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What’s a Canadian value?

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Given that more than two-thirds of residents of the Atlantic Provinces support screening potential immigrants for ‘Canadian values’, we’d do well to unpack that enormously loaded phrase in search of a little more meaning, a wee bit more specificity.

A Corporate Research Associates public opinion survey released last week found that 68 per cent of those asked generally or strongly support some sort of test of the degree to which newcomers are sufficiently. . .well. . .Canadian in their outlook. Said the Halifax-based firm’s chairman and CEO, Don Mills, in an interview with Global News: “It’s probably not surprising that we would ask this kind of question given what’s going on in the Western world. There’s a lot of concerns in western countries about values and protection of values.”

He hastened to add: “I don’t think that that means that Atlantic Canadians are in any way anti-immigrant. I don’t think that. It has nothing to do with that. I think it’s the protection of our core values that make us Canadian that people feel are important to make sure that we are attracting people that agree with those values.”

On the other hand, he acknowledged in a statement, “While the definition of Canadian values is yet to be determined, the need for such a definition is clearly evident by the majority of Atlantic Canadians who support screening potential immigrants for Canadian values before allowing them entry into the country.”

This is, of course, one of the problems with open-ended questions. What, exactly, is a Canadian value? The nation’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms provide some clues. Under the ‘Fundamental Freedoms’ section, “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;

(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and

(d) freedom of association.”

Then there’s this assurance: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of the members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”

And this: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada. Every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right a) to move to and take up residence in any province; and b) to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province.”

And this, also: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (This) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

All of which sounds fair enough. But even if we can settle on a generally acceptable set of definitions, how do we ascertain the level of a potential immigrant’s commitment to Canadian values? In effect, what would the actual screening process entail?

This question seems to have stumped even federal Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch who first bandied the phrase about several months ago in her bid to appear patriotic and wholesome.

Perhaps the best we can do is follow our instincts and trust that our own grasp of Canadian values unveils the truth about others, but mostly about ourselves as a kind, tolerant, rational people.

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The fake, fake news

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In the fleeting moments you take to read this humble column, I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. More’s the pity.

Atlantic Canada was once the country’s acknowledged center of all things satirical. No surprise there. Between the weather and waiting for the pogey cheque, I can think of two things worth spending any time doing in this benighted neck of the woods. Only one involves laughing your head off.

Time was when you couldn’t count the number of well-known and revered funny men and women in this region on both hands. Now, they’re a vanishing breed. As with most things in life, I blame Donald Trump. Who needs satire, when the genuine object of derision and ridicule provides his own material on an hourly basis?

Writes Nicky Woolf in a recent edition of The Guardian, “Barack Obama, facing the imminent handover to his bombastic successor (that would be Trump), has plenty to be concerned about this week. But he took the time to express his concern about the impact of fake news online when he spoke to reporters on Thursday. Obama, who was described in a detailed New Yorker interview as being ‘obsessed’ with the problem since the election, described the new ecosystem of news online in which ‘everything is true and nothing is true’.”

The outgoing U.S. president continued in a meeting with reporters last week: “In an age where there’s so much active misinformation, and it’s packaged very well, and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television, where some overzealousness on the part of a U.S. official is equated with constant and severe repression elsewhere, if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect. If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

He has a point. So addled are certain media mouths over the proliferance of fake news, they’re calling for an outright dressing-down of legitimately satirical websites. They, too, have a point. It’s just on the top of their heads.

Consider New Brunswick’s very own The Manatee. Its disclaimer now reads as follows: “All content (including, without limitation, likenesses, quotes, figures, facts, etc., collectively, ‘Content’) hosted on The Manatee websites and associated social media accounts (‘The Manatee Sources’) is fictitious and satirical and should not be taken seriously. The Manatee Sources and Content are provided as is. By accessing any of The Manatee Sources you acknowledge and agree that such access, any use of Content, and/or linking to other websites or accounts from The Manatee Sources are entirely at your own risk.”

Now consider one recent Manatee story headlined, “Country ranked ‘C’ in literacy goes out of its way to correct CBC on spelling of ‘grey jay’”. It reported, “A country with one of the lowest literacy rates of the developed world, Canada, is apparently filled with linguists when it comes to the names of animals. When the Royal Canadian Geographical Society chose the ‘grey jay,’ sometimes called the ‘whisky jack,’ as the national bird and CBC reported on it, letters and emails poured in with irritated Canadians correcting the national broadcasting corporation. ‘I don’t know nothing about literacy or whatchamacallit, but I know my birds and that there’s a G-R-A-Y Jay,’ proclaimed New Brunswick man Arnold Ferguson, pointing at one of the feathered friends perched near his birdfeeder.”

