Monthly Archives: February 2014

Who’s your daddy, now?

Hello Big Daddy!

If we read our digital propaganda correctly, then we should all be over the moon after learning that a fresh day dawns on the global circuitry that tracks our every move, intentions and even aspirations.

Welcome, fellow plebes, to the era of big claims and big mouths – to the age of ‘Big Daddy’ (also known as Big Data), with all of its magnificent liens on our vanishing sense of privacy.

Mindless of any threat, existential or otherwise, Big Daddy’s acolytes were front and centre-stage this week in Saint John extolling the virtues of collecting, parsing, analyzing, and recruiting – in the service of capitalist enterprises and nosey governments – our personal information.

On the occasion of Big Data Congress II in New Brunswick’s port city, local show promoter Marc Fraser (executive vice-president of T4G) effused, “It’s about the phenomena that we have here in Atlantic Canada, which is being able to continually punch above our weight when it comes to technical capability and entrepreneurial capability.”

Not ready to be outmatched in the time-honoured craft of cliche production (reader note: no big data required for that particular exercise) T4G’s president Geoff Flood offered this bromide: “It’s all about understanding the opportunity to use Big Data to change the world, improve businesses and build opportunities right here.”

Not for nothing, but who are they kidding?

The phrase, ‘Big Data’, has been slinking around the edges of the Internet since before the George W. Bush administration declared war on the wrong Middle Eastern country in 2003 (thank you Big-Daddy CIA and NSA miners for completely missing the point of your 15 minutes of fame).

The fact is almost no one knows what to do with these petabytes of information on everything from my ridiculous love affair with slim jeans readily available at the Moncton outlet of The Gap to ex-spy-in-exile Edward Snowdon’s rather more substantial revelations about spooks, creeps and authorized assassins of world peace.

Still, the official, meaningless bafflegab spills from the mouths of the babes we elect to purportedly represent us with, at least, some modicum of intelligent reflection. Oh dear, what was that you were saying Premier David Alward to Big Daddy Congress Part Deux the other night? Something about “collaboration and co-ordination”, perhaps?

As it happens, that’s the last thing your audience wants. And unless you’ve figured out a way to use Big Data to rescue the province from its impending fiscal doom, it’s the last thing you should want either.

In fact, there is almost nothing about this phenomenon – this gargantuan belch of information collected and floating in the electronic stratosphere – that lends itself to fair, egalitarian or democratic purpose.

“Big data. It’s the latest IT buzzword, and it isn’t hard to see why,” writes John Jordan in an October 2013 edition of the Wall Street Journal. “The ability to parse more information, faster and deeper, is allowing companies, governments, researchers and others to understand the world in a way they could only dream about before.”

But, he says, (and it’s a big but), “Big data. . .introduces high stakes to the data-analytics game. There’s a greater potential for privacy invasion, greater financial exposure in fast-moving markets, greater potential for mistaking noise for true insight, and a greater risk of spending lots of money and time chasing poorly defined problems or opportunities. . .Unless we understand, and deal with, these challenges, we risk turning all that data from something that has the potential to enhance our organizations into a diversion, an illusion or a paralyzing turf battle.”

Or worse.

Consider Cindy Waxer’s reporting in Computer World a year ago. “Hip clothing retailer Urban Outfitters is facing a class-action lawsuit for allegedly violating consumer protection laws by telling shoppers who pay by credit card that they had to provide their ZIP codes – which is not true – and then using that information to obtain the shoppers’ addresses,” she wrote.

“Facebook is often at the center of a data privacy controversy, whether it’s defending its own enigmatic privacy policies or responding to reports that it gave private user data to the National Security Agency (NSA). And the story of how retail behemoth Target was able to deduce that a teenage shopper was pregnant before her father even knew is the stuff of marketing legend.”

Big Daddy, to satisfy your insatiable appetite, how creepy must our lives finally become?

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Cheaters, it seems, always prosper


The scribe who penned the following line describes himself as a tenure-tracked academic: “I have not been successful in getting most cheaters I’ve caught removed from the university, only one, and it was their forth time being caught in three years.”

