31 August 2013

Tory MPs defy government

No, the above headline most certainly does not refer to Canadian Tory MPs.

In the recent vote in the British House of Commons on Prime Minister David Cameron's motion to initiate military action against Syria, all attention was focused on the defeat of the motion. And rightly so—the vote was of considerable importance in world affairs—but what also caught my attention was that 30 Conservative MPs voted against their own government.

This despite the fact that the Prime Minister, according to The Guardian, "managed a strong performance" while opposition leader Ed Miliband "put in one of his less impressive performances." What a wonderful display of democracy: MPs voting their conscience rather than allowing themselves to be whipped into docile compliance.

Would such a thing ever happen in Canada? It bloody well ought to, on the issue of military intervention at least, but I doubt even war would draw the consciences of Canadian MPs out of their caucus solidarity. So I applaud those 30 British MPs and congratulate them on their gutsy decision. Well done, ladies and gentlemen.

30 August 2013

Tar sands ain't funny, says Travel Alberta

Travel Alberta was begging for it. Its latest ads, featuring the many attractions of the province, are really quite nice. But then they end with the extraordinary phrase, "Remember to breathe." Remember to breathe. How could any satirist resist a phrase like that coming from tar sands Alberta, the country's pollution province.

And, of course, they couldn't. A couple of American filmmakers are working on a documentary entitled "Welcome to Fort McMoney" which will incorporate part of the “Remember to Breathe” ad campaign. How could it not? "What's happening in a certain area in Alberta is going to make it difficult for all of us to breathe in the near future,” said Andy Cobb, one of the film's producers. Indeed.

They recently posted a trailer for the documentary on YouTube, raising the ire of Travel Alberta. Lawyers were informed and YouTube agreed to pull the video. Banned in Boston, you say? This time it was banned on YouTube. The results were much the same, however. The publicity helped the filmmakers raise over $20,000, which they claim will allow them to travel to Fort McMurray to finish the documentary.

Travel Alberta CEO Bruce Okabe says they are only trying to protect their brand. Nonetheless, the comics are fighting back. “Being a satirist, we take certain liberties with material in order to make fun of it or to make fun of the people who produce it,” said Mr. Cobb, “That's one of our rights and gosh darnit, we love it.” He is of course defending a traditional and important exercise in freedom of speech.

Nonetheless, on one thing I agree with Travel Alberta: the tar sands aren't funny. Yet I can't wait for the documentary.

29 August 2013

Raising taxes on credit unions is a retrograde step

Prior to 1972, Canadian credit unions were exempt from all income and capital taxes. In many countries, including the United States, they remain tax exempt at both the state and federal levels. The justification is their non-profit nature.

In 1972, credit unions were brought into the tax syatem, paying the small business rate. The federal small business rate is now 11 per cent compared to the general corporate rate of 15 per cent. The ceiling is $500,000, however credit unions receive a special exemption for amounts over this up to a certain limit. The federal government's spring budget intended to phase out this exemption, bringing credit unions under the general rate. (Actually, through an error it would have raised credit union rates much higher but it has promised to correct the error.)

Taxing credit unions like private corporations is a retrograde step on at least two grounds. First, credit unions are one-member/one-vote democracies unlike the plutocratic one-share/one-vote structure of private corporations. If we believe in democracy, we should encourage democratic institutions over plutocratic ones.

Second, in a world riven by competition, co-operation is to be enscouraged as a superior moral value over competition. How much nobler a national and international motto "we must co-operate in the global society" would be rather than the currently rampant "we must compete in the global marketplace."

Rather than raise taxes on credit unions, we ought to be returning to the pre-1972 regime of tax exemption. If the highly competitive Americans can recognize their special nature, so can we. I fear, however, our current federal government will not have much time for either the democratic argument or the co-operative one.

Inequality of Canadian justice bothers Bar

I recently read the Canadian Bar Association report Reaching Equal Justice (I ran out of mysteries) and was surprised at the strength of the language. A sampling of the phrases describing justice in Canada today includes, "abysmal state of access to justice" and "huge discrepancies between the promise of justice and the lived reality."

Some of the statistics presented don't flatter this country either. For example, "the World Justice Project found that on civil justice, Canada ranked ninth out of 16 North American and Western European nations and 13th among the world’s high-income countries, just ahead of Estonia," and "For civil legal aid, Canada ranks a shocking 54th in the world, well behind many countries with lower gross domestic products." We even fall behind the U.S., ranked at 50th.

The report claims that the simple answer is that justice in this country has been devalued: "We see justice as a luxury that we can no longer afford, not an integral part of our democracy." Furthermore, it's getting worse: the justice system is "aggregating" inequality rather than mitigating it.

