14 August 2015

Ceci forced to slap Harper's wrist

In the midst of this tiresomely long election campaign, Stephen Harper appears to find attacking his NDP and Liberal opponents isn't enough to occupy his time. He has decided to pick fights with a couple of provinces as well, recently assailing the Alberta government for raising taxes and not coming down with a budget.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley had previously responded to Harper's barbs with patience and tact, but Finance Minister Joe Ceci was not so kind this time. He pointed out that Harper's Conservatives had "not balanced a budget since 2008 ... have the worst job creation record of any federal administration since World War II and ... have added $150 billion to the national debt." " These kinds of results," he added, "seem to be in their DNA." Ouch!

Nice rejoinder from Ceci, and appropriate, but it doesn't answer the question: why does Harper do it? As prime minister, he ought to be trying to unite the country, not divide it. And after all, if he wins in October he will have to deal with the current Alberta government for the next four years whether he likes it or not. What does he gain by inflicting gratuitous insults? What does Canada gain by the federal government alienating provincial governments?

One gets the impression he is obsessed by the defeat of the Conservatives in Ontario and Alberta—particularly Alberta—in the last elections. He can't get it out of his head. He is a man who views the world in terms of black and white—you are for him or against him, and if you are against him you must be chastised. He takes the defeat of the Conservatives in these two provinces as a personal affront, and he will take his revenge, political civility and national unity be damned.

We see the same thing in his foreign policy. We once had governments that established Canada as an honest broker capable of negotiating differences and making peace. Under Harper, we are a country incapable of seeing two sides of an argument. Indeed, to the Prime Minister, attempting to understand both sides of an argument is a weakness. It's all about choosing sides, good guys vs. bad guys, us vs. them.

In a world facing global challenges, including climate change, resource depletion and inequality, we need leaders who can bring people together to find solutions. So, for that matter, does Canada, a highly regionalized country, need such a leader. Stephen Harper is congenitally incapable of fulfilling such a role. He isn't ready and can never be.

11 August 2015

The NDP stumbles over Palestinian political correctness

Morgan Wheeldon, NDP candidate for Kings-Hants, Nova Scotia, has been pressured into resigning over comments he made on Facebook. The comments, now deleted, included "One could argue that Israel’s intention was always to ethnically cleanse the region—there are direct quotations proving this to be the case. Guess we just sweep that under the rug. A minority of Palestinians are bombing buses in response to what appears to be a calculated effort to commit a war crime."

In defence of Mr. Wheeldon, one can in fact sensibly argue that "Israel’s intention was always to ethnically cleanse the region." The millions of Palestinians exiled to refugee camps and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land might be called something else, but ethnic cleansing would seem appropriate. A recent article in Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper, stated that "Previous peace initiatives ... failed because the overriding strategic goal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and of most previous Israeli heads of state, has been and continues to be Israel’s permanent control of all of Palestine."

As for war crimes, accusations against Israel are not new. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry on last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip found that both Israel and Palestinian militants were responsible for violations of international law that could amount to war crimes. Mr. Wheeldon, it seems, is being punished for stating an opinion that right or wrong is clearly within the realm of fair comment.

What makes his persecution even worse is that the NDP purports to be the party of the downtrodden—the oppressed, the exploited, the less fortunate. Considering that the Palestinians have been ethnically cleansed, collectively punished, terrorized, occupied and have more of their land stolen every day, they easily meet the criteria for downtrodden.

Criticizing Israel is perhaps the most serious offence against political correctness in the minds of our political and media elite. While Mr. Wheeldon stands with the dispossessed, The NDP stand with the elite.

10 August 2015

Too long to live in fear

Seventy years ago, on August 6, 1945, the United States unleashed the most massive terror attack in history when it dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. At least 75,000 people died within hours. By December, 1945, around 140,000 were dead; 200,000 by the end of 1950. Today, the world contains an estimated 17,000 nuclear warheads, each with a destructive power dwarfing the Hiroshima bomb. Ninety per cent lie in wait in Russian and U.S. stockpiles.

Some nuclear powers have reduced their arsenals in recent years, but others are expanding theirs and all are upgrading their weapons. The five who signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 agreed to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” They are clearly reneging.

Furthermore, five non-nuclear NATO nations have volunteered to equip their militaries with the capacity to deliver U.S. nukes in time of war even though they are all parties to the NPT and therefore obliged “not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly.”

The historic deal with Iran is good news but it pales relative to the upgrading and expansion of arsenals possessed by the current nuclear powers.

In 2010, the House of Commons unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the Government of Canada to join “negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention” and to “deploy a major world-wide Canadian diplomatic initiative in support of preventing nuclear proliferation and increasing the rate of nuclear disarmament.” This election season is a good time to remind all the parties that they voted for this resolution.

Linda McQuaig does us all a big favour

Last week the NDP candidate for Toronto Centre, Linda McQuaig, stirred the tar sands pot, telling a CBC panel discussion that for Canada to meet its climate change targets, "a lot of the oil sands oil may have to stay in the ground." As an Albertan, I suppose I am expected to be offended at this slighting of our precious sands. Or perhaps as a Dipper I should be concerned that she has undermined my party's campaign.

Not a bit of it. I'm delighted that she's broached the issue. Why? Because she spoke the truth. And it's a truth that desperately needs to be spoken. We can no longer afford to pretend, as our federal government has done, that we can expand bitumen production indefinitely. At least not if we want to meet any sensible greenhouse gas emissions targets. According to the best science, at least three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground if humanity is to avoid the worst effects of climate change. That doesn't leave much room for expanding tar sands production.

Frequently in politics, a truth is out there but no politician wants to speak it because of a potentially adverse political reaction. As a result, important issues fail to get the attention they deserve. At least until some politician, perhaps one with a little more courage or with less to lose (a politician from Toronto in this instance), speaks the politically incorrect words. Then the issue enters the political domain and receives the discussion and debate it is due.

In this case, Linda McQuaig has done us that favour. (Certainly our new NDP government couldn't, even though I suspect the great majority of party supporters know the issue must be recognized and dealt with.) We will, in the short term, hear all the clichés: the effete Toronto elite dissing salt of the earth Albertans, lefties making war on the oil industry, etc., etc. Such is the deplorable state of discussion about the tar sands in this country, the Conservatives having successfully smothered the issue in political correctness.

The foolishness of creating an economy heavily reliant on a resource that must be phased out should be obvious, yet Ms. McQuaig is being roundly criticized for stating that simple truth. Nonetheless, she has broken the ice, now it's up to the rest of the political class to get serious about the reality of global warming.

17 July 2015

Are we reaching a critical mass on climate change?

Convincing people that anthropogenic climate change is real is a tough slog. Quite aside from the difficulty of selling inconvenient truths, powerful interests have been arrayed against the science. Nonetheless, people around the world are coming to recognize the reality.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that publics in 19 of 40 nations cited climate change as their biggest worry, the most widespread concern of the issues included in the survey. Most of these nations were in Africa and Latin America although they did include India, the world's second most populous nation. Most of the people in these countries declared they were very concerned.

In Western countries where you might expect the well-informed populations to be very concerned, the main worry is in fact ISIS. This is not only unfortunate, as these tend to be the most economically influential nations, but their worry about ISIS is irrational. Understandably Middle Eastern nations are concerned about the fanatical group, but it is hardly a significant threat to the West. It is, after all, under assault from more enemies than you can count on both hands—Syria, the United States and various allies, Iraq, Iran, Iraq's Shia militias, the Kurds, etc. That Western nations are so frightened of this bogeyman that they rank it more serious than global warming is a tribute to a rabid press and hysterical politicians.

