16 November 2015

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their progeny

Neil Macdonald had an interesting article on the CBC website Monday morning about the options for dealing with ISIS. One of the comments—by "western island"—had a suggestion that in my opinion was much better than the options presented by Mr. Macdonald. Western island suggested:

"Maybe we could offer to hand over Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld."

If only, I thought. Although many believe this appalling trio should be prosecuted for war crimes, I doubt they will ever be called to account for their sins, the worst of which may yet prove to be their ultimate responsibility for the creation of ISIS. If only ....

Paris—the blowback of imperialism

U.S. President Barack Obama has referred to the atrocities in Paris as attacks "on all of humanity." He is wrong, of course. The attacks were specifically directed at France, an ex-imperialist European nation that has a long history of colonizing, oppressing and exploiting the Muslim peoples of North Africa and the Middle East, and that continues to interfere in their affairs to this very day.

It is also a nation with a large population of disadvantaged Muslims replete with a great many angry, frustrated, unemployed young men—another legacy of its imperial past.

Western leaders seem to assume that Islamic terrorists appear fully formed, materializing out of the ether almost without cause. In fact, they materialize out of generations of Western imperialism acting on the Muslim peoples of the Middle East. The Paris attacks are the latest result, and the latest lesson, of Western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.

As for President Obama, he is being disingenuous. ISIS is a direct outcome of the wrecking of Iraq by the U.S. and its coalition partners. If the Paris attacks were indeed carried out by ISIS, then the U.S. and its allies are partly responsible. They have an obligation to deal with the monster they unintentionally created. They have an obligation to clean up their mess.

We don't. We wisely opted out of the Iraq invasion. Now Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to opt out of the bombing campaign against ISIS and appears intent on keeping his word. No Canadians should be put at risk because of the imperial adventurism of the Americans and their partners in crime. We are not an imperial power and have no need to reap the whirlwind of those that sowed the wind.

10 November 2015

Lest we forget—enough already

Lest we forget? How could we possibly? At this time of year we are overwhelmed with noise about not forgetting.

Now the warrior worshipers are demanding that stores not put up their Xmas displays until after November 11th. It is disrespectful, they say. Frankly, I wouldn't be unhappy if stores didn't put up their displays until the last week before Xmas, but it seems to me we are overdoing this Remembrance thing.

Blasphemy, some will say. You should be ashamed. Those dead soldiers died for your freedom to write your blog and say what you think. Nonsense. No one in the Canadian military ever died for my freedom, for other people's yes, but not for mine.

Even the fighting for other people's freedom has been a mixed bag. For example, during WWI while Canadians were trying to protect the Belgians and the French from the Germans, Belgium was oppressing and exploiting the Congolese, and France the Vietnamese. And, of course, the British were doing the same thing to Indians and Africans. And as soon as the war was over, France and Britain greedily gobbled up the remains of the Ottoman Empire to add to their ill-gotten gains. In short, we fought for freedom for some at the expense of others.

The Second World War echoed the First. The Japanese were bad guys because they wanted to do what the European powers had done—build an empire. And since the Europeans had expropriated most of Asia, i.e. Japan's back yard, why shouldn't the Japanese get a piece of the action? Canadian troops died keeping Asia safe for European imperialists.

In Europe, the Germans too wanted to build an empire, but we would have none of that. Subjugating Asians and Africans was quite acceptable in those days, but subjugating white people was simply not on. Nonetheless, the brutality of the Nazis put us on the side of the angels and in that case at least Remembrance is justified.

One of the most politically correct traditions in today's society demands the veneration of warriors. As someone who has little respect for the military, I find myself on the incorrect side. In the minds of many, warrior is the highest calling of man, but I simply don't believe that a profession dedicated to the fine art of killing people is a particularly noble one. So no poppy for me.

09 November 2015

Would you pay the cost of a cup of coffee for democracy?

Canadian taxpayers are reasonably generous funders of democracy. Federally, we support political parties in two ways through our tax system. We subsidize political contributions up to $1,275 with an income tax credit up to $650. And we reimburse political parties for 50 per cent of their election campaign expenses and candidates 60 per cent, if they meet certain minimum requirements.

Both subsidies have their unfortunate downsides. For example, only a tiny fraction of registered voters make political contributions, and therefore the contribution subsidy is controlled by a few per cent of the electorate. These few have a grossly disproportionate influence over funding. With the campaign expense reimbursement, the more a party spends, the more subsidy it receives. In effect, the richer the party, the more the benefit.

A much fairer way of public funding is available and in fact was in place from 2004 until 2015 when the Harper government terminated it. This was the roughly two dollar per-vote subsidy which parties received annually for each vote received in the preceding election.

