Monday, September 30, 2013

Calgary Sun Plays The Racist Card ...

It's never been a big secret that lurking just underneath the surface of Canada's right wing politics is a religiously-inspired vein of racism.  It reared its head back in the late 1980s when the debate over turbans in the RCMP was at full volume, and the Reform Party voted to ban turbans as part of the RCMP uniform, and frankly has never really gone away.


More or less, the reasoning in the column seems to be that the world community is being "silent" about these attacks, and is somehow being hypocritical about it.

A church is bombed in Pakistan and 85 people are killed while more than 140 more are maimed. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility. 
Violence and civil unrest rocks Damascus and Aleppo, forcing Syrian churches to close their doors, possibly forever. 
Thousands of elite Philippine troops battle Muslim guerrillas of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who raze churches before they occupy the key port of Zamboanga. 
Christians in the southern Egyptian town of Dalga are forced to watch as a Muslim mob set fire to an ancient monastery and steal its contents. 
All played out against the backdrop of a shopping mall terror attack in Kenya where Muslims are asked to leave before hostages are taken.
The implicit message underlying all of this is that Islam is a "violent religion" bent on erasing Christianity from the face of the earth ... and why, oh why, isn't the world's political leadership speaking out on this?

According to the column's writer, it's because they are afraid of the Muslims:
As long as our ruling elites remain terrified of offending Islam, the self-proclaimed religion of peace that claims sole ownership of the term ‘persecuted minority,’ the fundamentalists will do as they please.
But, it is not so simple as that in reality.  Yes, as the article points out Canada has spoken out on such matters.  What the article fails to recognize is that such statements will have no effect whatsoever.  The radicals which carry out these acts are not themselves governments, and do not care one whit what governments have to say about it.

The only "threat" that we can make to them is a full scale invasion to eradicate the extremists.  Except that anyone with their head out of the sand will have long ago recognized that such approaches don't work.  Western powers have spent the last decade and a bit cleaning up the mess made in Afghanistan and Iraq, and as many had predicted prior to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, the radicals had simply gone to ground at the height of the hostilities, and are now quietly re-emerging from the shadows to assert their claims to power again.

But, underlying the column is the usual line of xenophobia about a religion and culture that frankly most people in the western countries simply do not understand.  We're supposed to be afraid of these people because of their religion, instead of the fact that they have organized themselves into what amount to paramilitary gangs like al-Shabab.

Canada is a uniquely peaceable country.  I'm not sure what it would take to provoke the kind of rioting that we have witnessed in Egypt, nor do I particularly want to find out.   That makes it all the more puzzling when we see the kinds of rioting on TV news that has resulted in churches being burned down.  We have space here - lots of it.  What provokes a mob to attack a monastery?  Who knows - perhaps when this land has been occupied by competing powers for a few millennia we will have a more direct understanding.  Many of those religious sites in the Middle East have belonged to different faith communities multiple times, and there are competing claims for the same location.

So ... why is the Sun publishing columns which simply repeat tired, old arguments about the "evils" of a particular faith?  Largely because they can.  It's easy, and it plays to the fears that the Reform/Alliance/Conservative parties have used to build up their base.  There's no secret that the Sun has become the unofficial mouthpiece of the CPC in Canada, saying the things which the base wants to hear, but that Harper doesn't dare allow to be uttered by his politicians.  There is a good reason for this. Fear is a powerful weapon in politics.  Bush II demonstrated that in spades.  The poorly understood, like cultures in far off lands, are prime targets for "othering" - painting in a particular light that seems reasonable until you start asking prickly questions about things.

Why now?   That's a bit more of a puzzle.  It's not like there's anything going on in Canada that justifies this kind of ignorance based attack ... or is there?  In Calgary right now, we are in the throes of a municipal election, and the incumbent mayor is a Muslim.  Make no mistake about it, the Sun and their far right power masters, have been supremely angry ever since Naheed Nenshi was elected in 2010.  They have made no secret of their desire to get rid of him.  If they can chisel away at his support a little bit by calling into question him by way of their characterization of his faith, they will.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Approaching Native Issues and the Language of Decolonization

For the last several years, Native American activists in Canada have been using the language of "decolonize" or "decolonialism" as a part of their rhetoric in advocating for change.  I do not believe that this is a particularly useful tactic for a lot of reasons, and one which in the long run will serve to inhibit forward progress in resolving the very valid issues that Canada's Native Americans want to change.

As best as I have been able to make out in researching the subject, it fundamentally asserts that anybody who is not Native American should confront the social privilege that results from Canada's history as colonial project of Britain and France and presumably how that privilege oppresses the Native Americans.  (This is my own summarization of things - I have not found any source which coherently sets it out in those terms)

It is fundamentally divisive language though.  It is being used in a manner which is clearly intended to foster a kind of "cultural guilt" among Canadians who are not of Native American descent.  The idea is that somehow those of us whose ancestry is largely western european should feel some kind of meta guilt for the plight of Native Americans.  For example, consider the following quote from an article posted on Rabble recently:
http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/apihtawikosisan/2013/09/colonialism-denial-finds-safe-haven-canadian-media
... These are the sins of Canadians today in 2013 who engage in Colonialism denial, and who benefit from the continued  colonial practices of the Canadian state. Canadians have an obligation to learn about their own history so they can stop engaging in Colonialism denial through sheer ignorance. Failure to do so is a modern day sin no Canadian can blame on their fathers.
The problem with this paragraph is fundamentally in the vague, imprecise way in which it uses the language of Decolonization.  What does it mean to "... benefit from the continued colonial practices ..."?  Frankly, that could mean just about anything, depending on how you interpret it, and what your understanding of the situation is.  I live in a house in a suburb of a major city.  Does that constitute "benefitting from colonial practices"?  It's hard to say - I'm sure that there are those who would argue that it does.

This is where the terminology creates its own problem.  Because there is no clear, unified understanding of what such accusations mean, it places anyone who is not descended from Native Americans in a position of wondering what is really meant.  The brush is too broad.  It could mean anything, and as such ends up meaning nothing.  Certainly, if the speaker of such phrase wants me to feel guilty, or even be willing to review something, all they have done is alienate me.  I cannot reasonably address anything when the brush is so broad.  If you can be more specific about the grievances, then perhaps I can look at those and how I play a role in those situations.

The blunt, harsh reality that I am talking about is very similar to the issue that feminism has faced with the notion of "male privilege".  The term itself at the outset is blindingly broad in its swath, and in a way ends up implicitly accusing every male of some kind of wrong simply by being male.  Feminism didn't get any traction in those areas until it started getting specific about matters.  Grievances about employment opportunities, wages, and social role demands placed on women can be inspected and addressed much more coherently than broad brush terms like "male privilege".   Similarly, the notion of racism didn't gain serious traction until things got specific, and language evolved to express how certain acts, structures and behaviours were destructive.  The broad term of "racism" only took on a coherent meaning once there was a comprehensible foundation upon which it could rest.  If your language of complaint is imprecise, the party that it is aimed at will step away from it because it is meaningless to them, and they will question why they should go down that path.

The language of "privilege" can be useful in the analysis of social and political issues of the nature that I suspect that Native American activists are trying to bring attention to.  Unfortunately, outside of the realms of academic review, such language is largely inaccessible.  The idea of "confronting one's own privilege" is, to say the least, tricky for most people to do at the best of times.  We need to be honest with ourselves as to what it means to demand that Canadians "confront their colonial privilege".  Without being specific it is beyond the grasp of most to do so.  Few have the direct knowledge of the issues that are being raised to even begin the process of understanding how their actions play into the picture.

I'm not arguing that Canada's Native Americans have no legitimate grievances - far from it.  What I am arguing for is a clarity of language in the discourse so that all Canadians can participate meaningfully.  The Indian Act is legitimately a source of significant complaint, the laws around the administration of reservations, and various other aspects of the relationship between the Federal Government and Canada's Native Americans are highly problematic.  On the West Coast, many of the Native American groups lack treaties and have long standing, unresolved land claims which have not been adequately addressed.  All of these are legitimate grievances.  Further, the treaties themselves are now very old documents and no doubt deserve to be reviewed and amended (or discarded in some cases?) in light of the context and understandings that exist today.