But I digress. With many publics now expressing great concern about the climate change threat, a critical mass that the governments of the world cannot ignore may be developing. This bodes well for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this December.

Health Canada—another Conservative mouthpiece?

The Conservatives have started early on their advertising campaign for the upcoming election. We are, for example, being told ad nauseam that Justin Trudeau isn't ready. With their large war chest, the Conservatives can afford to lay it on thick. But they're not only relying on their own funds, they are also relying on ours. Health Minister Rona Ambrose has announced a rerun of the anti-marijuana ad first seen last year, a recycling that will cost taxpayers $1.5-million.

At the time the marijuana ad was first broadcast, claims such as pot-smoking seriously affecting teenagers' IQs, were hotly disputed. For example, research by University College London challenges the IQ claim, stating there is no connection.

Two questions arise. Why is Health Canada focusing on marijuana when other recreational drugs are more harmful? (Alcohol, for instance, is far more widely used by teenagers and far riskier.) And secondly, why is it presenting a highly biased view? The ad is not based on the best research but rather on what got the strongest response from focus groups.

The answer to both questions is that the campaign is based on politics, not science—a standard approach of the Harper government. When the ad was first introduced, the Canadian Medical Association, the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada all refused to endorse it for precisely that reason.

Health Canada's responsibility is to provide us with the most scientifically sound views on health issues. In the case of marijuana use, it should at the very least inform Canadians that there is a body of research countering the claims made in its ad. It should tell the whole story. That it chooses instead to present a view that defers to Conservative policy tells us the campaign isn't designed to protect Canadian teenagers against the evil weed but rather to beat Justin Trudeau over the head with his promise to legalize and regulate it. By allowing itself to be used as a shill, Health Canada is seriously compromising its credibility—if we can't believe them on this issue, when can we believe them?

Revenue Canada and the RCMP have both been used as political instruments by the Conservatives. Health Canada must now be added to this sorry list.

14 July 2015

Going to jail for words

One morning in early June, Aaron Driver was walking to his bus stop in Winnipeg's Charleswood neighbourhood when a white, unmarked van pulled up, armed men got out, forced him into the van and drove away. This is Canada, so of course the men were police officers and they were taking Mr. Driver, or Harun Abdurahman as he calls himself on twitter, to jail where he spent the next eight days.

He has since been released subject to 25 conditions, including wearing an electronic monitoring device, taking part in religious counseling, obeying a 9 pm to 6 am curfew, not possessing any desktop, laptop or tablet computer, having his cellphone approved and monitored by the RCMP, and avoiding social media websites. The police confiscated his computer, phone, flash drives and Koran.

Driver had not committed a robbery, assault, rape or murder. In fact, he hadn't committed any crime. He had simply said some ugly things. Driver is a Muslim who supports the Islamic State. I hasten to add he supports it in words only. Words, however, that are not pleasant to hear. He has, for example, said the victims of the Islamic State deserve what they get. He has said that the killing of two Canadian soldiers late last year was justified. To quote the man himself: "I think if a country goes to war with another country, or another people or another community, they have to be prepared for things like that to happen. And when it does happen, they shouldn't act surprised. They had it coming to them. They deserved it."

Not a comment most Canadians want to hear, even though it has a certain logic to it. And even though it is not that far off our prime minister's comment that the slaughter of Palestinians, including over 300 children, by Israel during Operation Cast Lead was "appropriate." In any case they are only words and we have, in this country, the right to use words freely. Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms tells us we enjoy "freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression ...." Furthermore, Canada is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads in Article 19, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

It's hard to see how the police and courts are not interfering with Driver's freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression by jailing him and subjecting him to the conditions listed above. The harassment has also cost him his job. His tormentors almost seem to be pushing him into violence.

And he is not alone. Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association, claims that reaction to Muslim students expressing their opinions has ranged from a failure to pass classes to public ridicule. She said young Muslims have told her, "We keep our heads down and we pass the course." This chill on speaking freely is not only tragic for these young people but for society—there is a powerful need in the West to understand the abuse Middle Eastern populations have suffered at Western hands. This quite aside from the erosion of a basic human right.

Defending freedom of speech when nice people say nice things is easy. The challenge comes when unsavoury people say ugly things. In persecuting Mr. Driver, our justice system has failed the test. Keeping an eye on him may be justified—harassing him is not.

13 July 2015

I know you have to say that stuff, Rachel, but still ....

At a recent speech to international investors in Calgary, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley described the tar sands as "a tremendous asset" and an "international showpiece." Hearing my premier and the leader of my party describe the tar sands as a tremendous asset makes me cringe. They are indeed an international showpiece, but not the kind we should be bragging about.

Ms. Notley is a very bright woman and knows perfectly well we have to phase out fossil fuels and that commonsensically we should phase out the dirty ones first. Nonetheless, I understand why she has to say this stuff. Producing the tar sands creates a lot of wages, profits and taxes, and stating the truth would doom a political party in Alberta. The NDP wants to win a second term and badmouthing the tar sands would terminate that ambition. If they want to improve our environmental performance they have to make nice on oil and gas while doing what is politically possible.

And they are making moves in the right direction. For example, Ms. Notley has stated they will not support the Northern Gateway pipeline and will leave the decision on the Keystone pipeline to the Americans. This in itself is a big improvement over the previous government's support for any pipeline in any direction carrying anything. The NDP has also increased the emissions charge on large industrial polluters. Furthermore, some oil company CEOs, including the head of Suncor, Canada's biggest producer and a major tar sands operator, have called for a carbon tax. If the corporations back it, that makes it eminently doable and the government should do it.

But more, much more, needs to be done. Alberta has only 11 per cent of the country's people but produces more than a third of the greenhouse gas emissions, 50 per cent more than Ontario, and the tar sands are the fastest growing source of emissions in the country.

Unfortunately, what needs to be done is nowhere near politically feasible yet. The government will have to continue to kiss up to oil investors and wait for reality to settle in to the hearts and minds of Albertans.

12 July 2015

Calgary's CTrain—embracing green

Fortunately, while our federal government remains a persistent laggard on global warming, the provinces and cities are stepping up. Calgary is no exception. In 2012, the city committed to meeting all its electrical needs from renewable sources. One result was the construction of two wind farms totaling 144 megawatts.

The city relies on a variety of sources—wind, hydro, biomass and solar—but its rapid transit system, the CTrain, is powered 100 per cent by wind. The electrons do not of course run directly from a wind farm to the train, but the power from 12 turbines is committed to the system. Calgary was the first city in the world to have its rapid transit system powered entirely by renewables.

And the system is a great success. It boasts a ridership of 325,000 trips per day. According to Mayor Nenshi, "About 50 per cent of the people who travel downtown every day come downtown by public transit, and the majority of those use the CTrain system.” Toronto still has the highest ridership per capita, but Calgary now leads the country in rapid transit lines per capita.

Furthermore, the train has contributed to denser development around its stations, leading to an environmentally smarter, more compact city. With more people living close to stations, less is spent on transportation, and there is less pollution and road congestion.

According to environmental journalists David Dodge and Duncan Kinney, Calgary's CTrain "is one of the greatest examples of electrified transport in Canada." And, if I may add a personal note, it's fun to ride.

04 July 2015

Why Britain is culpable for the slaughter of its citizens

British Prime Minister David Cameron is enraged at the massacre on a beach at the Sousse resort in Tunisia last week. And well he should be: thirty of his countrymen and women were slaughtered. He has pledged a “full spectrum” response, whatever that means. But while Mr. Cameron is engaging in his full spectrum response, he should take time to look in the mirror. Britain itself must take a full share of blame for the atrocity. The blood of its citizens is, at least in part, on its hands.