One flaw in this otherwise excellent scheme was the subsidy being distributed on the basis of votes received in the last election. The democratic way would be for taxpayers to make their own choice. Registered parties could be listed on the income tax form and people could simply tick off the parties they wanted to receive their contribution.

And how much would the contribution be? Very little as it turns out. The spending limit for a 37-day federal election is roughly $300-million for all parties and candidates combined. This sounds like a lot, but when divvied up between 25 million taxpayers it's trivial. Over the four-year pre-election period, it works out to three dollars per taxpayer per year. That, you might say, is the price of democracy.

In order to ensure that parties don't become lazy, they could continue to collect privately the funds they need for expenses between elections. (The maximum contribution would need to be strictly limited in order to keep the rich at bay.) An approach to funding elections that eliminates the advantage of wealth is at our fingertips. Would Canadians be willing to pay the cost of a cup of coffee once a year for fairly-funded elections?

08 November 2015

Making Canada a leader in the world again

Canada has a distinguished record of contributing to the use of hard power in the world, as our performance in two world wars and Korea attests. As a third-rate power militarily, however, we are always a follower, never a leader. In the realm of soft power, things are rather different. Here we have often been a leader.

For example, in 1956, working through the United Nations, our foreign minister, Lester Pearson, played the key role in defusing the Suez Crisis. For this, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the nominating committee declaring he had "saved the world." Pearson is also considered the father of modern peacekeeping, an endeavour in which we once played a major role.

After coming to power in 1984, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney led the fight for sanctions against apartheid in South Africa (despite the opposition of his fellow Conservatives Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan). This proved to be an instance in which sanctions worked.

Mulroney, once named by leading environmentalists as Canada's greenest prime minister, was also an international leader on environmental issues. His government and our scientists were leaders in dealing with acid rain. Canadians were prime drafters of the Montreal Protocol which aimed at reducing emissions of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. Former United Nations secretary general Kofi Anan called it the most successful international agreement.

Under Liberal governments, Canada has played a crucial role in creating various international institutions and agreements, including the International Criminal Court and the treaty to ban anti-personnel mines (known as the "Ottawa Treaty").

This history was a virtuous circle. We were able to lead because we were considered an honest broker, and leading in turn burnished our image as an honest broker. Unfortunately in recent years, we have entered more into a malicious circle. We have seemed more interested in stalling progress than leading it and have as a result burnished a reputation as a reactionary.

Bur under our new government, that should change. Prime Minister Trudeau has informed our top diplomats that Canada has entered a "new era" for our international engagement, and they have a critical role to play. This marks a radical change to the tight control the Harper government imposed on the diplomatic service. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has stated that, “The Canada that helped the world to build its multilateral institutions is back,” while pointing out that former Conservative Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark were critical of the Harper government’s approach to foreign affairs. Regarding Palestine, he insists the new government will "stop making it a partisan issue."

As a middle power, we simply don't have the military might to lead hard power adventures, we can only follow. But there is a leadership role for Canada in the world and it lies in soft power. We have been good at it in the past and we can be good at it in the future.

Religion is bad for kids

It might strike some as surprising, but it shouldn't. A study by academics from seven countries suggests that children from religious families are less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious families. According to the researchers, "Overall, our findings ... contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite."

The study included almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the United States, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa. Almost 24 per cent were Christian, 43 per cent Muslim, 28 per cent non-religious, and five per cent other. They were tested on their willingness to share and their reaction to film of children pushing and bumping one another.

Not only did the results “robustly demonstrate" that Christian and Islamic children were "less altruistic than children from non-religious households,” but older children, i.e. those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit the greatest negative relations.” The study also found that religious children, “frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions.”

A Pew Research Center study in 2014 found that most people around the world think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Most people would appear to be wrong. The world might well be a much better place if children were never contaminated with religion.

05 November 2015

A fine, feminine cabinet

Good to see that Prime Minister Trudeau (haven't said that for a while) has kept an important promise and formed a gender-balanced cabinet. He said his cabinet would reflect Canada and a 50-50 male/female cabinet does just that.

Not surprisingly, some detractors insist that cabinet appointments should be made strictly on merit. They never have, of course. Other factors have always been important—regional interests, bilingualism, ethnic background, balancing veterans and rookies, etc. Merit has never been more than one factor.

And who's to say gender balance doesn't enhance merit. Our political system has been built over the centuries by men for men. It heavily favours a male ethos—aggressive to the point of belligerent, competitive to the point of ruthless—and therefore male politicians. This has created an atmosphere in which many women (and more-civilized men) are not comfortable.

