Monthly Archives: July 2013

“Common ground” initiative makes common sense

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Proof, perhaps, that the best ideas on just about everything originate far from the cocoons and cloisters of governments and corporations, the Atlantica Centre for Energy, based in Saint John, is injecting a long-overdue dose of sanity into New Brunswick’s shale gas debate.

In fact, the outline of its scheme, called “common ground”, to encourage “dialogue” among opponents and supporters of onshore petroleum development in the province – particularly, on the hot-button issue of hydraulic fracturing – makes so much sense, I’m puzzled – even a little annoyed – I didn’t think of it, myself.

The approach is simple enough.

We know that many rational people here are deeply worried about the effects on potable water and soil of large-scale fracking operations, and that, given the industry’s track record over the decades in other parts of North America, they have good reason.

We also know that exploration companies in New Brunswick insist that their technologies and practices have substantially improved, in recent years, and that provincial regulations governing their activities are among the strictest in the world.

Furthermore, we know that the debate has been hung up on competing definitions of what is actually knowable – a sort of epistemological hornet’s nest of a priori and a posteriori suppositions – about an industry that has not yet determined whether there is enough recoverable resource to justify commercial enterprise.

So, the Atlantica Centre reasonably argues, why not create an online podium for both sides – unedited, unfiltered, utterly transparent? Why not build a series of videos that present the divergent opinions, for and against, post them to its website and invite public reaction?

Or, as the group’s president, John Herron, told the Telegraph-Journal on Monday, “My view is that in the old days industry used to come to town and say, ‘I promise you jobs and growth – love me.’ That doesn’t work anymore. You can’t address an environmental concern or a health concern with an economic response.”

In fact, he added, “The minimum we owe each other is a dialogue, and if there is a process that people feel they can participate in, if there is a safe place where those different perspectives can be exchanged, I think we can identify points of agreements on many aspects that we are currently not. . .Consultation and engagement really has to be an ongoing, progressive process. It can’t be an event or even a series of events, and if there isn’t a process in place that people have confidence in, it’s not by accident that the default response in many cases becomes protest.”

Naturally, the key is creating that “safe place”. To this end, the Centre appears to have given serious thought to the breadth of representation that’s necessary to legitimize its venture. The first video, according to the T-J, incorporates commentary from “Cyril Polchies from the Elsipogtog First Nation; Jim Emberger, a Taymouth resident who is part of an alliance of New Brunswick community groups against the development of shale gas; Green Party Leader David Coon; NDP Leader Dominic Cardy; Stephanie Merrill of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick; Barbara Pike, executive director of the Maritimes Energy Association; and Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in Public Policy and Administration at l’Université de Moncton.”

Of course, none of this will fully immunize Mr. Herron and his association from criticism. The Atlantica Centre’s membership roll is a who’s who of business interests in the province. It includes Canaport LNG, Deloitte, Emera, Ernst & Young, Fundy Engineering, IPR-GDF SUEZ North America, Irving Oil Ltd., J.D. Irving Ltd., Maritimes Northeast Pipeline, NB Power, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Stantec. It also includes the two heaviest of hitters in the province’s shale gas game: Corridor Resources and Southwestern Energy.

But, these affiliations, alone, should not automatically dilute public confidence in the authenticity of the Centre’s project. Industry has known, for some time, that it can’t merely brush aside principled opposition. Until now, though, it hasn’t had the faintest clue about how to communicate its points to the broader public.

Letting its critics have their say, without ginning up the traditional spin machine, is a fresh idea whose time has finally come round.

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Where did all the bad guys go?

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Enamored as it is by the sound of its own panic alarm, the federal government will have a hard time justifying its contention that Canada is riding a crime wave in the wake of new data that show just the opposite.

“The police-reported crime rate, which measures the overall volume of crime that came to the attention of police, continued a long-term decline in 2012, falling three per cent from 2011,” Statistics Canada reported last week. “The Crime Severity Index (CSI). . .also decreased three per cent.”

In fact, the numbers-crunching agency says that the crime rate in Canada has “reached its lowest level” in 41 years. The CSI, meanwhile, was off 28 per cent from 2002, with 415,000 incidents of violence in 2012.

