Archive for June, 2009

Telling lies about Canada

June 30, 2009 1 comment

Every country has its myths, based on its history, its character, or its perception of its place among the nations. Why should Canada be an exception?

It is not. Canada’s myths arise from our vast geography, our disinclination to join the United States in rebelling against a British heritage, and our retention of French and British cultures in a mix but not a mould that includes original peoples and later arrivals from around the world.

The myths that spring from a nation’s experiences are not necessarily entirely false. They usually contain a considerable degree of truth.

It is for this reason, on this Canada Day July 1st 2009, the 142nd since Confederation, that I quarrel with Doug Saunders of The Globe and Mail, over his article Lies Our Country Told Us. (I’d link you to it, but none seems available.)

Mr. Saunders says, “We are not the Canada we think we are. The country of our imagination — northern, colonial, rooted in a history of British settlement and only recently becoming pluralistic and multihued — is an illusion.”

He goes on to cite several of what he terms “lies” to buttress his argument.

I’m here to say I disagree with him on every one of them. Let’s take these so-called “lies” (or myths) one by one:

  • “We are a northern nation.”

Not a lie.

Mr. Saunders argues that we lag way behind Norway and Russia in developing our north. And it’s never, he asserts, “been a major part of the Canadian identity.”


Tell that to Pierre Berton! He was born and raised in the Yukon and many of his 50 books provide telling narratives of how the North has figured prominently in Canadian life. Those like Klondike and The Mysterious North are as gripping and readable today as when they were written. 

Or Ken McGoogan, author of romantic histories of the Arctic, such as Race to the Polar Sea and Ancient Mariner.

Of course, we’ve not used slave labor to built vast cities in the sub-Arctic, as the Soviet Union did.

But we’re pulling out oil and gas, gold, diamonds, furs and fish from the North. We’re asserting our Arctic sovereignty. And we’re trying to ensure a better future for the native Inuit and First Nations people of the region.

  • “We are the People of 1867.”

Not a lie.

In suggesting this statement is a lie, Mr. Saunders tries to knock down the incontrovertible fact that Canada as a modern nation came into being in a Confederation designed expressly to accommodate the formerly warring communities of the English and the French.

He makes much of the fact that Canada had a heavy out-migration from 1867 to the early 1900s. That’s true, and many New England communities are today made up in the main of the descendants of French Canadians who moved to the mills of Boston and other towns for a better life. But countless hundreds of thousands of others stayed.

It is true, as Mr. Saunders says, that our population growth took off in the Laurier era when “stout men in sheepskin coats” — immigrants from eastern Europe — began to populate the prairies. A natural outgrowth of Canada having claimed for itself the relatively empty Northwest. The newcomers joined a country where being English dominated everything.

  • “First we were colonial, then we became multicultural.”

Not a lie.

On this so-called “lie”, Mr. Saunders makes the weakest case of all. He cites research by Peter Henshaw, a University of Western Ontario historian, to argue that multiculturalism was promoted by English Canada as early as the 1930s. Henshaw names Governor General John Buchan as a chief architect. The motive, allegedly, was to weaken any true Canadian nationalism by mixing it up with a lot of competing loyalties.

My recollection of my school days in that era was that the Empire was everything, everything had to be British, and to be a Canada Firster was almost to be disloyal. There was no room for any other culture.

I don’t think a conspiratorial injection of multiculturalism ever figured into things.

Beginning in the 1960s, Canada changed from having been a mean and narrow country, drowned in the rigid strictures of Protestantism outside Quebec, and Catholicism inside, to a more generous, forward-looking, and liberated land of diversity, tolerance, and freedom of choice.

Our postwar immigration, our shedding of most of the vestiges of colonialism, and the entrenchment of multiculturalism as a core Canadian principle, made it all possible.

As we celebrate this Canada Day, there’s no need to tell lies about Canada. The truths we hold in common are the glue that will keep us together.


Right turn for Ontario?

June 28, 2009 Leave a comment

It’s been 15 years since Mike Harris launched his Common Sense Revolution that drove compassion, caring and cooperation out of Queen’s Park in Toronto — along with New Democrat Premier Bob Rae.

