Saturday, September 30, 2006

Banned Books Week 2006

It's that time of year again, when the American Library Association stands up to the religious right and announces which books have been "challenged" the most -- in other words, which books parents or ministers want to have removed for not "comporting with family values."

The top ten list for this year:

1. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
2. "The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier
3. Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
4. "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck
5. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou
6. "Fallen Angels" by Walter Dean Myers
7. "It's Perfectly Normal" by Robie Harris
8. Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz
9. Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
10. "Forever" by Judy Blume

Not on the Top Ten list but also frequently cited is another Blume tome, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" -- a wrenching book about child abuse, as Angelou's "Caged" is; as well as "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, about a black man who is framed for raping a white woman who in fact was abused by her own father. I guess most of the parents who try to get it pulled are abusing their kids or support chid abuse; and the rest want to make sure their kids blame themselves when it happens to them.

It's no worse here in Canada, where Mockingbird and Merchant of Venice have been banned from the cirriculuum of high schools. Also not seen in many high schools is W.O. Mitchell's
"Who Has Seen the Wind," redacted for its racial overtones. So the hypocrisy exists on both the left and the right.

For what it's worth, Joanne K Rowling, the author of the Potter series, said yesterday she considers being targeted like that a badge of honour. The other authors, I'm sure, would too ... because it ensures people will read those books and even buy them. The free flow of ideas is essential to democracy, and it just makes me mad that parents' groups oppose the very reason why there is a First Amendment (or the equivalent in democratic countries other than the US). So the next time I drive by a book burning session, I'm going to dump the Bible in there too just to give them a taste of their own medicine -- after all, the Scriptures also mentions rapes, child abuse, ritualistic killings, and making bets with Satan.

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The quality of mercy: Canadians in limbo edition

My father came to Canada as a political refugee under the Geneva Conventions in 1965. So I have a vested interest in what I am about to say, but I have to say it. It is simply wrong for God's Annointed Servant (TM) to, on the one hand, grant honourary citizenship to the Dalai Lama saying he is the kind of person we would want to be a Canadian (although, for the record, I do believe Tenzin Gyatso deserves the honour no less than Raoul Wallenberg and Nelson Mandela); while on the other hand, declare that the kids of those who came to Canada during World War II to escape the bombardment of the UK have lost their Canadian citizenship because nationality was granted to their mothers and not their fathers -- and thus are going to be deported.

In the coming weeks, thousands face expulsion because of this sexist and totally bombastic legal principle. It simply doesn't make sense. They're members of Canadian society and pay taxes to Canada. They are ours, not theirs. Surely this is a case that calls for mercy and common sense.

I have no tolerance for those who deliberately break the rules just to leach off our good nature and collect benefits without any intention of ever working.. I do think a way should be found to integrate those who have been here for years and are otherwise law-abiding members of society. But when it comes to a case like this, where people came here in good faith and on the understanding they would become Canadians the moment they came here, we should keep our promise -- whether they earned it through the matrilineal or patrilineal lines.

Shakespeare reminded us the Lord's Prayer says that as we pray for mercy, we must also render the deeds of mercy. Stephen Harper should do the right thing and grant amnesty for those caught in this ridiculous limbo.

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Friday, September 29, 2006

If the First Couple is at war ...

Try this one on for size.

Item One: Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada and God's Annointed Servant (TM), cuts $17 million from literacy programs.

Item Two: Laureen Teskey, the First Lady of Canada, pounds the streets of Ottawa promoting -- literacy.

As usual Diane Finley, the absentee MP from the district that includes the Caledonia / Six Nations war zone, got her facts wrong. The 2007 budget was unanimously passed by all parties -- albeit inadvertently. So in reality, all parties are to blame for this complete inconsistency.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Should the CBC adopt the BBC model?

Yesterday, the CBC was grilled at the House Heritage Committee for some pretty stupid programming decisions the last year or so, plus the possibility that the Mother Corporation just might lose out the bidding war for Saturday Night Hockey to CTV. If it does, it would lose about $100 million dollars a year in advertising revenue just at the English network, and require a major rethink about the role the public (read: state) broadcaster plays in our lives.

There are two things that need to be considered. One is the fact the Board of Directors are all appointed by the Prime Minister and accountable to the PMO and them alone. Yes, they do testify before Parliament from time to time, but the real power lies in the Executive Branch. It can ultimately decide whether the networks within the CBC family even has the right to exist. It can simply do away with it with an Act of Parliament, if it chose to do so. Two, it's the Executive that decides the annual allocation it gets from the Treasury. If it's seen as friendly to the government, it gets more money. If not, its funding is cut. Therefore, while it is technically independent of the government -- its sole shareholder -- it really isn't.

Perhaps it is time to look at whether the CBC needs another method of funding. But the CBC is finally willing to discuss it, and its been quitely discussed in some circles for years. It's considered an almost sacriligious concept in Canada, but I think we should at least debate whether it's time to move to a system of TV licensing, as exists in most EU countries.

The most famous of these, of course, is the BBC. Its principal source of revenue for programming is not advertising, as it's commercial free. It comes, instead, from licences. The fees are collected via cable or satellite bills for those who get their programming via that method; or directly for those who get their programs off-air. Subsidies are provided for lower income people and senior citizens, but the fact everyone pays into the BBC creates a sense of ownership -- that it's their network. The trustees of the network, while still appointed by the government, are actually forced to be accountable -- and at times they've often resigned en masse when they've been caught screwing up. (What are the chances that would happen in Canada?)

This model also allows for rather innovative programs, which raises the bar for private broadcasters to make even better shows. The result: British TV shows and news programs are usually excellent.

We ... get crap.

I'm not saying we definitely should go the licensing route. What I am saying is that we talk about it.

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Indulgences by any other name are still indulgences

The gang at CJIL -- aka The Miracle Channel -- are at it again.

No sooner do they finally give into months, even years, of CRTC demands that they institute a code of ethics on how they will comport themselves during fundraising broadcasts (which run about four to six times per year) than they just go back to business as usual and violate their own rules -- rules which, supposedly, are even tougher than the guidelines the federal regulators have for religious broadcasters.

As usual, Tim Thibault of Under The Son Ministries has the blow by blow.

What's truly infuriating about this is that it's a scam practiced not only by evangelical Christians, but even some mainline churches, albeit in a different format. Consider, for example, the corrupt system of papal indulgences during the Middle Ages that led to the Protestant Reformation. Anyone who studied it in high school as part of a World Religions Course will remember the infamous phrase: "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs." It took nearly four decades after Luther, at the Council of Trent, for the Roman Catholic Church to admit it was wrong and outlawed the practice -- on paper.

Yet even today, we still see Catholic parishes encouraging people to donate money to ask for blessings from God, via the intercession of a favourite saint or someone they're trying to promote to the sainthood, or to pray that a soul of a dead relative will rise to Heaven. I'm pretty sure it's the same in other churches. This goes against basic Biblical teachings, which teaches that it is through God, and God alone, that all blessings flow; and it is God alone who decides who goes to Heaven or Hell, no matter how much the saints try to persuade or even bully the Almighty.

These days when I pray, I don't ask for the "intercession" of an intermediary, I go right to the source; just as the Bible commands us to. And I certainly don't put money in the collection plate to get something from God ... I do it to finance the daily needs of the church's staff.

What's more important for me, however, is to have some kind of assurance that monies donated, even in good faith and not as an attempt to extort something from God, is going back into the ministry and not into something else; whether it be donating to a political party, even if it's from the draw ministry staff receives, or supporting one's high flying lifestyle. Having read the comments sections of The Miracle Channel Review, there are some pretty stunning although currently unsubstantiated rumours between what TMC preaches and what it actually practices.

It's little secret that TMC believes that Stephen Harper is God's Annointed Servant (TM) and that it was "God's will" that Canadians elected him. What I'd like to know is whether they believe blessings are for Conservative supporters only. And what Harper will do to intercede on their behalf when the CRTC finally goes beyond the "determination" stage and actually sanctions TMC for consistently breaking the rules.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

7-11 drops Citgo

7-11 can say all they want ... but there definitely is a link between their decision to drop Citgo as their gas supplier after 20 years, and Hugo Chavez' incendiary remarks last week about the United States. The only problem is, who are they going to buy their gas from now? The Iranians? Another Middle Eastern country with an appalling human rights record?

It just goes to show the problem American companies have. They say they want to be free of interference and influence from OPEC, and they can't back it up.

Hey guys: Try Canada for a change!