Still, one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s signature social policies is his “tough-on-crime” agenda, made manifest by omnibus Bill C-10 (now the Safe Streets and Communities Act), which places unusual emphasis on the so-called rights of victims.

A government website outlines the guts of the legislation, thusly:

“Part 1 creates a new act entitled the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act;

Part 2 amends the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) and the Criminal Code; Part 3 amends the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA), the International Transfer of Offenders Act and the Criminal Records Act; Part 4 amends the Youth Criminal Justice Act; and part 5 amends the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. . .Part 3 . . .makes changes to the CCRA’s principles (and) reforms in four main areas: Enhancing sharing of information with victims; increasing offender responsibility and accountability; strengthening the management of offenders and their reintegration; and modernizing disciplinary actions.”

One of the legislation’s features that continues to stick in the collective craw of community activists, family welfare advocates and even a few international observers is the unreasonably harsh treatment it metes out to young offenders. Last year, The Canadian Press reported, “The UN committee on the rights of the child has finished a 10-year review of how Canada treats its children and how well governments are implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In particular, the committee says Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act complied with international standards until changes were introduced earlier this year.”

Specifically, CP indicated, “Bill C-10 ‘is excessively punitive for children and not sufficiently restorative in nature,’ the committee wrote in a report. ‘The committee also regrets there was no child rights assessment or mechanism to ensure that Bill C-10 complied with the provisions of the convention.’ The committee also repeatedly expressed its concern that aboriginal and black children are dramatically overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Aboriginal youth are more likely to be jailed than graduate from high school, the report said.”

Flash forward to the present day, and here’s what Stats Can stipulates on the subject on youth crime in this country: “Police reported that just over 125,000 youth aged 12 to 17 were accused of a criminal offence in 2012, about 11,000 less than the previous year. The youth accused rate fell seven per cent while the youth CSI declined six per cent.”

What’s more, “The majority of youth accused in 2012 were involved in non-violent incidents. The most common type of youth crime was theft of $5,000 and under, committed by 18 per cent of youth accused. Common assault (level 1) was the most common type of violent offence committed by youth in 2012, accounting for 11 per cent of youth accused. Other relatively common offences committed by youth were mischief (11 per cent), administration of justice violations (10 per cent) and cannabis possession (10 per cent). In 2012, 44 per cent of youth accused were formally charged by police, the rest were dealt with by other means under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.”

All of which paints a somewhat more wholesome picture of Canadian society – one that is, in fact, broadly consistent with those of other developed nations, where crime rates are also dropping – than the red meat crowd in Ottawa would have us believe.

If course, power politics is about nothing if not inventing problems to solve.

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Forging a confederation of common cause

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Typically, when Canada’s premiers gather to discuss the state of the federation, they produce enough hot air to float several trial balloons, all drifting in different directions at once. But last week’s gathering in Niagara-On-The-Lake suggested that provincial leaders might be warming to the idea of pinpointing one or two destinations at which to touch down together.

New Brunswick’s David Alward can take much of the credit for forging at least the semblance of common cause among his colleagues this year. He has been a vocal and effective critic (whether or not you agree with him) of federal changes to both the Employment Insurance system and labour market agreements. He has emphasized the shared impact of these moves across the country.

He has also reached out to other premiers in a consistent and collegial way – not seen since the Frank McKenna era – on the subject of energy, which is rapidly becoming the most important file on the interprovincial agenda. Even in the notoriously self-absorbed central Canadian press, his name tends to come before all others in stories about a dearly imagined west-east oil pipeline.

“They’ve all been very open to that discussion – I don’t have any concerns at all,” he told the Globe and Mail last week. “We’re bullish on the project because it’s a nation-building project, it’s going to have a positive impact on Canadians from coast to coast to coast. . .We feel very good about the work that is taking place and I have full confidence in the next steps.”

Reflecting on Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ refusal to discuss the pipeline in the wake of the Lac Magentic tragedy, Mr. Alward was circumspect: “In discussions with the Quebec government thus far in our working groups, in terms of the pipeline, have been excellent, and we look forward to continuing to work with them,” the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal quoted him in Friday’s edition. “A catastrophe in their province, the derailment. . .I don’t believe Premier Marois is commenting out of respect for that. . .And I respect that.”