Haris won back-to-back majority governments for his hard-right brand of Progressive Conservative government. It took his retirement and the inept maneuverings of his successors who tried and failed to keep the Revoliution going, to open the door to Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals.

Now, with McGuinty into his second term, Ontario’s PCs have gone”back to the future” by picking Harris acolyte Tim Hudak, 41, as their new leader.

Hudak says “We must take Ontario down an entirely different path from the one it’s now on.”

Meaning, of course, ditching social welfare for individual self-reliance; get tough laws on crime (whether they make any difference or not) and cultivating the entreprenurial crowd with promises of lower taxes and less regulation.

This sound so familiar to the Harris credo and the economic side of Bushism that it makes one wonder whether it’ll sail in the current environment.

The next Ontario election will be in 2011. It’s likely there’ll be strong similarities between the political situation at that time and the one that prevailed in 1995 when Harris won power.

We’ll (hopefully) have recently come out of recession. We’ll be deeper in debt that ever. And eight years of Liberalism will have no more solved our problems that did five years of the NDP’s version of social democracy.

But there’ll be one big difference.

We’ll have tried it all before. Been there. Done that.

Consider also that the Liberals may have a new leader by then. Someone who could put a fresh face to a government that has gathered its share of blunders and bloopers — like the eHealth fiasco and an ever-mounting provincial deficit.

Canada's RightVoters who saw the original Harris show as refreshing and different are unlikely to view the sequel through the same innocent eyes.

As well, Hudak has set himself up for a polarizing fight over his pledge to dump the Ontario Human Rights tribunal. There are many things wrong with the way the OHRC — like similar outfits — has gone overboard in allowing frivolous complaints. Abolition is not the answer.

It’s ironic that at a time when true Conservatives are growing more and more disenchanted with the party at the federal level, a champion of true Toryism has been elevated to the top spot in Ontario.

Hudak seems to be following the formula set out in Rescuing Canada’s Right, a 2005 book (Wiley) by Tasha Keiriddin and Adam Daifallah. They argue that the federal Tories are not really conservative. “Overall, federal governments, including conservative ones, have been pretty dismal from a small-c conservative perspective.”

Hudak, if he ever gets into power, is not likely to disappoint the authors.

Mike Harris was in the front row of Hudak supporters at the PC convention in Markham on Saturday. Those who watched him say he gloated with pleasure at the success of his protege.

How often will he be on the phone to Hudak in coming months? Who will really be calling the shots? Stay tuned.

What I learned about Puppy Mills

June 25, 2009 6 comments

The July Reader’s Digest, Canadian edition, is out with my feature article, Canada’s Puppy Mill Scandal.

Other than to say it describes my own personal experience with a dog that I believe came from a puppy mill, I’ll not go into detail on the article. You can read in the RD how unscrupulous breeders exploit their animals, sell off the puppies that often end up in pet stores, and profit from dogs that frequently carry serious genetic and behavioural defects. Present laws are ineffective in stopping this, despite frequent raids.Puppy Mill







We lost Rory, our beautiful Wheaten terrier, after six years of struggling with his aggressive and anti-social behaviour. We tried everything – dog counselling, medication, you name it. Among other disturbing traits, he had a serious anxiety complex and tried to bite any one of us when we headed for the door.

I was heartbroken when we reached the decision that we had to have him put down — to end his suffering, and ours. I’d awaken in the night, tears streaming down my cheeks.

My partner Deborah thought it would be healthy if, as a writer, I wrote about the experience.

I started doing research, and found out from a prominent vet that Rory exhibited all the traits of an animal from an abusive puppy mill.

I moved on to investigating the prevalence of puppy mills. I discovered that even the valiant efforts of SPCA animal rescue officers were unable to bring these establishments under control.

Except in Ontario, laws are weak and penalties for animal abuse minimal.

Then it happened. A major raid in Quebec turned up appalling conditions at one particular mill. I interviewed people involved in the raid. Then I queried the Reader’s Digest, offering an outline of the story. I mentioned my own personal experience.

After about a week, I got an email back. They wanted the piece. I was sent the Writer’s Guidelines for the RD, and told I should model the piece to fit.

