30 March 2010

Women's rights under attack -- as usual

"Eternal vigilance," it has been famously said, "is the price of liberty." That is certainly true for women. In the past month, various items in the news have revealed just how true.

The decline of women's rights in Iraq, for instance. After the Personal Status Law was enacted in 1958, when the British-installed monarchy was overthrown, Iraqi women enjoyed many of the same rights as Western women. But the statutes covering the status of women have been replaced by Iraq's new Constitution which states, "No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam." The undisputed rules of Islam will, of course, be interpreted by religious leaders, all of whom are men. According to Maha Sabria, professor of political science at Al-Nahrain University, "Iraqi women are struggling with oppression and denial of all their rights, more than ever before." She adds, "The real ruler in Iraq now is the rule of old traditions and tribal, backward laws."

"Tribal" and "backward" is also an apt description of Ukraine's new government. The new pro-Russian prime minister, Mykola Azarov, head of an all-male cabinet, has stated the country's economic problems are too difficult for women to handle. "Conducting reforms," Azarov observed, "is not women's business." The man who appointed Azarov, President Viktor Yanukovych, declared during February's election campaign that his opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, should "go to the kitchen." A right pair of boors.

When it comes to achieving equality, or even respect, the line from the old folk rhyme is certainly true, "A woman's work is never done."

Democracy, labour unions and a healthy economy

Former governor of New York Alfred E. Smith once said, "All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy," and I'm generally inclined to agree. Certainly more democracy in the work place -- a commonly overlooked place when it comes to thoughts of democracy -- would help to cure some of our economic ills.

A recent article in Harper's Magazine describes how greater participation of workers and labour unions in German companies has helped make that country the world's leading exporter second only to China. As the article reports, "even as the Germans outsell the United States, they manage to take six weeks of vacation every year. They’re beating us with one hand tied behind their back." Indeed, the fact that Germany, an industrialized nation of 82-million people can out-export an industrialized nation of 308 million people is truly extraordinary.

The article suggests one of the reasons is that German workers have more control over the means of production than any other country in the world. "Because German workers are at the table when the big decisions are made, and elect people who still watch and sometimes check the businessmen," author Thomas Geoghegan writes, "they have been able to hang on to their manufacturing sector. They have kept a tool-making, engineering culture, which our own entrepreneurs, dreamily buried in their Ayn Rand novels, have gutted." He goes on to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the German model, ultimately concluding, "German companies will lead the next industrial revolution, the 'green' one, while we in the United States will merely watch."

The German experience indicates that more workplace democracy leads to sounder economic decision-making. It can also help preclude problems in the economy. The recent financial collapse in the United States which eventually affected all of us was triggered largely by American workers going excessively into debt particularly by buying homes they couldn't afford. One reason they couldn't afford them is that the dramatic weakening of unions steadily eroded the ability of workers to obtain good wages and benefits, with many of the well-paid, blue collar, union jobs being shipped offshore. Accordingly, the United States has sacrificed much of its "tool-making, engineering culture" to the corporate pursuit of cheap labour. Unlike in Germany, American workers have not been able to do much about it.

More workplace democracy could have aided in both preventing the financial collapse in the U.S. and contributing to the country's economic recovery. We Canadians might keep this in mind for our own economic well-being. Just last week, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney warned once again that Canadian business's failure to reinvest in their companies is seriously hampering Canadian productivity. One suspects that if workers and unions had more say in Canadian companies, they would be much more likely to invest in worker productivity. We have not seen our union sector weakened to the extent it has been in the U.S., but its membership as a per cent of the labour force is declining. This is not a wise direction to take.

29 March 2010

Incarceration: The high price of easy answers

At a time of budget-cutting in Ottawa, Corrections Canada is scheduled for an increase of a whopping 27 per cent over the next three years. Now why might this be? Is crime getting out of control? Well, no, crime rates are actually falling. Are prison populations rising at nine per cent a year? Well, no, actually they've been rising at less than four per cent over the past five years. Ah, but will more incarceration lead to greater protection for the public? Well, no again. Criminologists seem to be in general agreement that longer sentences don't reduce crime rates. So why in heaven's name are we expanding the prison system at nine per cent a year?

