Thu, Oct 31, 2013
Good news: winter is coming! No wait, that’s terrible news. I’m sorry.
New Brunswick was the latest flashpoint for eco-terrorism this month after a bunch of ungrateful Natives senselessly lobbed molotov cocktails into the smiling face of the Canadian state. At least, this is what a proto-fascist wordsmith named Rex Murphy would have you believe. As it happened: charged with enforcing an illegitimate injunction against anti-fracking protestors blockading the roads to an oil exploration site in the Elsipogtog First Nation, several hundred police officers moved against the hitherto peaceably assembled Mi’kmaq and allies with assault rifles drawn, attack dogs barking, and rubber bullets ready to go. Tensions spiked, chaos ensued, and at least 40 protestors (including Elsipogtog Chief Aaron Sock) were arrested by the time the morning raid was over.
The timing couldn’t have been more perversely sublime. On Tuesday October 15th, James Anaya, the UN’s special rapporteur on indigenous rights, declared that Canada is facing a crisis in how it treats its indigenous peoples. The next day in the Speech from the Throne, Governor General David Johnston praised the spirit of those brave pioneers who “forged an independent country where none would have otherwise existed,” conveniently glossing over the independent aboriginal groups that the European nation-forgers displaced. The following morning, hundreds of police were deployed to forcibly remove Mi’kmaq protestors from land they had never ceded, in order to accelerate a resource extraction project to which they had never agreed. Colonialism is alive and well in Canada: the state’s message was louder than bombs. Everyone wringing their hands about the disrespect those protestors showed to the ‘rule of law’ might want to double-check that some of those laws aren’t themselves built out of—and in support of—the ongoing dispossession of this continent’s original inhabitants. The injustice of it all is enough to make you lose your mind; maybe that’s what happened to Rex.
For that matter, the fallibility of our laws (and certainly of our lawmakers) remains the feature attraction in the three-ring circus better known as the Canadian Senate. Despised Senator Mike Duffy, a man who most of us would now expect to find pictured in the dictionary next to the word ‘corruption’, lobbed an atom bomb into the Prime Minister’s Office when he stood on the floor of the Red Chamber and declared that Stephen Harper was the one who ordered him to take Nigel Wright’s $90,000 lifeline. By Duffy’s account, Harper ordered him to repay the money irrespective of whether or not he’d done anything wrong, but simply because of the perception of illegal spending that had been created by the media. In exchange, Harper promised to keep the Conservative Senators who controlled Duffy’s internal audit in line, and ensure that he wasn’t suspended from the Senate. This end of the bargain was of course scuttled by the PMO as soon as revelations of Wright’s cheque to Duffy went public. Duffy later declared that there was not one cheque from Wright, but a second: $13,560, approved by a Conservative party lawyer, to cover Duffy’s legal fees. If Duffy’s claims are true (and he’s allegedly got the documents to prove it), this puts the Prime Minister of Canada at the very epicentre of the Senate spending scandal. No matter what comes out of all this, they may as well abolish the Senate right now because it’s never going to be this interesting again.
But while we’re on the topic of explosive backroom drama going public, the provincial New Democratic Party did a pretty amazing job of immolating itself in full view of everyone last month. Leader Lorraine Michael returned from a vacation in October only to get blindsided by an email from her four comrades in caucus asking for a leadership convention in the interests of strengthening the party and “attracting quality candidates” ahead of the 2015 election. In response, Michael goes on CBC television the next day and announces that she had no idea any of this was coming, that she feels “betrayed,” and that she’s ready to start a civil war. Coup spokesman Dale Kirby (née Brutus) called VOCM that night to insist that caucus decided to dump this on her through an email rather than face-to-face (or even basic courtesy call) because they felt it would be a more “non-confrontational” approach, which more or less sold the public on the idea that this was a knife to the back.
All hell continued breaking loose. Gerry Rogers lamented that she’d made a terrible mistake, and George Murphy blubbered to the Telegram about being Lorraine’s Judas. Chris Mitchelmore waffled a bit when the story first broke, but came back resolved to oust the leader while Kirby stuck to his guns the whole time. The party tried to get all this under media lockdown to limit the damage, but Murphy decided to set himself on fire by doing his own surprise CBC interview lamenting that he’d inadvertently betrayed Lorraine, that he and Rogers had been pressured into signing the offending letter (which they allegedly did not fully understand), and that they had unsuccessfully tried to stop Kirby from sending it. Kirby was then forced to respond by giving another CBC interview clarifying that no one had to be pressured into signing anything, and that presumably two MHAs whose job requires them to scrutinize government legislation would have been able to understand a simple one page letter and the basic rules of their party’s constitution. Let there be no doubt about the NDP’s leftist cred: this is the sort of schism that would make the Communist Party of Canada and the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) blush with envy.
As evidenced by the fairly rapid and spectacular public backfiring, everyone involved handled this about as poorly as possible. There are legitimate arguments that can (and have) been made that Michael should step aside or otherwise submit to a leadership review in the interests of growing the party. The NDP has been steady in the polls for a while now, to the extent that they are polling behind a leader-less Liberal party. But caucus underestimated Lorraine Michael’s internal support and its own resolve; the weak links in the chain were shattered. The result was an excoriating week that had at least one MHA openly musing about quitting the party and was only resolved after caucus spent two days hunkered down in a secret location with a mediator. While Michael managed to win her battle for the leadership, her party is now almost guaranteed to lose the war. Now that Kirby and Mitchelmore have left caucus to sit as Independents, the implosion of the provincial NDP is all but complete.
But even still, the NDP aren’t the biggest public relations amateurs in town. Jim Bennett, perpetual underdog in the Liberal leadership race, inadvertently (so he claims) invoked the Holocaust last month when he lamented that the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement was the Harper government’s “Final Solution” to the question of the Newfoundland fishery. He later clarified his position such that while he never meant to belittle the industrialized murder of six million Jews in equating it with the elimination of tariffs governing the export of seafood from the province, he insisted that such a change in regulatory regimes would nonetheless constitute the active “cultural genocide” of rural Newfoundland.
Couldn’t have said it better myself, buddy. Good luck in November.
Wed, Oct 2, 2013
Let me be the first to greet the dawn of a phallocratic golden age in the city of St. John’s. I loved the first season of Mad Men and I’m excited to see how the b’ys handle the next downtown parking complexes. As a bonus, a great way for the all-male council to raise new revenue could be to open a Long Dick’s Sausage Emporium franchise inside city hall. Hell, they’re already halfway there.
But it could always be worse. Take the current situation in Quebec. The Parti Québécois government last month unveiled legislation that would establish a ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ aimed at entrenching an aggressive secularism in all the province’s public institutions. Well, sort of. Daycare workers and elementary school teachers would be prohibited from wearing hijabs or turbans in the classroom, for instance, but the enormous crucifix on the wall of the province’s National Assembly wouldn’t be going anywhere. If you think this looks a little one-sided, you’re not alone. This proposal has raised a good many hackles both inside Quebec and out.
In a lot of ways, it’s easy to understand where the Péquistes are coming from. Militant secularism has been a hallmark of French society since the Reign of Terror. This idea took a little longer to cross the Atlantic, but by the time René Levesque came to power in 1976 the Quiet Revolution had effectively jettisoned Catholicism from public life in Quebec. To be Québécois in the 21st century is to be cool about religion, and emphatically egalitarian. And it’s an easy argument to make: separation of church and state is one of the basic requirements of a liberal democracy. We are a multicultural society, and precisely because there are so many different, competing ideas about how the universe works (and how we behave ourselves in it), the state must ensure that we don’t privilege any one perspective in particular. Instead, it has to establish a public space where we can put our differences aside to live and work together. Religion is an intensely private, personal affair—our religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are ethical differences, and these can be dangerously divisive. In public there must be only Québécois: citizens as absolute equals.
This is a beautiful idea in theory. In practice, as it is proposed in Quebec right now, this is not what we would see. An image of the crucified Redeemer hangs in judgement above the seat of public power in Quebec City. A giant cross at the summit of Mont Royal would continue to cast its shadow over one of the most multicultural cities in the western world. The PQ government insists this Christian iconography must remain in place, because they are symbols of Québécois history and culture. And, insofar as ‘Québécois’ stands for the white, ‘pure laine’ French-Canadians who can trace their ancestry back to the fur trappers who first kicked the Mohawk out of Oka, they’re right. Catholicism, even if it’s now just a wistful cultural memory, has played a defining role in French-Canadian identity.
There is nothing wrong with acknowledging and even celebrating this. But many Quebeckers are not pure laine. Many are anglophones, and many more are the allophones that give Canadian cities their cosmopolitan shimmer. Laws preventing religious expression are effectively preventing these minority groups from expressing their identities in public. This is implicitly recognized by the PQ in their very insistence on keeping Catholic relics in place for everyone to see. They understand how important this kind of cultural expression is. They are even prepared to accept that ‘ostentatious’ religious iconography can exist in the public sphere without puncturing its secular pluralism, but only if it’s the white man’s religion, to remind everyone who is ‘really’ Québécois. If you think what I’m saying is harsh, go check on YouTube for videos of just how brutally this sentiment has been communicated to minorities since this Charter was announced. On the streets, this law makes Quebec society more hostile to minority cultures.