It took a couple of months of back and forth to finalize the piece. The editor I worked with was positive and supportive all the way. The fact checkers who worked with my manuscript were impeccable in their treatment.

With a circulation of 1.2 million and eight million readers, the Reader’s Digest is the most widely read magazine in Canada.

This means my piece exposing the evils of the puppy mills will catch a lot of eyeballs. I hope this will add to pressure on politicians to modernize our out of date legislation. Maybe it’ll give a boost to Liberal MP Mark Holland’s efforts to get his private member’s bill on the issue up for a vote.

We now have a lovely little Wheaten terrier which we obtained from Jan Cunningham, a small breeder in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. She came to us from a loving and caring home. We’ll never forget Rory, but Moreg is a delight every hour of the day.

The July issue of RD is on the newsstands now. I hope you’ll pick up a copy.

Canada – a scientific backwater?

June 23, 2009 5 comments

It’s beginning to look like it. First there was the controversy over the disruption in the making of medical isotopes at the Atomic Energy of Canada Chalk River nuclear reactor. Then Prime Minister Harper’s announcement that Canada will get out of making these vital keys in diagnosing cancer, cardiac and other diseases.

Now comes the news that Canada’s one-time hi tech global flagship, Nortel Networks, is going to be sold off to Nokia-Siemens, the Finish-German telecommunications powerhouse.

As more than a few people have commented, it’s reminiscent of the 1959 shutdown of the Avro Arrow fight jet by Conserv ative prime minister John Diefenbaker. Or the earlier, less remembered, cancellation of Canadair’s commercial jet. The Liberal government cancelled that one in 1952, in order to divert funds to support UN operations in Korea.

What is it about Canada that once we get a leg up in some scientific field, our government bails out at the first sign of crisis?

Until a few months ago, Canada produced 31 per cent of the world’s supply of medical isotopes. Fifty thousand procedures a day have been carried out using these isotopes. They were supplied by MDS Nordion, a Toronto company which used technetium, a byproduct of molybdenum-99, from the aging nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont.

This sorry episode of research failure and technical blundering has been overshadowed by the cheap political games played out on Parliament Hill.

brain_scanIt started when the nuclear safety administrator tried to shut down the AECL facility for safety reasons in 2007. No way, shouted the PM. Just a Liberal appointee, he asserted. We won’t allow isotope production to be affected.

An apparently unstoppable heavy water leak earlier this year forced another shutdown. Nobody knows for how long. But the headlines went to Lisa Raitt, the energy minister, caught on tape saying it was a sexy issue that she’d solve in no time.

She can’t, of course. Now she’s appointed an “expert committee” to review the options. The preferred one, it seems, is to find other countries willing and able to take up the slack. So Canada once again becomes a consumer rather than a producer, a follower rather than a leader.

The alarms have been sounded all over the scientific community.

“It’s going to be a drain of brains outside Canada,” says Jean-Luc Urbain of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine.

“If we don’t act now, maybe we should just put out the lights and go home,” says Domninic Ryan, prominent scientist.

Stephen DeFalco, head of MDS, disputes the government’s contention that the new Maple reactors, which were expected to replace the aging NRU facility, have fatal design flaws. Ottawa refuses to put any more money into that project.

According to Defalco:

The Maple reactors are complete, they are safe and they await final commissioning.

The tragedy in all of this is not only the health risks facing millions of people around the world due to Canada’s failure to maintain isotope production. As serious as that is, what may be even worse is the failure of successive Canadian governments to invest adequately in pure science and R&D.

We’ve got a Science Minister — Gerry Goodyear — who is an avowed religious creationist. An Opposition leader, Michael Ignatieff, who put isotopes on his list of concerns but has since been silent on the issue.

But there’s a glimmer of hope. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, supported by scientists at the University of Saskatchewan, has plans to build a reactor in Saskatoon. It would be a 10-year project. And McMaster University, in Hamilton, says it can use its cyclotron to make isotopes.

One way or another, alternative supplies will be found, in Canada or abroad. But what a sorry commentary it all makes.

