Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reflections from Cuba - Ebooks and Libraries

I wrote the following on January 14, while vacationing in Cuba:

While I consider myself to be a cynical man, one deeply suspicious of the corporate agenda, my wife, a woman of sunnier disposition, recently suggested something that shocked even me.

We were reading poolside in Cuba, me with an e-reader lent to me by her sister, she with her physical book, when I questioned why two publishers, Simon and Shuster and Macmillan, do not sell their ebooks to libraries, and Penguin is only just beginning a test project with the New York City system,. Her theory took me aback, namely that the two publishers have the goal of weakening and ultimately destroying public libraries.

Initially I dismissed her speculation as cynically paranoid even by my own standards, asking her if this were true, why do they continue to sell their physical products to lending institutions? Her answer both surprised and unsettled me.

Arguing that ebooks are growing increasingly popular, Janice, a former librarian, suggested that the withholding of their virtual products is part of a long-term business plan to starve libraries of their resources and thus of their relevance to the tax-paying public. She posits that the reason they haven't removed their physical products from free public access is that such a move would be too obvious and provoke outrage from people who hold ready and equitable access to information to be a sacred trust, part of the social contract that underpins any democracy worthy of the name. Hence, like the slow boil of the frog, first comes the withholding of the ebooks, ever-growing in popularity, the aforementioned goal waiting to be realized in a not-too-distant future.

Is my wife correct in her dire prognostication? I obviously have no way of knowing. However, given that she is a woman of uncommon discernment, one whose judgement and advice I rely on and trust more than anyone else's, I am now very troubled by the prospect she has raised.

For further reading on this provocative subject, and to learn about the restrictions other publishers place on libraries' use of their ebooks, click here, here, and here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Our Race to the Bottom

Rarely have I read a more accurate and succinct chronicle of what the last few decades have done to the people of this country. Enjoy, compliments of The Toronto Star:

Re: Credit cards main cause of high debt, Jan. 27

Growing up in Ontario in the 1960s I remember a good many of my friends’ fathers worked in the local steel mill. It was a typical job an immigrant would occupy — unionized, with a pension plan, health benefits, a decent wage that allowed the family to own a modest home, put food on the table, own a car, and even take a vacation once a year, or have a fishing boat in the driveway.

By the time the kids were grown, the house was paid off, and the parents were able to help the kids go to university or college. That lifestyle no longer exists for most people. Slowly, so that no one really noticed what was happening, over time the take home pay was not quite keeping up with the cost of things. For instance, 10 years after I bought my first car the equivalent car cost $10,000 more. My pay, which would have been considered a good middle-income wage, did not go up $10,000 in that same period.

So, to maintain a standard of life that their parents enjoyed, which they quite reasonably expected, people had to go into debt. People charged purchases to credit cards, big ticket items at first, but gradually it became necessary to use credit to buy essentials like groceries. People took on lines of credit from their bank, putting themselves into a perpetual state of indebtedness. The people lending the money got richer, the shareholders and executives of corporations got richer as the money they saved in wages went into their pockets instead.

The fatal blow to middle income came with globalization, when industry moved en masse to the Third World to exploit cheap labour. Ontario was hit hard as a good part of the economy used to be based on the production of goods. And now, you have a race to see who can offer the lowest wage. Many U.S. states have declared themselves “right to work” states, so that unions can be bypassed, and the desperate unemployed will work for ever lower wages. In Ontario, the governement waged war against unionized teachers. So, hard working Canadians, the ones lucky enough to have a steady job, have to either carry excessive debt, or do without.

And all of the money that was given back to corporations and the rich, as an incentive to invest back into the Canadian economy, turned out to be a nice bonus to the executives and shareholders, and it seems, the only inducement to operating in Canada, is a wage structure competitive to the Third World.

Sylvia Castellani, Bradford

Reflections from Cuba - Civic Responsibility

January 23, 2013:

In a previous post, I compared and contrasted Cuba and Canada in terms of the opportunities for achieving one's potential through access to information, ideas, etc., noting that in Cuba the opportunities are almost non-existent, while sadly, in our country, there are those who choose not to avail themselves of the almost boundless access to ways to develop themselves.

Today I want to consider people who have availed themselves, used the resources available, yet choose to close themselves off from any meaningful participation in our society. While I readily acknowledge that there are so many who do so much to enrich our society, I worry about the willfully ignorant who abdicate what I consider to be everyone's duties as citizens: to be informed, to participate either directly or indirectly in civic debate, and most importantly, to vote.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, a view to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. To live only to fulfill one's basic needs and instincts is to exist at the animal level, and while we of course are animals, our potential is much greater than other creatures with whom we share that designation. And because we live in community with others, that potential has the richest chance of realization when we strive together to improve the collective and not just ourselves.

