Counting on the Drinkers’ Vote

September 2, 2011 2:03 pm

A few weeks ago I sat down at my computer and opened an email  that had a link to a special interview with the leader of the Provincial Conservatives, Tim Hudak. With an election only weeks away the rhetoric and the promises are flowing like water. However, in terms of the main concern for Ontario’s wineries, greater access to the market, these have been largely ignored by the McGuinty government; but it seems that Mr. Hudak has got himself a plan.

Tim Hudak’s promise of  VQA-Only stores seems like a genuinely great one. However, the recent past suggests that the Leader of the PC Party will have quite the fight on his hands. Particulalry from LCBO and the Californians, who have achieved unparallel success here in Ontario, and who are threatening to blow the Free Trade whistle if Tim goes forward with his plan to loosen the market for VQA wines.

Tim Hudak

In the past, Mike Harris, a conservative and once premier of the province – who had a Common Sense Revolution – also had plans to revolutionize the LCBO. However, this was a promise he did not fulfill.  Mr. McGuinty also made some noise about the liquor board and even followed through with a study and report, called the BASR report, but  similarly the issue was scrapped and the report buried.

Mr. Hudak has not said he’ll take on the Board, in fact he is promising greater access to market for local wines (being a Niagara-boy he’s doing his riding proud), but the KGBO knows that would be the first step in losing control of the whole system.

Although the idea to take on the Board and the Californians, is potentially a good one, the question remains: How many Ontario/Canadian wines are in Californian liquor stores?  Can we lodge our own complaint against them?  The question will be how far will Mr. Hudak get in his endeavour to bring VQA wines to the masses?  History doesn’t bode well for the would-be premier of the province and that’s too bad, because many Ontario vintners would love to see the marketplace pried open; but something tells me the LCBO will take the Charlton Heston NRA approach:  you’ll have to pry the control of booze out of their “cold dead hands”.

Vineyards of Ontario

A quote found in a Globe & Mail article from July 6, 2011 sums up the situation brilliantly: “If Ontario wants to boost market share for local winemakers, then it should simply privatize alcohol sales and give fair treatment to all vintners.” Mr. Jim Clawson [chief executive officer of JBClawson International, US industry’s top trade consultant since the early 1980s] said, “You make it awfully difficult for consumers to buy a bottle of wine in Canada.” With this one statement, Jim has said a mouthful, but this now leads to the next question for the campaigning PC leader:  Why stop at VQA?  I think Clawson has given us a better idea; if you’re gonna pick a fight, might as well be for the whole enchilada, not just for the cheese topping.

Remembering Jack Layton: 1950 – 2011

August 23, 2011 2:16 pm
FedElxn NDP Layton 20081015

For many Canadians yesterday began as an ordinary day. The sun rose on a prematurely cool August morning. A new work week had begun. And then the news that Jack Layton passed away at approximately 4.45a.m. that morning at the age of 61 started to spread. In this era of instant communication and social media, on-line vigils sprung up like shoots of grass after a heavy rainfall. But many Canadians were not content to share their grief merely on facebook or twitter. Well into the evening last night Canadians across the country were holding vigils in public parks or on city streets. People wrote condolences on sidewalks or in any public space where people were gathering to mourn Jack’s passing. When asked about the man, many people who didn’t even know him could hardly contain their tears. Prime Minister Harper recalled conversations with Jack during which they talked about “jamming” together. That possibility is now lost and the prime minister seems genuinely sorry for it. The spontaneous and shared outpouring of grief speaks to the power of Jack Layton’s convictions. As he eloquently conveyed in his last letter to all Canadians, he believed in our ability to shape our world for the better. Love was better than anger, he reminded everyone; hope better than fear and optimism better than despair. In a world in which many feel both hopeless and powerless, this sort of message resonated. That he conveyed it knowing that he was about to succumb to the cancer that had so aggressively ravaged his body made it all the more poignant. How could people not be moved by his courage and grace in the face of his imminent death? In the last year of his life, Jack secured his place in our hearts.

Jack Layton on Parliament Hill on June 2, 2011.

It was not, of course, always this way. Jack has been in politics for years, most of it spent as a Toronto city counselor. There he learned politics was less about securing sweeping victories and more about mastering the art of compromise. Progress could be painstakingly slow and there would be many setbacks. He ran for mayor of Toronto in 1991 but lost to June Rowlands. On this and many other occasions, his political obituary was prematurely written. If he wasn’t being written off, he was often spoken of derisively. He was called a “career politician” who was no more trustworthy than a used car salesman. He would never be trusted to hold the reins of power at any level of government. This perception hardly changed when he was elected leader of the federal NDP in 2003. Some  commentators believed that his leadership would merely accelerate the party’s descent into obscurity.  It wasn’t that long ago that he was contemptuously referred to as “Taliban Jack,” for his suggestion that ending the conflict in Afghanistan may require negotiating with the Taliban. I always thought the dismissive reaction to this suggestion wasn’t so much because politicians and media analysts found the notion too odious to consider. Any thoughtful observer realized that the Taliban, for all of their medieval ways, are strategically capable of prolonging the Afghan conflict indefinitely and therefore at enormous human cost. It was more a reflexive response, intended to immediately marginalize Jack from a critical debate. For too long, it seems to me, Jack Layton didn’t get the respect he deserved.

Somewhere along the way this all changed. Family members and those who worked closely with him must have realized long before ordinary Canadians that Jack possessed an increasingly rare combination of skills and gifts. As he got older and became more comfortable as a federal leader, those skills and gifts were refined. He was, by all accounts, a charming man with a smile that could immediately win over a room.  Jack really would want to have a beer with you.  But charm cannot, in the end, take you a long way in politics. He was also thoughtful and intelligent. And he firmly believed that whatever intelligence he possessed should be used to help the socially disadvantaged and politically excluded. If this strikes the reader as hyperbole, it is worth remembering that Jack wrote a book on homelessness. Such an endeavor neither was a sure fire way to get elected or to make a lot of money. On the contrary, writing a book on any subject requires sustained commitment over a prolonged period of time. There must have been bouts of frustration, perhaps even a sense of pointlessness. Yet he finished it. That he chose to write on the socially disadvantaged and excluded was a testamentto his commitment to a better type of politics. It was also in keeping with his work for those suffering from HIV/AIDS at a time when the disease was still poorly understood. In the wake of the Montreal massacre, he co-founded a campaign to counter male violence towards women. Politics, he believed, had to address some of society’s most troublesome inequities.

Jack Layton

But charm and intelligence alone do not account for Jack Layton’s extraordinary rise. There was also the man’s equally extraordinary determination. Among the most memorable images from the last federal election are of Jack walking everywhere with a cane. At the start of the campaign, he had only just finished treatment for his prostate cancer. But there was to be little reprieve: after the cancer he had to have hip surgery. The walking aid was necessary but it did nothing to diminish the perception that Jack was exceptionally energized. After the votes were counted on election night and he had secured his greatest political achievement, he still managed, with cane in hand, to gallop up the stairs to give the party their own victory speech. The NDP had not, of course, won the election but they had increased their seat count from 37 to 103. They had won over Quebec and were now the Official Opposition. Party members were rightfully proud. So too were most Canadians. His fight with cancer, his seemingly inexhaustible energy, the grace with which he conducted himself and his belief in the power of people to still shape our world had finally resonated with Canadians on the sort of scale he must have hoped for when he entered politics so many years ago. It was no longer possible to dismiss him. The respect – nay the love – people had for him ran too deep.

Life’s ironies can sometimes be cruel. As he stood on the stage on May 2nd with his wife Olivia Chow, energized by the party’s achievements, the cancer that he thought he had beaten was about renew its presence. With a vengeance.  We would see him in subsequent days, still vigorous and seemingly healthy. But before long the public appearances grew fewer. When he gave his extraordinary press conference on July 25th it was startling to see how aggressively this new cancer had advanced. He was gaunt and frail, his voice prematurely aged. Cancer had clearly taken its grim toll. Yet he still spoke with optimism about the prospect of making a full recovery and being back in the House of Commons come September.  It was not to be.

Layton with wife, Olivia Chow.

Jack’s death comes a pivotal moment in the life of the NDP. Various factors help explain the party’s sudden rise and electoral success. But none was more important than Jack Layton himself. Their continued success can hardly be taken for granted. How will the party respond to the challenge of moving forward without their beloved leader? How will Canadians respond now that the face of the party so many have recently embraced is suddenly gone? It’s hard to know. What is certain is that Jack reminded us that hope and human decency still matter in Canadian politics. He will be sorely missed.

Jason Kenney Hits a Nerve with Blunt Letter to Amnesty International (Canada) That Questions Their Credibility and Objectivity

August 10, 2011 10:05 pm

By Dan Donovan, Publisher and Managing Editor

The Credibility of the actions of Amnesty International (Canada) and their continual and constant criticism towards the Harper government have been questioned by many over the past 5 years as the organization has consistently aligned itself with whatever position the NDP or “left” in Canada takes on most human rights matters. This usually involves a narrative where the Conservatives are always bad and are pre-disposed to things like handing over detainees to be tortured in Afghanistan, etc. Never mind the absence  of evidence to back these claims. Instead, Amnesty International would rather attack the government with the same media lines as the NDP caucus.  They did this on the Afghanistan detainee file, with Richard Colvin, and with several matters involving Canada’s’ Foreign policy regarding the Israeli –Palestinian question.  However, their latest assertion that war criminals hiding in Canada may be innocent and should somehow get preferential treatment was a bit much for many, including Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. When there are thousands fighting for democratic freedom being  murdered by their own government in Syria, when there are millions dying of starvation in the Horn of Africa, largely  due  to the ineptitude of diplomats at the  United Nations and the genocidal actions of warloads, and when there are hundreds of women in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania being raped by security forces at mines  controlled by Canadian Mining giant Barrack Gold, Mr. Neve finds time in his day to write a letter to scold Ottawa for aggressively targeting and going after war criminals hiding out in Canada. Make no mistake about it-these are people on the lam here who have committed atrocious human rights crimes. Has Amnesty International Canada become so jaded they can’t even give Harper a gold star when he does something right.  Apparently, not. The current management team at Amnesty International (Canada) has diminished itself, its supporters and Amnesty International (Canada) with its dumbfounded defence of what they believe to be the rights of war criminals hiding out in Canada.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney responded to the Amnesty International (Canada) criticism on Canada’s new policy to hunt down and remove war criminals hiding out in Canada. The full text of the letter from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada is below. It raises serious questions about the credibility and objectivity of Amnesty International Canada and its current leadership in Canada.

