Archive for March, 2011

Polygamy on trial – why it shouldn’t fly

March 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The B.C. Supreme Court is in the final stages of its hearing to determine whether Canada’s ban on polygamy is an infringement of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

You can follow the proceedings live in what is a first for Canadian courts, at this link.

There’s an unusual cast of characters in this drama, ranging from the two fundamentalist Mormons who ran rival sects at the B.C. community of Bountiful, to the provincial government, anti-polygamy movements, and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Charges against Winston Blackmore and James Oler were stayed when a court found the B.C. had been “prosecutor shopping” before finding someone willing to press charges.The government then asked the B.C. Supreme Court to decide whether Canada’s anti-polygamy law violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. An official statement from provincial attorney general Mike de Jong read: “Until Canadians and the justice system have clarity about the constitutionality of our polygamy laws, all provinces, including ours, face a lengthy and costly legal process in prosecuting alleged offences.”

I’ve written on this issue for The National Post. My perspective is that of someone who grew up in the adjoining community of Creston and saw the sect first take root there.

A reading of Daphne Branham’s book, The Secret Lives of Saints (Random House) will eliminate any doubts you may have about the devastating consequences of religious polygamy on its innocent victims. She has an amazing story in the Vancouver Sun today on the trafficking of young girls between B.C. and the United States.

Eight out of ten Canadians favor enforcement of the anti-polygamy law, according to public opinion surveys. I share that view. Allowing exploitation and brain washing of young people by any religion is bad enough, but it’s worse when the result is a lifetime of subjugation and child-bearing for girls as young as fourteen.

Surprisingly, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association opposes the present ban, but admits polygamy can and does cause harm. But it’s no worse than the harm that can come from monogamous relationships, they say.

I wonder. How many conventional relationships are based on a dictate to produce as many children as you can, by as many wives as you can garner, in order to occupy the highest rank next to god in heaven?

The Civil Liberties argument reminds me of the gun lobby and their cry – “guns don’t kill people. people kill people.”

The current hearing can have only one rational outcome – to reaffirm the present ban. Polygamy shouldn’t fly.


Democracy’s future — the issue of issues

March 27, 2011 Leave a comment

It was billed as a rally on “The Future of Canada’s Democracy” and it turned out to be that and much more. Only hours before, the election had been called for May 2 . The timing changed it from a Town Hall-type meeting to an enthusiastic campaign kickoff for Dr. Ted Hsu (pronounced shoe), Liberal candidate for Kingston and the Islands, one of the fifty ridings the Globe and Mail has identified as key to the election outcome.

Several hundred people filled the Memorial Room of Kingston’s historic City Hall to hear the candidate, supported by Dr. Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal MP for Toronto St. Paul’s, deplore the anti-democratic practices of the Harper government. Examples included prorouging Parliament to avoid accountability, refusing to spell out the $40 billion costs of buying fighter aircraft and building unneeded prisons —  all culminating in the historic vote that found the Harper regime in contempt of Parliament. That brought down the government Friday and set the election machinery in motion.

Retiring MP Peter Millikan, whose even-handed performance as Speaker of the House of Commons has won him much praise, got a huge standing ovation from the mostly partisan crowd. There were a few Conservative voters there. One stood and admitted he’d made a mistake in 2008, and would never again vote for Stephen Harper & Company.

The issue that turned him around  was the government’s insistence on closing prison farms, a big issue in a riding with four federal penitentiaries. Shutting down the farms is symptomatic of the Harper government’s preference for vindictive punishment rather than reform and rehabilitation. Better to keep men locked idly in cells, they seem to think, than let them practice responsibility and healthy work — useful habits that just might motivate a few to take up a law-abidng life. The Liberal party has pledged to reopen the farms, which incidentally pay for themselves many times over in what they produce.

The former Conservative voter paid tribute to the 26 Kingston people, ranging in age from 14 to 76, who suffered arrest in protesting the closures. Outside City hall stood Bossy the cow, symbol of the campaign.

