Monday, December 31, 2012

Noam Chomsky Reflects on Contemporary Education

Despite the fact that it was fraught with a marking load I would not wish on anyone, my career as an English teacher offered many satisfactions, not the least of which was the opportunity to explore issues that are increasingly considered off-limits in the classroom: contemporary politics, the use and abuse of language for manipulative and sinister purposes, environmental degradation, etc., all within the context of the literature we were studying. However, by the time I retired six years ago, thanks to curriculum changes in Ontario, many disciplines became locked in a race to cover the material at the expense of what I would consider an essential part of learning: an open and informed discussion and the concomitant development of critical thinking skills. Structure began to supplant imagination, and I think students became the poorer for it.

I recently came across a very interesting interview on Alternet with Noam Chomsky, the famed linguist, political commentator, activist, and iconoclast. A man rarely heard these days in the mainstream media thanks to his seemingly endless capacity to challenge what passes for conventional wisdom, Chomsky reflects on his own upbringing and education, and has some very pointed observations about the current overemphasis on test results:

...the great educational innovation of Bush and Obama was 'no child left behind'. I can see the effects in schools from talking to teachers, parents and students. It's training to pass tests and the teachers are evaluated on how well the students do in the test - I've talked to teachers who've told me that a kid will be interested in something that comes up in class and want to pursue it and the teacher has to tell them - ' you can't do that because you have to pass this test next week'. That's the opposite of education.

Chomsky suggests that at its best, education is essentially subversive, in that it challenges the corporate demand for trained but passive and submissive workers. The cultivation of such an education model is regarded dimly by the elite, a fact he demonstrates by reference to a report and book produced in 1975 for the Trilateral Commission called The Crisis of Democracy. Its conclusion? ... the problems of governance "stem from an excess of democracy" and thus advocates "to restore the prestige and authority of central government institutions."

Says Chomsky:

[The] commission that put together this book was concerned with trying to induce what they called 'more moderation in democracy' - turn people back to passivity and obedience so they don't put so many constraints on state power and so on. In particular they were worried about young people. They were concerned about the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young (that's their phrase), meaning schools, universities, church and so on - they're not doing their job, [the young are] not being sufficiently indoctrinated. They're too free to pursue their own initiatives and concerns and you've got to control them better.

That an independent-thinking citizenry should be regarded as a threat speaks volumes about the power of a real education. I'm glad I was a part of it for 30 years, and while I ardently hope that a reasonable balance can be struck between the needs of industry and the larger needs of society, I must confess that I am not especially hopeful about education's future.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

What A Man Must Be

"What a man can be, he must be." - Abraham Maslow

Whenever I taught Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I also taught my students about Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, his theory of developmental psychology which posits that the final stage of development, self-actualization (the realization of our full potential), can be achieved only after all of our other needs have been met. It is a process that Shelley's amazingly articulate and introspective creature undertakes.

Those who control our broken world, I suspect, have a vested interest in inhibiting the achievement of self-actualization. By keeping wages low, cultivating resentments that keep us sniping at each other (eg. anti-unionism), and empowering oligarchical governments that ensure daily life is a struggle for so many, corporations, in their pursuit of profits at any price, leave a debris field of social, economic and environmental problems in their wake for others to worry about.

It is easy to become discouraged and cynical in such an environment, easy to forget that there is another dimension entirely to our existences, a dimension where the primacy of the self gives way to concern for the other. This broken world abounds with such examples, and every so often we need to be reminded of that fact.

That is why I was pleased to read a story in yesterday's Star by Catherine Porter about actor Sean Penn's ongoing direct and very personal involvement in the rebuilding efforts still underway in Haiti almost three years after its devastating earthquake.

A man who 'has it all' by Hollywood standards, Penn seems to have abandoned that comfortable life to work virtually full-time to help the island nation through the Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) which he formed with funding from Californian philanthropist Diana Jenkins. Hard-headed, pragmatic, and clearly not afraid of hard physical work, Penn understands that the rebuilding process will take many years, and uses a project-based approach to ensure tangible results, including

... two community health clinics, a bakery and, Penn’s favourite, a community centre. “Any day, you can see 50 kids taking judo classes and dance classes while adults are taking computer classes. It’s community, volunteer driven. We staff two supervisors,” he says. “I’d like to see it used as a model.”

And what does Penn get out of all of this? As he explained to Catherine Porter,

“The hardship that’s here allows an individual to feel alive with a clearer lens and more honest perspective” ... “You feel your life while you are living it.”

Has Sean Penn achieved self-actualization? I don't know. But without doubt, he has found real meaning in his life. May we all be so fortunate.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Industry Self-Regulation - An Update

Yesterday I wrote a post about the plight of Ryan Harrington, the young man who, were it not for a drug called Celontin, would suffer upwards of 200 seizures a day. Because the Harper regime opted for a voluntary system instead of a law requiring companies to report drug shortages, Harrington had only a one-week supply of the drug left.

The Toronto Star today reports that his family has been able to secure a one-month supply of the drug from the U.S., no thanks to our government. Says Brigitte Harrington, Ryan's mother:

“It’s a band-aid” ... “We’ve applied another band-aid to the layer. We have not addressed the problem. We have not cleaned up the mess.”

Despite the shortage, Health Canada denied three separate applications from Harrington to acquire the drug from the U.S.

When asked why the first three requests were denied, Health Canada spokesperson Sara Lauer responded, “Initial requests … were not fulfilled because the manufacturer, ERFA, informed Health Canada the product would be on the market until December 2012 and it was working to avoid any potential back-order.”

I would like to think that our political 'leadership' has learned something from this episode, distressing in its wider implications, but experience suggests that in the battle between marketplace ideology, so beloved of the Harper regime, and the public good, we the people are pretty much on our own.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Industry 'Self-Regulation'

In a world rife with the environmental, economic and social consequences of unfettered capitalism, the term 'industry self-regulation' has always struck me as little more than a oxymoron. Examples abound of what happens when government regulatory agencies enter into what turn out to be Faustian bargains with the corporate sector, the sad case of XL Foods perhaps the one most prominent in recent memory.

Today's Star exposes yet another failure of corporate oversight as it reports on the plight of Ryan Harrington, a young man afflicted with a severe form of epilepsy that, without the proper medication, leads to upwards of 200 seizures a day. Unfortunately, he has just a seven-day supply left of the only drug that limits his episodes to three per day, Celontin. The blame for his plight must rest solely on the shoulders of Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and the ethos that her government embraces

Because she opted for voluntary instead of mandatory reporting of drug shortages by the pharmaceutical industry, Harrington faces his dire situation. This, despite the fact that Health Canada staff warned that a voluntary system would be “susceptible to bad company behaviour.”

Why is this failure to report the drug shortage so crucial in Harrington's situation? Had his family known, they could have applied for special access to the drug, which is still produced in the U.S.

As is so often the case today, it is the journalistic integrity of The Toronto Star that has brought this issue to the public's attention. A followup editorial, which I hope you will take time to read, makes a compelling case for mandatory reporting:

A comprehensive, up-to-date system providing early warning of drug shortages would give hospitals, doctors and provincial health ministries a head start on finding alternatives and developing strategies for coping with what's to come. Forewarned is forearmed. So it doesn't make sense from a public health perspective to give manufacturers a penalty-free choice on whether or not to comply.

Not something those ideologues possessed of 'terminal certitude', to borrow a phrase used by Owen over at Northern Reflections, may want to hear, but nonetheless a necessary measure for the rest of us.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Tale of Two Men

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

- NELSON MANDELA, Autobiography

“I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”

- George H.W. Bush in 1988, after the United States shot down Flight 655, an Iranian passenger airliner, over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 civilians aboard.