The Indian Act is a very old piece of legislation, and it enacts in law the structures through which the Canadian government implements the terms of the treaties negotiated during the era in which Europe was establishing colonies in North America.  As such, it implements structures which made sense some two centuries or more in the past.  It seems entirely reasonable that those structures themselves have in fact become a significant part of the problem and need to be changed.

Past wrongs cannot be magically undone.  Whether we are talking about issues in the negotiation of the original treaties, the creation of the residential schools (or how they were operated), none of those are events which we can unwind and erase from either history or the lives of those affected.  Can reparations be made?  To some degree, although in general such reparations are largely symbolic in nature, and have only a limited impact on the social, economic and political effects that resulted from the original events.  This does not mean we should not evaluate and examine such matters with an eye to taking corrective actions - we absolutely should, but within a framework where there is a shared understanding of the limitations of any such act.

The second dimension is one of forming an understanding of what Canada looks like today, and what Canadians - including Native Americans - want it to look like going forward.  This has to be a collaborative discussion involving all Canadians.  There are a lot of things to consider, and what Canada should be in the future cannot be a discussion of rooted solely in the past, nor is it going to be successful if we allow it to be mired in the vague, divisive language of unspecified grievances such as "colonialism" and "privilege".  The question of what Canada should look like going forward, especially with respect to the Native American populations is far beyond the scope of this column.  What I might imagine to be a reasonable path forward is but my own imaginings, and without input from a great many people on all sides of the discussion is unlikely to adequately address many of the issues.

In short, the language of "Decolonization" is wedge language which creates division.  It does not serve to provoke meaningful review and understanding, but rather spawns division.  Just as civil rights movements in the past have had to become specific in the language of their grievances, so must Native Americans.  I think that most Canadians would be much more willing to engage with clear and concise language of grievances.  

In fairness to activists, I can appreciate that the current government sitting in Ottawa has been less than cooperative on these issues.  Unfortunately, I suspect that any meaningful advances on these issues will come after the current government has been deposed.  Use the time between now and then to develop language that enables Canadians to engage and participate meaningfully. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Del Mastro Charged ... and ... Your Point Is?

All over the news yesterday was headlines about Dean Del Mastro being charged by Elections Canada for misdeeds in the 2008 election.

You'd think I'd be cheering.  I'm not.

Yes, I'm glad that Del Mastro will, at last, have to answer for questionable campaign practices in the 2008 election.

But, it was the fraudulent practices of the Conservatives during the 2006 and 2008 elections that led to the much more widespread fraud that they carried out in the 2011 election - and that election is the one where the greatest damage has been done to Canada.

The fact that it has taken Elections Canada 5 years to bring Del Mastro before a court is a statement about how effectively the Harper Government has stymied the ability of Canada's electoral oversight body to hold politicians accountable since coming to power in 2006.

In 2006, the Conservatives engaged in a lovely little money laundering operation to get away with violating campaign spending rules.  It's gone downhill from there.

In 2011, we were visited with the most blatant abuses of the electoral system in the form of Robocalls misdirecting voters away from correct polling stations - with data from the Conservatives voter information database.  To date, only one charge has been laid in this case, and mysteriously the access logs for the CPC database have been "accidentally destroyed".

How convenient.

Quite frankly, we are seeing a consistent pattern of outright corruption and abuse from the Harper Government.  They essentially lied and cheated through the 2011 election, and in doing so have called into question the legitimacy of our very system of selecting a government.  Since then, they have moved quite deliberately to hamstring Elections Canada's ability to investigate and prosecute these crimes effectively by strangling their budget resources.

Yes, Del Mastro needs to be prosecuted.  So do a lot of other people in the CPC - starting at the top.  It disappoints me that it has taken 5 years to bring Del Mastro before a court, and it angers me that Harper will have gotten away with even more by the time 2015/16 elections rolls around while a hobbled oversight system struggles to bring all of these misdeeds to justice.

Harper: Bringing New Levels Of Accountable Government To You

It comes as no surprise that The Harper Government has spent a great deal of time and energy doing its level best to be as unaccountable as possible to voters.  So it comes as little surprise that Suzanne Legault, The Information Commissioner of Canada is less than impressed with the games now being played to suppress public access to information.
"I am seeing signs of a system in crisis, where departments are unable to fulfil even their most basic obligations under the act," Legault told the group. 
As an example, she cited a directive in April this year from the Treasury Board warning bureaucrats to steer clear of ministers' offices when looking for documents to respond to an access-to-information request. 
The Supreme Court of Canada issued a ruling in May 2011 largely protecting documents in a minister's office, but Legault says the new directive goes much further. 
"This new component is not found in the Supreme Court of Canada's decision," she said. "In my view, it is potentially damaging to requesters' rights."
 Make no mistake about it, this is a direct consequence of how the Harperites have been driving things.  As soon as Harper came into office, the response times on Access to Information requests went up substantially, and the level of redaction in documents increased as well.

Remember, in 2006, Harper came to power promising Canadians greater transparency and accountability.  Instead what he has delivered is a government that is more cloaked in secrecy than ever before.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Alberta's Sales Tax Phobia

Ever since I was a child growing up, Alberta has made a big deal about how we don't have a sales tax.  Back in the day, when resource revenues were perhaps more predictable because the markets didn't move as fast as they do now, perhaps that was a good thing.

I had started to advocate that we should consider a sales tax in Alberta back in the early 1990s when we were climbing out of the second brutal recession in a decade.  Even then, it was apparent that the government's revenues were far too unstable.

So, when Jack Mintz proposed an 8% PST for Alberta, I wasn't disappointed.  He even went so far as to propose structural changes to make it revenue neutral relative to current taxation levels.  So far, so good.

It comes as no surprise that the first thing out of the Premier's office is a flat out rejection of the concept:


In Alberta, the "no sales tax" mantra  has been around for so long that it has evolved into some kind of political sacred cow.  Nobody dares to suggest that we should change it for fear of being beaten up by the far right over "new taxes".

The article does point out the catastrophic failure of the HST in BC:

An HST was introduced in British Columbia, but proved hugely unpopular and was eliminated in a referendum in August 2011.
But, that overlooks a significant issue with the way in which the PST was introduced in BC.   In the 2009 election, Gordon Campbell promised not to introduce the HST, only to turn around a few short months later and do exactly that.

For the last year, while Mr. Campbell doggedly extolled the virtues of the HST as good for the economy, citizen unrest surfaced in the form of a campaign by former premier Bill Vander Zalm, who collected more than 700,000 signatures in favour of repealing the tax, prompting next year’s referendum under provincial legislation. 
Much of the anger stemmed from Mr. Campbell’s promise not to introduce the tax before being re-elected in May 2009.
Voters will forgive a great many sins in our politicians, but a lie of that magnitude is pretty much political suicide.  BC voters chose to dismantle the HST in a 2011 referendum which I still believe was more of a "venting of spleen" than an objective decision.  Rightly so, voters had every right to be angry over what happened in 2009/2010.

However, Alberta's stance is every bit as foolish as Campbell's was in BC, just for different reasons.

The mantra of "no new taxes" that started when Bush I was running for the Presidency in the late 1980s has become a blind mantra of "no taxes", especially in Alberta.

The language of politics has come to confuse debt and deficit as if they are the same thing.  They are not, nor should we see them as such.  Ironically, one of the things that Redford has done that I actually like is differentiate between capital budget expenditures for infrastructure, which we may well borrow to fund and operational expenditures which should not be financed through debt mechanisms.  A 20 year debt to fund building a new hospital is not a bad thing - that building will be in use long after the initial 20 years is elapsed.

The problem Alberta faces is that it depends far too much on a resource royalty regime that floats with market prices for bitumen, and similar for natural gas - both of which have been hovering at record low levels for the last several years.  Alberta's revenues are unstable.  We get surpluses when the price bumps up a bit for a few months, and deficits when a down cycle happens.  In short, our revenues at the provincial level are unnecessarily volatile.  Further, they are subject to manipulation by a market whose key stakeholders are those who benefit most by keeping the prices for bitumen low.  (and since the same corporate entities that are extracting the bitumen are the ones who own the refineries in Texas and Oklahoma which refine the bitumen into something more usable, it's not hard to see where there's a fairly obvious desire to manipulate the futures markets to their own ends.

Ultimately, a government has responsibilities to its people.  Any government that rules out the use of a specific tool for purely political reasons is run by fools.  Are people going to complain about a change in the tax regime?  Of course they are.  Does that mean we should not do it?  No.

