A few months ago, an editor at a left-wing Austrian student union newspaper contacted me out of the blue, asking for a 400 word summary of the then-recent Canadian elections. I posted the resulting German translation the other day, but just came across the original. Summing up an entire political situation to people who likely have no idea what's going on in the country in question was a challenge. Here's what I came up with.
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On January 23, 2006, Canadian elections resulted in the first defeat for the reigning Liberal Party since 1993. The Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, gained the support of an additional 6% of electors from their 2004 result and formed a minority government with 124 out of 308 parliamentary seats. The social-democratic NDP also gained ten seats, and is one seat short of holding the balance of power.
The Liberal Party had declined in popularity after a series of well-publicized scandals involving millions of dollars in contracts granted to major Party donors. The Party was particularly hard-hit in Quebec, where the seperatist Bloc Quebecois won a majority of the seats in the 2004 election.
In 12 years, the Liberal Party had presided over a period of significant economic growth, though real wages declined and inequality increased. Major budget cuts and privatization led to major cuts to unemployment insurance, welfare, education and other social programs. Subsidies to oil companies continued, and a measure to force Canadian mining companies' overseas operations to comply with Canadian human rights and environmental laws was voted down. The Liberals also presided over a major shift in foreign policy, increasing military spending to the highest levels since WWII and advancing integration with the US military. Canadian forces have operated in close cooperation with the US in Afghanistan, and took the lead in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Haiti and taking control of its government.
Parliament has yet to be called into session, but the Conservative government shows signs of expanding on the Liberals' pro-US movements. Stephen Harper has promised further increases to military spending, and said 5,000 newly-arrived Canadian troops will not be leaving Afghanistan. Harper also appointed a former defence industry lobbyist as his Minister of Defence. The strengthened NDP has called for a debate about Canada's role in Afghanistan. While Liberals spoke in favour of Kyoto, Canada's carbon emissions increased at a greater rate than those in the US. Conservatives, with even closer ties to western oil companies than the Liberals, explicitly oppose Kyoto, despite popular support for the treaty.
It remains to be seen what other changes Harper will make, though it is likely he will remain cautious due to his precarious minority. The future of the Conservative government rests on its ability to make gains in Quebec. That said, Harper has surrounded himself with right-wing advisors, and has a long history as an advocate of economic and social conservatism. While the Conservatives have more seats than any other single party, a significant majority of the seats in Parliament belong to parties to the left of the Conservatives. The Conservatives are widely regarded as having won by moving to the political centre, promising to support public health care, which some argue the Liberals had begun to privatize.
Under the Liberals, the genocidal policies of forced integration, expropriation of land and economic devastation of Canada's native populations continued, though some victims of residential schools--where children were forcibly abducted, and often beaten, raped or killed--received compensation. One of Prime Minister Harper's inner circle of advisors, Tom Flanagan, has called native civilization inferior to European civilization, and said that colonization was inevitable and justified.
Addendum: I can live in the same neighbourhood as Wolf Parade and Jean Leloup. As Pharmacie Esperanza and Cheskie Heimishe Bakery and La Plus Belle Province. (On second thought, best not to get me started about food in Montreal.)
And so on.
I can't quite place the moment that I switched from thoroughly enjoying a series of mild, sunny days to being more than a bit alarmed. I think it was just before I had plans to go skating, and had to cancel because rain was falling through the veritably balmy air, slushing up the ice. In Montréal. In February.
Most of February is usually spent groaning about the incessant cold and snow, and irrationally seizing on the tiniest (even nonexistent) signs of spring.
So it's quite the dilemma that this lovely weather cannot really be enjoyed without the lingering thought that it is also the prelude to a predicted biodiversity holocaust and who knows what for humans, who steadfastly refuse to take it seriously.
I wonder if that isn't the defining question of this particular point in history. How do we take our situation seriously? Folks like Jared Diamond, Ronald Wright and Stephen Lewis have been trying, but I'm interested in ways to refine, if not drastically improve upon, their answers.
For those who think I've disappeared from the planet, or at least dropped offline: I'm on the road with PaulMartinTime.ca. We raised enough cash to travel across Canada, starting discussions, providing independent coverage of the coming Canadian federal election, interviewing people that the corporate press won't, and causing a bit of mayhem.
There's a tour weblog, and there will soon be video and photos and other coverage.
We're in Minnesota now, on our way to the west coast throught the US, where the scenery is different and the gas is cheap (thanks, imperialism!).
The Democratic Deficit Tour officially starts on the 11th.
I posted the following comment on this thread over at Vive le Canada, and thought it was worth recording here.