While I have written about and acknowledged the complexity of issues and challenges that we all face and do not pretend to have either the knowledge or the expertise to tackle them, I firmly believe that informed discussion and debate is instrumental in finding solutions. To leave that discussion and decision-making in the hands of those who claim to have the interests of everyone at heart is to betray all of us. To say that one is not political or interested in politics is to turn one's back on one's fellow citizens. To do so is to only live for the self, perhaps the greatest 'sin' of all.

Despite my apparently pessimistic tone here, I do believe that given the right opportunities for engagement, many will rise to the challenges we face. For example, the Occupy Movement, while it seems to have lost its momentum, demonstrated that the right campaign can tap into and harness the deep discontent dwelling within our souls over the status quo. As described by writer Mark Leiren-Young in the December issue of The Walrus, the movement began as a guerrilla campaign by Abuster founder Kalle Lasn with a cryptic poster depicting "a petite ballerina striking an arabesque and Photoshopped onto the back of the iconic Wall Street bull, a phalanx of police in riot gear emerging from the tear gas behind them.... Over the ballerina, in red letters, hung the words 'What is our demand?" Printed below was "September 17th" and the words "Bring tent" followed by the Twitter hastag #ocuppywallstreet." The rest, as they say, is history.

As I write these words in Cuba, I have learned that eleven EU countries, including France, Germany, Greece and Spain are now preparing to enact the Tobin tax, something vehemently fought against by entrenched interests, that will impose a miniscule tax on currency transactions and other financial transactions. It is a good and encouraging response to the depredations wrought by reckless and herdless speculation, and I cannot help but believe it is also in reaction to an outraged European citizenry that has grown increasingly restive under the burden they have been expected to bear for problems not largely of their making. Interesting, the Tobin tax was precisely what Mallet Lasn had in mind with his Occupy poster.

So change for the better is possible, given the right conditions, stimulation, awareness and passion. But it cannot and will not occur in a vacuum.

John Kennedy's best remembered excerpt from his Inaugural Address is the following:

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

Perhaps being engaged in the issues of our times and participating accordingly is the best way to most benefit our country and our world today.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cynical Politics - Ontario Style

It is likely a truism to observe that the value burning brightest in the hearts of most political parties is the passion to get and retain power. Concern for the public good is at best but a very distant secondary concern.

We are reminded of this fact by the reaction of Ontario's political opposition to Kathleen Wynne's winning of the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party, thus rendering her the next premier of the province. In his column today, The Star's Martin Regg Cohn offers the following trenchant observations:

With graceless timing, Tory Leader Tim Hudak disgorged an attack ad on the first business day after Wynne’s weekend triumph.

Next, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath laid a crass political trap of her own by demanding a costly full judicial inquiry into cancelled gas plants (which the NDP also wanted cancelled) instead of letting MPPs and the auditor general do the accounting job they’re paid to do. To be clear, Horwath’s first “ask” was to demand Wynne arrange her own hanging.

His column goes on to point out the patent hypocrisy in the attacks, hypocrisy that includes Hudak's complaint over losing four months of time in the legislation owing to the crass McGuinty prorogation after announcing he was stepping down. Despite being in apparent high dudgeon over this waste, he refused to support an NDP plan to tighten the rules of prorogation.

In Cohn's withering assessment, Andrea Horwath appears to be morally in tune with young Tim:

Horwath, who first demanded that prorogation be constrained, made no mention of that — or any other constructive idea — in her Monday news conference (or 10-minute private phone call that followed with the incoming premier). Instead, Horwath invited Wynne to sign her own death warrant by — improbably — setting up a commission to provide opposition ammunition in time for the next election.

Cohn goes on to point out that the auditor general will be releasing his report in March on government waste, so such a probe would also seem to be redundant.

The columnist deduces that instead of trying to co-operate for at least a few weeks to pursue the public good, as they were elected to do, both leaders and their parties [p]erhaps ... have concluded co-operation is too risky, lest it undercut their bedrock support.

Therein lies yet another instance of the abject failure of politics in our country.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Reflections From Cuba - Updated

The following is one of several pieces I wrote on my Blackberry Playbook while on a recent holiday in Cuba. Because Internet access and outside information is limited there, I spent some time writing pieces largely drawn from things I was thinking about at the time, and therefore are perhaps not as overtly political in nature as my usual fare.

January 21, 2013:

What, I wonder, is worse, a society in which there is little or no opportunity to learn and grow, or one in which the opportunity exists but is ignored by a substantial proportion of the people?

That is one of the questions I am left with after our most recent visit to Cuba, our sixth time in the island nation, and our third occasion to learn about the 'real' Cuba under the auspices of friends we have there. And while I must, owing to the country's repressive political system, remain vague and circumspect about our friends and what we learned from them, let me say that they are educated people who do not work at or for any of Cuba's resorts.

Since we first visited the country, it has been difficult to regard it as a developing nation by virtue of the proportion of people who are educated. For example, Cuba's doctors are well-known throughout the world for the medical humanitarian assistance they give in disaster-relief (they are, as an illustration, still in Haiti three years after its devastating earthquake) and medical missions throughout the developing world. There are also many teachers, lawyers, engineers, etc., all thanks to the fact that education is free for all Cubans, as is medical care.

