Security

Standard

There is an article in the print edition of the Globe and Mail today, claiming that national security is a winning issue for Prime Minister Steven Harper. Of course, six months ago the same pundits were claiming that the economy was the Conservative strong point. With the plunge in oil prices and the Canadian dollar and the delaying of the federal budget now revealing the paucity of economic policy emanating from the so-called professional economist leading our country, security seems a little like grasping at straws.

Harper doesn’t help himself by reverting to gross hyperbole. In his speech announcing legislation to increase police powers to combat terrorism (tellingly delivered outside of Parliament), he called ISIL the greatest threat the world has ever faced. Really? Did World War II not happen? Were the Nazis simply a friendly country club, a sporting rival? Or closer to the conservative heart, was the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation simply a walk in the park? ISIL has killed fewer people in the Western world that are typically slaughtered every week in the USA by idiots with guns.

I actually witnessed the shooting at the War Memorial while the PM was kept in protective custody (and rightly so) inside a closet. If that’s the best that ISIL can deliver, I have to say I’m not shaking in my boots — well, not since I’ve dealt with my PTSD anyway.

Still, I have no doubt that we need to take measures to protect — if we can —more Canadian soldiers or civilians being killed by lone wolf gunmen who may have been inspired by jihadist propaganda (not really convinced yet that this was truly the case at Parliament Hill) or worse yet by small organized cells of trained soldiers as in the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris.

But let’s hope that we don’t overreact and give the police and CSIS so many powers that the real threats to our freedom begin to be generated by those who are supposed to protect them. New powers require stronger oversight and not simple assurances that we can trust the government. When we have the loose-lipped Finance Minister, Joe Oliver, referring to people who oppose pipelines and tarsands development as terrorists, what assurances can we possible have that we can trust the government not to use these new powers to crush legitimate dissent?

I’m no knee-jerk liberal who thinks we need to coddle misguided youth — though I do think we need to practice a lot more sociology to prevent them from becoming or staying misguided — but I’m certainly not a foam-at-the-mouth conservative either to think we can arrest and censor our way out of terrorism. Dealing with the very real threat posed by ISIL (not the greatest ever in history but still real) will require an intellectually rigorous and multi-faceted approach — not something this government has shown itself to be good at.

Just as they thought the economy could be dealt with by exporting oil and cutting taxes, it is doubtful they have more than a trick or two up their sleeves when it comes to terrorism.

As for it being a winning political strategy? Ask Tony Abbot, the right wing PM in Australia, who also tried to politicize security. The voters in Queensland just delivered him a stunning defeat and members of his own party are questioning his leadership.

But that’s ten minutes.

Advertisements

Force

Standard

Power exists in the world. There is no point denying that. Most power is based on force — the ability of one person or group of people to use force to impose their will on others. We cover this underlying basis of authority in all sorts of ways — property rights, law and order, economic power but ultimately what backs it all up is force. Men use force against their wives and children; corporations use the force of the state to impose their will on the same society that protects them. Meanwhile, the state gathers more and more power to itself to protect us from… whoever.

The great struggle for people on the left, people who want a world where force is not the basis of society and where equality is striven for and dissent is welcome and social relations are built on cooperation and respect is that they have struggled to find a way to overcome force that doesn’t require the use of force. It’s a conundrum. How to you overcome your opponents without becoming just like them?

Mao claimed that political power came from the barrel of the gun. We know how that worked out, don’t we?

So what are the alternatives? I believe that what is left to us are two fundamental tactics. Holding people to their word and subverting institutions to our own ends.

Liberal states (and even the Tea Party in America believe in a liberal state — they just don’t know what the word liberal means) claim to believe in a number of things: democratic rights, rule of law, open economies, certain basic freedoms. But special interests in those states (you know, rich people, corporations, established religion) do everything they can to make sure those things are never actually exercised. They try to limit what they mean by democratic to the formal institutions of the state, i.e. periodic voting, while demanding that it can’t possibly work in families, schools, businesses, churches. Those are ‘natural’ institutions exempt from the rules of democracy — implying of course, that democracy is not ‘natural’ or central to social life.