I'd like to see a more detailed analysis of the revenue streams that would be impacted.  It's time for Alberta to grow up and move beyond the boom-and-bust wild west model of finances.  We are no longer a small province with a small population.  We have a lot of people, and a lot of pressures on our government to provide necessary services for those people.  We are rapidly reaching the point where the demands are going to be constant, and the government will not be able to afford to ignore the volatility of our current revenue model.

I do have concerns with the structure of an HST - I fear that it may put too much control in Ottawa's hands, just as the provincial government collecting property taxes has hamstrung school boards and cities in Alberta.  But that doesn't invalidate the discussion - and it is one which we are long overdue to have in this province.


 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Harper Continues To Isolate Canada

With Harper and his band of geniuses running around the UN this, it's actually been kind of interesting.  As I pointed out back in May, Harper's foreign policy has served primarily to isolate Canada on the world stage, and continue the far-right narrative about the "irrelevance" of the United Nations.

Today, in what must be a first in history, Canada refused to sign a UN treaty which the US agreed to sign.  
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has said there is a potential link between signing on to the treaty and Canada's now-abolished long gun registry.
Baird's spokesman said earlier this week that the government is still doing consultations on whether the treaty would affect lawful recreational firearms owners in Canada.
"It is past time for Canada to get beyond spurious claims that the treaty will affect legal Canadian gun-owners and join the states that want to save lives by ending irresponsible arms transfers," Ken Epps of the group Project Ploughshares said in a statement.
For the Harper Government to take this stance really comes as no surprise.  First, they are trying to use it to play to the gun lobby in Canada, who they are clearly in bed with.  Second, it takes Canada further from the role of being an effective middle power at the UN.
"Every day, conventional arms are used to commit serious acts of violence against women and girls, including rape," Fox said in a statement.
 Meanwhile, at the UN, we find Harper trumpeting his spending on programs for Maternal Health.
Action trumps rhetoric, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a United Nations panel on maternal and child health Wednesday as he outlined $203 million over five years to help mothers and babies in developing countries.
Well, let's consider Harper's actions for a minute.  As the Toronto Star points out, Harper's cuts in 2006 have hamstrung Canada's ability to ensure that we actually know where women stand in Canada.  In the realm of actions and words, Mr. Harper's own actions deserve to be held to scrutiny when he stands on the world stage and plays the "look how noble we are" card.

Helene Laverdiere, the NDP's international development critic, was quick to slam the government not only for re-announcing three-year-old funding, but for failing to include support for reproductive health. 
"Canada's Muskoka funding should have included funding for women to access sexual and reproductive health services, including emergency contraception and safe abortion," Laverdiere said in a statement.She also assailed the government for rejecting last week's call from the UN Human Rights Council for a comprehensive national review of violence against aboriginal women. 
"Under Harper, it's clear that Canada is not a real leader on women's health and women's rights."
Harper continues to play a very narrow, partisan game at all times.  One can only hope that Canadians are becoming aware of the game he is playing.

Monday, September 23, 2013

NY Times On Harper's Abuse Of Science

Over at Huffington Post, someone noticed that the New York Times spent some significant column space raking Harper over the coals for how he has abused Canada's science community.

I have talked about the consequences of Harper's micromanaging of science before on this blog (here, here, and here ... for a start), however, the NYT column cuts to the chase rather nicely:
This is more than an attack on academic freedom. It is an attempt to guarantee public ignorance.
Take close note of that one sentence.  It summarizes in a nutshell what Harper is up to.  The less that the public is aware of, and the less that we have the information needed to challenge Conservative policy in this country, the more that he benefits from it.  It isn't just Harper attacking Canadian scientists and muzzling them.  It goes far beyond that, and he is actively trying to choke science off, suppressing the basic foundational research that is needed to move things forward, focusing NSERC on "productive" research (aka Engineering work that can be commercialized).

As we are learning, Harper's dismantling the long form census has hobbled the ability of Statistics Canada to provide the information needed by all levels of government to make informed policy decisions.

In short, the man is moving to suppress the ability for Canadians to objectively critique what he is doing to this country.  It is a sad statement when the New York Times, which seldom pays any attention at all to Canada, sees fit to point this out to the world.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Legalize It, Control It

One of the most devastating problems that our society faces is that of addiction.  Whether that is to tobacco, alcohol or narcotics - any substance addiction can have long term consequences for the addict, those around them and society at large.

Smoking is known to cause cancers, alcoholics can destroy their families and careers, and drug addicts become pariahs of society.

Tobacco is not illegal in this country, but it is highly regulated and among the most heavily taxed of all products out there.  Over the course of my own lifetime, I have seen smoking go from common and nearly pervasive to being almost rare.  Few people in my circles smoke, and I can go into restaurants and nightclubs without inhaling the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes in second-hand smoke.  Alcohol is similarly regulated, but not illegal.

Then we come to narcotics like heroin.  Heroin is illegal in Canada, and requires special authorization even for medical applications.  Opioid medications are all heavily controlled, and heavily sought after by addicts.

The difference between the three?  Treatment for tobacco addiction or alcoholism is fairly readily accessed and doesn't carry with it the stigma and fear that is associated with seeking treatment for being addicted to narcotics which are (theoretically) illegal and should not be on the streets.

So when Canada's Minister of Health, Rona Ambrose, had a ministerial hissy fit over a handful of heroin addicts participating in a clinical study being granted permission for medically controlled access to heroin, I was a little bit surprised - but for the ideological stripe of the current government.

"This decision is in direct opposition to the government's anti-drug policy and violates the spirit and intent of the special access program," she said in a statement. 
"I am taking immediate action to protect the integrity of the special access program and ensure this does not happen again." 
There are already safe treatments for heroin addiction, such as methadone, Ambrose argued. 
"The special access program was designed to treat unusual cases and medical emergencies; it was not intended as a way to give illicit drugs to drug addicts."
As a columnist over at Global points out, these addicts fall well within the scope of the Special Access program - they are the addicts for whom treatment regimes such as Methadone have already failed.

Let me be clear - I'm not advocating that these drugs should be readily available on the street.  Far from it.  What needs to be taken out of the picture is the criminalization of the addict.  An addict doesn't need to be punished - the addiction is far worse than any punishment the courts may dish out.

The SALOME (Study to Assess Longer-term Opioid Medication Effectiveness) study’s not yet complete. But in the meantime, doctors say they need a viable way to treat participants who’ve completed their 13-month trials and remain very, very dependent on heroin. 
The idea is to administer – in safe doses, in a medical environment and under close observation – an illicit substance these people would otherwise break the law to obtain. Best-case scenario: You stabilize and, eventually, quit. 
Several doctors, including Vancouver Coastal Health’s Chief Medical Officer, submitted 1,000-plus pages of studies and missives as part of an application requesting injectable heroin prescriptions for 35 people.Health Canada approved 16. 
Is it ideal? Hardly. But traditional solutions haven’t worked so far. 
In her indictment of her department’s decision, Ambrose said she plans to “ensure this does not happen again.” 
Giving addicts this heroin, she argued, is “not to treat an underlying medical condition, but simply to allow them to continue to have access to heroin for their addiction even though other safe treatments for heroin addiction, such as methadone, are available.” 
She’s right: Methadone maintenance is one of the most commonly used treatments for serious opioid addiction. In some places across the country, it’s insufficiently accessible – especially now that many of those who need it aren’t addicted to illicit heroin, but to licit (highly addictive, frequently abused or misused) prescription opioids. 
But the addicts getting this heroin were by definition ones methadone wouldn’t help: They’ve already tried.
Instead of the Minister getting up on her high horse and complaining about a small, controlled study, she might want to consider directing Health Canada to start the process of figuring out how to help addicts get off the substances that they are addicted to - without fear of being prosecuted.

Narcotics have legitimate medical uses, and perhaps we have lost sight of that in the drive to use prohibition to restrict these substances.  The underlying discussion should be one of how to help the addicts.  There will always be those who sell these drugs illicitly - those people should be held accountable for their actions, for no other reason than they are ultimately doing grave harm to their customers.  Their customers, on the other hand, need to have access to treatment that enables them to escape the chemical bondage they find themselves held to.