But there is, from my point of view, a much darker side to Cuban life. Their ability to realize their human potential is so constrained as to be almost non-existent.

As one would expect in a dictatorship, access to books and information is very limited. The lifeblood of the mind and spirit, writing that exposes us to new ideas and challenge our complacency, is generally unavailable, political tracts and screeds in their stead as far as I could discern. Libraries, where they exist, do not permit the borrowing of materials; all must be read within the library. And while some have access to email, only a select few, for example doctors, can utilize the internet. Television, except that available to tourists in hotels, is limited to state broadcasts consisting of old movies and information the government deems permissible for the people.

There are other things we have learned that I think prudent not to discuss here, but let me sum up this portion of the post by stating that, in my view, it is a country that infantalizes its citizens, resulting in a life that from my perspective and background would be a kind of living death. And while it would be easy to dismiss my assessment as a kind of cultural imperialism or arrogance, I can only say that I have been witness to the deep intelligence, passion and yearning of the people, forced into a kind of stoic acceptance of a life in which they would prefer more choice. That being said, I don't think their choice would necessarily involve embracing our lifestyle or values either, i.e unbridled free enterprise and worship of things material, just a less austere and controlled one.

Books. Learning. Reading. Writing. Without these, to paraphrase something Bob Marley once said, my life would be madness. They are what make existence worthwhile for me; their absence would reduce the level of my humanity and spirit.

So how do we judge a culture or society where access to such riches are scorned and rejected? As a teacher, it was something I saw all too often in students, but its incidence was not especially troubling, as much of such behaviour could be attributed to an immaturity they would eventually outgrow. Indeed, even those for whom encouragement to stay in school failed was, to me, never the tragedy that others made it out to be, as they always had the opportunity to 'drop back in' when experience taught them that their options without education were quite limited.

My larger consternation, however, resides in the intractable underclass in our society who, raised in a culture of poverty and welfare-dependency, never realize that the only way out is through the possibilities afforded by education. A partly self-induced form of infatilization, they live out their lives without realizing their potential, ignoring the opportunities the country makes available to improve their lot. Such waste is a tragedy that parallels what I see in Cuba. I will extend this further by being critical of both the conditions and the insularity seemingly extant on the native reserves in Canada, where by all that we have heard about places such as Attawapiskat, the people live in abysmal squalor. Like the aforementioned culture of poverty, unproductive living and unfulfilled potential seem endemic.

I realize, as my policy analyst son has taught me, that issues are never simple. I also realize that there is a richness to native culture and tradition that my comments here would seem to belie, just as I realize there is a constellation of social factors that contribute to the larger culture of poverty that I have briefly mentioned here. I also suspect that my apparent judgementalism here will offend the sensibilities of many. Yet simply excusing conditions because of their genesis does no good either. But solutions remain elusive, fascism and classism frequently substituting for real dialogue and problem-solving.

Solutions are never simple or obvious, either for Cuba or for Canada.

UPDATE: A sign of hope as to how education can heal some of the wounds still felt today by aboriginals over the their traumatic residential school experiences can be found here.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Christ Hedges On The Failure of Churches

As a member of the United Church of Canada, my wife receives The United Church Observer, a monthly publication offering an array of interesting pieces and interviews. This month's issue has an interview with renowned journalist and activist Chris Hedges, a man whose deep social convictions and activism I deeply admire and have written about previously.

In the interview, echoing a theme found in his Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges discusses the failure of the so-called 'liberal churches' to confront the deeply entrenched problems we face today such as poverty, climate change, and the abuse of power that seems to define political systems everywhere. I hope you will take a few minutes to read his thoughts and to be reminded that the pursuit of justice requires commitment and action, not just the holding of views that challenge the status quo.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Wherever We Go, Our Presence Is Felt

Well. I'm back from hiatus, but too tired to post anything of my own, so I leave you with this video I just came across. Unfortunately, 'enjoy' is not the correct verb to use in relation to its sobering reminder of our depredations:

Friday, January 11, 2013

On Hiatus

There won't be any new blog posts for the next two weeks as we begin our annual hegira to Cuba, where the climate and the people offer a soothing respite from the Canadian winter. This will be our sixth visit to the island, and each time there we learn another facet of Cuban life, thanks to two friends that we visit, usually for a day, during our holiday.

Since Internet is very restricted there, I will be offline during our stay.

Any online comments to this blog will not be published until I return.

Keep the faith, everyone!


...when Exhibit A extends to Exhibits B-C-D, when the allegations start stacking up, then what you’ve got is a pattern and a pathology, not an anomaly.

A career lies in tatters because a man who’s always been able to express himself well enough, extemporaneously, annexed the parlance and patter of others in published dispatches.

Here’s a word for it: Dumb.

Perhaps these words by Rosie DiManno, found in today's Star, are a fitting epitaph for Chirs Spence, the former Director of the TDSB, who yesterday resigned in abject disgrace over his theft of other people's words and idea.

