Friday, July 31, 2009

Toronto Strike Vote - UPDATED

Not that it's any of my business, but I was curious about something: just how many of the fifteen Toronto City Councillors who are on record opposing the deal with the city workers actually have one of those festering mountains of garbage in their wards?

The answer is: 4
Michael Feldman, Ward 10
Frances Nunziata, Ward 11 (she's got 2)
Karen Stintz, Ward 16
Brian Ashton, Ward 36

(CORRECTION: There were actually 5 - Cliff Jenkins of Ward 25 also has a garbage dump in his riding.)

The rest all represent relatively sweet-smelling wards like Willowdale and Don Valley. In fact two of them - Rob Ford and Peter Milczyn - represent Etobicoke, the only area of Toronto which has been enjoying garbage pick-up during the strike thanks to their privately contracted workers.

My next question would be: what do you think the odds are of those four councillors getting re-elected if the actually manage to shoot down this deal?

UPDATE: Here is the final vote, courtesy of the Toronto Star. Both agreements passed, 21-17.


Maria Augimeri (York Centre) - Yes
Sandra Bussin (Beaches-East York) - Yes
Shelley Carroll (Don Valley East) – Yes
Raymond Cho (Scarborough-Rouge River) – Yes
Janet Davis (Beaches-East York) – Yes
Glenn de Baeremaeker (Scarborough Centre) – Yes
Frank Di Giorgio (York South-Weston) – Yes
Paula Fletcher (Toronto-Danforth) – Yes
Adam Giambrone (Davenport) – Yes
Mark Grimes (Etobicoke Lakeshore) – Yes
Suzan Hall (Etobicoke North) – Yes
A.A. Heaps (Scarborough Southwest) – Yes
Doug Holyday (Etobicoke Centre) – Yes
Pam McConnell (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) – Yes
Joe Mihevc (St. Paul’s) – Yes
David Miller (Mayor) - Yes
Joe Pantalone (Trinity-Spadina) – Yes
Gord Perks (Parkdale-High Park) – Yes
Anthony Perruzza (York West) – Yes
Bill Saundercook (Parkdale-High Park) – Yes
Adam Vaughan (Trinity-Spadina) – Yes


Paul Ainslie (Scarborough East) - No
Brian Ashton (Scarborough Southwest) – No
Mike Del Grande (Scarborough-Agincourt) – No
Mike Feldman (York Centre) - No
Rob Ford (Etobicoke North) – No
Cliff Jenkins (Don Valley West) – No
Norm Kelly (Scarborough-Agincourt) – No
Chin Lee (Scarborough-Rouge River) – No
Peter Milczyn (Etobicoke-Lakeshore) – No* (Only pertains to vote on Local 416 agreement)
Denzil Minnan-Wong (Don Valley East) – No
Ron Moeser (Scarborough East) - No
Frances Nunziata (York South-Weston) – No
Case Ootes (Toronto-Danforth) – No
John Parker (Don Valley West) – No
David Shiner (Willowdale) – No * (Only pertains to vote on Local 79 agreement)
Karen Stintz (Eglinton-Lawrence) – No
Michael Thompson (Scarborough Centre) – NoMichael Walker (St. Paul’s) – No

Names in bold have a temporary garbage drop-off in their ward. A few notes:

- Milczyn and Shiner have close relatives in the Union and were originally not going to be allowed to vote, but apparently it was agreed to split the vote between the two Locals and let them only vote on the one where they did not have a conflict.

- Of the six councillors who had said they were 'undecided' going into the vote, all voted yes except for Del Grande who voted no.

- Councillors for the 13 ridings I could find with dump sites were evenly split: 6 for and 6 against, with Kyle Rae of Ward 27 absent.

FURTHER UPDATE: In deference to my OCD-like fascination with maps, here's a map of Toronto's Wards showing 'Yes' votes in green, 'No' votes in red.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

If I were an American, I'd be dead

I decided to wade into the U.S. health care debate recently by making a diary entry on DailyKos, calling it "If I were an American, I'd be dead". It's a personal account of my experience with Canada's healthcare system for the benefit of our American friends. I'm not going to re-post the whole thing here - just wander over and read at your leisure.

The best and the worst thing about making that post was reading the comments from Americans dealing with their health care system. I was particularly struck by the story of one woman who defended the title of my post against someone who accused me of hyperbole. As it turned out, River (who has her own diary) has, like me, experienced kidney failure. She's not much older than me, in about the same income bracket. Or at least she was before all this.

