Monthly Archives: September 2014

The fault is not in our “stars”; it’s in ourselves


The mind of a Canadian premier is a terrible thing to waste.

Its life can be as short as four years, but never longer than 12. And during that midge-like span, it must muster all the mental and physical resources – intellectual flexibility, empathy, focus, judgement, courage, energy – necessary to the task of not utterly failing the electorate that enshrined it.

The voters (it goes without saying) expect nothing of their government leaders, if “nothing” means everything.

As balloteers grudgingly mark their election-day cards, they flee back into their workaday lives, sure of the disappointments that are about to mount, insensate to the absurdity of their standards for political representation.

We, the people, demand that our roads be paved, our potholes be filled, our educational facilities be matchless, our health care system be the best in the world. But when a government flies the rare kite, suggesting tentatively that to pay for these things, it might actually have to raise a highway toll, or increase a sales tax, or (gasp!) actually tighten its belt, out come the placards and the picket lines.

It’s worse in the United States, where they, the people, have managed to transform the poor slobs who run for public office into mewling supplicants of populous fashion. That’s the leadership they’ve come to expect; the leadership they ultimately deserve: unfocused, apologetic, tremulous, and, ultimately, ineffective.

Still, there there was a time in this fair land when democratic imperatives intersected neatly with political ambitions. It didn’t last long, but for as long as it did, women got the vote and all Canadians got a minimum standard of universal health care.

Since then, however, women have served in our parliaments and assemblies with decreasing frequency and increasingly shorter duration. Meanwhile, our health care system has devolved into a multi-jurisdictional hodgepodge that serves some people superbly well, but most of us poorly and without even the semblance of discernment.

All of which may only lend credence to the notion that true democracies are extraordinarily fragile, as likely to wither from neglect as crumble from abuse. And those who we authorize to guard them, for however long a period, should be given every opportunity to muster their resources, especially at the beginning of their mandates.

New Brunswick’s incoming Liberal Premier Brian Gallant faces a terrifically challenging four years. And that’s to say nothing of the several hundred wish lists voters and their organizational proxies will dispense with nauseating regularity.

The most monumental of his tasks, however, will not be grappling with one particular issue or another. It will be applying the considerable faculties of his nimble and educated mind to urgent questions of the common good, even as broad swaths of New Brunswickers stubbornly refuse to recognize those matters that constitute their shared cause.

Surely, chief among these must be resuscitating an economy that’s been beached for some time.

Does Mr. Gallant soften his position on hydraulic fracturing in the nascent shale gas industry and clear the way for commercial exploitation of the resource, a move that could one day generate tens-of-millions-of-dollars in taxes and royalties for this fiscally bereft province?

Or does he stick to his guns and slap a moratorium on the controversial practice, as he has vowed to do, until such time as he believes it sufficiently safe and manageable? And then what?

If he is, as he has intimated, the “education premier”, will he make literacy, numeracy and higher learning tools for economic development now and in the future? Does the road to prosperity wind its way through vistas of human capital, as yet unexplored, or the all too familiar terrain of natural resources and the raw labour they require, often only seasonally?

Campaign rhetoric aside, what, in fact, is Mr. Gallant’s endgame for New Brunswick, and will he be permitted to pursue it in relative calm, free of the cacophony the vested, the specially interested, the lightly knowledgeable, and the constitutionally loud-mouthed among us are so good at raising?

Or, perhaps, knowing that there is no time to waste in New Brunswick, he will let none of it stand in his way.

That, in itself, would be an achievement worthy of note.

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Is PR an idea whose time has come?


Calls for a systemically more representative government always seem to follow a deeply unsatisfying election. Last Monday’s vote in New Brunswick produced no deviation from this familiar – and, for some, increasingly tiresome – norm.

After all, here was the spectacle of five jockeying, jostling, jiggling parties, only two of which had any chance of securing a meaningful number of the legislature’s 49 seats. (David Coon’s Fredericton South win for the Green Party was the exception that proved the rule).

Here was another pitched battle in the seemingly endless war between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives over whether or not to allow hydraulic fracturing in a province that has, in fact, permitted the drilling practice for years, and with no evidence of environmental harm accruing.