True or false? It’s a no brainer. I happen to know Arnold doesn’t own a birdfeeder.

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The lowly pursuits of the high-born politicos among us

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The dissimilitude to truth of this, our current federal government, is breathtaking, and getting harder to inhale with each day that passes.

Officialdom’s single-minded focus on evil-doers, luridly lurking behind every corner on every Main Street in Canada, its purpose to punish those who might occasionally harbour an opinion that differs from the ‘Centre’s’, its thorough, rabid hatred of opposition members of parliament, its utter disregard for what’s on most people’s minds in this country might spell disaster for democracy in this country.

Fortunately, democracy is just a bit stronger than the powerful few – who purport to uphold it – actually appreciate. For one thing, there is humour in everything the body politic is forced to embrace these days.

Consider, by way of example, the latest in a long line of mail-box stuffers, courtesy of my Conservative MP Robert Goguen.

A few months ago, at my doorstep, his confederates dumped a screed that promised to stick up for disabled people, especially the blind. To prove the good fellow’s communitarian intentions, the flyer portrayed all the stranded, standard talking points and one other ingredient: Braille, the tactile reading system the visually impaired use to comprehend the world of words.

Except, of course, in this instance, the Braille elements were not raised bumps a blind person might read; they were flat design elements on a page that even the marvelously sighted could hardly discern on a page of such braggadocio that even Gene Simmons of Kiss fame would blush when contemplating the cataracts 45 years of stage makeup bestows.

Now, my constituency buddies and I welcome this from Mr. Goguen:

“Our Conservative Government is focused on delivering on the priorities of hard-working Canadian families. . .Since coming to office, we have lowered taxes for all, created the Universal Child Care Benefit and the children’s fitness and arts tax credits, and protected the health and safety of families and communities.”

Really?

Actually, this federal government has lowered taxes on the very rich disproportionately to decreases for the middle class.

It has cut funding to the very poor in tandem with its abrogation of any responsibility for skills training and development for the marginally and seasonably employed.

Its employment insurance policies have virtually insured a permanent underclass in every region of the country, except Alberta.

As for the Universal Child Care Benefit, that was a Depression-era innovation that only found purchase in the 1960s. There isn’t much more novel or useful in this program, here today, than there was 75 years ago.

Then, we are faced with this almost incomprehensible statement (written in such tiny type you’d swear the good member of parliament is downright embarrassed to have his name associated with elder care):

“Our Conservative government believes that Canadians should be confident that their interests are well protected by the regulatory framework of our financial system. From the banning of unsolicited credit card cheques, to introducing new rules for credit card companies, our Government has taken strong action to protect hard-working Canadian families. More recently, in response to consumer raised concerns regarding unclear terms and unfair fees, we introduced new pre-paid product regulations to make information for consumers regarding these products clear and simple.”

Uh-huh. And how, pray tell, is that working out for all of us?

This is a government that also wonders what are our top priorities.

Is it, for example, “eliminating geographic price discrimination”, or is it “lowering wireless costs”?

Is it “unbundling cable channels” or is it ending ‘pay-to-pay’ billing policies”?

After all, “who is on track to support Canadian families”? 

Are you a Green, a Grit, a Tory, a Socialist, an “undecided”? Are you a patriot, a malcontent, a rebel, a conformist, a (gasp!) Liberal?

Stand and deliver to Caesar what Caesar demands you “stay-at home parent”, you “senior”, you “veteran”, you “parent of child under 18”, you “working Canadian.”

Of course, we will, in all the required mechanisms of our disassociations from each other: Apart, angry and what power always seeks. . .vulnerable believers.

When the new intern walks with a cane

 

In a recent issue of The Economist, an ad for the Mandarin Oriental hotel group features   Hollywood heavyweight Morgan Freeman reclining serenely on a couch, his handsome, septuagenarian face the picture of health, confidence and Cheshire Cat-like perspicacity. He is smiling as if to say, “You know I’m not going anywhere.” 

