That’s a La-da Change

It may not be flattering to compare a country to a car, but it’s hard to resist the symbolism the Lada holds when it comes to the Ukraine and her people.

A low-key, reliable car, with easy-to-replace parts, which takes-a-licking-and-keeps-on-ticking.  AsWikipedia put it, the keys to the Lada’s “…success were: competitive price, reliability, simple DIY-friendly mechanics and unpretentious functionality.” 

One of the many (many, many, many) Ladas I saw and snapped a pic of

On Easter Sunday, at least insofar as the ‘western calendar’ has it, a TV comedian was voted-in to the Presidency of this country of 42 million people. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyi is a man who rose to fame on the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars, and more recently has had a star turn on a TV show where an anti-corruption-crusading viral video vaults a school teacher into the Presidency of the country. 

Zelenskyi entered the Presidential race via TV announcement on New Year’s Eve, then continued to tour the country rotating between paid performances and free campaign rallies. 

The crush of pre-election polls following the first round of voting on March 31st, and he now goes from launching the third season of his hit show Servant of the People – literally playing the President on TV – and walks straight from the Green room into the House with Chimaeras (I kid you not, the Ukrainian President actually lives in a building of this name).

The House of Chimaeras

In winning the run-off, this Gen X thespian bested his opponent, the incumbent Petro Poroshenko (a Ukrainian Willy Wonka, whose oligarch-status is owed primarily to the Candy empire he built on his name “Roshen”).  Poroshenko has been in politics since 1998, serving as Foreign Minister and in a variety of other positions and portfolios, while running his many and sprawling family enterprises (which were reportedly put into blind trusts, although allegations of links remained during his tenure as President).

The Kyiv flagship of the Roshen chain

Poroshenko has been President since 2014, following the Maidan revolution that sent the Russian-stooge Victor Yanukovych packing to exile in Russia (and recently convicted in Ukrainian courts, in absentia, for high treason, with estimates of the embezzlement he and his cronies conducted ranging from $5 to $100 billion, with the General Prosecutor most recently pegging the number at about $40 billion USD). 

The main ‘house’ itself

Map of the grounds of Mezhyhirya

Yanukovych‘s former Mansion and abode, Mezhyhirya – now turned into a National Park – is a totem to corruption that is disgustingly cool to visit. See above a couple of photos from my visit earlier this month, not including photos of: the 18-hole golf course, Zoo, Helipad, Aviary, Antique Car Museum, Dining Hall, Fire Pit, Riverboat, Pony rides, etc, that were all a part of his living arrangements while President from 2010-14.

Although elected on a wave of ‘change’ in post-revolutionary times, Poroshenko seems to have traded in the mantle of change-maker for a reputation this time-out as the definition of “the problem”.

Embroiled in corruption scandals of his own it seems citizens have hardened in their belief that all those experienced or earnest politicians are ‘on the take’, so why not give the Comedian-who-plays-the-President a chance to take the reins? 

An online teaser for the show Servant of the People

This country literally buffers Europe from the Russian behemoth, and continues to fight against military aggression from its former politburo-in-chief in the Eastern Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, which border on Russia and are tied into the many issues surrounding the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula.

The fact that a free and fair election was conducted in this environment, and on this scale, is fairly remarkable.

The first round of voting, on March 31, had 39 candidates on the ballot, only 7 of whom got 1% or more of the vote. Some of them were “technical candidates” (what some might call ‘Kamikaze’ candidates in North America), with identical last names to certain front-runners.

Zelenskyi emerged victorious with 73.2% of votes cast in the second round/run-off, according to Ukrainian NGO OPORA’s parallel vote tabulation.  A resounding victory by any democratic standard.

The challenges confronting him, and the country, are legion. 

The average Ukrainian’s wage at this time last year was ~$430 CAD (~$323 USD).  If you lived in the capital city Kyiv, that average was $684 CAD ($513 USD) a month, where the cost of living is also higher.  In the rural areas, though it could vary widely, wages could be as low as $326 CAD ($245 USD) in the southwest of the country. A retiree/pensioner could make as little as $73 CAD ($55 USD) a month.Annual household income has dropped after the Maidan revolution of 2013-14 by more than 60%. It stands today at approximately the levels of 2005 by some estimates.  And it’s not that these wages are being spread across a greater population.  The population has been in decline since ~1994, and now stands around the level it was in the late 1960s.