And here was a fractured plebiscite, replete with technical glitches and calls for recounts, in which, despite all efforts to the contrary, much of the electorate politely declined their invitations to the cotillion.

Unofficially, 373,337 New Brunswickers did their democratic duty. Nearly 200,000, who were eligible to cast a ballot, sat this one out. . .again.

That was the lowest voter turnout on record (65 per cent) – lower than the 2006 and 2010 elections (68 and 70 per cent, respectively)

According to a CBC report last week, “Jamie Gillies, an assistant professor of communications and public policy at St. Thomas University, said low voter turnout is in part a generational problem, which won’t be easy to fix. ‘This is a feeling among a lot of people who believe that voting as a civic duty does not matter. It does not matter who we elect on election day.’”

Need we even wonder, then, why people like Kelly Carmichael are calling for an entirely different – and fairer – way to participate in our democracy. She’s a spokesperson for Fair Vote Canada, a national group that advocates for proportional representation.

The organization’s definition is succinct: “Proportional representation is any voting system designed to produce a representative body (like a parliament, legislature, or council) where voters elect representatives in proportion to (their) votes.”

As it was, in our existing first-past-the-post system, the Liberals earned 43 per cent of the popular vote, but more than half the seats in the Assembly. The Tories’ garnered slightly better than a third of the vote, but won more than 40 per cent of the house. The Green Party took one seat with seven per cent of the vote. The NDP (13 per cent) and the People’s Alliance (2.1 per cent) were out of luck, left only to shuffle along old Freddy Beach’s cobblestones.

If Ms. Carmichael and her like had their way, all parties would have emerged with some degree electoral representation: Liberals with 21 seats; Progressive Conservatives with 17; the NDP with six; the Greens with three; and the People’s Alliance with one.

Lamentably, in Canada, proportional representation has been a notoriously hard sell, not among voters, but among those who have the most to lose under such a system: the political establishment, members of which often spout the most egregious generalizations and spin the most outrageous myths about the process.

They say it’s uncommon and unstable. They say it would, in New Brunswick, generate confusion, instability and deadlock. It might even embolden the secret extremists among us who, given a chance, would seek and secure representation for themselves in the Assembly.

The reality is, however, that proportional representation is the most common electoral system in the world, favored most major democracies – though not Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

As for instability, Fair Vote points out on its website, “Since Italy reformed its voting system in the 1990s, Canada is actually now the most unstable of the major democracies, with twenty-one elections since World War II to Italy’s eighteen.”

Finally, the facts simply don’t support the claim that our present system – which can, and frequently does, reward lightly supported candidates for office with absolute power – is somehow inherently better equipped than proportional representation to prevent the barking lunatics in our midst from joining our various assemblies and parliaments.

Of course, no system of self-government is perfect. In fact, oftentimes, it’s a democracy’s flaws that suggest the very strategies for improvement.

This was, indeed, the case last Monday in New Brunswick, where one system of representation pointed, in its failure, to the promise of a better one.

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Pearls of wisdom from the Buddha of showmen


A casual acquaintance of mine (I’ll call him Cal Tripken), who makes a good living on the motivational speaking circuit in Toronto, sits across the table from me, picking calamari out of his teeth with a dessert fork.

“Sorry, dude,” he says. “I still don’t see what your problem is.”

Lunch is over and the cheque has arrived. I have a column to write, but I reckon I still have enough time to reiterate my predicament once more.

I have been asked to give a keynote address at business convention, I explain. I can say anything I want as long as it’s not scatological, pornographic or racist. My problem is that, in recent years, I have developed a morbid fear of public speaking.

Oh sure, I can write a screed for my city’s daily newspaper or for CBC radio that would, and often does, make a politician’s blood churn cold with rage, or an anti-shale gas activist’s dander jump like fleas from his overheated scalp. It doesn’t bother me at all; I sleep great.

But when faced with the prospect of speaking before a live audience of more than 20 people, my throat constricts, my palms sweat, and I cast a frantic glance over at the baby barn at the back of my garden and seriously wonder whether, with a few last-minute renovations, it might serve me well as a hermitage, where I might hole up for the rest of my life.

The curious thing about all of this is that when I was much younger, I was a professional stage actor who had no trouble – indeed, I relished – holding the attention of a theatre packed with between 500 and 1,000 patrons at a time.