I must assume from the author’s grammatical misadventure (surely not his or her “forth” time at a keyboard), which appears in a letter posted beneath an online CBC report on rampant cheating in Canadian universities, that he or she is not on any tenure currently tracking in any academic department relating to the teaching of English.

Still, perhaps there is some brutal symmetry in the Ivory Tower, after all. Pedagogues, it appears, can’t write; their students, meanwhile, evince no interest in learning when easier and more efficient options are plentiful.

“A CBC survey of Canadian universities shows more than 7,000 students were disciplined for academic cheating in 2011-12, a finding experts say falls well short of the number of students who actually cheat,” the broadcaster reported this week.

According to the piece, Julia Christensen Hughes, dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says, “There’s a huge gap between what students are telling us they’re doing and the numbers of students that are being caught and sanctioned for those behaviours.”

The survey data – which indicates that cheating is certainly systematic at universities across Canada, but not yet prevalent – seems to bear out her claims. Indeed, apart from underreported incidences of dissimulation, pupils at Atlantic Canada’s fine institutions of higher learning appear, at least officially, pretty clean.

The University of New Brunswick reported 33 cases of student plagiarism, or 0.3 per cent of the 10,000-strong student body. The University of Moncton reported 56 cases of plagiarism, or just under one per cent of the 6,000 student population. Crandall University fared slightly worse with 12 cases of plagiarism, or 1.5 per cent of its 1,000 student population.

Dalhousie University, a much larger institution than any of New Brunswick’s colleges and institutes, reported a broader suite of infractions – everything from plagiarism to “unauthorized aid”. Still, such cases only amounted to 1.3 per cent of its 18,000 student population.

Frankly, even if these numbers only scratch the surface, what’s truly shocking are some of the perpetrators’ attitudes.

The CBC quotes one student, speaking on condition of anonymity, thusly: “The professor left the room. I reached into my bag and I looked at some keywords to help me. I’d challenge anyone who can say that they haven’t broken the law. So for me to have cheated on an exam to get ahead in life, I think it’s wrong, but I don’t think it’s the worst thing that could be done.”

Another was even more cold-eyed about his crime: “We just had to get it done. I had to get these assignments done and they had to be right.”

Like just about everything else in this cash-and-carry society, the university experience has been illegitimately commodified, packaged and gamed for any who can afford to pay for it on the down low.

Take, for example, essay writing services. These are not illegal, per se. But are they ethical?

That’s the question Richard Gunderman, an M.D. and PhD. at Indiana University, posed in the Atlantic magazine a hear ago. In his piece, “Write my essay, please!” he observed that “essay writing has become a cottage industry premised on systematic flaunting of the most basic aims of higher education. The very fact that such services exist reflects a deep and widespread misunderstanding of why colleges and universities ask students to write essays in the first place.”

He morosely concludes that “some students may question the very value of writing term papers. After all, they may ask, how many contemporary jobs really require such archaic forms of writing? And what is the point of doing research and formulating an argument when reams of information on virtually any topic are available at the click of a button on the Internet? Some may even doubt the relevance of the whole college experience.”

Of course, when teacher, himself, can’t string a few words together to save his academic bacon, you have to wonder whether the little cheaters are on to something.

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Wooing the middle-class voter


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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Let’s own all of Canada’s podiums

If nothing else, the Sochi Olympics proved beyond a shadow of a scoreless-soccer-game adherent’s doubt that everyone – even a polite, unyieldingly apologetic, ceaselessly accommodating Canadian – loves a winner.

Perhaps, now, especially a Canadian loves a winner.

The medal haul for this country was, indeed, impressive: 10 gold, 10 silver and five bronze. Overall, the total was just shy, by one, of the nation’s tally in Vancouver four years ago when Canuck athletes brought in 14 gold, seven silver and five bronze.

The shortfall this year may have disappointed certain die-hard proponents of the country’s coordinated “Own the Podium” program, the expressed objective of which in Russia was to “maintain the momentum” of La-La Land’s earlier success.