Zelenskyi tapped into the frustration, with slogans like ‘We can’t wait another five years’ (the length of a presidential term).

And the downward pressures on wages are only one challenge.

Energy costs have spiraled for the average Ukrainian, in part as a result of IMF-imposed conditions on loans the country began to draw-on in the Fall of 2018, which now eat-up to half the comparatively-meagre incomes the country’s citizens live on in many cases.

Disappointment, disenfranchisement and other forms of disillusionment since the focal-point of the Maidan revolution in Independence Square in Kyiv in 2013-14 are legion, and the challenges many – from the tug of Europe, to the grip of Russia…and this is only the Presidential election.  The Parliamentary elections for the Verkhovna Rada will take place in October 2019.

Fittingly, this office building is on the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kyiv.

Corruption is still a central facet of many citizens’ view of how politics gets done, how people get rich, and how they are left on the sidelines.

During my time as an election observer both in the Fall of 2014, and during the first-round of the Presidential election in March 2019, I heard both hope and notes of resigned cynicism from many of the ‘ordinary’ Ukrainians I encountered.

My STO partner and I visiting a prison polling station on March 31st.

Ukraine remains in large measure a post-Soviet country, with all the scars – economic, social and otherwise – that were inflicted during and after that time.

There’s no question – leaders and leadership are important.  And now the Ukraine has a TV showman as its new frontman, a far stretch from how many Ukrainians view themselves.

This election resulted in the Lada swapping drivers.  It will be interesting to see what direction is charted (on the country’s notoriously pot-holey roads, and beyond) from here.

Maidan Square.

Back in the ‘Saddle’

For whatever combination of reasons, lame and legitimate, I haven’t written a blog post since early Summer 2017.

It’s not that I haven’t intended to. I have started writing posts en route back from some work, educational and volunteer trips to various places in the world, or across North America.

So much has happened in my life and work since 2017. Much of it worth writing about, although lots of the temporal impetus having now passed the increasingly-short attention spans we seem to have afflicting us these days for timeliness.m, it’s fallen by the wayside.

I will get back to blogging more regularly now; both as an outlet, as a form for connection and for sharing what will hopefully sometimes be interesting and topical.

I have the great good fortune of traveling for work and volunteer commitments, and our family makes a point of taking our kids to expose them to the world.  I am acutely aware that this is still a rare privilege, notwithstanding how “small” the world often feels.

Many of the places I’ve been in the last few years are back “in the news” these days for various and often dubious reasons. For example:

– South Africa has pivotal elections coming up in a month;

– New Zealand is still reeling from the Christchurch shootings;

– Northern Ireland and the UK are spinning dangerously close to revisiting some of the chords of The Troubles as “Brexit” swirls;

– Ukraine just voted in the first round of its presidential elections, handing a comedian (who plays the President on TV) a first round lead that doubles that of the incumbent president, amidst a backdrop of a simmering military conflict with Russia and torn between a Europe whose identity is shifting in uncomfortably murky directions and the old Soviet totems;

– Northern Canada grapples with climate change, food insecurity, energy prices, suicide, housing and many other compounding challenges;

– The U.S. grapples with a “very stable genius” running the country and the opening-up of fault lines ; and,

– Right here in Canada, well, there always seems to be a lot going on in our politics and society.

Expect me to offer my anecdotes, experiences and – perhaps most importantly – my learnings and overhearings from those living those various realities full-time.

I’ll start with what’s most fresh, the Ukraine, and work and wend my way through threads that feel or seem relevant or interesting.

If you think others might find interest in these musings and sharesies, please encourage them to sign up here: (and scroll to the bottom).


Minority Rules

This is the first general election in Nova Scotia that I have sat-out, or had no role other than as an interested citizen, in nearly twenty years. Even as we age, we never stop having new experiences, I guess.

As I’ve listened to the analysis, and public domain opinion polls reporting a likely minority government outcome in NS – and the news out of British Columbia in the last 36 hours on the newly-minted minority-government-to-be – my thoughts lept back a decade.

While I was working for the then-Opposition leader, I decided to do my Master of Arts in Political Science, part-time. I chipped away at it over a few years, and when it came time to do my thesis, I chose to do an analysis of “What Makes Minority Government Work”, drawing lessons from the 1998-99 and 2003-06 minority governments in NS.