Both men were recently sidelined with serious health problems, George Bush Sr. still in hospital.

Both Mandela and Bush are of advanced years; when their time comes, who will the world mourn, the man who showed the world the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, or the unrepentant and hubristic warrior?

An Insatiable Appetite

I couldn't think of a single hole to punch in this letter-writer's logic, but then, of course, I am not part of the 1%:

Re: Bonuses at Canadian banks hit $10.3B on record profit, Dec. 11

Canada’s Big Five banks combined to report $7.8 billion in profits in the third quarter. Undoubtedly they benefited from the ongoing corporate welfare system of tax cuts, granted them by the federal government.

It seems hard to understand why the Conservatives would choose to increase already excessive bank profits through corporate tax cuts, which have eliminated funds that could have been used to reduce the need for some 900,000 people having to rely on food banks.

This pathetic situation requires a reallocation of government assistance away from the banks, to needy people who would actually spend their assistance and benefit the economy.

I wonder if those bank executives would have a more difficult time enjoying their absurd profit-based bonuses if they actually thought about how much good those lost tax revenues could have done to assist the most disadvantaged in our society.

Steve Griffiths, Meaford

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

To Extend A Helping Hand

Still in the throes of a Christmas dinner-induced torpor, this will be a relatively brief post related to material in today's Toronto Star dealing with microloans.

As a teacher for 30 years, I always deeply respected those students who sincerely wanted to improve their marks and were willing to do the hard work that goal entailed, as opposed to those who simply wanted to carp about their grades or tried to wheedle an improved assessment from me. In retrospect, it seems natural that, after retirement, I became involved as a volunteer editor with an organization called Kiva, which facilitates microloans to entrepreneurs in the developing world. It is a role I still enjoy to this day. For as little as a $25 loan, people throughout the world can assist those working hard to improve life for themselves and their families. Of my years as a lender, I have only had one loan default.

For those who would prefer to assist people closer to home, I learned today that there is an organization operating in the Toronto area called Access Community Capital Fund. As reported in The Star, the organization offers loans to assist budding local entrepreneurs who do not qualify for traditional loans:

“We are helping people who have no access to credit so they can build their own business and pay to send their kids to school,” says Don Inouye, chair of Access’s board of directors.

The charity provides loans of up to $10,000. But the typical amount is between $3,000 and $5,000. The money is disbursed by the Royal Bank and guaranteed by Access.

Investors earn 1 per cent on their capital, but most donate their earnings back to the charity, he says. “They don’t invest to make money. They do it to make a difference.”

I suspect that many, when contemplating the myriad problems that confront us both domestically and internationally, feel impotent. Participation as a lender in a microloan program is an empowering experience and a sure antidote to that sentiment.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Update: A Christmas Message

As a retired teacher, I am well familiar with the works of Charles Dickens. Although his literary legacy is one of predominantly lengthy works, he is probably best remembered for his shortest one, A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, a nasty man consumed by the cost of everything but unable to recognize the value of anything. His redemption comes when he realizes the perversion of his life perspective.

Yesterday we went to Niagara on the Lake for a reading of the tale by some Shaw Festival actors who graciously invited my daughter, who has been very involved for several years in local theatre in the Hamilton-Toronto area, to be one of the narrators.

Listening to this very professional rendition, I was struck by both the simplicity and depth of Dickens' theme, one which our contemporary world seems to go to great pains to encourage us to forget. The promotion of rampant consumerism and the consequent impoverishment of both our environment and our spirit is one that cannot be sustained much longer, yet it seems to be the nature of the corporate agenda which, sadly, so many of us have become infused with, never to look beyond the next quarterly profit statement, no matter what the larger cost may be. At the same time, of course, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots widens, the underlying causes ignored while we apply only band-aid solutions like food banks and shelters, which ultimately only enable the status quo to remain intact.

In A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge learns before it is too late that the things of real value have little to do with things material. Would that we could learn, and take to heart, the same lesson.

UPDATE: I just got a chance to sit down with today's Star. A letter by Joy Taylor of Scarborough, along Dow Marmur's column, seem particularly appropriate reading at this time of year.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Oh Lord, Spare Me From The Overly Earnest

For someone like me, who strives not to be crushed by the many cruel absurdities the world has to offer, a sense of humour is a key survival mechanism. In that, I suspect I am hardly unique. And yet there are those among us, many striving to accomplish some real good, who go about their tasks grimly, never smiling, their personalities devoid of any suggestion that they are able to laugh at things.

I have known several such people. Harry Potter's invisibility cloak seems a very attractive concept whenever they are in the vicinity.

This morning's Star carries a story of one such person. Kalina Christoff, founder of Humanize Birth, an organization that advocates for “an increase in women having positive, empowered births,” took offense at a video produced by the obstetrics and gynecology wing at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.

While one might wish to debate the artistic and comedic merits of the video, it could best be described as a light-hearted spoof of the life of obstetrical staff, inspired by Psy's Gangham-Style video that has enjoyed over one billion hits on YouTube.

Acting as any organization concerned about its image and fundraising ability would, Sunnybrook has removed the video (although someone else has since uploaded it again, as you will see), but, unfortunately, this act of contrition has not placated Ms Christoff, who is demanding an apology.

Why the deep offense? Says Ms Christoff, a line [from the video] says ‘no matter what, we’ll deliver your baby’ — a lot of women take offense to that because they deliver their babies”.

In any event, watch the video and decide for yourselves:

As for Ms Christoff and her crusading compatriots, I have another video recommendation that might help her and her offended ilk to lighten up. Enjoy:

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Some Star Readers Respond To Anti-Unionism

I have to confess that my last few blog posts have felt singularly uninspired. I therefore yield to one of my favourite sources for perceptive analysis, the readers of The Toronto Star, who offer a panoply of thoughts on the dangerous anti-unionism trend evident in Canada at both the federal and provincial levels. All offer some excellent insights, which you can read here, and I am reproducing just one below:

History teaches us that when politicians wield public anger against an identifiable group, the casualty list usually includes those who allow their anger to be manipulated.

As a puppet of financially obese global investors, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney smiled broadly when he announced new immigration laws to facilitate a “new skilled trades stream” of foreign workers. Like foreign seasonal agricultural workers, these “skilled trades workers” will be grateful to leave home and family for much of the year and earn a fraction of what Canadian unionized workers in these trades currently earn. What proof confirms a shortage of electricians in Canada?

In the U.S., President Barack Obama warns that “right-to-work” bills are really politically motivated “right to work for less money” legislation, while in Ontario, Tim Hudak vomits out “right to work” rhetoric in his role as the prophet of blind hated for public sector workers.

It may take a year or two for the angry public to realize it was their hatred of teachers and other public servants that empowered federal and provincial politicians to bargain away all well-paying public and private sector jobs. As with all major renovations to the social structure of societies, the angry 99 per cent will inevitably rise up against the 1 per cent, including against those politicians who fatten their personal or business bank accounts with the profits from right-to-work legislation.

The French Revolution and the follow-up Jacobin movement illustrate the destabilizing consequences of following politicians who use hate to advance their agenda. If the angry public were to actually listen to what the teachers and public servants are saying about the governments’ assault against democratic rights, Canada and Ontario may avert the most dangerous consequences of the revolution that is already underway.

Now that the attack on electricians, welders, and other private sector workers has begun, perhaps their cries for help will be heard.

Cindy Griese, Barrie

''Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.'

The title of my post today, taken from Act Five of Shakespeare's Hamlet, occurs in a graveyard. Hamlet begins musing on what may become of one's earthly remains, as even those of the most exalted in life, once their remains have fully decayed, may wind up as little more than a beer barrel stopper.

