Archive for the ‘Canadian politics’ Tag

The Long Gun Registry Is About To Die

The one thing that I was happy about when the Conservatives won a majority in the last federal election was that they would finally be able to get on with their long-standing promise to abolish the long gun registry. The registry, a massive white elephant, is quite possibly the most useless piece of legislation that was ever conceived of in this country, in that it was a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived problem, which has been patently ineffective at dealing with the problem. Add to that it was a massively expensive program, costing far more than it ever was claimed it would, and really delivering nothing in return for the money.

I’m hoping that the money saved might be diverted to programs that might actually deal with gun violence effectively.

What makes me laugh – and cry – is simply this: the chief defenders of the program are basically totally ignorant of anything to do with firearms, and thus generally are woefully unable to discuss anything about them. They cannot make any significant intellectual arguments in the matter. They instead would like to paint Canadian gun owners as a bunch of nuts who want no laws at all, which is frankly completely ridiculous. Most realize that owning firearms is a great responsibility and a privilege, and that some manner of legal controls are necessary in the interest of society. That’s why we have mandatory safety training, licensing systems, and we make certain types of firearms harder to own and use. Of course, some of those restrictions are rather silly (like the restriction on any AR15 derivative, while similar firearms that aren’t “black and scary” aren’t restricted), but in all, most are not unduly onerous.

What I’d like to see, now that it looks like the LGR is done, is some of those resources directed instead to things that might work – better education, diversion programs to keep kids away from things like gangs and crime, and hey, I’m cool with better licensing rules and more intensive application processes to screen out more problems. In the rare event that legal gun owners commit crimes with their firearms (like, for example, Dawson College shooter Kimveer Gill), I have to wonder if a more thorough investigation of applicants for firearms licenses would have kept them from buying the guns in the first place.

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Whither The Centre?

For some reason, I guess because I’m some kind of masochist, I tend to insert myself into all sorts of debates and discussions over politics.  Canadian politics, American politics, whatever – they all fascinate me, and if there’s one thing that’s becoming clearer and clearer over time, it’s that all politics is indeed local – everything matters, because we’re all really connected.

When I was a first year university student, I read Benjamin Barber’s article (since expanded into a book), Jihad Vs McWorld.  It was a very good explanation of the competing forces which we were just coming to be understood as “globalization”.  That article was six years old by then, but seemed to me very insightful.  I had started to understand those impacts during the brief travels I managed to do before and during school, which doesn’t seem to be a habit I’ve carried on with enough, though hopefully that will change.  Anyhow, if you’ve never read the article, do so – it’s worth a read.  It talks a fair bit about the ideas of confederalism and trying to define the role of a nation-state in this new world.  We’re seeing the same sort of thing now when we take a look at NATO trying to define a role for its future post-Cold War.  That, I suppose, is a whole other matter.

If I tell you that higher education softened my conservative views, I guess I’ll play into some sort of sick right wing stereotypes about liberal education.  Truth is, while I went to a very, very liberal school, I didn’t really start to really think like a centrist until a while after I was out of school in the real world and started to realize that all those monetarist, conservative “theoreticals” are just that, and they don’t really seem to work.  And I guess I realized that before a lot of people, because what I’m seeing unfolding in the world suggest it.

What happened to the idea of a rational, pragamatic centrist movement?  In the US, the only people I’ve seen claiming the label of centrists are really right wingers trying to sell themselves a little softer.  In Canada, the reasonably centrist Liberal Party of Canada just got totally wiped out in the recent election, and the “Progressive Conservative” Party no longer exists.  Although Prime Minister Harper doesn’t strike me as having some incredibly insidious right wing agenda, he also learns a fair way to the right, more than perhaps I’d consider acceptable, and even worse, some of the clowns in his party are far less ambiguous about it.

The problem is, as I see it, we have a whole lot of challenges to deal with.  Climate change, regardless of the degree to which you accept the anthropogenic nature thereof, is something that is going to impact the world somehow – it’ll change migration patterns, it’ll impact food supplies, it will impact everyone in some way.  The global economy is another problem – casino capitalism as it were has impacted us certainly.  The world’s largest economy sits in a country that faces massive budget deficits and complete unwillingness to overcome the polarization in politics in such a way as to actually make any progress.  There’s no rational voice in the centre trying to balance out the two highly polarized sides in any debate, and so there’s deadlock.

Why do we have to talk only about tax cuts, tax hikes and spending cuts and not look at other ideas?  More importantly, why is there no discussion of combining various approaches in the US for example to solve problems?  Obviously, taxes have to rise in some form in the USA, it’s just a matter of time.  Despite the claims of various pundits on the right, America does indeed have a revenue problem.  It does have a spending problem too, and that will take a lot of effort, it’ll take some pain I’m sure to fix it effectively, but it must be done in some form.  What astounds me is the denial of realities that healthcare reform as it’s been initiated by the Obama Administration will likely help while actually improving healthcare outcomes.  I’m also surprised (not really) that no one seems to grasp that massive, massive military spending cuts in the USA are going to be necessary to make any progress.   Those cuts will have to come from capital procurement primarily, and allowing the force to shrink via natural attrition.

What I don’t get is why people aren’t demanding better from politicians, demanding actual reasoned discussions.  I guess that advantage we had in Canada when we went through this in the 1990s is that our Parliamentary system allows the government of the day to just get on with things without having to constantly battle the opposition.  Score 1 for us.  Obviously there’s no way to make changes to that, but where are the voices starting up to the Professional Left and the Theocratic-Fascist-Corporatist right?

Thoughts On Israel & Palestine – Early Thoughts.

