Sunday, December 31, 2006

Best and Worst US Person of 2006

In the mode of Stephen Colbert, it's time to do a "wave of the finger, tip of the hat." Since I felt so alienated by the course of Canadian politics this year until the last month with the election of Stéphane Dion as Liberal leader, I couldn't really pick a best and worst Canadian. So instead, here's my pick for the worst and best US person of 2006.

Worst: Bob Ney, the former Republican Congressman from Ohio. He got caught up in a number of kickback schemes that got the king of lobbyists, Jack Abramoff, into so much trouble. I thought Tom Delay was wretched, but he was one of the causes of the disease called the "K-Street Project." Ney was the disease and leached on it. To be fair, he was much more aligned with the moderate wing of the GOP than the liberal; but the guy who created "Freedom Fries" and "Freedom Toast" still made friends in all the wrong places. He's expected to testify against some pretty high people in the new year in exchange for a reduced sentence ... and given the fact that he was less than honest about his ties to Abramoff until recently, one can only anticipate who else he's going to say was less than honest about their ties to Abramoff. (Hint: GB in WH.)

Best: Keith Olbermann, the former conservative sportscaster and news commentator turned liberal, now host of Countdown on MSNBC. In a series of commentaries -- some directed at his archenemy Bill O'Reilly, the rest at the Bush Administration -- Olbermann became the last angry man. In a sense, he is partly like Howard Beale, the "mad as hell" anchor in the 1976 film Network. Unlike Beale, however, Olbermann never resorted to histrionics but used the cold hard facts to make his case -- and in a dead serious voice. His analyses on the Malmédy Massacre, the 9/11 attacks and Dubya's emaciation of habeas corpus were especially devastating. He has established himself as Edward R Murrow's true heir -- something badly needed in broadcasting.

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

UK repays debt to Canada, US

An item in yesterday's International Herald Tribune served as a reminder that a debt, no matter large or small, must be eventually repaid in some manner. The news was that the UK made its final installment on the post- World War II loans for reconstruction, money borrowed from the United States and Canada. The amount: $100 million US.

I mentioned a little while back Jim Flaherty wants to get rid of the "net debt" rather than actually pay it off in full. Kind of like the Brits just paying the interest on the debt from the Napoleonic Wars than just putting it to rest as well ... because apparently the interest is cheaper than the redemption costs. At least, though, Westminster gets it.

When this is all I find worthy to comment on other than last night's execution of Saddam Hussein, it tells you the kind of day it's been.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Execution of Saddam Hussein

We may be as little as an hour away, as I write these words, from the execution of Saddam Hussein. I remain, as I have been since the age of fourteen, completely opposed to capital punishment. Will I be, however, sorry to see him go? To be bland about it, no ... but as when Julius Caesar was assassinated, "I fear there will a worse come in his place."

From his brutal suppression of the Kurds to his wars in Iran and Kuwait (and even a brief incursion into Saudi Arabia) as well as his sabre rattling against the United Arab Emirates, not to mention his unrepentant anti-Semitism, Mr. Hussein was a truly wretched fellow. Certainly anything but insane but very psychotic. I'm sure he'll be more than welcome in the company of creeps like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and Idi Amin in the afterlife.

While I would have much preferred Hussein to just do the world a favour and commit suicide to spare Iraqis the expense of purchasing a strand of manila rope, the fact is his execution will solve nothing. On the contrary, it will make the civil war in Iraq even worse and even if the country manages to stay together when it's all over the end result will be three or more ethnic and cultural regions under the sphere of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria -- with the Turkoman and Kurdish peoples potentially drawn under that of Turkey, the only truly democratic Muslim country in the world.

The security implications are already frightening enough with him alive. I shudder to think of what it will be like when he's dead.

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Kingsley quits

Late yesterday, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, tendered his resignation to the Speakers of the House of Commons and the Senate two years before the compulsory retirement age of 65. He had been on the job for seventeen years and during that time presided over five elections, a national referendum and dozens of by-elections.

His most significant reform was the permanent voters' list. No longer were people enumerated door to door every election; instead the list is now updated through income tax records (via a voluntary check off) and provincial vital statistics. Some say this has led to a decline in voter turnout because there is no longer that personal contact from non-partisan local people who remind voters "that time" is coming. In the modern age of communcation, however, door-to-door information gathering become rather quaint. I actually participated in the final enumeration in 1997 gathering information from my neighbours, and people seemed actually enthusiastic that Canada was getting out of the Stone Age.

Kingsley also kept politicians on their toes, constantly reminding them about the rules and the need to change them not for their own benefit but for that of the democratic process ... and was also a dedicated researcher, not only leading Canadian observation of elections in emerging democracies but putting out numerous newsletters about what works and what doesn't. For example, he issued a cautionary tale not that long ago about the pratfalls of voting online.

Kingsley made the job of election referee fun when it is anything but, and in that respect Stephen Harper will have a very difficult choice to make to nominate a successor. Since the job is one of a handful that requires ratification by Parliament since it and not the Government is the employer (among the others are the Auditor-General and the Information and Privacy Commissioners) Harper is duty bound to consult with the opposition leaders to find someone who can fill the post without any bias whatsoever, as the Chief Electoral Officer is actually required by law to waive his or her right to vote during the term in office. Given an election can happen at any time, he has to act fast and the appointee ready to go at the provocation of a sneeze.

No matter what personal feelings Harper may have about Kingsley he can't get revenge by appointing a hack. The job in question is not a patronage appointment. Unlike other countries -- even many parts of the United States -- elections here are seen as clean and we need to continue that. That goes without saying but it still needs to be said.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ford opposed Iraq War

Watergate refuses to die and some of the people involved directly or indirectly with it.

In today's edition of the Washington Post, Bob Woodward -- still the two most feared words in DC and who helped expose the affair -- reveals something that could be very embarrassing for George W. Bush who just yesterday praised Gerald R. Ford for "healing" the country. In an interview conducted during the 2004 election but "embargoed" until now, Woodward (who conducted the interview for a forthcoming book but was free to release the tapes upon Ford's passing as per their agreement) now reveals Ford felt the Iraq war was a mistake. More shocking were Ford's extremely critical words for Dubya, Cheney (Ford's chief of staff) and even Rumsfeld (who served as Secretary of Defense under Ford three decades before his second go under GWB) -- although Ford spoke with fondness about his time with them during the 1970s.

Ford took issue with Bush's belief (along with many televangelists who support him) that it's his God-given duty to spread democracy throughout the Middle East. Here's the money quote: "Well, I can understand the theory of wanting to free people. Whether you can detach that from the obligation number one, of what's in our national interests, there comes a point where they conflict. And I just don't think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security." [Emphasis added.] Ford said if it was up to him, he would have given sanctions against Iraq as well as inspections more time. Way, way more time.

It could be because the United States was bitten by Vietnam, but it seems only Ford learned the lessons of that terrible war -- um, police action.

Ford also explained why, in 1975, he stripped Henry Kissinger of his national security advisor role (he was both the NSA as well as Secretary of State). As he saw it, the role of a security chief is to provide unbiased advice on foreign policy, free from the taint of bias that can often come from the Defense and State Departments as well as the CIA. By wearing two hats, Henry Kissinger was trying to play the field both ways and thus his advice was anything but unbiased.