August 9, 2011
Dear Mr Neve and Mrs Vaugrante,

I must confess that my first reaction upon reading your open letter to Minister Toews and myself was one of surprise and joy.  For your organization to muster its formidable powers of suasion against the orderly and innoxious proceedings of the Canadian immigration system must mean that the world’s most truculent regimes have discharged their last political prisoners and advocates of democracy are free to march in the streets of Tehran and Pyongyang.  I have since learned this is not the case, leaving me puzzled as to why Amnesty International (AI) would waste its time and resources opposing the legal deportation of war criminals and serious human rights violators from Canada.

When I joined AI in high school, it was to defend the rights of political dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and to oppose brutal regimes, including those still doing bloody business in Iran and North Korea.  I am disappointed to learn you are now squandering the moral authority accrued in those campaigns on targeting one of the most generous immigration systems in the world, and protesting the actions of Canadian public servants applying rules and laws that far exceed our international obligations.

I will take your points in order.  You begin by expressing “concern” that the government published the names and photos of individuals “who have been accused of having committed war crimes or crimes against humanity who are believed to be residing in Canada.”  Let me pause here to correct a common misconception, one shared by many in the press.  These men are not merely “accused” or “alleged” human rights violators; the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) does not make allegations or accusations – it makes formal findings of fact and its decisions may be appealed to the federal courts.  Every one of these men was found to be inadmissible to Canada under section 35 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.  This means that the IRB found that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that each of these men committed “an offence referred to in sections 4 to 7 of the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act,” i.e., they were complicit in genocide, crimes against humanity or a war crime.  These findings were based on evidence – including, in many cases, voluntary admissions – after formal proceedings during which these men had the right to be represented by counsel.

You are further “concerned that the initiative does not conform to Canada’s obligations with respect to human rights and international justice.”  Poppycock.  The due process these individuals have already been afforded exceeds both the requirements of the Charter and Canada’s international treaty obligations.  Individuals are not lightly or easily deported in Canada; it typically involves multiple levels of review and appeal and can take years or even decades.  Casually asserting that this generous system violates “human rights and international justice,” without elaboration or specific citations, is sloppy and irresponsible.  In fact, this is precisely the slander you wrongly accuse the government of directing at the deportees.  More troubling, it dilutes the meaning of the words “human rights and international justice,” the moral authority of which is threatened by such reckless imprecision and promiscuous misapplication by self-proclaimed “human rights” organizations.

You correctly note that these men have “been found ineligible for entry into Canada on the basis of these accusations, and have been ordered deported” (though the snide preface “apparently” is unnecessary and unworthy), but you object that “the details about the nature, basis or seriousness of the accusations against them have [not] been made public.”  This is not entirely true and, where true, not fair.

Where the individuals have made their records public, either voluntarily or in federal court, the details of their cases are well known.  For example, we know that one of the 30 men still at large, Jose Domingo Malaga Arica, admitted to participating in helicopter raids on villages in which women and children were machine-gunned indiscriminately and to transporting accused criminals to be tortured.  We know this because his federal court record is public.  However, in cases where no exception to the Privacy Act applies, the government has not revealed such detailed information.  What would AI’s reaction be if we did?  I think I can guess from your demand at the end of your letter that we do more to “safeguard” the “privacy” of these scofflaws.  You can’t have it both ways: you can’t protest that we have not revealed enough information about these men at the same time you oppose our identifying them at all.  Is it your position that the Canadian public does not deserve to know that these men are hiding among us unless or until each of them has signed privacy waiver allowing details of their complicity in crimes against humanity to be made public?  If so, I respectfully disagree.  I believe the Canadian public deserves better.

You also complain that we have chosen to deport these men, instead of trying them for war crimes or crimes against humanity.  Our primary duty as a government is to protect Canada and Canadians.  Deporting these men discharges this duty and ensures Canada will not become a sanctuary for international war criminals and serious human rights abusers.  We are not obligated to conduct full-blown trials, at the cost of millions of taxpayer dollars, to prosecute every inadmissible individual for crimes committed in distant countries, often decades ago.  In addition to the extraordinary time and cost this would require, it would burden an already-strained legal system and clog our courts with foreign criminals.  Moreover, in many cases the lack of accessible evidence, local witnesses and a meaningful connection between Canada and the crimes committed would make prosecution a quixotic proposition.  That said, where an individual is the subject of a warrant from a foreign court or tribunal, we will consider turning him over to the appropriate authorities.  Our preeminent goal, however, is defending Canada and upholding the integrity of our immigration system by enforcing these outstanding deportation orders.

On one point, at least, I am pleased to be able to allay your concerns.  You fear that these individuals “might be at risk of serious human rights violations,” such as “torture, extrajudicial execution or enforced disappearance,” when they are returned to their home countries.  As you know, every one of these men is entitled to a pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA), which ensures that Canada complies with its existing treaty obligations and does not refoule even the worst of offenders to face “torture, extrajudicial execution or enforced disappearance.”  They are also entitled to apply for judicial review by the federal courts of a negative PRRA decision, providing for multiple layers of protection.

Finally, you claim to be “concerned about the fact that these cases have been so widely publicized” given the “reputational harm” it may cause these men and the hypothetical risk it may impose on them or their relatives.  No doubt such exquisitely burnished sympathy does you credit.  However, as a former AI member, may I suggest that ostentatious hand-wringing over the good name of war criminals and human rights violators may sit uneasily with those AI members who, perhaps naively, believe your compassion should be reserved for their victims.

The Canadian public understandably wants war criminals and human rights violators kept out of Canada.  When they sneak in or escape before they can be sent home, the public wants us to find them and remove them.  Not coincidentally, this is also what the law requires.  Your calls for more time, more process, more deference and more protection for war criminals and serious human rights violators, by contrast, come across as self-congratulatory moral preening.  I have listened to your concerns, and, frankly, I prefer the common sense of the people and the law.

The Hon. Jason Kenney, M.P., P.C.

Strange Weather, Terrible Politics

July 26, 2011 10:05 am

It is July and, like an annual summer ritual, much of Canada and the U.S. are in the grips of a sweltering heat wave. Record temperatures were set for much of the country last week. The forecast, moreover, is for sustained heat with very little or no rain over the next short while. Many of those living in urban centers welcome the scorching hot days. The unrelenting heat makes the relief of spending a day at the beach and swimming in a cold lake or drinking beer on a shaded patio all that much sweeter.  Venture beyond the city, however, and the issues the weather raises are often more immediate and pressing. In Northern Ontario, the intense heat has sparked hundreds of forest fires. The leaders of the Keewaywin First Nation and Land Lake First Nation respectively are asking the province to declare a state of emergency, as entire communities are being evacuated to escape the approaching blazes. Only weeks after the flooding of the Assiniboine River, the combination of sustained heat and rainless days has created fears of drought in the prairies. Farmers understand in a much more intimate way the dangers of an unstable climate generating extreme weather conditions. Flooding followed by unrelenting dry conditions weeks later is hardly conducive to good harvests.


A consequence of extreme drought.

To be sure, intense summer heat is nothing new. Moreover, the sources of weather patterns vary. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, El Nino-Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation: all are climatic systems capable of playing havoc with weather.  Thus who is to say that a couple of intensely hot and dry weeks in July can be attributed to something as relatively specific as greenhouse gas emissions? The problem is that record heat and dry days constitute only one example of extreme weather. Much of the U.S. mid-west has endured a particularly brutal tornado season and much of the Southern U.S. is contending with its own threat of drought. In Somalia, drought is fuelling the latest threat of famine.

Or consider Canada’s Arctic region. The Arctic has long been considered a bellwether region in the ongoing efforts to understand our climate. The area is thus always a focus in the reports published by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In them, the panel uses complicated computer models to predict the rate of melting of Arctic sea ice and glaciers. The IPCC has been criticized in the past for, among other things, selectively choosing data and alarmist projections. Yet a recent study sets out to answer the question of why arctic ice is melting much more rapidly than IPCC climate models anticipate. A group of UK scientists have made the following hypothesis. More recently formed ice has a heavier salt content than older ice. When recently formed ice melts it is thus denser and heavier than the surface water. It thus sinks and in so doing displaces warmer water, which rises to the top. The warmer water then accelerates the melting of the arctic ice. In keeping with the scientific method, the UK scientists insist more evidence is required before any definitive conclusions can be drawn. Nevertheless their hypothesis is very much in keeping with theories of how changes to the climate will unfold. That is to say, there is a very real risk that the warming process will initiate feed-back loops which will, in turn, amplify warming’s effects. Warming and its many consequences will thus not necessarily proceed in an incremental fashion.

Melting sea ice in the Canadian Arctic.

This is precisely what climatologists have been warning us about. Changes to our climate will produce more examples of strange weather. Storms will be more violent and frequent. Weather patterns will be more volatile, thus rendering something as fundamentally important as farming much more difficult. This is especially true in arid or semi-arid landscapes, as the ongoing tragedy in Somalia demonstrates. Sea ice will melt and snow cover throughout much of the Northern hemisphere will continue to diminish. Such patterns will, in turn, initiate changes to biological systems. In order to stem these changes, most climatologists argue, greenhouse gas emissions must be dramatically curtailed.

