18 January 2015

French hold most favourable views of Jews and Muslims

How the French view their minority populations after the violent events earlier this month will probably take a while to sort out. But a poll conducted last year suggested they were about the most tolerant in Europe.

Eighty-nine per cent of French men and women hold a favourable view of Jews and 72 per cent hold a favourable view of Muslims. The British were second, with 83 per cent and 64 per cent holding favourable views of Jews and Muslims respectively. Next came Germany at 82 and 58.

Some countries had distinctly unfavourable attitudes. In none of the countries surveyed did the people hold an unfavourable opinion of Jews (although the Greeks split 47-47), but in Greece, Italy and Poland opinions were more unfavourable than favourable toward Muslims, with Italy having the lowest opinion.

Even in the more tolerant countries, Jews were much more favourably viewed than Muslims. It will be interesting to see if attitudes change after the attacks. The relatively low esteem in which Muslims are held already does not bode well for the future.

Why are Americans so frightened?

If you were asked what the American people's top policy priority was, what would you answer? The economy perhaps? Immigration? Global warming? You would be wrong. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans' top policy concern is terrorism, with 76 per cent ranking it as a top priority, just edging out the economy.

Why, one wonders, are they so afraid of terrorists when the threat is so miniscule. Over the last five years, the chance of an American being killed by a terrorist anywhere in the world is about one in 20 million. An American is four times more likely to be struck by lightning, 25 times more likely to drown in his own bathtub. And attacks have been decreasing. Conservatives might say this is due to additional security since 9/11, but in fact the decline has simply continued a trend established before 9/11. The fear is clearly irrational.

Nonetheless, there are many beneficiaries. Demagogues have a useful stick to beat their political opponents with. (I suspect our own federal government would love to have us in the same fearful state as our American cousins.)

The NSA and the CIA are prospering. As is Homeland Security, the most bloated government department outside of the Pentagon. And of course the defense industry happily makes its billions. And the military happily spends its billions. The military is perhaps the only publicly-funded institution in the U.S. that has nearly unanimous bipartisan approval in Congress combined with little oversight.

A frightened citizenry meekly accepts a militarized state, and the military-industrial-Congressional complex feeds on its fear. That the nation finds itself in a condition of perpetual war is not surprising.

16 January 2015

A sales tax for Alberta?

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice recently committed heresy. Faced with plummeting oil prices and the possibility of a $500-million deficit, the premier actually encouraged discussion about adopting a sales tax.

“I don’t think Albertans generally advocate a sales tax," he said, "but I’m prepared to be educated and to hear from people.” And he's not alone. Even Ted Morton, former Alberta finance minister and minister of energy, and one of the most right-wing members of the Conservative Party, followed suit. “I’ll just repeat what every economist has told the government of Alberta for the last decade," said Morton, "that a sales tax .. is the most competitive and most efficient type of tax.”

So here's a possible scenario. There's no way the premier will announce a sales tax before an election, so first we get the election call. Then the premier continues to scare the electorate with dire financial predictions, including the possibility of severe cuts to basic services. With Wild Rose now tucked safely into the fold, he may even mention increased revenues. The Conservatives then proceed to win an overwhelming majority (guaranteed). Early in the new term, with Albertans now conditioned for the shock, he announces the tax.

Of course, all this may be unnecessary. Oil prices could bounce back up and have the province swimming in revenue once again. I pretend I was never foolish enough to predict Alberta would have a sales tax, and the province quietly returns to the folly of a boom and bust economy. Life goes on.

So what did Raif Badawi say?

The world is now aware of Saudi Arabia's satanic punishment of blogger Raif Badawi—ten years in prison and a 1,000 lashes for saying things unacceptable to the country's powerful religious establishment. But what exactly did he say? A lot of sensible things, as it turned out.

For example, here is his view of secularism: "Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone ... Secularism ... is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world."

Or about the possibility of Hamas establishing a religious state in Palestine: "Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear."

On the Arab Spring in Egypt: "It is not yet clear whether Egypt is about to change, but it is our hope that a new Egypt will emerge from the painful birth pangs its people are experiencing ... after years of subservience and oppression."

On the nature of liberalism,: "For me, liberalism simply means live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. ... the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet."

On the need to separate religion and state: "No religion at all has any connection to mankind's civic progress."

Tough talk, but not critical of Islam as such, critical rather of excessive power of religious authority. It is exactly the kind of enlightened voice that the Arab world needs to hear if it is to, as he says, lift itself out of the third world. Obviously the clerics of Saudi Arabia are determined to anchor the Kingdom right where it is.

The pope's diminished freedom of speech

Did the pope just display an iota of sympathy for the zealots who massacred Charlie Hebdo staff? In response to a question about the attack, he replied, "One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith."

The pontiff justified his position by stating that if someone cursed his mother, he would punch them. "It’s normal," he insisted, "You cannot provoke." With all due respect to the pope's logic, an institution is not your mother. If insulting an institution justifies violence, then why only religious institutions? Many people are as profoundly and passionately committed to their political beliefs as deeply as others, including the pope, are to their theological beliefs. Why, therefore, should religious believers be spared offence, but not political believers?

If religions did not intrude on public life an exception might be justified, but they do. They have done terrible things throughout history, causing much suffering and death, and they still do. They have earned no right to avoid criticism any more than any other kind of institution.

One can sympathize with the pope's sensitivity to satire. His institution has been subjected to a flood of criticism, including much mockery, for its provision of sanctuary to pedophiles and other sins. There must have been times when the pope would dearly have loved to give mother church's tormentors a damn good punch. There was a time when such as he could have and would have. The Catholic Church has in the past often punished heretics with as heavy a hand as the Islamic zealots punished Charlie Hebdo. One hopes the pope's sentiments aren't flavoured with a trace of nostalgia.

14 January 2015

AI—will they keep us as pets?

It isn't as if we don't have enough BIG things to worry about—global warming, resource depletion, nuclear war, for starters—now renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and brilliant entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk are warning about the threat of artificial intelligence (AI). "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race," says Hawking, while Musk suggests that AI is probably "our biggest existential threat."

This isn't surprising, really. Like technology generally, AI has steadily advanced and has already passed the point where it can beat the best human players at chess or Jeopardy. Machines can learn some things much faster than humans and are better at reprogramming themselves to do certain tasks more efficiently. Our brains are simply matter driven by electrochemical processes; there would seem to be no reason why they can't be duplicated ... or exceeded. And if AI exceeds our own, it would seem to be in charge. As science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer puts it, "By the point when you sit down in front of your computer and your computer says, 'Good morning, I'm in charge now,' it's too late."

A machine with AI could be quite superior to flesh and blood humans both physically and mentally. For example, a robot could be designed as a perfect space explorer, immune to radiation, no need for oxygen or water, etc. Equipped with AI it could master space in a way we couldn't hope to. We might think of AI as simply the next step in evolution, a superior creature better adapted to a more challenging future.

So, we might ask, in this new scheme of things what would become of us? Our comparative weaknesses might become tedious to AI. With little to offer them, they might just dispose of us. Considering that much of the research into AI is being done by the military, such a ruthless attitude might well be imbued into the resulting creatures. On the other hand, if they are imbued with the attitudes of, say, environmentalists, they might declare us an endangered species to be carefully protected and preserved. At the very least we could, with a little house training, make quite endearing pets. And as a species with a greater intelligence than ours, they might actually deal with issues such as global warming and resource depletion. The future need not look so dark after all.

