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Canada Back to the Middle

There’s an old joke that goes: Why did the Canadian cross the road? Answer: to get to the middle of the road. Likewise (so they say) if you cut the average Canadian open you would find two words engraved on his or her heart. One would be “moderate”. The other would be “nice”.

Stephen Harper, who was four months short of 10 years in office as prime minister when he was swept out of power in Monday’s election, was a moderate right-wing politician, although he pretended to be a hard right one. Six of his 10 budgets were in deficit, and he ended up adding $CAD150 billion ($159 billion) to Canada’s national debt.

Even when faced with a global recession, that’s not what hard-right politicians do. Similarly, the New Democratic Party (NDP) is a very moderate left-wing party by anybody’s standards (except those of Americans) – and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have always believed that they owned the middle of the road. The 78-day election campaign, which was a tight three-horse race until the last couple of weeks, was not about ideology at all. It was about political style. Stephen Harper didn’t do “nice”. His default setting was “nasty”, and he positively revelled in it.

He was a control freak who instinctively tried to hurt and smear those who disagreed with him, and in his government even the time of day was a state secret. His attack ads against rival politicians were vicious, he was visibly contemptuous of journalists and the opposition parties, and he almost took pride in being disliked. In fact, Harper once joked that he couldn’t even get his friends to like him, but that was only a half-truth. He had no real friends in Canadian politics, even in his own Conservative Party.

Yet he stayed at the top of national politics for almost a decade because he actually ran a reasonably effective government that shielded Canadians from the worst effects of the post-2008 recession. His manner was unpleasant, but he was no radical. Harper never even won 40 per cent of the popular vote, but that wasn’t necessary in a three-party system where no party ever achieves that holy grail of politics.

Even in the midst of the current pro-Liberal “landslide” – 186 seats out of 338 seats in parliament – the Liberal Party won only 39.5 per cent percent of the popular vote. What finally defeated Harper was the fact that enough Canadians had grown sick of the nastiness that they were willing to vote for whichever party had the best chance of beating him. At the beginning of the election campaign that looked likely to be the NDP, but a typical piece of Harper nastiness took them down. The great niqab debate was what did the NDP in.

Only two Canadian Muslim women have ever insisted on wearing the face-covering during a citizenship ceremony, but the Conservatives turned banning niqabs into a “wedge issue” – and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said Muslim women should be allowed to wear them. So did the Liberal leader, actually, but it didn’t hurt Trudeau because identity politics is not a big thing in most parts of Canada.

It’s a huge thing in French-speaking Quebec, where the politics has been mostly about Quebec nationalism and separatism for two generations. Rival identities are not welcome in such an environment – and almost half the NDP’s seats were in Quebec. Eighty per cent of Quebecers wanted to ban the niqab, and when Mulcair said he opposed a ban the party’s support there collapsed. A typically nasty piece of political manipulation, but in fact the Conservatives had been too clever.

Previously undecided voters whose only objective was getting rid of Harper swung behind the Liberals when they appeared to be the only party that could do the job. Harper might still be in office today if he had just let the two opposition parties split the anti-Harper vote evenly between them. There are times when nastiness just doesn’t pay.

In the end, Trudeau won just by being sunny, positive and nice. He talked a great deal about “change”, because that was what the anti-Harper voters wanted to hear, but he didn’t go into much detail.

Trudeau promised a few flagship policy changes to get people’s attention – pulling Canadian warplanes out of Iraq and Syria, slightly higher taxes for the rich and slightly lower taxes for the middle class, maybe legalising marijuana – but his core social and economic policies aren’t going to be radically different from Harper’s. They can’t be, because otherwise he’d have to leave the middle of the road. He will, however, be much nicer than Stephen Harper.

More Anti-Terrorism Laws

Left-wing, right-wing, it makes no difference. Almost every elected government, confronted with even the slightest “terrorist threat”, responds by attacking the civil liberties of its own citizens. And the citizens often cheer them on.

Last week, the French government passed a new bill through the National Assembly that vastly expanded the powers of the country’s intelligence services. French intelligence agents will now be free to plant cameras and recording devices in private homes and cars, intercept phone conversations without judicial oversight, even install “keylogger” devices that record every key stroke on a targeted computer in real time.

It was allegedly a response to the “Charlie Hebdo” attacks that killed 17 people in Paris last January, but the security services were just waiting for an excuse. Indeed, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the law was needed to give a legal framework to intelligence agents who are already pursuing some of these practices illegally. France, he explained, has never “had to face this kind of terrorism in our history.”

Meanwhile, over in Canada, Defence Minister Jason Kenney was justifying a similar over-reaction in by saying that “the threat of terrorism has never been greater.” Really?

In all the time since 9/11 there had never been a terrorist attack in Canada until last October, when two Canadian soldiers were killed in separate incidents. Both were low-tech, “lone wolf” attacks by Canadian converts to Islam – in one, the murder weapon was simply a car – but the public (or at least the media) got so excited that the government felt the need to “do something.”