Harper’s backdown on Abdelrazik

June 18, 2009 Leave a comment

The Harper government blinked today. It backed down completely on its refusal to give Abousfian Abdelrazik, Canadian citizen, the right to return home after years of close custody in our Embassy in Sudan:

Tories to allow Abdelrazik to return to Canada

Toronto Star Jun 18, 2009 04:04 PM

OTTAWA – Abousfian Abdelrazik could soon be coming back to Canada.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced this afternoon in Parliament that the federal government will comply with a court order to return him to Canada after he has been stranded in Sudan for more than a year.

“The government will comply with the court order,” Nicholson said in response during question period, in response to a query from Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.

I wrote about this situation in April, commenting then that “if Mr. Abdelrazik has committed a crime, bring him home to Canada for trial. If not, he has the right to return unmolested.”

In an interview with Don Newman on CBC TV’s Politics, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Mr. Abdelrazik would be coming home “as a free Canadian” with the right to do whatever he wishes.

A full-scale public inquiry is required into this mish-mash of spy boondoggling, government obstinance, and general disregard of the Charter rights of a Canadian citizen.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Cannon described Mr. Abdelrazilk as a threat to national security. This, despite the fact he’d been cleared by both the spy agency CSIS, and the RCMP.

This case is worse than the  Marer Arar case, according to the NDP’s Paul Dewar. He wants the Commons foreign affairs committee to hear Mr. Abdelrazik’s story first-hand.

In the Arar case, U.S. authorities sent him off to Syria to be tortured. In the Abdelrazik case, it appears it was Canadian authorities who had him put in jail in Sudan.

You can be sure that Mr. Abdelrazik will be suing the Government of Canada. You can’t have people sent into the torture cells of third world countries with no evidence of wrongful doing.

Through all the years of the Cold War, we witnessed the build-up of enormous spy regimes, at great cost to the public, all of which yielded no value whatever to the security or well-being of the population.

When Communism came down, it was because of the bank-busting pursuit of military might by the Kremlin. The U.S. was within a hair’s bredth of similar collapse when Moscow gave up the ghost.

Our spy agencies are good at nailing innocent people on marginal evidence. Not so good at defending the principles of democracy and justice.

Ontario’s $2 billion boondoggle

June 17, 2009 1 comment

The scandal over Ontario’s abortive efforts to move health records into the electronic age has taken another captive:

From the Globe and Mail Online

eHealth chairman resigns under a cloud

Hudson’s departure marks a fall from grace for McGuinty’s hand-picked choice to modernize Ontario’s health records

Karen Howlett and Lisa Priest

Toronto The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Jun. 17, 2009 05:45PM EDT

Alan Hudson resigned on Wednesday as chairman of eHealth Ontario amid a controversy over lucrative contracts awarded without competitive tenders and nickel-and-dime spending on snacks by consultants, some of whom charged thousands of dollars a day for their services.

Dr. Hudson’s departure marks a fall from grace in what many saw as a stellar record. Known as the man who could fix anything in health care, he was Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s hand-picked choice to modernize the province’s medical records.

“Today I want to acknowledge that our government came up short in the matter of eHealth,” Mr. McGuinty said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We should have done more to protect the public.”

Dr. Hudson is the second executive to leave eHealth Ontario in recent days. Sarah Kramer, his protégé and long-time business associate – whom he often described as brilliant – was forced to resign as chief executive officer on June 6.

All well and good, say I, but I think one more resignation is due — that of the Ontario Minister of Health, David Caplan.

This whole situation is tragic. Tragic for the individuals involved, as they were both dedicated, competent individuals. But more tragic for the people of Ontario, because it means yet more delays in building an electronic health records system that would improve health care and cut costs.

For all their competence, Dr. Hudson and Ms. Kramer were incredibly stupid in one respect. Giving out millions of dollars in untendered contracts to consulting firms hired to build the system. The fact that principals of those firms were former colleagues of the two eHealth officials is beside the point. And no one disputes the competence of the consultants, either.

But you can’t go around handing out millions of dollars of public business without a competitive tendering process.

Premier McGuinty says he’s fixed that, and there’ll be no more of it.

