Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Alberta? Bother to Vote Anyway

Having lived in Alberta over the last 8 years, it is easy to document voter apathy. The province seems committed to send as many Conservative MPs as possible to Ottawa. Regardless of their limitations and their contributions the likes of Rob Anders have enjoyed the largesse of Albertans aversion to reds, liberals - whether capitalized or not - lefties and anything else remotely progressive. An oversimplification of the tendencies that even progressive voters in Alberta give into quite easily. Hence the apathy.

At this point in Alberta, politics seems to be fomenting a more significant response in an election than just resort to the same old same old. On the provincial level, the deck chairs are being shuffled about in preparation for the next election, which promises to deliver that overdue once in a generation change that Alberta does get around to when it has had enough. Not one but two populist parties are finding their legs and doing their best to present strong options to the old standbys who, whether the opposition or the governing Progressive Conservatives.

The progressive voice is finding its way and has aligned itself for achievements on the municipal level. The election of Naheed Nenshi as Mayor of Calgary in October 2010 is one balm to the oft-wounded psyche of progressive minded people in Calgary at least and the emergence of the Alberta Party, the newer and more progressive of the two upstart provincial political parties is giving those same people the opportunity to stretch out a bit more. It remains to be seen whether the machinery can be put in place to challenge the Conservative citadel here or whether the people who have teamed up so well at the municipal and provincial levels will only find themselves dispersed for the federal campaign.

At this point the candidates on the trail are finding that there are progressive-minded voters eager to see some change and reinforcing a shared sense of surprise that Alberta's political representation is so out of touch with their beliefs and values. Is there any reason to believe that this election would be the one to shed Alberta of of dynastic tendencies? Probably not. The discontent with the Harper Conservatives is as palpable as it is in other parts of the country, but motivating those progressive voters to engage in the sisyphian challenge is a daunting one.

At this point, voters in Alberta have to content themselves with putting a dent in the majorities that the Conservative candidates have so easily accumulated over the the years. While politics is not a game of moral victories, closing the margin of victory will signal to other voters, candidates, and the parties that Alberta is not a place for cakewalks. Debates will become more common, the politicians, whether on the hustings or the backbenches in Ottawa will start to become more accountable and active, which is what the voters deserve.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Simplicity is not a Canadian Quality

The 2011 Federal Election campaign is in its third day and it is hard to tell if people are tuning out, tuning in or finding ways to deafen themselves to the cacophony of platitudes and self-serving pedantry that has passed for campaigning and stumping over the last few days. To hear it from the parties leaders, one would assume that Canada's needs or "our leaders'" visions for addressing them are as discrete and far apart from one another as distant stars. There has been an insistence on a certitude and a simplification of the issues that, quite frankly is insult to the intelligence of Canadian voters and an egregious misrepresentation of our national character, history or reality. I should add, though that the media still is not able to accurately report these simplicities. Clearly the mainstream media and the politicians themselves are failing to play their role in the democratic process as forthrightly as they ought. Naheed Nenshi, mayor of Calgary even goes so far as to suggest that the parties are content to drive down voter participation.

Little in our history or culture has been cut and dried, satisfying and reassuring about our country's fate or identity. We still struggle with the question of what a Canadian is and our quest for something more comprehensive and inclusive than hockey, timbits and winter is evidence of an unassailable self-awareness that is probably the most distinguishing difference between ourselves and the United States.

Our pride in our accomplishments has almost always been tempered by a rich detailed narrative and few Canadian heroes wear an untarnished crown or bask in the glow of outright victory. Terry Fox's story is steeped in a poignancy that deepens our love for him and renders us humbler but him all the more treasured and memorable. Our hockey victory in 1972 is not without the reminder that we had expected to rout the Soviets and the we had our chests well inflated after the first period of game one. With the exception of Vimy Ridge, few events in Canadian history that have afforded the country an unambiguous iron-clad victory or achievement that the entire country can share in. The victory in the 1995 referendum was so narrow that few felt that that chapter was closed. Even our sporting victories are cause for as much reflection as celebration. The repatriation of our Constitution in 1982 replete with the notwithstanding clause is another reminder that our country is a complex one that only fools would try to pin down in a sound bite. Sir Wilfred Laurier's oft-cited claim that the 20th century would be Canada's is one that would foster a rather healthy debate rather than a flat one-word answer either way.