One legitimately wonders how hot it must get or how much Arctic ice must melt before the Harper government understands the threats posed by a radically altered climate. Harper insists his government is prepared to act, but only in tandem with their U.S. counterparts. The problem, of course, is that all the forces in the U.S. are conspiring to minimize any concerted effort to actually address the issue. Congress is now controlled by the Republicans, many of whom consider climate change merely a hoax peddled by members of the media and rogue elements of the scientific community. They regard any government led efforts to address the dangers of a changing climate like universal health care, namely, as part of President Obama’s insidious campaign to create a more intrusive state. Indeed their rhetoric is a sad reflection of how shallow, unscientific and intensely partisan the GOP has become.  Regrettably Obama has seemingly capitulated to GOP pressure tactics.  In the early days of his administration Obama acknowledged the threats associated with climate change and promised action. But a moribund economy, persistently high unemployment, a staggering debt and the ongoing challenge of having to contend with a Republican controlled congress have created an alternative set of priorities for his government. Now he doesn’t use the term ‘climate change’ when speaking about American energy policy or when speaking at a memorial for the latest tornado victims.

With rising temperatures, the heat is certainly on politicians.

The Harper administration has no such government impediments to addressing the issue. The Conservatives now have a majority and, besides, the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Green Party acknowledge the reality that many of the changes to our climate are anthropogenic induced. Nevertheless so long as the Obama administration does nothing substantive on the climate change file, we can expect a similarly dispirited effort from our own government. Despite his occasional claims to the contrary, this suits Harper just fine. He still doesn’t utter the term climate change when speaking publicly and indeed has expressed doubts that it is a real phenomenon worthy of our attention.

More importantly, any attempt to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions would require a dramatic shift in the government’s approach to Alberta’s tar sands development. Oil production is a source of carbon emissions and is thus a vital contributor to climate change. This has done nothing to stem the demand for oil, the price of which has been steadily rising for years. Alberta’s tar sands were too expensive to develop so long as the price of oil remained below a certain threshold.  That has long ceased to be a problem.  On the contrary, Alberta’s sustained economic boom is largely due to the tar sands. Harper would risk alienating his core constituency to address a problem he has yet to declare actually exists. Small wonder then that Canada has repeatedly received a “fossil of the year,” given to the country which demonstrates the least resolve in reducing green-gas emissions and addressing climate change.

Terri-Jean Cracks Her Whip

July 20, 2011 11:20 am
Cover of Terri-Jean Bedford's new book "Dominatrix OnTrial"

With a new book entitled “Dominatrix On Trial” which hit the book shelves this week at Chapters, Indigo, and Coles, as well as a e-book version currently available,Terri-Jean Bedford, Canada’s most famous Dominatrix, is a determined woman who is anxious to tell her story.  Dominatrix, woman’s advocate, activist, painter, writer, and her most prized title “Grandma”, Terri-Jean gives us her take on the law, its limits, politicians, and Prime Minister Harper.

Terri-Jean has stared adversity in the face most of her life.  Throughout her childhood, teenage years, and as an adult, she was strong willed and determined yet unconventional.    She is not someone that could be bullied nor silenced.  She has faced the law in the past, most notably with charges of operating a common bawdy house under the then current anti-prostitution laws.  Now she finds herself in a constitutional fight that has brought down those same laws and divided a province.

Photo: Book cover of Terri-Jean Bedford’s new book “Dominatrix On Trial”.

Crimes Against Children

July 11, 2011 9:06 am
child soldiers

When you look deep into a child’s eyes, you can see their complete trust in the world and their vulnerability. You can hear it in their voices and laughs. They are little people that simply wear their hearts on their sleeves showing their bravery, trust, love, and fears. Their lives are literally in our hands.  We have the ability to help mould and support creative, compassionate, intelligent adults that will lead our world into a state of peace, longevity, as well as economic and environmental sustainability.

Although 194 countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is a human rights treaty that sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children around the world, the reality of the current situation brings us to reflect on the question of whether or not we are doing all we can to protect the children of the world.

Crimes against children are of the most deplorable acts in the world. They are crimes that cannot be forgiven, nor forgotten. There is the military use of children in which children, sometimes as young as 7 years old, are used as human shields or child soldiers. Children are more likely to experience racial discrimination. The genital mutilation of girls and boys still happens in parts of the world and within certain cultures. Children are trafficked, sold, and traded for sex, drugs, and/or money. From young ages many of them experience violence, homelessness, child abuse, disease, hunger, and neglect. Every day, millions of children are subject to some type of victimization.  Some of them are right here in our communities. What are we doing to protect them?

From a global perspective, the statistics are astonishing. Various studies and reports that were completed between 2000 and 2006 by several world organizations including the International Labor Organization, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization, demonstrate the severity of the issue. They revealed the following:

Child Soldiers: Over 50 countries are recruiting child soldiers in their wars and there are over 250,000 children participating in war.

Child Labour: In 2004, it was estimated that 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 were involved in child labour and 126 million of those were in hazardous work. In 2000, estimates suggested that 5.7 million children were in forced labour, 1.8 million in prostitution and/or pornography, and 1.2 million were trafficked as sex workers.

Genital Mutilation:  It is estimated that between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to female genital mutilation. An estimated 3 million girls in Africa are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year.

Sex Trade: Estimates suggest that EACH year, 1 million children all over the world are sold internationally and across borders into the sex trade.

Murder: Estimates gathered from country-level data suggest that 53,000 children died worldwide as a result of homicide (2002)

Infrastructure: 30,500 children under 5 die each day of mainly preventable disease and thousands more are ill due to poor sanitation and the lack of clean drinking water.

Racism: Groups of children that are most vulnerable to violence are those with disabilities, from ethnic minorities, refugees, and other displaced children.

These are not just numbers and statistics. They represent countless living, breathing, human beings that suffer this victimization. As a collective force, all nations need to express our abhorrence towards those who commit heinous acts against the most vulnerable people in society. The indifference of the world governments and leaders must be shaken to create awareness that these atrocities, including the negligence of providing adequate infrastructure, education, and health care to children, are simply not acceptable and are against international laws. How do we do this? We begin to make a difference in the lives of children that are closest to us.  Then we open ourselves up to the ideology that “it takes a village to raise a child”. We have a collective responsibility toward the most “at risk people” in our society, to those who have no voice.  We are the ones that must stand up for them when their parents, their schoolmates, their teachers, and their governments won’t.

Have you ever turned a blind eye on a child that is being victimized? Have their eyes met yours for a few seconds only for you look away because you thought it wasn’t your business? Perhaps afterwards you’ve had it in the back of your mind that you could have made a difference in that child’s life? Simply put, you probably could have.


Prostitution and Canadian Society’s Moral Compass

June 27, 2011 9:00 am

There are some subjects in Canadian news that draw concrete opposing views from its citizens.  Not only do they draw such strong opinions, but they strike an intense emotional chord.  Prostitution is one of those subjects.  When such a discussion takes place, people tend to engage on a very personal level  since it puts into question one’s moral compass and we begin to “cast stones.”

PROSTITUTION IS NOT ILLEGAL IN CANADA!!!  Many are not aware of this truth.  As recently as last fall, Justice Susan Himel struck down three laws that exist in order to make it difficult, dangerous and almost impossible to practice prostitution That purportedly, in the eyes of the righteous, acts as a deterrent to engaging in the sex trade lifestyle.  The three laws –  living off the avails of prostitution, operating a common bawdy house, and communication for the purposes of prostitution – all put sex trade workers at risk of violence for a variety of reasons.  These laws prohibit screening a John prior to embarking into a car, having a body guard, having a place where appointments can be taken, or reporting assault to the police.  She struck these laws down because she recognized and acknowledged that under the Constitution, these prostitutes are considered “persons” too and that they are also entitled to “security of person” and “equal protection and equal benefit of the law.”

When it comes to the safety of another human being, wouldn’t you put them ahead of your own moral standards?  In fact, the morality of that choice should be put into question.  As a society we must begin to question ourselves about the motive of our desire to marginalize certain groups of people.  Does it make us feel righteous?  Do we feel better creating social inequality?  Certain people have difficulty relinquishing the idea of society status or “class” structure.  Is it because this is how they measure their success in life? There are very specific criteria by which we define social classes, such as income, wealth, power, schooling, and occupational prestige.  By adopting this, as a society we are able to weed out from our social class those whom we deem not worthy.  We create jurisprudence around this notion at other people’s expense.

Some Canadians and government officials believe that by striking down these laws, the moral fabric of Canadian society will further deteriorate and it will make it easier for pimps to recruit young, even underage girls into the sex trade. They think that it will entice underage girls or young women to take up the practice as a profession.  When we begin to stop trying to solve problems through criminalization of prostitution, we can move forward to address the real issue of the exploitation of vulnerable people and implement solutions.  By peeling away the aspects of prostitution that contribute to the danger, we can put into place measures or programs that would keep these people safe and to ensure that there is also a clear exit door for sex trade workers.

Why should we feel a degree of compassion for people that some might consider to be immoral? We do it to arm them with tools that will protect them and may ultimately change their lives.  We do it because healthy, safe, and happy people, create a healthy, safe, and happy society.  Instead of punishing those that turn to the sex trade to support themselves, we need to acknowledge the dynamics that contributed to their decision to enter the lifestyle.  Causative factors may include abuse, neglect, substance abuse, addiction, mental illness, family dysfunction, poverty, homelessness, and depression, to name a few.  Many of the solutions can be found in addressing those particular problems and not by criminalizing prostitution.