Lots in the news lately about Israel and Palestine, given President Barack Obama’s recent speech where he referred to the need for negotiations based on a starting point of the pre-1967 borders, with what he called “mutually agreed upon swaps”, meaning that there would likely need to be some exchanges of territory to reflect where people have setter since that time.

President Obama’s speech brought a strong response from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He strongly dismissed the President’s statement saying that it would leave Israel “indefensible”. The statement isn’t totally off-base, in simple terms. The Golan Heights region seized from Syria offers some significant strategic advantages which Israel would be understandably loath to relinquish.

That said, the real controversy seems more to stem from President Obama’s explicit enunciation of what has long been a US policy regarding a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders. Netanyahu seems to be some kind of darling among a set of the American right that seems to have an innate ability to suspend any form of rationality when it comes to Israel, and his bluster against Obama apparently made them very happy.

What I want to try to do is explore this obsession with Israel and its implications for any form of lasting peace. I’m not any sort of expert on the matter but I’m just going to sort of audibly ponder the situation.

While I think the world meant well in giving assistance to the Zionist movement in establishing the State of Israel, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, I have come to wonder if it was really a good idea.  Divorce, for a moment, the religious fantasies that played a role (not least of which is the dominionist Christian eschatology) in the location of the state, and consider this: carving a new state which immediately set about bringing settlers from all over the world into land that had been occupied by another group for many years, and surrounded by nations which stood little chance of abiding this new neighbour, and the nightmarish flood of refugees it created.  In any reasonable context of consideration, it makes absolutely no sense.

Being someone who follows this blog I will take some license in assuming that you have at least some background in the history of the State of Israel, including the Nakba, the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, and Israel’s involvement in the Lebanese Civil War.  If you aren’t up to speed, may I suggest Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut To Jerusalem as a primer?  Israel’s borders have expanded each time these conflicts have happened, including holding territory in the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank at various points.  They’ve made some pull backs, but still hold the Golan and effectively control the Gaza Strip and the West Bank even though they “withdrew” in 2000.

To get peace, I have to just consider two states bickering regardless of the other issues.  One is militarily mighty but considers itself to face a constant existential threat.  It also has a stronger economy, and some friends in high places.  The other is militarily weak, faces a stagnant economy, and lives under the boot of the other, finding the situation uncomfortable enough as it is, but made worse by the fact that vast swathes of its population have been forced into third countries, and that there’s no prospect for improvement as the other country continues to encroach on the land.  Oh, and adding to the misery, the former party, well, they just showed up.

So what can I presume the average Palestinian divorced from politics wants?  I’ll hazard a guess that it’s similar to what Israelis want – and more importantly, what any human likely wants – to live peacefully, to be able to make a decent living, to provide for their children, and to see them grow up wealthier and better off.  To do that, it strikes me, isn’t hard, but that’s why Israel needs to make the rather reasonable concessions that were essentially articulated by President Obama a few days ago, but are nothing new.  They don’t need to capitulate on everything, and they’ll still remain militarily quite strong.  They do, after all, have quite a nuclear arsenal among other things, but I’d hazard a guess that on the Arab Street a reasonably negotiated two-state solution will probably be enough to make most people accept the existence of the country.

There’s a lot more to it, but I just wanted to start somewhere.

My Early Musings on #elxn41

So, the 41st Canadian Federal Election is now passed into history, with some results that are simply described as historic. Conservative Stephen Harper finally won his long coveted majority government, winning 167 of the 308 seats in the Canadian House of Commons with 39.6% of the popular vote. The Bloc Quebecois was all but extirpated, wining just 4 seats as Quebec voters shifted their support to the New Democratic Party primarily. This was the shocker – the NDP for the first time becomes the Official Opposition, winning 102 seats and 30.6% of the popular vote. The Liberal Party of Michael Ignatieff was walloped as well, falling to just 34 seats with 18.9% of the popular vote. Another interesting twist, the Green Party’s leader, Elizabeth May, won her riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, giving them their first ever seat in Parliament.

Not shockingly, as is the custom in Canadian politics, both Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc resigned. Neither of them won their seats, either, so it is fairly safe to say their Canadian political careers are more or less over.

It seems the results shocked a lot of people – it certainly surprised me because I had figured most of the polls I was watching were fairly accurate, and they were suggesting a Conservative minority. That to me was probably the only palatable option.

This election seems to be an excellent demonstration of why the First-Past-The-Post system isn’t great, but it is worth reminding Canadians upset about the results that the last time a Canadian election was won by a leader who got more than 50% of the popular vote was in 1958 when John Diefenbaker was re-elected. Even Pierre Trudeau never got over that hurdle. The popular vote is essentially irrelevant, it’s where the votes are cast that mattered. In the 40th Parliament, for example, the NDP had double the Bloc’s share of popular vote count in the 2008 Federal Election, yet 11 fewer seats. While the Greens took almost 4% of the popular vote they got one seat of 308.

I used to think that FPTP was great because it allowed for majorities that could actually “get things done”, but I think they as parties become more polarized, the sort of “permanent minority government” status that some form of proportional representation would create is becoming more attractive to me. It is the fear of this that had Stephen Harper’s attack ad machine cranking out the fear of coalitions, because if Canadians came to believe they worked, then Harper’s Conservatives, who lie to the right of the ideas of most Canadians, would never, ever be able to get a majority.

With his majority, Harper will probably get to work right away on his priorities, passing the budget introduced before the election and a series of law and order bills which contain some ideas that, having been failures in the US already, are idiotic. Things like building new prisons when crime rates are falling don’t make a lot of sense. I don’t see a bright future for Canada under a Conservative majority sadly (or under any majority, for that matter), so hopefully I’ll be proven a pessimist. In the meantime, I’m going to start dusting off all the stuff I have about PR systems, and get involved in consigning FPTP to history.

