Harper Government’s Disdain For Science

October 15, 2012 11:33 am
corbett

In recent years, science in Canada has come up against an increasing disdain for evidence-based decision making and a disappearing commitment to transparency. In brief, evidence-based policy-making in Canada is under attack and it is orchestrated by our own federal government.

In the absence of evidence, government policy is increasingly originating from ideological considerations. The abandonment of the long-form census in 2011, for example. No longer do Canadians have key social and economic data necessary to make well-informed public policy. There is sparse data upon which to base government policy decisions that involve the spending of millions (if not billions) of taxpayer dollars. The result is decision-making based on incomplete information that may lead to government waste, sometimes on a large scale.

This month, the ramifications of decision-making based on knee-jerk ideology as opposed to solid facts and figures hit home to the tune of almost $1.5 billion. On July 16, 2012, the Minister for Public Safety Vic Toews announced the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) would return $1.48 billion in funding to the Government of Canada. The additional number of offenders expected to result from the government’s new tough-on-crime legislation – including the Truth in Sentencing Act – failed to materialize as the Minister indicated. While projections pegged the inmate population at growing to almost 17,725 by June 2012, the actual figure was 14,965. As a result, CSC will return the funding originally allocated to support this increased offender population.

As worrying as the government’s spurious allocation of a billion and a half dollars on CSC expenditures may be, it is in the sciences where the government’s reliance on fiction over fact is most glaringly apparent. The government has made it official policy to gag scientists. Government scientists now have to be cleared by public affairs officials in Ottawa before they can speak to the media. Scientists have been so tightly gagged that media coverage of climate change issues has plummeted more than 80 per cent since 2007. (Compare this to the United States National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which adopted a scientific integrity policy in January 2012. The U.S. government policy permits American scientists to speak about their work to anyone at any time.)

Then there was Kyoto. In December 2011, Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. In doing so, the Conservative Government abandoned the world’s only legally binding plan to tackle global warming and to save the planet.

This year, the federal government’s attack on science reached a new low. The government is now putting the very water Canadians drink and rely on at risk. In June 2012, the government announced the planned closure of the Experimental Lake Area (ELA) research station in northwestern Ontario that produces data critical to combating acid rain and phosphate pollution in lake water. The ELA is Canada’s only outdoor laboratory for scientists studying how to protect the country’s freshwater lakes. Without government funding, the research station will close in 2013. It was of importance not only to Canada. The ELA was the only facility in the world that allowed scientists to observe how entire ecosystems are affected by lake water pollution. Experiments at the facility included the dumping of acid, toxic metals and phosphorus to observe the effects on water and the surrounding environment. Defunding the ELA is a loss to the world and is a smear upon Canada’s reputation as a world leader in water conservation.

The funding cut to the ELA is one Canada’s scientific community can ill afford. By G7 standards, Canada’s investment in science was already low. Now it is perilously low. In 2006, Statistics Canada stated that Canada’s gross expenditure on research and development in science and technology was 1.9 per cent of gross national product (GDP).

On July 10, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) attended a rally on Parliament Hill. Thousands of scientists, academics and concerned citizens protested the cuts to science programs. While funding cuts at the forefront included the impending loss of Ontario’s ELA research station, other changes are also cause for alarm. Last month, Canada’s Fisheries Act – which has protected our fish stock for 35 years – was replaced with a new, looser regulatory regime. The new law creates defenses for polluters and significantly expands the scope for discretionary decisions by the Minister and staff of Fisheries and Oceans Canada as they make regulatory approvals. The changes will significantly undermine Canada’s ability to protect national fisheries now and in the future.

The cuts made by the Canadian government that protect core natural resources on which Canada’s economy is founded is of grave concern to PIPSC. In less than 12 months, the government of Canada continued to gag its own scientists, defunded a research facility of international importance and failed to ratify the world’s primary climate change agreement. In doing so, it has not only undermined Canada’s natural resources for future generations but smeared Canada’s international reputation.

Deception, Virulence and a Bomb: Iran Obstinately Moves Closer to the Nuclear Tipping Point

September 24, 2012 3:40 pm
Iranian Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

The Canadian government’s sudden decision to sever all diplomatic ties with Iran earlier this month can be seen as a clear indication that, in the eyes of the Government of Canada, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s saber-rattling is fast-approaching the point of no return. Yet, in an attempt to avoid provoking a confrontation with Iran that could hurt his prospects of winning a second term, the President of the United States remains unwilling to draw a line in the sand addressing the consequences that would befall Iran should it not abandon its nuclear ambitions. Over a decade of American-led intelligence gathering, attempted diplomacy, cyber and industrial espionage and, more recently, months of what should have been crippling economic sanctions imposed upon Iran appear to be having little effect on slowing the Iranian regime’s quest to develop nuclear capabilities.

Under the political leadership of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the spiritual and philosophical leadership of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, the Iranian government continues to threaten the destruction of Israel on a regular basis (Israel being a country which sits a little over 1,000 kilometers to the west of Iran and therefore remains well within the range of an Iranian missile attack). A nuclear-enabled Iran would likely serve as the catalyst for launching nuclear development programs in many neighboring anti-western Middle-Eastern countries, many of which, like Iran, are state sponsors of terrorism and clearly fall within the region that the George W. Bush administration referred to as “the arc of instability.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Nevertheless, despite the stream of militant rhetoric and threats coming from Tehran, the Iranian government continues to claim that it is developing its nuclear program for civilian — and not military — purposes. However, evidence has revealed that Iran is continuing to enrich its uranium stockpiles well beyond the level required for civilian purposes such as power generation which the Iranian government purports to be its goal. That is despite the fact that Iran is home to close to 10% of the globe’s reserves of light sweet crude oil, a more-than-sufficient source of electrical power for Iran’s 74 million residents. In fact, enriching uranium to the level that is being undertaken by the Iranian regime can only serve one purpose: creating a nuclear weapon.

While the majority of those in the global intelligence, diplomatic and political professions are of the consensus that Iran continues to enrich uranium for the sole purpose of building a nuclear weapon, there is greater uncertainty about what might happen when Iran completes a nuclear bomb and about which delivery method or vehicle could be utilized to carry that nuclear weapon to a target. Some claim that the window of opportunity to prevent Iran from acquiring, and potentially using, a nuclear device against the target of its most virulent threats (Israel) may be wider than expected since, even if Iran were able to develop a working nuclear bomb, it would take years to develop an effective delivery system enabling Iran’s pre-existing ballistic missiles to carry a nuclear payload. While this technical difficulty may indeed be true, the window of opportunity to stunt the growth of Iran’s nuclear program is likely much narrower since a ballistic missile may well be the last method that the Iranians would use if they were to follow through on their threats to rid the Middle East of what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has recently called the “cancerous tumor” of Israel. The real threat lies in the delivery and detonation of an Iranian nuclear weapon in Israel through more subtle, covert and easier means — like the trunk of a car.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The Israeli government is well aware of this scenario and, unlike the current American administration, it appears to be more concerned about radioactive fallout from such a calamity rather than the political fallout that could damage an incumbent president’s re-election bid. The possibility of this worst case scenario is compelling the Israeli government and its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to consider unilaterally initiating a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities — even though such a risky military maneuver could not guarantee a collapse of Iran’s nuclear program.

While such a preemptive military strike would doubtless lead to war with Iran, the retaliatory actions that Iran has threatened to take, should such a strike be executed, would be more destructive than the strike itself. High-ranking Iranian government officials have been threatening for quite some time to close the Strait of Hormuz (the narrow corridor in the Persian Gulf through which nearly 20% of the world’s oil exports travel each day) should Israel or any other nation attack Iran. Such a move by Iran would be short-lived since it would undoubtedly attract the full brunt of the American military upon the much smaller and much less well-equipped Iranian naval and air forces. Nonetheless such action would cause an economically crippling price spike in global energy markets that would translate into higher prices for all consumer products and would stunt the anemic economic growth to which the Western world is clinging as it pulls itself out of the deep recession that began in the fall of 2008. Even if the Strait of Hormuz were closed just for a day, the sky would be the limit on global crude oil prices.

Such a spike in global oil prices would be unimaginably damaging to the global economy since oil still is — and will remain for the foreseeable future — the lifeblood of any modern economy. A substantial increase in the price of oil slows economic growth, raising the price of everything from bananas to patio furniture and, in so doing, reduces general consumer spending and confidence. Such a result would clearly undermine President Barack Obama’s bid for re-election.

 

Publisher speaks to Justin Trudeau’s Liberal leadership potential

September 14, 2012 10:08 am
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Sun TV News interview with OLM Publisher, Dan Donovan, on Liberal Leadership hopeful Justin Trudeau.

A Tale of Two Conventions: The Summer Campaign for the White House Draws to a Close

September 11, 2012 3:26 pm
Democratic National Convention

With both the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) now over, the American summer political season has officially drawn to a close. Last week’s DNC in Charlotte, North Carolina and the previous week’s Republican counterpart in Tampa, Florida offered both parties a three-to-four day opportunity to re-energize their political base and to redefine their party’s presidential candidate. The climax of each convention came when incumbent President Barack Obama as well as his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, spoke at length to make a direct, uninterrupted appeal to the millions of Americans watching on television. Each man explained how he would jumpstart the near-stagnant American economy as well as the direction in which he would steer the country as he forged four years worth of policies from behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

Pundits on both sides of the aisle will undoubtedly continue to argue that one convention (or one speech) was more effective than the other but the fact remains that, post convention, each party is simply hoping to gain and maintain the traditional bump in the polls. But this year’s presidential election race has proven time and again to be anything but traditional: given the razor-thin margin separating Obama and Romney, even the slightest boost in public opinion must be maintained at any cost. For example, President Obama’s national approval ratings are stuck below 50% (although he appears to be slightly ahead of Romney in many of the all important “swing states”) and he is still lagging behind Governor Romney in terms of who the American people think could do a better job turning around America’s sputtering economy.

Barack Obama delivering his speech at the Democratic National Convention

Of those Americans planning to vote in the November 6th Presidential election, most have probably already chosen their candidate and they will not alter their decision. Thus, the battle now rages for the small portion of the American public that is undecided and also for the handful of states that could flip to either party without warning (the aforementioned “swing states”). Both Obama and Romney intended to use their speeches to simultaneously appeal to their parties’ base and to entice these undecided “independent” voters to vote for them rather than for their opponent. This is no easy task to accomplish. Both Romney and Obama offered speeches that sought to redefine themselves positively while defining their opponent negatively, all the while outlining the direction in which their administration would take the country and describing the policy items and priorities that they would pursue. The last of these goals remains the most convoluted since both men delivered speeches that were heavy on rhetoric and platitudes but light on the specific details about how they would deal with the one thing that matters most to Americans in this election cycle: the economy.

In his speech to the stadium full of Republican delegates and media journalists, Romney was quick to frame himself as a pragmatic businessman with the private sector experience needed to turn around America’s ailing economy and also to frame the President as an inexperienced and resentful neophyte when it comes to managing the U.S. economy. On this topic he stated that, “And yet the centerpiece of the President’s reelection campaign is attacking success. Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression?” He then went on to characterize the President as an apologetic and ineffectual leader by stating that, “In America, we celebrate success. We don’t apologize for success.” Romney then invoked the spirit of Ronald Reagan by identifying that “The President cannot tell us that you’re better off today than when he took office,” a comment that harkens back to then candidate Ronald Reagan’s effective televised appeal to the American public during which, one week prior to his defeating incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Presidential election, Reagan asked, “It might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?” Romney also discussed the importance of returning America to a path of fiscal and economic prudence through addressing the nation’s crippling debt accumulation.

2012 Republican National Convention, Tampa, Florida, America - 30 Aug 2012

Romney hoped to draw a clear ideological line in the sand to separate his vision of the way that the American economic system should function from that advocated by the President and the Democratic Party. With this goal in mind, Romney stated that, “It doesn’t take a special government commission to tell us what America needs. What America needs is jobs. Lots of jobs.” He inferred that Obama has become fixated on issues that are less important to the majority of Americans and offered himself as a clear, common-sense alternative to the President by pointing out that, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” Romney proposed to help Americans and their families through a five-step plan to create 12 million new jobs within the next eight years. That said, aside from identifying the importance of making North America energy independent by taking full advantage of America’s vast hydrocarbon fuel sources, removing unnecessary barriers to the use of hydrocarbon fuels from Canada and Mexico, increasing the skills and training necessary for successfully competing in the increasingly competitive global economy and by “forging new trade agreements,” it should be said that the specifics about how these 12 million new jobs would be created were sparse.

A week later, President Obama also delivered a speech that too was heavy on rhetoric and light on details about what the second chapter of an Obama presidency would specifically entail. Near the beginning of his speech, Obama pointed out an undeniable fact about modern high-stakes political campaigning by noting that often, “The truth gets buried under an avalanche of money and advertising.” Yet, instead of offering the American public a clear idea of what he would pursue if given a second term, he tried to portray himself as an elder statesman representing a far different ideological perspective and vision for twenty-first centuryAmerica than that outlined by Romney.

