Thursday, April 30, 2015

Worth Reading - April 30, 2015

Today is my last day of work at the South Slave Divisional Education Council. What a strange and wonderful time it has been. The chaos of trying to orchestrate my move across the continent means that this Worth Reading is a little more slap-dash than I usually like. I hope you will forgive me for that. Here is what I was able to grab hold in the last little while.

Racial tensions have flared up once against in the American Republic, this time in Baltimore. The report from Mother Jones on the origin of this incident is more than a little bizarre. 

Andrew Coyne in the National Post writes about the need for the federal parties to take the debates seriously as we approach the election. 

Brent Rathgeber (Ind. - Edmonton-St. Albert, AB) plans to table a bill to limit the size of the bloated federal cabinet, bringing it in line with its peers in other Western countries. 

May 7th is the date of the British General Election. I will concede that I have only been dedicating a tiny amount of mental power to this (see: moving across the country). However, a friend linked me this article that paints the scene going into the election and it is not pretty at all, ex. the rise of UKIP. The UK may have to deal with worse instability than Canada had over the last few decades. 

Mandatory minimum sentences is bad policy for a whole bunch of reasons. The CBC reported this week that these minimums are costing Canadians a great deal

Sean Marshall has an interesting piece on his blog looking at how redistricting in downtown Toronto will impact on the next election. 

Earlier this month I recorded a podcast with my friend Bina about the Netflix series House of Cards. I only say a couple of stupid things, but it is a really in-depth discussion of the show's mechanics, plots and themes. There are spoilers for some other media properties so listen carefully to the warning at the front.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Personal Reflections on the Northwest Territories

Last summer I toured around the NWT a bit with my family, here we are at the border.
For the last twenty months the Northwest Territories has been my home. Strange as that is it is the truth and I'm not sure that I ever really thought that it would happen. Indeed, I considered living here for a while during my undergrad and wrote my Master's paper on its history but I never thought I'd move here. Regardless, events conspired in a strange way that ended up with me living in Fort Smith. 

I have had a complicated relationship with this place. The South Slave is probably the nicest place to live in the entire territory. I have greatly enjoyed working with the school board here and I feel confident that my colleagues are doing their utmost to deliver quality education to the people here. It has been quite inspiring, to be frank. I came up here pretty green, but I have learned a lot and have had some pretty strange experiences. Some of the things I enjoyed most were relatively simple, like visiting the schools and taking photos.

A herd of bison on Highway 5.
I'll miss the schools and the students I got to know. Part of me will miss driving hundreds of kilometers down lonely highways waiting for wildlife to manifest on the side of the road, long, thin birch trees stand up like fine white hairs on either side. And then there are the seasons. It's not just the weather, though I will get to that, it's the change in the length of the day. It's only April 28th and already the sun lingers in the sky for many, many hours. The strangeness of the Northwest Territories summer triggered some part of my brain to reel at its unnaturalness (at least to a boy born and raised in southern Ontario). The dark, bleak winters were trying to say the least. Walking to work in the darkness and the sun setting at 3:30 PM certainly made November and December difficult.

On occasion the weather in the Northwest Territories was very punishing, but one adapts surprisingly well to -30 Celsius (or colder) over time. The first winter I was here was, if the news reports are to be trusted, the worst one in decades. A parka will take you a good bit of the way towards comfort, or at least avoiding tragic death. I do dread confronting the Ontario summer and how my acclimatized body will respond. I will miss the mild, pleasant springs and summers here, though I will be pleased to avoid the massive hordes of bugs.

The pair of moosehide moccasins with beaver fur trim I had commissioned.
One of the things that shocked me was how normal the Northwest Territories is. I expected to be stepping into another world entirely, and in some ways I did. I recall standing in the gymnasium at Paul W. Kaeser High School in my first month here and kids were screwing around and playing with their phones and doing what teenagers anywhere in the country might be doing while impatiently waiting for an assembly to begin. The people here were good to me. Fort Smith is a small town with just 2400 people. After being here a while I became enough of a regular to be recognized and make small talk. Except that according to some I look like one of the pilots in town so I am sometimes confused with him, which I find objectionable.

