Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Caledonia plus 1 year

One year ago today, the Battle of Douglas Creek began. The occupation (or "reclamation" depending on whose side one is on) continues and tensions in Caledonia remain as tense as ever. There are a few thoughts I have about this:

1) There's too much ill will on both sides. I have long felt that the 28 outstanding land claims of the elected council, which covers most of the Haldimand Tract, should go to mediation or arbitration. It's time to settle this once and for all; whether it's with money, land or a combination of both.

2) We need to know clearly who speaks for each side. No sooner does one try to figure this out than yet another constituency crops up claiming they weren't consulted or they file yet another spurious lawsuit -- not just against the government but against rival factions in the Iroquois community.

3) There must be ways found to allow Six Nations to become more self-sufficient. One of these, I would think, is to develop the land they already have. There is some commercial development there, but the current reserve is literally surrounded by some of the most productive farmland in Canada -- and when one drives on the reserve one would be hard pressed to see anywhere where a shovel of sod has been turned. Seems to me like an opportunity that isn't being exploited.

The issue of native employment also needs addressing. It's not as bad at Six Nations as it may be on other native reserves but there's still a problem. So does the issue of potable water and just trying to be part of society when society wants to marginalize those who were there first.

4) Finally, one has to recognize the issue of urban sprawl. There is a "greenbelt" that surrounds much of the GTA and Hamilton, but it's worth pointing out that Haldimand County is directly south of the limit of this protected area. As population growth continues, there are concerns that people will just leapfrog from one side of the greenbelt to the other. This is certainly a concern at the northern end of the region, where the population of Barrie is expected to triple in the next 25 years.

Down here, one can therefore understand in that light why there is so much agitation and why some feel they have to take back what they think belongs to them before the "white people" move in. Well, unfortunately, the white people have been there for decades and they will continue to move in. Caledonia is already a flash point and one can very well expect Hagersville and Jarvis to be next.

Frankly, I don't know what the solution is. Having outsiders from the OPP doing three days tours of duty from as far away as Hastings or Rainy River certainly isn't.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

No reauthorization

The House of Commons voted tonight to kill the two provisions of the Anti-Terror law that were set to sunset on Thursday without authorization to extend -- detention without warrant for 72 hours and investigative hearings. The vote was 159-124. Interesting that twelve Liberals either voted with PMS or chose to abstain. Also interesting that Bob Rae, currently not in Parliament, was urging reauthorization while Michael Ignatieff who was once strongly in favour of even more draconian measures to deal with terror threats voted against.

The provisions may have expired and in a way I'm glad they did, but there is still a very real threat out there. It would be prudent on the part of PMS not to suggest the opposition parties support terrorism -- instead, I would urge that some new way to address imminent dangers be passed that would both protect Canadians and withstand a Charter challenge.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Update on my father

I have some positive news to report today about my father's condition. After being in a coma for over a week, he was taken off the respirator today and is awake and responding to the medical staff as well as to his family. He's by no means out of the woods but when one considers he was near death ten days ago we are all very heartened.

It's with that in mind that I have something to get off my chest ... about medicine and faith.

A number of years ago, when my late mother was dealing with all sorts of problems related to mental illness (it was ultimately diagnosed as manic depression), I felt so helpless that I called a crisis line -- which just happened to be run by the folks at the evangelical group 100 Huntley Street. For a Catholic to be taking this step was a daring one but I figured what the heck. I guess I was on hold for about two or three minutes. When there was a pick-up, I laid out the situation. The very first question they asked me was, "Has your mother been prescribed medication?" And right after that, "Is she taking them?" It was only when I said yes to both (unfortunately, she was on the wrong kind of medication which was causing her relapse) that they then offered a prayer.

Now that was something I wasn't expecting, especially from a group that readily supports the "Health and Wealth" gospel. But it was refreshing to hear. Because while God may be the helper of the helpless, He can't be everywhere at once and helping everyone. He relies on people to help other people. And at the very heart of the matter is the fact that one must recognize there is a problem that must be dealt with.

It just makes me sick to see televangelists saying one doesn't need a doctor, just hand over 10 percent of the gross and God will increase that a hundred fold and / or provide the healing. Nope ... doesn't work like that. God can't be bought and can't be put to the test.

Benny Hinn, the king of the mouth shooters, once said on TV that a grieving family should tell the paramedics not to take away a dead body but to leave it in front of the television for 24 hours just in case the dead person woke up; another time he actually said that while on a joint crusade with Reinhard Bonnke somewhere in Africa, they raised someone from the dead. (No videotape proving that has ever been found or presented.)

It still amazes me that I nearly sold my soul to Oral Roberts, and later my Dad (during my parents' divorce) nearly shilled out to Robert Tilton.

Yes, prayer is important. But in a situation like this, it's best to leave it to the professionals ... and right now Dad's in the best possible hands. The fact he's at a faith-based Catholic hospital is not in my mind irrelevant -- it's an important tool. I shudder to think that a decade ago Mike Harris wanted to close St. Joseph's in Hamilton. The public revolt in town was so great -- from Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- that not only was the hospital saved, it was also given the money for a major expansion. I think the reaction has a lot to do with the fact that over half the kids born in Hamilton were born at that one hospital -- that's more than the other four hospitals combined -- as well as the care has always been first rate. (Not to deny the work done at the civic hospitals, since I have friends who work there -- it just seems that if people want to get cared for they'd prefer St. Joe's if a bed is available.)

Making faith and medicine work together is not a contradiction; they go hand in hand. If people realized that, there wouldn't be any faith healers. And for what it's worth, I'd rather put my faith in a physician than a freak. That being said, my father still needs your prayers. There's a long road ahead.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Girl, 16, breaks slots in Macau

The city of Macau, which like Hong Kong is part of China but has an autonomous government (and wide-ranging freedoms which do not exist on the Mainland), is trying to explain itself after a 16 year old girl from HK won $100,000 US at the slot machines at one of the city's many casinos. Seems she was allowed to keep the money because of a loophole in the law: She wasn't supposed to be allowed into the casino since she's under 18, but the law only regards admission to the facilities -- not actually playing the machines. However, the young women's mother has been banned from the city's casinos for allowing her daughter to go on the escapade.

