Tag Archives: Government of Canada

For once, a great notion

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Astoundingly, the federal and provincial governments in Atlantic Canada are getting out of their own way and forging a rational, relevant and thoroughly reasonable accord designed to improve both job prospects and economic development in the region for years to come.

And no, bitter winter weather aside, hell is not freezing over.

Witness last week’s announcement of an $8-million joint program (cost-shared between the feds, who are ponying up $4.3 million and the four Atlantic provinces, who will contribute $3.5 million) to promote trades training and apprenticeships and remove educational and labour market barriers that prevent employers and workers from finding  true, wedded, occupational bliss together.

“What’s happening now (is), in essence, we have four provinces doing their own thing virtually doing the same thing,” Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil told The Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

That’s got to go, said federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney at a news conference in Fredericton last week: “We need to break down the unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy that exists to people getting their apprenticeships done and to getting their journeyman ticketed status so they can actually be full journeymen on the job sites and moving around to where the work is.”

In practice, the program will harmonize training, certifications and standards across the region in 10 trades, starting with cook, instrumentation and control technician, bricklayer and construction electrician. The rest will follow in due course, and not a moment too soon.

For decades, certain parts of Canada have been enduring a steady erosion in the number of skilled tradespeople on the job. Where once being a cabinet maker or plumber was considered a thoroughly viable career choice, we somehow got it into our heads that, as Mr. Kenny so aptly states, “everyone just had to go to university. . . We stopped encouraging people to pursue vocational and technical trades in our  high schools.”

In recent years, the pendulum has begun to swing back. According to careersintrades.ca “the wage gap between workers with bachelor degrees and trade certificates is declining.  Between 2000 and 2011, the average weekly wages of full-time workers aged 25 to 34 with trades certificates grew by 14 per cent, while bachelor degree holders saw their wage growth slow to 1per cent. And, apprentices begin to make money right away, earning a wage from their first day at work.”

And yet, according to Rick Spence, business columnist, writing in the Financial Post last year, “Studies cited by Skills Canada, a federally supported organization dedicated to trades and apprenticeships, indicate 40 per cent of new jobs in he coming decade will be in skilled trades or technology (think computer animation, network support, etc.). “

Meanwhile, in guidance offices and family dining rooms, the song remains the same: just 26 per cent of young people aged 13 to 24 plan to consider a career in the skilled trades, with 59 per cent of youths saying their parents have not encouraged them to consider the trades as a career option.”

Given the coming demographic changes – the last cohort of baby boomers retiring (we’ll see about that, of course), dropping birth rates, and a steady-state universe for immigrants – a country with an increasingly light supply of people who can actually make things, like toilets, work invites a whole new set of productivity problems not yet imagined in chambers where bankers and economists chatter about national competitiveness.

Indeed, as Mr. Kenney observed, “We have a lot of tradesmen, the guys and ladies who literally built the the country, who are about to start retiring. We have a much smaller group of people to fill their shoes.”

It is refreshing, like a blast of Arctic air, to hear politicians of any stripe, from any level, talk pragmatically about issues into which they are willing to invest some expertise and over which they are prepared to exert some control – and all for the common good.

It is heartening to watch them put their heads together, work out their problems logically and calmly and, when the day’s work is done, unveil the big reveal.

Why, it’s almost as if some of them went to trade school.

Well. . .almost.

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All our spies have come in from the cold

The light of democracy is dimming

The light of democracy is dimming

Former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden’s suggestion that this country’s espionage establishment colluded, perhaps illegally, with its U.S. counterpart to spy on allied nations – in peace time, away from the mayhem of battle, during the G20 summit in Toronto – is troubling.

But no more than what appears to be a growing consensus of reaction in Canada, as we trip over the shards of our democracy to pat ourselves on the back for our newfound swagger: good, old guts and glory to the rescue.

“If it wasn’t for our laws, and police forces and military employed to enforce those laws, the world as we know it would implode on itself,” a letter writer to a recent edition of The Globe and Mail observes. “To be able to monitor and catch the bad guys, we have to know what they’re doing and thinking. Of course we are going to spy. The bad guys are spying on us.”

Against which, this corner of the peanut gallery offers no argument. Only a complete naif would suggest otherwise. The distressing bit comes in the next sentence: “The media should be praising Canada for allowing the U.S. to spy. How else can we keep the world sane and without violence?”