Horatio seems to feel that such speculation is a tad morbid and unhealthy.

Perhaps the same may be said about trying to dissect the mind of a politician, for fear of what we may discover.

In his column yesterday, The Star's Rick Salutin goes down that dark path in trying to understand the mind of outgoing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, and while I realize that Ontario politics may be of little interest to people in other parts of the country, Salutin's observations seem pan-Canadian in application:

For the first time in his political career, McGuinty has become humanly interesting because he’s indecipherable. In the past he was politically interesting — for standing almost alone against the neo-con tide of his times, but personally uncomplicated. Now he’s taken all he stood for and could feel pride in: strong public schools, a positive role for government, political support he built — among teachers especially — and trashed it for no evident reason. Then he resigned, losing any chance he had to salvage the mess he made.

While he finds this more than passing strange, Salutin wonders whether the Premier is relying on a U.S. political consultant urging a hard-right mentality that ultimately sacrifices logic on the altar of demagoguery:

So Dalton tells the teachers: Sorry but you’re going to have to accept a two-year wage freeze. The teachers’ unions answer: OK, we accept a two-year wage freeze. Dalton stays on script and replies: Sorry, that’s unacceptable, you have to take a two-year wage freeze.

Indeed, the above scenario is eerily echoed in a piece in today's Star, excerpted from an interview to be broadcast today on Focus Ontario. In it, McGuinty reminds teachers of how good they have had it under his rule:

“There are some teachers who are saying: ‘We don’t accept that [wage restraint]. You must negotiate with us.’ We’re saying: ‘Listen, we’re prepared to negotiate, but we can’t negotiate a pay hike,’ ” the premier said. (Here of course, the Premiere is conveniently ignoring the fact that they did accept the wage freeze demanded.) “Some teachers have said we’ve taken away their rights, we took away their right to strike. Well, they’re striking now so obviously that is not true.” (Here the Premier conveniently ignores the fact that the anti-strike provisions of Bill 115 don't come into effect until the new year, when its provisions will likely be imposed.)

Perhaps attempts to understand the quirky minds of politicians is ultimately a waste of time, since those minds are obviously deeply influenced by the ethos of the organization that they serve, their political party. When they deviate from the formulae that bring them power, maybe the best we can do is accept something that Salutin reminds us of in his piece:

We’re deceived by the lucid, rational façade, by the facts we wear clothes and eat with cutlery, into thinking we’re not essentially primitive creatures whose conscious calculations are generally a fraction of what motivates us.

As Horatio says, in attempting to understand beyond that, ''Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.'

Friday, December 21, 2012

And Now, A Word From America's Most Powerful Lobby

Such unctuous and pious hypocrisy I have rarely seen or heard:

BTW, what law were the protesters breaking that got them ejected?

What I Really Want For Christmas...

Were I given to the Christmas flights of fancy that prompt people to compile impossible wish lists that usually include a desire for world peace, the end of disease, and the termination of world hunger, I would add one more: politicians who show respect, rather than contempt, for the intelligence of the people they claim to represent.

That, of course, has about as much likelihood of achievement as the other three mentioned above. Too many examples abound of the arrogant assumptions politicians make about people as they abandon the interests of the collective to pursue policies that cater to only a certain segment of society. And what especially rankles me is the fact that they so shamelessly tell the most outrageous lies that betray their contempt for the majority of us.

Take, for example, Pierre Poilievre, that earnest old young man of 33 who is now in his fourth term as an MP and has found much favour with the Harper regime. As reported by the Star's Tim Harper, Poilievre, a staunch believer in the kind of 'right-to-work' legislation recently passed in Michigan, loudly, proudly, hypocritically and disingenuously proclaims it as

...“workers freedom,’’ legislation that would give federal workers the option of paying union dues and joining their colleagues in a work stoppage.

“I am the first federal politician to make a dedicated push toward this goal,’’ he says. “I believe in free choice for workers and I am going to do my part to see that happens at the federal level and I would encourage provincial governments to do likewise.

Ah yes, the famous Harper regime concern for workers' rights.

But perhaps the Christmas season will bring an unexpected gift. Despite the fact that the same prevarications are proclaimed regularly by that Ontario emblem of ineptitude, the Progressive Conservative Party's Tim Hudak, there is some evidence of nascent critical thinking on the part of the electorate. An article in today's Star by Robert Benzie and Richard Brennan suggest that young Tim's embrace of all things right-wing is beginning to hurt him in the polls. Now only two percentage points ahead of the NDP, his party, which seems perilously similar to tea-party ideology, is finding some resistance amongst voters, according to a recent Forum poll:

Forum president Lorne Bozinoff said the most recent survey suggests that some of Hudak’s right-wing proposals are not resonating beyond his diehard supporters.

For example, only about a third — 34 per cent — of respondents believe compulsory union dues should be outlawed while 45 per cent disagreed with that plan and 21 per cent were unsure.

Only 8 per cent of respondents agreed that Community Care Access Centres should be shut down with 61 per cent opposed and 31 per cent uncertain.

Bozinoff said a lot of the Tory planks are “just not authentic enough for people in urban areas,” which is bad news for a party with a caucus made up of mostly rural MPPs.

So, we can only hope that as 2013 arrives, more and more people will don their critical-thinking caps and subject all political rhetoric to the kind of thoughtful analysis that a healthy democracy both demands and deserves.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Thomas Walkom Today

The union movement is one of the last remnants of the great postwar pact between labour, capital and government.

That pact provided Canadians with things they still value, from medicare to public pension plans. Good wages in union shops kept pay high, even in workplaces that weren’t organized. Unions agitated for and won better health and safety laws that covered all.

True, union rules made it more difficult for employers to axe slackers. But they also ensured that when someone lost his job, it was for real cause — not because he or she had refused to sleep with the boss.

This brief excerpt from Thomas Walkom's column in today's Star serves as a timely reminder about both the historical and contemporary importance of the union movement. Entitled The teachers’ dispute and the war on wages, the piece posits that the Ontario McGuinty government's theft of collective bargaining rights under Bill 115 is really part of a much larger and endemic assault on good-paying jobs as governments and the corporate sector work together in advancing the latter's agenda.

One may rightly ask how an attack on public-sector workers advances that agenda. According to Walkom, well-paid teachers and other public-sector workers are a reminder of what is possible. As the writer asks, "How can employees be encouraged to accept the discipline of this new world when they see some, such as teachers and other public sector workers, still making good wages?"

Both federal and provincial governments, of course, are counting on the rabid resentment and antipathy against the public sector that is vigorously and consistently fanned by the business community.

And yet, there is evidence that the current Ontario teacher battle with the government, and the federations' argument that theirs is everyone's fight, is achieving some public resonance. A story by Robert Benzie and Kristin Rushowy reports that 49 per cent of Ontarians support the teachers.

If that is true, perhaps the collusive strategy between government and business needs revisiting.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Psst - A Message for Teacher-Bashers

Here in Ontario, teachers have fallen into disfavor thanks to their refusal to meekly accept the unfairness and unconstitutionality of Bill 115.

For those who enjoy getting outraged over such impertinence and call teachers selfish, may I suggest you watch the following in order to gain some perspective?

Think Again

For those who believe Stephen Harper was showing uncommon common sense when he seemed to repudiate his Firearms Advisory Committee last month, think again.

Which Black Do You Prefer?

If you are Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the choice is clear.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Prospect of Revolt

I cannot help but wonder how healthy our democracy might be if its myriad abuses at the hands of the Harper regime elicited the same spirited response from citizens as this did from people over a few pictures.