And it is here that ‘Quebec Values’ run up against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Canadian Charter is founded on the recognition that religious and cultural symbolism—that is, group identity—doesn’t need to be repressed to create an egalitarian secular space. The only requirement is that no one belief system is privileged above any other. There is nothing wrong with a Sikh carrying a ceremonial knife in solidarity with all God’s children in a space where everyone else is equally free to respectfully express their own metaphysical commitments. This is a formally thinner, yet infinitely richer, secularism. And compared to the Quebec Charter, it’s also a lot more honest.
At any rate, in a case where a provincial value goes up against a Charter-sustained Canadian one, the former will be crushed in a court of law. Stephen Harper has signalled that his government would make this move. But given how well ‘Quebec Values’ are polling in la belle province, such a ruling might be the catalyst sovereigntists need to start lurching us towards a new referendum. La plus ça change, hein?
Kathy Dunderdale, meanwhile, can only dream that her bad ideas might poll half as well as Pauline Marois’. The latest CRA opinion poll confirmed last month that the Tory government has bottomed out in third place, behind both the NDP and whatever it is that passes for the Liberal party these days. Roughly two-thirds of everybody is dissatisfied with the government’s performance, and the premier herself is so deeply disliked that The Telegram literally ran a front page op-ed calling on her to resign. Let there be no doubt: heavy is the head that wears the crown in this province.
And in all seriousness, resignation is not such a bad idea. It’s very unlikely, barring direct divine intervention and/or a Faustian bargain, that Dunderdale’s personal brand is ever going to recover to the point that it’s electorally viable. But there remains an outside chance that this doesn’t carry over to the PC party. By law, if the premier resigns, we need to have an election within the year. If this happened in the immediate future, it would catch the Liberals—their chief rivals, according to the poll—in a compromised position as they recovered from what increasingly appears to be a bitter leadership contest. As the centre-left parties fought it out, the Tories could tap whatever brain trust they might have waiting in the wings, rebrand with a new leader, and conceivably stand a fighting chance of retaining state power in the next election. It’s a real Hail Mary, but I think it’s their best bet.
Of course, this will never happen. The latest PC convention more or less confirms the tropes that the public is reading into the Dunderdale administration—that they’re insulated, decadent, and condescending. They’re not going to make any serious changes, because they don’t think anything’s wrong. If you don’t understand or like Muskrat Falls, or Bill 29, or the last provincial budget, tough—you’re the one with the problem. Why does the government have to justify itself to you? If you don’t weep with affirmation at the sight of Steve Kent’s tweets, then truly the Lord has hardened your heart.
In Quebec, at least, the government has the poll numbers to support a holier-than-thou approach. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the government is taking its mandate largely on blind faith.
Wed, Aug 28, 2013
I know solstices and equinoxes are actually supposed to break up the flow of seasons, but let’s be real: Summer ends when September begins, and this is especially true in any place that fills up with college and university students. Unfortunately for all the newcomers, the St. John’s harbour has been fenced off by Big Port Authority and their puppets on city council, extinguishing freedom in the city forever. Excuse me while I pour out a 40 of gin over this burning Republican flag.
Anyways, it’s been a wild few months. A small town in Quebec exploded, it is now illegal to be gay in Russia, and Pamela Wallin may turn out to be an even bigger sleveen than Mike Duffy. Syria remains a delightful tourist destination. Calgary was briefly underwater, and the survivors were punished for it with a Nickelback concert. The US Army whistleblower formerly known as Bradley Manning (now Chelsea) was sentenced to 35 years in prison for exposing American war crimes, which is approximately infinity more years than any of the exposed perpetrators will actually face in jail time. And, of course, Hydro-Quebec is finally on the litigation offensive over water management rights to the Churchill River, which means local Muskrat Falls cynics might finally get some Pyrrhic vindication if (when?) the province loses in court. If it wasn’t for a killer new Kanye album, this would have been a pretty depressing summer.
But all this is in the past now, so jettison it into the abyss in wait beyond the 30-second margins of the postmodern attention span. Speaking of memory loss, smoking dope is now a major issue in federal politics after Justin Trudeau not only came out in support of ending marijuana prohibition, but admitted to blazing up himself since becoming a sitting MP. Stephen Harper’s press office was quick to point out that his asthma prevented him from ever smoking anything, and the federal NDP disclosed that while Thomas Mulcair is cool enough to have gotten high in the past, he would not be disclosing the last time he smoked nor the identity of his supplier. This is a refreshing look at how the Canadian Left has adopted the sort of media defensiveness that wins elections in this country.
Personally, I’m inclined to greet Trudeau’s admission that he puffed on a joint three years ago with a giant disinterested shrug. Conservative commentators, of course, argue the exact opposite. ‘The law is the Law,’ they say—nevermind that a pan-Canadian group of police chiefs just decided at a conference that slapping people with possession charges for less than 30 grams of weed is a waste of time and money, that a majority of Canadians favour legalization, and that most policy studies demonstrate prohibition is a failure. Getting mildly stoned at a barbecue makes him a terrible role model for children, and it’s blatant disrespect to the Parliamentary legacy established by John A. Macdonald, noted sobriety enthusiast. Spending this much time courting the ever reliable stoner electorate might be a losing gamble on the Liberals’ part, but I doubt sparking up that fated spliff is what sends Trudeau up in smoke.
Of course, the grass is always greener on our side of the harbour fence. Hydro-Quebec’s lawsuit against Nalcor notwithstanding, it’s been a pretty quiet season on the home front, and no news almost always means good news for the ruling Tories. NDP MHA Dale Kirby was fortunate enough to wring a fulfilled Access-to-Information request out of the government containing all the correspondence from the public to the Premier’s office about Bill 29. It’s posted online, and worth a read. Not surprisingly, no one seemed to be very happy about scaling back Freedom of Information. But more interesting—to me, at least—is the way the emails shine a light on the ways people address ‘the government’ as embodied by the Premier. Some people treat talking to the government like debate club. Some, like a prayer of supplication. Yet others like the guy in the McDonald’s lineup having an emotional meltdown because he wanted his cheeseburger without onions. There’s no wrong way to non-violently express your discontent with a bad political decision, but the spectrum of attitudes people take is illuminating. This is an idea worth running with in a term paper. Steal away, students.
As for the Party of Smallwood, its five leadership candidates are up to their entrails in campaigning. You want to talk about attitudes: a good chunk of the August 22 debate in Gander was a shouting match. Other than agreeing that “Boo Dunderdale!” and “Vote Liberal!” there where some awfully sharp disagreements. Dwight Ball openly questioned whether or not Cathy Bennett is a ‘real’ Liberal, which, given the party’s performance over the last decade, might actually be one of Bennett’s strong points. It’s also unclear whether any of the candidates attacking her for supporting Muskrat Falls would actually put the kibosh on the project after even more money is sunk in by 2015. This timeline didn’t phase Danny Dumaresque—he was pretty emphatic about scrapping the “sinkhole called Muskrat Falls” and using the money to fund, among other things, an underwater tunnel to Labrador. Say what you will, but it was Einstein who said that imagination is more important than knowledge.
Last but not least, it’s municipal election season across the province, and the contest in St. John’s is shaping up to be pretty good. Municipal politics are simultaneously the craziest and the most effective place for making your voice heard (these two things are probably related). This feels like a crucial election insofar as it will determine whether the city gets a little greener, or whether most of downtown turns into a parking complex and the outskirts sprawl down into Conception Bay. If there was ever a place where your involvement and your vote actually mattered, it’s a municipal election. That said, the current crop of candidates seems unlikely to get involved in a crack smoking scandal. This is the only issue I really care about, so I’ll stop here.
Fri, Jul 5, 2013
Imagine tuning in to the evening news, and hearing this secret and terrible truth: Newfoundland is under unlawful foreign occupation. Britain upended our democracy and sold us into permanent colonial servitude. Swindled by a demented pig farmer in owl-eye glasses, the Grand Banks lie destitute and French Canada, like a vampire, sucks Labrador dry. Confederation was an inside job.
If only. That’d be quite the scandal. It makes a riveting tale of political intrigue, which might explain why this conspiracy theory has the staying power it does. Six decades on, and Confederation is still an open wound for a lot of people who were never even there. Local journalists, artists, authors, intellectuals, assorted cranks and a Member of Parliament from Mount Pearl have all made (or unmade) careers out of their dogged persistence to the Republic of Newfoundland—and that’s just the card-carrying Cashinites. Who knows how many fellow travellers are out there, nodding along in silent solidarity with the struggle? It’s enough to make the mind boggle.
Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. Nothing warms my icy heart quite like getting really mad about Anglo-Canadian colonialism. But there are a few things profoundly wrong with the idea that Newfoundland was smuggled into Canada through cloak and dagger, and since this idea has most recently been revived by works like Greg Malone’s new book (Don’t Tell The Newfoundlanders), it’s probably worth taking a look at what those are.
For starters, when you take the normal absurdity of Newfoundland politics and plant it way out into the fringe, you yield some pretty strange fruit. Joe Smallwood, we learn, used a pig farm in Gander as an elaborate front for British espionage at the exact same time he was Lester B. Pearson’s Manchurian candidate (we theorize the orders were transmitted via psychic bowtie beacons). There are whispers of English aristocrats in pith helmets conspiring with Montreal bankers to let Korean car manufacturers strip mine Labrador. It’s unclear whether the buck stops with the Queen, International Freemasonry, or a Satanic prophecy revealed to Mackenzie King during a séance, but the Truther rabbit hole runs pretty deep.
Of course, this is me being a little glib. The most ‘mainstream’ conspiracy theory focuses on how the referendum vote was a sham. Urban legends abound about shadowy colonial agents fudging vote counts and burning crates of ballots in the Grace Hospital incinerator. A MUN professor encounters a nameless old man in London who makes a deathbed confession to rigging the vote before vanishing forever into the fog of history. Somewhere, lying in the ruined root cellar of some resettled outport, there is a cheque from the British treasury, never cashed out of mortal shame.
Despite what some people might insist, none of this is true, as a cursory visit (literal or figurative) with a Newfoundland historian will tell you. But I can understand why the idea of a grand, flawless web of manipulation appeals to anti-Confederates, because otherwise they’re left holding the distasteful conclusion that Confederation happened because a bunch of bayfolk were duped into it by their supposedly inherent love of welfare. This idea is rarely so crassly expressed (unless the speaker bleeds blue), but for all the handwringing about the ‘disrespect’ Newfoundland’s democracy suffered in 1948, no one seems to have much respect for the exercise of democracy by rural people.
Malone tells us on page 84 of Don’t Tell The Newfoundlanders, for instance, that making it a legal requirement for elected officials to actually live in the districts they represented was part of a sinister British plot to ensure that Water Street merchants “would not dominate any elected body or control political events in Newfoundland.” Forcing rural places to elect rural representatives was a mistake, because it meant “[depriving] the [National] Convention of many qualified candidates” — no doubt the same ‘qualified candidates’ who bankrupted the country in 1933. ‘Local control’ is a pretty loud political cry when St. John’s wants something from Ottawa, but apparently falls on deaf ears when the poor ask something of the rich.
None of this is to imply that the exercise of democracy in 1940s Newfoundland wasn’t pretty wild and wooly otherwise. Smallwood was definitely running around being a giant sleveen with British support, and a big part of why the Confederates won is because they were peddling the Canadian welfare state in one of the most destitute parts of North America. Put it in context: living in rural Newfoundland, back in the day, was not so much a time. Have you ever read Random Passage?
Time and distance may put a wistfulness on it but there is nothing romantic about that existence. No one who got a taste of a decent life on an American army base wanted to go back to the way things were. You don’t need your grade ten to understand that basic material well being is infinitely more valuable than whatever fuzzy feeling Ryan Cleary gets when he throws on an old sou’wester.
But worse than being lazy history, conspiracy theories are a depressive politics. If we buy the line that the Newfoundland nation was forsaken by Anglo-Canadian manipulation or ‘ignorant and avaricious’ outporters, we are buying a story where Newfoundlanders are the eternal victim. Pathologically fixated on an imagined past, we are cut adrift in a very real future and can never move forward. It’s an emotionally exhausting worldview. That these ideas are a political dead end is obvious in the fact that no ‘sovereigntist’ movement has ever enjoyed even marginal success in the six decades since our ‘annexation’.
Everybody knows that the only thing worse than Confederation is limiting the world to a lonely island in the North Atlantic.
Canada isn’t perfect. In fact, the country is ripe with problems at any given moment. Take your pick: our democratic institutions are rusting out, aboriginal peoples are still getting the rawest deal, and Stephen Harper is seven years into his quest to slay the environment. And yes, some mainlanders still tell Newfie jokes, because there are ugly people everywhere. But we’ve been part of the Canadian family for sixty-four years, and our other dysfunctional siblings need us now as much as we ever needed them. In 2013, the problems are too big and the stakes are too high to fantasize about crawling away into a nationalist cocoon.
Greg Malone and his comrades are right about many things. Democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador is not, and certainly never has been, as robust as it should be. British colonialism does have a long and dirty history. Modern Canadian life is crisscrossed by exploitation. And, yes, Newfoundland and Labrador’s distinct society and history deserves more recognition than it currently enjoys from the Canadian establishment. But rehashing the same tired, discredited arguments about how our forebears were a bunch of suckers is not the way to deal with this. We can write a better—and more empirically accurate—political drama by casting Confederation as an imperfect but genuine popular victory. Among other things, it’s a lot more empowering.
But mostly? We just need to move on.
Follow Drew on Twitter @drewfoundland
Thu, May 30, 2013
Can you feel it? Spring is in the air. The signs are obvious: flowers are blooming, trees are budding, and you can walk around most days without a parka. It’s a great time to be alive, unless you’re one of the countless people who slipped into terminal depression watching the Leafs choke on a 4-1 lead in the playoffs this month. And my therapist said we were making such great progress, too.
But the harshest buzzkill of all in Toronto no doubt happened to the city’s beloved mayor Rob Ford, when it was revealed this month that he was apparently caught on video smoking a big delicious bowl of crack. The video in question is being held for ransom by a Somali drug dealer claiming to supply drugs to the city’s elite, and its contents were separately reported by an internet journalist and two reporters with the Toronto Star. Since the allegations broke, gossip website Gawker launched a Kickstarter to raise the $200,000 demanded by the video’s owners, and Rob Ford took a whole week before publicly addressing (and denying) the allegations that he is a literal crackhead. Before he spoke publicly, he also fired his Chief of Staff for supposedly having the gall to tell him to “get help,” which is a super effective way to convince everybody that Rob Ford probably smokes crack.
There is a good chance now that we’ll never know the truth, because the dude in possession of the video has, at press time, seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth. This means that either someone in Ford’s camp bought the video before Gawker could (which would explain the timing of Ford’s public denial) or, much more darkly, that going to the media claiming to be part of a shady drug ring servicing the most powerful people in Toronto is really hazardous to your health. But whether the allegations are even true is ultimately secondary at this point. He did such a terrible job on damage control that the whole situation means he’s probably not qualified to be the mayor of Canada’s largest city. And you can put that fact in your pipe and smoke it.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Senate remains as cracked out as ever. Mike Duffy, hard-nosed journalist turned brown-nosed leech, is still the epicentre of a Senatorial corruption scandal that now appears to go all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office. It was recently revealed that Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s Chief of Staff, cut a personal cheque to Duffy to the tune of $90,172—conveniently, the exact sum of money Duffy owed in improper expense claims after being audited earlier this year. Wright resigned early the Sunday morning after the story broke, and the Prime Minister told us he was very upset about all this nasty business before immediately skipping town to go to Peru.
It also appears likely that Duffy’s initial audit was whitewashed by the Senate committee investigating him after a gentle prodding by the PMO, raising the inevitable question about how much Harper, control-freak extraordinaire, knew about all these shady goings-on (I would wager it was at least a little bit). This is an especially big problem for Harper, who once upon a time campaigned (and won) on a platform of ethical reform in the wake of the Liberal Sponsorship Scandal—and if there is one kind of corruption the Canadian electorate won’t tolerate, it’s the hypocritical kind. If Yvonne Jones’ victory in Labrador over Peter Penashue this month was any indication, reckoning day for the Harper Conservatives might just be on the way.
It’s been a little more quiet on the provincial front this month as the House of Assembly wrapped up its spring session. This means its almost time for the magic of barbecue season, when politicians can take a breather and start test driving a few new ideas with both party faithful and undecided voters alike. So, you know, Chris Mitchelmore gets to spend a few more months selling us on the benefits of powering every hospital in the province with wood pellet stoves (“throw another log on the MRI b’ys, she’s nippy out tonight!”), and the Tories can try to crowdsource a smear campaign that the public actually finds convincing. The Liberal leadership race is also going to be gearing up this summer, and it might just turn out to be a wild ride. Interim leader Dwight Ball is hoping to make his position permanent, and Rural Avenger Danny Dumaresque has started commissioning phone polls around the province to find out just how excited people get at the prospect of Premier Dumaresque. Jim Bennett is also rumoured to be taking a stab at the job in a bid that will no doubt strike fear into the hearts of Ayatollahs everywhere. Let democracy bloom again in Newfoundland or whatever!
