Playing Stephen Leacock: The Unsolved Riddle of Pipelines for the Oil Sands

This morning I am wondering what Stephen Leacock would have made of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Controversy, also what might be made of it by application of the General Theory of Unsolved Riddles. The Controversy is hot this week, having branched out in the David Suzuki Honorary Degree Controversy, and if that doesn’t bring Stephen Leacock immediately to mind, I don’t know what would. I am referring, of course, to the spectacle of an angry bunch of blinkered people accusing David Suzuki of being blinkered, and wanting him to be denied an honorary degree (of which he has many), a recognition that is in fact nobody’s business except the conferring institution (in this case the University of Alberta) and the conferee. The world at large cares nothing for honorary degrees, and neither I suspect does David Suzuki. He doesn’t need any more. His reputation is firm.

I find it difficult to answer the first part of my question, which is why I put the second. Stephen Leacock was certainly an strong advocate for resource development as a means to prosperity, employment, and well-being. He usually sided with the federal government on constitutional issues, believing that provincialism undermined the sense of national purpose that he so acutely desired. He would have been sympathetic to the federal government’s claim that that pipeline serves the national interest. On the other hand, he urged (in his 1936 article “Reflections on the North”) that we “see to it that in the new trust of the future of the North we make fewer errors than in the old.” He would have been sympathetic to the counter-claim that that pipeline is simply a repetition of the old errors. Judging by what he said about the landscapes of British Columbia during his 1936-37 tour he would have been appalled at the idea of their pollution by anything as noxious as diluted bitumen. He might well have listened to those who argue that the pipeline is no longer needed by the market as a whole, however much it may serve narrower interests. As he assimilated the lessons of the Great Depression he would not have been impressed by any analyses of economists, for or against. In short, he might very well have consigned this pipeline to the realm of Unsolved Riddles, and been content simply to define the problem.

If he proposed a decision it might possibly look like this: Let private enterprise and capital build the pipeline if they think it worthwhile, but regulate them firmly to make sure they act not only in their own interest but in the public interest. He would have seen nothing wrong with imposing stringent risk-reducing conditions on such a project.

The second part of my question therefore becomes the more interesting. Now Stephen Leacock did not develop the General Theory of Unsolved Riddles, although he first raised the possibility. Development will, I hope, become an accomplishment of the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial in 2019. I don’t want to get too far ahead of the conversation, but I am tempted to practise on the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

I suggest, for starters, that the General Theory might well contain the following three principles, applicable to this case:

  1. That where the resource development clashes with stewardship for the environment, as it almost inevitably does with large projects, the result is an Unsolved Riddle.
  2. That Unsolved Riddles should be analyzed in the light of the Leacock Tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. Under all the complexity and contradictions of contemporary conditions, I believe that this Tetrad is what “Reason” means. We are being “reasonable” when we think this way.
  3. That such analysis is unlikely to yield a clear decision. To make the best decision we can under the circumstances will require Conversation, Negotiation, and Mutual Accommodation, leading not to a “Solution”, that being by definition out of reach, but to a Resolution of the Riddle.

I say Accommodation, and not Compromise, because I believe this to be one of those situations where both sides are right. Prosperity is not a trivial pursuit and is in fact one of the prerequisites for social justice. There seems little doubt that the Trans Mountain Pipeline will contribute to prosperity, at least for some. When I look at my own way of life, which is comfortable but not opulent, I am in no doubt about my reliance on fossil fuels, and while I see many possibilities for reducing it, I think it will remain for the foreseeable future. Neither is stewardship of the environment a trivial pursuit. Just last Fall I passed through the country where that pipeline will cross, and the idea of one of those river valleys or that coastline being flooded with diluted bitumen chills my blood. I know that the pipeline system on the whole, all 75,000 kilometres of it, is remarkably safe. I also know that it is not perfectly safe, that accidents will occur. We have seen them and we know how terrible they can be. We do well to be afraid of them. We also know that our west coast is an earthquake zone, and may well elevate our fears accordingly.

Let us see, very briefly and in a preliminary way, what the Leacock Tetrad yields us:

Knowledge: While many will argue, quite rightly, for an “evidence-based” decision, I fear we will find the evidence conflicting, at least as it concerns the fundamental conflict between perceived economic benefits and environmental risk-avoidance. A careful look at evidence might tell us whether the pipeline is necessary under current market conditions. If no longer necessary it therefore must be classified as a boondoggle and should not be built. Evidence would also tell us whether it has become a symbolic issue in one or more partisan or other arenas of narrowly defined interest. If so, we should treat all arguments for or against with extreme care, as being possibly propaganda rather than reasonable conversation.