The suggestion that Islamist attacks against the West are a result of the West's interference and aggression in the Middle East is often dismissed as lacking evidence of a direct connection. In this case, the connection is clear.

The perpetrator is reported as having trained in an Islamic State training camp in Libya. The Islamic State, the mother of all unintended consequences, was a direct product of the American-led coalition's invasion of Iraq. And Libya has become an arsenal and sanctuary for terrorists because it's a failed state, a condition contributed to by NATO. Britain was a willing participant in both the invasion of Iraq and NATO actions in Libya. It must therefore stand accountable, along with its allies, for the results of both and therefore for creating the opportunity for young zealots such as Seifiddine Rezgui, the terrorist who committed the Sousse massacre, to pursue their deadly jihad.

Western leaders rage against acts of terrorism, yet seem incapable of understanding that the offences they commit against others also engender rage. They reserve for themselves the right to anger and the use of violence in response to attacks, forbidding their victims the same rights."They hate us for our values," is the explanation. Well, of course Islamist fundamentalists hate our values, so for that matter do Christian fundamentalists (gay marriage, anyone?), but if we stopped tormenting their people, I doubt they would have the slightest interest in attacking us for our values or anything else. Indeed they would lack both cause and appeal.

Cameron rants against the "radicalization" of young Muslims. But radicalization isn't necessary to explain the blowback. A century of Western bullying of Middle Eastern peoples is quite sufficient. We should not be shocked when terrorist attacks occur but rather surprised there are not more. Cameron et al. might reflect on their own religion, specifically Hosea 8.7, the Old Testament: "They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind." Britain has helped sow the wind and, tragically, last week 30 innocent British civilians reaped the whirlwind.

02 July 2015

"Canada has an American president ..."

For the occasion of Canada Day, CBC News, aided by the International Council for Canadian Studies, surveyed 7,000 or so academics outside Canada who teach courses about our country. They printed the responses of 15 of them in the recent online article "How Canada is perceived around the world."

The comments were generally flattering although the flattery often focused more on the past than the present. For example, Irene Salverda, president of the Association for Canada Studies in the Netherlands, observed, "Nowadays, my friends remark, with surprise, 'Canada has an American president, only interested in the economy and ignorant of anything else, and America has a Canadian president.'"

A number of scholars regretted Canada's decline on the world stage. According to Wolfgang Kloob, Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Trier University, "Canada has also been considered an international actor, which, however, under the current government seems to have shifted its foreign policy to national rather than international concerns." Susan Hodgett, President of the International Council for Canadian Studies and professor at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, stated "Canada has traditionally shared its benefits well, but today your profile overseas is waning badly."

Danny Ben-Natan, president of the Israel Association for Canadian Studies, lamented the Harper government's cancellation of the hugely successful Understanding Canada program that funded Canadian studies programs abroad. For a very modest investment, the program boosted Canada’s profile and greatly enriched Canadian universities and scientific establishments through cross-fertilization. Ben-Natan declared, "Three years ago, the Canadian Government abolished Understanding Canada and since then Canada is in clear regression in the academic world."

But abandoning the program may not be all bad. According to Lucia Otrisalova who teaches Canadian studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, "The country's positive image, built and promoted by its previous political leadership, still persists in this part of Europe." Better, perhaps, they are not brought up to date.

Even our southern neighbour now sees Canada in a different light. Earl Fry, Endowed Professor of Canadian Studies at Brigham Young University, tells us, "Canada has also become an afterthought in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. The days of a 'special relationship' are long gone."

Sobering stuff. Celebrating Canada Day is becoming an exercise in nostalgia.

01 July 2015

The Pope, the Prime Minister and Naomi Klein

Pope Francis has made it very clear that he is profoundly concerned about what we are doing to life on our planet. He has particularly made it clear to Canadians. Earlier this month he gave an audience to our prime minister. It lasted all of 10 minutes and ended with an awkward photo op. The brevity of the meeting and the sour look on the pope's face were, I suggest, directly related to Stephen Harper's reactionary attitude toward global warming.

Another Canadian's views on the environment are, however, much more amenable to the Pope. Naomi Klein, prominent author, filmmaker, environmentalist and anti-capitalist, has been invited by the Vatican to co-chair, alongside Cardinal Peter Turkson, a high-level conference on the environment. The conference, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and a group of Catholic charitable agencies, will bring together churchmen, scientists and activists to discuss climate change action.

Cardinal Turkson is a senior aide to the Pope, a professor of climate change economics and, of no small importance, he is from the Third World. He is an obvious choice to co-chair the conference, Naomi Klein not so much. Nonetheless, her beliefs that radical change is necessary to deal with the environmental and economic crises square with the Pope's.

Conservatives have criticized Francis for his strong views and actions on the environment and the economy, suggesting he should leave such issues to the politicians. And it is unfortunate that he has to take up the mantle of responsibility in these areas, but when we are desperate for leadership, when our politicians, in thrall to corporate interests, fail to act, a leader from outside the political sphere is most welcome. The Pope's rejection of Harper and embracing of Klein simply reflect his recognition of where the answers lie.

25 June 2015

Oaths, niqabs, and respecting the rules

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander made a curious statement recently when being asked about the government's proposed Bill C-75 which states that a person taking the oath of citizenship must "swear or affirm the oath out loud and with their face uncovered," and furthermore, "If a person is required to take the oath of citizenship at a citizenship ceremony, the person shall take the oath at the time, during the ceremony, when the oath is administered to the applicants." (The quotes are underlined as in the bill.) In other words, if a person would prefer to take the oath in private rather than at the ceremony, she is out of luck.

Alexander, in justifying the bill, commented that Canadians "don't want people to become citizens who haven't respected the rules." What is odd about his statement is that the rule he's concerned about is presumably the one in Bill C-75, i.e. a rule that doesn't now, and may never, exist. With the proroguing of Parliament, the bill died on the Order Paper. Currently a person may take the oath of citizenship in private and still attend the ceremony. This seems to work perfectly well.

The "person" I keep referring to is of course Muslim women who wear the niqab. Bill C-75 is entirely for their benefit. I doubt they feel honoured being singled out for such attention, however, as the bill is a gratuitous insult to their religious beliefs.

As for Canadians not wanting people who don't respect the rules becoming citizens, this born and bred Canadian disagrees with Mr. Alexander. If I were becoming a citizen, I wouldn't even be able to respect the citizenship oath itself. It reads, "I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen." I would have no problem affirming that I would obey the law and be a good citizen, but as a democrat I would have real trouble swearing allegiance to a foreign, unelected head of state who got her job not by merit but by birth.

I cannot, therefore, in good conscience ask a niqab-wearer to violate her religious beliefs in order to swear to an oath I don't respect. Fortunately we won't have to make that request of our new citizens at least until after the October election, if then, as Bill C-75 almost certainly won't be resurrected unless the Conservatives win. It is in fact their second attempt to impose this rule, the first being struck down by the courts. The bill is a nasty bit of intolerance targeting a few people—very few—of one gender of one religion. It deserves to remain in its grave.

22 June 2015

For black Americans, 239 years of terrorism

The United States is obsessed with terrorism these days. In a Pew Research survey, Americans ranked defending the U.S. against terrorism as the top policy priority for their federal government, ranking it even above the economy. At home, they have built a bureaucracy second only to the Pentagon for homeland security. Abroad, the U.S. stumbles about bombing and assassinating terrorists while inadvertently creating more than they kill. All this is aimed at evil foreigners who "hate us for our values."

Meanwhile a form of homegrown terrorism, as old as America itself, persists. Since the first day of the nation's history, black Americans have been subjected to terror to keep them in their place.

