Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Few Lessons For Michael Ignatieff

I'm a proud and active member of the Liberal Party of Canada, but I have never made any secret of the fact that I disagree with our new leader on a growing number of issues.

I guess we can add the Alberta tar sands to that list.

"This is a huge industry. It employs Canadians from coast to coast. We have oil reserves that are going to last for the whole of the 21st century. We are where we are. We've got to clean it up and we've got to make it a sustainable place to work and live, not only for the aboriginal population, but for the workers who live there," Ignatieff said.

"At the moment, it's barely environmentally sustainable, and it's barely socially sustainable. The Conservative government has done nothing about this. We need to move forward. But am I proud of this industry? You bet. It's a world leader. We just need to make it better. But I don't take lessons from the National Geographic."

He may not need any lessons from National Geographic, but he certainly needs a reality check from someone. So allow me to educate you, Mr. Ignatieff.

1) "Barely environmentally sustainable."
By what possible definition?

This is an industry that tears out thousands of acres of complex boreal forest habitat and eventually, slowly, when they get to it, replaces it with flat grassland or wetland - at a fraction of the rate at which it digs.

This is an industry that turns millions of gallons of fresh water into oily, contaminated sludge which it stores in endlessly growing 'tailings ponds' that it has only the vaguest notion of how to turn back into fresh(ish) water.

This is an industry that continues to spew out grotesque amounts of CO2 emissions that it insists will 'someday' be captured and stored, despite the fact that even the biggest boosters of CCS technology admit that what is being developed simply won't work for the tar sands.

2) "Barely socially sustainable."
Ft. McMurray is a boom town. To a lesser extent, so are Calgary and Edmonton. Boom towns by definition are the very opposite of 'socially sustainable'.

I can't help but wonder if Mr. Ignatieff has ever actually met any of these "Canadians from coast to coast" who work in the oil patch. I have. I sat next to one on a plane who was on his way home to Ontario for his monthly visit with his wife and kids. By the time he got on the Edmonton-to-Toronto red eye, he had already been on two other flights and was facing a fourth to get him back to Sudbury. He hadn't slept in over 24 hours and he was having a really hard time sleeping on the cramped and chilly WestJet flight, finally opting to lay his head on his food tray with his arm over his eyes. He moaned frequently. He looked like death.

Then there was the guy I knew who gave up his job and his home for one of those great paying jobs out in Ft. McMurray. He was back within three months, full of tales of broken promises, abusive bosses and unaffordable and unlivable housing.

Temporary workers, exploitive conditions, disrupted families, artificially inflated living costs, and health consequences that are only just now being understood. This is the social reality of the tar sands mining industry.

3) "But am I proud of this industry? You bet. It's a world leader."
A world leader in what - size? Certainly. But as a sustainable industry that benefits all Canadians and moves us forward into the future, it represents a complete and utter failure.

One proof of this failure is in the recent announcement that the province of Alberta will be running a deficit this year. How can this be? How can the "new economic centre" of Canada find itself so quickly in the red just because of a temporary drop in oil prices? Weren't they using oil revenues to build a budgetary surplus as a cushion against inevitable swings in commodity prices? Oh, right.

Just about every other country with significant energy resources has a national energy policy that to some extent involves public ownership of oil and gas companies so that their citizens have maximum control of, and enjoy maximum benefit from, their own resources.

Canada, on the other hand, has no national energy policy. Such decisions are left entirely to the provinces, and in the case of Alberta they have chosen to abdicate public stewardship of their own resources in favour of making a quick buck by renting them cheap to private corporations who are responsible to no one but their shareholders.

There is nothing to be proud of here, Mr. Ignatieff. And there are far more fundamental problems with the tar sands than their somewhat untidy appearance in the pages of an American magazine.

I think what bothers me the most about Ignatieff's comments is the knowledge that from this day forward, no Liberal MP will be able to stand in the House of Commons and object to the Conservative government's lack of action on the tar sands or the environment or energy policy without having these very comments thrown back in their faces by Harper or one of his lackeys.