I cannot say that I know the people here particularly well. I can tell you I have met people who are forthright, earnest and passionate. They are dedicated to the place they call home and want the best future possible for their children and grandchildren. I saw that a lot working for the school board. The Council is composed of a remarkable group of women representing Hay River, K'atlodeeche First Nation, Fort Resolution, Lutsel K'e and Fort Smith. I won't generalize too much because it will only come across as pandering at best and stereotyping at worst.

I have had my share of strange experiences while living here; acting as the SSDEC liaison to the Prime Minister's advance and security teams when he visited in August, driving through a snowstorm and almost hitting snow-covered bison, living in a town briefly visited upon by wolves, the croaking and quorking of the ravens, driving over ice roads, staying up 24 hours during the longest day of the year, driving through a forest fire and later seeing all the damage, ATVing through the bush, flying on tiny little planes, visiting Lutsel K'e to launch their indigenous language dictionary and running out the door at maximum speed to try to limit my mosquito bites to only a few dozen. My favourite though might be the northern lights. There is something about the aurora that is simply breathtaking. Coming back to Lutsel K'e one night the sky was alight with them on all sides.

On the plane to Lutsel K'e for the Dictionary Launch.
Living here for as long as I have I have come to care about this place. I worry about its future. Trying to make the vast Northwest Territories prosperous, peaceful and equitable while respecting the tradition and rights of its peoples is a daunting challenge. It will take the commitment of leaders for generations to steward this land its people to a brighter future. It has no shortage of problems, but there is also a deep and almost unimaginable well of potential this place can draw on. I will be following how it goes, I have no doubt about that.

Unfortunately the sad truth is that I failed at making this place my home. Despite a fantastic apartment (which is a serious issue given housing in the North), an excellent job with co-workers I like, I failed to build a life for myself here. To be clear I only hold myself responsible for this. I tried from time to time to make friends here, but I'd be lying if I said the efforts were not half-hearted, or at the very least guarded. I am a shy person by disposition and I am slow to warm to people. Plunging head first to a place where I don't know anyone was too difficult, and trying to join existing cliques was overwhelming. My profession also made my relationships with other people, at least in my mind, more complicated than what they probably are. My desire for professional distance that typifies life in the south helped fuel what can only honestly called a lonely existence. Before I draw out my tiny violin I will say that friends appeared in my life in surprising places and ways to help fill the gap, hence my trip to Korea last summer. Also a few colleagues at work have become good friends, and I hope to keep in touch with them for years to come. But the truth is that is not enough sustenance to feed the human soul. Living here has taught me that I am a city boy at heart, but what I want most is to sit across the table from one of my friends and share a nice meal or a drink. It's that simple pleasure I miss most, and that's why I am going back to Ontario.

The Northwest Territories is a special place. Living in the vast boreal forest in an environment that chill most to the bone with just the thought of it is a rare badge of honour. Despite the difficulties I had here I remain open to the chance to return. Perhaps I will grow restless in Ontario and I'll find myself casting my eyes to the northwest where the land and sky seem limitless.

Northern Lights over Fort Smith.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Worth Reading - April 23, 2015

Found this on Twitter this morning. Alex Robinson made a House of Cards-style video to note the current Alberta provincial election. It is a thing of pure beauty. Just like its Netflix inspiration it take famous symbols and locales in Edmonton with the same sinister music. It's the best thing I've seen on the internet in a long time. 

Despite what any party leaders say, including the Conservatives, the possibility of a coalition government or accord in 2015 onward is higher than it has been in some time. Chantal Hebert lays out the scenarios for an NDP-Liberal coalition

On a related note, Jamey Heath has some harsh words for Justin Trudeau's (LPC - Papineau, QC) flip-flop on coalitions

Justin Ling dug up old party websites. If you want to take a trip back to the hilarious, gaudy early internet click away

The Walrus features a piece by Jesse Brown discussing media criticism (or lack there of) in Canada. 