Slavery was, of course, maintained by terror. The threat of the lash, or worse, kept slaves obedient to masters. After the civil war ended, slavery was replaced by a brutal system of segregation, often little more than slavery by another name, enforced by a variety of methods, legal and otherwise, the most infamous being lynching. Segregation has now formally ended, but terror continues to lurk in the background.

In South Carolina, for example, subject of the horrific attack last week that took nine lives, is the home of 19 hate groups, including neo-nazi and white supremacist organizations and chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. South Carolina has no law against hate crimes. The Confederate flag, the banner behind which the South fought to maintain slavery, flies in front of the South Carolina State House. When hate-mongering is tolerated and the symbols of oppression are flaunted by the state's leaders, it isn't hard for impressionable young men to justify their perverted passions.

These are not, I assume, the values that Americans insist the foreign evil-doers hate them for. Indeed they are more closely-related to the values of the evil-doers. If Americans are to obsess about defending themselves from terrorists, they might focus on the form that lives entirely in their homeland, the one born from racism, and free their black citizens from the oldest and most intransigent terrorism afflicting their nation.

19 June 2015

Mr. Trudeau brings more good news on the democracy front

This is shaping up to be a good week for democracy. The new Alberta government's banning of political donations by corporations and unions has been followed with a surprising and very welcome announcement by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau of major democratic reform if his party wins the October election.

Some of the Liberal proposals I particularly like include the following:
  • A thorough study of the electoral system with the goal of making every vote count. The study will be carried out by an all-party parliamentary committee (rather like Alberta's inclusive approach) which will bring recommendations to Parliament. The recommendations would be instituted within 18 months of the Liberals forming a government.
  • Stronger Parliamentary committees. Changing the electoral system to ensure Canadians are fairly represented in Parliament is a necessary first step, but we need to ensure also that all those elected, not just members of the ruling party, have the opportunity to participate in government. The voices of all Canadians should be heard. Strong Parliamentary committees would help to achieve this.
  • More free votes. Trudeau has promised free votes on everything except issues from the Liberal election platform, confidence matters, and issues that concern values embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This, too, will help all MPs to be heard while liberating them from the straightjacket of caucus solidarity.
And what I really like is that the Liberals are well and truly committed to these reforms. Parties frequently talk about electoral reform while in opposition, but once elected they decide to stick with the system that brought them to power—dance with the one that brung you, so to speak. But Trudeau has made such an issue of this reform it would be extremely difficult for him to back down if he became prime minister. Indeed, it would be difficult for him not to support similar reform if the NDP is elected.

After the Liberal vote for Bill C-51, I was about to write them off. I am now forced to give them a very close second look. Justin's papa would be proud of him.

18 June 2015

The Trans-Pacific Partnership—never heard of it ???!!!

The above headline is plagiarized directly from a CBC article. I added the punctuation gratuitously to convey my horror that a proposed "trade" agreement that could have major effects on Canadian lives is largely unknown to those same Canadians.

The agreement is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and it involves 12 Pacific Rim countries including Canada (but not China). According to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it is “the biggest game on the planet,” and yet according to a recent Environics survey, 75 per cent of Canadians have never heard of it.

If it is the biggest game on the planet, why aren't we intimately familiar with it? One answer is that the thing has been, as these agreements tend to be, thrashed out in secret. The TPP has been under negotiation for 10 years but a text has yet to made public. Our own government has been less than forthcoming. For example, when a negotiating session was held in Vancouver, the government didn't bother to mention it until it was leaked by news media in Peru.

There is a need to negotiate in private on a day to day basis, but the public has a right and a need to be periodically brought up to date so we know what will be done for us and to us. The process and the results should be transparent. And we particularly need to have the text reviewed by interests other than government ... or corporations. It should be available for analysis by academics, labour unions, environmentalists and others who can add special expertise.

Our ignorance about the TPP is aggravated by the fact it had been scheduled for completion within weeks. Fortunately that deadline may not now be met. The U.S. House of Representatives recent refusal to give President Obama permission for fast-track approval should slow down the process significantly. We, the people, may even get a chance to look at it. The House has done us all a big favour.

Pope Francis and the moral imperative of dealing with global warming

It's no surprise that Pope Francis only gave PM Stephen Harper 10 minutes for his interview earlier this month. And no surprise he looked constipated in his photo op with the Prime Minister. Ten minutes with Harper would freeze the bowels of anyone concerned about global warming, and, unlike the recalcitrant Harper, the Pope is very concerned indeed.

In his encyclical released today, he called for not only an economic revolution to deal with climate change, but an ethical revolution as well, a revolution of hearts and minds to confront not only our profligacy with the Earth's resources but our inequitable use of them. His letter conflates economics, politics and ethics to proclaim against both ecological destruction and poverty.

He didn't mince words: "Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth." When he wrote, "Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms," he could have been referring directly to our prime minister.

He has quite correctly positioned these issues as moral issues, as indeed they obviously are. What could be greater moral issues than the greatest threats humanity faces? And even if environmental destruction did not threaten us, are we not morally responsible for what we do to other species?

Science, which has clearly laid out the dangers humanity faces, has now been reinforced with a moral imperative laid down by the leader of the most influential religious institution in the world. Will this be enough to convince the capitalist apologists? Probably not, but it does make their reactionary efforts less credible in the public eye.

I have no great respect for religious moral authority, but when it gets things as right as the Pope has gotten this, I heartily welcome it. And we must hope it is welcomed also at the critical Paris climate conference later this year.

17 June 2015

Read my lips—it doesn't trickle down

It has been the heart and soul of capitalist market economics since day one—the ultimate justification for an unfair society. If we ensure that the rich get richer, the benefits will trickle down through the economy benefiting all. According to a new and exhaustive study released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), if this was ever true it isn't anymore.

The report, Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective, states: "If the income share of the top 20 percent (the rich) increases, then GDP growth actually declines over the medium term, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down. In contrast, an increase in the income share of the bottom 20 percent (the poor) is associated with higher GDP growth." In short, making the rich richer at the expense of the poor is not only bad for the poor, it is bad for everybody. And conversely, making the poor richer is good for everybody.

The latter is not surprising. The poor spend every penny they get, they spend it now, and they spend it locally, where it does the most good. Consumption is, after all, the main driver of the economy.

The report suggests that as the income share of the rich increases, so does their political influence, which leads to policies that favour them. Less is spent on policies that would benefit the poor such as better schools and cheaper university education, policies that would lead to increased GDP and a better life for all. Inequality leads to more inequality. According to the report, "Widening income inequality is the defining challenge of our time."

Actually, climate change is the defining challenge of our time, but inequality runs a good second, and if economists at the staunch free market-oriented IMF want to give it pride of place, I won't quibble.

16 June 2015

Democracy wins one in Alberta

The new Alberta government has announced it will, as promised in its election platform, ban political funding by unions and corporations. Alberta will join the provinces of Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia, as well as the City of Toronto and the federal government, with its ban.

The government has also promised a new legislative committee to review rules on elections and ethics and to strengthen whistleblower legislation. Reaching across the aisle, the committee will include nine government and eight opposition members of the legislature.

The need for the measures was revealed by statistics compiled by the Parkland Institute.  In the 2012 provincial election, while the NDP and the Wild Rose obtained over 50% of their funds from small donors (under $375—the legal disclosure limit), the Progressive Conservatives received only four per cent from this source. Almost 70% of their revenue came from corporations. And, of course, with the big donors, they were able to raise far more money than their opponents. This was nothing less than corruption of the democratic process.

Corporations will still influence the political process in major ways—rewards to political friends, economic pressure, funding think tanks, media ownership, etc. Nonetheless, this is a good week for democracy. The Alberta government deserves a hearty round of applause from all democrats.