Unlike me, however, River lives in the U.S. So when she started experiencing symptoms, she didn't go to the doctor right away because of the cost of co-pays and the fear of being declined. And so while my condition was caught in time (barely) to restore my kidneys to full function, hers failed completely and irreparably. And while I now lead a happy, healthy normal life, she is facing a lifetime of dialysis. Which probably won't be as long as you'd think, because she's about to hit the lifetime cap on her husband's medical insurance, at which point (as I understand it) she will be put on Medicare, which will only cover 80% of her dialysis. Unfortunately, even 20% of the cost of treatment is far beyond her means, so at that point she figures she'll be checking into a hospice to wait to die.

As for a kidney transplant, forget it. Not unless she wins the lottery - even if she could find a donor, which is twice as unlikely there than in Canada.

The most painful part of my little dialogue with River was when I jokingly suggested that Canada should have a "medical refugee" class of immigrants. She responded by begging me to check into this for her. She had looked into immigrating to Canada, but apparently someone in her medical and financial condition is not exactly the kind of person our Immigration Ministry is looking for as a Canadian citizen right now. It broke my heart to tell her that I'd just made it up, and that our current government isn't even letting our own citizens back into the country, let alone some sick indigent from the Greatest Country in the World.

I thought about River last night while watching 'Meeting of the Minds' on CNBC. They were having a round table discussion about health care with a pretty broad spectrum of people - a health insurance rep, a Democratic Governor, a Republican Senator, a cancer survivor, an AMA spokesman, a health clinic owner, etc. I found myself yelling at the TV a few times, but in general it was pretty enlightening.

The show helped me understand something that I really didn't before, and that is why so many supporters and opponents of U.S. health care reform keep insisting that America has "the best heath care in the world". I always assumed that they were merely delusional, but I think I get it now. You see, they aren't talking about "best" as you or I might define it, as in "the best outcomes for the greatest number of people". What they're talking about is Medical Miracles.

When Americans extol the virtues of American health care, they talk about technology like MRIs and PET scans. They talk about the baby who received heart surgery in utero, or the woman with the exotic tumour that was excised with robotic lasers directed by a surgeon halfway across the country. They talk about extraordinary drugs that can treat AIDS and lower cholesterol and cure cancer and give you a hard on at age 90.

This is what they mean by "the best", and this is what they are afraid they're going to be losing if they bring in any form of public health care.

I can almost sympathize with that. Almost. But even aside from my instinct to question why an entire nation should suffer for the sake of the .5% of the population who might benefit from such treatments and can afford to make use of them - I have to wonder why such a trade-off should even occur, and why having a public health care option would grind such research to a halt.

The argument is that these technical and pharmacological innovations are only made possible by the huge profits reaped by the health care industry. Unfortunately, the application of capitalist incentives to medical research tends to favour the Prozacs and the Lap-Bands over the cancer drugs and the exotic surgeries. And of course they have to sell those drugs and procedures aggressively in order to profit from them, which means spending millions on those annoying direct-to-consumer ads so people will try to convince their doctors that they're sick and get them to sign off on drugs and treatments that they may or may not need.

There was a lot of talk about market incentives in this particular discussion - where they are now and where they should be. There was a surprising amount of consensus that the British system of paying doctors more when their patients quit smoking or have lower cholesterol puts the incentives in the right place, whereas the current system of giving doctors the financial incentive to prescribe as many unnecessary tests, procedures and drugs as they can think up without actually making their patients more healthy... not so much.

That sounds like the kind of thing that could help Canada's own health care system become more cost effective while improving outcomes. But for the Americans, I'm afraid most of the schemes and alternatives proposed by the health industry advocates amount to cosmetic surgery on a dying patient.

It's already apparent that razing the whole mess to the ground and starting fresh is neither feasible nor desirable. Their current system is just too firmly locked into everything from social security to union contracts to be simply done away with all at once. More's the pity. But that reality doesn't preclude an incremental transformation of the sort Obama is proposing.

For River's sake, I just hope those increments are big enough to lead them somewhere significantly better than the status quo. The stakes could not be higher.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Immigration and Refugee Experts Call Shinanigans on Jason Kenney

It appears that Mexicans, Czechs and Liberal bloggers aren't the only ones who consider Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's recent actions and comments regarding refugee claimants to be highly inappropriate.