11 January 2015

The House of Saud—they may be terrorists, but they're our terrorists

During the Cold War, the West made allies out of some brutal dictatorial regimes. A challenge on this often met with the cynical answer, "they may be bastards, but they're our bastards." The Cold War is over, but the sentiment and the policy that generated it live on.

Western countries continue to ally themselves with brutal dictatorships, perhaps the first among them being Saudi Arabia. A Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was recently convicted of insulting Islam. As punishment, he is to serve 10 years in prison and suffer 1,000 lashes. The lashes are to be delivered 50 at a time once a week over 20 weeks ... in public, outside a mosque. The point of this barbaric punishment is clear—a message to other Saudis that criticism of the powerful religious establishment will not be tolerated. This is classic terrorism: the use of violence against civilians to frighten people into submitting to a political or religious idea. Indeed, this atrocity is the most common form of terrorism, not that of al Qaeda or ISIS or various individual actors, but that of a government to coerce its own citizens.

The Saudis are also known to sponsor terrorism, quite possibly including the attacks of 9/11, yet they are good friends with Western nations, particularly the U.S. And why not? They offer a seemingly inexhaustible supply of oil combined with a seemingly inexhaustible market for weapons. The U.S. recently consummated the biggest arms deal in its history with the Sauds. On its part, our government proudly announced a Canadian firm has contracted a $15-million sale of armoured vehicles to the desert kingdom. Selling guns to terrorists—what a pretty picture that is.

So the sentiment—slightly modified—lingers on: "they may be terrorists, but they're our terrorists." Hypocrisy is ever the handmaid of foreign policy.

Harper's histrionics

Terrorist attacks are theatre. And what theatre they have been presenting lately. The 9/11 spectacle of planes flying into tall buildings was the most spectacular event ever seen on television. The shooting spree by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau on Parliament Hill put Canada in the global spotlight for days, and the recent mass murder in Paris has mesmerized the world. It's hard to beat a terrorist attack for high drama.

It's not surprising therefore that these events attract massive publicity, which of course is largely the point. But outside of sensational news days, how important are they? According to our Prime Minister, very important. They, in his words, "threaten the peace, freedom and democracy our countries so dearly value."

Let's parse Mr. Harper's comment. Terrorist attacks certainly threaten the peace, but to what degree? The answer is not very much. In the U.S. for instance, the land of 9/11, Americans are four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. In Canada, the peaceable kingdom, the risk is even less, that is to say hardly any risk at all.

As for democracy, the answer is much the same. Islamist extremists don't threaten the state, at least any Western state. They aren't going to overthrow the American government, or the Canadian, or the French. They pose no threat to democracy. And as to the threat to our freedoms, it isn't terrorist attacks that pose the threat, it's our reaction, or overreaction, to those attacks that has eroded our freedoms.

So when these random events, vicious though they may be, pose such little threat, why does our Prime Minister prattle on about threats to our values? Why does he, and many of his political colleagues elsewhere, use these events to greatly expand the powers of our spy agencies and our security forces, thereby doing more to threaten our civil liberties than the terrorists could hope to do?

One answer is panic. Politicians fear terrorism because it makes them look weak, and little terrorizes a politician more than looking weak. Another answer is demagoguery. Since the dawn of politics, leaders have rallied their people around them by instilling fear, by convincing citizens they are in mortal danger. One hates to think a Canadian leader would exploit mass murder for political advantage, but our leader isn't exactly the prince of ethics and he desperately needs a stick to beat Mr. Trudeau off with.

Both these reasons may apply to Mr. Harper's histrionics. On the other hand, perhaps it's just that terrorism is an issue that nicely accommodates his view of the world. The Prime Minister is a man who sees the world in black and white. He is uncomfortable with subtlety, with nuance, with grey areas. You are either with him or against him, friend or enemy. Terrorism plays perfectly into this mindset. The terrorist is pure evil, we are pure good, no need to clutter our minds with attempts to understand the motivations of the wicked other, no need to consider the century of abuse the West has inflicted on the Muslim people of the Middle East. Combine this with Harper's predilection for war and he morphs into his Churchill persona, simply being himself, with political expediency as a bonus.

23 December 2014

Americans OK with torture

The Pew Research Centre recently released the results of a survey of Americans about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation practices, a report which revealed the agency has engaged in torture. One might expect that the citizens of a nation known for its attention to civil rights would strongly censure crimes against both human decency and the law. One would be disappointed.

The survey indicated that over half of Americans believed the CIA's methods were justified while only 29 per cent said they were not. Furthermore, 56 per cent believe the methods provided intelligence that helped prevent terrorist attacks, even though the report stated they didn't. Also disappointing was that as many respondents said it was wrong to release the report as those who said it was right. There are truths that some people just don't want to know, or want anybody else to know.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that so many Americans are comfortable with torture. After all, they accepted segregation, with all its brutal violation of human rights, up until midway into the last century, all the while claiming to be the land where all men are created equal. And a frightened people will be inclined to sacrifice their principles for expediency.

Americans are in this respect no different than anyone else, no better, no worse. The struggle for human rights, whether to end slavery, to emancipate women, to achieve equality for minorities and gays, has always been the responsibility of progressives struggling in a sea of complacency or outright opposition, ultimately winning over most of the populace but often only after a very long time. Supporters of human dignity are often a minority.

Unfortunately, even President Obama, although expressing his distaste for such behaviour and declaring it un-American, doesn't appear to have the political courage to prosecute the culprits. He claims he wants to look forward, not back, a sentiment he might more constructively apply to Edward Snowden. Presidents it seems, from Nixon to Reagan to Bush, and in the latter case at least some key subordinates, are above the rule of law. And that's pretty disappointing, too.

17 December 2014

Bravo to Baird and Harper on the Cuba file

The United States has finally come to its senses and is normalizing relations with Cuba. It's taken over half a century but—to borrow the old cliché—better late than never. And to our credit, Canada played a key role. By hosting meetings of officials from the two countries, we obviated the need for meetings in either the U.S. or Cuba. Both U.S. President Obama and Cuban President Castro have expressed their appreciation for our efforts.

What prompted the American decision to rid itself of this ridiculous cold war relic is hard to say but no doubt it was helped along by the newly independent attitude of South American nations. They have increasingly elected governments willing to stand up to American hegemony and take approaches more independent of the American model in both their domestic and international affairs. This includes maintaining close relationships with Cuba. If the U.S. wants to retain a leadership role in the hemisphere, it will have to accommodate itself to this new reality.

In any case, Canada has done well in helping to bring the two antagonists together. As NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said, as he thanked Canada's diplomatic corps for their hard work on the file, “This is what diplomacy looks like—and Canada is very good at it." It is indeed. We were long known as an honest broker, a reputation that has suffered under the Harper regime. With this achievement, some of our credibility has been regained and will serve us well in the hemisphere and elsewhere. I rarely find cause to congratulate Messrs. Baird and Harper on their foreign policy, but I don't hesitate to offer kudos on this occasion.

