Tag Archives: Stephen Harper

It’s spring and “partitioning” is in the air

If Montreal becomes  a city state, can Toronto be far behind?

If Montreal becomes a city state, can Toronto be far behind?

In a sort of geopolitical shot-gun wedding officiated by the former Soviet KGB station chief and current oligarch-in-residence Vladimir Putin, Crimeans voted on Sunday to split from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

Amid the turrets and waving barrels of Kalashnikov-toting “military observers” Moscow and environs, the result was better than 95 per cent in favour, which drew howls of derision from Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, whose own approval in this country rating has rarely tracked above 40 per cent.

“The so-called referendum. . . was conducted with Crimea under illegal military occupation,” he said in a statement. “Its results are a reflection of nothing more than Russian military control. Any solution to this crisis must respect the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine as well as the constitution of Ukraine. Mr. Putin’s reckless and unilateral actions will lead only to Russia’s further economic and political isolation from the international community.”

That’s pretty tough talk coming from a head of state with virtually no navy of which to speak (Meanwhile, Russia, which has evinced great interest in Canada’s north polar territories, maintains a fleet of 210 warships and 70 submarines. . .just. . .you know. . .food for thought).

Still, Mr. Harper has a point. The Crimean vote bears all the outward signs of a well-organized sham – least among them, perhaps, is Johannes Hubner’s endorsement of it. 

The member of Austria’s reactionary Freedom Party told The Globe and Mail, “I would say this election doesn’t seem to be less legitimate than the elections in Ukraine before. We see no signs of intimidation, no signs of a breach of security. We have seen Cossacks and militias standing around polling stations, but no one interferes.”

No, there’d be no need; now would there?

Political leaders in Canada are far less adept at overt intimidation than their Russian counterparts. But, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, spring is nearly upon us and partitioning is in the air, even here in the torpid Great White North.

As if Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ determination to yank the errant strand of separation that runs through her distinct society like a loose threat weren’t enough to try  a federalist’s patience, now comes word about some Montrealers’ plans for their fair metropolis, lately besieged by crumbling overpasses, trembling bureaucrats and overbearing mob bosses.

In a February 27 post, MTL Blog editor Michael Michael D’Alimonte, “a self-proclaimed nerd and genius (who) loves all things Whedon and Batman-related,” outlined “10 Reasons Why Montreal Should Become A City State”,  pointing out that “Montreal as a city state is not a lofty concept.”  

In fact, his research borrows heavily from some actual high-concept work done by Montreal consultant, lecturer and author Michel David, who heads the group, Reinvent Montreal. Its proposed charter, “Montreal City State: Canada’s Entrepreneurial Hub” states that “the island of Montreal and the rest of Quebec (ROQ) are two distinct societies on three fundamental dimensions:  

“Society. . .ROQ is homogeneous; Montral is multi-ethnic, 51 per cent non-French, 80 different ethnic groups. 

“Culture. . .ROQ is local, the group comes first; Montreal is cosmopolitan, primacy is to the individual. 

“Economy. . .ROQ is driven by natural resources and agriculture; Montreal, like most major cities, is driven by networks of commerce and knowledge.  

“Seventy percent of Montrealers and Quebecers agree that Montreal is different from the rest of the province in the way business is conducted, its interaction with the provincial government, the priorities it has as a region and the way it governs itself as a city.”

Apparently, these differences – and the fact that the Province of Quebec is mired in debt and keeps making dumb decisions about language rights and religious freedoms  – are deep enough to justify Montreal kicking it Singapore style.

“Around the world,” the charter insists, “there are numerous examples of cities/regions that have the status and the responsibilities to create high performance economic centers; for example: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Berlin, Hamburg, New York.”

It’s enough to make you wonder: If he were mayor of Montreal, what would dear, old Vlad do? 

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Wooing the middle-class voter

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With all the strength and stridency his office demanded of him, the second coming of Pierre Elliot Trudeau – specifically, his eldest son Justin, a la the “just society” of three decades ago – importuned the assembled Liberal faithful at the Party’s conference this past weekend to embrace and fully engage the Canadian middle class. 

And that immediately raised a question: Which middle class?

Just as the charismatic Grit leader bemoaned the fact that “middle-class Canadians struggle to balance their cheque books” a formerly confidential government report (made public through an Access to Information request by Canadian Press) resonantly declared that “the Canadian dream is a myth more than a reality.”