Dr. Hudson, in a speech just a week ago on receiving an honorary degree from the University of Toronto, observed that the idea of electronic health records has been around for 45 years but “unbelievably slow to penetrate clinical health care in a systematic fashion.” Promising better, he remarked that Ontario has set $2.3 billion aside for the job.

So far, all we know is that about $700 million has been spent on eHealth’s predecessor agency, with zero results.

Premier McGuinty needs to be more systematic about how he’s dealing with the crisis. During David Caplan’s watch at the Ministry of Health, the eHealth ship has gone on the rocks. It’s time to cast him up on the beach.

Foreign wars and Canadian sacrifice

June 12, 2009 Leave a comment

In an era of globalization, we’re probably not supposed to look on battles in distant lands as “foreign wars.” But they are.

They’re foreign because they involve struggles for territories and dominance in regions in which Canada has no vital national interest.

Throughout our history as a peaceable nation, Canada has been involved in just three such wars — South Africa, Korea and Afghanistan.

I exclude the two world wars, as these struggles were so paramount that their outcome was vital to the welfare of all Canadians. Even 1914-18 — despite the interpretations of historical revisionists — put this country’s future at risk.

Korea falls into much the same category as Vietnam. It was a civil war in which the Chinese intervened only when American forces reached their border and threatened to cross  the Yalu river.

Few Canadians know much about the South African, or Boer war, in which Canada had a minor role between 1899 and 1902. That has not stopped the Alberta writer, Fred Stenson, from producing a novel of classic proportions.

The Great Karoo (Doubleday Canada 2008) is the story of a collection of Alberta cowboys who volunteer for the Canadian Mounted Rifles. It was a squad made up of officers from the Royal Northwest Mounted Police and ranchhands from pin points on the map like Pincher Creek.

Stenson’s story of how these young men — and their horses — dealt with the extreme conditions they encountered, and the stupidity and callousness of their British officers, makes for an engrossing book.

Stenson’s description of the South African desert, the Great Karoo, and the hills and river valleys of the Dutch republics, the Orange Free State and the Transavaal, is evocative of the intimacy and color of Isak Dinesen’s classic work, Out of Africa.

It also brings to mind many parallels with our involvement in Afghanistan, despite the obvious differences of history, geography and ideology.

Great KarooThe struggle in South Africa was waged between two colonizing people, the Dutch-blood Afrikaaners and  the English who had followed Cecil Rhodes’ call to plant the flag of the British Empire everywhere in Africa.

A distant relative of mine, Harry Argyle, went to South Africa to work in the gold mines. In a letter home, he wrote:

I don’t like the Dutch and I did not come out to fight, but if there’s a war and the English want volunteers I’ll have a cut in.

Fred Stenson’s characters arrive in South Africa anxious to fight the Boers. They worry that the war may be almost over. They find out differently after marching through the Great Karoo. His fighting scenes are dramatic and graphic.

Stenson’s protagonist, Frank Adams, “threw himself flat. It did not take long for bullets to rip the grass around him. He crawled like a mad thing, worming forward, clawing with his elbows. He was looking for a nice stout stone, and there were none. All he could find was a scatter of smaller rocks that he pulled in and piled as fast as his hands could move.”

Adams, along with his buddies, soon finds he is fighting a different war than the one he’d been promised. At home, after the war, they struggle to return to their old lives.

Running through Stenson’s narrative is the tension caused by the Indian blood of several Mounted recruits, including Adams. Black Africans, by contrast, have little to say in The Great Karoo, just as they had little to say under the white man’s rule.

The parallel between South Africa and Afghanistan is in the frustrations Stenson’s characters experience, and the doubts that Canadians feel about our involvement in that Islamic land.

Canadian soldiers, filled with all the idealistic intentions inherited from a legacy of peacekeeping, go into this 21st century war in a land not dissimilar from the dry hills of the Great Karoo. They regard themselves as protectors of an abused population. Large numbers in that population view them as invaders.

This week, the body of the 119th Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan was brought home. Twenty-year-old Alexandre Peloquin had written home shortly before his death. “Will you be proud of me if I die,” he asked a friend. “Just tell me … if you’ll remember.”