Judging by his pre-leadership poll, Ball and Bennett are the two alternatives Dumaresque assumes he’ll be facing down in his quest to resurrect the Liberal brand, which if unchanged creates a hilarious situation where the party is looking to be revitalized by three men who have been kicking around the party for a few years (or decades) with variously spotty electoral records. This is not exactly inspiring for a party desperate for new blood and struggling to get out of last place in public opinion. Then again, it’s probably a little difficult for the local Liberals to attract a young up-and-comer of their own given the party’s internal disarray and chronic, staggering debt. But hey! These are the exact sort of problems you spend the summer hashing out over brews and burgers in the backyard—though in the Liberals’ case, they might need to start charging people for the privilege if they’re going to be contenders in 2015. Word on the street is that fundraising helps in winning elections.
Anyways, between mainland scandals and a local leadership race, it’s shaping up to be a long, hot summer, especially if Aboriginal groups make good on their promise to follow up Idle No More with the ‘Summer of Sovereignty’. From a tactical perspective, it’s a good time to do it considering a report just found this country is particularly vulnerable to indigenous insurrection. Whether this is a promise or a threat I’ll leave up to you, but one thing is for sure—there’s nothing like a little civil unrest to put you in the mood for some deck drinking. Cheers to us!
Thu, May 2, 2013
Budgets are a tough game. I mean, sure, when times are high and you’re rolling in petrodollars, it’s easy to slap together a real crowd-pleaser. You can just make it rain: everyone gets tax breaks and you can just invent a bunch of civil service jobs. But when the oil price party’s over and you’re stuck with cleaning things up, it’s a lot less less fun, and this is the lesson we’ve been learning this month after the Dunderdale government dropped a budget that just about everyone loves to hate.
Coming down off the Williams-era high, this one is a whopper. Jobs (and salaries) took a direct hit — there were 935 layoffs (485 from the core bureaucracy, 450 from non-core services like health and school boards, College of the North Atlantic, etc.), and 250 vacant positions were eliminated. To help in the cash grab, service fees are going up and smokes are getting more expensive (which is totally salt in the wounds of anyone who just lost their job). They’re also condensing Cabinet by merging Aboriginal Affairs into Labrador Affairs and giving the Premier extra duty as the Minister Responsible for Intergovernmental Affairs, which is a great idea because we definitely need to centralize more power in the Premier’s Office. Budget 2013 is also the opening salvo of a 10-year debt reduction plan. This year they came for civil servants; next year they’re coming for Memorial University, CNA (again), the regional Health Boards, and a financial nightmare known as Unfunded Pension Liabilities. Hold on to your butts b’ys, it’s gonna be a fun decade.
Out of everything impacted by the cutbacks, Justice and Education seem to have been the most contentious. The backlash to the proposed Justice cuts was so bad, in fact, that not only were union leaders ragging on the government about them but also the Canadian Bar Association and even the province’s own Crown attorneys were stressing that cutting a department already running a bare-bones operation would effectively cripple the entire criminal justice system. The proposed reduction of crown prosecutors, sheriff’s officers, probation officers and legal aid would lead to more wrongful convictions, more dropped cases, you name it — exactly the sort of things you don’t want happening in a province where drug and violent crime is surging. To Justice Minister Darin King’s credit, he took t he outcry seriously and is working to rescind some of the proposed cutbacks, although that then begs the question of how much thought, research, or consultation actually went into this budget in the first place.
The blowback against the Education cuts has been a little less successful (so far). In particular, the overhaul of CNA — privatizing Adult Basic Education, slashing 27 programs across the province, and other funding cuts and layoffs — have been especially unpopular with students and faculty, resulting in protests springing up across the province in the wake of the budget announcement. The upset isn’t especially surprising considering that in just over a year, the Premier went from telling the Canadian Federation of Students at their National Day of Action that “education is a right, not a privilege” to slashing community college programs that provided access to that right for the most vulnerable students in the province. Teachers and school administrators have also stressed that the government’s plan to consolidate all the regional English school boards into a single bureaucratic megalith will adversely impact rural students in particular and the quality of schooling generally as teaching staff and service provisions are scaled back. Thankfully the government has also increased the amount of money allotted for the resettlement of rural communities, so any serious decline in the quality of rural life should be able to sort itself out.
However you personally feel about the budget, we can all agree that these are all fairly important issues we need to be having a serious collective conversation about. This goes doubly for our esteemed elected officials in the House of Assembly, who actually hold all the power over what the government actually does. Instead, any serious political discussion about all of the budgetary fallout I just described was shelved for a solid week so that our politicians could argue about Facebook and Twitter on the public dime in what is easily the most embarrassing story to come out of the House in a long time. This is actually pretty impressive considering we just spent two years having a collective public meltdown about Muskrat Falls.
What follows is a cautionary fable about the importance of thinking things through. When a social media monitor in Confederation Building noticed that some mouthbreathing internet troll decided to make a death threat against the Premier in a Facebook group called ‘Kathy Dunderdale Must GO!!!’, they rightfully brought it forward to their superiors as something potentially serious. Somewhere else along the line, someone noticed that NDP MHA Gerry Rogers was also a member of this group. Handled sensibly, the issue of online death threats might have been raised in the legislature in a way that underscored their seriousness without resorting to hyperbole, garnered some human sympathy for an unpopular Premier, seen Rogers tastefully admonished for ill-considered online consorts, and given us a timely and civil reflection by MHAs and partisans of all stripes about how they’re mucking around online.
But naturally, since this is the House of Assembly we’re talking about, it was handled in the poorest way imaginable. Darin King suggests in the House that because Rogers is a member of this group, she automatically endorses every single line of commentary that appears therein, from overwrought Grumpy Cat memes to death threats scrawled by barely literate urchins. He also declared Rogers’ clear support of internet regicide was comparable to the Boston Marathon bombings that happened literally the day before. The question of whether or not Rogers endorses murdering the Premier went to Speaker Ross Wiseman, who in his infinite wisdom ruled that even though it could not be determined she actually did anything wrong, she had to apologize anyway or be found in contempt of the House. Rogers refused, and was promptly evicted from the legislature for refusing to apologize for something she didn’t do. Wiseman’s ruling was in all honesty baffling, and indicated he either didn’t understand Facebook or didn’t understand his job. While he did retract his ruling a week later, you know what they say about first impressions. This is, after all, the same guy who, as Health Minister, failed to read his own briefing notes in the middle of a cancer testing crisis.
Whichever genius in the communications office thought it was a good idea to use death threats against the Premier as a way to smear another MHA (who very obviously had nothing to do with them) clearly did not actually bother thinking it through all the way. In response to this flagrant abuse of common sense and decency, some intrepid CBC journalists applied this same tenuous ‘guilt by association’ rationale to the Tories and managed to hoist just about every last one of them by their own petards. According to their party’s very own lopsided logic, Charlene Johnson is a bloodsport enthusiast, Sandy Collins is hawking shady payday loans, Ray Hunter is circulating online petitions against his own government, and Paul Lane is a card-carrying Liberal. As the pièce de résistance, they even discovered that the Premier herself was following porn bots on Twitter. But instead of taking the hint from this exposé that their latest approach to social media was an absolute farce, Dunderdale doubled down by deleting her Twitter account wholesale and stressing in a press release that Gerry Rogers remains a cyberbully. Not that it’s only the Tories with dirt on their hands — a good few yahoos and partisans on Twitter took the opportunity to write erotic fanfiction about the Premier in the hashtag ‘Dunderporn’, effectively ensuring that we will never have nice things.
The moral of this story? Stop and think about what you’re doing. Instead of addressing the very serious issue of death threats in a sensible manner, the Tories proved themselves woefully out of touch on not only how social media actually works, but on what it means to have a serious conversation about violence and bullying in our communities, both on and offline. They wasted a solid week trying to smear an opposition MHA with baseless accusations instead of debating the very real consequences of the budget. Anyone who has ever expressed distaste for the utter foolishness and futility of what passes for politics in Newfoundland and Labrador need only reference The Great Facebook Feud of 2013 to be totally justified in their despondency. It is an embarassment, and it made national headlines. If the government really is spending upwards of $50,000 on social media management, their biggest mistake in the budget was not cutting that loose first.
Wed, Mar 27, 2013
March is the grossest month. The snow is either half-melted into nasty brown sludge or the snow keeps coming and winter threatens to indefinitely renew your subscription to Seasonal Affective Disorder. There is a really good reason why they put St. Binge Drinking’s Day in the middle of this horrible month. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
But while we’re on the topic of nasty brown sludge and bitterness, let’s get into it about the Keystone XL pipeline, yes? Keystone XL names a proposed extension to an already-existing pipeline from northern Alberta running south into the States that would allow for even more heavy crude to be pumped out of the oil sands (or ‘tar sands’, as everyone used to call them a few years ago before a massive PR makeover) down to the Gulf Coast for processing and export. It’s been in the works since roughly 2010, but the pressure is mounting on the Obama administration to soon give a Yay or Nay on whether or not to see the thing built. Proponents fear that without some sort of pipeline expansion, oil sands production will sputter and stagnate and, along with them, the Canadian (read: Albertan) economy itself. Those opposed to the developments highlight the fact that the last thing the planet probably needs right now is an expansion of tar sands production and the incredible amount of pollution that would come with it. Obama giving Keystone the thumbs-down would signal that the US is serious about tackling climate change, and that maybe your grandchildren aren’t doomed to inherit a totally broken planet after all.