I won’t use the cliché “it is the oldest profession on earth” to support my views that Justice Himel’s decision regarding the anti-prostitution laws should be upheld. I won’t reason that in other countries prostitution is legalized.  Nor will I reason that people who date can be considered to engage in “sex trade” of a different form…ie.supper and gifts in exchange for sex.  This merely simplifies what should be considered as a far more complex situation.  Conversely, I would also agree that the concerns of Canadians’ that support the laws are absolutely founded.  However, the laws as they currently exist are not protecting these vulnerable people nor are they deterring them from entering the lifestyle.  They are aggravating an already volatile situation.

It isn’t the laws that deter people from becoming prostitutes.  It is their personal moral standards, upbringing, personal experience, and personal views of the world and themselves.  Trying to deter people by threats of violence and danger is just wrong.  Are we not a more civilized society? By upholding Justice Himel’s decision, women (and men) in the trade would be better equipped to exercise control over their particular situations,  removing  the power from others and putting it back into their hands.

In Canada, first and foremost, we have an obligation to ensure safety to everyone.   We should not objectify sex trade workers but rather acknowledge them as living, breathing, human beings.  As a progressive and compassionate society we need to keep that reality in the forefront of our minds. The issue isn’t whether or not we subscribe to the idea that engaging in prostitution on either end of the transaction is right or wrong, but rather if everyone deserves a right to protection.  The question remains, is it right to value our ideas of morality and righteousness to a higher degree than that of another human being’s right to safety?


Canada : In a State of Denial

June 17, 2011 9:00 am

There are so many people even today who have a very negative perception of Canada’s First Nations People.  Not only do they have a negative perception, but many times they feel contempt, indifference to their current detrimental predicament, and a sense of unfairness that they glean certain benefits from the federal government that other Canadians do not.  How is it that in 2011 many Canadians continue to share these views? Why is it that First Nations People are the brunt of their antipathy? Why do we continue to deny that there is a grave injustice being carried out in present day Canada against the First Nations People.  Most of the answers cannot be found in history books but rather in the close examination of individual pieces of history.  The problem is etched into our past and so deep and profound, that it will take all of us collectively to begin changing our attitudes and creating awareness of the truths of the past and the present, in order to bring about progress.

Rolf Hicker Photo.

“Knowledge is power”.  Inaccurate knowledge of the facts is dangerous,  and can  have repercussions that echo generations. In Canadian history classes, we were taught who “discovered” this great vast land. We were educated on the collaborative relationships of the Natives and our European ancestors. Our education system neglected to mention the very important ugly aspects of that history.  It didn’t educate us on the treaties, what they meant, what the Europeans guaranteed the Natives in exchange for their land. It didn’t educate us on the manipulative means by which they convinced leaders and communities (providing them alcohol, a substance foreign to them) to agree and sign the treaties. We didn’t learn about  Duncan Campbell Scott, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Superintendant who vowed to “get rid of the Indian Problem” and to “kill the Indian in the child”. They didn’t tell us about the atrocities at the residential schools where not only in some instances did they take kids by force from their families, but at the hands of the church and state, the kids in many cases were subject to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. They neglected to tell us that 50% of children that were sent to the schools either died or disappeared.  They didn’t tell us about the graveyards and burial sites at these schools.

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resilience to illness by habituating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of the Department, which is geared toward the final solution of our Indian Problem.” (Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Superintendant Duncan Campbell Scott to B.C. Indian Agent – General Major D. McKay, DIA archives, RG10 series)

The apprehension of children from their homes at ages as young as 4 to attend the residential schools greatly impacted the generation that attended the school s and has had a ripple effect through subsequent generations.  Those children, who are now grandparents, in many instances lost their ability to form emotional connections, to be autonomous, to think or act independently, to love or be loved, and to provide support.  This has been an impediment to  forming healthy relationships, to raising children, to holding jobs, bringing up leaders, and to running healthy productive independent communities.  It has contributed to the poverty, substance abuse, and very high suicide rates that are commonly identified as First Nations’ issues.

Photo from Remy Scalza.

Unfortunately, the omission of these very important pieces of history from our educational careers may lead us to accept as fact Prime Minister Harper’s erroneous statement that Canada has “no history of colonialism”.

We can also look at our present ignorance of facts which form our perception of the First Peoples.  Even though under international human rights laws, First Nations children are guaranteed the same level of services, and education as non-native children, this is not the case in Canada.  There is up to $2,000 less funding per child.  As of May 31st, 2011, there were 111 First Nation reserves on drinking water advisories.  The average duration of a drinking water advisory for a First Nation community is 343 days! The maximum has been 12 years!  Some reserves share one tap of potable water for the entire community.  Many reserves do not have adequate housing. There are sometimes up to 4 generations living in a house. Sometimes there are up to 15 people in a 1,000 square foot bungalow. These are all provisions that were dealt with in the treaties but are evidently currently not being respected.

The Government of Canada has spent billions of dollars improving the living conditions in other countries and have demonstrated a commitment to providing foreign aid.   By doing so, they get good press.  Canada gets a big pat on the back from the international community.  If the federal government were to redirect some of their efforts to improve the current situation of its First Nations People, it would mean admitting the dysfunction at “Home”.   It would mean airing Canada’s dirty laundry for everyone to see.

As reported by the Auditor General Sheila Fraser, not only is the situation dire, but despite numerous reports through the years  documenting the importance of implementing change to improve the situation, the situation has worsened.  If drastic measures are not taken soon, the conditions will never begin to ameliorate.

By denying our true history and continually absolving ourselves of our responsibility to making Canada a just and equal society, we collectively perpetuate an inaccurate account of First Nations’ past and present.  What is interesting is that we would expect so much more from our children.  In the school yard, we expect them to stand up to bullies, act with compassion, and to lend a helping hand, for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do. In team sports, we teach them to win and lose as a team. The stronger players pick up the slack for the weaker ones.  Regardless of who makes the mistake on field, court, or ice, collectively we take responsibility for our wins and losses.

Claiming responsibility for the wrongs of the past affords us with a great deal of control over the situation, the path to progression, and subsequent outcome.  Canada is equipped with the knowledge, tools, and resources to make significant positive changes to improve the lives of First Nations People and to do it immediately and effectively.  The question is will we do it? Or will we continue to hide behind our false recollection of the past, the bureaucracy, and denial?




Wrestling Canadian Cultural Identity

June 7, 2011 9:00 am

The government has every obligation to foster, support and promote the artistic activities of the nation it serves. That participatory relationship should be no more than recognition through fostering of the fact that by virtue, the work of its people is virtually the work of the people’s collective culture. Canada sometimes passively and sometimes blatantly finds itself often mired in struggles to grasp its identity. It is a nationally shared pastime. Indeed an increasing western world attitude of an economic and social global vision competes with notions of national differences. That collectively allows for a vibrant sense of diversity across the plant. It does not mean equality by any means, but it allows for recognition. That very diversity and the ability for many to contribute to a oneness of humanity may be within the realm of Pollyanna-like thinking, but as a vision it is a comforting dream at the very least.

Culturally, the concept of Canada has been one that has been difficult to define and as equally challenging to demonstrate. Candidly many Canadians, from a myriad of cultural backgrounds, would find themselves arriving at the same conclusions about what it is that makes this country as great as it is and was always meant to be. Maybe the struggle with its identity and the healthy argument of its definition says who and what it is that we are. Open to healthy debate and conjecture, impressions and dreams, the Canadian attraction is that we can freely have those aspirations and be just as Canadian as the next person.

Many things go into the mix when realizing a sense of national pride and belonging. Depending on perception not all of them resound comfortably but all can be integrally important to the whole. The arts afford a culture venues for its stories; places to relate our diverse histories, and present ideas about our future directions. Commentary, whether visual, written, danced or acted focuses our minds on how we look at the world around us. That essence of us is a key. The creativity of artists gives all of us avenues to take in new ways of looking, liking or even hating. There is an exchange between the artist and those of us who observe or partake in a presentation. There is tremendous give and take, enough to ignite volumes of ideas for commentary and criticism. Inspiration flows in both directions. Canada’s endearing and enduring love of the ‘Canadian hockey game’ overflows into all aspects of its culture and has seen representation in many art forms. Those who argue that the arts are expendable should open their eyes wider to the effective and affective, provocative, fast bonded three-way symbiotic relationship between sports, culture and arts. In Canada with hockey that is a unique love triangle.

All art created by Canadians is Canadian art by default, virtue and inspiration. Not that long ago at the Vancouver Olympics the Canadian award winning slam poet/spoken word artist Shane Koyczan touched and moved us all with “We Are More”. He represents a burgeoning not so new literary reality in this country; part hip hop, part poetry, all about the word it is massively literary and very Canadian, again by default, virtue and inspiration. It is as deserving of experts in its field to champion and sensitively curate guide and present its glory to its ultimate levels of excellence and possibility (video available here).

Recent cuts to staff at the National Gallery of Canada are a wound on national institutions that present the country’s cultural fabrics. There is always debate about the importance of the arts to this country. Strong opinions point to how the arts have shaped the nation and others point to the issue of government support and perceived interference. The arts have importance and viability regardless of the state of a country’s economic fortitude. There could only be consensus on that point. Post NGC curatorial staff cuts it may be true that the museum still has the largest curatorial staff in the country but the loss of the five talented specialists is no small affair. Specialists in arts and culture are essential and integral to the defining foundation of a people and nation. They help us to answer the question – what kind of people are we? They literally curate more than the art in the building but also set it out in such a way that in its celebration it includes Canada – by default, virtue and inspiration. As such they are integral to the blood, sinew and muscle that underlay the ever evolving definition of a nation and particularly this one. The reasons for the cuts are in keeping with an age of austerity whether real or fabricated it is a sign of the times we are in. Reasons have been given; this is not a forum for any of them. Cultural integrity is always at stake. The adage of Canada’s motto, ‘From Sea to Sea’, the phrase from the Seal of The United States, ‘Out of Many One’, and the Lyrics of Bob Marley’s, ‘One Love/People Get Ready’, “One Love, One Heart, Let’s get together and feel all right…”. Maybe simplistic but they are also they also are inspiration and thought worthy. Canada is a young diverse nation as countries go, we are still weaving our fabrics together and to interfere with that, or see it as a done deal, at any point along the way, is tragic and myopic.

