30 November 2012

Canada's shameful vote against Palestinian statehood

Yesterday marked a shameful moment in the history of this country's foreign policy. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked the UN General Assembly to recognize Palestine as an observer state ... and Canada voted no.

Our vote puts the lie to our claim that we believe in a two-state solution, or at least that we believe in a just two-state solution. If we do, how can we possibly object to the Palestinians making a significant step in that direction by a peaceful process supported by a solid majority of the world's nations?

I suspect the answer to that question is that this approach undermines the power of Israel to completely dominate the process and thus the resolution of the issue. Given the situation on the ground, it has all the leverage, the Palestinians virtually none. It has the most powerful military in the region, equipped with nuclear weapons and backed unconditionally by the most powerful nation in the world; and it controls all of the territory in question in one way or another and steals more of it every day while further segregating the Palestinians.

Coercing the Palestinians into negotiations by rejecting any other approach means condemning them into accepting whatever crumbs the Israelis condescend to offer. And this may be exactly what Israel and the United States, and apparently Canada, have in mind.

Ultimately, negotiations will of course be necessary. However, currently they are going nowhere, and if the Palestinians can gain more leverage by other means, this can only lead to fairer negotiations in the long run. They will, furthermore, receive a fairer hearing in the UN where Third World countries, who have a view of colonization from the perspective of native peoples, will have more sympathy, even empathy, for the Palestinians than they can expect from the West, still burdened by imperial thinking.

The Jews have their state. It is churlish of us to deny the Palestinians any legal, peaceful means to achieving theirs. Our vote yesterday indicated rather than a just settlement between two equal states, we seek a Palestine defined by and solely in the interests of Israel. This is a policy as dangerous as it is hypocritical.

28 November 2012

Wildrose has this one right

To say I rarely agree with the Wildrose Party would be an understatement. Yet they have recently stated a policy which I heartily support and have heartily supported for a long time. Party leader Danielle Smith reported this week that her party wants Alberta's election financing laws to ban donations to political parties from unions and corporations. The party joins the Alberta Liberals and NDP who have long supported a ban.

The measure would have cost Wildrose $870,000 in the last provincial election, 28 per cent of their total fundraising. However, this is a lower percentage than would have been lost by the other three parties. The Conservatives, for example, who are heavily dependent on corporate largesse, would have lost 78 per cent.

Prohibiting political contributions from corporations should be automatic— democracy is for citizens, not organizations—yet in this country only Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia, the City of Toronto and the federal government do so.

And it won't happen in Alberta soon. For obvious reasons, the Conservative government opposes the idea. House Leader Dave Hancock insists that campaign contributions don't come with expectations of favours. The Conservatives also intend to keep the individual contribution limit at the remarkably generous level of $30,000. Wildrose advocates reducing it to $10,000, still much too high but at least in the right direction. The federal limit is $1,000.

The fact that Wildrose, judging by the 2012 election figures, would benefit most from the ban on corporate and union contributions suggests their position isn't entirely altruistic. Nonetheless, they have done the right thing, and for that I salute them.

27 November 2012

Canadian democracy—always good for a laugh

Headline: Conservative Joan Crockatt wins Calgary Centre by-election with 37 per cent of the vote.

So ... I will now have an MP most of my fellow constituents don't want in a government that most Canadians don't want.

Ah, Canadian democracy, you've got to love it.

26 November 2012

Here's a headline I'd rather not see

Checking The Guardian on my morning round of news websites, I encountered the following headline: "Canada, the surprise "pariah" of the Kyoto protocol." The subhead went on to add, "Some Canadians doubt whether their country should have any say in negotiating the second Kyoto protocol after it became the only nation to reject the first one."

One of those doubters, Green party leader Elizabeth May, is quoted as saying, "I can't imagine how anybody would want us in the room." Ms. May suggested that might be because we were negotiating to weaken the second Kyoto, have already signaled we will not take on new targets in the second period, and have legally withdrawn from the protocol.

She is of course quite right. We are an environmental slacker of the first order. As the article points out, we are not just the only country to have repudiated Kyoto, the sole legally binding international policy tool to deal with carbon emissions, we rank immediately behind the U.S. and Australia as the worst global emitters per capita.

After years of seeing Canada portrayed as a constructive participant in international affairs, it's a bit of a shock to see us headlined as a pariah. I guess I will just have to get used to it.