Far be it from me to complain about the vice of gambling, because I'll admit to the yen although I'm not compulsive about it. Matter of fact, years ago before Ontario put in an age limit, I won a 50-1 longshot at a racetrack -- I was only 12 at the time and I got paid off without any questions whatsoever.

But this goes to the issue of parenting. What mother in her right mind would give her daughter money for the specific purpose of wasting it? Sure, it paid off in this case, but what if it got swallowed up by the machine? $12 doesn't exactly go that far in either of the autonomous territories, after all. And in an age where casinos are popping up all over the place, Macau -- or for that matter Niagara Falls -- isn't exactly a family friendly place anymore.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

No more security certificates

A great day for civil rights in Canada, as the country's high court unanimously struck down the concept of "security certificates," an anti-terrorism tool dating 29 years, all the way back to the Trudeau era. Writing for the 9-0 court, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin ruled that the writs
  • abrogates the principles of fundamental justice;
  • constitutes arbitrary detention, and
  • violates habeas corpus.
The writs always bothered me, but especially after 9/11. No question, we need the tools to deal with terrorists and other rotten people who would destroy our values and to deal with them harshly. However, going to the lowest common denominator is giving the terrorists the upper hand, not us.

The idea that a non-citizen can be kicked out of the country based on secret evidence that only prosecutors and judges know about is insidious to say the least. The defendant only gets a heavily redacted summary and even then faces an uphill battle to clear his or her name. It's as if the decision has already been made. It has been used against some pretty undesirable people, such as Ernst Zundel who last week got five years in a German court for his anti-Semitic writings; but in that particular case it's not as if we didn't know the allegations, his works are a matter of public record.

But what if the name is right but the suspect is wrong? What if the top-secret information came from a country that enthusiastically supports torture like most Middle East states and even, to a certain extent, the current American regime? What if the evidence is just plain wrong, period?

Other countries, like the UK, have special advocates which have security clearances but are allowed to ensure the intelligence is up to snuff. This is a role analogously served in Canada by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which oversees our spy operations but only for internal operations, not matters that make it to the courts. Perhaps it is time to expand SIRC's role so they can take on this advocacy role. Or a separate advocate's office can be set up, just as there is a Children's Advocate in some provinces for family law cases.

What's noteworthy is that all nine judges voted to strike down the certificates, including PMS' judge on the court, Marshall Rothstein. This fact alone tells me that the Supreme Court (including those members who normally side with the cops) is worried at the direction the Harper administration may be going in terms of law and order. Parliament has been given a year to fix the defects in the law and come up with something better; but in the meantime one must wonder whether the lower courts which are the workhorse of the judicial system are going to be stacked with police-friendly judges. And of course, there's probably going to be an election in the meantime which could prove as indecisive as the last two (and which in turn could throw the whole issue upside down, again).

For now, however, a very important victory for fair play. The courts have done what they were supposed to do in this case -- make sure that a deportation is based on the facts and that a defendant has the right to dispute those facts.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A low blow from Harper

It had been my wish not to blog during my father's health crisis, which at this writing is still not resolved. However, something happened today that compelled me to break my silence. Stephen Harper found a very clever as well as deplorable way to change the subject.

Two of the provisions of the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act are set to expire next week. One deals with detention without warrant for 72 hours. The other deals with the ability to question witnesses under oath and behind closed doors. It seems the Liberals, which was originally opposed to extending the very provisions they enacted are now divided on the issue. And so, on the heels of the Air India inquiry being up in the air because of the government's refusal to declassify key documents, documents from a terrorist act that took place 22 years ago, Harper turned the tables on the Liberals by saying that one of the Liberal MPs' father-in-law, a Sikh, was being questioned by the Mounties on the Air India bombing.

Specifically, the Vancouver Sun reported today that the said father-in-law of Navdeep Singh Bains, one Darshan Singh Saini, told the RCMP that he met a man who later shot a key witness against one of the known conspirators in the bombings. Harper essentially accused the Liberals of trying to impede the investigation because without the law that is set to expire, the cops won't be able to do an in camera briefing of any witnesses in the case. One of those witnesses, oddly enough, is Saini.

What was the original question, one might ask? Well, the Liberals wanted to know why the police are being allowed on the committees that select judges -- something that doesn't happen anywhere in the free world, as far as I know. Not even in the States, except for the requisite background checks.

It's bad enough that Harper has jeopardized an investigation that already was going nowhere after two of the key suspects were acquitted last year. It's even worse to insinuate that Saini may know more than he's letting on. What really angers me, however, is that this is a terrible abuse of Parliamentary privilege. It's a well established principle that a legislator should be able to speak his or her mind on the floor or in committee without fear of reprisal or threat of legal action. But it's also a matter of principle the executive branch never comments on matters that are before the courts or a commission of inquiry, or are the matter of a pending police investigation. To breach this is to violate the independence of the judiciary, a fundamental principle of democracy.

One should not be allowed to hide behind the shield of privilege in this case. Canadians deserve answers in the worst act of terrorism other than 9/11. There has to be some way to debrief witnesses without the draconian provisions of a law that is more about fighting other forms of domestic terrorism, such as the operations of biker gangs. But to presume someone guilty before proof of innocence and accusing an MP of being guilty by association even when he has completely renounced terrorism (i.e. the radical movement fighting for an independent Khalistan) is beyond the pale.

I'm not expecting Harper to apologize. He doesn't for anything. I would hope, though, he retracts his remarks from the record -- and declassifies all documents immediately so that further interrogations aren't required, and Justice John Major (né the Supreme Court of Canada) can finish his job. Canadians can't wait anymore for answers.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Blog, interrupted

My father had to suddenly go to the hospital last night, related to a long-standing health issue. While they have stabilized him he is still in critical condition. As a result, I will have to suspend my blogging. Hope to be back at this soon. So say a prayer for him, please.

Thanks for your understanding.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Stacking the courts un-Canadian

Stephen Harper admitted yesterday he wants to "stack the courts" so as to ensure judges implement his law and order agenda.