But the story isn't quite over. According to another Star article, there is now strong evidence that this was a habit he was addicted to; his plagiarism has now been discovered in a number of speeches and articles, and even in his PHD dissertation.

I will offer no sermon here, but his is perhaps an object lesson of the dangerous temptations of hubris and arrogance to which many of those responsible for the public good succumb

I have no sympathy for Spence or the many others who abuse their positions and systematically betray all of us.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Chris Spence Must Be Fired

It is hardly an insight to observe that ours is a world that bears witness to institutional and organizational failures on a massive scale. Those bodies that should be there to promote and protect the public good have proven far more adept at promoting and protecting their own interests instead. Be they church, government, police, education or charitable institutions, each have a long and well-publicized record of failing crucial tests of their integrity.

I fear that the Toronto District School Board can soon be added to that unenviable gallery of infamy.

Last night, the TDSB deferred to a later date a discussion to decide Director Chris Spence's fate, at the same time as Chair Chris Bolton made the following declaration:

“We want to assure everyone and the public we take the situation very seriously and we want to address it in a timely fashion”.

A fine-sounding statement, but any dithering on the board's part can serve no constructive purpose. To be perfectly clear, Spence's transgression was not a 'mistake' or a result of 'sloppiness' or 'carelessness'. It was a deliberate attempt to deceive his employers, The Toronto Star, and the public at large. And, as pointed out yesterday by the National Post's Chris Selley, the offending article's content, as brief as it was, seems mainly to have been a cut-and-paste exercise culled from multiple sources, and much more extensive than suggested by yesterday's Star apology.

These facts raise troubling questions not only about the Director's character, judgement and integrity, but also his intellectual capacities. Platitudes, especially those derived from other sources, can never be a substitute for substance.

Finally, there is a very disturbing report in today's National Post alleging that Spence may in fact be a serial plagiarist. According to reporters Megan O'Toole and Chris Selley,

...the National Post has found several instances in which Mr. Spence seems to have taken information from other articles without crediting them. In December, the Star published an op-ed under Mr. Spence’s byline about the tragic mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. It included an anecdote — ostensibly about how Mr. Spence explained the horrific violence to his son Jacob — that closely resembles one described by another writer, Aisha Sultan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Was anyone killed?” the boy asks. In Ms. Sultan’s work, he is 7. In Mr. Spence’s, his age has been changed to 10.

“Yes, some people were killed,” read the two columns, Mr. Spence’s published days after Ms. Sultan’s. “It’s very sad. But your school is safe. And I will do anything and everything to make sure you and your sister are always safe at school.” Huge swaths of the remaining narrative appear to have been copied from a grab bag of sources: the Post-Dispatch, the Sacramento Bee and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Additionally, the Post reports that a

... segment from a July 24 opinion piece published in the Star, pegged to this summer’s Danzig Street shootout, appears to be word-for-word from an online “healthy students plan” originating in Connecticut. An October 2011 entry to his personal blog about the Chinese education system appears strikingly similar to information in The New York Times, Time magazine and other sources.

It can never be pleasant to have a person's employment fate rest in one's hands. Yet that is one of the crucial responsibilities those who vie for public office must accept without reservation. Chris Spence has become an unequivocal liability for the Toronto District School Board, one that threatens to further undermine its reputation and the goals and standards it sets for its students.

Spence must be jettisoned with dispatch if public accountability is to be anything other than an empty and morally bankrupt phrase.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What Happens When The 'Top' Educator Plagiarizes?

Probably nothing, if your name is Chris Spence and you are the Director of Education for the Toronto District School Board.

A shocking story in this morning's Star reveals that the highly-paid functionary plagiarized great gobs of an article he recently 'wrote' for the paper on the importance of extracurricular activities.

The Star, which has removed the offending article from its website, reveals the extent of the plagiarism:

Among the paragraphs in question are two that mirror those in a New York Times opinion piece from 1989: “We are challenged through sport to use our minds in guiding our bodies through the dimensions of time and space on the field of play. Learning the skills of sport provides opportunity to experience success.

“Sport builds self-esteem and encourages teamwork. We learn the importance of goal setting, hard work and the necessity of dealing with disappointment.”

When I was a teacher, discovering plagiarism gave me no pleasure, but it was something for which I exacted a substantial penalty: a zero with no possibility of a make-up assignment, despite students' pleas and justifications for their lapses.

Apparently, the TDSB is much more charitable than I ever was. The Director has explained his journalistic theft this way:

Spence said he used online resources for the article and felt rushed, “but it’s not an excuse, so please don’t take it that way. That’s what happened, and any rush or any pressure was all self-induced.”

The Board is currently negotiating an extension to Spence's contract, and Board Chair Chris Bolton responded to his Director's admission of guilt this way:

“I think Chris has been quite candid about the mistake and is very concerned that everyone understand that he sees this as an honest mistake, but something that needs to be corrected,” said Bolton.