Still, the sad faces in the Canadian contingent of well-wisher were few and far between during the medal events at which our sportsmen and women excelled. In fact, how could it have been otherwise?

There were golds in women’s and men’s skiing; women’s bobsleigh, curling and hockey; and men’s curling, speed skating and hockey. There were silvers and bronzes in freestyle and alpine skiing, figure skating, speed skating, short track, and snowboard.

And who will ever forget the women’s hockey squad?

Going in, they were deemed, in certain quarters, to be too old and too slow. In the end, and in the words of one commentator, they were “champions”, pure and simple. Nor did their male counterparts push up daffodils: Not once did they fall behind in scoring en route to Olympic Gold.

Some in this country have reviled the whole prickly and archly competitive reasoning behind “Own the Podium”. They consider it rude and decidedly un-Canadian. I’m not one among this crowd.

The bottom line is that we, as a nation, should be owning all podiums in every walk of life that matters to this country. And if we can take inspiration from our fittest and most fiercely determined fellow citizens, then the $80-million that taxpayers have spent to train and send them to the international games is worth every loonie.

Why not own the podium, for example, with advanced research that leads to flexible, renewable, sustainable energy? Are we so blinkered by the quotidian realities of our abundant reserves of oil and gas, that we can’t perceive the economic opportunities  that come with leading the world in the production of solar, wind, smart grid, biomass and biofuel technologies for domestic and export markets?

Why not own the podium with a public, universally accessible, national system of early childhood education, integrated into the primary school system? Must we perennially lag our sister states in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in providing good quality ECE?

According to some recent research, national spending on pre-school is only 0.2 per cent of GDP. That compares with expenditure rates of between two and ten times the Canadian amount in the United States, Finland and Sweden.

Meanwhile, our own regional turf in the Maritimes, can we finally own the podium with a truly effective strategy for inter-jurisdictional economic collaboration, risk-sharing, innovation and foreign market development? Aren’t we about ready to concede that the three provinces, which collectively house the population of Montreal, would benefit from closer ties among them?

In New Brunswick, of course, no one’s winning any medals for stellar performance on the fiscal field. That a province of 750,000 people should sport a deficit of $500 million on a debt of nearly $12 billion staggers all rational appreciation for prudent management in government.

But is there even here, buried somewhere beneath this mess, a podium to own?

What new feats of financial derring-do will we authorize future finance ministers to undertake? How much more belt-tightening will we be prepared to endure?

What do we visualize as the shape of our future, and what great sacrifices and immense efforts will we make to bring that future into focus and, finally, ascend the pedestal to receive our rewards?

These are the urgent questions of the day. They are for winners to answer.

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If we build it, will more be in store?

If a city measures its civic ambitions by the plans it makes for its downtown areas, then is Moncton poised for a new age of urban renewal?

We can boost and boast till all the pigeons fly their concrete coops along Main Street, but we must admit that the business core – stretching west to Vaughan Harvey Boulevard, east to King Street, north to St. George and south to Assumption Boulevard – has not always reflected the broader community’s tough, entrepreneurial, sophisticated, technologically savvy, and culturally rich attitudes and endowments.

Too many store fronts remain shuttered, too many office spaces are begging for tenants, too many edifices exude that unpleasant aura of dissolution so familiar to urban planners the world over.

And that’s a problem because while other parts of the city can periodically languish without compromising the social and economic integrity of the whole, the downtown is the community’s commons. Its vibrancy electrifies the neighborhoods that surround it, just as its rot eventually spreads throughout the civic body.

Fortunately, we are in no immediate threat of contracting such municipal gangrene. A few years ago, Mayor George LeBlanc offered me a vigorous defense of Moncton’s progress. “Look at what has been happening in just the past five or 10 years,” he said. “In 1996, we had 8,000 people working in the downtown area. Today, we have 15,000. We’ve opened up a public Wi-Fi network, and we’ve seen quite a few high-tech companies doing big things locate in the downtown.”

