Wave the Flag

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This year is Canada’s 150th birthday and big celebrations are planned from coast to coast to coast. Nowhere will the party be bigger than in Ottawa on July 1st. As it happens I’m going to miss it. Was it intentional? Not consciously perhaps but, unconsciously, probably so. I’ve liked the annual foo-foo-rah less every year and, since the tightening of security over the last 10 years or so, it is a positively negative experience as far as I’m concerned. The crowds, the lines, the noise and, usually, the heat – it all seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

Then, there are the flag wavers. Canada doesn’t do patriotism/nationalism quite the way Americans do. When people wrap themselves in the flag (literally) it is often done with modified Canadian flags that express their identity – cultural, sexual or drug (replacing the maple leaf with a cannabis plant). They paint maple leaves on their faces and bellow incoherent versions of O Canada at passersby. And they get drunk and watch fireworks. Mostly good fun.

You seldom see demonstrations by white nationalists and when you do, other Canadians tend to stand around and stare disapprovingly. The sound of tut-tut-tut can sometimes be overwhelming.

Nonetheless, there is a streak of ugly exclusivity that still exists in certain parts of the country – not geographic parts so much (though that is a factor) but ideological parts. Take for example the current shenanigans around the changing of the words to our national anthem. The change is pretty minor: replacing the line ‘in all our sons command’ with ‘in all of us command.’ The arguments currently being voiced in the Senate border on the absurd. It’s traditional, they say. While I will acknowledge that Canada was traditionally a sexist patriarchy, it is now 2017 and we’ve had complete equality of the sexes in our constitution for 35 years. Besides, the anthem hardly dates back to the founding of the country (written in French in 1880 it was only adopted as the anthem in 1967) and has been changed numerous times over the years. My favorite argument, by one Senator, is that it is ungrammatical. Now there’s a cause most Canadians can rally around.

The reality is that few people sing the anthem anyway and when they do, they pretty much sing it the way they want. While one so-called patriot was up in arms because a choir in Toronto recorded the anthem using the as-yet unapproved words, few people are too concerned. They’ve been to hockey and baseball games and heard the mangling of the anthem too often to really care. At least they’ve stopped booing the French version when it’s sung.

Besides, there are bigger issues for some of us. One line extols God to keep our land glorious and free. One friend sings that line as ‘Dog keep our land’. I’m not sure if that is an expression of atheism, animal rights or simply a case of dyslexia. Other friends – avowed atheists – simply refuse to sing the anthem at all.

Flags and anthems are all well and good but too much adherence to any of them is not a mark of patriotism but a sign of impending fascism. The extreme right just love their little symbols; it would be cute if it wasn’t so ugly. One American friend of mine was shot at shorty after publishing a defence of flag-burning in a local paper. Coincidence? I think not. Still, it is worrisome that someone thinks shooting a person for expressing their opinion is a ‘defence of freedom.’

So I may watch the celebrations from England but I’m just as happy to miss all the patriotic noise and honour Canadian values of equality, multiculturalism and freedom in my own quiet way.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

Senate Sunrise

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Before coming to work at the Senate of Canada, I had never held the same job for more than 5 and a half years. While I never expected to stay so long, I’ve now spent more than 15 as the policy advisor to the Senator for the Northwest Territories.

I guess I wound up staying so long because the work was interesting, the conditions agreeable, the pay reasonable and maybe, most of all, I felt I was making a contribution.

Lots of friends have worked in the public service and one of their great frustrations was having everything they did edited, modified, limited, canceled, changed, misused by those higher up (and even lower down) the decision chain. When I wrote a letter, a speech or a report, only one person could ask for a change and as the years went by and I learned his voice better and better, the changes became fewer and fewer.

Over the years, I’ve written letters that went to 4 Prime Ministers, dozens of Ministers, Premiers, MPs, MLAs, corporate officials, heads of non-profits and ordinary citizens. Some of those letters actually changed public policy. I wrote ( and even gave) speeches, authored or oversaw reports, participated in meetings at every level and, most days, learned something new and interesting.

It was fun.

Obviously, I can’t list everything I did but there were a few highlights. In 2007, our office used caucus research funds to hire Jamie Bastedo to write a report on climate change in the arctic. Called “On the Frontlines of Climate Change”, it was one of the first popular reports about the impacts of global warming on northern communities and people. It was widely distributed across the NWT and across Canada and was even used as a teaching tool in a number of high schools and universities. This was the first of several papers that Jaime and I worked on – including one on alternative land using planning methods and another – which we co-wrote – on small-scale science and technology as an economic driver in the North.