One woman member of the British House of Commons once referred to behaviour in the chamber as “very public-schoolboy primitive,” a description that applies aptly to our House. Former Calgary MP Jan Brown opined that party politics creates, “an unnatural and combative setting that does not support positive relationships. A place,” she added, “where power and gamesmanship determine the rules.” One result of rules flaunting masculine culture and male libidos is a shortage of women in politics. Affirmative action is simply leveling the playing field.

Balancing the cabinet is not only fair but should encourage more women to go into politics, which would be good for women, but more importantly good for all of us. As we devour and pollute our planet, never have we been more in need of the feminine ethos in governance, more empathy and more caring. Trudeau's cabinet is an immediate start in bringing more of these traits into our current government. This should do nothing but good.

As a postscript, I should express my delight at the appointment of one of these women in particular. I refer to the highly-qualified Jody Wilson-Raybould assuming the mantle of Minister of Justice. Who better to appreciate the needs of justice in Canadian society than a Native person? Ms. Wilson-Raybould was reported as having been overcome with emotion at her swearing in. I confess I felt a flutter of emotion myself.

29 October 2015

The NDP—back to social democracy

Rather like the British Labour Party under Tony Blair, the NDP made a play for the political centre. The Liberals, led by the dangerous to underestimate Justin Trudeau, have now writ fini to that ambition.The thing for the NDP to do now, in the heart and mind of this member of the party at least, is to return to social democracy.

Not that the NDP hasn't occupied centre-left of the political spectrum successfully. They have filled that space in all the Western provinces and currently hold power with that mandate in Alberta and Manitoba. Federally it's a different matter. There it has traditionally been a Liberal fief, and although the NDP managed to usurp the role in 2011, the Liberals have reclaimed it in no uncertain terms.

The need for a party of the left, a social democratic party, arose from the inequalities of power and wealth that derive from capitalism. As those inequalities declined in the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War with the rise of the welfare state, the need for such a party was believed by many to have faded.

However, in recent years, the need is back, and in some ways is more urgent than ever. For example, with globalization we have seen a steady growth of corporate power. "Trade" agreements have been as much about advancing the rights of investors over governments as about trade. We see democracy steadily undermined in favour of plutocracy. Liberals, who have generally been supportive of "trade" agreements, cannot be counted on to assume the responsibility of democratic champion. Only social democracy can reliably fill that role.

Further to this question is whether capitalism, a system based on accumulation, is appropriate for a future where growth must eventually end if we are to avoid exhausting the Earth's resources. Social democrats have always offered the perfect alternative to capitalism—the co-operative. Co-operatives are thoroughly democratic, economically successful locally, nationally and globally, and emphasize co-operation over competition, essential in a world of shrinking resources. Incredibly, although co-ops were once at the heart of NDP (or at least CCF) philosophy, there is no mention of them in the NDP election platform. Here is an opportunity for a political party to proclaim the mantra "we must co-operate in a global society" over the soul-destroying "we must compete in the global marketplace."

Globalization has also undermined the power of workers. With entire sectors of the economy not unionized, other sectors experiencing decline in unionization, the use of temporary foreign workers, the replacement of people with robots, etc., working people face a host of challenges. They need a political voice committed to their interests, and the NDP has traditionally been that voice. It might start by insisting that worker protection at least match investor protection in international trade agreements.

Regarding foreign affairs, Canada needs a political party to speak out for the vulnerable—the downtrodden and the dispossessed. This is a fundamental role for a social democratic party. For example, we might start with the Palestinians, a people terribly ill-served by our recent government, and not much better served by the NDP who cravenly submitted to political correctness during the recent campaign and shushed candidates that spoke out for these beleaguered people. Serving the interests of the less fortunate is a fundamental role for a social democratic party even at the expense of popularity.

There is a lot of work to do from a left perspective. I submit that the NDP's future should lie in taking on that job.

21 October 2015

Sunny ways and other thoughts on the election

The Dark Age is over. The wicked witch of Calgary is gone. And Justin Trudeau has promised he will lead according to Sir Wilfred Laurier's "sunny way." Guided by the PM-elect's "positive, optimistic, hopeful vision" rather than by Harper's paranoia, the country will be a much happier place to inhabit.

I had hoped for a minority government; however, all in all I can live with a Liberal majority. And the icing on that cake is that my local Liberal candidate, Kent Hehr (you may hear more of him), won, and that's something in Calgary.