13 December 2014

Americans lovin' their guns more than ever

Following the slaughter of twenty children in Newtown, Connecticut two years ago this month, many Americans hoped their countrymen and women would finally turn against the gun nuts and demand greater control. And they did ... briefly. The support for gun rights that has been creeping up for decades dipped momentarily and then returned to its upward trend. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center reported that for the first time in at least 20 years, more Americans support gun rights than support gun control.

In response to the survey, 52 per cent said it's more important to protect the right to own guns while only 46 per cent said it's more important to control gun ownership. Furthermore, 57 per cent say gun ownership does more to protect people from crime while only 38 per cent say it does more to endanger them.

Views differ sharply by race. Over 60 per cent of whites prioritize gun rights over gun control while only a third of blacks and quarter of Hispanics do. Gender, too, is important with a solid majority of men preferring rights over control and a majority of women preferring the opposite. Urban Americans put control first however suburbanites and rural people favour rights, the latter overwhelmingly so. Whatever it is that enamours Americans to their guns ain't going away.

11 December 2014

America and the torture chronicles

So the U.S. has finally and formally confessed its sins. Good for the Americans. All nations sin, the better ones own up. That the CIA ran a torture regime isn't really news but it's important for the U.S. to officially get the nasty business out on the table, discussed and debated. This is the best way to lance a festering boil of endless rumour, pique the national conscience, and avoid repeating mistakes that led a nation founded on noble principles down this dark path.

The better angels of the nation's nature have had their say. Now, unfortunately, some of the worst are having theirs. This refreshing display of telling the people the truth, ugly as it may be, is being tainted by all too many Americans of lesser honour. Some justify the torture, some say it shouldn't have been revealed as it may endanger American lives (national security is such a versatile excuse) or simply that it needlessly embarrasses the nation, some even insist it couldn't possibly have happened. The magnitude of these complaints makes it clear that avoiding future descents into the depths will require great vigilance.

The international community has been quick to condemn the U.S. for its abuses, and rightly so. United Nations special rapporteur Ben Emmerson stated that the Americans are obligated to bring those responsible to justice, and that too is correct. The UN should not be too righteous, however, as many of its members use torture, worse torture than the Americans used; they use it more extensively and are using it as we speak. Nonetheless, this is the United States, not Putin's Russia, the guilty should indeed be called to account in a court of law. If they are not, then the lesson will not be properly learned and the United States will not be able to claim it is truly a nation under the rule of law.

10 December 2014

Human Rights 365

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

Thus reads Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10th, 1948. The words remain both wishful thinking and an inspiration to create a better world. Today is a day to remind ourselves of the latter. In 1950, the UN General Assembly proclaimed December 10th as Human Rights Day, to present the Declaration as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.

We should remind ourselves of the Declaration not only on December 10th, but on every day of the year, and it is for that reason the UN coined this year's slogan: Human Rights 365.

Keeping in mind the millions who are still denied their human rights, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon makes the following plea: "I call on states to honour their obligation to protect human rights every day of the year. I call on people to hold their governments to account. And I call for special protections for the human rights defenders who courageously serve our collective cause." All I can add is, amen to all that.

09 December 2014

Preston Manning—a real conservative?

As someone on the left I have occasionally wondered how we got lumbered with responsibility for defending the environment. Surely, I would muse, this is the province of conservatives. Conservative, conservationist—practically the same word. Shouldn't conservatives be those most concerned about conserving?

Well, as it turns out, at least one Canadian conservative is. Preston Manning, former leader of the Reform Party, has stated he wholeheartedly supports the idea "that for any economic activity, especially the production of energy, we should identify its negative environmental impacts, devise measures to avoid, mitigate or adapt to those impacts, and include the costs of those measures in the price of the product." In other words, he supports a carbon tax, although he hastens to add he wouldn't call it a tax.

Mr. Manning has been excoriated by some elements on the right who don't seem to know what conservatism is. Or was. Perhaps Mr. Manning is an old-fashioned conservative, relegated to the past by the modern conservatives exemplified by Prime Minister Stephen Harper who seems to believe that protecting nature should never get in the way of exploiting it.

Mr. Harper et al. are winning in the short term, but in the long run Mr. Manning's form of conservatism may very well triumph. Not only because such as he are wiser men but because, on the overwhelming issue of the day, they are right.

05 December 2014

A coalition of the willing for Syrian refugees?

The United States has resumed its war in Iraq, once again building a "coalition of the willing." Our government has, unfortunately, decide to join this one.

Our participation is unwise and unjustified for a number of reasons. To begin with, this war—to "degrade and destroy" ISIS—is the result of a problem the Americans and their last coalition created with their lie-based invasion that largely wrecked Iraq. They should be held accountable and left to undo their own blundering. Helping to bail them out will just encourage them to commit more mischief. Furthermore, the U.S. and others have armed certain Middle Eastern nations to the teeth, specifically Egypt and Saudi Arabia, presumably to safeguard their region. If ISIS is the threat the U.S. is making it out to be, their well-armed friends damn well ought to be the ones dealing with it, not us.

Their is, however, a coalition we should be part of, one with a more humanitarian goal: the coalition to provide sanctuary to the three million refugees that have fled Syria since the start of its civil war. The current members of that coalition are doing far more than their share. Lebanon, a country of only 4.5 million that already has 650,000 Palestinian refugees, has taken in over a million Syrians. Turkey has taken in 850,000, Jordan 600,000, Iraq 220,000 and Egypt 140,000.

Syria's neighbours are carrying the bulk of the load despite their limited resources. European countries have contributed, although to a much lesser extent: Sweden has accepted 30,000 refugees and Germany 40,000. The U.S. and Canada, while being generous with financial assistance, have been embarrassing laggards, taking in no more than a fw hundred each, a pathetic response to one of the most severe humanitarian crises of our time.

Canada, an immigrant nation, has often been generous in the past. In 1957, we admitted over 37,000 Hungarian refugees in less than a year. In 1979-80, 50,000 "Boat People" from Vietnam settled in Canada, and in 1968-9 we took in 11,000 Czechs fleeing the invasion of their country. In the following years, they were joined by tens of thousands of young American war resisters. And more recently, we have accepted over 18,000 refugees from Iraq. Those who are wary of bringing in refugees from Syria because they may include subversives, might remember the same could have been said of the Hungarians, Vietnamese, Czechs and Iraqis.

We cannot make a major dent in the numbers of Syrians seeking refuge, but we can at least match our generosity during past crises and offer thousands of individuals and families some hope for the future. While the coalition of the willing to "degrade and destroy" spends an estimated ten million dollars a day bombing ISIS, the U.N. World Food Program has had to suspend assistance to 1.7 million Syrian refugees due to lack of funds. Rather than participate in the killing, I would prefer we offer a home to those the killing has made homeless. This is not, I hope, now out of tune with our country's new-found militarism.

25 November 2014

Pipelines in every direction

Our new premier, Jim Prentice, claims he is committed to making Alberta an environmental leader. That's on Sundays, just after church. The rest of the week his commitments lie elsewhere. He made that plain in a speech to the Economic Club last week when he declared his goal is to see pipelines built in every possible direction. The Northern Gateway gushing oil west, Keystone gushing oil south and Energy East gushing oil to the Maritimes apparently isn't enough. "One of the alternatives that has been discussed and is said to be technically feasible," said Mr. Prentice, "is exporting Alberta's crude via existing port facilities in Alaska."