Embassy Magazine speaks to several refugee and immigration experts, including the former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board, who feel that Kenney's recent blanket dismissal of both Roma and Mexican refugee claimants as fraudulent and illegitimate not only degrades individual claimants, but also amounts to political interference with the functioning of what is supposed to be an independent agency by introducing institutional bias into the system.

"The people who are members of the IRB ultimately depend on the minister of citizenship and immigration, and more generally the government, to keep them in their jobs," said Audrey Macklin, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law. "When the minister pronounces on the validity, or lack thereof, of refugee claimants from any country without having heard the particular case and knowing the individual circumstances, there is the risk that individual decision makers whose jobs ultimately depend on the minister's decision to appoint and reappoint them, will be unduly influenced. They might be fearful when their time comes up for reappointment that he will examine their acceptance rates from the countries where he has deemed refugee claimants to be bogus, and penalize them."

I was particularly shocked to read the Minister's comments regarding Roma refugee claimants from the Czech Republic:

In June, Mr. Kenney referred to a report on the Czech Republic, conducted by IRB researchers, as proof the Czech government was committed to improving the legal and economic opportunities for Roma, and suggested this was evidence that Czech Roma face no real risk.

"If someone comes in and says the police have been beating the crap out of them, the IRB panelists can then go to their report and say, 'Well, actually, there's been no evidence of police brutality,'" Mr. Kenney told the Toronto Star on June 24.

In fact, it's not the police but the growing number of neo-Nazis in the Czech Republic who have been attacking and killing the Roma there - a detail which one would have hoped Kenney would have known.

Another complaint about Kenney's handling of the IRB is his reluctance to appoint or re-appoint board members, which the article notes as the real reason behind the backlog of refugee cases, which has led in turn to long delays that have made Canada such an appealing destination for bogus claimants. Kenney denies this, actually accusing one blogger of wearing a "tin foil hat" for believing this accusation and insisting that he has made every effort to fill vacancies on the board.

Curious, then, that the Auditor General raised this very issue not four months ago, linking it directly with the case backlog and placing the blame squarely with the Minister.

The article concludes with one lawyer accusing the government of intentionally sabotaging the IRB for political reasons. It may sound like more 'tin foil hat' theorizing, but it wouldn't be the first time this particular government has been suspected of running the same sort of "Wrecking Crew" operation that has effectively disabled and dismantled so much of the U.S. government over the past 30 years or so.

Let's hope it really is just paranoia.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Blowing the Whistle on the U.S. Health Insurance Industry

There's an extraordinary interview with former CIGNA executive Wendell Potter on 'Democracy Now!' this week. Potter spent twenty years working for the health care industry, and up until a few months ago was the chief spokesperson and PR pointman for health insurance giant CIGNA. He even developed and launched the industry's counterattack against Michael Moore and his documentary, 'Sicko'.

But when Potter saw his industry using the same talking points and scare tactics against President Obama's health care plan that they had used to destroy Hillary Clinton's efforts at reform back in the '90s, he knew he couldn't do it any more.

The interview is a fascinating look at the tactics used by the U.S. for-profit insurance industry to discredit anyone who would suggest having a public health care system - even a watered-down, parallel system to their own. And a single-payer system like we have here? That, according to Potter, is the industry's worst nightmare.

Well, the game plan is based on scare tactics. And, of course, the thing they fear most is that the country will at some point gravitate toward a single-payer plan. That’s the ultimate fear that they have. But currently—and they know that right now that is not something that’s on the legislative table. And they’ve been very successful in making sure that it isn’t. They fear even the public insurance option that’s being proposed, that was part of President Obama’s campaign platform, his healthcare platform. And they’ll pull out all the stops they can to defeat that.

Towards the end of the interview, Potter does a fair job of explaining Canada's health care system to an American audience used to having the bejeesus scared out of them about the evils of Canadian socialism ("Do you want a Government bureaucrat standing between you and your doctor?"). That fear has been generated largely by third-party ads using people like Dr. Brian Day, who has his own reasons for promoting private health care.

Happily, people like Wendell Potter are pulling back the curtain and exposing the health care industry's use of the same sorts of lies and PR tactics the tobacco industry used so effectively for so long. It's a long interview but well worth listening to and/or reading in full. Especially if we start seeing those same tactics being deployed here in Canada.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

They Just Can't Help Themselves

There's a terrific article in Embassy Magazine today about Stephen Harper's unfortunate and embarrassing habit of using the international stage to engage in petty partisan attacks.