As for equal rights — just wait a minute buddy, we don’t mean equal as in the sense of actually equal but rather a sham fabrication called equal that doesn’t have any way of making sure that people aren’t discriminated against in hiring or pay rates or treatment by the legal system.

So what can we do about that? Well, the best thing is to hold them to their word. Insist that if you believe in democracy, it has to include all aspects of society. This has been the basis of every civil rights movement, every feminist agenda, every progressive political organization. Take the words of the founders of capitalism and the liberal state — like Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham and even Henry Ford — and shove them down the throats of the current establishment. It has worked over and over during the last century but it seems we’ve gotten tired and they’ve (not a conspiracy ‘They’ but rather the ‘They’ constructed by the collectivist instincts of the rich) hired trickier propagandists.

But there’s not a lot of choice but to keep up the struggle of speaking truth to power.

Except, of course, subversion but that’s another story because…

That’s ten minutes.

Death and Taxes

Standard

Steven Harper has been claiming all the credit for Canada’s relatively good performance in the world economy so I guess he’ll take all the blame if things turn sour. No? Quelle surprise!

Of course, the Canadian economy hasn’t really done that well over the last 7 or 8 years (collapsing manufacturing, rising debt loads, low growth, greater inequality, fewer good jobs and more bad ones). Some of that has to be attributed to events beyond the control of small national governments like Canada but things were undoubtedly made worse because the so-called professional economist at our helm actually has no economic vision for the country.

The conservative agenda seems to be sell oil, lower taxes and hope for the best. Now that the oil price has fallen, revealing critical flaws in our unbalanced resource heavy economic system, all they have left is lower taxes and hope.

But — the last few years have not so much been a case of tax reduction but rather inefficient efforts to buy people with their own money. Take for example the tax credit for bus passes. This was brought in, they claimed, to encourage the growth of public transit and to reduce carbon emissions. It has done neither. Finance department studies show that the increase in transit use was negligible and that in terms of alternative measures, this boutique tax is the single most expensive carbon reduction program ever devised — something like $1000 per ton.

Why was it done? To silence the critics mostly but also to give a little bribe to people for doing what they already do anyway. See — the government rewards your virtue, now vote for us.

Jim Flaherty did more than any other finance minister in the history of Canada to complicate the Canadian tax system and, through subterfuge, channel money from the middle class to the upper ten percent. But even he couldn’t stomach the latest plan — the income splitting plan that will shell out $2 billion to rich people.

When this fact was pointed out, the Conservatives deployed a classic strategy. They changed the definition of words, making sure that the middle class included families making more than $120,000 a year. Then they could claim that the middle class was benefiting. As long as you define ‘Middle’ as everything except the top 7% of people, we’re all good. Spin, spin spin — it’s what they do best.

So now all they have is hope. Well, hopefully this government will keep on spinning — in its grave while its replacement begins to reverse all the dumb things they’ve done over the last nine years.

And that’s ten minutes.

Newfoundland Sorrow

Standard

I’ve been to Newfoundland (really just St. John’s) four times — twice during my art education phase and once on Senate business, studying the oil industry. But it is the first visit — the one a week after my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer — that colours them all.

It was December 1995. Lynne had discovered a lump while showering on the day of her thesis defence. She said nothing to me — or to anyone else — but went to the defence, kicked ass and came home with her Master’s degree. It was Friday, so we had a party. On Monday, she went to her doctor and that night told me that she was scheduled for a biopsy the following Monday.

Given her age (41) and the rapidity of the lump’s growth (it hadn’t been there three months before during her exam), the biopsy was done in the morning and the results were delivered that afternoon. Stage 2 but aggressive.

They offered to do the surgery that week but we had a trip planned to Newfoundland to visit Lynne’s closest friends before going on to Nova Scotia to spend Christmas with my family. We had put a lot of resources — time and money — into the trip and she refused to give it up. The doctors agreed that there was no harm waiting a few weeks (it actually was optimal because it would then occur in the middle of her menstrual cycle — maximizing chances of success) so a few days later we were off to St. John’s.

