Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 in Review

For Canadians I think it is fair to say it was a year of significant change and conflict. Perhaps it is the events of the last quarter that coloured my perception (the federal election, the attacks in Paris, the ongoing tensions among ethnic minorities in North America, the refugee crisis, and on...).

On the political level Canada has seen a number of important transitions. Alberta elected a NDP government, ending the 40+ years of Tory dynasty. The long-term ramifications of this are still largely unknown. Hopefully Alberta will develop a more competitive provincial political scene. In the meantime it must wrestle with the economic stagnation from collapsing oil prices. The federal election on October 19th decisively ended the Harper era. If Trudeau upholds the commitments during the election the political landscape could change considerable, i.e. the Senate, our electoral system and transparency of the government overall.

In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Committee released its report and long list of recommendations to heal the rift between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous Canadians. Several political leaders have committed to adapting the proposals. However the window for action is closing and the biggest risk is that this fresh opportunity slips through our fingers yet again.

Outside of the election two major political conflicts caught my attention in 2015. The first is the Senate scandal. The trial of Mike Duffy began this year. While Mike Duffy has become the face of the problems of the Senate the question of its legitimacy and usefulness in 21st century Canada has come under scrutiny. Prime Minister Trudeau has promised reforms, but there are real concerns that it is merely tinkering around the edges.

The second issue that consumed a lot of my attention was the Hurontario-Main Light Rail Transit. Brampton City Council refused to accept $400 million to build the line from Steeles Avenue to the Brampton GO Station. The debate has had interesting consequences by engaging a cohort of pro-urban, pro-transit, young group of activists. I hope these people stay involved in municipal politics and help move Brampton forward.

The ongoing Syrian civil war manifested in the collective consciousness by triggering a massive refugee/migrant crisis. The world has struggled to help the fleeing wave of humanity. The fear of immigrants and Muslims has manifested in disgusting ways in Canada and other countries. These trends are only too likely to continue with torturous ramifications for those on the frontlines and those caught in the middle of this geopolitical maelstrom.

Race has remained a major issue in 2015. While the issues in Canada have been quieter, the debate around carding and treatment of Black Canadians raises similar questions to what we're seeing in the United States. Emotions remain raw and tensions high in some American quarters. Police abuses continue to go unpunished and institutions seem more poised to protect the status quo rather than revise the existing racial dynamic. The year ends with no charges for the officers who shot and killed Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy. This year also featured a heated national debate briefly centred on the fight over the place of the Confederate flags in the United States.

For me personally this has been a big year of transitions. I began the year living and working in the Northwest Territories. I have spent the rest of the year unemployed. It has been incredibly challenging, especially with the moving, lacking in purpose and my difficult family dynamics. I am hoping things improve for myself in 2016 and I will leave it at that.

In the wake of a holiday that seeks peace on Earth it seems like that sentiment is badly needed in 2016. It has been a dark and troubling year. Perhaps history will show 2015 as an inflection point before things improve dramatically.

I would like to thank my readers for their ongoing support. You make this project worthwhile. The growing audience suggests that I am on the right path. I hope to make the blog better and continue to explore options for a whole new website. To my readers as we move into 2016 I would like to encourage you to look at your own community and ask how you can make it a better place. What can you contribute to improve the lives of those around you? Given the amount of suffering we have seen clearly in 2015 many could use a hand.

Best wishes to you all, and Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Worth Reading - December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas and happy holidays readers, I hope everyone is enjoying their time off. I will not be posting a Worth Reading next week as I will be busy with my own holiday stuff. Things should resume on January 7th.

Martin Regg Cohn writes a scathing review of former Premier Dalton McGuinty's rose-coloured memoir

Also from Mr. Cohn, he writes here about McGuinty's legacy and the impact it is having on Premier Kathleen Wynne. 

As the federal government considers marijuana legalization this piece in the Walrus asks, why stop there

Politico outlines an interesting scenario, if Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination there could be a third party challenger from the Republican Party

A photographer has captured some of the apocalyptic fallout from the housing crash in Spain. 

Nathan Cullen (NDP - Skeena-Bulkley Valley, BC) has suggested that if a referendum is held for the new electoral system it should follow after Canadians have had a chance to try it

From Wired, how we will never see the end of the Star Wars series and how the "universe" phenomenon is shaping media. 