He wasn’t wrong. In fact, progress is palpable today, even in the downtown, which plays host to thousands of businesses, bars, restaurants and cafes,18,000 office workers, and anywhere from 1,200 to 5,700 residents depending on how you fixes downtown “borders”.

Today, Moncton is a major Canadian customer contact and back office centre with a robust “near-shore” IT outsourcing industry. And it continues to leverage its success with a plan that calls for new partnerships with regional universities to deepen the region’s knowledge economy, diversify the IT economy, and actively promote tech-based entrepreneurship.

Still, a downtown is more than the sum of its moving parts. Like any good and growing garden, it requires constant attention and vigilance – even a little creative experimentation, from time to time.

As The Moncton Times & Transcript reported on Friday, the “proposed Downing Street restoration, a project in honour of Moncton’s 135th anniversary in 2015, is embracing four key themes – Downtown, Celebration, Art & Storytelling and Sustainability.”

The idea is to redevelop the dead-end street – between the Blue Cross complex and the McSweeney Block – that spills out into combined parking lots into an avenue down to the river. “This is an opportunity to explore every possibility,” Mr. LeBlanc said, referring to the plethora of planning options available to the city.

Some may question the value of the project on strictly economic grounds. Shouldn’t we spend our time and money of a downtown events centre? After all, we already expect that such a facility would draw 350,000 a year, generate about $14 million in spending and, in the words of economic development agency Jupia Consultants, “support retail, food service, accommodation and other services in the downtown,” where it “should also support residential growth.”

Meanwhile, another report has estimated that the construction phase, alone, would generate $340 million worth of “economic impacts” for New Brunswick and other parts of the country, as well as nearly $17 million in taxes for the provincial and federal governments. Moreover, it indicated, sales from ongoing operations could easily reach $9.5 million in 2015 (assuming, of course, the centre is open for business by then).

Compared with this, critics may query, what does a road to the river offer?

That, of course, is the wrong question.

The marvelous thing about investing in urban infrastructure is the multiplier effect. Almost any beautification, redevelopment or expansion project yields new opportunities for others.

In this respect, the Downing Street initiative and an events centre complement one another. Both will encourage people to get into the happy and productive habit of spending time (and money) in (and on) our core, of forging the common bonds of community that, in fact, attract and keep industries, entrepreneurs and skilled workers.

In our capacious suburban homes where we park our cars and RVs, we would do well to remember that our downtown areas are not only the manifestations of our ambitions; they are also the means to those ends.

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Waiting for the end times in an Ottawa strip club


Tomorrow is an auspicious day on the calendar for humanity, even for denizens of Fat City (a.k.a. Ottawa), for February 22nd is when the world literally goes straight to hell.

Or as the Daily Mail reports, “The wolf Fenrir is predicted to break out of his prison, the snake Jormungand will rise out of the sea and the dragon of the underworld will resurface on Earth to face the dead heroes of Valhalla – who, of course, have descended from heaven to fight them.”

Well, after all, why not? The Mayan apocalypse proved to be a big fat nothing last year, and we’re certainly overdue. Here, according to are a few other calamities, predicted but not (yet) delivered:

In March 2003, U.S. president George W. Bush “claimed that Operation Iraqi Freedom was necessary ‘to thwart Gog and Magog, the Bible’s satanic agents of the Apocalypse.’ (Plan no longer in progress.)”

In 2008, American vice-presidential candidate Sarah “Mama Grizzly” Palin said she believed belong to the “Final Generation” who will “see the End Times during her lifetime. Thankfully, over 9 million Americans disagreed.”

That same year, the Large Hadron Collidor was supposed to produce a black hole that would swallow the planet in one gulp. Yeah. . .still waiting.

Under the circumstances, then, we might give the Vikings a crack at starting the world over. Says the Mail, “Ragnarok is a series of events including the final predicted battle that results in the death of a number of major gods, the occurrence of various natural disasters and the subsequent submersion of the world in water.”

In fact, “legend has it the sound of the horn will call the sons of the god Odin and the heroes to the battlefield, before Odin and other ‘creator gods’ will be killed by Fenrir.”