The party leaders are campaigning in simplicities and sound bites rather than engaging in dialogue or clearly structure arguments. All of it seems to be cocktail napkin material dessicated by focus group trials. The electorate deserves more and the party leaders ought to acknowledge that with a bit of eloquence. Novelist and essayist Hugh MacLennan once said that Canada was a nation made up of losers - just the kind of thing that would get the man run out of town on a rail and give Canada's critics the opportunity to say, "Couldn't have said it better myself." As disturbing as that line might be, the case that MacLennan went on to make was that throughout our history, Canada has been the welcoming refuge for those who have sought new, safe beginnings, be it from persecution, slavery or wars near or far. It has been the consistent thread throughout our history and it continues today because of the empathy - one of the few simple things about our country - that has flourished in the face of the uncertainty we have always lived with. MacLennan's rhetorical risk paid off, at least during his lifetime, because Canadians are well-prepared for the complexities of living in a bicultural or multicultural nation that ought to inspire poetry amongst its leaders rather than the fictions they are fanning out to every corner of the country to pass off. We are not a country laden with archetypes. Efforts to portray Canadian archetypes of the hockey player, the Mountie, the lumberjack and others are cloying in their simplicity and we reject them.

This complexity is not being captured by the parties are their leaders as they portray their visions on the campaign trail. They are spending too much time preening and polishing their speaking points than they are in addressing the need for a comprehensive vision of the country. The Conservatives are going to insist that they have managed the economy well and that they provide certainty, the Liberals will ignore the bete noire of their past environmental policies and Jack Layton will insist that he is in good health and in striking distance of the Prime Minister's office. Collectively, their vision for the country is as narrow and disparate as three randomly chosen stars on a brilliant summer night and their ambition to lead us in a constructive dialogue is just as remote as those stars but even less likely to illuminate us. At this point, it is up to Canadians to make the incremental steps to steal democracy back from these men.

Let the dialogue begin.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Okay Voters er Citizens, Up Your Game!

I set out to write a piece on how to get that disengaged, "They're all the same" variety non-voter to get out and vote in the May 2 federal election. I also want to present this in a non-partisan manner and encourage people to lean on friends to get out and participate in the process - granted, with their nose firmly plugged - but voting nonetheless.

In my efforts to describe the toxic political environment that this election is taking place in, I felt a despair come over me that almost made me decide the opt out of this election too. The insistence on charged rhetoric, also known by the technical name bull shit, instead of straight talk that acknowledges the complexity of the challenges of leading Canada during the increasing uncertainty of the 21st century. Simple answers and certitude ought to ward voters off, but it does the opposite. Responses to the issues become emotional, whether it is voting on one party's stand on a single issue or the piqued indignance of those who decide to damn all politicians and opt out. We are still going to elect 308 MPs, whether the turn out is 63% or 80%, however, so thumbing our noses at the process is only giving the most incorrigible in Ottawa the positive reinforcement they need to keep acting like children.

One thing that ought to be clarified is that we are talking about citizen apathy, not voter apathy. The narrowly defined role as voter is one that allows us to neglect the greater vocation of citizen and allows us as voters to look out for the needs and interests of the consumers or taxpayers we happen to be. Citizenship is the highest calling and requires a comprehensive Being just voters imply engaging in the political feedback loop before marching to the polls and shaking ourselves out of a zombie haze long enough to hit one of the circles on the ballot with their X rather than putting it through a random vowel or some other innocuous spot on that scrap of paper.

Citizenship requires, among other things, a commitment to dialogue and a commitment to listening and being critically involved in the entire process. If you want to engage people in the issues relate to this election it is a time to acknowledge that the competing monologues in Ottawa have been shrill, even irrational for their refusal to acknowledge the facts central to the issues they are contending with. Fact: none of the parties in Ottawa is innocent of distorting the facts to appeal to their supporters. Equally true is that this oversimplification is an insult to our intelligence.