As many feared, the $75000 the City of Brampton paid for a facilitator was money wasted

San Grewal at the Toronto Star profiles the growing pains of Milton, Ontario. Grewal's piece implies that Milton is something more than a sprawling suburb, which it is. Sean Marshall offered some critiques of this article on Twitter suggesting gauging infrastructure by full parking lots is hardly useful.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Vision for the GTA's Future?

A vision for our future seems impressively lacking from our political class. This week I was wondering what Ontario, and more specifically, the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area will look like by the close of the century. Presently the GTA is estimated to grow from its current 6 million residents to 9.4 million by 2041, according to the Ontario Ministry of Finance. I find it difficult to imagine what the GTHA will look like by that time. While the province has introduced policies such as the Green Belt to encourage intensification it has utterly failed to halt suburban sprawl.

In the case of Brampton the current goal is to grow all the way out to our boundaries and completely fill the city with low-density housing when increasing evidence suggests that it is a fiscally and environmentally unsustainable form of development. Ontario and its cities are beggaring themselves in pursuit of an old and tired idea of urban development.

Municipalities still seek exemptions and encourage more suburban tract housing despite the province's (weak) intentions to curb them. If the province is serious about improving the urban form of the GTHA and preparing for the future then it should create more stringent rules about zoning and planning for cities to follow. These rules need not be draconian. Incentives should be examined to encourage apartment construction and the removal of barriers for intensification. Even in urban Toronto planning rules are impeding the development of mid-level buildings (4-10 storeys).

There is a catch-22 though. Increased density and urbanization would aid in transit development, but transit development would also aid in increasing densities and urbanization. Large sums are spent to support transit in suburban locales whose urban form makes it more expensive than it need be. Intensification would dramatically increase transit use and its overall viability.

This leaves aside the massive technological and social changes we are likely to see. Many of them, of course, are impossible to predict, but it should be obvious that soon we will be living in a world of self-driving cars. However, it also seems evident that automation and smarter machines/computers are posed to devastate the current labour economy

Our political system is designed to deal with problems as they come and meet us and not particularly well-suited to create grandioise visions for the future. I am not suggesting our leaders need to present a grand vision. Instead they need to put some policies in place that will actually ensure a better future and not simply impose the past on us over and over again until it becomes untenable. It is an intriguing intellectual exercise to imagine what one's home might be like a century into the future. It brings into sharp focus the trends one may want to stop and the progress one might want to see continue. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Worth Reading - December 17, 2015

It has been a challenging week, so please forgive an abbreviated Worth Reading. 

Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail writes about Donald Trump's far-right positions and how they have impacted the Republican Party. I wrote about a similar topic on Tuesday. 

Andrew Coyne questions the Liberal government's Senate reform strategy

New Zealand has a new flag to challenge the current one in a referendum. I think it is very fetching. 

Steve Paikin writes about the 'Derangement Syndrome' that dogs political leaders. 

Tim Harper writes that Justin Trudeau's fresh government is about to hit some road pumps with more controversial issues

Desmond Cole offers his take on the cabbie protests in Toronto against Uber. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The New Right in America

There has been a tremendous amount of media attention on the American Republican contest, and more specifically on the candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump has received a great deal of scrutiny from international press for his promise to forbid Muslim immigration and suggestion that Muslims should be identified. Some have questioned whether or not Trump is a fascist which has caused me to ponder the place of the New Right in America.

The New Right is a term that is used to describe the growth of far-right wing political parties in Europe. Disturbingly many of these parties have been making advancements in elections in recent years. Some examples include the Front Nationale in France, the British National Party in the UK, or Golden Dawn in Greece. Some common features are hyper-nationalism, emphasis of historical grievances, promise of the restoration of greatness, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.

The New Right movement has been largely seen in European countries and not the so-called immigrant nations of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It has been assumed that this was because these countries had a more flexible sense of national identity and more tolerant. I think this view whitewashes the racist history of these respective countries, but it is likely a decent overall explanation. However, there is no reason to assume that this level of tolerance need to continue perpetually. Faced with a declining economic situation, ongoing international conflicts in the Middle East (ISIS), perceived threat of domestic terrorism, and the Syrian refugee crisis it is unsurprising that there has been a growth of more radical ideologies and acceptance of reactionary positions.

It is definitely possible to frame Donald Trump within other American traditions, such as Nativism or the Know Nothing Party. However I think his candidacy might be better framed within the New/Far Right. Of course the disturbing thing isn't that Trump is a candidate, but that he is a popular candidate. National polls have him at 41%. This would be a resounding defeat, but given his well documented extremism it is jarring.