The quick answer is that getting "tough on crime" is politically popular. And the underlying reason for that is an aging population. Crime is a young man's game, so as the proportion of young men in the population declines, as it has been doing, the incidence of crime declines accordingly. But of course as the proportion of young people declines, the proportion of old people increases, and older people tend to be more afraid of crime. The result is an inverse relationship: as the crime rate goes down, concern about crime goes up.

The easy political response is to lengthen sentences and build prisons. The responsible political response is to mitigate the concern by educating the public to the facts, i.e. crime rates are falling, we are becoming safer every day, and stuffing offenders in prison for longer periods won't make us any safer. Unfortunately, it appears this is not what our current government has in mind. Their lack of leadership is going to waste a lot of our money.

25 March 2010

Are we missing the point on global warming?

The key point about global warming is simple: we can't take the chance. 

What are the odds we are causing climate change? Well, the great majority of scientists say we are, so the odds must be very high. But what if only a handful of scientists was concerned? Then, presumably, the odds would be low. So in that case would we be acting responsibly if we carried on with business as usual, not doing anything significant until the proof is undeniable? Only if we were suicidal. 

What would we be risking with our lack of action? Well, what scientists are warning us about now is not so much a greenhouse gas effect but a runaway greenhouse gas effect. Global warming is reaching a point where we can no longer control it and threatens to  escalate into catastrophe. The risk is the collapse of civilization as we know it and possibly worse. Only fools would unnecessarily risk such a loss. Even if only one qualified scientist insisted we are causing the Earth to warm up, we would be foolish not to act as if he was right. It is simple risk analysis: the risk we can afford to take decreases as the value of what we are risking increases.

Allow me a simple analogy. Let's assume you are at the beach and your child wants to go in for a swim. Unfortunately, the local fishermen think there are man-eating sharks just off the beach and they are hungry. Do you let your child go in? Of course not. But what if only one old fisherman is concerned, the others aren't sure, then do you let her go in? Or how about letting her go in slowly and tell her to come out when she sees a fin? OK? I doubt you would relent. We are not willing to unnecessarily risk something so precious. As with civilization, the only acceptable risk is the lowest one we can humanly achieve.

The skeptics have it precisely backwards. They insist we must have absolute proof of climate change before we take dramatic action. But given what we risk, good sense demands we take dramatic action until the skeptics can prove climate change is not a problem.

This of course they cannot do. The scientific consensus on climate change is solid and the proof increases daily. But even if it weren't, even if great doubt remained in the scientific community, we would be bound by reason to act and to act boldly. Unfortunately, all too many of us are missing this critical point.

19 March 2010

Shooting the finance guys

Last November, North Korea revalued its currency, the won, apparently to reduce the financial influence of the country's growing merchant class and reassert state control over the economy. North Koreans were obliged to exchange old notes for new ones at a rate of 100 to one. Confusion about the policy led to hoarding, in turn driving prices up and the new currency plummeted in value. People found it increasingly difficult to buy food and fears arose that the famines of the 1990s were about to return. A cap on the amount that could be changed reduced some people's savings to piles of worthless notes. Social unrest grew, highly unusual in that rigid dictatorship. In short, the reform was a disaster.

Remarkably, the prime minister apologized for "causing pain among the people" and promised to improve the food supply. But this wasn't enough. The reform had not only caused economic chaos, it had undermined Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's plans to transfer power to his son, Kim Jong-un. A scapegoat had to be found, and the obvious choice was the regime's financial chief, Pak Nam-gi. Last week they shot the poor bastard.

Putting a finance minister in front of a firing squad seems a rather over the top response to failed economic policy. Although when one looks at the results of American administrations deregulating their banks, one's trigger finger does itch a bit. And if we could line the bankers up along the wall with them .... well.