“As in all learning situations, we see this as a learning experience and we support him totally in his bid to make it right.”

Given the myriad problems currently facing the TDSB, some might suggest that a stronger response is in order.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Finger-Pointing 2.0

Well, there can be little doubt that both The Toronto District School Board and the Ontario Ministry of Education have fully embraced the digital age. Finger-pointing abounds on both sides.

In the ongoing saga that I think could best be described as a clash between Jimmy Hazel's union muscle (and please remember that I am a steadfast supporter of unions until they start misbehaving), TDSB ineptitude, and suspicious provincial politics, Board Chair Chris Bolton has penned an angry missive to Education Minister Laurel Broten, whose ham-fisted application of Bill 115 has mandated a continuation of the sweetheart deal that Jimmy Hazel's Maintenance and Construction Skilled Trades Council enjoys with the board, this despite earlier demands by the province that they send in some advisers to help the board get its finances in order.

Bolton says the province “turned the tables” on the board and has now tied its hands. Now, it can’t even do something simple — such as eliminate overlapping shift changes — which could lower maintenance costs and allow the board to rid itself of about 200 vehicles.

“Those alone would save $3 million,” Bolton said in an interview with the Star.

A disquieting earlier report by The Star raised the possibility of a suspect, perhaps even corrupt, relationship between Hazel's group and the McGuinty government. The paper revealed that council members campaigned on behalf of the Liberals, contributed, along with other unions working for the board, over $675,000 to the party's coffers, and, apparently as a reward for their fealty, received gift certificates from the Liberals worth over $253,000.

And yet the TDSB hardly emerges as blameless in this imbroglio. In what can perhaps be interpreted as a testament to organizational inertia at the very least, the board has done almost nothing since a 2006 review by Blackstone Partners, which

submitted a 113-page report to the TDSB in January 2007 detailing a litany of issues: high costs of repairs, lots of workers and spotty results, and managerial “silos” that made it hard for principals to figure out whom to approach to get a job done.

At the time this information was brought to public scrutiny by The Star, TDSB Director Chris Spence rather lamely asserted that some progress has been made, and the report is “working its way through the committee structure” at the board.

Taking over five years to work through a report? Indefensible by any standard, I would think.

So blame for these fiscal improprieties has to be shared among the board, the trades council, and the McGuinty government. What interests me most about this tawdry saga is that it is most likely a mere microcosm of corruption, cosy political relationships, and general institutional ineptitude, all intractable shortcomings not easily remediated. Yet I rest a little easier each night knowing that a paper with journalistic integrity, The Toronto Star, is on the job and willing to go where most mainstream media are not to be found.

Monday, January 7, 2013

SIU Versus Toronto Police: An Update

As noted the other day, there has been an ongoing jurisdictional battle in the case of alleged police brutality victim Tyrone Phillips. The complaint, filed by Phillips to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, could not be investigated by the SIU because Toronto Police, citing provincial regulations, refused to hand it over to SIU head Ian Scott, despite the fact that Phillips had given his permission to do so.

Resolution appears to be at hand. As reported in today's Star, the complainant was able to obtain his original report from the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, and the SIU was planning to pick it up today.

Let's hope that this is the end of an unseemly episode in which the pursuit of justice seems to have been the least consideration of the warring fiefdoms.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Harper Subversion of the Civil Service

That the Harper regime uses a myriad of tactics to exploit, manipulate and deceive the Canadian public through its propaganda, demagoguery, and demonization of those with contrary policy views has been well-chronicled in the media. Epithets like 'Taliban Jack' and the denigration of Thomas Mulcair and the NDP for “their dangerous economic experiments” are but two obvious examples of Harper's contempt both for truth and the intelligence of the electorate.

There is now ample evidence that fear of the regime has permeated the civil service. We are well-aware of the fact that the government has muzzled its scientists, an object lesson in its absolute commitment to controlling both the message and the messengers. Apparently that lesson has not been lost on Environment Canada, which commissioned polling firm Ipsos Reid to conduct a nationwide telephone survey last June to learn how Canadians view federal priorities regarding the environment, in order to help improve the way the government communicates with the public.

The results of any poll are heavily influenced by how the questions are posed. One transparent example of Harper influence on the design of the poll is found in the following:

One of the questions gauged perceptions of a carbon tax by asking respondents how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following statement, on a scale from one to 10:

“Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to promote energy efficiency and protect the environment, even though it means increasing the cost of things like gas and groceries for consumers,” the statement read.

The results showed 43.5 per cent of respondents leaned toward the “strongly disagree” end of the spectrum, 19.1 per cent were on the “strongly agree” end and the rest fell somewhere in between.

With those preordained results, the regime spent much time during the fall session of Parliament accusing the NDP of wanting to impose a “$21-billion carbon tax” that would kill jobs.