That's all well and good, but there are ways to do this other than by tilting a process that has served this country well for decades, a system that ensures only the most well qualified lawyers are called to the bench. One may argue that judges are "too soft," but the reality is that for some crimes the sentences are too lenient and the bandwidth between minimum and maximum sentences too wide.

For example, one can introduce sentencing guidelines that would comply with the Charter's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment while at the same time ensuring the general consensus there should be both a deterrent against and retribution for crimes committed against society. There's no need to try to "stack the courts." If one did this, as the Cons are proposing, then there would be inconsistency as to sentencing. It would be the luck of the draw whether a suspect was assigned to a court with a "liberal" or a "conservative" judge. Appeals courts, quite rightly, would have to call Harper's bluff and say similar circumstances should call for similar sentences.

Another thing the feds can do is to make sure law enforcement officials have the proper funds to actually do their job. While there is a uniform criminal law in Canada, enforcement is done by the provinces and territories and it's local taxpayers that bear the brunt whenever police ask for salary increases. We can certainly talk about fixing the "fiscal imbalance" at all levels, including ensuring local authorities can raise funds other than by property taxes and user fees. (Consider many US cities which lower their property tax burden, by putting an emphasis on traffic tickets for out-of-townees as well as a hotel tax -- neither of which are available for Canadian municipalities.)

But we can start by having targeted transfers from the federal level to hire more cops so they can look after all crime and not just attempt to make "priorities" as to what is a serious crime and what isn't; as well as ensuring the funds will be there to deal with what would be an increased prison population. We need to be careful here, too: Our incarceration rate is about a third of the American one and many US states are teetering on financial ruin because of overcrowded joints.

Finally, it would be nice to see the government try to address what underlies the perceived problem, rather than just throw a brick at it. That applies to all parties, by the way. Saying one will either be "tough on crime" or "tough on the causes of crime" is insufficient -- we must do both.

Courts are supposed to be independent arbitrators, not political footballs. Things were fine with the old selection process and no matter who is in power judges should be free to peruse and pursue the independence for which they were selected. To interfere with that is an American value, not a Canadian one. It's time for Harper to decide whether he is a Canadian or if he wants Canada to be the 51st through 60th states.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

John Cleese on extremism

Whilst I take a day off and shovel all this snow through gritted teeth, I also did a bit of surfing over at YouTube and found some gems from the other side of the pond -- those nitfy announcements from the UK called Party Election Broadcasts, or PEBs. Political advertising of the kind we know in Canada and the US is illegal over there; but all parties, including those on the fringe, are allowed to produce between one and five PEBs, depending on their standing in Parliament. (Labour and Conservative normally have five each, the Lib Dems four.)

They run between three and five minutes nowadays (they used to be ten) and outshine anything Karl Rove or James Carville could ever come up with. And so, I offer for your consideration this Party Election Broadcast (PEB) from the 1987 British elections ... starring John Cleese speaking for what was then called the Social Democratic Party / Liberal Alliance. The Alliance collapsed soon after the election that year and later re-emerged as the Liberal Democrats we know today; but Cleese's thoughts about extremism on the left as well as the right ring true twenty years later; and can be adapted for almost any democracy.

Note that towards the end Cleese makes an argument for proportional representation; something I fully support for Canadian elections. Ironically, PR could allow some real extremists into coalitions, but having the vote reflect the wishes of the people might not be such a bad thing. We don't need repeats of situations where someone won the popular vote but lost the election on seat count, which happened most recently in New Brunswick last year.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Don't trust North Korea

I don't particularly like John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, but I think he is right this time: The deal signed last night with North Korea regarding energy supplies in exchange for dismantling the country's nuclear weapons program is based on a leap of faith to a point where no rational basis exists. Make no mistake, I disapprove completely of the PDRK's sabre rattling and Kim Il-Jong must be contained at any cost. But this amounts to Chamberlain like appeasement.

One only has to remember the last time similar concessions were extorted from the West back in 1994, a month before Kim Il-Sung died. Then as now the issue was the same: Famine, starvation and the beginning sparks of a grass roots revolt. The fact the PDRK caved in at the last minute had less to do with nuclear technology transfers, and more to do with the preservation of the North Korean regime.

Both the South and Mainland China had reason to be fearful of a regime collapse in the North, as they do now: A breakdown would lead to a major refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people rushed for the northern frontier and the DMZ. And even if there could be a peaceful transition of power or a reunification of Korea, it would hardly be an easy road.

One only has to take a look at Germany -- even a decade and a half after the country came back together the East generally lags behind the West in productivity and other economic markers by about a quarter. It turned out to be a major drag for the Deutsche Mark, so much so that Germany was almost forced into a common currency with most of its other European partners.

There's little doubt that any reconstruction of the North would run into the trillions of US dollars, not billions, and the South Korea won would be severely devalued as a result. In an extreme scenario, the South might have ambitions on having nuclear weapons of its own -- or try to nationalize the US nukes currently on the Korean peninsula. That would put countries like Japan, China and Russia in the firing line.

This is a classic damned if you do or don't case, and Kim has the West by the balls. One would have hoped the other powers would have driven a harder bargain in exchange for concessions. Like democratic and human rights reforms. As it is, the people of South Korea and Japan, rather than have hope for a peaceful and arms free Asia-Pacific, will have to live in fear for another five years till the next time the North explodes a bomb. What concessions will be required then?

While regime change is probably justified in the North as much as it is in Burma and Zimbabwe, we need to first figure out a way to make sure food and oil aid bypasses the PDRK cowards and goes directly to the people who need it the most. That -- unimpeded access to the people, without go-betweens or minders -- would be the most important concession I would demand, before I even talked about the nukes.

To do any less and just give Kim what he wants is appeasement, plain and simple. It won't work, and North Koreans will be even worse off, not better, as a result of this agreement.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Take down the cross, the menorah, the hijab ... and what's left?

When the Radio-Canada show Tout le monde en parle ("Everyone's talking about it") discusses the same issue two weeks in a row, one has to wonder whether an issue has really struck a nerve. And they talked about it last night. The issue, of course, is the place religion has in politics in the province. Québec is arguably the most secular and the most religious Canadian province at the same time, something that must baffle not only their fellow Canadians but even many Americans.