I am not suggesting that Mr. Ignatieff automatically take the opposite position from the Conservatives on every single issue. That's what we have Jack Layton for. But if his intention here was to appease the citizens of Alberta and build the Liberal Party's fortunes in the west, there are better ways to go about it than becoming an apologist for the tar sands mining industry. Because the people of Alberta are getting screwed here as much as anyone - and most of them know that. They don't need apologies or defences. They need real leadership that will point the way towards responsible, sustainable, beneficial, public stewardship of their land and their resources.

Mr. Ignatieff had an opportunity this week to show that sort of leadership - to show that the Liberal Party can represent a rational middle way between shutting down the oil sands altogether and allowing corporate interests to continue their uncontrolled and destructive exploitation.

In the opinion of this Liberal, he failed.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Plan for AECL: Private Profit, Public Liability

Those of us following the Chalk river / AECL saga have been anxiously awaiting a report from the National Bank of Canada regarding the crown corporation's disposition.

Actually, 'anxiously' might be an overstatement, since the report's recommendations were pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Ottawa urged to sell controlling interest in AECL

TORONTO, OTTAWA — The federal government should relinquish control of its flagship nuclear energy company but retain its problem-plagued Chalk River research facility, says a report commissioned by Ottawa.

The report by National Bank of Canada recommends that the federal government sell off at least a 51-per-cent interest in Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.'s commercial operations, according to sources who have been briefed on its contents.

Ottawa has refused to divulge the report's recommendations and has left the fate of AECL in limbo until the Ontario government decides whether to buy the Crown corporation's Candu technology or opt for its main rival, France's Areva Group.

...But even if AECL succeeds in winning the bid, the federal government, which has been heavily subsidizing the business since the 1950s, plans to restructure the company to make it more competitive.

The National Bank report recommends the government break up AECL, sources confirmed yesterday. The commercial venture, with new investors as majority owners, would handle reactor sales and service, while the government would retain ownership of the research and technology division, which runs AECL's Chalk River laboratories and the NRU reactor.

... National Bank recommends that the Chalk River site be excluded because AECL – and its government shareholder – face liabilities totalling about $7-billion to clean up waste at the Chalk River site.

“No company would want to buy that,”
said Greenpeace energy campaigner and nuclear opponent Shawn-Patrick Stensil.

In other words, they're selling the store and keeping the dumpster out back.

I shouldn't be surprised, though. This is exactly what the government wanted to hear. When you don't believe in public ownership, it's easy to find ways to make public assets unprofitable so you can justify selling them off to your corporate buddies - and then call it being 'competitive'.

Welcome to Canada's new Free Market Nuclear Industry.

The Worst Thing I've Read in a While

If you're sick of reading about Gaza, or you just can't bear to read any more tales of atrocities, just stop right now. But if you think you can take it, read this latest testimonial from In Gaza. Not to obsess on the suffering, but just so we don't forget.

Eyes open.

The family of 14 was still huddled under the stairwell when Israeli soldiers stormed the outer gate.

“My father opened the back door and stepped out. They shot without warning. He died immediately,” said al-Helo.

The soldiers then ordered the rest of the family to leave the house. “Get out, get out,” al-Helo said they screamed. When he tried to remain in the house with his father Fouad’s body he said the Israeli soldiers told him “If you stay here we’ll kill you.”

They left, trying in vain to find shelter. “We were knocking at the doors of people’s houses along the road, desperate to get in. Everyone was afraid to open, or had left their home,” said al-Helo.

The terrified family had only walked a few hundred meters down a back lane before Israeli snipers began shooting at them, hitting one-year-old Farah in the abdomen. The girl, whose name means “joy,” didn’t immediately die, instead suffered for the next few hours, intestines falling out. Her mother, Shireen, breast-fed her in a desperate attempt to comfort the baby.

I don't think I am ever, ever going to get that image out of my head.

That every single citizen of Gaza hasn't taken up arms against Israel is a testament to their self-restraint and their desire for peace. I don't know if I would be that restrained under the same circumstances.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Taste of the Third World in Wilmington, Ohio

Of all the sad and disturbing stories that have emerged so far from the economic crisis, for some reason this one in particular fills me with dread.