Ford also touches on his decision to drop Nelson Rockefeller, his Vice-President, late in the 1976 election and replacing him with Bob Dole, who himself ran against Slick Willy Clinton 20 years later. Ford told Woodward he regretted making that decision, saying he had caved into the religious right who vowed to sit at home rather than vote for a ticket that included a liberal Republican from New York.

Without saying it directly Woodward -- himself a Republican -- appears to imply that decision may have set the stage for the right wing's takeover of the GOP in 1980 and its dominance of the agenda and platform ever since. Push a little, move a mountain -- rather than one's faith being able to move a mountain.

I am troubled by one aspect. It's not about Ford's pardon of Nixon, which Woodward also discusses in today's edition (and I agree with Woodward there never was a quid pro quo.) Nor is it about whether the pardon was responsible for Ford losing in 1976 (it wasn't, it was the way the war ended as well as the step-ladder inflation that plagued not just Ford but many other Western leaders at the time).

No ... it's the fact Ford never could find it within himself to make his criticisms public while he was alive.

Other Presidents weren't afraid to so criticize their colleagues. Reagan regularly bashed Carter throughout his Presidency with his "Morning in America" crap rather than taking Carter's counsel to make America energy independent by 2000. (Instead, Rumsfeld and Cheney who later served under Reagan coddled Iraq as well as the Taliban -- decisions which had ramifications for later years. I remain convinced that had the West gotten off Middle East oil by now, 9/11 would never have happened -- or it could have been stopped.) Reagan was also not afraid to take shots at Clinton before being elected and just weeks after Slick was inaugurated Reagan actually took out an op-ed piece in the NYT slamming Clinton's policies.

Carter has not been afraid to regularly criticize efforts by both Republican and Democratic administrations to undermine his peacemaking efforts. Heck, even Bush 43 condemned Reagan for pulling the Marines out of Beirut after the barracks bombing that killed 200 + of the "Few Good Men" -- and women.

So why Ford's silence? Maybe because he understood that as having been not elected as either President or Vice-President, he never had a real mandate and thus had less authority to speak out than other people. Or maybe it's because Congress reclaimed a lot of its powers during his time in office and Ford was trying to restore the balance -- which Cheney and Rumsfeld believed undermined the Executive. (Of course, under their watch and 43's, the pendulum has swung even further than it did under Nixon to the point where Congress became a rubber stamp.)

Maybe it was just his personality. Nearly everyone who has eulogized him, on both sides of the aisle, has spoken of him as a genuinely nice guy, never rude or overly critical and never using a cuss word. But the opinion of ex-world leaders do carry moral force. Because so few human beings ever get to sit in the corner office -- whether in the political or business worlds -- those men and women know what it's like to have the burden of Atlas, so when they speak they do so with authority. There's a difference between being shrill, like Michael Moore can sometimes be, and being pointed and constructive with criticism.

I doubt Ford's words would have changed the 2004 election results that much, had such comments been "unembargoed." But a fair number of moderate Republicans might have been persuaded to switch their votes, enough that the Reagan Democrat era would have ended two years earlier than it did last month. President Bush also needs to seriously consider what Ford said in mulling over whether to send even more troops to Iraq. LBJ tried escalating Vietnam and we all know what happened there.

Still, Ford's words are truly haunting. We can only speculate, "If only ...", now.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Is the CRTC independent, or isn't it?

Unlike the US FCC which answers only to the President but in fact acts at arms length from the government, the Canadian equivalent -- the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, is at best a quasi-judicial panel. Moreover, while FCC decisions can be appealed in the courts, rulings from the CRTC can be appealed to the federal Cabinet.

Given how much previous and current governments have interfered with the regulators these past few years, according to the Canadian Press, it's little wonder there aren't many people lining up for the job of Chair. Or maybe it's because the gang in Hull simply don't get just how fast their jobs are becoming totally irrelevant in the marketplace.

Consider, for example, the recent Cabinet dictate that overturned the CRTC's ruling on VoIP -- the one that said alternate suppliers had to have at least 25% market share before they would consider allowing the traditional telcos to charge what they felt appropriate. It was a harebrained idea to begin with, because it's possible to use VoIP for free if you know how to download the proper software and have a high speed connection. The problem, however, is why the Cabinet got involved at all in the first place. The CRTC is trying to foster competition and as thanks they're told, screw you, we'll let the telcos smack down the cable companies and alternate suppliers.

Frankly, the 25% threshold was way too high -- I probably would have set it at half that -- but even then a partisan Cabinet is hardly the ideal forum to settle disputes. It should be left for another independent group, like the courts, to see if the CRTC broke its own rules or violated the laws of equity in establishing new ones.

In some other areas, however, the CRTC has just abdicated its responsibilities all together and in that respect has gone in the completely opposite direction from the FCC. Unlike its southern neighbour which cracked down on so-called "indecency," the attitude here is laissez-faire; with "regulation" being off-loaded to the private broadcasters themselves through something called the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council while the CBC has its in-house Ombusdmen (one each for the French and English networks, with the power of the "other" to get involved in case of a conflict of interest). As a result, the boundary gets pushed back to the point where now it's anything goes after nine PM Eastern -- all the violence, gore and explicit sex the networks can throw at us.

The problem, as the Canadian Press points out, is that getting involved so directly as both Paul Martin and Stephen Harper have done, is that it undermines accountability -- and the ability of Canadians to point to who to blame for an irresponsible decision. Furthermore, as far as the airwaves go, it implies that the electromagnetic spectrum is the property of the Crown. It is not. It is owned by the people and leased to licensed operators in the hopes the public trust will not be abused.

I'm not saying get rid of the CRTC. We still need it to make sure broadcasters are playing by the rules. But its decisions should be a matter for the courts, not the politicians. The job of the politicians is to reduce the regulatory burden and ensuring that competition is fair -- no more or less.

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It's a big deal, whether Harper admits it or not

For months, Stephen Harper tried to argue that delegate fees to the Conservative convention did not constitute donations under the Canada Elections Act -- yet no sooner did he become Prime Minister than he attempted to change the rules to make such fees donations. This was a deliberate attempt to wipe out the Liberal Party which was gearing up for the convention earlier this month -- after all, he reasoned, the rules don't apply to him but he'll make it apply to his enemies.

The Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, didn't exactly care for Harper's explanation and demanded the Cons submit new financial statements to take into account the disputed delegate fees. Yesterday, Harper admitted his party broke the law and returned some excess donations to their respective contributors. The numbers: $539,915 in unreported donations, $913,750 in "other revenue" (whatever that is), and $1.45 million in "other expenses." More significant is that one of the contributors who broke the $5,400 contribution limit was none other than Harper himself. $456 over to be exact.

Does anyone expect Harper is going to get a sanction greater than a slap on the wrist? If an ordinary independent local candidate went over the spending limit in his or her district by so much as a dollar, s/he and his/her auditor would go to prison. If my reading of the statute is correct, the maximum penalty for this particular offence by an individual is five years imprisonment, a fine of $5000 plus, if the judge orders it, restitution. The Chief Electoral Officer could also, if he deems appropriate, liquidate the party's assets if it found to have deliberately filed a false financial statement.

In a minority situation, going that far would probably create a constitutional crisis. The law is the law however, and Harper should voluntarily pay the fine before he is ticketed or indicted.

What really gets me, though, is that with the new spending limits in the new year, the maximum contribution has been slashed all the way down to just $1100, with no inflation adjuster. Rest assured, money will be funneled in other ways -- whether it's through lobbyists or constituency associations -- even with a total ban on corporate and union donations. Had he gotten caught under the new rules, jail time would have been a given.

