The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Democracy and the election of 2011

Democracy -- one person, one unfettered vote -- is the root of what we understand as Canada. Respecting the free, unfettered ability of each person to express a vote which honestly reflects their intention is at its heart.

Attempting to influence choice is as old as rhetoric and debate and marketing and image management: to the point that the attempt to influence is inseparable from democracy itself. Rhetoric and debate have their democratic roots in the need for an informed electorate, but their outcomes may owe more to tricks of oration than to objective logic. Marketing and image management accept from the outset that the packaging, teaser, trailer, and promise have greater weight than the final outcome: and that we will interpret that final outcome either to justify our expectations or increasingly to reject the entire process. This is where cynicism is born.

Technology -- even robocalls -- is just another tool to spread a message and attempt to influence a vote. We can bitch and gripe about the intrusive nature of modern campaigns, but -- for better or worse -- they are (for the most part) an attempt to inform the public about issues of concern to them, however selectively those issues are chosen and framed. In a partisan political climate, that choice and framing naturally favours the party sending out the message.

It is not the politicians' fault that most people pay as little daily attention to policy issues as they do, or that the average attention span is a matter of seconds and headlines.

Yet there are hard lines between the attempt to influence through persuasion, the attempt to influence through misrepresentation, and the attempt to influence through attempted disenfranchisement. It is one thing to speak anonymously, although in election campaigns even that is problematic. It is quite another to speak under a false identity. And any attempt to keep a person from voting or reduce the value of a legitimate vote should be abhorrent to all.

If even one person loses the ability to cast a free, unfettered vote which honestly reflects their intention through the misrepresentation or interference of another, the relative numeric value of my own vote does increase. However, the ethical value of my vote -- and of democracy as a whole -- is diminished.

If such actions ever become politically acceptable, how long can it possibly be before victory in a "democratic" election becomes only a minor hurdle on the path to political power?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Whatever happened to our spirit?

We used to have such a can-do approach to what others said was impossible. We made things happen that shine in the memory of more than one generation, both in Canada and internationally. We could have done so much more. We still could ... maybe.

But now, we have tucked our tails in between our collective legs. We have hunkered down, trying to hide from our spirit, our past, and especially our future. We would rather betray the world, our children, and ourselves than dip a single toe into the ocean of leadership.

(And yes: oceans are big, scary, unknown, and perhaps unknowable. Grown-up worlds always are.)

Somewhere in the past forty years, our second language has become "No, we can't."

Why not?

People will say it is the money, especially these days: but in truth they have always been saying that. There is as much money as there ever was, and it is as "well" managed as ever. We can spend it building up our people and our spirit, or we can waste it gilding business cards and building prisons in a country where crime rates have been falling for decades -- and try to justify by mandating ever more severe prison sentences against the spectre of fear.

The money to hide ourselves from the bogeyman always somehow seems to be available. The money to lift up the torch of spirit could be shaken loose just as easily: if we had the courage and the will.

We have neither. Why do we have neither? Why are we so afraid?

Have we become so dependent on a sense of utter security? No such thing exists! No such thing has ever existed! The Greatest Generation knew it, when they marched off to war. The baby boomers knew it, when they managed to pull a flag and an anthem and even one of the world's greatest exhibitions out of compromise and the shadow of atomic war. Now we are safer than ever: and dare not test a single toe. Let others risk, if someone must. Let others pay.

We blame the state of art today and try to cut its funding yet further: but have we ever considered that art just might be showing us the unwanted mirror of ourselves?

Have we become a has-been before we ever were? Whatever happened to our spirit?

Friday, November 25, 2011

11HP/29" Snowblower for sale

This appeared in Kijiji Moncton. Moncton, for the record, has already received over a metre of snow, and it is not even December yet. Yes, this is a real ad (and the author updated to prove it), but according to its author's blog, it might get pulled soon by Kijiji, possibly due to bandwidth issues: so I save it here for posterity. If you live near Moncton and you want to buy it, contact him through his blog if it is no longer on Kijiji. Nine hundred dollars is never out of place, especially with Christmas coming: and he deserves success for the number of smiles he has teased out these few days.

Do you like shoveling snow? Then stop reading this and go back to your pushups and granola because you are not someone that I want to talk to.

Let’s face it, we live in a place that attracts snow like Magnetic Hill attracts cars, only that ain’t an illusion out there. That’s 12 inches of snow piling up and, oh, what’s that sound? Why it’s the snow plow and it’s here to let you know that it hates you and all the time you spent to shovel your driveway. Did you want to get out of your house today? Were you expecting to get to work on time? Or even this week?

You gave it your best shot. You tried to shovel by yourself and I respect you for that. I did it, my parents did it, some of my best friends did it. But deep down inside, we all wanted to murder that neighbor with the snowblower who was finished and on his second beer while you were still trying to throw snow over a snowbank taller than you are.

So, here we are. You could murder your neighbour, which could ensure that you won’t need to shovel a driveway for 25 to life, but there are downsides to that too. What to do?

Here’s the deal. I have a snow blower and I want you to own it. I can tell you’re serious about this. It’s like I can almost see you: sitting there, your legs are probably crossed and your left hand is on your chin. Am I right? How’d I do that? The same way that I know that YOU ARE GOING TO BUY THIS SNOWBLOWER.

I want you to experience the rush that comes with smashing through a snowdrift and blowing that mother trucker out of the way. The elation of seeing the snow plow come back down your street and watching the look of despair as your OTHER neighbour gets his shovel out once more while you kick back with a hot cup of joe (you don’t have a drinking problem like that other guy).

Here’s what you do. You go to the bank. You collect $900. You get your buddy with a truck and you drive over here. You give me some cold hard cash and I give you a machine that will mess up a snowbank sumthin’ fierce. I’ve even got the manual for it, on account of I bought it brand new and I don’t throw that kind of thing away. Don't want to pay me $900? Convince me. Send me an offer and I'll either laugh at you and you'll never hear back from me or I'll counter.