Journalist and author Andrew Cohen suggests Mr. Harper's performance and press coverage from the G8 may reflect Canada's diminished role in the world. Mr. Cohen questions what international issue Mr. Harper has associated himself and Canada with, and said it is not clear what it is that Canada is contributing.

"What struck me about this is that he was relentlessly and unnecessarily partisan," Mr. Cohen said. "And you wonder why he did it; it doesn't help him internationally and it doesn't help him at why did he do it? Maybe because he just can't help himself.

And then there's this piece on today's damning SIR committee report on CSIS's actions regarding Omar Khadr. The report essentially accuses CSIS of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses at Gitmo, and of treating Khadr like an adult when even one of their own agents acknowledged that he had the demeanour of a child.

He wrote that Khadr viewed the activities of his father "through the eyes of a child."

"It should be noted that (Khadr) was 15 years of age when captured, and most of the critical years in his father's association with Al Qaeda figures took place when he was merely a child," wrote the agent.

And the government's reaction?

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said that the government is "reviewing the SIRC report with interest."

"As you know, it deals with events that took place under the previous Liberal Government," noted spokesperson Chris McCluskey.


Once - just once - I would love for an entire 48 hours to go by without some representative of Canada's New Government referencing Canada's Old Government or the current opposition. Just once, I would like to go for a whole week without feeling embarrassed for my country.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"I don't believe any taxes are good taxes"

Adam Radwinski picks up on the money quote from The Globe & Mail's interview with Stephen Harper today:

"You know, there's two schools in economics on this, one is that there are some good taxes and the other is that no taxes are good taxes. I'm in the latter category. I don't believe any taxes are good taxes."

My first reaction to this was to suggest immediately blanketing the airwaves with Liberal ads using this quote to prove to people, finally, that the man running our government doesn't believe in government!

Then I came to my senses and realized that most people would probably like the idea of never paying taxes again. Because while individual humans can be pretty smart, people as a group have a history of being incredibly stupid.

Personally, I've never had any problem with paying taxes. Of course, I've never made so much money that my income taxes were anything worth complaining about. My husband got hit a bit worse back when he was doing IT consulting - and trust me, income tax hurts way worse when you have to pay it yourself all at once instead of having it deducted. But when balanced against, say, not having to worry about medical bills when our son was born or when my kidneys stopped working and I was hospitalized for a week, or knowing that we won't have to sell our house and live in a box to send our son to University, or even receiving basic services like a public school system or police protection or having our street plowed... yeah, coughing up a few hundred or even a few thousand a year doesn't seem so bad.

I know I'm mostly preaching to the choir here (except you, Raph), but the point the Libertarians and others who continually ask "Why the hell should I pay for that?" always seem to miss is that providing such services communally instead of purchasing them individually is, among other things, CHEAPER.

It cheaper when it's something everybody needs (like plowed roads) because it's more efficient to have one guy plow 50 streets than 50 guys to each plow one street.

It's cheaper than paying a private company to do the same thing (like health insurance) because private companies take as big a cut as they can for profit while governments do not. Just ask the Americans.

It's cheaper even for things that only a small percentage of people might need (like welfare, or cultural grants, or new hockey rinks) because one of the people who needs such things might be your brother or your daughter or your grandma - and if your taxes help pay for it then they won't be hitting you up for cash all the time.

Sensible people understand all this intuitively. Even the ones who gripe about government spending and plead for "smaller government" understand that there are just some things that government should be doing. Things that cost money. Things that somebody, somehow, has to pay for. But apparently Stephen Harper would rather have us all live in Happy Tax-Free Fantasy Land and pretend that all these services we take for granted will just magically be provided thanks to his supernatural economist powers.

After all, by the time we come to our senses he'll be long gone.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Public Enemies

'Public Enemies' is the latest in a long string of films about John Dillinger's life and brutal death. In many ways it's a pretty standard 30s gangster flick, but several things set it apart.

One is the performances. Johnny Depp is exceptional as always, and Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") brings a special humanity and hard-edged grace as Dillinger's girlfriend Billie.

What also makes this film a little different is it's focus on the FBI investigation and the implementation of J. Edgar Hoover's 'modern methods' such as wire tapping and surveillance. These techniques are presented as a counterpoint to Dillinger's own unique methods and style.