In fact, its conclusions “point to a middle class that isn’t growing in the marketplace, is increasingly indebted though it has a relatively modest standard of living, and is less likely to move to higher income (i.e., the middle class is no springboard to higher incomes).”

Other findings include:

“Over 1993-2007, there has been a slight hollowing out of the middle class, and the face of the middle class has changed considerably. Couples without young children and unattached individuals now account for most middle-class families.”

Meanwhile, “although middle-income families experienced a good progression in after-tax income, the same cannot be said of their earnings. In particular, the wages of middle-income workers have stagnate.”

Then, there’s that whole golden-goose phenomenon in which, it seems, the more money you manage to earn today, the more likely you will continue to comfortably line your pockets in the future.

“Although the middle class holds a relatively fair share of the ‘wealth pie’, higher-income families have far greater nest eggs,” the report observes. “Furthermore, wealth is not equally divided among middle-income families, with those headed by younger individuals being at a disadvantage.”

Finally, middle earners in this country are spendthrifts who burn through more than they bring in, “mortgaging their futures” with cheap and easy credit “to sustain their current consumption.”

Under the circumstances, it only make senses that all three major federal parties are obsessed with the middle class; with its welfare, its return to strength, its re-invigoration. After all, the storied bourgeoisie made this country what it is today?

Well, didn’t it?

“My priority is the Canadians who built this country: the middle class, not the political class,” thunders Mr. Trudeau in one recent ad.

Adds his nemesis, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, “Today, our country faces levels of income inequality not seen since the Great Depression, and the middle class is struggling like never before. Middle-class wages are consistently on the decline. Yet the Conservative solution is to demand even more from you and to leave even less to our children and our grandchildren.”

Poppy-cock, the Tories rejoin. They remain singularly fixated on the condition of Canadian “families” to which they say they are committed with their “low-tax plan and measures to help sustain a higher quality of life for hard-working Canadians.”

Of course, the problem with all of this is that, these days, just about everyone calls himself a member of the middle class. So, targeting the message, at least politically, is getting trickier.

One member of your audience may draw a salary of $40,000 a year and another, $80,000. Technically, they both qualify for membership in the middle class (a membership that, increasingly, promises few privileges).

But their experiences and circumstances – their very diversity thanks to decades of neo-liberal and neo-conservative attacks on government protections, prudent market regulation and labour unions – have rendered them utterly unalike.

While one toils at a boutique design studio that offers full-time hours and pretty good benefits, the other owns a craft shop and pays through the nose for private health insurance. The former is a wobbly centre-right Conservative; the latter is a raging lefty with a bone to pick.

To whom do Messrs. Trudeau, Mulcair and Harper address themselves when they go stumping about the country squawking about the  struggling wage earner of moderate means?

The middle class is no longer the monolithically predictable, ideologically stable voting block it once was. Those in office who entertain hopes of remaining their would do well to remember that.

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Exporting Canada’s bad boy image

No one's coming up smelling like roses these days

No one’s coming up smelling like roses these days

If I didn’t know better, I might say a certain collusion is afoot in the Great White North, where our national reputation was once as pristine as the driven snow.

Consider a few dispatches from the world press last week:

“(Justin) Bieber posted bail of $2,500 US, and faces charges of driving under the influence, driving with an invalid licence, and resisting arrest without violence after being stopped while ‘drag racing’ in a residential neighbourhood,” the CBC reported. “His rented, yellow Lamborghini was impounded.”

According to the arresting officer’s official report, which tweeted faster than a song bird in heat on Thursday, “I caught up to the yellow Lamborgini (sic) and initiated a traffic stop. . .I approached the vehicle on the driver side. I asked the driver to place the vehicle in park. At this time, the driver began to state, ‘Why did you stop me?’ I explained to the driver that he was stopped because he was drag racing with (another) Lamborgini (sic). I immediately smelled an odor of alcohol eminating (sic) from the driver’s breath and bloodshot eyes. The driver had slow deliberate movements and a stuper (sic) look on his face. These are all indicators of an impaired driver. I asked the driver to exit the vehicle. . .The driver stated, ‘Why the (expletive) are you doing this?’”

Meanwhile, back at the barn in good, old Hog Town, Burgermeister Bob was up to his old tricks. According to the Toronto Star, “Mayor Rob Ford was off the wagon at an Etobicoke steak joint this week, impaired and rambling, associating with accused video extortionist Alexander ‘Sandro’ Lisi and hurling profane, expletive-laden insults at Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair. . .’(Expletive) Chief Blair,’ Ford says in a videotape made at approximately 1 a.m. Tuesday. ‘They chase me around for five months. . .You know how much that costs?”