There was talk of Coalition and its role in Parliamentary life. Hours earlier, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had made clear the party’s position. His exact words were:

“Whoever leads the party that wins the most seats on election day should be called on to form the government. If that is the Liberal Party, then I will be required to rapidly seek the confidence of the newly-elected Parliament. If our government cannot win the support of the House, then Mr. Harper will be called on to form a government and face the same challenge. That is our Constitution. It is the law of the land.”

(This is more or less what I had written a couple of days ago. Ignatieff went on to pledge that a Liberal government would enter no Coalition with the NDP and would never countnenance a partnership with the Bloc Quebecois.)

Campaign coverage today has Mr. Harper still pushing  his Coalition strategy, claiming he needs a majority to stop the Liberals and NDP from ganging up and installing a government which hasn’t won the most votes. It’s a clever message — will it work?

It’s hard to see how  this issue will last until  voting day. Liberals will try to get the campaign back on ethical and economic issues — the lack of ethics in the Harper government and its economic mismanagement. Far from handling the economy well, Conservatives have blown the surplus they inherited and through unwise tax cuts for banks and corporations, have crippled our ability to get out of deficit.

Another word about the Future of Canada’s Democracy. Never have we had a government so centralized and controlled by one man. This has put Parliament, according to Dr. Bennett, in a vice between an ever more powerful executive branch, and an activist judiciary. It’s usually the right wing that complaints about the power of judges. But when you add judicial power to the power of the PM’s office, it emasculates Parliament and its authority, reducing MPs to constituency social workers helping people to get their passports on time.

Not exactly what the Magna Carta — or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — is all about.

Coalition is the Canadian way

March 25, 2011 Leave a comment

With the election campaign underway, party strategists are bidding to frame the “ballot question” that Canadians will be looking to answer when they cast their votes.

Conservatives would like the ballot question to be a choice between a Harper Majority and an Opposition Coalition — an”unholy alliance” of Liberals, socialist NDPers, and separatists of the Bloc Québécois. The Tory message is a powerful one and it is clear it has set the tone for the first few days of the campaign. It’s also a clever way to dodge answering the real questions facing the electorate.

Conveniently forgotten in the hurly burly is both the budget and its “little goodies” and the historic vote on which the Harper regime fell — branded as the only government in Canadian history to be found in contempt of Parliament.

The media have taken up the cry of Coalition, demanding a more explicit answer from Michael Ignatieff than he has so far chosen — or been able — to provide. And they’re not likely to let up.

Mr. Ignatieff needs to dispose of the Coalition conundrum once and for all.Given how the Conservatives have managed to distort the issue, painting the prospect of a Coalition as something that would rob voters of whatever choice they might make on election day, he is going to have to find a way of putting the issue to rest.

It’s well-known he was a reluctant supporter of the Stephan Dion bid to push aside Mr. Harper after the 2008 election with a Coalition of Liberals and the NDP, backed by a pledge from the Bloc for a year of support. The Bloc’s involvement enabled the Conservative to tar the Coalition as a bed-in with the separatists, something they (horror of horrors) would never allow.

Of course, Mr. Harper conveniently overlooks that he tried to get exactly the same deal from the NDP and the Bloc in 2005 during the Martin minority.

Coalition government is totally consistent with our parliamentary system. And Mr. Ignatieff can answer the question clearly and unashamedly. Being the gifted writer that he is, he should have no difficulty. Here’s how he might put it:

“The party that wins the most seats on election day will form the government. Our aim is to see that this is the Liberal party. Whatever government is formed, it will have to meet Parliament and win a confidence vote. And if it cannot, the Governor General will be obliged to give the next largest party — Liberal or Conservative — a chance. In either case, it would be entirely proper for either one to seek the support of another party if that is necessary. That’s the Canadian way.”

Beyond that, he need not answer hypothetical questions. What party would he ask for support, what terms would he offer, would he take members of another party into his cabinet? All those are questions that could be equally directed to Mr. Harper, and they are questions that need not and could not be answered ahead of the fact.

Most European countries, including the United Kingdom, are governed by coalitions of parties. Canada had a coalition government during the dark days of the First World War.

Mr. Ignatieff needs to put the Coalition question to rest. Then we can get on with discussing the real issues of the campaign — including economic recovery, health care, the outlook for our involvement in Libya, and the future of the nuclear industry in Canada.