On Afghanistan

I got into a brief Twitter chat with someone today about Afghanistan, and I think it prompted me to write a bit on my perceptions of how the Afghanistan experience has impacted Canada – impacted me personally, my family, my friends, and the sense I have of its impact on Canadians broadly based on my observations.

I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. I was in third year university, living in a house with three friends. That Tuesday morning, I was awoken by one of my housemates just after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, and I managed to collect myself and get out of my room in time to see the second hit. I spent the rest of that day watching television, trying to figure out what happened and what was going to be done about it. That night, being an Officer Cadet in the Canadian Forces Reserve at the time, I headed off to my Armoury and down to a meeting previously scheduled which was overtaken by discussion about the topic. Later I sat in the Junior Ranks Mess of my home garrison with various other people, and I said, “We will all remember where we were this day.” As we watched replay after replay of planes hitting the Twin Towers, I then thought, “This is our Zapruder film.”

Canada eventually sent a battle group built around the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group (3VP BG) to Kandahar to help destroy Al Qaeda’s safe havens in Afghanistan and rout the Taliban regime which had mostly controlled that failed state and provided that haven. It didn’t make a lot of news until April 18, 2002, when two USAF pilots bombed a 3VP group training at the Tarnak Farms Range Complex near Kandahar Airfield, killing four Canadians: Sgt Marc Leger, Cpl Ainsworth Dyer, Pte Richard Green, and Pte Nathan Smith and severely wounding eight more. The outcome of the inquiry into the event would be a massive post in itself, but suffice it to say that not only was it basically the end of the USAF pilots’ careers, but one received a stinging reprimand for his dishonourable conduct in trying to evade responsibility for a decision that was in no way justifiable. In short, he claimed that he acted in self-defence, but he actually turned back to drop the bomb after being well out of danger and was not cleared to attack.

The Patricia deployment wrapped up without any further casualties, and the follow on was a deployment built around the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (3 RCR BG). They went to Kabul, established a large camp (Camp Julian) and got to work on local security and some of the foundational work on establishing Afghan National Security forces – new Army, Air Force, and Police for the country. Things went fairly smoothly. There were no casualties reported until October 2, 2003, when what we would come to know as an “IED” or landmine blast struck a patrol traveling in an Iltis jeep in Kabul, killing Sgt Robert Short and Cpl Robbie Beerenfenger. When a suicide bomber killed Cpl Jamie Murphy three months later, a national debate began about the adequacy of the equipment Canadian soldiers were being sent to Afghanistan with. The Iltis jeep, a small, unarmoured patrol vehicle long due for replacement became a focus in the media, but many, many other items were viewed as deficient and the Liberal government of Jean Chretien began spending a lot more money on improvements.

Canada’s mission in Afghanistan stayed relatively quiet until the summer of 2005, when it was decided to redeploy the force from the relatively stable capital of Kabul to the restive province of Kandahar, one of the strongholds of the Taliban, to which 3VP were initially deployed back in 2002. Settling into Kandahar Airfield, Canadian soldiers began to become involved in a lot more “outside the wire” work, doing battle with insurgents in Kandahar’s vineyards, orchards, and fields. The Panjwaii District, located along the Arghandab River west of Kandahar City, was one of the Canadian Areas of Responsibility. Panjwaii would become a name known to many Canadians starting in 2006 when the fighting became much more intense, and Canadian casualties began to mount starting in the spring of 2006.

The only other deaths before then were road traffic accidents, a sad hazard of any place, but losses grieved no differently.

The first casualty of fighting was Pte Robert Costall, a member of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (1VP). Costall’s deal was later revealed to likely have been a friendly fire incident during a pitched gun battle with insurgents. On April 22, 2006 a roadside bomb blew up a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, one of the vehicles bought to replace the Iltis jeeps that had been so controversial, killing four Canadians. May 17th saw something new to Canadians – a female Forward Observation Officer from the 1st Regiment of Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1 RCHA), Captain Nichola Goddard, was killed by a rocket propelled grenade which struck her LAV-3 while she was calling in artillery during an offensive operation. She was the first Canadian officer to die in Afghanistan, and the first female combat casualty in Canadian history.

It became clear to Canadians that we were in quite a fight and there was a real cost – I think, from my recollection, it was Capt Goddard’s death that hit home for many.

Through the summer and into the fall of 2006, fighting in Panjwaii was intense. August 3 saw a fierce fighting kill four members of 1VP, and fighting during September was similarly costly. September 2, 2006 saw the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (1 RCR BG) launch Operation MEDUSA, a major effort to drive the Talian out of Zhari and Panjwaii districts. 1 RCR suffered the single worst day of the war to date for Canada, September 3, 2006. That day, four fell, including two Warrant Officers and an Engineer Sergeant very experienced NCOs, and many others were injured. The following day, a friendly fire airstrike hit members of 8 Platoon, Charles Company, 1 RCR, killing Pte Mark Graham and injuring several others, one of whom was a close friend of mine. The Crazy Eights, and indeed Charles Company itself, was rendered basically combat ineffective at that point. MEDUSA ultimately was a tactical victory for ISAF, but at a cost.

And so it went from there. I could recap the ensuring campaigns, but that’s not really the point. Following 2006, things became much more dangerous in Afghanistan, and many more would fall. April 2007 saw a massive bomb kill six Canadians, a feat the Taliban would repeat in July of that year. Most were due to pernicious improved explosive devices, planted by a cunning and crafty enemy that studied our tactics and learned how to defeat them. I did want to actually stick to my original concept for this, to try to make some observations on how the public responded to the events, and how it changed their view of the CF.

