Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Iowa GOP Caucus 2012 Preview

This will be my final post for 2011. Normally for one of my last posts I do some sort of retrospective on the previous year. However, next Tuesday is the Republican Iowa Caucus, and I wanted to discuss that before the votes were cast. Since I have mismanaged my blogging schedule, as per usual, I will dedicate this post to the vote happening next week and next week to some other topic, possibly the wrap up of 2011.

Historically I have not done too badly in the prediction business. Before I lay out any prediction I may have for the Iowa Caucus I figured I should outline some scenarios for what may happen. For polling information you can check these links: RealClearPolitics           538 

Scenario 1: The Boring Outcome. One of the most likely, and least interesting, outcomes of the Iowa Caucus will be that Former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) will win. Romney is highly favoured in New Hampshire, which means he could win both early states and run away with the nomination. As a political junkie I would like to see a horserace. If the nomination process could drag out until June, I would be a pretty happy guy. Letting the reasonable moderate win so early on would be a tad depressing.

Scenario 2: The Outside Upset. Ron Paul (R-TX), it is fair to say, is not popular with establishment Republicans. His libertarian values and radical solutions to the problems ailing America are nothing short of controversial. Still, his popular appeal and aggressive attacks on failed Democratic and Republican policies has earned him a large, energized base. The media have not taken Paul seriously, and typically overlook him. If Ron Paul wins Iowa with over 30%, it will be a major upset and change the field.

Scenario 3: Iowa Vote Split. A tight race is made tighter by several candidates receiving between 10-20%. This sort of outcome could lead to a surprise winner, or the perceived weakness of one of the major contenders, especially Mitt Romney.

Scenario 4: A Conservative Surprise. One of the conservative Republicans, Bachmann (R-MN), Perry (R-TX), Santorum (R-PA) or Huntsman (R-UT) (least likely), could use vote splitting and an unsettled electorate to take Iowa. If any one of these four win the state it would fundamentally change the complexion of the race. Any of those four would be strengthened in future races and become the media topic.

Scenario 5: Gingrich (R-GA) Wins. I view this as very unlikely. His boom in the polls, and sudden contraction makes it improbable that he will win. If he does, it will match fairly closely to Scenario 4, but there will be less of a surprise. Many of his former supporters will likely rally back to him.

So, my prediction. None of the candidates will receive more than 32% of the vote, and I believe the winner will likely be around 25-30%. The outcome of Iowa will probably only confuse the outcome of the race rather than make it obvious. Iowa often gives pundits a surprise, I expect it to do the same here. Michele Bachmann has done very well in recent debates, and she will be over the 10% she receives in most polls, I assume she will be third. Aside from Huntsman, I am fairly confident all the candidates will be in the 10+% range, which will be a very divided field. At the moment I am inclined to believe Romney will come second and Ron Paul first, but the race will be tight. I am also prepared to eat A LOT of humble pie on January 3 if I am wrong. So, the Iowa Republican Caucus, according to the Orange Tory, is Paul, Romney, Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, Santorum, Huntsman. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Erosion of Civil Societies and its Effect on Democracy

This week I am taking a slightly different tact from my regular post. I guess you could call this almost an essay.

For a paper I recently completed for one of my courses I had to read an American political scientist named James C. Scott. Dr. Scott teaches at Yale University and is an expert in peasant politics, and the power of the state in relation to the voiceless elements of a given society. In his 1985 book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Scott argues that the cultural element is a key consideration to revolt and protest. Complicated networks of dependency and interrelationship in a peasant society led to informal organization and effective resistance to oppression.

This dovetailed strangely with some of the materials my students have been using on their final papers. One of the chapters in the text they have been using discusses the importance of civil societies in Victorian Canada. The Coles’ Notes are that civil societies in early nineteenth century Canada helped those with limited political voice, and who were marginalized overall, be heard and contribute to the democratic process.

The final element that has been rattling around in my head of late is the report released by Samara Canada called The Real Outsiders. The study focuses on Canadians who are somewhat disengaged from traditional democracy in Canada. Samara’s report received quite a bit of media attention and editorials in response to its overall assessments.

One of the contributors to this discourse mentioned the importance in the decline of civil societies to the decline in democratic participation. Having all of these different notions banging around inside my head led me to draw some conclusions to the changing patterns in Canadian society and democracy overall.

Someone commenting on the report from Samara pointed out that the decline of civil societies has made the entry point in democratic involvement quite high. Fifty years ago most members of a community were members of a number of local organizations. Religious organizations, charitable groups, local governance groups, school councils, unions and volunteer associations allowed people to serve their communities and organize without entering formal democratic politics. In addition these organizations allowed individuals to lobby for policy choices and gain experience leading organizations, paving the way for more involvement in public life.

Today, civil society seems remarkably weak to me, at least based upon my own anecdotal observations and experiences. The decline of church attendance, and other traditional non-state institutions could be a serious impediment to democratic participation. Democratic governance can be extremely esoteric to new initiates. The role the federal or provincial governments play in our daily lives may not be immediately apparent, much of what is apparent is normally annoying – poor infrastructure, ineffective bureaucracy, parking tickets, etc. Motivating people to plunge into the complicated system can be daunting. On the other hand the mission and purpose of community groups and their effectiveness is quite obvious. Experience on a smaller local level can be leveraged to greater political participation. I particularly wonder about the impact on young people. These community organizations, traditionally, would be the gateway to greater participation.

Since the 1980s with the rapid growth of globalization the traditional groups within society have seen real erosion. Members of our society are mostly concerned with their own affairs, and have limited connections to their communities. Scott spoke of the importance of local culture, but local traditions have broken down dramatically overtime. New subcultures and digital societies have sprung up now that people have the freedom to organize themselves based on their interests instead of their geography, or culture.

We participate in groups of like-minded people, with like-minded interests, but we no longer know our neighbours or local needs. The erosion of civil society likely means that we are less committed to our communities. Sometimes it can feel like we are a nation of 34 million individuals, with only the vaguest of common interest and connection, the province even more so, 12 million strangers that happen to have the same geography. Our technological isolation from each other may be the root of this disconnect, given how local society is so key to political organization.

Perhaps now it is time for us to less enamoured with the idea that we can talk to anyone on the other side of the world, but that we should reach out to people just outside our doors. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Intro: NDP Leader's Race

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts I am a member of the Ontario New Democratic Party. As a member of the ONDP I am by default a member of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada. On this blog I have talked about my shifting voting patterns, and my sympathies for ideas on both the left and right. I voted NDP in May 2011, and I was very pleased with the breakthrough of the NDP, but I more often disagree with them than their provincial cousins.

However, ever since I turned 18 I have participated in every election I could. There is also something attractive in selecting the next Leader of the Opposition and shaping the NDP more into the party I want it to be. First, let’s give a rundown of the candidates (alphabetically):

Niki Ashton – MP for Churchill, MB. The youngest potential leader. She is campaigning on a platform called “New Politics,” which she hopes to change the way government and democracy works in Canada. http://www.nikiashton.ca/

Robert Chisholm – MP for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour, NS. He is the former Leader of the Opposition in Nova Scotia. He is largely basing his campaign on his experience as a tested leader.

Nathan Cullen – MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, BC. Most experienced MP in the race, elected in 2004. He has help multiple shadow cabinet posts in the NDP. He is noteworthy for his call on cooperation between the Liberal, NDP and Green Parties in the next election to help unite the progressive vote.

Paul Dewar – MP for Ottawa Centre, ON. He has been highly active on foreign affairs issues since arriving in Ottawa. He has strong ties to the grassroots of the party in Ontario and Manitoba.