In fact, Mr. Alward was one of the first Canadian leaders to recognize the project’s symbolic significance to the country, as whole. He likened it to a new “national dream”, as big and bold for this century as the transcontinental railway was to the 19th. The argument resonated immediately with Alberta Premier Alison Redford, whose overriding priority is to get her province’s crude to refineries (any refinery) as soon and as cost-effectively as possible.

It’s clear, from her quote in the Telegraph-Journal last week, she hasn’t changed her mind. “We believe it is terribly important that this be considered exactly what it is,” she said. “(This) is a commercial transaction that must be approved by the approval processes in each province that has to take into account the integrity of the project, as well as the environmental impact of the project.”

Moreover, she said, “I’ve heard nothing (at the premiers’ meeting) that in any way suggested to me that there was any possibility that there were any new developments that would change this – that each jurisdiction that is touched by this project will do the work that it needs to do to make sure it does receive the approvals.”

Translation: Stay tuned, but matters are proceeding apace.

The pipeline company, itself, seems to agree. Last week, the Globe and Mail broke news that TransCanada Corp. was nearly chafing at the bit to execute its Energy East strategy sooner, not later.

“(The company) says it has garnered significant support for its quest to ship Western crude to refineries in the East, as premiers seek consensus on a politically charged cross-country pipeline,” the newspaper reported on Thursday. “The Calgary-based company (said) it has received major backing from producers who want to ship crude on its Energy East pipeline, and will make an announcement in the coming weeks. ‘We are very optimistic about the project,’ Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada’s president for energy pipelines, said in an interview.”

For New Brunswick and the rest of Canada, this is one trial balloon that may be getting ready to come down to earth.

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The myth of the middle class

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In Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – the 1939 classic film about graft, greed and coercion in American politics – Jimmy Stewart – playing the protagonist, possessed of both naivete and moxie, in equal measures – lambastes his senatorial colleagues for their cynicism and corruption.

“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask,” he chimes. “Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see.”

Then, just before he collapses in exhaustion, he declares, “You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause. . .Somebody will listen to me.”

There was something decidedly familiar about America’s real “Mr. Smith” who went down from Washington to deliver a speech at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, the other day. Familiar, and cinematic.

“With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball,” U.S. President Barack Obama cried. “And I am here to say this needs to stop. Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires. Our focus must be on the basic economic issues that the matter most to you – the people we represent.”

He pounded his pulpit like a preacher. “I will not allow gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way,” he said. “Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it. Where I can’t act on my own, I’ll pick up the phone and call CEOs, and philanthropists, and college presidents – anybody who can help – and enlist them in our efforts. Because the choices that we, the people, make now will determine whether or not every American will have a fighting chance in the 21st century.”

Fade to black. Roll credits.

Mr. Obama is on his last legs, and he knows it. Almost nothing he has tried during his nearly six years in office has worked. His country is even more divided than it was when he first marched into the White House in January 2009 (Oprah’s happy tears, notwithstanding). So, when all else fails, cue up the teleprompter. It’s time for rhetoric.

Speechifying is what Mr. Obama does best. And his dwindling cohort of ardent admirers still appreciate his soaring orations. But when he talks about reviving the middle class in America, one wonders whether he has missed the lessons of history, whether he understands the principle of cause and effect.

Washington’s “gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference” of which he speaks is not chiefly responsible for the wreckage skilled wage-earners and professionals now face; it is the result of years, even decades, of systematically dismantling the institutions, regulations and protections the middle class needs in order to survive, let alone thrive. The crew that now “represents” the people – the neo-cons, lunatic libertarians, science deniers, sneering accommodators – can’t help themselves. That’s how they were raised in the me-first, avaricious era of the late 20th century.

For this sea-change in attitude, government, itself, has been largely liable. Through Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations, lawmakers did everything they could to break unions, discourage small businesses, encourage corporate consolidation, and succor the most predatory instincts of free-market capitalism.

Some got rich. More got poor. Today, almost no one believes in the durability of so-called middle-class values. Why would they when the once-sturdy bargain between an employer and his employee can, and does, perish in an offshore agreement with a cheap, foreign supplier of human capital?