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Belinda's right about double standard -- but that's not the only problem

I don't condone what Belinda Stronach did, nor am I going to ... if in fact, she is the "other woman" that wrecked the marriage of former hockey enforcer Tie Domi and his wife. Yet it does say a lot about the fact we have a long way to go before women are truly equal members of our society. It also explains why she decided not to run for the Liberal leadership as many people thought she would ... she knew the press was going to dig this up and make it, not the party's renewal, the key issue of the campaign. Any male candidate having an affair with another woman would not only be ignored, but even applauded.

Consider the fact that Pierre Trudeau was the consummate and unrepentant womanizer -- among his interests were musicians Liona Boyd and Barbra Streisand and actress Kim Catrall. No one said a word about that. But when Margaret Sinclair spent a weekend with the Rolling Stones, the Exempt Media went ballistic. And she was just the First Lady, not a sitting politician. When she later admitted she had depression, she like all other women was made to look like it was her fault -- yet when a man admits he's bipolar, he's seen as a hero.

Bill Clinton was excorciated, and rightly so, for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. Yet the right wing was even harder on Hillary Clinton, not just for standing by Slick Willy but also forgiving him -- quite hypocritical for the so-called "religious" right, if you ask me. Now, they're on DEFCON One anticipating she's going to run for the White House, saying she's worse than Satan.

Let's get back however, for a minute, to Ms Stronach.

She was part of the behind the scenes lobbying to unite the Reform / Canadian Alliance Party and the Progressive Conservatives (which, as we all know, was really the Reformers gobbling up the latter). She ran for the leadership and finished in a rathe strong third place. Her promise not to collect a single penny in salary if she were elected Prime Minister was quite a bold move, even for a multimillionaire like her. Most politicans would laugh at the idea of taking even a five percent pay cut -- they always want to double their pay then claim it's still not enough.

She gives up her job at Magna -- the auto parts giant -- to run as a Member of Parliament in her hometown, and wins. Only then she "discovers" that Stephen Harper is way more conservative than his media spin team has bullied Canadians into believing he is, and in a pinch decides to defect to the Liberals at the last possible minute. Paul Martin's accepting her and inducting her into the cabinet was a complete act of desperation but I think it had more to do with the fact she thought she'd be better off being away from the party she helped found. Despite the fact this is a cynical move by anyone -- male or female -- she manages to win re-election even as the party goes down to defeat, in one of the most fickle districts in the country (Aurora-Newmarket).

Not to mention, by the way, that at the time she was dating Peter MacKay, and she didn't even bother to tell him she was thinking about switching parties even though she had beenin secret meetings with David Peterson for nearly two weeks negotiating the defection. While the US media focused on her defection, the Candian media instead focused on MacKay being the wronged man -- playing the infamous CBC interview with him over and over again. (Imagine if it had been the other way around -- MacKay leaving and Stronach staying. Would the media have asked her what she thought? Of course not.)

Pretty remarkable stuff, and it all happened in the course of just two years. The problem here however, is not the adultery, or her inconsistency.

It's the fact it's not the kind of news the Liberal Party needs right now. I don't care if a politician is an adulterer, or a drug addict or an alcoholic, just as long as they do their job and they don't drag the rest of the country into their problems. I don't think most Canadians care either.

The fact remains, however, the party still has a small but not insignificant pro-life and pro-family wing who do care; a wing that wants nothing to do with the Conservatives but still wants the rest of the country to abide by a series of basic "values." If the party is to be truly credible, it not only has to elect a strong leader but also come up with a strong platform that says the days of entitlements and the kind of greed that led to Sponsorgate is over; and that all elected politicians wearing Liberal Red are going to promote those kinds of values which Canadians generally agree upon. These include respect for family and for oneself. A bird can't fly unless both wings are flapping in coordination. The only way she's ever going to get the Prime Ministership she wants so badly in the long term, is if she makes peace with the likes of Tom Wappel. That to win, she not only has to appeal to the inner cities but also the Bible Belts in Western Canada and Southwestern Ontario.

In short, she has to be seen as not only a woman promoting family values, but someone who also values families. I don't doubt her credentials as a single mother in either regard; she's proven it more than enough. That's not going to be enough for some, however.

Stronach is welcome to stay in the Liberal Party as long as she's committed to building it and sticking with it for the long haul. She also needs to realize that many if not most members of the media will always resent her simply for the fact she's a woman; and like all other women her behaviour is going to be scrutinized in more detail. When even no less than Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney still laments the fact a woman has to work twice as hard to get half the credit, it shows us just how far we have to go.

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29/09/2006 2:20:40 PM

Well said! I feel the Stronach-Domi story is Canada's equivalent of Hollywood's royalty?!? I haven't been back for a while!It's feeling a little blue around here!LOL! Keep up the good work!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Who deserves credit for the surplus? The Liberals. Who wants to kill tourism? The Conservatives

The numbers are in, and for the eighth straight year, Canada has run a surplus. For the fiscal year ended March 31, 2006, the surplus was $13.2 billion. As is usual the money was applied on the debt, bringing it down to $486.5 billion -- or 39.2% of GDP. When one considers it hit a peak of 73.9% in fiscal 1996, it's a truly remarkable achievement. As a portion of the economy, our federal debt burden has actually dropped by 47%. This is an incredible, and a smackdown at our American friends who have eliminated balanced budget from their vocabulary as being an "unpatriotic" concept.

Of course, this all happened as the result of the policies of a Liberal Administration. The Conservatives came into government in February and did not sit a Parliament until April, the month after the year ended. So from here on in, everything we're going to hear about our fiscal situation will be in the lap of Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty. Some of the tax policies announced are actually quite irresponsible and will bear fruit down the road, especially if we're headed into a recession. Yes, taxes are too high, but tax cuts should only be funded by interest savings until the debt becomes self-financing -- this would be at about 25% of GDP.

A couple of things happened yesterday, though, that raise some questions. First of all, the government said they were cutting about a billion dollars in what they called "non-priority" spending, including; $4 million for research into medical marijuana; $5 million from a reduction of the budget of Status of Women Canada; and another $4 million from the elimination of the Court Challenges Program. I do think private researchers can figure out for themselves whether vitamin THC has medicinal purposes; but ending the CCP is misguided. It exists for the same reason why provinces with class action laws have a Class Proceedings Fund: To ensure cases that would not normally get public attention, do. It's not like they just handed out the money willy-nilly, there had to a reasonable basis for funding and the expectation that there could be a win.

Besides, courts are what keep overzealous executives and legislatures in line. Someone has to police the powers that be.

Second, the government introduced a Ways and Means Motion (the tool that, if the House of Commons consents, allows a government to enforce tax policy before a budget is actually passed) that would tinker a little bit with the GST. Actually, not just tinker, but it is signficant enough that the tourism business should take notice. Effective March 31, 2007, the GST Visitor Rebate Program is going to be eliminated. In effect, this means that tourists will be paying 7% more on the goods and services they purchase here, since the GST is meant to be paid by Canadians and Canadians alone. Moreover, conventions that have at least 75% delegates who are non-Canadian will no longer be able to claim the credit either.

This is simply insane. It may be reflective of the fact that most if not all US states have no similar rebate program and it may be an attempt to level the playing field. But it doesn't reflect the reality that there's a huge difference in the way tax regimes operate in the two countries. In the States, most cities are dependent on sales tax revenue, traffic offence tickets and transient accomodation levies (the dreaded "hotel tax.") Property taxes are not that much of a factor in most major cities although it is still levied. They do this to help pay the interest costs on municipal bonds.

By contrast, Canadian cities are almost entirely reliant on property taxes. All provinces ban local sales tax levies, and most ban the hotel tax. Even those which allow it (Québec is one) puts a cap on it. While our sales taxes are way too high, it's the fact there is little or no accomodation tax that gives us a huge advantage when it comes to drawing tourists and convention business. Offering a rebate on a portion of what they consume is often pure gravy.

So basically, the Harper Government is telling the tourism and convention business to go screw themselves. I wonder if they even consulted with the rebate brokers, who take a commission (usually 10 %) off the top to speed up the rebate process which can often take weeks.

Most European Union countries refund their Value Added Tax, or VAT, to non EU residents; which is one reason why so many Canadians and Americans travel there. If they see us doing this, they might figure, what the heck, and eliminate their rebate program as well. Travel is about opening bridges and understanding other cultures better; getting rid of this program is burning those bridges -- and promoting self-centredness and intolerance.