To be clear in my beliefs: There is nothing unreasonable in being either for or against this pipeline. The controversy relies on differing subjective weights assigned to both probabilities and magnitudes of perceived benefits and risks, both private and public.

Imagination: I think that Imagination has two obvious roles in this conversation. First, everyone engaged in it needs to imagine that the others, regardless of their points of view, may be right in some important sense. We usually have no difficulty seeing how people are wrong. We struggle often with the other. If both sides in a controversy can see the rightness in the other side, then the whole tone of the conversation changes and the search for solutions or accommodations can become creative. Seeing only the wrongness makes that much more difficult. Second, both sides need to start imagining what a creative solution or accommodation might look like. I will return to this suggestion.

What we don’t need are people on one side of the issue imagining cornucopias of benefits and a complete absence of disasters, and an equally stubborn bunch on the other imagining few benefits and horrible disasters. Imagination of those kinds contributes nothing positive.

Compassion: I am prepared to accept that everyone in this conversation — I hope it will become a conversation — is being compassionate to someone. Those in favour are being compassionate towards the people who need jobs and those who need the products. These are important. They are also being compassionate towards the legion of concerned shareholders, who might suffer a diminution in their rates of return, and in a broad sense towards the tax-payers of Alberta who might otherwise have to contemplate the imposition of a sales tax and its resulting trauma. To assess these importances on a  national scale of weights requires careful calculation. Those against are being compassionate towards the natural environment, certainly, and towards all those whose livelihoods and well-being would be damaged or destroyed in the event of an accident. These too are important, and increasingly so, as the power of our machines and the size and ambition of our projects steadily increase our capacity to inflict damage.

Humour: This element is Stephen Leacock’s distinctive contribution to the Art of Deciding What To Do. He defined Humour not merely as something that makes us laugh, although it often does that, but as the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and the expression thereof. Well, what could be more incongruous than the sight and sound of a great public institution like the University of Alberta seeking to recognize, also bask in the reflected glory of, an aging celebrity while defending its right to do so on the grounds of academic freedom, coupled with the accompanying howls of outrage with demonstrations and cuttings-off of donations from and by those who don’t agree with him, further coupled with the pomposities of politicians seeing some advantage to them in taking one side or the other? “Tempest in a teapot” is the image that hops to mind. Much deeper, however, is the sheer incongruity of the whole approach that we, the people, our governments, our politicians, and our beloved news media, are taking to this whole vexed question which is either important, in which case our whole approach is grotesquely inappropriate, or not, in which case it is stupid. Either way, to contemplate it with kindness, and to laugh at ourselves for the fools we are, might well stimulate our imaginations to work as they must if we are to find the best available resolution.


I would like to suggest that the conversation necessary to resolve this particular Unsolved Riddle might reasonably proceed on the following lines:

  1. That as long as the financing of this pipeline remains in the private sector — at least to the extent normal for such projects — we can safely leave the financial and micro-economic aspects of this decision to the private financiers. As soon as they begin asking for public participation, however, we should consider whether that means that the economic benefits are deteriorating. In that case we can legitimately give them less weight in our our own wider calculations which necessarily take in environmental, social, macro-economic, national, provincial, regional, long-term developmental, widely strategic, public-interest, and other considerations about which the financiers are unlikely to be concerned. After all, arguments for a pipeline are largely economic — whether the viewpoint is national or Albertan. This is not a great enterprise of public art, or even wide-use infrastructure like a highway, railroad, airport, electrical or communication system, etc. It is not proposed in order to make oil available for domestic use. It is designed to move bitumen from mine sites onto ships, for transport overseas.
  2. The argument being made by Alberta, that being a land-locked province in a largely sea-coasted confederation the problem of getting its products to market is a constitutional one, is important, but may not apply in this case. The question here concerns getting one particular product to market — diluted bitumen — which, given its composition, must be considered a dangerous good. The constitutional argument being raised by British Columbia is equally valid, because Alberta wants to move not just the occasional shipment but a massively huge quantity of the stuff every day for years. I think that both provinces would have the right to be equally offended if a decision were rammed down its throat. Since the decision to build or not to build is, in its present form, an either-or decision, then the constitutional argument is self-cancelling.
  3. I believe that the contributions of Knowledge (with one important exception) and Compassion in this riddled conversation are largely unhelpful, because equally strong in both directions. Given the uncertainty and subjectivity involved, people should be perfectly entitled to interpret the evidence differently without imputation of ill will. We must needs rely therefore on Imagination. A modest application of Humour, by contemplating each other with some kindness or even laughing at our collective ritualized mutual intransigence, will allow us to move the conversation into the imaginative realm.
  4. Or maybe Knowledge can help, if we look at the important exception. I remember attending a talk by a senior executive of either Syncrude or Great Canadian Oil Sands, as it was then called, back in February of 1974, in which he proudly showed us two vials of oil-sands product, one raw bitumen and the other synthetic crude of high quality. Even then they knew how to make the latter out of the former, the latter being a clean form of a product that we move around through pipelines all the time, hither and yon, through all kinds of terrain. Occasionally there are accidents, to be sure, but they are rare and largely containable. Even the occasional serious one, like the recent spill into the North Saskatchewan River, is nothing like what the same phenomenon would be if the effluent were diluted bitumen. There may be risks in moving synthetic crude, but they are the same risks as we take in moving crude oil generally, and we seem to find them tolerable. I read that 40% of oil sands and heavy oil production is now up-graded to synthetic crude. Is it unreasonable for us to imagine 100%? If 40% is possible, and affordable, then so is 100%, or at least, if anyone wants to persuade us otherwise they should show us the numbers.
  5. Affordable too, I am sure, are measures necessary to lower the risks of leakage, breakage, and spillage to acceptable levels, which should be zero in those places where accidents would do severe damage, such as river valleys and coastlines. There are places along that route, including the sea lanes beyond the pipeline, where accidents simply cannot be allowed to happen, where zero risk is the only acceptable level. Pipelines, transfer stations, and ships can be made to meet that standard, at a cost of course. If the cost is deemed too high for the value of the product, then the project is uneconomic. Period. The idea that it should be made “economic” by infusions of public funds, beyond what is normal, is completely unacceptable under these circumstances.

There. The General Theory of Unsolved Riddles, at least as applied here, got Alberta a Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion carrying synthetic crude from the oil sands through British Columbia under high technical standards backed by tough regulations to lower the risk of accidents, totally preventing them in especially sensitive areas. Did it get us anywhere, here in the blog? Not likely. Could it get us anywhere, if transported out of the blog and into a public discussion?

I am sure this resolution has been proposed by others. Why are we not hearing about it? In the early years it was the standard plan for the transport and sale of oil-sands and heavy oil. What happened?

What do you think?


Posted April 26-27 2018, 336-5 days before onset of a Stephen Leacock Sesqui-cum-triaquarteria-centennial in 2019.





Tomorrow the Preparations Launch!

Stephen Leacock was born in Hampshire, England on December 30, 1869, emigrated to Canada in 1876, and died in Toronto on March 28th, 1944. Next year—2019—will thus be the 150th anniversary of his birth and the 75th anniversary of his death, a sesquicentennial and a triaquateriacentennial (septuagintaquinquennial?) in the same year.

This blog, its companion blogs: ( and, and its connected web site ( are going to pull out all the stops in order to celebrate this occasion as it should be celebrated. We are taking a whole year, beginning tomorrow (March 28th, 2018), to prepare for the main launch in one year’s time. The Celebration itself will last for 277 days, ending on the sesquicentennial day itself.

The fanfare will blast out slughorn-wise as follows:

Through an iSymposium building on the earlier (1985) Leacock Symposium at the University of Ottawa. Ideas were floated there that cry out to be pursued;

In a book telling about our adventures with Stephen Leacock which go back many years but were particularly boisterous in 2017; and

By continuing the various elements in our Stephen Leacock Project which is now agitating to expand into a Canadian Enlightenment Project.

E-mails will start to go out tomorrow with invitations to participate in the iSymposium. If you want to be on the list, please write to us at

Details and ideas will appear on all the media we can summon to the task. Please stay tuned.


Reflecting on the Leacock Re-Tour

January 17, 2018

Leslie and I returned from the Re-Tour (Re-Tourned, as it were) exactly on schedule on December 9th, after 52 days plus previews, 12,800 kms, and 60 events. To cut a long story short, we did what we set out to do all according to plan, and if we perhaps did not prove that we can draw audiences the way Stephen Leacock did in 1936-37, we believe that our audiences had a good and interesting time, as we certainly did. We met a lot of people and saw a lot of country, and no one can deny that that is a very fine Canadian thing to have done in our sesquicentennial year.