It wasn’t only a “thing” in NS at the time. One also existed Federally, and there were three other provinces with minority governments. It felt a little like the equivalent of a political plague no sitting government wanted to catch.

Here are the five factors I drew out, from interviews with six former party leaders and their senior staff that influence whether a minority government can be made to work.

1. How the minority came to be.

There’s that old aphorism – where you’re going in life depends on where you came from. In this case, the genesis of the government is important to its outlook – is it a party dropping from majority to minority, and on political life support…or another party joyously forming a new government? Do the parties accept/embrace the legitimacy of the result? Do they have (and did they have the foresight to keep?) experienced staff? How deep is the talent pool in their caucus.

2. What the parties perceive to be the value of cooperation.

This is a question of both form and function. Cooperating is one thing, but whether that is through a formal deal or on an issue-by-issue basis matters, because the ink is barely dry on any agreement before “events my friend, events”, intervene. The relative comfort-level of each of the participating parties is important, too. Will the governing party act like they own the place, or be gracious hosts who are willing and able to share credit and bite their tongue? And how will voters treat either obstreperous or magnanimous behavior among the parties/leaders.

3. The state of existing inter-party dynamics.

The parties have to be able to speak a common language; this can’t be a Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars moment. So do they have established relationships of trust and/or respect? Are their friendships that can be leveraged? Does the supporting party believe they will be sidelined or treated as a junior partner? What are the shared – and/or opposing – policy and/or political interests?

4. The tolerance for the minority’s existence/continuation by the caucus’, parties and the public.

These three distinct but important groups each have different – and often conflicting – views that bear on the outcome of any minority. Political caucus’ are notoriously fickle, and not only have to juggle job security considerations, but are also the “front-line” in receiving public feedback; whether they live in the oblivious ‘bubble’ or the real world is crucial. The party apparatus of each major party is primarily concerned with the practical – can we afford to run a competitive general election campaign, do we have the infrastructure and people in place, etc. And the public, who public opinion says have been generally supportive of minority governments in Canada over time, basically expect people to act like grown-ups and cooperate.

5. The effect of agency (e.g. the players/personalities).

The personalities of the leaders are key. How new or experienced they are matters, and what role(s) they have played in the past helps prepare them for the work of a minority. Who leaders surround themselves with is also highly influential. The reality is that people are people, and people run governments. A minority government can feel a bit like walking around tightly holding political/policy grenades with the pin pulled. In reality, it should be treated more like a sheet of ice in Winter – slips and falls happen, but if you tread carefully and deliberately, crossing is fairly straightforward. Temperament, experience and wisdom play as great a role as anxiety, impatience and arrogance.

Let’s be clear – there are myriad factors about how things can work, for how long…and why, or why not. The above, however, holds true today as both a framework to understand and predict how workable a minority will or could be today, particularly in Nova Scotia.

These factors vary from the very practical – such as weekly meetings of all three leaders’ Chiefs of Staff, operating under a ‘no surprises’ dictum when it comes to government policy. To the very human – not making threats you are not prepared, or that it is not advisable, to follow through on. The annals of legislative politics are littered with hot-headed reactions and statements, and bluster. These have no functional place in a minority government.

In NS one of the key factors folks cited in the 2003-06 minority work was that John Hamm was the first – and at that point, only – party leader to have held every one of the three leadership roles in the Legislature (Leader of the Third Party, Leader of the Official Opposition, and Premier). Hamm himself, and his former Chief of Staff Jamie Baillie, both cited this in interviews as a factor in the perspective and demeanour in leading a minority government from 2003-06.

Fun fact – there is one other party leader returned to this new Legislature who holds the same distinction as John Hamm did, having served in all three leadership roles: Stephen McNeil.

And, who is the leader of the Official Opposition? That same former Chief of Staff to John Hamm, Jamie Baillie – a person who has held two of those three roles (so far…?), and who was credited with helping run an effective minority from 2003-06.

So what do the days to come hold?   Lots and lots of grand statements of transparent and cooperative intent, and closed-door strategy sessions.  Lots of media speculation and navel-gazing.

One safe prediction – though – they don’t involve another election anytime soon.