The Anti-Terror Act, which has just passed the Canadian House of Commons, gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service the right to make “preventive” arrests in Canada. It lets police arrest and detain individuals without charge for up to seven days. The bill’s prohibitions on speech that “promotes or glorifies terrorism” are so broad and vague that any extreme political opinion can be criminalised.

In short, it’s the usual smorgasbord of crowd-pleasing measures that politicians throw out when they want to look tough. It won’t do much to stop terrorist attacks, but that doesn’t matter as the threat is pretty small anyway.

France has 65,000,000 million people, and it lost 17 of them to terrorism in the past year. Canada has 36,000,000 million people, and it has lost precisely 2 of them to domestic terrorism in the past twenty years. In what way were those lives more valuable than those of the hundreds of people who die each year in France and Canada from less newsworthy crimes of violence like murder?

Why haven’t they changed the law to stop more of those crimes? If you monitored everybody’s electronic communications all the time, and bugged their homes and cars, you could probably cut the murder rate in half. The price, of course, would be that you have to live in an Orwellian surveillance state, and we’re not willing to pay that price. Not just to cut the murder rate.

The cruel truth is that we put a higher value on the lives of those killed in terrorist attacks because they get more publicity. That’s why, in an opinion poll last month, nearly two-thirds of French people were in favor of restricting freedoms in the name of fighting extremism – and the French parliament passed the new security law by 438 votes to 86.

The government in France is Socialist, but the opposition centre-right supported the new law too. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in Canada is seriously right-wing, but the centre-right Liberals were equally unwilling to risk unpopularity by opposing it. On the other hand, the centre-left New Democrats and the Greens voted against, and the vote was closer in Canada: 183 to 96.

And the Canadian public, at the start 82 percent in favour of the new law, had a rethink during the course of the debate. By the time the Anti-Terror Act was passed in the House of Commons, 56 percent of Canadians were against it. Among Canadians between 18 and 34 years old, fully three-quarters opposed it.

Maybe the difference just reflects the smaller scale of the attacks in Canada, but full credit to Canadians for getting past the knee-jerk phase of their response to terrorism. Nevertheless, their parliament still passed the bill. So should we chalk all this up as two more victories for the terrorists, with an honourable mention for the Canadian public?

No, not really. Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and all the other jihadis don’t give a damn if Western democracies mutilate their own freedoms, as it doesn’t significantly restrict their own operations. The only real winners are the security forces.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Why…rate”)

The Danish Santa

Saint Nicholas (also known as Santa Claus, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas) has had to put up with a lot over the years. After the latest blow, he may not show up at all next week.

First they decided that he had to reside at the North Pole, where the temperature often falls to 50 degrees below zero and there are several months of complete darkness each year just when the work-load peaks. The south coast of what is now Turkey, where St. Nick originally lived and worked, was much nicer.

Then in a series of ads in the 1930s the Coca-Cola Company crystallised his image as a fat old man wearing clothes that are frankly a fashion disaster. And now, as a final indignity, they are trying to make him a Danish citizen.

On Monday, Denmark submitted documents claiming the North Pole as Danish territory (since the Danish kingdom includes Greenland). It was a “historic and important milestone” for Denmark, said Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard. It was also provocative and pointless, but he forgot to mention that.

The Danish government does not actually want or need the North Pole, and does not imagine that it would derive any practical benefit from “owning” it. It is just responding to the equally baseless Canadian declaration last December that the North Pole is sovereign Canadian territory, or at least that the seabed 4,000 metres beneath it is.

The way that claim came about is quite instructive. Canada has a huge archipelago of Arctic islands, and for years Canadian government scientists have been gathering evidence to support a Canadian claim to exclusive economic rights over the seabed of the Arctic Ocean adjacent to those islands. All five countries that border the Arctic Ocean have been preparing similar claims to the seabed off their own coasts.

Until last December, Canada made no claim to the North Pole. It was only days before the country was due to submit its final claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government finally woke up.

The claim wasn’t in the original submission because Canada has no real case in international law. Even if the Commission ends up accepting the contention by Russia, Canada and Denmark (on behalf of its Greenland territory) that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge extends their respective bits of the continental shelf into the central Arctic Ocean, the principle of “equidistance” would give the North Pole itself to the Danes or the Russians.

For the past nine years Prime Minister Harper has travelled to the Canadian Arctic every summer to give the Canadian media a “photo op”. He promises new ice-breakers and an Arctic naval base, he stands on a submarine as fighters fly overhead, he sits in the cockpit of a Canadian F-18, he shoots a rifle in a military exercise – every year a new image of him personally defending Canadian sovereignty from some unspecified threat.

There is no threat to Canadian territory, of course, and even in terms of seabed rights Canada’s only serious dispute is with the United States (over a bit of seabed north of the Yukon-Alaska border in the Beaufort Sea). But Harper’s pose as the staunch defender of Canadian “rights” serves his conservative, nationalist agenda and plays well with the Canadian media.

So when Harper’s minions belatedly realised that the government’s scientists and civil servants had not included the North Pole in Canada’s claim to the Commission, Harper slammed the brakes on and demanded that they rewrite it. He will have been told by the experts that Canada has no legal case – but he also knows that by the time that becomes clear to the public, many years from now, he will no longer be in office.