Squaring environmental leadership with tar sands oil spewing out of the province north, south, east and west is an exercise in intellectual gymnastics that only a conservative would attempt. But environmental leadership is tough for politicos. It means taking on the fossil fuel industries, among the most powerful forces in our society. And when oil, including the dreadful tar sands, is a major creator of profits, taxes and jobs, it is so much easier to just go with the crude.

Going green can also be a major creator of profits, taxes and jobs, but that bird is still in the bush in this country, so politicians opt for the bird in the hand. It will mean global temperatures advancing ever upwards and that will mean a brutal cost for society, including the economy, to be paid by our children and grandchildren.

But our children and grandchildren won't be voting in the next election, so for Mr. Prentice and his federal colleagues it's full speed ahead with pipelines in every direction. And for the environment? Theoretical leadership.

24 November 2014

The Conservatives sabotage NAFTA

The road to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) began under a Conservative government and has been championed by Conservatives ever since. Surprising then that they should treat it with such contempt.

Not all of it, of course, definitely not the part that benefits the corporate sector, just the environmental part. Side agreements were attached to NAFTA to protect workers and the environment, something of an afterthought as a gesture to those who thought trade agreements should serve more than just business interests. The environmental agreement never had much in the way of muscle. It established the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), a trinational monitoring body designed to ensure that international trade wouldn't undermine enforcement of environmental protection. It has a meager budget and limited power to make recommendations which, in any case, aren't binding.

Even this isn't weak enough for our federal government. Mexico has 38 members on its advisory committee to the CEC and the U.S. 12. Our government no longer even bothers to appoint members to a committee.

Earlier this year, the CEC secretariat recommended a factual record on Canada's lack of enforcement of the Fisheries Act be prepared. This was in response to a petition by several groups who claimed the government was violating Section 36 of the Act, which reads "no person shall deposit or permit the deposit of a deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish," by permitting over 100 industrial salmon feedlots on the B.C. coast. The government has stated it will simply ignore the decision of the CEC. Furthermore, it intends to remove Section 36 from the Act.

In 2010, environmentalists petitioned the CEC regarding tar sands tailing ponds, claiming the ponds are leaking billions of gallons of toxic waste water and the federal government is failing to enforce its own laws and regulations. The CEC agreed there was sufficient evidence to justify an investigation. The CEC Council, make up of the environmental ministers of the three countries, must now decide whether or not to proceed. Our government is not only refusing to co-operate, it is fighting to prevent the investigation from happening.

The government's recalcitrance is curious considering that it claims tar sands tailings are being responsibly handled. And even more curious when you consider that any recommendations the CEC might make following an investigation are unenforceable anyway. When it comes to defending corporate interests, most particularly tar sands interests, it seems that in the eyes of the government even NAFTA can be violated.

19 November 2014

The legitimate anger of the jihadis

As the season of wallowing in warrior worship wanes, we might think upon those warriors we love to hate—the young Muslim men from around the globe migrating (or trying to migrate) to the Middle East to fight for ISIS.

Their motivation is much discussed. Some, alienated from their society, seem driven by nothing more than a desperate search for meaning in their lives. The mentally-unbalanced, drug-addicted, homeless Michael Zehaf-Bibeau serves as an example. Others seem to simply want to participate in society, any society, in a meaningful way. Such is likely the case for youth in the Middle East and elsewhere where unemployment is rampant and the prospect of doing anything constructive for themselves or others is bleak.

And then there is another quite reasonable motivation not driven by desperation. It is dead easy to understand why any young Muslim who is aware of the treatment of his co-coreligionists in the Middle East over the past century would be deeply angry. I can get angry about it myself and I'm an atheist. Consider the invasion of Iraq: tens of thousands of innocents dead, millions of refugees driven from their homes and entire cites reduced to rubble. All this as a result of a Western aggression based on lies. And then there is the endless oppression of the Palestinians about whom the West often seems largely indifferent.

Hamilton lawyer Hussein Hamdan, an active member of the city’s Muslim community, has had considerable success in dissuading young men from joining groups like ISIS. He begins his counseling by recognizing their anger. "What we need to do is show them that whatever grievances they feel are legitimate," he said, "But if you really want to make a difference … you have to do something that pleases your creator."

Not all young Muslims will accept Mr. Hamdan's advice to reject violent jihad, even violence as thoroughly evil as ISIS, but in this country there are many alternatives for legitimate expression of dissent. These young men should be instructed in how to employ them and encouraged to do so. The West has committed many sins against the Middle East over the past century and honestly recognizing the grievances that result should be part of our policy toward that benighted region.

18 November 2014

Energy East—another reason why we need Quebec

Among the arguments that might be made to keep Quebec in Canada is simply that it's our most progressive province. One can cite ample of evidence for this: it showed the strongest support for the Kyoto Accord and gay marriage, it has the most advanced child care program, it is probably the major reason we said no to the Iraq war ... the list goes on.

Earlier this month, the province demonstrated its progressive credentials once again. Quebec's National Assembly called on the provincial government to exercise its environmental jurisdiction over TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline. The resolution, which passed unanimously, is effectively a vote of non-confidence in the National Energy Board's review process for the pipeline.

It stated two specific concerns: first, the NEB doesn't consider the environmental impact of producing the crude that will flow through the pipeline; and second, the federal government still hasn't adopted carbon emission regulations for the oil and gas sector.

What the NEB is in effect ignoring is the 650,000 or more barrels per day of production from the tar sands that the pipeline will carry and the attendant generation of an additional 30 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year (the equivalent of adding more than seven million cars to Canada’s roads). A review that ignores the emissions the project will facilitate would seem to be not much of a review at all.

While the federal government has lost interest in regulating emissions from the oil and gas sector, Quebec it seems has not. Nor is it willing to overlook the upstream emissions resulting from pipelines. A sensible position that other provinces should emulate, regardless of the merit of Energy East.

17 November 2014

The G-20's failure on growth

There are, in my humble opinion, two overwhelming threats to humanity, either one of which will undermine global civilization if not dealt with adequately and quickly. The recent G-20 conference dealt with one—climate change—but not only ignored the other, it pushed us further down that path to Armageddon.

Article 19 of the Leaders’ Communiqué from the conference read:
We support strong and effective action to address climate change. Consistent with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its agreed outcomes, our actions will support sustainable development, economic growth, and certainty for business and investment. We will work together to adopt successfully a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the UNFCCC that is applicable to all parties at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in 2015. We encourage parties that are ready to communicate their intended nationally determined contributions well in advance of COP21 (by the first quarter of 2015 for those parties ready to do so). We reaffirm our support for mobilising finance for adaptation and mitigation, such as the Green Climate Fund.
Very good stuff indeed—if, of course, it translates into action. But notice in the second sentence "our actions will support ... economic growth." This deals with the second great threat: resource depletion. We cannot have the "sustainable development" the communiqué promises if we continue to exhaust the planet's resources faster than it can replenish them, and that unfortunately is exactly what we are doing. We are now well beyond the Earth's ability to satisfy our demands upon it.

Growth, in the sense the G-20 uses it, i.e. GDP growth, must stop or we will suck our planet dry. Yet, what is the conversation about growth among the world's leaders? More of it. While they have at least recognized the threat of climate change, even if they aren't doing nearly enough about it, they seem to be completely oblivious to the threat of resource depletion. Tragically, our leaders do not seem ready yet to fully accept the inevitable consequences of our profligate ways.