If you want to lean on someone who has decided to sit out the last few elections out because of the tenor of political discussion in Parliament, don't blame them. All of us need to become more engaged in the election. Non-voters need to become more familiar with the issues. Those who do vote need to start interacting more with the candidates and whoever we ultimately elect. We have to hold them accountable and force them to explain their positions and challenge them to start acknowledging the complexity of the issues. We have to demand more of them and make them conscious that the electorate - that's us - are engaged and concerned about getting good government for the good money we are paying these men and women.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Fabulation of Fears and the "Fading" Bloc

During the Canadian House of Commons' March Break, Stephen Harper took the opportunity to tell an audience in Quebec City that the Bloc Quebecois' days as a force on the federal scene were numbered. This is, in part, is nothing more than the posturing and sound biting best of the Conservative Leader while out on the unofficial campaign trail. The reality is that Harper's comments on the Bloc are accurate and more accurate than anything he said about the Bloc during the sequence of events in December 2008 that indelibly etched "proroguement" and "coalition" into the Canadian political argot.

One word that also ought to be etched into that argot ought to be "fabulation" which is the relation of untrue or invented stories and has been Stephen Harper's stock in trade on the hustings and in parliament. During the coalition drama in 2008 Harper accused the NDP and Liberal party leaders of recklessly getting into bed with the sovereigntist Bloc. When in opposition, however, Harper was willing to make a similar pact with the Bloc and NDP to replace the Liberal minority government lead by Paul Martin in 2004.

Chantal Hebert of the Toronto Star identified the trends that were effecting both the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois in a November 2007 speech and indicated that the declining significance of the sovereignty issue was significant trend that helped tilt power in favour of the Conservative Party.

The realities for the Bloc Quebecois - as stated by Hebert in 2007 and bookended by Harper's ploys in 2004 and his words in 2011 - are that they cannot presume their mandate in Ottawa is to represent nationalist aspirations. While they may still harbour a readiness to express this ambition when their constituency foments again for separation or some other constitutional arrangement that would favour them. Several leading figures of the Parti Quebecois and Bloc have indicated that sovereignty is mostly if not completely dead. Throughout his tenure as BQ leader, Gilles Duceppe earned recognition and respect for his integrity and the reasoned support he has offered on progressive issues.

Unlike members of the other parties in the House of Commons, Duceppe and his caucus have engaged in dialogue rather than grandstanding and have a degree of credibility that comes from aspiring to represent their constituency rather than aspiring to power.

In all likelihood coalition talk will heat up again in 2011 and when it does, it is necessary for voters to recognize that the Bloc is probably not in a position to hold a coalition hostage to their own nationalistic ambitions. Such a move would force a dissolution of a coalition and an election predicated on terms that would erode their base and perhaps even resurrect the Liberals from its all-but-forgotten status as Champion of Federalism. If Stephen Harper was willing to make that gamble, he either made a similar calculation or he is exceptionally reckless.

Regardless of how Harper wishes to portray the Bloc or other opposition parties in the coming weeks and months, his back and forth on the Bloc over the years ought to give voters more reason to follow the narrative of the coming election more closely rather than falling for the bluster of any of the party leaders as they are passed on by the mainstream media.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Volunteer Heart and Spine of Japan

For eight years, I had the privilege of living and working in Japan.  I was in and around Kyoto for the most part but the multiplying tragedies of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear debacle that are visiting Miyagi Prefecture, Sendai and Fukushima are no less heartrending.  Friends throughout the country have been affected by this.  As the hours tick by and Japan strives to create the best possible new normal for this region - in reality for the entire country - I can fondly recall the volunteer instinct that the Japanese people have demonstrated throughout the time I spent there.

The Japanese people volunteer just about everyday in the simplest of ways from the crack of dawn, when people sweep the street or the sidewalk in front of their homes.  Yes, the street.  Volunteering is a key component of schooling - something that very few people in the west hear to complement the apocrypha about 6 day school-weeks and the long days of extra study.