24 November 2012

Sun suckers the rest of the media ... again

As the NDP rapidly and somewhat surprisingly closed in on the Conservatives during the last federal election campaign, Sun Media dug deep into Jack Layton's past to find something to smear him with and then flaunted it just days before the election. The rest of the media instinctively jumped on the bone and escalated the story to great heights.

Now as the Liberals, again somewhat surprisingly, close in on the Conservatives in the Calgary Centre by-election, Sun Media digs up an item from the past to smear Justin Trudeau. And again the rest of the media obediently follows the Sun lead.

This lack of savvy, of sophistication, on the part of the Canadian media, including the CBC, is disappointing if not pathetic.

The irony, of course, is that what Trudeau said was true. The gist of his message was that the problem with Canada is that it is being run from Alberta and Albertans don't represent Canadian values. Well ... they don't, do they? Albertans vote overwhelmingly Conservative (there is only one non-Conservative MP) and in the last federal election 60 per cent of Canadian voters made it abundantly clear that the Conservatives do not represent Canadian values. At least not if values are defined by a solid majority. Trudeau is being pilloried for stating the truth, and that doesn't do the media much credit either. Sun Media types must be grinning like Cheshire cats.

Sun has become to the Conservatives what Fox News is to the Republicans. Perhaps the rest of the media ought to be investigating that relationship rather than allowing themselves to be manipulated by a propaganda machine.

23 November 2012

Time to disestablish the Church of England

The Anglican Church, as the nation's officially "established" church, has had a privileged position in England since the Act of Supremacy in 1534. It isn't called the Church of England for nothing. For example, the 26 most senior bishops of the Church have by right a seat in the House of Lords. The head of state must be a member of the Church and may not marry a Catholic (although presumably he or she might marry a Muslim, Hindu or Jew). Monarchs are required to swear that they will "maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion [the Anglican Church] as established by law."

The connection to the state is strong. Archbishops, bishops and deans of cathedrals are appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister. Measures proposed by the Church affecting its governance or worship must be approved by the British Parliament. Church assets are managed by 33 Commissioners, including the British prime minister, who are responsible to Parliament.

As a result of its favoured status, it has prospered mightily. In 2007, its land, property and stock market assets were valued at $9-billion, generating $285-million in annual revenue. Its investment fund originated in money accrued by Henry VIII and given to the Church in 1704 by Queen Anne.

Despite its status as the established church of the nation and its great wealth, it is losing its credibility among the British people. Although it has nominally 24 million members, only 1.1 regularly attend weekly services. Attendance declines as the average age of churchgoers increases.

This week the Church fell further in the esteem of modern Britons when its house of laity voted against the ordination of women bishops. (The house of bishops, to its credit, voted massively in favour.) Politicians from all parties expressed their displeasure and Prime Minister David Cameron lamented, "The church needs to get on with it and get with the program."

The Church may simply have been taking instruction from St Paul: "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence," (1 Timothy 2:12). However this bit of misogyny no longer has credibility even with Christian women, and the Church's failure to "get with the program" should have consequences. It is an appropriate time to take the long overdue step of ending the Church's special relationship and attendant privileges with the British state. It is time to disestablish the Church of England.

22 November 2012

Why can't we be more like Norway?

Canada and Norway are a lot alike. We are both prosperous, free-market democracies. But as Bruce Campbell points out in his series of articles in the CCPA Monitor, there are also some significant differences.

For example, the way it manages its oil resources which, as an Albertan, I cannot but envy. Even though Canada produces more oil, Norway has accumulated a sovereign wealth fund of $656-billion compared to the Alberta's Heritage Fund's measly $16-billion.

While Norway is a major oil exporter, it also manages to be an environmental leader, ranking third on Yale University's Environmental Performance Index which considers a range of issues, including water and air pollution, biodiversity and climate change. We rank 37th.

Norway also does better than us on the UN Human Development Index, a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income. Norway ranks first, Canada sixth, although when adjusted for inequality, Norway is still first but we drop to 12th.

We do well on the Economist's Democracy Index, ranking eighth. The index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture. Norway, once again, is number one. Frankly, given our archaic electoral system, I think we are lucky to rank eighth.

In summary, Norway does a better job than Canada managing its good fortune, sharing the wealth among its people, taking care of Mother Earth, and running its affairs equitably and democratically. I believe we could learn a lesson or two here.

