable.")

Canadian animator Chris Labonte took home the Gemini statuette and says working with Mr. Callahan is a pleasure. "I always enjoy talking to him, as I usually get a scoop on whatever cartoon he is working on that day," he says. "He sees everything we do. He could veto or change anything he wants, but rarely does...I appreciate him trusting my judgment on so many levels." Mr. Labonte says that the new tools for inexpensive animation are fine, but the secret to good television has not changed. "I think it really depends on the people involved, especially the writing."

Equalization or inequity?

Nobel economics laureate James Buchanan dropped by Montreal on October 25 with a harsh message for Canadians. Fifty years ago, Prof. Buchanan's pioneering work on equalization payments in federal states suggested that large interprovincial transfers were the way to ensure that such a country worked efficiently. His work inspired the creation of the equalization programs now enshrined in our Constitution. But he told an audience at a conference sponsored by three think-tanks that he would now "qualify" what he said back then.

The problem, says Prof. Buchanan, is that interprovincial transfers ideally need to go directly to individuals. If they are swapped between governments, it creates "major inefficiency" as politicians and civil servants devour the pie. "Once you have an equalization instrument in place, as you have in Canada, there arise tremendous bureaucratic maintaining the system that you have," he told policy analyst Peter Holle in a post-speech interview. "If politicians get money to spend and don't have to be responsible for taxation, then of course that will bias their attitude toward more spending as opposed to cutting back." The result is a huge incentive for bloated "have-not" governments to avoid even basic reforms.

There is possible social value, the professor still thinks, in a system which discourages frantic interprovincial migration. Stable communities are a good thing. But the past century has taught us to distrust governments even when their motives are pure. For more of Prof. Buchanan's ideas, check out the Frontier Centre's Web site at

Duly Noted

The president of the Canadian Medical Association urged the federal government to bring Canadian doctors home from the United States with a big tax break November 2. Dr. Henry Haddad called the need to prepare for terrorist attacks an urgent matter of national security. Health Minister Allan Rock appeared nonplussed by the idea, but did not point out that Dr. Haddad was asking Canadian taxpayers to pay to take physicians away from a country that is under real, present terrorist attack. Hopefully the money will instead be spent instead on Canadian Forces helicopters that can actually stay in the air.

Canadian Blood Services (CBS) is holding a "consensus conference" to review the long-standing ban on blood donation by gay and bisexual men. Experts and stakeholders were to convene in Ottawa to re-examine the "scientific, ethical, moral and societal" principles behind blood-donation policies, CBS president Graham Sher told the Ottawa Citizen. "A recipient of a blood product has an absolute right to getting a product that is maximally, optimally safe," he said. He then went on to say that this right had to be "balanced" with the "wish or desire" of high-risk individuals to donate blood. Perhaps Dr. Sher needs a refresher on the dictionary meaning of "absolute," or on the contents of the Krever Report.

A lawyer for the Canadian Arab Federation lambasted the federal government's omnibus anti-terrorism bill in a November 6 hearing of the Commons Justice Committee. Calling it an "overly simplified reflex reaction," Amina Sherazi complained that the terms of the bill would have meant serious legal penalties for "Louis Riel, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi." It seems Riel finds himself in classier company every year, but is Ms. Sherazi aware that he was convicted of actual treason and hanged by the neck until dead? No risk of anyone meeting that fate in today's Canada.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien unleashed a surprising attack on Progresso-Democratico-Conservo-Coalition Leader Joe Clark November 6, making fun of the way Mr. Clark's jowls and hands shake during question period in the House of Commons. Mr. Clark acknowledged that he has a worsening case of Diefenbaker syndrome, but expressed surprise that our spastic PM, "of all people," would mock another's physical infirmity. You could almost say Mr. Chretien had put his foot in his mouth, but we have never seen him get both sides of it open wide enough to accommodate a shoe.

Canada 3000, the second-largest airline in the country, applied for legal protection from its creditors last month. Arrangements made by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice collapsed almost immediately when airports in other jurisdictions, owed landing fees, seized planes from the company's fleet. Formal bankruptcy followed on November 11. Travellers will no doubt greet the news with mixed emotions: Canada 3000 kept Air Canada honest with good international fares, but was the only airline in the world with staff even more supercilious and inconsiderate than Air Canada's. R.I.P.

Dog-bites-man dept.: on November 7, Inspector Kash Heed of the Vancouver police told the Nolin Committee, the Senate body reviewing Canada's drug laws, that his force pursues a policy of "de facto legalization," ignoring end-users of marijuana and focusing on sellers and growers. The next day, senators toured a storefront that openly dispenses medical marijuana. Senator Pat Carney asked how staff would tell "if someone had overdosed"; this would in fact be pretty easy to spot, since you would have to be injecting THC (the active ingredient) directly into your bloodstream to OD on it. You might want to bone up on the science a bit there, Pat, if you seriously intend to help determine national drug policy.

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