DHL Workers Welcome Truckloads of Food

A local town, which is bracing for thousands of job cuts, gets an important delivery today to help workers in need.

This morning, eleven tractor trailers loaded with food and supplies pulled into Wilmington. It's an effort to help the thousands who will lose their jobs when DHL closes their hub at the Wilmington Air Park. It's estimated nearly 10,000 jobs will be eliminated.

Volunteers with the group Feed the Children distributed the food and personal supplies to hundreds of people who lined up in the cold.

One third of the families in this town had someone employed at DHL.

I'm not sure which is worse - the sight of Americans lining up for food aid, or wondering how long it will be before it happens here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Random Thoughts on The Layover of the Century*

(*stolen from the inimitable Kady O'Malley, who wins the Best Title of the Day Award)

1) Watching Obama talking with Michaelle Jean, I thought she looked classy and confident (as usual), and he looked absolutely enchanted with her.

2) There's been much speculation about what Obama and the GG talked about all that time. My guess it was divided between "What is it you do again?" and "So, tell me your version of what happened last fall".

3) Poor, poor Steve. He is no longer The Almighty Tallest.

4) Bafflegab sounds exactly the same in English AND American, no matter who the President is. Sorry, but CCS is still wishful thinking, especially when it comes to an operation like the tar sands. But hey, leave it to Harper to latch on to the one issue that most progressives disagree with Obama on and claiming it as his own.

5) Shorter Stephen Harper: "We are at war with greenhouse gases. We have always been at war with greenhouse gases."

6) Obama making an unscheduled stop at the Byward Market to buy souvenirs and a Beavertail is just about the coolest thing EVAH!

Help Send a Blogger to the Liberal Convention!

Well, now I've done it. I've filled out my Form 6 and faxed it to the LPCO, and unless we have a sudden flood of people from Halton who want to go to the Vancouver Liberal Convention, it look like I'm going to be a delegate.


Now I just have to pay for it.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not going to be going into debt or taking food out of the mouths of my family to do this. We've got a bit of savings and some leftovers from a recent windfall, and I'm always happy to indulge myself if it's something I consider worthwhile.

Still, Liberal conventions are notoriously expensive. Although apparently the party is offering reduced convention fees depending on how expensive it's likely to be to get there from your riding. Which means that flying out of Toronto I'll be saving... thirty-five bucks. Oh, boy.

I can't wait to find out what the WiFi access fees are going to be.

So. Since I plan to blog from the convention and will be therefore providing you, my faithful readers, with three whole days of high quality Liberalicious entertainment, I thought I would also provide you all with the opportunity to contribute to the cause.

PayPal donations now being accepted, with gratitude, at the sidebar to your right.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Meanwhile, It Still Sucks in Gaza

Funny how the western media has totally moved on from Gaza. And yet, for those who are still in the thick of it, the only difference seems to be the particular flavour of hell they're living in.

Yes, the tanks have retreated and the aerial bombardment has ceased. They're still getting shelled from the sea, bombed by drones and shot at from the border, of course. And the Israelis have suddenly decided that their previous arbitrary 300m "buffer zone" was woefully inadequate and have now arbitrarily expanded it to a full kilometre - all on the Gaza side of the border, of course.

This, in a country that is only 6-7 kilometres wide along much of its length.

The expansion of this zone has swallowed up huge amounts of active farmland that desperately needs to be irrigated and/or harvested in order for the Gazan farmers to survive. And so they go out into their fields to harvest. And they are shot at. And three have been killed.

As for the blockade, it is worse than ever. Almost nothing is getting through, with both Israel and Egypt choking off the crossings and the supply tunnels largely destroyed. And at least one UN aid warehouse was reportedly raided and robbed by Hamas, which is SO not helping.

And yet, our faithful correspondent reports one bit of good-ish news this week. Faced with a dire bread crisis caused by frequent or total electrical blackouts, a desperate shortage of cooking fuel, and a near total lack of available combustibles, one man has come up with a creative and ancient solution for his community.