21 November 2012

Federal environment minister joins the real world

When I worked in the oil industry many years ago, we used to refer to those politicians, academics, media people, etc. who didn't fully appreciate our interests as not living in the real world. The real world was of course our world, the world of industry. Ironically, now many people in the oil industry and their political acolytes are not living in the real world.

The real "real world" is of course the world as described by science. And science is telling us this world is being warmed up by human activity and if we don't stop doing it rather quickly, we will reach the point where the warming will be out of our control. And if that should happen, civilization as we know it is likely to succumb to catastrophe and collapse.
you don’t have to convince me that climate change is a very real and present danger and I think that we need to address it. We need to address it by bringing the rest of the world on board to do something about it.

Read more: http://www.canada.com/Hurricane+Sandy+another+sign+danger+global+warming+Peter+Kent+says/7572645/story.html#ixzz2CnLdnlIU

Much of the oil industry and its boosters in the federal cabinet have been averse to this reality. Now, to my relief, federal Environment Minister Peter Kent has decided to at least recognize it. Discussing the devastation of Hurricane Sandy recently, he observed, "You don't have to convince me that climate change is a very real and present danger and we need to address it." I had to read that quote a dozen times and check other sources before I believed it, but he does indeed seem to have made precisely that statement.

He went on to say, and I hope he wasn't switching to comic mode, that we would have to address it by, "bringing the rest of the world on board to do something about it." A bit rich for a government that has created an international reputation for this country as an environmental slacker, but encouraging at least in entertaining the possibility of leadership.
We need to address it by bringing the rest of the world on board to do something about it.”

Read more: http://www.canada.com/Hurricane+Sandy+another+sign+danger+global+warming+Peter+Kent+says/7572645/story.html#ixzz2CnNFHsU6

So will the Conservatives abandon their commitment to eternal growth and boundless production of dirty oil? Highly unlikely I think. They may have recognized the real world, however I doubt they are yet ready to live in it. But I won't quibble—recognition alone is progress. Let us be optimistic as we welcome Mr. Kent to the 21st century.
you don’t have to convince me that climate change is a very real and present danger and I think that we need to address it. We need to address it by bringing the rest of the world on board to do something about it.

Read more: http://www.canada.com/Hurricane+Sandy+another+sign+danger+global+warming+Peter+Kent+says/7572645/story.html#ixzz2CnLdnlIU
you don’t have to convince me that climate change is a very real and present danger and I think that we need to address it. We need to address it by bringing the rest of the world on board to do something about it.

Read more: http://www.canada.com/Hurricane+Sandy+another+sign+danger+global+warming+Peter+Kent+says/7572645/story.html#ixzz2CnLdnlIU
you don’t have to convince me that climate change is a very real and present danger and I think that we need to address it. We need to address it by bringing the rest of the world on board to do something about it.

Read more: http://www.canada.com/Hurricane+Sandy+another+sign+danger+global+warming+Peter+Kent+says/7572645/story.html#ixzz2CnLdnlIU

17 November 2012

The corporate counterrevolution rolls on

In the 1960s, a phrase was being bandied about that included the two words that most terrify corporate executives: consume less. A substantial number of people, particularly young people, were coming to the conclusion that the road to nirvana may not necessarily lie through endlessly consuming more stuff. Indeed, consuming ever more stuff might just be fouling our nest—despoiling the very environment we depend upon for our sustenance. A cultural revolution was taking place.

Corporations and wealthy individuals decided that this consume less nonsense had to be stopped. In the 1970s, they swung into action. They began a process of pooling funds and investing them in think tanks, media outlets and lobby organizations to promote their agenda. The 1970s saw the birth of such conservative organizations as the Business Roundtable and The Heritage Foundation in the United States and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (formerly the Business Council on National Issues) and the Fraser Institute in Canada. The number of registered lobbyists in Washington rose from 175 in 1971 to 2,500 in 1982 to almost 35,000 today.

In order to restore the dominance of the consumer society and relentless growth, corporations have worked to undermine the role of government, reduce the power of organized labour, and deregulate markets. They are doing very well in achieving their goals.

Trade agreements alone have done much to enhance their power over governments and weaken the bargaining power of workers. The agreements restrict government’s ability to regulate corporate behaviour while freeing corporations to leverage workers in developed nations against cheap, non-union labour in developing nations. Union membership in North America has fallen precipitously, to 31 per cent in Canada and 11 per cent in the U.S. Capital is winning the war with Labour.