Yet Another Failure of The Corporate Community

We hear everyday about the grim prospects that our young people face - protracted periods of unemployment, underemployment and contract work have become the norm, rather than the exception, even for those with extensive education. Even going back to school to pursue graduate studies or certificate programs offers no guarantee of gainful employment. Indeed, my own family has personal experience with this problem. My son, with a Master's Degree, had to move to Alberta for meaningful employment, and my daughter, also the holder of a Master's as well as a post-grad certificate, is still struggling to find her place.

We are told that the culprit is a weak economy, with businesses reluctant to hire and invest during times of uncertainty.

And yet we are also told that Canada has a shortage of skilled workers, so much so that the federal government is fast tracking applications from foreign workers to take jobs in our oil, our shipbuilding, our mining, and our construction industries, to name but four.

Clearly, something is very amiss.

An article in The Globe and Mail helps to illuminate the problem. Entitled Why training workers in Canada beats importing them from abroad, it argues that training a domestic workforce is the much preferable alternative to importing temporary workers, for some pretty obvious reasons. However, it asserts that there are several obstacles to the pursuit of such a sane strategy.

One of those obstacles is the Harper regime's attitude toward temporary workers. It recently announced "that it intends to bring in an extra 3,000 skilled tradespeople next year," a decision which may elicit great delight amongst employers but one that betrays the national interest if it is being used as a cover to import workers whose only asset is a willingness to work for a lot less than Canadians.

A recent example of the above is HD Mining International, a Chinese-owned coal mine in Tumbler Ridge, B.C. that has won approval "to bring in as many as 200 Chinese workers over the next few years, even though it is paying them substantially less than the going rate, with no benefits."

This corporate interest in exploiting cheap labour, abetted by a government that seems, at best, indifferent to workers' rights, is exacerbated by companies' refusal to train workers through apprenticeship programs:

Apprenticeship – the time-honoured tradition of experienced journeymen training the next generation – remains a foreign concept for the vast majority of employers. In spite of generous government incentives, more than 80 per cent of employers who use skilled workers don’t offer any, according to the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.

A little research confirms that the government incentives described above are indeed generous and include the following:

Ontario Businesses looking to hire and train a new apprentice in a specialized skilled trade, may be interested in filing for one of the following government grants and tax credit programs:

Ontario Apprenticeship Training Tax Credit (OATTC) – A provincial refundable tax credit equal to 35% – 45% of the salaries and wages for a qualifying apprentice or $10K per year to a max of $40K over the first 4 years of applicable apprenticeships.

Federal Apprenticeship Job Creation Tax Credit (AJCTC) – A federal non-refundable tax credit equal to 10% of the salaries and wages for a qualifying apprentice to a max of $2K per year for each eligible apprentice.

Apprenticeship Employer Signing Bonus – A program providing $2K in non-repayable government grants for registering a new apprentice in a sectors with high demand for skilled trade workers.

Employer Bonus Program – A program providing $1K in non-repayable government grants for employers whose apprentices complete an apprenticeship program in any trade or occupation.

Despite these incentives, corporate Canada seems, as it always does, to look only at the very short-term, with no thought to any responsibility it has to the wider community. Even a company the size of Irving shipping, "which has a $25-billion deal to build 21 combat ships for the federal government", recently announced that it will spend the paltry sum of "$250,000 a year to train and recruit local students." It also promises to offer some apprenticeships, but given the fact that it will need to attract "1,500 [skilled] workers ... over the next decade," it seems like an anemic effort at best.

I will close by giving the final word to the Globe article's penultimate paragraph:

Training workers is a long-term investment. It requires patience. Research by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, which lost its federal financing this year, shows that companies get back $1.47 for every $1 they spend on apprentices. Over the life of a four-year apprenticeship, the gain can reach as high as $250,000 for a single heavy equipment mechanic as the apprentice becomes more productive and generates revenue.

Monday, December 17, 2012

An Editorial Recommendation

A bit of a busy day today, so I only have time right now to recommend today's editorial in The Star, a timely warning about the implications of increasingly popular anti-union legislation that has only one goal: to reduce the remuneration of workers.

One can only hope that Canadians will not believe that such regressive laws are good for anything other than corporate profits.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Taint of Ideology

Although I'm sure that I frequently fall victim to it, I am deeply offended by lazy thinking, our seemingly endless capacity to fall back on ideological bromides as a substitute for careful and reasoned consideration of an issue. Instances of such defective cogitation abound, and are especially noticeable in online commentary, where, for example, those of a left-wing or progressive perspective will regularly denounce their ideological opposites as 'fascists', while those on the right frequently take great delight in dismissing progressive notions as the work of 'leftards' or other such idiomatically imaginative labels.

The challenge in overcoming these reflexive reactions is considerable, but I sometimes wonder if part of the problem lies in how we phrase the issue or ask the question. All too often, the choices are presented as grim absolutes. For example, we are told by our political leaders that any measures to improve our society can be achieved only at a great cost to the economy. Never is there a middle ground, where a tradeoff between the two polarities is presented as a viable option. But perhaps we are not asking the right question.

The following video is a brilliant example of how to reframe the question. The library of Troy Michigan, fighting a well-funded Tea Party campaign opposing a 0.7% increase that would keep the facility from having to initiate severe cutbacks, came up with this strategy:

Stunningly effective in its simplicity, the campaign perhaps suggests that there may be many ways in which to frame a question, many ways to engage people so that they think about the implications of an issue rather than simply dismiss it reflexively on ideological grounds.

My reflections are prompted by Martin Regg Cohn's column in today's Star. Entitled Time to put Flaherty on the spot, his opening sentence says a great deal:

When Finance Minister Jim Flaherty debates pension reform with the provinces Monday, he’ll be counting on Canadians to tune it out so he can wait it out — yet again.

He goes on to discuss something many of us are well aware of, namely that far too many of our fellow citizens do not have sufficient savings to ensure a comfortable retirement, and that the average pension afforded by the Canada Pension Plan is hardly adequate to bridge the gap. Real reform that would ultimately lift many retirees out of poverty is very achievable at moderate cost, as attested to by a 30-page discussion paper prepared by federal officials. Unfortunately, Finance minister Jim Flaherty, doubtlessly prompted by ideology and the financial community to which he pays obesaisance, claims that this is not the right time to act, as additional payroll costs would hurt employment in Canada.

Cohn dismisses this fatuous defence of inaction effectively, and I hope you will take a few minutes to read his piece.

As a retired teacher who enjoys a pension that provides for a decent standard of living, I am acutely aware than many others struggle tremendously in life. However, unlike those commentators who disparage and debase people like me for my good fortune and would like to see me brought down to a more hardscrabble existence, I am very much interested in seeing the opportunity of comfortable retirement living extended to as many people as possible. And that can only be achieved by confronting and challenging the conventional 'wisdom' of our political 'leaders'.

We have become a nation of complacent people, content to use our cynicism about the political process as an excuse for our inactivity, our refusal to advocate for an improved society.

We can do and be so much better than this.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

With Some Ambivalence

In light of the unspeakable tragedy in Connecticut yesterday, in some ways it seems manifestly disrespectful to write a regular blog post today. Yet, to become paralyzed with despair over the evil in the world is not the answer either. Far better it is, in my mind, to try to confront and combat the evil that we actually have some possibility of mitigating.

Such is my feeling about the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party's exultancy over so-called right-to-work legislation now in effect in 24 U.S states, Michigan being the most recent jurisdiction to join the fold.

