29 September 2008

YWCA calls for more women in the House

Politicians hot on the campaign trail will receive a report this week they should pay close attention to. I refer to the YWCA's Report on the Status of Women in Canada which they are sending out to all parties and candidates. Among other things, the report calls for an increase in women’s representation in politics. Nothing new in that, of course, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women made the same recommendation almost 40 years ago. Unfortunately, women are still nowhere near political equality. When the election was called, they made up only 21 per cent of the MPs in the House of Commons, and with the polls suggesting an even larger contingent of Conservatives, there isn't much hope for improvement.

The report gives
Canada a failing grade when it comes to the status of women. Representation in our legislatures supports that claim. Compared to our paltry 21 per cent, women now hold a majority of the seats in Rwanda's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. Including the seats they are constitutionally guaranteed, they now hold 55 per cent of the total seats. Women in Sweden are at near parity with 47 per cent and in Finland with 42 per cent. Looking at what other countries achieve, our failing grade is clearly deserved.

The fundamental reason for our pathetic performance is forcing women to compete in a system created by men for men, a system biased toward the competitive, combative individualistic world of males. A macho world that reveals itself all too sadly in behaviour in our legislatures, behaviour once described by a woman member of the British House of Commons as “very public-schoolboy primitive." Former MP Jan Brown once stated that party politics creates, “an unnatural and combative setting that does not support positive relationships. A place where power and gamesmanship determine the rules.”

If women are to share equally in the political process, the rules and practices will have to change to encourage, or at least tolerate, a much more respectful, caring and co-operative politics.
According to Jan Brown, “Validation of the feminine in the political domain would open up new paradigms of leadership, including joint problem-solving that emphasizes win/win rather than lose/lose situations."

Our battling politicians have a lot to think about in the midst of this election campaign. They could do worse than include a few thoughts about ensuring women an opportunity to participate equally in the decisions that affect their lives. A good start would be digesting the YWCA report.

Why are Quebeckers more compassionate to their youth?

The Conservatives' tough on crime policy for teenagers is generating enthusiasm across the country. According to a Strategic Counsel survey of hotly contested ridings in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, 73 per cent of Ontarians and 67 per cent of British Columbians support lowering the age for life sentences to 14. Even 61 per cent of Liberal voters supported tougher sentences. Quebeckers, however, strongly disagreed. Fifty-nine per cent opposed the changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

For years, Quebec has emphasized prevention and restorative justice for their young people while English Canada has inclined to the siren song of punitive justice. While grass roots victims' movements outside Quebec angrily demand stronger penalties, victims' groups in Quebec tend to be more interested in bringing the interested parties, including victims and the police, together. Quebec's more humane approach to juvenile crime is supported by child-care professionals in other provinces as an example of how the system should work.

Why the diifference between the two solitudes? Is it because Quebeckers feel a stronger sense of community, and thus a stronger sense of communal responsibility for their children? Has their Catholic tradition left a stronger sense of mutual responsibility than the Protestant tradition of individualism in English Canada? Or is it simply because the more humane approach works?

Quebec incarcerates far fewer teenagers than the rest of Canada, yet its youth crime rate is the lowest in the country. In 2006, rates varied from a low of 3,765 for every 100,000 youth in Quebec to a high of 19,939 in Saskatchewan. It appears emphasizing prevention is much more successful than emphasizing jail time. As the U.S. experience has shown, the Conservative reliance on more police, more courts, and more prisons is a failure. A very expensive failure.

How unfortunate, then, that the Conservative approach is so popular. It means the streets will be less safe, the justice system will cost more, and more young men will be alienated from society. If that isn't what we want, we should take a closer look at Quebec. Compassion, it seems, pays.

22 September 2008

Debunking the Muslim "threat"

Normally I rely on my own writing to express my opinion rather than simply referring to someone else's. Occasionally, however, I encounter such a superb exposition of an issue, I feel bound to defer to it. This is the case with Doug Saunder's column in Saturday's Globe and Mail "Baby-booming Muslim hordes take Europe? Rubbish!" which brilliantly debunks the fear-mongering of anti-Islamists such as Mark Steyn about a Muslim population explosion in Europe soon leaving that continent at the mercy of an Islamic horde. Saunders neatly outlines how the facts explode this nasty little fantasy. The toxic scribblings of Steyn and his ilk are reminiscent of anti-Semitic garbage such as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" which attempted to stir up fears of a Jewish plot to take over the world. All that has changed is the scapegoat. Fortunately we have writers like Doug Saunders to sweep the garbage up.

15 September 2008

Yankee go home !!!!!!!

The colonies are in revolt. The Bolivians have expelled the U.S. ambassador, accusing him of instigating violent protests against their government. The Venezuelans, not to be outdone, have not only ordered the American ambassador out of the country, they have withdrawn their ambassador from Washington and threatened to cut off oil supplies, on the grounds the Americans have been fomenting a military coup. Now Honduras, in support of Bolivia and Venezuela, is indefinitely postponing accreditation of the U.S. ambassador.