The mass media have become increasingly the instrument of oligarchs. Rupert Murdoch dominates  the press in Britain and has created an entire TV network in the U.S. dedicated to right-wing propaganda. In Australia, he owns eight of the 12 major daily papers and mining interests are buying control of three of the remaining four.

Corporations have done well, too, in deregulating markets. Deregulation in the U.S. brought catastrophe to the financial markets, but the bankers continue to roll in money, and regulation they face as a result will be much weaker than what was in effect before Bill Clinton trashed the Glass–Steagall Act. Considering that Barack Obama depends heavily on election funding from the financial industry, we should not be surprised.

American corporations have even captured the U.S. Supreme Court. Its Citizens United decision, a case sponsored in part by the infamous Koch brothers, freed up corporations to buy elections as never before. Corporations even fund their own grass roots movements as we saw with the same Koch brothers and the Tea Party Movement.

 Sometimes the blatant bowing of politicians to corporate power is cringe-inducing: Tony Blair, as one of his first acts when he became leader of his party, traveling to the other side of the world to genuflect before Rupert Murdoch; Barak Obama placating the insurance and pharmaceutical industries in order to get his health care bill passed.

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning Steve Coll in his book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, since 1998, when Exxon merged with Mobil to create the world’s largest company, it has netted a cash flow of $493-billion and maintains an AAA credit rating. During the same period the United States government has seen a net cash flow of minus $5,700-billion and its credit rating has dropped to AA+. Governments struggle while the corporate counterrevolution rolls on.

16 November 2012

New leaders face challenge as U.S. and China mistrust grows

With Xi Jinping assuming leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, China and the United States have both now chosen their leaders for the near future. They both face considerable challenges, not the least of which is the growing mistrust between the people of the two superpowers.

According to a Pew survey, although two-thirds of Americans think relations between their country and China are good, a similar number believe China can't be trusted. Furthermore, while a year ago more Americans thought the U.S. should build stronger relations with China rather than "get tough," that has now reversed.

Chinese attitudes toward the U.S. are also hardening. In the last two years, the number of Chinese who view the U.S. favourably has dropped from a majority (58 per cent) to a minority (43 per cent), while those who have confidence in President Obama's international policies has dropped by similar numbers.

Despite the mistrust, the Chinese appreciate the American way of doing business, greatly admire U.S. science and technology and approve of American ideas about democracy. Clearly, there is a solid basis for improving the relations between the two nations. Let us hope their newly confirmed leaders take advantage. Harmony between the two would be good for them, and good for the rest of us.

15 November 2012

Climate predictions are getting better ... and hotter

Arguably, the biggest winner on election night in the U.S. wasn't Barack Obama, but the nerdy Nate Silver. Silver is of course the statistician who fed reams of polling data into his laptop and correctly predicted how every state voted, including the tie in Florida that eventually flipped to Obama.

But as remarkable as Silver's predictions were, he insisted it was nothing compared to what meteorologists did with Sandy, the monster storm that devastated New York and New Jersey. When the National Weather Service's computer model alerted meteorologists to a suspicious bunch of clouds gathering in the Caribbean, they projected it into an extremely accurate prediction of the hurricane, including the once-in-a-century veer west into New Jersey.

These highly accurate predictions aren't surprising as data becomes more accessible and computer power rapidly increases. Thirty years ago, the first climate models simulated only the Earth’s atmosphere. Now they include the effects of ocean currents, the shrinking of the planet's ice cover, even how plants and animals absorb and release carbon. Nonetheless, due to various uncertainties, predictions of global temperature increases range from three to eight or more degrees by 2100.

One source of uncertainty has been cloud cover, important to climate, particularly in the tropics, but hard to predict. Now, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado have found a way around the problem by examining the accuracy of humidity predictions. Humidity is a good proxy for cloud cover. Examining ten years of atmospheric humidity data from satellites, they tested two dozen of the world’s most sophisticated climate simulations. They found that, “The models at the higher end of temperature predictions uniformly did a better job." The simulations that predicted smaller temperature rises "should be outright discounted.”

In other words, we should expect a global temperature increase of eight degrees or more by the end of the century if we don't rapidly mend our ways. And that will mean dramatically higher sea levels, disappearing coastlines, more severe droughts, bigger floods, more intense storms, and quite possibly global warming beyond our control. It will mean Armageddon.

14 November 2012

Is the U.S. right rigging elections?