Stating that legal aid is our most important program for equal access to justice, the report pointed out that it has economic as well as legal and moral value. It can "save public money by reducing domestic violence, helping children leave foster care more quickly, reducing evictions and alleviating homelessness, protecting patients health and helping low-income people participate in federal safety-net programs." Apparently, studies in Australia, the U.K and the U.S. have shown a social return on investment of six dollars for every dollar spent on legal aid.

The Bar Association suggests a range of measures to deal with the justice deficit, including improving the legal capabilities of people in school such that law becomes a life skill, promoting legal expense insurance, a national justice care system for lower income Canadians, requiring volunteer service by all lawyers, and teaching law students that "fostering access to justice is an integral part of their professional responsibility." The report sets out an impressive action plan, involving participation by justice professionals, governments and the public, complete with milestones and targets.

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin shares the Association's concerns, lamenting that, "People just swallow their pain and their loss and live with it, I guess, in some unsatisfactory way feeling they can't get justice."

The Bar Association states "Our goal is an equal, inclusive justice system everyone can take part
in." A very worthy goal indeed, and one essential to a healthy democracy. Bravo for the Bar.

26 August 2013

Will India defeat malnutrition?

India has a lot of a lot of things, including hungry people. It has the world's second largest population and the world's second highest percentage of malnourished children.

It also has the world's largest food distribution system. Unfortunately the system has been largely ineffective, riddled as it is with incompetence and corruption. Now the ruling Congress Party has passed the Food Security Bill, a massive $22-billion program that will entitle 67 per cent of Indians to highly subsidized food. The Bill has yet to pass India's upper house but that is not expected to be a problem.

"The big message which will go out to the country and rest of the world," stated Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi," is clear and concrete: that India is taking the responsibility of providing food security to all its citizens." Let us hope the Food Security Bill does just that.

As India's burgeoning economy brings it into the modern world, many in its multitude of poor are being left behind. This measure could help ensure that their boats, too, rise with the rising economic tide. Or at least that their children don't go hungry.

23 August 2013

I'd rather have Justin Trudeau stoned than Stephen Harper sober

Justin Trudeau's admission that he had smoked the occasional joint had the Conservatives at their huffing and puffing best this week. His "actions speak for themselves" offered the Prime Minister while Justice Minister Peter MacKay accused Mr. Trudeau of setting "a poor example for all Canadians, particularly young ones" and went on to declare that "Justin Trudeau is simply not the kind of leader our country needs."

That last comment of Mr. MacKay's particularly caught my eye. I couldn't help thinking of Canada's greatest conservative of all, sometimes referred to as the father of our country—John A. Macdonald. Canada's first prime minister did not, to my knowledge, smoke marijuana but he was a serious boozer. While true that smoking pot is illegal (although trivially so) and drinking wasn't, Trudeau's occasional joint hardly compares to Macdonald's binge drinking.

But old John A might be excused—he had his personal problems and, in any case, he did his country great service. As to his drinking, he famously said, "The people would rather have John A. drunk than Brown sober," referring to his Liberal rival George Brown. I'm sure Mr. MacKay would never suggest that he was simply not the kind of leader our country needed. Or would he?

22 August 2013

The U.S. war against democracy in the Middle East

The CIA's recent public admission that it masterminded the 1953 military coup against Iran's democratically elected government reminded me once again of the fickle U.S. support for democracy in the Middle East. American involvement was well-known—books have been written about it—but the publishing of previously classified documents by the U.S. National Security Archive amounts to a public confession. The Americans and the British, desirous of maintaining a source of cheap oil, conspired with the Iranian military to depose Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and install the dictator  Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Choosing between democracy and oil, Britain and the U.S. chose the latter.

In a more recent free and fair election, the Palestinians voted in Hamas over the incumbent Fatah. But Hamas refused to recognize Israel and stated that it wouldn't honour past agreements between Israel and the Palestinian government. Israel, the U.S. and the EU subsequently cut off aid to Gaza, and the U.S. and Israel attempted to undermine Hamas. This time, the U.S. (supported, to our shame, by Canada) chose to support Israel's perceived interest even if it meant sabotaging Palestinian democracy.

And now we have Egypt and the brutal crushing of democracy by the army. The United States has cancelled joint military exercises and delayed the delivery of fighter jets, but may still provide most of its annual $1.3-billion in military aid for 2014. Having been amenable to U.S. policy objectives in the region, The Egyptian military, the source of dictators for generations, has long been a major beneficiary of American arms largesse. As have various tyrannical regimes such as Saudi Arabia.

Despite whack-a-moling democracy when it pops up in the Middle East, the United States persists in claiming it supports freedom and democracy in the region. Perhaps it does, but obviously not if it doesn't benefit American interests. As for American principles, well, apparently they too are servants of realpolitik.