As reported in today's Star,

Tories are eager to follow in the footsteps of Michigan’s anti-union legislation ... and turn Ontario into a right-to-work jurisdiction where workers can opt out of joining unions and paying dues.

The move is near the top of the agenda for the Progressive Conservatives led by Tim Hudak should they be elected come the next general election.

Liberally quoting Christine Elliott, a Tory MPP and the wife of Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Richard Brennan tells us that Ms Elliott is confident that such legislation will be the answer to our economic woes since new businesses [will] pick Ontario because they will have the “flexibility” they need to get the job done without tangling with a unionized workforce.

'Flexiility' is always one of those words that sets my spider-sense atingle, since it is usually a euphemism for lower wages and working conditions. She then goes on to talk about the need for a 'nimble' workforce (spider-sense now on full alert!) so that businesses when they need to adapt to changing conditions in the workplace they have the flexibility to be able to do that.

With an apparently straight face, Ms Elliott avers that taking away the power of unions will result in higher wages “because we will have more businesses locating here. They will do well, they will be able to hire more people and pay higher wages.”

Only those who drink a certain brand of Kool Aid would accept such fatuous assertions without some research. Happily, the American site Media Matters has done the heavy-lifting on the subject, the full report of which I hope you will take some time to read. Its two most salient conclusions, supported by data, not empty rhetoric, are that right-to-work laws lead to lower wages and benefits for workers and that right-to-work" laws have little impact on employment.

As well, for those interested in the quite sordid provenance of the right-to-work movement, The Galloping Beaver has a post and a link that is most enlightening.

But I suppose Ms Elliott and her party of benighted souls are anticipating that people will simply react with Pavlovian salivation rather than reasoned discourse over her twisted version of a worker's 'paradise.'

Friday, December 14, 2012

The MacKay Mission

I really have nothing new to add to the sad spectacle of ministerial incompetence epitomized by Defense Minister Peter MacKay, whose ongoing mission and primary responsibilibilty seems to be never admitting to error or apologizing. However, the Star's Tim Harper does have some thoughts on the reasons for his intransigence in today's column:

For his part, MacKay has adopted the warrior stance of the men and women he represents in his ministry. No surrender, no weakness.

In politics, an apology is seen as a sign of weakness, a hole to be exploited by your opponents and, in MacKay’s case, it is far better to endure humiliation than to utter a mea culpa after more than two years of obfuscation, lowballing and attacks on the patriotism of anyone criticizing the F-35 fighter jet procurement program.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for his reticence lies in what an admission of error would really mean:

... it would cut to the core of the Conservative brand — its financial rectitude — and dredge up the charges that the government deceived the public during the 2011 election campaign.

Harper goes on to detail the internal humiliation that this proud soldier of the No Apologies PMO has had to endure:

He had his toys taken away. After the auditor-general’s report, the government created a fighter jet secretariat and handed the file to Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose.

He had to sit, mute, in the Commons while Liberals brayed for his resignation and surrogates answered for him.

His increasingly chippy parliamentary secretary, Chris Alexander, has an ongoing starring role in political talk shows trying to explain this failed process for MacKay.

He had to endure those Top Gun images, played on an endless loop, of him strapped in the cockpit in 2010.

All doubtlessly hurtful to Central Nova's favourite son.

I find myself curiously unmoved by his plight.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Lesson From Egypt

The other day I wrote a post contrasting the fervent engagement of the Egyptian people as they pursue their demands for a representative democracy, contrasting that passion with our own seeming indifference to the deficits we face here at home.

This morning's Star has published a letter from James Quinn, a Hamilton area activist and biology professor at McMaster University, on the topic of what we can learn from Egypt. I reproduce it below:

Re: Morsi calls in the military ahead of constitution vote, Dec. 10

I think we can learn a thing or two from the protesters in Egypt.

They have won the right to elect their own government. They went through the election process. They did not face robocall scandals and ended up with what was deemed a fair election. They thought they were in a democracy.

But Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has made decisions that were not part of his platform when he was elected. The protestors recognize that their elected leader should not be free to do as he chooses until the next election. They recognize that this is not democratic. Are they just being idealistic?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has passed two omnibus bills, C-38 and C-45, that devastate our environmental and waterway protection in very dramatic ways. He has declared open season on nature. He has paved the way for dangerous rapid expansion of the Alberta tar sands.

I do not recall these dramatic changes being mentioned in his election platform. The people of Canada have not had any democratic input into these dramatic changes.

We have lost our democratic rights to this Conservative dictatorship. We should learn from our Egyptian colleagues and take to the streets.

Unions After Bill C-377

In my favorite Shakespearian play, Hamlet, there is a scene wherein his erstwhile friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, explain that an acting company that used to enjoy great popularity has fallen on hard times. Thanks to a new craze in which troupes of child actors have become the rage, and "are most tyrannically clapped for", adults have had to go on the road to earn a living. Hamlet wonders about the child actors' futures, because their current success means they are in fact "exclaim[ing] against their own succession", since they will be out of work once they grow up.

I can't help but think about human nature's shortsightedness when I read those lines. We pursue things that aren't good for us, while we denigrate that which, in the long term, is of benefit. Take, for example, the public's attitude toward unions. More days than nought, there are columns and letters published condemning unions and their well-paid members, envy and resentment seeping through the pages, seemingly in a senseless quest to bring people down to the lowest pay and working conditions possible.

It is, of course, this irrational impulse to which Bill C-377, the thinly-disguised union-busting legislation passed on Wednesday evening by the Harper government, plays. Clothed in the rhetoric typical of a workers' rights-hating regime, the law will require labour organizations to provide extensive details, such as the salaries of top union leaders, to the Canada Revenue Agency, which will publish the information on its website.

All designed, of course, to stoke even more public contempt for those enjoying better working conditions and pay than those in non-union environments.

And yet, as observed by Thomas Walkom and David Climenhaga, unions themselves must bear some of the responsibility for this current sorry state.

Writes Walkom:

What’s really killing unions is not the political right. It is that, for too many workers, organized labour is no longer relevant.

In 2011, federal figures show, 31 per cent of Canadian workers overall were unionized. Of these, the vast majority are middle-aged or older. For younger workers between the ages of 15 and 24, the rate of unionization is just under 16 per cent.

Compounding the problem, says Walkom, is the fact that union membership is concentrated in the public sector, with only 16 per cent of private sector workers belonging to unions, largely due to the collapse of manufacturing jobs and the proliferation of part-time and contract work in North America.

He adds,

Unions — which understandably pay attention first and foremost to their own members — haven’t lobbied hard enough to tighten up the employment standards legislation that allows these low-wage practices.

Nor have most unions figured out a way to deal with a new kind of workplace, where people no longer labour in large factories and where strikes can be circumvented by technology.

Echoing this idea, in The Rabble David Climenhaga writes:

Ironically, while most unions don't do enough to represent working people beyond their own membership, what little they do to fight for the powerless in society is why authoritarian neoconservatives like Harper have such a hate on for labour and other groups that speak out for traditional Canadian values.

So one worthwhile response to the effort by the Conservatives to smother unions in red tape is to fight harder for real progressive causes, not to mention never again signing a lousy two-tier contract that leaves young workers with the short end of the stick to preserve the past victories of older workers. No, an injury to one remains an injury to all, people!

Perhaps the final consideration should be given to those who "most tyrannically clap[...]' for the kind of repressive legislative agenda epitomized by Bill C-377. In a jurisdiction near you, you can probably look forward to more of this.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Workers of the World Unite- You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Union Shackles!

That perhaps might have been the call in Michigan yesterday, as it joined 23 other states in enacting so called 'right-to-work-legislation' that 'liberates' workers from mandatory union membership and union dues.