11 November 2014

PEACE


05 November 2014

Oh my God! The Japanese make better whisky than the Scots!

A year of firsts for whiskey. For instance, it's the first time in the 12-year history of the World Whisky Bible's rankings that a Scottish malt has failed to make the top five. Depressing news for the Scots. And it gets worse. Much, much worse—it is also the first time the top whisky was distilled in Japan.

The grand accolade was taken by Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, from the Suntory company's Yamazaki distillery near Kyoto. The next three spots were taken by American bourbons. And then, to add insult to injury, the prize for best European whisky went to Chapter 14 Not Peated from the English Whisky Company (take that you Scottish separatists).

The Whisky Bible is produced by Jim Murray, arguably the world's foremost expert on whisky. According to Murray (yes, he's English), the winning dram possesses "a nose of exquisite boldness” and is as “thick, dry, [and] as rounded as a snooker ball," whatever the hell all that means.

I'm not a whisky drinker myself, but I wouldn't mind trying a sip of that Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013. And a sip is about all I could afford. It's priced at $180 a bottle, a tad out of my price range, and in any case only 18,000 bottles have been made so not much chance of one coming my way. I will have to resort to my own favourite brew, Big Rock Brewery's Traditional Ale, to help me commiserate with the Scots.

04 November 2014

Naheed Nenshi—world's best mayor?

Recently, Canada suffered through the pain and embarrassment of having the world's worst mayor. Is it possible we can now rise above the humiliation with the world's best mayor?

Calgary's mayor Naheed Nenshi has made the short list for the 2014 World Mayor Prize, awarded every two years to a mayor "who has made outstanding contributions to his and her community and has developed a vision for urban living and working that is relevant to towns and cities across the world."

The prize is awarded every two years by the City Mayors Foundation, a non-profit international think tank that "encourages city leaders from across the world to develop innovative and sustainable solutions to long-standing urban challenges such as governance, society, housing, transport, education and employment." Anyone can vote for a mayor as long as he or she includes "a thoughtful supporting statement."

A first round of voting has shortlisted 26 candidates including Mayor Nenshi. The Foundation's board of fellows will now choose the winner based on the number of votes and "the strength and passion of supporting testimonials.”

The Mayor is a worthy candidate. He has both an academic and pragmatic grasp of what makes modern cities work along with the common touch—a gracious man who understands the ordinary person. If he wins, and I'm betting on him, he will be the first Canadian to be so honoured.

31 October 2014

Democracy inches along in Tunisia

The Arab spring, one of the most encouraging events from a democratic perspective in recent years, has unfortunately mostly failed. Egypt, the most important Arab country, and the country where democrats' hopes where highest, has lapsed back into an increasingly oppressive military dictatorship. But one country, the one where it all started, continues to follow a democratic path.

Tunisia recently held its second election since the overthrow of the autocratic Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. The election was by all accounts free and fair with a decent turnout (60 per cent). A liberal party, Nida Tunis, won the most seats, replacing the moderate Islamist Ennahda as the dominant party in parliament and gaining the right to name a prime minister and lead a coalition government. It has ruled out a coalition with the Islamists, turning instead to a collection of smaller parties.

The country faces serious problems, particularly economic. For instance, youth unemployment of around 34 per cent is turning young people off politics, not a good sign when these were the very people who provoked the revolution. Nonetheless, the democratic experiment is progressing well.

True, Tunisia has advantages other Arab countries do not: no sectarian, ethnic, religious or tribal divides to speak of; a largely urbanized and educated population; a substantial middle class and a thriving civil society. Pessimistically, without the same advantages, other Arab nations may be immersed in a world of violent Islamists, military dictatorships, corrupt theocracies and oppressive monarchies for a long time. Optimistically, the fully-fledged democracy of Tunisia will inspire them as an example of a better way. It offers hope. Western governments should embrace and support it.

MacKay makes the right noises

With all the feverish reaction from politicians and a good part of the media to the two recent "terrorist" incidents, it is encouraging to hear Justice Minister Peter McKay say some of the right things, specifically that the law already has the tools it needs to deal with these kind of crimes. No need for muscling up the cops. "There are already some pretty robust measures that we can use [that] allow for the type of preventive … interventions—if I can use that word—for the police," he told reporters.

He referred to Section 83.3 of the Criminal Code, which allows for preventive arrests, and Section 810, which deals with peace bonds. Human rights lawyer Paul Copeland observed that Section 83.3, "could have been applied and should have been applied to Mr. Couture-Rouleau, and it probably would have stopped him from doing what he did."

MacKay also seemed to dismiss the idea, rumoured around Ottawa, that the government might try to eliminate the requirement that a judge sign off on a Section 83.3 order, giving discretion solely to the minister of public safety. "I always would come down on the side of judicial oversight before you would make any interventions,” he said. That sounds about right.

Now if he can only talk some sense into Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney who is not only proceeding with Bill C-44, which expands the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), but has promised yet more legislation dealing with "terrorism." Blaney is the guy who once insisted that terrorism was "the leading threat to Canada's national security," overlooking such minor threats as nuclear war, traffic accidents, climate change, the flu, domestic abuse, and so on and on. What we need at this time is more oversight over our spies, not more power for them. Let us hope that Mr. MacKay's bout of rationalism infects Mr. Blaney.

30 October 2014

About those Canadian values

The shooting spree by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau on Parliament Hill that resulted in the death of soldier Nathan Cirillo has resulted in a rush of rhetoric about a threat to Canadian values. As I commented in a previous post, Zehaf-Bibeau's rampage was no such thing. The idea that an irrational act of violence by a mentally-unbalanced crack addict is some kind of threat to our values is ludicrous. As has been remarked by others, this event represents less a terrorist issue than a mental health issue.

An interesting take on Canadian values does emerge from the aftermath of the rampage. The death of Cirillo has been treated with extraordinary pomp and ceremony by our federal government—flags at half-mast across the country, wreaths at the war memorial, the prime minister at the funeral, a hero's commemoration for a man who had in fact done nothing heroic.

The same day as the tragedy in Ottawa, a young woman was found beaten to death on a bike path in Longueuil, Quebec. Understandably her murder received less attention than the excitement in the nation's capital, but why one wonders does her remembrance deserve so little, the soldier's so much?

"Terrorist" murder, if that's what Cirillo's death was, is no threat to Canadian values, but violence against women most certainly is, particularly against aboriginal women. An RCMP report detailed 1,181 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women since 1980. They are three times more likely to become victims of violence than other Canadian women. All the premiers, the Assembly of First Nations, and the UN’s special rapporteur on indigenous rights have all asked for a national inquiry. The federal government flatly refuses.

So, what Canadian values are displayed here? The death of one soldier merits lavish ceremony, but the deaths of hundreds of Native women merit not even an inquiry. A threat to this set of values would be welcome.

23 October 2014

Terrorist or misfit?

Canada doesn’t often capture the attention of the world’s media, but Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, with his murderous rampage on Parliament Hill Wednesday, has managed to put us on front pages around the globe. And who exactly is Michael Zehaf-Bibeau? Well, so far we know that he’s a 32-year old man with criminal records in two provinces who recently converted to a radical sect of Islam that preaches violence. In short, he’s a misfit.