Later in the week, the Star’s Robyn Doolittle reported, “A couple hundred suits who’d gathered at the Hilton Toronto on Thursday afternoon grumbled quietly to each other about the mayor’s extreme tardiness. Rob Ford’s speech to the Economic Club of Canada was supposed to start at noon, but when he was still a no-show 45 minutes later, an entire table got up to leave. . .The mayor was an hour late for his speech.

‘We were stuck in an elevator,’ his spokesperson Amin Massoudi insisted.”

The question for the conspiratorially minded among us is, of course, are these separate and unrelated events or are they, rather, strategically conjoined displays of bad behavior designed to promote Canada’s new and improved tough guy image abroad? And if the latter is the case, who’s pulling the strings?

More questions swirl:

Is it really mere coincidence, dear reader, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has campaigned vigorously over the past year for a national hardline reset on everything from environmental rules and regulations to foreign policy just as Messrs. Bieber and Ford began to act out?

The former has 48,996,563 twitter followers. The PM has a mere 408,102. If you were him (Mr. Harper, that is), whose social media presence would you count on to  popularize the message that we Canadians are, in fact, bat-guano crazy?

Former federal Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae doesn’t go down conspiracy row with any sort of aplomb, but he made some excellent points this past summer in his political blog on Huffington Post, to wit:

“Canada has become the classic practitioner of megaphone policy. . .We have the megaphone, the Prime Minister telling the American President in his own country that ‘he won’t take no for an answer’ on Keystone, John Baird . . .expressing skepticism but having no information and no knowledge to assess what is actually happening in Tehran. In my recent travels and discussions with seasoned foreign policy experts and politicians in the U.S. and Europe, I haven’t met one who took Canada seriously anymore, except as a posturer, a poseur, a political game player.”

Oh, I don’t know about that. The stridently hawkish Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to think we’re pretty swell.

Then again, he may may also think that a country’s international reputation can only benefit from blanket coverage of its boozy mayors and sloshed, foul-mouthed post-adolescent superstars.

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How a Canadian senator goes down swinging

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They will not go gently into that soft night, after all. They will scream and blame and, if they have anything to say about it, they will destroy those who set out to destroy them.

That’s what happens when former broadcast journalists turned semi-disgraced Canadian senators have nothing left to lose.

Mike Duffy had his day in the spotlight earlier this week when he declared before an assembly of his Upper Chamber colleagues in Ottawa:

“Like you, I took an solemn oath to put the interests of Canadians ahead of all else. However, the sad truth is I allowed myself to be intimidated into doing what I knew in my heart was wrong, out of a fear of losing my job and out a misguided sense of loyalty. . .Let me repeat, Deloitte investigated, their audit of my expenses related to my home in P.E.I., did not find wrongdoing. They said I had not broken the Senate’s rules.”

As for the vote to suspend him, he added, “This motion is something one might expect to see in Iraq or Iran, or in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but not in democratic Canada. It is not, I repeat, fundamental justice.”

He reserved his choicest criticism for the Prime Minister’s Office: “Today, you have an opportunity to stand strong and use your power to restrain the unaccountable power of the PMO. That’s what this Senate’s about, sober second thought, not taking dictation from kids in short pants down the hall.”

Then it came Pamela Wallin’s turn.

“The motion to suspend me is baseless and premature, and likely beyond the scope of this chamber,” she told senators. “By throwing a member of this Senate under the bus, finding her guilty without a fair hearing such as any other Canadian could expect – a right guaranteed us by the Charter – to proceed without the evidence having been adduced and considered on which the charge in the motion is based – is a fundamental affront to Canadian democracy – and makes a mockery of this chamber.”

Then out came the fangs.

“One of the senators who sits in judgment of all of us, who had her sights trained on me from the beginning, Senator Stewart-Olsen, has recently had questions raised about her own probity in relation to her residential expense claims,” she crowed. “But of course there will be no Deloitte audit in her case. Apparently, the Committee on Internal Economy, of which she has long been a member, intends to consider her matter in private. This is a double standard – she gets kid glove treatment and I’m unfairly singled out for a retroactive audit.”

At the heart of all of this, Wallin declared, was simple, ugly, professional jealousy.