You want a snow blower. You need a snow blower.

This isn’t some entry level snow blower that is just gonna move the snow two feet away. This is an 11 HP Briggs and Stratton machine of snow doom that will cut a 29 inch path of pure ecstasy. And it’s only 4 years old. I dare you to find a harder working 4 year old. My niece is five and she gets tired and cranky after just a few minutes of shoveling. This guy just goes and goes and goes.

You know what else? I greased it every year to help keep the water off it and the body in as good as shape as possible. It's greasier than me when I was 13, and that's saying something.

You know how many speeds it has? Six forward and two in reverse. It goes from “leisurely” slow up to “light speed”. Seriously, I’ve never gone further than five because it terrifies me. I kid you not, you could probably commute to work with it dragging you.

You know what else is crappy about clearing snow in the morning? That you have to do it in the dark. Well, not anymore! It has a halogen headlight that will light your way like some kind of moveable lighthouse (only better, because lighthouses won’t clear your driveway).

Oh, and since it’s the 21st century, this snow blower comes with an electric starter. Just plug that sucker in, push the button, and get ready to punch snow in the throat. If you want to experience what life was like in olden days, it comes with a back-up cord you could pull to start it, but forget that. The reason you’re getting this fearsome warrior was for the convenience, so why make it harder on yourself?

By this point, you’re probably wondering why I would sell my snowblower since the first snowpocalypse is upon us today. I’ll tell you why: because I heard it was time for you to man up and harness some mighty teeth and claws and chew your way to freedom, that’s why.

This is my snow blower. Make it your snow blower.

UPDATE - I assure you that the snowblower is real, and it is still available. Do not despair if you have made an offer on this glorious tribute to man's triumph over nature and I have not responded yet, your time has yet to come.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A letter to Canadians

Written by Jack Layton, written August 20, 2011, released shortly after his death on August 22, 2011.

Dear Friends,

Tens of thousands of Canadians have written to me in recent weeks to wish me well. I want to thank each and every one of you for your thoughtful, inspiring and often beautiful notes, cards and gifts. Your spirit and love have lit up my home, my spirit, and my determination.

Unfortunately my treatment has not worked out as I hoped. So I am giving this letter to my partner Olivia to share with you in the circumstance in which I cannot continue.

I recommend that Hull-Aylmer MP Nycole Turmel continue her work as our interim leader until a permanent successor is elected.

I recommend the party hold a leadership vote as early as possible in the New Year, on approximately the same timelines as in 2003, so that our new leader has ample time to reconsolidate our team, renew our party and our program, and move forward towards the next election.

A few additional thoughts:

To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don't be discouraged that my own journey hasn't gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.

To the members of my party: we've done remarkable things together in the past eight years. It has been a privilege to lead the New Democratic Party and I am most grateful for your confidence, your support, and the endless hours of volunteer commitment you have devoted to our cause. There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause. But that cause is much bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind. Let's continue to move forward. Let's demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.

To the members of our parliamentary caucus: I have been privileged to work with each and every one of you. Our caucus meetings were always the highlight of my week. It has been my role to ask a great deal from you. And now I am going to do so again. Canadians will be closely watching you in the months to come. Colleagues, I know you will make the tens of thousands of members of our party proud of you by demonstrating the same seamless teamwork and solidarity that has earned us the confidence of millions of Canadians in the recent election.

To my fellow Quebecers: On May 2nd, you made an historic decision. You decided that the way to replace Canada's Conservative federal government with something better was by working together in partnership with progressive-minded Canadians across the country. You made the right decision then; it is still the right decision today; and it will be the right decision right through to the next election, when we will succeed, together. You have elected a superb team of New Democrats to Parliament. They are going to be doing remarkable things in the years to come to make this country better for us all.

To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world's environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don't let them tell you it can't be done.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world.

All my very best,
Jack Layton

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What did you think was going to happen?

With the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, it had seemed that Vancouver had finally shed the spectre of violence which had hung over it since 1994. Thousands of people partied in the streets every night, peacefully. And when Team Canada won hockey gold: the cheers and friendly celebrations could be heard across the country. It seemed at last that Vancouver could hold great street parties with the best of them.

But this was not the Olympics.

Olympics anticipation was very slow to build. The Olympics opened with a luger's death and widespread depression over uncooperative economics and even less cooperative weather. Most hoped that things could only go up from there: and fortunately for Vancouver, they did. Even the glitch during the opening ceremonies became teasingly positive by the time Vancouver closed its Olympic Games. Despite all early expectations, these Games will be remembered as a worthy successor to the exceptional 2008 Beijing Games. Considering all that had happened in the world in between, maybe only Canada could have pulled it off at all.

From their very beginning, the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs had been built up toward the great Canada-United States final games, the future Canucks contest with whichever United States team survived to meet them in the final clash: with the Canucks odds-on favourites to win. A series of wins and losses built that up even further, until it seemed that the glory of Canada rested upon this, the seventh and final game.

(Never mind that the Boston Bruins feature far more Canadian content. Nearly the entire team is Canadian, twenty-one Canadians in all, featuring players from every province of Canada except New Brunswick. Only four Bruins players were born in the United States.)

Yet the Canucks did not play up to expectations. Again and again, they nearly lost a game or a series, only to somehow pull it off in the end. Nerves frayed.

Against this yo-yo series is a much more serious backdrop. Vancouver sparkles, but much of Vancouver is also desperately poor, homeless, on the verge of becoming homeless, or working for barely enough to make ends meet. Even among those who actually have jobs, minimum wage in British Columbia has only just gone up to $8.75 an hour. Yet Vancouver's average rent is $1181 a month; and average house prices are close to a million dollars. Debt is rising across Canada, with more than half of all Canadians using credit cards and other rising debt just to pay daily expenses. Unemployment is no longer falling, and may even be starting to slowly creep up again.