Passed by a Republican-dominated House of Representatives, the new law was proudly proclaimed by Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger in the following terms:

“This is about freedom, fairness and equality” ... “These are basic American rights — rights that should unite us.”

Ah yes, those famous rights that allow workers to sell themselves to the lowest corporate bidder, a foregone conclusion in Michigan and the other 'liberated' states, a fact tacitly acknowledged with a wink and a nudge by supporters of the legislation, who say it will boost the economy by creating jobs, attract new companies to Michigan and give workers more choices for employment.

But then again, perhaps I am wrong, and that surge of expected new employment will result from corporations being attracted to states where the workers are revelling in their newly-acquired 'freedom.' After all, a happy and contented worker is a productive worker.

Lest Canadian workers feel left out, our federal overlords are laying the groundwork for similar serf-like satisfaction in this country. As reported in today's Star, Bill C-377, an alleged private member's bill about which I have previously written on this blog, is to receive the full backing of the Harper regime and is expected to be passed today in the House.

Says Labour Minister Lisa Raitt:

“Our government is going to support (the bill), with the amendments that have been brought in. It makes a lot of sense” ... “Workers want to know how their union dues are being spent.

Of course, there are always naysayers when it comes to such liberating legislation:

Liberal interim leader Bob Rae said Bill C-377 “is an exercise in bureaucratic overkill that has nothing to do with transparency and everything to do with simply trying to punish trade union organizations.”

Rae said the bill, if passed, could be part of “the pattern in the United States” of limiting union rights. The next step, he warned, could by an attempt by the Harper government to eliminate the so-called Rand formula, under which workers in a bargaining unit must pay mandatory union dues.

Such carping criticism aside, can it be long before we are all living in a worker's paradise?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Canadian Success Story

Many years ago, campaigns urging people to 'Buy Canadian' abounded. A point of pride with many, patronizing our domestic suppliers of goods and services, although more difficult than in earlier times thanks to the corporate pursuit of ever-higher profits at the expense of domestic jobs, is still possible.

Today's Star has a piece about a very successful Canadian company whose products are prominently displayed in most grocery stores that we visit. The story of Chapman's Ice Cream, and the commitment that it has consistently shown to its workers, perhaps makes it something of an outlier; it also makes it an inspiring success story that I hope you will take a few minutes to read about.

A No-Cut Clause for Peter MacKay?

Readers of this blog may be aware that I am no fan of Harper Defence Minister Peter MacKay. The breadth of his ineptitude is stunning, and the concept of ministerial responsibility seems foreign both to him and his boss. Countless times he has proven to be an embarrassment, not only to Canadians in general, but undoubtedly also to the government he serves.

Yet like a kind of demonic Energizer Bunny, he keeps on going and going and going.

I have a theory.

Despite my depth of cynicism about our politicians, I am normally loathe to indulge in conspiracy speculations; however, McKay's long tenure as Canada's Defense Minister, his widely-demonstrated incompetence notwithstanding, has got me wondering.

First a little history. People may recall that MacKay became the last leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 2003, having secured the position on the final ballot after making a deal with rival David Orchard never to merge the party with the Canadian Alliance Party.

Well, of course MacKay quickly betrayed both his undertaking and the Progressive Conservative Party, and the rest, as they say, is history. Yet I cannot help but wonder whether the quid pro quo for this betrayal was conferring upon the unprincipled MP for Central Nova 'a no-cut clause' in his cabinet postings. The Minister of Defence since 2007, it seems that no matter how manifest his inability to competently discharge his duties, he wears a mantle of invincibility.

Probably the most consistent evidence that MacKay is singularly lacking in ability has been his staunch defence of and prevarications about the F-35 fighter jet. Despite compelling evidence adduced over the years that the replacement for the CF-18 will prove far too costly and is ill-suited for our military needs, MacKay has been its biggest cheerleader. Now, after years of denigrating those who oppose the purchase, even the government has admitted it needs to seriously rethink it.

In today's Star article, entitled Opposition MPs take aim at F-35 ‘fiasco’, Bob Rae makes the following assertion:

... MacKay is done, his credibility shot because of his outspoken defence of the F-35 in the past.

“I think the one thing that he’s lost completely is his credibility. ... I don’t think there is anyone who will take his comments about this project seriously ever again,” Rae told reporters.

Given the long pattern of protection afforded MacKay by Stephen Harper, I'm afraid I do not share Mr. Rae's optimism.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Robocalls and Fingerpointing

If crimes were committed in misdirecting voters in the last federal election, who cares who the complainants that have brought this matter before the courts are?

Apparently the Harper regime does.

What Fools These Mortals Be

The title of this post, taken from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, hardly qualifies as a startling insight. Nonetheless, after reading two columns in this morning's Star, I couldn't help but reflect on the mass of contradictions that we are. It has likely always been thus, but stands in especially sharp relief in today's broken world.

My very wise friend Dom pointed out something to me recently. "Lorne," he said, "the genius of the corporate world has been to get us addicted to cheap stuff from China, even though that cheap stuff comes at a very high cost: the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs, as well as the spread of retail positions (think Walmart) that refuse to pay a living wage."

On some level, I suspect we are aware of this truth, but choose not to ponder it as our search for bargains encompasses an increasingly wide swath. In her column today, Heather Mallick confronts the issue head-on in a meditation prompted by Wall Street's reaction to Apple Tim Cook's recent announcement about bringing a small amount of Apple jobs back from China. What should have been a cause for celebration in the depressed American job market turned out to be anything but:

Wall Street’s instant response was to drop the stock several percentage points. Apple is the biggest company in U.S. history. But despite its might and inventiveness, the market judged it solely on its merits as a behemoth built mainly on cheap Chinese labour.

But it seems that it is not just the stock market that takes a dim view of such a move:

Ten years ago I paid $250 for a coffeemaker. Today I pay $80. Would I pay even $60 more to restore Canadian jobs?

Yes, I say. But am I being truthful? I buy books from Amazon.ca because they offer me 37- to 50-per-cent discounts and free shipping. But I could buy them locally at full price if I were of a mind. I am not.

So yes, we would like to see a return to good-paying jobs, but not if we have to pay more for our goods as a result. While I realize this may be an over-generalization, Mallick really does speak an unpleasant truth about our contradictory natures.

On a separate topic, Dow Marmur writes about the irony of how our best impulses, our philanthropic ones, may have undesirable and unintended consequences. Echoing a concern I recently voiced here, Marmur opines that private efforts to relieve hunger in fact make it easier for governments to ignore the problem of growing and intractable poverty.

He writes about Mazon, a Jewish group whose aim is to feed those in need irrespective of background and affiliation. So far it has allocated more than $7 million to food banks and related projects across Canada.

Its founding chairman, Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld, recently

... challenged the government to render it and all organizations of its kind obsolete. In reality, however, the need continues to increase multifold. A quarter of a century ago there were 94 food banks in Canada; today there are more than 630.

Citing recent data, Rabbi Bielfeld said that some 900,000 Canadians use food banks every month. Last year more than 150 million pounds of food were distributed to families in need; 38 per cent of recipients were children. This year many will have to make do with less because of growing demand and diminishing resources.

Marmur observes the irony of it and many other organizations committed to the reduction of poverty:

... as essential as it is to help those in need, ironically, the relative success of such efforts helps governments to get off the hook. At times it even seems that charities find themselves inadvertently colluding with the inaction of politicians.

And so we have it. Two very good writers making some very relevant observations about the contradictions that define our humanity. On the one hand we want to be oblivious to the economic and social consequences of our propensity for bargain-hunting; on the other hand, even when we allow our better angels to come to the fore, the results are anything but an unalloyed good.