Meagan Wohlberg writes about the Northern Farm Training Institute and the efforts to encourage local agriculture in the Northwest Territories

Here's an interesting piece about living alone. I found the advice aligned fairly well with what I might offer based on my own experiences. I will note though that this article supposes a certain amount of financial freedom. The cat advice is something I've done and worried it makes me insane.

Canadian Election Atlas offers its first projection for the Alberta provincial election

I've heard many people on Twitter call this article a must read, and I am inclined to agree. Desmond Cole writes on his experience with carding and the police as a black man. It is a shocking read from my position and experience. 

With the federal budget being released this week there was tons of media coverage. I haven't had time to read all the pieces from my favourite sources, but here is Vice's take on the Conservative government last budget before the election

Brent Rathgeber (Ind. - Edmonton-St. Albert, AB) is one of my favourite sitting MPs. He did an interview on TVO last night about the current problems facing our parliamentary democracy. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Power, Profits and the Public Good

I can understand the urge for many people to privatize government agencies, assets and services. The government can be inefficient and clumsy. Some services are better provided by the private sector. However, there appears to be a category of services that seem roughly to be a draw between public and private provision. The Northwest Territories has dealt with substantial problems regarding power generation and distribution. There are various systematic problems dogging the system. In public meetings on the topic it is not unusual for people to say "We should privatize the power corp," or "It's the government's fault, they need to get out of it." This suggestion, often rooted in frustration, is understandable but entirely inappropriate.

In the particular case of the Northwest Territories the problem is multifaceted. The territory's power grid is complicated. Most of the communities are isolated from one another and must have its own independent power generation, especially in the smaller and more northern areas. That means diesel generators burning expensive fuel in the scattered communities. The problem became more severe in Yellowknife this year when low water levels meant that the hydro system was rendered ineffective and had to switch to its diesel generators at enormous cost. The cost to extend power to Yellowknife from the South Slave or connect the South Slave to the national grid stands in the billions and therefore out of the government's reach.

Privatizing the Northwest Territories Power Corporation would do nothing to address this problems. If anything the additional costs to anticipate this risk would simply be put on the consumer pushing the prices ever higher.

In the province of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne (OLP - Don Valley West) has announced her government's intention to sell 60% of Hydro One. Martin Regg Cohn laid out the government's case in his most recent piece. Basically there is no better time to borrow money. The continuing sluggishness of the world economy has resulted in very low interest rates. Capital markets are seeking somewhere to invest their money to make it work and therefore the cost of borrowing money is much lower than usual. This is why you are hearing people suggest that this is a good time to use deficit spending to improve the economy. The plan is to use the capital from the sale of existing power transmission lines to construct new transmission lines and, from what I read elsewhere, pay for other infrastructure.

The government of Ontario has convinced several key people that the sale is for the better. The simple fact is that the provision of power is not a service like retail, it is a utility and unlike other utilities (internet and cable) it is fundamental to the health and well-being of citizens. Virtually every home is connected to the grid. Aside from remote homes/cabins pretty much everyone has access and I do not think anyone in good conscience would deprive people of electricity. That being the case it is not a market good that can conform to the flexibility of prices. It would be better then to treat power utilities like they are - a public good. Complete ownership by the state allows for greater control and management and no waste or poor maintenance for the sake of profit.

While Ontario might be in a favourable position to sell hydro assets today the market will inevitably change. What happens when the province wants to buy back these assets? How inflated will the costs be then? How will this impact changes needed to the dismal electricity situation in Ontario? For the betterment of society as a whole I think we would be better off understanding that electricity is expensive, complicated and infrastructure heavy while also being essential to deliver. This makes it a perfect candidate for public ownership and any tinkering with that may only result in more difficult challenges in the future. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Worth Reading - April 16, 2015

Aaron Wherry writes how the seat projections extracted from polls are open to interpretation for partisans

Maclean's has a piece on Stephen Harper's economic record and see how conservative it really is. 