The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s saw the Catholic and Protestant Churches purged out of health, education and welfare and having those services run by the state. About a decade ago, religious schools were also abolished everywhere except in Québec City and Montréal; which turned out to be more of a bureaucratic nightmare than anything -- and in the case of one of my friends who lives in Québec (an evangelical Christian), she just decided to home school her kids, as did a lot of other parents. Which is fine as long as they stick to the curriculum.

Yet at the same time, religion is a very pervasive part of life. True, church attendance is way down. But people there are very devout on a personal level and most insist on getting married in the Church; and the fact so many street names as well as the names of cities and towns bear the names of the saints as well as other religious figures suggests religion isn't about to go away any time soon. And that's a good thing, I think.

As long as the overwhelming consensus was based on the Judeo-Christian ethic, it didn't seem to be seen as a problem. But it seems that immigration has reeled its ugly head -- a backlash against it has been simmering, and last month it exploded. For a province that prides itself on an autonomous immigration policy (something all provinces have the right to pursue, of course, but Québec has done so successfully) it's hard to imagine things getting this far.

What has caused this "pushing back"? It's being going on for months, but took on a nasty turn with the recent declaration by the rural town of Herouxville, Quebec; which passed a by-law banning people from stoning women, throwing acid on them, burning them alive, or performing female circumcisions. All things associated with some extreme sharia interpretations of Islam. Many people saw this as being racist and aimed at Muslims.

Since then, five other towns have passed similar ordinances. And it's not just limited to Islam. Even the majority Catholic Church, professed by fully two-third of Québecois, is under assault; after the current leader of the PQ, André Boisclair, said that it's past time to remove the crucifix above the speaker's chair in the Québec National Assembly.

What? Take down that crucifix, and you may as well also remove the giant cross atop Mount Royal and which acts as a guidepost for the island of Montréal at night. I have never heard any Jewish or Muslim or Hindu groups complaining about either before. Even Protestants, who prefer the empty cross over the crucifix (with Christ crucified) haven't objected to a Catholic symbol being in the Assembly.

The American policy of separating church and state has torn apart people in that country between people who believe religion is a private affair (usually Democrats) and those who think it should be an integral part of public policy (usually Republicans). At the extremes are those who want to remove the word "God" from money and the pledge of allegiance on one hand, and those who want to put Muslims and Jews on the next boat back to Eurasia on the other.

We Canadians have seemed to strike an appropriate balance. For historical reasons, a plurality of Canadians (about 43%) are Roman Catholic and that's not about to change any time soon. Yet from the start, compromises were made to respect the rights of Catholics and Protestants in the provinces where they were respectively minorities; and of course Jewish people were granted equal rights even before there was a Canada -- and even before the UK gave similar protections to the Chosen People. The general consensus has been a two way street of respect: Live by the rules of our society and we'll ensure you're free to live yours the way you choose.

Which makes the Herouxville declaration both insidious and stupid. It presumes all male Muslims support the genocide of women and that's simply ridiculous. It also presumes that the jihadists want to impose their way of life on other Canadians. Both have no rational basis in fact. It's based entirely on fear. It's really a statement that says, you're welcome to live here so long as you convert to Christianity.

On the other hand, some actions have been reflective of a society which seems too willing to compromise and are also stupid. Not too long ago, a health club in Montréal tinted its windows so as not to offend Hasidic Jews who objected to seeing women in Spandex exercising; and the police in that city now make a point of sending two men -- or a man and a woman -- to neighbourhoods where Jewish people are a majority. It's gotten to the point where the Confederation bargain means nothing, and the Québec Charter (which is even more expansive in declaration of rights than the federal one) is a joke.

There is a big difference between freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. There has been some overreaction on both sides of the debate, however the issue is a serious one. If people want to be politically incorrect, that's their business. But every action has a positive and negative reaction -- and when one pushes, they should expect someone else to push back. It's true in physics, and it's true when it comes to religion.

I've never been bothered by the presence of Jews or Muslims in Canada, people of faiths other than the Roman Catholicism I profess; I've never been bothered by people of no religion at all either. But it's time to get back to first principles: Respect is a two way street. There's no need to fear being politically incorrect and say exactly how one feels about something, regardless of one's faith. But we need to take a stand.

I for one would not like to see a country totally devoid of religion. Religious faith is a core Canadian principle. I understand Herouxville's point, but it's being made the wrong way when it comes to minorities. André Boisclair also doesn't get it either when it comes to the majority. Little wonder Canada has so many problems.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

When's a strike not a strike?

Back in 1984 during the historic strike against the Canadian division of General Motors that led directly to the breakup of the United Auto Workers, much was said about the battle between Bob White and Owen Bieber -- in particular, the latter's initial refusal to authorize a strike because the two men had a fundamental disagreement about wages. White, of course, wanted an increase in the hourly wage each year; Bieber wanted to follow the then American pattern of annual lump sum payments. The irony is that a few months later when Mulroney announced he was opening free trade talks with the US, the union broke up that same day -- and Big Chin, no friend of White's, praised the Canadian leader for making the move.

It's 2007 and the conductors at Canadian National Railways are on strike. They are willingly (for now, anyway) members of a US-based union, and the tables have now been turned. The company wants the strike declared illegal because -- get this -- it was not authorized by the union's American president.

Since when do Canadians need permission from Americans to use their legal rights, in this case the right to withdraw employment as a demand for better wages? Since when do Canadians get told that to ensure union solidarity it's "out together, in together?" If the tables were turned and it was a Canadian based union telling the Americans what to do, there'd be another American Revolution. After all, the Continental Congress declared war against Canada before they did the rest of the British Empire.

I'll let the Labour Board decide whether it's illegal or not. For now, CN would have it in its best interests to go back to the bargaining table anyway and sort this out. This country is heavily dependent on the railroads for trade, and just a few days shutdown could cripple our economy at a time when we need a slowdown the least.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Does Obama have the right stuff?

Barak Obama has made it official, throwing in his hat for the race to be the Democratic candidate for President of the US next year. It says quite a bit when BBC World pre-empted its hourly summary to carry the speech. One of his key planks is to introduce universal health coverage by the end of 2012 -- which when it plays out will probably be a "pay or play" system with a government plan as a fallback for the uninsured. I wish him luck, but it's going to be an uphill climb and not just because Hillary Clinton is the front-runner.

