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.