This is going to "save" the Government $78.8 million dollars over the next two years. I believe it will cost way more in lost tourist dollars. If Harper wants to save some money, he should look elsewhere. Maybe by eliminating the Finance Department and Treasury Board all together, and letting the Canada Revenue Agency do the job. At least then, there'd be only one department to scream at come tax time -- not three.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Volpe IN, Fry OUT

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, a lot of people -- myself included -- felt that Joe Volpe was toast. Today, he said he's staying in the race for the Liberal leadership and will let the party executive sort out any "irregularities" that may have cropped up. Meanwhile, Hedy (Crosses are burning in Prince George) Fry announced she's dropped out and endorsing Bob Rae.

While I am standing by my endorsement of Gerard Kennedy and will vote for him as my preference on Sunday when the delegate selection rollout comes to my district, the moves the last few days do give me pause about my second and third choices, and how I am going to split my vote for delegate selection. Each district sends 14 delegates, and I'm likely to split my ballot 5-4-3-2; selecting commited delegates at random. I was never going to vote a straight line as I did last time for Paul Martin, but given that it's becoming a showdown between Rae and Michael Ignatieff I have to begin to wonder what the other candidates may be thinking of who to support if, as is almost certain, the convention goes to a third and even a fourth ballot. It might be better to vote for delegates committed to a potential winner than a "kingmaker," and hope other parties members are also going to hope for a quick end to the convention than an all-night marathon.

Then again, there have been rare occasions when a dark horse has come out on top. Think Edward Broadbent (NDP) in 1975, Joe Clark (PC) in 1976, and here provincially in Ontario Dalton McGuinty (Liberal) in 1996, who of course later became Premier. Perhaps Volpe thinks he could still win this thing. Stranger things have happened, and until we get the raw numbers this weekend we won't know for sure ... but I'm not going to waste my chance to vote either.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Joe Volpe leaving race?

Looks like Joe Volpe is going to withdraw from the Liberal leadership race tomorrow, after revelations this weekend his campaign in Québec registered new members who didn't pay the required membership fee ... and, in one case, even enlisted someone who has been dead for seventeen years. A couple months back, I was headed down Lawrence Avenue in Toronto and rode by Joe Volpe's constituency office. He had already been under fire for some other irregularities, and I felt so tempted to stick my head out the window and scream, "BOOOOOO!"

The sooner he's out of the race, the better. This is a serious race requiring serious candidates and serious thought by its members as we approach Super Weekend, starting this Friday. Joe Volpe, with all due respect, is not a serious candidate and wasn't from the very beginning. He has been successful in gaining new members, about 35 thousand, but being a kingmaker without having at least some credibility may weaken what is supposed to be a rebuilding exercise for the Liberals.

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hamilton officials bury Legionnaires' outbreak

The Hamilton Spectator has a story this morning that is taking many people completely by surprise. One person died and ten were made ill by an outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease during the summer, and the area of contagion covered pretty much the entire downtown of Hamilton; but incredibly public health officials kept the story under wraps until now. Mayor Larry DiIanni claims he didn't want to create a public panic as they didn't know where the source of the disease and didn't want to mislead people, but that's a cop-out.

It was an unusually hot summer here in Southern Ontario, and it's well known Legionnaires is spread by bacteria that builds up in unmaintained air conditioning units. To its credt, the city did the right thing by cleaning out its units as soon as they suspected something was up; and quietly asked building owners to check out theirs. But is it so hard to tell people that there is a problem and it might be a good idea to stay away from certain facilities for a few days while the outbreak is contained?

We demanded, and got city officials, to tell people if a restaurant or a grocery store has safe food handling procedures through a colour-coded notification system at the front door of every such establishment. Vans roam the streets late at night offering condoms and clean hypodermic needles to drug addicts; and our tax dollars also support local birth control facilities such as Planned Parenthood et sequens. (Vancouver even has a safe-injection clinic, which has been saved by the bell for the time being.) Yet our public health officials can't be bothered to tell us that there's something out there that might be causing severe diarrehea?

This can't be tolerated. I don't know if any other mayor would have handled this differently, but DiIanni lost my confidence a long time ago and this one seals the deal. He won't get my vote in this fall's elections, period. It's the mayor's job to protect the health of his or her citizens, and he dropped the bomb.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

It all goes back to Isaac and Ishmael

Whether one agrees with him or not, Gerry Desjardins at Montréal's Servant's House raises some interesting points. His comments about Mohammed being an illegitimate child are bound to raise eyebrows, but perhaps no less so than Benedict's musings last week.

Happy Rosh Hashanah.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hey dude, where's my car? (CIDA Edition)

It's bad enough that 39 years after Lester Pearson's famous pledge to spend 0.7 percent of GDP on foreign aid, Canada is still at only half that amount. Now, CBC reports this morning that it's become next to impossible to find out how our foreign aid arm, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), spends our money on projects. Requests under Access to Information have been routinely denied on this one particular file. That's because a big chunk of it is sent on to UN agencies such as the World Bank, and the money is pooled with that of other countries. Since most of those countries have less generous disclosure laws than we do, they also have a veto on releasing data related to our contributions.

This is totally insane. Consider the fact that every year during Lent, several churches have fundraising campaigns for their development charities (among these include the Catholic Church's Development and Peace, the Presbyterian Church's World Service and Development, and of course the Salvation Army.) For many years, the federal government via CIDA has matched these donations during this seven week period at a very generous six to one. Faith-based initiatives are not as big a red flag in Canada as they are in the States, because here charities give regardless of one's religious persuasion or lack thereof; and proselytizing, while still present, is still nowhere near as important as giving back.

At least in this case, we know exactly how much money the government is contributing, because it goes back to the charities to use as they see fit. Where is the accountability where the IMF and World Bank are concerned? There is none, of course.

If even one percent of foreign aid money disappears through the ether, it's not good. Stephen Harper said he wanted to make government more accountable. Why doesn't he make good on that on the one level where other countries see it the most -- by practicing what we preach?

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Call centre blues, Part IV

It's been nearly three months since I moved to the Customer Service Department of the call centre where I am employed. So, to build on my previous posts about some of the grief my colleagues and I face on a daily basis (here about ordertaking, and these two about being a verifications officer), I present some of the issues of being in the trenches -- in the hopes, as before, you get a better idea of what it's like for us.

We keep track of all mistakes and who's responsible for them. We compensate stores for our mistakes but the stores pay us a penalty for theirs if they're above the chainwide average of mistakes. (That draw, plus a commission for each order we take on their behalf, is where we get our salaries from -- after all, we technically work not for head office but the franchise owners.) That explains why some specials are walk-in only, because the store would lose money on the order if we took it at the loss-leader price -- and we have to deal with screaming customers who just don't accept we don't take those specific orders.

Customer service doesn't just involve working with the customers, but also with the stores, drivers who deliver, a smaller and complimentary chain for which we also take calls -- as well as, on occasion, management and even law enforcement. Every call is different and we have to think on our toes. About half the calls we get still fall under ordertaking or verifying -- after all, if all the ordertakers are busy with calls and some of us are available the call gets directed to us. We answer "Customer Service," usually out of habit, but the customer wants to go back into ordertaking. Which is kind of weird especially if they've been on hold for ten minutes and they're implying they're OK with waiting another ten.

We take the order -- no questions asked. There are some other issues, though, and it's worth pointing out why we do it the way we do. This is by no means exhaustive, but here are some of the most frequent issues.

1. The customer wants a store credit for another day.

This often happens when a customer is unhappy with one or more ingredients, but they've eaten the pizza anyway. No can do. We normally offer only same day replacements. Among the exceptions are if the store is closed, the pizza has been remade already and the customer is still unsatisfied with the results, or if the customer is in an area where we don't deliver after a certain time. As I explained before, each store has a specific delivery area; boundaries are only crossed if a huge order has to be split betwen two or more stores, or an emergency crops up and another store isn't too busy and prepared to take up the slack. I can't count the number of times I've gotten into an argument with a customer about a replacement. But sometimes the customer is surprised and even delighted we would actually go to the trouble of remaking something. That's our job. We want them to be satisfied.

2. The customer wants the "real" phone number.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: It's on a need to know basis, and most times (99.9%), the customer doesn't need to know. They're unlisted, on purpose, so the store is freed up from being on the phone all the time so they can make the customers' orders. If a message needs to be passed, we take the customer's number and ask the store to call them back.