Thomas Mulcair – MP for Outremont, QC.  The candidate with the most experience in government as a former cabinet minister in Quebec. He was Jack Layton’s Quebec Lieutenant and Deputy Leader.

Peggy Nash – MP for Parkdale-High Park, ON. Prominent union leader and long-term finance critique in the NDP shadow cabinet. Nash is strong on economic issues and emphasizes growth and social justice.

Romeo Saganash – MP for Abiti-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou. Prominent Cree leader from Quebec, as Deputy Grand Chief of the Council of the Crees. His campaign has been focused on economic justice (particularly amongst Aboriginal Canadians) and environmental issues to date.

Martin Singh – Pharmacist from Nova Scotia. NDP activist and small businessman.

Brian Topp – Former President of the NDP. Former union leader and Chief of Staff to Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow. Topp is credited in part with the winning strategies implemented by Jack Layton.

I will not bother sharing any polling because there is not any fresh data out there. Generally, Brian Topp is thought to be in the lead. Paul Dewar, Thomas Mulcair and Peggy Nash are somewhere behind him. Nathan Cullen, Robert Chisholm, and Niki Ashton make up the third tier, leaving the remaining candidates with low single-digit support.

The NDP have a number of debates planned. You can read about the strategy here. It’s interesting to contrast the Republican race in the United States to the NDP race. There is not a lot of data to go on yet, but I found it interesting to be agreeing with the folks I was watching debate for once, generally.

Truth be told I have a favourite. I am slightly biased towards Romeo Saganash. I find his biography compelling. I am not totally sold. I want to see him do well in a debate, after he recovers from his bronchitis. You can find the debate here.Sadly, I’m not bilingual, so I rely upon the media to inform me of the relative performance of candidates.

I will be following the debates, the next one is in January, and I may be attending the convention in March. If there are some specific aspects you would like me to focus on I would be happy to give my coverage a specific bend.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Despite the fact that the media has been discussing the story for about three or four weeks I had not yet gotten a chance to write on this issue. I figured before delving into an issue that was inevitably less critical I should address the concerns of a reserve in Northern Ontario.

A few months ago I started following Charlie Angus (NDP MP – Timmins-James Bay) on Twitter. Not long after the May election I recall he began tweeting about the terrible conditions on a reserve in Northern Ontario. I looked at the pictures and read his comments. I don’t think I had an appreciation of the problems in the north. I suppose I should say honestly that familiarity bred contempt, or more accurately indifference.

Any quick Google search will reveal a plethora of images and articles on the Attawapiskat. The issue confronting this remote reserve is similar to many across the near-north: chronic housing problems, sanitation, health, a dismal economy, and poor governance.

It has bothered me how political this story has become so quickly. Obviously the Loyal Opposition wants to demonstrate the heartlessness of the federal government, and the government wants to defend its own record, but this partisanship ignores the fundamental humanitarian crisis occurring on the reserve. It’s December, and at this time of year we tend to open our wallets. If you are interested in making a donation or contribution you can look at this article in the Globe and Mail

I am embarrassed by the federal government’s reaction to the crisis in Attawapiskat. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has refused to visit the reserve, and will only be meeting with Aboriginal leaders for the first time on this coming Thursday. I do not understand the lack of action by the federal government. Even if you disagree with the calls for substantial investment in Attawapiskat and other reserves, there is no reason that emergency actions should not be taken. Attawapiskat should be evacuated and its people taken from the dangerous conditions present there.

The third-party representative sent by the federal government has been sent packing, and for good reason. The Conservative government needs to take direct responsibility for the conditions on this reserve. If they will not the public has to step up and demand action, and offer their support. These conditions are unacceptable, and we can address the larger implications for Aboriginal policy after that the initial crisis has passed.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Health of Parliament

Parliamentary purists are wonderful people. Peter Kormos, the recently-retired MPP from Welland, was considered a passionate expert of parliamentary procedure. On the federal level Bill Blaikie (Elmwood-Transcona, MB – NDP) was another example of this. These purists put the value of parliament above all else – personal interest, cause, party demands and so on. Parliament is sacred to these folk.

Respect for Parliament as an institution is more meaningful than merely obeying the old traditions, but Parliament is our central institution of government and popular will. The House of Commons and provincial legislatures are the beating heart of our democracy. Making Parliament function as intended is central to the health of Canadian democracy.

So, obviously this was building to something. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government has been none-too-friendly to Parliament this year. Harper does not have an excellent track record in terms of respect for Parliament. Before May 2, 2011 I chopped up any of Harper’s anti-Parliament behaviours as a reaction to the minority parliament. Bullying the opposition parties and bending the rules of Parliament was part of how a government might react in a minority situation. I emphasize might because other Prime Ministers did not often do the same things to the same extent.

This week there have been a number of stories in the media that have caused me a great deal of anger. As a politics nerd, and a Canadian, I love Parliament and hate to see her so mistreated.

First, Question Period. I will be the first to admit that Question Period is not as valuable as it could be. That being said, I recently read that the Prime Minister now only attends QP three days a week. He used to only take Fridays off, but now he has taken to skipping Mondays too since winning majority government. The first mission of Members of Parliament is to hold the government to account. If the Prime Minister is not showing up that makes it more difficult.

Second, the body of Parliament is not beingallowed to debate. Three major pieces of legislation flew through the House of Commons – the omnibus crime bill, the abolition of the Wheat Board, and the termination of the gun registry. The Parliament was not given an opportunity to serve its principle purpose – debate legislation. Analysis in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail point out some of the problems in the legislation (especially the crime bill) demonstrated how even some scrutiny would make the bill better. There were little errors that could have been amended if given the chance.

Our system of democracy requires majority governments to be a little magnanimous. Majority governments have absolute power, so there is no harm in letting the opposition have their say because ultimately the government has the votes. Harper could allow the opposition to scream until their hoarse and he could still pass whatever he wanted, within reason. Debate refines legislation. Ignoring it makes Parliament a rubberstamp for the Prime Minister’s Office.

Third, the much dreaded prorogue. There are rumours thatPrime Minister Harper is going to prorogue Parliament early – again. This will be the third time, and with a majority government there is really no justifiable reason for it, except to limit debate and accountability. Harper, it is argued, is almost complete passing the major aspects of his legislative program, so he does not need Parliament any more. Lori Turnball recently wrote in the Globe and Mail that the rules for prorogation needs to be addressed.  Turnball argues that the right to prorogue needs to be transferred from the Governor-General (therefore the Prime Minister) to the Parliament with a two-thirds vote. Right now the central democratic institution of our nation can be arbitrarily suspended by one person. I personally do not care for this Banana Republic-style democracy.

John Ibbitson wrote today that the House of Commons willnot be prorogued this winter, but probably will be this summer. The case he lays out is not any more comforting if Parliament is dismissed in a few weeks or a few months.

Dan Leger with the Chronicle Harold writes of Harper’s attitude to Parliament. His criticisms are spot on. The Prime Minister is not the centre of Canadian governance, the Parliament is, and this should be better reflected in the power arrangements we see. I wish all 308 MPs were Parliamentary purists who had great love, and not contempt for Parliament. This is not about Conservative government, it’s about the health of our democracy. Precedent is very important in the Westminster tradition, was a precedent is set it is hard to break. Harper’s true legacy might be a less functional Parliament and a less vibrant democratic tradition.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bus Etiquette

In cities across the world people depend on public transit to go about their daily lives. While many participate few consider what role their actions (or inactions) have on their fellow travellers. Most obey the most simple of unwritten rules of polite society, others do not. This is partially a product of not having an agreed upon list. So, here are some of my rules that I use myself, and that I think would make riding the bus a lot more enjoyable.