After reading an article in the November 2012 issue of Harper's ("How to Rig an Election" by Victoria Collier), I'm not as surprised that Barack Obama won the recent presidential election as I'm surprised he was allowed to win. The article points out that most votes in the U.S. are now tallied by voting machines, a technology with "enormous potential for electronic skulduggery." Furthermore, this technology has been outsourced to "a handful of secretive corporations with interlocking ownership, strong partisan ties to the far right, and executives who revolve among them like beans in a shell game."

The Election Defense Alliance—a nonprofit organization specializing in election forensics—working with independent statisticians who have compared decades of computer-vote results to exit polls, tracking polls, and hand counts, found that "when disparities occur, they benefit Republicans and right-wing issues far beyond the bounds of probability." The combination of privatization and computer technology is, it seems, corrupting American democracy.

In addition to the rigging, the author insists that Americans "have actually lost the ability to verify election results." And all this has happened "without public knowledge or consent."

As a student of democracy, I found the article fascinating. It is either the epitome of paranoia or an exposé of "one of the most dangerous and least understood crises in the history of American democracy." Read it here and take your pick.

10 November 2012

Why does Britain have nuclear weapons?

There's a lot of talk these days about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Britain's government is one of the voices adamant that it must not be allowed to do so. Oddly, no one has raised the obvious question, Why does the UK have nuclear weapons?

Iran, although insisting it has no intention of making a weapon, could make a good case for one. It lives in a dangerous neighbourhood. It is surrounded by nuclear-armed powers. Its two main antagonists, Israel and the United States, are both nuclear armed. And so on. It has solid justification for paranoia.

Britain, on the other hand, is surrounded by friends. Furthermore, it is good buddies with the most powerful nation in the world whose nuclear umbrella it would be welcome to shelter under.

One might argue further that Britain is a much more belligerent nation than Iran and is therefore less trustworthy with dangerous toys. Iran has not invaded another country in centuries. Britain has made a habit of it. Indeed, it invaded Iran twice in the 20th century and collaborated in destroying Iran's democracy in the 1950s. In 2003, under false pretences, it participated in the invasion of Iran's neighbour Iraq wreaking widespread death and destruction.

Britain currently has a Vanguard submarine drifting deep through the world's oceans armed with 40 nuclear-tipped Trident missiles, collectively possessing destructive power 300 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Although ordinarily only the prime minister has the authority to order a nuclear attack, if a submarine commander loses radio contact and suspects Britain has been destroyed, he can fire away. This scares me a hell of a lot more than the possibility Iran may make a weapon.

So, why does Britain have nuclear weapons at all? For an obvious reason, really—status. Tony Blair said as much. In his memoirs, he admitted he could see the "common sense and practical argument" against renewing the Trident system but, "In the final analysis I thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation."

He might also have mentioned that the UK is a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, under which the nuclear powers are obliged to rid themselves of their nukes, something Britain is not doing. Perhaps we should be pointing our fingers at the violators of the Treaty, rather than those who, at least to date, have kept their word.

09 November 2012

The CBC—a very good deal

The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting recently sent me an email summarizing a few pertinent facts about the CBC, our national broadcaster and the only national medium not owned and controlled by the corporate sector. Some of these facts I would like to share.

For instance, we sometimes forget in these dumbing-down days of Harper conservatism that the CBC (actually its predecessor) was created by a Conservative government, specifically that of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett in 1932.

Surveys indicate that 83 per cent of Canadians believe the CBC is important in protecting Canadian identity and culture, and 78 per cent of Canadians would like to see CBC funding increased or maintained. In other words, the CBC enjoys very broad public support.

Governments, however are less supportive. Jean Chrétien's Liberals slashed the CBC’s budget by $400-million in the 1990s and funding continues to decline under the Conservatives. Only four of 26 western democracies (Portugal, Poland, New Zealand and the U.S.) spend less as a percentage of GDP than Canada on public broadcasting.

On average, government funding of public broadcasters in western democracies is $80 per capita per year. By comparison, funding of the CBC works out to a paltry $33 per Canadian per year or about eleven cents a day.

Keeping in mind we pay much, much more for corporate media via advertising, a little more than a dime a day is a bargain indeed for the only national medium that belongs to all of us, i.e. that is democratic—the only national medium that isn't run by corporate servants. Increasing that to a quarter a day would only bring us up to the average funding in western democracies, yet would allow for an even better CBC ... without the advertising.