“She (Sen. Stewart-Olsen) and Marjory LeBreton (former Conservative Senate leader) could not abide the fact that I was outspoken in caucus, or critical of their leadership – or that my level of activity brought me into the public eye and once garnered the praise of the prime minister. They resented that – they resented me being an activist senator. In this chamber, Senator Marjory LeBreton derided me, accusing me of having an inflated view of my role.”

This is how a three-ring circus becomes a bout of bare knuckle mixed martial arts – the finest display of senatorial cage fighting since the Red Chamber last updated its rules of residency some time in the 19th century.

As for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the message is simple: Bad behaviour by elected or appointed representatives will not be tolerated. Period. End of discussion. So sayest Dad: “The victims here are the CanadIan people who expect from all parliamentarians that they will treat pubic money with the appropriate respect and integrity it deserves.”

It remains to be seen, of course, how much more bad behaviour will be  uncovered  – or covered up, as the case may be – in the Senate and the PMO.

It’s all very well to rage against the dying of the light, until you realize the lights on Parliament Hill went out a long time ago.

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The Canadian Senate sends in its clowns

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The federal Conservative government’s point man in the Senate now hopes to preserve the “dignity and integrity” of the Red Chamber by forcing three of its members, who have not yet been charged with the crime of expense-fiddling, to take a long, unpaid hike off a short pier.

Senators Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau are, apparently, an affront to this august body, where near-lifetime tenures proceed at the pleasure of the sitting prime minister and regional “representation” is a function of Victorian-era definitions of residency.

Still, says Tory Senate leader Claude Carignan, off with their heads.

Hear, hear, agrees his Liberal counterpart James Cowan: Suspend the rascals and be quick about it.

“It’s not a Liberal, a Conservative or an Independent (thing),” Sen. Carignan told The Toronto Star last week. Referring to Sen. Duffy, he said, “(Here’s) a senator that . . . didn’t respect the dignity and the rules of the senate. . .It’s not a question of money. It’s a question of gross misconduct. . .It’s a very severe sanction but I think it’s appropriate.”

Added Sen. Cowan: “I certainly have no sympathy for those three senators who we found deliberately breached what were clear rules and were ordered to pay significant amounts of money back. We need to take disciplinary action. These were not simple mistakes, bookkeeping errors. There was, the Senate found, a deliberate attempt to abuse the rules.”

The accused and their legal eagles say exactly the opposite is true.

According to The Canadian Press this week, Sen. Duffy’s lawyer, Donald Bayne, “spent nearly an hour (on Monday) alleging how Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s staff and key Conservative senators developed a scheme to have Duffy take the fall for wrongdoing that even they agreed he had not committed.”

What’s more, the news wire reported, “Five allegations emerged from Monday’s event.” Among these: “Government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton allegedly told Duffy in a letter that residency is not clearly defined in the Senate’s rules. . .Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s former chief of staff, allegedly told Duffy in an email last December that he had not broken any rules in relation to his housing expenses.”

Declared Bayne: “The whole political decision-making about this has been a fiasco. . .From the get-go, rather than letting the truth out, that there are flaws in the Senate system and rules, it’s the old story. The cover-up is always more damaging than the original issue.”

It’s hard to know who to watch, let alone whom to find credible, in this three-ring circus. One assumes that the serious deliberations the Senate is supposed to undertake as a large part of its official function are underway somewhere behind the curtain. But, it’s safe to say that “sober second-thinking” are not words most Canadians would associate with the Upper Chamber these days.

All of which leaves reform-minded parliamentarians in something of a quandary: How do they reconstitute the Senate and restore its reputation without appearing to admit that Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau are, in fact, victims, rather than opportunists. The rush to judge the individuals involved now seems calculated more to uphold the principle of honesty in public office untethered from the institutional context – a context that may well be so fundamentally flawed that technical breeches of the rules are, under even normal circumstances, almost inevitable.

Summary suspensions, at this point, are patently unjust. They are, naturally, politically expedient courses of action. But they won’t address what is, almost certainly, a much bigger problem in the Senate. It’s a problem to which Conservative Senator Hugh Segal alluded in an interview with CBC Nnews last week.

“The notion that we would move to a sentencing process, which this motion is. . .is just completely unfair and a violation of every principle of fairness,” he said. “Some folks think the best way to deal with these problems is to throw everybody under the bus. Well guess what? You’re going to run out of buses and you’re going to run out of people.”

Just so.

And so goes with it dignity and integrity.