20 August 2013

Is flood amnesia setting in?

Immediately after the big water in June, two truisms were out and about in Calgary. One stated the flood had been so catastrophic that finally Albertans would take significant measures to mitigate damage from future floods. The other said that it wouldn't be long before the disaster was put out of mind and things would return to the complacent normal.

Reading recently about the province backing off on one significant measure, I wonder if the second truism won't turn out to be truer than the first.

Call for flood volunteers brought an overwhelming response
The province had stated that all titles for properties in flood-risk zones would henceforth be required to carry warnings. While recognizing this as a very good idea, I must admit that, as owner of a property in a flood-risk zone myself, I selfishly worried about what this would do to my property value. As it turns out, I have no need to worry—the province has dropped the idea.

Rather than put warnings on land titles for properties in flood-risk zones, the government will instead, according to CBC News, "work with the real estate industry to ensure prospective homeowners get the information they need before buying property at risk of flooding." When a government says it will "work with industry" rather than set regulations, scepticism is in order.

Or maybe the warning on the land title is just a bad idea after all. Or so my selfish self might like to believe. It will be interesting to see if that's all there was to this change of mind or if it's a first step to flood amnesia, and nothing much changes.

19 August 2013

Undoing democracy democratically

As the Egyptian military brutally dismantles democracy in their country, other losses of democracy tend to pale in comparison. Yet when they involve people electing to disband their own democracy, they are nonetheless disheartening. At least to a democrat such as myself. Thus I felt no little disappointment when I read in the news of workers at Canada's only unionized Walmart, in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, voting to decertify their union.

Weyburn union-buster
The union—United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1400—was certified as the bargaining agent for the employees in 2008, but fierce resistance from Walmart (at one point it was found guilty of unfair labour practices) precluded reaching a collective agreement. With new labour laws in place in the province, a decertification drive was launched at the store and a vote held. The union sought to block the counting of the ballots, claiming the process was unfair, however the courts ruled against them. They have now been counted and the vote went overwhelmingly for decertification.

Other than worker co-ops, unions represent the only democracy in Canadian workplaces. Why, one wonders, would workers reject democracy? Is a giant corporation such as Walmart just too formidable? Do unions demand too much effort? Were these particular workers philosophically opposed to unions? Did they trust management more than their colleagues? Or did they just not give a damn? One clue may be that out of the 69 who voted in December 2010, only about 10 remain employed at the store.

In any case, perhaps we should not be surprised by the vote. Canadians are not, after all, terribly interested in democracy. Barely 60 per cent bothered to vote in the last federal election. In civic elections, it's often barely 30 per cent. And we persist in using probably the world's most undemocratic voting system at both the provincial and federal levels. So indifference to democracy in a Canadian workplace isn't unexpected.

The United Food and Commercial Workers aren't indifferent however. They have vowed to continue the organizing efforts at Walmart. I wish them, and workplace democracy, all possible luck.

17 August 2013

A mustache to die for

The things that worry religious fundamentalists never fail to amaze and amuse me. For example, Muslim fundamentalists have threatened to kill Malik Afridi because of his mustache. Admittedly, Mr. Afridi's version of the handlebar is rather extravagant, but considering that the fundamentalists are big on facial hair themselves, you might think they would be more tolerant.
Malik Afridi and friends

On one occasion, Lashkar-e-Islam, an ally of the Taliban, declared his impressive display to be "un-Islamic" and demanded protection money. When he refused to pay, they kidnapped him and held him hostage until he shaved off the hairy outrage. But he has regrown it and is now being subjected to death threats, forcing him to leave his wife and ten children and take to life on the road.

His family wants him home but, ever faithful to his mustachios, he declares, "I can leave my family, I can leave Pakistan, but I can never cut my mustache again." Placing your facial adornment above family and country is a curious sense of values indeed, but killing a man because you don't like his mustache is just downright weird. But then religion has no shortage of weird.

I have met the enemy and they ain't all capitalists

I am no fan of capitalism. An economic system based on greed and founded in patriarchal values is flawed at its roots. But the tendency of so many on the left to blame all our problems on capitalists is simplistic, unfair and false. It is scapegoating. Despite the system, like most other classes of people, there are good capitalists and bad capitalists.

Tom Steyer
I was reminded of this recently when reading about American billionaire Tom Steyer's challenge to TransCanada CEO Russ Girling to publicly debate the Keystone XL pipeline. Although capitalists are frequently blamed for our environmental woes, Steyer, employee of both Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs in his early years and founder of Farallon Capital Management, is an ardent environmentalist who has put his money where his mouth is. He and his wife gave $40-million to create the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy at Stanford University. According to Wikipedia, "The center focuses on the development of affordable renewable energy technologies and promotion of public policies that make renewable energy more accessible."