So the stakes for either side are pretty high. So high, in fact, that Canadian politicians have spent the last couple months putting serious pressure on Washington to do the right thing. Alberta Premier Alison Redford has been the most vocal in her enthusiasm for the project, and the Harper Government™ has also signalled that they believe whatever is good for Chinese oil conglomerates is good for the country. Redford made a few trips to the US Capitol do some personal lobbying, and her government recently took out a full page ad in the New York Times to declare that approving Keystone XL is the “Choice of Reason” (which is a really polite way of calling your opponents stupid). Not to be outdone, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair made a US trip of his own this month to allegedly talk some smack about the Keystone project (although he seems less motivated by environmentalism than by the idea that oil and jobs might leave Canada). In a very reasonable and well-measured response, Ms. Redford accused him of “treason”, while the federal government and much of the national media were quick to label him a saboteur of all that is good and decent. We won’t know for sure if Mulcair’s loose lips really did sink the Keystone ship until Obama makes his call, but if nothing else it at least kept his name in the headlines as Justin Trudeau virtually locked down the Liberals’ virtual leadership race.
Speaking of sinking ships, this is a great segue for riffing on the latest adventures of Peter Penashue, “the best MP Labrador has ever had” (according to Stephen Harper). I’ll be honest, I had totally forgotten Penashue even existed until he recently resigned over some tens of thousands of dollars of illegal campaign contributions to his 2011 election—a credit to the muzzling skills of the PMO, I guess. I’ll commend him for running for re-election, though, as it takes an awful lot of gumption to run on a platform of brown-nosing when your record is deafening silence and either incompetence or corruption (pick one). Penashue is the perfect poster boy for the CPC’s ‘what are ethics, even’ school of politics, which would probably explain why Harper is backing him so enthusiastically.
The most interesting part of the race in Labrador won’t be whether or not Penashue gets re-elected (he probably won’t unless the NDP and Liberals split the vote), but that former provincial Liberal leader Yvonne Jones has vacated her seat to challenge him. This is interesting precisely because now we get a provincial by-election that will end up deciding the fate of the province’s opposition. A single Liberal seat separates the NDP from Official Opposition status, and if you trust the polls that Paul Lane can’t stack, it seems orange is a very fashionable colour these days — at least relative to the alternatives. The provincial Liberals have yet to get their act together, and the provincial government right now is about as endearing as your St. Paddy’s hangover.
And what a headache it is: the same Tory PR wizards who would have you give them all the credit for billions of dollars of oil surpluses are now swearing they have absolutely no hand in the fact that we’re going to run up a roughly $4 billion deficit in the next couple years. No wait, sorry, that number’s out of date: when they dropped the budget on March 26th, they had somehow managed to find an extra billion dollars to make up for the anticipated shortfall. Hooray?
An optimist might read this ever-changing numbers game coming from government as the natural outcome of working with a volatile commodity like oil. A cynic might read this as shrewdly low-balling revenues in order to soften the blow of what is otherwise an austerity budget. A pessimist might go so far as to figure this is government gaslighting labour unions with scary numbers ahead of contract negotiations. However you read it, a couple things aren’t up to interpretation: 1200 jobs are were cut from the public service in one fell swoop (which will no doubt ripple outwards), and the province has consolidated every school board in the province into a French one administering about 300 students and an English one administering literally everyone else. Because nothing says ‘efficiency’ like an overloaded bureaucratic monster centred in St. John’s. Hey, it worked for Eastern Health, right?
To cap off this March madness, I’m pouring out my proverbial 40 oz. to mark the passing of national treasure Stompin’ Tom Connors, who is no doubt at this very moment stomping the heck out of some clouds and/or angels. Oh, and happy 64th birthday, Confederation. Will Canada still need us, and will they still feed us, now that we’re 64? More like we feed them, am I right folks? Haha, just a little April Fools joke for you guys there… much like this joke of a federation! Wakka wakka. Okay, I’m done.
Fri, Mar 1, 2013
The spring of hope may be just around the corner, but February is still crotch-deep in the winter of despair. But if the never-ending parade of winter storms is leaving you out in the cold, don’t worry: there’s enough hot air being blown around in the news this month to make St. John’s feel downright tropical.
So, anyways, the Ottawa senators are a giant mess this year, and that’s not a hockey jab. For those of you unfamiliar with the subtle machinations of the archaic mess we call a federal government, the Senate is an unelected body of patronage appointments meant to provide “sober second thought” to legislation coming out of the House of Commons (which was presumably really important back when Canada’s first few governments were run by raging drunks). While creating a class of pseudo-aristocrats to put a check on democracy fit right in with the Victorian era, this argument feels a little less compelling now that we’re into the second decade of the 21st Century. What little dignity the Red Chamber has as a grand historic institution is also being squandered by recent embarrassing behaviour from many senators themselves. A cadre of senators led by former CTV pundit Mike Duffy have been busted for claiming tens of thousands of dollars a year in living expenses for a ‘second home’ in Ottawa despite already living in the national capital for decades. To make matters worse, another one of those double-dippers—young Patrick Brazeau—was recently arrested on charges of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Both the NDP and the Conservatives have expressed interest in tackling the Senate problem for years, and the recent surge of scandal has started tipping popular opinion away from fixing it and towards just scrapping it altogether. Abolition is certainly tempting. The idea of keeping the patronage status quo is nothing short of depressing (despite what Justin Trudeau might tell you), but the cure isn’t immediately much less painful. Reform would likely trigger a Constitutional crisis (the best kind of crisis!) where we’re forced to get all the provinces to agree over serious arguments like seat proportions, and good luck getting Ontario, Quebec, the West and the Atlantic to agree on who gets more power in the Senate. There is also the nightmare scenario that two different political parties might separately control the Commons and the Senate at the same time and that nothing would ever get done (although some wonks find that kinky). Getting rid of the Senate entirely would certainly be easier, but then we have other problems: like, say, the Prime Minister in a majority government having even fewer checks on their already almost limitless power. Even if everyone starts electing senators like they do in Alberta, who is ultimately appointed is still the Prime Minister’s decision: and let’s be honest, can you imagine anyone appointing a Bloc Senator?
Back home on the Island, of course, our democratically elected officials are giving us grief with a distinctly 21st century problem: it turns out the provincial government has a high-school calibre inferiority complex. Public luminary Paul Lane was caught with his proverbial pants down after a series of leaked Blackberry messages revealed that, despite his earlier claims to the contrary on VOCM, he took a leading role in pressuring Tory MHAs and staffers to actively cook online opinion polls to make the government seem more popular. Partisans are not only instructed how to vote in each poll, but are also issued with instructions on how to game the websites and vote multiple times to ensure that the party line wins by a landslide. For about a week after this broke, Lane was uncharacteristically silent and refused comment, so Kathy Dunderdale came to his rescue by shrugging it off and equated this with phone-bombing votes for Rex Goudie on Canadian Idol. In fact, this whole thing is really a non-story and we should all just move on to caring about more pressing things, like a looming multi-billion dollar budget deficit, a public sector hiring freeze, rumours of layoffs, and impending labour agitation. There are a bunch of serious things to get mad at the government about, so we shouldn’t make mountains out of molehills.
Fair enough. But if these polls really are irrelevant, it does raise the question as to why government members are so emotionally invested in manipulating the results. Tory stalwarts are spending an awful lot of time and effort jigging polls whose results they allegedly ignore, which suggests more or less the opposite of what the Premier claims—that it’s a weirdly big deal. Other recently-released media documents reveal a communications office dedicated to meticulously recording political criticism on Twitter, suggesting a government that is seriously distressed about its own public image. You can’t publicly shrug off criticism and then anxiously order your underlings to hit ‘refresh’ a hundred times on VOCM’s Question of the Day without generating the kind of cognitive dissonance that hints at unresolved self-image issues—especially considering that these are non-scientific polls designed largely for entertainment purposes. This might not be the corruption fiasco that Con O’Brien & The Known Critics have been hoping to turn into a platinum hit, but it does underscore just how much the Tories are concerned more with style above substance.
Speaking of substance, I’d like to end with a shout-out for Brad Cabana’s Constitutional Challenge against Muskrat Falls as it finally gets underway at the courthouse in St. John’s. It’s super important to never give up on what you believe in, no matter how many people rudely insist it has questionable legal grounding or that it is a waste of the court’s time and resources. Dare to dream the impossible dream. The only peace is in the struggle, brother: rock on.