Artists thrive because they reflect and challenge their broader communities. This is true at a national level and very evident at local levels. Ottawa as a city is a case in point, a city bursting at the seams with an impossible, and yet, vibrant festival calendar. It rivals cultural capitals worldwide. Its charm is in its matter of fact manner and humility at times as it shows the world that the arts, culture and diversity are a not to be ignored element of its definition. No matter what you may think of it from inside the ‘fence’ from the outside see it as a growing, attractive destination of choice thanks to its festivals, size and atmosphere.

Is Liberalism Dead in Canada?

May 17, 2011 10:11 am

On election night in my area of North Toronto, the cold days that dominated most of April were finally being driven out by the warm gusts of spring. Perhaps that is why few people noticed the gusts of change that were about to sweep across the Canadian political landscape. Everyone knew the conservatives would win, but the expectation was that Canada would likely enter another minority parliament. The Bloc might suffer at the expense of the NDP, but would still retain its dominant status within Quebec. And at the end of the night the liberals, for all their misfortunes, would still seem like the only likely alternative to Harper’s conservatives. The early tallies did little to alter this overall impression. The conservatives were leading from the word ‘go,’ but the liberals and NDP remained close in terms of projected seat counts. Among the first early signs that something was amiss for the liberals was the early lead assumed by conservative Bernard Trottier over Michael Iganatieff. The race was very close but as more votes were counted the gap widened just enough that it was clear Ignatieff would lose his seat after holding it for only one parliament. Other developments were equally ominous for the party. Long time Liberal MPs who once easily held their respective ridings – Ken Dryden, Joe Volpe, among many others – were suddenly on the losing end of races. Their long term presence in the House of Commons was once a source of stability; on this night, it had become a liability. Many younger liberals – Gerard Kennedy among the most prominent – fared no better. Liberal urban heartlands were, by the end of the evening, liberal urban wastelands.

Indeed, what was most striking was the sense by the evening’s end of a party that suddenly seemed antiquated, as though the rest of the country had passed them by. Not surprisingly, party members were stunned. Michael Ignatieff spoke that night with subdued passion and conviction. But for all its strengths, his speech also conveyed bewilderment, as though he couldn’t begin to explain what had just happened, why Canadians didn’t warm to him or why the party that dominated Canadian politics for so long could only win 34 seats in a 308 seat parliament. This impression was fuelled by visuals. The jet black backdrop in a room that was half empty made it seem as though he was speaking at a funeral and not at a political event. The few people there could scarcely contain their mix of disbelief and despair.  They too were no doubt wondering how a liberal campaign could have gone so spectacularly wrong.

The post election hand wringing has seemingly only confirmed that the liberal party is adrift with no sense of direction. Although there is constant talk of the need for ‘renewal,’ party members seem deeply uncertain as to what this process might mean. What’s worse, there remains internal disarray and in fighting. Some party members would like a leadership convention sooner rather than later. Others, such as Jean Chretien, insist that Harper’s majority gives the party the luxury of time. Meanwhile both Bob Rae and Carolyn Bennett publicly expressed their displeasure with the party executive’s silly determination that any interim party leader will not be able to run in the actual leadership race. Their leadership problems run deeper. Historically one of the party’s strengths was the number of quality people who many could imagine as leader and prime minister. Now, by contrast, there is an utter dearth of obvious choices. Some even question if the party has a future.

Not all of the post election analysis has been doom and gloom. Some party members and pundits correctly note the role of vote-splitting in securing the conservative majority. Minimize the splitting, the thinking goes, and Harper will have a harder time next election winning so many seats, particularly in Ontario. The vital role of leadership has also been emphasized. The right leader, possibly young and charismatic, will lift the entire party’s fortunes. Yet it was widely believed that Ignatieff would prove more effective than his immediate predecessor, Stephane Dion, and couldn’t possibly do any worse. Of course, he did much worse! Could it be then that the liberal’s woes reflect a more fundamental shift in the country’s politics? Could it be that the party’s miserable election outcome, its internal disarray and the questions surrounding its future are symptomatic of a deeper crisis for liberalism as a political philosophy?

One of the defining features of Canada’s political landscape in the 20th century was the dominant role of both Quebec and Ontario in federal politics. Liberal majorities more often than not were won in Quebec and Ontario. The vital importance and role of the two provinces is typically attributed to the high number of seats found in both. Quebec has 75 seats, Ontario 106.  More fundamentally, however, the dominant role of the two provinces was a function of the economy. Both were manufacturing heartlands, the basis of Canada’s economic development and strong rates of economic growth throughout much of the last century. Liberalism thrived largely because the economy made it possible for it to do so.

Quebec and Ontario’s shared dominance produced its own echoes throughout western Canada. Throughout much of the last century Alberta’s resentment towards Central Canada festered. Alberta’s political establishment in particular took exception to their limited role in national politics and to intrusions into their own provincial affairs. Equally important was the gradual emergence of a different set of ideological priorities. Most Albertans thought the Canadian state was too expansionist and committed to programs that were too costly. Taxes were too high. Liberalism, from the perspective of many in the west, was the problem with how the country was governed. This was the impetus fuelling the formation of the Reform Party, the Conservative-Alliance Party and finally the revived conservative party under Stephen Harper. They have spent years maneuvering their way towards power in Ottawa. Their efforts have been aided by Canada’s altered economic landscape. Ontario and Quebec’s manufacturing base has withered. Alberta in particular is, of course, rich in oil, a limited resource that more and more of the world needs.

This gradual shift westward in economic power has had various long term consequences, some of which account for the waning appeal of liberalism and for the liberal party’s malaise. Governments, we are told, can no longer assume an active role in meeting important social challenges. For doing so might require taking on a deficit or worse, increasing taxes. Any policy initiative that might require increasing taxes is immediately characterized as irresponsible and unaffordable. Stephane Dion’s proposal in 2008 to use a taxation scheme to combat climate change was ruthlessly – and successfully – pilloried by the conservatives. This election, Michael Ignatieff’s promise to rescind the conservative’s last round of corporate tax cuts was similarly dismissed. Liberalism hasn’t been able to withstand the strain to which it has been subject. And the liberal party hasn’t figured out how to successfully challenge the prevailing economic wisdom the conservatives keep preaching to Canadians. Until they do, the party’s fortunes are not bound to improve.


Our Shifting Political Landscape

May 3, 2011 10:11 pm
Michael Ignatieff

“Politics,” as Michael Ignatieff graciously acknowledged last night, “offers hard lessons we all must learn.” This is not only a hard truth for defeated politicians and for those who still invest hopes in the political process. It is also the case for prognosticators of the political scene. It’s not so much the conservative majority that was unexpected last night, but the evening’s accompanying storylines. For who would have predicted even a few days ago that the Bloc would be so thoroughly defeated in Quebec? At the campaign’s start, who would have thought such a historic breakthrough for the NDP was possible, particularly inside Quebec? And who would have believed a party with as many high profile candidates as the Liberals would suffer such a devastating setback? Indeed, Canada’s political landscape has shifted. The wave of change inspires its own set of questions. With the Bloc effectively eliminated, what is the future of Quebec’s sovereignty movement? How should we understand the Liberal Party’s dreadful showing? How might the conservatives govern now that they’ve finally won their long sought majority?


The rout of the Bloc Party is, to be sure, a blow to Quebec’s sovereignty movement. Gilles Duceppe lost his seat and immediately resigned as party leader.  The Bloc now have only 4 seats. To suggest, however, that the election results presage the demise of the sovereignty movement is premature at best, pure folly at worst. As the political analyst Allen Gregg remarked last night,

Gilles Duceppe

the Bloc’s presence in Ottawa represented a “safety valve” for Quebec voters, particularly those ambivalent about sovereignty. That safety valve has now been eliminated. Their near sweep of the province notwithstanding, it is easy to imagine the NDP’s surge in the province as tentative and potentially short lived. After all, some of the NDP candidates to win last night don’t even speak French; others didn’t even campaign in their own riding. Astoundingly, one winning candidate was in Las Vegas for much of the campaign. The learning curve for the party as a whole in Quebec and their representatives in the House of Commons will be steep. It is easy to imagine the mood that gave rise to the NDP’s strong showing ultimately shifting. That sort of scenario could manifest itself in a renewed push for sovereignty.


The Liberals suffered from the conservative’s relentless attack ads. The attacks on Michael Ignatieff were especially appalling, but ultimately effective. The liberal leader lost his own seat and has also just resigned as party leader. One of the election’s ironies is that Harper’s ambition for a majority was fuelled by his unrelenting attacks of Ignatieff’s personal ambition. To pursue a career outside of Canada, to teach at Harvard, to engage in worldly affairs as Michael Ignatieff has spent his working life doing and then dare to return to Canada and aspire to govern is a form of elitism that Canadians can do without. This was the essence of Harper’s attacks on the liberal leader. Considering much of the country’s love for Pierre Trudeau, it is perhaps strange and more than a little sad that such a strategy worked so splendidly. As one liberal candidate lamented, “the hatchet job on Michael Ignatieff is complete.”


Michael Ignatieff

Yet we should caution against attributing the liberal demise to simply conservative attacks. Another source of the Liberal party’s misfortune last night is perhaps less obvious. The Liberal strategy was to position themselves in the center of the political spectrum, in the expectation that enough Canadians would have an aversion to any party too far to the right or too far to the left. But in a very crucial sense, the Liberals were the victims of the move to the center of the political spectrum among all the major parties. In addition to their unrelenting attacks on the Liberals in particular, the conservatives were determined to allay any lingering fears of a conservative majority. They did so largely by presenting themselves as competent managers of the country’s finances and targeting particular ridings where liberal or NDP incumbents were vulnerable.  But they also promised annual 6% funding increases to medicare, thereby effectively eliminating health care as a point of vulnerability for the party.