15 June 2015

Will Republicans keep invoking God if the Pope keeps pissing on their philosophy?

American politicians are particularly prone to invoking their Christian faith as a guide to their political beliefs. Although members of both major parties freely trot out scripture at the drop of a writ, conservative Republicans are especially inclined to pepper their appeals with references to their faith, God and Jesus.

But now they have encountered a rather embarrassing development. Christ, it seems, is turning on them. The most influential Christian on Earth, leader of the largest religious institution in the world (and in the United States) is implying, rather insistently, that Republican philosophy may not be on the side of God. At least not when it comes to the major problems facing human society. The Pope has powerfully condemned humankind's assault on the Earth's resources and the maldistribution of those resources. This leaves Republican policy, founded on capitalism and the untrammeled free market, in shreds. These are exactly the institutions the Pope has found wanting, or worse.

He has referred to capitalism as a new form of idolatry and declared, "Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting." About capitalism and the environment he has said, “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.” Like Christ in the temple with the money-changers, he is outraged.

Certainly he still agrees with conservatives on sexual issues such as abortion, gay marriage and contraception—misogyny sticks to the Church like glue—but he has at least moderated Vatican views on these issues. He supports a stronger role for women in the Church, although not as priests, and about gays he has said, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?"

He has manifested no such reluctance to judge our assault on the environment and our neglect of the poor. I disagree with the man and his religion on a number of important matters but when he expresses outrage about anthropogenic climate change and the inequality of modern society ... well, I'm ready to embrace him like a brother. These are the most critical issues of our age and a right-minded champion with 1.2 billion adherents is a most welcome ally.

14 June 2015

Obama stopped in his free trade tracks

Free trade agreements are frequently referred to by dissenters as corporate rights agreements, and as I pointed out in a recent post, there are powerful reasons why politicians negotiate them in favour of corporate interests. But regardless of who they are primarily intended to serve, the agreements contain articles which seriously affect the public good, including in ways that have nothing to do with trade, and therefore should be subject to vigorous public debate. Unfortunately, they are not. On the contrary, they are negotiated in secret and presented to our legislatures fait accompli—take it or leave it.

It was, therefore, refreshing to see the U.S. House of Representatives deny President Obama the "fast track" trade negotiating authority he was seeking. Fast track would mean precisely that Congress would have no power to amend an agreement; it would either have to vote it through or reject it.

Ironically, Obama was rebuked principally by his own party, the House Democrats providing the major opposition. In a particularly harsh cut to Obama, Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi, the ally of the president who muscled his health bill through the House, voted "no." Pelosi is not opposed to trade agreements but simply wanted to "slow this down" in hopes of better protecting U.S. workers and the environment.

This was a humiliating defeat for the president, but not undeserved. The arrogant "trust me" attitude of politicians and the undemocratic negotiating process of these agreements deserve humiliation. Unfortunately we are unable to administer similar rebukes to our government. We must therefore be grateful that at least some politicians, even if they aren't ours, are making a gesture for democratic process.

09 June 2015

The TRC report and the Langevin Bridge—what's in a name?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report has issued a damning condemnation of the Indian residential schools, referring to their history as "cultural genocide." Reverberations are being felt across the country, including here in Calgary. For example, a question has risen about the Langevin Bridge and Langevin School, and whether or not they should be renamed.

They both honour Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the Fathers of Confederation. The Langevin Block on Parliament Hill is also named after him. Langevin, as Secretary of State for the Provinces, played an important role in establishing the Indian residential schools. He claimed, "If you wish to educate the children you must separate them from their parents during the time they are being taught. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they will remain savages ... by separating them ... they acquire the habits and tastes…of civilized people.”

To be fair, Langevin did not appear to be a racist. For instance, he lobbied against the hanging of Louis Riel. The commission's choice of "cultural genocide" seems appropriate in his case.

Calgarians are torn over the issue. Former Calgary historian laureate Harry Sanders observes, “You could make an intellectual case for maintaining history and everything that’s embodied in it, for good and for bad. History isn’t a celebration, it’s an analysis. But, on the other hand, it’s deeply hurtful to those who have suffered to have this name.”

My own inclination if to leave the name. When we name sites after public figures we honour them because of they're contribution to the public good, not because they are saints, and Langevin was, after all, responsible for the bridge.

If we renamed sites because their namesakes committed sins, we would be renaming most of our public places. For example, there is a Winston Churchill High School in Calgary. But Churchill was a racist. When defending his view that a Jewish state should be established in Palestine, he was asked what was to become of the Palestinians and answered, "I do not admit... that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia... by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race... has come in and taken its place." His attitude toward "lower grade" races is at least as contemptible as Langevin's attitude toward "lower grade" cultures. Should we, therefore, change the name of this school?

Or what about the suffragette Nellie McClung, one of the "famous five" who campaigned  to have women considered persons and therefore eligible to sit in the Senate. McClung was a supporter of eugenics (as was Churchill) and in fact her promotion of sterilization was vital to the passage of Alberta's detestable eugenics legislation. Should we, then, remove her statue from in front of City Hall along with two other members of the famous five, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby, who also supported eugenics? These women were giants in the struggle for women's rights and child welfare, but they were not saints.

I believe people deserve to be recognized for the good they do regardless of their imperfections, just as they must be judged for the wrong they do regardless of the good. If a man, or woman, is simply evil, that's another matter—I'm not about to condone a Hitler Avenue or a Stalin Street. But Langevin, like Churchill and McClung, was not a bad person. He was a man of his time, puffed up with a European sense of cultural superiority. I wager he would hold very different views today and that, perhaps, is the test.

Rewriting history to clean up its messiness is not an honest pursuit. Better to accept the truth no matter how unpalatable. So Langevin Bridge it is and Langevin Bridge it should remain.

08 June 2015

Double victory for democracy in Turkey

Turkish President Recep Erdogan has just learned a lesson in democracy. And humility. Erdogan, a popular prime minister and the country's dominant politician since his party swept to power in 2002, ran for president successfully in 2014. The Turkish presidency has limited powers but Erdogan gambled he could use his party's majority in  the Grand National Assembly to change the constitution and greatly expand his powers.

To that end he urged voters in yesterday's election to give his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a majority sufficient to change the constitution. Although the president is supposed to be politically neutral, Erdogan campaigned vigorously. His power play failed. The AKP, with only 41% of the vote, lost its majority. It will now be forced to form a coalition just to retain power and there will be no vote to change the constitution. Erdogan will still roam his new presidential palace but with little power.

Erdogan, like so many politicians, let his popularity go to his head. The Turkish people, acting through the democratic process, have put him in his place, along with his hand-picked prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, whose future is now uncertain.

A spoiler in the election was the Peoples' Democratic Party, a pro-Kurdish party. With 12% of the vote, it will have a solid bloc of seats and a significant position in the assembly. This new-found influence could contribute significantly to ending decades of insurgency by Kurdish militants. Yet another victory for democratic process.

07 June 2015

John Baird, Barrick Gold, and the corruption of democracy

In February, John Baird, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced his resignation from cabinet and as an MP. Within two months he was on Barrick Gold's international advisory board, the board of the CPR, and an international advisor to Hong Kong billionaire Richard Li. He is expected to receive $235,000 in compensation from the CPR. His expected salary at Barrick is unknown, but Barrik is very generous to former politicos. They have, for instance, taken very good care of Brian Mulroney since his retirement: he is believed to be still raking in over a million a year. With his new jobs, Baird may have have tripled the income he made as a federal minister.