Once upon a time in this country and in others, polite company considered spying on one’s friends to be. . .well, impolite, especially if such surveillance was also explicitly illegal. (The Government of Canada, it should be noted, denies any of this sort of wrongdoing). The whole cloak-and-dagger business, while a necessary evil, wasn’t something about which to crow like a cockerel in heat.

We were proud of our diplomats who helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We were proud of our prime ministers, such as Lester Pearson who was instrumental in creating United Nation Peacekeeping. We were proud of our scientists, engineers, teachers, and environmentalists; of our clergy, philosophers and writers. From time to time, we were even proud of our politicians – those who were able to muster the courage to shatter the status quo in the interests of a more civil society.

We certainly weren’t proud of the means by which our clandestine operatives obtained the ends of their shadowy missions either abroad or at home.

Times, however, have changed. They have become more discernibly black and white, as the once vast grey zone of dialogue, discourse, negotiation and conciliation in politics has vanished as utterly as has the middle class in society.

Today, we we are forced to choose between good and evil, rich and poor, criminals and victims, strength and weakness, resistance and compliance, national pride and wobbly thinking in the loathsome salons of the liberal elite.

Today, in this country, loose, unapproved talk about defending the environment from the depredations of a careless commercial sector – once a splendid exercise in participatory democracy – is tantamount to treason, punishable by several lashes of a government official’s tongue.

The oil must flow as surely as the pipelines must be built. As for the safety and security of the communities through which we send our dirty crude, leave that to the men in charge. They know best.

Today, from this country, international affairs gets bundled and exported to the world as a byproduct of something called “economic diplomacy”.

Gone is the emphasis on poverty reduction, human rights, child welfare and disease control. Welcome a new, golden age of liberalized trade for Canadian companies seeking to plant their corporate staffs in emerging markets, including those of China and India, Russia and Brazil.

Through these adventurous small and medium-sized businesses, Canada will achieve the greatness it so richly deserves and could never hope to acquire under any other sort of government than one that truly understands the prideful heart that beats strong and true in the breast of all “real” Canadians – those who, let’s just say, do not vote for Hollywood-handsome, marijuana-smoking mop-tops.

In this fresh impression of the cosmos, Canada’s spy agencies are not cabals of itinerant villains; they are chambers of patriots and heroes, as long as the information they obtain about our “friends” continues to elevates the nation’s interest.

And, apparently, by any means necessary.

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Courting the world as the homefront crumbles

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Say what you will about the federal Conservative government’s evolving conception of international affairs, at least it has one. Far less clear are its notions about more humdrum, though no less crucial, matters of domestic tranquility.

News reports earlier this week confirmed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will roll out an entirely new approach to foreign policy – one that makes something called “economic diplomacy” the centerpiece of his government’s efforts overseas.

In fact, this Global Markets Action Plan is merely a refurbished version of the Global Commerce Strategy, established in 2007 to, according to a government website, “respond to changes in the global economy and position Canada for long-term prosperity. . .(in). . .13 priority markets around the world where Canadian opportunities and interests had the greatest potential for growth.”

Wednesday’s edition of The Globe and Mail quotes selectively from the new plan, which directs federal officials, including senior members of the Tory caucus, to “entrench the concept of ‘economic diplomacy’ as the driving force behind the Government of Canada’s activities through its international diplomatic network.”

Indeed, deploying the trenchant language of public service memo writers in times of war, the report insists that “all diplomatic assets of the Government of Canada will be marshalled on behalf of the private sector.”

For those who cling to the idea that non-commercial interests – such as humanitarian assistance, poverty reduction, human rights, health and safety, and education – should guide Canada’s foreign policy and that multilateral collaboration is the only effective instrument with which to pursue these objectives, the shift in thinking at Foreign Affairs is a disaster.

For those who believe, however, that expanding the reach of the country’s businesses, particularly the small and medium-sized ones, is the most productive way to inculcate Canadian values and make the world safe for our particular brand of capitalist democracy (which may just be one of the more transparent oxymorons in the contemporary lexicon), economic diplomacy is a triumph of pragmatism.

Still, regardless of one’s opinion of the plan, we can all agree on at least one thing: it’s a real platform from which to tell the world that Canada is open for business. Then again, how are we doing on the homefront?