Work with Samara! The fantastic NGO Samara Canada is hiring for three positions, including a graphic designer. Check out their website for more details

Last night on The Agenda Steve Paikin sat down with Matti Siemiatycki to talk about why public spending on projects always runs over time and over budget

Alberta is in the midst of a provincial election. While most of us now know to accept polls with a grain of salt there are some very unusual numbers coming out of that province, such as surging NDP. Eric Grenier breaks them down here.

Hurray! It looks like Elizabeth May will be included in the federal debates this fall! 

This week Justin Trudeau announced that he was in favour of a coalition with the NDP, until the next day when he categorically ruled it out... 

From the Globe and Mail, Justin Trudeau is facing opposition to the arrival of Eve Adams and the attempt to parachute her into the Eglinton-Lawrence riding

Andrew Coyne's take on the Mike Duffy trial. Coyne argues what's really offensive is what is legal, not illegal in this case. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Mike Duffy Trial and the Marring of Canadian Politics

Senator Mike Duffy of Prince Edward Island (theoretically) is on trial related to the misuse of public funds and the abuse of his office. The acceptance of $90,000 as a bribe and the petty corruption that has already been revealed in the five short days of the trial are enough to give anyone pause. But the Mike Duffy trial goes far beyond the criticism of the man itself. Observers of the trial say that perhaps the most damning aspect of the trial is that his actions may merely be an extreme form of common practice at the heart of Canadian politics. The rot is deep in the Senate, that much is clear.

The Senate is a tragic institution. If it were a functioning body it might do a great deal to balance out the unrestrained power of the Prime Minister, as is the case in Australia. Instead the Senate is the most outwardly sanctioned bastion of public corruption in the country. The litany of abuses are many and scandal in the Senate is as old as the institution itself. Unlike say an ambassadorship the duties and requirements of senators are much more poorly defined. Instead we require them to serve a certain amount of time to be eligible for their generous compensation and benefits.

Aside from the Senate's dereliction as a proper check on the House of Commons it does a disservice to politics in general in this country. The average citizen sees no difference between Senator Mike Duffy and the MPs and candidates who will stand for election in about six months. Mike Duffy has the curse of being famous and infamous. As a well-known figure his story carries weight that the backroom fundraiser given a cushy job would not normally attract. While not all politicians deserve to be hit with the broad Mike Duffy brush it is certainly fair to question the health of the institution and the judgement of the Prime Minister who appointed him.

As Althia Raj wrote in the Huffington Post, Mike Duffy is putting Prime Minister Harper as much as anything else on trial in this case. The testimony and documents submitted so far paints a bleak figure of a greedy Senator using public funds to aggrandize himself and enrich his party. The Mike Duffy trial is alluding more and more to the fact that the Senate may simply be an embezzlement machine for political parties to grant the ultimate patronage to their backers. Troubling does not being to describe it.

What's worse, while this trial is likely to harden Canadian cynicism on the topic of Canadian politics it is unlikely to sway voters decisively in the coming election. I've heard it all before far too many times, "They're all corrupt anyway." Ultimately though the Prime Minister has to be judged in part by the caliber and actions of a man that he appointed and for a long time defended before throwing him under the great metaphorical bus.

This trial cannot be anything less than a condemnation of the status quo in Ottawa. Reform is desperately needed for the Senate, meaningful reform, likely requiring constitutional amendments. Otherwise Mr. Duffy's trial and the scandal of Prime Minister Harper will not be the last of its kind.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Worth Reading - April 9, 2015

John Oliver brings his brand of comedy to another serious issue, government surveillance. It's worth watching all the way to the end.