08 November 2012

Sorry for Romney? Save some pity for Adelson.

If you think Mitt Romney lost big on Tuesday night, give a thought to poor old Sheldon Adelson. The casino mogul is one of those very rich Americans trying to buy up the political system.

After backing Newt Gingrich in the Republican primaries (not much luck there for the gambler), he then swung hard behind Romney. According to Mother Jones, he and his wife invested more than $57-million in pro-Republican super-PACs.

And invest is the right word. If Romney had won and instituted his proposed tax cuts, Adelson could have saved an estimated $2-billion. That's billions, folks, not millions. Furthermore, his largesse could have proved valuable in solving his legal woes. Aside from three lawsuits he faces over his Macau operations, he is also involved in a bribery scandal and claims he violated U.S. anti-money laundering laws. With his businesses under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and other agencies, he could have used a friend in the White House.

Investing in politics is, as in business, often a gamble. The king of casinos rolled the dice ... and crapped out.

07 November 2012

Iran and Israel negotiating nukes—will common sense break out?

Officials from both Iran and Israel attended a nuclear non-proliferation meeting in Brussels this week. The intent of the meeting was to set the stage for a full international conference on banning nuclear weapons from the Middle East.

The Iranian and Israeli officials are ostensibly attending as private citizens, yet they carry considerable clout and have the permission of their governments to participate. The Iranians were led by Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the country's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Israelis by Jeremy Issacharoff, an ambassador for strategic affairs at the foreign ministry.

The meeting's mood was described as "respectful and positive," quite in contrast to the provocative blustering of the two country's leaders: Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, a man so belligerent his generals have to rein him in; and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the world's most offensive trash talkers.

The date of the international conference is still undecided and one cannot hope for much, but if the two main protagonists in this drama are at least meeting in an atmosphere of respect, one can hope for something, and even that is progress in the Middle East.

Work is making us crazy

 In 1991, Linda Duxbury of Carleton University and Christopher Higgins of the University of Western Ontario conducted the first national study of work-life conflict in Canada to “explore how the changing relationship between family and work affects organizations, families and employers.” They repeated the study in 2001 and in 2012 have completed a third round. The study examined the work-life experiences of over 25,000 Canadians employed full time in public, private and not-for-profit organizations.

The results are not encouraging. First, Canadians are working harder than ever. The amount of time spent in paid employment has increased dramatically with 68 per cent of men and 54 per cent of  women working more than 45 hours per week in 2011 compared to 55 per cent of men and 39 per cent of women in 2001.

While people are working more, apparently they are enjoying it less. Absenteeism over all increased seven per cent from 2001 to 2011 with people missing work due to emotional and mental fatigue increasing by 12 per cent. Workers reporting a high level of stress increased from 44 per cent in 1991 to 54 per cent in 2001 to 57 per cent in 2011, while those suffering from depressed mood, a state characterized by low energy and persistent feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, increased from 24 per cent in 1991 to 36 per cent in 2001 and 2011.

The Canadian workplace it seems is becoming a place of increasing unhappiness. It makes one wonder what all the remarkable technical progress of the last 20 years was for. Nor apparently has globalization brought the utopia corporations and their political servants promised.

The tragedy is not only a decline in the quality of work life. As we approach a time when growth must stop in order to preserve a future for both the health of the environment and the health of civilization, working less could make a major contribution. And we could enjoy the extra time for family, community and simply enjoying life. Yet we seem to be going in precisely the wrong direction. What, exactly, is the point?

05 November 2012

An Allende returns to Chilean politics

Last Sunday, Maya Fernández Allende was elected mayor of Ñuñoa, a district of Chile's capital, Santiago. Ms. Allende is a granddaughter of Salvador Allende, the Chilean president who died when General Augusto Pinochet headed a coup that ended Chile's lengthy democracy and introduced a reign of torture and murder.

Democracy eventually returned after 16 years of brutal dictatorship and now an Allende has returned to politics as well. Raised in Cuba, where her family fled after the coup, she came home in 1992 and joined the Socialist party but didn't run for office until 2008 when she won her first election as a member of the local council. Her victory was part of a leftward swing in municipal elections across Chile with Allende herself winning in a district long held by right wing politicians.

An official photograph of Salvador Allende wearing the Chilean presidential sash decorates the new mayor's office. She was too small when he died to remember him but says she would loved to have known him as a grandfather and has promised to be faithful to his legacy.