In the end, Harper's promise to run an ethical government has all been for naught. The Conservatives have proven to be just as crafty with accounting as the Liberals were in Sponsorgate. That can only lead to more cynicism and an even lower turnout come the next election. For shame.

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Gerald R Ford (1913-2006)

For all he did to heal the land, America and I dare say the world is eternally grateful. Rest in peace, Mr. President.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Manifest Destiny Redux

There's a shocking op-ed piece in today's edition of the Toronto Star. Written by Stéphan Kelly, it suggests what until recently was unthinkable: Growing discontent with the US South may prompt the northern states to secede from the Union and join ... Canada. Seriously.

This has no doubt been a dream for some Canadians who find a lot of affinity with their immediate border neighbours in terms of culture and religious values but think the South is in a world and class of its own and increasingly becoming a theocratic subempire. It's not like a merger is anything new, although it was the Americans who first expressed their dream of Manifest Destiny even before the term was coined. Under the first US Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, most US states had to apply for admission to the country -- but a specific exception was made for Canada, which was given an open invitation to join any time it wanted to. An argument can be made that while the present Constitution superceded most of the Articles, the specific clause in question (Article 11) is still in effect.

Kelly's thesis is basically the following, that because the North was at the start of America a collection of free states and the South slave, which later resulted in the Civil War, the country as a whole has never been able to shake off its demons. He cites the following examples:
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt: Seen as a hero by those in the North and the West but viewed as no better than Stalin by most Southerners.
  • Gun control: Heavily favoured by the North, opposed bitterly in the South.
  • Criminal law: Tough on the causes of crime in the North, tough on crime (period) in the South.
  • Military intervention: Viewed with skepticism in the North, a moral imperative in the views of the South.
  • Religion: Separation of church and state in the North, no such thing in the South.

And on it goes. Kelly goes on to write that while many if not most Southerners still hate Canadians, the views of Northerners towards Canada actually softened after the American Revolution -- in part because of blood ties, but also because of trade. The Canadian union of 1867 actually upset these links because of John A. Macdonald's protectionist policies ... something that wasn't "corrected" until the AutoPact of the 1960s and later full free trade with the United States.

Kelly says that realistically for a union of Canada and the North (which he calls "fusion" rather than annexation) to occur, relations between North and South would have to worsen and the United States would lack a leader with the kind of national vision that Lincoln or FDR had. Further, separatism would have to be defeated in Québec once and for all; revisiting the 1982 Canadian Constitutional amendment as having been a failure (maybe the amending formula, but it'd be hard to do away with the mostly popular Charter of Rights); an energy crisis feeds into the North's desire to be energy independent (unlike most of the South, which probably doesn't care that oil is purchased from countries that sponsor terrorism or turn a blind eye to it); and people in Central Canada and the North say the migration of people to the US West Coast for better jobs has to stop.

My read on all of this?

It's a harebrained idea as much as Manifest Destiny has always been. But think about how the map of the US and Canada might wind up looking if fusionism takes off: Alberta and most of BC (except the Lower Mainland and most of the Gulf Islands and Victoria) would secede from Canada and join the United States. Meanwhile, the US West Coast, Hawaii, as well as the Blue States (and Ohio is back in the blue column after the 2006 midterms) would want to join the new "Northern North America" -- or maybe just keep the name Canada. There could also be enclaves within the South: It's not hard to imagine Dallas, Atlanta and Jacksonville among other Southern cities seceding from the United States and joining Canada if their economic interests dictated it.

I think a lot depends on the 2008 US election, and not just because America is at the crossroads. Once one domino drops it's impossible to stop the chain reaction unless there's an obstruction. World security depends largely on a peaceful North Atlantic, and that includes a peaceful Canada and a peaceful United States, two countries united within themselves but also associated with trade.

Fun theory that Kelly outlines, but it's fine as far as it goes. America needs to sort out its own problems first and they need to find their own common purpose without the "carrot" that a fusion of some states with Canada may offer.

My New Home

I'm back after my Christmas hiatus. For those of you who have been looking for me, I have moved my blog from its old home at MSN Live Spaces: Couple of reasons, first I was getting a bit annoyed at some extensive posts I was writing suddenly getting eaten up by the server for no apparent reason; second, a lot of you expressed your concerns that you didn't want to open up an MSN account just to post comments. That's fine ... since I had a Blogger account anyway, I decided this might be a better place to hang my shingle anyway.

For now, I'm just going to leave comments open to those of you with blogging accounts to cut down on the spam. Once I get a feel for the kinds of comments I am getting here, I may open the door.

I'm going to be fiddling with this a bit, too, to make sure the URL and XML feed is working then I'll resume my ranting.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Is all that there is? (Rona Ambrose edition)

The auto industry and Big Oil makes cars that can run on 85% ethanol. Diesel can be made from cooking oil and other organic food wastes, blended with the normal diesel oil, and produce much cleaner output (i.e. lower sulfur content) as well as boost horsepower. With that in mind, as well as the Conservatives' plan to only begin reducing air pollution in the year 2050, Environment Minister Rona Ambrose announced oil companies will only have to have 5 percent ethanol or 2 percent biodiesel in their fuel content -- by 2012.

When a previous Conservative government -- the Progressive Conservatives, under Mulroney -- got a report saying lead poisoning was running at a rampant pace in minors, Brian didn't hestitate. He pushed forward the phase out period for lead in gasoline a full three years, in fact he gave the oil firms barely a year to make the conversion. The companies quickly adapted and found less harmful lead substitutes in no time flat. Was Canada's economy damaged permanently because leaded fuel has been outlawed here these past 15 years? No.

The infrastructure exists to produce clean fuels. One of the majors is already at 10 percent ethanol and is the market leader in Diesel #2 which has 97 percent less sulfur than the old kind. They didn't need to be told to do it, they did it because it's smart business. What, are the other companies chicken? Or did they get a deal because they're in bed (monetarily as well as Biblically) with the powers that be in Ottawa right now?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The decline of religion in television

Years ago, Hollywood had codes for movies and television that drew the line at what was acceptable and what wasn't. The TV Code lasted well into the 1980s, but the movie code was done away with in the late 1960s and it's worth pointing out the first winner of the Best Picture Oscar after that was dropped was the X-rated Midnight Cowboy. But let's stick with television for the purposes of this post. For most of the history of television, from just after World War II until, say, the mid 80s, ministers were regarded as people to be looked up to and it wasn't seen as a taboo for people to ask for divine intervention or even guidance to help with the struggles of daily life.

Maybe it was the rocky year in religion that was 1987 (to wit, Jim Bakker committing adultery then stealing his parishoners' money, Jimmy Swaggart doing his infamous "I have sinned" sermon, and Oral Roberts proclaiming he'd die unless he raised eight million for the missionary arm of his ministry in three months) but it was made for television. Since then, the message television has sent about religion has been mostly negative or mixed. There are noteworthy exceptions such as Touched by an Angel and 7th Heaven, but those and a few others are the rare exceptions.

On that note, the bipartisan Parents' Television Council has produced their latest study on the religion messages that the boob tube put out last season, and theirs is an especially sour one this year. I have some gripes with the PTC and its methodology, not to mention its founder Brent Bozell III. But the study put out the other day is very alarming. For the most part, all religions got a bum rap -- not just Islam as one might naturally expect, but Judaism and Christianity as well. Bottom line: 34% of references to religion were positive, 35% were negative, 27% were mixed (in that a character in question tried to play with God both ways) and 4% were "undetermined."