America is a nation at crisis. It is bitterly divided and it lacks a sense of purpose and not just because of the war. If one accepts the theory of the "fourth turning" there have been three previous crises of this magnitude. The first was at the country's founding in 1787, and the battle between the Federalists and anti-Federalists -- which was solved when George Washington was elected President and proved to be a very able administrator. The second was when the country was sliding into civil war. Along came a Republican named Abraham Lincoln and although the war played out Lincoln managed to keep the North together and had the best chance of reuniting the country as a whole until he was shot. Then came the Great Depression, and along to the rescue came no less than Franklin Roosevelt -- a Republican turned Democrat.

The Federalists are long gone, the GOP is not the party of Lincoln anymore and the Democrats (rightly or wrongly) have conceded that in some respects FDR may have gone too far in federal intervention. But Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt all had one thing in common: They had extensive experience behind them before they came to office so when their turn came they were ready.

Obama barely had a few years in the Illinois legislature before he was elected as a Senator and in the two years since then he has not introduced one significant piece of legislation that eventually became law or a serious talking point; even one twisted or co-opted by Republicans. So what does he have going for him? Charisma. Sure ... so did JFK and Reagan. The former proved to be an adulterer and the latter committed acts during Iran-contra that merited impeachment although it was never pursued by Congress. But even then both men had political experience.

It's one thing to have good intentions. It's another to try to use those good intentions and run headlong into something where there could be no return. Every politician claims they'll stand up to the lobbyists but wind up in bed with them -- literally or figuratively. Every one claims a national purpose but runs against states' rights.

As for the claim that he's not electable because of the colour of his skin -- I'm not even going to dignify that. Blacks can be elected to high office, as much as women can. It's the kind of person who can pull people together and build on those coalitions rather than going ad hoc from one issue to another that makes the difference. Bipartisanship is one thing at the state level where there's a general social consensus such as in Illinois. It's way different in DC whether Obama wants to admit it or not.

Obama is a sincere person and would do a competent job at the White House under normal times. But times aren't normal. The War Against Terror is going nowhere, the War in Iraq is a quagmire, the US debt keeps piling on and 46 million Americans remain uninsured. Oh yeah, a country with only 3% of the world's oil reserves consumes 20% of the global demand. I rue using the phrase, but he's just not up to the job.

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Friday, February 9, 2007

Trouble at the Air Force Academy -- again

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) made an embarrassing gaffe last fall, just before the mid-terms, when he suggested those who were enlisting to join the Armed Services were those who didn't quite have the best grade point averages (GPA) in high school. It may have cost the Democrats a couple of close Senate races -- as it is they're barely hanging on with a slim majority of 51 (if you include "Independent Democrat" Joe Lieberman and Socialist Bernie Sanders).

A late report tonight at the Washington Post, however, raises some questions about the competency of those training to join the officer corps. Perhaps, their sanity. The sum of the Air Force Academy's honour code is: "We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God." This weekend, however, we learn that 28 freshmen (or "Fourth Classmen") are under investigation for cheating, 43 cadets have had their Internet privileges suspended for downloading porn, and fully nineteen percent of the freshman class were failing after the end of the first semester.

In an unusual move, all 4300 cadets have been ordered to stay on the Colorado Springs campus this weekend to give them a chance to "reflect." It's not the first time there's been a cheating ring, or the Academy has been under fire -- whether it was for sexual harrassment, or attempts by some evangelical professors to proselytize to Jewish and Catholic cadets. And the Air Force is not immune -- Navy had a similar problem with its cadets back in 1992.

My concern is that there is the almost unending "War Against Terror" going on. And while Canada is not directly involved in Iraq (except perhaps in an intelligence gathering mode, as well as enforcing the trade sanctions that still exist against the country out on the Persian Gulf), we are involved on the ground in other aspects, particularly in Afghanistan. There, as well as in other places where there is either a peacekeeping or peacemaking role, or where there is active combat, there are either joint commands or very close coordination between allied battalions or squadrons.

Imagine a friendly fire incident (and they're becoming more frequent) where the mistaken attacker turned out to be someone who had a less than exemplary record at the academy. Adding on top of the grief he or she caused would come the news they didn't have the right stuff to be inside a plane or tank to begin with. Hopefully they would have been weeded out and expelled before they could cause any damage on the battlefield -- but that doesn't always happen.

We expect only the best will be invited into the officer corps, and for a good reason: The men and women who are called upon to lead the military have other men and women who depend on their good judgment and moral character. Cheating is bad enough, but downloading porn on government time (after all, they are federal employees)? Is that where our tax money is going? Maybe it's me, but behaviour like this reflects badly not just on one's fellow students but on the military as a whole.

If this crap is going on in Colorado, I'd just love to find out the shit that's happening at RMC.

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NC kid, 8, upstages Ontario Science Centre

There's an old story that one class was misbehaving so much that their teacher forced them to add up all the numbers from 1 to 100. Most of the kids thought they were in for a long grind, but one quickly came up with the correct answer -- 5050. He did this by noting that 100+1 = 101, 99+2 = 101, etc., so 50*101 = 5050. Today, this problem, n(n+1)/2, would actually be considered third grade math but it still stymies many adults.

Well once again, a kid has stumped adults -- and this time, it was no less than the brain trust at the Ontario Science Centre that has mud on its face. An 8 year old from Charlotte, North Carolina named Parker Garrison noticed there was an error in the way a pyramid of jelly beans (part of a travelling exhibition stopping in Charlotte) was calculated. In short, the OSC said to divide the base of the pyramid in half; but Garrison pointed out that the measurements given were already for half a pyramid. Therefore, the correct total was actually double the stated one.

Stuff like that gives me hope for the future. Maybe the next generation won't be fooled by CW (conventional wisdom) like what happened during Vietnam and the lead up to the current Iraq War.

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Thursday, February 8, 2007

In memoriam: Anna Nicole Smith

I didn't think I'd be doing this, but I have to say something about the sudden and shocking passing of Vickie Lynn Marshall, better known as Anna Nicole Smith.

