28 April 2007

Toronto, city of the future -- Calgary, not so much

After nine months of research, Britain's Foreign Direct Investment magazine has released the results of its North American Cities of the Future competition. The competition included four categories: major cities (over 2,000,000 population), large cities (500,000 to 2,000,000), small cities (100,000 to 500,000) and "micro" cities (up to 100,000). The rankings were based on seven criteria: economic potential, cost effectiveness, human resources, quality of life, infrastructure, business friendliness, and development and investment promotion.

As a Calgarian, living in a city topsy-turvy with insanely rapid growth, I suspected we would rate tops in our category. Not so. We weren't even in the top 10. Worse, Edmonton was number four. Humiliating.

Other Canadian cities did very well, Toronto coming second only to Chicago in the major cities category, and Windsor ranking first among small cities.

It must be said that some of the choices were questionable. Juarez, Mexico, was ranked first among large cities, for example. I ask you -- Juarez?

But enough of the sour grapes. Kudos to Toronto and Windsor, and as for my home town ... well, maybe growth isn't everything

27 April 2007

Progress in strange packages

Sometimes progress is illustrated by dark statistics, but it is progress nonetheless. This is how I felt reading that the world's execution rate was down in 2006. According to Amnesty International's annual report on the death penalty, at least 1,591 people were executed last year, down from 2,148 in 2005, a quite significant decline.

The Islamic world cannot be proud of the fact that the only four countries bucking the trend -- Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Pakistan -- were all Muslim. China led the field as usual, killing 1,101 of its citizens. This, however, could be a gross underestimate as China does not reveal official statistics. Amnesty suggests the toll may be as high as 8,000.

The Philippines became the 99th country to abolish the death penalty for ordinary crimes. In 1977, only 16 countries were abolitionist.

Amnesty International is calling for a universal moratorium on execution.
"The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment," said Secretary General Irene Khan. "It must be abolished and a universal moratorium will be an important step forward."

20 April 2007

Premier Charest -- a ladies' man in the best possible way

Quebec Premier Jean Charest has not had one of his better years. With his Liberals managing only to squeeze out a minority victory in the March election, he as leader must carry the can for what went wrong. But now he has got something very, very right indeed.

He has appointed a new cabinet and ... wait for it ... half the members are women. And they are not, as women often are, tucked away in the weaker portfolios. Monique Jerome-Forget is Treasury Board President and also holds the most important position in cabinet -- Finance Minister. Nathalie Normandeau becomes Municipal Affairs Minister and deputy-premier, with the job of rebuilding party support in predominantly francophone areas. Line Beauchamp becomes the first woman appointed to the increasingly important position of Environment Minister. Women also head Education and Transportation.

Women are now truly holding up half the sky in Quebec, and Premier Charest deserves full credit for recognizing that's how the world should work. Time for a few more premiers to step up.

18 April 2007

Is the poodle slipping the leash?

If what Hilary Benn, Britain's international development secretary, is saying in Washington this week is any indication, the Blair government is starting to drift significantly from its cozy relationship with the Bush administration. Consider:
  • While Bush continues to refer to "the war on terror," Benn insists Britain has rejected the phrase as counter-productive. He claims it only encourages terrorists by inflating their sense of importance. Furthermore, he says, it will take much more than military means to overcome the problem and, in any case, there is no clear enemy with an organized set of objectives.
  • He also insisted achieving global peace and prosperity requires give and take, implying criticism of the Bush administration's tendency to rely on military force and economic sanctions.
  • He reaffirmed his country's support of the International Criminal Court, an institution the Americans have attempted to sabotage.
  • He repeated Britain's call to close Guantanamo.
  • And as for World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, who Bush continues to support, Benn observed, "what's happened is very, very damaging to the bank .. and it simply can't continue."
All this is enough to make one wonder if the poodle isn't slipping the leash.