18 March 2010

Bully for U.S. Anglicans

I was sort of an Anglican myself at one time. I say sort of because, while I was baptized and confirmed in the Faith, I don't remember ever believing any of the dogma, particularly the God part. Nonetheless, that doesn't stop me from giving the Church its due when it deserves it. And it does from time to time. This week, the Episcopal Church (the Anglican body in the U.S.) approved Mary Glasspool as its second gay bishop. The Reverend Glasspool is also the second woman bishop in the diocese of Los Angeles.

The first gay bishop approved was V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in 2003, and the first woman approved in the Los Angeles diocese was Diane Bruce earlier this year. Reverends Glasspool and Bruce will be consecrated by the head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Schori, on May 15th in Los Angeles.

The usual grumbling was heard of course. The head of the international church, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, warned the American church that Glasspool's election "raised very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole." Well, deal with it, Archbishop. And you go, Mary.

Eureka! American top brass make the Israel/Palestine/terrorism connection

General David Petraeus, head of the United States Central Command and perhaps the most influential member of the American armed forces, has solved a simple equation. Earlier this week, in testimony before the Senate armed services committee, the general declared that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict posed a threat to American interests. He said it "foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favouritism for Israel" and that "anger over the Palestinian question" aided al-Qaida and other jihadist groups to recruit supporters.

This follows a briefing of the top brass at the Pentagon by senior officers of U.S. Central Command that Israeli intransigence was damaging American standing in the region, and that Arab leaders now considered the U.S. too weak to stand up to Israeli.

The only question is what took these guys so long to figure out the obvious. Survey after survey of the Arab people has shown an overwhelming antipathy toward Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. Indeed, if the Americans had listened to the Arab street, they would never have blundered into Iraq. Or they could listen to the terrorists themselves. Every time Islamic extremists justify their violence, at the top of the list is the suffering of the Palestinians.

And how could it be otherwise? How could the Arab people be anything but furious at the treatment of their Palestinian brothers and sisters at the hands of the Israelis? And how could they not be angry at the United States for its massive support of the oppressor?

The toxicity of the Palestine problem has spread throughout the world, reaching New York on September 11th, 2001. The American military may be primarily concerned about the cost building Greater Israel brings to American soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, but American civilians have also paid a heavy price. The military, largely immune to the pressure of the Israel lobby, are free to say so. Now if only the politicians will listen.

17 March 2010

Yemen and the security question

When Yemen makes the news, the focus tends to be on Western security, particularly concerning the presence of al-Qaeda in that country. The security of Yemenis seems to be of little interest even though it is under a vastly greater threat than the West's.

Thousands of Yemenis have been displaced by the fighting in the north while refugees flood in from Somalia fleeing the war there. The country suffers from the third highest rate of malnutrition in the world with millions spending a third of their income on bread. Many are illiterate and their children are not attending school. Some 300,000 college-educated Yemenis are out of work. Of those children who do go to school, many attend Saudi Arabia-supported religious schools, learning religious rigour and little else. Thus the security of ordinary Yemenis is compromised now and for future generations.

The World Food Programme needs $105-million in the next two years to feed more than three million of the poorest Yemenis, including refugees created by the violence. Yet the agency's accounts are barely breaking even. If new donations do not arrive shortly, it will be unable to continue feeding the refugees.

Security is about something more fundamental for Yemenis than it is for the West; it is about simply getting enough to eat. Yet the best way for the West to address its security is to address the Yemenis' security. Ensure the basic needs of their most vulnerable people are met, assist them in developing a stable economy and stable institutions, and build schools for their children that offer comprehensive education rather than religious indoctrination. Do these things and the West will do much more to create a secure Yemen than it will by helping Yemenis kill each other.

Canadians could lead in all this if we weren't spending four times as much on military might as we are on foreign aid. If we reversed our priorities, we might have something more substantial to offer both the West's security and the Yemeni's.

Can it be happening? Peace -- and democracy -- in Sudan?