3. The order was sent to the wrong store.

It does happen, but agents do often send pickups to the wrong location; or they enter a street name wrong and it winds up in another part of town or even another city. We offer compensation, and in this case give the customer a choice. Either they go to the "wrong" store, or a fresh order is made at the right one. The customer gets the order for free, and if the order has to be remade we also compensate the other location for their expenses. Simple enough -- although it sometimes takes a few attempts to explain this to an irate customer.

4. A customer wants such and such driver fired.

That's up to an individual store, as they're franchises. We do pass on the complaint, though.

5. A customer had their order verified, and still wants a free order.

The reasons some orders are checked out are because of size or credit issues, or because a store wants all orders to a certain address confirmed. That doesn't stop some customers from claiming the time guarantee began from when the order was placed. (It's from the time we confirmed it and gave the customer the new time.) Or that they weren't expecting a call back. (We always tell them we will.) Or we have the wrong address. (That's the purpose of a verification -- if you confirmed the address and you gave us the wrong address on purpose, hoping to get a free order, we're not that stupid.) Oh, and for a multi-unit delivery point, such as an apartment or hotel, the guarantee ends in the lobby or front desk; unless you have no buzzer, in which case there is no time guarantee at all.

6. Stores don't want to remake an order, because they think the customer is lying.

We work on the presumption the customer is always right, and that they're being truthful. We do keep a log of the number of orders vs complaints, but one of our problems is that we keep track of them by phone number and not address. Stores on the front lines do remember like an elephant, however, so if a customer is trying to scam us with multiple phone numbers at the same address they know it well. In that case, and if a store manager insists, we ask them to talk to their regional sales manager, and we investigate it further. If an address needs to be blacklisted or otherwise get close scrutiny, then and only then do we flag it.

7. The stores want compensation for an undelivered order, or one cancelled by the store.

That depends on whether the order was sent to the right store in the first place. If it was, the store doesn't get comped and has to bite the loss. It's tough, but those are the rules. If it was a mistake on our end, such as an error in the street file, then of course, we'd be happy to comp.

8. The stores pin the blame on the commissary and not themselves.

We do have some very specific cooking and quality control rules, but once in a while head office does screw up. They label a mild sauce as hot, or lightly breaded wings are heavily breaded, and so forth. In those cases, yes, the error is on us. But if a store didn't prepare it properly, then it's their fault.

Two last points: Sometimes, when we're offering a remake, the customer wants to give the other product back. Health regulations forbid us from doing this, with the sole exception being a foreign object complaint. In that case, the regional sales manager gets in touch with the customer and arranges a pickup time.

Also, there is a priority for calls we take. Stores and drivers get priority (they have a special number that puts them at the front of the line), followed by customer service issues, orders for our fried chicken outlets and then orders for all our other outlets. Sometimes, an issue can be resolved during a call and we just take the next one, but sometimes we have to follow up and make sure all our notes are right -- which means not all of us are available at any given time. Please be patient if you do have an issue. We will always answer your call. Some nights, like on major event nights, we get backed up with orders and that also reflects on the queue in customer service but we do try to clear up that backlog as soon as possible. And if you're just ordering and you hear "customer service," don't hang up either. After all, all customer service agents are ordertakers -- but not all ordertakers are customer service agents.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Chavez calls Dubya "The Devil" -- here's the real reason why

One of the quirks about diplomacy is that one isn't allowed to shoot the messenger. The messenger must also be given free passage to where he or she wants to express his or her country's official position even if it's totally at discord with that of the host.

There are at least two examples I am aware of where it gets even trickier, as the destination is actually a third country or a supranational territory. One, of course, is the Vatican City State. Despite a European Union ban on several world leaders, Italy still had to let those dictators into Rome last year because they had official business -- namely, attending the funeral of John Paul II -- and it was Italy's duty to give safe passage to the Holy See.

The other is the UN Headquarters in Manhattan. It's technically not part of the United States (although, if a crime is committed there, it is presumed US law will be applied). So George W Bush has been forced to allow at least two very unsavoury characters into the US so they could make their addresses to the General Assembly. Mamoud Amedinejad of Iran had his turn last night, and kept protesting through lying teeth he doesn't want nuclear weapons. Sure ... when you're sitting on a 400 year supply of oil and natural gas? He did have a point about the hypocrisy of the Permanent Five who have nuclear weapons, along with Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan. But that's as far as it goes.

Today, Bush's Public Enemy #2, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, had his turn. He really ripped into the Bush Administration, saying the rostrum at the General Assembly still smelled rotten from Dubya's "stench" and even called him the Devil. What's really going on here has little to do with his animosity towards the White House -- he'd hate any American President, Democratic or Republican.

The real issue -- which also explains why Citgo (owned by the Venezuelan government) is running a record-breaking number of ads on US television right now, although they don't say it up front -- is that Venezuela is fighting for a seat at the UN Security Council, the one assigned to a Latin American country, for the next two years. The US has made no secret of the fact it much prefers Guatemala, which has sat on the Council 4 times during the last 60 years. (Canada also supports Guatemala but for totally different reasons, which the Harper Government will not elaborate on.) Venezuela has never been given a card to the Big Dance even once. (Incidentally, three countries -- South Africa, Italy and Belgium -- have won their regional seats for the next two years unopposed; the other contest for the Asian seat is between Nepal and Indonesia.)

Fortunately, it's the General Assembly and not the Security Council who gets to pick the 10 non-permanent members. Much as I don't like Chavez, I'm kind of hoping in a morbid way Venezuela wins. That way, Chavez doesn't even have to run for re-election as his country's President this fall: He could simply appoint himself Ambassador to the UN, move to Central Park West and be in Bush's face for the rest of the latters's Administration. Meanwhile, Hugo can run his country from abroad via a patsy -- and the best part would be, his residence, limosine and person would be off limits at all times. He'd be untouchable.

Diplomatic immunity. It's one of those funny things. It allows dictators to roam around and mouth off with impunity. It also allows one of the few free areas of free speech where the government -- or the corporate MSM -- otherwise suppresses it. The US can complain all it wants; the fact remains Chavez is seen as someone who's standing up to America's long standing "Big Stick" approach to ruling the Americas. If Harper actually stood up to the Americans once in a while, as even Mulroney did with Reagan and Bush Sr on occasion during the 80s and early 90s, he might be a much more appropriate counterbalance than Chavez. As it is, we're stuck.

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Ethical retailing

What a difference a few years can make.

When Wal-Mart came to Canada back in 1993, it turned retailing upside down in Canada in pretty much the same way it did in the United States. It was also a bold new adventure for the Bentonville, Arkansas based company. In the United States, it generally shuns inner cities (although in recent years it has opened stores in Los Angeles and Manhattan); here it was acquiring a company that was well rooted in the cities. People quickly cottoned on to its sterile but thought out layout (with triple the number of product offerings from its predecessor) and its super-low prices. As I noted last year, it proved to be a huge challenge for some well-established companies; many of which fell by the wayside.

One of the reasons for Wal-Mart's success was its commitment to customer service. One couldn't help but turn around and find someone saying "Can I help you find something?" People made an obvious comparison to Canadian Tire, where store clerks would often say "it's over there" and point to a swath of aisles six deep -- as if to say, "Just get your stuff and get the hell out of here." (CTC is -- for the uninitiated -- a cross between Autozone, Bed Bath and Beyond, Bass Pro Shop, Radio Shack and Sports Chalet.) It wasn't as if they were going away anytime soon ... after all, they're the leading auto parts depot in Canada. But it was like they need a huge attitude adjustment.

The last few years have seen a major improvement. Most stores have been remodeled and are much larger than before and easier to browse. The product selection is better and of higher quality, the prices are competitive, and the staff are actually helpful for a change. They've even been known to refer customers to smaller competitors if they have a better product or can do a better job on an installation. More important, though, is that they still have a large portion of products which are made by union labour. In other words, they're trying to differentiate themselves by at least making an effort to be an ethical business.

Other retailers have also adjusted to the reality of the Wal-Mart world. Some have been successful, but others haven't been. And as a response to Canadian retailers waking up, Wal-Mart now sells groceries in its outlets here, including fresh meat and vegetables in its largest fronts; just like they have in the States for years. Don't be surprised if they start selling mattresses -- and undercutting chains like Sleep Country. Or they start to be open 24 hours, like in the States. The fact remains, however, Wal-Mart is still a juggernaut. They may not be near the 15% or so of all US retail sales here in Canada, but they're powerful enough to force suppliers to sell to them at price points that barely break even for them -- but mean a winfall for Wal-Mart.