I also worked on a lot of committee reports. A few stand out. For ”Sharing Canada’s Prosperity: A Hand Up Not a Handout”, on aboriginal economic development, I organized a policy team that included myself, Senator St. Germain’s policy advisor, Stephen Stewart and staff from the Library of Parliament to provide support to the Aboriginal Peoples committee. Though it is uncredited, I wrote the introduction to Negotiation or Confrontation, the report on the Specific claims process. Another report, done for the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources committee was “With Respect Canada’s North”. I assisted with organizing committee travel, provided policy advice and even traveled with Senators on a fact-finding trip across the NWT. I played a role – sometimes small and sometimes large – in another half dozen reports.

And , of course, there was the work on legislation. Everyone is making a big fuss these days because the Senate is amending government Bills but until 2008, the Senate routinely made amendments to about 25% of the bills that came before it. None of the governments of the day liked it but it was only during the Dark Years (2008-2015) that they used their majority in the Senate to thwart most changes. But in the early days, I helped draft a number of amendments, some of which made it into the law.

Travel in the north and to First Nations communities across Canada was a fascinating and rewarding opportunity and solidified my knowledge of northern and indigenous issues. I met literally thousands of people and learned from every one of them. And I like to think I helped my share, too, whether with tax problems, immigration issues or, most importantly, with dealing with residential schools.

It was a fascinating 15 years or work and continuous learning – imagine a job where they essentially pay you to think and read and study and then, report on what you found out. Not perfect everyday but a lot better than most jobs.

Of course there were dark times – the attack on Parliament Hill and the various Senate scandals, the Auditor general, the Harper majority – but the good outweighed the bad.

Pretty hard to sum up 15 years in 700 hundred words but that’s clearly somewhat more than ten minutes.

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Senate Sunset

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In a few days I’ll be retiring from my job at the Senate of Canada. When I came to work as Senator Nick Sibbeston’s policy advisor some 15 and a half years ago, I never thought I’d stay so long. I’d originally accepted the job right after 9/11 because I wanted to get back into government work after an 11 year absence. I thought I’d stay with him for a couple of years before moving on to the public service. I almost went a couple of times – I came very close to getting a job with the Canadian Space Agency in 2011 but it was not to be.

In the end I stayed as long as I did because the work was interesting and the working conditions amenable. The pay wasn’t as much as I might have gotten elsewhere but it was certainly a living wage.

Having been there so long, I can attest to some of the substantial changes that have occurred in this 150 year old institution this century. When I arrived, the security guards at the Senate were required to salute Senators when they entered the building. My own boss thought this was hilarious but you could see that some of his colleagues lapped it up. In those days, about the only real rules about expenditures was ‘don’t exceed your budget’ and ‘don’t get caught spending money on your private concerns’. Even then a few Senators got into trouble and one even went to jail. Senate administration generally would question Senators’ staff but never Senators themselves. Only the Internal Economy Committee – made up of other Senators – could do that.

In that atmosphere, is it any surprise that a few people might go astray? But in reality it was very few and, generally, it was among those Senators, appointed for highly partisan reasons, with already questionable moral compasses that proved the most troublesome.

Which is one of the reasons I’ve been supportive of the move to make the Senate much less partisan. There have been bumps along the road and there are still rocky times ahead I’m sure. But one by one the bad apples are being gotten rid of or at least polished up. The rules under which Senators and their staff operate have been tightened considerably – a process that had actually begun years before the Duffy suspension, trial and eventual acquittal on all charges.

There are new rules regarding harassment that will make sure that the behavior of people like former Senator Don Meredith is nipped in the bud, long before it gets to the point of sleeping with teenagers. One hopes.

And lessons were learned from the experience with the Auditor General, too, though not necessarily what you might think. Bureaucrats and especially auditors (accountants who failed the personality test) have very little understanding what the job of politicians actually is. The biggest shame I ever saw in the Senate was when Romeo Dallaire resigned because some piddly-assed number cruncher decided working to eliminate the use of child soldiers was not public business. And before you say, yeah but they found a million dollars in inappropriate expenditures, I’ll mention that they spent $24M to do it.

And tomorrow I’ll tell you about some of the great things I got to do working at the Senate because that is a bit more than 10 minutes.