So, I ask Cal, what gives. . .dude?

“Well,” he says, putting down the fork, “Let’s parse this. . .You are chiefly a political commentator. . .Correct?”


“So, that means that you presumably know something about the subjects that interest you. . .Right?”


“Bro, there you have it. That’s the problem in a nutshell.”

He still has a little strand of squid stuck between his lateral incisor and canine teeth, which I decide to ignore.

“What are you talking about?” I say as I check my watch and hand my credit card to the sever, as her several, earlier attempts with Tripken’s plastic produced inconclusive results.

“It’s as clear as the frog in your throat. . .You’re too authentic. Your audience doesn’t want to hear what you really think. They want to hear what they think, in your voice. That lets them off them off the hook from actually having to think for themselves.”

Dear Buddha, do go on.

“Deep down, you know this; you’re just not admitting it to yourself. You can write a speech in the privacy of your own boudoir and rehearse it until the cows come home. But if it actually comes from you, what is really you, it’s always going to sound hollow to you when you’re giving it in front of a live audience. . .Frankly, my friend, you’ve forgotten your theatre training. Nowadays, it’s all about the show, baby.”

So, I venture, maybe I should put a pillow under my jacket and prance around the stage like an ersatz Richard III sounding fury and melancholia during speech. Or, perhaps, I should channel Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and scream “Stella!” at the top of my lungs before I segue into a dissertation about how a higher HST rate in New Brunswick will pay for. . .well, streetcars.

“Whatever, dude,” Cal says as he grabs a toothpick. “How do you think Ronald Reagan became the most beloved President of the United States in 50 years. It wasn’t because he was a policy genius. It was because he was an actor. . .And what about our very own Stephen Harper? Do you actually think that hard-talking Steverino means half the things he says. The guy plays soft rock on the piano. . .And in a sweater-vest, no less.

Tripken gets up to leave. “Now, I really gotta go and brush my teeth.”

I smile and, as I retrieve my credit card, say: “Oddly enough, so do I.”

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In Ottawa, the times may, indeed, be ‘a changin’

One election cycle is over and another begins. All eyes in this province now turn to Ottawa to observe what will certainly be a year of such political posturing that it will make the New Brunswick election appear, by comparison, a game of whist played by courteous septuagenarians in a decorous parlour.

On the street where I live, a sign has appeared in a window of a nearby house. “Stop Harper”, it instructs. That’s it. No explication. No fancy design. No cartoonish renderings of Canada’s famously hard-arsed, fearless leader. Just stop him. Now. Forever.

I’m not the first pundit to notice a palpable loathing of our Prime Minister among both the hoi polloi and the elites of this country. A couple of weeks ago, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente penned this:

“Something alarming happened over the summer – several of my friends came down with Harper Derangement Syndrome. ‘He’s gotta go!’ fumed one middle-aged man who had voted for him three times in a row. ‘I just can’t stand him any more,” said another. Both are independent voters who pride themselves on their rational, non-partisan approach to politics.”

What happened? Ms. Wente theorizes: “Is it the Duffy affair? The militant foreign policy? The highly dubious tough-on-crime agenda? No, not really. It’s just. . .him. He’s too controlling, too snarly, too mean. He picked a fight with Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. He sounded callous about murdered native women. It’s not the policies or even the scandals – it’s the tone. They just don’t like the guy.”

I think that’s just about right.

The irony, of course, is that Mr. Harper cruised into power on a platform of substance over style; yet it would be his style that largely upends him next fall.

He’s been a durable, if unimaginative, steward of the economy. His social policies have not been completely disastrous. His track record on the environment has been no worse, and oftentimes better, than those of either of his Liberal predecessors, Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien. His appreciation of Canadian history, while selective and even fetishistic, has, at least, confirmed his true patriot love.

Still, it’s his dour, sour-faced demeanour (even, astonishingly, when he’s smiling) that people notice first.

He seems to loathe journalists almost as much as he does his own backbenchers who, like gadflies, periodically swarm him in Parliament. He appears to brook no dissent, let alone discussion or compromise.

He comes across like the uber control freak, the natural Alpha male in a high school dominated by members of the computer and chess clubs. He kicks sand in the face of both jocks and nerds, equally and democratically. And woe betide anyone belonging to “glee”.