The image is oddly appropriate, as it appears directly opposite an editorial entitled “A billion shades of grey,” which examines the gathering economic and demographic tsunami of old folks who can’t afford (or just don’t want) to retire from work. 

Mr. Freeman, it’s safe to say, does not suffer from such problems. The star of cinematic triumphs, including Driving Miss Daisy, The Shawshank Redemption and Invictus, works when the work, itself, interests and (presumably) enriches him. Apparently, that includes occasionally lending out his white-whiskered mug to luxury hotel chains.

But for millions of others in the industrialized world, the choice is not so cavalier. Not surprisingly, then, society’s various workplaces are becoming inexorably geriatric. Notes The Economist: “The world is on the cusp of a staggering rise in the number of old people, and they will live longer than ever before. Over the next 20 years the global population of those aged 65 or more will almost double, from 600 million to 1.1 billion. . .(The) striking demographic trend (is) for highly skilled people to go on working well into what was once thought to be old age.”

So it is in The Great White North (pun, fully intended). A Statistics Canada study, released earlier this year, found that “many older workers who leave long-term jobs do not fully enter retirement. In fact, over one-half of workers aged 55 to 64 who left long-term jobs between 1994 and 2000 were re-employed within a decade.”

Moreover, “of Canadians who exited a long-term job at age 55 to 59, 60 per cent were re-employed within the next 10 years. This was the case for 44 mer cent of those who exited their long-term job at age 60 to 64. Men were more likely than women to be re-employed.”

We Atlantic Canadians appear to be less anxious to punch a clock while our own biological ones are clicking down to the inevitable zero hour, but the data doesn’t factor in other findings that have pointed to the East Coast’s disproportionate share of small, entrepreneurial businesses, whose moms and pops do, quite literally and often, work till they drop.

I imagine that would be me. I belong in the generational camp (right between the baby boom and Gen X) whose members often thought self-employment was a brave and noble endeavor (much like, I imagine, a trapeze artist thinks nets are for wimps). 

At any rate, I’ve been doing this for long enough that any conception of retirement seems, to me, quaintly antiquated – a notion that might have preoccupied my grandfathers when private pension plans for middle-income earners actually meant something, and equity investing was for the risk-embracing wealthy way over there, on the other side of the railroad tracks.

In fact, the western workplace is merely transforming to reflect the salient trends in our culture over the past 30 years.

Begin with a healthy disdain among policy makers, politicians and corporatists of every stripe for unions, worker welfare, protective regulations, and rational guidelines in financial markets. Add a healthy dollop of technological innovation. Sprinkle in advances in medical science and improvements in overall nutrition. Then stir.

Et voila! What you get is a super geezer ready, willing and able to deploy his vast reservoir of work and life experiences in the service of that hot, new, nameless, faceless, off-shoring entity that pays the bills until it, or he, finally succumbs – whichever comes first.

In fact, increasingly, this is how the corporate world both likes and eats its cake. As The Economist points out, “the notion of a sharp division between the working young and the idle old misses a new trend, the growing gap between the skilled and the unskilled. Employment rates are falling among younger unskilled people, whereas older skilled folk are working longer.”

That’s good news for those of us who, by necessity or choice, aren’t going anywhere.

 

Quote of the day

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“Every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character” – Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 1898

A bloodied, but unbowed, Darrell Dexter

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When elected leaders finally fail at the ballot box, their post-campaign routine typically conforms to the immemorial script of the politically vanquished: Fade into the background for an obligatory period of reflection; emerge sadder, but wiser; issue subdued, yet heartfelt, expressions of remorse.

No so for former Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter who resurfaces this week making no excuses for his one-term NDP government, which lost to the Liberals on October 8. In fact, in his first full, published interview (with the Globe and Mail) since his shellacking, than man seems downright feisty.

“There is a point at which you could say. . .what more do you have to do?” he told the newspaper late last week. “What more do you have to do in order to demonstrate, if not exceptional management skills, at least acceptable management skills and a certain level of vision?”

Not that he’s complaining. Not exactly.

“We didn’t have angry mobs following us around the campaign. In fact, of all of the events I did through the campaign. . .not once did a protester ever appear. . .I think at this point you get this phenomenon where people, where they act individually, and the result happens collectively. . .that’s part of the unpredictable nature of politics.”

As for the bottom line, he says “I am completely satisfied with the decisions I made. I made them because I believed they were in the best interests of my province. I’ll live with that.”