Wed, Dec 5, 2012
Ho ho holy hell you guys, 2012 is almost finished. If the Mayans are right, that means it’s less than a month until the world is plunged into cataclysmic darkness or the sun explodes or whatever is supposed to happen when their calendar runs down. I’m personally a little skeptical anything will come of this, but if you’ve been following politics in this country over the last 12 months you might think blowing it all up is not such a bad idea.
The big story coming out of Ottawa in 2012 has been ROBOGATE, which is unfortunately way less exciting than a robot apocalypse, and roughly as bad if you care at all about fair elections. Last February the Ottawa Citizen broke the story that during the 2011 federal election campaign, a mysterious figure named “Pierre Poutine” (living on “Separatist Street” in Quebec, naturally) sent out a series of automated calls impersonating Elections Canada or local Liberal candidates trying to misdirect voters away from polling stations.
At least 7600 fraudulent calls were made in Guelph alone, and Elections Canada has reported complaints of similar calls in up to 100 other ridings. The big kicker is that all the calls were sent to people who had been identified by the Conservative Party of Canada as non-Conservative voters, meaning there’s a pretty good chance that ‘Pierre Poutine’ was a party staffer who had access to the CPC’s voter-ID registry and was using that information to suppress non-CPC votes in especially tight races. So far neither Elections Canada nor the RCMP have been able to track down the offender, and the Harper Government’s official response to the scandal has been to deny all involvement and let MP Dean Del Mastro bloviate endlessly that Elections Canada is a left-wing conspiracy. At least they didn’t arbitrarily prorogue parliament this year when questioned about it! Yeah, it’s important to keep the bar high.
Speaking of blowhards afraid of left-wing conspiracies, bumbling Toronto mayor Rob Ford was turfed out of office at the end of November for failing to read his own job description.
Federal and provincial political parties across the country have also had their share of leadership musical chairs over the past year. Thomas Mulcair ascended to the throne of St. Layton last Spring and graciously kept his beard, giving the federal scene much needed 19th-century flare. When Justin Trudeau is inevitably crowned Liberal leader, I hope he grows another 17th-century Van Dyke and rolls the men’s facial fashion clock back even further. The top Liberal job is also open in Quebec, where they recently lost to the PQ (where it turns out people take the rule of law really seriously!), as well as in Ontario, where the premier just decided to bounce and shut down the government. No word yet though about the Alberta Liberals, who are decidedly background noise in that province’s conservative civil war. Did Albertans actually show a more progressive side in re-electing a party that’s been in power since 1971, or was it a more conservative move than voting for the Wildrose Party? Another holiday brainteaser is how we got to the point of ‘Communist’ China buying up the tar sands. How is this sentence even logically possible?
Logic, of course, is a foreign entity to anyone familiar with the drama of the Newfoundland state this year. When the House of Assembly finally re-opened in March, the Dunderdale Tories wasted no time in reminding us just how dysfunctional it actually was (both institutionally and physically—the renovations on Confederation building have gone over budget). MHAs on all sides of the House brought being insufferable jerks to new heights and “local politicians saying dumb stuff on Twitter” became a legitimate category of news (I’m not complaining, it keeps beer in my fridge). If you’ve ever wanted to see folk singers scream incoherently at journalists or enjoy the rap stylings of Sandy Collins, #nlpoli might be the hashtag for you.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are no doubt feeling like the words ‘Muskrat Falls’ should constitute a cuss. When the Public Utilities Board, charged with reviewing the project, announced earlier this year that they didn’t have enough information to fully assess and endorse it, the government dismissed them and instead declared this lack of arms-length oversight would be made up for by a special debate on the project in the Assembly’s fall sitting. Hooray, right? In the interim, the government triggered a week-long filibuster when it introduced some of the worst Access to Information legislation in the country and Lorraine Michael accused the Justice Minister of secret racism and the whole thing was just a gongshow. Word is it made Tory stalwart Tom Osborne go Independent too, though a less charitable reading says he’s huffy about being turned down a cabinet position. Meanwhile, the provincial Liberals continued a slow-motion implosion all year that culminated in self-styled saviour Dean Macdonald washing his hands of the whole party less than a couple weeks after concluding the cross-province Renewal Tour he championed. Can you feel the excitement? Oh, and just a heads up: when the leadership happens, I’m endorsing Danny Dumaresque.
It gets better. When the House reopened in the fall, the promised special debate on Muskrat Falls was almost immediately shelved when the Tories categorically refused opposition demands to bring expert witnesses into the legislature like you would see done in any other jurisdiction in Canada. This has been roundly denounced by at least two local Political Science professors, but it’s not like expert opinion carries any weight in this province if it’s not bankrolled by Nalcor. The project’s sanction will also take place via private member’s bill, letting Dunderdale avoid another filibuster and approve a $7.5 billion megaproject in less time than it takes Keith Russell to get kicked out of a children’s hockey game. A little rushed, sure, but shag it—they’ve already spent a couple million building the dam thing before its formal approval, so they may as well just give’r now. Democracy, as usual, is an impediment to progress. Develop or perish!
And that’s a snapshot of 2012. I’m not even going to touch the rest of the world, because, jeez, between Syria and Gaza I’m drove to drink and between the prospect of the Eurozone eating itself and the Americans rolling over a ‘fiscal cliff’ on New Year’s Day, 2013, I’m starting to think the best place for my money is buried out back under the shed. But, maybe I’m being a bit too gloomy. No reason to think this won’t be our year. The cod might finally come back, or perhaps even more miraculously, the NHL.
Like they say, 13 is a lucky number.
So cheers b’ys. To another great year of nonsense.
Wed, Oct 31, 2012
I spent all month agonizing over what to be for Halloween, but I finally figured it out: I’m going to tape a megaphone to my butt and go door-to-door as “the Muskrat Falls debate.” Subtle, right? I wanted to go as the Spectre of Communism but my ghoulfriend said it would be too boooo-ring.
Ha ha, I’m here every month, folks!
I can’t think of a better time to go vegetarian than this past October. People all over North America spent the last two months anxiously refreshing the XL Foods website as exponentially more E. coli-tainted meat from the Alberta processing plant was recalled every day. Fortunately for Canadian carnivores, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz—who you may remember as the guy presiding the last time Canadians got sick from poison meat—was on hand to keep the public safe by letting the plant stay open for a while after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was informed there was a bacteria problem at the plant. While this might seem like a good opportunity to reflect on whether or not a system of factory farming that sees 35 per cent of all beef in the country processed at a single, self-policing mega-plant is a good idea, the CFIA has given XL Foods the green light to reopen so thankfully there’s no need to think about the meat we eat or where it comes from. Whew! Anyone else in the mood for a celebratory hamburger?
Sour steaks aside, the federal government has had a lot of other stuff on its plate this month. So far, Conservative MPs have been really busy living up to Stephen Harper’s promise not to re-open the abortion debate by giving monarchy-themed medals of honour to a couple of anti-abortion activists currently serving jail time. I hear the Queen is positively Jubilant about it, but she’s not nearly as excited as the federal Liberals are over the Second Coming of Trudeau (and his princely good looks). But while everything might look rosy in Ottawa, in Toronto things are more immediately grim: Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty held a surprise resignation this month after suspending the legislature in order to keep his minority government from collapsing in the wake of a power plant scandal, which is totally not an abuse of power at all! Considering how good McGuinty is at busting up democracy whenever it suits his purpose, he should definitely consider giving Trudeau a run for his money; he’s already got a good handle on all the qualities we’ve come to expect from a Prime Minister.
Speaking of abusing democracy, October marked the beginning of Convention Season in Newfoundland and Labrador. Party Conventions are magical places where politics comes alive. For instance, within 24 hours of the first convention, PC Backbencher Sandy Collins had already challenged NDP MHA Dale Kirby to a charity boxing match (which Dr. Kirby seemed to interpret as gladiatorial combat). Outside of that, Premier Kathy Dunderdale stole the show at the Tory convention when she frankly admitted that the government has been grossly overspending for some time before announcing the creation of a brand new and totally superfluous Department of Public Engagement less than a week later. This new department is devoted to enraging—I mean, engaging—the public through Twitter and proving how dedicated the PCs are to freedom of information by spoon feeding us whatever information the Premier’s Office wants us to know. It’s like Bill 29 never even happened! As to how Paul Lane wasn’t appointed as the literal Minister of Twitter, I can neither understand nor forgive. Also, we’re now at war with Quebec.
Not to be outdone, the NDP held their largest convention ever, with over 200 delegates turning the Battery Hotel into a beacon of self-righteousness in the sky above downtown St. John’s. No word yet on whether or not Dale Kirby fought anyone.
The Liberal convention is also coming up, and Lord knows that’s a hot mess. This particular episode in the NL Liberals’ drama would be a good time to have Scrooge McDu– er, Dean Macdonald—finally announce he’s ready to ride in on a white horse, slay the Liberals’ debt dragon, and restore the party of Smallwood to its ancient splendour. Regardless of what actually happens though, you can rest assured that Open Line and Twitter are bound to be as suffocated by partisan hacks of all stripes as they were during the other two conventions.