1 – Plan Ahead. Before going anywhere near a bus know your route, stop and other details. Having a bus delayed because of your ignorance wastes the time of all other passengers on the bus, and on the stops down the line.

2 – Be Ready When Boarding. Be prepared. The second the bus pulls up your pass, tickets or coins should be in your hand, along with whatever you need (ex. luggage). Delaying the bus is rude to your fellow commuters.

3 – Use Human Kindness. Bus drivers are generally friendly, pleasant people. Say good morning (or another appropriate greeting), and thank you when departing. Excuse yourself if you have to pass by people, and be polite whenever possible. A little friendliness goes a long way. If someone needs the reserved seats at the front immediately abandon yours, do not get into a staring match with your fellow commuters trying to figure out who will vacate the spot.

4 – How to Take a Seat. As soon as you have gained entrance, scan the bus. If there are seats available take one. Move as far back as you possibly can, this becomes more important the fuller the bus becomes. Given the Canadian penchant for personal space it is advisable to sit in empty benches first, but people honestly do not mind if someone sits beside them, so long as you are considerate.

5 – Do NOT Stand By The Door.  Standing on the bus should only occur once the seats are full. If you have to stand on the bus avoid standing in front of the door. It is only appropriate if your stop is quickly coming. If you board the bus and your stop is only two stops away, you may reasonably stand by the door. If, however, your destination is ten blocks away, take a seat, or stand elsewhere.

6 – Know Where You Fit On The Bus. The most desirable seats or places to stand are by the doors. Everyone wants an easy departure. In a perfect world you should select where you stand or sit based on the proximity to your stop. If your stop is far away, especially at a terminal, you do not need to be near the door, be considerate and take a more remote seat.

7 – Keep A Clear Path. This can be a difficult thing to accomplish, but an effort should always be made. If you have bags or other items minimize how they protrude on lines of travel. More difficult still is as you stand to keep a clear path. The easiest way to help to do this is take seats as they become available. Give people departing the bus as much space as you can.

8 - Music. It’s called your music for a reason. If you have a MP3 player, and you care to listen to it on the bus, keep the volume low enough so that the person beside you cannot hear the lyrics. It is somewhat acceptable if the people immediately around you can softly hear your music. Those on the other side of the bus should not be able to hear anything. Playing music out loud, without the benefit of earphones is unacceptable. No one else asked to listen to your music.

9 – Preserve Your And Others’ Privacy. Most people have the good sense not to stare. Etiquette calls for riders to simply stare out the windows, or out into space. Reading or using silent electronic devices is also acceptable. Leave people to their quiet, private conversations with friends on the bus. Essentially, play deaf. Under my rules of proper bus etiquette, I believe that taking phone calls is improper on the bus. If you must take a phone call on the bus control the volume of your voice. You do not want strangers to know your personal business, and they do not want to know yours.

10 – Departing The Bus. Departing the bus is a culmination of many of the above rules. Be prepared and aware of when your stop is coming. Pull the cord, or press the stop button well ahead of the stop so the driver can react accordingly. Gather up your stuff and check for a clear path to the doors. Be aware of your surroundings and exit. If possible, thank the driver.

This is an incomplete list, but I think if all fellow commuters obeyed these principles we would all find are travels more enjoyable.

The post is inspired by frequent and long conversations between myself and my friend Venetia Boehmer-Plotz. Credit where credit is due. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Value of a Good Education

 Last week in my post about why Canadian history is great I mentioned I am a graduate student in history. This week I would like to turn my focus to post-secondary education. During the provincial election I wrote on Liberal education policy, with a focus on K-12, you can read my thoughts there.

During the election Dalton McGuinty and his party promised to create thousands of new positions in universities, not to mention three brand new universities. Every year thousands of students enter the post-secondary system in Ontario. An increasing focus on college education is beneficial, but when people think post-secondary, they are usually thinking about university. Premier McGuinty and the government of Ontario are aiming to make Ontario the most educated workforce in North America, and the world, to attract employers. But are we doing that correctly?

Despite all the complaints about the cost of tuition a very large proportion of the cost of education is subsidized by the provincial government. If memory serves undergrad students only pay 30% of the cost, and the province picks up 70%. The rate for graduate students is even higher. Are we spending our money properly?

The government is making an economic argument for why we should educate ourselves. The subsidies students receive are across the board, we do not target fields we need growth in. All students are treated equally regardless of whether their program is sports and recreation or physics. From my own experience, teachers’ colleges are by far and away producing more teachers than the province can hire. I heard in teachers’ college that Ontario graduated 7,000 teacher-candidates that did not find positions. That ignores the students at American universities or out-of-province. How many tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars went into teacher education that resulted in careers other than what was intended? Why are we overinvesting in these programs?

Master’s or graduate programs are equally questionable. If I recall correctly the province subsidizes Master’s education to the tune of over 80%, and the tuition is higher, so it is a greater cost to the public. Universities are expanding their graduate and research components to compensate for budget shortfalls. A handful of new grad school positions can provide the same income as a class of undergrads.

Higher education used to be the preserve of an elite, for better and worse. The only people who got an MA or MSc intended to be an academic. Master’s degrees are now an effort to distinguish themselves from the sea of BAs and BScs. Government policy now openly favours academic inflation and the erosion of the value of each degree. I am not a fortune teller, but the economic productivity that is thrown off by my area of education is tenuous at best. Those getting an MA in English, or philosophy, or popular culture may not be the best investment for the province. Colleges are becoming finishing schools for university graduates who need real skills to enter their desired fields. Clearly, the economic end-goals of the province and students are not being met.

But is education about economic ends? I feel confident that if I asked why my peers in the MA History program were in the program, they would say they were drawn to it because of a love of history and a love of learning, likewise with my friends in other MA programs. I do not mean to be an idealist, but universities should be centres of advanced learning and knowledge, not just career-prep centres.

If the province is truly interested in using post-secondary education to crank the economy then shouldn’t it target its funding? Grants should be given to the skilled trades, or perhaps they should get 100% free tuition. Degrees in engineering, technology, advanced sciences, business and accounting should be highly subsidized, perhaps on the backs of students who want a classic liberal education in the arts and humanities. The goal of a post-secondary education is to get a career with a high income and good benefits.

That’s what a post-secondary education is for, right?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why Canadian History is Awesome

This post will not quite jive with what I normally do on this blog, but I have been known to take requests from readers – and one requested this so here we go.

For those of you who may not know, I am a graduate student studying history. History is often something not easily justifiable as a field of study. Within the study of history I am the only student studying Canadian history. I have had to endure many slings and arrows from fellow history nerds about the relative superiority of their subsection. Therefore I present to you:

Ten Reasons Canadian History is Awesome

10 - An Old Nation

A common criticism of Canada is that it is a young country, and therefore its history is very limited. This is a myth. Yes, the Dominion of Canada which has evolved into the country we know today was founded a little over 150 years ago. This is a limitation that virtually no other nation faces. No one measures French history at the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958, nor American history after the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, etc. Canada has had at least 10,000 years of human habitation. Even taking into account the incredibly narrow view that European contact is the marker of a start of Canadian history – our origins precede the United States with the 1497 discovery of Newfoundland by John Cabot, or the Viking colony from 1000 CE. We know far too little about Canada before 1000 CE, but that just means we have work to do.

