Right to Die

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Yesterday, an 81 year old man suffering from terminal cancer and in terrible pain that could not be relieved or mitigated was assisted in dying by his physician. This came one day after a judge ruled that the procedure could go ahead. This was the first individual, outside of Quebec, to use the Supreme Court ruling of last year to end his life.

Quebec and the Supreme Court have long been critical to changing the law to reflect the changing social mores of Canada. It was Quebec courts – or more specifically Quebec juries – that initially struck down the provisions of the Criminal Code prohibiting abortion. The Supreme Court ratified those decisions and when the Canadian Senate refused to pass new laws proposed by the Mulroney Conservative government, Canada became the first country in the world to have abortion a matter of public policy rather than of the law.

Once again it was case law from Quebec that led to the Supreme Court to strike down the criminal code provisions against physician assisted death and establishing the court-approval process in advance of a new law being passed by Parliament to regulate the process. This law is expected to pass (as required by the Court) by the end of June.

What is most striking about this decision is that it is a reversal of the decision the Court made twenty years ago in the Sue Rodriguez case. Then, in a split ruling, the Court ruled that assisted suicide would remain a crime and that those suffering an inevitable and painful demise had no recourse.

There are those who argue that this is a slippery slope and that it is immoral. There is no evidence for the former and the latter is a matter of debate – a debate that will undoubtedly occur in the House of Commons and the Senate. The government is likely to create a system of approval rife with safeguards and oversights. It is critical that the right to die remain an individual right – with decisions made solely by competent individuals free from family or institutional coercion.

The right to die decision – like the abortion one before it – was based in a legal argument that the law, including constitutional law, must evolve and may change as society changes. The Courts in Canada have not always been so liberal in their interpretation – we had to send a case to the Law Lords in London to recognize that women were persons back in the 1930s – but have grown more flexible when Canada adopted its new Constitution along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This is quite different from the debates that rage in the United States where some believe the Constitution should be interpreted as the founding fathers intended (though the same jurists made an exception for Second Amendment rights in the greatest example of judicial activism ever). They accept – barely – those amendments that outlawed slavery and gave women the vote, but otherwise want to lock America into a past that has long ceased to be relevant to most modern Americans.

Yet another reason I’m thankful for being born Canadian.

And that’s ten minutes, eh?

Changes

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It has been a busy week both North and South of the border and maybe it’s time to take a pause and try to figure out what it all means.

Donald Trump has declined to participate in the next GOP debate; Fox News decided to cancel it. Trump accomplishes two things by this tactic – he assumes the role of front runner and proves it by essentially being able to pick and choose where he will appear. He has nothing more to gain from the debates – all the insults have been doled out and Trump needs to start looking more Presidential which he can start to do. His supporters are certainly convinced but they don’t make up a majority of the Republican Party let alone the country. Unless he mends fences (rather than build walls) with women and minorities, his winning ways will likely come to an end in November.

Meanwhile, Barrack Obama has done the tactically smart thing – appoint a moderate for his nominee to the Supreme Court. Judge Garland has won praise from both sides of the great divide including from a number of current GOP Senators. Already a few moderates – among those few that are left – on that side of the house have indicated their desire to hold hearings, Mitch McConnell be damned. They may still block the appointment but are then faced with the unenviable prospect of facing a much more progressive nominee if Clinton (or Sanders) is elected and who knows what if Trump becomes President. There is no certainty that he will appoint a hard-line conservative to the bench. He is nothing if not unpredictable.

In Canada, our Senate will take on a significantly different face today with the appointment of seven new Senators. All will sit as independents though one, Peter Harder, will be the government representative with the job of moving legislation through the upper chamber. He is a long time and well-respected bureaucrat who led the transition team for Justin Trudeau – so mostly non-partisan but clearly sympathetic to the government. Of the rest, only one has a political background, a former Cabinet Minister in the Ontario NDP government some 20 years ago. The others include a former Olympian, Chantal Petitclerc, and the judge, Murray Sinclair, who recently headed up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with Indian Residential Schools. One impact of the appointments is to reduce the Conservative majority to a plurality – a change which was helped by the decision of four of their caucus to sit as independents.