At the end of Capra’s ode to the working man, Mr. Smith triumphs, having taught his confreres a little something about decency and dignity. He even gets the girl.

But, of course, that was only a movie.

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Catching Moncton’s “chocolate wave”

 Resurgo is action in latin. And that's a dead language. Get 'er done boys and girls

My father, the esteemed writer Harry Bruce, once allowed that while the construction of a causeway, in 1968, through the Petitcodiac River was not “the most monumental blunder in the history of atrocities mankind has inflicted on the environment,” it was, nonetheless, amongst the dumbest.

“By blocking the bore, the causeway forced it back on itself, and the silt that once hurtled upriver settled in the lower reaches of the Petitcodiac,” he wrote in 1995, in a piece for the Montreal Gazette. “It created a huge plain of greasy mud, and turned the river into a sluggish, unnavigable joke. The Tidal Bore deteriorated until the locals called it the Total Bore.”

He noted, pointedly: “American humorist, Erma Bombeck, drove across North America with her family to see what they expected to be a thrilling natural phenomenon. When they reached Moncton, she wrote, ‘A trickle of brown water, barely visible, slowly edged its way up the river toward us with all the excitement of a stopped-up toilet. . .I retained more water than that. . .It was a long time before anyone spoke. About 5,000 miles to be exact.’”

Ms. Bombeck didn’t live long enough to see what became of the river and its bore. But had she been one of the estimated 30,000 happy gawkers, who gathered along the Petty’s banks the other day, she would have sung an altogether different tune as a three-foot high wall of water, bearing a clutch of professional surfers from around the world, coursed upstream. One of them, a bright, young fellow from California, called it a “chocolate wave”. And it was.

Experts had predicted that, following the causeway gates’ permanent opening three years ago, decades might pass before anyone noticed any appreciable change in the river. The experts were wrong, though they weren’t complaining.

Last month, when the first of the new “super bores” arrived, Global News reported, “This is biggest one of the year. Daniel LeBlanc with Petitcodiac Riverkeeper, says it is only going to get more impressive in the coming years. ‘There’s no question that the reason we have a beautiful bore is because of the restoration of the river, (he said).’”

There’s also no question about the fact that nature, when left alone, can be remarkably self-correcting – a certain comfort at a time when the Province is struggling with the environmental implications of onshore oil and gas development.

For Moncton, at any rate, the return of the bore fairly drips with the sort of symbolism that city officials might otherwise pay good money to manufacture. The community’s motto is “resurgo”. What better way to illustrate the efficacious effects of sound planning (in the river’s case, the decision to allow its water to flow freely), than a resurgent tide?

What a stunningly marvelous backdrop to the statistics we routinely deploy to persuade newcomers to settle here: The fact that Moncton’s population growth rate since 2006 is 9.7 per cent, making it the fifth-fastest growing Census Metropolitan Area in the country; the fact that Westmorland County has typically attracted at least three times as many people every year than any other county in New Brunswick; and the fact that, since 1990, the city has added more than 25,000 jobs to its workforce.

The bore is, of course, a creature of moon and tide, of gravity and specific density. But it is also a testament to change, to renewal, to possibility. Its return to its past glory is a handshake with the future – a future we write with every decision, every move we make today. What else do we imagine for ourselves? What will be the shape of our community 10 or 20 years from now?

The Petitcodiac’s restoration is not yet complete. The “monumental blunder” still stares at us, waiting grimly to be replaced by a partial bridge. Meanwhile, the tidal bore rushes in from the sea, roaring at us to greet all the days the will come with courage, conviction and, most of all, sheer, untrammelled delight.

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The rebirth of a nation?

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In deference to his media-wary family, the Prince of Cambridge might have known better not to make his arrival in that silliest of all seasons for the northern hemisphere’s major media – when the summer heat bleaches all discernment from the calendars of world’s assignment desks.

For days, scores of reporters from top newspapers, magazines and broadcasting outlets have braved near scorching temperatures (the highest since 1766, by some accounts) to wait outside St. James and Kensington Palaces in London for news – any news – of a royal birth. It finally came in the waning hours of July 22: William and Kate’s healthy son weighed in at eight pounds, six ounces. And right on cue, in unison, the talking heads of the Fourth Estate lost their tiny, little minds.