Add in two weeks of postal worker rotating strikes and now a lockout, an Air Canada service workers strike, a frustrated workforce and a frustrated public; and threatened government action to cut off both labour actions at the knees.

Add in the nuclear accidents in Japan which continue to rain small amounts of radioactive iodine on British Columbia. Add in the spiralling cost of oil and gas at the pumps. Add in the Arab spring, partly the fuel for those rises. Add in rising costs of food. Add in worldwide nervousness about a pending second economic crash of even worse proportions than what happened in 2007.

And, heck, add in an elected Conservative majority, which gained Conservative seats everywhere in Canada except Québec and British Columbia.

How can you possibly call what happened next a surprise? What did you think was going to happen?

None of this is a cause or an excuse. I simply point out that there was a great deal of underlying frustration. Not so very much was needed to light a violent spark. A few people demonstrated that in the absence of a cathartic hockey win, cathartic violence on the streets could serve equally well.

After that, rationality went out the window.

Don't blame the police in how it unfolded. They had the city back under control in just over three hours: just half the time it took in 1994. They also did an excellent job of minimising escallation.

(Yes: it could have been much, much worse. Despite the property damage, this was Riot Lite.)

At every step, there were small pockets of violence: and at every step the police refused to be provoked. This was a very wise decision on their part. Any provocation would have made things much, much worse.

Women in the crowd could stand up against people individually, could block and resist and sometimes even deter property violence without a violent backlash against them personally: and many are the on-line videos of women succeeding at exactly that. That this kind of individual heroism could still have an effect during this riot shows clearly that it was only a Riot Lite. Ideals don't last long after a serious riot has been triggered.

Yet what women can do, men cannot, not with impunity. One man who tried made the mistake of getting angry and letting himself be provoked, just enough to go up to the mob rather than stand his ground. It was just that little bit too much. The mob dragged him down to the ground and then kicked and beat him.

Should it have happened? There was nothing right in what did happen: but if one thinks solely in terms of "should", the realities will always come as a surprise.

There were no anarchists in this riot. There were no masks, no true bombs. Not a single gun went off, in a city plagued by gang violence. There were incendiary devices: Molotov cocktails, a simple matter of vodka or gasoline with a rag in the neck of the bottle. How hard are those to make and light in a matter of moments? especially in an environment where liquor had been flowing freely? There were cans of gasoline: again, not so hard to acquire in a hurry, especially after windows start breaking. Certainly a few people had come downtown specifically looking for trouble -- as is the case in every single public venue -- but a few people alone do not a riot make.

At the end of it, several people were injured, one critically -- but not one person died. The emotion and adrenaline focused almost entirely on property damage in the expensive shopping district. Most of the torched automobiles were -- not cheap. Some tickets for that seventh game had sold for more than the price of those automobiles.

The bitterly poor part of Vancouver was not so very far away from the core riot area. The police could never have stopped determined people from reaching it: but none of the rioters headed in that direction.

This was never about a game won or lost. This was about sticking it to the Man and getting some of one's own back.

This time, the fuse and the match happened to be in Vancouver. Yet Vancouver should not be considered an isolated case. The overall background mood in most parts of the world is tinder dry.

While Vancouver's mayor is wrong in blaming the violence solely upon a small group of "anarchists", he is right in recognising that Vancouver's future -- and the future of other cities -- hangs in the balance. G8 meetings are no longer held in large cities for obvious reasons. Toronto was the exception, and managed it only by strictly enforcing a no-go area with hordes of police and a 12-foot fence, and by spending more money than we like to think about. At that, it did not escape unscathed.

But -- street parties? especially during sports and other competitive, emotional events? These background tensions are not going to go away any time soon. Dare a largish city hold such a street party anymore?

Monday, May 09, 2011

The things that bind us

We can choose to define ourselves in terms of things we are not, or in terms of the things we are. Call the first a negative sense of identity, and the second a positive sense of identity.

If we stay clear of politics and beer commercials, the single source of identity which most strongly evokes emotional reactions is our relationship with the United States. Few indeed are the citizens of Canada who do not react to being confused with an American. Some find it a compliment and an ideal. Others have a slightly different opinion.

Take the United States out of the equation: and what are we left with? What remains, to bind us together and which we can commonly call Canada?

I find but three things: a public broadcasting station, the monarchy ... and hockey. (We may not all be hockey fanatics, but few indeed are the Canadians who would reject hockey as a cultural touchpoint.) Some might add to the list such things as Mounties, the military, VIA Rail, multiculturalism, or even a love for nature: but some of those are taken for granted as services or rights, some live more in the past than the present, and some are at least as divisive as they are unifying.

It is laughable to even think about excising hockey from the Canadian soul: but hockey is not unique to Canada. This country cannot cling to unity on hockey alone.

Far fewer are those Canadians who still revere the monarchy as once we did. We have moved on, many of us think: and maybe we have. Yet were it not for the monarchy, we would long since have become part of the United States. Even were Canada to separate from the British monarchy here and now, I would not give much for our chances of continuing to remain unified and independent. Too many other forces are pulling us in all directions: and however reluctant we are to acknowledge it, only the monarchy holds us together against them. For better or for worse, having a monarch from across the seas is part of our common cultural identity.

To many who place their loyalty behind laissez-faire capitalism, no government press can ever be a free press: yet ask Stephen Harper whether he feels that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is the voice of his government or even supports it. How is it that after five years of Conservative rule, our armslength government media corporation can still be seen as "leftist", and that by exactly the same people who complain about too much government control in any government medium?

Set aside the ideologies. No other agency in Canada has done more to lift up a mirror and show a farflung country its own united image.

Take away the CBC: and what remains?

Those of us fairly close to the United States border would still get the news from a dozen disparate sources, each fighting to dominate and keep the attention of the viewer or listener: but audience attention spans are short, and the in-depth coverage would be cut accordingly. We would still get entertainment from sources with larger domestic markets and consequently bigger pocketbooks: until through sheer population demographics, most Canadian content would be priced right out of the market.