And that’s basically October. In more inconsequential news, Americans head to the polls on November 6th to decide the fate of (vaguely) public healthcare, abortion, and Big Bird. Can Mitt Romney’s Binders of Power contain the forces of both the American debt and Women’s Lib? Will Barack Obama get to spend another four years as the only Nobel Peace Prize winner whose day job requires actively deciding which foreign militants get murdered by flying robots? Or will the American people finally wake up, seize control of their destiny, and elect Roseanne Barr to the White House on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket? We live in absurd times and only an absurd Presidential candidate will see us through. Let Roseannearchy reign!
Thu, Oct 4, 2012
Attention Margaret Wente: feel free to steal as much of this column as you like. I know times are tough out there in that Ontarian welfare ghetto known as Toronto, and Lord knows it wouldn’t be Christian of me to hoard all this A-material to myself while lesser columnists go starved for ideas. So fill yer boots missus, ‘cause this harvest season we’ve got a bumper crop of news.
Holy smokes b’ys, it’s election season again south of the border. As expected (because American politics are nuts), the race is neck-and-neck between Nobel-laureate Barack “infinite Drone War” Obama and Mitt “I literally strapped a dog to the roof of my car on a cross-country vacation once” Romney.
As governor of Massachusetts Romney basically invented the healthcare reform package he’s now campaigning against, his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was upstaged by an elderly movie star yelling at an empty chair, and in the last two weeks alone he came within a hair’s breadth of blaming Obama personally for murdering an American diplomat in Libya and was caught on tape explaining to a closed room of millionaires that he really doesn’t care about half the voting population. It’s a safe bet Obama’s laughing all the way to the bank on this one—when he’s not drone-striking his way into America’s heart, he’s just Biden his time.
Other than some very silly claims from the Conservatives that the NDP’s cap-and-trade carbon tax scheme would destroy Canadian jobs (despite it being the exact same policy the Conservatives themselves held a few years ago), the first major debate to crop up in the House this session is about abortion. Tory backbencher Stephen Woodworth’s bill—which would aim to establish a parliamentary committee to investigate the question of when exactly life begins—was shot down by in an overwhelming 203-92 vote, but it’s more than a little disquieting that the Minister for the Status of Women stood in the House and voted to throw women’s reproductive rights in jeopardy. Couple that with a Science Minister who doesn’t believe in evolution and a Labour Minister who would love nothing more than to grind unions into the dust and you’d almost start to wonder about how, exactly, this country’s being run.
Meanwhile, the federal Liberals decided to remind us that they still exist and announce that Justin Trudeau was finally going to ascend to his rightful place on the party’s throne. Is this a last, desperate shot at glory before the party is absorbed by Thomas Mulcair’s Big Orange Machine, or are we standing on the cusp of a new Trudeaupia?
But while it might be smooth sailing for the Tories in Ottawa, here in St. John’s things are a little less rosy. It’s been a rough month for our own boys (and gals) in blue; polls have the approval for both the Premier and the party slipping, they’ve had the first floor-crossing in the House of Assembly since it was part of Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood, and they just can’t shake off the stink of spending the summer ramming through the most regressive access-to-information laws in Canada.
Fri, Sep 14, 2012
I don’t know about you guys, but on her way through here Leslie took my girlfriend’s screen door and frightened our cat to death. It also blew the lid off her landlord’s shed, just like I’m about to blow the lid off a few of these news stories.
I also totally understand if you want to offer me up as a blood sacrifice to ward off the next tropical storm, because that line was terrible.
Quebec voters said au revoir to Jean Charest and the provincial Liberal party last week, opting instead to give those lovable separatists in the Parti Québecois another shot at running the show –- albeit, this time with a minority government. There’s a good chance the turnover was prompted less by a legitimate desire to rip Canada in half and more by a desire to shake up the hilariously corrupt political establishment (and to express disapproval with the party that stomped all over their basic Charter rights in attempts to curb the student protests last spring), but it’s still a safe bet that we’re in for some good ol’ fashioned French-Canadian sabre-rattling. That said, the PQ might want to scale back its aggressive rhetoric a little in light of the events that transpired at their victory rally, when an elderly man in a blue bathrobe attempted to crash the party, set fire to the back door, and shot two people (one fatally) while shouting “the English are waking up!” While the tragedy was likely just the hideous intersection of untreated mental illness and contentious politics, it probably wouldn’t hurt the PQ to tone down the quasi-racist chest thumping. That and, you know, maybe a system for keeping track of who actually purchases semi-automatic weaponry wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
In significantly more hilarious news, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was named ‘Statesman of the Year’ this week by the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation. The reward recognizes him specifically as a “champion of democracy, freedom, and human rights.” This designation is pretty impressive, considering he’s the only Prime Minister in the history of the country ever to be found in contempt of Parliament, he slashed funding and shut down numerous organizations devoted to promoting human rights both at home (e.g. the Court Challenges Program) and abroad (e.g. KAIROS), and has spear-headed an expansion of the prison system so drastic that even the law-and-order- obsessed Republicans in Texas cautioned him to ease up a little. This award will also be presented to him by none other than Dr. Henry “let’s just carpet-bomb Cambodia” Kissinger, conclusively ensuring that all the jokes in this paragraph wrote themselves.
Locally, Leslie wasn’t the only one blowing winds of change across St. John’s. In a surprise press conference on Thursday, long-time PC stalwart Tom Osborne announced he was quitting his party of 16 years to sit as an Independent in the House of Assembly. According to Osborne, the two big catalysts for his leap from the Tory Dory were his issues with Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s leadership, or lack thereof, and the ATIPPA-cally awful Bill 29 that the government rammed through over the summer after a week-long opposition filibuster (one wonders why he didn’t say anything sooner). Never ones to take this sort of thing sitting down, backbench all-stars Sandy Collins, Stephen Kent and Paul Lane (Paul, if you’re reading this, please unblock me on Twitter… I miss you) were quick to get online and express how much stronger the Dunderdale team was despite losing one of its most experienced members, and the Honourable Joan Burke broke a 20-day social media fast to pithily tweet “good riddance.” Osborne may as well change his first name to Ozzy, because from the sounds of his ex-comrades he’s the veritable Prince of Darkness. You can’t blame the Tories though, because between the plummeting opinion polls and veteran politicians jumping ship, I’d be worried too.
And that’s the news! Without touching on the gongshow that is the US Presidential Election, at least. Clint Eastwood literally argued with an empty chair on national television for 15 minutes at the Republican National Convention the other week! Isn’t it great to be Canadian?
(Stephen Harper portrait by Margaret Sutherland)
Wed, Aug 29, 2012
Did you know that the French Revolutionary calendar actually had the New Year starting in autumn? I’m not completely sold on the whole Reign of Terror bitbut singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in September might not have been such a bad idea, especially considering the way St. John’s springs alive when the dog days of summer come to an end. I say ‘dog days’ because while the rest of you were probably out having Super Fun Summer Adventures I was paying attention to the news. So without further ado, here’s what you missed if you were actually out enjoying the sun or something.
The 2012 Summer Olympics in London was apparently a big deal. The world’s top athletes got to hang out (and hook up) together for two weeks this summer in the Olympic Village as they vied against one another to bring pride back to their home countries in the form of Magic Sports Amulets. And everyone’s favourite performers were there! Michael Phelps proved you can take bong rips and still win more Olympic medals than anyone else in the history of humanity, Usain Bolt showed off some very cool runnings (sorry), and it turns out that the world’s best trampolinist is a Chinese dude named Dong Dong (or Dong2).
Meanwhile, Canada’s most impressive showing during this Olympics—other than having our female athletes far outshine the men—was easily in the ‘provoke an international incident with Norway over soccer refereeing’ event. Unfortunately there is no medal for this, but Team Canada brought us back another prize beyond price: the sweet, sweet catharsis of getting to scream at the television.
Speaking of screaming at things, I will be soon if I ever hear the words “Muskrat Falls” again. The “debate” about this hydro-electric megaproject could never really be described as ‘enlightened’, but things started getting extra wild and wooly back in July when local oligarch Danny Williams and his Labrador mining firm SLAPPed beloved local blogger Brad Cabana (and VOCM BackTalk fan-favourite environmentalist Bruno Marcocchio) with a defamation lawsuit. Never one to take this sort of thing sitting down, Cabana, who is representing himself in court, filed his own defamation suit against Williams, meaning that the next few months of this spectacle should provide enough material to get us a legal comedy spinoff out of Republic of Doyle.