I'm as much for free speech as the next person. It's one of the bedrocks of democracy. However, I also believe that television while waning still does have an influence on people and that it needs to show the consequences of doing right versus doing wrong. There is nothing wrong with expressing one's faith in a positive light or doing well by others. In these times, we need people from both sides of the aisle who lead by example both in the characters they play as well as in their personal lives. Shows like Little House on the Prairie, Bewitched and even All in the Family have stood the test of time because all dealt with the issues of cause and effect. Today, the top rated shows deal much more with gore (such as CSI and its offspring) or the paranormal (e.g. Ghost Whisperer) and spend very little time discussing faith or lack thereof. Surely, cops and mediums have personal relationships with God as well. Why are they deemed irrelevant to plotlines?

One can't really say that TV and by extension music are the cause of all the ills of society, of course. But with less religion has come a greater level of cynicism and I think that may be partly the explanation why divorce and other family problems are so prevalent. As religion and families came to be ridiculed on television, problems in ordinary households also increased.

That's not to say all religious families stick together -- the divorce rate compared to non-religious clans actually runs about the same on average. But the healing process, I think, is much more accelerated after a breakdown if there is faith. I know my faith saved me from insanity when my parents divorced. I also think having a common faith leads to unions based on common sense rather than convenience, and much better sex.

We're supposed to be created in the image of God. It seems more and more we're trying to be the carbon copy of the media. If it's okay for two-time mother Britney Spears to flash her labia in public (not shown on TV of course, but mentioned with references to YouTube) that sends a message to parents and to kids that it's okay to go around town with unfurnished basements -- and tops. That's not to say she would not have done what she did even if religion was tops with television; of course she would have but she would be called for what she is rather than just dismissed as a show-off in the post-modern world.

Bottom line: It may be true that Americans have the right to bear arms while Canadians have the right to bear breasts, but just because both are legal doesn't always make it right. In the same way, just because it's legal to burn a flag or to make fun of religion (two rights which I also defend fully) doesn't make them right either.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Why did the Mounties keep a file on Tommy Douglas

Here's a pleasant way to start the morning: The Mounties hated Tommy Douglas. So much so that they kept a dossier on him dating back to 1939, five years before he became Saskatchewan's first socialist Premier, and kept it up until he died in 1986. Why? They thought he was a closet Communist.

I'm not entirely surprised but pretty disappointed as well. Like most democracies, we keep a deliberate distance between the permanent police and the transient polticians. This ensures law enforcement can act independently and enforce the law and not the whims of whoever happens to be inhabiting the corner office. It's only fair and appropriate that the cops keep a dossier on potential security threats. But it's another thing to keep a file on someone who wants to change the system through entirely democratic means.

Tommy Douglas was no angel, but his advocacy for nationalized heath care was just part of who he was. As Premier of Saskachewan, he actually ran a pro-business government, contrary to expectations -- vastly improving the roads and communications networks, for example. He was hardly a bleeding heart either, he actually believed that a government had to be both tough on crime as well as on the causes of crime. Later in his life, he stood up for the refusniks, the Jewish dissidents who were consistently refused exit visas from the Soviet Union. So why would the Red Serge find him a menace?

He stood up for the common person. Just like the Mounties are supposed to do. What were they afraid of -- he was going to disband them if he had ever become Prime Minister? No way that would have happened, given just much importance the RCMP has out West. He would have made sure they had the money to do their job and do it right.

The NDP is no more of a threat to Canadian values than most other parties, except for the Conservatives. Douglas deserved better than that. The Mounties owe his daughter Shirley Douglas and her son Kiefer Sutherland, an apology.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Abbas rolls the dice

I guess there's so much a man can take, and it looks like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has had enough. The successor to Yasser Arafat and the leader of the Fatah faction, Abbas has gotten so fed up with the impasse with Hamas, which controls the Palestinian Assembly, that he has called a snap election and is putting his own job on the line.

Didn't we see this a year ago? Fatah called an early election to consolidate their power in the fractious legislature, and although opinion polls suggested it would get a majority it was Hamas that gained the upper hand. I have to admit that Abbas has guts but if Palestinians think they're having a hard time negotiating with Israel, wait until whoever Hamas is led by this week -- as Israel has a well known policy of assassinating the Hamas leader of the week -- gets the wheel.

Five more years of war. Yikes. Last thing the Middle East needs right now unless the Jewish state has a plan to wipe out Hamas once and for all. Not that Fatah is much better ... but at least Arafat's not around anymore to kick.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

The Belgium break-up hoax

Some have often joked that the difference between Canada and Belgium is you just have to substitute English for Dutch -- and it's not far off from the truth. The tensions between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia (as well as the small German community which mostly populates the far eastern part of Wallonia but would also like more autonomy) have gone on for years but have been exacerbated for the last two decades, dating back to when the two regions -- plus a third, Brussels, the bilingual capital -- were given extensive autonomy. Not so much because of the grant of autonomy but because economic disparities have grown since then, with the Dutch north getting wealthier and wanting to keep that wealth -- not unlike Alberta wanting a firewall to ensure no equalization payments flow from the province (a misconception since such payments come out of general revenues across Canada). Or the northern part of Italy which wants independence because they're sick and tired of subsizing the less affluent south.

A couple of days ago, the stakes in Belgium were raised much higher than anyone could have imagined. The French language arm of the state broadcaster, RTBF (the Dutch arm is VRT), suddenly announced Flanders had unilaterally declared independence and the King and Queen of the country had fled. TV pictures showed very convincing demonstrations. The diplomatic corps were up in arms wondering to whom they had credentials. 30 minutes into the program, RTBF admitted the whole thing was a hoax. They said they were trying to discuss the very real consequences of secession.

But no one in Belgium is laughing, especially not the Premiers of both Flanders and Wallonia who both condemned it.. Both want a better deal for their regions but have stoppd short of calling for a breakup of the country. Moreover the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, which has a fully open border with Belgium (as do its other neighbours), said playing politics like this wasn't appropriate.

The way this played out must be disconcerting to other potential breakaway movements across Europe. Think of Scotland in the UK, Eusakdi (the Basque Region) of Spain, Corsica in France, or even Aland in Finland. Imagine the panic, for instance, if on the regional BBC newscast in Edinburgh the announcer suddenly announced that Alba had shaken off its oppressors. Who would the Black Watch -- probably the toughest commando unit in all of Europe -- owe its allegiance to? The Queen, or the head of the Scottish National Party?

The lessons for Canada? We get almost complacent about Québec at times, but there is a very strong undercurrent of resentment against Canada in that province and the results of the 1995 referendum -- barely a percentage point saved Canada -- should serve as a reminder that packaged properly, independence could pass. More importantly, a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) is not exactly out of the realm of possibility. After all, the constitution of the Parti Québécois says that they support achieving independence for the province through solely democratic means, but this could be interpreted to mean just winning the National Assembly and not necessarily holding a referendum. Clarity Act or not. To use the same military example, would the Royal 22e Régiment suddenly be willing to stop saluting the Governor General and start owing compliments to -- André Boisclair?