9 - Canada in the World, and the World in Canada

Canada is a strange country in that in its long history it has been very strongly tied to the rest of the world. While at other times in history other nations have been able to bar its doors and turn its back on the world, Canada has been unable to. Therefore those things which shook the world hit Canada, often particularly hard. The best example of this is the Great Depression. Canada was one of the hardest hit nations in the world with 32% unemployment, only being surpassed by Germany. In geopolitics Canada always seems to be in the thick of it. Whether the imperial conflicts of English and French, or the Cold War, Canada is front and centre. The final part of this point is that the world has found a home in Canada. Multiculturalism has brought hundreds of ethnicities and languages to Canada and created connections to the rest of the globe. The history and on-goings of the world are deeply tied to Canada and her people.

8 - Canada, Battlefield of History

Within the borders of what we now know as Canada have been several major battles that have shaped the destiny of the whole world. The battles that took place in Quebec, Nova Scotia and Ontario have as much (or greater) role in determining the present than any battle in World War II. The Battles of Louisbourg and the Plains of Abraham are not merely important for the formation of Canada, but they also effectively ended the French Empire in North America. During the War of 1812 British and First Nations repelled repeated American invasions, and also torched Washington – for the win.

If these battles do not seem significant, please consider the counterfactual scenario, or alternative history. If the British failed to conquer New France the upper half of North America may have remained French. Canada may have still come to be, and may still have been called Canada, but it would be a French nation, not French and English. Had the Americans succeeded in their conquest of British North America, realizing their dream of Manifest Destiny, the United States would rule from Baffin Island to the Rio Grande, which assumes that after conquering Canada and the western United States they would be satisfied.

7 - Towards a Common Country

What Canada is is not a static idea. What is Canada and who are Canadian is constantly in flux. In each century, and in different parts of the country, different answers arose to the same questions. Much of Canada’s history is a debate of who can be included. The most prominent example of this is the narrative of the struggle between French-Canadians and English-Canadians. Most countries, I dare say, have not operated this way in its history. The complex relationship between groups to define Canada is a fascinating and on-going part of our history.

6 - Canada – Original Stormtroopers

This is the go-to answer for most Canadians of Canadian history’s greatness – our national accomplishments during the World Wars. For much of our history Canada has punched above its weight. As a relatively small country we have had a disproportionate impact on the shape and outcome of major conflicts. Canadian forces have long been hailed as highly skilled, motivated and capable soldiers, as evidenced by our performance at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Juno Beach and the Liberation of Holland – to name a few. Our fearsome reputation was well earned.  

5- Voice for the Voiceless

The form of history most in vogue in Canadian studies these days – or so it seems to me – is social history. Historians are very interested in providing voices to the voiceless. The voiceless are those in society who did not have access to political or social power – women, the lower classes, immigrants, First Nations, and on. Canadian history offers a panoply of perspectives and scenarios. Traditional views of how society operated in Canada’s past is always being challenged, presenting a fascinating mosaic. These histories are often equally contentious and illuminating.

4 - A Nation of Nations

“Canadianness” is a construction, and many Canadians (presently and in the past) have multiple identities. Canada is composed of hundreds, perhaps thousands of competing nations – be they our First Nations, with their distinct cultures, or the new arrivals. Each nation within Canada has a distinct story. Figuring out the tale of how Canada came to be is more often deciphering a mosaic, rather than interpreting a paint-by-numbers. Even our distinct regions and provincial interests mean that a national narrative can always be challenged. This diversity of peoples means that Canadian history is a very simple narrative to learn, but a very difficult thing to understand.

3 – Protest, Revolts and Revolutions

Canadian history is often labelled as being dull. What people mean by this is that it is not very violent, and we really need a good spilling of blood to get excited. I blame Hollywood. That being said Canadian history has its share of spilt blood, despite the perception otherwise. First, to understand the formation of Canada you have to understand the American Revolution, which produced two countries, not one. In 1837, 1870, 1885, 1919 and the 1930s we see major revolts in Canada. Many of them have a revolutionary tenor. It is only through brutal suppression of the government that they were not successful. Each time the people of Canada rose up another mark was made on the history of Canada.

The social and political evolution of this country has been profound from its earliest origins. The roots are ancient, but since then the tree that is this country has grown and changed dramatically, shaped by the hands of its people – not just its elites. The social justice principles so many Canadians hold dear were not an accident of history, they came from a concerted effort to make this a better country. These movements and their histories make this country a richer place.

2 - Our ‘Great’ Leaders

Great is a difficult term, but sometimes I think as cynical Canadians we hesitate to heap praise on our historic leaders. The truth of the matter is that many of our leaders can stand proud amongst the leaders of the world. Richard Gwyn has just put out a second volume to his biography to Sir John A. Macdonald, in an interview he said that Macdonald may be a better leader than his contemporaries, which include Benjamin Disraeli and Abraham Lincoln. But there are many figures from our past we can look to: Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Gen. Arthur Currie, Tecumseh, Joseph Brant, Tommy Douglas, Elijah Harper, Nellie McClung, Rene Levesque, Louis Riel, to name a few.

There are also the infamous, which I will not list. Canada has not shortage of colour characters shaping its past. None are saints, nor are they devils, they’re people who contributed to our present with fascinating stories.

1 - Who are we?

When I teach history I tend to start off with a simple idea, we cannot know where we are if we don’t know where we came from. We are products of our history. Even those new Canadians are part of a larger tapestry that fits within a larger patchwork assembled over hundreds of years. The actions of our forbearers have measurable impact on the lives we lead today. Our individual identities are inextricably tied to how we understand ourselves as a whole country or a nation.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Some More Equal than Others

A number of months ago I wrote a piece entitled Provinces,Take Your Seats . In it I argued for what I believed should be the adjusted number of seats for the provinces in the Federal House of Commons. My suggestion was, sadly, fanciful. It violated existing principles to how seats are allocated in the Canadian system of Government. The rule I broke which caused the greatest problem was the one that states that the provinces will receive the same number of MPs as Senators, or more.

Eric Grenier in the Globe and Mail discussed the natureof seat redistribution in Canada. The key notion that sticks in the collective mind is the principle of representation by population. It’s an only notion and arguably one of the most important to representative democracy. However, as Grenier points out Canada has a long history of violating this rule.

When Canada was first formed in the early nineteenth century Quebec and Ontario were given an equal number of seats despite the fact that Quebec (then Canada East) had a much larger population. Representation by population was introduced when the English-speaking population eclipsed the French.

The Harper Conservatives have come up with how new seatswill be distributed to address imbalances in growing populations. Debate immediately rose about whether or not Quebec should be given seats to keep it proportionally equal and a 25% block in the house – a historic benchmark. Some commentators have pointed out that the Conservative planstrongly disadvantages Ontario at the preference of Quebec. Ontario should receive something like 18 seats so that it composes 39% of the population of the House, which is Ontario’s share of the national number. Ontario is receiving 13.

I do not understand why Ontario and to a lesser extent British Columbia are not being given the number of seats they deserve. Canada is unlikely to ever get to a true representation by population model, systematic problems with provinces like Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland make that unlikely. Still, if we are addressing the imbalance, why not actually correct it? It will be about five more years before we can again when the next census is conducted.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rising Towers, Falling Prices?

I would like to begin by thanking Fair Vote Canada for sharing last week’s post on The Orange Tory regarding some of my proposals on how to improve democracy in Ontario. Last week’s post drove traffic to this blog to an all-time high. I am very grateful for Fair Vote for sharing this post and my blog. I would like to welcome my new readers, I hope you find something worthwhile to you here.

This week I want to begin a discussion about housing. I hope to sometime soon discuss some ideas regarding social housing and housing prices – both of which, I believe, require redress. Funny enough my local MPP Cindy Forster was named the ONDP critic for Municipalities and Housing.