A few weeks later, five political and legal veterans—including former senior Peckford aide Cabot Martin, Liberal leadership contender Bern Coffey, and labour firebrand Richard Cashin—joined forces to form 2041 Energy Incorporated, an anti-Muskrat Falls lobbying group. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the provincial government’s response to this was not to actually dispute any of their claims but instead to let bumbling backbenchers Paul Lane and Steve Kent flood the media with puerile sniggering about how their critics are not ‘real’ lawyers or that Cabot Martin is trying to sabotage the megaproject in order to rig the price of natural gas or something. It’s regrettable that the level of discourse surrounding this multi-billion dollar development project has degenerated into something you’d hear hissed between children in the back row of a seventh-grade sexual health class and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I Kent take much more of this.
As far as nonsense goes, there was no shortage of it this August in Ottawa. Turns out that the Bank of Canada’s original design for the new plastic $100 bill actually featured an Asian-looking woman on the back before it was pulled because focus groups expressed alarm at the idea that our currency might get a little ‘too ethnic.’ Participants repeatedly emphasized that putting an Asian on the bill wouldn’t be representative of Canada (with one Fredericton participant calling the image “ugly”), and the Bank of Canada was quick to re-draw the bill with a less threatening, ‘neutral’ (read: white) person in its place. I think this is a great step forward because if there’s one thing this country needs in order to better reflect our diverse, multicultural society, it’s making sure we only put white, ‘normal’ people on our money. The only Canadian news more offensive than this racist debacle is word that Chad Kroeger is getting married to Avril Lavigne.Woe, Canada.
So! You’re now up to speed enough to know that staying up to speed might not be the best thing for your mental health. It’s not all totally dour though—NASA put a new rover on Mars and they opened a Smoke’s Poutinerie down on Water Street. And yes, being able to get a curry chicken poutine while stumbling home from George Street at 3 AM is just as significant as furthering humanity’s baby steps into the Final Frontier. If you think otherwise, you’re the real space cadet.
Thu, Jul 5, 2012
Chances are that if you’re reading this, you are sitting (or standing) in or around St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Congratulations! You’re in a magical world of multicoloured houses, fog, and city streets that make no sense. This city is the birthplace of British imperialism, the wireless telegraph, and our Lord and Saviour Danny Williams. Newfoundland and Labrador’s biggest exports include labour power for the Alberta oil sands, Republic of Doyle, and most recently, equalization payments to subsidize our poor cousins in Ontario.
Historically, of course, things weren’t always so rosy. The quality of life in much of the province before Confederation in 1949 could generously be described as ‘medieval’. Unemployment has been a problem here since they started keeping records, and there is also an unfortunate piece of local history where the indigenous Beothuk people go extinct. Most of downtown St. John’s has burned down a good two or three or five times too.
From its discovery until well into the 19th century, the only reason anyone came to this jagged rock off the coast of North America was its location next to one of the world’s richest fisheries. Fishing, of course, is a hard living, and it didn’t help that the economy was almost entirely structured around having fishers remain perpetually in debt to a handful of fish merchants. Also, the only thing there was to do for fun was go to church and start fights with people who don’t go to the same church—that is, unless it was Christmas, in which case you would dress up in ridiculous clothes and go around drinking other people’s booze. This is called mummering, and it’s amazing.
If the province’s economic history is a story about the fishery, its political history is one about trying to get away from it. It’s pretty much impossible to collect taxes from fishermen if the industry ensures they literally never have cash, and we know how much politicians love collecting your money. Unfortunately, the historical method of development here has generally been to find the richest industrialist(s) around, give them a bunch of land and subsidies, and hope for the best. That’s how we got the (now defunct) railway, the (now defunct) paper mill in Grand Falls, and the (probably soon-to-be defunct) paper mill in Corner Brook.
Also, for some reason, voters in the 1920s and early 1930s kept electing Sir Richard Squires as the Prime Minister despite the fact that he and his government were routinely getting busted for corruption. They were apparently willing to let it slide until the Depression hit, and in April 1932 something like 10,000 people rioted in the streets of St. John’s. They stormed the Colonial Building on Military Road and smashed everything inside, and Squires barely escaped with his life out one of the back windows.
The government that succeeded him took one look at the mess the country was in and decided they wanted nothing to do with it: in perhaps the smartest move ever undertaken by Newfoundland’s politicians, they voted themselves out of existence in 1934.
By the time World War 2 was over, the island was a lot more prosperous and people were ready for a go at politics again. The first thing that happened was an epic showdown over whether or not to join Canada. In one corner, repping “the People” and a hilarious assortment of bowties was Joseph R. “Joey” Smallwood, local radio host, pig farmer, and union activist (he once walked the entire length of the island’s railway doing a recruiting drive); in the other were the St. John’s merchants and the local branch of the Catholic Church. After two extremely close referendums, Confederation won by the tiniest of margins and, against everyone’s better judgement, Joey Smallwood became our first Premier.
Smallwood was determined to modernize the hell out of Newfoundland, and by God did he ever try. Sometimes—okay, most of the time—a little too hard. The first thing Joey did upon assuming absolute power was hire a Latvian con-artist named Alfred Valdmanis who helped him track down German industrialists to build random factories everywhere. Literally. Didn’t matter what they made or whether or not the products were even any good; if you would actually build your factory in Newfoundland, Joey would subsidize it. During the 1950s the man built everything from a rubber boot factory to a chocolate bar factory to an ugly sweater factory and even a machine manufacturing plant that Joey was convinced would create over 10,000 jobs. It didn’t: almost every single one of these plants was closed by 1960, because, as it turns out, you can’t actually just build random factories everywhere for no reason and expect them to make any money.
Not that this put a damper on Smallwood, of course: the man was always bursting with good ideas. A few of his unrealized dreams fill up a whole chapter in his autobiography: at various points in his tenure, it turns out, he considered other brilliant ideas like building a replica German town filled with actual non-English speaking Germans out in the bay somewhere as a tourist trap, swapping oil from the Come-by-Chance refinery (one of the largest bankruptcies in Canadian history, by the way) for orange juice, and introducing a herd of bison to a small island off the south coast (this last one actually happened, and it went over about as well as you’d think). Never let it be said he wasn’t one for thinking outside the box. Oh, and his government also pretty much gave Quebec a century of free hydro electricity, but this last one’s kind of a minor point that never comes up.
After almost a quarter-century of this nonsense, Comrade Smallwood was finally turfed in the early 1970s by the dashing young Frank Moores, a man dedicated to throwing sexy parties and corporatizing the fishery. But provincial politics eventually put a damper on the sexy parties, and being a man whose priorities were in order, Moores resigned a few years later. His successor was the significantly less dashing Brian Peckford, who is arguably Newfoundland’s greatest proponent of healthy eating. When Peckford wasn’t fighting with Ottawa for offshore oil rights, he was a big cucumber enthusiast; so big, in fact, he was seduced by a sales pitch that promised Newfoundland and Labrador would be the world capital of cucumbers if he’d just build a giant hydroponic greenhouse in Mount Pearl. Seriously. Sprung Greenhouse cost $23 million dollars, the cucumbers were outrageously expensive, and no one had bothered to check into the market research which showed that Newfoundlanders, on average, ate one cucumber a year. I honestly don’t know why they didn’t just grow pot, because someone in the Premier’s office was obviously high.
Unfortunately for the Tory government at the time, Peckford’s Pickle Palace wasn’t the hit they were hoping for, and they were swept out of office in the next election. Even more unfortunately for the Liberals who replaced them, they came into power just in time for the cod fishery to collapse in 1992; apparently, if hundreds of factory trawlers spend two decades razing the ocean floor, you’ll eventually catch all the fish? This probably would have been it for the province if they hadn’t also discovered oil off the coast in 1979, even though the province wouldn’t really start seeing a lot of revenue until around the millennium. In the meantime, Premier Clyde Wells metaphorically flipped off Brian Mulroney by torpedoing the Meech Lake Accord, Premier Brian Tobin sold the Marystown shipyard for a dollar before deciding to spontaneously bail on being the Premier, and Premier Roger Grimes managed to get the province’s name changed from ‘Newfoundland’ to ‘Newfoundland and Labrador’ before the party was tossed out of power by Danny Williams heading into the most prosperous time the province has ever known.
Danny Williams, of course, is probably the most popular Premier we ever had: we liked the guy as much as we liked Joey, except Danny also had the foresight to quit the game before degenerating into senility. Say what you will about him (and there are a lot of things to say), but anyone who literally runs a national campaign against Stephen Harper, motivated entirely out of spite, is pretty all right on in my books. But his achievements since leaving politics overshadow anything he did in office: dude brought the AHL back to Town. He got us hockey, b’ys! How wicked is that?This is probably also the part where I should mention what Kathy Dunderdale’s new government has been doing, but mostly, they just don’t.
And here we are. Newfoundland and Labrador’s story is still unfolding, but if this transparently glib interpretation of history teaches us anything, it’s that whatever is in store next is guaranteed to be hilarious. Especially now that our politicians are on Twitter. Can you imagine if John Crosbie was tweeting back in the 70s? Iron Sheik, eat your heart out.