The first 200 days

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I wasn’t going to write about the POTUS today but I weakened…

There was a great meme going around just after Donald Trump’s election last fall. It showed a smirking Trump with a list of proposed accomplishments. They weren’t what he had promised in the campaign; they were, according to the headline, the list of things presidents do in their final year in office. At the time it seemed like wishful thinking on the part of disappointed Democrats but now it’s not so clear.

While Trump’s firing of Comey as head of the FBI was perfectly within his authority, asking him to stop investigating General Flynn certainly verges on obstruction of justice and perhaps even crosses the line. He must have known he was being naughty if, as reported, he asked other senior officials to leave the room while he had a private chat. Before you ask how often Democrats asked the FBI to stop investigating Clinton’s (giant yawn) e-mails, note the difference. The FBI director reports to the president. The president has the power to fire him. Make the link – it’s not that hard.

The revelation of classified information to the Russians was also within the president’s power since he can de-classify whatever he sees fit. Whether it was legal or appropriate, it certainly shows poor judgement. Many people already think Trump is in the back pocket of the Russian government and his behavior undoubtedly throws gasoline on that fire.

It almost seems like he is daring his Republican colleagues to impeach him – which, given his aggressive macho approach to life, might be exactly what he’s up to. He always enjoyed embarrassing and belittling those whom he viewed as competitors and this could just be another example of the “You’re fired!” mentality of the former realty TV show star. Wanting to be the biggest silverback in the cage may work in the locker room but it is hardly conducive to getting things done in Washington.

Or, maybe, the explanation lies deeper in the man’s psychology than we think. His wife has referred to him as a little boy and his former ghost writer has called him traumatized and his own worst enemy. It is possible that Trump really can’t control his impulses – which doesn’t bode well for global stability.

Or maybe it is as I’ve felt all along that the man is incompetent, maybe so incompetent he doesn’t even know how bad he’s doing. While he might have been able to cheat his fellow cheaters successfully, he could now be out of his depth. A man who is drowning will almost always start flailing madly and is likely to pull down anyone who tries to rescue him. Pity the poor advisor who tries to make an intervention. There may be a lot more departures from the Trump administration before the man himself departs the White House.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Man Who Would Be King

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During the years between the end of the American Revolution and the drafting and adoption of the constitution, there were lots of ideas of how the new country should govern itself. Some even suggested a monarchy and, while that idea didn’t gain much traction, it must have made the drafters a little nervous because they made sure that no President could ever assume the powers imbued in a King.

The constitution was deliberately designed to limit the power of the president by checking and balancing his powers and responsibilities with those of Congress and the Supreme Court. The President of the USA is not called the most powerful person in the world because of his unlimited authority but rather for the size of the American economy and the power of its armed forces and nuclear arsenal. In terms of getting his own way, a Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament can exercise more raw authority.

The drafters must have gotten it right since the American Republic (a better description than democracy) has survived presidents who were drunks, thieves, liars, and buffoons. Although the union (more perfect but not actually perfect) teetered at times – especially during the years leading up to and following the Civil War, it never collapsed.

There are those who worry that things have changed in America and that the current President might – by intent or by accident – break the system once and for all. There are reasons to fear. Congress has become increasingly partisan and, due to gerrymandering, the advantage of incumbency and the role of big money, less sensitive to bad polls or even bad election results. The Republicans have gained a tremendous edge in winning more seats that their popular votes warrant and seem unlikely to turn against the president, even as his approval ratings fall.

The recent sacking of the head of the FBI, while certainly neither unconstitutional nor unprecedented, is a worrying sign. The absolute insouciance of the Republican leadership regarding the matter is even more worrying. Worst of all are the rumours that Trump is demanding oaths of loyalty – not to the Constitution but to him personally. That begins to sound more kinglike all the time – or at least, more like a tin pot dictator of a banana republic, since kings are largely passé.

But there is hope on the horizon. Some Republicans have rediscovered their principals while others have begun to grow worried about their jobs. The courts have been consistently rolling back the efforts of state governments to gerrymander congressional districts in favour of their own party, which, if it continues, will severely limit the ability of the Republicans – who have natural advantages in the Senate and Oval Office – to dominate the House of Representatives, which was always meant to be a close reflection of the popular vote.

The renewed activism of American citizens is also a good sign but whether it can be maintained for two or four years is always open to doubt. Democracy is hard and fighting for your rights is a tiring business. The Democratic Party needs to change, too – finding ways to make allies in the Republican Party rather than vilifying them at every turn. I remain, as ever, optimistic.