Many Canadians held a sort of romanticized view of the Canadian Peacekeeper – a UN Blue Beret-sporting friendly sort of armed Boy Scout off to try to save the world in various places, standing between disputing parties to keep them from fighting. Canada basically invented the concept in response to the 1956 Suez Crisis, the idea of a neutral party keeping to sides in a conflict who genuinely wanted peace apart while they learned to trust each other. Canadians patrolled the divided island of Cyprus for many years in this role, among other places. A TV commercial, a “Heritage Moment”, played up this cultural myth. When the world watched the horror of the meltdown of Yugoslavia, it was Canadians in blue helmets who raced off to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to try to stop the bloodshed there.

However, two black marks would come to influence that view dramatically, the failure of the world community to prevent genocide in Rwanda, and a series of incidents in Somalia in 1993 which overshadowed anything else the Canadian contingent deployed there did – a small number of soldiers from a unit riddled with leadership and discipline problems engaged in some atrocious crimes, then tried to conceal them, which failed. In what one writer (regrettably, I can’t remember his name) referred to as a “great act of self-effacement”, the unit involved, the Canadian Airborne Regiment, was disbanded completely, even though most of its members from that era had since moved on. These events certainly cast a pall on the view that many Canadians took of soldiers – in cases they were harassed, even told not to commute to and from work in uniform lest they be recognized according to some stories I’ve heard.

Around the same time, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien came to power and set upon wrestling the great deficit dragon that threatened Canada. When I talk to Americans and Britons about the fiscal challenges their countries face, I am proud to tell them that we went through this before, and it eventually gets better. Chretien began a program of slashing spending, including cashing in the so-called “peace dividend”, downsizing the Canadian Forces and its budget. This came to be referred to by many as the “decade of darkness”, a phrase made most popular by the charismatic Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, who made it public. Through the 1990s, bases closed, including the mass movement of 1 RCR from London, Ontario to Petawawa, Ontario, and the closure of Canadian bases in Europe. Little was invested in training or equipment.

The sun began to come out through some unusual circumstances, according to many of the stories I’ve heard – the Red River Floods in Manitoba in 1997 and the Ice Storm in Ontario & Quebec in 1999 were emergencies where Canadian military personnel came out in droves to help communities, and suddenly people began to think more warmly about the military. It was again possible to wear the uniform with pride. It was shortly after this that I, a university student, presented myself at the Canadian Forces Recruiting Centre in the spring of 2000 to apply to join the Reserve. I was sworn in January of 2001 as an infantry Officer Cadet, beginning a journey which would become a defining feature of my adult life.

Prior to 9/11, no one really noticed us much. We were just ordinary people it seemed. After that, particularly when Canada got involved in Afghanistan, people actually started to take a little more notice. We started to actually have people approach us in public to say “thanks” and acknowledge us, people started paying for our coffee at Tim Hortons, things like that – all wonderful gestures, if a little awkward.

If you’re reading this as an American, understand that the sort of “aggressive” flag-waving patriotism and love of the military that you’d consider normal does not generally exist in Canada. Canadians tend to be much more reserved, to the point that we often find the contrast frankly uncomfortable. The attention was a little weird for many people.

Something else happened, though. Something so incredible that no one would have anticipated it, and what made it so amazing is that it emerged from nothing, as just an idea of ordinary people that caught on.

When a Canadian soldier is killed overseas, there is a process followed. The remains are brought to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, an air force base about 80 miles east of Toronto, which is essentially the air hub for all Canadian Forces operations. From there, they travel to the Coroner’s Office on Grenville Street in Toronto for the normal processing before the remains are released to the family.

The trip travels along Ontario Highway 401, a major expressway. At some point, when word got out that these funeral corteges were passing by, people started to gather on highway overpasses along the way. Eventually, paramedics and fire departments would park on the overpasses and pay tribute to the fallen as they passed. Every time it happened, the turnout got larger and larger.

My first time seeing this, I had just returned from a course at the Infantry School at CFB Gagetown, a sprawling army base near Fredericton, New Brunswick. My flight home into Toronto’s Pearson Airport was mainly made up of military personnel, most of whom were from the Gagetown based 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, returning to Afghanistan after their mid-tour leave. As I and another reservist were picking up our baggage several people approached us and offered the thank yous which we politely deferred to those headed back to Afghanistan. It was June 23, 2007, and Sgt Christos Karigiannis, Cpl Stephen Bouzane, and Pte Joel Wiebe, killed by a roadside bomb on the 20th, were being brought home. Driving east along Highway 401 home, I noticed the fire trucks on a couple of overpasses, and saw the flags, but I had no idea what I was seeing. Then the cortege passed us coming the other way from Trenton. I suddenly understood.

That night I moved into a new condo we had just bought in Oshawa, not far from the 401, and we made a point of making sure that whenever a family was making the journey down what had come first informally but now legally to be known as the Highway of Heroes, we would be there – to stand, to honour, to bear witness to the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters. We would return many times, never in uniform, never drawing any attention to ourselves, just to join the crowds.

It became even more real to me on the morning of December 5, 2008. That morning I received a phone call informing me that a roadside IED had killed three Canadians, including Cpl Mark MacLaren, who at the time was serving with 1 RCR. Mark, or Chinaman as we knew him, previously served in the same Reserve unit as I did. He had also been one of the Crazy Eights wounded during Op MEDUSA on his first Afghan tour, while still a Reservist. He came home and immediately transferred to the Regular Force, returning to Afghanistan two years later.

