Monthly Archives: June 2016

Stupidity on the rise


Do the humble and picturesque Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scoria and Newfoundland and Labrador finally have something bold to teach the world – like, how to get along?

It seems clear that a good portion of western society is entering something opposite to the Age of Aquarius. In a provocative piece for The Atlantic magazine this month, entitled “How American Politics Went Insane,” writer Jonathan Rauch observes, “(Donald) Trump. . .didn’t cause the chaos. The chaos caused Trump. What we are seeing is not a temporary spasm of chaos but a chaos syndrome.”

He continues: “Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers – political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees – that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal – both in campaigns and in the government itself.”

Then, of course, there’s the recent Brexit vote to leave the European Union. If nothing is done over the next two years (and, really, at this point what are the credible options?), Britain will go it alone in a continent that is becoming increasingly retrograde, isolationist and angry. Already, great swaths of so-called “leavers” are regretting their decision in last week’s general referendum.

Former editor of The Sun newspaper, Kelvin MacKenzie, was one of England’s most prominent voices urging the exit. Prior to the vote, he penned a column headlined “10 reasons why we must vote Brexit,” citing the near and happy certainty that Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne would, at last, retire.

Here’s what Mr. MacKenzie has to say for himself today: “When I put my cross against Leave, I felt a surge as if for the first time in my life my vote did count. I had power. Four days later I don’t feel quite the same. I have buyer’s remorse. A sense of be careful what you wish for. To be truthful I’m fearful of what lies ahead. Am I alone?”

To many of us in Atlantic Canada, these developments – firmly rooted in an almost hysterical fear of immigrants, ginned up by political demagogues –have been downright mystifying. After all, Great Britain – that mother of democracy – has been, for generations, a beacon of tolerance and good sense. With notable exceptions, so has the United States.

Lest we go down that same road, we, in this part of the world must be ever watchful of the inflammatory rhetoric that passes for informed opinion and reasonable commentary – the irresponsible and often hateful words that occasionally drip from the lips of the “I’m just saying” contingent. Fortunately, most of the time, we are.

We still recognize that immigration is one of the keys that unlock this region’s social and economic potential. We still understand that we are far stronger by working together than by freelancing our fortunes independently.

Mostly, though, we still respect and honour the shared and common public institutions that protect us from the heavy hands of the bloviating windbags who would, in their own, arched self-interest, raise alarms over trivialities or, in fact, nothing at all.

Does this make us better than everyone else, or just luckier? Who knows? But for now, as Canada Day approaches, it seems that we do finally have something bold to teach the world.

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Brexit’s dart to the heart


Nothing unwittingly captures the folly of Britain’s decision, last week, to leave the European Union than do comments from the world’s reigning absurdist, the presumptive Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States Donald Trump,

Having only just arrived to reopen his golf course in Scotland, the billionaire heir to impossible wealth tweeted, “Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!”

In an off-the-cuff interview with reporters, he elaborated: “I think it’s a great thing that’s happened. It’s an amazing vote, very historic. People are angry all over the world. They’re angry over borders, they’re angry over people coming into the country and taking over and nobody even knows who they are. They’re angry about many, many things in the UK, the US and many other places. This will not be the last.”

The curious problem with these remarks is, of course, the fact that Scotland voted 62 per cent to remain within the European Union and is now seriously considering a new referendum to separate from Britain to do just that. So is Ireland.

So, then, who does The Donald actually think took which country back, as he says, with “no games?”

Was it Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who told the BBC last weekend that she intends to spearhead a renewed effort for her nation’s independence from Westminster?

Was it Gerry Adams of Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein, who has, in vigorous protest to the Brexit vote, floated the idea of unifying his country with Eire as a bulwark against an increasingly belligerent England?

As usual, Mr. Trump is doing his level (if unconsciously ludicrous) best to increase Canada’s immigration rates – specifically, to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, where the color of one’s skin still tends to be as white as driven snow. After all, his special brand of xenophobia and populist outrage plays beautifully in places like “Little England” and “Outer Atlantica”.

But before we lick our chops at the prospect of somehow amalgamating London’s progressive urbanites with Boston’s disaffected Democrats within our own porous borders, we’d better be clear about a few incontrovertible facts of life in the global, 21st Century world we inhabit.

The first is: People in democracies make terrible mistakes when they are inchoately angry. They lash out like drunken bums on bingers, only to awake at dawn to ask, “My God, what have I done?”

The second is: The planet fairly brims with enterprising, calculating opportunists who are more than happy to drive wedges between people of otherwise good and temperate nature. The sharks among us swim for this conflict, because by fomenting it, they profit from it.