The list is impressive:

• Last month, the Sudanese government signed a preliminary peace treaty with the Justice and Equality Movement, Darfur's largest armed rebel group.
• The government of southern Sudan, created under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, is moving towards a mutually agreed upon independence referendum next year.
• The Sudanese will go to the polls next month to elect a president, a national legislature, regional governors, and the leadership of the semi-autonomous south.
• Sudan has normalized relations with Chad, its western neighbour with which it has long shared hostility.

All this is fragile and could come unstuck, but it is remarkable progress nonetheless. An optimist could reasonably see peace in Darfur, an elected government for Sudan, the south peacefully deciding on its future, and good relations between Chad and Sudan.

This represents much good work by the Sudanese government. It deserves acknowledgement and support.

15 March 2010

The oil industry whips Stelmach into shape

When Peter Lougheed was premier of Alberta, the government defended the province's interests against all comers, against the feds and the oil industry alike. Indeed, at times the industry found Lougheed more difficult than Ottawa did. When Lougheed left, so did the will to challenge the corporate sector. Under Don Getty, then Ralph Klein, Alberta essentially ceded the boss's job to the oil and gas industry.

Then Ed Stelmach arrived on the scene, talking tough. Having apparently read Our Fair Share, the Alberta Royalty Review Panel report which baldly stated, "Albertans do not receive their fair share from energy development. The royalty rates and formulas have not kept pace with changes in the resource base and world energy markets," he promised to bring in a new royalty regime. This he did in 2009, significantly increasing Albertans' share of their resource.

The industry didn't like it and they proceeded to punish Ed and his Conservatives. They began to shift their very generous political spending to the Wildrose Alliance Party, until then a non-entity. They reached into their deep pockets to propel the charismatic Danielle Smith to the leadership and overnight created a strong rival to the Conservatives. When the energy minister, Ron Liepert, gave a breakfast speech in Calgary about “the Future of Alberta Energy,” for the first time in history not a single oil and gas company paid for one of the $850 tables.

Ed got the message. Last week he announced that royalties would be dramatically reduced. He has recognized who is the boss in his province, and it ain't him.

But, despite his genuflection, he isn't out of the woods yet. Albertans aren't entirely thrilled with his new policy. An Environics survey conducted for The Calgary Herald found that a solid majority of Albertans believe royalty rates should either remain as they are or be increased. Only about a quarter think they should be lowered. And then there's the revitalized Wildrose Alliance. The industry now has two conservative parties it can play off against each other.

Ed has learned his lesson but he may have to continue paying penance for some time.

12 March 2010

On banning salt

Felix Ortiz, a Democratic member of the New York City legislative assembly has introduced Bill A10129, a bill that would ban the use of salt in restaurant kitchens. The city's chefs would not be allowed to add salt to any of their recipes. Ortiz says it would allow consumers to choose whether they wanted to salt their meal.

The measure seems terribly nannyish, yet I must admit that as a geezer who eats out a lot and needs to watch his blood pressure, I would definitely prefer to salt my own food. Or not. I also trust my own taste better than the chef's whim when it comes this particular condiment. And, dammit, if food producers continue to deny us Mr. Otiz's choice, it's something I can readily support. For a bachelor, tinned soups, chili con carnes, stews, etc. can be a meal-time blessing, but for an old bachelor their salt content precludes them from my shopping cart. When you're watching your blood pressure, salt can become a poison.

My supermarket stocks few low-sodium products and very few salt-free products. Why is this? Aren't food manufacturers aware of the dangers of salt in an overfed society? Do they not read a daily newspaper? And why do they have to add salt anyway? Do they think consumers are incapable of managing a salt shaker? Of managing just this one item to flavour their food the way they like it? Apparently so.

If they don't catch on soon and start offering a wide range of salt-free products, legislators like Mr. Ortiz may have to decide for them. It wouldn't be the first time politicians have had to step in where business fears to tread. The health of the nation, to say nothing of the cost of Medicare, may demand it. And I'd like to try some of those soups and stews.