The Liberals received about the same per cent of the vote as the Conservatives did in 2011, so we remain ruled by a government elected by a minority of voters. We can, however, expect a broader range of representation than we had under Harper. The Harper government was just that—a Harper government, a one-man rule. He saw little need to consult outside of his own mind and if you weren't on his side, you were the enemy. The NDP and Green Party policies are generally closer to those of the new government, and the new government has promised to be a listener, so our governance should be much more inclusive.

Furthermore, Trudeau has promised to include the views of ordinary Canadians in his policy-making (now there's an idea for a democracy—listen to the people). What a change to have policies driven by people power rather than by dogma. That, of course, is exactly what we should expect from Liberals. The Prime Minister-elect has also promised electoral reform and we should keep his feet to the fire on that promise.

One of the refreshing aspects of the campaign was Trudeau's declaration he would take the high road and he stuck to it—no attack ads, no wedge issues. Nice to see positive politics work, a healthy sign for the future.

As for the NDP, my party, it tried the political centre approach and it didn't work. The Liberals have made it clear that's their territory and they intend to keep it. Time to get back to democratic socialism.

17 October 2015

We're on the international stage—for our bigotry

The latest issue of Press Progress includes an article commenting on the attention the Prime Minister's divisive anti-Muslim politicking is getting around the globe.

For instance, The Economist carries the headline "Muslim-bashing is an effective campaign tactic" and goes on to say, "The fuss is a godsend for Stephen Harper, who hopes voters will re-elect him for a fourth term as prime minister—despite their fatigue with his ten-year rule and a weak economy."

A Guardian article headlines "It's not just America: Canadian politicians use Islamophobia to make gains in polls," and comments, "Canadian political and thought leaders, including both politicians and media, seem to be fixated more on the dress of a handful of Muslim women than the tragic loss of over 1000 Aboriginal women." It adds, "This is an issue that was previously irrelevant, especially since reciting the oath is mostly symbolic. In Canada, women in face-covering veils have sworn oaths at their weddings for centuries."

The Washington Post, under the headline "How a Muslim veil is dominating Canada’s election race," states, "There are lots of important issues at stake, including Canada's flagging economy, its role in counterterrorism operations overseas, and the looming specter of climate change. But, of late, something far more insignificant has begun to dominate the conversation: whether Muslim women can wear the niqab, a type of full-face veil, during Canadian citizenship ceremonies."

Esquire headlines an article "What the F*ck Is Going on up in Canada?" with the subhead "Stephen Harper has designs on being a Christian oil sheikh." It goes on to observe, "Harper, of course, having learned all the wrong lessons from the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton years, has been going to Trump University this time around."

British daily the Independent comments, "Faithful ally of Britain in two world wars, peacekeeper to the world, Nato but neutral across the globe, it’s difficult to believe that Canada’s democracy might have come adrift. But the last weeks of election campaigning by Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative party—with its dark, racist overtones and anti-Muslim rhetoric—suggests that something has gone profoundly wrong with the nation which Winston Churchill once called 'the linchpin of the English-speaking peoples.'"

Considering that we once had a reputation for being a progressive, tolerant sort of place, it is not happy-making to have us discussed in the world's leading newspapers and magazines as a land of bigots. Thank you very much, Mr. Harper.

16 October 2015

A minority progressive government would be the best result of the election

I wouldn't dare to be so bold as to play the prophet and predict the shape of the government that will result from Monday's federal election. Polls and electorates are much too fickle. I can only observe that if the polls are accurate and the electorate doesn't suddenly change its collective mind, after the Governor General has been duly consulted and all the other dust has settled the best bet is a Liberal minority government.

I would prefer an NDP minority, but regardless of whether it's Liberal or NDP what's important is that it be a minority. We don't need another dictator for the next four years, and that's what we tend to get under our current system. Our prime ministers have the power of presidents, but unlike presidents they aren't elected by the people—I won't see the names Harper, Trudeau or Mulcair on my ballot.

Stephen Harper has been more of a one-man government than we have ever had, but both Mulcair and Trudeau are playing too much of the same tune. Trudeau constantly refers to "my plan" and Mulcair tells us "I will do this and I will do that." And the parties seem to have no objection to their leaders assuming royal postures.

And a minority government will mean more than imposing a much-needed constraint on the prime minister. It will also mean, if the polls hold up, 60 per cent, a solid majority, of Canadians will be represented in their parliament, just the opposite of the last four years, in which 60 per cent have not been represented. The result will be a reasonable facsimile of proportional representation.