All of which may explain why the Prime Minster’s Office has become so bloated with able bodies over the past six years. A man who promised Canadians that he would consult with his Cabinet as no other chief elected official has in the nation’s history has, instead, left many of those lieutenants to twist in the wind, thanks to decisions his burgeoning ranks of professionally ambitious, personally calculating, mostly young supplicants have made on Big Daddy’s behest.

That the anti-Harper campaign has found purchase in the youth produces more exquisite ironies.

The first is that more young people than ever before — those who are unaligned with the PMO — may actually vote this year (because they despise the political process that installed the current prime minister).

The second us that, by voting, the aspiring progressives in the under-30 set of this nation might actually grab the opportunity and wherewithal to set the political agenda for the first time in a very long time.

And so the sign on my neighbour’s window stands not so much as a indictment of politics as usual, but as a rejection of those who practice it, in high office, with obvious disdain for the people — some of whom elected them; some of whom merely tolerate them.

It stands as a reminder of the transience of election cycles, which come and go with the  autumn winds, and the counter-cultural permanence of disappointment breeding in the bones of every sentient voter everywhere in the world.

It is the sign of our times.


When getting answers from Ottawa, the cost is worth the price


Go ahead, ask a question of one of Canada’s esteemed government members. I dare you.

We unelected peasants are, of course, accustomed to obfuscation masquerading as straight talk from those who we periodically install to purportedly defend our democracy.

But it may surprise you to learn that one Conservative backbencher has actually obtained a price tag for every query his fellow parliamentarians — Tory or not — toss at cabinet members in the simple prosecution of their duties.

It’s $117,188 and change.

That’s not for answers to trivial inquires, such as “Will the minister please explain why the socks he is wearing today do not match?” or “Why does this government insist on telling Canadians that sartorial standards require that all attendees to baseball games wear straw boaters, when clearly brimmed caps are the norm?”

No, it’s the cost associated with replying to weightier interrogatives related to such matters as “the percentage of Employment Canada benefits applications that are rejected and how many people have to wait longer than 28 days for a response; which government department is responsible for monitoring the transportation of fissile radioactive material inside our borders; how much money Ottawa has spent developing software since 2011 and what the software actually does; and the amount the government spent on travel expenses while negotiating the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union.”

The quote comes from a Globe and Mail editorial published last Thursday. It refers to actual questions on the Order Paper, which provides mostly opposition MPs with a constitutionally valuable means to ascertain just how much horse pucky a reigning government manages to sling during any given parliamentary session.

Now, Tory MP Mike Wallace wonders whether the cost to Canadian taxpayers is worth the effort to remain accountable to Canadian citizens, if only in this one, time-honoured way.

To be clear, he asked a question, placed on the Order Paper (presumably costing $177,188) that, reportedly, went like this: “Are we sure we’re getting value for the dollar?” In an interview with the Globe, he elaborated: “I think it’s just important that it’s on the record. I think government and Parliament could run more efficiently and effectively in a lot of areas and this is just one little, tiny example of where. . .are we sure we’re getting value for the dollar?”

To ask whether it’s prudent to ask questions of government members, knowing that the question itself will add to the putative $1.2-million, annual bill you’re railing against in the first place, is the apex of right-wing disrespect for, and cynicism about, 145 years of wise, parliamentary procedure.

You might have simply emailed my old colleague Sean Fine, justice reporter at the Globe, with your thoughts. No harm, no foul.

As for you now, though, for shame, Mr. Wallace, for shame!

Still, know that you are not the only one of your ilk who owes an apology to the Canadian electorate.

There is the little matter of your overlord’s constantly fractious relationship with this country’s judiciary, in which he has impugned the reputation of its head, for no apparent reason except spite; slammed its obligations to patiently review the exigencies of government’s legislative branch in the context of constitutional justice; and all but repealed an enlightened policy of his own design because a few big mouths in his circle chose to speak out against him.

Again, the Globe reports: “Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that selection panels of MPs from the major political parties would assess candidates being considered for the Supreme Court of Canada, in consultation with leading judges and lawyers, though the actual appointment would remain a Crown prerogative.”