Smith had that quantity that can often be called je ne sais quoi, a woman who knew how to extend her fifteen minutes of fame, and still be both endearing and annoying to the masses. Yet the later years of her life would turn out to be pure hell. After getting the coveted Playmate of the Year honour in 1993, she married someone sixty years her senior.

We all know how that one turned out: The billionaire oilman died eighteen months later and the will has been tied up in probate ever since. She did win a major legal victory for herself and all Americans last year when the Supreme Court ruled that she had the right to pursue the matter in federal court (normally, estates are a matter for the states). The case was remanded but not before a weird twist of events: First, her opponent in the probate case died; then she gave birth (the paternity is still being hotly contested); and just a few days after that her twenty year old son died from a drug overdose.

Not to mention her reality TV show. Let's not get into that.

Now with Smith's death, her daughter Dannielynn Hope is without a mother. We'll know in the coming days how the woman died. One may be repulsed at the kind of life she lived. That doesn't change the fact she was a devoted mother to not one but two children. It's possible the death of Daniel may have pushed her over the edge. The tragedy is that now, like Janis Joplin, she'll always be a candle in the wind. (The phrase was originally coined for Joplin, not Marilyn Monroe.)

Rest in Peace, Vickie.

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Homolka probably not a mother yet, but ...

There seems to be some confusion today over what the Toronto Sun claims is a scoop: Convicted killer Karla Homolka, out of jail nearly a year and a half after serving her full twelve year sentence for manslaughter is now a mother -- or so the tabloid says. Some however have disputed this claim, for example a member of the Elizabeth Fry Society and even Tim Danson, the lawyer of Homolka's later victims.

Quite honestly, I don't know what to believe in this case myself. If she was pregnant last summer when Global News caught up with her in Montréal, it might explain why she was so reluctant to talk to the reporter. (Ironically, Global is owned by the same company that prints the Ottawa Citizen, which published the dismissal of the pregnancy claim on its website today.)

A few points here: Yes, Homolka is manipulative and a sociopath who probably still doesn't understand the enormity of her crimes -- including facilitating the choking death of her own sister. And she certainly owes an apology to the families of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, although I suspect it would instantly be refused if it was ever offered.

On the other hand, she has legally paid her debt to society; and the restrictions on her movement have been lifted since the fall of 2005. Moreover, the laws of Canada do not prescribe a sentence of castration in the case of sex-motivated crimes. She certainly has the right to become a mother if she so chooses. The concern is whether she still has a weakness for dominating male figures like Paul Bernardo (her ex-husband) who is serving a life sentence; which could put the life of her alleged child in danger. Not to mention what she might do herself.

My sense is that if the rumours are true, she should still be left alone as long as she remains law-abiding for the rest of her days. Yes, I acknowledge she killed three women while they were still teenagers and that is a huge strike against her. Nevertheless, she owes it to her child to tell the whole truth someday and to tell him or her the consequences for her victims, her parents and herself (in that order) but that should be on her own terms and timing, not society's. (Especially considering that Homolka claimed Bernardo told her he only wanted daughters so they could be his slaves and any boys she may have conceived with him would be aborted on his orders.)

On the other hand if she is or was not pregnant -- it's possible she's not even married -- then the editors responsible for writing this story without properly sourcing it should be ditched. Even a tabloid that values sleaze over serious journalism has some standards and at least trying to tell the truth, even the truth as they see it, should be pursued. It doesn't help when the media won't even let her attempt to rebuild her life even if she did shatter the lives of others.

In retrospect, the police investigation was sloppy and Homolka should have been in prison for life. We have to deal with what is, though, not what should have been. She has to look at herself real hard before grabbing another Ice Cap -- but if the story is true and she is a mother, she should not be singled out; for many other mothers who are registered sex offenders are still mothers. More important if it's true, she's a mother now, not a child -- and the Radio Canada interview she did on her release suggested to me she'll still acting like an overgrown teenager.

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US Army shipped $12 billion to Iraq -- cash

Not too long after 9/11, the Canadian government quietly passed a regulation that makes it illegal to write a cheque for five million dollars or more. Now, anyone in their right mind would not do so in the first place ... but in the era of wire transfers it simply is not necessary to carry all that much cash or negotiable instruments. So when you see someone at the 6/49 getting their "cheque" and posing for the cameras, rest assured it's already been deposited electronically in their bank accounts after the safeguards that are supposed to be in place now are carried out.

So how to explain that the US military had been helping the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) -- that is, the puppet government run by the States before power was handed over to the new Iraqi government -- by shipping cash, 363 tons on pallets worth a total of over $12 billion, to help them get off their feet after Saddam Hussein was overthrown? In one shipment, C-130 planes delivered over $2.4 billion in $100 bills -- in sequence, of course. And according to the chair of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Henry Waxman (D-CA), there was absolutely no controls over the security arrangements or to make sure the money got into the right hands.

Convenient. One key to a vault was in a backpack, according to investigators. A contractor got $2 million in a duffle bag with no indication how the money was going to be spent. Public servants who were supposed to get paid weren't. And the clincher: Rather than hiring a respected auditing firm, the CPA got the services of someone who worked out of his home. Now, no one knows exactly how the provisional government spent any of the money transferred to it -- about $20 billion in total.

To put that in perspective, consider that the US Department of Energy spent $23.4 billion last year; Housing and Urban Development $28.5 billion. Last time I checked, the IRS doesn't hire armoured trucks to deliver that kind of money, even across town in DC -- it's wired over to the respective departments on a pay as you go basis.

People went nuts when a hundred million was stolen from the Department of Agriculture to fund Gerard Bull's zany idea for a "supergun." Yet in the middle of a war that has already fallen out of disfavour with most Americans, what's $12 billion among friends, eh? It's little wonder there is a civil war in Iraq right now. It would have happened anyway, quite honestly.

But there should have been first principles: The money should have been transferred over properly and handed out with the same kinds of safeguards that exist in the West. Had the civil service been paid on time, for example, the army and police could have been trained by now and the insurgency contained if not eliminated; and hospitals wouldn't have be running out of even the most basic essentials.