Drawing on the knowledge of a 70 year old craftsman from nearby Khan Younis, Mohammed Abu Dagga had constructed an earthen oven operating on conventional diesel, stores of which had been br rather than the unavailable cooking gas. The mud oven, lined with the few available sturdy bricks, took one week to construct; the technique of mixing and packing a sand, straw and earth mixture meant that Israel’s ban on construction materials did not hamper this one project. Thousands of destroyed houses throughout Gaza remain rubble, reliant on Israel’s benevolence to open borders to concrete and building materials (a benevolence which has yet to materialize), items long-since on the banned list.

On the day we visited, Al Faraheen’s new communal oven had queues past the entrance. These were not the dismal lines of hopeful Gazans waiting for hours to find the last of the bread had been sold. The mood in Faraheen was jovial, an air of relief, if but for one small reason to be thankful. For the many villagers who can’t afford, or can’t find, cooking gas and who are exhausting firewood supplies (although the Israeli military’s bulldozing and tank-ravaging of olive and fruit trees provides a depressing new source of wood), one shekel can bake 10 rounds of bread. Given that Abu Dagga’s investment in the oven was $2,000 (roughly 8,000 shekels), the price is fair, and more within the reach of a largely agriculture-based community than the nearly 400 shekels a canister of cooking gas goes for.

I guess 'good news' is a relative term in a place where a rediscovery of medieval technology can be considered progress, but I suppose it's something.

Monday, February 16, 2009

"And THAT'S why you're still just a Parliamentary Secretary!"

Courtesy of Dr. Dawg et al, this amusing exchange in Thursday's Question Period between Bloc MP Paul Crête and what was apparently a pre-recorded message:

Mr. Paul Crête (Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, BQ):

Mr. Speaker, despite endless urging from the opposition parties and members of all sectors of civil society, the Conservative government is still stubbornly refusing to repatriate young Omar Khadr to Canada. Worse yet, the Prime Minister refuses to even raise the matter with President Obama when he visits, according to one of his spokespersons. We are talking here of a child soldier, imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for more than six years now and subjected to acts of torture.

Does the Prime Minister understand that he has a moral duty to discuss with President Obama the arrangements for repatriating this young Canadian citizen, Omar Khadr?

Will he do this or will he sink—

The Speaker:

The hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Deepak Obhrai (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, CPC):

Mr. Speaker, our position regarding Mr. Khadr remains unchanged. Mr. Khadr faces serious charges that include murder, attempted murder and terrorism.

We continue to closely monitor this situation, including the work of the American committee formed to study the fate of the detainees, including Mr. Khadr. Any speculation is premature at this time.

Mr. Paul Crête (Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, BQ):

Mr. Speaker, the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions comes into effect on March 18, 2007. Guided by Quebec, Canada signed that convention along with 95 other countries.

Since the United States has not yet signed, does the Prime Minister intend to put this on the agenda when he meets with President Obama, in order to convince him to sign the convention?

Mr. Deepak Obhrai (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, CPC):

Mr. Speaker, I will say this again. Our position regarding Mr. Khadr remains unchanged. Mr. Khadr faces serious charges, including murder. We continue to closely monitor the situation, including the work of the American committee formed by President Obama to study the fate of detainees, including Mr. Khadr.

And it goes on and on in absurdist fashion, different questions, same answer... and all I could think of was this:

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Naomi Klein, and Agreeing to Disagree

Nice piece in The Star today on Naomi Klein, who is presented as typical of a Canadian who is "a celebrity abroad but is mostly ignored at home." I'm not sure how true that is (although her tour schedule lists three U.S. dates and no Canadian ones), but it's nice to see this sort of high profile recognition in Canada, especially now that so many of her 'crazy ideas' are proving to be prescient.

She is a once hopeful and skeptical about Barack Obama and his economic plan.

"Obama is an important change from Bush, and the reason why he is important is that he is susceptible to pressure from everyone. He is susceptible to pressure from Wall Street, to pressure from the weapons companies, from the Washington establishment. But unlike Bush and (Dick) Cheney, I don't think he'd ignore mass protest.