2019 is Stephen Leacock’s sesquicentennial year, of his birth that is, and I have no doubt that the Stephen Leacock Project will think of something interesting to do then. Just what that might be remains to be seen.

As does the future of this blog. It will have a future. That is about all I can say at this stage. I have much to read and think before I will know.

Thank you for paying attention. Please stay tuned.

From Re-Tour to Re-Turn: Day 42

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017: Vancouver

Thoughts rattling around in my head before setting out for the Finale event at Green College. Stephen Leacock wrapped up his tour at UBC, and so will we.

No diminution of enthusiasm for the old buster, nor for talking about him, nor for performing his works. I wonder how many subjects would endure so well after 41 days on the road, plus previews, and 55 events. One more to go.

Such friendly and interested audiences, such wonderful hospitality.

About 7,200 kleacocks to get this far. The return journey will be more direct, adding about 4,800 more.

The outward journey was primarily about cities and events. The return will be mostly about space and distance. We have seen some of those too on the way out, but the focus was always on the next port of call and its events.

I am looking forward to the drive, all of it, be the weather what it may. Right now it looks not too bad at least for the first stage back to Edmonton. Then we’ll see.

Mountains, parkland, prairie, boreal forest and lakes, Lake Superior, the North Channel and Georgian Bay. Seven days driving if the weather holds, with four days for family in Edmonton.

It’s going to feel good to round the last turn at Hepworth and head north up the Peninsula. Home. Dog. Friends — two sadly departed since we left. Forest. Quiet. Winter coming. Routine.

So much to remember, so much to think about, so many new channels to explore.

Please stay tuned. This blog will become something different in the new year.

Day 23: Edmonton (Sherwood Park, in fact) and the Joy of Unsolved Riddles

November 10, 2017

People have been asking for the lyrics to Unsolved Riddles Forever! Here they are. I’ll put them on our web-site or make a page of them later on.

Unsolved Riddles Forever!
Lyrics by Paul W Conway
Tune: The Maple Leaf Forever
(Alexander Muir 1830-1906)

When Stephen Leacock looked across
The wide excursions of this land,
He could have seen an albatross
Hung out on every hand;
But instead he heard the songs of birds,
The dancing tunes of fiddles;
He laughed, sat down, and put in words
The Joy of Unsolved Riddles.

At Unsolved Riddles let us smile
And count them as a blessing,
We’ll keep our sense of humour while
We go on forever guessing.

But words are not the only thing
For this most confusing maze;
We need to laugh, we need to sing
As we fumble on our ways;
Our songs we need not complicate
With fancy tarradiddles,
Just good plain tunes to consummate
The Joy of Unsolved Riddles.

Then let us raise both glass and voice
As the wacky world we face,
And ease our throats while we rejoice
At the muddle we embrace;
We’ll take the best we can extract
From rights and lefts and middles,
And drink, and laugh, and learn to act
On the Joy of Unsolved Riddles.

We’ll grasp the nettle, meet our Fate,
However hot the griddles,
And never underestimate
The Joy of Unsolved Riddles.

May 7, 2017

Day 22: in Edmonton

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

We rolled in here right on schedule on Tuesday, enjoyed two events later that day and another yesterday, with two more today and then a day for more casual exploration.

Aside from continued progress through the Re-Tour according to plan, which is a very significant development indeed, the only significant development has been discovery of an article on Stephen Leacock in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, copy of which in bookcase where we are staying.

The article is by Zailig Pollock, emeritus of Trent University, and is very interesting and useful. In particular Pollock emphasizes the tension between Leacock’s strong belief in “the continuing progress of humanity” (I would say both as an historic fact and a potential for the future), and his “essentially pessimistic vision of man in the modern industrial age”. I think Pollock has put his finger on what may be the ultimate Unsolved Riddle in the whole General Theory. We are internally compelled both to believe in the possibility of humane Progress and to cultivate those forces that work against it or at least render it ambiguous in all their multifarious ways.

I like also the insight in: “The most striking aspect of Leacock’s style is the illusion of a speaking voice, which is so strong in all his works.” We had a spirited discussion with a student at the University of Saskatchewan as to whether that voice (the narrator’s) in Sunshine Sketches is Leacock himself or a creation, self taking the latter position. More on that later, I am sure.