I expect this investigation will only widen into a full accounting of what the contractors were doing and where the money all went. And I also expect when the sub poenas are issued, the answer will be the same from Paul Bremer on down: "On the advice of my attorney, I assert my Fifth Amendment rights."

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Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Who needs principles when you've got Garth Turner?

Normally, I'd be happy over the news that someone was crossing over from the Conservatives or the independent "rump" to the Liberals. Especially with the news today that Garth Turner, who was kicked out of the Con caucus last fall, is about to convert to the Parti Rouge. Payback, perhaps, for Wajid Khan going from the Grits to the Reform Party.

Not this time. Because this goes against everything Garth has stood for all these years. He's been against floor-crossing from Day One and has made it clear -- specifically clear -- that if someone wants to change parties between elections he or she should resign his or her seat and put their job on the line in a by-election so that the people in the district can decide.

Garth decided to sit as an independent a few months back (after flirting with the Green Party), which is fine if he thinks the party he once belonged to no longer represents his interests or that of his constituents. To take it to this level is the height of arrogance. All he offers to the Liberals at this time is a pull back to fiscal conservatism, which Stéphane Dion certainly needs to emphasize to persuade Canadians to give the Grits another chance. By doing this, he takes the choice out of the hands of his constituents; unless he and the Liberals are planning a surprise no-confidence vote within the next week thus forcing a March election.

Stated baldly, Turner should walk the talk: Resign his Halton seat and let the people decide. If he wins, then he'll be welcome into the Liberal Party legitimately.

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Monday, February 5, 2007

Who cares if the coach was black?

More than four decades ago, Martin Luther King said he prayed for a day when people would "not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Yet last night, we saw the race card being played again -- at the Super Bowl; and how the reporters kept driving home the fact that this was the first time a black coach (Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts) had led his team to the national football championship. (It would have been a first had the Chicago Bears won, as Lovie Smith is also black.) To put the emphasis on "black" or "African-American" is, quite frankly, putting an asterisk on the event. Like it would matter if the guy was white, but because he's black it really doesn't count.

This reminds me of the battle four decades ago between Yankee's teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris to see who would overtake the home run record of Babe Ruth. It was announced by the baseball commissioner, Ford Frick, that a record would only be "real" if it was accomplished within 154 games, the length of a season during the Ruth era -- it was later extended to 162 games by the time the Mantle / Maris marathon was on. Of course, Maris surpassed the 60 run record and got to 61 on the 162th and last game of the season. The record shows that Frick later had a change of heart and the 61 home run record would be acknowledged as the official one, but for nearly two decades after the Exempt Media put an asterisk beside Maris -- i.e. 61*.

Why did they do this? My belief is that most of the then baseball writers were WASPs and absolutely hated Roman Catholics and "foreigners" and did not see them as "real" Americans. Maris, whose real name was Maras, was born in the United States but he was a Roman Catholic. His parents were Croatian. The fact a Roman Catholic was in the White House by 1961 didn't help matters -- it only served to stir up the hate; not just among the press but among baseball fans who sent continual hate mail to Maris. They saw Ruth's record as sacrosanct and if anyone deserved to break the record it was Mantle, not an "ethnic Papist."

While there are still some strong anti-Catholic quarters in the States, most of the bigotry on that count is gone and it's hard to imagine Roman Catholicism not having a major part in American life. So why should the same double standard apply to blacks?

Dungy and Smith aren't black coaches, they're coaches -- period. Yes, it's hard not to notice one's skin colour; but as long as one tries to lead a good life and attempt to have a successful career, isn't that all that matters? Besides, both coaches said last night that what matters isn't that they're black but they're Christian and it's their faith that guides them.

The press needs to step back for a while and look at themselves. Most of the rest of us try to live by Dr. King's dream. It's time for the media to do the same. Report on race if hate is a motivating factor. But don't try to diminish someone's accomplishments just because they're a particular skin colour, or religion, or sexual orientation. It's insulting to our intelligence -- especially that of the white majority.

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

Every Sunday is Super Sunday ...

... and no, I'm not going to make any predictions about the US national football championship against the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears. (That in itself is a reason to not watch the game -- just a few hours drive between the two cities and in the same time zone.) Besides, ticket brokers were selling even end zone tickets in the thousands of dollars. End zone, nosebleed. Come on.

So instead, I'm going to ease up a bit and going to mention something that happened the other day that could be a huge shot in the arm in a country where it's been in serious threat -- the USA. The other day, the new Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, signed a law that bans touch-screen voting machines; the kind that is prone to switching votes and can even be hacked into. Instead, the state will now use scan sheets. While there is evidence the "smart card" that counts the votes can still be tampered with to produced a desired result the fact that the very state that made democracy a joke in America finally realizes just how serious this is can only be seen as a positive step.

Note that this happened after Jeb Bush left office after serving his two term limit. He had a vested interest in tilting things the GOP way as long as his brother was a candidate for President or one for re-election. Crist is a Republican too but he must have seen how some people don't even want to visit Florida anymore because of the perceived corruption and decided the $23.5 million dollar cost of deep-sixing touch screens is far outweighed by the benefit the tourist industry provides to the state.

On top of that, Congress this week fast-tracked legislation that will essentially require any balloting method to generate some kind of auditable paper trail in case of a judicial recount. President Bush has indicated he will sign it -- of course it doesn't concern him since he can't run again; but at least he gets it albeit belatedly.

Democracy is a funny thing at times ... sometimes we don't get the results that the Exempt Media has conditioned us to anticipate. That can be a good thing at times, though. The will of the people needs to reflected in the ballot box and it must always be counted accurately. Frankly, I still prefer the good old paper ballot you mark with an "X" or check mark; but with multiple offices I suppose scan sheets will have to do.

P.S. Okay, you want a prediction: Colts 26, Bears 17.

UPDATE (10:25 PM EST, 0325 Monday GMT): Whaddya know? 29-17 Colts.

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Saturday, February 3, 2007

Quick review of my posting policy

I appreciate all the feedback I get; both positive and negative. If you post a comment and you don't see it right away, don't be offended. Between my work schedule and just wanting to be out once in a while I am not always near my computer. I do try to check messages three or four times a day so they come up eventually.