17 April 2007

The Charter yields to blood sacrifice

Today is the 25th anniversary of the patriation of our constitution and the birth of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a day one might think worthy of special note, a day to celebrate becoming masters in our own house. Yet there is a deafening silence. The media have little to say and our federal government shamefully makes no special plans to commemorate the event.

One cannot help but compare it to the recent hoopla over the battle of Vimy Ridge. Thousands visited the site, the Prime Minister and the Queen made speeches and the media ran page after tedious page covering in excruciating detail every aspect of the affair. Over what? A massive slaughter so that our boys could stand on top of the hill rather than their boys? We used to play top of the hill when we were children but eventually grew up and went on to other pursuits. There was no more purpose at Vimy Ridge because there was no more purpose in the First World War; it was an exercise in bloody-minded European hubris, nothing more, a bunch of tired old empires taking a pointless whack at each other to the cost of millions of lives.

And yet it is often thrown up as the defining moment in Canadian history. The reason is simple, ancient and primitive. We continue to believe as we have for thousands of years that a people must be defined by blood sacrifice. Nothing else will do. Certainly not a peaceful, constructive act like patriating a constitution and establishing a charter of rights.

We have all the trappings of a highly-advanced species -- centrally-heated homes, cars, computers, etc., etc, -- yet we are in our souls much the same brutes we were when all we had was stone tools. We still need tribal myths to unite us, especially the myth of the immaculate warrior, the killing of our tribal enemies as the purest and highest attainment of manhood.

So of course the Charter yields to Vimy. It may be a far greater achievement but it involved no blood, no human sacrifice. It was, in other words, a far greater achievement for a fully civilized species, but for us ... it is second tier.

13 April 2007

How funny is this?

How would you like to run a couple of wars? The job could be yours. President George W. Bush is trying to find what the media is calling a "war tsar" to manage the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but so far hasn't found any takers. Now there's a surprise.

To date, he has asked three retired four-star generals and all have not so politely declined. General John J. Sheehan, shown in the accompanying picture, remarked, "The very fundamental issue is they don't know where the hell they're going." Sheehan mentioned Dick Cheney as an obstacle to taking the job.

So, if this sounds like your kind of thing, get your resume in. If, for example, you have experience running a peanut stand, you just may be a shoo-in. You certainly can't do any worse than Bush and Cheney.

Meddling in Iraq

The Americans, it seems, are mightily annoyed at what they refer to as Iran's "meddling" in Iraq. Iran, they claim, is providing Shia, and possibly Sunni, militias with equipment and training.

Let's get this straight. The U.S. has precipitated a state of bloody chaos in Iraq that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, created millions of refugees, and leaves most Iraqis living in a state of constant fear -- and they accuse the Iranians of meddling?

Whose backyard is this anyway? The Americans are fighting wars on Iran's eastern and western borders, and they expect the Iranians to sit idly by and observe? Of course they won't. This is their turf and they will defend their interests, just as the U.S. has always done in the Americas. In Latin and South America, the Americans' backyard, they have persistently interfered in the affairs of other nations, even going so far as to overthrow democratic governments and replace them with more amenable dictatorships, a step well beyond anything Iran has ever done. This does not, of course, justify Iran interfering in the affairs of other states in the Middle East, but Iran's involvement in the Levant and Iraq is largely a response to aggression by Israel, the United States and other Western powers. Meddling as a response to meddling, one might say -- no Monroe Doctrine here. If the Americans can extend their reach to the other side of the world and wage bloody war, they are not on very solid ground to criticize Iran for supporting its local allies.

The Americans have made their hostility to Iran abundantly clear for a long time. The Iranians will quite reasonably do what is in their limited power to alleviate this threat and send the American meddlers home.