A brilliant ballad for former Senator Mike Duffy as his trial begins. Yes, it's in verse.

Can the liberal university survive? Schools are under increasing social pressure to deliver economically and present a corporate ethos.

A number of prominent Conservative Members of Parliament have announced their retirement, including two members of the cabinet this week. Prime Minister Harper will be going into this election with quite a different team, as well if he is asked to form the next government.

From the New York Times, an article highlighting some of the positives of gentrification for a Los Angeles neighbourhood. 

John Ivison writes that reform will save the House of Common from irrelevancy. 

I'll be honest, I am suspicious about voluntourism and organizations such as "Me to We". CBC was posed to release a documentary on the topic but then pulled it at the last moment, Canadaland has the story here

The Greenland Norse is one of my favourite nerdy topics. A researcher just published a paper saying that the Greenland Norse survived in a colder, harsher Greenland for hundreds of years. 

Those "Canada Economic Action Plan" ads are unconscionable and are little more than Conservative television promotions at this point. In the Toronto Star, an argument for the Auditor-General toinvestigate these ads for partisanship. 

Mark Jarvis is one of my favourite people on Twitter. Here Mark writes about the caretaker rules for Canada as we head towards the next election and the need to firm them up. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: Comparing Westminster by R. A. W. Rhodes, John Wanna, and Patrick Weller

Published initially in 2009 Comparing Westminster seeks to answer the question of what is the Westminster system. On this blog and in newspaper columns, panel shows and speeches there has been a great deal of discussion amongst the intelligentsia of this country at the nature of our system. You can look back at my book review for Democratizing the Constitution for an entire book dedicated to the topic of understanding our Westminster system and how to reform it.

Given the poorly defined nature of the Westminster system it is difficult for observers, scholars and politicians to nail down its detailed tenets. The authors cite a beautifully succinct description of this problem:

1. The prerogatives of the Crown are exercised on the advice of ministers (except in such cases as they are not).

2. The government resigns when it loses the confidence of the House of  Commons (except when it remains in office).

3. Ministers speak and vote together (except when they cannot agree to do so).

4. Ministers explain their policy and provide information to the House (except when they keep it to themselves).

5. Ministers offer  their individual resignations if serious errors are made in their departments (except when they retain their posts or are given a peerage).

6. Every act of a civil servant is, legally speaking, the act of a minister (except those that are, legally speaking, his own). (p. 58)

That encapsulates just some of the internal contradictions of the Westminster system. Rhodes, Wanna and Weller determine that the best way to determine what is Westminster was to study the five countries whose systems are rooted in the same tradition: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The author's approach is interesting in part because they include South Africa and New Zealand. in the most recent piece of political science I review the authors ignored South Africa, which considered its system to be entirely different, and had New Zealand with a caveat that its switch to proportional representation in 1996 meant that data after that point was irrelevant. I will admit to being sceptical at the inclusion of South Africa but the authors cite several key points in South African democratic tradition that has evolved from Westminster, so though it is often the outlier it is usually informative.

Within the book the authors tackle a number of the key aspects (and critiques) of the Westminster system including centralization of power, domination by the Prime Minister, responsible government, presidentialism, the independence of the bureaucracy, and the role of cabinet and ministers, to name a few. Reading the book I found it very interesting how they are able to contrast the differing contexts and circumstances against one another while preserving the nuance and pointing to commonalities.

One of the issues that I care a great deal about it the issue of centralization of power in the office of the prime minister. Unsurprisingly it is a common feature in all five countries. However the case studies that the authors point out are instructive. Yes, the prime ministers in the Westminster system can be extremely powerful, but this is also dependent upon the ability and temperament of the Prime Minister as well as broader political context. Consider, in Canada Prime Ministers Paul Martin and Stephen Harper exercised the exact same amount of political authority at a similar time, yet Martin seemed to struggle to maintain his government while Harper has only grown more dominant over his tenure. Similar parallels can be drawn in the U.K between the indomitable Margaret Thatcher and then struggles of Tony Blair. When the office of the prime minister is in the hands of a capable leader with strong party backing their ability to shape government is incredible.