Similarly the NDP has long recognized the need to challenge the notion that the party is comprised of “socialists” who would radically reshape the country if it was ever in a position to govern. Jack Layton deserves a lot of credit for recasting the party’s

Jack Layton

image. By the mid way point of the campaign he no longer scared people; on the contrary, his energy in the face of illness and his relentless optimism finally resonated beyond the party’s core constituency. But that was made possible by a platform best characterized as progressive but hardly sweeping.  To be sure, there are some crucial differences between themselves and the conservatives, but those differences are not as wide as many may think. Among the major planks in their platform was a promise to quickly address the doctor shortage in the country’s rural areas and reversing the conservative’s last round of corporate tax breaks. This is hardly the stuff of a revolutionary platform! Indeed this was campaign marked by the utter absence of competing visions for the country. Differences between the parties were ones of degrees. The combined effect of these subtle shifts in strategy and mood was to deliver a conservative majority despite a relatively minor increase in popular support for the party and for Harper in particular.


How then can we expect a Harper majority to govern? It used to be that conservatives won on the basis of a rural/urban split. They won many rural ridings but were often shut out of the

country’s biggest urban centers, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Not so anymore. Outside of Montreal, the conservatives now have seats in urban areas as well. This sort of realignment

could precipitate important changes in the way the country is governed. The more dramatic changes will likely be with respect to areas of social policy dear to Harper’s heart. Thus there will be nothing stopping him now from proceeding with changes to the criminal justice system. Bigger prisons will be built, sentences for various types of offenders will be harsher and

Stephen Harper

rehabilitation will become a less vital element in the treatment of prisoners. The long gun registry will be ripped up and thrown away. The party’s expectation may very well be that these types of measures will not damage their standing in urban centers. Economically, the conservatives will likely be more cautious. However, their promise to increase annual investments in medicare, eliminate the deficit in a few years and implement further tax cuts will eventually dictate hard choices be made.  When that happens, Canada may begin to feel like a much different place.


Why Isn’t Health Care A Major Campaign Issue?

9:18 am

Canadians’ commitment to a publicly funded universally based health care system remains as strong as ever. Yet the debate over the future of health care continues to rage on. The competing narratives should be by now familiar. On the one hand, commentators incessantly remind us that our health care system is unsustainable and that difficult choices must be made. A failure to rein in costs will result in enormous pressures on governments to curtail spending in other areas of crucial importance such as infrastructure and education. On the other hand, defenders of medicare insist that cuts in health care spending will lead to the gradual erosion of government commitment to upholding the principles of the Canada Health Act. The pressures are exacerbated by the country’s shifting demographics. The population is aging. As people get older they are likely to require health care. How should costs be contained enough that the principles underpinning the Canada Health Act are preserved?  Should we allow the private sector assume a greater role in the delivery of health care? These are the sorts of questions ceaseless reports have attempted to answer and Canadians have pondered for the last two decades at least.

Tommy Douglas, Father of Medicare

Strangely, however, health care hasn’t assumed any meaningful role in this campaign. This is due, in part, to the apparent uniformity in health care platforms among the major parties. All federal parties commit themselves to preserving medicare, for the simple reason that failing to do so will severely compromise their election prospects. Indeed a highlight of each party’s platform this campaign is the promise to increase annual health care spending well beyond the anticipated rate of economic growth. The conservatives especially hope to benefit by the apparent sameness in party promises: if all parties are committed to a funding increase, then the election need not be a referendum on the future of health care in Canada. More importantly, Canadians need not fear what a Harper majority would mean for the future of health care in this country. But is it really true that there is nothing to distinguish the party platforms where health care is concerned?  Is it true that Canadians have nothing to fear in a Harper majority?
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) recently attempted to answer the first question; in doing so they perhaps unwittingly shed light on the second as well. The CMA conducted an election survey designed to encourage the main political parties (the conservatives, liberals, NDP and the Bloc; the Green Party was not part of the survey; no reason is given for their exclusion) to address the specific issues that will most shape the health care system in the coming decades. Research, home and palliative care, pharmacare and human resources recruitment strategies are the four issues singled out by the CMA. The respective party responses to their survey questions are revealing.

What is perhaps most noteworthy about the survey was the conservative party’s refusal to participate in it. Their repeated response to the CMA was to point to their election platform where, it was promised, all answers to all pertinent health care questions could be found. The response is in keeping with the arrogance demonstrated by the conservatives this election. Is it too much to ask of the party how they would address specific health care related problems and priorities? Or do they feel, as their former leader Kim Campbell once remarked, that elections are not a good time to answer difficult questions? For although the conservatives insist otherwise, their platform states little more than a promise to work “collaboratively” with provinces and territories, to reduce wait times and to address the doctors and nurses shortages in rural areas of the country.

Those promises, however, do not begin to address the precise issues raised by the CMA. For example, the survey asks if the parties in question would consider “introducing a comprehensive national pharmacrare program or a national catastrophic drug costs program?” They also ask what parties would do to ameliorate the growing crisis in home care. Both questions stem from a worrisome trend: health care costs are increasingly being transferred from medicare to individuals and families. By refusing to participate in the survey, the conservatives give no hint as to how they would address these twin challenges.

Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull

Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull

By contrast, the Liberals and NDP at least acknowledge the challenges associated with both pharmaceutical drugs and home care. In both areas provincial standards vary and costs are escalating at an alarming rate for many Canadians.  The liberal response thus includes a promise to harmonize standards among provinces and territories. The NDP, among other things, promises to ‘bargain’ with pharmaceutical companies to reduce the costs of drugs. Both parties propose various tax breaks designed to ease the financial burden of home care and drug costs on families. The problem, according to those who study the issue, is that tax breaks are but one strand of the sort of comprehensive response that is necessary. More needs to be done. None of the parties, for example, address the need for better access among home care patients to nurses and doctors. Their reluctance is no doubt attributable to the costs of doing so. Indeed, the challenge for governments is to at once assume and contain costs associated with home care and drugs. How is this conundrum to be resolved? Parties don’t have the answers.

They should be paying closer to attention to ideas emerging from the CMA. Under Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull’s presidency, the association has more emphatically committed itself to not only defending medicare, but transforming it into a more sustainable system. Medicare, according to Dr. Turnbull, isn’t characterized by wasteful spending; but it is characterized by inefficiencies. Many chronically ill patients, for example, can be treated at home at a fraction of the cost required to treat them in the hospital. Money saved in this way could then be used to improve home care. Hospital acquired infections could be dramatically reduced through the widespread adoption of checklists reminding health care providers to wash their hands before seeing a new patient. Housing and treatment facilities for the homeless prevent the sort of illnesses that land them in hospitals on a regular basis. Give a homeless alcoholic a drink and a place to sleep and chances are he will not acquire liver disease, tuberculosis or HIV. His life chances will also be improved. Indeed, preventative measures save money as well as restore lives. Dr. Turnbull’s work at Ottawa’s Salvation Army and Sheppards of Good Hope is a testament to this idea. If medicare is to be saved, it will be because of these sorts of innovations in our approach to treatment and human health.

The CMA was right to attempt to make its presence felt in this campaign. The survey goes a long way towards making the health care debate at once more expansive and precise. And it sheds a revealing light on where the three major parties outside of Quebec stand on the issue of health care reform. It’s too bad not many Canadians seem to have noticed.

Public Service campaign defends future of professionals and vital services to Canadians

April 28, 2011 4:07 pm

Come election time, ballots turn into wagers as every Canadian’s vested interest in what will happen with their tax dollars is left in the hands of the future, undetermined government. The stakes are high for one particular group of professionals who create a large proportion of Ottawa’s population and who also deliver vital services to the rest of the people. In every election, they are not only voting for their country, but also determining their employer. They are public servants and under the Professional Institute for the Public Service (PIPSC), they have launched a successful media campaign this election to generate awareness of their contributions to Canada’s prosperity through all sectors of science, research, health and IT. Called ‘,’ the campaign serves as a resource tool for voters to read latest news updates from all national media, profiles of professionals in their work environments and analyze contentious election issues including budget cuts to services affecting all Canadians.

“Professionalism, like the public good, is founded on a few simple values: integrity, independence, accountability. For public service professionals, like the rest of Canadians, failure to uphold these values can affect not only people but the public good itself,” states PIPSC president Gary Corbett on the campaign’s website. “That’s what’s happening today in the federal public service, where years of mismanagement of resources and the wrong decisions are threatening to undermine the capacity of Canada’s public scientists, engineers, auditors, health, IT and many other professionals to serve Canadians and the public good.”

PIPSC President Gary Corbett

Aside from budget cuts, outsourcing or externally contracting services, pose a threat to public service jobs. Millions of dollars each year are spent on contracting temporary work for services that can be done by public servants inexpensively. Actual costs from hiring temporary workers through agencies are costly as they must make a profit and charge additional fees. In a recent report titled The Shadow Public Service: the swelling ranks of federal government outsourced workers, outsourcing costs have skyrocketed by 80%, costing approximately $5.5 billion in the last five years.

“On top of a shameful waste of taxpayers dollars, there is the incalculable cost and potential risk to Canadians when critical knowledge goes out the door with private contractors,” said Corbett in a press release last month. “In the wake of a serious cyber attack against critical federal departments, our government should be all the more alert to the importance of data security and the privacy of Canadians’ information.”