Canada didn’t submit its final claim last December after all. The poor boffins in Ottawa are struggling to reformulate it to include the North Pole, while Harper trumpets his determination to protect Canadian “rights”. And the Danes, who were previously willing to let sleeping dogs lie, have now responded by making their own rather more plausible claim.

The Russians may be next. President Vladimir Putin also likes to be photographed in the Arctic, surrounded by military kit and bravely defending Russian sovereignty. It’s getting ridiculous – but might it also be getting out of hand?

Probably not. There has been much loose talk about allegedly huge reserves of oil and gas under the Arctic seabed, but not much actual drilling is likely to happen in the challenging conditions of the Arctic Ocean when the oil price is below $80 per barrel. (It’s currently in the mid-$50s, and will probably be down there for a long time.)

There’s really nothing else up there that’s worth fighting over.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (*The claim…Russians”; and “There…media”)

Scotland Stays

A week ago, the “Kurdistan Times” warned that “the British are exercising the old colonialist tongue to control the minds and dampen the aspirations of Scottish people who want to vote Yes (to independence).” And lo! It came to pass just as the Kurdistan Times predicted. The silver-tongued colonialists lured the Scots into voting No, and by a fairly healthy margin, too: 55 percent No, 45 percent Yes.

It is, indeed, a much wider margin for the No than the last time a proposal for secession was voted on in a Western country, in Canada in 1995. In that referendum, just 50.5 percent of Quebecers voted No, compared to 49.5 percent who voted Yes.

It was a near-death experience for Canada, in the sense that Quebec bulks much larger in Canada than Scotland does in the United Kingdom. It has almost a quarter of the Canadian population, whereas Scotland has only 8 percent of the UK population.

At the time, many Canadians thought that the country’s demolition had only been deferred, not averted. It was, after all, the second referendum on Quebec’s independence, and it was a lot closer to a Yes than the first one in 1980 (60 percent No, 40 percent Yes). Third time lucky, muttered the separatists of the Parti Quebecois. And everybody else assumed that they’d just keep holding referendums until they got the right answer.

That was when a Montreal journalist called Josh Freed coined the word “Neverendum” to describe the process, and for more than a decade that was the wheel that everybody in Quebec assumed that they were tied to. But they turned out to be wrong. Almost two decades later there has been no third referendum, nor is there any on the horizon.

Indeed, there was a provincial election in Quebec in April, and the Parti Quebecois looked set to win it – until one of its star candidates started talking about another referendum on independence, and the PQ’s vote suddenly collapsed. A recent poll revealed that 64 percent of Quebecers, and an even higher proportion of young Quebecers, don’t want another referendum.

Could it work out that way in Scotland too? That would be good, because what will probably happen if another referendum remains a possibility is what befell Quebec: a low-level depression that lasted for decades as investors avoided a place whose future was so uncertain, and existing businesses pulled out. It was not even that everybody knew that Quebec’s independence would be an economic disaster; just that nobody could be certain it wouldn’t be.

The result was that Quebec’s share of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product, which was around 25 percent when the separatist Parti Quebecois was first elected in 1976, is now less than 20 percent. That is about 90 billion dollars of lost economic activity in Quebec each year, even though another referendum on independence has been a rapidly receding prospect for at least the past dozen years.

How might Scotland avoid that fate? The only way, really, is for “Devo Max” to work so well, and so thoroughly satisfy Scots’ understandable desire for more control over their own government and economy, that nobody talks about independence any more. That will be more than a little tricky.

“Devo Max” – maximum devolution of power from London to Edinburgh – would leave little else but defence and foreign affairs to the UK parliament in London. Everything else would be decided by Scots, in Scotland, including rates of taxation and the level of spending on health and welfare.

So what’s the problem? Scotland was already more than halfway there before the independence referendum. In the panicky last days before the vote, when it briefly looked like the Yes might squeak through to a narrow victory, all three major British parties promised to deliver the other half as well.

But it will be very hard for them to keep their promises, which include placing what amounts to a proposal for a new British constitution before the Westminster parliament by next March. They are starting with three different versions of Devo Max for Scotland, and getting to a single agreed version (which also satisfies the great majority of Scots) in only six months is a tall order.

Even more difficult is the fact that Scotland cannot all be given all these powers while the other parts of the United Kingdom – Wales, Northern Ireland and even the various regions of England – stay just the same. There must be at least some more devolution for them too, but that debate has barely started.

What the United Kingdom must do in the next six months, in other words, is design and pass its first written constitution. And it will not just codify existing arrangements; it will radically change them. Meanwhile, the disappointed Scottish supporters of the Yes will be looking for opportunities to claim that the “English” (as they will put it) are reneging on their promises.

So what are the odds that Scotland will escape the “planning blight” of a long period during which a second referendum lurks in the shadows, and the economic damage accumulates? Not very good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 6 and 14. (“It was…population”; “Indeed…referendum”; and “What…promises”)