Some of the other historical details were apparently fudged, but even if you don't care about the history, 'Pubic Enemies' still has plenty of action and strong characters to keep you entertained. I give it 3 1/2 stars.

(and Murray liked it too.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

How To Build a Better Candidate

I've found myself thinking a great deal lately about the quality of our MPs and candidates, and what sorts of people I would like representing me and making decisions on my behalf.

Part of this reflection came from listening to Gerard Kennedy speak at our fundraiser last month. I've admired Kennedy ever since he was the outspoken director of the Daily Bread Food Bank, and it got me thinking about how much that background has informed his views and his priorities as a politician. It also made me wish we had more MPs with a background like that, which in turn led me to investigate just how many of them actually did.

I decided to go through the list of MPs on the Parliamentary website and find out what they've done besides working as MPs. The little profile they give is hardly detailed, but it does list previous occupations and electoral history. I wasn't going to go through all of them, so I just did the 100+ from Ontario since that's my region, and the three major parties are all well represented here (keep in mind that most MPs have multiple jobs in their background, so percentages are going to add up to more than 100%).

What I found was interesting, but not really surprising. To start, nearly half - 47% - of our Ontario MPs come from the corporate world. Among Conservatives its 53%, but even the NDP caucus has more than 1/3 of their members with a corporate background. When I compare that to the number of people I personally know who are corporate execs, managers or directors, I can't help but think that this is a grotesque over-representation.

The next most common profession or background at just under 30% was municipal politician, which I consider to be a good thing. In general, town councillors, reeves and mayors are less rabidly partisan, more practical, and more cognisant of the effect of their decisions on real people. The NDP have the most municipal politicians on their roster, followed by the Conservatives and lastly the Liberals.

Then come the lawyers and the teachers, tied at 17%. The Liberals have the most lawyers (24%) and the same percent with an education background. The NDP have the most teachers (29%). Teachers and professors are good. Lawyers are ok, although there are vastly different kinds of law and a constitutional lawyer, a criminal lawyer and a corporate attorney are going to have very different perspectives.

My favourites, the social workers, social activists and the dreaded "community organizers" only account for about 10% overall, with the vast majority being NDP members. I like these people as politicians because like municipal politicians, they have the needed organizational and administrative skills without ever losing sight of the fact that they are working for the benefit of people.

We need more of these people in the Liberal Party, and in politics in general.

Getting back to those corporate people. I've tried to distinguish wherever possible between corporate 'business people' and people who actually run a business (usually listed as entrepreneurs) because I consider them to have completely different mindsets. I'm a business person. I started a numbered corporation and opened my first business when I was eighteen. I've managed everything from bookstores to print shops. I've run the same mail-order crafts business for over 20 years. My website is as old as eBay.

I've never made a great deal of money with my current business, but I consider it to be successful because a) it let me be home with my son when he was little, b) I get to do something I love and can take pride in, and c) people around the world buy my wares and write me back to tell me how much they appreciate what I've made for them.

If I were a corporate executive, I'd be a total failure. If I were a corporate manager, I'd be outsourcing my inefficient one-person crafts workshop to one of the dozen or so companies from India who email me every month offering to duplicate my work for pennies a piece.

Corporations have their place I suppose, but here's the thing: you CANNOT run a government like a corporation. You just can't. You can sort of run it like a business because real businesses provide tangible goods and services, and frequently measure success by something other than pure profit.

Corporations exist to make money for their shareholders. Period. They don't have to care about the people they employ or the communities they set up shop in or the products they produce, except to the extent that these considerations might impact their quarterly statement.

Governments are in many ways the exact opposite of corporations because their primary purpose is to provide services and other tangible benefits to the public. They accomplish this using the taxpayers' own money and so are obligated not to waste it or spend it frivolously, but it's understood that any given government program or service is not necessarily going to be 'profitable'. Many are distinctly unprofitable and inefficient by corporate standards - but they are also carefully regulated and made accessible to all according to their need. The measure of their success is public benefit, not profit.

A corporate manager would look at Canada Post and ask why they charge the same minuscule amount to send a letter across the street or across the country. They would ask why post offices or RCMP stations or even roads exist in remote communities when centralization is so much more efficient. They would question the wisdom of hiring Canadians to print or process government forms - or make those little Canadian flags - when such work could be done in Mexico or India far more cheaply. They would question why the government is running operations like the LCBO or AECL at all when they would be so much more profitable being run by the private sector.