Whether or not his decisions were, for the most part, sage and prudent, only time will tell. What is certain, however, is that they were not the unmitigated disasters some members of the Fourth Estate claimed they were. Indeed, very few of them went far enough to risk failing marginally, let alone catastrophically.

His government raised the HST by two points and, in the process, launched its four-year “Back to Balance” plan. Maureen MacDonald, the former Minister of Finance, put it this way in the 2011-12 fiscal statement: “The Public Accounts for the year ended March 31, 2012 are reporting an improvement of $141.1 million compared with the budget estimate of a $389.6 million deficit. With total revenues of $9.7 billion and total expenses of $9.9 billion, the 2011-12 deficit is $248.5 million.”

Meanwhile, “At year-end, the province’s net debt was $13.2 billion, which presented as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is 35.0 per cent for 2012. This Net Debt to GDP ratio is an improvement over previous years.”

Most famously, perhaps, Mr. Dexter took it squarely in the chin for lending Irving Shipbuilding a sizable chunk of taxpayer change to help the company win the federal government’s $25-billion naval procurement.

But, as he told the Globe, referring to the $2.2-billion windfall in expected provincial government revenues, “It seems to this day like a no-brainer. What government in its right mind would not do that when the returns are so great?”

As for his other measures, many seem worthy, if somewhat pedestrian. The NDP (says its website) “invested $8 million to ensure that every pre-school aged child with autism gets the help they need – help that was previously only available to half of them. . . .The NDP is putting what matters most first by increasing reading assistance to students, extending high school math to both semesters, and directing money from central offices to the classroom. . .The NDP’s Primary-Grade 3 class-size cap of 25 meant hiring more than 70 teachers this year.”

It’s hard to se how Mr. Dexter and his decidedly non-socialist New Democrats deserved to lose, when their mainstream policies and programs could have stemmed, just as easily, from Grit or Tory ranks.

Perhaps that’s why Mr. Dexter remains unapologetic, even a little defiant, about his fortunes these days.

In politics, just because you haven’t failed the public, doesn’t mean the public isn’t out to get you at the ballot box.

Raise three cheers for mere mortals

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The Spanish conquerer who discovered Florida, now the western world’s largest home for old folks, was actually looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth. How’s that for historical irony?

No more exquisite, perhaps, than Martine Rothblatt’s statement at the Global Future 2045 International Congress in New York City this summer that “The first company that develops mindware (a kind of software that will render human consciousness eternal and eternally free of the human body) will have (as much success as) a thousand Googles.” Sitting in the audience was Ray Kurzweil, futurist, inventor and director of engineering at, you guessed it, Google.

Not that he could have been much annoyed. Mr. Kurzweil was among friends and acolytes, alike – people who dream of immortality through technology. Here’s what he had to say in the Times of India the other day: “It has been my consistent prediction that by (2029) computers will match human intelligence and pass the ‘Turing test,’ meaning that they will be indistinguishable from human intelligence. Once they can do that they will necessarily exceed human intelligence because they will be able to read everything on the web and every page of every book.

He added: “By 2045 we will have multiplied our intelligence a billion fold by merging with the (artificial intelligence) we are creating. That is such a profound transformation that we borrow this metaphor from physics and call it a singularity.”

Of course, such Utopian nonsense has been a feature of everyday life since Narcissus saw himself reflected in a pool of water, became entranced, fell in, and drowned. Some of us just can’t enough of ourselves, so we hold conferences for like-minded individuals and sit around all day gabbing about how neat it would be to live forever. Oh sure, what a wonderful world that would be.

Elsewhere, others are embarking on a more bite-sized project, though their motives are suspiciously similar to those of the “singularitists”. A Globe and Mail piece this week describes researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City conducting “anti-aging experiments” on mice. Such efforts and the early results “have scientists talking seriously about the average lifespan rising by decades, possibly to 120 years, and academics pondering the consequences. What would it mean for the solvency of the health-care system or public pensions? Would it change views on marriage (‘Happy 98th anniversary, Grandma and Grandpa!’)? And would anyone really want to live so long anyway?”

According to the story, “Versions of the latter question were asked in two recent surveys, one of Canadians, the other of Americans. In the Canadian survey, published last year in the Journal of Aging Studies, 59 per cent of respondents said they would welcome living 120 years ‘if science made it possible to do so in good health.’ The Americans were more reluctant. The survey, by Pew Research and published this month, asked whether people would prefer to live 120 years with the help of ‘medical treatments that slow the aging process.’ The majority – 56 per cent – said no.”