This is only one of Steyer's philanthropic ventures and he is one of 40 billionaires, including Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who in 2010 pledged to give away at least half their fortunes to worthwhile causes.

When it comes to the environment, to say nothing of most of our other prolems, I am inclined to accept Pogo's famous dictum, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Pogo was not, I think, referring to possums—the anthropomorphized little cartoon character was referring to we human beings. We are all, or at least the great majority of us, responsible for the despoiling of our planet. Not only capitalists drive their cars too much, buy homes bigger than they need or buy too much stuff—most of us do, capitalists, communists, conservatives, liberals and socialists alike. Capitalists have far too much power, but that's largely the fault of our democratic laziness, not their fault for taking what we allow them to have. We may not have voted for the corporate-friendly Harper government, but we supinely accept the corrupt electoral system that put it in power.

Scapegoating the capitalist class may allow us to absolve our favourite classes, the middle and the poor, of responsibility and help us evade our own guilt, but it won't help us deal with the environmental challenge because it doesn't face the truth. Pogo did, and ultimately so must all of us.

08 August 2013

REAL Women's real bigotry

John Baird - doing the right thing
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has done a commendable job of defending gay rights everywhere from Uganda to Russia. Not everyone agrees, however, with his initiatives. REAL Women of Canada, a group that describes itself as a "pro-family conservative women's movement," has roundly criticized Mr. Baird for his attention to gays' human rights.  Referring to him as a "left-wing elitist," thus bending the term "left-wing" into an entirely new shape, they accuse him of attempting to impose his personal values on other sovereign states. (One assumes these venerable ladies would be above transporting their ideas about family values, or Christian values generally, to foreign lands.)

When it comes to homosexuality, most Christians are content with St. Augustine's dictum. "Love the sinner, hate the sin," a problematic but morally rational approach. REAL Women's attack on Mr Baird for opposing legislation such as Uganda's, which imposes 14-year sentences for homosexual behaviour, strongly suggest they hate both sin and sinner, and this is inclined less to morality than it is to simple bigotry.

REAL Women claim the Minister's actions are destructive to the conservative base in Canada, and they may be right. If they are, then Mr. Baird deserves even greater credit for his principled stand. I applaud his efforts and encourage him to keep up the good work.

01 August 2013

Stephen Harper's private army

It is known as the Canadian Special Forces Command, or CANSOFCOM. It commands a secret army, comprised of four units: the Joint Task Force-2 (JTF2), the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR), the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit—Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CJIRU-CBRN), and the 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron (427 SOAS) which provides support to the other three. This little army is Canadian but it doesn't answer to Parliament, i.e. to the people of Canada. It answers only to the Minister of Defence and the Prime Minister. It is, in effect, their army, to be deployed at their pleasure. Or so I read, with no little surprise, in the July/August issue of the CCPA Monitor.

Not only does this force do its nasty business in secret, its budget is secret. We don't even know what it's costing us to put a private military force at the Prime Minister's disposal.

I was aware that we had a special forces unit, the JTF2, but I didn't know that the Conservatives had added three new ones. Frankly, I don't like secrecy in government and don't trust governments when they practice it. If we must have government agencies that operate in the dark, they should at least be subject to Parliamentary oversight.

I would hate to think that our Prime Minister would use this secret army for something like, say, furthering the interests of Canadian companies operating in the Third World. But perhaps that is naive. PM Harper's pet policy is the promotion of resource extraction, including the operations of Canadian mining companies abroad. Not infrequently, these operations meet with opposition from local people, occasionally violent opposition. Is it possible that Mr. Harper might use his special forces to quell that opposition? Not directly, of course, no Canadians shooting at the locals, but rather Canadians training an indigenous special forces to do the dirty work for us, a much cheaper and politically cleaner way to do it.

This would be the suspicion of a cynic if it wasn't for the fact that secret forces—the CIA being an excellent example—often get into devilry the citizenry would not approve but which that citizenry may ultimately have to stand accountable for. In any case, when governments act in secret, citizens are entitled to think rthe worst.

Our spymaster, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), has a parliamentary committee to oversee its behaviour even though, unlike the Special Forces, it doesn't have a licence to kill. If we must have a secret army, it damned well ought to be accountable to Parliament and under its scrutiny. It may have legitimate reasons to act in secrecy but it ought to be accountable to us nonetheless. The need for accountability from a killing agency is obviously much greater than from a spy agency. It is also more important that the public be fully aware we have such an outfit. After all we, the public, will be ultimately held to account for its actions. The government must justify the existence of this agency, if it can, and put it on a parliamentary leash.