The fact that such questions are, in fact, being raised indicates to me that there are far too many people with a corporate mindset running our government.

So what would I look for in a political candidate? I'd look for someone who's been in the trenches. Someone with a lot of volunteer hours, or experience working for a charity or an NGO. Someone who has run their own business, or has a real job producing something, creating something, or providing a useful service. Someone who has been involved politically on a practical level, served on planning committees or riding boards or administered local programs. Someone with enough education and life experience to see the bigger picture and make informed decisions. Someone who has demonstrated a real desire to do good in their community and has actually done something about it.

These are the kinds of people we should be actively recruiting as candidates and even public servants. Not just for the Liberal Party, but in general.

What I do NOT want to see is more CEOs, CFOs, corporate managers, or people who seem to do nothing but sit on boards of directors. I'm sure they're very nice people and have skills to offer, but we already have plenty of people like that running the country, thank you very much.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Kevin Page Grades Jim Flaherty's Math


James participates enthusiastically in Question Period. James sometimes completes his assignments on time, but needs to take more care and check his work before handing it in. He frequently skips over difficult questions, and appears to skew his results according to what he thinks will please his classmates instead of trying to find the correct answer. Next steps: review math fundamentals; consider peer tutoring.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Draft Dodgers and Diplomatic Language Down the Memory Hole

There were two rather disturbing stories in the back pages of the news last week. The first was a report in Embassy Magazine that political staffers have been instructing Department of Foreign Affairs bureaucrats not to use certain words and phrases in DFAIT publications and reports which might be associated with the previous Liberal government's foreign relations policies. Some of these include "human security," "public diplomacy" and "good governance." Instead, they have been told to use terms like "human rights," the "rule of law," and "democracy" or "democratic development."

Given the importance of precise language in diplomacy, this "rebranding" exercise is extraordinary. Particularly worrisome is the dropping of "human security" from the lexicon.
Human security refers to a package of policies advanced by the Liberal government in the 1990s, most notably by former Chr├ętien-era foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. The human security paradigm, as opposed to the traditional state-centric view of foreign policy, focuses on the rights and well-being of individuals around the world. This bundle of policies included the promotion of the International Criminal Court and the Responsibility to Protect, as well as various initiatives related to child soldiers, land mines, small arms controls and economic and food security.

The second incident was the removal of a page from the Citizenship and Immigration website concerning Vietnam draft dodgers who were given safe haven in Canada in the 60s and 70s. The page, which has thankfully been preserved as a PDF file by an enterprising blogger, says in part:
"Starting in 1965, Canada became a choice haven for American draft-dodgers and deserters."

Many are theorizing that the removal has more to do with the fact that the page contradicts the current position of the Immigration department, which is that unlike those who came to Canada to avoid enlisting in the military during Vietnam, current war resistors are "bogus refugees" who "voluntarily joined the United States military and have subsequently deserted" and must therefore be deported.
A spokesman for the War Resisters Support Campaign says the Conservative stance is flawed and misleading.

In fact, many Americans volunteered to serve in Vietnam only to recoil from a horrific mission and flee to Canada, said Ken Marciniec. They, too, were allowed to settle here after 1969 following some initial legal wrangling.

It's fortunate that, unlike Orwell's 'memory hole', nothing ever really disappears on the internet.

(cross-posted from Canada's World)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

You Left One Out, Mr. Travers

I've been incredibly impressed with what James Travers and the editorial staff at The Star have been doing with their series on Canadian Democracy. Today, he runs us through his Ten Seemingly Random Reasons why Parliament is dysfunctional.

However, as witty as today's op-ed was, he's left out an important element from his thesis: his own profession. The media.

Almost every problem he lists, from the dumbing down of complex issues, to the doling out of half-truths and spin in place of fact, to the endless, ugly partisan spectacle that passes for political discourse in this country - almost every complaint leveled at the government is also at least partially the fault of a complicit press.

Take Number 2 for example:

Play Dough
Separating new money from old is almost as hard as following the dollars. There ought to be a Guinness record for the number of times a reannouncement is reannounced. This year's economic stimulus, 80 per cent implemented for those gullible enough to believe the television spots, is a contender. Even the Mother of all Spreadsheets – sold separately but, permanently out of stock – couldn't help you tell new money from old.