My problem isn't that I'm against companies making a profit. Of course I am in favour of profits. We tax those profits and use them to finance health care, education and defence. My problem is using cheap or prison overseas labour and turning a blind eye to social responsibility. Wal-Mart just doesn't seem to give a damn, despite their recent publicity campaign.

Another example, which kind of flips things around, is Tim Horton's and Starbucks. Incredible as it may sound, Timmy got a failing grade on corporate responsibility, even though it has long sponsored childrens' programmes in Canada. Seattle-based Starbucks, reviled by social activists even as recently as several years ago, actually got a high mark. Why? Because Starbucks now has a verifiable percentage of "fair trade" coffee in its content, and is committed to increase it over the next few years. Tims has no such verification program as far as I am aware -- in fact, there's no way to know if there is any organic coffee content in a Tims. Surely it can't be that hard to find suppliers who can give the same taste we've come to know and love. I think Canadians wouldn't mind paying a little bit more if it ensured coffee growers got a fair price -- not the price set on the Big Board which is usually a starvation one.

I think it's time we took the time to actually check the labels on products and ask a few questions. It's not that hard to shop in an ethical manner. It doesn't mean I'm not going to stop going to Tims or Wal-Mart, if the price is right. But alternatives do exist, and they should be used whenever possible.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The speech John Kerry should have given in 2004

If he had said this then, and not yesterday, he would have walked all over "God's annointed servant" Dubya. There's no question he's running in 2008, but will this be enough to start turning the tide? It depends to a great extent whether the finally resurgent religious left can persuade American voters that George W Bush wears his faith on his sleeve and not in his heart. There are forces out there who are bound and determined to make sure the dichotomy remains religious versus Satanic,but it's possible a growing number of Americans are just sick and tired of the hold the religious right has on American affairs and wants a middle ground between pure separation of church and state, and theocracy.

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Briefing notes (2006-09-19)

A rare early week day off, and I'm on the go ... so here are my observations for the day.
  • Judge Dennis O'Connor reported yesterday (PDF) that an RCMP report containing false information and passed on to US authorities is almost certainly the reason why Maher Arar, a dual Syrian-Canadian citizen, was deported by US authorities while en route via New York and sent to Syria as a terror suspect, where he was tortured for a year. As late as last week, Dubya obliquely said he still had no apologies for those who have been falsely accused and sent to third countries; which means that until the US admitted it too made a mistake Arar is still considered a terrorist in the US even though he has been cleared in Canada. That just doesn't cut it, I have to say. If an actual crime was committed, show evidence that it was ... if it involves national security, don't have a secret trial where the evidence is shown only to prosecutors and the judge but also have an advocate who has a top secret or better clearance and can also put forward a case as to whether the evidence is crap. The fact some sections of the remain blacked out is a question mark, but one can hope that we find out the whole story at some definite point and not be kept in the dark forever. As for Arar, he deserves compensation. A lot of it -- and I think the States should pony up some dough too.
  • Bernard Lord's reign as Premier of New Brunswick is over. He lost narrowly to Liberal Shawn Graham, by a seat count of 29-26. Lord only has himself to blame, as a result of some major spending missteps during his second term as well as a continued inability to deal with the exploding costs of car insurance in the province. He did do some good, such as lowered income taxes and the elimination of tolls on the Trans-Canada Highway. It's also being suggested this morning that the redrawing of boundaries a couple of years ago, which reflected a shift of population to the major cities, may have also cost Lord. Still, Lord managed to win the popular vote, just slightly. This is yet another argument for proportional representation. Someone should not win outright unless he or she wins both the popular vote as well as the seat count.
  • Another terror alert this morning as an Air India flight was forced to return to Toronto after a suspicious package was found on board. Bully for the crew and passengers for being so alert, but someone screwed up at security at Pearson -- the package should not have allowed on board in the first place.
  • Finally, the Toronto Police union is threatening to sue people who file false claims of brutality or other forms of misconduct. Which is certainly their right, in my opinion, but once again it's a very bad public relations move to say it the way they did. A few years ago, they sold stickers saying "I support the police" which many felt was a way of buying one's way out of a parking or speeding ticket. The Toronto police, all police forces in fact, have also been long suspicious of civilian oversight. But the fact is they are our employees -- we pay their salaries through taxes. If they were allowed to be a force unto themselves, then who would police the police? No one. Coming as this does during the local election season in Ontario, it's also very suspicious timing. If the Toronto police union wants to endorse a candidate who supports greater or unlimited police powers, why don't they just come out and say it?
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Monday, September 18, 2006

GM-Ford merger? Don't laugh, it could happen

When things went from bad to worse at Chrysler about 25 years ago, even with loan guarantees from the US government, Lee Iacocca was so desperate that he proposed a merger with his former employer, Ford. It was actually a common-sense proposal to create a company that could rival GM or Toyota; combining Chrysler's engineering prowess with Ford's competitive environment The idea was Chrysler and Dodge would remain, but they would produce upscale versions of the K-Car for Ford and Mercury -- in return, Ford would make upmarket versions of the Ram truck to replace the F-Series. Ford basically said no, that they "weren't that stupid." The real reason, as some suspected at the time, was the grandson of Henry Ford absolutely despised Iacocca and didn't want to see his face.

It could have worked. It never got the chance.

Here's 2006. Chrysler is now owned by Daimler, and both GM and Ford are in junk bond status. What's being proposed? A GM-Ford merger.

We need that combination like a shot in the head. A company that has fifty percent of the market -- like The General once had -- is by its very nature uncompetitive. When Chrysler applied for loan guarantees in 1979 to stave off bankruptcy, its competitors' head offices were opposed but their respective dealer networks actually supported Iacocca, pointing out competition meant better products across the board and lower prices.

Regulators in the US might be stupid enough to fall for this scam. Even our Competition Bureau in Canada might be stupid too. The European Union, however, will never accept it -- especially if it means threatening home grown companies like Renault and Volkswagen.

Hey guys, if you want people to buy your cars, then make cars people want to buy. It's little wonder the Japanese automakers are killing you. Merging operations will mean diddly squat if you continue to come out with the kind of crap that distinguished you during the 1990s.

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Meaningless Meanderings19/09/2006 9:57:17 AM

Could happen ? It will happen because Ford and GM have little or no other choice. Even between the two of them they can't build a decent automobile, and their market share is destined to erode ever further until there are eventually two, or at best three major carmakers left. Decades of public abuse by building substandard products, then selling replacement parts for their inferior merchandise has finally caught up to the big two, and almost to the third of the big three. The solution? Fire all the existing design staff and management, and replace them with Japanese workers. Scrap the existing plants and replace them. Who knows .. in maybe a decade GM/Ford could turn a profit!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

What part of "no torture" doesn't Dubya get?

George W Bush is setting up for a showdown with Senate Republicans, not the least of which include John McCain of Arizona, for wanting to clarify that Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions will apply to persons suspected of committing or plotting to commit terrorist acts against the United States. The White House argument is that military officers could themselves face charges of war crimes if they "misbehave" during interrogations.

I honestly don't understand how they can just presume Geneva doesn't apply to the United States. As McCain and others have correctly pointed out, if the United States refuses to play by commonly accepted rules of war, that endangers the lives of US personnel should they be captured or kidnapped by enemy forces overseas. After all, if the US can play hard and fast by the rules, so can they.

Here is Common Article III -- so called because it appears in all four of the Geneva Conventions. I don't know how much plainer this could be:

In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

1. Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of the armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all cases be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, color, religion or faith, sex, birth of wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) taking of hostages;
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgement pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

2. The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.
An impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict.
The Parties to the conflict should further endeavor to bring into force, by means of special agreements, all or part of the other provisions of the present Convention.
The application of the preceding provisions shall not affect the legal status of the Parties to the conflict.

If Karl Rove, the real President of the United States, believes the United States should no longer be subject to the Geneva Conventions, he should send a letter to the United Nations saying precisely that; namely, that the US withdraws from the treaties and their later protocols. Otherwise, the US -- indeed all countries engaged in the so-called "War Against Terrorism," including Canada -- should play by the rules that were agreed to decades ago.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ratzinger doesn't have to apologize to anyone

In several posts, I have been rather critical of Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) and, as a Catholic, I will continue to do so where and when I think appropriate. It is in that vein that I decided to read his entire speech, not the snippets the Exempt Media has reported and which has caused a furore in the Muslim world. (Read it for yourself, here, in PDF format.)