If the CBC ever tried a stunt like this, people would demand heads roll, even the front line reporters not in on the joke. Such a purge wouldn't happen, though, since most Canadians are too complacent about our public broadcaster; not to mention the fact that a foreign invasion hasn't happened since the Fenians tried to "liberate" Canada in 1866 -- which failed, because even most Irish Catholics in Canada were against them. Maybe it's the fact the Belgians saw their country occupied twice in the last century that makes them take a practical joke like the one RTBF pulled the other night so seriously. It might give some radicals in the country some pretty weird ideas.

We can't ignore the sleeping giant and must never ignore it. To ridicule the independence movement in Québec only helps to embolden it. For what it's worth, I don't think the Canadian press considers Belgium enough. It might provide some notes on how to deal what is sometimes the paradox we call Canada.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Again with the "holiday" trees

One again in the never-ending attempt to be "politically correct" at this time of year a Toronto magistrate, Judge Marion Cohen, ordered the removal of a Christmas tree from the lobby of the courthouse because it might "offend" non-Christians. A flustered Dalton McGuinty, who's Roman Catholic, doesn't seem to be too pleased and pointed out no one raises any hackles when Queen's Park lights up a menorah or marks Eid.

When the devoutly Jewish Mel Lastman was mayor of Toronto, he actually got through a by-law that said a Christmas tree is not a "Holiday" tree but a Christmas tree, no more or less. If he doesn't have a problem with it, why should this judge? I wrote about this last year around this time and my thoughts on it haven't changed at all. "Season's Greetings" just doesn't cut it. If I'm greeting someone I know to be a Christian, I say Merry Christmas. If I know they're not or if I'm not sure, I say Happy Holidays.

I don't put up a tree for personal reasons, but that doesn't give me the right to be a Grinch and tell someone to take down theirs. Judge Cohen should reconsider. Her ruling is not only offensive, it's also patently silly -- and for what it's worth, a Christmas tree is for the most part much more of a secular symbol in this country than a religious one.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The return of Dr Death

If there are two things which divide people in this country or any other country, it's the beginning of life and the end of it. Dr Jack Kervorkian, of course, became infamous for his approach to the end of life. I still remember when he first gained national attention appearing on Donahue, in fact I remember the very episode where he announced he was taking lethal injections from the death house to the operating room. He claims to have helped 130 people die, either via injection or carbon monoxide poisoning. In each of those cases, he just provided the means to the end for it was the dying patient who "presed the button."

But it was one case where he actively euthanized a patient with Lou Gehrig's Disease, Thomas Youk, that finally crossed the line. Kervorkian was convicted of murder two and got 10 to 25. Tonight, we've learned he'll be paroled after serving just eight years.

End of life issues have always been tough for me, particularly since I've lost both my mother and an aunt to cancer. On the one hand, I can undrrstand fully the need to end needless suffering and that some patients just don't want to put up with the agony anymore. On the other, as a Roman Catholic, I always worry whether any such decision has an element of coercion involved. And the fact is, while I appreciate the point Kervorkian was trying to make I had a very hard time with his modus operandi. There is a fine line between mercy and compassion; but the problem is that Kervorkian never really demonstrated either. He was a smooth operator in for the cash, no more or less.

So, bad health or not, I really can't agree with Kervorkian being released from jail. It's not like he committed crimes of passion. He knew exactly what he was doing, and as such should continue to be in the custody of the state until he finishes his sentence -- when he turns 95.

The big crisis facing health care systems will be the aging population and how to deal with them. Do we just write them off as dispensible? Or do we expand the system of long term care, including nursing homes and hospices? And of course, palliative care will always be an issue with all age groups since sudden health emergencies can happen at any age. Having him released only complicates the issue, and this is one punch line I'm not looking forward to on the next Air Farce.

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Mulroney: It's the environment, stupid

It's hard to imagine Brian Mulroney and Stéphane Dion agreeing on anything. However in a rare interview previewed this morning on CBC Radio One, Mulroney said the next election may very well be fought on what's becoming a huge concern for Canadians: Having a sustainable and green economy, and which party -- the Conservatives or the Liberals -- present the best hope in that field.

Mulroney said what a lot of Canadians have been thinking: The Clean Air Act as currently written has a lot of holes in it, enough to drive anything through it. The only thing Harper has going for him right now is the promise of more tax cuts.

Say what one will about Brian, but he's got a point, and he does have several marks in his favour on that count. He led the fight to ban CFCs in aerosols and cooling units. He was also among the leaders who endorsed the recommendations of the Bruntland Commission and at the Rio Summit in 1992 made an unusual offer to developing countries: Clean up their acts, he said, and Canada would forgive their debts and lower import duties. He also lobbyed hard to get America to toughen its Clean Water Act (which it eventually was), and here in Canada he expanded the national parks system substantially.

He does have a point about the previous Liberal government being "tiptoe through the tulips" about our air and water, and Dion has a lot of explaining to do to reburnish his credentials. Dion may have won the Liberal leadership over the issue, but winning over a party and winning over the country are two different things. On the other hand, what has Harper offered so far? One national park, and a plan to get rid of toxic chemicals. Both fine ideas to be sure, but it's just a nosejob.

Over the coming holidays, I'd like to hear more about what both Harper and Dion have in mind. I have a feeling the election will be sooner than when the pundits are saying, and even in Alberta people are starting to get worried about what damage has already been done to the water supply by the oil sands, not to mention what's yet to come.

Mulroney may be a pitiful fellow, but at least he did something. Harper has no right to claim his legacy or that of any other Prime Minister regardless of stripe.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Kate Winslet draws line in the sand

Good for Kate Winslet. On the heels of recent annoucements by the catwalks in London and Paris that they will no longer allow chronically underweight women to participate in the spring and fall fashion shows, Winslet has publicly said that she and her husband (director Sam Mendes) make a point of not allowing any fashion magazines in their house in case their kids get the wrong idea and think it's cool to be anorexic.

I wish more Hollywood moms would take the hint and lead by example not just for their kids but also for themselves; and the same goes for the likes of Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie and Lindsay Lohan. It's hard to imagine that in a course of twenty years we've gone from a world where it was pretty easy for a woman to get a starring role if she was a 10, 12 or even 14, to one where Tinsletown and the papar****s won't even give her the time of day unless she's a four or less. The current "in" size for female celebrities is zero, and some fashion designers are actually creating dresses for negative sizes. Negative.

Meanwhile, the rest of us, hypocrites we are, are pigging out a storm and facing a life of obesity. That's a fine future for the health care system, including publicly funded ones like ours in Canada. Making sure the underweight and overweight merely stay alive!

It takes courage to do the right thing. Kate Winslet is fine just the way she is. Maybe a few extra pounds, but she doesn't need implants, a facelift or anything else to make her presence both on and off the screen. She deserves an Oscar ™ just for saying enough is enough.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Tread carefully with deregulation of phones

On the way home from whatever I was doing today, I heard on the radio that the federal government is planning to -- finally -- deregulate the local phone business in Canada. For people in most major urban centres, this is supposed to mean lower phone bills.

I'm not so sure that's going to happen.

When long distance was deregulated and competition was allowed, those rates went down, so much so that the traditinoal telcos were forced to match the rates or improve their quality standards. The problem was the higher long distance rates meant that they were subsidizing local phone service. With the cap gone, the rates went up substantially, hitting people with fixed incomes the most.