I guess, as always, the answer to this conundrum ultimately does lie in our own hands.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Canada and Egypt: A Study in Contrasts

My wife, well aware of my anguish over the disengagement with democracy of so many Canadians, made a comment this morning that has inspired this post. She observed the sharp contrast that exists with Egypt, where the notion of democracy is still more a dream than a reality, a dream the people feel is well-worth putting themselves at risk of arrest, injury, and even death, to achieve. This became quite apparent less than two years ago with the vigorous protests leading to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, and the people's passion continues to this day, evident in the demonstrations against President Mohamed Morsi's attempt to arrogate dictatorial powers in the guise of 'protecting democracy.'

Well, it seems that taking the notion and promise of democracy seriously has paid off for the Egyptians. As reported in today's Star, Morsi made unexpected concessions Saturday in a move to appease opponents — even rescinding most of the Nov. 22 decree that gave him sweeping new powers. While there remains the very real question of whether these concessions will be enough to quell the strong opposition to Morsi, it is nonetheless instructive in what an engaged citizenry can accomplish.

The contrast with Canada couldn't be sharper. I have written several times on the state of democracy under Harper, most times with a note of despair over the willful contempt the Prime Minister has shown for our traditions, and the singular lack of outrage expressed over that contempt by the majority of Canadians. But it would also seem that even when people attempt to participate in the 'discussion,' their voice is ignored, even suppressed.

One of the latest examples demonstrating the contemptuous and autocratic rule of the Harper regime is to be found in the machinations playing out in the Trans-Pacific-Partnership talks, which many claim is one of the biggest threats to our sovereignty to come along in decades. In his column today, Michael Geist reports on the Harper propensity for secrecy and the suppression of any information that contradicts his policies.

Observing that the deal may require a major overhaul of Canadian agriculture, investment, intellectual property and culture protection rules, Geist reports:

The talks remain shrouded in darkness, with a draft text that is secret; public interest groups are largely banned from where the negotiations are being held.

Moreover, the Canadian government has failed to engage openly with the public on the TPP. Foreign Affairs has created an insider “consulting group” that will be granted access to secret and confidential information regarding the negotiations (members of the group are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement). The department has not publicly disclosed the existence of the consulting group or indicated who might be granted privileged access to otherwise confidential information.

To compound this open disdain for any semblance of democratic transparency, despite the fact that the Harper regime launched a six-week public consultation on Canada's potential participation in the trade talks,

... the government never revealed the results. The individual submissions were not posted online and no public report summarizing the responses was ever published.

Yet, according to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, the government was overwhelmed with negative comments urging officials to resist entry into the TPP and the expected pressures for significant intellectual property reforms as part of the deal.

In addition to tens of thousands of form letters and emails criticizing the TPP, the government received hundreds of individual handcrafted responses that unanimously criticized the proposed agreement.

Suppression of information. Contempt for the will of the people. Disregard for democracy. They all sound like pretty good reasons to take to the streets.

I'm sure the Egyptians would agree.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Sins Of The Harper Government: Ministerial Incompetence, Secrecy, and Contempt For Democracy

For anyone who needs a quick primer over the damage being done to Canada and its citizens by the Harper regime, I recommend the following:

In the F-35 fiasco, truth is the first casualty, a stinging indictment not only of the government lies surrounding the true projected costs of the F-35 fighter jets, but also of the incompetence of the teflon Defense Minister, Peter McKay.

Freedom of expression is more than an international issue, in which Star Public Editor Kathy English laments the sad state of our Freedom of Information Act as obstructed by Mr. Hartper et al.

How Harper exploits Canadians’ ignorance of parliamentary democracy, in which Frances Russell explores the debasement of democracy under Harper, and cites other Parliamentary jurisdictions with models that would throttle the near-dictatorial powers the Prime Minister currently wields.

If knowledge is power, it is time we all begin arming ourselves with the facts.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Tim Hudak?

I guess the short answer is to ignore the prating lad. Failing such a massive challenge to self-discipline and restraint, I suppose the other best answer is to hold his pronouncements up to public scrutiny, a goal I have modestly tried to achieve in this blog.

Such scrutiny invariably gives rise to ridicule; the risible nature of most of Tim's recycled pronouncements, many of which are mere carry-overs from the inaptly named Common Sense Revolution of his failed mentor, Mike Harris, invite such a response.

As usual, Toronto Star readers are happy to share their own observations, their letters-to-the-editor mirroring, I suspect, widely-held assessments of the young leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party. To whet your appetite to read the full array of their reflections, here are a few of them:

There are no demonstrations at Queen’s Park demanding that the LCBO be privatized. The demands are coming from businesses that want to make profits.

Hudak says that “competition” is needed and it’s time to end the monopoly. Why would we take a monopoly that serves the public interest and change it to one that serves the private few?

Remember when the Tories introduced “competition” into the electricity sector? Rates have now tripled. Has “competition” lowered gasoline rates, car insurance rates or credit card interest rates?

To use Tory terms, the LCBO benefits from “economies of scale” that have resulted in “increased efficiencies.” The LCBO is extremely well run and well organized. Its profits serve all the people in Ontario.

Hudak is just a schill who wants to transfer that public wealth to the private few.

Paul Kahnert, Markham

There is an error in the following letter, which infers that The Beer Store is a government operation. It is, in fact, a private consortium:

So it’s official. Politicians are out of ideas. Is the tired (and tried) chestnut of privatizing the LCBO and Beer Store really the best Tim Hudak has to offer us? I guess “a chicken in every pot” didn’t test well.

Never mind the LCBO and Beer Store provide quality employment for 10,000 Ontarians and are reliable cash cows for the government, helping fund education, healthcare and social programs. Got to keep the stumping simple and treat the electorate as simple-minded.

David Kinahan, Toronto

With the government looking for ways to decrease its (our) huge debt, only a fool would suggest privatizing the LCBO cash-cow that brings in a billion a year.

The beer stores are in a different category, as they are owned by foreign breweries. They should be privatized as soon as possible and corner stores should be allowed to sell beer.

As for Tim Hudak, first he says: “let’s let the private sector into the alcohol business, let’s have some more competition.” Then he says there would be no reduction in the price of alcoholic beverages.

No wonder Hudak lost the election. He’s a dumkopf.

William Bedford, Toronto

Let me transpose what Mr. Hudak is really saying here. He can’t create any meaningful jobs so what he’s proposing is a liquor store on every corner — in the U.S. there’d also be a gun store.

So he wants you to know that when you really need to lash out at your family, because you just can’t find work, there will be a source of mind-numbing alcohol close by for your comfort. Because we all know alcohol is just like comfort food in a crisis.

Bon appetite.

Richard Kadziewicz, Scarborough

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Law And Order Government That Loves Guns - Part 2

The post I wrote yesterday elicited a rather spirited and passionate response from one of its readers. Since I promised a reply to Anonymous after reading the links he provided, I thought I would base today's contribution on his observations.

First, one of the points Anon made (I will reproduce his entire commentary in a moment) turned out to be largely correct. He asserted that the Harper government would not loosen the gun laws based on the committee recommendations. As reported in The Globe, in a link provided by Anon, the Prime Minister, in a rare move that bespeaks common sense over partisan priorities, has firmly stated that prohibited weapons such as the Ak-47 assault weapon will not be reclassified as 'restricted,' something that would have made them much more readily available.

What follows is the exchange Anon and I had over my original post:

Do you even understand what any of the above terminology actually means?

Do you not realize that these recommendations were made in March? How long do you think that the Toronto Star has been sitting on this non-story? Any particular reason that they maybe chose today to print this?