No less an authority than Canada’s Auditor-General, Michael Ferguson, worries about that kind of thing every day. His latest report, out this week, unwittingly raises troubling counterpoints to the ones our new economic diplomats proudly propagate. To wit: We may be ready to take the world by storm, but can we fix what’s broken in our own backyard?

On everything from food and transportation safety to border security, Mr. Ferguson finds the current office holders in Ottawa severely lacking in vision.

On food, the A-G report, declared, “There are weaknesses in the Canada Food Inspection Agency’s (CIFA) follow-up activities after a product has been removed from the marketplace. The CFIA did not have the documentation it is required to collect to verify that recalling firms had appropriately disposed of recalled products or taken timely actions to identify and correct the underlying cause of the recall to reduce the likelihood of a food safety issue reoccurring.”

About rail safety, the audit observed, “Despite the fact that federal railways were required 12 years ago to implement safety management systems for managing their safety risks and complying with safety requirements, Transport Canada has yet to establish an audit approach that provides a minimum level of assurance that federal railways have done so. While it has done a few audits of those systems, most of the audits it did were too narrowly focused and provided assurance on only a few aspects of SMSs. At the rate at which the Department is conducting focused audits, it will take many years to audit all the key components of SMS regulations, including key safety systems of each of the 31 federal railways.”

As for border security, Mr. Ferguson said simply that “systems and practices for collecting, monitoring, and assessing information to prevent the illegal entry of people into Canada are often not working as intended. As a result, some people who pose a risk to Canadians’ safety and security have succeeded in entering the country illegally.”

It’s all very well to court the world’s commercial movers and shakers.

But what, one wonders, will they find should they ever return the favour and put down stakes in our own home and native land?

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How to fight the good fight, especially when it’s wrong

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Those picket-line-protesters who may worry that their shoe leather will wear out before the shale gas industry’s resolve does should cheer up after reviewing a World Trade Organization (WTO) decision this week – a decision some are calling a victory for the hard-scrabbling, morally superior little guy.

Of course, it is hardly that.

The WTO has simply upheld the European Union’s (EU) 2009 ban on imported seal products (meat, pelts, oil, etc.), which affects Canada most among the world’s pinniped-hunting nations (a small club that includes Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Namibia).

In its ruling, the organization allowed that while the prohibition probably violates at least the spirit of impartiality in global trade, it nonetheless “fulfills the objective of addressing EU public moral concerns on seal welfare to a certain extent.” What’s more, it added, “no alternative measure was demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution to the fulfillment of the objective.”

In other words, consumers’ decidedly non-commercial interests can and do trump those, however legitimate, of producers, either small or large.

That’s good news to all the assorted rebels with various causes among us, though, naturally, none of this is sitting well with the federal government or Canadian sealers who are screaming about the dirty they’ve been done at the hands of a powerful, disingenuous protest lobby.

In a statement from Ed Fast, Minister for International Trade, Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment, and Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, the trio declared, “On February 11, 2011, our government requested the establishment of a World Trade Organization dispute settlement panel to challenge the European Union’s unfair ban on seal products in order to stand up for Canadian sealers and to vigorously defend the interests of Canada’s Inuit and Indigenous communities.

“The WTO panel confirmed Canada’s long-standing position that the EU ban is discriminatory and treats Canadian seal products unfairly. However, the panel also took the view that such a ban can be justified due to some of the public’s concerns regarding seal harvesting. Canada remains steadfast in its position that the seal harvest is a humane, sustainable and well-regulated activity. Any views to the contrary are based on myths and misinformation, and the Panel’s findings should be of concern to all WTO members.”

The government, of course, promises it will press on with an appeal. But, realistically, this battle is over. The Harper government is not likely to threaten the stability of its freshly minted European trade agreement over an industry that generates few economic benefits for citizens who live south of the 60th parallel – i.e., most Canadians.

All of which provides several object lessons for less mature social agitations, the first of which is that the “facts” at one’s disposal need not actually be true.

The trick to winning hearts and minds in the seal debate was always steadfastly ensuring that the message of carnage and cruelty on the ice floes was front and centre and before the public. Even after the industry effectively cleaned up its act (to the degree that any mass predation can be absolved of moral ambiguity), the message never changed, a fact which truly bugged even some ardent environmental pioneers.

“We have to be logical,” Jacques Cousteau reportedly once said. “We have to aim our activity first to the endangered species. Those who are moved by the plight of the harp seal could also be moved by the plight of the pig – the way they are slaughtered is horrible.”