If you happen to live in a farflung part of Canada, one of those places not dominated by population or political attention: well, you would be out of luck entirely. Where capitalism alone is the funder, it is not cost-effective to bring a national service to the distant parts of Canada.

Strong are the forces which are determined to shut down the CBC and tear Canada away from the monarchy. Ever since many have become determined to make monetary cost the only basis by which to measure value, those forces have become much stronger.

We don't often think of things we take for granted as desperately fragile: yet until just a couple of generations ago, Canada had been sheltered from the kinds of forces which rip apart countries. That sheltering hand is now gone, and a global fracturing tide is still rising.

What price a united and independent Canada?

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The election nobody wanted

The election that nobody wanted has ended up transforming Parliament and possibly Canadian politics.
- Cross Country Checkup, Sunday May 8, 2011

5,832,401 voters voted for the Conservatives. A large majority of them had been long frustrated by the limitations of a minority government and wanted a Conservative majority.

4,508,474 voters voted for the New Democrats, the majority of them in Québec. Whether they were voting for Jack Layton or against the Bloc/Liberals/Conservatives, that Québec majority were seeking change in the status quo.

31,900 voters specifically voted for Elizabeth May in her own riding. They definitely wanted to bring in someone new.

Possibly even more Canadians wanted change, but we cannot say for certain. Even where the vote may have been against Harper rather than for a different party, was it a vote for change or simply a vote against a Conservative majority?

But even setting these uncertainties aside, it seems that out of some 14,720,580 votes: over 10 million Canadian voters clearly wanted change in Parliament.

In a democracy, by definition, change comes through elections. Can we please stop calling this election the election that nobody wanted?

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

An open letter to five party leaders

To Stephen Harper:

Congratulations on a significant victory and on achieving the majority you sought. Now that you have uncontested power, people will expect you to live up to your promises. Now that you have your elected majority and also your appointed majority in Senate, you have absolutely no excuses. They ran out during the last proroguing of Parliament.

At the same time, Conservative voices are now free to speak up toward different visions of Conservatism. You may well discover division lines within your party which, until now, had been relatively silent in the common interest of achieving uncontested Conservative power. You won with 167 seats. How many of those MPs will still be part of the Conservative caucus at the next election?

Some of your fair-weather supporters may even discover that the economic policies and stability you have been taking credit for were actually enacted by the Paul Martin Liberal government before yours. Let's hope your own policies can work half as well. We are not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. Good luck.

To Jack Layton:

Congratulations on a historic achievement. The people of Québec were seeking a viable alternative to Conservative, Liberal, and Bloc Québecois alike: and you certainly provided that.

But the heady victory is past. The difficult days are just beginning.

Unfortunately for you and your party, more seats in this case does not equate to more power. Do you have any illusions that the Conservatives will be willing to compromise at all with the NDP? You had more power when you co-held the balance of power with the Bloc. Get used to the sound of bells.

To Michael Ignatieff:

This result should not have been unexpected. The early warning signal should have been the new Conservative tagline: "A vote for the Liberal party is a vote for Michael Ignatieff." Long before the Conservatives began targeting you, many, many Canadians never trusted you. As to any real vision: those of us who read your academic work found it a derivative rehash. Another Trudeau? Don't make me laugh.

Now you have chosen to fight it out to the bitter end, even after having lost your own seat. No honourable resignation speech for you! Yet the Liberal brand and Liberal leadership clearly needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Do you really think you can possibly win a leadership convention now?

To Gilles Duceppe:

This result was unexpected. For the most part, you should not consider it your loss but Jack Layton's victory. Québeckers were desperate for a viable alternative to Conservative, Liberal, and Bloc alike: but who could have suspected Jack Layton could provide it in the very last week of the election? Even so, I suspect you were still holding your own, right up until you brought out Jacques Parizeau and all those old sovereignist shadows.

Just like Québec itself, the Bloc still holds a necessary place within Canada. The current result does not mean that Québec has abandoned those parts of itself which give it its unique identity. That will always remain: and the Bloc is a prominent note in that symphony. It may sometimes grow and sometimes fade, it may even reinvent itself, but it won't ever be silenced entirely. (Have you ever considered fundamentally redefining yourself without including the sovereignty issue?)

To Elizabeth May:

Congratulations on a significant victory and on becoming the Greens' first elected MP. Yours is one of the two true victories of this election.

Now comes the truly difficult task. You have established that Greens are electable, but now you have to establish that Greens are a viable voice within Parliament, and a majority government at that. You have your work cut out for you. Good luck.

To all:

The battle has been fought, this election is now past. Given the amount and type of change demanded by the electorate, it appears this was not an unnecessary election after all.

Yet even though strong messages have been sent by the electorate, an even stronger message is that despite the strong advance poll turnout, only 61.4% of the electorate voted. The only thing that can be said for that is that the numbers are slightly up from the previous record low. The trend, as a whole, has not changed. If anything: the advance poll numbers demonstrate that this time around, even fewer people voted who had not already made up their minds before the election.

A government may be elected with these or even lower numbers. For some political parties, they may even be desirable. A democracy, however, cannot remain healthy where there is such a strong disconnect between the people and their government, any government.

It is up it you now. For once, try to look beyond taking or taking back power. Bring the people back into their own government, not just the core supporters who elected your party MPs into power. We have entrusted all of you with the reins of the country. Make it work.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Time zones and technology

Welcome to our BC viewers. The Liberals have won a majority. Good night.

Faced with a near inevitability of western voters having foreknowledge of previous election results on election day, Elections Canada has traditionally chosen to impose a news blackout upon western regions until such time as their own polls close, so as not to skew results through preknowledge of earlier results. The basic aim is that of fairness: all voters should be able to cast their vote with an equal knowledge of the outcome. Telegraph, telephone, and other private communications based upon modern technology have always been able to undermine this attempt, but on a relatively small scale. Mass real-time public and private media such as television and radio have by-and-large conformed to the restrictions: a combination of their willingness to comply with the ideal of fairness and their unwillingness to actively break the law.