To begin the discussion I wanted to share a link to an article by Stephen Smith at Forbes, link here. Smith poses a simple question – does urban growth have to mean gentrification? The reason that it is an important question is that the answer may be counter-intuitive to some philosophies, or perhaps broadly the logic of the market.

My friends on the right might say that the issues of high housing costs and social housing could be addressed by reducing restrictions on new builds and building new projects. Smith points out in his piece that new construction is never accepted at face value as additional housing stock, but always with increased value due to new amenities and the fact that it is not joined by other construction.

Finally, I want to share this video of time elapsedscenes in Toronto. I think us in the GTA often overlook how beautiful Toronto is as a city, this really highlights that. Enjoy. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An Immodest Proposal for Democracy

Previously in this blog I’ve labelled myself as a reformer, or a democrat, or a democratic reformer – and this is the label that I cherish the most. I value it more highly than social democracy, government regulation in the economy and creating a more fair society, which are also key aspects to my political identity, but secondary to the value of democracy.

Last week I posted a rant on the decline in our democratic institutions as manifested through dismal turnout in the Ontario (and other provinces) election. Being disappointed and complaining doesn’t do too much good, so let’s talk about what we can actually do.

On their post-electionepisode of The Agenda of TVO, Martin Cohn (if I recall correctly) suggested that the real way to end concerns about low voter turnout is to introduce Australian-style mandatory voting without consulting the public for a period of ten years. At the end of the ten-year period hold a referendum, and hopefully after having it in place for ten years people will come to accept it. I can’t help but wonder if you’d want the referendum to be mandatory, or just hope the pro-participation side outvotes the apathetic naysayers and keep the reform in place. I have spoken in favour of compulsory voting previously here.

One feature that would be required if compulsory voting, but can be introduced without it would be a “None-of-the-Above” option. Pundits often point at low voter turnout as a symptom of dissatisfaction with the options. Voters could send a powerful message by clearly declaring their dissatisfaction with their candidates. For example, in a riding that an incumbent wins with 40% and the other parties win 10% a piece and None-of-the-Above gets 30% it might indicate that if the losing parties put up stronger candidates they would perform better, maybe even win. It would also punish candidates for negative campaigns.

In our current system of democracy (coming to that in a minute) voters that support small parties and parties with limited support in particular regions have very limited reason to get out and vote. Green voters have very little incentive to vote anywhere in Ontario outside of a couple of ridings. PCs can stay home in most parts of Toronto. New Democrats are shut out of the rural east of the province. Liberals have a tough go in many parts of mid-Ontario. One way voters were encouraged to vote in the federal elections were through vote subsidies. For every ballot cast the party would receive $1.75. The Harper Conservatives have moved to kill this funding program, but it gives some incentive for voters to get out there and boost turnout.

Here’s a change that’s sure to raise the hackles of a few citizens – we need more politicians. Please hold on to your rotted fruit! One of the biggest concerns of voters is that they do not feel heard by or connected to their representatives. We had one fewer Members of Provincial Parliament in Ontario one hundred years ago than today. The population of Ontario in 1911 was 18% of what it is today. So despite increasing population by more than a factor of five we have added one representative to the body. One of the biggest complaints I heard during the election is that people do not get to meet the candidates. With tens of thousands of households in a riding it is a hell of a task to meet even a small percentage. I am not suggesting we quintuple the size of the legislature to match population, current technologies do not make such a dramatic leap necessary. But, bringing the legislature to its largest historical size of 130 may be a good first step.

I would like to see reform to the way political advertising is done. I believe it turns people off from the process, especially ads by third-party groups who cannot be punished directly by the public for their campaigns. I do not have a solution to this issue though, sadly.

Finally, I was a supporter of the Mixed-Member Proportional reform on the ballot in 2007. A reform of our electoral system would make every riding competitive and attract back those discouraged voters. Wilf Day offers a very clear explanation of what MMP is, or you could watch this mostexcellent video on YouTube. At his blog Day has run the numbers of what the Ontario Legislature would look like given the October 6th results, but with an MMP system. It is quite a different animal. The Legislature would still be a minority, the Liberals would have won 50 seats (down 3), the PCs would be up to 45 (up 8) the NDP would jump even higher, up to 31 seats (up 14). The Green would get their first win with three seats. You can see Day’s analysis here.

Voter turnout is not the weather. It is not something we should regularly complain about, then shrug our shoulders in defeat – it is a problem that can be addressed through concrete policies and reforms. My suggestions here would all work together, which is part of the reason I chose them. Other options are out there, and I hope our political leaders have the sense to consider some of them. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We Need All Voices

Well Ontarians our provincial election is over. Tonight was the night of the Newfoundland and Labrador election, and before those were the Manitoba, Northwest Territories and Prince Edward Island elections. Across the country so far provincial governments have been re-elected, though sometimes under different leaders. Our nation’s punditry is extrapolating this to mean that Canadians are embracing experienced leaders and restoring them to power in the face of uncertain uneconomic times. This is plainly stupid. As is the notion that Liberal and New Democratic Parties are being elected to government as resistance to the Harper majority federally. Provincial elections are shaped by provincial issues. Besides, every one of these Premiers have been returned with a smaller majority, aside from Selinger in Manitoba, and reduced popular vote.

I have opted this week not to obey my standard format of addressing an issue carefully and exactly but instead to just rant a little. I do not have the skill of Rick Mercer, so please bear with me.

The 40th Ontario General Election had an utterly abysmal turnout of just 49.2%. A majority of the voting population decided to sit at home and likely watch the home opener of the Toronto Maple Leafs or whatever things they had going on in their personal or professional lives. That means that a majority of Ontarians did not aid in the selection of their local representative.

I’m a democracy nerd. In my perfect world voting rates would be approaching 100%. I understand that is unrealistic and utopian, but I feel the 80% that is achieved in other countries would be tolerable. Why care about voting turnout? If people wanted to vote they would have, they either are apathetic or dislike all the candidates. This is unacceptable. It was also never easier to vote, there were 29 days of advanced polls.

In a democracy the citizen’s job is to select the best candidate to be his or her voice. Do you like any of the party leaders? Do you like any of the parties’ platforms? Do any of your candidates particularly appeal to you? Finally, which candidate is the most qualified by your assessment? And, which candidate mirrors your values most closely? Democracy isn’t about perfect, it’s about compromise and preferred choices. If you don’t like the choices, run for office or help someone you do like.

Why does voter turnout really concern me? Because it delegitimizes our government and system. In our electoral system, which I have problems about which I’ve discussed previously (and have hinted at multiple times), you don’t need to get a majority to win. The McGuinty Liberals received 37% of the vote, and will operate a functional majority or a very strong minority. However, only 18.2% of the people of Ontario supported them in the election. If they received 18.3% it would have been a majority government and they would have absolute control. Less than one fifth of the population selected our government, does that seem right at all?

At one point do our representatives fail to be representatives? When turnout is at 45%? What about 40%? Or 30%? Or 10%? At what point does our democracy fail to be a democracy? The voice of the citizenry is as critical component as the cabinet, and legislature, its absence will only lead to greater problems and alienation of the public.  

Note: In the future I might make a comprehensive post about how our democracy may/should be improved. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Our Education Premier

Dalton McGuinty likes to style himself the education premier. His success on that file may be his proudest accomplishment since being elected. In this he combines his policies for public education (K-12) and post-secondary, which I think is an error.

I do not believe the direction of public education under the Liberal government has taken is much to celebrate over the last eight years. Not everything was incorrect, obviously. Smaller class sizes and peace with the unions is positive. Other frequently trumpeted benefits, such as increased graduation rates might be cause more for alarm than celebration. I addressed my concerns about the Ontario education policy of increased graduation rates here.