We have experimented with prohibition for too long.  It is a failed strategy, and it is time for us to reassess the effects of the legal frameworks that are in place.  Unfortunately, I don't expect the current government to move one iota towards a constructive approach to these issues - Harper and his ilk seem to think that harsher and harsher punishments are the way to go.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Analyzing The Manning Centre Report "City Council Vote Tracking"

The Manning Centre released a report this week, "Growing the Democratic Toolbox:  City Council Vote Tracking".

The first thing about this that I find interesting is that this appears to be a sign that the Manning Centre is going to start positioning itself in a manner similar to the Fraser Institute, which has spent much of the last twenty years spouting ideologically slanted "research" as if it is somehow unbiased and logical.  The fact that this report's release coincides with the launch of the "Common Sense Calgary" campaign and the launch of Calgary's civic election suggests that there is an attempt to attack the current city council incumbents who don't align well with the Conservative cabal that wants to control all levels of politics.

The report is lengthy - some 38 pages, and filled with lots of statistical analysis of council meeting minutes.  It is filled with lots of "pretty graphs", but graphs seldom tell the whole story - in fact, statistics themselves have proven to be a somewhat suspect tool in analyzing politics in general.

[More Detailed Analysis After The Jump]

Remember Harper Muzzling Scientists? He's Doing It To Veterans Too

Under the Harper Government, we have been fed enormous amounts of propaganda pablum in the name of "Support the War in Afghanistan Troops".  The "highway of heroes" when our troops were being returned in pine boxes on a weekly basis; goodness knows how many photo-ops of Harper and Mackay on the tarmac in Afghanistan, and Harper wearing partial uniforms at various times.

You would think that the troops are some kind of privileged class under Harper.  Not so much, it seems.  In fact, if you manage to get yourself injured in the line of duty, the big old roll of duct tape gets dragged out and put across your mouth.

The Canadian Forces is requiring physically and mentally wounded soldiers to sign a form acknowledging they won’t criticize senior officers or discourage others in uniform with their comments on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. 
The form, given to military personnel who are transferred to the Joint Personnel Support Unit, was sent to the Citizen by military members upset with what they see as a threat to their right to speak out about the failure of the Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces to take care of the wounded.
Now, at first, you might think that this is little more than the usual private industry policies that basically state that criticizing your employer publicly can get you fired.  I have more than a few problems with those policies too - but there is a reasonable level of non-disclosure in the workplace.  I certainly wouldn't want trade secrets being revealed in public media, unless of course the "trade secret" is in fact a violation of the law.

This goes several steps further, and begins to sound a lot like the controls that Harper has used to suppress Canadian scientists who might say things that are in conflict with his political dogma.

The JPSU “policy on proper comments on social media” repeats well-known military directions not to post secret information on websites and other forums. It also tells military personnel not to make disparaging comments about senior officers or fellow personnel. 
But military personnel in JPSU are also told not to “write anything that might discourage others or make them dissatisfied with their conditions or their employment.” 
In addition, those in JPSU were told not to disclose “your views on any military subject.”The form, introduced in March, notes military personnel in JPSU will be held responsible for not only the content they post on social media outlets but also the content of their friends which they have “tagged” on various sites. 
Wait a second.  So, if a member of the JPSU (any injured veteran still enlisted, I presume) posts something, they can get disciplined?  But, worse, if someone they know posts something, the service member can be held accountable for that?  Excuse me?  In principle, that means that this blog could be used against any active members of the armed forces that I may be associated with.   This policy, like the "duty of loyalty to the elected government" letter sent to Parks Canada staff last year, is a gross abuse of legitimate rights.

Of course, what Harper wants us to do is revere his propagandized notion of the military, and not look too closely behind the curtain at how the troops are treated when they get home minus a limb or suffering from PTSD.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Let The Astroturfing Begin

It seems that the astroturfing of Calgary has begun, with the Manning Centre sitting right behind it.

Common Sense Calgary has been launched using funds from the Manning Centre.

Started with $10,000 in seed money from the Manning Centre, content for the website is being provided by the Manning Foundation.
A video leaked in April showed Shane Homes CEO Cal Wenzel urging a group of fellow home builders to financially support industry-friendly candidates. 
He and 10 others gave $100,000 each — totalling $1.1 million — to the Manning Centre, part of which was used as the seed money for Common Sense Calgary. 
“It’s not a charity, it’s not a not-for-profit, we are not soliciting contributions,” Billington said. “It’s an initiative of a group of private individuals.”
A few moments of poking around their website makes the agenda pretty clear.  The news page is filled with an assortment of articles that are critical of incumbent mayor Nenshi's positions (if you scroll down their news page, there's rather a lot from the Calgary Sun ...).


Looking a little further through Common Sense Calgary's website, their position on key areas are classic conservative positions (with all of the nuance of a sledgehammer), and mysteriously they are backed up by reports published by the Manning Centre.



It has been no secret that the Manning Centre has been building a set of positions relative to municipal politics for quite some time.  Then we get this group, funded by the Manning Centre no less, coming forward to promote them.  How unsurprising.

... and when the man at the front of the organization is Rick Billington, a man with unquestionable ties to the local CPC power structure, it seems even less likely that this is anything but an astroturf organization.  Consider that this group is funded by the Manning Centre, and if the Calgary Sun is correct using some of the $1.1 million from the developers community.  This doesn't sound like anything remotely resembling "grassroots".

[Update]
In today's Calgary Herald, there is a similar article, but it attempts to claim that this is going on "across the board":

The city’s labour unions are the other traditional big interest in civic politics, bestowing money on progressive candidates and encouraging their thousands of members to vote and volunteer for them.
In this fall’s campaign, the unions for city hall and transit staff are working more closely together than before, and will choose preferred candidates in many wards.
 
“What we’re looking for is ideally candidates we can work with and candidates that won’t target labour,” said Alex Shevalier, president of Calgary and District Labour Council, an umbrella group for unions. He warned of politicians who may outsource civic jobs or press to cut worker benefits and wages. 
“They very much want to end city planning as we know it and understand it, and it would be a very libertarian approach to city council,” said Shevalier. “And one person’s red tape is another person’s due process.” 
The labour council is co-ordinating unions’ efforts and has its own knowyourcanadidates.ca campaign website.
The difference here?  The labour council's knowyourcanadidates.ca website is informational at this stage - it tells you who your candidates are in a given ward.  They apparently have a survey out to all of the candidates, but so far the results haven't come back yet.  The nature of the survey is not known to me at this point.  

At least the site is upfront about the fact that it is being funded by the Calgary Labour Council - unlike the Common Sense Calgary group whose website tries to portray it as being a "bunch of concerned citizens", when it is being funded and facilitated by a political think-tank.
[/Update]

Harper, The UN and Aboriginal Issues

Once again, we find The Harper Government (which, I am more and more convinced is not a Canadian government), squabbling over the UN's initiatives to review Canada's treatment of our Aboriginal population.

Countries have their rights records reviewed every four years by the Geneva-based UN forum, but the Harper government has been skeptical of it in part because it allows countries with dubious rights records to criticize Canada.
Recommendations from Iran, Sri Lanka and Cuba were among the 40 out of 162 that Canada chose to reject.
Frankly, Canada's relationship with its Aboriginal peoples is less than ideal, and arguably subject to quite a lot of very legitimate criticism.  While we have begun to take steps to address the wrongs done such as the Residential Schools, we keep uncovering other evils carried out by past governments, or for that matter accusations of negligent or sloppy investigation is missing native women and the ongoing crisis conditions at Attawapiskat.

To be honest, I find the "what to do" with respect to the wrongs that have been perpetrated on native peoples by our governments - past and present, a very complex and unsettling puzzle.  More recent abuses such as the seemingly negligent approach to investigating missing persons cases involving aboriginal women on the part of the RCMP have some fairly obvious remediations.  But, older wrongs, including those which are contained in treaties that are now hundreds of years old are more complex.  Is it reasonable to hold today's generations "to account" for the problems that the treaty system created?  I am less sure that is constructive.

However, I'm not going to attempt to untangle the complexities of Aboriginal issues in Canada here - that is a topic which is probably worthy of a book of its own, not a mere blog post.

The issue that the Harper Government is creating here is profoundly troubling.  Harper has very little difficulty with complaining loudly about being judged by the very countries which he is so quick to condemn for their human rights record.  Harper seems to think that he is only subject to criticism by countries which he perceives as being his peers.  