Lynne was determined that the trip would be fun and focussed on our friends who were in Newfoundland teaching at Memorial on a term assignment. They weren’t all that happy and she didn’t want to make them unhappier.

So we didn’t say a word for four days. We visited museums and shops, climbed Signal Hill in the fog, ate and drank and listened to music at their house — a beautiful old place on the waterfront — or at the many bars and restaurants scattered through downtown.

Winter often comes late to St. John’s and so it was that year. It was mild — I doubt if it ever is warm there, at least not based on subsequent trips — with a couple of beautiful clear days, the sun shining like gems on the harbour, plus some real low overcast days with the banks of fog moving in and out with the tide. It was, in a word, perfectly beautiful. It was Newfoundland.

But sun or cloud it was all coloured with a deep shade of blue and the weight of impending doom.

On our final night there we broke the news. There was wine mixed with the tears but as the night progressed there was also love and laughter. That colours my memory, too.

Lynne was lucky. Her cancer was effectively treated and she is still well to this day, though we are no longer together. But I can never think of Newfoundland without thinking of that first visit and her toughness and tenderness. And the sorrow — not for her, but for those who weren’t so lucky.

And that’s ten minutes.

New Brunswick

Standard

Our cross country tour continues with the most schizophrenic of provinces: New Brunswick. When I lived in Amherst, Nova Scotia we used to say: 10 miles across the border and fifty years back in the past. It was all chauvinism, of course, yet there is a certain truth to the matter. In New Brunswick history never goes away and little can be understood about the place without understanding its divided history.

The northern part of the province is largely French — the descendants of Acadians who either refused to be expelled or who gradually filtered back from their land of exile in New Orleans. The southern half is populated by United Empire Loyalists — refugees of the American War of Independence who sometimes come across as more British than the British. Somehow these folks have managed to live together in the only voluntarily officially bilingual province in Canada (Manitoba only had its bilingual status restored due to a court case).

It hasn’t always been easy. For many years the north was solidly Liberal while the south consistently voted Conservative. Then they switched and recently they switched back again. The important thing was — they were never on the same side — except that time Frank McKenna won every seat in the province. And people in Alberta thought they had that one-party rule down pat.

There’s another way in which New Brunswick exceeds Alberta — the concentration of wealth. Practically the whole province is owned by two families — the McCains who dominate in the area of food production and the Irvings who pretty much own everything else — oil and gas refining and distribution, forestry, ship building and every media outlet except the CBC. They are not exactly two big happy families but they say that what they don’t own in NB isn’t really worth having. It may be a mere coincidence that NB also has among the lowest average wages and highest rates of poverty but I somehow don’t think so.

But wait there’s more. The province is notably small-c conservative and has tried harder than most (PEI has one-upped them on this) to limit the access of women to abortion services but, determined to be contradictory with itself, it is also the province that had the first non-openly gay Premier (who apparently had a fondness for marijuana). It was also the home of the Bricklin — a gull-winged sports car that was built 7 years before the similarly styled but more famous Delorean appeared on the scene.

Crazy as it might be — with quirky British-slang laden English and fractured French (no, really, I once heard a guy say: Je prend me auto a la mechanic et il dit, le carburetor, c’est all-fucked-up. Wrong on so many levels.) — but New Brunswick has its charms — nicest beaches on the east coast, the strange ‘garden pots‘ formations of the Fundy shore and the St. John river valley where your house only floods every fifth year. Crazy but determined to be so — it may be the most ‘Maritime’ of all the eastern provinces.

And that’s ten minutes.

Manitoba

Standard

Manitoba was founded by the Métis – some people seem to have forgotten that but the province was created as a direct aftermath of the first Riel rebellion. It was originally a small square around the Red River settlements. As the Northwest Territories were carved up into Saskatchewan and Alberta, Manitoba expanded north and, at one time, there was even talk of including what is now northern Ontario in the mix.