Nonetheless, for someone who has heretofore accomplished little in life he has our leaders waxing eloquent about Canadian values and threats to same. PM Harper warns us about "attacks on our country, on our values. on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people,” but assures us, “We will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated." Mr. Mulcair, too, is resolute in his patriotism, "Canada is shaken today but we shall not waver. We woke up this morning in a country blessed by love, diversity and peace and tomorrow we will do the same. … We will persevere and we will prevail." And from Mr. Trudeau, “we have never bowed to those that mean to undermine our values and our way of life. We have remained Canadians and this is how we will carry on."

Really, gentlemen. Yes, an ugly murder was committed and more were narrowly averted, but the notion that this was a threat to Canada or Canadian values is ludicrous. When we behave as if it was, we play to the intentions of these misguided misfits, elevating their importance vastly beyond what they deserve. What happened on Parliament Hill was simply an act of wanton violence. Let us not give the perpetrator credit for anything more. Let us not build a tragic fool into a threat to the nation.

21 October 2014

When Khomeini said no to nukes

When Iran claims it is not developing nuclear weapons because they are incompatible with Islam, the U.S. and its European allies suggest this is mere propaganda. According to an article in Foreign Policy magazine, they simply don't understand how profoundly the Iranians hold this view for both historical and religious reasons.

The prohibition against chemical and nuclear weapons began with what was essentially a fatwa by the Islamic Republic's first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. During Iran's war with Iraq, both its civilians and soldiers were attacked with mustard and nerve gasses. Mohsen Rafighdoost, minister of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps under Khomeini, proposed that Iran develop both chemical and nuclear weapons. Khomeini forbade both as anathema to  Islam. Regarding chemical weapons, he pronounced, "It doesn't matter whether it is on the battlefield or in cities; we are against this. It is haram [forbidden] to produce such weapons. You are only allowed to produce protection." Prohibiting retaliation in kind against Iraq's use of chemical weapons put Iran's military at a major disadvantage and contributed to the decision to accept a cease-fire in 1988.

As to nuclear weapons, the Supreme leader told Rafighdoost, "We don't want to produce nuclear weapons. Send these scientists to the Atomic Energy Organization." The Atomic Energy Organization is Iran's civilian nuclear-power agency.

Even though Khomeini's edicts against the use or production of chemical and nuclear weapons was never written down, Rafighdoost took it as a fatwa—a judgment on Islamic jurisprudence by a qualified Islamic scholar. Because it was issued by the nation's "guardian jurist," it is state policy, legally binding on the government. The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, has maintained the fatwa.

The significance of the Iranians claim they are not attempting to develop nuclear weapons has been demonstrated by their willingness to risk the loss of a war against a merciless enemy rather than take that step. One could hardly observe better proof. When the allies were faced with a similar fate in WWII, they never hesitated in both developing and using the nuclear option, an interesting moral contrast.

17 October 2014

Saudi Arabia—beheading capital of the world

Of all the atrocities committed by the Islamic State, the ones that got the most attention were the very public beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker. Beheading is indeed a sordid act. And yet we remain on excellent terms with the beheading champion of the world. Saudi Arabia, good friend of Western nations and member of the U.S. coalition against the Islamic State, has publicly beheaded 59 people so far this year, for crimes including adultery, sorcery—yes, sorcery—drug smuggling, murder and, this is Saudi Arabia after all, political dissent.

Beheadings are a popular event in the Kingdom of the Sauds. According to one wit, they are the only form of public entertainment aside from football matches. Nor does the entertainment necessarily end with the decapitation. For certain crimes, the corpse is crucified, the head mounted above the body, where it will be left for public view for up to four days. The executions are generally clean but not always. For example, when Rizana Nafeek, a 24-year-old Sri Lankan maid accused of murdering her employer’s 4-month-old son (she claimed the baby choked on its milk bottle), swayed from side to side, the chopping took a very messy turn.

Lighter entertainment allows the public to witness the hacking off of other body parts—hands, legs—depending on the crime. According to one of the state executioners, Mohammed Saad al-Beshi, if it is a hand he cuts at a joint and if it is a leg he explains, "the authorities specify where it is to be taken off, so I follow that."

Currently awaiting execution for "sedition" and "disobeying" the kingdom's rulers is the prominent Shia religious leader and anti-government protester Nimr al-Nimr. Most of the country's Shia minority live in the east which also happens to be home to most of the country's vast oil reserves. They have long alleged severe discrimination by the Wahhabi majority who dominate religious institutions, the courts and education. Nimr is paying the price of their dissent.

So while we rightly condemn the Islamic State for its atrocious beheadings, this barbaric, misogynous regime remains our bosom friend, the United States and Britain's favourite customer for arms sales and a country to whom we are trying to increase our own weapons traffic. Of course, the victims of the Islamic State were innocents but then, given the quality of Saudi justice, so might victims such as Rizana Nafeek and Nimr al-Nimr.

Oh, what a difference a barrel of oil makes.

16 October 2014

Will we have to bomb the Shias now?

We are all familiar with the depravity of the Islamic State. Tragically, some of their foes are also descending into the moral depths. According to a report by Amnesty International, Shia militias, often armed and supported by the Iraqi government, "have been abducting and killing Sunni civilian men in Baghdad and around the country." Their complicity with government forces ranges "from tacit consent to coordinated, or even joint, operations."

Although the abductions and killings are often retaliation for Islamic State atrocities against Shias, they frequently have a more mercenary purpose. After abducting a young man, the militias extort his family. Many families report paying hefty ransoms "only to discover that their loved one had been killed." Even the retaliatory attacks often sweep up Sunnis not connected to the Islamic State but who simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One story illustrates the hopeless situation of many Iraqis. A man whose family fled the Islamic State and are afraid to return frequently visits Fallujah to check on his house and property. "Only I can go, he says, "because I am old. My sons cannot go. It would be too dangerous for them. They could be killed by Shia militias on the road between Baghdad and Fallujah, as they treat anyone going to or coming from Fallujah as a terrorist and often kill people on that road. And the IS gangs in Fallujah would consider my sons as government collaborators because they left Fallujah and are living in Baghdad."

The Shia militias are formidable, the largest containing tens of thousands of fighters, their power growing as the Iraqi army collapsed. They can operate like regular armed forces but with impunity.

According to Amnesty, "The existence of these sectarian, unregulated and unaccountable militias is both a cause and a result of the country’s growing insecurity and instability. They preclude any possibility of establishing effective and accountable security and armed forces able and willing to protect all sectors of the population." Amnesty insists that the Iraqi government must get them under control, but one wonders if that is any longer possible.

Iraq is in a state of collapse. Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and the Islamic State are now involved in a godawful civil war over the spoils. The American coalition's notion that it can do any good here may be nothing more than hubris run wild, turning a Middle Eastern war into an international one with no possible idea of where it will all end. And that prompts the question, Where does our participation end, and what can we possibly hope to achieve out of this mess?

15 October 2014

Will Republicans believe their military on climate change?

The American Republican Party is a major obstacle to the United States acting responsibly on climate change. In the manner of our federal government, they do not allow science to interfere with their dogma. But while they have little use for science, they are great admirers of the military, so is it possible they will start listening to the Pentagon when it comes to climate change?