Understand that while I have mostly progressive views, there are some points on which I lean conservative. For example, I support the idea of abolishing the marriage penalty (i.e. income splitting) and I oppose gay marriage. On some medical ethics issues, I can get emotional at times; and these always seem to get the most heartfelt and even angry responses. That's fine. I'm not trying to preach to the converted or the choir, I'm just calling it the way I see it.

There are, however, a few basic rules. These aren't set in stone and common sense will guide what comments I delete, but generally:
  • Stay on topic, and if you're posting a reply make sure it's attached to the appropriate post. It's no use to comment about the weather in a post about family benefits, when I wrote about the weather five posts down.
  • The odd expletive, I can tolerate. Write like Andrew Dice Clay speaks, however, and it won't get posted.
  • No advertising. This should be more than obvious, but you'd be surprised how many auto bots out there go looking to post links to so-called "secured" credit cards when one writes about credit card fraud.
  • Don't try to change the subject and talk about your personal life or how the world is out to get you or anything like that. In my previous home, I wrote one post about how I felt about the age of consent (that it should be raised to 16 for straight sex, and lowered to the same age for gays and lesbians; with some leniency for situations where both parties are teenagers below that age). Imagine my anger when someone said I was accusing him of being a pedophile. I never did any such thing. I didn't link to his site. I didn't even know who he was.
  • Lastly, the odd reminder about pending legal actions or restraining orders is helpful but I'd appreciate it if it's limited to the mailing lists of the blog rolls I'm on, off site and on my private e-mail. In one case I did make reference to another person's blog without any knowledge legal action was in progress until months later -- and in any case the post had absolutely nothing to do with the issue in question, but something else that person wrote. I decided there was no need to delete the post in that situation. Suffice it to say, I believe someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Other than that, let it ride. Like I said at the top, give me your best shot.

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Friday, February 2, 2007

Harper's still talking about "intensity," not real reductions in pollution

On the very day an international commission said definitively what most of us have known for years -- that global warming is real and a lot of the damage is already irreversible -- Stephen Harper said there were "no quick fixes" and what had to be done first was to deal with "stabilizing" emissions before reducing them.

Sorry, Steve, but that just doesn't wash with Canadians. Basically, it goes back to the Cons' fallback position to deal with the "intensity" of carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, reducing the amount individual and corporate sources may themselves produce but not necessarily the total amount of outputs. This would allow industry to continue growing -- which would really put us no further as we'd be creating exactly the same amount of pollution as before.

The fact is, we made a treaty commitment to live up to the Kyoto Agreement and while admittedly it was mostly talk and no action the last several years the Cons have had a year and a week to come up with something concrete and they haven't. To cut greenhouse gases by a full 27% -- or one tonne per Canadian -- will require some short term and very draconian measures. But we've already seen thunderstorms and mosquitoes in the Far North where neither should exist; planting and harvest times go completely out of whack with what has come to be expected as "normal;" and bizarre weather abnormalities like ice storms in Montréal, frequent tropical depressions in Ontario during the summer (we should get at most one) and tornadoes in the late late fall; and snow -- lots of snow -- in Vancouver.

It's not just Canada. Not that long ago, London's famed Kew Gardens reported that the weather changes they've seen in the last 20 years are totally unlike any they've seen in the previous 300 and they've been keeping records for longer than that. A spring that comes two or three weeks earlier may not seem like a big deal -- in the UK it may actually seem welcome, especially in the Scottish Highlands. But that time shift has meant shorter nesting times for birds and less time in the chrysalis for caterpillars in their metamorphosis into butterflies. If they're feeling the effect of climate change, imagine how long it will be before the rest of us do.

A one degree drop in global temperatures in 1816 caused it to snow in much of the United States -- on the Fourth of July. A one degree increase in 1845 spiked the bacterium that caused the Irish Potato Famine. A similar one degree spike happened in 1998 and 2005 -- and we all remember those years too well. I've lived only 34 years, and already I've noticed there was a big difference in the summers of my first half so far and that of my second half. With one cool summer being the exception, they've gotten hotter and more unbearable and living in a smog zone with ozone alerts as early as February, it doesn't get any easier.

It gets almost tiresome to say this, but some really drastic action needs to be taken, by all of us. I've taken one huge one by getting rid last month of my gas guzzling 20 year old boat which barely passed the smog test last year; and getting a car that is much more fuel efficient and less polluting (no, it's not a hybrid but it's cut my fuel bill by at least half) -- and my workmates and I are trying to put together a carpool schedule despite our vastly varying shifts.

It'd be nice to see the Cons not just share their hot air in the apartments they rent together but lead by example by organizing car pools of their own when they're in Ottawa. Oh wait ... they use the Parliamentary bus like the other MPs ... The NDP must realize by now they got snickered by Harper, and Layton should use his balance of power and force an election. The issue is the environment, period, and whether we'll face the future or go down the highway to hell with Oilman Dubya.

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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Jordan's BS about Maher Arar

This morning, CBC Radio One said that the Kingdom of Jordan was giving a new version of events regarding the so-called "extraordinary rendition" of Maher Arar from the United States to Syria. The accepted version, even by the States, is that Arar was loaded on to one of the CIA's Gulfstream Jets and shipped directly to Damascus.

Jordan, however, is now saying that Arar was flown on a scheduled commercial flight to Amman, the Jordanian capital. According to them, Arar then said he wanted to go to Syria, so they drove him overland and passed him off at the border.

Without going into an obscenity laced tirade which is what I am seriously tempted to do as I type this, let me just say that this is just as laughable as the North Korean ambassador to the UN saying we should "congratulate" the PDRK for exploding a nuclear bomb. But it may offer an explanation as to why the US still has Arar on their no-fly list -- Jordan is probably sitting on their own Arar file. If they have something on him, they should have the guts to release it and not just speculate about what he may or may not have done. Not wait for the US to send Arar to Jordan so they can have their turn at torturing him.

And keep in mind, this astounding claim happened, of all places, at the UN Human Rights Council. Canada should recall its Ambassador to Jordan. We don't needs friends like these.

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