Spookily, the Norse “believe the Ragnarok is preceded by the ‘winter of winters’, where three freezing winters would follow each other with no summers in between.” Meanwhile, “all morality would disappear and fights would break out all over the world, signaling the beginning of the end.”

Now, that’s sounding almost familiar, and for reasons I can’t quite quantify, the Barefax Gentlemen’s Club suddenly springs to mind.

That’s the Ottawa nudie bar and strip joint where suspended Canadian Senator Patrick Brazeau now works as a day manager. Carmelina Bentivoglio, the daughter of the establishment’s owner, told the Toronto Star that the former Conservative appointee to the Upper Chamber aced his job interview a couple of weeks ago and now he’ll be spending his time,“scheduling, hiring, firing, inventory – just like any other job.”

Well, not quite like any other job. It’s nothing like the job he had at the Senate before he was suspended in November for allegedly bilking taxpayers for expenses to which he was not entitled. Even before his ouster, Red Chamber officials had dunned him nearly $50,000 to recover at least some of his seemingly ill-gotten booty.

Then came the cops who, earlier this month, charged both Mr. Brazeau and his former senatorial colleague Mac Harb with fraud and breach of trust. According to an item in the Star, “The Mounties allege that Brazeau fraudulently claimed his father’s home in Maniwaki, Que., as his primary residence, although he was rarely seen there and lived primarily just across the river from Ottawa in Gatineau, Que.”

The Star also reported that media scuttlebutt indicates that “Brazeau and his estranged wife have been missing mortgage and loan payments and may now face losing their house in Gatineau. . .The disgraced senator is also facing charges of assault and sexual assault as a result of an incident last February.”

Still, apparently he’s not letting any that get him down. A nice piece by veteran CBC political correspondent Rosemary Barton, posted to Mother Corp.’s website, finds the disgraced politico in a philosophical frame of mind.

“Brazeau says he’s doing OK,” she writes. “His health is better, he’s learning the ropes on his second day. He doesn’t seem thrilled with his new job, but neither is he embarrassed. ‘It is what it is,’ Brazeau says, ‘I’ve got four mouths to feed,’ referring to his children. I ask how people are treating him so far. ‘Better than at my old job,’ he quips.”

Yes, indeed. Just another wintry day in Fat City before the world finally goes straight to hell.

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Plotting some common ground for shale gas

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

It is only my uncommon determination to discount the fruits of my fevered and hyperactive imagination that prevents me from earnestly entertaining my latest New Brunswick Economic Development Conspiracy Theory, version 2.0.

But for this mindful discipline, however, my theory might go a little like this:

At some point in the not-too-distant past, Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward sat down with Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant in a dark, windowless room in the basement of one of New Brunswick’s seedier hotels. They had agreed to meet to hatch a plot, the outcome of which, then prayed, would be to their mutual advantage.

Each man knew that the shale gas controversy was not going away any time soon. Too much emotional capital had been spent for either opponents or their opposite numbers in industry to retreat from the front lines of lunacy. Too much empty rhetoric had been spilt for the sake of hearing one’s voice repeated ceaselessly on the nightly newscasts.

Yet, as political leaders, Messrs. Alward and Gallant recognized their respective responsibilities to take firm and preferably opposing positions on the issue.

The problem was that they also recognized, in each other, if not kindred spirits then at least a meeting of minds.

Though Mr. Alward argued publicly that shale gas was New Brunswick’s last, best hope for economic salvation, in his heart he worried about the environmental impact of an industry whose North American track record was, at best, spotty.

Conversely, though Mr. Gallant vigorously called for a moratorium on exploration and development until such time as two new studies shed better light on the subject, in his heart he worried about the province’s long-term economic future without the royalties and taxes a shale gas industry would generate.

The question, they reckoned, was how to have one’s cake and eat it too. Is it possible to satisfy both commercial and community interests without requiring unacceptably high sacrifices?