Earlier today, Ratz said he apologized for any offence he caused. There was no need for him to do so. He was merely quoting a Byzantine Emperor in the 14th century, Manuel Paleologu II, who was critical of Mohammed -- rightly or wrongly. This didn't impress Morocco, one of the more secular Muslim majority states, who recalled its Ambassador to the Vatican for "consultations."

Let's face it, we're all guilty of using evil people and their quotes to make a point. The most famous of these is Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, who said:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus
by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

As evil as the context in it which it was used -- justifying the Holocaust -- we've used it ever since to slam people who would restrict free speech, or who criticize political leaders for lying their way into war, irresponsible tax policies and using religion to justify terrorism -- and I think that's the point the Pope was trying to make. Unfortunately, people have only heard enough to presume Benedict co-opted the words Manuel for himself. The idiots who are so successful in having done this are the same as those who manage to persuade most Muslims that Jewish people booked off work the day of 9/11. Let's not forget, there are some who believe all wars are just, based on rather convoluted interpretations of the Bible; as is taking oil from the Middle East at bargain basement prices.

The Vatican still hasn't fully apologized for the abuse of children, or for that matter the atrocities it committed during the Crusades. But Benedict doesn't have to apologize for anything, at least not in this case. In fact, I think his effort to apologize may have weakened his position. People should actually take the time to check the facts. For some broadcasters and print media, however, truth is less important than ratings -- or riling up people to commit even more terrorist acts.

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For me, it's Gerard Kennedy

I have thought long and hard all summer about who I am going to vote for Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, when the delegate "super weekend" comes up in a fortnight. This hasn't been an easy choice, and yesterday's surprise move by Carolyn Bennett to withdraw from the race and support Bob Rae actually forced me to delay my endorsement for one day and give all the remaining candidates another look.

The ultimate question for me is, "Who has the best chance of winning the next general election -- presuming Stephen Harper doesn't pull the rug out and call a snap election before December?" Not who can win two or three elections down the road, but now, before very serious damage is done to the Canadian federation? As well, who will best fight for one Canada while working with the reality that we are in fact a "community of communities" as another former Prime Minister once said?

For obvious reasons, I eliminated Joe Volpe and Hedy Fry. (Both too explosive). I don't know enough about Martha Hall Findlay to be convinced she'd be a good leader, but she's definitely good enough for the Cabinet. Scott Brison is a fine candidate, but there are Canadians -- including many Liberals -- who will never accept a gay Prime Minister. Personally, it doesn't matter to me. Notwithstanding my personal opposition to gay marriage; I really don't care what someone's sexual orientation is; after all, there's nothing wrong with it, just as long as they can do the job. But the Liberals need, as I said, a "winner," and Brison could cause a major schism in the party solely for that one reason.

So, I narrowed it down to: Stéphane Dion, Ken Dryden, Michael Ignatieff, Gerard Kennedy and Bob Rae -- all pretty much the acknowledged "front runners" from the start. All would make a fine leader. Here's how I came to my choice.
  • Bob Rae is bilingual and is a very passionate person. However, he's been in the Liberal Party for a relatively short time (having broken away from the NDP around 2002) and I'm not sure about how committed he is to the party. It reminds me a lot of Pierre Trudeau, who was an NDP member before switching to the Liberals when he realized the socialist party might never get elected to power. His big problem is that people still remember how he had an incredible amount of difficulty while he was the NDP Premier of Ontario. A lot of it wasn't his fault because of a terrible recession, but he antagonized his union allies to no end. He also has the ability to annoy a lot of people and say things that are hard to forget. One example was when he visited McMaster University, while I was a student there. When he was slammed for raising tuition fees and making life even harder for students, he fired back, "You drive down Barton Street and then tell me who's hard done by." Barton Street in Hamilton, once a thriving shopping area, has been for nearly two decades a virtual ghost town and just a way to drive through town East-West. Throwing it in people's faces is appropriate at times, but one has to know when to do it. Rae is Cabinet material, just not good enough for 24 Sussex Drive.
  • Ken Dryden is appealing if for no other reason than he is a native son of Hamilton. If that was the only reason to vote for delegate selection, I would have voted for Sheila Copps the last go around. He's very good on social policy, which distinguishes the Liberal Party from the others and why I rejoined the party after a couple of years. In the vein of Paul Martin, he understands government should not give hand outs but a hand up -- an example is the now cancelled child care program. The only problem is that he's best remembered as a hockey player and executive. I wonder how many people in Canada would actually take an ex-goalie seriously. He would be a fine Prime Minister and would be my second round choice if I could afford to be a delegate. (I can't.) He just can't win, however.
  • Michael Ignatieff was gone from Canada for so long that it was a shock when he quit Harvard to come back to Canada. (Maybe it was a good thing when he did walk, given Harvard also gave the world Larry Summers, who was forced to resign the Presidency of the University when he said men were more "naturally adept" at math and science than women are.) He's also a hawk, which allows him to go head-to-head against Harper like none of the other candidates. That may annoy a lot of Canadians who still mistakenly believe Canada is a "neutral" country. (It never has been.) In the free trade area, our relationship with the United States has evolved into something akin to "sovereignty association," not quite the integrated European Union but our economies are tied together; so we need a Prime Minister who's both friendly to the States but also keeps it at bay. Ignatieff can do that. However, he's been evasive about what he will do if he doesn't win. Jean Charest made the same mistake when he ran against Kim Campbell in 1993 for the Progressive Conservatives and that's what cost him. Ignatieff hasn't been specific enough about his long term commitment to the Liberals, so I can't vote for him.
  • Stéphane Dion is a passionate Canadian, bilingual and can go toe-to-toe with Harper, even more so than Ignatieff. I don't have too many complaints about him. I would make him my third choice, however, behind Dryden. Not that he's a bad person, but he's too closely associated with Chrétien and Martin, and to have any hope of winning the Liberals need to win back some seats in Québec -- which means the party needs a fresh face.
So by a bit of process of elimination, and also by a leap of faith, I endorse Gerard Kennedy for the first round voting.

He is a long time social activist, having once run Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank. He's also a competent politician, certainly one of the best members of Dalton McGuinty's somewhat hapless administration. (And no, there's no inconsistency in being critical of the provincial Liberals as Ontario's Liberals are completely separate from the federal party.) He's bilingual, and having spent time in Québec he has a handle on the rather finicky electorate there (as well as its even wackier politics) that the other candidates are lacking. More than the other candidates, he's also in it for the short and long term and can easily adapt the party to either a one or two election strategy -- depending on whether Harper can stop stumbling. I honestly don't think the other candidates have that kind of patience.

As I said, the candidates all could be a good leader. But the Liberals need to win. For me, the winning candidate is Gerard Kennedy.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

More proof Hamilton City Council is stupid: City Hall reno costs explode

A few months back, the City of Hamilton decided to pass up on doing the right thing and building a new City Hall to replace the 1950s white marble, Art Deco structure that is way beyond cramped, decades behind code, and leaking. The official reasoning: It was cheaper to renovate the existing bunker for $42 million than build a new structure for $120 million. The real reason, I believe, is that unlike nearly cities like Cambridge and Mississauga, there has been a long standing aversion in Hamilton to private-public partnerships (P3) where they make sense; especially when it comes to the civic square.

Now, we're learning consultants say the renovations will cost at least $55 million, just under half of what it would have cost to just tear down the old place and build it properly, from scratch. Not very good news with a municipal election less than two months away. And it also demonstrates a lost opportunity to coordinate with other long awaited redevelopment projects downtown. Consider, for example, the announcement here the other day that the people redeveloping the bankrupt Royal Connaught (which went into the toilet after Howard Johnson pulled its franchise on the previous owners for not keeping the historic building up to code) signed a new affiliation agreement with Marriott Renaissance and, contrary to previous plans, will now build a brand new condominium next door rather than just have a joint hotel/apartment.

That empty lot, currently used for parking, would be perfect for a city hall and integrating it with office and accomodation space would have made it a magnet. Yet once again, no imagination is coming from the current denizens of the council chamber. 35 years ago, Jackson Square was supposed to be the ultimate shopping centre and civic square. What did we do? We gave a decades long lease to an absentee landlord in Montréal, taxes there are still ridiculous for tenants, and unlike other shopping malls in the city which are open until 9 or even 10, it closes at 5:30 pm most days. What the hell's with that? And the hotel at the mall, long rated 4 diamonds by AAA, has been at three for several years -- which doesn't bode well for convention business which wants premium accomodations.