Finally, the CBC has announced that it will no longer allow commenters on its news stories to remain anonymous. This follows the decision to moderate all stories on Indigenous people in order to get rid of racists. While some will complain that this silences those who fear for their jobs or friendships if their identity is known, it is a significant step forward for public civility. Maybe some of the trolls will find the courage to come out from under their bridges – if not, their voices surely will be missed by no one but themselves.

And that is a very public ten minutes.

 

Church and State

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While many Americans have trouble telling the difference between their country and Canada and even more Canadians live in a state of anxiety about that apparent lack of difference, I suffer from no such illusions. There are dozens of deep differences between our societies; one of the most profound is the role of religion in politics.

It is not that the religious do not try to impose their views on us. Most recently the Catholic archbishops have suggested that those who support physician assisted dying cannot expect to receive a church burial. Similar threats have been made in the past; I expect this one will have no more impact than the others. Canadians and, more importantly, Canadian politicians see no particular role for religion in the governing of the state.

Many people, for example, were surprised to discover that Pierre Trudeau, who legalized homosexual acts between adults in the late 60s with the famous line, “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” was a deeply devout Catholic. The vast majority of Canadian politicians view their personal beliefs as private. And so do the voters. When it was discovered (after his death) that PM Mackenzie King held séances to consult his dead mother on policy matters, most people simply shrugged and said: well, he did a good job and kept his strange views to himself.He is still regarded as one of our greatest Prime Ministers.

It’s hard to imagine a modern American politician being so open and obvious about their beliefs – or lack thereof. Bernie Sanders is purported to be a rational sceptic but he hardly proclaims his doubts from the pulpit. Ted Cruz apparently wants to create a theocracy. When I consider the choice between him and Trump, I have to say that Trump who is vague about his religion (but still eats Ted’s lunch among evangelicals) is the lesser of two evils.

In part, our politics reflect deeper divisions between our nations. America was founded out of religious persecution. Many of its early settlers were Protestant dissidents, fleeing Catholic or Anglican persecution in Europe. The American founding fathers may or may not have been religious themselves (some were, some almost certainly weren’t) but were well aware of what religion, when incorporated in the state (the King of England was also the head of the church), could do to freedom. They explicitly forbade the establishment of a state religion or of the dominance of one faith over the other. They’ve been fighting about it ever since.

Canada, on the other hand, came later, when class and nationalism were the driving forces of both oppression and revolution. Religion had a role (especially in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution of the 60s) but not a central one. Early Prime Ministers may well have proclaimed Canada to be a Christian country but the near equal balance of Catholics and Protestants in the population made them wary of incorporating much dogma into the law. Since World War II, religion has grown increasingly silent which may be related to why ‘none’ is the answer one in four Canadians give when asked their religion on the census. The number of non-religious is lower (but growing) in the USA – though fewer Americans than Canadians claim to actually be atheists; in part, it may be to avoid trouble.

Maybe this is why it is easier for Canada to accept immigrants of diverse faiths. We were raised to think that religion is nothing to fear; Americans apparently know better.

And that’s ten minutes.

OMG, A Deficit

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The Canadian Finance Minister yesterday announced that the federal deficit will be at least $18B this year – before factoring in the election promises of the new government. The real deficit could expand to $28B. Or it could be less. The estimates are based on fairly pessimistic projections and includes a $6B contingency fund, which may not in fact be spent.

Predictably, the Conservatives are pointing fingers and claiming the Liberals are irresponsible. They say that they left the country in surplus. Well, sort of. It took some fairly creative – and highly questionable – accounting to make that claim. They booked nearly a billion in savings from public service sick leave – though that might well have been reversed in court. Such things have happened before. They also reduced the normal contingency fund well below $3B and held some fire sales of government assets in order to project a slim surplus of a billion or so – all based on $50 a barrel oil. And even that surplus came after seven straight years of deficits, some of which went to stimulus but part of which was due to overzealous tax cutting. It may (or may not) be true that Canadians want lower taxes but they want to pay their bills too.

Or do they? Household debt in Canada is at record highs. Some of this is undoubtedly because of people struggling to make ends meet but some of it is also because credit is cheap and we hardly live in a society where people are willing to put off till tomorrow what they can spend to day.