As Trump's extreme positions gain popularity it compels other candidates to move further to the right and legitimizes these ideas. Unlike in Europe the New Right in America will not spawn a new political party but a faction with the Republican Party. The question is how much sway these types of candidates and this faction will hold when ballots begin to be cast in February in the Iowa Caucuses.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Worth Reading - December, 10, 2015

One of the things I care most about is electoral reform. Maclean's Magazine reports that support for the current electoral system remains quite strong

The Trudeau Government announced their plan for the Senate, Emmet MacFarlane offers his take on how to reform the Senate from the inside. It's far from ideal, but in our calcified system it may be the best we can hope for.

CBC has moved to bar comments on Indigenous stories. The reasoning for why is provided by indigenous CBC personnel reading out some comments

This is a history topic that I always find interesting. New evidence suggests that the Greenland Norse were not driven out of Greenland by cooling temperatures

Right-wing anti-Muslim politicians just aren't gaining ground in the United States. In a recent election the Front Nationale won a significant share of local elections

Jon Ivison suggests that the promise of electoral reform in Canada poses an existential threat to the Conservative Party

Finland is scrapping its social safety net in exchange for giving all its citizens 800 Euros per month.

Finally, Martin Regg Cohn writes that unless the province enforces the Green Belt a dire future is ahead for the suburban ring around Toronto. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Book Review: The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

Most of the books I have reviewed on this blog have a Canadian focus, as do the overwhelming majority of the posts I write. When I first got interested in politics it was through carefully tracking American news. The rhetoric and debates in the United States were enough to turn me off so I stopped following so closely. As opposed to 24-hour cable news a more formal book on a specific topic is far more palatable.

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin is a history of the Rehnquist Court and the first years of the Roberts Court. Toobin is a journalist with a specialty in the Supreme Court and has written a number of books about the American judicial system.

The most remarkable aspect of the book, in my opinion, is the fascinating in-depth profiles of the justices of the Rehnquist Court; their histories, their philosophies, how they came to be appointed and their personalities. It is fair to say that the men and women who have made up the United States Supreme Court have been a somewhat eccentric bunch. Rehnquist Court was remarkable for its stability. The justices on that court served together a long time and saw very little turnover. Toobin depicts the insular, close-knit world of the Supreme Court well. To a great extent the facts speak for themselves. For example, John Roberts was a clerk for the Supreme Court and a pallbearer at Rehnquist's funeral.

It is  a jarring thought that nine individuals wield such incredible power, and yet receive very little scrutiny in a sense. While less true now, I think that was definitely the case in the period before the 1990s.  The turning point was, of course, Roe v. Wade. The legalization of abortion caused an incredible political shift in the United States, including within the judiciary. Toobin illustrates how a conservative reaction developed into institutions and schools of thought and advocacy groups for the anti-abortion movement and ideological conservatives. Antonin Scalia was an early member of this movement, but was relatively lonely and isolated until Bush's appointees.

One of the surprising aspects to the book is the seemingly ad hoc process by which American presidents appoint justices. Bill Clinton botched the roll out of his, and George W. Bush had the embarrassing episode with Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales. Toobin offers a wonderful inside look into the entire process.

Some justices loom larger in the book than others. Perhaps the most significant is Sandra Day O'Connor who was the crucial swing vote in the Rehnquist years. Despite being a lifelong Republican and a conservative she sided with the liberal side of the bench on a number of decisions that helped protect abortion rights and affirmative action.

With that in mind Toobin suggests that the Bush appointments may have radical consequences for American political and social life. The book was published in 2007 and so Toobin could not, at the time, know how right he was. Alito, and Roberts have given the conservatives a majority with Scalia, Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy. Toobin has very little respect for Kennedy and finds him to be a grandstanding justice, perhaps best exemplified by the 2000 case Bush v. Gore. In the years since 2007 there have been no shortage of radical decisions of the Roberts Court to overturn long-standing precedents.

Toobin succeeds in giving us a glance in the small world of the United State Supreme Court. The writing is crisp, and entertaining and does not get bogged down in jargon. Toobin does a remarkable job in stitching together the story behind the scenes and humanizing the menacing figures in black robes. I think this book has a lot to offer anyone interested in recent American politics/history, and not just law. The court, Toobin concludes, is a reflection of its time. Now the court reflects the ideological divide that has shaped post-civil rights America. The author does well in selecting cases that illustrate the personality and dynamics of the court and presents them in a way a layperson can appreciate. Overall an engaging read on a sadly obscure topic of incredible importance.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Worth Reading - December 3, 2015

I found myself nodding a lot reading this editorial in the Brampton Guardian. The author is a little heavy on the importance of the LRT, but I think it was an important symbol for a revived initiative towards Brampton as a city and downtown in particular. 