Really? Because I would think that, being the recipients of every single funding announcement the government hands out, the members of our fourth estate would be uniquely qualified to determine which ones are identical to previous iterations. Hell, I get a sense of deja vu whenever they re-announce the Toronto subway expansion or the light rail link to the airport.

The sad fact is, the current rottening of our democracy could not continue to fester if it were not for the dovetailing interests of politicians focused on getting and keeping power, the media who let them get away with it for the sake of ratings, and a complacent public who would rather watch politicians yell at each other on TV than actually put any mental effort into making political decisions.

The problem is, the incentives built in the system all work against a healthy democracy.

Politicians are supposed to concern themselves with the public interest so the public will continue to vote for them. But when most people have stopped voting, winning elections becomes a simple matter of blowing dog whistles to the base and keeping as much information about their activities as possible from being revealed.

The media are supposed to dig up that information, analyse it, strip it of partisan spin, and communicate it to the public so we can make informed decisions. But that takes effort, and doesn't attract the public's interest nearly as effectively as treating the whole thing like sports, complete with televised fights and scoring stats in the form of poll numbers. Papers like The Star sometimes buck the trend with insightful analysis, but really - who reads newspapers these days?

And then there's us. All we're supposed to do is vote, but we can't even be bothered to do that. We excuse our apathy as disgust and frustration with a broken and unresponsive system, but at some point we need to ask ourselves - what are we responding to? If negative ads didn't work, they wouldn't use them. If Question Period really put us off, we wouldn't watch it. If the media thought for one second that we wanted to hear about serious political issues, they'd talk about it on the 6 o'clock news.

Even those of us who are supposed to be aware and engaged - the bloggers - too often fall into the trap of crowing over poll numbers and handicapping politicians and parties like race horses. Meanwhile, the politicians pander to us and the media entertains us because that is, apparently, what we want.

We're all complicit here. Even you, Mr. Travers.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I Love Bill

He's funny as hell, he doesn't take himself at all seriously, he reminds me so much of my dad, and He. Is. CANADIAN!

(H/T to The Skwib)

Best Canada Day Post Ever

And I only wish I'd written it. No, this one is from The Rev. over at The Galloping Beaver, who is feeling very, very homesick today. Here are a few snippets:

In my mind I still need a place to go, all my changes were there

I've been living in Japan for a dozen years and I've only been home to Ontario a handful of times, so obviously I don't miss my home and native land that much right?

Wrong. Tonight I have a lump of homesickness that is sitting in my gut like a double order of congealed poutine.

...I've been gone from Canada longer than Abousfian Abdelrazik - so long that Canada's New Government has changed the law to say that I can't vote in Canadian elections without moving back to the Great White North. I don't own any property in Canada. I don't even have a Canadian bank account. Am I still Canadian?

Let me tell you something:
I still remind American co-workers why the White House is white. I am the go to guy in my Tokyo office if you have a question about French (though I barely scraped through high school French). I know my way around a canoe. I have a visceral loathing of American beer. My Japan-born-and-raised kids say "eh" when speaking English and blueberry pancakes with maple syrup is their favorite breakfast. I get cravings for peameal bacon and still call french fries "chips". I got drunk and argued politics one night at the Norfolk Tavern in Port Dover with Stompin' Tom Connors - my shoulder and left arm were even in the TV commercial for his "A Proud Canadian" album that they shot in Port Dover. I grew up playing hockey in Sault Ste. Marie when native sons Phil and Tony Esposito were huge stars and Wayne Gretzky spent a year at my high school while playing Jr. A for the Sault Greyhounds just before he turned pro and while the holy Montreal Canadiens were winning the Stanley Cup every year. I remember the windstorm that blew our neighbour's chimney down the night the the Edmund Fitzgerald sank a couple dozen miles away on Lake Superior. I've polka'd to Walter Ostenak live at Oktoberfest in Kitchener. I spent my 17th summer planting trees and clearing canoe portages northwest of Kenora for $10 a day. I cook tortiere at New Years from my aunt's recipie. I've seen bears at the dump. I spent a couple of St. Patrick's Days getting hammered and singing Stan Rogers songs with cadets from RMC at the Wellington in Kingston. I was once the editor of the oldest community newspaper in Canada. I've eaten moose and seen them up close in the wild. I've seen the Habs at the Forum and eaten smoked meat at Schwartz's, Ben's and Dunn's. I've slept under a beached canoe after watching the Northern Lights on a late summer evening in the middle of the bush in Northern Ontario 100 miles from anywhere. I've made maple syrup. I've eaten lobster bought right off the dock in Peggy's Cove. I've played hockey with my grandfather on a frozen pond. I've chased raccoons and skunks out of my garbage. I've eaten fresh smoke salmon in B.C. and salted dried cod in the fortress of Louisbourg. I am one (very small) part Mohawk. I've had my pipes freeze.