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The 15-minute solution to (just about) everything

Fame is so fleeting, so cold in its remembrance

Fame is so fleeting, so cold in its remembrance

There’s more time than you think in 15 minutes. Just ask Stephen Harper, who claims to have written a book about hockey in daily quarter-hour increments over the past ten years. I have no reason to doubt him.

In 15 minutes, I can get a lot done. I can walk a mile. I can mow the back lawn. I can weed the front garden. I can start and finish my Pilates routine. I can hard-boil an egg. If life were truly organized the way an advertising agency bills its clients – with a tyrannical focus on getting results in bite-sized chunks of the hour – I might even solve the crisis in the Middle East or work out that whole cold fusion thing.

But, I must admit, the idea of penning a manuscript on Canada’s great game – or, indeed, on anything – in this fashion has never entered my mind. How would that work, exactly?

The prime minister comes home after a hard day of insulting the Official Opposition, grabs a quick bite with the wife and kids, retires to the study, dons his favorite sweater-vest, flips on an old Guy Lomdardo recording, taps the stopwatch sitting to the right of his computer. Go! Fifteen minutes later, it’s time for bed.

Is it really all that implausible? The math suggests the approach is remarkably efficient. Multiply 15 by 365 (for the number of days in the year) and you get 5,475 minutes. Now divide that product by 60 (for the number of minutes in an hour) and you get 91.25. So, that works out to be equivalent to one extremely long work-week a year, or about three months of full-time effort over ten. Not too shabby, at all.

We can’t yet know the quality of the project’s result (it’s only available to the reading public in early November). Still, the economy of its execution is impressive.

On the other hand, why Mr. Harper chose 15 minutes – and not, say, 10 or 20 – as the duration of his daily input remains a mystery. It could have to do with the importance of this unit of time in the popular zeitgeist.

“In the future,” Andy Warhol once said, “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” There’s even a Wikipedia entry titled, “15 minutes of fame”, in which the author, or authors, report, “Benjamin H.D. Buchloh suggests that the core tenet of Warhol’s aesthetic, being ‘the systematic invalidation of the hierarchies of representational functions and techniques’ of art, corresponds directly to the belief that the ‘hierarchy of subjects worthy to be represented will someday be abolished,’ hence anybody, and therefore ‘everybody,’ can be famous once that hierarchy dissipates, ‘in the future’.”

Again, though, why 15 minutes?

A Los Angeles-based media and public relations company that actually calls itself “Fifteen Minutes” explains on its website, “In today’s world, anything is possible in fifteen minutes. Identities are built. Futures are shaped. Legends are born.”

Really? That seems like a mighty tall order for such a fleeting sweep of the minute hand.

Less ambitious, perhaps, is Christine from the U.S. Midwest who runs something called 15minutebeauty.com. “I’m a Pediatric Critical Care doctor,” she writes. “My husband is a professor at a huge university. . .I’m a mommy and a bit of a beauty addict. If left to my own devices, I could easily spend four hours getting ready each morning! Unfortunately, I am most definitely NOT a morning person, so I’m often running late. I need to squeeze a product heavy routine into. . .15 minutes!”

For its part, ABC Literacy Canada thinks a quarter-of-an-hour is just the right amount of time to wean junior off the gaming console. “Learning can happen at any time,” it declares on its website. Practicing literacy together for just 15 minutes a day has tremendous benefits for both children and parents.”

You can, among other things, “Create your own comic strip about your family. . .

Invent two new endings to your favourite book. . .Tell knock-knock jokes together while doing the dishes” and “find 15 things that begin with the letter ‘S’.”

Here’s one: “S” is for “Stephen Harper”, who wrote a book about hockey in daily quarter-hour increments over the past ten years, and who’s now enjoying his 15 minutes of fame for having done so.

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The high times of Justin Trudeau

Death in Dhaka...600 and counting

Politically, at least, it appears federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau can smoke pot and chew gum at the same time.

His admission last week that he partook in a celebratory exchange of herb at a party with friends three years ago generated not much more than polite applause among most Canadians, who care more about their mounting household debt than the recreational indiscretions of their elected officials.

The CBC’s “Community Blog” members seemed only too willing to forgive.

“So he’s human! It makes him even more likeable,” one posted.

Declared another: “And he’s honest. It raises him in my esteem, and I’m not even a Liberal.”