10 April 2007

Biofuels and the destruction of the rain forest

Fidel Castro, apparently not dead yet by a long shot, has been ranting of late about agricultural land being used for the production of ethanol rather than for food. Not the first to suggest that human beings will ultimately starve themselves in order to feed their machines, he claims that billions could face starvation as productive land in poor countries is taken over to produce fuel for rich countries. "By offering financing to poor countries to produce ethanol from corn or any other kind of food," he states, "no tree will be left to defend humanity from climate change."

He may or not be right about the corn, but the old revolutionary certainly has a point about the trees. Predictions are that within 15 years, 98% of the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia will be gone, taking with them some of the world's most important wildlife species, largely for palm oil plantations to produce biofuel.

Over 80% of the world's palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, up until recently for food. With the European Union aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, to be achieved partly by requiring that 10% of vehicles use biofuels, a huge surge in palm oil demand for use as energy is being created. The rain forests will pay the price.

Ironically, much of it is a scam. Lumber companies, who have already stripped much of the region's forests, are accused of taking out palm oil leases just so they can harvest the timber.

And if that isn't irony enough, clearing the forests may in itself send vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. Up to half the new plantation area will be created from peat-land which contains large amounts of carbon. As the land is drained, the peat dries and releases the carbon. Even worse, it is often burned, adding even more CO2 to the massive forest fires that plague south-east Asia.

The ultimate irony, of course, lies in destroying the Earth in order to save it.

06 April 2007

Vimy: heroes or fools?

"I think they'll come back with a heightened sense of respect for our soldiers and also a heightened sense of pride in our accomplishments."
- Mitchell Bubulj,
history teacher

"It put Canadians on the map. It showed we could actually do stuff."
- Jeffery Bertrand, high school student

As quoted in The Globe and Mail, referring to the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge in the First World War, on the occasion of a school trip to Europe which included a visit to the battlefield.

And what were these "accomplishments," this "stuff" we showed we could do? Well, killing people, actually. We showed we could kill Germans as well or better than the French and the British. And we could die as well, too. I have always been intrigued at the way people persist in saying they hate war and yet commemorate it like no other historical events. Nothing else we accomplish as a nation, no other stuff we do, seems to touch the emotional depths war does. If we hate war, we certainly love warriors, and you can't have one without the other.

Not that killing people can't contribute to a worthy accomplishment -- good stuff so to speak. In a noble cause, like ridding the world of an Adolf Hitler, for example, it is an unfortunate yet honourable goal. But there was nothing worthy about the First World War. It was little more than an exercise in bloody-minded European hubris. Its causes, whatever they were, were not Canada's business and we were fools to get involved. And what were the causes of the war? Why did they fight? Was it imperialism? arms races? outdated alliances and defence agreements? trade barriers? ethnic and political rivalries? all of the above?
Take your pick. A century later and still no great cause emerges. Twenty million dead for no good reason. Not much of an accomplishment here. Not much stuff to be proud of.

Some historians argue that at least something good came out of it. It was Canada's coming of age, they say. But on what evidence? We entered the war as British subjects and we exited as British subjects, and British subjects we remained until the Citizenship Act became law on January 1st, 1947, when for the first time we were legally Canadians -- a better date for coming of age. Or perhaps the appropriate date was April 17th, 1982, when we patriated our constitution and for the first time truly became masters in our own house. But coming of age because we proved we were good at killing and dying for an empty cause? I hope not. We could have better proven we had come of age by refusing to join the madness. Now that would have been an act of maturity.

04 April 2007

Hanging Chads, the movie

Hollywood, it seems, is going to immortalize the infamous hanging, swinging and dimpled chads scandal from the 2000 U.S. presidential election. This was the hilarious episode in which 175,000 Floridians had their votes discounted while George W. Bush, with a little help from the Supreme Court, squeaked out a victory over Al Gore by 537 votes.

Home Box Office is now making a movie about the debacle. The film, entitled "Recount" and directed by Oscar-winner Sydney Pollack, is to be released next year. No word on whether or not it will be a comedy.

The 2004 presidential election should provide ample material for a sequel.