The related, if more urgent, question was how to take the mickey out of the public debate long enough to peaceably erect an industrial and regulatory apparatus acceptable to all but the most ardent green warriors (certainly all the Tories and Grits from here to the horizon)

And their stratagem?

That’s easy: Bore everyone to death, or at least until most people in the province would rather have their incisors pulled than stand to listen to a) one more meaningless, partisan diatribe about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing; and b) one more corporate shill expounding on the environmentally risk-free bounties from that friendliest of all fossil fuels.

Once the electorate is properly and finally focussed on other, more diverting  affairs like, say, the homophobic Winter Olympics 2014 (and not constantly expected to tender their proudly uniformed opinions, for or against shale gas) then, and only then, can the real, grown-up, bipartisan work of shaping a safe, regulated, productive, job-generating, income-producing, made-in-New Brunswick solution; the envy of the industrialized world.

Yup, it’s a nice theory and it does look good on paper. Too bad it’s bogus.

That constant whining sound emanating from Fredericton’s political class on the subject of shale gas is merely the all-too-familiar politics of disputation for the sake of disputation. No plan; nothing special. It’s politics as usual; that is to say, as usual Premier Alward blasts Mr. Gallant for standing soft on the issue and Mr. Gallant returns the favour by charging Mr. Alward with willful misrepresentation.

In fact, of the two, Mr. Gallant is more consistently correct and thoughtful with his criticism. But, at this point – where we seem to have come to a full stop, crumpled over by the burden of all our words – does it matter?

Where are our deeds? Where is our determination to forge practical alliances that span party and ideological lines to extract and sell our natural resources as safely and sustainably as possible?

While we’re at it, where is our courage to collectively face the essential energy paradox of our times – that we actually need the cleaner-burning fossil fuels to bridge us and our technologies to a greener more renewable future?

In the end, alas, politics upends even our finest conspiracies.

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The true grit of political battle


To appreciate just how rattled federal Conservatives are about the prospect of facing an invigorated Justin Trudeau clad in the full metal jacket of his pre-election campaign armour, consider the strange plight of retired Canadian Forces lieutenant-general Andrew Brooke Leslie.

He’s the army officer who led the country’s mission in Afghanistan in 2006. Earlier in his career, he served as Winnipeg Area Chief of Staff during that city’s spring floods in 1997. Later that year, he commanded the 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, providing disaster relief in the storm-lashed south shore of Montreal.

More recently, General Leslie hitched his political star to Mr. Trudeau and company, becoming the co-chair of the Liberal International Affairs Council of Advisors as well as a possible candidate for office.

And for that, apparently, the military leader, patriot and, some might even say, hero cannot be forgiven – at least not within the ranks of his former Tory bosses.

Earlier this week, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson described a recent moving bill, for $72,000, the general charged the taxpayers thusly: “grossly excessive”. Specifically, he questioned “how an in-city move could possibly total over $72,000. In the meantime, it is important for Andrew Leslie to explain why he believes this is a reasonable expense for hard working Canadians to absorb. This is a matter of judgment and the responsible use of taxpayers dollars.”

Sure, it is, except for one thing: It’s all perfectly legal.

The amount might seem extraordinary, especially in light of the ongoing toothache that is the Senate expense scandal. But, in fact, the payout is standard operating procedure for senior military personnel; they get one final move, on the public dime, to anywhere they’d like in Canada.

Besides, as General Leslie explained in his own statement on Facebook, “Each step of the process is overseen by a third-party supplier, and independent approvals for every expenditure are required, as directed by the Treasury Board of Canada. Costs are paid directly to the suppliers (real estate agents, movers etc.) by the Department of National Defence.”

If we’re apt to blame anyone for such largess, then blame the rules-makers and keepers in Ottawa who are master adepts in the fine art of separating the taxpayer from his wallet, for all manner of “legitimate” exercises. After all, what’s a few million bucks for a water park, replete with gazebo, en route to a billion-dollar economic summit in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?

In fact, it is General Leslie’s outspoken support for “a change in how politics is conducted” in this country that has unnerved the Tories and inspired their partisan barbs.