My understanding of how things work is this: the US gets Canada to agree to bad deals, and then makes them worse. They can do this, because they have a lot of power, and Canadians haven't been strong enough to collectively realize what's good for them. (This is largely possible due to the amount of obfuscation and confusion spread by the media, but I digress.)
Canada, having been screwed over, turns around and makes life even worse for developing countries by slapping big tariffs on everything they make. In fact, the only thing that developing countries can even consider selling in Canada is straight-from-the-source natural resources. The more processing is done in the developing country, the more the Canadian tariffs increase. I.e. they can just barely sell us peanuts, but if they try selling us peanut butter, the tariffs make it impossible to compete with Canadian and American producers. All the other industrialized countries do this too, but Canada is among the worst.
It's like some kind of sick hierarchy. We get pushed around by the bully, so we turn around and (through the IMF, WB, WTO) bully all the little kids.
If we had any sense (of justice), we'd get all the poor countries together and fight the US to a standstill. (Actually, it's not the US, so much as the corporations that *mostly* come from the US--the forces of global capitalism.) But such a fight would be hugely draining, and would require major solidarity, tireless organization, and unbreakable resolve.
Those are (currently) not politically feasible activities on a governmental scale. As soon as it was clear that Canada was going to fight, all kinds of foreign capital would pick up and leave, making things bad, real bad, and a government willing to placate the US would be instantly elected, to patch things up.
But there still remains a basic injustice in our "don't pick a fight unless you can win soundly" approach. When the US infringes on our sovereignty, the proper reaction is not to plunder wealth from countries that are even weaker, but to fight that original infringement with whatever means are available.
That much is obvious, until you start a political career based on that premise. Funding? Nope. Media coverage? Sorry.
So it's an uphill battle, but I can't see that that's any reason not to fight it.
Rick McGinnis: "Passage to Ottawa tries to do something almost unheard of in this country, or elsewhere - make our nation's capital an exotic, even magical place."
Path of the Paddle "Separatism is a Canadian tradition, and Ralph Klein's thoughts on separating from Canada only make him more of a Canadian."
Seeing the request for feedback on the Walrus magazine's web site, I sent them some thoughts on the state of Canadian journalism and what a good national magazine could look like. Excerpts follow.
Within the past two weeks, I've heard about two new magazines launching in Canada.
Entrepot, a student-run intellectual rag that aims to get away from the insular campus-based political bickering and deal with ideas about the world.
Walrus Magazine, which has $5 million in funding and aims to be the Canadian Harper's, paying writers well and aiming for a high level of style and content. Their 'preview issue' (sent to potential funders and advertisers) contained work by Tariq Ali, Ann Michaels, and Michael Ignatieff. See also: Globe and Mail article on Walrus and my letter to Walrus magazine.
Both seem to be responding to the low quality of Canadian journalism (North American journalism, actually), thanks to 'convergence', expectations of multiple stories per day, low pay, and profit-hogging. Those are difference aspects of the same problem: in for-profit enterprises run by businessmen, hacks are encouraged and rewarded, while people who want to really understand things and write about them find other venues, or give up.
Warren Kinsella, prominent Liberal strategist, offers us rare insight into the minds of the Canadian ruling class on his web site. Pausing in the midst of a round of NDP-bashing (for what, exactly, is not completely clear--an email was sent, and they didn't follow up on some campaign promises... only when you're the NDP does that amount to a scandal), Kinsella offers some glowing praise of an Ontario Liberal fundraiser:
I've gummed down plenty of political rubber chicken in my day, but that was something I don't think I've ever seen: a standing-room-only corporate crowd at a political fundariser, giving a spontaneous - and enduring, and loud - standing ovation.
Don't just take my word for it. The Ontario Liberal dinner took in $1.3 million, minimum, which is a record. People were jammed in the cavernous hall at the Sheraton Centre - and some tables were $15,000 a pop. It wasn't just sold out - it was oversold. The Tories, meanwhile, have been forced to discount prices for their big fundraiser in Mississauga. That kind of says it all, don't it?
It sure does. I, for one, am willing to take your word for it, Mr. Kinsella: corporate interests dominate Canadian politics, but what really matters is that they (and their money) are on your side! Congrats!
Granted, the NDP is far from perfect, but if the same standards that apply to them were applied to other parties, things would be considerably different. If the NDP's platform is overrun by corporate influence, then they at least make an effort to keep that influence in check. Not so for the Liberals, as Kinsella's remarks show rather clearly.
Seemingly as a direct result, the NDP now has 17% support, according to polls. That puts it second only to the Liberals, and ahead of the two right-wing parties, which the media has been inexplicably obsessed with for too long. The NDP hasn't been that popular in a decade.
Meanwhile, our Prime Minister is saying he is "not a part of the coalition of the willing" in French, and still waffling when he speaks English.