There’s always an 11th round


A family in Kathputli Colony (called Kathputli "Slum"​ by locals and authorities) in New Delhi, India. I took this photo in Feb 2017 while touring the area with a local resident. The residents are facing eviction by the city...11th round to follow.


There are probably a million variations on the theme – the most prolific of which has to do with not burning a bridge you may want or need to walk across some day.

We can probably all remember being told as young as elementary school, after a playground encounter or classroom outburst, some variation of this aphorism.

In a context equally applicable in life and in business – and with a little more nuance than the idea of lighting up a bridge and warming yourself on the flames – I heard it expressed in negotiation terms – “…there’s always an 11th round.”

A few years back, one of the experts at the Harvard Program on Negotiation opened the program with this phrase.

What I took him to mean was essentially this (to borrow a phrase from the late, great Stuart McLean): the universe is not big, but it’s small. Or, more to the point, your universe is never as big as you think or might like to believe.

The likelihood that you will come directly, or indirectly, in contact with a “former” counter-party, colleague or friend is high enough as to outweigh the inevitably transient feeling of whatever epic smack-down; overtly hostile, patriarchal or smug comment; or “extra juice” you choose to extract from someone over whom you hold advantage or sway.

Like all humans, I’ve fallen victim to believing I roam in a universe big enough to allow me the luxury of acting like an a** on one-too-many occasions. And, like all of us, I’ve walked into that “11th round” and endured the discomfort, dissatisfaction or outright shame about my behaviour during some part of rounds 1-10 with that individual.

Dealing with those moments can be tender to be sure. But avoiding them in the first place is a lot easier…than taking a gamble on whether and when we will end-up in round #11.


Shout-out of the week

The wonderful folks at the Springtide Collective in Nova Scotia have undertaken a much-needed project, called “On the Record, Off Script”. What is it? Simply put, it’s a series of exit-interviews with former Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) about their work, roles and the state of democracy in Canada’s oldest responsible government (1848).

In my humble opinion, it’s worth considering two things:

1) Subscribing to the Podcast on the medium of your choice; and,

2) Donating to help them continue this important work. I have no doubt we will all be in their debt someday.

Expanding my “Pitching Repertoire”

Sports are great for the metaphors.

How many times have you heard someone bring a point home (see what I did there…?) with a great metaphor from the world of sports?

As I gathered with hundreds of other people touched by the life and legacy of one awesome human being last week, one of his great friends (and eulogists) told a story that has caused me to reflect; a lot.

It has to do, fundamentally, with what’s in one’s “pitching repertoire” – what kinds of pitches do we (and, maybe more importantly, can we) throw?

Some of us can throw a mean fastball (pssst….type A people, that’s us). Maybe we get a little too used to that, and have lost the ability (if we ever had it) to toss a change-up, throw a slider, flip in a knuckleball or let a curve ball rip.

We tell ourselves it’s okay to be a one-pitch-johnny/jane in our increasingly specialized world…it’s what makes us effective and sets us apart from the crowd, that wicked fastball; right?

For me, the loss of a person who was intentional about how and when to throw what kind of a pitch – and who made so many lives better for it – is a good occasion to take stock of my own ‘pitching’ abilities.  I’ve found it helpful to think about it this way: what is in our pitching repertoire matters everywhere we are present. It matters in everyday interactions in a coffee shop; with family, friends and kids; sitting across the table from tough counterparties or important big-wigs; or just being one of the crowd in life.

And not because we want to be Machiavellian and manipulate people to our own ends by throwing just the right pitch at the right moment. But because when you practice something authentically and often it will come instinctively, and open up opportunities that would otherwise not have existed.

The result of this assiduous practice for my late friend enabled a kind of human connection, and personal and professional achievement, that illustrates what’s possible in a life truly, well and richly lived.

So as the Spring thaw sets in, whether you’re a baseball fan or not, maybe this is a good time for us all to pick up a ball, rub on some A535, warm up the arm and practice a few of our most underused pitches.


Shout-out of the week:

A good friend sent me a podcast recommendation this week – and I offer it up for your consideration. Of particular interest to me was the recent one focusing on the Northern Irish community of Corymeela, where my cousin has worked, and beside which I often jog when visiting my father’s family home in Ballycastle.

Note: I snapped the photo for this article inside an abandoned building at the edge of Rathlin Island, across the strait from where Corymeela is located, while on a visit home about this time of year in 2015.