The second lesson is that celebrities can vastly enhance a movement’s credibility.

In 2006, Paul McCartney and his then-wife Heather Mills, took Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams – who was linked to the show via a scratchy phone connection – to task over the annual cull. They called him by his first name and beseeched him, several times, to stop the killing. They were wrong on every account, every statement of fact. But, it didn’t matter. Subsequent polling showed that, in the eyes of the average viewer, they’d won the debate.

Was this sensible? Was this reasonable?

Who cares?

All’s fair in love, war and on the picket lines.

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Who watches the watchers?

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The mind of The Great White Spook is more scrutable today than it was merely a week ago. But only a shade, and only thanks to the whistle-blowing of a certain, former National Security Agency (NSA) operative now on the lam in Russia.

Edward Snowdon’s data dump of super secret NSA documents on American scrivener Glenn Greenwald and his associates now implicates Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), which was, until recently, tucked safely behind an opaque veil.

In the spy world, Canada has never commanded much more authority than a handmaid in the U.S. and British intelligence establishment (or so “they” would have us believe). The news, this week, out of Brazil puts paid to that quaint conceit.

“Brazil’s flagship Fantastico investigative program on the Globo television network revealed leaked documents suggesting that Communications Security Establishment Canada has spied on computers and smartphones affiliated with Brazil’s mining and energy ministry in a bid to gain economic intelligence,” the Globe and Mail reported on Monday.

“The report. . .includes frames of a CSEC-earmarked presentation that was apparently shared with the United States and other allies in June, 2012. . .The presentation. . .rhetorically asks ‘How can I use the information available in SIGINT [signals-intelligence] data sources to learn about the target?’ before delving into specific hacking techniques.”

Former intelligence officials were quick to dismiss the report. Ray Boisvert, an ex-director general of counter-terrorism for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told the National Post that there wasn’t much up-side in crawling through Brazil’s underwear drawer.

“Like any crime drama, you look for capability and intent,” he said. “Could CSEC do Brazil? Of course, it has significant capability to collect intelligence in the national interest. But on motive, you come up way short. If it was Iran, nobody would be surprised. But this is Brazil. I’m really short on motive.”

Perhaps, but the point is not whether Canada is poking its nose into places where its nose doesn’t belong; it’s whether it can. An even more interesting question is what prevents CSEC from doing just about anything it likes in the name of national interest and domestic security.

On June 27, the organization modified the content of its website, though it’s not clear how or where. Still, the spy agency describes its mandate, thusly: “To acquire and use information from the global information infrastructure for the purpose of providing foreign intelligence, in accordance with Government of Canada intelligence priorities;

to provide advice, guidance and services to help ensure the protection of electronic information and of information infrastructures of importance to the Government of Canada; to provide technical and operational assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies in the performance of their lawful duties.”

As for its role, CSEC declares that it is “unique within Canada’s security and intelligence community” as it “employs code-makers and code-breakers to provide the Government of Canada with information technology security (IT Security) and foreign signals intelligence (SIGINT) services.” The latter assists “government decision-making in the fields of national security, national defence and foreign policy. These functions “relate exclusively to foreign intelligence and are directed by the Government of Canada’s intelligence priorities.”

Nothing in the public record suggests that one of these prime concerns is a policy – official or otherwise – of conducting commercial espionage against our league of friendly nations, of which Brazil is a stellar member.

The Government of Canada’s own website happily declares that this country is  “priority market. . .It is a major economic player, not just in South America, but also globally, as our 11th largest trading partner.. . Bilateral trade has increased by more than 25 per cent over the last five years, reaching $6.6 billion in 2012. . .Canadian exports to Brazil were $2.6 billion. . .In 2012, Brazil was the 7th highest source of foreign direct investment in Canada, with $15.8 billion in cumulative stocks. Brazil was the 12th largest recipient of Canadian direct investment abroad, with $9.8 billion of cumulative stock invested as of year‑end 2012. Some 500 Canadian companies are active in Brazil (over 50 in the mining sector alone).”

As CSEC’s just-retired head, John Adams, tells CBC News, it’s not a bad idea that, henceforth, the agency receives a little more parliamentary oversight than it has in the past.

After all, he says, “We have got capability that is unique to this country. No one else has it.”

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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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