I had chatted with him on MSN a couple of weeks before, a brief exchange where he told me about an ambush he’d gotten in. Long after his death, we learned that he was to be awarded the Medal of Military Valour for his actions during that ambush, and subsequently, that along with Captain Goddard, he would be having a new Coast Guard ship named after him as well.

I attended Chinaman’s repatriation the following Monday in Trenton, and after his funeral, attended by some 800 people including many from the community who didn’t know him personally but wanted to pay tribute, we boarded buses for Ottawa and Canada’s National Military Cemetery. Ottawa’s firefighters and the public also lined the streets in the same way as the Highway of Heroes, and I then understood what the sight must be like to the families of the fallen – how much it must mean to them.

Around that time calls went out to for Reserve augmentees for 3 RCR BG’s next rotation. Fresh off the final qualification hurdle I had to jump, I put my name in and started the process to get ready to deploy. Around that time I joined twitter with some grand plan to eventually microblog the experience. Just before the work up training period was to start I learned I wouldn’t be going. Life works that way sometimes, and there were some silver linings to the cloud.

Throughout those times, when things started heating up and the faces of young Canadians lost in Afghanistan became sadly common on the front pages of Canadian newspapers, there was a shift in public opinion, a palpable change in how the military was viewed. At the same time there was much debate – how we got into this war, who put us there, to what end, when would we leave, what was the mission about, etc. Not long after the decision was made to move from Kabul to the relatively more dangerous Kandahar, the Liberal government of Paul Martin was replaced by the Conservative Stephen Harper, and many people came to suggest, completely erroneously, that somehow Harper had changed the nature of the mission or was somehow responsible for the casualties. That simply wasn’t true, and served to cloud any rational discussion for quite a while.

What was clear, though, is that regardless of people’s opinion of the mission, they asked questions and took interest – and they started to treat people in uniform very differently, in a way that made me uncomfortable. I now live in a “military” town so it’s not really a novelty to see someone in uniform, but before moving last winter, it was. I remember walking into a Dairy Queen of all places with a friend, both in uniform, to grab some quick dinner – someone in the drive-thru line paid for our dinner having seen us walk in.

There’s been a lot of war weariness, too, especially as casualties mounted and people didn’t see any sign of progress in the media. From people I know who’ve been and seen progress over multiple tours, I am confident that the picture is nowhere near as grim as some might glean merely from media reports – though it’s often noted that the prospects for really sorting things out there are still not great. Dealing with a tribal population with staggering rates of illiteracy and little in the way of a viable economy in most of the country makes the prospect of building a functioning, unifying state very difficult indeed. Add to that the influence of the drug trade and general corruption, and things look bleaker still. I would hypothesize that a generation of Afghans will need to grow up without war and with education before you’ll see any real progress there, but it is possible when you consider what Afghanistan was like before the Soviet invasion.

In the end, it seems our decision is made – combat operations in Kandahar province will wind up this summer, and we’ll pack up and move back to Kabul, shifting from a combat role to training and development of Afghanistan’s security forces. It will still be a mission fraught with risks, but it will be less taxing on the nation in many ways. However, we now need to look at the situation in the world and decide “what next?”, because there certainly are challenges to face abroad that we can make a difference in.

On the election

Well, I’ve voted. I decided since we’re moving this coming weekend it made more sense to vote beforehand. Technically I’ll be in transition between two different ridings, but I think it makes more sense to get it over with – I won’t likely have anything to prove I live in the new riding and I’m registered in this one. Curiously, my wife wasn’t registered to vote here even though I know I checked that box on her tax return. (Sidenote to Americans: I don’t know if you guys do this, but we can registered to vote by checking a box on tax forms that provides your information to Elections Canada and generates the card that tells you where to go to vote. It’s not essential to vote, but it’s a neat convenience)

I have a shocking confession. I voted for the Liberal candidate. I think this is a solidly Conservative riding, it certainly has been been for recent elections. I wound up voting Liberal not because I especially like them (I certainly never have supported them before), but because like a lot of people, I’m sick of the arrogance of Stephen Harper and his party, and I’d rather like to see them weakened. It seems that my major complaints about the Liberal platform have somewhat abated, and realistically, I don’t see there being a majority either way, I like the idea of an even weaker Conservative minority that might force Harper to accept that he cannot do everything he wants to do.

A Primer On Canadian Politics

Another election is coming in Canada, and a few American Twitterers (is that the proper noun) are interested in what’s going on up here, so I thought I’d put out a quick primer on Canada’s electoral system, how things work here, what’s going on, and what might happen in the election. To the best of my ability I’m going to try to frame this as a comparative piece to the USA’s political system to try to make it more understandable for our cousins to the south.

So, where to begin…?

Canada uses a multiparty parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster system used in the United Kingdom. The Parliament consists of two chambers: first the elected House of Commons, which consists of 308 seats. Each of the 308 Members of Parliament are elected by voters to respresent their electoral district, which is called a “riding”. For example, I presently live in the riding of Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, which covers a large but fairly sparsely populated geographic area of the Province of Nova Scotia. I’ll actually probably reside in another riding by the time the election happens, as the dates being batted around are May 2nd or 9th, and I’m moving on May 1 to take up residence in the riding of Halifax West. The second is the Senate, an appointed body of 105.

Theoretically each riding is supposed to represent a comparable, proportional amount of the population of Canada, but in practice that’s not quite accurate. Prince Edward Island, for example, is home to about 0.5% of the population of Canada, but has four electoral ridings – more than double what they should have proportionately. Ridings are modified as needed, which usually gets at least some hackles raised about gerrymandering, but such is the nature of our system.