Compare that to the two cities I mentioned above. Mississauga decided to build its city hall from scratch, and partnered with private business to create new Class One office space as well. Prime and preferred retail space, and who gets the rents? The city, of course. Plus, the hotels in the areas are superb -- were from the very beginning. Cambridge rents space in an office tower, not afraid to admit it's less expensive to do that than have its own physical plant. Few people are complaining there -- and the long time pro business environment in Waterloo Region is another plus.

Hamilton got burned with the water and sewer contract a few years ago, which rotated from one operation to another and at one point was held by ENRON. But P3s do work sometimes, as other cities prove. Hamilton just doesn't know how to do the right thing, or how to stand up to unions while working with them. That's going to affect how I'm going to vote this fall. No incumbents.

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Carolyn throws in the towel

So Carolyn Bennett has dropped out of the Liberal leadership race, and endorsing Bob Rae. It's just as well, because she was never on my list anyway.

UPDATE (Saturday 2006/09/16 10:31 PM, 1431 GMT): An earlier version of this post said Carolyn Parrish. Sorry ... and yeah, like anyone would've voted for Parrish anyway!

Carolyn throws in the towel

So Carolyn Bennett has dropped out of the Liberal leadership race, and endorsing Bob Rae. It's just as well, because she was never on my list anyway.

UPDATE (Saturday 2006/09/16 10:31 PM, 1431 GMT): An earlier version of this post said Carolyn Parrish. Sorry ... and yeah, like anyone would've voted for Parrish anyway!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Live fast, die young, leave a mangled corpse

We're starting to learn more about the person responsible for the rampage yesterday in Montréal, 25 year old Kimveer Gill of Laval. It's frightening enough that this person was totally off the radar screen of police as he had no criminal record. What's even more frightening is his blog at a site celebrating Goth culture called Vampire Freaks (since removed by the site's administrators). The pictures show a man in a trenchcoat in all sorts of war-like poses and combat boots. The entries were pretty ominous. He liked to play a video game based on the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado; he hated country music, hip-hop, jocks and preppies; and this entry: "His name is Trench. You will come to know him as the Angel of Death." The last blog entry was 10:41 am yesterday, two hours before the rampage began.

It is probably next to impossible to monitor every single blog on the planet. To be blunt, I'm pretty sure I'm on more than one little list because of my feelings about the policies of Stephen Harper and George W Bush (although not them personally). However, someone trolling at random for any blog in particular must have noticed there was something up about Gill. If this guy was about to let loose, or do something out of the ordinary, was in fact acting in a totally strange way -- why didn't anyone turn him in? Especially with the blog entry: "Live fast, die young .... leave a mangled corpse"?

According to the reports I've read, the parents of the young man are in a state of shock -- which goes without saying because most parents never notice anything their kids do. Moreover, this guy did everything by the book. Contrary to some previous reports, we now have learned he had three guns which were all legally licenced and registered. He even took the time to make sure his car was parked legally!

No question, people are going to ask questions about security and who's job it is to protect students. Certainly one can ensure entrances that are supposed to be locked stay locked and only "authorized" access points are used. In the real world, locking down everything would contribute to a society that is not free; which is the exact opposite of what the haters of freedom -- be they Al Qaeda, McCarthyites or Goths -- want.

As I look in the sky, a corporate hot air balloon has been flying over my neighbourhood all day; which I find strange because the Canadian Open was last weekend. Are "they" spying on us? Or it is just blowing off helium? I prefer to think the latter. Similarly, and in a morbid way, one must ask why this guy chose to blow off steam the way he did. Aren't their rifle ranges and target practice areas around Montréal where Kimveer Gill could have blown off his steam, rather than turn it on his fellow human beings? That question must be left to pure speculation now because we know what choice Gill made.

One final note: Gill was of East Indian origin, and the area does have a large community with descendants from the world's largest democracy. One can only hope reprisals aren't taken out on them, solely on count of one terribly misguided and lost human being.

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Montréal shooting -- update

A brief follow-up on my last post. It now appears that one person was killed in the rampage before the gunman was shot by police. Inevitably comparisons to the 1989 Montréal Massacre are being evoked. But across the networks, both English and French, I noticed a common theme and that was Columbine was a major turning point in dealing with hostage situations like this. Now, police don't wait for reinforcements (i.e. a SWAT team) or for things to "calm down." They move in and try to neutralize the situation right away. That's what the Montréal Police and the Sûreté du Québec did yesterday, and they are to be commended for it.

There's been a lot of questions, naturally, about whether the gun registry should be kept or abolished in light of Wednesday's events. I think it should be fixed and fixed properly to get rid of the red tape, but to be honest it would not have prevented what happened. Montréal is very close to the US border and it's pretty easy to smuggle in prohibited weapons if you stay calm enough and not give away a facial profile that suggests stress. Besides, no one is going to register a prohibited weapon.

But it goes without saying that the gun registry emerged in part because of the events of 1989 and it remains very popular in the province. Something Harper needs to think about as the fall sitting of Parliament begins next week. He can't rule Canada by ignoring Québec and its very, very angry citizens.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Montréal shooting

The details are still pretty sketchy, but there has been a shooting at Montréal's Dawson College. Sketchy, because there were unconfirmed reports of some deaths but now all the police will say is that some were injured and that at least one of the shooters (in the stereotypical trenchcoat) was "neutralized." There really are no words.

Montréal shooting

The details are still pretty sketchy, but there has been a shooting at Montréal's Dawson College. Sketchy, because there were unconfirmed reports of some deaths but now all the police will say is that some were injured and that at least one of the shooters (in the stereotypical trenchcoat) was "neutralized." There really are no words.

Briefing notes (2006-09-13)

Lincoln Chafee wins Rhode Island primary. This must no doubt be very upsetting to the religious right, who want to wipe out the last vestiages of liberalism in the Republican Party (the others being Shays, Collins, Snowe, and Specter). But Chafee, the only Republican to vote against the Iraq War, has been a voice of reason in an extremely partisan environment. Despite his Iraq stance, Laura Bush campaigned for him which should have been the nudge over the top. It really wasn't necessary: Chafee easily won by 8 points. In the last week or so, he derailed a vote to make the "recess" appointment of John Bolton as UN Ambassador a Senate-ratified one; and there's probably no new vote scheduled any time soon. This makes the job for Democrats a whole lot harder ... but even Chafee hasn't polled much above 43% lately in a head to head against any opponent. His opponent will be Sheldon Whitehouse -- don't know too much about that candidate, but this will be one heck of a battleground race to watch. I'd still like Whitehouse to win -- but Chafee is still a lot pallitable than Steve Laffey.

Parkdale-High Park byelection gets nasty. With Gerard Kennedy quitting the seat so he could make a run at the federal Liberal leadership, the unofficial start to next year's general election (October 4, 2007) which should have been about local issues such as property taxes and child care has become ... well, it's hard to say what it's become. The other day, the New Democratic candidate, Rev. Cheri DeNovo, was accused of smuggling LSD into Canada when she was much younger, and liking it: "We did it in hollowed out Bibles. It was good stuff, not the crap you kids use today," she was accused of having said. Actually, she was quite upfront about it during a TV interview during the spring. The Liberals' candidate, Sylvia Watson, accused DeNovo of not having the right kind of values to sit in the legislature. In turn, DeNovo accused the Liberals of hypocrisy as George Smitherman, the Health Minister, admitted to a drug addiction during the 1990s only recently. The Liberals then turned around and ridiculed the NDP for saying the media was being unfair to serial killer Karla Homolka, who ended her 12 year sentence last year and was last seen a month ago in Montréal. If I was living in the district, I'd spoil my ballot and fill every circle with the international one finger salute. Making it personal like this does nothing for the people who live there.

Van-Doos mobilizes for Afghanistan -- now. They were supposed to rotate in a few months from now when the contingent from Petawawa moves out, but with NATO geting hammered on a daily basis, about 200 of the Royal 22e Régiment are being shipped out at the end of the month. The 22e are Canada's largest mostly French-speaking military unit, and the war which is already unpopular in Québec is probably going to get a whole lot more so. No doubt they're ready for the job, as they said last night. However, Stephen Harper is clinging on to the ten districts in the province that put him into minority government back in January; and the question must be asked is if he is willing to sacrifice his gains in hopes of shoving out the remaining Liberals and NDPers out West -- making the Prairies and Rockies solid blue. I for one think he's taking a massive risk here. If even one of the Van Doos falls victim to a bomb or shrapnel, he could lose the support of the Bloc Québécois, and that means a snap election. We need the Liberals back in Ottawa, but not before the convention is held.