Reality check time.  I don't give a damn if Harper thinks that Iran is "lower on the totem pole" than Canada when it comes to human rights.  The fact is that at the level of the UN, all countries are peers.  Just because Iran or Cuba might have something to say that you don't like, that doesn't automatically make it an invalid commentary.  

In my opinion, Harper's actions in this case reveal two things about Harper that are profoundly offensive to Canadian sensibilities.  First, it reveals an excessively thin skin on Harper's part with respect to any kind of criticism.  (Arguably, he has used Prorogation of Parliament to avoid being held accountable).  Second, it also reveals the subtle bigotry that has always been just below the surface of Harper's politics.  While Harper has had Jason Kenney running around courting the various ethnic populations, he has quietly worked to undermine women, aboriginals and other groups in Canada through a series of program cuts.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Slates In Calgary Municipal Elections

While Calgary's municipal elections are ostensibly "non-partisan", in so far as we don't have the various political parties directly involved, it is naive to think that we don't have slates of candidates backed by interest groups of one sort or another.

In the last several elections, we have had what I will politely classify as "right wing" slates of one sort or another fielding candidates.  In 2007 and in 2010, we had slates running which were backed/endorsed by the political far right.  The usual outcome was that one or two of the slate candidates might get elected.

Over the last fifteen years, these groups have gotten more subtle, and much more careful about letting themselves be known.  If you try to pin any of the candidates down as to their affiliations, they will prevaricate and dodge the question as much as possible in order to maintain the appearance of being non-partisan.

That is partly why the Cal Wenzel homebuilder's video that came to light this spring is so significant.  It was common knowledge that the Manning Centre was making a play in the civic politics arena, and Wenzel's speech told us a lot about who was behind it.

Do we have a slate running in Calgary in 2013?  Officially, no.  Practically, we do.  It came to light again this week when six candidates and two previously unheard of "grassroots" (possibly astroturf groups, it's hard to tell) organizations banded together to take out a full page ad in the Calgary Herald.  When five of those six candidates are running in wards that Wenzel specifically named as targets for unseating the incumbent, it smells distinctly like we have a slate running.  Even fishier is the fact that they are taking out this ad about a golf course that isn't in any of the wards they are running for.

I don't like slates for one very simple reason - they are inevitably very narrowly focused on a particular political viewpoint, and as such are ultimately partisan in nature.  When the funding is coming from people who are willing to push seven figure amounts around, I think we have to become extremely worried about the expectations that will be attached to that kind of money in the long term.

There is also an underlying dishonesty with slates.  They inevitably try to run below the public radar (the slates in 2007 and 2010 could be identified by some common affiliations, with the slate running this year, the affiliations are better hidden, and except for Wenzel's speech, would be difficult to unearth unless you had access to the "student" lists from the Manning Centre's training programs.

While I am not thrilled with Mayor Nenshi's response to this ad, I can sympathize with the fact that it's quite clear that the big money conservative power base in Calgary are gunning to undermine Nenshi whatever way they can.  Ever since his victory in 2010, the Calgary Sun has been overtly hostile to just about everything he has done, and the fact that the developers led by Wenzel were willing to fork over a million dollars to the Manning Centre to "train" a group of sympathetic candidates, one can imagine that Nenshi feels distinctly under siege.

If we are going to play partisan politics like that, let's get it out in the open so that voters know what they are voting for and can assess it with a clear head.  Anything less than this is dishonesty on the part of our candidates.




Monday, September 16, 2013

Corcoran Misses The Point On Income Disparity

On CBC's "The House" this weekend, I heard an interview with the Financial Post's Terrance Corcoran, in which he was basically poo-pooing the very real issue of the growing disparity between Canada's top earners and the rest of Canadians.  He made a comparison between a pensioner pulling in $20,000 a year and an executive making $190,000 and said "who cares?" - a statement which trivialized the entire discussion and leftA little digging this morning, and I find that he has more or less made the same points in one of his FP editorials.
If Canadians actually seriously look at the income data instead of following instant Occupy interpretation in much of the media they might end up feeling pretty good about income distribution in Canada.  The Canadians within the top 1% cover a wide cross-section of professions and occupations.  Almost 70% of the 1% have univeristy educations, as does 50% of the top 10% of income earners.
The lesson:  Getting the right higher education pays.
How generous of Mr. Corcoran to patronize us with the old saw about higher education.  Education is important, but it is far from the entirety of the story. I do note that he turns the knife with an extra twist by adding that it has to be "the right" higher education.  Presumably, like most of the far right in this country, Corcoran is among those who believe that the only degrees which matter are the so-called "useful" degrees:  Business, Engineering, and so on.  "Lesser degrees" like English, Philosophy and so on don't count.
That's not the Occupy idea, which is that inequality is a function of a corrupt 1% populated by system manipulating, fat-cat bankers, investment executives and Wall Street/Bay Street corporate gougers who are skimming massive bonuses out of semi-corrupt boards of directors ... 
Having sat close enough to the executive suite in my own career, watching a company grow from a modest size to being part of a frighteningly huge organization, I have seen first-hand the way that decisions get made.  A smaller organization's leadership is closer to the day to day business problems and is capable of responding to them appropriately - balancing both financial and human factors appropriately.  At a certain size, things become entirely abstract in the boardroom, and the business' leadership is dealing not with people and clients but all the executive sees are numbers.  People become numbers, salaries are numbers, and profits are numbers ... so are the bonuses.

When business starts looking at its people as "expenses", rather than as assets, things go seriously awry.  We are seeing this in the service industry today - companies like Wal-Mart, Loblaws, Sobey's are all cutting staff and wages to the point where getting service in their stores is next to impossible.  (The Sobey's near me has had seriously empty shelves in the produce area on Saturdays quite frequently, and their shelves are often half empty in the rest of the store)  There are explicit policies in companies like Wal-Mart which are designed to cap a worker's hours to limit the company's "wage expenses".

These are very real problems.  Worse, they are symptomatic of a malaise that reaches much further than the service industry jobs (which are often the entry level jobs for so many beginning their working careers).  In higher paying, professional companies, there are similar games going on which are designed at their core to tie the worker to the company and its fortunes.  I've written quite a lot on this subject on this blog under the label of Corporate Feudalism.  Make no mistake about it, the whole "outsourcing" game of sending jobs overseas where wages are cheaper and laws are more lax about how employees can be treated is another dimension of the same evil - and it's an approach to business that is similar, only it ends up affecting higher paid, professionals such as IT specialists.

What Mr. Corcoran, sitting comfortably in his high chair at the Financial Post is misconstruing about the "Occupy" movement and its offshoots (or unions come to that) is that they are really about the growing exploitation of the lower income earners by the top income earners.  It is about the sociopathy of large corporations and their boards which are so abstracted from the people that their decisions affect that they make increasingly abusive decisions.

Income disparity is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Mulcair's Beard Is Not The Point

There are days that I am positive that the "image consultants" who hover around our political leaders don't have a clue what they are talking about.  Today, we find the discussion of the week is whether or not Mulcair should shave off his beard.

But media consultant Barry McLoughlin told HuffPost that if Mulcair was his client, he'd recommend he take two weeks off in the summer and shave it.
McLouglin said that although Mulcair's beard is well-styled, trimmed and looks good on him, it creates a barrier between him and the voter. Hiding some of his face makes it harder for people to connect with him, McLoughlin said — and it shouldn't come as a surprise that people may feel they don't know him personally if a third of his face is hidden.
Frankly, I actually like Mulcair's beard - he keeps it neat and it suits him.  I may not want to kiss it, but when I'm looking at a politician, that isn't what I think about anyhow - on that score, that's a discussion between Mulcair and his wife.

Mulcair's real problem isn't his beard.  It never has been.

Frankly, the issue that he is facing isn't his beard, it's his politics.  His job, as leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, is to hold Harper and his gang of thugs accountable.  I'm sorry to say it, but frankly he's been failing miserably at it.

It seems as though every time that Harper does something abusive to this country, Mulcair barks at the Liberals.

Okay, I get it.  Mulcair sees the Liberals as a threat.  However, falling into the Stephen Harper pattern of trying to discredit the Liberals at every turn distracts him from doing his job - which should be taking Harper to task for absolutely everything that he does.

If Mulcair wants to reside at this nation's most coveted address, 24 Sussex Drive, he has to show Canadians that he is capable of far better than Harper has provided.  Instead, he more often than not seems to be in cahoots with Harper - attacking the Liberals instead of the Conservative government.