A former top-ranked military officer with a distinguished service record, a chest full of medals and a vocally Liberal perspective on current affairs is the sort of nightmarish figure that keeps Conservative strategists up into the wee hours, popping handfuls of no-doze.

Combine that with a charismatic, telegenic and increasingly shrewd Grit leader, and the Tory Party’s road ahead to 2015 does seem suddenly long, winding and rough. At the very least, it’s clear that Mr. Trudeau is no longer the lightweight (if he ever was) his detractors have portrayed. Indeed, coming into Thursday’s Liberal policy convention, even his vaguer pronouncements sound formidable.

“The challenge and the responsibility for this year and over the next year and a half is to pick the team and build the plan,” he told the Globe and Mail last week. “And always get the big things right.”

The big things like, presumably, education, infrastructure, and the economy. To date, Mr Trudeau has avoided cornering himself with specific policy objectives and procedures. He is wisely keeping his powder dry. After all, a lot can happen in 15 months. Why make promises which might well prove untenable to keep?

In the meantime, the signs and portents in the body politic suggest that the tide of opinion in the country is shifting ever so slightly to the left. When establishmentarians such as Andrew Leslie publicly declare their allegiance to the Liberals, every true, blue Tory knows what that means.

It means war.

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Training the literate mind: the younger the better


As two New Brunswick political leaders duke it out over the wisdom of a school policy that neither seems to fully comprehend, at least one educator is fixing her gaze on the only issue that truly matters in the pedagogical careers of this province’s young and malleable: Literacy or, more precisely, the lack of it.

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy threw down the gauntlet last week when he blamed low proficiency rates of reading and writing in New Brunswick on the provincial system of fast-forwarding effectively failed students through high school graduation and into colleges and universities.

Vowing to change this perfidious policy in the unlikely event that he should one day form a government, he declared at an editorial board meeting of Brunswick News, “If you’re a good teacher you’re going to do everything you can to make sure that your kids are doing well and you are going to pass them on to the next level.

“But if you’re not as good or the kid is that much more difficult, it takes a lot of the incentives out of the system if there is no social consequence for the child not doing well and there is no professional reason for the teacher to work harder,” adding, “You can’t fail right now.”

To which the Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward predictably harumphed in disdain to reporters: “There is no ‘no-failure policy’ in New Brunswick,’ . . .there are children who do, for various reasons, spend more than one year in a grade level  – that is done in a collaborative process in co-operation with parents, with a teacher, to identify what’s best for the child.”

Indeed, he boasted, “We have an inclusive education system in our province, which we are leaders globally in helping ensure that every child is able to meet their fullest potential.”

That, of course, is solely a matter of opinion as there is nothing empirically testable about the claim.

On the other hand, Mr. Cardy’s approach – holding kids back a grade or two until they learn how to read in a system that couldn’t manage to teach them the first time around – seems almost mad.

Meanwhile, Marilyn Luscombe, president of New Brunswick Community College wisely avoids the blame-game altogether and suggests that low literacy is a far more complex problem than the province’s politicos – who adore their policy footballs – care to concede. “We have to come together in New Brunswick in partnership with the secondary system and with community literacy organizations,” she told the Telegraph-Journal recently.

“(We have to) figure out more clearly who does what and how we can ensure that more people enter the post-secondary education system and have the skills to be successful. It’s much more than the no-fail policy. It’s a lot of elements.”

In fact, teaching kids how to read is not essentially the function of primary – certainly not secondary – school educators. Expecting them to take the lead misses the point of graduated learning and baldly ignores every gradient in human development.

Learning first words, and learning them well, happens in early childhood education programs, pre-school and, ultimately, the home, where mum and dad and older brother and sister help junior practice until perfect. That’s because nature has programmed our species to learn best before age five. These are the optimal years for acquiring languages, developing math skills and recognizing spatial relationships.

It stands to reason that if we want literate, critical, thinkers populating our universities and trade schools, we should spend most of our energies and resources on the early years.