The question of the effectiveness of minority governments has long been settled. Lester Pearson led a minority for five years in the sixties and it was one of the most productive governments we've ever had. Among its achievements were Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, our flag, the Auto Pact, the Order of Canada, a 40-hour work week, the de facto abolishment of capital punishment, and the initiation of two Royal Commissions that contributed to legal equality for women and official bilingualism. Compare this to the sterile years of Harper's majority.

Neither the Liberals nor the NDP would like to head a minority government because with political parties it's all about power. But from the citizens' perspective, a leashed prime minister and a majority of our MPs forced to co-operate for the good of the country would be a very good thing indeed.

14 October 2015

Americans support Keystone, Canadians not so much

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center regarding the Keystone XL Pipeline revealed some intriguing, and perhaps counterintuitive, results. According to the survey a majority of Americans solidly support Keystone, with almost twice as many supporting as opposing, while a majority of Canadians are against it. Only 42 per cent of Canadians are in favour of building the pipeline while almost half (48 per cent) are not. Keystone is, of course, intended to carry tar sands oil south to American refineries.

Our federal government has claimed Canadians want this pipeline, practically suggesting at times that opposing Keystone is tantamount to a lack of patriotism, if not outright treason. Mind you, according to the Pew survey, some Canadians do want it, specifically three-quarters of Conservatives and two-thirds of Albertans, but for most of us, it's no thanks.

The government, in other words, hasn't been accurately representing Canadians. But then it hasn't represented most of us much of the time—a governing party that has never been able to obtain the electoral support of even 40 per cent of the people isn't exactly the voice of the people. Some governments have been representative even though they only obtained minority electoral support simply by listening to a broad range voices, but this government has not been a listener.

In any case, if the Americans fail to approve Keystone, despite the Prime Minister insisting it's inevitable, they will simply be doing what most Canadians want. Odd, though, that we would have to rely on the U.S. government rather than our own to reflect our wishes.

11 October 2015

What are Canadian values, of what value are they, and who decides?

Prime Minister Harper, the "old stock" Canadian, recently made the odd remark, "I will never tell my young daughter that a woman should cover her face because she is a woman. That's not our Canada." Why such a notion should ever present itself to Mr. Harper is a mystery, but the part that caught my eye was, "That's not our Canada."

"Our" Canada? Stephen Harper's Canada is not my Canada. Can a man who once mocked Canadian values to an American audience, a man who wanted to build a firewall around Alberta to keep out Canadian values, a man who has disrespected Canadian courts and Canadian democracy, speak for Canadian values? This fellow is no fit arbiter of "our Canada."

But who is? Who can speak for Canadian values? There are many sets of values floating about the country: conservative, liberal, socialist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim ... the list is long and the spokespeople varied. And of course values constantly change. Gay marriage was, only a very short time ago, alien to Canadians; today it is widely accepted and approved of.

And how does a value become Canadian? When a majority accepts it? So are values held by minorities un-Canadian? How can that be when, as we often insist, tolerance is in itself a Canadian value?

And is the Canadian way necessarily the right way? At one time, "our Canada" denied women the vote, excluded Chinese and Aboriginals from citizenship, took Indian children away from their parents, and persecuted gays.

Some values are so widely supported and deeply ingrained, they might fit the bill as "our Canada." Those ensconced in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms come to mind. But many others are arbitrary and transient, and progress commonly involves challenging and overcoming accepted values.

Morally, issues should be judged on their individual merits, by appealing to principle and logic, not to the easy emotions engendered by slogans such as "our Canada," "the Canadian way" or "Canadian values." These are best left to the demagogues.

Telling your daughter that women should cover their faces because they are women isn't wrong because it isn't "our Canada." It's wrong because it denies women equality, including the right to make their own choices. The oppression is in the coercion. Oppressing women is the sin, not wearing a niqab, not being "unCanadian."

07 October 2015

Albertans support stronger climate change policies

A recent survey by EKOS Research Associates commissioned by the Pembina Institute reveals that Albertans' attitudes about energy and climate change are more progressive than many think.

For example, 50 per cent of Albertans support a carbon tax that applies to all polluters, both companies and individuals (38 per cent oppose the tax). Support rises when the revenue is used for projects that help reduce emissions, such as public transit, energy-efficient buildings and reducing emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Two-thirds of Albertans believe the government should prioritize diversifying the economy over improving the efficiency of the oil and gas industry.

A solid majority (70 per cent) support investment in renewables to reduce coal use, and 86 per cent believe the province should do more to support the development of clean energy.

As for further development of the tar sands, Albertans are split: 48 per cent think production should stay the same or be reduced while 43 per cent believe production should be larger. Seventy per cent believe the province should be stricter in enforcing tar sands environmental rules and safeguards.