The following day, the  Globe and Mail devoted most of its front page and four of its inside pages to the, as yet, unnamed successor to the throne. Writing from the Sceptered Isle, Paul Waldie framed the blessed event with language not seen since the palmy days of empire: “The newborn King of Britain, Canada and 14 other realms has already brought a renewed sense of confidence in the Royal Family and the United Kingdom. . .In a month that has already seen the economy show signs of life and British success in so many areas. . .the birth of a future monarch only adds to the country’s feeling of renewal. . .The mood all day was festive, almost carnival-like.”

That’s a helluva burden to lay on the shoulders of one so small. Still, it behooves us to know that His Royal Highness George, or James, or Beauregard, or whomever was welcomed with a 62-gun salute, that his “delivery was handled by two trusted physicians” and that “the new. . .boy. . .will be receiving a gift of Canadian-themed children’s books from Governor-General David Johnston and his wife.” (Apparently, the G-G’s spouse also lacks a first name).

Alternatively, it’s fair to note, not all were rendered delirious by the news. The Globe’s Michelle McQuigge quoted Tom Freda, director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, before the birth, thusly: “There will be hundreds of Canadian future citizens born that same day as this royal baby, yet regardless of how smart, selfless, had-working and proudly Canadian (these children) may one day become, because they were not born in the right entitled family, (they are) constitutionally barred from ever becoming Canada’s head of state. In the 21st century, this is an outrage.”

His is, almost certainly, the minority opinion. The rest rejoice, certain about the symbolic majesty of the moment.

So sayest Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, in a prepared statement: “The arrival of the newest member of the Royal Family, a future Sovereign of Canada, is a highly anticipated moment for Canadians given the special and warm relationship that we share with our Royal Family. . .Laureen and I send our best wishes of health and happiness to the new parents as they embark on this exciting chapter in their lives.”

Adds U.S. President Barack Obama: “Michelle and I are so pleased to congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the joyous occasion of the birth of their first child. We wish them all the happiness and blessings parenthood brings. The child enters the world at a time of promise and opportunity for our two nations. Given the special relationship between us, the American people are pleased to join with the people of the United Kingdom as they celebrate the birth of the young prince.”

Ultimately, though, among all the luminous well-wishers of the high, mighty and privileged class, only British Prime Minister David Cameron seems able to articulate the true significance of the event: “It is an important moment in the life of our nation, and I suppose above all it is a wonderful moment for a warm and loving couple who have got a brand new baby boy.”

Exactly. This is not about a monarch, a head of state, a hope for the disgruntled masses. It’s about a boy, whom, it’s safe to say, was the only subject on Kate’s mind when she and her husband deftly ducked the media horde, in the wee hours of Monday morning, to shepherd him safely into a breathlessly waiting world.

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Here comes the sun in N.B.?

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Lost in New Brunswick’s roiling energy debates over shale gas (will hydrofracking transform us into mutant mole people?) and wind power (will the turning of turbines send us to the loony bin?) is one alternative about which you almost never hear.

You won’t find it easily in the official literature dutifully compiled by the province’s  energy and environment departments or by NB Power, now gamely justifying is disastrous investments in the Point Lepreau nuclear plant.

But it is the ubiquitous feature of every hot summer morning, every frigid winter afternoon and all the days between: the sun.

While much of Canada has been consumed, in recent years, by the thankless task of weighing the virtues and vices of its plentiful supply of fossil fuel, other nations of the world have been moving ahead with plans to increase their solar energy capacities. The reasons are as mundane and familiar as they come: improving technology and falling costs are making a solid business case for manufacturers and operators, alike.

Writing, recently, in the Huffington Post, reporter James Gerken observed, “A dramatic drop in the price of solar power technology last year helped the continued growth of renewable energy, according to a U.N.-backed report. . .Global energy-generating capacity from renewable sources rose by 115 gigawatts in 2012, compared with 105 gigawatts the previous year, the report by the Paris-based think tank REN21 showed.”