Furthermore, Obama’s speech was full of words about what he has deemed to be his foreign policy triumphs but which largely ignored a detailed discussion of the domestic priorities that are the top concern of the American people, the most important being how to heal the American economy. On this topic, the President said little but he did stress the importance of “patience.” However, after four years of economic policies that have not substantially reduced America’s economic woes and with the release of yet another month’s worth of disappointing job reports last Friday, a new campaign slogan of “patience,” not to mention the previous election cycle’s “hope” and “change,” may not be palatable to a country that continues to be home to a mass of unemployed and underemployed voters representing more than double the total population of Greece.

 

Part Three: Horse Sense & Government Nonsense

July 30, 2012 9:02 am
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Public-Private Partnerships Are Not Subsidies

The Ontario government’s decision to end the Slots at Racetracks Program has a detrimental effect for Ontario’s vibrant horseracing and equine industries.

The McGuinty government’s decision to end the Slots at Racetracks Program has become a political football which has been kicked back and forth between the OLG, the Liberal government and the NDP (the Progressive Conservatives have been on the sidelines due to their decision to withhold support for the Ontario Budget even before it was announced), with no one party clearly wanting to deal with the consequences that ending the program would have for the province. The OLG’s play is summed up by their spokesman Tony Bitonti, who insists that “the implications for ending it fall into the camp of the government, since Slots at Racetracks is a government policy and we’re a Crown corporation, not a government body.”

The Liberal government’s play is to set up a straw man argument, presenting itself as making a tough but necessary choice between continuing to support the province’s health care and education systems or its horseracing industry, a clearly fictitious argument. Dwight Duncan’s spokesperson Aly Vitunski captures the government’s play by stating that “we are committed to the people in the industry, but there comes a point when it’s health care and education or horseracing. It’s unfortunate but we have to choose health care and education.” Health care and education on the one hand and horse racing on the other are not mutually exclusive. In fact, much of the McGuinty government’s 75 per cent share of the revenue generated from the Slots at Racetracks Program is allocated to providing generous support for health care and education in Ontario.

The example of one Ottawa-based racetrack demonstrates that the “either or” play used by the Liberal government does not stand up to scrutiny. Jean Larose, general manager of Ottawa’s Rideau Carleton Raceway, states that: “Since the Slots Program began, Rideau Carleton Raceway has generated $643 million for the provincial government that is specifically earmarked to be spent on health-care costs for all Ontarians. That represents the cost of nearly 80,000 hip replacements.”

Many in the industry view the panel and its $50 million fund as little more than an economic band-aid and an attempt by the government (and also the NDP) to show that they care about the 55,000 non-unionized industry workers.

It should also be noted that, on the issue of health care, the Ontario government has a less than sterling record. On Premier Dalton McGuinty and Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s watch, eHealth squandered more than $1 billion in taxpayers’ money on the province’s failed initiative to create electronic health records for Ontarians. And, earlier this year, it came to light that Ornge, the province’s not-for-profit air ambulance provider, lost more than $200 million of taxpayers’ money through mismanagement. Allegations of unsound business practices and questionable invest-ments, some unrelated to running an air ambulance service, were compounded by the fact that the number of patients transported by Ornge was steadily declining. But the funding Ornge received from the Ontario government increased rather than decreased. The McGuinty government claims that Ontario must act now and choose between, as Aly Vitunski said, “health care and education or horseracing.” Yet, in the case of Ornge, the government was informed of alleged wrongdoing long before it was finally forced to act. One might wonder why the government is now moving so quickly to terminate a successful revenue-sharing program like the Slots at Racetracks Program when it was in no hurry to deal with the Ornge debacle.

Andrea Horwath, the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, delegated the NDP’s play in the Slots at Racetracks political football game to NDP MPP Taras Natyshak, who has been the party’s point man on this issue. Representing the riding of Essex which is closely tied to the horseracing industry, Natyshak stated that “the Ontario government’s decision is not a prudent move and is fiscally irresponsible.” (…) “The provincial NDP as a whole disagree with the Premier and the Ontario government’s decision.” However, actions speak louder than words. When asked what exactly this statement meant and why the NDP abstained rather than vote against the Budget if it so strongly disagreed with the government’s decision, Natyshak responded that, “because the modernization initiative was spearheaded by a government agency, OLG, it did not rear its head in the context of the Budget. No amendments within the Budget could have been made by us to specifically address the OLG modernization initiative since the details of the initiative were absent and they were the prerogative of the OLG.”

Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP were prepared to vote against the Budget over wages for unionized government workers but would not do the same for the province’s horseracing and equine industry because of the OLG modernization plan’s lack of clarity and detail. Instead, the NDP claim to have won a victory for Ontario’s horseracing and equine industry by having secured the $50 million funding for the Horse Racing Transition Panel.

However, many in the industry view the panel and its $50 million fund as little more than an economic band-aid and an attempt by the government (and also the NDP) to show that they care about the 55,000 non-unionized industry workers. In politics, per-ception is reality. Across the aisle, Liberal Minister McMeekin says: “We in agriculture had nothing to do with the OLG decision. We discovered it about the same time as everyone else did.” And so the political football continues to be passed.

Many in the industry adamantly insist the government needs to realize it wrongly assumed that ending the Slots at Racetracks Program would adversely affect only the upper echelon of Canadian society.

Regardless of who assumes responsibility for ending the Slots Program, it is abundantly clear that the issue as a whole can be seen as symbolic of a predominantly urban-focused and urban-centric government being unable to understand a predominantly rural-based industry and way of life. As Dennis Mills puts it, “very few legislators understand how this industry works because most legislators are from cities” and they are unfamiliar with the horseracing and equine world. Ian Russell explains that many legislators who hail from Ontario’s cities have a preconceived notion that horseracing is a sport limited to Bay Street investment bankers and corporate lawyers who own and race thoroughbreds. This is not the case. “In fact, the majority of the tracks in Ontario race standardbred horses that are owned, trained, managed and raced by salt-of-the-earth, everyday Ontarians,” Russell says.

Many in the industry adamantly insist the government needs to realize it wrongly assumed that ending the Slots at Racetracks Program would adversely affect only the upper echelon of Canadian society. Or, as Anna Meyers explains, “the Ontario government needs to look at the whole province and not just the urban centres when it considers the implications for any decision it makes.” The argument could be made that this was not the case with its cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks Program.

Instead, the government suddenly and unilaterally ended a program that has allowed the horseracing and equine industry to thrive in Ontario. And, as Conservative Senator Bob Runciman points out, “a true cost-benefit analysis of ending the Slots at Racetracks Program has not yet been undertaken.” He goes on to state that the decision “doesn’t make any sense” because when a production line at an Oshawa automotive assembly plant is shut down with a loss of about 2,000 jobs, there is blanket coverage in the media. Yet, when the province’s entire horseracing and equine industry, accounting for some 55,000 jobs, is placed on life support by a hastily implemented government decision, there is very little coverage by the media.

The reasoning behind this event continues to defy logic. The McGuinty government’s past eHealth and Ornge boondoggles pale in comparison with the likely long-term loss of revenue and the number of Ontarians who will be forced to rely on unemployment or social welfare programs, given their industry-specific skills which are not easily transferable. The province’s unresearched and unpredictable decision to terminate the lucrative Slots at Racetracks Program will have lasting consequences. Senator Runciman sums this up by stating that “maybe the original contract and revenue-sharing agreement should have been updated or renegotiated, but to blindside everyone by unilaterally ending the program without even doing a cost-benefit analysis speaks volumes about the unpreparedness and hastiness of this government.”

The Slots at Rideau Carleton Raceway generated $52 million for the City of Ottawa, which the city has said helps keep annual municipal property tax increases lower.

The impact of that questionable decision will be felt by more than the 55,000 Ontario workers who are part of the horseracing and equine industry with its web of ancillary businesses. The province’s horse tracks are not just the workplaces of jockeys, trainers, and farriers – nor do they simply provide a venue for the leisure of gamblers and spectators. The tracks also serve as meeting places for people from all walks of life. For instance, Ottawa’s Rideau Carleton Raceway has been the home of the Gloucester Fair for the past 13 years. Every year, the Raceway hosts fundraising events for more than 100 charities and businesses, as well as the annual events of several embassies.

It is also worth noting that much of the revenue that has been raised from the 14-year-old Slots Program is being put to use outside the tracks themselves. The Rideau Carleton Raceway’s general manager Jean Larose explains that: “The Slots at Rideau Carleton Raceway generated $52 million for the City of Ottawa which the city has said helps keep annual municipal property tax increases lower.” Thus, even city dwellers will feel the impact of the Slot Program’s termination as more of the province’s horseracing tracks will be forced to call off all bets and close down. Ultimately, the termination of the Slots at Racetracks Program will be a great loss to Ontario and to Canada as a whole because as Dennis Mills notes, “there’s no other product in Canada that has the global sports presence and the tourism reach of horseracing in Ontario, but a lot of city people don’t know this.”

Many Ontarians who live in rural areas are well aware of the importance of the province’s horseracing industry, the third largest of its kind in North America. Dr. Garth Henry is one of those people. He has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in building and operating his veterinary practice and horse training facility and is very conscious of the negative effect that cancellation of the Slots Program will have for his business and for his employees.

Dr. Henry states that when the program ends on March 31, 2013, “the Hamstan Farm’s training facility will be shut down overnight and the 13 people who work there will be unemployed immediately.” As will doubtless be the case for similar businesses in Ontario’s horseracing and equine industry, the future does not look rosy for the 100-acre Hamstan Farm. It will become the victim of an urban-centric government that is seeking to reduce its $15-billion deficit at the expense of the Slots at Racetracks Program.

Part Two: Horse Sense & Government Nonsense

July 27, 2012 4:43 pm
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Public-Private Partnerships Are Not Subsidies

The Ontario government’s decision to end the Slots at Racetracks Program has a detrimental effect for Ontario’s vibrant horseracing and equine industries.

This is a serious problem with major ramifications. Dennis Mills, the former Liberal MP whose web site Racing Future builds awareness of Ontario’s horseracing and equine industries, points out that the industry is considered to be one of the top three in the world. He states that: “Our province has a horseracing industry that is of similar calibre to that of the United States (home to the renowned Kentucky Derby) and England (which hosts the world-famous Royal Ascot).” High-profile Canadian races like the Queen’s Plate, North America’s longest-running annual horse race, are broadcast and webcast worldwide with betting from all corners of the globe. Furthermore, Ontario has become the world’s premier harness racing destination. As a result of this importance, Ontario horseracing “is an industry that represents a huge valuable export market for Canada in terms of horses, trainers, equipment and expertise,” Mills states.

Terminating the Slots at Racetracks Program threatens the very existence of this enviable industry. As Jane Holmes vice-president of corporate affairs at the Woodbine Entertainment Group, owner of the Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto  states: “You may see horseracing survive in Ontario, but it certainly will not be the international sport that it is today.” There will also be a negative impact on the purse for races. Holmes says that even “if we have enough money to survive, the purse for the surviving races will simply be too small to sustain the sport.” Put differently, without the program, the purse money will not cover the high costs associated with breeding, training, feeding, maintaining and racing a horse in Ontario. This is crucial, because over 60 per cent of the horseracing industry’s take from its share of slot machine revenue is used to pay for purses.

As Robert Wright, the former lead veterinarian for Equine and Alternative Livestock at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and publisher of the Horse News and Views web site, explains: “Horse owners receive their share of the Slot revenue through money added to the purses and they reinvest these winnings in the local economy, purchasing everything from feed and bedding to vehicles and trailers.” Owning and maintaining a single horse costs upwards of $20,000 annually and “a reduction in purses trickles down to lower spending power.” As a result, certain rural communities that depend on this spending for their existence will likely disappear.

Ontario horseracing “is an industry that represents a huge valuable export market for Canada in terms of horses, trainers, equipment and expertise,”-Dennis Mills

Ending the long-standing program also threatens the viability of the many industries that help support the horseracing industry. The most immediate of these is the heart and soul of the equine industry: the breeding industry — and it is particularly hard hit by the decision to end the Slots Program. Anna Meyers (of the Standardbred Breeders of Ontario Association) captures the essence of the problem by stating that “with the government’s decision, there will be a ripple effect that will be felt across the province.” But that ripple effect will likely be first felt by Ontario’s horse breeders since, as she explains: “Breeders need almost five years of lead time to respond to changing market forces.” Because the breeders were not forewarned about the cancellation of the program, they did not have the required lead time to compensate for the sudden lack of demand for race-ready horses arising from the cancellation. To make matters worse, “breeders in Ontario are sitting on roughly three years worth of horses due to the timing of the birth to yearling sales to racing process.”

Because of the prevailing climate of uncertainty, the breeding of mares and the sales of yearlings have dropped off more than 40 per cent since the program’s termination was announced, according to Robert Wright. Anna Meyers explains that not only have breeders’ sales been cut in half, but clients are refusing to pay stud fees and many of the mares that were boarded in Ontario have left the province for safer breeding markets with stable sire stakes programs.