Yet I sometimes wonder whether at least some part of western alienation in Canada has not indirectly arisen from the constant sense of western political helplessness created by the combination of time zone staggering and early news blackout. How could it be otherwise, when the election so often seems already to have been decided before the polls even close west of Lake Superior? Certainly other factors are involved here as well (relative population density comes to mind): but surely it cannot be purely coincidence that libertarianism and an absolute dominance of freedom of speech over almost every other freedom is found uniquely not only in non-young democratic countries with multiple time zones, but specifically dominates the political landscape in every non-coastal region of those countries which lies west of the country capital's time zone? Since the electoral college and senate structure of the much-more-regionally-based United States mitigates some part of this issue (at the expense of other structural issues), the Royal Canadian Air Farce's take on staggered CBC reporting of an Ontario-swayed election, quoted above, only articulates a deep electorial temporal disconnect very nearly unique to Canada.

The current legislated compromise is to stagger poll opening and closing times across the country such that no more than an hour separates furthest east poll closing from furthest west: and to try to encourage a complete blackout, until 10 pm EST (the last of the polls closed at 9:30 pm EST) on all media accessible equally across the country independent of time zone. Television coverage can be staggered and made region-specific, as it has been since its inception. Internet cannot: and so the blackout extends to cover bloggers and other Internet discussion, at least on Canadian servers. Most Canadian bloggers, recognising the intent behind the regulation, voluntarily complied, even to the point of temporarily disabling comments on their sites -- which some had personally discovered was necessary, since there seems to be a need by a few to force knowledge upon others regardless of what the recipients might wish.

But now: Twitter has changed all the rules.

At its most simplistic, any attempted restriction of knowledge for any purpose whatsoever evokes the knee-jerk reaction that information should be freely accessible, that it simply is not right to restrict free speech: but this approach ignores the potential influence of foreknowledge upon outcome, assuming that all knowledge is inherently beneficial yet neutral (which, incidentally, contradicts the other assumption that knowledge shapes the way we vote and indeed should shape the way we vote). Assumption of the self-evident rightness of absolute freedom of speech ties closely with assumption of the self-evident rightness of (almost) absolute freedom of action: your right to throw your fist ends where my nose begins -- but then again in this context free speech simply cannot be viewed as harmful, ever, because information can only ever be seen as beneficial to the individual; and benefit to the individual always trumps fairness. (Which might partly explain why, offers of debate notwithstanding, Bill O'Reilly will never venture away from a studio he controls in its entirety even to a neutral debate environment: how would such a move benefit him ?)

And so some individuals -- most commonly from the midwest/west, though there are exceptions -- seek to break what some see as an attempt by the government to regulate electoral fairness and others see as government-imposed censorship (and thus inherently wrong). In this worldview things are black and white: and thus there can be no such thing as a hierarchy of freedoms or indeed any possible mitigation of individual freedom toward an attempted greater good, lest the absolute, self-evident rights of the individual to do whatever they wish be further "trampled".

As with so many other pieces of technology, the understanding that sweeping new communications media and instant self-publishing / samizdat just might have a second edge comes late, and thus cannot but be addressed ad hoc. Yet it might have been utterly predictable that it would be on the Internet, that ultimate bastion of individuality, that the first serious challenges to the traditional east-west information blackouts would arise, had arisen three and four elections ago, along with some very real questions as to enforceability of any attempted legislated restrictions. While mainstream mass media, at least over the issue of electoral fairness, tends to respect that there might perhaps have been a valid reason for the government ruling: anyone can Twitter.

Some choose to use that freedom to wave the banner of their own free speech uncaring of any other considerations -- for, to them, there are no other relevant considerations. (Respect for the wishes of others be damned.)

Yet apart from the reciprocal questions of free speech and respect for others: will even Twitter really make so much difference? Is there a sudden flocking to the polls in British Columbia during the last half hour? Do exit polls detect any sudden shifts in the daily trends?

Technology may change the rules of knowledge distribution: but maybe it is a change that really does not matter outside questions of ethics, in this context, at least.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

A long, long, long day

I did feel sorry for Stephen Harper this morning -- early morning! or incredibly late night, depending on your point of view.

As Prime Minister, he must say something to the news that Osama bin Laden has been killed.

But did that news have to come close to midnight Washington DC time on the very last day of an intense, condensed election campaign, at an hour when he has just returned to his home riding of Calgary to collapse briefly after a month of intense travel and a last-minute jetting between three separate time zones covering two of the three Canadian coasts, and at a time when all things are coming together to force him to fight a newly uphill political battle? against the hated NDP, of all people?

Considering that United States President Barack Obama would have known this news for at least a few days: one wonders if at least part of that timing may not have been -- well, timed for a different audience (and electorate?) as well.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Previous seats, territories

Yukon (1)
Liberal: 1

Northwest Territories (1)
NDP: 1

Nunavut (1)
Conservative: 1

Previous seats, British Columbia

BC Interior (9)
Conservatives: 7 *
NDP: 2

Fraser Valley and Southern Lower Mainland (10)
Conservatives: 9
Liberals: 1

Vancouver and Northern Lower Mainland (11)
Conservatives: 3 **
Liberals: 3
NDP: 5

Vancouver Island (6) ***
Conservatives: 3
Liberals: 1
NDP: 2

* Includes Stockwell Day, former leader of the Alliance Party. The modern Conservatives are a merger of the former Alliance and the former Progressive Conservatives.
** Incumbent Blair Wilson, who switched to the Greens while in Parliament and became the Greens' first MP, lost to Conservative John Weston.
*** Elizabeth May's home is in Sidney.