There are several major differences between the Canadian and US political processes. Canadians, first of all, do not vote for anywhere near as many people as Americans do. Since our legislative and executive functions are fused, we vote solely for our Member of Parliament. Whichever party wins the most seats is customarily invited to form a government by the Governor-General, the Queen’s Representative in Canada. That party’s leader then becomes Prime Minister and forms his cabinet to run the show.

There are no fixed election dates in Canada. A government may serve for up to five years before an election, but in practice it’s rarely longer than four. At a time of the government’s choosing – or sometimes not (I’ll explain below) – the Prime Minister pays a call to the Official Residence of the Governor-General at Rideau Hall to request Parliament be dissolved and an election called. This is known as “dropping the writ”.

Another difference: Senators in Canada are appointed, not elected. This is a rather controversial topic in some circles, but I don’t see any significant Senate reform on the horizon in Canada. The Senate of Canada is called the “Chamber of Sober Second Thought” and rarely originates any legislation. It also rarely interferes with legislation from the House of Commons. When it passes a Bill, it then goes to the Governor-General for Royal Assent, which makes it law. While theoretically a Governor-General can refuse Royal Assent, it just doesn’t happen, since the G-G is an appointed position, and is primarily ceremonial.

There are four major political parties in Canada holding seats in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party Of Canada, led by Stephen Harper, held the largest plurality of seats after the last election, but not a majority. This situation is referred to as a “minority government”, because the governing party doesn’t have sufficient votes in the House of Commons to pass whatever it wants, therefore it must work with opposition parties to get things passed. The Liberal Party of Canada, led by Michael Ignatieff, is the second largest party and is Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The Bloc Quebecois, led by Gilles Duceppe is the next largest. The BQ is something of an enigma. They only run candidates in the Province of Quebec, and their platform is mainly built around furthering the interests of a sovereign (read: independent) Quebec. Finally, there’s the New Democratic Party, lead by Jack Layton. Interestingly, in terms of “spectrum”, the parties start on the right with the Conservatives and move consistently to the left, the NDP being social democrats.

Back to the minority government issue – when there’s a minority government, they are vulnerable to something called a motion of non-confidence. That is to say, they serve as the government so long as they have the confidence of the House of Commons. If the opposition parties see fit, they can bring down the government by voting against anything deemed a confidence measure. Budgets (“money bills”) are always confidence measures. Lately, PM Harper’s used confidence measures as a form of political brinkmanship with the opposition Liberals. Today, the 40th Parliament found Stephen Harper’s government in contempt for failing to disclose information related to some big ticket purchases, and passed a motion of non-confidence, ending the second minority government of Mr. Harper.

And so, in about a month, Canadians will go to the polls to elect another Parliament. For now, it looks like there will be very little change to the composition of the House of Commons, meaning Harper will return as Prime Minister, still with a minority. It is for this reason that there’s some debate likely about the wisdom of an election when there’s going to be no change. There is, however, a possibility that the Liberals, the Bloc, and the NDP could agree to form a formal coalition which would have more seats in the House and could present themselves to the Governor-General as being most suited to lead. This would likely make Ignatieff the Prime Minister, but whether that will actually work/happen is doubtful, because the idea of anyone colluding with the Bloc Quebecois to get power isn’t particularly palatable. It was suggested in 2008, when Harper used a procedure called prorogation to stave off a confidence vote that he was almost certain to lose. At the same time, his party ramped up attack ads on the idea of a “coalition with socialists and separatists”. There was much controversy. In 2009, a second prorogation happened, with some speculation that it was to deflect attention from inquiries into the handling of detainees in Afghanistan, but with the “official explanation” being that it allowed politicians to participate in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

This is just a starter piece. Please comment with any questions or gaps you see and I’ll work to build it up a little more!

Musings on the Upcoming Election

You know, if the Conservatives keep talking like they do, all the polls suggesting they’ll be returned to power in the election that seems a certainty now that the budget has been introduced and neither the Liberals nor the NDP will support it may be wrong.

I’m a proud Canadian and all, but you have to be pretty delusional to make the assumption, as some Conservatives have, that an election would somehow jeopardize the global economic recovery.  It’s absurd to think that the normal course of democracy in Canada could somehow cause major economic woes when we represent about 2% of the global economy.  It is even more absurd (and frankly ominous) when a government suggests that going to the polls is somehow inappropriate when there’s all sorts of stuff going on in the Middle East.  Tragically, I’ve read so many news articles about the whole thing that I’m not able to find the direct quotes.  The thing is, I think Harper played this beautifully.  He tossed a few (mostly empty) goodies to the NDP and made his budget look rather centrist, which then allows him to take a direct run at the Liberals.  They’ll keep up their attacks on Michael Ignatieff (who is, in my estimation, no more likely to be Prime Minister than Stephane Dion was last time around), and on the party in general for forcing an election “no one wants”.  Frankly, I doubt many people do want an election to be honest, since it seems that unless the plan really, really backfires during the campaign, we’ll probably be left with more or less the same Parliament, with a few seats changing hands, but Harper still PM with a minority government.  We’ll spend $300 million on an election that essentially doesn’t really accomplish anything.