A similar story can be told of Ontario’s veterinary industry. Like doctors, veterinarians have different specialties and areas of practice. Because of the stature of Ontario’s horseracing industry, Ontario has some of the most sophisticated and renowned equine veterinarians and veterinary facilities in North America. However, after the Slots Program is discontinued, things may very well change.

As Dr. Garth Henry, a long-time practicing equine veterinarian who owns the Russell Equine Veterinary Service located just outside Ottawa in Russell and owner of Hamstan Farm, one of the premier horseracing training facilities in eastern Ontario explains, “access to equine veterinary treatment in the province will decline substantially” as a result of the government’s decision. There will simply be a much smaller demand for the services provided by equine veterinarians. Dr. Henry states that this will lead to a “mass exodus of Ontario’s equine veterinarians,” the majority of whom will likely be forced to relocate their practices to American states like Kentucky, New Jersey and Pennsylvania which are less likely to discriminate against the horseracing and equine industries.

The farming industry in Ontario has also suffered from the Liberal government’s sudden cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks Program.

The farming industry in Ontario has also suffered from the Liberal government’s sudden cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks Program. Mark Wales, President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), states that “a lot of our members supply hay and oats to those who breed horses in Ontario” and that the demand for feed rises and falls with the demand for horses. Mark Wales notes that many of Ontario’s farmers will need to adjust their business models and explains that: “Farmers selling oats, hay and straw for racing will have to switch their crops to sell more crops that aren’t as dependent on the equine industry. This will represent a substantial loss of market for hay, oats and straw.”

Changing the staple crops a farmer grows is an expensive process and can be particularly difficult for those who have specialized in equine-specific crops and who may lack the skill sets and resources required to change.

In June, the Ontario government created its face-saving Horse Racing Industry Transition Panel in an attempt to find a way to ensure the survival of the horseracing and equine industry post-March 31, 2013. The panel is chaired by three knowledgeable former politicians representing the three provincial parties: Elmer Buchanan (NDP), John Snobelen (PC) and John Wilkinson (Liberal). They are tasked with creating a meaningful dialogue with the Ontario horseracing and equine industry to smooth the transition from the “dependency” of the Slots Program to what is deemed a “more sustainable” business model.

The panel has $50 million and three years to accomplish this task. Yet, the viable business model in question must be implemented before this September’s yearling sales, without which the remaining 50 per cent of Ontario’s breeding industry would likely collapse and the horseracing industry would be as defunct as Quebec’s. But even if the panel is able to reach a relevant conclusion, what will the horseracing and equine industry be able to transition to?

As Sue Leslie says on behalf of the OHRIA: “The panel and the broader provincial government need to understand that the industry is not looking for a way to transition out of existence. It is looking for a way to transition to a more sustainable but still profitable business model. I don’t see the government reversing its position and therefore it will be a huge challenge to adopt to this environment, a challenge which is simply impossible to overcome in a mere three years.”

Undoubtedly, the horseracing and equine industry knows that the stakes couldn’t be any higher. And, as Elmer Buchanan says on behalf of the panel, “we are well aware that we have a short timeline.” However, Buchanan feels that there should be a new model for the industry whose “dependency on the increased slot revenue happened by accident.”

Although some in the industry are hopeful that the panel can reach an agreeable, realistic and tenable conclusion and create a business plan with input from industry members, that remains to be seen.

Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Ted McMeekin (now responsible for the phasing out of the Slots Program) explains what he sees as one of the biggest problems with the current program by stating that the industry “needs a path that allows it to function without being artificially propped up by the revenue from slot machines.” Although McMeekin represents the riding of Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, a riding which is home to many horse farms and to Flamboro Downs, one of the province’s most popular racetracks, his description of Ontario’s horseracing industry as being “artificially propped up” is reminiscent of the flawed reasoning of Finance Minister Dwight Duncan who does not seem to understand that the Slots at Racetracks Program is a public-private revenue-sharing program and not a subsidy.

Nevertheless, Minister McMeekin’s vision for the new business model is “a model that won’t require artificially propping up the horseracing industry and that will have roughly 60 per cent of what the industry used to be, albeit running more efficiently.” This will likely be difficult to translate into reality given both the time constraints and the paltry $50 million allocated for this process. As Anna Meyers notes, “that $50 million doesn’t even begin to cover the losses that the breeding industry alone faced this year.”

Ian Russell explains why many in the industry view the transition panel as a toothless paper tiger by stating that “$50 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the billion plus dollars the industry generates for the province every year under the Slots Program.” In fact, Ed McHale of the NCRHHA is quick to point of that “the $50 million would be enough to cover the purse money at Ottawa’s Rideau Carleton Raceway but not the other tracks in the province as well.” Russell sums up the frustration felt by many in the industry when he says that “the panel is merely a way for the government to deflect criticism that it is ignoring the consequences its decision will have for the horseracing and equine industries.”

Although some in the industry are hopeful that the panel can reach an agreeable, realistic and tenable conclusion and create a business plan with input from industry members, that remains to be seen. But the buck stops with the transition panel because, as Buchanan says: “We’re not going to come out with a Plan B.” Aside from the limited funding allocated to the panel, each day that goes by without a viable new plan pushes Ontario’s once vibrant industry closer to collapse and the Ontarians who work in it closer to the unemployment line.

Continued in Part Three: Horse Sense & Government Nonsense 

Part One: Horse Sense & Government Nonsense

July 26, 2012 4:34 pm
mare-and-foal_0

Public-Private Partnerships Are Not Subsidies

The Ontario government’s decision to end the Slots at Racetracks Program has a detrimental effect for Ontario’s vibrant horseracing and equine industries.

THE COMEDIAN GROUCHO MARX ONCE COMMENTED that: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” That observation may well describe the Ontario government’s decision to abruptly end the Slots at Racetracks Program, a successful revenue-sharing program that has, for almost 15 years, mutually benefited the government, the horseracing and equine industries and many small towns in rural Ontario.

The vehicle for the Ontario government’s unexpected decision was its March 27, 2012 Budget when Finance Minister Dwight Duncan rose to his feet at Queen’s Park and unveiled the document entitled Strong Action for Ontario. It outlined how Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government would eliminate the province’s massive $15-billion deficit within the next five years. Ontario horsemen, jockeys, breeders, equine suppliers, black-smiths, saddlers, veterinarians and farmers had no warning that contained within the 332-page document was a proposed initiative named Modernizing the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), which would eliminate the Slots at Racetracks Program by March 31, 2013, threatening the sustainability of the industry and a large segment of Ontario’s agricultural industry that it supports.

Since its inception in 1998, the Slots at Racetracks Program earned Ontario roughly a billion dollars in revenue every single year.

Since its provincial government-initiated inception in 1975, the OLG has been the Crown corporation responsible for running Ontario’s gaming industry, ranging from the sale of lottery and bingo tickets to the oversight of Ontario’s many resort casinos. Betting on the horses has been a time-honoured practice in Ontario since before Confederation, but, with the introduction of the Slots Program in 1998, horseracing became more closely tied to the gaming industry. The Budget initiative’s plan to remove slot machines from racetracks will undoubtedly loosen those ties. But why would their removal deliver such a crippling blow to the horseracing and equine industry, the second largest sub-sector of Ontario’s agricultural economy? The answer can be found in first identifying why OLG and the Ontario government put slot machines at the racetracks in the first place and also how the program functioned for the past
14 years.

Under a revenue-sharing agreement, profits from slot machines located at the tracks were split among the government, the horseracing and equine industry and the rural municipalities where the slot machines were located. The government received 75 per cent of every dollar spent at a provincial track and the industry got 10 per cent for wages and employment purposes. An additional 10 per cent was distributed to the racetracks to augment the purses of prize money, to maintain the tracks and for renovations. The final 5 per cent went to the rural municipalities. The subtext of the initial implementation of the Slots at Racetracks Program reveals a financial olive branch offered to the horseracing industry and a calculated conclusion based on social perception.

In the 1990s, knowing that slot machines were a crucial source of revenue, the OLG and the government needed to find an appropriate venue to expand the use of slots beyond Ontario’s numerous pre-existing casino facilities. Social perception made this a difficult task, since many Ontarians were reluctant to have new gambling facilities anywhere near where they lived. The province’s racetracks soon came to be seen as the appropriate place for the excess slot machines. As Ian Russell – president of Canada’s largest equine supplier, Greenhawk Harness and Equestrian Supplies Inc. – explains, “[the] racetracks are already located in socially acceptable places for gambling to occur.” Ed McHale, who serves as director of the National Capital Region Harness Horse Association (NCRHHA), offers the Ottawa-area perspective on this same issue by noting that: “Nobody wanted the slots anywhere and they decided that the best place (because they had nowhere else to put them) was the racetracks.” Yet there was another reason that the province’s newly expanded slot facilities found what many thought would be a permanent home at the province’s racetracks: a compromise with the horseracing industry.

Anna Meyers, president of the Standardbred Breeders of Ontario Association, identifies the compromise offered to the racing industry by the OLG in 1998 by stating that “we knew with the introduction of slot machines at racetracks, there would be some cannibalization of the wagers placed on the horses involved in horseracing, but we also knew that the revenue-sharing element of the Slots at Racetracks Program could also raise a lot of money both for the horseracing industry and the province.”

Or, as John Macmillan, executive director of NCRHHA, puts it: “We thought we could play off of one another, allowing both horseracing (through bets placed on horses) and the slot machines to be profitable. We felt that it would even out, because whatever revenue the industry lost through reduced wagers placed on horses due to the presence of the slot machines would be offset by the share of revenue kept from the slot machines.” And, as the results demonstrate, these two competing forms of gambling were able to “play off of one another” for quite some time.

The Ontario government and OLG have attempted to rationalize their decision to end the Program on purely economic grounds.

Since its inception in 1998, the Slots at Racetracks Program earned Ontario roughly a billion dollars in revenue every single year, most of which was gladly accepted by the province to help pay for essential services. In fact, between 2001 and 2011, after OLG commissions and expenses were deducted, the program delivered over $9 billion in revenue to the province. Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars from the horseracing industry’s portion of the lucrative revenue-sharing agreement were reinvested in the horseracing community. In 2010 alone, the industry received $334 million from its share of the Slots Program. That $334 million was split down the middle between the horse owners, racers, trainers and breeders on the one hand, and the racetracks on the other hand.

However, the $334 million pales in comparison with the approximately $2.3 billion the industry spent in Ontario that same year. Most of the $2.3 billion was spent in rural communities, stimulating the local economy through the purchase of services like training and grooming or goods like saddles, trucks, trailers and gasoline. All of these essential goods and services, part of the cost of doing business in Ontario’s thriving horseracing and equine industry, provided additional tax revenue for Ontario. But with the delivery of the Ontario Budget on that cold day in March, and its passage on the first day of summer three months later, the fate of the Slots at Racetracks Program was officially sealed.

The Ontario government and OLG have attempted to rationalize their decision to end the Program on purely economic grounds. They maintain that it is a necessary first step in the modernization initiative which will promote economic efficiency in the province’s gaming industry and will help reduce the province’s unsustainably high deficit. However, the reasoning simply does not add up. On page 39 of the Ontario Budget, it is stated that the modernization initiative will further benefit the province since it “will create 2,300 net new jobs in the gaming industry and nearly 4,000 additional jobs in the hospitality and retail sector by 2017-18.” While this may seem positive, closer examination reveals that it requires a tradeoff that is less-than-beneficial for Ontario.

The Budget speaks of “public sector investment” that will be reduced while still allowing the province’s gaming industry to make more revenue “through shifting day-to-day operations of gaming sites and lottery distribution to private operations.” Is this realistic? Bear in mind that this “public-sector investment” of about $345 million between 2011 and 2012 (and the cumulative total of roughly $3.7 billion that made its way to the horseracing industry from 1998 to date) is not a “subsidy”, as Dwight Duncan has said in the past. It represents the horseracing industry’s portion of the revenue accumulated under the Slots at Racetracks Program, a revenue-sharing agreement, not a “subsidy.”

“There’s an absolute genuine possibility that there will not be horseracing in Ontario in two or three years from now,” says Sue Leslie.

Will the modernization initiative’s plan raise more revenue than is now being generated by the current revenue-sharing program when the revenue provided by the OLG’s lottery and bingo operations has remained largely stagnant and that generated from charity and resort casinos has declined? Nevertheless, OLG’s modernization initiative projects that by eliminating the Slots Program, its most profitable revenue stream, and by further developing gaming operations which have historically returned less revenue to OLG and the province, net revenues will increase by more than $500 million by 2015. OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti explained how this paradoxical situation could be plausible by claiming that: “At the moment, it may be true that the bulk of revenue in the gaming industry comes from slots, but the demographics are changing. More and more people are becoming interested in table games.” Maybe so, but the OLG’s own data seems to show that the resort and charity casinos that provide a cross-section of slot machines and table games continue to see their revenue decline.