As always, however, Toronto Star readers are on the job. Below I am reproducing their responses to the poll and the attitude it betrays:

Re: Environment Canada survey asked Canadians about carbon tax, oil exports, Jan. 2

Frankly, I’m surprised that only 4-in-10 respondents disagreed with a statement proposing implementation of a carbon tax that includes the warning, “even though it means increasing the cost of things like gas and groceries for consumers.” The statement seems somewhat disingenuous in its one-sided delivery— almost presupposing a negative response. I wonder what the response would have been if the statement had read: “Canada needs to implement a federal carbon tax to promote a low-carbon economy, which will generate high-quality green jobs, protect our environment, reduce health and insurance costs and reduce our exposure to volatile oil prices. Note that all fee revenues will be returned to Canadian citizens to offset an inevitable increase in fossil fuel energy costs.”

Camille Loxley, Toronto

One gets the impression, given the form of a June 2012 survey and the Harper government’s actions subsequent to its completion, that the objective of this survey was not so much to understand the thoughts of Canadians as to exploit them. The statement on carbon tax in particular supports an ongoing insidious argument trumpeted by Stephen Harper that falsely pits environment against economy. In this example there is no mention of the myriad of benefits a carbon tax would bring through a reduced use of fossil fuels — only negative connotations. It almost seems to be testing public reaction to a crafted message. Hardly honest, accurate or representative.

Ian Edwards, Toronto

Re: Bad year for environment, Editorial, Jan. 2

In chipping away our environmental protections, the Harper government is undermining its own credibility. Conservatives are supposed to be excellent stewards of the land. Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government actually took climate change seriously. Many conservative economists currently support a carbon tax as a means to transition to a clean energy economy. Who exactly then is this Conservative government representing?

Cheryl McNamara, Toronto

As always, however, it will take more than a few engaged Canadians to resist and counter the Harper regime's ongoing assault on reason. For that battle, all of us must be prepared to fight.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Jimmy Hazel and His Crew Prevail

As I have mentioned in this blog before, one of the many reasons I respect The Toronto Star is that it doesn't let its adherence to The Atkinson Principles blind it to good stories, even when those stories may lead to some uncomfortable questions about the abuses that unions are sometimes guilty of. Their stellar series of investigative reports last year, exploring the peculiar relationship between the Toronto District School Board and Jimmy Hazel’s 900-strong Maintenance and Construction Skilled Trades Council, upon which I based several blog posts, attests to that fact.

Today's Star reveals some potentially disturbing information which, if its implications are true, further suggest the scope of the Ontario McGuinty government's misuse of its political power, previously chronicled in its attempts to purchase a majority government through costly cancellations of gas-fired plants, engineering unnecessary byelections through the seduction of sitting members of the legislature, etc.

In an interview with The Star, the chair of the Toronto District School Board, Chris Bolton, suggests that the relationship between the governing Liberals and the Trades Council does not perhaps pass 'the smell test,' given the fact that, despite an extensive review of the financially-strapped board, the government has decided to preserve its contract with Hazel's group for the next two years:

“(The trades council members) are major contributors to the Liberals,” noted TDSB chair Chris Bolton in an interview with the Star. Having angered teachers with recent legislation, Bolton, a New Democrat, and others at the board speculate that the Liberals are trying to shore up support from other organized labour groups in the province as they prepare for an election.

The story reveals that Mr. Hazel's group sent two stiffly-worded letters to education minister Laurel Broten asking her to step in and preserve its old contract with Toronto’s public school board.

The Star's earlier investigation revealed evidence of the indebtedness the McGuinty Liberals may feel toward the Trades Council, whose members

...have campaigned for the Liberals, delivering election pamphlets door to door. Political donations to the Liberals from Hazel’s group and related unions who work for the school board total at least $675,000 since 2005. The Liberals responded one year by providing $253,000 of gift cards for Hazel’s TDSB workers, redeemable at Tiger Direct.

Education Minister Laurel Broten has defended the contract extension as an inevitable result of the collective agreements she imposed the other day on Ontario teachers, but one cannot help but wonder why the two have been thus conflated.

Given the increasingly suspect nature of the McGuinty government, however, expect no definitive answers to the disturbing questions raised by The Star anytime soon.

Friday, January 4, 2013

TTC to Customer: We Take Your Complaint Seriously ...

But we won't tell you if we did anything about it.

Toronto Police: Again and Again and Again ....

Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By that standard, perhaps both the Toronto Police force and I are insane; I seem to periodically write essentially the same blog post about their misbehaviour, and they seem to keep practising a disturbing pattern of conduct that cries out for remediation.

The latest case of alleged police brutality was reported yesterday in The Toronto Star:

Ian Scott, director of the Special Investigations Unit, (the body that probes incidents of serious injury and death in which police officers are involved) said Wednesday he was unable to conduct an “adequate” probe into a brutality complaint made by Tyrone Phillips, who alleges police beat him up during his arrest outside a nightclub.

Toronto police, Scott said, have refused to provide the SIU with Phillips’ complaint, first filed to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, a provincial agency that probes grievances against police, then forwarded on to police.