If they will, there's hope for them, and their country, yet. According to the Pentagon, global warming is changing the way the U.S. military trains for and goes to war. Strategic planners have long believed that climate change has the potential to provoke hostilities over migration and food shortages, make old conflicts worse, and present new military challenges in the Arctic.

In a Pentagon report that came out just this week, Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel wrote, "A changing climate will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions. We are considering the impacts of climate change in our war games and defence planning scenarios." The report pointed out that military installations and personnel are already exposed to climate change. For example, Virginia's Hampton Roads area, which contains the country's largest concentration of military forces and already floods during high tides and severe storms, could see sea levels rise half a metre over the next 20 years. Military bases in the southwest face water and electricity shortages due to droughts, and Arctic installations are shifting because of melting permafrost. The Pentagon is worried about global warming before they even rev up a tank, and their concerns increase along with climate change.

So will the Republicans pay attention to their fighting men? If nothing else will convince them of the seriousness of global warming, will a threat to their ability to fight wars do the job? So far it has not. Republicans have used their majority in the House of Representatives to preclude efforts by the Pentagon to adjust to global warming. For a party obsessed with national security, they have displayed a remarkable disdain for their country's greatest threat. Let us hope for all our sakes that as their military increasingly sounds the alarm, they will be forced to accept the inconvenient truth.

UK MPs vote overwhelmingly to recognize State of Palestine

It was overwhelming. British MPs voted 274 to 12 this week in support of a motion to recognize Palestine as a state. The vote was only symbolic, as it isn't binding on the government, nonetheless it sends a clear message on how sentiment is going in the UK and elsewhere on the Palestine issue.

MPs from both sides of the House supported the motion, some making it very clear why. Conservative chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, Richard Ottaway, long a strong supporter of Israel, said, "The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life. It has made me look a fool and that is something I deeply resent."

Although the vote does not bind the government, it should accept the clear will of the House of Commons and officially recognize the State of Palestine, as134 other countries have done. And so should our government. We, like the UK, believe in a two-state solution to the Palestine issue. It is simply churlish therefore not to accept Palestine's peaceful accession to statehood. Instead we adopt uncritically the Israeli line that a Palestinian state only be recognized at the successful conclusion of negotiations between the two sides. But as former British foreign minister Jack Straw said this week, "Such an approach would give the Israelis a veto over whether a Palestinian state should exist." And as Palestine has no veto over a Jewish state, it is pure hypocrisy to allow Israel a veto over a Palestinian state.

Furthermore, all the leverage in negotiations lies with the Israelis. They have the most powerful military in the region, equipped with nuclear weapons and backed up by the most powerful nation in the world. And they control most of the territory and the water. When one side holds all the cards, demanding the other party negotiate with them is nothing more than demanding they submit, that they accept any crumbs they're offered. Naturally, this holds little appeal for the Palestinians.

The British MPs have done the right thing. Now it is up to their government to follow suit. And for ours as well.

09 October 2014

Mr. Harper, listen to the Commish

She's your commissioner, Mr. Harper, appointed under your watch. She is a former mining industry executive, the kind of credentials you respect. So when she speaks, pay attention. And she recently spoke loud and clear.

As federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Julie Gelfand heads her department's Fall 2014 report, which is not at all pleased with your government's greenhouse gas emissions record. No doubt, you have read the report and encountered the following scolding:
Overall, we found that federal departments have made unsatisfactory progress in each of the four areas examined. Despite some advances since our 2012 audit, timelines for putting measures in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have not been met and departments are not yet able to assess whether measures in place are reducing emissions as expected. We also found that Environment Canada lacks an approach for coordinating actions with the provinces and territories to achieve the national target, and an effective planning process for how the federal government will contribute to achieving the Copenhagen target. In 2012, we concluded that the federal regulatory approach was unlikely to lead to emission reductions sufficient to meet the 2020 Copenhagen target. Two years later, the evidence is stronger that the growth in emissions will not be reversed in time and that the target will be missed.
In short, you are failing to meet your own target for emissions reductions, your government doesn't know how to meet it, and your approach wouldn't have worked in the first place.

It's a sorry story, Mr. Harper, and it isn't coming from those radical, foreign-funded environmentalists. It's coming from your own government's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. So listen up.

Calgary inches closer to a charter

In 1867, Canada's founding fathers created two levels of constitutional government—provincial and federal. The municipal level didn't make the cut. This was excusable at the time. Over 80 per cent of Canadians lived on farms and in villages, so local government seemed rather unimportant in the grand scheme of things and was left to the tender mercies of the provinces.

How things have changed. Today, over 80 per cent of Canadians live in towns and cities. In Alberta, over half the population lives in just two cities: Calgary and Edmonton. Arguably now more important than provinces, cities are the centres of politics, social life and commerce—our major wealth creators. They deserve recognition and power accordingly.

In an initial attempt to recognize their new importance, the Alberta government signed an agreement in principle in 2012 to establish charters for Calgary and Edmonton. The charters would grant the cities more powers and change the way they are funded. This week the charters moved a step closer when new premier Jim Prentice signed a framework agreement with the Calgary and Edmonton mayors to work toward formalizing the charters, the details to be finalized by spring 2016. "Calgary and Edmonton face serious infrastructure deficits," said Mr. Prentice. "They need the freedom to come up with innovative, homegrown solutions."

Other Canadian cities—Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver among them—have charters, but theirs, like Calgary and Edmonton's, don't release them from constitutional subservience to provinces. Provincial governments retain the right to bestow authority on cities, and the right to take it away. A charter granted to Halifax in 1841 was extinguished by the provincial government on April 1st, 1999—April Fool's Day.

Nonetheless, charters will enhance Calgary and Edmonton's abilities to govern themselves even as they remain creatures of the provinces. Ideally, cities would be brought into the Constitution as, in fact, Lord Durham recommended in his famous report of 1838. But we are all aware of the current level of enthusiasm for constitutional change.

So this baby step is to be welcomed. We will remain for the foreseeable future an urban nation lumbered with a distribution of powers from a rural age, but we are nonetheless moving, albeit very slowly, in the right direction.

07 October 2014

Pity the Americans—running an empire ain't easy

Running an empire is tough. There are always tribesmen out on the fringes who fail to appreciate that you are bringing them civilization. In their lack of gratitude, they act up, and you are forced to send in the legions to bring them to heel. Such has been the case throughout history, from the Roman Empire to the British Empire and now for the American Empire. The need for war is perpetual.

The American Empire is different in that it doesn't colonize the lands of those it conquers—well, not any more, anyway. It is content to maintain an extensive network of military bases throughout the world from which to suppress threats to its power and safeguard access to resources. With hundreds of bases worldwide, the U.S. military deploys over a quarter of a million personnel in over 150 countries.

This empire is also different in possessing a new vulnerability. Previous empires always had a secure homeland, a place the empire-builders could return to after toiling away at their imperialist work and find sanctuary. But due to modern communications and transportation that is no longer the case. On September 11th, 2001, for example, recalcitrant tribesmen struck at the very heart of the Empire, striking the fear of God (or Allah) into its citizens. Never before had an empire suffered such vulnerability at the height of its powers. The ingrates, it seems, can now do to you in your backyard what you are doing to them in their backyard.

So pity the U.S. The job of running an empire is tougher than ever. And yet, at the risk of sounding callous, I must say I am completely lacking in sympathy.