Now, we learn, alongside Mr. Wallace’s concerns about sharing information too freely among the hoi polloi, that this noble exercise in accountability is “being reviewed” for the simple reason that it produced too much accountability, too much truth about Ottawa’s wheelhouses of power and influence, too much public information made too readily to the very people who install these bozos to defend our democracy — we, the peasants.

Dare we ask questions? We’re damed if we don’t.

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In New Brunswick, that was then. This is now


We are coming down, dear reader, to end of the line, if not our rope, in this, the 38th general election for Canada’s picture-perfect province. Naturally, it behooves us to review what we’ve learned thus far, which may not be much.

Nevertheless, by now we should all fully appreciate the dimension of New Brunswick’s fiscal dilemma, which some observers have characterized as more of a calamity. A $500-million annual deficit and $12-billion long-term debt hang like millstones around our collective neck.

To some extent, we have been conditioned to believe that this is an intractable problem that can’t be ameliorated, let alone managed.

But this is not, strictly speaking, true. Many jurisdictions have faced tougher challenges and recovered nicely (think Saskatchewan). Others have staged convincing turnarounds in relatively short order (think Prince Edward Island).

But to do this for ourselves, we are going to have to work together and on an unprecedented scale. Defying their partisan straight jackets, politicians need to collaborate. Setting aside our ideological differences, unelected citizens must reach out to one another and share their good ideas without hesitation.

Above all, we’re going to need a few big ideas to get us where we want to be: To a place where innovation meets compassionate pragmatism, where natural resources integrate with sustainable development, where healthy communities seed the fallow economic fields of less successful ones.

To say that what this province needs most is jobs is merely to mutter a truism. What sort of jobs are we talking about?

Are these short-term positions, back-stopped by Employment Insurance. We already know what these do for us. Or are the jobs we need more durable and promising than this? And if they are, how do we generate them not just for this generation, but also for future ones?

The steady outmigration of young people from this province to points west is not a problem that we can fairly lay on the shoulders of any political party or government. The exodus has been underway for many years.

To keep our kids – and bring some back – we need to build a truly creative economy; one that implicitly recognizes that economic sectors should be not silos, but incubators that manage to cross-pollinate the province with ingenious, new approaches to entrepreneurship. And we need to remove the unnecessary, baroque regulatory barriers that continue to imprison our thinking, our imagination, within an old, threadbare box.

The federal government has done us no favours with its various jobs and immigration policies. But we can’t let that stop us from forging ahead, implementing our own plans and priorities that reflect and address our distinctly New Brunswick circumstances.

What, dear reader, do we want to be when we, all of us together, grow up?

I envision a province whose cities greet every commercial, social and cultural opportunity with a view to leveraging its main chances for the benefit of everyone, not just of a  neighbourhood, a constituency, a tiny corner of the municipal steppe.

I envision a province whose government makes targeted, strategic investments in areas for which it is properly responsible – education, health care and social services – and rejects the obvious and costly cattle calls to candidates for corporate welfare.

I envision a province whose political culture finally embraces the contributions that both those in power and those in opposition can make to advance the cause of social improvement, if not human perfectibility, in this place that 750,000 people still call home.

The world beyond our borders is full of dangerous places, full of treachery and depredation. In this world, where 50 million individuals are either literally or virtually stateless, left to their own devices, without the democratic protections and safety nets we have come to expect, we are exceedingly lucky.

Shall we squander this by retreating into our separate cocoons?

Or shall we come into the light together, knowing that we are the champions of our own, formidable passion to do better, and be better, together; knowing that if we can think a thing, we can do a thing.

It’s always tempting to perceive an election as a chance to review what we’ve learned and moan about it.

But, really, elections are about the future, where our minds should wander with hope and wonder, not regret. Never regret.


Boning up on fracking 101


The spectacle of an energy company’s CEO teaching the abecedarian facts about a drilling technology that’s been around for at least ten years to candidates for the highest elected office in the province is undeniably amusing.

Still, one or two of our premier wannabes might have cracked a book before showing up for class.

One can only imagine what crossed the mind of Corridor Resources’ Phil Knoll when he decided to pen a lengthy letter to the heads of New Brunswick’s five political parties essentially explaining that, no, gentlemen, it is not possible to extract gas from shale formations in this part of the Maritimes without fracturing the rock.