To which I responded:

I believe I understand both the terminology and the implications of the Harper thrust to appeal almost exclusively to its constituency, Anon.

As to why The Star chose to print the story today, I would think the answer is obvious: to show the absolute hypocrisy of a government that claims to be hard on crime while at the same time making it easier to acquire and maintain the weapons that would facilitate crime.

I hope I have answered your questions to your satisfaction.

Anon replied:

Not even close. The government is probably finished with firearms. The only recommendations that might be examined is the merging ATT's with licenses, if only because it won't cost the government much. There's the merger of the POL and PAL, which you don't mention. Beyond that...

It's unlikely that the government would choose to reclassify prohibited weapons as restricted. At best, the government could remove the OiC prohibitions on named weapons like the AK-47, or more likely it's semi-auto only equivalent. The tories aren't stupid enough to change automatics as an class from prohibited to restricted. At best, the civilian variant of the AK, semi-auto only could be taken off the prohibited-by-name list. Consider: http://www.wolverinesupplies.com/details/3426/CZ-858-2-Canadian-Model-762-x-39-19-Barrel.aspx. It's not an AK, it's a CZ-858. It LOOKS a bit like an AK. It's in the same caliber as the AK. It has roughly equivalent capabilites as a semi-auto only AK. That firearm is non-restricted. This is a Saiga semi-automatic rifle: http://www.jgsales.com/saiga-7.62x39-ak47-style-semi-automatic-rifle.-imported-and-converted-by-cai.-new.-p-7043.html. Same caliber as the CZ-858. Basically the same capabilities as the CZ-858. It's prohibited because it's an AK "variant." What kind of sense does this make, and what does it do for Canadians?

You obviously don't know what an authorization to transport is. An authorization to transport is a piece of paper issued by a provincial CFO which allows the owner of a restricted firearm to transport their trigger-locked, unloaded and encased firearm to a shooting range, and home again, by the shortest possible route, making no stops in between. Presently, an authorization to transport must be obtained separately to being licensed. It's a needless duplication of paperwork, and does nothing to enhance public safety. I don't see how that would stop the police one iota from laying criminal charges upon an offending individual whether or not the ATT was separate.

Fourth, allowing police forces to sell firearms to the public. The sales of siezed firearms used to be a significant contributor to police budgets. Since C-68, the police have had to make do without that income, further increasing the strain on municipal and provincial budgets, with no effect on public safety. Finally, making firearms licenses last 10 years does not in fact strip the RCMP of its ability to stop licenses, "the form must be verified by another person."

That's an outright lie. This is the actual form that an individual must fill out to renew their firearms license: http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/cfp-pcaf/form-formulaire/pdfs/979-eng.pdf. (THIS WAS A LINK I WAS UNABLE TO CONNECT TO) Note that there is no section for verrification by a third party, except a person's spouse, or former spouse. They are only expected to declare that they are aware of the applicant's application for renewal not verrify its authenticity.

As to why the Star chose to publish such an obviously loaded article today, it's clearly to spread irrational fear and provoke knee-jerk reactions among those who share your political bias. And, you fell for it. Why wouldn't the Star publish this in say, June, or August? They did it quite deliberately.

The Star's piece has had the opposite of its intended effect, as several members of the so-called gun-lobby wouldn't actually know about the recommendations if the Star had just kept quiet. In fact, I have personally witnessed several people announce that they'll be making donations to the CPC in direct response to the committee's recommendations, even if the government does nothing.

When is your side ever going to learn that in order to win this particular fight, it must either become educated about firearms, and how they are regulated in Canada, OR, it must learn to keep quiet when it comes to guns, because ignorance, and blatant pandering are just going to keep fueling your enemy's coffers?

While I appreciate the passion and the research that Anon put into his response, his interpretation of the data differs from my own in some fundamental ways. For example, I see even the possibility of a reclassification of the weapons he describes a cause for grave concern, since those weapons serve only one primary purpose, in my mind (an assertion that Anon would likely disagree with).

As well, the sale of seized weaponry may make economic sense, as Anon points out, but from my perspective, anything that facilitates the circulation of guns comes at too high a potential cost to society.

Also, I heartily disagree with his contention that 'my side' unless we have done copious research 'must learn to keep quiet when it comes to guns ... because ignorance, and blatant pandering are just going to keep fueling your enemy's coffers.' Nor do I fault The Star for printing the story. In a democratic and pluralistic society, debate is the one of our key rights and responsibilities. Indeed, what may strike one person as asinine may strike another as perceptive and informed. Hopefully, some new knowledge might ultimately be achieved through the clash of viewpoints.

Left unaddressed in Anon's commentary is a disturbing fact that, according to The Globe article to which he directed me, may be soon rectified. Despite pleas from law enforcement and victims of gun crime for representation, the firearms committee is dominated by sport shooting enthusiasts and those opposed to gun control. Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae suggested that the committee

needed wider representation, including from police chiefs, those fighting domestic violence and groups dealing with suicide prevention, Mr. Harper all but agreed.

Had The Star not run the story, I am dubious as to whether Stephen Harper would have been so receptive to the suggestion.

A testy exchange between Anon and me? Yes. But the fact that we have a fundamental and deep philosophical disagreement neither disturbs nor upsets me, one of the reasons being that unlike so much right-wing commentary that relies on bluster, bullying and empty rhetoric (and I am sure Anon would accuse his ideological opponents of the same shortcomings), Anon made a sincere attempt to support his point of view with documentation. Even though I was unable to get all of the links to function properly, I do appreciate the effort that he made.

It is to state the obvious that we live in extremely polarized times, times when the strategy of many is to simply shout down their opponents. I think the information provided by Anon in our exchange amply demonstrates the possibility of something more productive.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Law and Order Government That Loves Guns

Anyone still harbouring doubts about whose interests the Harper regime is governing on behalf of would be well-advised to read this story in today's Star. Entitled RCMP concerned as Conservatives consider loosening firearms restrictions, it reveals the latest legislative considerations of a government that claims to be tough on crime, but sees little reason to reduce the opportunity to commit crime.

Co-chaired by Steve Torino of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, the Canadian Firearms Advisory Committee met with Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and other senior government officials in Ottawa in late March, after the bill to kill the long-gun registry had cleared the Commons and was on the verge of Senate approval.

The committee, comprised almost exclusively of lads who love their guns, has made a series of recommendation to the Harper regime. Amongst the gems are the following:

- getting rid of the “prohibited” category of firearms

- reclassifying weapons such as certain handguns and assault weapons (for example, the AK-47, shown in the picture at the top of this post) as “restricted” only

- removing the requirement on gun owners to get an “authorization to transport” firearms

- making seized firearms — which by law must now be destroyed — legally available for public sale or trade

- making [f]irearms licences ... valid for at least 10 years “or longer,”, a move strongly opposed by the RCMP, since it would impede their “ability to monitor, on a timely basis, any changes to an individual’s mental health status”

The entire breadth of the committee's recommendations can be read here, but surely even the brief overview I have included in this post should be sufficient to lead right-thinking people to realize that whoever the Harper regime is governing on behalf of, it surely isn't the majority of Canadians.

A Clarification From Young Tim

Tim Hudak, the boy who would be premier, has issued a policy clarification:

Hudak said the thrust of his proposal to put alcoholic beverages in corner stores, supermarkets or private specialty stores is to make it easier for Ontario consumers to buy a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine.

Should the master recycler of tired ideas ever attain his ambition of leading the province, I suspect that the ready availability of alcohol, and the temporary solace it provides, will be much appreciated by Ontarians.