Path of the Paddle is a worthwhile Canadian weblog, with links to other worthwhile Canadian weblogs. Also, author, activist, and "Liberal strategist" Warren Kinsella has been logging about Liberal infighting as part of the fight, which is interesting.
In Canada the Liberals are proposing limits on campaign financing that appear fairly significant.
New measures include a $10,000 limit on individual donations, a $1,000 per party limit on corporate donations, outlaws trust funds, bans corporate and union donations outright for (intra-party) leadership campaigns, full disclosure of more kinds of donations, and public funding for campaigns based on votes recieved.
That's one advantage to having a Prime Minister with an insane amount of power, I guess. Though I may be missing something, it sounds like a damn good start at the very least.
The New Forum: One of these things is not like the other
And this: "Being an NDPer is alot like being Scottish: the dour obedience to tradition and inscrutable elites, the belief in sometimes irrelevant ideals, the preference of presumed righteousness to pragmatism, the humourous acceptance of being a continual loser."
Rabble.ca's Corvin Russell (a name I recognize from my Canadian University Press days) has been doing a good job of covering the NDP convention. Much more interesting than generally stale or downright bad mainstream coverage.
A good summary of the convention and the foolishness of the way professional journalists cover... everything (from a distance, paying more attention to their computers, and comfortably).
And he socks it to blockheaded Globe columnists who find the NDP boring and outmoded. If you believe that market ideology should not be questioned, and find concentrated money and power exciting, then of course you're going to find the NDP boring. Russel writes:
I’ll take the boredom of principle over the boredom of capitulation any day.
The mainstream media has never been known for its political astuteness or innovation in the realm of ideas. Far from being ahead of the trend, the chatterati mostly lag far behind political realities in their thinking. The market convictions of the Thomas Friedmans of the world sprouted long after Thatcher and Reagan had sown their oats.
The media prescription to move to the centre expresses contempt for voters, treating them like a static lump whose choices are given, who can’t be engaged by political education and campaigning. Good politics moves the “centre” to where you are, not the other way around. It’s not like Canadians are passionately devoted to the Liberal Party’s opportunistic centrism. They’re not passionately devoted to any political project. That’s the real crisis that the mainstream media has missed: the crisis in liberal democracy.
Heck, just read the whole thing.
After much speculation about a drawn out multi-ballot vote, Jack Layton won with more than 50%. In a wierd turn of events, a denial-of-service attack slowed down the internet voting, which was run by election.com. Local parties all over the country rented hotel rooms and set up computers so that folks could hang out, watch the speeches, discuss, and vote directly, which was pretty cool.
The latest NDP news. (from Google)
An NDP-run Newspaper?
In one of the more interesting bits that I previously missed, Jack Layton said that the NDP should buy a newspaper to make up for the national media's outright hostility to the party (except for the CBC, which continues to be a reasonable source of mostly balanced information).
Here's what I'd do. Get a budget together to pay for an editorial staff and layout team, with enough cash left over to pay some writers. Then, make connections with the student press, independent papers, magazines, indymedia types, and other scattered bits of lefty journalism, smack small but significant-enough financial incentives on quality, in depth stories and breaking news. Put together a good pile of reporting with attractive layout once a week, post it for free as a pdf. Leave space for local coverage and advertising, and sign up local activists or entrepreneurs to sell advertising and take care of printing and distribution. Take 25% of net revenues for the national editorial and layout office, let the locals keep the rest. Give the editors full independence (but hire folks who will actually cover the NDP), and try to break even. All the NDP needs to do is spend more time doing newsworthy things. If it works financially, hire more staff and crank it up to two or three issues a week.
The result: a national newspaper with cutting coverage, whose money goes to the people who do the work, not the shareholders (coz there aren't any), and the possibility of quality journalism.
(But it'll only work if they hire me as editor.)
It really bugs me that any millionaire could do this if they wanted to (heck, a dedicated group of folks with decent fundraising skills could do it), but instead we have the National Boast and the Global Male.
I spent the morning listening to the speeches of the candidates for party leader at the New Democratic Party (NDP) conference. For those joining us from away, that's Canada's left wing party. It's nice that I could hear them at all; try as I might to imagine NPR doing nationwide full coverage of a Green party convention on a weekend, I fail.
What folks have been saying for a while is that it's a horserace between long-time Winnipeg parliamentarian Bill Blaikie and Toronto city councillor Jack Layton. So it's basically experience in parliament, relatively moderate, less slick (Blaikie) vs. connections with activism, media-friendly (Layton). Layton has the most money, and is heavily favoured. What a coincidence. But through some deal with labour, one labour vote counts for roughly 12 "normal" votes, so despite the one-member-one-vote campaign, some members are still more equal than others.