The most moving examples are - or were - the elderly women in Hiroshima tending to the Peace Park. While the artifacts and static memorials of the park assert their own power over the visitors, little compares with the realization that these custodians - apple-doll like in their attire and the etch of time on their faces - were of the generation who lost such a huge part of their childhood to the explosion, were lucky to survive and had the will and resilience to rebuild the city and tend this sacred place in the most unassuming of manners.  They are a quiet indication that Japan too had its own greatest generation that helped them rebuild out of the war.

Few events deter the Japanese people from pitching in or make them wait for the experts to respond on their behalf.  The first large-scale example of volunteerism in the face of crisis I witnessed was in 1997, when an oil spill in the Sea of Japan washed up on the shores of Fukui Prefecture. With little understanding of the technology required or the risk they may have been taking on, volunteers took on the task of the mop up, some of them equipped with no more than kitchen gloves, paper towel and an indomitable spirit.  Perhaps it was a bit quixotic, but it demonstrated a incomparable commitment to their nation and their community. They will do whatever it takes.

This sense of commitment is instilled at a very young age and it is - as we can attest from the news we see coming from the aftermath - a key component of the Japanese character that people neither outgrow nor need to mature to. When I was teaching junior high school there, each day ended with the entire student body and the teachers cleaning the school.  Each classroom is replete with the cloths, brooms, wash buckets and other equipment required for the kids to pitch in, chase away the day's dusty bunnies and tidy up the school before calling it a day. The school PA system blasts some good old work music to get the kids in the mood for the task as the swept and washed the floors. It was a great opportunity for them to burn off a bit of energy and the routine never varied for exams or any other part of the school schedule.

With a few hundred kids committed to the task, the whole school was scrubbed clean in about 15-20 minutes. Sure, a couple of custodians did not find any work, but that brief moment every day in just about every school across the country helped Japan build and maintain the human and social capital that in the days and weeks ahead will ensure that the sweat equity those kids have invested throughout their school days will accrue an untold wealth of commitment at this particular moment of need.  The task may be far greater than any the people have encountered before but they will make an effort that will restore the comfort and well-being that were so suddenly wrenched from them.  If the eyes of the world remain fixed on Miyagi, Sendai and the surrounding area, we will be left as surprised by the before and after as we have been over the last few days as the news reports try to report some sense of the scale of this tragedy.  If the rest of the world is too busy with their lives to watch the recovery, the Japanese will give a stoic nod and smile of pride and resume the task at hand.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Is Jason Kenney Leading or Unravelling CIC?

Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, has come under fire as a consequence of a fundraising letter sent on his parliamentary letterhead to NDP MP Susan Duncan. The furor is about Mr. Kenney's use of his office's resources for partisan purposes. In short, he should not be using his parliamentary budget or his office staff to campaign on behalf of the government party. This, along with the Harper government's recent decree that the public service refer to the government as "the Harper Government" rather than the "Government of Canada," indicates that the sense of entitlement that the Conservative Party of Canada possesses at the moment surpasses that they accused the Liberal Party of Canada from holding during their tenure under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

This scandal over the Kenney fundraising letter ought to raise a few red flags over the Minister's performance in his portfolio. Mr. Kenney has made a concerted effort to use his position as Minister of Immigration and Citizenship to break through the long-held Liberal stronghold on ethnic voters and represent the Conservative Party as a favorable option that was aware of immigrant needs and concerns.

Despite that aspect of his work there has been great efforts by the Conservative government and his ministry that gives reason to question the commitment to immigration and citizenship and the principles which have made Canada and appealing destination for immigrants.

The changes to eligibility requirements for entry into Canada are the most telling examples of how policies implemented by Minister Kenney actually undermine the country's long term agenda in this area. At a time when there has been a cited need for immigration to sustain the growth of the Canadian economy or ensure that we have the talent base required to compete internationally, the Ministry has recently made it more difficult or less appealing for these skilled immigrants to come to Canada by reducing access to family reunification visas and changing the requirements for skilled workers to come to Canada. The change of policy on family reunification makes it more difficult for people to have the built in family support that would help these working families trying to raise their families.