"The dictatorship did not allow you to express yourself, you might talk and then be disappeared, so people stopped talking," said Ms. Allende. "There was lots of silence. This generation has changed, it has come back to the street, to knock on the door, to bang the table."

Olé for the new generation and olé for Mayor Allende.

03 November 2012

In Iraq, as in Vietnam, the war never ends for the innocent

The Vietnam war officially ended almost 40 years ago, two generations in time, yet the sacrifice continues. The soldiers have all left the battlefield, but every year thousands of Vietnamese, mostly children, are maimed and killed by unexploded munitions, and thousands of babies are stillborn or deformed by the lingering effects of the insidious herbicide Agent Orange.

And so it is in Iraq. A number of studies have reported extraordinarily high incidences of birth defects among Iraqi children. For example, a recent article in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology reported that among a group of families studied in the city of Fallujah, from 2007 to 2010 almost half the children born suffered birth defects, compared to under two per cent before the war. Furthermore, from 2004 to 2006, miscarriages were over 40 per cent compared to under five per cent prior to 2000. The study further reported that in the city of Basra, which was bombed in the late 1990s as part of the no-fly campaign and again in 2003 during the invasion, the number of birth defects per live births increased by 17 times.

Nor are the victims limited to Fallujah and Basra. The study states, "reports of health problems in the Iraqi population and in the surrounding countries have continued to surface. News of increases in childhood cancers, of perinatal and infant morbidity and mortality, and of unusual increases in congenital birth defects, have continued to emerge from across Iraq."

One of the study's authors, Mozhgan Savabieasfahani of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, told a reporter, “There is compelling evidence linking the staggering increases in Iraqi birth defects to neurotoxic metal contamination following the repeated bombardments. There is no other explanation."

While we remember the soldiers of wars with wreaths, monuments and days of commemoration, the most tragic victims of war—the innocents—are quietly forgotten, even as their suffering goes on and on. Perhaps if we commemorated their sacrifice first, rather than that of those who commit the violence, we might see war in a truer light.

01 November 2012

The Canada-China investment treaty—why?

Having read the investment treaty that Prime Minister Harper negotiated with China last September, my concerns about it have not been alleviated. (Honestly, I actually did read it!)

To begin with, I have problems with the process that created it. Negotiated in secret, it was then tabled in Parliament where it sat for 21 days while the government, as they have a right to do, denied debate. It can now be signed into law. This backroom process may be fine in an autocratic and secretive system such as China's, but it isn't acceptable where transparency and open discussion are valued. Under the treaty, China can sue for decisions made by provincial or municipal governments, yet these levels of government have been largely absent in the making of the treaty.

Disputes under the agreement are to be heard not by Canadian (or Chinese) courts but by private tribunals. The treaty states that tribunal hearings and their decisions are to be made public, but "subject to the redaction of confidential information" and "the Tribunal may hold portions of hearings in camera." What is or isn't confidential information will apparently be up to the tribunal. Furthermore, it says "a Contracting Party should endeavour to apply its law on access to information so as to protect information designated confidential by the Tribunal."

If Canadians are to foot the bill for awards against our government by the tribunals, as indeed we will, then such awards damn well ought to be under our laws. One wonders if it is constitutional to hold us accountable otherwise. Our laws are to be taken into consideration, but only "where relevant and as appropriate." As the tribunals may hold hearings in camera, presumably they will decide when "relevant" and "appropriate" apply.

The lack of democracy in all this is disturbing.

But quite aside from the treaty itself, why are such agreements necessary at all? Canada is a stable country of great wealth governed by the rule of law and possessing one of the world's finest court systems. Foreign investors are fortunate to be offered the opportunity to invest here. Surely it is not asking too much to insist they invest under our laws and policies. Indeed, what does it say about us when we feel it necessary to guarantee foreign investors they will be protected from Canadian rules? Government encouraging foreign investment is fine, serving as corporate minders is not.

If our government's concern is less about encouraging investment here and more about protecting Canadian corporations investing abroad, this does not justify eroding our democratic processes. Nor does it justify eroding the power of citizens in other countries. Corporations operating overseas should be prepared to take the risks involved investing in unstable or corrupt regimes or insure themselves against such risks. And we might want to think twice about protecting our corporations in countries where they are not behaving in the best interests of the people of those countries.

If you wish to torture yourself with legal jargon and read the treaty yourself, it can be found here.