By far the most compelling speech, though, came from Pierre Ducasse a 29 year old Quebecker with less experience than the others and little funding. In what I venture to call the most compelling delivery of a political speech of recent memory, Ducasse layed down a compelling case for lefties to go mainstream, with "democratization of the economy and society" as a first priority. He's not going to win, but a lot of people are kicking themselves for voting early for Layton in the first round.
Here's what Ducasse reckons:
As democrats and socialists, our goal cannot simply be to accommodate or humanize the capitalist system, or to try and overturn it immediately. What we must do - using innovative, progressive and well thought-out policies - is bring deep changes to the existing economic structure so that, in the long term, we establish a social and economic system founded on social democratic principles. We are opposed to savage capitalism. But the party must promote gradual and structural measures that will bring about a real political, social and economic democracy.
Vague though it may be, it's a good foot to stand on, and I don't hear many other pols talking with anything like that kind of clarity. I think it's inspiring to a lot more people than just (soon to be post-) academic lefties like myself.
Me, I'm kicking myself for not remembering to register to vote in the leadership election until five days after the deadline for registration. Of course, it didn't help that the NDP did practically nothing to inform me, Joe Voter who talks to NDP members all the time, of when the deadline was or even that there was one-member-one-vote this time around (I heard from a friend, third-hand).
With apparent dependence on word of mouth, the NDP was still able to grow its membership by a full 50%. With a $1000 per city budget for flyers, pamphlets and posters, they could have easily pulled in twice that amount. Heck, a poster that said, in bold print "last chance to participate in a democratic political party" a week before the deadline would have got a lot of attention, at the very least. The campaigns that get run in New Brunswick consist almost entirely of spending a lot of money on signs; a few pamphlets highlighting key issues that the media ignores could change things dramatically. Instead: nothing.
The media, of course, (and as Lawrence Martin pointed out on Thursday in the Globe) is way more right wing than most Canadians, so the NDP gets nothing but grief. Some of this is deserved, but it's completely out of proportion with the willingness to criticize other parties. Indeed, the liberals may be criticized, but the NDP gets condemned, with little or no dissent in the mainstream media.
Equally damaging has been the NDP's unwillingness to play to their own strengths, though. Ignoring their advantages and playing to their weaknesses seems to be what they're best at, whether it's squandering the democratization of the party, ignoring free trade in the 80's when the majority of Canadians were against it (at least according to Rick Salutin, in the last paragraph of this column), or talking idly about health care when all the other parties were putting the same amount of emphasis on it.
All this is an outsider's rant, though, so maybe the reality is so complex that the most utterly obvious things can't be done. It's possible.
If you're a Canadian citizen, and not interested in a future of HMOs and huge medical bills, you may wish to read and sign the Implement Romanow Petition.
According to an announcement I recieved today, the NDP's membership has increased by 24,168, or 41%, since they changed the party leadership election to one-member-one-vote.
I guess being more democratic is one way to get a lot of attention. If the NDP (New Democratic Party, Canada's left wing political party) is ever going to get in the news for something that isn't a fabricated scandal, that should do it.
But I'm not holding my breath.
The following is an unedited transcript of an interview I conducted with Stephen Henighan on Wednesday, Nov 6, 2002.
Stephen Henighan is the author of When Words Deny the World: The reshaping of Canadian writing, a book of essays about Canadian literature, in addition to two other books of criticism and several novels and short stories. He currently teaches Spanish at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada.
Edited portions of this interview will appear in the Argosy, the independent student journal of Mount Allison University, as well as on Monkeyfist.com. I'll add links when they are available. Though I was careful to record the words as they were spoken, this text may contain errors or erroneous quotations.
TheNewForum.ca is a column-turned-weblog by Montreal journalist J. Milloy which contains a few good, informed rants about Canadian media.
Despite their marketing claims to the contrary, The National Post is not a national newspaper. The Globe and Mail is not a national newspaper. Until Canada has a newspaper published, in some strange way, in both national languages, as available in Montreal as it is in Toronto -- you try finding a Post or a Globe (or a Gaz) outside the usual anglo main drags -- we do not have a national newspaper. I'm not a big fan of the hoary theory of Canada as a partnership of two languages, "two nations warring in a single breast," yadda yadda, but in this, at least, it's clear: We've only got one national media institution.
Since I remain under the influence of Stephen Henighan, I might add something about a "national newspaper" that isn't utterly Toronto-centric in its coverage and opinions.
In other news, canada.indymedia.org is nowhere near ready for prime time, but there are a lot of interesting ways that it could expand by linking to other sources of independent media (community radio stations, student newspapers, independent weeklies...). The local features newswire on the right is already an interesting cross-section of local indymedia coverage.