To bring attention to challenges faced by public servants, PIPSC, in partnership with the University of Ottawa, held a successful debate on April 26 with Richard Nadeau, MP for Gatineau, Pierre Poilievre, Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Harper and MP for Nepean-Carleton, Mauril Bélanger, Vice-Chair of the National Policy and Platform Committee of the Liberal Party of Canada and MP for Ottawa-Vanier, Paul Dewar, Foreign Affairs Critic and MP for Ottawa Centre, and Green Party by Jean-Luc Cooke, candidate for Nepean-Carleton. Under the topic of the Future of the Public Service, candidates voiced their opinions in accordance with their party platforms on scientific research and evidence-based policy, government transparency and accountability, outsourcing and attracting young professionals to serve.

As voting day approaches, PIPSC has elevated their campaign with an impressive following on Twitter and facebook. Founded in 1920 and currently boasting over 59,000 members across Canada’s public sector, PIPSC has made their presence on the national scale known as well as informed voters of the importance of public service to everyday Canadians, especially those residing in Ottawa.

Visit Connect on Twitter: @4publicgood and facebook.

Public Service debate puts heat on Conservatives

April 27, 2011 1:07 pm

From outsourcing to accountability, science research and evidence based policy, candidates sparred at the Future of the Public Service debate, directing many of their blows to the Conservative representative Pierre Poilievre, parliamentary secretary and MP for Nepean-Carleton. The event was hosted by Don Newman and held at the University of Ottawa on April 26 in partnership with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, in hopes of shedding light upon issues faced by public servants who account for a large proportion of the Capital’s population.

Mauril Bélanger, Vice-Chair of the National Policy and Platform Committee of the Liberal Party of Canada and MP for Ottawa-Vanier, took a shot at Poilievre’s listing of science based programs and his government’s “solid track record” of supporting innovation.

Mauril Bélanger

“The National Research Council seems to steer a little too much away from basic research [under the current government],” he said.

Paul Dewar, Foreign Affairs Critic and MP for Ottawa Centre representing the NDP, highlighted the $138 million in science, research and development cuts, saying under his party’s leadership, the government would put money back into critical research to regain Canada’s prominent place as a leader in scientific innovation on the global scale.

Paul Dewar

“Let’s get back to treating scientists with respect,” he said. “Our role as politicians is to direct research, not interrupt it.”

Green Party represetative Jean-Luc Cooke, candidate for Nepean-Carleton agreed, stating it is “important to develop evidence based policies with the experts.”

After Poilievre again cited his government’s “solid track record,” Dewar shot back saying the current Conservative government constrains scientists in their ability to do good research.

The next question regarding outsourcing, used as a simplified hiring process and threatening jobs of public servants, sparked discussion about government transparency.

Cooke asked, “are we hollowing out the public service so that they are not able to do the work of the public service?”

Bélanger stated that under a Liberal government, all access to information requests would be posted online with responses as well as the creation of a database for all grant requests.

Bloc Québécois candidate Richard Nadeau, MP for Gatineau, who has served as the party’s Critic for the Treasury Board said the government must ensure outsourcing is dealt with.

Richard Nadeau

“As long as Quebecers have to pay taxes in Ottawa, we want to make sure those taxes are well spent and that we have an efficient public service,” he said.

Dewar added Canada needs to “get the core of the public service doing these jobs again and modernize our hiring mechanisms.”

According to a recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives called The Shadow Public Service: the swelling ranks of federal government outsourced workers, the cost of federal personnel outsourcing of temporary help, Information Technology (IT) consultants and management consultants has increased by almost 80%, costing taxpayers nearly $5.5 billion over the past five years.

Poilievre defended his government stating they look at contracting to ensure value for tax payers, especially in the area of information technology where there is “little expertise.”

Dewar shot back, saying “we’re outsourcing our whole human resource department – what are we going to do when you cut $11 billion Pierre? is the work going or are the people?”

Pierre Poilievre

Under the next question surrounding accountability, Nadeau stated the public service now is under a lot of pressure under the conservative government as he described a certain workplace atmosphere public servants must work in. Poilievre cited his government creating the Federal Accountability Act which enhances the power of the Auditor General to track government spending.

Bélanger retaliated saying: “I find it funny because this government is known to be the most secretive government…this government is not about accountability but control.”

The final question posed asked candidates their position on further cuts to services and programs.

Cooke said the Green party advocates a consensus building government to reduce outsourcing and eliminate the practice of double-dipping where retired public servants return as government consultants. He also said he recognizes government departments as individual institutions that cannot be asked to make the exact same cuts and reductions as another.

Jean-Luc Cooke

Dewar said the NDP would be a cap on the number of staffers assigned to ministers.

Another important issue regarding how the public service can attract the best and brightest saw Poilievre taking a lighter approach with a response about “inspiring young people to serve their country,” while Dewar reiterated they would modernize hiring and Bélanger said the Liberals would not remove pay equity or use it as a bargaining tool.

Greener days are not ahead: Where is Elizabeth May and the Green Party in this campaign?

April 20, 2011 3:34 pm

Today is the first anniversary of the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig located in the U.S. Gulf coast that killed twelve men and initiated the worst oil spill in history. But even the memory of that tragic episode will not prevent similar endeavors in Canada’s Arctic. On the contrary, the combination of melting Arctic ice and the pressing need for economic opportunity among many northern communities has rendered off shore drilling in the Beaufort Sea inevitable. Companies aggressively bidding on mining leases promise to have learned from BP’s experience this past year. But even in the absence of another oil spill, deepwater drilling will surely contribute to the ongoing process of average temperature increases, melting ice and rising sealevels in the Arctic region. Meanwhile both the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that together devastated Japan last month has reminded the world of the ongoing risks associated with nuclear power.  For all of their protective features, nuclear power plants can still leak radiation into the atmosphere, particularly in the wake of catastrophic weather events. And there remains the unresolved issue of how to safely store nuclear waste. Abstaining from going nuclear would be easy if the alternatives weren’t also damaging to the environment.  But energy sources such as coal and oil are responsible for unsustainably high carbon emissions going into the atmosphere. The question then of how we fuel our economies in an environmentally sustainable manner is fraught with challenges. Indeed how we address energy issues and the emerging impacts of climate change will assume a central role in the country’s evolution in the coming decades. Yet more than half way through this campaign, the environment merits nary a word from the major parties.

Their silence on most matters environmental could have presented an opportunity for Elizabeth May and the Greens to raise their shared voice.  Yet more than three weeks into the campaign, the Green Party’s momentum strikes me as utterly stalled. Elizabeth May’s absence from the English and French leaders’ debates accounts in large part for her party’s apparent invisibility.  Her protests over the media consortium’s decision generated sympathy and served to keep her and the party in the public eye; but once May’s exclusion was confirmed, any focus on her and the Greens also ceased.  And now, despite the scattering of Green party candidate signs across the landscape, May and the Greens are more an afterthought than a viable alternative to any of the other major parties. She and a few other party candidates could win their respective riding, but if the election were held tomorrow it is hard to imagine the Greens getting as much of the popular vote as they did in 2008.

Beyond May’s exclusion from the debates, how do we account for the Green’s sagging fortunes? One obvious explanation is that all parties incorporate the environment into their platforms. People may thus not feel the need to vote Green in order to feel as though they are advancing an environmental agenda. To be sure, all parties do make at least vague references to promoting economic growth without compromising the environment. But all parties also have an interest in avoiding the environment as a key campaign issue. Stephen Harper will not publicly acknowledge the reality of climate change, in part because he is suspicious of the science and in part because the conservative’s core constituency remains in Alberta. The province’s tar sands remain the country’s biggest source of carbon emissions. To confirm the legitimacy of the science behind climate change would thus be to implicitly acknowledge the need to more aggressively reduce those emissions. Both the liberals and NDP better appreciate the scale of our environmental issues and advance some noteworthy initiatives in their respective platforms. Nevertheless both parties fear any perceived connection between their plans for environmental security and increased taxes.  The Greens thus remain in a position to distinguish themselves from the other parties.

A related possibility is that the Greens are paying too high a price in voter support for potentially compromising Canada’s economy as a way of advancing a radical environmental agenda. The perception may persist in some quarters that the Green Party is comprised of a bunch of aging hippies and young idealists whose ideas would only sabotage the economy if they were ever put into practice. In truth, however, to judge by the Green’s election platform, their declared agenda is more vague than radical. The few concrete policy initiatives include a transition from our first past the post to a proportional-based electoral system, increased corporate taxes and less money spent on making war in Afghanistan. These ideas are all worthy of consideration and debate, but where are the initiatives that stem more directly from the environmental crisis? For example, why is there no national urban sustainability strategy when more than three quarters of Canada’s population resides in cities and it is to cities where most new immigrants migrate? How do the Greens propose to realistically shed Canada’s dependence on fossil fuels, especially given their opposition to nuclear power? How does the Green Party propose to manage the Arctic’s looming economic development in a way that is environmentally sustainable? The party’s platform provides no answers to such questions. It’s as though in being deliberately vague, the Greens were hoping not to alienate moderate Canadians considering voting for them.  If so, the strategy is shortsighted and bound to fail.

It is of course understandable that May’s priority is to win a seat in the House of Commons. But she should not be attempting to do so on the strength of her personality alone or on the basis of vague promises. Such a strategy would be at the expense of her party’s modus operandi. The Green Party should aspire to be the country’s authority on ways of directing Canada’s economy in a more environmentally sustainable direction. In the end, such an approach will build a more secure foundation and more popular support than the Greens appear to have now.

Ottawa’s new kid on the icon block

April 15, 2011 9:43 am
Convention cntr

Rising out of the east bank of the Rideau canal, just a shadow’s cast from The Chateau Laurier in downtown Ottawa – like a giant B-movie, gently marauding clam – ballooning like the croaking of an amphibious swollen throat and jowl – wedged in like a ‘Day The World Stood Still’, out of this world, invasion saucer crash jammed into the side near to the base of the Westin Ottawa Hotel – It is audaciously wonderful, brash, attention demanding and not a bird or a plane but you must look up! It is the spanking new, crystal geodesic-like, giant jewel of a façade of the new Ottawa Convention Centre. I have heard it described as a snow globe but really, when you think of winter in Ottawa – any reminder of snow, even shaken around is enough to make you want to hide your ears low below your coat collar. All the same it is a fitting description.