Specifically, he reported, “The drop in solar prices – fuelled by Chinese manufacturers – helped bring the overall cost of investment in renewables down 12 per cent to $244 billion from $279 billion in 2011, effectively boosting the amount of generating capacity investors can get for their money.”

Meanwhile, according to a Reuters piece last month, “New solar photovoltaic power installations in the United States totaled 723 megawatts (MW) during the first quarter, up 33 per cent over the same period in 2012. . .GTM Research and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) forecast that during 2013, the industry will install 4.4 gigawatts (GW) of photovoltaic power facilities – enough to power about 800,000 average American homes.

“That will rise to nearly 9.2 GW annually in 2016. As the cost of solar photovoltaic panels declines, solar power is one of the fastest-growing new energy sources in the United States. ‘Installations will speed up over the next four years as projects become economically preferable to retail  power in more locations,’  said Shayle Kann, vice president of research at renewable power information company GTM, a unit of Greentech Media.”

In fact, in a recent letter to the Globe and Mail, a spokesperson for the Canadian Solar Industries Association declared, “Last year, Europe added almost all of Ontario’s current generating capacity in one year and most of it was solar.” Ian MacLellan went on to write, “The world is in the middle of a fundamental transition in our energy-based economy. It started about 20 years ago and it will take about another 20 years to complete. This transition is happening much faster than even most solar experts had predicted.”

That last statement might be a little rose-coloured. The economic forces that now make solar energy viable for many are also eminently reversible. What’s more, the biggest advances in all forms of renewable energy (including solar) appear to be taking place in developing and emerging economies, simply because these are, effectively, “greenfields” without integrated, fossil-fuel-dominated infrastructure.

Then, of course, there’s always the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, of which it is never wise to discount.

“A Devon (U.K.) councillor has branded solar farms as being like concentration camps after the latest plans to install panels in the countryside was revealed,” The Telegraph reported in April. “Julian Brazil, a Lib Dem councillor at Devon County Council, spoke out as another solar energy farm was given the green light by the council’s development management committee. He told the meeting: ‘They look horrible, not dissimilar to concentration camps. But we are told by the Planning Minister to press ahead with these.’”

Still, these problems are by no means unsurmountable. And solving them could happily preoccupy New Brunswick’s innovators (and elected officials), who are always looking for new ways to dispel the clouds that hang over the province’s economy and let in a little sunshine.

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Following the herd straight to Hades

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The human race sinks to the lowest level of turpitude not when its members defy the standards of what is thought to be acceptable behavior, but, more often, when they obey them.

Nothing in history has caused greater depravity, deeper injury, than doing one’s duty without question.

The latest evidence that this is axiomatically true comes to us by way of one Ian Mosby, a historian of food and nutrition and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph. While investigating health policy in Canada, he uncovered documents which showed that in the years following the Second World War, federal government officials conducted experiments on aboriginal children to ascertain their nutritional needs. In effect, they deliberately starved their subjects.

The abstract of his research paper makes for some chilling reading:

“Between 1942 and 1952, some of Canada’s leading nutrition experts, in cooperation with various federal departments, conducted an unprecedented series of nutritional studies of Aboriginal communities and residential schools. The most ambitious and perhaps best known of these was the 1947-1948 James Bay Survey of the Attawapiskat and Rupert’s House Cree First Nations. Less well known were two separate long-term studies that went so far as to include controlled experiments conducted, apparently without the subjects’ informed consent or knowledge, on malnourished Aboriginal populations in Northern Manitoba and, later, in six Indian residential schools.

Dr. Mosby explains that the point of his examination is “in part to provide a narrative record of a largely unexamined episode of exploitation and neglect by the Canadian government. At the same time, it situates these studies within the context of broader federal policies governing the lives of Aboriginal peoples, a shifting Canadian consensus concerning the science of nutrition, and changing attitudes towards the ethics of biomedical experimentation on human beings during a period that encompassed, among other things, the establishment of the Nuremberg Code of experimental research ethics.”

The news has quite properly stunned the current office holders in Ottawa, who assure themselves that nothing like this could happen today. After all, we are so much more enlightened, so much more evolved than our forebears.

But are we?