11 March 2010

Canada: A good place to get ahead

The OECD has released its latest Going for Growth report and it has some good things to say about Canada. For example, we have one of the highest social mobilities in the developed world. According to the report, "Mobility in earnings across pairs of fathers and sons is particularly low in France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, while mobility is higher in the Nordic countries, Australia and Canada."

In Canada, less than 20 per cent of the economic advantage that high-earning fathers have over low-earning fathers is passed on to their sons. In Britain, which showed the strongest link between an individual's and their parents' earnings, 50 per cent of the economic advantage is passed on. In other words, like father, like son is much less likely in this country than in Britain, or, for that matter, in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, the study found that "Education is a key driver of intergenerational persistence in wages." Parents' social and economic background has a considerable influence on whether or not young people go on to higher education. The influence of background is particularly strong in Belgium, France and the United States, and relatively low in some Nordic countries, as well as in Canada and Korea. The Canadian education system seems to be doing a much better job of boosting poor kids' prospects than these other countries' systems.

The surprise in all this is not that social mobility is relatively high in Canada, or that it is much higher here than in Britain, but that it is so low in the United States. So much for Horatio Alger.

Israel colonizes, the U.S. dithers

Israel is apparently quite apologetic about embarrassing U.S. Vice-president Joe Biden. The VP is visiting the Middle East on yet another peace-making mission. Hardly had he arrived, when his hosts announced plans to expand a Jewish neighbourhood on occupied Palestinian land in East Jerusalem.

An Israeli cabinet minister apologised for what he termed "real embarrassment" caused to Biden and a senior official reported, "Messages have been sent to Biden and the Americans that there was no intention to undermine him," adding, "We were genuinely surprised, just as surprised as the Americans." Apparently even the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was blindsided by the project's announcement, made by the interior ministry. The ministry is run by Shas, an ultraorthodox nationalist party and a key member of Netanyahu's governing coalition.

Biden chastised Israel saying, "It is incumbent on all parties to grow an atmosphere of support for the negotations and not to complicate. Yesterday, the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new planning units in east Jerusalem undermines that very trust." The Israelis and the Americans, and of course the Palestinians, know Biden's comments are just talk -- an obligatory response to a little faux pas among friends.

The important point in all this is that the Israeli apology was not for colonizing more Palestinian land but simply for the timing of the announcement. The project of Greater Israel will continue. After all, it isn't stealing when God commands it.

And the God-fearing Americans will acquiesce. It's essentially a routine. The Israelis commit another outrage, the Americans complain, the Israelis sweet-talk them, the Americans quietly accept the new status quo. And of course the Palestinians continue to suffer and the toxicity generated by Israeli behaviour continues to waft around the world, poisoning the West's relationship with the Arabs and recruiting Muslim extremists.

Until the United States gets serious with its little Middle Eastern friend and demands it settle honourably with the Palestinians, this part of the world will continue to fester to the detriment of all of us.

10 March 2010

Forget a gender-neutral anthem, we need a gender-neutral Parliament

India is currently engaged in a bold exercise in improving the status of women. The upper house of India's parliament passed a bill yesterday that would reserve a third of legislative seats for women. The bill now goes to the lower house where it is also expected to pass. It will then have to be approved by 15 of India's 28 states.

The measure would represent substantial progress in a country where women currently make up only 11 per cent of the lower house, the Lok Sabha, and 9 per cent of the upper house, the Rajya Sabha. It would, however, be far short of equality.

And that is something we should concern ourselves with as well. Women are better represented here than in India but still make up only 22 per cent of the House and 34 per cent of the Senate. This is better than our neighbour to the south (17 per cent in the House and 15 per cent in the Senate) but well short of Sweden's near ideal representation, where women make up 46 per cent of the Riksdag.

The reason women are so poorly represented is not hard to find. Politics was invented by men for men. It is relentlessly competitive, aggressive to the point of macho, an enterprise in which most women (and many men for that matter) are uncomfortable. Macho women -- Margaret Thatcher comes to mind -- thrive, but most women do not. Former Reform MP Jan Brown once described politics as “an unnatural and combative setting that does not support positive relationships.” “A place,” she added, “where power and gamesmanship determine the rules.”