Previous seats, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta


Rural Manitoba (6)
Conservatives: 5
NDP: 1

Winnipeg (8)
Conservatives: 4
Liberals: 1
NDP: 3


Southern Saskatchewan (7)
Conservatives: 6
Liberals: 1

Northern Saskatchewan (7)
Conservatives: 7


Rural Alberta (12)
Conservatives: 12

Edmonton area (8)
Conservatives: 7
NDP: 1

Calgary (8)
Conservatives: 8 *

* Includes Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Previous seats, Ontario

Ottawa (7)
Conservatives: 4
Liberals: 2
NDP: 1

Eastern Ontario (7)
Conservatives: 6
Liberals: 1

Central Ontario (11) *
Conservatives: 11

Southern Durham and York (9) (part of the Greater Toronto area)
Conservatives: 4
Liberals: 5

Suburban Toronto (12)
Liberals: 12 **

Central Toronto (10)
Liberals: 8
NDP: 2 ***

Brampton, Mississauga and Oakville (9) (part of the GTA)
Conservatives: 2
Liberals: 7

Hamilton, Burlington and Niagara (10) *
Conservatives: 6
NDP: 4

Midwestern Ontario (11)
Conservatives: 10
Liberals: 1

Southwestern Ontario (10)
Conservatives: 6
Liberals: 1
NDP: 3

Northern Ontario (10)
Conservatives: 2
Liberals: 1
NDP: 7

* Some southern ridings in Central Ontario and northern ridings in Hamilton/Burlington/Niagara are part of the GTA.
** Includes Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberals.
*** Includes Jack Layton, leader of the NDP, and his wife Olivia Chow.

Previous seats, Québec

Eastern Québec (5)
Bloc Québecois: 4
Conservatives: 1

Côte-Nord and Saguenay (5)
Bloc Québecois: 3
Conservatives: 2

Québec City (5)
Bloc Québecois: 2
Conservatives: 3

Central Quebec (9)
Bloc Québecois: 7
Conservatives: 1
Independent: 1

Eastern Townships (9)
Bloc Québecois: 7
Conservatives: 2

Montérégie (10)
Bloc Québecois: 9
Liberals: 1

Eastern Montréal (5)
Bloc Québecois: 4 *
Liberals: 1

Western Montréal (9)
Bloc Québecois: 1
Liberals: 7 **
NDP: 1

Northern Montréal and Laval (8)
Bloc Québecois: 4
Liberals: 4 ***

Laurentides, Outaouais and Northern Québec
Bloc Québecois: 8
Conservatives: 1
Liberals: 1

* Includes Gilles Duceppes, leader of the Bloc Québecois.
** Includes Stéphan Dion, former leader of the Liberals. Paul Martin, Liberal prime minister prior to Stephen Harper, retired just prior to this election.
*** Includes Justin Trudeau, son of former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

Previous seats, Atlantic Canada

Newfoundland and Labrador (7) *
Liberals: 6
NDP: 1

Prince Edward Island (4)
Conservatives: 1
Liberals: 3

Nova Scotia (11)
Conservatives: 3 **
Liberals: 5
NDP: 2
Independent: 1

New Brunswick (10)
Conservatives: 6
Liberals: 3
NDP: 1

* Danny Williams actively campaigned against the Conservatives during this election: but stepped down before the 2011 election.
** Elizabeth May, leader of the Greens, campaigned in Central Nova, coming in second to Conservative incumbent Peter MacKay. (Her family home is on Cape Breton Island.)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Insert your favourite politician

The politician was invited to address a large gathering of the First Nations. He assured them that he was working as hard as he could to address more First Nations concerns. He spoke for almost an hour on his future plans for increasing the native standard of living, if he could only win the next election.

At the conclusion of his speech, the head chief presented the politician with a plaque inscribed with his new native name: Walking Eagle. The proud politician then departed along with his motorcade, waving to the crowds.

A news reporter later asked the chiefs how they came to select the name given to the politician.

They explained that "Walking Eagle" is the name given to a bird so full of crap that it can no longer fly.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tough on crime?

Thirty-six bills died when the Conservatives prorogued Parliament in 2009, for reasons which had nothing to do with a coalition. (That one was the previous year.) Among them were:
  • C-6 (regulation of potentially dangerous consumer products)
  • C-15 (harsher sentences for drug traffickers)
  • C-26 (adds car theft to the Criminal Code)
  • C-27 (limits spam which can be sent by companies)
  • C-34 (strengthens the National Sex Registry)
  • C-35 (allows victims of terrorism to sue)
  • C-36 (eliminates faint hope parole clause)
  • C-42 (eliminates conditional sentences for serious crimes)
  • C-43 (increases role of victims in parole hearings)
  • C-54 (ends sentence discounts for multiple murders)m and
  • C-20 (raises liability cap in case of a nuclear accident)
Steven Fletcher, the minister responsible for democratic reform, intends to re-introduce C-40 (which would expand advance polls), saying that "I think it makes democracy stronger when people have more opportunity to vote," so it is important to provide more options for people to vote in advance. He is very clear that C-40 died for the second time when the election was called. What is never mentioned is that C-40 was also among the bills which died during the 2009 proroguing of Parliament.

But don't take my word for it. Look it up for yourselves.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

No one votes for a coalition

Borgia: How many [cardinals] would I have to appoint to keep my papacy safe?
The canon expert: Oh dear.
- Rodrigo Borgia / Pope Alexander VI, discussing expansion of the (democratic!) College of Cardinals in the series The Borgias

There is no box on the ballot marked "coalition". This much is true.

Yet there is also no box on the ballot marked "majority", or "minority", or even a box for "prime minister".

We live in a Westminster-style representative democracy. We can choose our local representatives, in hope that the views they express on the campaign trail will have some reflection in the reality of the House of Commons. That is where our democratic choice begins and ends.

All else is a matter of numbers: total number of seats, relative number of seats, what combination can hold the confidence of Parliament. It is that numbers game, combined with an ability to negotiate and compromise, that will finally decide prime minister, majority, minority, and yes, even coalition.