Added another: “I will vote for Trudeau on this alone. . .don’t decriminalize it, legalize, regulate and tax it. And I don’t even smoke weed. It makes sense.”

Indeed, one observed, “Name me one politician who hasn’t? Seriously, does this have to be an issue? I think issues such as honesty are a lot more important.”

In contrast (naturally) the federal Conservatives reacted less sanguinely to Mr. Trudeau’s confession. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the wayward fellow’s actions “speak for themselves”. Justice Minister Peter MacKay insisted the Grit honcho exhibited a “a profound lack of judgment. . .By flouting the laws of Canada while holding elected office, he shows he is a poor example for all Canadians, particularly young ones. Justin Trudeau is simply not the kind of leader our country needs.”

But if they were trying to have a field day at Mr. Trudeau’s expense, they soon recognized that few in the media or, indeed, the public at large were willing to play that particular game. In fact, this is becoming a pattern – as heartening to Liberal brand masters as it is worrying to their opposite numbers in the Tory encampment.

Justin Trudeau is gaining momentum as fast as Stephen Harper is losing it. Oddly, parliamentary prorogation helps the former far more than it does the latter. Although the prime minister may enjoy a short break from Question Period, his Grit rival is free to pontificate at length on social and economic justice issues about which, increasingly, Canadians care. What’s more, in sending his messages, Mr. Trudeau is using major and social media to marvelous effect.

Last week, he came out first and forcefully on the subject of Quebec’s decision to curtail expressions of religious affiliation among public servants in that province.  “I have enormous concerns about the limits that would be imposed on people, on their religion and on their freedom of expression,” he told reporters following a consultation with Premier Pauline Marois. “I don’t think it’s who we are and I don’t think it honours us to have a government that does not represent our generosity and openness of spirit.”

Online reaction to his remarks was swift and broadly supportive, if not uniformly for their contents then unanimously for their candor.

“Slowly but very deliberately Mr. Trudeau is showing Canadians that he is a different kind of of political animal,” one reader posted to the Globe and Mail’s website. “He is offering a potentially refreshing choice and is starting to prove that he is not afraid to run the risk of taking positions that may not appeal to everyone.”

Another pointedly observed, “I think it’s absolutely hilarious that after taxpayers have spent a lot of money paying for Mr. Harper’s strategically planned Arctic dog-and-pony show, he’s been bumped off the stage by Mr. Trudeau. Substance (no pun intended) prevails over photo-ops.”

This week, Mr. Trudeau launched another salvo into the hull of the Conservative dreadnaught by stating that the much-vaunted economic recovery, for which the Harper government adores taking credit, is unequal and, therefore, unfair to many middle-class Canadians. Speaking for himself (but clearly with his leader’s sanction, Liberal finance critic Scott Brison told The Globe’s Jane Taber, “The economic recovery has left behind a lot of middle-class Canadian families. Young Canadians and their middle-class families are facing real challenges, near-record levels of personal debt, some of the worst job numbers in decades.”

About which one commentator, representatively, posted, “Looks like we have a young leader who is getting better and better as he goes along. I’ll take that over Harper and his Band of Bucketheads any day.”

All of which suggests that Mr. Trudeau is riding high and in more ways than one.

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How to tame a vanishing wilderness

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One item that seems conspicuously absent from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s wilderness kit, as he tromps across the Canada’s vast Arctic expanse this month, is a well-thumbed copy of Farley Mowat’s 1956 children’s classic, Two Against the North, also known in some publishing quarters as Lost in the Barrens.

The story tells the tale of a white boy, Jaime, and his Cree companion, Awasin, who overcome enormous odds to survive a season stranded on the brutal tundra. (Think Australian outback, except colder). During their sojourn, their cultural differences dissolve and heir friendship deepens. So does their respect for nature.

What’s not often mentioned in the literature reviews is that the book is also a pretty good survival guide for anyone who suddenly finds himself, say, needing to pitch a tent or light a pot of seal oil.

As the Globe and Mail reported last week, “An Inuit elder and Ranger dressed in traditional animal skins taught (Mr. Harper) how to build an inuksuk, the famous northern stone figure. They later erected a traditional animal skin shelter. Mr. Harper set up the pole inside the structure under direction from his wife, Laureen Harper. The Prime Minister was also instructed how to light a traditional carved bowl lamp – which uses seal oil – but was unable to set it afire. Mr. Harper remarked wryly: ‘I guess I’d die in the wilderness.’”