Until then, the spectre of Coalition is a giant distraction, working to the advantage of the Harperites who would prefer not to have to answer to their own undemocratic and spendthrift ways.

Are eBooks changing the way we read — and write?

March 23, 2011 Leave a comment

The launch of Apple’s iPad II in Canada this weekend is a great time to discuss the effect of such new reading devices  on both the way we read books, and the way we write them.

I’ve had a Sony Reader for over a year. As one of the first eBook readers, its technology is pretty basic and it’s already been surpassed by the competition — the Kindle, the Kobo (from ChaptersIndigo), the iPad, and the new RIM Playbook.

For that reason, my reading pattern is probably not  typical. When I get around to buying one of the newer products I’ll be better able to measure the difference. For now, I can only say that I’ve used the Sony mainly to download classics I had never gotten around to reading, and specialist books that I would not be inclined to buy in print. For “real” reading, I still prefer the paper version.

But others have a different take on  the effects of the more than ten million electronic reading devices already in use in North America.

Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman says these new devices are forcing people to read in different ways:

They scroll and scroll and scroll. You don’t have this business of handling pages and turning them and savouring them.”

As a result, he adds, you get very fast reading, picking up snatches here and there as we do with news off the Internet,  with little or no lingering on the language.

Once we lose the desire to absorb the nuances of descriptive narrative and the beautiful language that the best writers evoke to tell their stories, what point will there be to that kind of writing? Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Boris Pasternak, E. L. Doctorow — will anybody be reading them? Will their like be seen among future writers?

One of my favorite pieces of writing — in Mark Hume’s River of the Angry Moon (Greystone Books, 1998) —  has taken me back time and again:

“The river is fed by the sky. It runs over a bed of shattered mountains, through the dreams of a great forest and into the mouths of ancient fishes. It starts in clouds as grey and heavy as the sea and ends in a windswept estuary haunted by ghosts. It is a place where white swans dance on dark mud flats and salmon lay fragile eggs in nests of stone.”

You can’t get this in the 140-word bursts of books being written on Twitter. Stories that are written to grab your attention for a moment, for readers who are not very interested in style and beautiful language.

Right now, most eBooks are of course only an electronic version of the original print. But as eBook sales pick up and outpace their hard copy parents (as has happened on Amazon already), writers, agents and publishers are going to be looking at what sells online, and adapting their narratives accordingly.

Already, writers are being forced to speed up their narratives. At the eBook sites, sales are triggered by brief excerpts or quick overviews. More than ever, writers will have to hook readers right away.

“You’re going to want to have blood on the wall by the end of the second paragraph,” adds Lev Grossman.

eBooks are changing the world of publishing in all respects, from pricing to author’s royalties to the opening up of the marketplace to self-publishing. There’s a potential new audience of millions of readers who have seldom or never bought books before.

Whether what they’ll buy — and what they’ll be offered — will represent books as we have known them, only the future will tell.

So go ahead and try out the electronic reader — the reviews says the iPad II is great and that RIM’s new Playbook will be a tough competitor.  Remember that the $500 it costs will buy you a dozen or more hard cover titles — and what it brings you may never match what you already have.

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Lies, damn lies, and attack ads

March 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Advertising is a deceptive craft at best. At its worst, advertising can be duplicitous, false, and harmful to the public interest. The scale runs the gamut from the simple bullshit of hair dye commercials to the “Big Lie” fostered by the Nazi Party and others of evil genius.

Advertising can be as crass as TV’s ugly used car salesman pitching his heaps from a littered lot, to the intellectually challenging, graphically inspiring theme of the historic (and since unmatched) Apple Computer “1984” ad. Advertising of this nature requires immense creative and literary talent.

So where do political attack ads — particularly those of the Conservative Party of Canada — rank on the scale?

I’d say somewhere between misleading and fraudulent.

The latest example is an attack ad on Michael Ignatieff’s alleged position on corporate taxes. It supposedly unravels the Liberal leader’s “plan” to increase taxes. Actually, it’s another attempt at character assassination .Dissect this ad piece by piece, and here’s what you find:

Claim: That Ignatieff is pushing for a $6 billion tax increase. Fact: A Liberal government would cancel the Conservative government’s planned $6 billion reduction in corporate taxes.