In the midst of the Senate Expenses Scandal, we haven't heard Mulcair make changes to his party's accountability in the House.  All we've heard is a glib, simplistic bunch of nonsense about abolishing the Senate, without actually addressing the far more central issue of accountability in Parliament.

The problem isn't that Mulcair doesn't attack the Conservatives - he certainly does - but rather that he doesn't focus his attacks.  Instead of holding the government to account for its actions and abuses of power, he dilutes the effectiveness of his comments by always seeming to add "the Liberals do it too".

The effect is like watching a cat being taunted by magpies - the cat simply cannot decide which magpie to go after, and fails to go after either effectively.  Mulcair has relatively little excuse for his performance, either.  There is no shortage of things that he could be calling Harper and his minions to task for.

First and foremost, Mulcair has to step forth and show himself to be capable of holding the current government to account.  He hasn't done that very well to date.  If he wishes to be the man sitting in 24 Sussex in a couple of years' time, Mulcair needs to get his focus sorted out.  At the rate things are going, even his ability to hang on to Stornaway is becoming questionable.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Watch As Our Prison Costs Go Up

Travis Baumgartner was sentenced today.  He was sentenced to the equivalent of "40 years to life" for a bloody robbery that left three dead.

Previously, the standard sentence that Baumgartner would have received was "25 to life".  That was until the Harper Government passed a law which changed the sentencing rules for multiple murders.  Once a prisoner had served 25 years of their sentence in prison, they became eligible to apply for parole.  Baumgartner will be in his late sixties before he is eligible to apply for parole.

It seems to me that this more than a little bit pointless.  All it does is ensure that Baumgartner will be incarcerated for longer - at taxpayer expense.

This is somewhat pointless in my view.  If, after 25 years, Baumgartner is no threat to society, what is to be gained by incarcerating him for another fifteen years?  Precious little.  If he is a murderer as appalling as Clifford Olson or Paul Bernardo, then the parole evaluation should identify that and deny parole.

The notion of justice is complex and subtle.  It is a balance between rehabilitation and punishment.  Incarceration is, in our legal system, a legitimate form of punishment.  To make incarceration so severe that a prisoner has very little chance of being released before they are truly aged serves little real purpose.  What incentive is there for Baumgartner to put in the work to rehabilitate himself?  Precious little at this point.

Victim's rights groups bleat incessantly when an offender applies for parole - especially when that offender has been as high profile as Clifford Olson was.  They complain that even having a parole hearing is some kind of violation of the victim.  Perhaps it is, but I don't think that's really the case.  These people more often than not have confused justice with punishment.  Nothing can undo what has been done.  The world doesn't work that way.  But there is little to be gained by locking someone up indefinitely.

I'm not arguing that Baumgartner doesn't deserve a stiff sentence.  Nor am I arguing that at 25 years he should be paroled automatically.  I simply do not believe that some kind of injustice has been done because he can apply for parole at 25 years.  Even if he is paroled at 25 years, he remains under supervision for the rest of his life.  That's a pretty short leash, in my opinion.  Does that mean that Baumgartner will commit no further crimes once released?  No guarantees there, but justice isn't about guarantees.  It is about appropriately balancing punishment with rehabilitation.  People are not something that you can just "throw away".

Along with mandatory minimum sentences, this is another piece of the Conservative "tough on crime" nonsense which does nothing for society except increasing the taxpayer bill for prisons.

Ask yourself this - would you rather spend money on incarcerating criminals or would you prefer to see those funds used for public education or health care?  The United States has already tried this experiment.  It is now a country with the greatest percentage of its population either incarcerated or under "supervised release" (aka Parole or probation).  States like California have been driven to the brink of bankruptcy by these laws and the heavy handed approach to sentencing that they demand.

Think I'm Joking About Corporate Feudalism?

Perhaps you think that I'm being somewhat Pollyanna about the issue of corporate feudalism and its rise in both Canada and the US.

I'm not kidding.  This is possibly the most serious issue facing Canadian workers in the last 100 years.

Just as the Temporary Foreign Worker program has served to undermine Canadian workers by supplanting them with people willing to work for much less money, the Unpaid Internship undermines students, educational institutions and workers even further.
University student Samantha Bokma said she was surprised when her job with Tory MPP Rod Jackson ended suddenly in August — she had expected to stay on part-time as his constituency assistant as she had during the last school year 
It was a good front-line job for a political science major: answering phones and doing intake interviews with constituents looking for help. The 22-year-old said she helped write some of Jackson’s monthly newspaper articles. 
“But then they told me they weren’t going to renew my contract because they didn’t have enough in the budget,” said the fourth-year student at Laurentian University’s Barrie campus. She resigned the next day to start looking for new part-time work. 
So she was alarmed a week later to see an ad for what looked like her replacement — without pay. 
“The duties described in the posting are pretty much what I did for pay — answering phones, greeting constituents, preparing correspondence,” said Bokma, 22, who filed a complaint Tuesday with Ontario’s labor ministry, arguing it is illegal for an employer to replace a paid worker with an unpaid intern.
The argument has been made more than a few times that graduates from various educational institutions don't have the "skills" that businesses need.  Therefore, businesses have turned to "Internships" as a way for students to build directly relevant skills up before they graduate.  In my experience, the notion of an Internship (back in the day, we used to call them summer students) is a bad joke in terms of providing practical knowledge and skills.  Frankly, except in the rarest of cases, interns find themselves doing all of the tasks that the rest of the department can't stand doing.  In IT, managing the backups does nothing to develop critical skills.

More recently, we have seen the paid internship turn into the Unpaid Internship.  Same nonsense as before, except the student doesn't get compensated for their efforts.  The claim that companies make is that they have to spend all this money on training the intern, so why should the intern be paid?

It's simple, actually.  The business is training the intern for whatever specific tools they will be using to carry out their duties.  No employee should be held responsible for the training on specific tools.  This is ridiculous.  Ultimately, the unpaid internship model reflects the growing mentality in business that people are an expense rather than an asset.

The expectation that someone who has just graduated from a program has "immediately applicable" skills is farcical.  A university graduate is someone who knows how to learn.  Even in highly focused programs such as Engineering, new graduates have limited skills - they have knowledge and a framework within which to develop further skills.

When a business hires an employee, the employee is making a commitment to that employee to apply their skills and knowledge to that company's business objectives.  Pretty basic, and fairly obvious.  The company is responsible for providing appropriate training for any specific skills that they are demanding.

Ultimately, this is creating an environment where the "haves" in society will be wealthy enough to put themselves forward, and the "have-nots" will find their lot in life pushed further and further down.

[Update 14/9/13]
As if they couldn't sink any lower, a high end hotel is trying make a busboy job an unpaid internship:

http://o.canada.com/2013/09/13/fairmont-unpaid-busperson-vancouver/http://o.canada.com/2013/09/13/fairmont-unpaid-busperson-vancouver/

Seriously?  Bussing tables is a bottom floor job in restaurants.  The person who takes this job as an intern is going to learn what about the business?
[/Update]

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The PQ's "Charter of Quebec Values"

Lately, there has been much of an uproar made over the PQ's "Charter of Quebec Values" in the news.

Frankly, the entire thing strikes me as a ridiculous bit of pot-stirring on the part of the Marois-led PQ government.  The proposed Charter imposes a set of arbitrary limitations on religious expression that make no sense in the bigger picture.

Restricting religious symbols has been tested repeatedly under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Quebec's so-called Charter is guaranteed to fly in the face of the Charter, and Marois is no doubt planning to invoke the "Not withstanding" clause that has enabled Quebec to support their equally unconstitutional language laws should she actually manage to get this passed in the National Assembly.

What makes Quebec's situation interesting is that they are adopting a stance that is almost as hard-line here as existed when the Catholic Church held sway with the Duplessis government.   The Quiet Revolution which followed turned the province away from overt religious controls.  In light of the Quiet Revolution and the intervening decades, this legislation makes absolutely no sense.

The PQ is playing a game.  I don't think that Marois, or anybody else in the PQ, actually believes what this legislation represents.  The more I think about it, Marois is playing for something different - she is trying to find a way to fan the flames of the separatist fires that she believes won her the last election.  In reality, I suspect that the Charest government had simply run its course and much of the vote for the PQ was a vote against the Charest government rather than a vote for separatism.