He goes on, listing at least a hundred things that make him, and us, Canadian. Things I've also done, things my friends have done, things I want to do and see before I die. Please, go read the whole thing.

I read it, and started mentally adding my own experiences. Eating maple syrup poured on snow. Flying over the Rockies, watching the faces of a couple from India as they looked out the window in awe, and thinking, "Welcome to my country". Spending Canada Day in Ottawa watching the boats go through the Rideau locks. Getting lost on a logging road on Vancouver Island, and getting my car pulled out of a snowbank in the Gatineaus. Sex on a snowmobile (a stationary one). Meeting Polkaroo on a Grade 3 school trip to the TVO studios. Seeing The Tea Party perform at the Baysville Hockey Arena, and Walter Ostenak play at Marineland. Camping next to a young British couple at a Pow Wow near Havelock. Starting my first car on a cold day with two screwdrivers propping the carburetor open. Listening to my three year old nephew go back and forth effortlessly between English and French. Lying on my back in the grass watching the Northern Lights cover the entire sky.

We all have lists like this. A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand moments both personal and communal that make us who we are and that could only happen here in Canada. And that's what it's all about, isn't it? All this angst over Canadian identity, and what it comes down to is the sum total of our shared experiences. This is our culture, our mythology. This is our country.

Pierre Burton had it exactly right: a Canadian is someone who knows how to have sex in a canoe. Happy Canada Day, Rev!

One of my Canadian moments:
bringing home grouse for dinner

"Silencing the Christians" Infomercial Draws Fire

I was stunned on Saturday when I channel surfed over to the Buffalo NBC affiliate after the news and saw what appeared to be a current affairs program about The Secret Gay Agenda to Recruit Our Children and Criminalize Christianity.

No. Really.

I checked the TV guide and it turned out that this filth was, in fact, 'paid programming'. That's right - an infomercial disguised as a television special entitled "Speechless: Silencing the Christians" - airing the day before the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

If you must, you can watch the whole thing on their website, but let me save you the nausea. Not only do they promote the usual hate-filled, homophobic, 'gay agenda' screed, but they go a step further - blaming Pride events and gay rights demonstrations for incidents of violence against Christians.

(UPDATE: Yeah, 'cause that happens all the time.)

I'd tell you more, but I couldn't get through the whole thing without throwing up. Happily, it seems I wasn't the only one repulsed by this crap:

'Silencing Christians' paid program draws protest calls, e-mails

TAMPA - A flood of telephone calls and e-mails cascaded into WFLA News Channel 8 on Saturday afternoon and night over the airing of "Silencing Christians," a religious paid program that some say contained open hate speech against gays and lesbians.

Before the hourlong program ended at 8 p.m., the station had logged hundreds of telephone calls and more than 1,000 e-mails, all protesting the broadcast.

Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida, has seen the program and said the message was clearly hate speech.

"I think this program is a piece of homophobic propaganda and it has no place on a major network like NBC," he said just after 7 p.m., as the program was airing.

According to the article, other affiliates refused to air it. I`m going to see if I can find out which ones.

"Silencing the Christians" was created by an outfit called the American Family Association, in partnership with the Inspiration Network (remember Jim Bakker and the PTL Club?). The AFA has a whole host of different projects, from promoting 'Tea Parties' to debunking global warming, but their main focus seems to be selling overpriced DVDs. In addition to the one-hour TV special, you can also buy 'Speechless' as a full set of 14, 22-minute DVDs dealing with everything from the forced reading of the Koran in public schools to the persecution to the persecution of Canadian Christians under our dreaded "hate crimes tribunal" ("America could be next!!").

Suggested donation for this inspirational series: $150.00

Even the faithful are having trouble swallowing that.

UPDATE: Whoops! Time to turn off the anonymous comments again - the nutters have found me. I've already had to delete one from some charming bloke calling me a whore and expressing his desire for someone to shoot me in the face. Niiice.