Of course, one point on which all – feuding politicians and bemused educators, alike – can agree: Low literacy costs society in material and tangible ways. It taps the social welfare system, and drives up poverty and homelessness rates. Some studies have even suggested that it increases the incidence of crime, mental illness and drug addiction.

Is there, then, much sense in jawboning about rickety middle and high school matriculation policies – which don’t make an iota of difference to the structurally illiterate and innumerate – that distract us from the issue that truly matters?

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Liberals are yawning into action


For a dying breed, they sure put up a good squawk. Then again, they’ve had 35 years (give or take) to lick their many wounds.

Nineteen-Seventy-Nine is the year to which many political observers with long memories point when asked to trace the roots of the modern liberal’s terminal disease. That’s the year British politics took a sharp right with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. It was the year the Iranian revolution changed the face of the Middle East and of western foreign policy. And it was the year the Moral Majority and other right-of-centre populist groups in the United States paved the way for Ronald Reagan and his neo-conservative notions of free enterprise and trickle-down economics.

Here, in Canada, of course, we were still pretty liberal – that is, we were, until we commenced our serious flirtation with Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives, which almost perfectly completed the  “North Atlantic Triangle” (Reagan-Mulroney-Thatcher) of staunch traditionalists in the 1980s.

But as one decade bled into another, it became clear that the very essence of liberalism had fundamentally changed. Bill Clinton was not FDR, after all. Tony Blair was in no way conceivable comparable to post-war labour leaders in the U.K. And nothing about Jean Chretien or Paul Martin resembled Lester Pearson or even Pierre Trudeau.

Now, the whole subject of what went wrong in the trenches of the just society – at least in the United States – is the subject of a extensive cris de coeur in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine.

“Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals” by University of Pennsylvania political science professor Adolph Reed Jr. chronicles in exquisite, often painful detail, how the wheels came off the truck, one by one. He targets all the usual suspects – political opportunists, true believers in limited government, libertarians, corporations and big businesses – but he also blames his once fellow travellers for allowing themselves to become corrupted and coerced.

“Today,” he writes, “the labour movement has been largely subdued, and social activists have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons accordingly. Within the women’s movement, goals have shifted from practical objectives  such as comparable worth and universal child care in the 1980s to celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling.”

Meanwhile, he laments, “dominant figures in the antiwar movement have long since accepted the framework of American military interventionism. The movement for racial justice has shifted its focus from inequality to ‘disparity,’ while neatly evading any critique of the structures that produce inequality.”

Professor Reed’s arguments are not especially new. Others have observed the great and steady resignation of social principles to power and money over the past three decades.

But the degree to which points, such as his, are cropping up everywhere in the mainstream and alternative media is striking. As a result, perhaps, it’s almost as if a sizable chunk of the body politic is rousing itself from a long, fitful slumber.

That, at least, appears to be case in Canada. Notwithstanding a largely successful economic plan (reflected, most recently, in a broadly inoffensive budget) the federal Conservatives’s steadily eroding popular support suggests a deeper, more existential problem for them.

“A slim majority (54 per cent) of Canadians ‘disapprove’ (16 per cent strongly/37 per cent somewhat) of ‘the federal government’s overall management of the Canadian economy’, compared to 46 per cent who ‘approve’ (7 per cent strongly/40 per cent somewhat) of the government’s performance on the economy,” Ipsos reported last week. “By comparison, in late 2012, nearly equal proportions of Canadians approved (49 per cent) as disapproved (51 per cent).”

What’s more, Ipsos observed, “just one in three (34 per cent) ‘agree’ (10 per cent  strongly/24 per cent somewhat) that they ‘trust Stephen Harper and the Conservatives to make the right choices to ensure the next Federal Budget is fair and reasonable, and in the best interest of Canadians’. Two in three (66 per cent) Canadians ‘disagree’ (36 per cent strongly/30 per cent somewhat) that they trust the Prime Minister to do this.”

Whether any of this will produce a pendular swing in the political fortunes of the left remains to be seen in the run-up to the 2015 election – as do the progressive bone fides of those who populate its ranks.

Still, it’s clear, they’re not dead yet.

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