According to the letter, acquired by the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Mr. Knoll is categorical: “There is no other method to release the natural gas from tight sandstone or shale other than through fracturing the rock. That is the reality.”

And if any political hopeful thinks that fracking (industry slang for hydraulic fracturing, the process by which water and chemicals, or, less commonly, gas, are injected under pressure into sedimentary rock to liberate the fossil fuel trapped there) can be restricted only to the production phase of development, he should think again.

“During the exploration phase, the only way to accurately determine the size of the resource and whether it can be produced economically is through the use of fracture stimulation,” Mr. Knoll explains. “Seismic research and the drilling of stratigraphic core holes can help evaluate the geological formations and their composition at different depths.”

What’s more, he writes, the debate in New Brunswick about hydraulic fracturing – whether, as its opponents claim, it will release vast quantities of methane into the drinking supply, enabling local farmers to literally light their water on fire – is largely misguided if not entirely moot.

In fact, over the past 10 years Corridor has used fracture stimulation to drill 43 wells with, as Mr. Knoll confirms, “no adverse impacts on potable water aquifers. . .Corridor operates some wells that were fractured 10 years ago and still produce natural gas without additional fracturing. Across North America, it is common to have wells producing more than 20 years after initial fracture stimulation.”

All of which suggests that fracking can, at least in this instance, be done safely. But that’s never really been at issue. The underlying quandry in the debate has always been: Will it?

That’s the question an article in Scientific American posed last year, to wit: “A new review article funded by the National Science Foundation and published in Science on May 16 examines what fracking may be doing to the water supply. ‘This is an industry that’s in its infancy, so we don’t really know a lot of things,’ explains environmental engineer Radisav Vidic of the University of Pittsburgh, who led this review. ‘Is it or isn’t it bad for the environment? Is New York State right to ban fracking, and is Pennsylvania stupid for [allowing it]?’ According to the review, the answer is no. ‘There is no irrefutable impact of this industry on surface or groundwater quality in Pennsylvania,’ Vidic says.”

Still, the article continues, “That’s not to say there haven’t been problems. That’s because there are many ways for things to go wrong with a natural gas well during the fracking process. A new well – or the 100,000 or so existing but forgotten wells – can allow natural gas from. . .deposits to migrate up and out of the rock and into water or basements. Leaking methane, in addition to being a potential safety hazard, is also a potent greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change, although that environmental impact was not examined in this study.”

However New Brunswickers choose to chart their collective energy future, the wisest course will always begin with the self determination to obtain the best of all possible facts.

After all, to avert a risk, you must first understand it.

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“Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled. . .”


As a direct descendent of Robert the Bruce (as are all of us who bear his last name, don’t you know), I wonder how I would vote – were I real Gael and not some poseur separated from the mother country by seven generations of Canadian rock farmers – in this week’s referendum for Scottish independence from Westminster.

Would I be sensible and prudent (like a true Scot) and vote with my head, realizing that that a break from the United Kingdom would, in all probability, result in my reconstituted nation’s immediate economic duress and, quite possibly, social dislocation?

Or would I be passionate and adventurous (also, like a true Scot) and vote with my heart, believing that the challenge of charting the undiscovered country that is sovereignty is just the tonic that five million souls need to engineer a new political and socio-economic order?

Certainly, Spain’s Basque and Catalonian separatists are watching events unfold in Edinburgh with keen and partisan interest. Their sympathies are clear: Be bold, Scotland, and go your own way after more than 300 years under the yolk of British rule; and, while you’re at it, show us how to do it without spilling the blood of innocents.

We, in Canada — where more people claim Scottish ancestry than there are actual Scots  living north of the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall — are somewhat less impressed by the prospect of waking up on Friday only to find a new applicant to the G-20 assembly of nations.

Oh, Albans, are thee mad? So beseeches the Globe and Mail.

“Dear Scotland. . .You made us,” last Saturday’s lead editorial states both unctuously and presumptuously (a strange, oddly affecting, combination that this newspaper has been perfecting for decades). “As a gesture of thanks, we’d like to offer some advice on how to avoid unmaking yourself. This bit of history you are living right now? We’ve already been through that. We may be a young nation but we have far more experience than you on this issue. We nearly tore our country apart. Twice.”

Talk about hubris.