All of these are equally democratic options within our system. No individual voter can vote for any of them. Yet, by each voter selecting the one seen as best, all will have been chosen by the collective body of voters.

Let's run this election solely on the real issues, shall we?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Living on floodplains

Once again the Red and Assiniboine Rivers are rising, and once again the cry goes out for government funding for a more permanent solution.

There is no question that a permanent solution is needed, desperately: and is not disaster relief funding one of the primary purposes of central government? Would not a permanent solution to prevent future disasters be much more cost-effective than continual payouts each and every year? for flood damage which is all too likely to become ever worse?

Yet that being said: I don't know that those living in the region would like my solution.

It begins with expropriation of all privately-owned 100-year flood land, without exception. This part can be made over into a seasonal-use park if desired: but containing nothing which can be harmed by flooding or which can be torn loose to harm others downstream. We have had four record-setting Red River floods in the past two decades. There is no reason to think that this trend will not continue.

At the edge of the expropriated flood plain, build permanent flood-control measures, large-scale dykes, reroutings and such, to protect the territory beyond. Sandbags just won't cut it anymore.

Thus far, the Red River Floodway and its associated flood control system has successfully protected most parts of Winnipeg through some bad flood years. With the new expansion, it should be adequate for a 1 in 700 year event: which, unhappily, we ought to expect a bit sooner and more frequently than that. Yet Duff's Ditch was never designed to protect outlying communities. Most new flood control measures outside the Floodway system will need to rely more heavily on dykes and flood control gates, due to the relatively high aquafer level locally.

All major highways, roads, and rails within that territory should be rerouted around the dyke-protected area wherever possible, even if that requires further expropriation. Highway 75 will prove challenging, but should be doable.

Where rerouting is completely impossible and that particular piece of road or rail is essential (eg. parts of the Trans-Canada, parts of the CPR line), it will have to be raised above record spring flood levels, with construction capable of withstanding flood forces strengthened by floating ice. That will probably require a raised roadway on pillars, using the ice pack engineering of the Constitution Bridge. A double deck or a deck wide enough to accommodate both rail and road would kill two birds with one stone.

Another complementary approach to flood control in this region is to set up a system to sift out everything from flood debris to pack ice at regular intervals. Such an approach may reduce the chance of ice dam buildup further downstream, which would aggravate existing flood conditions.

Engineering a system such as this one is the least of the related costs. Even building it is still much cheaper than paying for the damage afterward. Politically, however, would it fly?

A heavy part of the costs would have to be covered federally: and Manitoba does not carry much number clout in the House of Commons. "Unnecessary" tax-funded projects are never popular these days, but maybe it could be considered a stimulus project? The road-rail raised deck would have to be a joint government-private project, with a proportional amount of the costs being borne by each, using a formula which takes into account profit as well as use. (Freight rail traffic, unlike passenger rail traffic, is profitable even without government subsidies.) Of course any proposal where a private company is required to pay its fair share of the costs is going to be extremely unpopular with that company.

As long as we are considering local waterways, Lake Winnipeg is the next local region of immediate concern. For now, the heavy algae blooms caused by heavy agricultural runoff are feeding record numbers of fish: but history tells us that within a very few years, these numbers will crest, then fall off abruptly. If nothing to reduce agricultural runoff is done before then, Lake Winnipeg will become a dead lake.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The politics of emotion

Many years ago, we had a bit of fun in an upper year English literature class about censorship by holding a mock debate between those who abhorred Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and those who believed in absolute freedom of speech. In many cases, we were not arguing our own side of the issue. For us, the point of the exercise was to discover the motivations, beliefs, and arguments on both sides of the issue, not to prove who was right and who was wrong.

Almost immediately, we learned that the issue was not nearly as black and white as it seemed. Different people found vastly different reasons for supporting or opposing. To our surprise, not one but two arguments turned out to be the most polarising. We expected the question of shirk (blasphemy) to be absolutist: although there was some difference of opinion as to whether, as a declared atheist since attaining the age of reason, Rushdie was in fact subject to shirk.

Curiously, the argument which turned out to be the most polarising of all was in sole support of free speech. It admitted of no shades of gray. Either one supported free speech in all its forms, or one opposed free speech. There could be no middle ground.

Possibly as a consequence: we found that the calmer and more rational every other argument, the more emotional became the argument in favour of absolute free speech. By the end of the exercise, every single person who was arguing in favour of some degree of restraint was discussing the issue in a calm, level tone -- and some had drifted over to that side in spite of themselves, very nearly in sheer self defence against the increasingly vehement stance of those supporting absolute free speech. A few of us began to wonder which one was the religious argument.

When watching the leaders' debate tonight -- or what passes for a debate -- I was struck by the sharp differences in delivery: Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe in moderate, level tones, Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton with strong emotion.

Some will see the moderate, level tone as a sign of Harper's willingness to convince others to a rational path. Others will notice that what was said in that calm tone had not itself conceded a thing.

Some will see the raised emotions as a sign of Ignatieff's ego speaking, or possibly his desperation. Others may read him as genuine.

Yet Ignatieff and Layton are also those most frequently stymied by the current methods of Stephen Harper's Conservative government. Duceppe knows that the Bloc will never hold power, but in this government, the Bloc frequently held the balance of power. Even the Bloc's very existence forces every would-be government to promise more to Québec than they would otherwise. Who wants to risk losing so many seats?

And Harper, of course, already has power, the most elegant type of power: the freedom to take credit for success and to blame failure on not having even more power.

This much is certain: there is no will here to compromise, by anyone. There is only the will to a majority government (by the Liberals and Conservatives) or to a minority government (by the Bloc and NDP). The point is not to run a working compromise. The point is for each to achieve his own agenda without compromise. Not one of these leaders is going to be able to work together with the others for long.

Harper, of course, knows this. Being currently so close a majority that he can taste it, he is open about this -- from the Conservative perspective -- and thereby hopes to sway enough voters to his side to make his the majority which does not have to compromise. Carefully left unsaid is that a Liberal majority would also effectively accomplish a working parliament which would not be shackled by compromise.