We could overcome the "unnatural and combative setting" of politics by gradual reforming its institutions and behaviours, but this would almost certainly take a very long time. It took half a century after Confederation just for women to gain the right to vote. Better to simply mandate that 50 per cent of the House and Senate must be women and let the system reform itself which, with a critical mass of women, it most likely would.

So let's put this gender-neutral anthem business aside and concentrate on a gender-neutral Parliament, a 50/50 Parliament. Not only would this be thoroughly democratic -- 50 per cent representation for 50 per cent of the population -- it would lead to a more feminine, i.e. more civilized, politics.

08 March 2010

The federal budget and foreign aid: more guns, less butter

The recent federal budget illustrates more than one disturbing trend in Canadian policies. One of the worst is the increasing disparity between our commitment to the military and our commitment to foreign aid. We already spend four times as much on defence as we do on aid, and the budget will aggravate this unfortunate priority.

Our current defence budget of $19-billion will receive previously planned increases for another two years, and two per cent per year after that when every other area of government will get nothing. The foreign aid budget, on the other hand, will get one more year of increase to $5.2-billion and will then be frozen. Foreign aid will be a major contributor to the government's deficit-cutting plan. Our aid commitment will shrink steadily from the current 0.32 per cent of GDP, already our lowest ranking yet as a major donor -- 18th place out of 22 -- and a long way from the United Nations' target of 0.7 per cent. If we cut the defence budget in half and doubled the foreign aid budget, the two would be equal, a much more humane and sensible ratio, and in the bargain we would meet the United Nations' target.

Aside from further eroding Canada's image in the world, spending ever more on guns and ever less on butter doesn't seem a sensible way to create a more peaceful and prosperous world.

05 March 2010

Anthem notes

All together now, let your voices ring:

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North, strong and free!
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free !
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for th

Not being a patriot, I confess our national anthem doesn't do much for me. My opinion hardly ranges beyond finding it a nuisance before baseball games. Beer and peanuts down, stand up, hat off, etc. And if my team, the Calgary Vipers, are playing an American team, we have to suffer through two of them.

So if Parliament is going to debate the wording, as the Throne Speech suggested, I won't be following too closely. It will be a nice break from the serious stuff for the parliamentarians, however, and it could do with a rewrite.

For example, something really should be done about "all thy sons command," a terribly dated and sexist phrase. And then there's the bit about God keeping our land. Not that I ever actually sing the anthem but an old atheist like me is bound to choke on that.

I would sing an anthem if it had some real bounce to it. The Canadian version of Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land would do very nicely. Now that's a tune that gets your toe tapping. We might be accused of stealing it, but what the hell, he lifted the melody from an old hymn, so I see no reason why we couldn't plagiarize his lyrics. The Americans had their chance.

So, all together now:

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From Bonavista to the Vancouver Island,
From the Arctic Ocean to the Great Lake Waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking ..........

04 March 2010

Anti-Semitism is out, but anti-Islamism ... well, have we got a nice job for you

From witch-hunting in Canada to unequivocal support for Israel abroad, the Harper government is obsessed with proving its anti anti-Semitism credentials. Anti-Islamism, on the other hand, is apparently not such a great sin. In appointing Gerard Latulippe to, of all things, the human-rights organization Rights and Democracy, it seems quite  oblivious to some of the inflammatory remarks this gentleman has made about Muslims.

In a brief to the Bouchard-Taylor commission, struck by the Quebec government in 2007 amid the heated debate about integrating minorities, Latulippe argued that the concentration of increasing numbers of immigrants from Muslim countries in Montreal undermined “the proper functioning of Quebec society.” He went on to express his concern that if Quebec didn't change the way it selected immigrants, it faced an “unnecessary risk of fostering domestic terrorism.”

