Letter from Alberta: Ellen Bielawski on dual elections and Dana Stabenow’s Alaska book picks in the Globe and Mail

This arrived from writer Ellen Bielawski, recently profiled on these pages, just in time to run before Tuesday…

Ever since the August morning when I stepped out of a portapotty at a campground to the sound of my partner shouting “McCain picked Palin!,” every aspect of my Canadian life has been subjugated to “You’re from Alaska! What’s she like?” Between McCain’s nod to Sarah and this week’s tense countdown to November 4, I’ve sailed in Canada’s (or not) sovereign Arctic waters with international expedition tourists, and flown from Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Baffin Island; to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and to Whitehorse, Yukon. Everywhere, among everyone, it’s “What’s Alaska like, to have this Palin as governor?” I start with “I don’t know Palin, but I do know Wasilla,” and take it from there.

Then, a week ago, I opened the Books section of our national newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, to see Dana Stabenow’s “Three for Thought: What you need to read about Alaska.” (Note from Andromeda: this article was free when it first appeared but now it’s subscription-only, unfortunately.) The weekly page features a guest writer who argues for three books on a current topic of interest. I was thrilled to see that an Alaskan writer, in fact, any Alaskan other than Palin, got a page in the G&M. And kudos to Stabenow. I don’t know how the G&M found her, but the Books section is one of the toughest publications to crack for Canadian writers.

In the piece, Stabenow suggested Ernest Gruening’s MANY BATTLES; Nick Jans’ THE LAST LIGHT BREAKING; and John Strohmeyers’s EXTREME CONDITIONS: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska. Other titles mentioned (it isn’t clear whether it was Stabenow or the G&M Editors who chose the above three for boldfaced print) include Velma Wallis’s TWO OLD WOMEN, Art Davidson’s IN THE WAKE OF THE EXXON VALDEZ, and Brian Garfield’s THE THOUSAND MILE WAR.

Readers of “49 Writers” know that we picked (unscientifically, of course) Seth Kantner’s ORDINARY WOLVES to send to Obama. I’m tempted to recommend THE ALASKA 67 (a guide to top Alaska historical books) all the time, just to show Canadians and other non-Alaskans how big, complex, and how writerly rich Alaska is.

I didn’t say firm ‘yays’ or ‘nays’ to Stabenow’s picks, except to feel that she punted a bit on Native voices, choosing Jans instead. However, I really laud her stroke of genius where she writes: “Forget books. How about three bumper stickers instead?” Then she chooses three winners, from three different times in our long-running love-hate relationship with “Outside.” (Remember Sarah in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, on our attachment to those ‘earmarks’ from Washington?) You know them all:




I’ve had great fun with the last one here. If you’ve never been to Alberta, just think Alaska. Big, sparsely populated, large Aboriginal population, alienated in the most superior way from the center of the country and its two French and English solitudes, extremely good at resource extraction (you’ve heard of the tar sands boom?) votes conservative every d—- time. Albertans drill for oil, strip-mine for bitumen, drive trucks and build bigger faster roads for the trucks. We haven’t had Palin, but plenty of her political soul-mates. Sadly, one was just re-elected Prime Minister, fortunately with only a minority government.

As Andromeda noted in one of her posts, Canada had its own federal election on October 14. Well, this time, we got one good opposition MP elected from Alberta. I am thrilled that my riding (electoral district) managed to elect the ONLY non-conservative Member of Parliament from the Province of Alberta (one out of 29 seats, by 428 votes out of 49,000 cast.) This gives me so much hope for the Obama-Biden ticket.

Yes, I can vote in Alaska, being a dual Canadian/U.S. citizen and having lived there as recently as 1998. When the “writ was dropped” for the Canadian election, I already knew I’d be door-knocking for our candidate here. In the meantime, in arranging to get my own absentee ballot for the U.S. election, I realized that both my sons, also dual citizens who have lived in Alaska, are now old enough to vote for the first time in the U.S. election. Getting them and a lot of their peers registered to vote in the Canadian election, if not the U.S. election as well, became my personal commitment for several weeks. Between our neighborhood and their two circles of friends, we got out a fair bit of the youth vote.

And that has been one of the most satisfying – already – experiences of this hectic election autumn: getting young people into the democratic process. What experiences they are having! How thrilled my younger son was as we spoke when our local cliff-hanger vote was finally counted in the wee hours! “She won, Mom!” “Don’t ever let anyone tell you your vote doesn’t count, “I crowed.

That was October 15. At that time, I’d fed all the information I could to both sons about registering on-line to vote from abroad. A week later, the younger one phoned me so I could walk him through the process over the phone, digging into the family archives for our old address, his social security number, and his U.S. passport number. A week later, older son called from Vancouver for the same information.

So, like you, we are hanging in suspense until vote counting starts the night of the 4th. At the university where I work, all the dual citizens or expatriate Americans are election-obsessed. Hallway conversation is all about the latest polls coming into our hand-held devices. I hang on email from my 86-year-old mother and three sisters in Anchorage, getting the local scoop to colour the BBC, CBC, and public TV channel news from Spokane, Washington. I was thrilled, again, to see the video of Alaska Women for Obama from some of the smallest yet most precious places where I spent my youth – Sterling, Kasilof. I’m proud of these women from my home.

How will this end?

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