Perhaps the answer can be found in the cautionary tale of Quebec’s experiment with revenue restructuring in its gaming industry which led to a nightmare scenario that could be repeated in Ontario — but at a higher risk of 55,000 jobs lost. In 2006, Quebec’s horseracing industry undertook a revenue-restructuring initiative that resulted in the total collapse of the province’s horseracing industry and a near-death experience for the province’s equine industry two years later. The plan was to privatize the horseracing industry by allowing a private sector company called Attractions Hippiques to install Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) in restaurants and bars while removing many of the existing VLTs from the province’s tracks and restricting Off-Track Betting. These actions, coupled with mismanagement, led to an inability to generate sufficient revenue through diversification and the subsequent bankruptcy of Attractions Hippiques. The horseracing and equine industries disintegrated almost overnight. Today, there remains only about 13 per cent of the pre-2006 jobs in Quebec’s horseracing and breeding industry. While VLTs were found in 6 per cent of Quebec’s tracks, slot machines are now present at (but will shortly be removed from) 100 per cent of Ontario tracks. The stakes could hardly be higher or the fallout worse from the sudden removal of the slots, because 10 per cent of their revenue had been kept by each track under the Slots Program.

The OLG and Ontario government predict that the modernization initiative will increase job opportunities for the gaming and hospitality industries. This is an attempt to divert attention away from the fact that, by adding some 6,000 jobs in five or six years’ time, Ontario risks sacrificing its horseracing and equine industries, as well as their satellite industries which employ about 55,000 Ontarians in full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs. The government position is perplexing since the modernization initiative has already caused 560 layoffs when the slots operations in Sarnia, Windsor and Fort Erie were closed down in April.

When speaking about the direct implications of the McGuinty government’s sudden decision, Sue Leslie, who serves as the President of the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association (OHRIA), the organization which is the voice of horse racing in the province, captured the urgency of the situation by stating that, “there’s an absolute genuine possibility that there will not be horse racing in Ontario in two or three years from now.” John Macmillan from the NCRHHA elaborates on the fallout of the government’s decision by noting that, “there has been almost no investment in horse racing in Ontario since the ending of the Slots at Racetracks Program was announced in March.”

Continued in Part Two: Horse Sense & Government Nonsense 

“Changing the Conversation”: Campaign Distractions on the Road to the White House

July 23, 2012 9:00 am
Don Draper

In an episode of Mad Men, the popular series set in the early 1960s, Madison Avenue advertising executive Don Draper offers this advice to a colleague: “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.” This dictum is not limited to the realm of advertising.

Last week’s coverage of the American presidential campaign, shows that both Democrat and Republican political operatives are attempting to use the tactic to reframe the November election in a way which favors their candidate and diminishes his opponent. But one party appears to be doing a better job than the other in “changing the conversation.”

As election day approaches in a presidential contest which will likely be the most significant since the pivotal 1860 election (in terms of establishing the general trajectory of the country and what it means to be American). Both incumbent President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney no longer appear to be running issues-based campaigns.

If Obama were to “change the conversation” of the campaign to divert attention away from both these issues and also from his past performance, he would have a better chance of winning a second term.

Here are the issues: America is saddled with an almost unrepayable deficit, an array of unsustainably expensive social welfare programs which are decades overdue for reform, an overly complicated 71,000 page tax code, a near-stagnant economy with a weakening job market and a looming budget crisis which, if unaddressed, will raise interest rates to crippling levels and trigger massive automatic spending cuts that will damage the nation’s credibility and the global economy. Instead of hearing both Romney and Obama discussing how to right these wrongs and how to restore the country’s competitive edge in the increasingly interconnected global economy, they have “changed the conversation.”

Obama has done so out of necessity. As the incumbent president, he wears the steady stream of bad economic news and likely knows that offering credible plans to address these crucial issues requires him to first acknowledge their existence. He therefore risks being portrayed by the media as a president who, throughout a four-year term of office, did not deal with these issues as America moved ever-faster towards the fiscal and socio-political cliff. If the election were to be a referendum on his performance on these issues and also on the ideological trajectory he implemented in those four years, he would undoubtedly lose the November 6th election. However, if he were to “change the conversation” of the campaign to divert attention away from both these issues and also from his past performance, he would have a better chance of winning a second term. The issue which has allowed him to do so has been Mitt Romney’s business record.

Romney has spent most of the week staying off-message and defending his private sector business record against virulent allegations by the Obama campaign that Romney’s tenure as the chief executive officer (CEO) of the private equity and venture capital firm Bain Capital in the 1990s resulted in countless hostile takeovers, the shuttering of many American businesses and the exporting of thousands of American jobs overseas. Furthermore, the Obama campaign accuses Romney of committing a felony, claiming that, for three years following his 1999 departure from Bain to serve as the CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Romney still controlled Bain. Since Romney’s name appears on a variety of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) documents between 1999 and 2002, the Obama campaign claims that Romney was illegally operating Bain Capital after he had formally resigned. The Obama campaign ignores the fact that it is not unusual for the names of former executives to remain on SEC disclosure forms for a number of years as a company formally vets and brings the replacement CEO up-to-speed on the inner workings and complexities of the position he or she inherits. This process may have taken longer than usual at Bain Capital since Romney’s departure in 1999 occurred without much warning and other executives at Bain had little time to prepare the transition given Romney’s absence.

The Obama campaign accuses Romney of committing a felony, claiming that, for three years following his 1999 departure from Bain to serve as the CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Romney still controlled Bain.

Furthermore, Romney has also been off-message for quite some time due to the controversy raised by his refusal to release a more extensive selection of his annual income tax returns. There may be a number of reasons why he has refused to release income tax returns that predate the legally required two years preceding the election date. One reason may be that they will reveal that he consistently made a substantial amount of money, thereby reinforcing Obama’s definition of Romney and the Republicans as the candidate and party of extreme wealth, out of touch with the majority of Americans. All accusations of class warfare aside, it is undeniably true that Romney’s estimated personal wealth of about $250 million marks him as a rich man, but it is important to remember that he is not the only wealthy man ever to have run for election in America.

President John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., served as the Chairman of the SEC despite the fact that he made a large portion of his fortune through insider trading and market manipulation tactics like “bear raiding” and “pumping and dumping” albeit before these tactics were technically illegal. He would eventually rise to the position of United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom in the final years before the Second World War. Between the 1920s and his death in 1969, Joseph Kennedy made roughly $500 million which he contributed to the family war chest. Adjusted for inflation, in today’s dollars, that $500 million would represent well over $3 billion. When his son John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, there were no accusations that the Democrat was out of touch with the majority of Americans due to his family’s extreme personal wealth. It is worth noting that, even as early as 1935 during the height of the Great Depression, the Kennedys had a net worth of at least $180 million dollars, or $3 billion in today’s money, a sum which is approximately 11 times the net worth of Mitt Romney.

During the height of the Great Depression, the Kennedys had a net worth of at least $180 million dollars, or $3 billion in today’s money, a sum which is approximately 11 times the net worth of Mitt Romney.

Another reason Romney may be hesitating to release a more extensive array of tax returns could be that they would show that much of his annual income was accumulated through investments which carry far lower tax rates than does income tax in the USA. This could increase the criticism that he, and many wealthy individuals like him, pay tax rates which are disproportionately too low. That characterization would further hamper his ability to break free of the Obama campaign’s framing of him as being out of touch with ordinary Americans. Instead of skirting around these issues, Romney should take a page from Don Draper’s book and “change the conversation.”

To get his campaign back on track and back on message, Romney should release more annual tax returns and confront the Bain Capital accusations head on. He should address the lower tax rates he benefited from under the US Tax Code and also remind the American public about the large charitable donations he makes as a form of socially responsible compensation for his lower tax rates. For example, in 2010 alone, Romney gave 14% of his income to charity while two years before winning the presidency Obama donated 6.1% of his income. Obama’s future running mate, now Vice-President, Joe Biden only gave a paltry 0.15% of his 2006 income to charity. Romney should then change the conversation of his campaign to a discussion of how the Obama presidency has not lived up to confronting the challenges which could cripple the United States of America in the twenty-first century. He must then redefine himself as the man who offers a business-based approach in dealing with these challenges, in stark contrast to the community-organizing sitting president. The point should be made that rhetoric can no longer suffice and that appropriate, measured and tangible policies (which he, Romney, can offer) are what is needed for America to survive in the brave new globalized world.

Disabilities in Public Life

July 9, 2012 4:01 pm
President Kennedy in a rare 1961 photograph

Fifty-two years ago, in 1960, Massachusetts Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy threw his hat into the ring as a presidential contender. In November of that same year, at the age of 43,  Kennedy would be elected as the United States of America’s 35th president thanks to a combination of his father’s wealth and political connections, his own oratorical skill as well as his ability to convince the American people that he could reform Washington. He would do so by implementing what he called the “New Frontier,” a modern and more accommodating foreign and domestic policy agenda which, amongst other things, sought to end partisan bickering and gridlock in Washington, to minimize poverty and to beat the USSR in the space race. In the eyes of many, the young, vigorous and photogenic president himself appeared to be the perfect man to steer America towards its New Frontier of progressivism. However, few Americans knew that behind the thin veneer of publicly-projected vigour was a man who was anything but healthy.

Jack Kennedy, as he liked to the called, suffered from debilitating back pain which resulted from injuries he sustained when his torpedo boat PT109 was rammed and sank during the Second World War. Between the end of the war and the beginning of his presidency, he underwent two serious back surgeries that nearly left him crippled. For the rest of his life, Kennedy would be in severe physical pain and would often require the use of crutches to move around the White House, not to mention daily dosages of medication to keep his chronic pain under control as he conducted the nation’s business. To make matters worse, he also spent his entire life battling Addison’s disease, a disease which severely lowers the ability of one’s immune system to fight off infection. But Americans were unaware of their president’s physical frailty since Kennedy refused to allow the press to photograph him on crutches for fear that, if the public knew that he was not the healthy man he projected, he would be rejected by the American people and seen as weak and vulnerable by America’s enemies.

President Roosevelt in one of the few known photographs that exposes his disability.

Kennedy was not the first president to hide his ailments from both the press and the public. Another Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s only four-term president, spent the second half of his life paralyzed and wheelchair-bound from contracting polio at the age of thirty-nine. When Roosevelt ran for the presidency in 1932, he too took every measure possible to hide his disability from the American people fearing that they would not elect a president who could not walk. For instance, he wore special leg braces which allowed him to stand upright. He would arrive at the podium to deliver a speech well in advance of any spectators and would not move away from the podium until well after the last of the press and the audience had left the venue, thereby preventing the American public from seeing that he could not walk. In order to convince Americans that he was not disabled but healthy, Roosevelt drove a car in which the gas, brake and clutch pedals were secretly operated by hand levers hidden below the window line. And, of course, he too refused to allow the press to see him in his wheelchair or from any vantage point that revealed his leg braces. For the most part, like Kennedy, Roosevelt’s strategy worked. Very few pictures of him revealed his disability and, as the saying goes, the public cannot know what the press doesn’t see.

American presidents are not alone in going to great lengths to hide their health problems from the public in the fear that being handicapped or ill could translate into a political drawback on election day or an unfavorable perception in the court of public opinion. For instance, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Diana, the late Princess of Wales, suffered from manic-depressive disorder, anorexia and bulimia. It is alleged that she cut herself numerous times and flirted with suicide on several occasions. Yet, aside from her admitting publicly that she had suffered from “eating disorders” in the past, very few knew that the Princess had many more serious psychological problems. The Royal Family made every effort to prevent this information from becoming public knowledge and it remained confidential for more than a decade after her death in 1997.

American First Ladies have also hidden their illnesses and disabilities from the public for fear their health problems would reflect poorly upon the approval ratings of the president. For instance, Ida McKinley, the wife of Republican William McKinley, who served as the President of the United States at the turn of the twentieth-century, suffered from epilepsy. She was rarely photographed candidly and, when she had a seizure, the president would quickly cover his wife’s face with his handkerchief in an effort to hide the effects of her seizure from any witnesses but also to calm her down since, in her case, darkness helped to alleviate the symptoms of the seizure. But if Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney wins this November’s presidential election, the historical pattern of public figures and their spouses hiding their disabilities or illnesses will be over.

Ann Romney has broken with tradition by refusing to hide her health problems from the public.

Ann Romney has broken with tradition by refusing to hide her health problems from the public. Fourteen years ago, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease that strikes close to half a million Americans and which wages war on the body’s immune system and erodes the protective covering of nerve bundles in the spinal cord. It is a disease which can be treated but not cured. Multiple Sclerosis leads to extreme pain, muscular rigidity, severe exhaustion and possibly paralysis. While on the campaign trail with her husband, in a number of high-profile interviews with leading American newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, Ann Romney recently openly discussed her struggle with MS and how the disease has affected her life. She is adamant about eliminating the taboo that disabilities still carry in political life — albeit now to a much lesser degree than in the era of both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Times have changed and, today, ordinary citizens living with a disability or chronic disease no longer always seek to hide that reality under a cloak of false normalcy. Why should it be any different for a public figure?