If any group has to consider their future very carefully, it's politicians. Consider what recently happened in Alberta. An entire cabinet found itself suddenly and surprisingly out of office, most of them not just out of cabinet but out of the legislature—unemployed. Federal cabinet ministers may find themselves in the same position come October. Even a minister who is first rate at his job can overnight find himself on the street. When the private sector tactfully implies that if a minister is a good boy he will be rewarded lavishly with a permanent sinecure, how can he not be a good boy.

It's corrupt but it's discreet and perfectly legal. No need to accept large amounts of cash in envelopes in a hotel room. All you have to do is promote legislation amenable to corporate interests. Want an investor-state dispute settlement clause in a trade agreement?—no problem. And if the politician is challenged, he simply insists he's acting for the good of the country, and whose to say he doesn't genuinely believe it. One wonders if the current government's rush to sign trade agreements is less a concern about trade and more about maintaining a lavish pension scheme for cabinet ministers.

We like to think of Canada as a thoroughly democratic country, free of the corruption that plagues the developing world. But we fool ourselves. Our politicians, too, are often bought and paid for. We should not wonder why they sign trade agreements that favour the corporate interest over the public interest. They are uniquely vulnerable and corporations are masters at exploiting that vulnerability.

Vancouver Humane Society gives CBC Stampede coverage a thumbs down

Only 26 days to the Calgary Stampede. Yee-haw! This is our premier event of the year—the greatest outdoor show on Earth. Mostly it's great fun for Calgarians and visitors alike: agricultural exhibits, a huge midway, entertainment from around the world plus Calgary's very own Young Canadians, Stampede breakfasts, endless bar-hopping—10 days of fun and frolic.

And then there's the rodeo—10 days of animal abuse posing as sport. I was gratified therefore to see that the Vancouver Humane Society has begun its annual event—censuring the Stampede rodeo. This year it's petitioning CBC Sports to end its coverage.

The society claims the rodeo subjects animals to "fear, pain and stress" in events that are "self-evidently inhumane." Its point is well taken. Chasing a small animal across a field, stopping it abruptly with a rope around its neck, heaving it into the air and slamming it down, and finally tying it up, would certainly seem to be self-evidently inhumane, inflicting fear, pain and stress.

That's the fine sport of calf roping. Then there's the king of rodeo sports—bronc riding. Broncs buck out of fear. A horse is a prey animal and when something large leaps on its back, it instinctively assumes the something large is a predator. In sheer terror, it bucks to get the damn thing off. Such is the life of a bronc—an endless round of one episode of terror followed by another.

Rodeo is considered inhumane by virtually all major animal welfare agencies, including the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, and the national SPCAs of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Both the Calgary Humane Society and the Alberta SPCA, on the other hand, work with the Stampede, making the intervention of the Vancouver Humane Society doubly welcome.

The Stampede seems blind to its own barbarity, insisting that as valued assets its animals get the best of treatment. No doubt they do. In the same way race car teams take good care of their valued assets. But animals aren't cars; they are sentient beings. Quality food and shelter aren't adequate for creatures that live not only physical lives, but mental and emotional lives as well. Rodeo assaults these unfortunates at all three levels. If the Vancouver Humane Society can help put an end to the suffering, more power to them, says this Calgarian.

Bill C-51—a chance for the Senate to redeem itself

In the words of Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, the Senate was created as a place of “sober second thought.” In the eyes of most Canadians today, it is more a place of corruption and sinecures for party hacks.

But now it has been given a chance to redeem itself. This Tuesday it will vote on Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015, the government's omnibus security bill. This completely unnecessary legislation has been excoriated by a host of legal experts as well as tens of thousands of Canadians from all walks of life, including many conservatives, for its excessive intrusion on civil liberties, for its potential to chill freedom of speech, for creating a secret police force, and for its lack of oversight.

The bill has passed the House of Commons, now it is left to the Senate to do its duty and protect the rights and freedoms of Canadians. If the institution remains of any value to us at all, this is the time to show us. We are watching.

03 June 2015

The anti-communist memorial—an outrage to Canadian heritage

I recently wrote the following letter to The Honourable Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages:
Dear Minister:
I am writing in regard to the Memorial to the Victims of Communism proposed for a site immediately southwest of the Supreme Court of Canada.

My interest in this project stems from my long association with the history of our country at all levels—federal, provincial and local. I am a member of Canada's History Society and faithful reader of its flagship publication, Canada's History. For a number of years I edited the Chinook Country Historical Society Newsletter, the newsletter of the Calgary chapter of the Historical Society of Alberta. I was also active for many years with the Cliff Bungalow-Mission Community Association’s Heritage Committee working on numerous projects commemorating the community’s unique history.

Guided by my passion for this country’s heritage, I must express my profound objection to the site proposed for this memorial. I do not of course object to an anti-communist memorial as long as it is privately funded and erected in a suitable location. The proposed location is anything but suitable.

The history the monument portrays is not our history. While it is true that people have fled communist dictatorships to come to Canada, as people have fled fascist, theocratic and military dictatorships to come here, the abuses of those regimes belong to the history of the lands from which they came, not to Canada. It is disrespectful, indeed offensive, to attempt to insinuate foreign history into our country's capitol, the very heart of our country’s heritage.

I encourage you, therefore, to preclude a monument dedicated to foreign grievances on this site and reserve it instead for a function central to our own heritage.

Bill Longstaff
This memorial is a monstrous thing designed to devour a grassy site southwest of the Supreme Court on Wellington Street, west of the Parliament buildings. It has been promoted by a group of ardent anti-communists known as Tribute to Liberty, and strongly supported by the federal government. That the fervour of the anti-communists has instilled a lack of respect for our heritage is perhaps understandable, but our government's disrespect is not.

I understand the Supreme Court had hoped to use this site for a courthouse. This would be most appropriate as it would complete the triad of justice buildings, matching the triad of the Parliament buildings.

I understand further that naming the courthouse after former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has been seriously considered. This would be well-deserved and long overdue. Mr. Trudeau was responsible for both patriating our constitution and introducing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which, along with Medicare, is one of Canadians’ two most cherished institutions. Either of these achievements would in itself merit having a major justice site in the capital named after him.

One can only hope that Prime Minister Harper's antipathy to the Supreme Court and Mr. Trudeau are not the reasons behind the government's support for this memorial.

An array of prominent voices have been heard in opposition to either the monument or the site, or both, including Ottawa's city council, the Natural Capital Commission's design committee, the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. The Chief Justice summed it up nicely with her observation that the memorial, “could send the wrong message within the judicial precinct, unintentionally conveying a sense of bleakness and brutalism that is inconsistent with a space dedicated to the administration of justice.”

I hope all those who value Canadian heritage will agree with Justice McLachlin and inform the government accordingly.

02 June 2015

Need a job? Saudi Arabia is hiring executioners

The beheading business is brisk in Saudi Arabia. The desert kingdom has decapitated more people so far in 2015 than in all of 2014. As a result there is a shortage of executioners, and the country has posted eight job openings online. If you are interested, you can find the posting here (it helps if you can read Arabic). Look for “executors of retribution.”

No need to worry about a lack of qualifications. The job requires no specific skills or educational background. As a result, it doesn't pay particularly well. Classified as "religious functionaries," the positions are at the lower end of the civil service pay scale. You would be required to do amputations as well as beheadings, so you can expect a heavy workload. On the bright side, you get to perform in public.

Most of your victims will be guilty of murder although the Saudis decapitate for a variety of reasons, including drug trafficking, rape, murder, apostasy and armed robbery. Amputations are reserved for lesser offences. Of course saying the victims are guilty is assuming a lot. Trials in death penalty cases are often held in secret and defendants are rarely allowed formal representation by lawyers. They are frequently convicted solely on the basis of confessions, and we know how those are obtained in medieval theocracies.