Clearly, the writer forgot that Scotland is, already a “devolved” government within the United Kingdom, with its own First Minister, its own system of education and health care, and a long history of steadily, if incrementally, separating itself from London’s parliamentary influence with, one might add, Britain’s compliance and, oftentimes, complicity.

To compare the predicament that this country (and it is, in fact, just that) faces with Canada’s constitutional wrangles with the province of Quebec in 1980 and 1995, is to juggle apples and oranges and wind up with bananas.

More bananas, courtesy of the Globe: “Dear cousins from across the seas, here is our advice and our plea: Stay in the United Kingdom. Let time pass and passions subside. Make changes happen but within the U.K. And meet us back here in, say, 2040. You can take the U.K. apart then, if you still want to. We think you will not. And we know this: If you take it apart, you can never, ever put it back together again.”

Sort of like Humpty Dumpty, which, as it happens is a figure from a children’s verse, the authorship of which has been attributed to a Scot. . .Just saying, is all.

Ultimately, the Globe – which thinks with the many heads it employs to staff its editorial board – is probably right. Nothing sensible can come from Scotland’s secession from the union of British states, which also includes Ireland and Wales.

And there’s certainly nothing efficacious about becoming what George Will, a Washington Post columnist, recently warned “the 16th among what would then be the 29 nations of the European Union” in terms of GDP.

Still. . .

Somebody, somewhere must have told Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald (a Scot) that he was insane to attempt to forge an independent nation from a collection of British colonies. That particular somebody must have thought him downright certifiable when he proposed linking the nation’s two coasts with an intercontinental railroad.

As legend goes, my putative forebear, Robert the Bruce, split the skull of an English general while on horseback at the battle of Bannockburn, during the original war of Scottish independence in the 13th Century.

I am, like most descendants of Alban adventurers, made of less sterner stuff.

But, if I were a true Gael, I’d vote with my heart come Thursday.

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The Franklin find: genuine history turned political theatre


Since 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has authorized Parks Canada to spend millions of dollars on six polar searches for the wrecks of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus – the two British, Hecla class bomb vessels that ferried the expedition of Captain Sir John Franklin to its watery grave 169 years ago.

On Tuesday, having heard that one of those ships (no word yet on which one)  had been found resting under barely 11 meters of the Victoria Straight, off the coast of King William Island, far from the fabled Northwest Passage it and its sister ship had been commissioned to sail, Mr. Harper might have body-checked his own mother had she been blocking his access to a microphone.

“For more than a century this has been a great Canadian story, a mystery; it’s been the subject of scientists and historians, writers and singers,” he fairly giggled before a hastily arranged press conference in Ottawa. “So, I think we have a really important day in mapping together the history of our country.”

Indeed, as he reminded his fellow Canadians last month at the height of one of Parks Canada’s annual hunts for all things Franklin-rated, this “ultimately isn’t just about the story of discovery and mystery and all these things. It’s also really is laying the basis for what’s, in the longer term, Canadian sovereignty.”

In fact, on the face of it, Mr. Harper’s enthusiasm is both endearing and justified; amateur and professional historians owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. The find does, indeed, solve many mysteries, even as it will almost certainly raise tantalizing questions to vex and titillate scholars for years to come.

But does it really have anything to do with Canadian sovereignty, as Mr, Harper claims? According to at least one authority, that’s stretching the truth almost to breaking.

“The discovery of two historical wrecks from the 1840s that sailed under the authority of Britain before Canada was even a state doesn’t really extend our claims of control over the waters of the Northwest Passage,” Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, told the National Post. “This myth just had another chapter added,” he further commented for the Globe and Mail.

What it does do, however, is send another message to the international community – notably Russia and the U.S. – that Canada’s claims to Arctic region are historically valid, if that was ever in doubt.

It also ensures, as Mr. Huebert points out, that “the Arctic is going to be one of his (Mr. Harper’s) major legacies when people look back on his leadership period.”

In the broader sense, the Prime Minister’s interest in, and willingness to support, ventures like the search for Franklin repudiates some of the harsher criticism of him as a by-the-books politician with little or no interest in research and science. It all depends on what research and which science we’re talking about.

The Globe and Mail’s lead editorial yesterday congratulated the Harper regime for demonstrating both leadership and collaboration – qualities that, at least, helped searchers find the wreck – even as it castigated certain government members for cracking down on researchers who go off message.