Welcome to Rowdy Beach! Bay of Constance Sorrow: Frustrated Residents, Powerless Police and Drunks on the Beach

July 3, 2012 4:00 pm
Constance Bay 8

John Nightingale’s hands shake as he grabs his cell phone from the lawn table. Drops of sweat appear on his forehead. Nightingale dials the police and reports that he was threatened by drunks on his property when he asked them to put their dogs on a leash.

The temperature is sky-high, and so is the tension at Constance Bay’s Point Beach.

It is not even June, and yet dozens of visitors occupy the beach. Loud music erupts from one of the boats nearby. Even though there are “No Stopping, No Alcohol, No Walking after Sunset” signs posted beside every property, young people amble about with beers in their hands. A bottle of Smirnoff Vodka is the favoured beverage of another group of teenagers.

Even though there are “No Stopping, No Alcohol, No Walking after Sunset” signs posted beside every property, young people amble about with beers in their hands.

Point Beach is privately owned. Underaged youth freely consume alcohol, smoke, litter and party like it’s 1999. Dogs run free off their leashes. “Effing” is a word often heard here.

The main reason this situation is allowed to continue is the inability of beach owners, the president of the Constance and Buckham’s Bay Community Association (CBBCA), the West Carleton-March city councillor Eli El-Chantiry and the Ottawa Police Service to deal with the deplorable state of affairs that has been ongoing at Point Beach for years. Instead, all sides are just pointing fingers at each other.

While waiting for the police to arrive, Nightingale explains: “It’s nerves.” He is angry that he and his neighbours must deal with drunken parties for yet another summer.

Nightingale’s cottage is just a few meters away from the bank of the Ottawa River. Eight other neighbours own a beach strip to the water’s edge. In the city subdivision, their property is designated as Plan 412.

In 1862, the Crown granted these residents a land patent; a notation to the plan says the property extends to the shoreline. In 1984, West Carleton Township confirmed that it is indeed a private property. As questions were raised about the boundaries of the ownership, the police force sought a legal opinion. In 2010, the City solicitor concluded that property of Plan 412 extends to the water’s edge at low mark.

John Nightingale, 54, is the youngest among other retired residents. He became a leader and a representative of his neighbours in their plight to convince the police, the city and the community to enforce bylaws.

Joyce Nightingale joined forces with her neighbour John by agreeing to talk to Ottawa Life, though both residents confess they have lost faith in local media. Many articles have been written about this situation, but little action has been taken.

“This is a rowdy beach. This is where crap happens.”

When people from the city realized that the beach was private and free of oversight, they began advertising through Facebook and Twitter that it was a “beach without rules.”

In the past, they shared their beach with community residents. But, when people from the city realized that the beach was private and free of oversight, they began advertising through Facebook and Twitter that it was a “beach without rules.”

Elderly couples and young families have started avoiding the place, preferring to go to other public beaches on Constance Bay. On one hot day, the owners counted as many as 600 people – far beyond Point Beach’s capacity.

As we spoke, the music drowned out our conversation. Asked how they can tolerate such loud noise, both neighbours laughed bitterly.

“That music is nothing – you should hear it when it gets really loud!” Sometimes, John Nightingale says, the music is so loud that his cottage shakes.

“Boom! Boom!,” Joyce Nightingale imitates. “It’s wild! We are not exaggerating! It’s just nuts!”

Joyce Nightingale gave up approaching the partygoers, asking them to turn the music down. She says it makes her “very upset” when young people under the influence of alcohol become aggressive and rude. Once she approached a drunk, and his response was: “See this? It’s sand, you bitch. Get in your house and leave us alone.” Another time, Joyce says, she asked wayward youth to take their empty beer and liquor bottles home. She faced a middle finger; bottles were left there, stuck in the sand.

It doesn’t end with verbal abuse and threats, says John Nightingale. Some people will occupy his driveway, and while passing through his yard, grab his lawn chairs.

John Nightingale says the police officers don’t always respond in a timely manner.

John Nightingale says the police officers don’t always respond in a timely manner. Last June, he made a call at 4:15 p.m. when he saw a drunken trespasser’s dog chasing a neighbour’s cat. Next morning, the neighbour across the street said she saw a police car arrive after 10 p.m. It pulled into John Nightingale’s driveway, remained there for five minutes and left. Nightingale was surprised that the officer didn’t even knock on his door because he was still waiting; his lights were still on.

Police: “We are pawns here.”

This time, Constable Kevin Myers and Constable Mark Lystiuk arrived in 45 minutes.

Cst. Myers kept asking what John Nightingale wanted him to do. Nightingale said he wants drunks removed from the beach, and even though it is a private beach, the young folk are welcome to use it if they bring no alcohol.

“John, here is the thing. Now, you know, you got the letter from the chief last year, right?,” asked Cst. Myers. “We are pawns here, okay? We are stuck in the middle. We are doing what the chief wrote in that letter.”

The letter was written by Ottawa’s former police chief Vern White in June 2010.

White acknowledges that the beach is privately owned. So, the police can’t enforce section 31 (2) of the Liquor Licence Act, which states: “No person shall have or consume liquor in any place other than a private place as defined in the regulations.” The police can’t issue trespassing tickets either, because the property boundaries are unmarked.

The police explain, to enforce the Trespass to Property Act, residents must mark, delineate, and fence out each property lot.

The police explain, to enforce the Trespass to Property Act, residents must mark, delineate, and fence out each property lot. Otherwise, the police say, it will be hard to take any measures. The police also advise beach owners to hire a private security guard. The residents of Plan 412 don’t think they should have to abide by these requirements.

Cst. Myers said police officers can just go talk to people, but if a criminal act should occur, they will return to the site.

It took almost an hour before Cst. Myers addressed the crowd. By that time, young people, seeing the arrival of the police, hid their alcohol supply and jumped into their boats. Those who didn’t have a boat left the beach. The crowd dwindled to six people on the beach, playing volleyball – six sober individuals who were just having a good time.

Cst. Marc Soucy, media person for newly appointed Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau, confirmed that Vern White’s letter is still valid, unless the residents are willing to challenge it in Ontario Superior Court.

Doomed Agreement

Last year, Plan 412 residents decided to license a portion of their beach property to the City for the symbolic fee of $10 a month. In return, the City would enforce bylaws. The residents spent $2,500 to write the agreement. But the CBBCA turned down the proposal. The owners indicated they want to limit the overflow of people by making Point Beach a community-only beach. This was the demand that derailed the reaching of an agreement, according to Ian Glen, president of the CBBCA.

City councillor Eli El-Chantiry, who also chairs the Ottawa Police Services Board, was involved in the agreement talks. The beach owners are still frustrated that El-Chantiry – quoted in a 2008 article in the Ottawa Sun – promoted Constance Bay as a “secret jewel”, attracting even more attention and more people.

According to Nightingale, El-Chantiry approved construction of a parking lot close to the beach and the installation of public toilets. A green sign with the CBBCA’s logo was erected near the beach entrance; the sign reads: “Not a City of Ottawa Beach. Use at Own Risk and Liability. Respect Our Community. No Glass. No Alcohol. Remove Garbage. Keep Animals Under Control. Poop and Scoop. No Unauthorized Fires. No Unauthorized Vehicles” – all these rules were disregarded on the afternoon I visited the beach.

Ottawa Life tried to reach El-Chantiry several times by telephone and email, but calls were not returned and email messages weren’t acknowledged. At one point, El-Chantiry set up a time to discuss the matter and then did not show up for the call.

Joyce Nightingale never imagined that in her retirement years, she would have to wear rubber gloves and pick up broken bottles. She has been coming to her cottage every summer for 77 years – but she doesn’t want to anymore.

“I wanted to be here until I die, but I just don’t think I will be able to hang in there. I mean it upsets me so badly. You can’t even come out and read a book. If you go to the city beach, none of this would happen.”

After spending one afternoon with the residents – seeing first-hand what these people go through on a daily basis – you can’t help but wonder why the city, community and residents are so reluctant to compromise and, at last, come to a resolution.

Why can’t they all get along?

That’s a good question and one that deserves to be answered. However, it would appear the residents can’t count on any leadership from their (West Carleton-March city) councillor Eli El-Chantiry, who has ignored the matter and the interests of the residents he is supposed to be representing at City Hall. What makes El-Chantiry’s stance doubly vexing is that he also chairs the Ottawa Police Services Board, making him ideally suited to hammer out a deal between the police, the beach infiltrators and beachfront property owners. So far El-Chantiry has done nothing, adding to his list of underwhelming achievements as both a city councillor and as chair of the impotent and irrelevant Ottawa Police Services Board, a toothless paper tiger with no real authority, power or influence in the city. So residents will continue to suffer.

As private property owners, they have the right to build fences down to the waterline, forbidding the beach to outsiders, but when city lawyers floated this suggestion to residents, they refused to even consider the idea.

The Ottawa police constables are doing the best they can to deal with the sticky situation at Point Beach, but as they must cope with limited budgets, resources and manpower, they cannot be expected to patrol the beach on a regular schedule to prevent young people from gathering to drink beer or smoke the ganja weed or spout cuss words and behave poorly.

However, the residents themselves must take a measure of the blame for this sad state of affairs. As private property owners, they have the right to build fences down to the waterline, forbidding the beach to outsiders, but when city lawyers floated this suggestion to residents, they refused to even consider the idea. So for want of a nail and a few fences that would make good neighbours and restore harmony to Constance Bay, the conflict is likely to persist at Point Beach during the good weather months for many years to come.

A Presidential Election Campaign Heats up as America’s Economy Cools Down

June 6, 2012 5:02 pm
US President Barack Obama receiving bad news in the Oval Office

After months of campaigning and mudslinging, the Republican primary race is over. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will challenge the incumbent President of the United States of America, Democrat Barack Obama, in this November’s presidential election. Romney’s decisive win in last week’s Texas Republican primary pushed him above the 1,144 delegates required to win his party’s nomination. Yet, well before last week’s primary, and its subsequent solidification of Romney as the GOP nominee, both the Romney and Obama campaign machines were already fully engaged in general election mode. It comes as no surprise since the stakes could not be much higher than they already are.

This is especially true for the incumbent president due to the negative economic data released at the end of last week. In

A trader reacts to the bad news on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

the month of May, American stock indexes experienced their worst monthly returns in two years. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 6.2% while the Nasdaq declined by a more troubling 7.2%. As bad as these numbers are, even worse for an incumbent president of any party is the unemployment data which, to make a rather modest understatement, is not working in Obama’s — or, for that matter, his party’s — favor. In a country of roughly 314 million people, the American economy created a mere 69,000 jobs in May which is the worst job growth number in a year. To make matters worse for Obama, based on these figures, the national unemployment rate will increase from 8.1% to 8.2%. That rising 8.2% unemployment rate is a rather conservative estimate since the actual unemployment number which includes those who have given up looking for work is well into the double digits. Similarly, the number of Americans who have been unemployed for more than half a year is also on the rise. In fact, the number of long-term unemployed Americans rose by 300,000 in the month of May, jumping from 5.1 to 5.4 million individuals. This category of long-term unemployed accounts for close to half of all the unemployment in America. Given the negative numbers, it is clearly not yet “morning in America” nor, should trends continue, will it be “morning in America” by election day on the first Tuesday in November.

President Obama faces an uphill battle to win re-election in light of such anemic economic numbers. In fact, no president in more than seventy years has won a second term with unemployment above 7.2%. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the last man to return to the White House with unemployment rates above this threshold back in 1936, a time when a gallon of gasoline cost about 10 cents and the average single family home sold for less than $7,000. Also, recent opinion polls are reflecting the president’s precarious position. He is locked in a dead-heat with Mitt Romney six months before election day, a time when most incumbent presidents benefit from double digit leads over almost any challenger whether Democrat or Republican. In other words, due to the worsening economy at home and the economic woes of the European Union, Obama may well not enjoy the many benefits that normally fall to an incumbent president.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney

This is good news for Romney who, prior to serving as the Governor of Massachusetts, worked as a successful businessman and private equity manager. Romney has built his campaign platform on the premise that the best way for the American economy to enter a sustained recovery and for America to prosper is for it to be governed by someone familiar with the inner workings of the private sector. Romney is presenting himself to American voters as the candidate who has a successful track record of creating wealth and boosting employment rather than someone who was involved in community organizing, writing memoirs and teaching law at America’s Ivy League universities. Today, this message seems to be resonating with many Americans. When respondents are polled about who could do a better job turning the American economy around, Romney consistently beats Obama by a healthy margin. However, Romney’s apparent disconnect with many American voters, as well as the Tea Party’s lukewarm perception of his less stringent conservative values (based upon his past positions on various socially-charged issues from abortion to climate change), continue to be the political albatross that hangs around Romney’s neck preventing him from gaining further popularity with many Americans. In contrast, Americans prefer Obama over Romney when it comes to personality.