I find it very difficult to believe that in an environment where shareholders demand maximum returns, they would tolerate cuts in local rates. After all that would mean less profit and therefore lower dividends. The only way the phone companies could make it sustainable is to dramatically increase rates for people in rural areas. They are compelled, by CRTC fiat, to provide 99% of communities with access to at least one locality with a local dial-up Internet connection. That explains why, for instance, the hamlet of Jarvis, in another area code, is a local call for Hamilton but the much closer Six Nations is not (they're in Brantford's local area) or why Dunnville is local but Oakville is long distance. (Oakville is much closer, by the way, but for historical reasons it falls under Toronto's local area.)

The fact is we in the big cities are subsizing the services in smaller areas -- equality of sacrifice, which is fair because we don't want farmers to get stiffed. And there's no way rural people will want to pay more for the limited local access they already have. So who gets to pay? People in the cities, and we will wind up paying more.

The only way I could support this is if deregulation also allows the phone companies to resurrect the plans the CRTC deep-sixed during the 1990s to greatly expand the local calling areas of the largest centres -- for Bell's territory, that would be Toronto, Ottawa-Gatineau and Montréal. The fact is, places like Hamilton and Oshawa are very much in Toronto's shadow, and it's not fair that neighbouring towns can call Toronto locally while we have to pay long distance charges or use a rerouter or VoIP to make it "local." It'd be nice to keep in touch with many of my friends by voice rather than the e-mail I have to rely on without having to move.

I hope they tread carefully with this one ... and make sure the results are in fact better service and more reasonable rates.

Interesting they're saying that the one major city that could get really screwed, even presuming this works the way it's supposed to, is Halifax. Guess it's Harper's way of punishing the city for sticking with the Liberals and NDP through thick and thin.


(no name)11/12/2006 9:14:06 PM
You are missing the point entirely. Currently the Telcos (telus, bell, etc) are not allowed to reduce their local phone rates below the legislated rates. This is allowing non-telcos such as Shaw, Rogers (historically cable companies) to offer web phones for rates far less than the Telcos because they are not affected by the minimum price legislation. Therefore, the shareholders of the Telco's risk losing market share as they cannot match the prices of the cable companies. This deregulation will enable telephone ompanies to lower their local connection charges to compete with the Cable co's in order to maintain market share. Furthermore, this deregulation does not affect smaller markets where there is less than 3 providers available.

BlastFurnace11/12/2006 10:15:02 PM
You do raise some good points, Matt. True, the telcos are losing marking share, but there will always be a core group of customers who stick with the big guys because they simply don't trust the alternatives -- much in the same way people stick with their traditional gas or electric utility after competition is allowed. My concern is that even if they do cut the rates, they won't cut them enough to stop the slide. After all, it's the telcos that maintain most of the lines and switchers and other parts of the infrastructure -- and their overhead is much higher than the competitors. With phone companies being allowed (thanks to another Cabinet decision) to also compete equally in the VoIP market, could there be a point where old-style landline phones become irrelevant?

In my opinion, it should be a two way street. Since there is equal access for long distance, the same should apply for local service, Internet access, etc. Someone I know who doesn't have cable has to pay a surcharge to have a cable modem over and above what cable customers pay. Similarly, most ISPs tack on a surcharge if someone uses a competitor's VoIP. Equal access should mean exactly that -- no surcharges, period.

I'll admit, I'm not well versed in all of the fine points involved here. However, the American experience is instructive. It took years after deregulation and the breakup of Ma Bell's monopoly for the rates to get within reason -- and now they as well as the cablenets are trying to get back at the customers by trying to destroy Net Neutrality. That, plus skyrocketing rates, is the last thing we need from loosening the rules, is the last thing we need and that's the point I was trying to make.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Will Mohammed al-Fayed just give up already?

While I continue to believe there are still many unanswered questions about the murders of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, as well as about the events of 9/11, I've never been one for major conspiracy theories. It's just that everything usually has a logical explanation and it's usually the simplest one.

For nine years, Mohammed al-Fayed, the controversial owner of Harrod's, has insisted that his son Dodi (the flamboyant Hollywood producer who financed, among other films, Chariots of Fire) and Princess Diana were murdered by the British secret services because someone in the government or at Buckingham Palace didn't want the ex-wife of the heir apparent Prince Charles and the mother of the heirs presumptive to the British throne, Princes William and Harry, to marry a Muslim. One of the keys items underlying this ridiculous allegation was evidence that the blood-alcohol test applied on driver Henri Paul after he, Diana and Dodi were killed in the car wreck (and a fourth individual, Trevor Rees-Jones, was badly injured) was faked to make it look like it was an accident.

The BBC reported last nght, however, that a DNA test proves the blood from the sample was that of Paul, and he was definitely drunk -- in fact, he was three times over the legal limit.

What of the other claim, that Dodi had proposed to Diana that night or was about to? After all, he did lavish her with a rather expensive ring. I very much doubt that too. After getting burned by Chuck, and still recovering from bulimia and five suicide attempts, Diana would hardly have made such a rash decision, at least not without consulting her kids. After all, William is destined to be head of the Churches of England and Scotland. Would he tolerate having had a stepfather who was Muslim while holding such a position -- no matter how much respect "The Firm" has otherwise expressed for their brothers and sisters of Islam?

Besides, Diana politely declined police protection after her divorce from Charles even though she was entitled to it for the rest of her life. She wanted to be her own person -- and I have every reason to believe that both John Major and Tony Blair fully respected that. They would have told MI-5 and -6 to back off.

The coroner who's investigating this should just say this is an open and shut case. The papparazzi were irresponsible in their decision not to try to save her life -- which violated French law -- but the accident was entirely the fault of Henri Paul. Diana and her companions in the car were not murdered, they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Case closed.

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Saturday, December 9, 2006

I'm entitled to my entitlements: Hydro One edition

This is beyond unbelievable. Despite getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar -- or to be more accurate, having his secretary spend $45,000 of his personal expenses on her corporate credit card -- Tom Parkinson resigns from Hydro One with a severance package of $3 million. Last year, he used the corporate helicopter, really the property of the people of Ontario, to fly to his cottage in Muskoka.

Once again, there are two sets of standards -- one for public servants, another for the rest of us.

A number of years back, I read about a court case where a guy who served his company for thirty-five years was fired after some pretty strong and credible accusations of sexual harrassment. Along with the dismissal came the forfeiture of his company pension, perhaps in the six figures each year for the rest of his life. He said he was entitled to it regardless of his behaviour or alleged behaviour, since he fiercely denied the improprieties. He initially won, but then the company appealed; and the Ontario Court of Appeal said that the company was in the right, since even though he wasn't a member of the union as an executive, the wording of the collective bargaining agreement made it clear that the "morals clause" applied to everyone from the top down, and since management co-signed what was essentially a legal contract, they had to abide by the rules too. Since the executive violated the anti-discrimination policy, he had to accept whatever penalties came with his dismissal.

Last I heard, the jerk -- can't remember his name -- was on the streets panning for money. Sweet justice.

We go ballistic if someone steals paperclips from a secretary, or abuses the "take a penny, leave a penny" incentive. But when it comes to the public service, we must pretend as if we see, hear or speak nothing. Sometimes I wonder why we even bother.

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Friday, December 8, 2006

Twelve Days of Christmas "story" just a myth

With nothing on my mind today, I offer you this link to an entry at the urban legends site, that answers something that even fooled me a few years ago: Is the song the Twelve Days of Christmas just a song, or does it have a religious connotation? The answer, sadly, is the former.

But it's a very, very cute story.