The third is: No one is ever truly satisfied with the decisions they make or the leaders they choose. All anyone can ever hope for is the wisdom and freedom to forgive, change and reconcile. This is the prevailing power of reasonable governments in stable societies.

The Brexit vote will affect every economy in the world, either directly or indirectly, including Atlantic Canada’s.

Here, we do ourselves a favour by ensuring that our borders are as open as our doors, our business is open-handed, our attitude towards immigrants is openhearted, and our concept of democracy is open-minded.

If we manage that feat, then we will reject the purchase of our minds that the absurdists and calculating suitors to our basest instincts among us insist.

Then, perhaps, tomorrow, people will tell villains like Donald Trump, “You’re fired.”

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Teach them young and well


When former Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick Margaret McCain talks, people tend to listen. And why not?

She was not only the Queen’s representative in this fair province for several years, she is an internationally recognized expert in, and advocate for, early childhood education.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that whenever she swings through these parts, media outlets bend over backwards to lend her their ears.

According to a CBC report last week, Mrs. McCain says, “If the provincial government is serious about fixing its literacy problems it needs to make radical changes that could mean an expansion of public education. (She) said it’s time to adopt the Finnish model and expand public education to include four-year-olds and then three-year-olds. The Finnish model integrates early learning and care within the public system, which McCain said she feels is the best strategy. ‘If we want to reach all children, the public education system is a well-established system where there’s room for extending education downward,’ she said.”

In fact, she added, “You provide equal opportunity for all children. Public education is well-funded, well-structured, well-respected. It’s available, it’s affordable, it’s accessible and most of all there would be consistency of curriculum for all children. . .this is how you give every child an equal opportunity.”

Indeed, there’s little doubt now that around the world, the happiest results correlate with the earliest starts.

A recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report states that in Sweden “The system of pre-school education is outstanding: (a) in its fidelity to societal values and in its attendant commitment to and respect for children; (b) in its systemic approach while respecting programmatic integrity and diversity; and (c) in its respect for teachers, parents, and the public. In each of these categories, the word ‘respect’ appears. There was trust in children and in their abilities, trust in the adults who work with them, trust in decentralised governmental processes, and trust in the state’s commitment to respect the rights of children and to do right by them.”

In Finland, the OECD concludes, “The early childhood education workforce has several strengths, such as a high qualification level of staff with teaching responsibilities, advanced professional development opportunities and favourable working environments. Staff with teaching responsibilities are well educated and trained with high initial qualification requirements. Professional development is mandatory for all staff; and training costs are shared between individual staff members, the government and employers. Working conditions in terms of staff-child ratio are among the best of OECD countries.”

All of which confirms that early childhood education is not the expensive experiment that cynics decry. On the contrary, it is a plausible, workable application for meeting some of our hoariest, long-term social challenges.

The sooner our governments understand that this nation is not, as some political operatives like to assume, a blank canvas for partisan portraiture, the sooner we can get on with investing good money where it belongs: In the future of our kids, who will return dividends that our various adherents of the status quo can’t begin to imagine.

Naturally, as Mrs. McCain states, “There will be some resistance because everybody fears change. And there is a sector of the daycare sector — which is a for-profit. . . If there is an early childhood education sector that wants to remain private then in my vision we have to see them as we do our independent schools. They have to meet certain standards.”

Still, the future of this province’s economic fabric relies on literacy. That’s a project that must begin early in every child’s life.

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Pension blue skies ahead?


If the measure of a politician’s skill is how well she handles the hot potatoes of public policy, then Cathy Rogers must have acquired a good pair of oven mitts before she stepped into her new job as New Brunswick’s finance minister earlier this month.

Arguably, only a few issues are hotter in this country than pension reform. And she knows it, which is likely why she’s been at great pains to explain the reasoning behind her decision to endorse a scheme that increases premiums into the Canada Pension Plan.

The move, signed off by federal, provincial and territorial finance ministers last week, is already generating the predictable amount of sturm und drang within New Brunswick’s business community. “I’m not very happy about it,” Joel Richardson, vice-president of the New Brunswick branch of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, told the Telegraph-Journal last week, “and neither is anybody else in this province.”

He added: “No one has been consulted by either federal or provincial government. This is an absolute failure on behalf of this government and the federal government to work together with the business community to be able to develop and consult on a major, far-reaching policy that will have short and long-term economic impact on the province.”