06 October 2014

CEO pay—how much is too much?

The American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) has compiled a list of CEO compensation in 19 developed countries and the results are of considerable interest to Canadians. It turns out that the ratio of our CEO's pay to that of the average worker is second highest of the group, behind only—no surprise—the U.S.A. The average Canadian CEO makes over two hundred times the pay of the average Canadian worker (the average American CEO makes 354 times as much). The average Canadian CEO pulls in $8,704,118 while the average worker makes $42,253. The CEO pay package includes salary, bonuses, stock awards and other perks.

In Norway, with workers making about the same as Canadians, the ratio is only 58 to one. In Germany, where workers also make about the same as Canadians, the ratio is 147 to one, high by European standards but substantially less than North America.

One wonders what we get for our money. Norway has a highly successful economy, yet they only need to pay their top execs a third of what ours get. Germany is arguably the most successful industrial nation in the world, its companies superbly managed, and their CEOs receive only two-thirds the compensation of our overpaid lot. The answer I suppose lies in our proximity to the U.S., the most inequitable country in the developed world, a very bad but highly influential example. In 1965 the ratio of CEO to average employee in the U.S. was only 20 to one. Are CEOs really seventeen times better than they were back then?

A large part of the reason the gap is tolerated is that people grossly underestimate what CEOs receive. For example, a recent study, How Much (More) Should CEOs Make? by Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael I. Norton showed that Americans believe the ratio is about 30 to one but should be only about seven to one when in fact it is 354 to one. This gross discrepancy between what people think is fair, what they believe executive compensation to be, and what it actually is, is universal. If people around the world ever discover the reality about what CEOs are making, we may see an equally universal demand for a maximum wage.

05 October 2014

Are we too dumb for democracy?

Hey, the above is not my line. I plagiarized it from a CBC article about a new thesis from the University of B.C. that suggests our brains aren't up to the rational, autonomous thinking required for democracy. Ph.D. political science candidate David Moscrop says voters across the political spectrum tend to vote with instinct rather than reason, i.e. with their "lizard brains," that ancient part of the brain responsible for instinct and emotion, i.e. gut feelings.

I'm not so sure I would write off the voters' capacity for rational, autonomous thinking too readily, although the force that drives us politically, that make us progressive or conservative, is certainly not reason. In any case, one point where I agree completely with the young Mr. Moscrop is with his strong support for “deliberative” democracy, i.e. providing opportunities for citizens of all political views to gather, discuss and debate issues, and using the results to influence politicians and educate other citizens.

When citizens act as a community, rather than as isolated individuals, they are much more likely to support rational policies and indeed more democratic ones. That is why I have long advocated for citizen assemblies. Randomly selected groups of citizens can represent a town, province or nation in microcosm, bringing together a full range of views. Released from the grip of party loyalty and its tribal instincts, and from manipulative media, they are free to deal with their fellow participants on an equal, open, intimate and informal basis, more willing to allow the heartfelt views of others to influence their own. Provided with comprehensive packages of information and access to experts, such assemblies can produce policies underlain by passion but ultimately determined by reason and compromise.

We are smart enough to do democracy, but we need better structures than we have now, structures that allow for well-informed citizens deliberating equally as members of a community.

03 October 2014

Who is "part of the problem," Mr. Cameron?

Recently British PM David Cameron, even while encouraging Iran to help deal with ISIS, couldn't resist taking a shot at the country. In his UN speech, he stated superciliously that Iran can be "part of the solution, not part of the problem." Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, took umbrage, declaring the remark "wrong and unacceptable." A spokeswoman for Iran's foreign ministry, Marzieh Afkham, was rather more caustic: “The speech by the British prime minister at the UN general assembly shows the perpetuation of the egocentric attitude of a government which has a history of [causing] trouble in our region.”

The lady has a point. Britain does have a long history of making trouble in the Middle East, particularly for Iran. In the 20th century it invaded Iran twice. In the 1950s, it collaborated with the U.S. in overthrowing Iranian democracy. Most recently, it participated in the coalition that invaded Iran's neighbour, an invasion that ultimately lead in no small part to the creation of ISIS.

Britain has complained about the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons while hypocritically possessing nuclear weapons itself for no apparent reason but to strut on the world stage. Might we believe it is more responsible as a nuclear power than Iran would be? Well, Iran hasn't invaded anybody in two centuries while Britain has invaded other people all over the map, including Iran, fairly regularly during the same period.

It would seem, Mr. Cameron, that your country is rather more a part of the problem than Iran.

02 October 2014

It will be lonely without the animals

We are a rapacious species. Since we first walked out of Africa we have been decimating our neighbours. Today, according to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report 2014, we are annihilating other species on a grand scale. The report claims we have reduced the numbers of other animals in the world to half what they were 40 years ago. The numbers are based on measuring representative populations of more than 10,000 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish around the globe.

And how do we do this? Where to begin. We do it by destroying their habitats.We clear too many forests for lumber and for farms. We exhaust too many rivers to irrigate crops, and we spray too many pesticides and fertilizers. We pave over too many meadows for streets and parking lots. We introduce too many alien species that overwhelm local species. We poach and hunt and fish excessively.

We just demand too much, much more than our fair share, and the Earth can no longer satisfy our demands. According to the report, it would take 1.5 Earths to satisfy our current appetite for the planet's resources. Unfortunately, we only have one at our disposal. Some of us are much more demanding than others. For example, if everyone on the globe lived at the same standard as Canadians, we would need more like four planets.

As other species' numbers decline ours steadily increase. Not only do we demand more and more, but there are more and more of us demanding it. Yet one thing never changes—human society depends entirely on the environment. If we don't come to terms with the other species on Earth, we have no future.

Hong Kong—a people who actually care about democracy

North Americans don't seem to care much about democracy. Canadians don't, and our good neighbours the Americans don't. We enjoy considerable freedoms along with our electoral systems of government, but our systems are hardly democratic, and it doesn't seem to bother us. If it did, we would never tolerate them.

Observation of the American system suggests a plutocracy, not a democracy. A recent study entitled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, by Martins Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, which analyzes what influences the U.S. federal government, confirmed this. The study states, "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."

The rich have excessive influence in our governments as well, if not to the same extent as with our southern neighbour, and even our method of choosing leaders is undemocratic. Our federal government, for example, is run by a political party that over 60 per cent of voters did not want running the country. This condition of governments being run by parties who have the support of only a minority of the people is also endemic among the provinces. A people who truly cared for democracy would never put up with this mockery of democratic process.

This lack of concern about the lack of democracy is depressing. It is therefore refreshing to observe the passionate interest in democratic process currently being displayed by the citizens of Hong Kong. A decree by China that candidates for chief executive must be endorsed by a special nominating body in Beijing before before they are allowed to run for office has brought massive numbers of Hong Kong citizens into the streets. The protesters, led not surprisingly by students, demand fully democratic elections.

This pro-democracy movement, known as the "umbrella revolution," is gathering international support, with solidarity demonstrations popping up in Australia, Canada and the U.S. Yes, even in Canada and the U.S. Perhaps if Hong Kong residents ever escape the autocratic clutches of Beijing, and that may take a very long time, they will ultimately become as jaded about democracy as we are, but in the meantime their enthusiasm warms the heart of this old democrat.