All it takes is one goon with a truly bad idea and the authority to enforce it and watch the herd mentality take shape. The rationalizations pour like rain in a thunderstorm: It’s all for a good cause; the ends justify the means; you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs; everybody’s doing it, so it must be right; I was just following orders.

Following orders was what senior Nazi officials claimed they were doing when they sent millions of Jews to their death. In a famous string of experiments in the 1960s,  American psychologist Stanley Milgram sought to test the limits of obedience among “average” people – those who were not infused with ideological hatred or political fanaticism. He enlisted 40 men to administer electric shocks to test subjects.

“Each participant took the role of a ‘teacher’ who would then deliver a shock to the ‘student’ every time an incorrect answer was produced,” writes Kendra Cherry in the Psychology section of About.com. “While the participant believed that he was delivering real shocks to the student, the student was actually a confederate in the experiment who was simply pretending to be shocked.

“As the experiment progressed, the participant would hear the learner plead to be released or even complain about a heart condition. Once the 300-volt level had been reached, the learner banged on the wall and demanded to be released. Beyond this point, the learner became completely silent and refused to answer any more questions. The experimenter then instructed the participant to treat this silence as an incorrect response and deliver a further shock.”

Dr. Milgram had expected that less than three per cent of participants would agree to deliver the maximum voltage. But, on the authority of the experimenter, closer to 65 per cent of them did, even though they had every reason to believe they were inflicting serious injury, or worse.

As the German political thinker Hannah Arendt observed in 1963, evil is banal, and blind obedience can make unwitting monsters of us all.

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How (not) to make friends and influence people

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The Prime Minister’s Office, we are told by the more liberal factions of the mainstream media, is a dark and gloomy place where political officers rule with the zealous certitude of their convictions.

In this dramatic pastiche of a Franz Kafka set piece, they are ever relentless, incorruptible and never wrong. They demand absolute loyalty to the nation’s dear leader  from both lesser staff and elected representatives.

And so, it is utterly unsurprising that many of these media critics now decry the apparent  existence of so-called “enemies lists” prepared, at the PMO’s insistence, for new members of Stephen Harper’s cabinet.

But then, given their suspicions about this government, what were they expecting?

An email from the PMO on which the CBC and a variety if other media have laid their paws stipulated “Who to avoid: bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer” as well as “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders.”

Reported the CBC, “The request for a list of problematic bureaucrats was subsequently dropped, according to another email sent a few hours later on July 4. The person who leaked the emails said that when some staff balked at the idea of coming up with the blacklists, they were cut off from further communications about the matter.

“The person also said staff were given examples of stakeholders that could go on the ‘enemies list’ and they included environmental groups, non-profit organizations, and civic and industry associations with views different than the government’s.”

Those who remain decidedly unflustered by the revelations are all who, quite reasonably, expect to find their names on the lists. “I wasn’t surprised but I continue to be disappointed that stakeholders like environmentalists are considered enemies rather than stakeholders who are trying to pursue important issues,” The Sierra Club of Canada’s John Bennett told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

Indeed, according to the public broadcaster, “He said if some ministers were more ‘mature’ they would understand how democracy really works and that all perspectives should be considered when making decisions.”

Said Bennett: “They don’t believe in democracy the way we do, which is an exchange of ideas and debate and try to come up with reasonable solutions. They believe in forcing ideology and if you’re forcing ideology on the Canadian public then you see people like me as an enemy and that’s unfortunate.”

Still, even this observation seems broadly naive, and not a little reflexive.

Whether or not they publicly admit it, all governments maintain some version of an enemies list. They’d be astonishingly dense, even irresponsible, if they didn’t. The tool is a useful instrument in the mix of plans and priorities that guide public decision making. Imagine a civil administration without credible intelligence about who is for and against it: feckless, at worst; chaotic, at best.

Having a list, and checking it twice, does not automatically render a government undemocratic. What does is abuse of power.

If authorities savagely curtail press freedoms, round up their “enemies” and throw them in jail without due process of law, vastly expand the definition of sedition, and lock the doors of Parliament. . .well, then we have something about which to truly fret.

What’s different about this government – specifically, the PMO – is its historically bloated size, its abnormally youthful composition, and its fondness for deploying inflammatory language in its internal communications.