The PQ is trying to set up a debate which they can play on in the next provincial election - more or less taking a page from Harper's playbook in 2008.


Sunday, September 08, 2013

Canada's Far Right Next Attack On Nenshi

It's no big secret that the Conservative power base in Calgary was profoundly pissed off when Naheed Nenshi won the Mayoral race in 2010.  The amount of vitriol seen in the Sun's pages after election day was astonishing, and since then, they have taken every opportunity to snipe at Nenshi.

This is no surprise.  They were also suspiciously silent when it came out that Cal Wenzel and a bunch of his pals had ponied up over a million dollars to the Manning Centre to build a slate of candidates that would be "friendly" to their interests in the next city council.

Their most recent attack on Nenshi began this week, with the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation publishing an "exposé" of how the City of Calgary had spent money with the Pembina Institute.  According to the CTF, the City spent somewhere on the order of $113,552  (which, frankly, is barely one professional consultant salary) annually with the Pembina Institute.  Apparently, this is a big bad thing.  I will note that CTF says nothing of whether the city has spent money with other "think tank" consultancy organizations or not, but they are certainly vocal about complaining that money was spent with the Pembina Institute.

The funny part about the whole thing is that CTF tips their hand in their interview with the CBC:
But Fildebrandt said it’s hard to imagine the city hiring the right-leaning Fraser Institute to consult on something such as property tax reform.
In short, whether Fildebrandt admits it or not, he's really complaining because he doesn't like the political stripe of the Pembina Institute's positions.

A closer look at the documents that the CTF recovered from the city reveals something much more significant about the spending with Pembina that calls into question the CTF's complaint:

1)  The documents retrieved show spending with the Pembina Institute starting in 2007 through 2012.

2)  Over half of the spending took place before the October 2010 civic election put Nenshi into the Mayor's chair ... which means that the process started under developer darling Dave Bronconnier's tenure as Mayor.

Take a close look at the following summary of invoices from CTF's FOIP documents:

YearTotal Invoices
2007
$10,504.64
2008
$25,196.58
2009
$13,701.92
2010
$178,446.55
2011
$131,384.32
2012
$787.50

If we take a raw average across the full five years, the annual average spend with Pembina was $60,003.59; If we chop off 2007 and 2012 as the outlier times the average spend jumps to $87,182.34.

Going a step or two further, prior to Mayor Nenshi being elected in 2010, the city spent $212,998.53 with the Pembina Institute, and $147,022.98 since.  

While Ezra Levant and the rest of the Sun Media crowd has dutifully jumped all over this faux issue, the reality is that very little, if any, of the spending was initiated under Nenshi.  More to the point, there is no evidence presented that there is any wrongdoing taking place.  

The CTF is busy trying to politicize a non-issue that they likely wouldn't be complaining about if the recipient of this spend was the Fraser Institute or other group that they found to be "ideologically acceptable".  

One can just imagine the outcry if the City of Calgary paid the Fraser Institute to write a report on building a competitive business environment or property tax reform. The contents of the report might contain excellent data and recommendations, but that is to miss the point. Groups engaged in political debate – even the non-partisan – should never receive a penny of taxpayer’s cash.

As we all know, these organizations can structure themselves in such a way that it never appears that the "lobbying part of things" intersects directly with the "consulting" division.  It is no secret that the "Manning Centre for Building Democracy" is built up of at least two divisions:
The Manning Centre is a non-profit corporation that focuses on political, conservative-oriented activities. As such, it is not a registered charity and donations are not eligible for tax receipts. Activities such as research and education, which are classified as charitable, are undertaken by the Manning Foundation – a registered charity.
Note the division of responsibilities?  So, if the City was to hire the Manning Centre for some kind of consultancy would ultimately be hiring what is obviously a partisan organization.  They could create a division called "Manning Competitive Institute" to engage in economic competitive consultation.  On the surface, it would appear to be independent of the other parts of the Manning Centre, but it still ends up as a division of the same organization.

The CTF moaning about the Pembina institute and trying to cover their partisan bias by saying that "no think tank" should get public funds is a very flimsy fig leaf cover.

I might have more respect for the CTF if they had done a survey of how much money is being spent on think tanks in general, instead of attempting to go on a partisan muck-raking expedition and then lying and distorting the results.  

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Creating Hierarchies of Rights

Recently, we have had a series of stories where there have been arguments put forth that there should be "exemptions" in non-discrimination laws for religious beliefs.

Yesterday's column by Licia Corbella in the Calgary Herald positively oozed with a smug sense of religious entitlement, and attempted to hold atheists responsible for the acts of some truly vile members of humanity's past.  The column ended with a claim that Christianity has been discriminated against.

Then, on Huffington Post, we find the owners of a bakery in Oregon shutting their doors in the wake of refusing to provide a cake to a lesbian wedding.
"I think [the state labor commissioner] is going to have decide what's more important: The Oregon State Constitution, or the statute that was passed in 2007," he said at the time. "They dropped the ball by not putting in any exemption for religious beliefs."
Which leads very nicely into the issue that I want to address.  Non-discrimination statutes usually end up existing because identifiable groups are being marginalized routinely by overt discrimination.

When someone makes a call for "religious beliefs exemption", what they are actually calling for is the right to continue imposing their religious beliefs on everybody around them.  This creates a false hierarchy of rights.

The point of civil rights is that they are equal across the board.  In order for this to be true, we must acknowledge them as clearly individual rights.  The notion of "Freedom of Religion" grants every person the free right to believe and worship as they see fit.  No problem.  What it does not grant anyone is the right to impose their religious beliefs on others who do not share them.

Similarly, non-discrimination laws, which often are based on gender or race but more recently have been written to include members of the LGBT community as well, essentially put into the language of law explicit protections for those who are often treated as second class citizens or have historically been denied full rights under law.

The problem that arises here is obvious.  The minute that there is an explicit exemption for one particular kind of right over another right, the law has created a hierarchy of rights where the very notion of equality itself precludes a hierarchy.

What is truly unfortunate is that so often religion is used as an excuse by those who engage in blatant discrimination.  Consider the following from the Oregon bakery incident.

In response to the complaint, Melissa Klein argued that turning away the couple was "definitely not discrimination at all." 
"We don't have anything against lesbians or homosexuals," she said in August. "It has to do with our morals and beliefs. It's so frustrating because we went through all of this in January, when it all came out."
Let me be utterly clear about this:  refusing service to someone based on a grounds such as the other person's sexuality is discriminatory.  Period.  It doesn't matter one iota that the refusal has its roots in that person's religion - especially when that person is running a business that serves the general public.  A bakery serves the general public, as does a florist.  The only way that I can see such a business getting away with such discrimination is if they structured themselves as some kind of "society" with restricted membership.  (How they would do that _and_ be a sustainable business is beyond me, but I suppose they could try)

The minute that laws are written which give "exemptions" based on other rights, we create an environment where Orwell's "Animal Farm comes to life, and some are more equal than others.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Ms. Corbella Argues That Atheists Are Bad People

In her column in today's Calgary Herald, Licia Corbella gets on her high horse about atheists.

The title of her column is ridiculous enough:  "Will Atheism Be Held To Account Like Other Creeds?"

Well, hallelujah, praise the Lord! At long last, atheism is being declared a creed and is endowed with the same religious protections as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other faiths in Ontario schools, anyway. 
So, what’s a good Protestant girl like me doing celebrating such a ruling by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal? This may be a leap of faith, but here’s hoping that maybe now, atheists — many of whom have proven themselves to be a highly motivated evangelistic group accustomed to ramming their minority religion down the throats of the majority — will face the same scrutiny of their beliefs as traditional faiths have been undergoing for decades in Canada at their behest.
On Aug. 13, a tribunal ruling called R.C. versus District School Board of Niagara, declared that not believing in a deity must be a protected belief under the Human Rights Code.
 
The ruling stems from a complaint by Rene Chouinard, a Grimsby, Ont., father of three children, who describes himself as an atheist. 
In November 2009, when his youngest daughter was in Grade 5, a note was sent home informing parents that Gideons International was offering free New Testaments to all Grade 5 students. If parents wanted their children to receive the free mini Bible, they had to sign a permission form and the book would then be distributed only to those children after school hours. 
Chouinard was “offended.” He contacted the school principal and asked that he be permitted to distribute a book called, Just Pretend, which promotes atheism and compares God to Santa Claus.
“He believed that other parents might be upset about being asked to consent to their children receiving such materials in the same way he felt offended in being asked to consent to his children receiving the Gideons’ materials, and it would encourage a change in policy to eliminate the distribution of religious texts,” states the ruling.
 