Personality aside, most American elections are won or lost on economic grounds. In a television advertisement aired during the 1980 presidential election, then Republican candidate and former California Governor Ronald Reagan asked a question that will likely drive this November’s election. Speaking from behind a podium, Reagan asked the American people, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” In 1980, America was stuck in a deep recession and the stagnant economic policies of Democrat President Jimmy Carter were the catalyst for a landslide victory for Reagan and his party. Reagan advocated that the best way for the United States to regain its economic might was to elect a government which was run using the same tools as those used to successfully run a private sector company — the private sector being an environment in which government regulations, mandates and other forms of intervention generally slow economic growth.

Thirty-one years later, America is again unable to move out of a lingering recession. While the 2008 recession did begin with a Republican in the White House, the fact of the matter is that today there are still some five million fewer jobs in the American economy than there were before September 2008 and any president — whether Republican or Democrat — will face the American public’s anger given such a negative trend. Consequently, the race for the White House will be run on a state-by-state basis where both candidates will attempt to frame themselves and their parties as being best able to fix America’s ailing economy whilst still broadcasting a message of national unity. Yet, some states will likely be given more weight than others by both the incumbent president and his Republican challenger. These “battleground” or “swing” states such as Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could very well determine whether or not the president will continue to enjoy public housing in the White House for four more years or if Romney will move from Massachusetts to Washington D.C.

Given the importance of those eight states, not to mention that of the other forty-two, both candidates will likely have to perfect the art of “retail campaigning” in which politicians personally solicit votes from the public by shaking as many hands, attending as many town hall meetings and stopping at as many truck stops and coffee shops as possible. They will do so for two very different reasons: Obama, the incumbent, will have to try to distract voters from America’s lack of economic recovery while Romney, the challenger, will have to prove more attractive to average Americans.

 

 

Business Profile: Winning at the Carney-val

May 28, 2012 4:23 pm
Pg32_Carney_Flaherty_byQuameScott

By: Dan Donovan and Harvey Chartrand

Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney was called a “hot commodity” by Postmedia News in April. Carney, 47, has been credited with shielding Canada from the worst effects of the 2008 global financial meltdown, when the United States’ and Europe’s financial systems nearly collapsed. At the time, Carney was the untested wunderkind at the Bank of Canada who had replaced the highly respected David Dodge, a revered giant with professionals in the Canadian banking and investment world. By 2009, Carney’s response to the financial meltdown had earned him recognition by the Financial Times and TIME magazine as a superstar in the world of high finance.

By 2012, Carney had enough respect from international governments that he was selected to chair the powerful Financial Stability Board, an institution of the G-20 major economies based in Basel, Switzerland charged with co-coordinating the overhaul of international banking regulations. (While there has been no indication of Carney’s priorities as chairman, on the day of his appointment, the Board published a list of 29 banks that were considered large enough to pose a risk to the global economy in the event that they failed). In April 2012, a rumour circulated that the British Cabinet was interested in naming Carney as its Governor. Carney put an end to that rumour by stating that he was staying at the Bank of Canada, reassuring Canadian banks it was business as usual.

Mark Carney worked his way up the ranks of Goldman Sachs, the Department of Finance Canada, and the Bank of Canada, as deputy governor. Armed with his great pedigree and understanding of the complex international finance system, combined with his experience at Finance under David Dodge, Carney was able to devise a strategy to allow Canada to navigate through the worst tremors of the crisis. Most importantly, he set in motion a plan to protect Canada from the delayed financial aftershock that is now undermining many First World nations and threatening the once overheated economy of China, which Canada is increasingly reliant upon as an export market.

By 2009, Carney’s response to the financial meltdown had earned him recognition by the Financial Times and TIME magazine as a superstar in the world of high finance.

Part of this strategy was recently uncovered. In a study  released  on April 30 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) titled The Big Banks’ Big Secret: Estimating Government Support for Canadian Banks during the Financial Crisis, the previously secret extent of  the extraordinary support required by Canada’s banks during the 2008-2010 financial crisis was revealed. For much of the past three years, Canadian banks were touted by Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, the federal government—and the banks themselves—as being much more stable than other countries’ big banks. Canadians were assured that our banks needed no bailout and, because of their management and lending practices, were the most secure banks in the world. The CCPA’s latest study suggests that this was not the case.

According to the study by CCPA senior economist David Macdonald, support for Canadian banks reached $114 billion at its peak.

“At some point during the crisis, three of Canada’s banks—CIBC, BMO and Scotiabank—were completely underwater, with government support exceeding the market value of the company,” says Macdonald. “Without government supports to fall back on, Canadian banks would have been in serious trouble.”

Between October 2008 and July 2010, Canada’s largest banks relied heavily on financial aid programs provided by the Bank of Canada, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and the U.S. Federal Reserve—all at the same time. The study estimates the value of government support by combing through data provided by CMHC, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions and the Bank of Canada, as well as quarterly reports of the banks themselves. Carney might call it “liquidity support” but Macdonald says it was a bailout. “Whatever you call it, Canadian government aid to the tune of $114 billion for the country’s biggest banks was far more indispensable than the official line would suggest.”

Because of this necessary but secret infusion of multi-billion-dollar loans, no Canadian banks failed – as opposed to 400 U.S. banks that did – the loans to Canadian banks were quickly repaid. The Government of Canada even made a $2.5-billion profit on the bank loans, according to CBC Ottawa. Ironically, over the entire aid period, Canada’s banks reported $27 billion in total profits between them, and the CEOs of each of the big banks were among the highest-paid Canadian CEOs. Between 2008 and 2009, each bank CEO received an average raise in total compensation of 19 per cent. There is a serious ethical question related to why the CEOs of the CIBC, BMO and Scotiabank paid themselves so handsomely when their banks were so stretched. That is quite a contrast to Carney, who left behind millions of dollars in salary when he quit Goldman Sachs to take up public service. He believes policy can make a difference. And he has made a difference. The reality is that the strategy Carney put in place for those types of loans to be accessed by Canadian banks worked and everyone, including taxpayers, came out on the winning side. Internationally, Carney was seen as the smart go-to guy on how to fix the international banking system.

Carney’s biggest worry is the explosive growth in household debt.

Prior to being selected to chair the Financial Stability Board, Carney showed some good old Canadian grit. It became clear that he could not only take a punch but deliver one as well. At a September 2011 meeting of some of the world’s most influential bankers, Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase & Co, directed a tirade at Carney during a private gathering of the world’s most influential bankers in Washington, D.C. Carney was the lead in presenting the efforts by the Group of 20 major economies to overhaul an international regulatory regime that was exposed as weak by the financial crisis. Carney was pushing for an international policy makeover to reshape global financial regulation. Dimon opposed this.

The confrontation occurred when Dimon attacked a plan backed by Carney that would require a few dozen lenders (including JP Morgan) to hold reserves at levels 2.5 percentage points higher than other banks – a measure inspired by the economic destruction caused by the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. After listening to a tirade from Dimon, including the suggestion that his proposals were anti-American, Carney pushed back with a cogent and firm defence of the G-20’s efforts to construct a regulatory regime that will significantly reduce the risk of another global financial crisis. It was a dressing down of significant proportions.

Three weeks later, when the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrations and other expressions of frustration with the global economic and financial system highlighted the need for policymakers to show they are serious about forcing change, Carney commented  that the movement was an understandable result of the “increase in inequality” – particularly in the United States – that started with globalization. “You’ve had a big increase in the ratio of CEO earnings to workers on the shop floor and then on top of that, a financial crisis. There’s a frustration with policy and a frustration that, ‘are things going back to business as usual?’  If I may say, that is not going to happen, but I can understand the frustrations.’’

Carney then added that it was his view that the OWS protests are a “democratic expression of views”’ and “entirely constructive.” A few months later, Carney was named Chairman of the Financial Stability Board. Clearly, he was not one to be cajoled or pushed around.

Canada has by no means emerged unscathed from the global financial turmoil. Carney’s biggest worry is the explosive growth in household debt.

His concern follows the release on April 18 of the Bank of Canada’s latest monetary policy report – a quarterly economic overview compiled by the central bank. The report highlights the exponential growth of home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) and mortgage refinancing in the past decade, which have surged to $64 billion as of 2010 from $8 billion in 2001. Since the Bank of Canada sets the interest rate that determines the monthly mortgage rate paid by Canadian families, a comment on interest rates from Carney can give banks the jitters and surely affects the blood pressure of millions of mortgage-paying Canadians each month. Carney continues to steadfastly pursue policies which discourage increasing personal or household debt. He insists that mortgages must have strict conditions attached to avoid a U.S.-style mortgage crisis.

The report once again pegged the massive debt loads of Canadians as one of the biggest domestic risks to Canada’s economy. While the bank sees an eventual reversal in the growth of household debt, Carney said that household debt-to-GDP ratios are expected to grow even higher for the foreseeable future, and gave no forecast for when Canadians might start paring down their debt. “It’s hard to predict exactly when the process will come to an end,” he said. The good news is that under Carney’s steady helmsmanship, the central bank now sees Canada’s economy growing by 2.4 per cent in 2012 over its earlier 2.2 per cent target.

Carney lives in Ottawa with his wife Diana, an economist specializing in developing nations, and his four daughters.

Broken and Bankrupt: Greece Stares into the Abyss

May 24, 2012 8:24 am
Greek riot police confront rioters in Athens

Before the turn of the twentieth century, America’s premier financier, John Pierpont (JP) Morgan, famously coined a phrase which has since become a common saying in the English language. Morgan remarked that, “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.” More than a century later, Morgan’s comments could be used to characterize the ongoing disorderly unraveling of the Greek economy. The breakdown of Greek social structure and law and order which have accompanied the nation’s economic collapse pose a very real threat whose consequences could spill over into other Mediterranean countries and could scuttle the viability of the European integration project.

Nearly all of the Mediterranean nations within the European Union’s (EU) seventeen member economic and monetary union known as the “Eurozone” are frozen in a state of economic paralysis due to unsustainably expensive social welfare programs, crippling deficits and runaway public spending. Add to that the lack of political will needed to implement the austerity measures and structural reforms required for slowing the EU’s economic free-fall and for initiating a path towards economic solvency. At the same time, a signal must be sent to global markets that the EU will not continue to spend more than it can ever hope to repay. However, no other EU country is in as dire a condition as Greece. Greece has been the focal point of violent protests, looting and widespread social disruption caused by both depression-era unemployment rates and a population that is unwilling to make the lifestyle sacrifices needed to begin the painful task of putting Greece’s financial house in order. One particular example is worth highlighting as characteristic of the unsustainably expensive social programs that have allowed the small nation to accumulate deficits and debt large enough to threaten the global market. If you were a member of Greece’s swollen public sector, the year would have fourteen months instead of the twelve months everywhere else. That is because Greek public sector employees receive fourteen monthly paychecks per year. Nor does this extraordinary practice end when a public sector employee retires. In fact, former Greek public sector employees receive fourteen monthly pension checks for the remainder of their lives.

John Pierpont (JP) Morgan

Nonsensical forms of spending such as this, coupled with rampant fraud and unwillingness to pay income taxes, have resulted in a lack of the capital reserves necessary to keep the nation afloat and have led to runs on Greek banks which, as a whole, have lost upwards of 30% of their deposit values over the past two years. Without another injection of stimulus funding from Germany, the most economically and politically powerful nation in the EU, as well as from the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Greece will run out of money by July. Almost immediately thereafter, it will default on its debts. The prospect of this scenario is heightening fears among policymakers and politicians across the globe and is initiating discussion amongst ECB bankers and other economists about the possible consequences for global markets should Greece exit the Eurozone either at the behest of the other member states or by its own choice.

Still, more than three quarters of Greeks continue to express their desire to remain in the Eurozone and the EU despite the fact that they are adamantly opposed to making the financial and lifestyle sacrifices required to do so. To make matters worse, Greece is hurtling towards another election in which the man who may well be the next Greek prime minister is a 37-year-old by the name of Alexis Tsipras who serves simultaneously as both the president of Greek’s ultra-left political party Synaspismos and as the leader of the Greek parliament’s Coalition of the Radical Left, better known as “SYRIZA.” Tsipras is riding a wave of popular support due to his election platform of calling the bluff of the IMF, the ECB and Germany by insisting that Greece will be permitted to remain in the Eurozone even if it refuses to implement the austerity measures and structural reforms which were attached as conditions to earlier bailouts. This is clearly a risky and unrealistic proposition.

The more likely scenario is that Greece will eventually fail to receive further financial assistance from the international community and will subsequently default on its debts, eventually being forced to leave the Eurozone. This would not be pretty. The consequences could be further rioting, pillaging and unemployment, all sending a dangerous shock wave through the global economy. Other struggling nations within the EU would have to face the fear that they too could be next in being forced to fully implement the required austerity measures or be cut out of the EU’s Eurozone. Even worse, the global economy which is struggling to maintain a modicum of growth, could be sent into a tailspin since fear and uncertainty almost always send markets into a steep decline.