So there you go. If you have a strong arm (and stomach) and are willing to travel, here is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You may have to bring your own sword.

23 May 2015

Finally, a voice Harper may listen to

A carbon tax is an eminently fair and sensible approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And big oil agrees. At least Steve Williams, CEO of Canada's largest oil and gas producer, Suncor Energy, does. Speaking to a downtown Calgary crowd on Friday, Williams stated, "We think climate change is happening. We think a broad-based carbon price is the right answer."

He emphasized the "broad-based," pointing out that 80% of greenhouse gases originate at the point of consumption, as people drive their cars and heat their homes. (Actually only 50% in Alberta because of the tar sands and the heavy industrial use of coal.) I agree completely. Spewing out carbon dioxide is just another form of littering, although a particularly pernicious kind, and those who litter should pay and the more you litter the more you should pay. This should apply to us end users, not just the producers of the products.

During his interview, Williams took a not too subtle slap at the federal government, commenting, "We're trying to move Canada to a position of leadership, that's not how we are viewed around the world at the moment. We are viewed to be quite the opposite." Again, I agree completely. The Harper government's environmental policies have turned us into a pariah. The Suncor CEO is simply recognizing that this is not good for the oil and gas industry. While the government may believe it is doing the companies a favour, it is simply getting them blacklisted in the world's eyes. Whether or not Mr. Harper will appreciate the irony, we shall have to wait and see. But if he listens to anyone, and that's a big if, it will be someone like citizen Williams.

22 May 2015

The Boston bombers and the cycle of vengeancce

The bombing of the Boston Marathon in April 2013 was a heinous crime. Three people died, hundreds were injured, and a policeman was killed in a shootout with the perpetrators. One of the two brothers responsible for the attack died from the shootout. The other, 21-year old immigrant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has been convicted of all charges against him and sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Why did they do it? In Tsarnaez's own words, “The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that … we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all. ... Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.” The brothers came from a family riddled with mental illness and dysfunction so the motivation was likely, as it usually is, complex, involving more than what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev says or even understands.

Nonetheless, the victims he refers to are not imaginary. According to the Nobel Prize-winning group Physicians for Social Responsibility, the U.S-led military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have caused, directly and indirectly, the deaths of at least 1.3 million civilians. The moral grievance over these deaths, and those elsewhere in the Muslim world at the hands of Western powers, are felt by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

So the Tsarnaevs decided on an eye for an eye, a motive not lacking in the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. And now the Americans will return the same Old Testament vengeance on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Thus the cycle of vengeance continues.

Pondering this young man's killing for what was in his mind a noble cause, one can't help but think of his fellow young Americans in the U.S. military killing for what they saw as a noble cause in Iraq. Both he and they were victims of corrupt leadership, his religious, theirs political.

Tsarnaev's crime was barbaric. The Americans now intend to inflict their own barbaric revenge. Even if they chose to imprison him for life rather than kill him, it would hardly be less primitive. He would be confined at a super maximum prison where he would spend most of his time in solitary confinement, his communications with the outside world severely restricted, and his only exercise brief periods outside in a small cage. The brutality the U.S. has inflicted on the Middle East redounded upon itself in Boston and now claims Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

21 May 2015

Elizabeth Warren takes on Obama and the TPP

If it were up to me, Elizabeth Warren would be the next president of the United States. She is a remarkable woman—United States senator, former Harvard law professor and an expert in financial regulations. She has served a number of high level financial positions in Washington and was instrumental in establishing the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

She is now challenging President Obama on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement the U.S. is negotiating with 11 other countries, including Canada. She is critical of the deal being negotiated in secret and its potential consequences for American workers, claiming the process is rigged and will lead to a rigged outcome. She has opposed efforts in Congress to give Obama permission to fast-track negotiations and demanded the agreement be revealed to the public.

The TPP may be a good deal for the masses, but that isn't for people like me to know. With the negotiations taking place in secret, we citizens have only a limited idea what our leaders are committing us to. The American negotiators have hundreds of advisers—overwhelmingly business interests—but they are limited in how much of the draft they can see and are forbidden by law from discussing what they know in public.

Obama's argument against Warren appears to be "trust me," a presumptuous attitude for an American president to assume after the Iraq war and the Snowden revelations. "Trade" agreements seem to end up a great deal more favourable to corporate interests than to the interests of the rest of us, and Ms. Warren has been far more willing to stand up to the corporate sector than Obama.

And that, unfortunately, is why she will never be president. The Democratic Party is highly unlikely to nominate anyone who has a reputation for confronting corporate interests, and even if she was nominated she probably couldn't win. I expect the day is long past when someone can become president of the United States without the approval and therefore the largesse of the corporate sector. Nonetheless, she makes a powerful champion for democratic process and for ordinary Americans ...  and for the rest of us subject to the TPP and its ilk.

17 May 2015

The failure of the Information Age

It seems only a short while ago, as the Internet and the World Wide Web made their appearance, that prophets talked of a new enlightened age. All the world's knowledge would henceforth be available to everyone everywhere. With every person and every world leader able to obtain all the facts available on every topic, we would share a new world order of fully-informed policy and decision-making. Well ... so much for predicting the future—always a mug's game.

A recent Pew Research Center survey measured the difference between what American scientists believe and what the American public believes, and the results are dramatic. For example, 87% of scientists (98% of climate scientists) believe the Earth is being warmed by human activity while only half of the public does. One hundred per cent of scientists believe living organisms evolved over time but only two-thirds of their fellow Americans concur. Eighty-eight per cent of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe to eat; only 37% of the public agrees. And so it goes.

The striking gaps between the two groups are discouraging. Science is our only reliable source of factual truth and scientists the best arbiters of those facts. They are, in effect, the wise men and women of our age.

Not that we must always genuflect to their opinions. Not even they would want that. For example, although most scientists agree genetically modified foods are safe to eat, many nonetheless suggest it might be wise to proceed cautiously until much more is known about them, a sensible application of the precautionary principle. And if some people's faith precludes them from accepting evolution, not much harm is done. But failing to respond adequately to global warming will be catastrophic. The danger is so great that even if only a small group of climate scientists believed it to be occurring, we would have no sensible alternative but to act. And we are, but too little and possibly too late.

In this country, we have a national leader to whom inconvenient facts are irrelevant and whose motto, as he once instructed his faithful followers, is "ignore the experts, go with your gut." Well, you don't need any knowledge to "go with your gut." Unfortunately his approach, judging by both the masses benighted view of reality and the actions of our leaders, is all too widely accepted.

To say, therefore, the Information Age has failed is perhaps too strong a statement. Many have benefited by the abundance of knowledge available. But information age or no, one thing has not changed. As always truth, no matter how widely disseminated, has steep hills to climb to overcome ignorance, faith and vested interest.

13 May 2015

The U.S. military's war on the environment

One of the American institutions most alert to the threat of global warming is the military. The Pentagon has issued several reports stating that the greatest threat to U.S. national security is climate change. Ironically, the military itself is the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter.

The Department of Defense devours about 330,000 barrels of oil a day, more than the great majority of the world’s countries, on its more than 1,000 bases in over 130 countries and 6,000 facilities at home. And this doesn't include fuel consumed by contractors or in the production of weapons. Included among the military's fuel guzzlers are tanks, trucks, Humvees, submarines, aircraft carriers, helicopters, fighter jets, etc., etc., none known for their fuel economy.

And the military does much more than create vast quantities of greenhouse gasses. It also loads the environment with a host of toxic chemicals, from Agent Orange in Vietnam to glyphosate in Colombia to depleted uranium in Iraq. The Department of Defense is the world's largest polluter, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined. Its bases top the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of most polluted places.