In any case, what is the implication of a return to deficit? The government argues that spending in a time of economic slowdown is essential to stimulate the economy and that seeking a balanced budget at this time would clearly make matters worse. The Conservatives argue things aren’t that bad. But these are the same people who tried to claim there wasn’t a recession in Canada last year – by changing the very definition of recession they invented. Their reputation as good fiscal managers relies mostly on editorial claims of the corporate media.

Meanwhile the NDP, who also campaigned on balanced budgets, are singing a slightly different tune. They accuse the Liberals of including a large contingency fund so they can dampen expectations and renege or delay some of their election pledges. The government tells them to wait and see – the budget will be released on March 22nd.

To put it in perspective, a deficit of $18B for the federal government (which raises about $275B in revenues) is the equivalent of a household with $60,000 income running up a debt of $4000. That’s not something you want to do year after year but it is certainly not unusual. More significantly, the percentage of federal debt to GDP is hovering at 25%, better than most countries in the world and not considered dangerous by more economists.

From another point of view, the US government has run deficits every year since 2002 and last year that deficit was $439B – a lot of money but less than a third of what it was the final year George Bush was in office. Is it a good thing? Hard to say but I do know that the American economy is doing better than most of those in Europe who have been practicing austerity for the last five years.

And that’s ten minutes.

Duffy Redux

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The final arguments of the Senator Mike Duffy trial are being made this week; this will be of limited interest to American readers as none of your Senators have ever had moral failings let alone committed a crime, right?

Two weeks have been scheduled but, since the judge already asked for and received written submissions, it will likely be wrapped up fairly quickly. It seems the prosecution has already given up on the most serious charges, that of taking a bribe. Since the person who offered the bribe, Nigel Wright, was never charged with anything it is hard to imagine how the person who received it could be guilty.

Unlike certain sex acts, bribery is not a solitary occupation.

The next most serious charges are fraud and breach of trust. The fraud one is tricky – it requires that the Senator willfully and knowingly tried to defraud the government. With respect to his disputed – and since repaid with the Wright cheque – housing allowance one might accept that Senator Duffy was actually confused. He was appointed to sit as the Senator for Prince Edward Island, despite, he claims, telling the PM that he lived in Ottawa. The Prime Minister recommended him and the Governor-General, that is the Crown, appointed him. They must have thought he lived in PEI or that his residency was established somehow by the appointment.

Given that the money was repaid – as you would do if you made an honest mistake rather than a deliberate criminal act – it seems less that 50-50 that the Crown (yeah, the same one that appointed him) is going to win on this one.

The dodgy contracts and travel for party business may be the best bet for the prosecution. It seem likely that Mr. Duffy knew he was trying to pay for things that were definitely outside the purview of Senate business and set up a shell to cover these questionable expenses. The travel for political purposes is a little trickier since there was no doubt why Duffy had been appointed to the Senate in the first place – to shill for the Conservative party. No one in Ottawa thought it was for his public policy acumen so why should Duffy?

The big question is what happens if Duffy is convicted of any charges (and there is a slim chance that he might get off scot-free). He might get probation or even a conditional discharge, neither of which might trigger an expulsion from the Senate. One might think an honourable man would resign in those circumstances but there is a considerable difference between being called Honourable and being such.

That will leave it up to the Senators themselves. The rules permit the Red chamber to suspend (they already did this, remember) or even expel a Senator. But Pamela Wallin, who was suspended at the same time as Duffy and Brazeau but was never charged with a crime, is back in her seat and collecting her salary. None of her colleagues have said a thing about that. Would they – and here I mean the Conservative majority – be willing to further tarnish the legacy of the former Prime Minister by having this story dragged through the papers again? It will be fascinating to watch if it comes to that.

But that’s ten minutes.

 

Domestic Violence

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There was another domestic murder near Ottawa yesterday. A man, who clearly intended violence since he brought a gun, confronted his ex-wife in her father’s home. His former in-laws and his two children were present. The father-in-law intervened in the argument and he was the first to die. The ex-wife was shot next and then he turned the gun on himself. He died of his wounds while the woman has life-threatening injuries. According to reports, the grandmother and two children ran away and were ‘unharmed.’ Other than having their lives destroyed, of course.

We point to a lot of reasons that such things happen. Violence against women is endemic. Men are raised in a society that says, implicitly at least, they ‘own’ their families. We don’t have enough women’s shelters or enough penalties to punish violent men or programs to cure them. All true.