Reliable media sources have told me that the average age at the PMO is something like 33. Contrastingly, the average age among political news staff at the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star is closer to 50 – old enough to remember the Pentagon papers and Watergate era, when the term “enemies list” was first coined in the wreckage of the terminal Nixon Administration.

Had the character of the PMO not borrowed so heavily from the X-Box, flaming-at-will, unfiltered social networking generation, this utterly meaningless contretemps would not have developed the muscular legs it now has.

Politics is nothing if not about friends and enemies. Sometimes, your friends become your enemies. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Keeping track of them all is the job description of every political staffer, regardless of his or her age.

So is exercising circumspection when the occasion to flap his or her gums arrives. Perhaps, that should be the subject of the next memo the PMO writes, under the subject field: note to self!

The shuffling of deck chairs

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper has installed eight new smiles, and plenty of old ones, to greet him at this year’s Conservative Party’s national policy convention, which falls, thanks to the gods of irony, on Halloween.

But Canadians need not wait for the pagan holiday to appreciate the dimension of change the new federal cabinet heralds. The tricks and the treats have been in the works for months; certainly, ever since public opinion polls started granting the youthful, would-be usurper, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, a commanding lead over dear, old Father Harper.

Following the swearing in on Monday, the PM described his shuffle thusly: “I think this is a good mixture of some young and promising talent we have in our caucus and some experienced hands. . .This fall, the government will move ahead with a renewed policy agenda set forward in a speech from the throne. . .And our new agenda will have new faces to bring it forward. The team Canadians elected. . .is deep and it is talented.”

Indeed, it is. It’s also huge – 39 cabinet ministers, in all, will sally forth across the land, preaching the virtues of small government to increasingly skeptical audiences who have, by now, grown accustomed to political spin masquerading as plain speech.

Still, the appointees, themselves, are auspicious picks. Comprising the cohort of newbies are: Chris Alexander, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration; Michelle Rempel,  Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification; Shelly Glover, Heritage Minister; Candice Bergen, Minister of State for Social Development; Kellie Leitch, Minister of Labour, Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology; Kevin Sorenson, Minister of State for Finance; and Pierre Poilievre, Minister of Democratic Reform

Standing sturdily, right where they were, are Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, International Trade Minister Ed Fast and Treasury Board President Tony Clement. Meanwhile, some old standbys are moving on, including Peter MacKay, former Defence Minister, who assumes the Justice portfolio.

The question, of course, is what, if anything, do these personnel changes say about the promised “renewed policy agenda.” Many of the federal government’s signature plans and priorities have been stuck in neutral for more than a year.

Trade talks with the Europeans are going nowhere. Relations with Washington remain cordial, but cool. Keystone is but a wish to be contemplated. The new fighter jet project is all but grounded. And, despite Mr. Flaherty’s and his central bank’s best efforts, the Canadian economy, has not rebounded in convincing fashion from the downturns of the past decade.

These items crowd the list of the old agenda, and they are not going away. They are, in fact, the baggage Mr. Harper and his new cabinet must haul during the scant years before the next general election. Worse, the signs that Canadians are increasingly weary of having to watch their elected members carry this burden from one committee room to another, from one public announcement to another, are plentiful.

“A new poll shows the federal Liberals continue to pound the Conservatives, with Canadians saying for the first time leader Justin Trudeau would make a better prime minister then Stephen Harper,” The Montreal Gazette reported in June. “According to a new Léger Marketing poll, 27 per cent of Canadians now think Trudeau would be a better prime minister than Harper, who has a score of 23 per cent. New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair is seen as the best prime minister by 14 per cent. It’s the first time Léger has reached such a polling conclusion since Trudeau took over the party April 14, said Léger vice-president Christian Bourque. ‘It’s the Trudeau phenomenon,’ said Bourque. ‘In our polling it’s the first time that he’s. . .ahead of Stephen Harper.’”

If the prime minister hopes to improve his party’s standing among Canadians, he would be wise to grant both old and new faces around the cabinet table greater authority to offer fresh, even independent, perspectives on the issues that, for the moment, fall within their purview only titularly.

That would be the neatest trick, and a welcome treat, at this year’s Halloween policy gala.

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