For the record, my favourite secular Christmas song is Gordon Lightfoot's Song for a Winter's Night. And my favourite religious one? Without a question, and especially for a world at war with forces even darker than Hitler, O Little Town of Bethlehem, by Phillps Brooks and Lewis Redner.

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Thursday, December 7, 2006

When will the other shoe drop?

I just wanted to talk this morning about the resignation of Giuliano Zaccardelli as Commissioner of the RCMP -- essentially Canada's top cop.

I think it's just the first shoe dropping. I don't think we've quite heard all the answers quite yet from the whole Maher Arar affair and there are still people left in both the Liberals and the Conservatives who have to answer for what happened to him. The fact is, though, the Mounties have the most to answer for, especially the senior management of "The Force," as the RCMP calls itself. They are not just a symbol but our national police force and militia, with major roles in fighting organized crime and running counterintelligence, and in most provinces they are the highway patrol as well. They are a part of the fabric of Canadian life far beyond the Musical Ride. That goes without saying of course, but the twenty-one thousand women and men who wear the Red Serge deserve far better leadership than what we've gotten the last six years under Zaccardelli.

Why do they deserve better? Simply put, Canadians see those who have been invited to join The Force as the best of the best. We expect the Mounties to live up to the highest moral and ethical standards. That's true of all cops, but for some reason (maybe because of the stereotypes Hollywood has played out) we think they are a cut above. Slipping erroneous or misleading information about Maher Arar was not just a mere slip-up but a serious lack of judgement. In the private sector, such actions would lead to dismissal. In self-regulated professions like the law or accounting, being outcast and certainly public humiliation.

But the public service? The rules seem to be different for them, as we all found out from the Gomery Report.

There has been talk the last few days that the Mounties may need someone from the outside to step in and clean up the image of The Force. Maybe the real solution is to do below the Deputy Commisioner level and find a man or a woman -- and at this stage, I'm kind of hoping it will be a woman -- who's been on the front lines all these years and who's actually handled all the bric-a-brac they do rather than just been sitting behind a desk pushing paper. If it was a Deputy, I think the other shoe would drop very quickly if he or she had even the slightest hint of taint in the Arar scandal or anything else of disrepute.

We can't have democracy without law and order, which the Mounties normally exemplify. Zaccardelli's leaving is the first step. The question that must ultimately be asked is, what did both Irwin Cotler and Stockwell Day know, and when did they know it?

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Wednesday, December 6, 2006

"No easy solutions"

Very interesting. The Iraq Study Group has said what a lot of people have been saying for months: The United States needs to re-establish full ties to Syria and Iran; and a comprehensive Middle East peace must be negotiated including a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Beyond that, the States also has to get other countries involved, including the European Union and Russia. (PDF of recommendations here.) Jim Baker III and Lee Hamilton were pretty blunt about it, there are "no easy answers" in their words.

Trouble is, if Dubya and Tony had heeded precisely that four years ago when the mess all started and had gotten NATO onside to deal firmly with Saddam Hussein, the US and the UK would not be in the pickle they are in right now. Matter of fact, there might not have even been a war. But America made its choice and they're stuck with what Gen. Colin Powell called the Pottery Barn, you break it so you buy it. Interesting the ISG isn't calling for either an immediate pullout or a mass mobilization of new troops but rather a phased withdrawal with some brigades moving back to the States as early as 2008.

From what I see, they're going to need a massive UN peacekeeping and peacemaking force the size of which has never been seen before -- at least a hundred thousand or more. And the key will be making the peace, as much as it in Afghanistan -- or at least trying.

Naturally, the televangelists are going to pounce on anything that appears to be even a slight amount of appeasement to the Muslims they hate so much. For once, I'd like to see Bush stop listening to the false teachers and listen to some common sense. This report may not be the be all and end all, but the recommendations should at least be taken seriously.

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1989-12-06 Remembered; Ontario Auditor-General Report

I will never forget what happened seventeen years ago -- what Marc Lépine did, and what he failed to do. It was not just a mass murder but a political act, as much as the decision of the other men who were there that day not to lift a finger to help their sisters in need was also a political act -- and we must never allow those kinds of politics to take Canada over again, ever. I know it's unpopular for me to say this, but the blood is still on the hands of all men in Canada, not just that of Lépine.

On a much more sublime but no less outrageous note the Ontario Auditor General, Jim McCarter, released his 2006 annual report, the first since his office got an expanded mandate to take a look into the activities of Crown Agencies and not just provincial departments . Especially coming under harsh criticism are the almost unaudited government credit cards that wound up being used for personal expenses such as DVDs and leather jackets and even flowers for one's own birthday. The worst violators were employees at Ontario Power Generation (the main electric producer), Hydro One (which owns the transmission lines) and the Children's Aid Societies (who should be spending that money on foster care).

Most perplexing for me, however, is that even with the introduction of photo health cards with expiry dates several years ago, there are still 300 000 more cards than residents in Ontario. The government denies this, saying there are actually fewer cards than residents -- but I believe the AG and his assertion it's costing us taxpayers $150 million per year. Who will stop the fraud?

It's the feast of St. Nick today. Who's been naughty and nice on my list? Um, that will have to wait until Christmas Eve.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Watch where your donations go

An item this morning on the regional news of CBC Radio One brought back some bad memories. Last week the Mayor of Stratford, Dan Mathieson, went on the air and encouraged people to give money -- as much as a day's pay -- to a charity called Pediatric AIDS Canada. No sooner than he made that announcement than he started getting flooded with complaints about the group. We in Hamilton are all too familiar with this one, a not-for-profit group that in the past has been investigated by the local press for spending way more on administration than on actually purchasing anti-viral drugs for kids. Besides, I thought our health care system took care of such catastrophic drug costs already. So this morning, the mayor pulled his support and said he needs to do more research.

He had better. For at one point in my life, I was unwittingly part of such a scam. Desperate for a summer job in high school, any summer job, I went to work for this little firm called Great West Entertainment -- GWE -- and got a job in their boiler room, raising money for any of a number of charities. I was so burned out doing futile cold calls to people who normally hang up right away (one had to meet a quota at that level in order to be eligible to call people who actually donate on a regular basis to various groups), that I quit within a week and a half. And this was in the days when call centres used handsets and wrote everything on paper, not the kind I work at now where it's mostly paperless and hands-free. Imagine my shock and anger when I later found out -- thanks to an investigation by CBC's Marketplace -- that my former employer and its then main competitor (can't remember which one) often took a commission of 60% right off the top for its services. The claim was made by the executives that ran them, that they were entitled to it since they were doing a job that smaller charities -- say Big Brothers or the Wheelchair Basketball Association -- couldn't do or be bothered to do.

Which really bothered me, and for this reason: If the consulting firm was collecting a fee of 60%, that only meant 40% was going to the charity. And they have their bills to pay too -- utilities, food and lodging, etc. So when all was said and done, they maybe were left with a quarter or even less if that.

So if I had a hundred bucks at the end of the year and I wanted to make a donation, where do I send it? To a smaller group who has to rely on these big guys, even in the age of the Internet when it's much cheaper to run a secure on-line site? To an established group like the Sally Anns or the Red Cross? Both of those generate a tax receipt but in my bracket I only get back barely 21 cents on the dollar. If it was just those two choices, I'd rather give it to the bigger groups who keep their administration costs down so I know my donation goes to those in the greatest need.

Then there's the third choice, making a political contribution. On donations up to $400, the rebate come the new year is 75%. Doesn't take a genius to figure out which one's the best one from a tax standpoint.