Alexis Tsipras

Yet, regardless of whether Greece were to exit the Eurozone of its own free will or not, some are speculating that the economic consequences would not be that severe once the protesting, rioting and looting have subsided. Greece would have to abandon the euro and return to using its old currency, the drachma, thereby implementing a plan of rapid currency devaluation which would make the country a more competitive place to do business and hopefully boost Greek exports at the same time. Such a path back from the economic brink has worked before for other nations but Greece may not be able to enjoy the same results as Argentina which successfully pursued this policy option in 2002. Unlike Argentina, Greece has a limited volume of exports and fewer profitable business ventures to offer at the reduced price that its newly reinstated and devalued drachma would support given that the Greek economy relies predominantly on tourism, agriculture and shipping.

And so, Greece like other Mediterranean nations within the EU continues to limp on towards an uncertain future. But if the international community’s patience wears thin and if current trends in markets persist, Greeks may find out the hard way that, “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”

The Uncertain Future: France’s Socialist Resurgence

May 18, 2012 9:00 am
Hollande & Sarkozy

All is not well in Europe. The European Union (EU) in general and the Eurozone financial union in particular are in a precarious position. Crushing debts and deficits as well as unsustainably expensive social welfare programs — not to mention unemployment rates in excess of 20% in certain EU countries — have turned what many academics call “Eurosclerosis” (the lack of economic growth and consistently high unemployment rates) into reality for much of Western Europe. International institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have contributed billions of euros (the EU’s international currency) to stabilize the toxic economies of nations like Greece and Spain in an attempt to prevent them from defaulting on their debts. Should default occur, it could trigger a collapse in the value of the euro, a move which would likely lead to the demise of the Eurozone and possibly the EU as a whole. Such a monumental economic and political collapse would unquestionably plunge the highly interconnected global economy into a severe recession at best and a global depression at worst. But, all of this is old news.

However, the surprising results from both the French and Greek national elections last week have the potential to exacerbate political differences and to further polarize both the European public and European policymakers. At issue is the difficult, but necessary, task of writing and implementing policies that would reduce member states’ deficits as well as government expenditures, all the while spurring growth and reducing unemployment throughout the EU. It is no small task to do so and still remain palatable to European voters. It would be difficult in any country but it is far more so in countries like Greece and Spain which, for all intents and purposes, are currently in depression and not recession. This act of political tightrope walking will be much more challenging in the near future due to the fact that both the Eurozone and EU may well be placed on life support in coming months. While France may not suffer from the same depression-level unemployment rates common in Greece, nor does its balance sheet contain as many toxic assets, France faces a number of challenges which, if not defused, could harm the Eurozone, the EU and the interconnected global economy even more than a Greek default.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Incumbent politicians often share the praise and the blame for their nation’s economic performance. Given the EU’s lack of economic performance, it is not surprising that any incumbent politician seeking re-election in the EU would face public opposition. Last Sunday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) Party lost their re-election bid by a narrow, but still significant, margin of 48% to 51% in favor of Sarkozy’s Socialist challenger Francois Hollande. In the past, the French Socialist Party (PS), now led by Hollande, has only elected one man to the highest office of government. Thirty-one years ago, in 1981, the Socialist Party’s Francois Mitterrand was elected President of France. He remained in power throughout much of the 1980s and served a second term in the first half of the 1990s.

Generally speaking, financial markets did not react positively to Mitterrand and the Socialists’ tenure. There is a likelihood that markets will again react negatively to a France led by a Socialist government, but today the consequences could be more serious than when Mitterrand was in power. Francois Hollande has taken an anti-austerity stance which resonated with the large population of French unemployed and also with the public sector workers who would likely bear the brunt of any austerity program intended to stabilize the Eurozone countries. Doubtless, these positions played a crucial role in the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who led a party which advocated the merits of austerity and whose flamboyant personality has taken its toll on French voters’ good will. Hollande has advocated the need for protectionism, has called for the implementation of a 75% income tax on wealthy French individuals (which would strangle growth and innovation) and has rejected the austerity measures required to keep France’s fiscal house in order. Hollande says he prefers to have the French economy “grow” its way out of recession and that he is not averse to using quantitative easing to spur that growth.

At best, Hollande’s agenda will likely create an unpleasant environment in which the 27 member states will seek to solve their debt and unemployment problems, a task made more difficult since his views directly challenge those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel leads the EU’s strongest, most economically solvent country and has stressed the importance of balancing the EU’s books and of reducing deficit and debt by way of austerity measures. Negotiating and implementing successful policies could be more difficult when the EU’s most powerful country (Germany) and second most powerful country (France) have two conflicting ideologies separating them on the important issue of countering the ongoing European economic crisis. At worst, this conflict could make any further coherent economic policy-making an impossibility, thereby derailing future hope for the stabilization of the EU’s economy and the lifespan of the euro as a viable currency.

Francois Hollande

France and Germany, along with the other 25 nations in the EU, would suffer greatly should this occur. This scenario would deal the global economy a crippling blow that could suddenly halt the current anemic recovery in the majority of the world’s developed economies. Unlike Greece, France is well-integrated into the larger European marketplace in terms of the business it conducts beyond its borders. For instance, French companies operating outside of France, but within the EU, provide some 4.5 million jobs in a cross-section of virtually all forms of business. Furthermore, unlike Greece, these 4.5 million satellite French workers create products and services which, when combined, account for almost one fifth of all European investments in terms of monetary value.

To raise the stakes even further, France’s financial system provides significant capital and loans to other EU countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy — countries which are burning through money as if there were no tomorrow. Some of those countries may well default on their debt no matter how much money the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or Germany may reluctantly provide to shore up their hemorrhaging economies. Should President Hollande obstinately pursue his hard-line, hands-off position against austerity which runs counter to that advocated by both Germany and the IMF, France and its creditor nations could fall into the abyss.

Queen In Disgrace: Canadian Task Force in Ukraine

May 17, 2012 6:01 pm
Unknown

Once she was the face of the Orange Revolution.With a peasant-braided hairstyle that she wore as a crown, Yulia Tymoshenko led mass protests that swept Ukraine in 2004. She was a leader of the Fatherland Party. In 2005, Forbes magazine pronounced her the third most influential woman in the world. Tymoshenko served twice as Prime Minister of Ukraine. In 2010, she became the first female to run in presidential elections. But shortly after losing to Victor Yanukovich, the queen of the Orange Revolution has fallen into disfavor, to put it mildly.

Today, Tymoshenko is a prisoner and a patient at a hospital in Kharkiv.

Shortly after Yanukovich became president, Tymoshenko was arrested and charged with allegations of abuse of her office in striking a gas deal with Russia in 2009. Analysts claim the deal was doomed because of market fluctuations and the country’s economic crisis – it was a political error, not a criminal offense. The court nevertheless found Tymoshenko guilty, also charging her with tax evasion and embezzlement.

She was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Tymoshenko is a prisoner and a patient at a hospital in Kharkiv.

Many European countries and the United States condemned these actions against Tymoshenko; human rights organizations called them politically motivated, as other members of the opposition were also prosecuted.

In April, Tymoshenko went on a two-week hunger strike protesting her inhumane treatment in jail. Tymoshenko, who suffers from chronic back pain, said she was beaten by guards. As pictures of a bruised Tymoshenko emerged on TV screens and in newspapers, European leaders have been putting more pressure on the Ukrainian government to relent.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to attend a European summit in Yalta. Merkel went as far as calling Yanukovich’s regime “a dictatorship.” The leaders also halted the Association Agreement with Ukraine – an agreement aimed at bringing economic benefits to Ukraine. Earlier, some leaders threatened to boycott the EURO 2012 soccer championship to be hosted by Ukraine and Poland, but later withdrew their threat.

The members, however, are clear: EU doors will be shut to the Ukraine, as long as Tymoshenko remains in prison.

Why Canada Cannot Remain Neutral

While turmoil over Tymoshenko is broiling in Europe, Canada cannot afford to remain neutral.

To Canada, the Ukraine is more than just a faraway Eastern European country. Canada is home to 1.2 million Ukrainians, who settled in Western Canada 120 years ago. Today’s foreign policy is mostly built on bilateral trade agreements, too valuable for both countries to put at risk.

In 1994, Canada proclaimed Ukraine a “special partner.” Over the years, after signing several trade agreements, Canada has become one of the major exporters of fish, seafood, pork, pharmaceutical products and aircrafts; and importer of mineral fuels, oils, fertilizers, iron and steel. In 2010 alone, trade between the two countries totaled $252.2 million. In 2011, this number exceeded $507 million, according to Ukrainian embassy statistics.

This week, a Canadian delegation is paying a visit to the Ukraine to conduct hearings on economic, political and judicial issues, upcoming fall parliamentary elections as well as human rights.

Tymoshenko, once a popular figure in the Ukraine, has been sentenced to 7 years in jail.

Tymoshenko is in the limelight of Canada’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development hearings, led by Mississauga-Erindale MP Bob Dechert.

Taras Zalusky, an executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and a member of the delegation, said the committee has a busy schedule. Zalusky said that they have already met with Tymoshenko’s lawyers, as well as officials from the prosecutor’s office and of the ministry of justice. It’s a four-day visit, and the committee will present a report of their findings on Thursday.

Canada, Free-Trade Agreement and International Pressure

Canada and the Ukraine are in the process of round table talks on signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that will give Canadian businesses even broader access to the Ukrainian market without tariffs. The Foreign Affairs and International Trade website states that the FTA will be “consistent with Canada’s foreign policy objectives, which support Ukraine’s democratic transformation and economic reforms.”

Even though Rudy Husny, spokesman for Minister of Free Trade Ed Fast, said the government is “concerned by the apparently arbitrary and politically-biased nature of judicial proceedings against Ms. Tymoshenko, and other individuals, which undermines the rule of law;” Canada will still proceed with the FTA. Unlike Europe, Husny said, Canada does not believe in the politics of isolation. In fact, according to Husny, signing the FTA will foster economic growth in the Ukraine, which in its turn will help to “secure democracy where human rights are respected.”

The Ukrainian Stand

Marco Shevchenko, a chargé d’affaires of the Embassy of Ukraine, said he isn’t be able to comment on Tymoshenko’s case, claiming that neither diplomat or politician should interfere with the judicial process. Shevchenko only hopes that both governments won’t become hostages of political situations in their economic decision-making.

Marco Shevchenko

“We separate political and economic content,” Shevchenko said. “Both sides consider business above all.”

Shevchenko said Tymoshenko is planning to appeal her case to the Supreme Court of Ukraine.

Asked how the country could have fair parliamentary elections when the leader of the official opposition party is in prison, Shevchenko said, as a citizen of the Ukraine, he would never vote for a party that can’t survive without its leader.

On May 9, Tymoshenko ended her two-week fast and was transferred to the clinic to treat her back pain and the effects of her hunger strike. A German doctor was brought in to treat her. According to the latest news, after Kharkiv’s hospital made her treatment schedule publicly available, Tymoshenko refused to undergo any further treatment. The opposition leader says it is private information that is not to be shared.

It’s still unclear what the future holds for the Ukraine, a country that is torn between Europe and Russia. It’s unclear whether President Yanukovich will remain autocratic or make necessary democratic reforms before Europe turns its back on him. But what’s certain now – the disgraced queen of the Orange Revolution will still keep drawing the world’s attention.

The Natural: Laureen Harper Talks Family, Fitness and Canadian Pride

May 14, 2012 8:48 am
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Laureen Harper is a natural. She’s found the secret to balancing her official duties, being a mom and finding time to do what she loves most.

There is more to Laureen Harper than meets the eye. Charismatic and unpretentious, her personality is a refreshing reminder that although she may be the woman alongside Canada’s Prime Minister, she’s also busy with work of her own.

Laureen Harper grew up in Turner Valley, a rural town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, southwest of Calgary, where she developed a lifelong passion for the outdoors and a love for animals at an early age. Today, she advocates for the proper care of animals and opens her home to kittens waiting to be adopted from the Ottawa Humane Society. Known for her extensive volunteer work and her support of important community causes, Laureen Harper’s focus on family, community and charity is a reflection of her down-to-earth sensibilities.

I caught up with the on-the-go mom at 24 Sussex Drive to talk about raising a family in the spotlight, her no-fuss fitness regime and what makes Canada the best place to live in the world.

Alexandra Gunn and Laureen Harper. Photo by: Deborah Ransom

ALEXANDRA GUNN:  Being in the spotlight day in and day out must be difficult to manage. How do you separate your personal life from your public life or is that even doable?

LAUREEN HARPER: You’d be surprised; a lot of people don’t recognize me. I walk around Ottawa and no one knows who I am. I think it’s because most of the time no one knows who you are or they don’t put two and two together. The other day, I was coming out of Walmart and a woman came running after me to see my receipt.

AG:  I’m sure you’re always recognized at public functions and political events. I would assume that a lot of people want to respect your privacy.

LH: That woman wanted to see that receipt! She was making sure I wasn’t stealing (laughs). In Ottawa, I go to a lot of events, so people are used to seeing me, but most of the time I just think they don’t know who I am. I’m not a celebrity or a movie star, so I can run down Wellington Street right in front of the House of Commons, past all the reporters who don’t even notice. It makes me smile because they are so busy talking that I go running on by with no makeup in my running gear and they don’t even look twice. I think sometimes they are going to say hello but they keep on walking.