"That's enough shit from you Yankees," proclaimed Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's charismatic president, stating relations would be restored when the U.S. had a new government that respected Latin America. The U.S. has defended its "fine ambassadors" from the assorted charges and dismissed the Latins' accusations as a sign of "weakness and desperation."

The Americans' dismissal of the charges as smokescreens may be largely correct. Chavez seems to rail increasingly at the U.S. as his own problems multiply. And his threat to cut off oil to the U.S. is hollow: as badly as the Americans need the oil, the Venezuelans need the money a lot more.

The Latin leaders' suspicions are not, however, entirely unjustified. The disturbances in Bolivia are not unlike those fomented by the U.S. prior to its support for the overthrow of the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in Chile. And the Americans supported an attempted coup against Chavez in 2002. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Chavez's accusations fell on the 35th anniversary of the CIA-backed coup which overthrew Allende.

In any case, the actions signal a hemisphere increasingly uneasy with American domination. The Empire is being challenged on its own turf. Perhaps it has been focusing too much on its wars on the other side of the world, to say nothing of its "war on terror," allowing the neighbourhood to get out of hand.
When the cat's away and all that.

12 September 2008

Restorative justice advances in B.C.

Restorative justice, the approach to crime that strives to restore the offender to society as a responsible citizen, while providing restitution to the victim and the community, has taken a step forward in British Columbia. Restorative justice contrasts with the traditional retributive or punitive justice which seeks principally to punish the offender.

The B.C. government has established the Downtown Community Court in Vancouver to deal with minor crimes such as theft, assault, public mischief, aggressive panhandling and drug possession. Although minor, these crimes constitute up to 80% of offences. Offenders may choose to go through the regular system or through the community court. If they choose the latter, they may be spared jail time and instead perform community service while participating in programs that help them with their social or health problems. The court has social workers, drug counselors and other experts available as triage teams to develop treatment plans.

According to Judge Thomas Gove, who will preside over the court, "This is not a social service agency, ... you're here because you committed a crime. And you might have to do something you don't want to do, like go to jail, or do community service. But if you come before this court, everyone you meet -- from your defence lawyer who works in the court, through the triage team, the prosecutor and the judge -- we are all interested in helping you improve your life."

The court is modeled after community courts in the United States which contributed to the dramatic reduction of New York City's street-level drug trade. Similar courts now operate in England, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere. Community courts not only offer rehabilitation rather than punishment but offer much greater efficiency in handling cases.

Although the court does not apply a full regimen of restorative justice, where victims are involved in the process and receive restitution, it is a major step in helping people who are often beset by addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty, to gain a productive role in society rather than simply discarding them to jail. According to Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Constable Tim Fanning, "Everybody who works down there knows that the lack of drug treatment and the lack of care for people with mental health issues is the issue."

Ensuring that care is available will determine the success of the court. As Judge Gove emphasizes, "We have to have our government continue its stated commitment to providing supportive housing, as well as other housing for people who happen to be poor but don't need the support. We have to have more addiction treatment programs, along with better ways of dealing with the mentally disordered."

If the court is deemed a success, the B.C. government may set up similar programs in other parts of the province. Let us hope other provinces are paying attention.

11 September 2008

The Afghan death toll we should be most concerned about

This week, the death of yet another Canadian soldier occupied the front pages of our daily press. Meanwhile, the deaths that should be of most concern to us are relegated to the inner pages, if they are mentioned at all. I refer of course to the deaths of Afghan civilians. Almost 100 members of our military have died in this forlorn war. Nearly that many Afghan civilians, including 60 children, died in one attack in Herat province recently, an attack carried out by a combined American/Afghan force. Film of the aftermath showed rows of babies and children lined up in a makeshift morgue.

Canadian soldiers volunteer to kill or be killed. Afghan women and children don't. If you choose a vocation that involves shooting people, even "scumbags," you must expect them to shoot back.

In Afghanistan, the innocent are dying in ever increasing numbers. Over 1,000 civilians have been killed in U.S. and NATO attacks since the beginning of 2006, with the deaths from air strikes tripling over the past year. Many more civilians have lost their lives than U.S. and NATO soldiers, even by conservative estimates. Taliban attacks, including suicide bombings, have killed about twice as many as U.S. and NATO forces have; however, we are not entirely innocent of these deaths either. They are, after all, a response to our presence. So, for that matter, are the deaths of insurgents.

Deaths of civilians are often referred to as collateral damage, an unfortunate side effect in the greater cause. But in modern war, civilian deaths are unavoidable. Going to war is a conscious decision to kill innocents, and in making that decision one is hardly less guilty than a terrorist who decides to set off a bomb in a marketplace. The terrorist may be less specific but he is no more deadly. Our intentions in Afghanistan may be noble, but we all know what the road to hell is paved with. The American war in Vietnam, in the noble cause of saving the benighted Vietnamese from godless Communism, left three million dead in its wake. In the not-so-noble conquest of Iraq, the death toll is now estimated to be over a million. These are the kinds of numbers we should ponder first when we consider military adventures, not the deaths of soldiers.

Whereas our press publishes the name and picture of each Canadian soldier killed, the civilian victims are generally nameless, anonymous ... mere statistics. Perhaps we should publish the name and picture of each innocent Afghan victim on the front pages of our newspapers rather than those of soldiers. That would be much more revealing of the real nature of war.