Who knew it landed smack in the middle of the Capital with a Culture Creed? That creed boasts, “Ottawa Convention Centre Culture is defined by a singular focus on realizing our Vision of “Inspired People Creating Extraordinary Events”… and by living our Shared Commitments whereby the full potential and ambitions of our Colleagues and Guests are achieved. The hallmarks of our Culture are strong and responsible leaders, empowered Colleagues and loyal Guests.” Now that is impressive. Makes me want to just race around the spaces to feel that energy and meet those wonderful expressions of fresh existence. This includes a much sought after LEED Silver certification and meeting the requirements of the AODA’s (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) Accessible Customer Service Standard. This is part of the steps toward universal inclusion as implemented by the Ontario government which came into force in January 2008. This is an ongoing commitment to inclusion of all individuals with disabilities throughout the province by the year 2025.

The stunning statistics aside Ottawa is a city that is simply does not have to go begging for breathtaking natural and urban vistas. There is no need for a spectacular skyscraper filled skyline. The views from the inside of the seven story high interior will more than impress any visitor even if for thee few moments out in the atrium they might be afforded on breaks from the ever important itineraries of thee all important conventions that will regularly populate the centre. It would be to the advantage of the centre if the general public were allowed to enjoy the open area for other activities like concerts or a snack or some other such distraction from the urban (Well it is Ottawa but…) hustle and bustle. That would be so neat. Imagine sipping a favorite fancy coffee and enjoying a light snack and looking out on the city lights at night on and evening out or stopping in at lunch for a noon hour concert? Facilities like the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto offer concerts in the upper lobby with great views of the city; just a muse of a thought.

In that great big city just down the road, near the lake there juts out into the asphalt divide that is Bloor Street a geometric set of inspiring shards protruding as part of the new addition and entrance to the Royal Ontario Museum. Whatever your thought may be about this set of errant, sharp points they do command attention as you look down the canyon of that street. Now Ottawa has a similar attention grabbing and daring assault not only on one of its streets but also on the architectural scene in a city that can already boast a myriad of great architectural adventures by its own architectural daredevils. This thanks to the centre’s architectural explorer Ritchard Brisbin, director of BBB Architects and the manifestation of the adventure by PCL Constructor’s Graham Bird.

Once upon a time Ottawa entertained conferences in its former Congress Centre, bland, flat and effortlessly dull. It barely affected a blink of an eye and was far from pedestrian friendly or inviting, all that concrete and no relationship to its natural surroundings. It was more related to the concrete mass it was lodged in than the beauty of the area of the Rideau Canal that sits immediately to the west.

The expanse of glass that is the façade of the new centre is a perfect venue for a spectacular lighting display. A future Nuit Blanche like projection, (or some other similar festival) or installation, could illuminate that glass structure in an unforgettable show of artistry and appreciation. What a focal point that could be. Why stop there? – illuminate the brash thing all year round like the CN Tower or the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls. Ready for the rest of this twenty first century my question is is Ottawa as ready? A city often seen as barely ready for prime time audacity like the new centre may be just the wake up alarm of, ‘it’s okay to let’em know your there’! Only time can tell.

This building is a grand gesture and will no doubt be the talk as one of the city’s new faces for many years to come. Like the bravery and bravado of the many spectacular buildings of Montreal’s, once so grand Expo67 buildings (later Man And His World) similar bold and swaggering structures have lead to much kind, and not so kind, chatter in other great cities. The new Ottawa Convention Centre seems to have all that is needed to stand the test of time and become just as much bragged about, shown off and visited as any stand out architecture anywhere in the world. If you’ve been in the centre of town you have seen it, it won’t let you miss it! If you are planning to visit step inside and try it on for size.  See the city from one of its best new berths. Like views from the London Eye (albeit on a much smaller scale) and those enjoyed from Mount Royal, The Circle Line cruise in New York City and from the Toronto Islands there is a new noisy kid in your town playing with the big dogs and demanding your attention. Check it out!

Assessing the English Debate: Who won? Call it a draw.

April 13, 2011 12:49 pm

How should we assess the only English language debate in this year’s election campaign? My first impression is that Harper won, although not decisively. If it was a boxing match and Stephen Harper was the defending champion, he would win by virtue of it being declared a draw.  The other leaders presented themselves coolly and competently for the most part. But no one was able to pose a question for which Harper didn’t have a ready answer. No one was able to decisively shape a debate that exposed Harper as uncaring, undemocratic, corrupt or incompetent. Gilles Duceppe came closest to doing so when he reminded Harper of the letter he was prepared to sign in 2004 to then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson of his readiness to form a coalition with he and Jack Layton to defeat the Martin Liberal government. Duceppe’s question was too direct and the subject matter too specific for Harper to answer with vague generalities. So instead, he insisted that he never considered forming such a coalition. Although both Duceppe and Layton both repeatedly claimed this simply wasn’t true, there was nothing definitive to which they could point. Within minutes the topic seemed exhausted and Harper emerged unscathed from the exchange.

Indeed Harper’s ability to deflect questions and fend off the attempted knock-out blows from the other leaders was one of the debate’s defining outcomes. His strategy was simple, but effective: appear prime ministerial, all the while preaching a familiar formula. Economic growth is fueled by lower taxes.  Important social programs can only be sustainably funded through steady economic growth. Establishing the causal connection between the two priorities met Harper’s twin objectives in the debate. He wanted to convince Canadians that he is at once the country’s most responsible economic manager and protector of our most cherished social programs. Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton may be equally committed to protecting social programs but they want to fund them through increased taxation. Increasing taxes is a strategy for job losses and economic stagnation. It made no difference that he was misleading at almost every turn. Harper still managed to convey the calm demeanor and authority that voters associate with prime ministerial power. In doing so the viewer rarely saw glimpses of Harper’s less appealing side. Instead of paranoid and control seeking, he appeared almost conciliatory. Instead of hot tempered, he appeared patient and content to stay above the fray. Towards this end, he took seemingly every opportunity to calmly look into the camera and insist that the other leaders were interested in pointless “bickering” that only served to stall the important work of parliament. This is why, Harper reminded everyone, the conservatives are seeking a majority in the House of Commons. Another minority government would only fuel the sort of instability that puts Canada’s economic recovery at risk.  Ignatieff rightly rebuked him for repeatedly referring to a debate as a “bickering” session, but to little effect.

This is not to say Ignatieff performed poorly. To be sure, he stumbled in the early going: he sometimes was momentarily tongue tied and occasionally appeared uncertain as to what point he was trying to make. Such moments stalled his momentum. Moreover, his challenge was in some respects greater than that of Harper’s. Ignatieff had to at once act aggressively and prime ministerial. Negotiating the two objectives is a formidable task, even for a seasoned public speaker. Eventually, however, he spoke with greater confidence and authority. His strategy was also clear, but only reasonably effective.  Expose at every opportunity Harper’s authoritarian and undemocratic tendencies. Ignatieff repeatedly referenced Harper’s readiness to act in contempt of parliament. He reminded viewers and listeners that Harper and the conservatives forcibly remove from their rallies those thought not to be party supporters. An authoritarian prime minister is hardly in keeping with Canada’s history of democratic governance. Nor are Harper’s priorities of “corporate tax cuts, billion dollar fighter jets and bigger prisons.”

In relentlessly attempting to expose Harper’s weaknesses, however, Ignatieff failed to adequately distinguish himself and the Liberals. He likely had to do so in order to more effectively advance liberal chances come May 2nd. For the truth is, most of those who follow Canadian politics know already that Stephen Harper is authoritarian and as prickly as a cactus. Those limitations have resonated with enough Canadians to prevent a Conservative majority, but not enough to propel the Liberals (or for that matter the New Democrats or the Green Party) beyond their oppositional status. This is one of the lingering effects of the Sponsorship scandal under the Chretien government. The Liberal name has not yet been effectively restored, particularly inside Quebec. His references to the Liberal plan for student passports and other family oriented initiatives were useful, but hardly groundbreaking. The debate may thus constitute somewhat of a missed opportunity for Michael Ignatieff and the liberals.

The moment in the debate that for me was at once the most disappointing and hopeful came in the form of a question from the B.C. resident about crime. Not so much the question but the way it was asked was a gift to Stephen Harper. The gentleman prefaced his question with an impression masquerading as fact. Communities are not safe and too many criminals are given lenient sentences: what is Stephen Harper planning to do about it?  Framing the question in this way begged for the type of response Stephen Harper was all too prepared to give. It is true, he reminded everyone, that too often the punishment does not fit the crime. Criminal sentences are often reduced and the gun registry unfairly targets law abiding citizens who assume no role in gun related crimes. The response was as predictable as it was misleading.

All three opposition leaders were wise enough to at least challenge the received wisdom on the state of criminal justice in Canada. Ignatieff may have been at his most effective when he insisted that Harper is following America’s failed approaches to criminal justice. Mega-prisons and mandatory minimum sentences have done nothing to reduce crime. He reminded Harper and those watching and listening that police forces across the country use the gun registry every day. Duceppe’s defense of the registry was even more effective. Why, he asked Harper, was it so pointless or wasteful to ask gun owners to register their guns when people must register their cars and boats? The analogy is useful, especially given how opponents of the registry regularly depict it as an unlawful infringement on individual rights. Layton pointed to the connections between crumbling infrastructure and overcrowded housing on native reserves and the “temptations” of joining a gang and a life of crime for native youth. The exchanges were heartfelt and insightful. Given how important the question of criminal justice remains, it was refreshing to witness this sort of candor. For this exchange alone, the debate was a useful exercise worth watching.

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