Support for tar sands production remains higher than a realistic view of climate change can tolerate, nonetheless overall the attitudes are encouraging. There is grist here for the new government's mill for aggressive environmental action.

05 October 2015

Niqab nonsense—much ado about nothing

I am no fan of the niqab. Hell, I'm no fan of religion. But if a Moslem woman wants to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony for religious reasons, I can't think of a single reason why I, or the state on my behalf, should prevent her. As long, that is, as she is prepared to unveil privately to establish her identity.

And that, Zunera Ishaq the young mother who took the government's ban to court and won, was prepared to do. In fact, up until 2011 that's exactly what niqab-wearers were doing. There was no problem. Everything went smoothly. In accordance with the law of the day, the women revealed their faces privately to prove their identity and then were allowed to wear their face covering for the purely symbolic, public oath-taking ceremony. This is what we call in a civilized country a reasonable compromise. We Canadians are very good at it; it's why we are a peaceable kingdom.

And then the federal government decided to make trouble. Rejecting the advice of their own legal advisers, they passed legislation banning the niqab at the citizenship ceremony. Ms. Ishaq challenged the law in court and won. The government appealed and lost. Now it wants to appeal to the Supreme Court. All of this legal mischief will of course be at the taxpayer's expense.

This is not a new struggle for Ms. Ishaq. She chose to wear the niqab as a teenager in her native Pakistan, somewhat to the surprise of her liberal family and to the discomfort of her college teachers. She has never had a problem with revealing her face in private, as for example when she passes through airport security or when she obtained her driver's license. She is simply balking at exposing her face to a roomful of male strangers when there is no practical reason to do so.

One objection to the niqab is the notion that it represents male domination of women. I believe it does, but if a woman freely chooses to wear it, as Zunera Ishaq clearly does, that complaint is irrelevant. Indeed, there is no little hypocrisy in all this. For example, many of those Canadians objecting to wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies are members of the Catholic Church, Canada's largest religion. This institution, ruled entirely by men, dictates that women abstain from abortion and birth control. Men dictating women's intimate sexual practices is hardly less misogynous than requiring women to wear veils.

As for the government, Stephen Harper and his colleagues seem obsessed with Muslim practices. As The Independent commented, the niqab affair "smells like another attempt to mould the word 'security' around the religion of Islam." Do we see the evangelical Christian peeking out from behind the Prime Minister's skirts?

03 October 2015

Stephen Harper's sad little world of fear

I have tended to think of Stephen Harper's efforts to instill fear in Canadians as largely demagoguery. Governments creating a climate of fear to rally their people around them when they are in trouble is one of the oldest political gimmicks in the book. However, the more I observe Harper, the more I come to believe that he is truly a frightened man.

In an interview with Calgary Metro, he "warned of international financial crises, pandemics, terrorists and explained ... why Canadians can't have the kinder, gentler country the other leaders have been promising." "Fear," the interviewer concluded, "is a guiding factor for this leader."

I agree with the interviewer. Our prime minister is a man guided by fear. Unfortunately, his fear is irrational. We do, in today's world, have financial crises, pandemics and terrorists, but then we always have. The reality is that never in all history have ordinary people been more prosperous—or more secure—than we are in Canada today. If Mr. Harper knew his history, he would understand that. There is, in fact, no better time for a "kinder, gentler country."

If Harper was just an ordinary guy, I would feel sorry for him. It can't be pleasant living in a world of fear. But he isn't just an ordinary guy, he's our prime minister and he's trying to impose his angst on the rest of us. And a fearful society is not a healthy one. Fearful people are suspicious people who tend to isolate themselves from others, other societies, even from their neighbours when they are of a different race, religion or life style. It definitely does not lead to a kinder, gentler country.

If we believe in that kind of country, a country of open, confident and generous people, we have the unfortunate burden of countering Mr. Harper's insidious fearfulness. Or of electing a new prime minister.

02 October 2015

NDP attacks Trudeau—Harper grins

As I was about to mail another donation to the NDP earlier this week, I encountered the following headline on the CBC website: "NDP sets sights on Trudeau in bid to recapture momentum." No doubt the headline put a large grin on Stephen Harper's face. It put a large frown on mine. Wonderful, I thought, my party is now collaborating with the Conservatives to undermine their fellow progressives.

This is one of the most important elections in our history and from a progressive standpoint it has one overriding objective—rid the country of Stephen Harper. I was, therefore, in light of this new NDP campaign, wondering if my party had lost sight of the goal.