"The irony is that just at the very moment when that kind of grassroots organizing and mobilization could have an impact, we are demobilizing and waiting for the good acts to be handed down from on high, whether it is the withdrawal from Iraq or the perfect economic stimulus package."

I found it interesting that one of the first comments on this piece (9:57 AM) challenges the characterization of Klein as a "Star Left-Winger" and indeed the entire notion of left-vs-right as overly simplistic and dismissive in today's complex political and economic reality. Indeed, Klein's own concerns about Obama and her dismay at how Americans seem to have forgotten Bill Clinton's own pro-corporate policies seem to defy traditional notions of 'left' and 'right'.

I am finding more and more that words like these serve as an excellent excuse to stop listening to one another. We are so keen to label writers, pundits, ideas, and even whole media outlets as left or right, socialist or capitalist, conservative or liberal, that we end up separating into ideological camps made up of people who already agree with us and simply shutting the rest out.

Ironically, one of Klein's chief complaints against Obama is his choice of former Clinton advisor Larry Summers to his economic team - a man with whom she strenuously disagrees. And yet, Obama has said from day one that he wants to surround himself with people he disagrees with so they can challenge his ideas and assumptions to see how well they hold up.

It's an approach I'm learning to appreciate.

(crossposted from Canada's World)

Friday, February 13, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You

You know that Hollywood has reached the bottom of the creative barrel when they present us with a movie based on a self-help book based on a single episode of a TV show based on a newspaper column.

Perhaps because of this pedigree, "He's Just Not That Into You" suffers from an excess of gimmickry. There are at least one too many story lines, the interwoven relationships are overly contrived, and the randomly inserted 'gal on the street' interviews bring what little momentum the film has to a screeching halt every twenty minutes or so. They are such a bad idea, in fact, that even 'Sex in the City' gave up on them after the first season or so.

That said, the movie isn't a complete disaster. What saves it is a talented and appealing cast - especially Justin "The Mac Guy" Long as the bartender who bestows his cynical wisdom upon the hapless but adorable Ginnifer Goodwin.

Just for them, I'll give it two and a half stars.

(for once, Murray agrees - but for reasons all his own.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

And Now, Your Moment of Bollywood

No reason. Just because Deepa Mehta is one of my favourite Canadian directors, "Bollywood/Hollywood" is one of my favourite movies, and these two musical numbers make me very happy.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Own Personal Recession

In addition to writing, singing, and working part time at a video store (it's cooler than it sounds), I make most of my money through my online and wholesale crafts business: Tara Hill Designs.

Yes, 'runesmith' isn't just a username - it's a job description.

As peculiar as my product line might seem to the mundane rabble, my work is very highly regarded within a very select target market. It was never going to make me rich, but for a little home-based business it does pretty well, with sales growing steadily over the twenty-plus years I've been at it. Up until five years ago, that is. That was the terrible year the Ontario Renaissance Festival shut down, but it was also the year I began to sense that things in general were starting to slide.

In many ways, my little business is a bellwether of economic conditions. I sell exactly the sort of luxury items that are the first to get crossed off people's shopping lists when things get tight. About half of my supplies are imported, I sell 80-90% of my wares to the U.S., and on any given day I can tell you what the CAN$-US$ exchange rate is to within half a cent.

The first thing I noticed was about four years ago when my wholesale sales started dropping off. The stores I sell to are all small, independent book and speciality stores, and they have all been suffering badly from big box stores and the death of downtown retail. Right now I'm down to one wholesale customer - and they are just a distributer, not a store.

Last year, my online sales to the U.S. collapsed.

The blue is 2007. The yellow is 2008. As you can see, there was no Christmas last year.

This is what a 41% drop in sales looks like. Compared to 2006, my sales have been cut in half.

Don't get me wrong - I'm doing ok. I have a lot of irons in the fire, and my husband is doing very well in the relatively recession-resistant film industry. But it makes me sad that after 20 years, my little business might end up being washed away under the economic tide.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Ugly Face of Patriotism

What kind of person walks into an elementary school classroom, sits down on a little kiddie chair at a little kiddie table, and tells his child's school principal that if he thought he could get away with it he would happily drag him out to the parking lot by his shirt collar and "beat him senseless"?