He also had something to say about symbolism. He insisted that the public display of Catholic symbols, such as the crucifix in the provincial legislature, reflected Quebec's national identity and should be preserved, whereas the Muslim headscarf should be confined to the private sphere.
The government's appointment showed an unfortunate insensitivity to the Muslim community. Ihsaan Gardee of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada stated, “In our opinion this promotes an unfounded fear of Muslims and of Muslim immigration in Canada.” Indeed it does, however it appears that in the eyes of our government not all Canadian communities are worthy of the same respect.

03 March 2010

Kenney rewrites history -- this is a surprise?

So Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney excised any mention of gay rights from the new citizenship guide Discover Canada. This should surprise us? Hardly. History belongs to those in power and the Conservatives are in power, so Canadian history becomes conservative history. An excellent article on how this affected the guide appeared in The Tyee.

The guide discusses our wars ad nauseam but includes only one sentence on peace-keeping and nothing at all about our peaceful contributions to the international community. Medicare, which many Canadians believe to be our most defining institution, is never mentioned. Nor is Tommy Douglas, the man most responsible for it, once voted the greatest Canadian of all time. And on and on it goes, a conservative, militaristic document.

The guide serves to illustrate why teaching history in schools is problematic. Rather than being taught as a tool to help children understand humanity, its triumphs and its tragedies, its strengths and its weaknesses, and thus help them improve the human condition, it is used to promote tribal myths.

Nonetheless, it has been suggested that the guide be used in our schools. A disturbing thought -- indoctrinating children in militaristic mythology -- although it would serve nicely to show the younger generation how history becomes an instrument of those in power, an important lesson to learn. Jason Kenney's censorship could then turn out to be quite instructive.

Israeli apartheid: When political correctness triumphs over truth

With Israeli Apartheid Week underway and politicians responding with panicky political correctness, it seems an appropriate time to ask whether Israel does in fact practice apartheid. First, we must ask just what exactly apartheid is.

My Oxford Canadian Dictionary provides two definitions: 1. the South African policy of segregation and discrimination against non-whites, and  2. segregation or discrimination in other contexts. My ITP Nelson is somewhat looser but generally agrees. Palestine isn't South Africa and Israel doesn't discriminate against non-whites, so we can dismiss the first definition. The second is, however, another matter. Israel does indeed do a lot of segregating and discriminating in other contexts.

For example, a hundred thousand Palestinian refugees are incarcerated in Gaza, victims of ethnic cleansing, denied by Israel their moral and legal right to return home. They are denied that right solely because they are of the wrong race and religion. If they were Jews, no matter where they lived in the world and no matter if their ancestors hadn't seen Palestine in two thousand years, they would be welcomed with open arms. But an old Palestinian in Gaza, who holds in his hand the key to the house he was born and grew up in, that his father was born and grew up in, and his grandfather before that, is denied his right to return to his village. If this isn't apartheid, it's segregation and discrimination by another name. Indeed Gaza and the West Bank, exclusive of Israeli colonization, are little more than bantustans. A comparison to South Africa is not without justification.

But don't take my word for it. Ask someone who knows a great deal more about apartheid than I or anyone else in this country -- the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu. Reverend Tutu, a black South African who spent most of his life living under that hateful system and most of his life fighting it, understands apartheid in his soul. When the Nobel peace laureate visited Palestine in 2002, he observed, "It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa." He asked of his "Jewish sisters and brothers," "Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions?"

When the evidence is so clear, and supported by a most expert witness, we must conclude yes, Israel practices apartheid. An uncomfortable truth, certainly, but a truth demanding discussion.

It is always awkward when a friend does bad things, when a democracy violates human rights, but it happens, and you do your friend no favour attempting to delegitimize criticism of that behaviour. Quite the contrary. You do your friend a favour when you open that behaviour to discussion, as the participants in Israeli Apartheid week are doing. Censoring that discussion, as the Ontario legislature has done and as Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has done, and engaging in the sleazy trick of labeling anyone who participates in the discussion as anti-Semitic, is allowing political correctness to triumph over truth. And that does no one a favour, not us, not Israel, and most importantly not the Palestinians, the victims of Israeli apartheid.