And we’re still left with problems.  The provinces are mostly broke, New Brunswick seems to have been first off trying to grapple its woes, my home province of Nova Scotia is still playing stupid politics over things like ferry subsidies, and the federal government still has a massive deficit mainly attributable to the global economic crisis that started in 2008 and its efforts to stimulate the economy.  Thing is, they wouldn’t be in such a bad fiscal position if they hadn’t made two stupid decisions – GST cut #1 and GST cut #1.  Cutting the federal sales tax took billions in revenue out of the federal government’s coffers while offering no substantial benefits to Canadians, save for some smug satisfaction that a vilified (but ultimately, fair) tax was being cut.  Cheering these two cuts was probably the most idiotic political move many Canadians made.  Didn’t I blog about this at some point, how little a difference it made to my life as a fairly high earning person.  The “working families” who thought it was so great probably saw little or no benefit.  In fact, most get a quarterly refund cheque to offset what little they pay anyhow.

I can’t figure out who I’d vote for.  Lately, Canada’s been beset by a cast of mediocre politicians leading parties with mediocre ideas.  In fact, the only leader who seems to have any charisma is Jack Layton, and unfortunately that won’t overcome my view of their party’s ideas as either ridiculous, unrealistic, or loathsome.  So they’re not an option.  I think I’ll probably vote Green again if they put out a well spoken candidate… not because I particularly endorse their platform, but because I think it’s not a bad idea to discuss other ideas, because none of the mainstream parties seems interested in doing so.  Frankly, if any party gets up and admits that to fix the budget they’ll put the GST back to 7%, I’d probably vote for them, not because I want to pay more tax, but because I understand that I have to pay at some point, and I’d just rather get on with it.

On “Fox News North”, Mostly

I’ve been busy as all hell lately and keeping on updating this blog has been difficult. You can partially blame the incredibly frustrating WordPress iPhone app for that too, because it’s been pissing me off to know end to get really into writing something and then have it crash on me. No autosave feature? Really? That’s what we’ve been reduced to in this day and age?

I’ve got one post I’ve been tinkering with since January 22, one that’s now pretty much worthless, and now I’m going to try to bang something out in 30 minutes or less because I’ve got stuff to do tonight to prepare for the weekend, I’m off to Toronto to take care of some business and have to pack and so on.

There’s been so much ridiculousness in the world lately. I was paying so much attention to the events that started in Tunisia and have spread throughout the Arab world that I lost track of some of the developments in my own country, which have been rather disturbing as I catch up on them.

Last year, the Canadian media giant Quebecor/QMI, which owns Canada’s Sun chain of newspapers and a large stable of local newspapers including the one in my old hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, decided to apply for a license to start up a cable news channel, Sun TV News. They wanted it to get special treatment to essentially force cable companies to carry it. It was pretty clear given the slant and (lack of) journalistic quality of its other media outlets what it was going to resemble, and it didn’t take long before it was being referred to as “Fox News North”. Quebecor is run by the Péladeau family, one of the most powerful families in the country, and fairly obviously supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada. Furthering the controversy was the fact that the chief spokesperson for Sun TV News is a guy by the name of Kory Teneycke, who before taking the job happened to be Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Director of Communications. What a job to have before becoming a lobbyist, no? Eventually he departed, only to return later. Quebecor decided to press on with their effort to launch the channel as a Category 2 channel, meaning that carriers are not required to carry it, they may choose to.

It all gets intriguing though, when the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (which basically regulate everything from telephony to internet to licensing TV and radio stations) announced they wanted public feedback on a law that would soften existing laws about false news, basically making it legal to make false or misleading statements in the news media so long as they weren’t going to cause a danger to the public. Essentially, it would be okay to report just about any bullshit you want if it wasn’t a direct threat to public health and safety. Not surprisingly, Canadians responded with outrage and the CRTC promptly declared the idea DOA, and expressed some sort of relief, because, not shockingly, it has emerged that they were basically directed by a Parliamentary committee to study the change. Now, who would want to be able to report false or misleading news? Whose agenda would that serve?

It only gets more ridiculous when my former Member of Parliament, Dean Del Mastro, Parliamentary Secretary to The Heritage Minister, told a CBC interviewer that the changes were being studied because apparently his constituents were complaining to him about “attacks on free speech”. Maybe I’ve missed something, but when did being able to report false news become a free speech issue to most Canadians? Oh, right. Never. This, by the way, is the man whose great legacy to his riding is an effort to bring commuter rail to the city of Peterborough, a project that seems to make very, very little economic sense for a variety of reasons I won’t get into. The first federal election in which I refused to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada was the first one in which he ran, because when I saw him speak and got the chance to talk to him it became readily apparent that we had nothing in common. He also happens to be the champion of the equally idiotic (and strangely undemocratic and fiscally unconservative) Senate bill S-10 which among other things sets mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences and was sped through our unelected Senate without any debate (and without any Liberal Senators present to vote against it, either, if I remember right). Again, my contempt for Canada’s Senate is another issue.

So I guess I’ll have to just carry that one forward to another entry.

Ramblings – On Retirement Ages Eventually.

I have a myriad of things running through my mind at the moment, and I haven’t really been updating the blog lately.  It’s been even worse on my more personal one, I don’t think I’ve put anything meaningful there in a very long time, and that’s kind of sad in a way – I’ve had that blog since before the word existed, back when LiveJournal was a referral service and someone had to give you an invite for you to join.

But being busy with other things is good, of course.  Work continues to be getting better and better, and it appears that for many reasons I’ve made a decent move.  I’m still not totally settled on things though, and I think my wife is homesick for Ontario more than she really admits, but is willing to concede that she has to give this a more thorough attempt.