Sure, but what a way to go. Canadians’ – especially southern Canadians – love affair with their great boreal region grows more ardent in late summer, when the mug and grime of the urban landscape tests all but the most stoic, the Northern Lights crackle and dance in the imagination and the call of the wild is a primal scream.

“There is nothing worth living for but to have one’s name inscribed on the Arctic chart,” the 19th century English Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once remarked. Mr. Harper might well agree. Every summer, the glaciers continue their relentless retreat and the polar ice recedes into memory. Every summer, the prime minister is there to bear witness to both loss and opportunity, as if to say the north isn’t what it used to be and likely never will be again. But is that, he is wont to query, necessarily a bad thing?

“We recognize that the Arctic is growing more accessible to international shipping,” he said in Churchill, Manitoba, two years ago. “The various circumpolar countries are pressing claims that may conflict with our own. The global demand for northern resources is growing. . .The first and highest priority of our northern strategy is the protection of our Arctic sovereignty. And as I have said many times before, the first principle of sovereignty is to use it or lose it.”

Of course, the federal government’s commitment to the region depends on an essentially dialectical arrangement with the truth: Global warming is mostly hype, but that doesn’t mean we can’t exploit it. In this, the environment takes a back seat to geopolitics and whispering ski-doos.

“The Canadian military has been secretly test-driving a $620,000 stealth snowmobile in its quest to quietly whisk troops on clandestine operations in the Arctic,” reports The Canadian Press. “The Department of National Defence even has a nickname for its cutting-edge, covert tool: ‘Loki,’ after the ‘mythological Norse shape-shifting god.’”

The Arctic, today, is not only a proving ground for the armed forces; it is the site of previously undreamt economic development. Or, as Mr. Harper’s northern strategy declares, “From the development of world-class diamond mines and massive oil and gas reserves, to a thriving tourism industry that attracts visitors from around the globe, the enormous economic potential of the North is on the cusp of being unlocked.The Government is taking action to encourage future exploration and development by improving Northern regulatory systems and investing in critical infrastructure to attract investors and developers to the North.”

So much for the pitching of tents and the igniting of lamps. So much for the sentimentalities of the south. Soon, the brightest of the northern lights will belong to the derricks and diggers of industry.

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Common sense up in smoke?

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Those who argue that marijuana should be legalized, though tightly regulated, because the prohibitions against its use don’t work are only half-right. It all depends on one’s definition of the word, “work”.

If we acknowledge that the law contorts the evidence that cannabis is safer than either tobacco or alcohol, that it succeeds in making criminals out of otherwise peaceable citizens, that it reinforces crusty stereotypes about shiftless stoners, and that it costs Canada’s judicial system millions of dollars a year that could be spent in more productive ways, then we must also acknowledge that the law works marvelously well to utterly ill effect.

Just ask any cop.

This week, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) passed a resolution that would give officers the discretion to levy fines for simple holding (pending, of course, federal approval).

The text of the ruling reads, in part, “The CACP believes it is necessary to expand the range of enforcement options available to law enforcement personnel in order to more effectively and efficiently address the unlawful possession of cannabis. The current process of sending all possession of cannabis cases pursuant to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) to criminal court is placing a significant burden on the entire Justice System from an economic and resource utilization perspective.”

According to CACP President Chief Constable Jim Chu in the accompanying news release, “It must be recognized. . .that under the current legislation the only enforcement option for police, when confronted with possession of cannabis, is either to turn a blind eye or lay charges. The latter ensues a lengthy and difficult process which, if proven guilty, results in a criminal conviction and criminal record.”

The Association stops short of calling for decriminalization. (In fact, it goes out of its way to support the legal status quo). Nevertheless, its declaration reflects what is increasingly becoming mainstream opinion about the drug in law enforcement, medical and even political arenas.

“As four former attorneys-general of British Columbia, we were the province’s chief prosecutors and held responsibility for overseeing the criminal justice system,” Ujjal Dosanjh, Colin Gabelmann, Graeme Bowbrick and Geoff Plant wrote in a commentary for The Globe and Mail earlier this year. “We know the burden imposed on B.C.’s policing and justice system by the enforcement of marijuana prohibition and the role that prohibition itself plays in driving organized crime.”

Indeed, they added, “Under marijuana prohibition, violent criminals are provided a protected market that enables them to target our youth and grow rich while vast resources are directed to ineffective law enforcement tactics. Meanwhile, Canada’s criminal justice system is overextended and in desperate need of repair.”