The story, laughable were it not for the seriousness of the incident, outlines what seems to be a bureaucratic and jurisdictional dispute between two provincial bodies that, upon closer examination, suggests once again that Chief Bill Blair is continuing a policy of opacity that shields his officers from any real accountability.

Hiding behind the strict letter of legislation, his spokesperson, Mark Pugash, offers fatuous reasons for not releasing the formal complaint filed by Phillips, who alleges he was beaten severely by police and placed under arrest for no apparent reason, sustaining a serious concussion in the process, one that medical records verify.

As reported in today's Star, while the victim has given permission for the release of his complaint to the SIU, all that police spokesman Mark Pugash seems interested in doing is disingenuously carp about the fact that SIU head Scott went to the media to complain about his force's intransigence:

Pugash asked Thursday why Scott “went through the exercise he did yesterday with the inflammatory and quite offensive news release.”

Meanwhile, the larger issue of police brutality seems to be getting lost in this jurisdictional 'pissing match.'

And according to The Star's Rosie DiManno, there is sufficient blame to go around:

Each party has wrapped itself in the piety of rules. Yet those purported rules, as interpreted, have resulted in nobody doing the morally correct thing.

Scott has a complaint and a complainant. The police information sworn out after Phillips’ arrest would include the badge number of the arresting officer. That’s an obvious starting point for the SIU investigation. The subject officer isn’t compelled to submit to an interview — another failing of the Police Act. But it doesn’t require an investigative reporter to chase down the basic facts of the incident: Witness officers, if there were any; booking officer, or anybody else who came in contact with the accused; hospital records, to which the patient is entitled.

Ultimate responsibility for the conduct of the men and women of the Toronto Police force rests with 'teflon' Chief Bill Blair, a man apparently more deft at maneuvering to protect his own career than he is at holding himself and his force to account. As DiManno pointedly asks,

What did Police Chief Bill Blair do with Phillips’ complaint? What was the outcome of the mandated police investigation before the grievance was sent on to the SIU? It should be noted that the Police Act does, in fact, allow the chief to divulge information contained in a complaint received, under various exceptions to the nondisclosure guidelines, which shouldn’t be there as masking layer anyway.

Both excellent questions, the answers to which, if past performance is any indication, will not be forthcoming.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Beyond Cynical By Any Standard

Using the legislative power that Bill 115 provides, Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten has announced she will impose contracts on Ontario teachers but then rescind Bill 115 because it has become a “lightning rod.”

In doing so, she hopes teachers will forgive and forget and resume coaching sports teams and supervising school clubs when students return to classes on Monday.

Incredibly hypocritical and cynical even by Ontario Liberal standards, isn't this a bit like killing your parents and pleading for mercy because you are an orphan?

To Read, Perchance To Think

Shakespeare purists will perhaps forgive my titular, out-of-context paraphrasing of a famous line from Hamlet, but it occurred to me yesterday and today as I read two fine essays published in The Toronto Star.

The first, by former Globe writer Michael Valpy (strange how that 'newspaper of record' has either lost or terminated so many good writers in the past decade), appeared in yesterday's edition. Entitled Canada’s new politics of discord could carry a heavy price, it reflects on the implications of the breakdown in Canadian social cohesion both promoted and exploited by the Harper government as it works tireless to incrementally impose a right-leaning ethos on the country.

Valpy asserts that this wouldn't be happening if so many educated people had not disengaged from the political process:

If Canadian voters — that is, Canadians who actually vote — were all under age 45 and university-educated, there would be no Harper government, there would still be the long-form census, the Canadian Armed Forces would never have become mythologized as warriors, the country would not have become a side-taker with Israel in the Middle East, we probably still would have failed to keep our commitments under the Kyoto Protocol but at least we wouldn’t have withdrawn from it and we would not have advanced down the road to gutting federal environmental assessments.

While I do not necessarily agree that progressive values are the exclusive domain of the educated, his points about the consequences of disengagement are well-taken.

The second essay, found in today's paper, is by Alex Goldfarb, one of our most important and progressive voices. Entitled The mean test: Have we stopped caring about Canada’s most vulnerable?, Himelfarb's piece evaluates how successful Canada is via the following thesis:

How we measure our success as a country matters. It tells us a lot about what we value most. It shapes what we ask of our politicians and how we judge the performance of our governments. It shapes politics and policy.

Going beyond the standard economic criteria, he asks the question of how well we treat the weakest amongst us. By historical standards, Himelfarb asserts, we measure up pretty well, but he notes some very worrisome contemporary developments:

- Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike has drawn attention again to the suffering of her community, part of a growing movement, Idle No More, which got its impetus from the omnibus budget that weakened environmental protections without consultation with aboriginal communities;

- A few doctors and other health providers have also been leading protests against recent changes to refugee regulations, changes that mean more, including children, are subject to automatic detention and the separation of families...

- As for unemployed Canadians — too many of whom are young, often indebted graduates — cuts over the last 15 years have meant fewer are eligible for EI benefits or training;

- thousands have also protested the government’s punitive crime agenda, which, while politically popular, marks a sharp departure for Canada at a time when crime rates are going down;

- internationally, apart from freezing aid, our Parliament recently said no to a bill promising cheap drugs to poor countries, choosing, as Stephen Lewis put it, patents over people.