Lots has been going on politically lately on both sides of the border, and I find it hard to nail down anything really sharp to say on a lot of it – in Canada, we have the renewed discussion of what the hell we are going to do in Afghanistan next year when the Parliamentary mandate for our current contribution to ISAF ends and in theory we are done.  As of my last check, the PM has decided that we’ll stay there in a training role, it sounds like in Kabul (vice the rather more dangerous Kandahar), with about 1000 troops on the ground.  I suspect that many of them will continue to be drawn from the Reserve, and have not given up on the idea of getting a tour in, though it’s hard to say what’ll happen.

This was sort of a dovetail from a major debate about Veterans Affairs, which started when the current ombudsman, Col Pat Stogran (ret’d) got into the spotlight for his vigourous criticism of the government’s handling of the claims of veterans, particularly those injured in Afghanistan, but also those with injuries, including invisible ones like PTSD, from previous operations.  Apparently it’s Bosnia veterans that report the highest rates of debilitating PTSD.

I don’t have a fully formed opinion on that whole thing, though I understand fully the frustration many feel because I’m a VAC client myself – well, I’m trying.  I was injured during my basic officer training years ago, I probably broke my foot but didn’t know it because I received rather lacklustre treatment, and no follow-up when I was sent home from the course, this is a common problem Reserve soldiers face that is starting to get addressed.  While I’m not so badly off, I do have a lot of pain from time to time walking, and I need special orthotics to be able to do my job.  My civilian job’s benefits currently pay for them, but I’d rather VAC do it.  I’m not really bothered about getting a lump sum payout (though it would go toward my house fund), I just want to make sure that if it gets worse as I get older, I have something to prove that it was due to service.

It took forever to apply, forever to get my first answer (no), and now I’ve been just to busy to jump through the hoops that the Bureau Of Pension Advocates wants me to endure.  We’ll see how it goes.

So we went to Boston a couple of weeks ago on our first real “vacation” in a long time – in fact, it was sort of our honeymoon for our fifth anniversary, just a long weekend, but it was neat to be there in the run up to the elections and all – we actually came home the day of, listening to the results come in on XM.  It is a little different seeing how things work in the US compared to here – one thing that really struck me was that it was hard to size up opinions from signs not knowing the actual candidates, since it seems that American candidates don’t always put their party on their signage, or in any way use colours etc that ID them.  Not so here, where signs are generally standardized and it’s pretty clear who’s who.

In the end, I guess the results didn’t surprise me.  I was happy to see that most of the crazy teabaggers got smited, though Rand Paul getting into the Senate was just a bit shocking, I have a feeling those Tea Party morons are going to regret sending him there.  Seriously, that guy has some ridiculous ideas and opinions, truly baffling that he was electable.

Losing the House was no shock, the Democratic Party has amazed me with its inability to put its majority to work and just get things done.   Particularly in the face of the idiocy spewed out by the Republicans.  I don’t get how people fall for their bullshit.  I read their “Pledge” which was mostly fluffy empty rhetoric and nonsense aimed at people who don’t really know much about politics.  The tax cuts thing is the most galling.  There is no reason to believe that a tax cut for the most wealthy will do anything to stimulate the US economy, and more ridiculously, the people calling for it keep calling themselves fiscally responsible.  Adding $700 billion to the US deficit is just not fiscally responsible, it smacks of the highest forms of hypocrisy, which seems to be their theme anyhow.  How does the GOP plan to balance the budget?  What will they cut, specifically?  They have no idea, no plan.  When you highlight to them that a staggering cut to the military they understandable go ballistic at the idea.

The silly thing is that the things that are reasonable to discuss are now being rejected by both sides – things like discussions of retirement ages and entitlements.  Given my personal background I have some insight on this, and that’s what I think I’ll focus on here.

One of the things put out as an idea in the United States was reforming Social Security by raising the retirement age.  You’ll likely know that France was recently gripped by protests and strikes over a plan to raise its state retirement age from 60 to 62, a move expected to save the French social security significantly.  To me, 62 seems still very generous, but anyone familiar with France’s generous welfare state will tell you that it’s still a big change.

As one of my colleagues likes to highlight to people when doing retirement planning presentations, the conventional retirement age of 65 was chosen for a reason.  The reason is simple: Life expectancy was (depending on which study of which country you look at) about 59 (or 63, I’ve also heard quoted).  That means that there was a pretty good chance that you’d never actually qualify to retire, you’d work until you died, and social security systems were in place to look after the lucky folk who actually lived longer.

The reality is that when you look at demographic trends and how long people live, it’s not reasonable to have a state pension fund a retirement that is in some cases nearly as long as one’s working life.  Even well managed ones (like the Canada Pension Plan) won’t be stable for long under such a setup.  Even now, more and more people are working longer, or phasing retirement by working less and less, but still working in some capacity.  In the case of many retirees I work with it’s out of boredom as much as anything else, a need to keep doing something.

We need to change the way we think about working and retiring, and about older workers if this is the approach we’re going to take, though.  In Canada the current approach is to stiffen the penalty for drawing one’s pension early.  Currently you can draw CPP at age 60 but you get penalized 0.5% per month for every month early you draw it – that’s going to increase to 0.6%, meaning that you will only get 64% of your entitlement vice 70% if you start at age 60.  They’re also increasing the premium one gets for delaying drawing a pension, which they hope will persuade people still working to wait a couple of years in exchange for a larger annuity.  That could work and should be helpful.  I have to wonder how such changes might impact Social Security in the USA…

This is kind of discussion that has to be had, though, because pensions are a ticking timebomb potentially, as boomers retire, and there simply aren’t as many workers coming in behind them – and well – there’s not as many growing up either… but that’s something for another entry.  The key is, it’s going to take createive ideas and not political dogma to get things going again, and that will take a lot of dialogue that we all need to be involved in.