Even if I just decided to go the altrusitic route, it's a good idea to do some research. Ask some tough questions. If they spend more than 25% on administration year after year, then you have to wonder whether it's a group that has just registered as a charity to avoid paying taxes. It's also worth (as well as a bit of work) checking into the lifestyle of those who run such groups. One can't exactly expect such leaders to live on the street, of course, but if their travel is anything above business class and for anything other than work specific to the group (think, for example, of Benny Hinn's "layovers") then look somewhere else to donate.

It's the end of the year, the time for the greatest need. The last thing we need is people being exploited for selfish reasons. So watch where your donations go. And another thing: If you see those donation boxes or kettles, ask if there's a toll free number or website -- then make your donation directly so you actually get a receipt. Screw Stephen Harper and Dalton McGuinty for once and keep at least some of that pledge in your pocket.

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Monday, December 4, 2006

John Bolton resigns as UN Ambassador

He was toast anyway with outgoing Senator Lincoln Chafee saying he'd never vote to confirm him, but today's decision by Bolton to throw in the towel is really good news for those who feel the UN needs a major shakeup but should not be dismantled. For a guy who once said it wouldn't be enough to lob 20 stories off Turtle Bay, he never should have been there in the first place and would not have been except for Dubya's recess appointment.

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Sunday, December 3, 2006

It's Stéphane Dion

So it's Stéphane Dion, who won it on the fourth ballot. He pulled ahead of Iggy on the third, leaping from third place; but the momentum was unstoppable at that point. What may have done it is his emphasis on two issues that are definitely going to be at or near the top of the agenda come the next election: The environment, and child care. The Liberals have taken quite the risk in picking him, hoping he can pick up momentum in Québec and in Western Canada. The pundits think he can't but maybe the delegates know something the MSM doesn't.

Not that Ignatieff had bad ideas on the "big"issues and other policy points. His were, in my opinion, probably better overall. But Dion has actually worked in the trenches for quite some time now, whereas his main opponent has been in the world of higher education and the talk show circuit. Not necessarily bad to do so but Ottawa can be a very nasty place and Ignatieff probably didn't connect as well as Trudeau did 38 years ago. His strong showing overall, however, and his promise to run in the next election puts him in line for a very powerful post in Cabinet -- perhaps Finance or Foreign Affairs. Unlike the Chrétien and Martin show, however, I think there won't be an underground battle to unseat the leader just days after the last campaign ended.

As for my first choice of Gerard Kennedy -- he did the right thing by pulling out relatively early. There would not have been much point dragging things ou for so long. I just wonder what role Dion has for him in mind, though; if it turns out to be something token it won't exactly be gratitude.

As for all the other candidates, I hope they run in the next election. Including Martha Hall Findlay -- who I think may be the party's future.

The focus now is Stephen Harper. There is no question he has to be defeated before the real damage is done to Canada. His announcement that 12 of the 16 Status of Women offices closing just a couple of days before the anniversary of the Montréal Massacre is not a coincidence; as some (though not all) of his hardest core supporters support violence against women. It's my hope in the coming days -- perhaps even today -- Dion puts together a Shadow Cabinet that turns on the screws and lets the dogs out from Day One. Harper may say publicly he can knock down Dion like a steamroller, but I honestly don't think he saw this one coming. He wanted Ignatieff.

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Saturday, December 2, 2006

How Old Crow, Yukon is doing the unthinkable

We're so used to hearing about rampant health problems among Canada's Métis, Inuit and North American Indians; as well as corrupt Aboriginal band councils, that we rarely hear about the genuine good news stories. The Toronto Star has one of those today, talking about the the Gwitchin of Old Crow, Yukon.

About the only time we hear about Old Crow is during the Yukon Assembly elections every four years, and a district with so few people that elections for the area's MLA are often decided by a vote or two. Yet this remarkable town of 300 people on the Beaufort Sea and closer to Alaska than to most other towns in the Yukon has one of the healthiest native populations in the country, students who actually graduate high school, and not one reported suicide in the last ten years. (Compare that to Northern Ontario with a suicide rate 40 times higher.) What makes the difference? Well, for one thing, they've been somewhat luckier than others -- their natural food habitat is still mostly intact. But the more important thing is they have real self-government, one that actually works; something which appears to be true of other native tribes in the Klondike as well. Government is kept small, and is run by consensus.

I've taken a look at the Yukon model the last few years (which includes, among other things, a share of income tax revenues), and while I've wondered at times how well it would work in other parts of the country, I'm now convinced more than ever that Indian Affairs should move aggressively to implement it on a national basis. However, I also think many if not most band councils in Canada would never agree to it. Nepotism and klepotcracy are unfortunate consequences of even the limited powers they have under the current Indian Act, leaving so many natives impoverished; and unless there is a strong tradition of democracy within a community, there are inevitably battles between those who support a more open process versus a traditional form of government where one's position is based on birth rather than merit. (Not that the clan mothers or traditional chiefs at Six Nations, for instance, are bad; but as someone asked not too long ago, who picks the clan mothers or traditional chiefs? And with an elected band council competing for loyalties, who's really in charge?)

And given the rate at which DIAND settles land claims, does anyone think they're going to give up their powers? Ha! Especially with Stephen Harper in power.

Still, it's a ray of light in what others see as general darkness. The specifics may have to be worked out for each tribe, but if Old Crow can do it maybe the rest of Canada could follow their example. Including non-natives in their governance models, who prefer confrontation and partisanship over conciliation and partnership.

UPDATE (12:49 PM EST, 1749 GMT): Fixing a bad link.

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Friday, December 1, 2006

US Gov't Agency: Voting machines can be rigged

Want more proof computerized voting terminals can't be trusted? Well then, how about this apple: The National Institute of Science and Technology, an agency of the US Government, says they can't be trusted. It's now recommending what critics of the US election process have for a long time: Scan sheets, plus a printout of each ballot so the voter can verify his or her selections were properly registered.

The problem is the smart card that is supposed to register all the votes then is retrieved and uploaded into another computer so they can be tallied. Without proper security, anyone can actually preload it to ensure the voting machine operators' favourite choice, not the people's choice, is selected. This is done simply by giving one candidate "X" number of negative votes and another the same number of "positive" votes and no one knows the better because it all balances out to zero.

Don't believe it? Click here to see the HBO documentary that Diebold Election Systems wanted banned.

The earliest the NIST recommendations (which are entirely voluntary) could be adopted is 2009, which just happens to be one year after the next Presidential election. Hmmm ....

The real problem aren't just the voting machines. It's that elections in the States are run by each jurisdiction's Secretary of State, a partisan official and who actively campaigns for his or her party. In nearly every other democracy around the world, the job is handled by an arms-length and non-partisan commission -- which takes its job so seriously that the person who runs it is actually often banned from voting at all. I know, morals are out of the NIST's jurisdiction, but it's something that ought to be considered too before the US way of voting really falls into disrepute.

The fact that this year's mid-terms and the 2004 Presidential election had to be monitored by officials from the body that administers the Helsinki Accord should be nothing short of an embarrassment for the United States. This is the kind of thng we expect for new and emerging democracies, not a country who's operated with the same essentially democratic system of government for 219 years.

What could be more essential in a free country than the right to choose one's representatives and to do it to ensure that the privileged has the same voice as the indigent? At least someone in the US Government has finally figured that one out.

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