My only quibbles with Pollock’s conclusions are triggered first by his description of Sunshine Sketches as “a regional idyll portraying the essentially good-natured follies of Mariposa, a small Ontario town based on Orillia.” My doubts about that are amply shown elsewhere in these blogs, and will be expressed at length and in full in due course. I am much more in tune with Ed Jewinski’s moral ambiguity, fragmentation, incompleteness and inconclusiveness, turning Mariposa into a somewhat bleak but effective portrayal of pervasive Unsolved Riddles. Secondly, Pollock says that “Most readers of Leacock agree that his writing career shows little sign of development either intellectual or artistic.” I would suggest, and will prove I hope, that considerable development both ways is apparent from the 1903 thesis to the 1919 Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, through Sunshine Sketches and Arcadian Adventures, and even beyond although at a slower pace.

More about all this in due time. We leave here on Saturday for Calgary, then Medicine Hat, then on to the Pacific Coast for the finales.

Day Seventeen, Saskatoon Day Two: A Day Off

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

The question of whether we would encounter snow on our travels has now been definitively answered: Yes. We thought the slushy trek across northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba might have been a one-off, but it was not. We had another hour of it between Winnipeg and Regina, otherwise clear sailing. Regina to Saskatoon was fine. But we awoke Friday to a good dump, which has continued into today. Traffic was moving slowly yesterday, and I, Paul, who write this, assume it is so today, although I have not been out. Leslie is now out there amongst it, whatever it is, but has not yet reported in.

We had two good events here yesterday, at the Frances Morrison Central and J.S Wood branches of the Saskatoon Public Library, in the afternoon and evening respectively — excellent turn-out both times considering the weather, good talking, good listening, good conversation, and the very best kind of support and hospitality from the hospital staff.

Our “Talk-and-Tell” events, newly invented for this Re-Tour, are beginning to gel. They are more lecture-y and less conversational than we had hoped, but that seems to be what the people want. Whichever Leacock we are presenting in the particular session, our notion that he is a good story seems to be proving out. We will therefore continue along the present lines until we begin to detect boredom.

We start out by describing the four Leacocks that we are toting along with us: the Leacock of Laughter, the Leacock of Unsolved Riddles, the Leacock who had the Interesting Life, and the Musical Leacock that he would not have recognized, not being particularly musical. In fact, as we always explain, we have so far found only one title in all the 1,500 pieces with “music” in the title, and that is “Why I Like Bad Music”, which we have not yet found. So we don’t know why.

Then we sing “The Ballad of Stephen Leacock”.

Then I talk, along whatever lines the topic of the day requires: Life Story, Unsolved Riddles, Historical, or Creative. When I think the audience has heard enough of my voice, I ask Leslie to read a Leacock story. Then I talk some more, usually briefly, because by now time is running out, we invite questions and usually get some, then we make our presentation to the community partner of the occasion.

We conclude by bringing back the musical Leacock, singing “Unsolved Riddles Forever”.

As for Leacock stories, suitable for these presentations, the pool is not large. We need pieces that are under 1,000 words, and Leacock, monster of verbosity that he was, likes to go on much longer. “My Financial Career” (900) always works well, as do:

Aristocratic Education (700 in our cut-down version); Boarding House Geometry (300); and The Country Hotel (600). “The Barber’s Outline of History” (1000) was a bit long.

We have performed our “A Field of Mariposies” concert several times now. It has form, structure, predictable length, and really, really good material from the longer Leacock repertoire, some of which we sing. The whole package works very well.

We have not had many calls for “A Garden of Mariposies” yet, although more are coming, including one tomorrow. The concert as originally planned runs an hour, but most hosts want something shorter, and we have been struggling a little to find a series that works. The most recent version, for the Canadian Club of Regina, strictly limited to 45 minutes, did the job in fine style. There we mixed pieces from “Garden” and “Field”, and the result was quite well balanced, maybe better even than the original “Garden”. No doubt we will continue to adapt and experiment for each individual event.

Leslie loves to tell in formal style, as in “My Financial Career” for example, and is growing more comfortable with the readings for “Talk-and-Tell”. She has been trained that reading is a bad expedient, but in this context it is the only way. I like best the singing pieces, and our two-handers. Between the two of us we can mix and match creatively.

As of last evening, when called upon to be specific, we were still say accurately where we are. Saskatoon, we said, and we were right. May we continue in the same for the next 24 days.

Excelsior! through snow and ice.