Apparently, such people are called "Patriots".

I actually felt physically ill after watching this piece on The National (h/t to Impolitical, Alison and others), in which Erik Millett explains what he did and did not do in regards to the playing of 'O Canada' in his school, and describes the phone calls, the emails and the death threats he's received since this story became a Conservative cause célèbre.

He hadn't been back inside the school in over a week. He's not sure he'll ever teach again.

The woman who first raised the hue and cry is also interviewed in this piece, and shows us exactly where she's coming from:
"First we lost saying the Lord's Prayer in school, then the Pledge of Allegiance, and now the singing of O Canada..."

Yes, Mrs. Boyd, we really have lost something essential here. What we have lost is the ability of too many of our citizens to distinguish between our country's traditions and institutions and those of the United States.

What we are struggling to keep is the culture and tradition of fairness, inclusiveness and accommodation that makes this country unique among nations. A tradition that predates Pearson and Trudeau and any modern notion of 'political correctness' by centuries. A tradition born out of our earliest efforts to live with and among the First People of this land, then out of our unique partnership of French and English, Protestant and Catholic in a single nation, and later out of our inclusion of other newcomers representing cultures, languages and faiths from every corner of the globe.

All these are woven into the fabric of our nation, each thread intact. This is our great strength. This is Canada. It always has been. Where have you been living, Mrs. Boyd?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Kevin Smith RAWKS!!!!!

Happy happy happy! Just got back from seeing Kevin Smith live at Roy Thomson Hall, and it was all I dreamed it could be.

(and if you have to ask who Kevin Smith is... let's just say we are no longer friends.)

I'm guessing by tomorrow morning there will be cell phone footage on YouTube from the adorably perky redhead who finagled her way onstage, gave Kev a hug, plunked herself on the couch, put her feet up and started texting her friends that OMFG IM ONSTAGE W KEVIN SMITH!!!

Then there was the guy who started rambling on about his Hebrew school teacher and watching some guy in the change room at his gym who wears tighty whities and... I don't think even he knew where he was going with that. I'm inclined to believe that he was just messing with Kev and Mewes, but it's hard to say.

Oh, and apparently Mewes just got married to a smokin' hot chick named Jordan. Which proves once and for all that the finest women go for the funny guys.

Anyway, KS is going to be at the Bloor for Kevin Smith Fest. Three nights, six films, and all the Q&A you can handle. I'm still deciding whether and when I'll try to attend, but even if I don't get to ask the man if he would like to ever make a film in this country or open Secret Stash North in T.O., I'm a happy woman just for having attended tonight.

Talk to me, baby. Talk to me.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Reports to the Minister of Leaky Reactors

Both AECL and our nuclear watch-puppy, the CNSC, presented their reports to Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt today. Both reports seem to expend as much ink in ass-covering as they do in explaining exactly what happened on December 5th, when 47 kg of tritium-contaminated heavy water leaked from the NRU. But happily, the details are leaking even faster:

Canwest News Service first learned of the Dec. 5 radioactive leak on Dec. 14 through a source with knowledge of the operations at Chalk River who requested anonymity out of concern for job security.

"(There was) a minor spill of tritiated water on the reactor hall floor," the source, an engineer, told Canwest News Service on Dec. 14. "Operators now must wear protective clothing inside the reactor hall because of the beta fields."

As chance would have it, I happen to be on close personal terms with someone who not only took physics engineering in university, but actually worked at the accelerator lab at McMaster where he was in charge of (among other things) nuclear safety.

I read him that portion of the article and asked, "So, what exactly would be involved in cleaning up a spill like that?"

He said, "To start? Tear up the floor."

Oh. My.

I sent him links to the two original reports (yes, yes, I email across the couch), and he had quite a lot more to say. I'm working on getting him to do a guest blog post for tomorrow.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Funniest Ad EVER

I am obviously further out of the culture loop than I thought because not only had I not seen this before, but at first I didn't even think this was a real ad for a real company. But it is.


Too bad we can't get HULU in Canada.