While Canada is reporting the highest levels of immigration in decades, the Ministry decided in December 2010 to cut funding to immigrant serving settlement agencies, which like the decisions regarding visa requirements may have played well with the Conservative Party's right wing base but does not ensure that these newcomers are effectively integrated into Canadian society. Without proper support for settlement and integration, it is quite possible that these newcomers remain marginalized rather than becoming parts of the Canadian community who feel that they have status here and contribute to the strength of the country as they have for past generations. Such cuts to settlement funding scale back a partnership with the non-profit sector that allows the government to play a significant role in defining the future shape of the Canadian community. Taken to its extreme this could lead to the integration of immigrants and the shaping of the Canadian community being outsourced to the private sector.

It has been under this government's rule that the phrases "Canadians of Convenience" has entered our argot, coined by the government to accuse people of securing a Canadian passport to exploit at a later time. It could be argued that these people have gained Canadian passports and have moved to other countries, partly because they have not successfully integrated into Canadian society. Such a debate about "Canadians of Convenience" needs a case by case examination to settle the argument one way or another but this government has long lunged at certitude and simplification rather than acknowledging and living with the subtleties of issues as complex as citizenship, integration and multiculturalism.

While racialized Canadians have faced inordinate difficulties dealing with consular problems while abroad, the government has more promptly come to the assistance of white Canadians.

Under Minister Kenney's stewardship it is unclear whether the portfolio of Citizenship and Immigration has actually been handled with the sensitivity and vision that Minister Kenney would like people to believe when he is making his weekend visits to interact with minority groups. Under a government which demonizes the victims of human smuggling rather than the criminals who promised them passage here, there seems to be little desire for this government or this minister to address the breadth of complexity to provide a comprehensive, constructive policy. Instead, Minister Kenney portrays his party as one favorable to the needs and interests of immigrants while his government implements policies that curry favour with groups that want to close the door or deny them services.

Minister Kenney's use of his office's resources for campaigning on behalf of the Conservative Party ought to examined in tandem with the way that he has used his Ministry and determine whether he has strengthened or undermined the Government of Canada's command of a coherent policy on this issue.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"The Harper Government?" and Tedium of Simplistics

The chattering classes worked themselves into a frenzy this week over the announcement this week that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office has put forward a requirement that the government be regarded as the Harper Government.

At first blush it does not seem like a big deal to make this request. The media use the terminology freely enough and historians will have their turn with the phrases as well. At the end of the day, it is probably something that the Tim Horton's crowd would cock a puzzled eyebrow at and chalk up to the hypersensitivity of the opposition parties or those same elites the Stephen Harper has thumbed his nose at throughout his term. It is an achievement for the cynical tactician.

While demanding public servants to say they work for the Harper Government rather than the Government of Canada might only merit a shrug, the fact is that it is just another part of a program of bullying the civil service rather than cooperating with them. The power that the Harper government has accumulated throughout its tenure should be a concern of voters. The fact that it is occurring as gradually as it has should not give people reason to discount it.

The Harper team's routine here seems to be to make policy decisions that are difficult to argue against because individually each of these decisions are so difficult to rally against. When the government altered immigration requirements to make it more difficult for people to reunite their families here, the anti-immigration contingents of the country would feel a bit more affinity for the Harper agenda. Those opposed to that and other changes to policy by the Harper government, would be hard-pressed to make their case in a fashion that would win support for their cause. Would a group of demonstrators be able or even justified in taking to the streets to rally in support of family-reunification? It is just the type of issue that Harper has taken the wrong side on, but is able to get away with because our collective attention span cannot get past the simplifications that this government operates under.

The fact that this government has had its way with the political agenda despite a minority government is due in part to the indifference of voters on the depth of the issues involved. As with the government name change, too many voters are responding to the issues on the mere surface rather than addressing them in depth.