Business’s basic beef with the CPP hike is that it boosts the payroll taxes that come off their bottom lines. That places undue pressure on their operating margins at a time, they argue, when the nation and few provinces can afford to hobble the private sector’s competitiveness.

Although, dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that the criticism is not merely situational; few businesses like payroll taxes on principle, regardless of how well they and the broader economy happen to be performing. As Canadian Chamber of Commerce President Perrin Beatty effused last week, “We strongly support any program that will allow Canadians to save toward their retirement – as long as it is done on their own terms.” (That’s another way of saying, ‘get your hands out of my members’ pockets’).

Still, the hike, itself, is fairly minor, and, as Ms. Rogers pointed out in an interview with the T-J, it could have been much worse. “To be honest with you, when I first looked at the options on the table, I was very discouraged in the beginning,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘No, in New Brunswick, we’re not going to handle this.’ But we came a long way from some of the initial proposals. I wanted to make sure we could mitigate any negative impact on the economy, on business and on individuals.”

That suggests the New Brunswick’s new finance minister may have played a central role in delaying the CPP hike rollout till 2019 and its subsequent phase-in over seven years. What’s more, under the new framework, employer and employee contributions rise by one per cent. Said Ms. Rogers: “I never want to have this presented as an aggressive enhancement. It’s very modest.”

Modest or not, it won’t stop the complaints from pouring in. Neither will it address the fundamental, structural inequities in income and wealth distribution in Canada and much of the developed world. That statistics are as clear as they are compelling: The rich really are getting richer; the poor really are getting poorer. It’s doubtful that any enhancement to the CPP would effectively address that modern conundrum.

Still, on one of Ms. Rogers’ first times at bat since becoming this province’s finance minister, she’s proving that she can handle the fastballs and even the odd hot potato of public policy.

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Are we all together?

Big and bigger cavemen rejoice

My brother and me 

Tragedies, such as the brutal slaying of 49 members of Orlando’s LBGTQ community (more than 50 others are recovering from their injuries in hospital), shrink the world. They remind us that, in the end, we are all members of the human family.

So it was, earlier this week, when New Brunswick Deputy Premier Stephen Horsman flew the rainbow flag over the provincial legislature at half-mast, stating, “These were needless, senseless killings. It shouldn’t happen, not in today’s world.”

So it was when Chantal Thanh Laplante, an organizer with Moncton’s River of Pride organization, declared, “We stand strongly in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in Orlando and with all the other victims and survivors of hate crimes across the world. Let’s not fight hate with hate. Let’s fight hate with love and peace because we know that in the end, love and peace will always win.”

So it was when Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan told the Charlottetown Guardian, “You can see it from Pride (P.E.I.) and others in the community that we respond with solidarity and pride. This is obviously a senseless act, (but) it’s also an opportunity for us to show that we stand together. It’s horrific that this gay club and these people were targeted.”

It’s not surprising, then, for many to view this particular massacre through a lens focused on broad social principles that apply to all, and not exclusively to the victims of the crime: civilization versus barbarity; freedom versus tyranny.

U.S. President Barack Obama said as much in a statement from the White House: “We know enough to say this was an act of terror and an act of hate. The FBI is appropriately investigating this as an act of terror. We will go wherever the facts lead us. . .What is clear is he was a person filled with hatred. . .This is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country,” adding, “no act of hate or terror will ever change who we are or the values that make us Americans.”

He was in good company. Earlier this week, my friend and colleague Norbert Cunningham, writing in the Moncton Times & Transcript , stated, “What the Orlando attack and every other shooting of this kind has been really about is not sexuality, not religion, not race, not paranoia about pre-fab scapegoats. The target is freedom and democratic values, themselves.”

And, of course, neither gentleman is wrong.

Still, it’s important to remain clear about the specific context of any act of savagery, for that’s the only way we may truly fight the bilious violence that afflicts us and threatens our larger, shared values.

The queer, trans, black and Latino clubbers weren’t murdered because they were freedom-loving Americans. They were murdered because they were members of the LGBTQ community in a country that has not always tolerated their preferences, activities, even existence.

My younger brother – a proud, successful, gay man who lives in Los Angeles – knows first-hand the inarticulate rage that’s sometimes directed toward him. To conflate the peril he faces from some people’s attitude towards his sexual orientation with, say, that of mine – a hetero grandpop of European ancestry walking down a Halifax Street at 2 a.m. – is to trivialize the deliberate nature of hate, itself.

Pride organizers are right. We defeat hate with love every day, one-on-one, in each waking moment, before the events of Orlando become all too tragically commonplace.

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