The solution, they insisted, is to regulate the “cannabis market”, which could, they claim, “provide government with billions of dollars in tax and licensing revenues over the next five years. These dollars are in addition to the enormous cost savings that could accrue from ending the futile cat and mouse game between marijuana users and the police.”

None of which would matter one iota if marijuana were the resident force of social evil that conservative ideologues claim. But the preponderance of evidence is, at best, inconclusive. Several recent studies have suggested correlations between mental illness in young people and cannabis use. Others conclude that the more likely causes of psychological disease are genetic and socio-economic, and that it is virtually impossible to select these factors out of the equation.

As long as the law prohibits marijuana use, we, as responsible citizens, are obliged to obey. Certainly, legal channels should never, under any circumstances, facilitate the drug’s availability to minors.

But in a responsive democracy, laws that confound common sense and good governance must be questioned. Especially when they work exceedingly well to achieve everything except that for which they are intended.

It’s not for nothing, perhaps, that health authorities in both Canada and the United States – where weed is also broadly illegal – report that pot smoking is up by several orders of magnitude since the turn of the decade.

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Is a change as good as a rest?

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The mere fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proroguing Parliament for the third time since assuming office in 2006 matters less than what he manages to divine after gazing squarely into his Conservative government’s naval during the forced retreat.

His two other legislative session-enders (in 2008 and 2009) were clear attempts to undermine political opposition from the Liberals and the NDP. That’s not so obviously the case in this instance, coming on the heels of a long, hot summer recess.

In this instance, Mr. Harper faces a growing malaise both within and outside his  ranks and a palpable, though not yet politically fatal, unease among the electorate. Taking a break from the legislative calendar to reboot the Tory agenda seems both strategically wise and timely. But is it already too late to make much of a change?

Few seriously doubt the Harper government’s competence in managing the economy. Canada was one of the few western economies that fared relatively well during the global, financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent recession. It can thank its federal shepherds – Jim Flaherty and Mark Carney, among them – for a good deal of the official probity at that time.

Still, jobs growth across the country remains inconsistent, up sharply in some months, down dramatically in others. At 7.2 per cent, the overall unemployment rate hasn’t budged in more than a year.

For economists, that’s not bad news, exactly. As BMO economist Doug Porter told CBC News earlier this month, “Aside from providing great sport and serving as an eternal source of embarrassment for forecasters, do the wild gyrations in monthly jobs actually mean anything for the economy? Not really. The big picture here is that the unemployment rate is virtually unchanged from a year ago, and total employment is up 1.3 per cent, both broadly reflective of an overall economy growing modestly.”

But for just about everyone else – tradespeople, professionals, entrepreneurs, working students – it feels like stagnation. Worse, perhaps, some evidence indicates that Canadians, overall, are growing skeptical about the government’s commitment to the issues that matter most to them, specifically the economy, healthcare and vital social programs.

“Our research suggests that Canadians aren’t seeing those issues reflected in politics,” Jane Hilderman of the think tank Samara said in an interview with news media earlier this year. “Canadians sense that MPs are doing a great job representing the interests of their party, but not doing such a good job on representing their constituents.”

In fact, the Samara study states that while 55 per cent of Canadians say they are satisfied with the system, that response was off from 75 per cent in 2004 – a factor which may help explain why the Conservative government, compared to its Liberal and NDP rivals, has been stumbling in opinion polls throughout most of this year.

Of more immediate concern to Mr. Harper are the effects on party and government morale of a Prime Minister’s Office that runs the tightest ship of state in decades.

“There has been predominantly informal discussion about what is, or what is not, our rights, and MPs have to decide what’s wrong and what’s right, and what our rights are,” a Conservative Member told the CBC anonymously in March. The piece continued: “A series of tactics seem to have led to the rebellion, including PMO staff denying MPs the right to make statements in the House of Commons, and a move by a three-member subcommittee to deny a Conservative MP the right to bring a non-binding motion on sex-selective abortion to the floor of the House for debate.”

Then, of course, there is the Senate expense scandal which has implicated two formerly Conservative appointees and further tarnished an institution that several polls say most Canadians want abolished. Mr. Harper has promised major reforms, but he hasn’t proceeded. And that deeply offends his mostly Western base of voters.

Whatever the Prime Minister expects to achieve during his prorogue – whatever feats of party-building and consensus-gathering he hopes to engineer – the issues he faces today will be there to greet him upon his return.

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