05 September 2008

Sarah and her dead bear

Looking at that picture of Republican vice--presidential candidate Sarah Palin sitting pertly on her office sofa accompanied by a very large and very dead bear, I'm not sure if the appropriate reaction is humour or despair.

It is impossible not to recognize a certain cartoonish quality to the juxtaposition of an apparently sophisticated lady, cocktail in hand, seated on a dead bear. There's a New Yorker cartoon here.

On the other hand, this was once a magnificent living animal (I'm referring to the bear here, not the lady, although she too is physically commanding) that was killed for what? A bit of fun? For a decoration? Its killing symbolizes the arrogance of humanity, the arrogance of a species that believes the Earth exists solely for its purpose, for its pleasure, including the pleasure of killing other species. This arrogance is particularly intense among fundamentalists, of which Sarah Palin is one. The notion other species may have a right to simply live their lives out is absent from an Old Testament mentality. Or from a frontier mentality, a mentality which is said to possess Alaskans. Ms. Palin is a true representative of her state.

Canadian author Ronald Wright describes two Americas: Enlightenment America, descended from such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson; and Backwoods America, descended from the frontier, clinging to fundamentalism and firearms as touchstones of the pioneering myth, of an autonomy the little man has lost.

With Sarah Palin, Americans have got the latter in spades.

03 September 2008

What does Russia want?

With the recent flurry of concern in the West about Russia's muscle-flexing in Georgia, we might well wonder what is motivating Moscow's foreign policy these days. In a speech on Russian television last week, President Medvedev explained. He tells us Russia will found its international relations on five principles:

Russia will
1. observe international law.
2. reject United States dominance of world affairs.
3. seek friendly relations with other nations.
4. defend Russian citizens and business interests abroad.
5. claim a sphere of influence in the world.

One and three are reassuring, if Medvedev is serious. The Russian manhandling of Georgia would seem to contradict number three, even if Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, did his utmost to provoke the bear. As for number two, rejecting world domination by the United States will meet with no objection from those growing weary of the American empire.

Number four seems reasonable and natural, although it's the kind of statement that always sounds a little ominous coming from a nation inclined to empire. Russia justified their manhandling of Georgia as a defence of Russian citizens, however it seemed to be more a case of number five. One wonders if the American occupation of Iraq in defence of its oil interests isn't, in Medvedev's mind, a precedent that might be useful to Russia.

And number five is disturbing. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union's foreign policy was principally concerned with maintaining a shield of "friendly" countries to protect it from the West. Is this what Medvedev is talking about? Or something more expansive. His comments suggest the latter. Asked if he was referring to Russia's border areas, he elaborated, “It is the border region, but not only. ... Russia, like other countries in the world, has regions where it has privileged interests. These are regions where countries with which we have friendly relations are located.” His reference to "like other countries" no doubt means the United States. Indeed if four and five are combined, we get a pretty good description of American foreign policy.

Too bad the president didn't stop with the first three principles, or at least the first four. That last one is arrogant and unsettling, the principle of a would-be empire, not of a nation committed to international law and friendly relations with other countries.

02 September 2008

Why election campaigns are for idiots and why attack ads work

Election fever stalks North America. The U.S. has been at it for months and now our prime minister desperately attempts to justify a trip to the polls. Soon we will join the Americans to be immersed in political campaigning. Political junkies will be in their element. But what's in it for the rest of us? My answer is not much.

Consider, for simplicity's sake, the electorate divided into two groups: those voters who are well-informed and those who are not. Most of the well-informed will have made up their minds about how they will vote even before the writ is dropped. Some will be committed to a particular party while those who are not will have had four, or in the current case, two years to observe the parties' policies, personalities and behaviour. Little will be added to their knowledgeable and thoroughly-considered views in the few weeks of electioneering.

That leaves the ill-informed. Some of these people will also be committed to a particular party, so their vote too is a foregone conclusion. The only group left to sell a message to during the campaign is an uncommitted, ill-informed minority. In other words, the idiot vote.

A minority it may be, perhaps quite a small minority, but often a critical minority. In the last federal election, the Conservatives won 36 per cent of the vote and were elected to a minority government. If they had won only three or four per cent more, they would probably have formed a majority government, three or four per cent less and they wouldn't have been able to form a government at all. In the last presidential election in the United States, George W. Bush won with an edge in the popular vote of less than three per cent. That's all it takes -- a few percentage points either way.

This is why attack ads work. They insult intelligent, well-informed voters, but they don't target intelligent, well-informed voters. Quite the opposite. They target the idiot vote, those people who can be sold by simplistic, simple-minded, sound bites. If attack ads capture this vote, they can win an election.

A candidate or party may be able to win enough votes to overwhelm the idiot vote, but if the election promises to be close they can't take the chance. This is why at election time, promises flow freely, attack ads proliferate, lawn signs sprout overnight like mushrooms, and politicians you haven't seen for four years knock on your door to explain in 30 seconds why you should vote for them. All to win the idiot vote. Such is the stuff political campaigns are made of.