Education has increasingly turned to statistical measures to determine success – How many kids are graduating? What are the scores on the standardized tests? How many kids passed the literacy test? These questions don’t actually address issues like – Are our standards of education slipping? Are our children learning successfully? Are our students literate?

I have worked in education on several different levels – volunteer, teacher, and now as a teaching-assistant at a university. Professors much deride the declining quality of the students emerging from our public education system. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even though many thousands of students are entering Ontario universities, first year programs are increasingly becoming high school completion classes because students lack basic skills.

More students graduate every year as a percentage, but every year the value of an Ontario Secondary School Diploma drops further. It no longer signifies a particular level of skill and knowledge.

I should point out that many of my objections are likely products of our times. These patterns are unfolding across North America in many different jurisdictions with very different governments. I’m convinced for the most part that neither Tim Hudak nor Andrea Horwath would fundamentally alter this educational reality. Education is often more a product of society and economy than public policy.

On post-secondary, there are also major issues. Despite the promises of both the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals to add tens of thousands of new spaces in post-secondary institutions our schools are not adequately providing the resources to staff them. During a panel discussion I attended at Brock University the panellists were in total agreement that universities are cutting back on tenured staff in favour of part-time staff and larger class sizes. What does this do to post-secondary education in Ontario?

At Brock University our infrastructure is doing well to keep pace with our growing student body. However the departments are not. All faculties are facing budget cuts annually. Growing classes are increasingly taught by instructors and space for researchers is shrinking.

Public education in Niagara is also in trouble. Every year in Niagara there are rumours of schools closing. Many are well founded because of diminishing enrolment. Niagara will likely lose more than one high school in the coming years. What does that do for our quality of education? I agree in efficiencies and making the system effective, but schools used to be the heart of communities – these are not consequence free decisions.

Education has not received substantial attention in this election, frankly, few issues have. Perhaps when this election is over and the results have poured in I’ll look back and write what I would have liked to have heard.

Remember, Election Day is this Thursday October 6. Get out and vote!

Remember to follow me on Speak Your Mind. My latest post about a Welland Riding debate in Thorold can be found there

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Attention and Deficit

The election is ten days away. Very soon Ontarians will be travelling to the polls on October 6 to cast their ballots and select the MPPs that will make up out fortieth Ontario legislature. However, it appears to me at least that many Ontarians have been sleepwalking through this election. The media has been quite quiet on the election. This is largely because most Ontarians receive their media from national or international (see American) sources – which don’t really speak to the Ontario election.

The local coverage in my newspapers has even been a little disappointing. Virtually every riding in Niagara is considered competitive with all three major parties involved. I’ve heard ads on the radio, and seen the lawn signs, but still. I noticed a lot more lawn signs around during the May election earlier this year.

On a positive note the leaders’ debate is tonight! With the debate interrupting normal television on many channels it might awaken the Ontario electorate to the upcoming decision they are being asked to make. The debate is going to be a big event in this election. The most recent polls over the last few days have shown the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals very close, virtually tied. In addition the NDP have been building up steam and growing. If any of the three leaders – Dalton McGuinty, Tim Hudak, or Andrea Horwath – have a strong night, it could change everything.

Keeping my promise from the beginning of the election I’ll turn my attention back to an issue. This week I would like to talk about government spending and the deficit. In August Ontario’s deficit was estimated at $14 billion. The total amount of the Ontario budget is about $125 billion. Therefore approximately one in ten dollars spent by the Ontario government is borrowed at this point in time.

Deficits make poor election issues. Why? Because while it is exceedingly easy to make a budget deficit it is monstrously painful to get rid of one. To correct this problem serious tax increases or spending cuts are required, and probably some combination of both.

Fear not for our valiant leaders have stepped forward! All three parties are promising to balance the budget by fiscal year 2017. It should be noted that the Green Party is promising to balance the books by 2015. How? That’s a good question, one which the parties are having a lot of trouble answering. In my honest opinion the Progressive Conservatives and Tim Hudak have the least credibility on this issue. Running a platform of tax cuts and maintaining spending and yet balancing the budget is pure fantasy. Both the NDP and Liberals are promising new spending, but the Liberal’s programs are quite modest overall. The NDP hope to balance their new spending with an increase in the corporate tax rate. An increase in the tax rate would put Ontario at par with our nearest competitors.

Ever since the conservative revolutions of the 1980s deficits have become a major issue. Candidates from all over the spectrum are now adamant for the need of a balanced budget. Believe it or not only a few decades ago the idea of deficits was not taken into account. As Adam Radwanski pointed out in the Globe not so very long ago none of the parties are takingthis issue particularly seriously. Governments want balanced budgets, but at the moment it doesn’t seem entirely necessary. In this time of economic hardship government spending helps keep the economy moving, even if it produces deficits.

Despite Ontarians’ desire for balanced books, and the parties’ claims that they will achieve them, the pressure isn’t there. Without the public pushing for it, it will not happen. Planning our future budget plans though seems a bit risky right now, especially with the dark news coming out of Europe. Perhaps that’s the bigger question, who should lead us into suchuncertain times? Next time I’ll try to end on a happier note.

A reminder that I am writing for Speak Your Mind and the Toronto Star.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Moving Voters, Transit in Niagara

Transit is definitely an election issue this year. It may not be a top priority for everyone but there is a growing number of people who view it as one of their top concerns. Most of the people who think about transit when they cast a ballot live in our big urban centres, like Toronto, Ottawa or perhaps even Mississauga.

However, here in Niagara transit might have more traction than in other regions. Niagara is not officially part of the Greater Toronto Area, but much of its economic activity is tied to proximity to Toronto and the American border. The ability for people to move through this region is critical for its development and continued success.

On that note the Regional Council within the last few months has finally given the green light to intercity transit. Soon buses will be running between the major urban centres of the region. The long-promised and debated service will greatly help people get between communities which could only get to before by private vehicle or cab at prohibitive cost. Therefore, transit has been something on the minds of Niagara voters for a long time.

The provincial parties have all made commitments to the Niagara Region or transit in general. The Progressive Conservatives have made the fewest direct commitments to transit investment in Ontario. They have promised municipalities will receive “a fair share” of the gas taxes to fund transit project. They have also stated they will end the war on the car, which may be code for a less friendly transit policy.

One big Conservative promise that should be mentioned is that Tim Hudak has promised to push ahead with the Mid-Peninsula Highway. The highway would provide a third freeway through the Niagara Region to relieve congestion on the at-capacity Queen Elizabeth Expressway. The highway is controversial, and I’m personally sceptical of a highways ability to relieve congestion, rather than shifting it away temporarily.

The Ontario Liberals have promised full-day Go trainservices across the province. Niagara only recently got plugged into the Go system with connections in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. The on-again-off-again train services in the region have been due to concerns about demand and improving track services in the area. It has been a major benefit to commuters as it is considerably cheaper than private bus companies or private travel into the GTA. In addition I’ve heard more than a few anecdotal stories of travellers using the service for day trips to Toronto for hockey or baseball games, cultural events – concerts or plays, or just shopping trips. The Liberals are also promising to continue their commitment to transit investment.

The New Democrats are the party going the furthest in their transit policy. Andrea Horwath and the ONDP have promised to freeze faresacross the province. In return to the fares being pegged at a fixed price the province will assume half the cost of transit in municipalities. I half-expected mad calls of socialism to follow this promise, but apparently the exact same program was in place before 1998 in Ontario. In vote rich Toronto this might be a particularly attractive commitment with the promise of TTC cuts on the horizon. Still, a greater role in transit will be beneficial to municipalities. It will either free up more funds for investment (new buses, repairs, etc.) or cities can shift their funds to other areas requiring attention. Most cities will likely do a little bit of both.