Remember, the piece instructed readers, “The government that allowed journalists open access to the scientists looking for the Franklin ships is the same one that has routinely gagged government scientists since taking power. It is now impossible in Canada for a reporter to speak with a federal scientist without going through media relations officers, a lengthy and often fruitless process. The policy has been condemned  by the British scientific journal Nature and the American Association for the Advancement of Science”

How, one wonders, has that worked out for them?

Nope, unless some crafty spin doctor with a soft spot for unfettered free speech, environmental stewardship, and basic research for the sake of basic research can figure out a way to dramatize all science to good Conservative Party effect, this prime minister’s interest in science, while genuine, will remain politically discriminating.

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Shooting the messenger at election time

Leaves of grass for NB's labour market

Few in these jaundiced times espouse an unshakeable faith in much of anything. But those handful who do believe in the primacy, if not permanence, of polling numbers might be disappointed in events presently unfolding in Scotland.

There, the Scottish National Party, under the spirited leadership of Alex Salmond is rallying it supporters of independence before next week’s historic referendum, the outcome of which could redraw the map of Great Britain both figuratively and literally.

According to Griff Witte, writing this week in the Washington Post, “The once-unthinkable prospect that Britain could be ripped apart this month with a vote for Scottish independence became bracingly real Monday after the campaign to keep the three-century-old union together was accused of panicking amid polls showing the referendum in a dead heat.”

Indeed, “Just 10 days before the vote, the new surveys depicted a dramatically tightening race after months in which the ‘no’ side appeared to hold a comfortable lead. Although both sides have questioned the accuracy of the Internet-based polls, the pro-independence camp immediately claimed the momentum.”

In fact, until last month, Scottish naysayers (those who wish to remain in the United Kingdom) accounted for between 60 and 70 per cent of intended voters. The ‘yes’ forces, in contrast, had trouble breaking above 40 per cent. Now, it seems, those in favour of Scottish independence are nudging the 52 per cent mark.

This is why those of us who know a little something about statistics, approach all numbers meant to startle, scare or otherwise provoke only warily.

Still, election polls are notorious, not so much for their inaccuracy but for their unreliability from one day to the next.

For this reason, they’re also the source of some of the most heated debates, sometimes eclipsing all other, more relevant, issues, as candidates desperately fear being trampled by the herd mentality on voting day.

Indeed, when the circumstances are ripe, even some pollsters will wade into the fray. Witness, for example, Corporate Research Associates chairman and CEO Don Mills last week instructing his lawyers to fire off a stern missive to New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward regarding some unfortunate wording the latter deployed during one of his many stump stops around the province.

“CRA has been great over the years at playing games,” Alward had told an audience of supporters, following the release of its latest polling data showing the Liberals ahead of the PCs in popular support (49 versus 29 per cent). 

“You only have to go back to the last election when in the weekend leading up to the voting, they were saying it was too close to call or even that we were behind. In reality it was a 42 to 13 landslide.”

In a statement, Mr. Mills retorted: “Through hard work and diligence, CRA has built its reputation as a non-partisan public opinion polling company since its founding in 1978. Comments attributed to Mr. Alward impugn that reputation and imply bias in our work.”

If they do, it wouldn’t be the first time a frustrated politician has shot from the hip at political pollsters.

“Gov. Chris Christie wasted little time in taking aim at pollsters during his latest town hall event just as a recent poll found the governor’s job approval rating is plummeting amid the ongoing George Washington Bridge controversy,” reported PolitickerNJ last winer.

“The governor started the event discussing the weather, telling residents on another snowy day in the state that there are people in two professions who continue to get paid despite getting it wrong time after time. Meteorologists? Of course, he said. But according to New Jersey’s governor, there’s another group of workers in the same pool: Pollsters. ‘They don’t ever have to have it right,’ Christie said to laughs from the crowd.”

At best, political polling is an accurate snapshot of people’s opinions and attitudes at the time of asking. They can, and do, suggest longer-term trends. But the reliability of those trends is in direct proportion to the number of people who will never change their mind – who will, with an unshakeable faith in their own world view, vote as they say they will regardless of sound facts and arguments that militate for alternatives.

Fortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. Just ask the Scots.

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