I recognize that as the campaign has progressed, Trudeau has improved his image, Mulcair not so much. No doubt the NDP wants to ensure that, regardless of the outcome, they don't end up playing second fiddle to the Liberals. I understand that but first things first. First defeat Harper, then quarrel over the spoils. If the Dippers feel a need to improve the image of their leader, they should work on that, not on undermining an ally in the greater cause.

In the end I did mail my donation but not, I admit, without being tempted to redirect it to the Liberals.

24 September 2015

Enough of this low tax nonsense

If conservatives believe in low taxes in order to keep government small, so be it, but when they insist that low taxes are necessary for a healthy economy, they are talking rot, parroting a mantra that has been utterly disproved.

The low tax theory can in fact be refuted with one word: Sweden. I could use other words, e.g. Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, etc., but Sweden will do. Sweden has the world's second highest taxes as a per cent of GDP (Denmark has the highest). It also has a per capita GDP higher than ours and is ranked by the World Economic Forum as having the world's sixth-most competitive economy. (We rank 14th.) In other words, with a tax rate of 47 per cent of GDP compared to our 33 per cent, it performs as well or better than us economically. And it does this with a fraction of the natural resources that we possess. For instance, it has no oil or natural gas—to a Canadian, the essentials for a strong economy.

A number of other countries can tell a similar story. The proof is irrefutable. Indeed, we can go further. Not only do high taxes not preclude a robust economy, they may be necessary to achieve a nation's best economic performance. After all, in the modern world an optimal economy requires excellent social infrastructure—a healthy, well-educated population in which all members can fulfill their potential. And it requires excellent physical infrastructure—good roads, docks, water and sewer facilities, etc. And excellence costs money. Low taxes can't afford it.

How taxes are applied is another matter. Different taxes create different incentives and disincentives, so which taxes a government emphasizes can be important to economic health, and this certainly deserves debate. But that high overall taxation is in itself a disincentive to an economy is an argument deserving of a quick trip to the ideological dumpster.

23 September 2015

Why this Dipper is voting Liberal in Calgary Centre

Liberals have been screwing Calgary for a long time. When one hears this, one's thoughts immediately turn to Trudeau senior and his National Energy Program. But it started long before that. Back in the beginning in fact. When Alberta became a province in 1905, Frank Oliver, Edmonton newspaper publisher and Liberal MP, persuaded Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier to make his hometown the capital of the new province. His justification was simple—Calgary voted Conservative, Edmonton voted Liberal.

Calgary thought in all fairness it should at least get the University of Alberta. It wasn't to be. Alexander Rutherford, president of the Liberal Party of Alberta, was appointed the first premier and located it in his hometown of Strathcona, now part of Edmonton. Edmonton 2, Calgary 0, all because of the conniving Liberals.

Nonetheless, that's who I'll be voting for. Actually, that's not quite correct—for this election, I'm doing something I rarely do, voting for the candidate, not the party. The last time I did this federally was vote for Joe Clark over an incumbent Reformer in 2001. This time I'm voting for Kent Hehr. The reason is twofold. First, he has easily the best chance of any of the opposition candidates to defeat the Conservative incumbent. Secondly, he has been my MLA for the past seven years and he's been a damn good one. He deserves to go on to the senior level.

As a member of the NDP, I'd prefer to support the party. And I will, in dollars. But this is one of those times my vote just has to go to the other guys.  In 2001, Joe Clark won. I can only hope I've picked another winner.

16 September 2015

Saints and slackers on the refugee front

The Canadian government has come under considerable criticism for its sluggish reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis, and deservedly so. As I pointed out in a previous post, this is in sharp contrast to our response to other similar crises.

A number of countries are doing much better than us, and then there are those that are doing much worse. On the better side are some of Syria's neighbours. Turkey has taken in more than any other country, 1,600,000 refuges, and Jordan and Lebanon, despite their small size, have received over 600,000 and 1,100,000 respectively.

Of the total number of refugees, the UN Refugee Agency estimates 380,000 are in need of resettlement. To date, 107,000 places have been offered with Germany the most generous country, offering to resettle 35,000, a third of the places required.

Not all nations are so welcoming. A number of high income countries, including Japan and South Korea, have offered zero resettlement. The worst malingerers can be counted among the Syrians' rich Arab neighbours. The Gulf states—Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—have offered no places to their Semitic brothers and sisters. There can be no excuses here. The Gulf region has immense wealth and ample job opportunities—millions of professionals and labourers are imported from around the world to service the lifestyles and enterprises of these states.

Also noticeably absent from the list of nations offering to accept refugees are Russia and Iran. Neither has offered refuge to a single Syrian. Considering that they have been supporting Bashar Al-Assad in his brutal attempt to maintain power, the least they can do is provide sanctuary to some of his victims.