Post lockout NHL goes contract crazy. The whole point of the floor to ceiling salary cap, which the owners fought so hard for, was to ensure small and middle market teams had a fighting chance against the big guys -- and June's terrific final between Edmonton and Raleigh would not have been possible if the players had finally cried uncle. More likely it would have something like Philadelphia versus Dallas: Boring. Yesterday, two developments happened that could make the whole salary cap a mockery. First, Rick DiPietro, a goaltender, signed a fifteen year contract with the New York Islanders for nearly $68 million dollars. No goalie, far as I know, has ever signed on for that long. But that was small potatoes when Philadelphia extended an "offer sheet" to a restricted free agent from Vancouver, Ryan Kesler. He earned the minimum salary last year -- $564,000. Philly is offering a one year contract for $1.9 million. Vancouver must either match the offer to keep Kesler, or it gets Philly's second round draft choice next year if they let him go. Either way, Kesler gets a pay hike of 237%. Now, tell me where in the real world someone gets a pay raise that high, and I'll apply for the job. Athletes are greedy fools, and their agents a hundred times worse. The game may be more exciting and meaningful to watch (sorry, Don Cherry) but the financials are out the toilet, and we'll be back to where we were when the collective agreement expires a few years down the road.

Those are my thoughts for today. As for the Parents TV Council, their "best and worst" list is late -- for the second year in a row.

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Charest flip-flops; now wants to swap "points" on sales taxes

A few months back, Jean Charest said that a tradeoff in a reduction of the GST in exchange for an increase in provincial sales taxes was not in the cards. But Tuesday evening, he was singing a different tune. According to Radio Canada, Charest now thinks he may be able to solve the so-called fiscal imbalance by getting the feds to cut the GST down to 5% now, not five years down the road as Stephen Harper promised. In exchange, the provinces would increase their sales tax by one percent. For Québec, it would mean another $1.2 billion in revenue per year; for Ontario, $2 billion. Since Québec is looking for another two billion per year, they think they can make up the difference (800 million) by getting Harper to transfer the money that was supposed to be spent on child care as well as letting provinces keep 50% of natural resources royalties in the calculation of equalization payments.

No question, the formula for making sure "have not" provinces have sufficient revenues for social programs needs to be revamped. But the part about sales taxes? I don't know about the rest of you, but we tried tax points with income taxes during the 1970s and it proved to be a classic game of robbing Peter to pay Paul. This does not solve the fiscal imbalance. Instead, it puts provincial governments at even greater mercy -- and with a recession possibly looming it could be a disaster. Charest says this is an opening position. The Harper government might see it as a final offer ... but the thought of handing over that much money to the provinces is probably going to rankle them.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Olbermann: This hole in the ground

After going at Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and Richard Cheney, Keith Olbermann does it yet again; this time going straight at the top and indicting George W. Bush in an essay titled "This Hole In The Ground." (Blog entry here, video here.)

In probably the best eight minutes of TV so far this year, KO asks some very simple questions:
  • Why is there still a gaping hole at Ground Zero? Why it is that even the memorial hasn't been started, let alone the towers that will be the new World Trade Centre? Why is the Battery nothing but a photo op?
  • Why was it that a sense of unity and purpose was squandered in a matter of weeks? That out of a sense that "We're all Americans now," the cabal went back to business as usual and said, "We're the only Americans?"
  • How could it be possible that America wound up going to war against a despot who, by his own admission, hated Osama bin Laden as much as, if not more so than, the United States? A guy whose only offence when it came to WMD (of which there were none) was sloppy bookkeeping?
  • Last but not least, is it possible that the Walt Disney Company -- which the religious right reviles so much for its pro gay policies -- has suddenly become the tool of the religious right and produces a film that accuses Bill Clinton of dereliction of duty when in fact he was the first to make a serious attempt to assassinate OBL and put him out of his wretched life?

At long last, one journalist in the MSM has finally found the courage of their convictions and declared open war against the latter day McCarthyite. Finally, one media member has had the guts to tell the truth. Sadly, in the state of the world we live in, Olbermann can next expect to get either a severe tax audit from the IRS -- or a horse's head next to him when he wakes up one morning -- and either one will be courtesy of Karl Rove.

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What I will be doing on the fifth anniversary of 9/11

It's become of those moments, where were you? Where were you when the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King were shot? When Apollo 13 ran into trouble on the way to the moon? When Nixon resigned? When the US hostages were held at the Tehran Embassy? When Chuck and Di announced they were splitting up? When Diana died?

It's hard to imagine all of those events could be supplanted by nearly two hours of hell on September 11, 2001. I was going from one class to another that day and didn't even hear about it until the afternoon, when one of the instructors mentioned something about airplanes falling out of the sky. Afterwards, I found my way to the school library and clicked on CNN. It took forever -- well, 45 seconds -- for the front page to load in. I thought, that was astonishingly slow for a T1 line. And then, there it was. I had to read it several times for me to realize this was not a joke.

The one moment that stands out for me that day isn't the collapse of the Twin Towers or the plane in the ground in Shanksville, or even the Pentagon being partially destroyed. What I will remember the most is the scene of the members of the US Congress -- all 435 Representatives and 100 Senators -- standing in Statuary Hall, with the leaders of both parties in both Houses angrily saying "We will not be moved by this." Then, in one voice, the whole of the US Congress defiantly singing "God Bless America." It wasn't just the United States. The world stood together to say, "No more."

I mention these things because

A) we often complain about how slow our ISP connections are. But is that such a big deal? I ran a speed test on mine the other day and got up to nearly 4200 megabits, which is more than enough for me on a DSL; and in the big picture, not near as important as the daily challenges we've faced since five years ago.
B) A rare moment of unity, nearly unprecedented unity and resolve, was squandered. Rather than hunting down those responsible, the world let them get away.
C) NATO is a shakier coalition than ever before, and the world is more in danger now than before because of some bad domestic and foreign policy choices made in the United States.

From a singular moment of selflessness and sacrifice, we've done exactly what the terrorists hoped for -- we've become a world of selfishness and greed on levels not possible even before 9/11. So what am I going to do today?

Well, for one thing, I'm getting out of the house. I don't want to be near a TV today, for obvious reasons. For another, I'm going to pray. And what will I pray for?
  • I won't just pray for the lives lost on 9/11 and their families. I will also pray for the more than 50,000 whose lives were spared by the quick thinking actions of the rescue workers in Lower Manhattan and the clever aforethought of the architects of the Twin Towers whose design allowed the buildings to stand as long as they did after the hits; the people in the Pentagon who happened to be away from the strike zone (an area that just happened to have been reinforced in the months before the hit), and the heroes of Flight 93 who by crashing their plane into the ground saved the US Congress and everyone in it.
  • I will pray that the common purpose that was lost in the months right after that awful day is somehow recaptured; that people find a way of getting along again and move away from the hatred and vitriol expoused by Tom Delay on the right and Howard Dean on the left and the radical centre is found once more. And that they demand their politicians do the same.
  • I will set aside, at least for a while, my demands to God that I finally find the woman who will be Ms Right. Rather, I will pray that every woman who is trying to get pregnant and having to resort to IVF treatments will actually get pregnant, the natural way -- and put the IVF industry out of business. Those women need and deserve happiness far more than I do. But I will also thank God for those who were born as a result of the treatments, and the doctors who gave God a helping hand in that regard.
  • I will ask God that every family on the verge of breaking up have at least a cooling off period so they have a chance of talking things out. That every drug addict and alcoholic will kick their habit once and for all. That all family abuse ends, forever.
  • I will pray that only just wars are fought from here on in, that wars are fought to bring about a lasting peace and not for access to oil and other non-natural resources. That those who have made misguided decisions at the price of the lives of their own people as well as others, will see the error of their ways and publicly repent.
  • I will pray we finally find out what really happened that day, who was really behind it in terms of money; and that we actually deal with the causes so it never happens again.
  • Finally -- as ridiculous as it may be -- I will pray Osama Bin Laden admit he was wrong to do what he did, and that he surrenders peacefully and unconditionally, accepting whatever medicine the world may have ready for him; and the Lord in the hereafter.
Just for one day, I will try not to think of myself but think and pray for others who need our prayers. Maybe that's something we should all do.

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