Remarkably, despite the magnitude of the threat it poses, the Pentagon has immunity from environmental agreements. The U.S. has demanded as a provision of signing that its military operations worldwide be exempted from measurement or reductions. Congress has passed an explicit provision guaranteeing such exemptions. The Department of Defense can pollute with impunity.

Thus Americans are faced with the uncomfortable irony that the institution dedicated to protecting them may in fact by the institution putting them most at risk. Its contribution to the threat of climate change alone makes any threat posed by terrorists look trivial indeed.

10 May 2015

Do conservatives believe in democracy?

Watching the Alberta election results on TV, the comments of a pundit representing the Conservative view caught my attention. The lady insisted that if the NDP won, oil companies would be closing their offices in Calgary, investment would move out of province, etc.—Armageddon waiting in the wings. Well, the NDP won, and this doesn't seem to be happening, but in any case it wasn't the prediction that concerned me. If some investors don't appreciate Canadians' election choices they can find many places to put their money where democracy won't be a distraction, and good luck with that.

What did bother me was that the lady didn't seem to see anything wrong with this sort of blackmail. Indeed she appeared to approve. She didn't seem concerned to ask what kind of democracy we have if corporations can punish us for electing a government they don't approve of. It is not, of course, any kind of democracy. It is plutocracy, or if you like, oligarchy.

Given that the encroaching of corporate power into the halls of government, and other institutions, is the major, indeed the only serious, threat to democracy in the twenty-first century, it is not encouraging that a large slice of the philosophical spectrum finds it acceptable. But perhaps this isn't so surprising. Conservatives, after all, are big on privilege and hierarchy. So an elite body—a house of lords, so to speak—guiding the benighted masses may be quite appropriate to the conservative world view. Elections yes, democracy not so much.

If this is so, maintaining democracy in the face of creeping corporate clout is a bigger challenge than we may think. Like General Mola in the Spanish Civil War, the corporate sector may have a fifth column inside the walls.

09 May 2015

Can academics serve two masters?

The steady encroaching of the corporate sector into the decision-making processes of our societies is the greatest threat to twenty-first century democracy. This includes encroachment into academia.

This troubling development was brought to light in the recent Alberta election. The NDP proposed a two per cent increase in the corporate tax rate. Jack Mintz, an esteemed University of Calgary economist, claimed the increase would cost the province billions in investment and 8,900 jobs. Given Mintz's impressive C.V., one might assume this is the gospel on corporate taxes, and one must therefore oppose the NDP 's proposal.

But wait. Dr. Mintz is more than a mere professor at the University of Calgary, he is also the director of its School of Public Policy. And he is something else. He is also a beneficiary of corporate largesse. He sits on the board of directors of Imperial Oil, a service for which he receives annual compensation of almost a quarter of a million dollars in cash and stock options.

Now I don't question the estimable Dr. Mintz's integrity, but a quarter of a million dollars can exert a powerful influence over one's thinking. Not that a responsible academic would allow it to affect his opinions. Or not consciously at least, but unconsciously it's another matter. Studies show that scientists who depend on corporate largesse produce results significantly more biased toward corporate interests than their independent colleagues. The subconscious is a powerful force, and a powerful rationalizer.

But whether Mintz's economics is corrupted by money or not isn't the main point. Academics are like judges: they must not only be impartial, they must be seen to be impartial. Accepting big bucks from an oil company doesn't exactly convey impartiality. Citizens in a democracy need unbiased sources of information and they have the right to expect that from universities. But can a citizen expect objective information and opinion on economics or public policy when the source of that information is receiving six-figure compensation from a narrow vested interest? Is the good professor offering economics or politics? Is the information coming from a school of public policy or a school of corporate policy? Mintz's dual role is a clear conflict of interest.

The University of Calgary is taking an unfortunately cavalier attitude toward the pursuit of knowledge by allowing professors to take money from interests vested in their areas of expertise. No one can be blamed for seeing Mintz's opinion on the NDP tax policy as biased, or for wondering what biases are creeping into the university's School of Public Policy, and that is unfortunate for Mintz, for the University of Calgary, for the public's understanding of economics, and for the democratic process. Academics can indeed serve two masters, and very profitably indeed, but at the cost of public trust.

07 May 2015

The Alberta NDP and proportional representation

I never thought I'd live long enough to see the day, but here it is. The NDP have been elected to the government of Alberta. I am ecstatic. Nonetheless, while my emotions soar, my logical self reminds me that they won a majority only because of our corrupt first past the post electoral system. It’s comforting to know the system rewards the good guys as well as the bad guys, but it’s still an undemocratic system, and the people of Alberta are not fairly represented in their legislature.

A fair result, based on share of the popular vote, would be a minority NDP government with 36 seats rather than the 53 they won. The Conservatives would form the official opposition rather than the Wild Rose with 24 seats, as opposed to the 10 they have, and the Wild Rose, the only party that got the number of seats they deserved, would be in third place with 21. The Liberal Party would have 4 and the Alberta Party 2 rather than the one each they received. Of course all this assumes Albertans would have voted the same under a proportional representation system as they did under first past the post—a big assumption. In any case, the election did not respect the will of the people, and that ain't right.

We cannot expect the NDP to bring in proportional representation—for obvious reasons—but we should at least expect them to legislate big money out of election funding, following the lead of their colleagues in Manitoba.

But, hey, enough already, today it is what it is. I will continue to do my bit for PR while at the same time savouring life under an NDP government here in—I can still hardly believe it—Alberta.

06 May 2015


04 May 2015

Why the U.S. can't solve its race problem

Is the Unites States a racist society? This is a question the nation wrestles with as one young black man after another is killed by the police. But the question may in a sense be irrelevant. The current turmoil may be due less to lingering racism than to the ignoring of history.

To explain, allow me, as this is Stanley Cup season, to use a hockey analogy. Let us assume we want to play a pick-up game. We manage to round up some friends and, taking care to balance abilities, we create two teams, A and B. A has six players and B five. The game is on. At the end of the first period, Team A is up five goals. How can this be we say, we took such care to balance the teams skills. And then we realize Team A has an extra player. We agree that's not fair, so we find another player for Team B. Now are the teams equal? Many would answer yes, but they would, of course, be wrong. They would be ignoring the five goals.

So to make things fair, someone, probably a socialist, suggests taking away Team A's goals. But then others, possibly conservatives, jump up and say you can't just take away their goals. They worked hard for them, they have earned them. So the socialist says, OK, then let's give Team B five goals. The conservatives jump up again and say you can't just give them goals, they have to work for them, just as Team A did. So you are stuck. And so is Team B. They will be losers as long as the game lasts.
And this is exactly the position of blacks in the U.S. The generations of brutal oppression they suffered did not magically disappear when the civil rights movement, with victories in the courts and legislatures, brought them legal equality. Legally, a black American has the same rights as a white American yet, in 2011, the median household income for whites was $67,175, for blacks $39,760. That alone illustrates a huge disadvantage, a disadvantage that will remain until the mistakes of history are corrected.

The only way to make Teams A and B equal is to take away goals from Team A and/or give goals to Team B, i.e. by some form of affirmative action. You have to correct history. And so it is with blacks and whites in the United States. The refusal of Americans to accept full, including material, responsibility for the mistakes of the past is the root cause of the current turmoil. The police may be racist but they are also at the sharp edge of a very unequal society, victims too in a way. Until Americans take up the challenge of that ingrained inequality, the racial problem will persist. Compensating blacks for generations of free labour that went into building the country would be a start.

We, too, have historical errors to correct, specifically with our Native people. High crime rates among young Native men, for example, lead to wasted lives for them and grief and expense for the rest of society. History is long with us. You can ignore it, but it won't ignore you.