If you ever have the opportunity to become an op-ed columnist in a local, independent newspaper, I highly recommend that you snatch it up. There can be few activities more rewarding than to vent to thousands of your friends and neighbours every week, knowing that some readers will cheer your words, while others’ blood will boil at every sentence.
If there’s a downside to being a columnist, it’s wondering how much effect you’re really having. There’s a rule of thumb that suggests one letter to the editor means a hundred people who considered writing, but didn’t get around to it. If that ratio holds true, then zero letters to the editor means one hundred times zero people were engaged enough to consider crafting a reply. Hmm.
Sometimes it’s tempting to throw a stone in the pond just to see if you can generate some ripples. Like say, for instance, a columnist – a hypothetical columnist that is – should write what he or she believes is a particularly provocative piece. Suppose in that piece he or she were to come down on the presumed-unpopular side of a hot local topic – say, for instance, gun control – and at the same time insult the intelligence of a popular politician.
How might that columnist feel if the stone entered that pond like a knife slicing the surface, stirring not so much as a fold in the water? Frustrated, is my first guess. That columnist might wonder if anyone is really out there. Nervous, is another possibility. He or she might start wondering if the editor too has noticed the paucity of response, and may be about to start looking for something new and more popular to favour the op-ed page.
But then, every once in a while, you get the feeling that your words are going somewhere, that if you’re not creating, or at least inspiring, a popular uprising, you’re certainly validating one. Last year, Nordicity was awarded the Ma Murray prize for Best Columnist for covering the hottest issue of the season. No, it wasn’t the prorogation of parliament, nor the bloody war that precipitated it, not the overcrowding of prisons or the plight of Third World countries or the fate of the Peel Watershed.
The issue was urban chickens. The Yukon News had reported that Whitehorse city planners were equivocal about the possibility of legalizing small-scale chicken farming in residential neighbourhoods, and this columnist came out strongly in favour.
As a chicken farmer, albeit a rural one, I felt a personal stake in the issue. I can attest to the fact that a laying hen is a hardworking proletarian who will provide uncomplaining service for years, and then instead of burdening the employee pension plan, will furnish her keeper with a tasty soup.
Her mate, I must admit, is another matter. My own rooster, Cato, is trained to test my reflexes whenever I turn my back on him – often when I’m busy collecting eggs you can hear my cries of, “Not now, Cato.” He is an exemplar of male aggression, and would be a hazard if let loose on the urban streets, but then few chicken farmers would stretch the definition of “free range” so far as to turn their cocks loose downtown.
So I was gratified to learn in the pages of last week’s Yukon News that the urban chicken movement is, albeit illegal, alive and well in Whitehorse. Clandestine “grow-ops,” as these underground chicken farms are called, are springing up around town, to the frustration of the egg-squad. Those boarded-up houses visited only once a day, that hint of a suspicious odour on the sidewalk? You guessed it.
Of course, as in any legal activity there are always a few desperados for whom the illegality is part of the attraction. One urban farmer told the News that her customers enjoy “sticking it to the man.” But is this good for society? Houses ruined by the moisture, cars coming and going at all hours of the day and night as customers drop in to purchase a “carton,” street talk for a dozen illegal eggs: can neighbourhoods survive the pressure?
Clearly decriminalization is the only answer. The city must act quickly, before criminal gangs step in to corner the lucrative egg trade. If there is a snag, it is that animal welfare advocates may object. According to the News article, “Vancouver’s SPCA has publicly opposed backyard chickens … fearing that they may be overrun with chickens when their owners no longer want them.” There is even talk of building a $20,000 shelter for abandoned poultry.
Whitehorse, fear not. Do not waste taxpayers’ dollars on a costly chicken shelter. Out of a sense of responsibility at having helped to engender the urban chicken movement, Nordicity hereby commits to taking any and all abandoned chickens at no cost to the city of Whitehorse. Drop ‘em off anytime. We promise you they won’t languish long in overcrowded cages. Not long at all.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.