Related, Forum conducted a poll in Brampton to see what residents thought of the dismissal of LRT funding. A majority disagree with Council.

I have recently had some very challenging conversations with friends about white privilege. I like this article because despite being a list it offers plenty of tangible examples of how white people have real advantages in American (but also our) society. 

In this piece by Desmond Cole, Cheri DiNovo (ONDP - Parkdale-High Park) offers some stern criticism for the federal NDP. Cynically, I have to wonder, would DiNovo have the same criticism if the NDP was swept into power?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a lovely toast to Queen Elizabeth II, check it out

Kady O'Malley in her rigorous dedication to Parliament wrote a handy guide for the new parliamentarians. I suppose it is helpful to onlookers too.

Sean Marshall offers some insights into where the GO Transit network has significant gaps

Speaking of transit, Mayor John Tory has proposed a 0.5% property tax increase to pay for transit and housing. Cue the anti-tax brigade. Heaven forbid Toronto build critically needed infrastructure.

The Ontario Government has moved to align the provincial ridings with the federal ridings. This will increase the number of MPPs to 122

Finally Prime Minister Trudeau has announced his government's parliamentary secretaries. A casual look makes it look like a lot of these secretaries will come from Ontario. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Syrian Refugee Crisis, Open Arms and Closed Minds

If you're anything like me your social media feeds have been inundated with commentary on the Syrian refugee crisis. It began in earnest during the federal election. The photograph of Alan Kurdi, the little boy, drowned on a beach in Turkey became a focal point for the entire crisis. The opposition parties (NDP and Liberals) competed for a more ambitious program to bring refugees to Canada. The Conservatives struck a different tone by emphasizing the security concerns. In many circles then Prime Minister Harper was criticized for fear-mongering. Since the election there has been a notable, and disappointing, reaction to the potential arrival of thousands of refugees.

If you have a presence in social media you've likely seen posts like this:

Here is a link to a Vice piece about all the false memes circulating on this topic.

The memes break down into a few categories, but all play into the fear of Muslims and a general disdain that these refugees are undeserving of help in general or from Western countries in particular. Perhaps before diving into this it would be valuable to discuss the origins of this refugee crisis. Five years ago the Arab Spring began in Tunisia. Sympathetic and similar uprisings took place across North Africa and spread to the Middle East. Concerns grew that as the unrest spread that things could become more violent and bloody as they entered the more totalitarian repressive regimes. In the spring of 2011 the Arab Spring manifested in Syria as a civil war. The Bashar al-Assad regime brutally repressed the uprising leaving only the extreme, militants behind. These groups became what we know as ISIS. In the intervening four years Syrian civilians have been caught between two murderous forces. This is a very short and overly simplistic summary, but gives an idea of what is happening.

In the fighting dozens of Syrian cities have been simply destroyed. Religious and ethnic minorities have been forced to flee their homes. The United Nations have estimated that over four million refugees have been displaced. Nearly half of them are in Turkey. Syria's neighbours have been overwhelmed and now the crisis has spread to Europe. What started as a brutal civil war has now spread to an international crisis. It is indisputable that Canada has a role to play, far more than the less than 3000 refugees already admitted. We are a rich, peaceful country more than capable of absorbing many thousands of fleeing refugees from Syria (and Iraq).

The criticism here in Canada have been incredibly short-sighted. These people are literally at risk of being slaughtered. They are fleeing Syria in leaky boats in desperation, not to pull off some scheme. Of course there are posts like these:

It's a common enough complaint, but it is an entirely nonsensical argument. Do veterans deserve our support? Do those with mental illness? Absolutely. For those posting these criticisms I have to wonder how much they donate to the Royal Canadian Legion, or CAMH, or other institutions that support the groups the purport to stand up for. It's a smokescreen. It is harsh but it has more to do with resentment towards refugees and fear of Muslims rather than any meaningful policy objection. We should do both, but it would require accepting the costs of affordable housing, which the public frequently objects to. This article from the Independent suggests that refugees are having a positive economic impact on their hosts

We have a duty to aid people in this conflict, especially since these are no clear good and bad guys we can lend military support to. In the war between ISIS and Bashar al-Assad neither as victor is good for humanity.  That being the case we should help those we can to give a good life to the survivors and let them join the Canadian community, if they so choose.