In the riding of Welland the large student population is highly dependent on transit. Citizens of Welland and Port Colborne would benefit from closer freeway access. A better link to the GTA, in no matter what form, would benefit the region.

A special note to sign off on, the Welland candidates met last night in debate in Port Colborne, and will be meeting again tomorrow in Thorold. If you’d like to see the Welland area candidates square off you care at the Four Points at the Sheraton in Thorold, across from Brock University. I’ll be there watching, and I suppose covering the event.

A reminder that I am writing for Speak Your Mind and the Toronto Star, however my latest posts haven’t gone up yet.

Finally, Elections Ontario is making the voting process extra easy with this attractive and easy-to-use website, check it out!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shocking Voters, the Dim Truth of Power Policy

According to much of the polling and discussion that surrounded the preceding months leading up to this election one can say quite convincingly that one of the top issues on the minds of Ontarians is electricity and its cost. Over the last four years under the McGuinty Liberals the citizens of Ontario have seen their electricity bill grow. Two major components that have led to the increases are the Green Energy Act and the HST.

These two points have been contentious talking points for the both the NDP and PCs in their effort to target Ontario voters on ‘pocketbook issues’. But despite public outcry on their hydro bills, and the desire for things to change there is shockingly little that any new government would be able to reasonably do to reverse the trend.

Why is energy so expensive?

As near as I can tell the cost of electricity has increased in Ontario for the same reason that many other infrastructure assets have. Our system was largely built in another time, back when large government spending and a public willing to tolerate deficits and investment built much of the structure that we enjoy today. The second factor is the growth in population and the commiserate increase in demand. With now over twelve million Ontarians, each with televisions, homes, air conditioning, and computers we use a lot of electricity.

Back to the infrastructure, much of what we have, what already is in place is aging, and needs to be replaced or upgraded. For a Niagara example we just have to look to the Niagara Falls hydroelectric project which is adding even more capacity to the province. Demand is increasing and our supply is tightening. Both PC and Liberal governments have vowed to shut down coal plants across the province. The Liberals have also pledged to support nuclear power to meet the rising demand.

In an effort to create more supply and diversify the type of the supply the government of Ontario brought in the Green Energy Act to promote these types of developments. Wind and solar projects, which are providing a small, but growing amount of our electricity has been partially subsidized, if I understand correctly, to nursemaid the industry. McGuinty and his government are quite proud of their project and tout their green jobs.

HST, the reformed GST and PST, applied to home electricity bill. The added 13% added some much undesired sticker shock to Ontarian consumers.

What can be done to fix this problem? In short, not much.

The options to increase the supply of electricity is one, very expensive and two, politically difficult. Environmentalists and health analysts object to the appearance and expansion of fossil fuel-powered generating stations, nuclear power has received another black eye in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear incident and there are no more sources of hydroelectric power left to exploit. We are constrained then to these small projects, like wind or solar, or more controversial options.

The opposition parties tacitly acknowledge this fact, as do the governing Liberals. The best they can do is offer small reliefs on the bills, and not a substantial change in policy. Here’s how it breaks down: to meet the energy needs of Ontarians the Liberals want to invest in nuclear (plans to expand Darlington were recently announced) and green energy alternatives, the Progressive Conservatives are banking on traditional power sources (including nuclear) coupled with natural gas. Finally the NDP take an interesting tact, they oppose nuclear power, and the fossil fuel, and instead argue that more effort to conserve electricity would better serve the province in reducing demand, rather than increasing supply.

In short, the parties are not that far apart from each other, and electricity is not a terribly partisan issue. If the province hit a major energy problem any one of the parties would open back up a coal plant to make sure the lights stayed on.

Efforts to make bills more affordable are largely a smokescreen. The Liberal rebate, offering about $200 per Ontario household does nothing to combat usage costs. Both the NDP and PCs are promising to remove the HST from hydro bills, but that again is only a small part. The Conservatives’ promise to clean out the implied corruption will do nothing to prices, and the elimination of Smart Meters may have a modest effect at best. Cuts in the kilowatt/hour price will likely mean increased demand which will trigger costs in providing more production.

The effect on Niagara broadly and the Welland riding in specific is interesting. The heaviest users of electricity is industry – or were. Cheap hydro costs help attract manufacturing to our province and generate jobs. High costs drive businesses to lower cost markets. I’m confident part of the reason Niagara was an industrial bastion in the twentieth century was the reliable and large quantity of power coming from the Falls.

Without a major investment in capacity (supply) or conservation (demand), or best, both energy prices will continue to rise. If the cost is deferred from home electric bills as some parties would like they will appear elsewhere as long-term debt, private-public partnerships, or increased taxes.

In the end one of the big issues of the campaign is one the next government will have little control over. Ontario’s electricity needs are growing and the cost to keep rates low and grow our production will be high, and someone must pay. The parties merely disagree on the fine points, what type or power generation they like best and what your bill should look like.

Also! I have been selected by the Toronto Star and Speak Your Mind to act as a Community Blogger during the 2011 Ontario election for the riding of Welland. Last week I posted on the shape of the race in this riding, including the main candidates, their bios and the background to this election, please check it out. I will try to keep the link between this blog and my Speak Your Mind page as solid as possible. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Get Ready, Get Set... Gone?

It’s a big season for politics. The federal election was now four months ago... which is shocking and deeply worrying that four months feels like three weeks. But now there are six (possibly seven) provincial and territorial elections about to get started in Canada. Today the writs were dropped in the provinces of Prince Edward Island and Manitoba signalling the official start of their elections. Political watchers say that the writ will be dropped in Ontario tomorrow, Wednesday the 7th of September triggering our next election. The election itself will be held on October 6, 2011.

However, anyone watching Ontario news broadcasts or reading local papers will probably have gotten a sense that this election has been on its way for a while, and it has been. Elections in a parliamentary system traditionally occur when the government is defeated – sometimes by its own making, or dissolved because it has reached the end of its mandate. Relatively recently in Canada’s political development fixed election dates have been added. In a previous blog post, I discussed in part some of the reasons I am opposed to fixed election dates.

John Pepall, political scientist and author of Against Reform, states in his book that the data that giving the power to call elections to the Premier or Prime Minister does not necessarily give him/her an advantage. The most clear cut example led to a defeat of the Peterson Liberals in Ontario. But I digress.

For the last few months, but really for the last year or so the political parties have been readying themselves. This means that much of the actions over the last year has been in effort to gain support for the coming election, this bothers me and hurts governance, but I wish to talk about the actual election and how I plan to cover it.

Because the parties have known the election is coming they all have released their platforms! A journalist with the Globe and Mail, Steve Ladurantaye, went through both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative platforms and laid out all of their expressed promises therein. Mr. Ladurantaye did not annotate the NDP platform, but they give the bullet points themselves. Links follow:

Some background on this election. Dalton McGuinty, leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and current Premier is seeking a third term. The OLP has 70 seats within the Legislative Assembly. There is some evidence that the people of Ontario have grown tired of McGuinty after eight years in power. Tim Hudak, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and of the Opposition, is leading in the polls and may become the next Premier. His party must shed the burden of his unpopular predecessors, namely Mike Harris. Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, must raise her profile to become known in the province. In addition she must win over Ontarians who have not embraced the NDP since the bad days of Bob Rae’s premiership. The PCs have 26 seats and the NDP have 10, 54 are needed to form a majority government.