AG: You may be able to go unnoticed on your runs, but raising a family in the public eye while juggling your official commitments must be tricky at times, so how do you stay grounded?

LH: I am a stay-at-home mom, so I spend a lot of time with my kids. They’re getting older, so they don’t want to spend as much time with you (laughs).

AG: Family always comes first but you’re also generously donating your time to a variety of charities. Are there any particular organizations that you believe support a great cause?

"I’m always focused on animal charities and animal welfare." Photo by: Deborah Ransom

LH: I’m always focused on animal charities and animal welfare, so when I’m in Calgary or Ottawa, I work with the Humane Society. There are so many great charities doing wonderful work, so if I can help them I will. I work with the Trans Canada Trail and the National Arts Centre Gala benefitting the National Youth and Education Trust. In 2017, the Trans Canada Trail is going to go from coast-to-coast-to-coast. It’s 75 per cent done now and I’ve already been on sections of it and I’m hoping Canadians will take advantage of it when it’s done. The National Arts Centre has really become the National Arts Centre. It brings in artists from across the country and bring music to Canadians from all over. The NAC Gala allows for the foundation to do work across the country. It isn’t just here in Ottawa; it goes across the country and helps a lot of kids who otherwise wouldn’t get music education. I really think they do a great job. I also really like regional theatre. I love all of these regional theatres that we have across the country; they’re little treasures. We are really lucky to have great theatre houses. Some are them are in the middle of nowhere and they are creating jobs and opportunities for actors and playwrights.

AG:  It’s nice to see that you dedicate so much time and effort to Canadian charities. If you had a few extra hours every day, how would you spend them?

LH: I would go hiking or doing something outside. I love being outdoors.

AG: Growing up near the Rocky Mountains must have inspired your love for adventure and hiking. What are some of your favourite outdoor activities that you like to take part in?

LH: I love to snowshoe – that’s my favourite. I try to snowshoe as much as I can in the winter. In the spring, I like to hike because there’s always something interesting going on in the hills. Anytime of the year I can snowshoe or hike. I love the Gatineau Hills in Quebec, but when I’m in Calgary, I hike in the Rockies or along some great hiking trails in and around Calgary. I don’t care if there’s a hill – I just like hiking. When I was growing up in Turner Valley, my family loved to hike. People were poor and so there wasn’t much to do. There was no going to theatres or concerts. We had the mountains 20 minutes away so we did what was available. We would head to the mountains to hike and camp and it was great because it didn’t cost any money.

AG:  Do you encourage your two children, Ben and Rachel, to enjoy the outdoors as much as you do?

LH: Yes, as much as I can. There are some great parks in Ontario and Quebec and we’ve recently learned to canoe. And we always do one mother-daughter canoe trip every year, which I really enjoy.

AG:  You must know some great spots across Canada. Where do you usually go?

LH: (laughs) I don’t want to say because then other people would go there! Where we go is such a great place and it’s so close to Ottawa, but very few people know about it. Rachel and I usually canoe and camp for three days and two nights, but you can’t make kids go too long because they can get bored. It’s our secret canoe spot.

AG:  Hiking and adventure are high on your list, but do you have a particular fitness regime that you try and stick to during the week?

Photo by: Deborah Ransom

LH: I know I should, but I don’t. I love to run and that’s what I do. Everybody does different activities but I try and run five times a week. In the summer, I run outdoors and in the winter, I just go on the treadmill. There are no excuses with the treadmill. If you run outside, it can be too windy, too hot or too cold. I love the treadmill. There are so many great activities, but they go in and out of style, so I stick with what works.

AG: There are quite a few big races in Ottawa throughout the year. Do you ever participate?

LH: We do charity races but I only compete against myself. I like doing charity runs for fun, but I’m not under any illusions! I tried to keep up with Peter MacKay for the Army Run and I only lasted about a kilometre and told him to go on without me. He did five kilometres in 22 minutes and I can’t!

AG: Aside from running, what are some of the things you do to stay healthy?

LH: I try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Well…we try (laughs). I think snacks should be snacks, but we try to stick with fruits and vegetables and then we have one day a week where we cheat. Salt-and-vinegar potato chips are the perfect cheat food. I want the whole bag, which is why I hate those 100-calorie bags – there are only four chips in there!

AG: You’ve had the opportunity to travel the world with your husband and as a solo traveler many years ago. Now that you’ve seen so much of the world outside of our borders, what do you most appreciate about Canada?

LH: The space. It’s so clean in Canada. When I come back from trips, I think how we are the luckiest people to have a country that is as big and beautiful as it is. Canadians appreciate what we have.

AG: What do you recommend to an out-of-country guest as a must-see if they will be traveling across Canada?

LH: Every region of the country has something amazing. So many Canadians travel outside the country on their vacations, which I think is a real shame. There are people from Western Canada who have never been to Eastern Canada and there are lots of Eastern Canadians who have never been to Western Canada and I think they should travel around Canada. Anyone who has been to Newfoundland knows it’s a great time. Niagara has great wineries. I’d recommend Toronto’s theatre district. Vancouver is one of the most amazing cities on earth. And, of course, head to Calgary for the Stampede! Every region of the country has fantastic festivals and it’s the people who make Canada a great place to live and visit.

AG: The Calgary Stampede will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Will you be attending?

LH: You betcha! I’m inviting every person I know to come to Calgary. We will likely run out of space and will need to put mattresses down, but it’s a great festival that everyone needs to experience at least once. It’s difficult explaining the Calgary Stampede to someone who has never been to one. The entire city gets involved in the Stampede festivities – every street, every shopping centre and every community centre. I think it’s going to be the biggest party we’ve seen in a long time. This is the year to go. You have to experience it!

AG: Now that the warmer weather is here, what else are you looking forward to doing?

LH: I always do a big hike somewhere in Canada in the summer with a group of friends. We try to pick a different place every year. Last year, we went to the Yukon and this year, we are going to go hiking in the Kootenays in British Columbia. It’s nice to go somewhere where no one else is, even if it takes two or three days to get there. It’s always a wonderful feeling. A couple of years ago, we hiked for five days and only saw two people and one grizzly bear.

Photo by: Deborah Ransom

AG: Your keen sense of adventure must translate well when you accompany your husband on official business at home and abroad. What are some of the memorable moments that you often look back on?

LH: Traveling across this great country and getting to go to every province and every territory, which most Canadians don’t get to do. My husband and I get to do that all the time, but it never gets old and we love it. Every time you go somewhere you’ve never been before, it’s amazing and I always say that I want to come back here and spend more time.

AG: Looking back on the past few years, is there anything you’d wish you had done differently?

LH: No, I don’t think so. My husband works very hard and sometimes I wish he didn’t, you know? But that’s the nature of the job and he loves his job. He loves going to work and we are very lucky that we get to spend time with our kids. We miss our families back in Alberta, since we only see them three or four times a year. I’ve made lots of good friends across the country so there are no big regrets. We just miss our family in Alberta, so we’re thankful we get to go back so often to visit. All in all, it has been amazing.

Canada’s First Lady, Laureen Harper Supports These Charities:

The Humane Society The Humane Society of Canada (HSC) works across the street, across Canada and around the world helping people, animals and the environment.  www.humanesociety.com

Canada Army Run The Canada Army Run is about Canadians and the Canadian Forces – Air Force, Army and Navy – joining together in the spirit of camaraderie and mutual respect. It’s a chance for the troops to extend the military esprit de corps to Canadians and to thank them for their support. www.armyrun.ca

Trans Canada Trail The Trans Canada Trail promotes and assists in the development and use of the Trail in every province and territory. Today, more than 16,500 kilometres of trail have been developed. When completed, the Trail will stretch 22,000 kilometres from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic Oceans, linking 1,000 communities and all Canadians. www.tctrail.ca

National Youth and Education Trust (NYET) provides funding for the performing arts, programming and educational initiatives for young artists, young audiences and schools across the country.

Photography by Deborah Ransom

Hair & Makeup by Noah at facesbynoah.com

The Price of the Word: It’s Time for a Change in Kazakhstan

May 10, 2012 9:33 am
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Journalism and fear never go well together.

Just one day before I interviewed CBC foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed, who has been covering the Middle East for over a decade, I learned that somebody tried to kill my colleague in Kazakhstan, journalist Lukpan Ahmediarov.

As I was interviewing Ayed, I couldn’t help but admire her courage. She is always packing her bags to report from a conflict-torn part of the world, leaving behind her safe and comfortable life in Canada. She said if you are not brave, just don’t go there. Her words echoed what once Ahmediarov told me: “if you are afraid of your own work – don’t be a journalist!”

Ahmediarov was shot three times and stabbed eight times from behind. Even though his vital organs remained intact, he is still in critical condition after a three-hour operation.

A week later, Ahmediarov was able to record an eight-minute video message to the public – a video that might cause his enemies to try to kill him yet again.

In the video, Ahmediarov says he has no doubts that his profession and civil activities are the main reasons somebody wanted to silence him. Moreover, he says, once stable, oil-rich country ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev for more than 20 years, are now torn by rifts which appeared as the president feverishly tried to hold onto his power.

With a bandaged head, Ahmediarov addressed many issues the country is facing, heavily criticizing the government. The correspondent says that by silencing journalists the government can’t hide its problems. It’s time for President Nazarbayev to step down, he says, and allow the country to have a proper democracy with a rotation of powers. “His [President Nazarbayev’s] project is exhausted,” says Ahmediarov.

(CP-Raul Uporov)

Lukpan Ahmediarov being taken to hospital after his attack

But the journalist is more amazed at how the president is out of tune with his citizens’ mood. He says in 20 years, since the USSR collapsed, people have learned how to think critically. They can’t just read and believe self-censored, state-owned papers, nor do the citizens accept the messages conveyed by the presidentially-owned media.

Now, Ahmediarov says, people are realizing how absurd the regime has become.

By absurd the journalist means holding last year’s referendum to allow 72-year old President Nazarbayev to remain in power for life, and allowing the President’s supporters to erect monuments to him, claiming that it’s the peoples’ wish. It’s absurd, the journalist says, for the police without any investigation, to make a statement which claimed his attempted has nothing to do with politics or his profession.

“Kazakhstan has realized: That’s it! We can no longer live in such a country, and we must not live in such a country,” Ahmediarov declares. “It must be a normal country with a change of governments. That’s why people started talking – I was not the first.”

Indeed, Ahmediarov wasn’t the first citizen to raise concerns. In December 2011, the police opened fire on protesters in Zhanaozen, leaving 16 people dead, 100 injured. On the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence from the former Soviet Union, laid-off oil workers stepped out onto the main street. The police claim that they shot protesters out of self-defense, while some witnesses say the striking workers were unarmed.

Meanwhile, Ahmediarov’s case left Uralsk and its citizens shaken. Uralsk is a city with a population of 350 000, situated on the northwestern border of Kazakhstan and Russia. Everybody in town knew the journalist had many enemies because of his bold articles and civil activities, but nobody had ever expected that somebody would attempt to kill him.

“I think in Uralsk, local powers got mad because in the battle with me they could not present anything adequate. I fought for my rights, for my freedom, for the rights of other Kazakhstanis. I never broke the law. Whatever I did, whether it was protesting on the streets or writing articles, I always told officials that I have a right to express my opinion.”

But not so, according to the Freedom House. In its 2012 charter on worldwide freedom of the press, Kazakhstan ranked 175th out of 196 countries, while Canada ranked 25th. For a democratic Kazakhstan with an embedded constitutional right to free speech and press, its status still remains “not free.”

Uralsk City Hall

Last year’s report on freedom of the press raised concerns about the country’s law that classifies libel as a criminal offence, with high penalties for the defamation of the president, members of the Parliament and state officials. In the first six months in 2010, there were 44 libel suits against journalists – the majority came from government officials. In 2009, for instance, Ramazan Yesergepov, the editor of the independent weekly Alma-Ata Info, was arrested in the hospital where was being treated for hypertension. Yesergepov was detained for eight months, and later, sentenced to three years in prison.

Tamara Eslyamova, editor-in-chief of the Uralsk Weekly, is familiar with every challenge that independent media face. Her newspaper is the only independent paper in Uralsk. It’s also the paper Lukpan Ahmediarov was writing for. Eslyamova says the government always pressures the print houses, distributors, sale outlets, denying them services. She and her journalists always receive angry calls and are harassed and threatened on the streets.

A botched contract-killer hit on Ahmediarov came to her as no surprise. In a telephone interview, Eslyamova said Ahmediarov had just written an article on how government officials are distributing multimillion-dollar projects to their families and relatives. Eslyamova says she knew after this article, officials wouldn’t go easy on the journalist, but the editor says Ahmediarov was always reporting such stories.

Why? Because he is not afraid to start a whirlwind or expose the truth.

More on the story:
Struggle for free press in Kazakhstan

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