Naturally, they did and here’s why: These days, you have to be rich – or, at least, financially independent – to grow exceptionally old. Who, but you, is going to pay for the expensive treatments, tablets, procedures that will keep you from keeling over?

Just because medical science has figured out ways to keep people alive long past their otherwise natural expiration dates, doesn’t mean the other institutions that comprise society possess either the means or the will to democratize such technologies. Ours is, after all, a market-based economy.

Besides, as Brendan Leier, a clinical ethicist at the University of Alberta’s John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre, told The Globe, “It’s not the duration of life that’s the problem for us, but the quality of life. Quality is what makes it meaningful.”

It would be justly ironic, indeed, if the only old people left on the planet were rich ones, bored to death of their own long and lonely lives

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How (not) to make friends and influence people

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The Prime Minister’s Office, we are told by the more liberal factions of the mainstream media, is a dark and gloomy place where political officers rule with the zealous certitude of their convictions.

In this dramatic pastiche of a Franz Kafka set piece, they are ever relentless, incorruptible and never wrong. They demand absolute loyalty to the nation’s dear leader  from both lesser staff and elected representatives.

And so, it is utterly unsurprising that many of these media critics now decry the apparent  existence of so-called “enemies lists” prepared, at the PMO’s insistence, for new members of Stephen Harper’s cabinet.

But then, given their suspicions about this government, what were they expecting?

An email from the PMO on which the CBC and a variety if other media have laid their paws stipulated “Who to avoid: bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer” as well as “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders.”

Reported the CBC, “The request for a list of problematic bureaucrats was subsequently dropped, according to another email sent a few hours later on July 4. The person who leaked the emails said that when some staff balked at the idea of coming up with the blacklists, they were cut off from further communications about the matter.

“The person also said staff were given examples of stakeholders that could go on the ‘enemies list’ and they included environmental groups, non-profit organizations, and civic and industry associations with views different than the government’s.”

Those who remain decidedly unflustered by the revelations are all who, quite reasonably, expect to find their names on the lists. “I wasn’t surprised but I continue to be disappointed that stakeholders like environmentalists are considered enemies rather than stakeholders who are trying to pursue important issues,” The Sierra Club of Canada’s John Bennett told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

Indeed, according to the public broadcaster, “He said if some ministers were more ‘mature’ they would understand how democracy really works and that all perspectives should be considered when making decisions.”

Said Bennett: “They don’t believe in democracy the way we do, which is an exchange of ideas and debate and try to come up with reasonable solutions. They believe in forcing ideology and if you’re forcing ideology on the Canadian public then you see people like me as an enemy and that’s unfortunate.”

Still, even this observation seems broadly naive, and not a little reflexive.

Whether or not they publicly admit it, all governments maintain some version of an enemies list. They’d be astonishingly dense, even irresponsible, if they didn’t. The tool is a useful instrument in the mix of plans and priorities that guide public decision making. Imagine a civil administration without credible intelligence about who is for and against it: feckless, at worst; chaotic, at best.

Having a list, and checking it twice, does not automatically render a government undemocratic. What does is abuse of power.

If authorities savagely curtail press freedoms, round up their “enemies” and throw them in jail without due process of law, vastly expand the definition of sedition, and lock the doors of Parliament. . .well, then we have something about which to truly fret.

What’s different about this government – specifically, the PMO – is its historically bloated size, its abnormally youthful composition, and its fondness for deploying inflammatory language in its internal communications.

Reliable media sources have told me that the average age at the PMO is something like 33. Contrastingly, the average age among political news staff at the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star is closer to 50 – old enough to remember the Pentagon papers and Watergate era, when the term “enemies list” was first coined in the wreckage of the terminal Nixon Administration.

Had the character of the PMO not borrowed so heavily from the X-Box, flaming-at-will, unfiltered social networking generation, this utterly meaningless contretemps would not have developed the muscular legs it now has.

Politics is nothing if not about friends and enemies. Sometimes, your friends become your enemies. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Keeping track of them all is the job description of every political staffer, regardless of his or her age.

So is exercising circumspection when the occasion to flap his or her gums arrives. Perhaps, that should be the subject of the next memo the PMO writes, under the subject field: note to self!

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