And that’s ten minutes.

Putting It Off

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They say that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Personally, I doubt I would be able to think anything if I knew they were going to put a noose around my neck – but that may just be me.

You would think that after 40 some years of working and having to meet deadlines, I’d be better at getting things started. Sadly, no. If they offered degrees in procrastination I’d almost certainly have a Ph.D – if I ever got around to applying for it. It’s not that I don’t work hard; it’s not even that I don’t want to work hard. I do. I enjoy work – whatever that work is – once I get stuck in.

But starting is always a challenge. Take today. I normally write my ten minutes when I first get up. But now it’s almost 10:30 and I’m just getting started. And I’m only doing it so I don’t have to begin the number one item on my list – which is to re-write the story my critique group commented on. Nearly two weeks ago.

I try every trick in the book – endless lists, arbitrary deadlines, self-loathing – but none of them seem to work. Maybe I should threaten to kill myself at the end of an unproductive day. Good night, Hayden. Good work. Most likely kill you in the morning.

It’s as if I thought that at my age, I really shouldn’t have to work anymore. Nonsense! As everyone on Facebook tells me, if you aren’t being continuously creative and productive, you’re not really living. Which makes me wonder why they spend so much time on Facebook telling me how to live my life.

Oh well, nothing to do but forge ahead. As soon as this is finished, polished and posted with any relevant links I can dream up, I’ll get right to those re-writes. It’s not that it will be so hard – I’ve already re-written the story six times in my head (mostly while lying in bed, urging myself to get up and start the day).

Of course, I’m a little grubby and need a shower – clearly you can’t work effectively if you don’t smell fresh and clean.

Okay, so I’ll admit it, I’m really only writing about procrastination so I can avoid the really tough ten minute diatribe I should be writing. If I was really determined I’d scrap this nonsense and do the really important work of making the world a better place.

Maybe tomorrow.

First I have to have a shower. Then my second cup of coffee (one can’t be brilliant on a single cup) and then maybe I should think about those edits again before I commit myself to electrons. Then, it will be lunch. But after that for sure.

Though I do have a date to go see Logan this afternoon. Oh, hell.

I guess there’s always later. Is it later now?

And that’s ten minutes.

Taking Offence

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I have a friend who used to say he didn’t take offence even if it was offered.

What the hell does he know? Everyone these days takes offence at pretty much everything someone else says or does and, what’s more, they demand that the offending person by sufficiently punished. Personally I’m offended – and soon you will be, too.

This morning a man is complaining because his anti-abortion flag was taken down by City Hall. He was offended at this insult – which occurred apparently because so many people were offended by the flag. Meanwhile, on Facebook, someone demanded that people stop talking about Mother’s Day because he had recently lost his mother. And so it goes.

Stephen Colbert recently joked that the only use for Trump’s mouth was as Putin’s cock holster. This offended people on both the right and the left; the former thought it vulgar and an insult to the presidency while the later called it homophobic. Meanwhile, Colbert has apologized (sort of) even though he’s frequently said much worse things about better people. This has not stopped the demands for his firing nor diminished the ratings of his late night show.

Over in Ireland, Stephen Fry was under investigation for blasphemy over remarks he made about some generalized God. Never mind that he was addressing an age old theological problem as to why there is evil in the world. And don’t say free will – that might explain evil people but it hardly explains tsunamis or cancer in 4-year olds. The investigation was dropped when it was discovered there was only one complainant and he wasn’t really offended but thought others might be. How presumptuous! I’m offended that he appropriated other people’s offence for his own purposes.

Which brings us to cultural appropriation, which apparently now means observing, talking about, thinking of or imagining anything that is not directly taken from your own culture. This is not to diminish the real issues of colonialism and the silencing of the voice of the other – which may well be a factor in why some writers and artists do not get the attention they deserve – but to suggest that it is inappropriate to even imagine the other is a crime against… well, I’m not sure who. Some have even suggested that eating ethnic food might be inappropriate (and don’t get me started on the evils of tourism) which I’m sure would come as a big shock – and economic blow – to the Chinese family that sells me noodles.

This is not simply an issue of free speech as some have framed it but something much deeper and concerning. It is a form of cultural isolationism, an ahistorical approach that appeals equally to the xenophobic right and the identity-obsessed left.

But if we actually are one race – the human race – and live on one world, as environmentalists like to say, shouldn’t we all be learning from each other and using our imaginations to make the other us?

But maybe that’s just offensive.

And that’s ten minutes.