These changes, along with others he discusses, leads Himelfarb to conclude that we have become a meaner country, a country where the focus on short-term fiscal prudence is contributing to an erosion of our traditional national character. He calls for a real discussion about what we mean by the good life, the purpose of the economy, the kind of Canada we want. The opportunity for such a discussion, unfortunately, seems remote under the current regime.

My brief blog post only highlights some of the points made in these two important essays. I hope you will find the time to read both of them in detail.

But We're A Peace-Loving Country

My, my, my, the sins that are committed in our name.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Industry Self-Regulation - Another Update

Last week I wrote two posts on the Harper regime's ideological decision not to impose mandatory reporting of drug shortages on the pharmaceutical industry. The government instead has placed its market-driven faith on a voluntary system, with results nearly as disastrous as those in Canada's food industry, which also enjoys a high degree of autonomy from government oversight. Hopefully, the debacle of XL Foods has not yet faded from public memory.

Today's Star reports yet another dire consequence of forsaking the protection of public health in favour of fealty to the private sector:

The last time Alena Rossnagel walked on her own, it was following long-awaited kidney surgery in April 2011.

A drug shortage had forced her to use a substitute antibiotic in the final two weeks leading up to her procedure. But the substitute left her legally blind, caused severe inner ear damage and forced her to rely on a walker.

“I was left with this body that couldn’t do anything,” Rossnagel said from Portage la Prairie, Man. “The new ‘normal’ has become the use of a walker, no driving, being cognitively impaired, hearing loss, visual impairment and myriad of other symptoms.”

The drug that she had been taking to treat a persistent infection was Trimethoprim, but in the weeks leading up to her surgery a shortage developed, and she was given Gentamicin, known for its toxic side effects. Probably the most disturbing aspect of this tale is that neither her doctor nor pharmacist had advised her of an impending shortage of her drug of choice. Says Rossnagel:

...if there had been a mandatory system to report drug shortages in April 2011, “I would be a normal person, I wouldn’t be living in this totally bizarre other world.”

As I wrote in my earlier posts, Health Canada had strongly advised against a voluntary, as opposed to mandatory system of drug-shortage reporting. But due to the inertia/incompetence/ideology of the Harper government, people like Rossnagel must pay the consequences.

The final ugly truth is perhaps best summed up by Health Canada spokesman Sean Upton, who said it was the responsibility of the drug maker to make the post online, but that if they don’t, there is no legislation that can punish a drug company if they don’t.

Just one more indication, I suppose, of how the Conservative Government of Canada really feels about the people it 'serves.'

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Good News: It's a New Year - the Bad News: Expect More of the Same

Best wishes to everyone in 2013. I would like to express my hope that all will enjoy a prosperous 12 months ahead, but given both domestic and international realities, I know that will not be the case for many.

This, despite the self-congratulatory tone Stephen Harper frequently strikes when talking about how Canada is doing so well vis-vis the rest of the world. Yesterday, this boast was placed in its proper context by The Globe's Lawrence Martin, who offers the following observation:

If Canada’s doing well compared with other well-functioning economies, it’s something to boast about. But if the barometer is basket cases, let’s not get out the pompoms. It’s no great measure of success.

He points out, for example, that only a half-point separates our unemployment rate (7.2%) from that of the United States (7.7%).

Martin suggests that our real economic state is hidden:

We have a manufacturing sector that’s in steady decline, leaving an economy overly dependent on staples and their price fluctuations. It’s chiefly our natural resource endowments that have helped us outperform others. Should we pat ourselves on the back for that? What country, blessed with such abundances, couldn’t have done the same?

His piece goes on to adumbrate our myriad failures both internationally and domestically, a few of which I reproduce below:

- On climate change, this great green land has taken on the reputation (Liberal governments share the blame) of a black sheep.

- In regard to first nations, the acute adversities find little alleviation.

- We left Afghanistan with our mission mostly unaccomplished. We now witness the F-35 muck-up.

- On foreign affairs, our long-time open-minded country is now steering closer to a path of unilateralism. Our self-righteousness is striking, and we’ve become a United Nations basher.

- While other jurisdictions move progressively on criminal justice, we renew our emphasis on incarceration. While other jurisdictions move to decriminalize soft drugs, we maintain a war on them.

Martin ends his piece by reminding us of how much our beloved democracy has suffered under the Harper cabal. It does not take a long memory to recall unnecessary omnibus bills, parliamentary prorogation, and the contempt shown both inside and outside of parliament for those who dare disagree with the Tory agenda.

I am well past the age where I make New Years' resolutions, but my resolve is the same as it has been since 2006, when these renegades first came to power: to do everything I can to inform as many as possible about the true nature of this government, and to encourage as many as possible to engage or reengage in the political process.

May it be a productive year.