For this election I plan to do it a little differently than how I covered the federal one. In the federal one I tracked polls and made projections, this time I’ll do that less. This time I’m going to pick a major issue in the campaign – even if it isn’t the topic of the week – and discuss it. I have six outlined already, but I don’t want to commit in case an issue arises in the campaign. If any readers have something in particular they like to see covered, please let me know.

Below are some links for websites that track elections and may provide projections and analysis that you may be interested in checking out.

Projections and Analysis:

DemocraticSpace (He may not be covering this election) 

That does it now, I look forward to the next month in an election that will shape Ontario’s future. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Importance of Public Art

Recently I returned from Ottawa. Being in that city reinforced something for me that I had always believed in at some level. Cities should endeavour to make themselves engaging visual landscapes. I have long thought that we should return to the practice of erecting statues to honour important individuals and events in our communities.

In Ottawa I saw a number of public parks while I explored the city. Virtually every public space had a piece of art at its heart. My favourite example was Confederation Park. In the middle of the park is a memorial to Native soldiers and their contribution to Canada. It’s a beautiful monument. Surrounding it is verdant greenery and comfortable sitting.

Major’s Hill Park is simple, but I feel underlines the point. The park oversees the Rideau Canal as it spills into the Ottawa River, and Parliament Hill. Despite its wonderful view the park itself is quite simple. It has manicured lawns and narrow paths. Low bushes make each section a private and quiet. The focal point is a statue of Lieutenant-Colonel John By, who used to live on the grounds of the park and was critical in the founding of the city.

What really got me thinking about the importance of public art is when I walked from ByWard Market to the National Galley. Obviously I had art on the mind, but what struck me was the juxtaposition of the Gallery to the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. The Cathedral stands across from a gigantic sculpture in the shape of a spider. But what I realized was that the Cathedral itself was a piece of art. The ornate and glittering building was as much of a draw as any exhibition on the grounds of the Gallery.

I think we as Canadians need to take a greater interest and have more passion for our communities. Part of the way to get to that point is to be proud of where we come from. Part of building a sense of pride is finding beauty in your home. People who feel a connection tend to like where they leave, or even love it reflect it in the maintenance and improvement of their own homes, even when they are rentals.

Whenever discussions of public or community art are raised people object to the use of public moneys on these efforts. “This money could better be used for alleviating poverty,” or “public funds should not support the arts.” This might be right, maybe it is a middle-class conceit that I want to see our public spaces decorated with monuments celebrating our culture and history; a civic luxury.

Still – these pieces of art draw us to our public spaces and enrich our lives. I’m tired of parks with a jungle gym in the centre and big empty lawns sprinkled with trees. These parks dedicated in the name of a John Smith, with no indication of who he (or she) was and what he (or she) looked like. What if we give our local artists opportunities to have their sculptures placed in our open spaces, we could have the public consulted and competitions held. I would like to see the province or federal government create an endowment for the support of the capital costs for these projects.

I don’t know terribly too much about art, but I know how people react to it. We are drawn to it, and it engages our minds in reflection. It also creates a sense of community, and landmarks. It is something I think we should consider more seriously.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Good-Bye Jack

The topic of this week’s entry will come as no surprise to anyone. I wish to briefly share some thoughts on the passing of Leader of the Opposition Jack Layton. I think when we saw Mr. Layton (NDP - Toronto-Danforth) announce he was stepping down we all feared this may happen, but it did not make the news of Monday morning any easier to accept. I felt great shock when I first saw the news coming over Twitter. I did something then I don’t normally do. I stayed away from the television and continued to work at my computer.

Listening to the feed from journalists and politicians, the emotional response was clear. Frankly, I wasn’t ready for that at the time. I did eventually partake in the coverage, but that was only after I read Jack’s Good-Bye Letter. I found the letter deeply stirring and it connected me to the tragedy like nothing else. In fact the second I read the “Friends” at the top of the page I was reminded of the apparent absence of the NDP Leader. I strongly encourage you to read it for yourself if you have not already.

Yesterday we lost one of the giants, one of the great ones. Unlike the American system our system requires an institutional opposition, Canada is weakened and incomplete now with Mr. Layton’s loss. We are hurt as a democracy when Mr. Layton lost his battle to cancer. One of the early news reports wrote that Jack now has supplanted Robert Stanfield as the greatest Prime Minister we never had, and I’m inclined to agree with that.

I saw Jack Layton in person only once, he came to Brock University in 2006 to give a speech. It was a small, and informal event. I regret now not walking up to him and shaking his hand. On July 26, my posting after Mr. Layton announced his second cancer was called “Our Happy Warrior”, well now we have lost our Happy Warrior.

Canada will continue without Jack Layton’s leadership, but in the short-term our country will be a poorer place without his voice. Jack Layton inspired me in my passion and interest in politics, but not only that, as a teacher I saw his campaign this past Spring inspire children and bring them into the process. That’s why it is even more important now than ever before to dedicate ourselves to Canadian democracy, that would be the greatest legacy of all.

Good-bye Jack.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Pickering's Take-Off

Edit: A reader pointed out some problems in my initial posting, so I edited it to correct these errors.

In the 1970s a proposal was made of the future of the Greater Toronto Area. In this proposal a strategy was developed to help deal with the lacking success of the eastern sections of the GTA, Scarborough, and Durham Region. One of the key proposals was the introduction of an airport in Pickering, Ontario to stimulate growth.

If you look at a map of the GTA you will quickly notice that the towns to the left (or west) of Toronto are doing better than those on the right (or east). Development in Mississauga, Brampton, and Etobicoke has been spurred on by the business drawn in by quick and easy access to Pearson International Airport. Richer suburbs further along the Golden Horseshoe such as Burlington and Oakville have grown because of the success of the Peel cities and the area west of Toronto.

Mississauga is now a major city of its own rights with a service-centred economy. Meanwhile the cities east of Toronto – Ajax, Whitby, and Oshawa – are industrial towns. It is unfair, and illogical to say that because there’s an airport in the west and not in the east that that has resulted in the differences. The west is also closer to the American border, a major economic driver. Economic policies by both the provincial and federal government have hurt the cities in the Durham Region. Pickering has benefited from being on the edge of Toronto, as have other cities in Durham.

However, the Pickering Airport is no longer a vanity stimulus exercise. Pearson Airport is rated for a capacity of 50 million travellers. Presently we are at 35 million, projections say that by the 2020s the airport will reach capacity. Pearson is maxed out, without levelling parts of Mississauga, or some creative engineering I don’t know about. Therefore something needs to be done if the business capacity of the Toronto region is going to grow.

There are downsides. The Pickering Airport was vocally opposed by community groups in the 1970s. Many of the same people are still around from the fight in the 70s, and they are prepared to do battle again. There seems to be a certain inescapable logic of the Pickering Airport though. The region needs to be able to handle a greater number of flights, an airport needs to be close to centre – downtown Toronto, and it needs the space to be properly developed, which is available in Durham.

I, for one, would support such a proposal. Ultimately, the people of Pickering and Durham must decide if they want an international airport in their backyards. Likewise, they must consider if they want Durham to become like Peel, which would be a likely consequence, airports attract development and more local employment. While Pickering cannot be characterized as a struggling industrial community, cities like Oshawa, dependent on the automotive industry can be. A local major airport would likely stimulate supportive industries to help ease away from an automotive-centered economy.

On a closing note, a bit of personal news, tomorrow I’m heading to Ottawa. It’s the first time I’ll be visiting our nation’s capital. I’m there to do the tourist thing, which I plan to embrace wholeheartedly, possibly at the irritation of locals. It’s a trip I’ve wanted to make a long time and I’m very excited to see the Parliament in person.