Some even blame feminism – that is to say; uppity women. You’ve probably heard variations of that expression in other contexts.

There is another factor that has only recently been talked about. It can be summarized in the expression: spare the rod and spoil the child. Some people believe that striking children is a necessary part of good parenting. It teaches them a lesson. And it does: it teaches them that violence is an answer to their problems.

My father, on occasion, struck me. It was very much a special occasion – not more than a handful of times in my entire childhood. Mostly I got a clear explanation of how I had failed to meet his high expectations of me – far more painful.  Still, to resort to violence so seldom was pretty good, considering his father had, on occasion, used a horsewhip on his children. I recall one time when my brother and I had committed a particularly egregious crime (and in this case it was an actual crime – theft). I can still hear my father’s words to my mother more than fifty years later. “Get them out of my sight; if I start on them I don’t know that I can stop.”

And that is domestic violence in a nutshell. Once begun, where does it stop? Violence always escalates – whether during a single incident or over the course of a series of them.

And it often begins in childhood. Children who are routinely physically punished – and here I am not talking about horse whips but what most people would refer to as a spanking once or twice a month – are more likely to become schoolyard bullies, more likely to strike their own children or domestic partners, more likely to commit domestic murder, more likely to go to prison for violent crimes, more likely to fail at life.

See. They learned their lessons well.

Sadly, society has done little to stop systematic violence against children. Think of it, we haven’t prevented acts against little kids that would otherwise be considered assault. The criminal code actually condones the use of reasonable physical force against children between the ages of two (two!!!) and twelve. The definition of reasonable is left to the parent (or teacher). My father’s words come back to me – “I don’t know that I can stop.”

Fortunately, the law is going to change – if the new government is to be believed – and that exception will be removed. Parents who beat their children will have no defence under the law. And maybe, twenty years from now, a few children will be spared losing their parents and grandparents to violence. We can only hope.

And that’s ten minutes.

Spies!

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Do you remember the scene near the start of Casablanca, where a man is warning an elderly couple to be very careful because there are thieves everywhere? In the meantime he is slipping the gentleman’s wallet out of his jacket pocket. These days the warning would be that there are spies everywhere, told to you by people who are busily invading your privacy.

Of course, we are being spied on relentlessly – by corporations, by governments, both domestic and foreign and, most of all, by our friends and acquaintances.

Yesterday, the new Canadian government declared a moratorium on supplying communications meta-data to our allies because it illegally contained personal information about Canadian citizens – rather than simply visitors or perceived foreign threats. They won’t start up again until they are sure that the Canadian spy agency is obeying the law. Of course, in the United States, there would be no such problem because the law apparently lets – even encourages – the security apparatus spy on presumably innocent citizens. If you don’t believe me ask Edward Snowden.

Spying has a long tradition – it’s been going on ever since formal states were created. States have spied on their enemies and often on their own citizens. In communist China, grannies were the primary recruits, combining their natural inclination to gossip and judge their neighbours with a small state stipend.

Soon, everyone got in on the game, and spies were dispatched far and wide. If they were caught, their governments disavowed any knowledge of their actions – yes, just like in Mission Impossible. The Canadians who were just arrested in China were no more guilty of spying than the Chinese diplomats Canada expelled a couple of years ago.

And so it goes. Spying is big business. Most corporate security firms have branches that carry out industrial espionage. Knowledge is power and information – which may want to be free – is worth big bucks.

But of course, it is not only the big bad corporations and the security apparatus of out of control governments that engage in spying. Increasingly, we spy on each other. We even spy on ourselves. In the age of social media and cellphone cameras, everything gets recorded and then posted on-line for others to see. Take the guy in the Oregon occupation who thought it was a brilliant idea to film his fellow freedom fighters committing illegal – or just stupid – acts and post them on YouTube. Those clips will undoubtedly be very useful to the prosecutors.

For myself I have nothing to hide – well nothing I’m going to reveal here. I’ll probably continue to post pictures of my vacations and Christmas trees, my meals and my garden, for everyone to see. Why not? What’s the worst that can happen? Wait a second, someone is banging on my door and yelling for me to come out with my hands up. It’s…

But that’s ten minutes.