And that’s exactly what ended up happening. At a school council meeting of parents on Nov. 30, 2009, it was decided that neither the Gideon Bible nor Just Pretend would be distributed.
But that wasn’t enough for Chouinard. He pushed to have the rules changed. Already the rules allowed any other religious group to do what the Gideons have been doing for decades. But no others had applied, except for this persistent father. However, his request was declined for two reasons: First, because “atheism is not a religion” pursuant to the criteria being followed at the time and second, because Just Pretend is “a secondary publication as opposed to a globally recognized sacred text or authoritative source of any religion (or even any belief).”
 
Which brings us to the Aug. 13 decision. “Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity,” wrote David A. Wright, associate chairman of the tribunal. 
While it appears Wright’s decision is flawed, in that the Bible is a sacred text and Just Pretend is not, the ruling is a relief, nonetheless. 
Atheism is indeed a belief system that holds mighty power. Let me explain. Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, are fond of claiming that religion “ruins everything” and is to blame for promoting conflict and violence. However, they rarely study the role atheism has played in creating wars and killing.
As Dinesh D’Souza writes in his New York Times bestselling book, What’s so Great About Christianity, “five hundred years after the Inquisition, we are still talking about it, but less than two decades after the collapse of ‘godless Communism,’ there is an eerie silence about the mass graves of the Soviet Gulag. Why the absence of accountability? Does atheism mean never having to say you are sorry?”
 
Let’s look at the Inquisition, as an example. According to Henry Kamen’s book, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, over a 350-year period only about 2,000 people were killed. That’s just 5.7 people per year. In communist China in 2009 alone, however, it is estimated that 5,000 people were executed by the state, many for adhering to beliefs other than atheism, such as Falun Gong. 
“In the past hundred years or so,” writes D’Souza, “the most powerful atheist regimes — Communist Russia, Communist China and Nazi Germany — have wiped out people in astronomical numbers.” Stalin wiped out 20 million, Mao Zedong’s atheist regime killed 70 million of its own citizens and “Hitler comes in a distant third with around 10 million murders, six million of them Jews,” states D’Souza. 
Add to that the killing regimes of other atheist poster boys like Lenin, Khrushchev, Pol Pot, Nicolae Ceausescu, Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-il, to name just a few. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party faction that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, murdered 1.5 to two million citizens — or one-fifth of its population. 
As D’Souza writes, in just a few decades atheism has killed more people than all religions combined since time immemorial. So, yes, atheism is a powerful creed. But it’s powerful in another way, too. Think about this. Since these atheists have been successful in wiping out virtually any mention of the true meaning behind the national holidays of Christmas and Easter in our schools, for instance, doesn’t that mean that their minority religion is the one being adhered to in our schools to the exclusion of all others? Doesn’t that mean, then, that the creed of atheism is more equal than all other religions and that it is Christianity, primarily, which as the founding and majority ethic and creed of this country that has been discriminated against? 
Those are questions worth pondering. 
Licia Corbella is a columnist and editorial page editor.

If Ms. Corbella's thesis wasn't ludicrous enough, what she proceeds to derive is almost laughable.

First, let's be clear about something.  Atheism is in no respect a "religion" per se.  It lacks all of the key features that typically are embodied in a religion.  There is no belief in a higher power, there are no "sacred texts", no rituals.  In the most classical of understandings, atheism literally means "without god" - in other words, an atheist simply does not accept the notion that there is a god - or any other supernatural being - and certainly would question the validity of claiming that some text is the word of some god or another.  However, more so than Christianity, being an atheist is a highly individual thing - there are not exactly sects of atheism per se.

Atheism is indeed a belief system that holds mighty power. Let me explain. Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, are fond of claiming that religion “ruins everything” and is to blame for promoting conflict and violence. However, they rarely study the role atheism has played in creating wars and killing.As Dinesh D’Souza writes in his New York Times bestselling book, What’s so Great About Christianity, “five hundred years after the Inquisition, we are still talking about it, but less than two decades after the collapse of ‘godless Communism,’ there is an eerie silence about the mass graves of the Soviet Gulag. Why the absence of accountability? Does atheism mean never having to say you are sorry?” 
Turning to Dinesh D'Souza for a critique of atheism is, to put it mildly, laughable.  I'm not even sure that the last Pope (Benedict XVI) would agree with D'Souza on much.

D'Souza's attempt to pin the deeds of Stalin, Pol Pot and others on atheists has become quite the fashionable thing to repeat among religious apologists.  However, it falls flat for a few very good reasons:

1.  The Crusades, or the Inquisition were done very much "In the name of Christ".  In fact, the Inquisition was guided by a mysterious little tome written by a couple of monks called "The Malleus Maleficarum".  A book which when read through modern eyes is filled with circular logic and poor reasoning.  The Crusades were very specifically backed by various Popes.

2.  While Stalin, Pol Pot and others certainly carried out atrocities, they did not declare their actions as being done in the name of atheism.  In other words, like despots throughout history, their actions were largely guided and driven by their own lust for power and control.  No more, no less.  In short, Stalin is culpable for his actions, Pol Pot for his.  Pretty simple.

Let’s look at the Inquisition, as an example. According to Henry Kamen’s book, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, over a 350-year period only about 2,000 people were killed. That’s just 5.7 people per year. In communist China in 2009 alone, however, it is estimated that 5,000 people were executed by the state, many for adhering to beliefs other than atheism, such as Falun Gong. 
Wow.  So you want to play the "magnitude" game?  Five people per year, that's no so bad, right?  Wrong.  When the reasons for it are nothing less than challenging the official religion's dogma, five is five too many.

When we talk about China, guess what?  It is another case not unlike Stalin.  It is a country that does not have Freedom of Religion in its legal canon.  Further, it has made practicing religion illegal in a number of circumstances.  China also executes thousands of people for lots of other reasons besides religion.  This is a totalitarian state which sees threats in many corners, and moves drastically to eradicate them.

Is this because China is officially atheist?  No.  It is because China's government is paranoid like other totalitarian governments before it.  The desire to retain power has led them to enacting laws which are appalling to any objective observer.

Ironically, the very fact of the Inquisition demonstrates the religious flip side of this.  To the Medieval Church, heresy was every bit as big a threat to the power of the Church - a very real, political power at the time.  The church itself moved very harshly to eliminate this "threat" in the form of the Inquisition.  (Notably, the Inquisition has not really been disbanded, but rather renamed in the Catholic Church)  Ultimately, this is an example of power corrupting, and doing so absolutely.

Should the Chinese be held accountable for this?  No question about it.  That said, trying to pin it on "atheism" in general is ridiculous.
Since these atheists have been successful in wiping out virtually any mention of the true meaning behind the national holidays of Christmas and Easter in our schools, for instance, doesn’t that mean that their minority religion is the one being adhered to in our schools to the exclusion of all others?
Really?  It hasn't been the greed and avarice of commercialization that has erased the religious meaning of Christmas and Easter?  Last I checked, that has very little to do with atheists - Christianity has been gradually shedding its hold on the meaning of those holidays for decades.  That has been going on ever since the beginning of the Baby Boom era, and was well underway when I was born.

What has really happened here is that Christian religion has lots its grip on the collective mindshare.  While atheism has been growing, and has become more vocal about things, that has more to do with a clarified understanding of what "Freedom of Religion" means:  It means that religion is a fundamentally personal matter.  The official arms of state have gradually shed the various artifacts of religion gradually - schools have been the last to truly do so.

Doesn’t that mean, then, that the creed of atheism is more equal than all other religions and that it is Christianity, primarily, which as the founding and majority ethic and creed of this country that has been discriminated against? 
Oh yes, the argument that the majority is the only rule that matters.  Sorry, but the minute that we granted protection to all religions in the form of enshrining "Freedom of Religion" in the constitution, the "majority" religion lost any special status.  Yes, I'm sure the majority of the original colonists in North America were Christian.  That was some 300 years ago now.  Time to move on.

Freedom of Religion includes Freedom _FROM_ Religion