The authors provide similar analysis as the preceding paragraph outlines for large array of governance issues familiar to anyone in a Westminster country and the common experience is interesting. Even the countries who have strayed the furthest from 'traditional' Westminster still deal with legacy issues and a political culture shaped by it. Proportional representation in some ways has done very little to alienate New Zealand from the system than the other four. Ultimately Westminster is vague, ill-defined and incredibly flexible. Its traditions and precedents can now often be bent to either side of an argument.

The authors challenge reformers in this country that the 'golden era' of Westminster never really existed, or when it did was fraught with other issues. On this nostalgia they say, "Nostalgia has the advantage of imprecision; the belief that the standard of politics was better some time in the past may provide solace to those who see only disappointment and distaste in the modern process... For of course there is no evidence there ever was such a 'golden age', except in the frustrated mind of the dreamer." (p. 226). I am one of those dreamers but I take their point. It's not about returning to a different time, but enhancing powers and reviving traditions that will improve the function of the House of Commons.

In the concluding chapter Rhodes, Wanna and Weller make a concluding statement that I have never heard applied to Westminster. Compared to other systems Westminster is often upheld for its ability to build stable majorities and provide strong, consistent leadership. Powerful, reform-minded Prime Ministers can wholly transform their countries in their term, but this strength is also its greatest weakness. The ability to make changes quickly and dramatically often means that legislation is flawed. Most of the legislation that goes through legislatures in these countries are amendments and revision of existing laws to correct past mistakes. The authors posit that in countries that take longer and are more consensual that there may be less need to revise because of the upfront investment of time and thought.

The Westminster system is an evolving system, the traditions, practices and precedents are rooted in the past, but are constantly evolving in parallel to the sister systems across the globe. There is no one Westminster system, but as the authors suggest, narrowing down our system to a concise definition is antithetical to the whole thing in the first place.

This book is a comfortable read and accessible to a reader interested in this topic. I recommend it for anyone seeking to understand the Westminster system and major governing issues in those countries at the present time.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Worth Reading - April 2, 2015

The team at Samara has put out a fantastic report on the state of Canadian democracy. Given the current situation I'm sure you can imagine that it isn't exactly positive.

While I was in university I was sometimes asked why I studied history. My reply was normally something along the lines of the fact that there is no better way to understand our contemporary world than the study of the past. The New York Times has an interesting piece on how the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War continues to shape contemporary America

I'm not sure of Steve Paikin knows something I don't but he penned this piece asking if Mayor John Tory is ready to abandon the Scarborough Subway, which is becoming increasingly untenable. 

Last week the CBC hosted a debate asking a simple question: Is politics broken? Check it out. 

From Chuck Marohn and the Strong Towns blog, what is the right level of density? Density for the sake of density is not enough, but that's not clear to all urban advocates. Chuck got a lot of feedback and posted a follow-up post here

Back home in Ontario leaders from across the GTHA got together in quiet meeting. The cities of the GTA have a great need to work together and (perhaps sadly) the province is the best posed to host any discussion and cooperation.

More black-eyes for the trustees as two are removed from office for not disclosing their expenses. 

I highly recommend following Justin Ling on Twitter his live-tweeting of events in Ottawa, if you can't check out what he's writing. His coverage of Bill C-51 is fantastic. In this article outlines the government's work to stymie amendments

When leader of the Wildrose Party abandoned her own party and joined the government it grabbed a lot of excitement and attention. Therefore it is with some schadenfreude that Danielle Smith failed to win the nomination for re-election

Wired has an interesting article on the 'company town' Facebook is building in California. 

I'll be blunt, big box urbanism sucks and it baffles me that our cities still practice this ludicrous design philosophy. It is an insane process of forced obsolescence that leeches wealth out of communities.