Located precisely in the middle of nowhere, Manitoba developed its own particular culture and politics. One of its first MPS, Louis Riel was elected several times but never permitted to take his seat in the House of Commons. Another Manitoba politician was Tim Buck, who, as a communist (he was party leader for decades), got 25% of the vote in the riding of Winnipeg North (losing to the socialist CCF candidate). Stanley Knowles, a bulwark of the CCF, was a long time representative from Winnipeg.

Winnipeg — which comprises 75% of the population of the province (the rest is scattered though a few modest towns and dozens of tiny, mostly aboriginal villages) — was forced by virtue of its relative isolation to look inward, developing strong ethnic neighbourhoods and its own particular cultural mix. Publishing and theater and music all thrived in the city where Christians and Jews and immigrants from across Europe and to a lesser extent other parts of the world formed prosperous and dynamic, if sometimes uneasy, relationships. The only people left out, it seems, were the original people of the province — the First Nations and Métis residents who had created the province and who now make up over ten percent of the city’s population.

When MacLean’s magazine recently called Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada (and I suspect, the competition was fierce), this is what they were talking about. The racism is not impartial; it is specifically directed at Aboriginal people. The reasons are complicated and the answers will be even more so.

A good place to start is, undoubtedly, to admit there is a problem. The difficulty will lie in figuring out what that problem is. A hundred or more years of colonial oppression will not disappear because people wish it so. The dysfunction of many First Nations communities will not be solved in isolation or by simple solutions of ‘more money’ or ‘tougher laws.’

The Supreme Court has shone a pale light on a possible path: reconciliation achieved trough good faith bargaining on both sides where the Crown and the colonists act honorably and where Aboriginal people assert their own cultural strengths. But the first thing we have to do is start talking — respectfully.

But that’s ten minutes.

British Columbia

Standard

I’ve always considered British Columbia to be my lucky charm — though perhaps the opposite is true. The first six times I traveled to the west coast of Canada the weather was perfect — sunny skies with nary a drop of rain. Every single time for visits that ranged from 3 to 10 days in every season of the year.

I began to suspect people in BC were lying about all the rain they got as a ploy to keep everyone in Canada from moving there. Of course, trip seven and eight more than made up for it. Torrential downpours and endless fog. Still, in subsequent visits I’ve seen more sun than anything else so my lucky string is still holding out.

But my luck hasn’t ended with the weather. During one particularly bad fire season I was heading to Salmon Arm. The previous days the roads had been closed due to encroaching fires and smoke but just as I arrived the fires were pushed back and I made it through — only to have them close again behind me until the day I was scheduled to leave.

Another time, in April, the main route out of Grand Forks back to Calgary was closed by snow. Following a map that showed an alternative way, we proceeded on smaller and smaller roads — from multi-lane blacktop to paved two-lane to gravel and finally to a muddy dirt road that wound its way up the side of a mountain. At one point we were on a stretch of single lane rutted trail (that we found out had only opened the day before) nearly a thousand feet above a beautiful lake. If we had met another vehicle I have no idea how we would have managed. But we didn’t and eventually we were back on gravel, paved road and after a ferry ride, the main highway home. We thereafter referred to it as super highway 44.

The best luck I ever had also involved a trip to Grand Forks to visit Liz’s parents. As the visit was coming to a close we took a day trip to Osoyoos. It was beautiful and warm (this was late May) and the lake was lovely. But I said it’s not like the ocean. So, on the spur of the moment we decided to go to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. With nary a thought to logistics we set off — arriving at the ferry terminal just in time to be the very last car allowed on the boat — avoiding a two hour wait. When we got to Port Alberni we thought — we don’t have a hotel reservation — but on our third try we got a cabin right on the beach.

We planned on only a couple of days but the weather was spectacular. In fact the five days we eventually stayed were the warmest ever recorded for that time of year in Tofino. That was only about 20C but with the pounding surf of the open Pacific and the long stretches of virtually empty beaches it was grand. We finally had to leave and although the return visit wasn’t so perfectly timed (a three hour wait in Nanaimo for the boat for example) it did involve an overnight stay in a hotel in Revelstoke which had a hot tub right in the bedroom.

And that’s ten minutes.