(It occurs to me to wonder whether emotion in our class debate would have been reversed, had the religious fatwa not already been issued and set in stone, with free speech seen to be under threat. It is an easy thing to remain calm when one's primary objective has already been reached and is unassailable.)

Who won? I am not even certain that is a valid question. As in the extreme positions of our classroom debate so long ago, each leader was engaged in his own separate debate: which only rarely intersected with the others at all. Although each leader aimed to sway voters to their side, those arguments will never sway a voter not already poised to believe.

Perhaps an election result of a similarly hung parliament should be read, not as failure by the voters to elect a working parliament, but as a refusal to mandate any of the current leaders.

Prior to this series of parliaments, the last minority parliament which could truly be said to be functioning was that of Lester B. Pearson: which brought in more substantial legislation over a shorter period of time than all of Harper's governments put together. It even managed a unanimous vote to bring in a new Canadian flag: but only by first trashing Pearson's own personal preference and bringing in an entirely new option, one on which the entire House could compromise.

Somehow, I rather doubt any of the current leaders would be willing to do the same.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Five simple rules

- By Rex Murphy. Originally aired on March 28, 2011. Yes, I did specifically choose today to repost it.

How could we change the way people respond to the election? What could be done to increase REAL interest in the campaign? Here's the principle: people will start to engage when politicians stop being false. Well, here are a few suggestions to push them in that direction that may help.

1. Let's put a stop to "politician-speak". All the bafflegab phrases, Red Doors and Green Doors, designed to conceal meaning. All the apocalyptic rhetoric: Elect Ignatieff and the sky will fall. It is possible to talk about your opponents without making them sound like the villains in a cheap B movie.

2. Stop claiming to be the one exception. I don't care which leader says it, from Elizabeth May to Stephen Harper, but whenever one of them claims that he or she is only one interested in ordinary Canadians -- as opposed to their rivals who are just power-hungry slope-browed greedy for votes hypocrites -- the claim (a) isn't true, (b) doesn't sound true, and (c) gives sensitive people a pain in the guts.

Forgo as well: My opponent just wants to go negative and personal, while I -- I, of course, want to debate the issues. That's Triple-A bull expulsion. The last person who said that honestly and we believed him was the venerable Robert Stanfield.

3. They should cancel all the prepared ads, all of them, every one. I cannot remember a political advertisement that isn't tone-deaf, unpersuasive, grating on the nerves, and an insult to the intelligence of a cold rock. And -- this relates to number 1 -- all leaders change to their "soft voice" in commercial: a cross between a Salvation Army appeal and the whispers of a timid aunt. Stop it! For two or three years in the Commons it sounds like the war of the werewolves, and now on the campaign trail everyone is Bambi?

4. Why is it so hard for leaders to say what they think in words they would normally use? Three sentences of what they actually, really, mean, in their own voice and words, would change the style of politics forever.

5. This is related. The debates, as we have known them over the last three or four elections, were worse than useless: all cross-talk, shouting, unoriginal, and cluttered. Have real debates between Harper and Ignatieff, Harper and Layton, Layton and Ignateiff, down the line: real debates between two leaders with a moderator, an hour long, at least three [debates] each. Take points off for being really nasty.

In summary: Throw out the scripts. Talk to the people -- really. Decide the three big issues and deal with them at length. End the ads. Stop sounding professionally pious. Speak often from the top of your head and the bottom of your heart. And finally, tell us why your party is right, not why the others are wrong and evil.

For The National, I'm Rex Murphy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"A vote for the Liberal party is a vote for Ignatieff"

The current election campaign may deal with party principles and priorities: but in every real way, these exchanges are as personal as it gets.

The positives are all about the party values. The negatives are all about the party leaders -- and every one of them is running scared. It does not even matter which one of them actually becomes prime minister. In this election, even having the highest number of seats may not be enough.
  • If Stephen Harper cannot win a majority --
  • If Gilles Duceppe cannot win Québec back from the Conservatives --
  • If Michael Ignatieff cannot win at least a minority --
  • If Jack Layton cannot win enough seats to be the sole balance of power in a minority government --
  • If Elizabeth May cannot get a Green elected into Parliament, or at the very least boost the Greens into double digit territory --
This election may not offer any significant change -- and maybe, in this economic climate, no party really can. Yet the change that cannot happen now is certain in the next election. No matter who wins, at least three party leaders will lose: permanently.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

An "unnecessary" election?

After a long series of false starts, almosts, and proroguings, we have finally managed to stagger into another election: and a historical one at that.

Whether we end up with the same old, same old, or something entirely new, this much is certain: in a democracy, no election is unnecessary. Elections -- including unexpected elections -- are the only things which keep democracies from becoming dictatorships.

For a democracy to survive, elections cannot be chosen by the party in power alone. Were an election to be called only when a party solidly in power thought the people ought to change their minds: no election would ever be called. The same goes for a party not so solidly in power, where there is more to lose by an election than to gain. Those in power are reluctant to risk that power.

Elections are an opportunity for people in a democracy to change their minds about the government they elected previously. This is their entire purpose for being.

Yet elections can only ever be an opportunity for change. They are not a requirement for change. An election which demands change is no longer a free election.

Even if it turns out that the people choose exactly the same mix of parliamentarians as before, money spent on an election is not wasted. At the very least, it will have been confirmed that change is not wanted by the voters -- at least, not the kind of change that an election can allow.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Vote Compass

Try it for interest, try it for fun. Just don't try it to guide your future voting. The picture presented is far too simplistic. Have we not learned yet that how a party chooses to present its values may not match the actualities of governing?

And yet: I do have to wonder what effect the very existence of Vote Compass will have on the voting pattern in this election.

(The test: if we end up with another Conservative minority government, slightly higher in Liberals, slightly lower in NDP and Bloc: not all that much.)