Canada can do much more to help these people, but we are not alone in shirking our humanitarian responsibility. There are others who should also be doing more, some a great deal more than us.

14 September 2015

Vote CBC

The CBC, our national broadcaster, is usually justified on the basis of two fundamentally important services it provides: it serves as stage for Canadian culture and it unites a broad, diverse country. I suggest it serves us in yet another way that is equally important: it is the only national mass medium that is not owned by and accountable to the corporate sector, i.e. the only truly independent voice. And, I might add, as the only national medium we own and is accountable to us, the only democratic voice.

Despite the invaluable service it provides us, we have not been serving it too well for the past few decades. During the Liberal's term in office, the CBC's Parliamentary appropriation fell from $1.6-billion, in 2014 dollars, to $1.3-billion. Since the Conservatives came to power, it has dropped further to $1.0-billion. Per capita, each Canadian pays only $29 per year for public broadcasting, a paltry sum compared to the average for Western countries of $82.

It is more than a bargain, it's a steal. While we pay the appropriation with our taxes, we pay for commercial broadcasting via advertising. Every time we buy a dozen oranges or a pair of socks, we pay a few pennies for advertising, a portion of which goes to private TV and radio. What we pay private broadcasting via advertising works out (I've done the math) to five times what we pay for the CBC with our taxes.

The Conservative government has done more than squeeze the CBC financially. In 2013, it placed the broadcaster under the supervision of the Treasury Board, thereby undermining its editorial independence from government, contrary to the Broadcasting Act. The current 12-member CBC board has been appointed entirely by the Conservatives, nine of which, including the president, have been financial contributors to the party.

Restoring funding and editorial independence to our national broadcaster should be a key priority for any government elected next month. Canadian culture, Canadian unity, and Canadian democracy deserve and demand it. Those who agree can join a good friend of the CBC here and vote in the best interests of the corporation on October 19th.

06 September 2015

How many refugees should we accept?

Joseph Stalin once said that if you kill one person it's murder, if you kill a million it's a statistic. The old psychopath, who knew a lot about killing one person and about killing a million, put his finger on a key element of human sensibility. We have difficulty connecting to people in the aggregate; we need to connect to the individual to realize our humanity. Such is the case with the Syrian refugee crisis.

The civil war in that country has created millions of refugees and we have paid limited attention, but the picture of little Aylan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach has touched the world's heart. Like Kevin Carter's famous photo of a vulture looming behind a starving Sudanese infant, or that of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing her napalmed Vietnamese village, Aylan's photo has become the symbol of his people's tragedy.

Historically, Canada has been generous in accepting refugees from violence. When the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, we accepted 37,000 refugees. We took in over 100,000 boat people after the Vietnam war. And this was when our population was much smaller. We should be able to accept substantially larger numbers today. The Syrian crisis is as pressing as either of these tragedies and deserves equal generosity, yet our response has been pathetic. Fewer than 2,400 Syrians have been resettled in Canada during the last two years, with an overall commitment by our government to accept a meagre 11,300.

The NDP proposes bringing in more than 46,000 government-sponsored refugees by 2019, including 10,000 by the end of this year. The Liberals call for expansion of our intake to 25,000. If we accepted the same number as we did after the Hungarian uprising proportional to our population today, the number would be almost 80,000, and we are a much richer country today. If we are no less a moral country, even the NDP and Liberal figures are modest. We can do much, much better.

05 September 2015

Ms. Harper supports the NDP position on marijuana

Speaking at a Conservative campaign office last week, Laureen Harper, the prime minister's better half, declared that when it comes to marijuana possession, "You don't put people in jail." On the other hand, she also said marijuana use was worse than smoking or alcohol and she opposes full legalization. Nonetheless, her view would seem to approximate the NDP's policy of decriminalization. It certainly contradicts Conservative Party policy which is the status quo—up to five years for possession of a small amount with six months or a $1,000 fine for a first-time offence.

I prefer the Liberal Party position myself, i.e. legalization. I don't use the stuff, but I can't think of any good reason why I should prevent anyone else enjoying a toke or two. Decriminalization is small progress but it's something and, according to a recent Ipsos Reid-Global poll, supported by two out of three Canadians.

Veering off message like Ms. Harper has done could get a Conservative in big trouble in her husband's control-obsessed party. It is doubtful, however, that anyone would dare scold the PM's missus, his "best political advisor." In any case, it is a pleasure to see at least one Harper on the right side of the issue, even if only marginally so.

29 August 2015

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.