Does cancellation of a tax decrease amount to a tax increase? Continuing to pay the same tax rate hardly constitutes an increase. (To say nothing of the merits of the issue: should we be borrowing money to cut government revenues by $6 billion at a time when Ottawa is running a $56 billion deficit?)

Claim : That Ignatieff’s “tax increase” would be paid for by workers. Fact: If there’s anything to be paid (which is debatable) it would be paid by corporations and their shareholders, whom Ignatieff would deprive of yet more  largesse from the public coffers, courtesy  of Stephen Harper.

If Ignatieff were calling for an increase in corporate taxes, you could argue that companies would pass the cost to consumers. But that’s not the case here: products are already priced relative to current taxes (not some future lower rate). The competitive climate doesn’t allow companies to boost prices beyond any increases in real cost.

A question the ad doesn’t address: Would still lower corporate taxes lower prices and boost jobs? Debatable, according to leading economists. Look at Ireland, which has cut its corporate tax rate to the lowest in the world. Today, it’s an economic basket case.

Claim: “He didn’t come back for you.” Fact: Another personal slur on Michael Ignatieff which reduces political discourse to the level of a chicken coop diatribe polluted by arguments unworthy of consideration by any intelligent voter. A “Big Lie” perhaps?

The Liberals have had their share of attack ads but none have descended to the depravity practiced by their Conservative opponents. The Green party, less flush than the two big old line parties, can safely boast they’ll not play this game:

The skill of the ad writers for the Conservative party cannot be questioned. But I leave it up to you to decide if your ability to twist, distort and lie about your competition is  a quality you’d want to put on your resume.

Foreign money and Canadian books

March 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The debate on the role of foreign ownership in Canadian book publishing never seems to go away. Publishing reporter John Barber of The Globe and Mail weighs in today with a long article urging changes in our foreign investment rules to allow foreign publishers to invest in — or buy out — Canadian publishers.

The whole issue of foreign investment in publishing is under review now by Conservative culture minister James Moore.

Barber concedes current rules “helped produce a spectacular literary flowering.” And while allowing that small presses are doing a good job, he laments their lack of financial heft to properly promote their writers.

More Canadian writers are published by the smaller Canadian-owned publishers. But the best sellers usually come from the branch plants of multi national publishers. They have the money to sign — and then promote — the best-known Canadian names. Barber’s argument, shared by some small presses, is that foreign investment in their operations would enable them to better compete with the big branch plants — all to the benefit of both writers and readers.

Facing the digital-only future

Newspapers as well as books are migrating to electronic sales. Montreal’s La Presse, long considered the top daily of French Canada, may be getting ready to phase out its print edition. Its Sunday edition already gone, the paper has assembled a digital team that could move it totally into the digital world.

” … there is a strong possibility that there will no longer be a print edition of a La Presse within three to seven years,’ says the head of the Quebec journalist’s union.

The Montreal daily wouldn’t be the first. Several American papers, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have shut their print editions and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has launched the first all electronic newspaper designed for Apple’s iPad — The Daily.

My own E-Book – Boy in the Picture

So maybe now’s the time to mention that my recent book, The Boy in the Picture, is now available as an eBook from Chapters Indigo, among other online retailers. A bargain at $7.79. Thanks, Dundurn Press, for opening up this wider market for me.

When police are above the law

March 1, 2011 Leave a comment

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is out with a report calling for a public inquiry into police actions during the June, 2010 G20 meetings in Toronto.

The report, Breach of the Peace, is here.

While the call is predictable — and in my opinion, fully justified — it’s not  likely anything will come of it. But consider how the CCLA sums up the findings from its own public hearings::

During these two days, 1,105 people were
arrested by police – the largest mass-arrest in Canadian peace
time history. Media, human rights monitors, protestors and
passers-by were scooped up off the streets. Detained people
were not allowed to speak to a lawyer or to their families.
Arbitrary searches occurred in countless locations across the
city, in many instances several kilometres from the G20 Summit
site. Peaceful protests were violently dispersed and force
was used. In an effort to locate and frustrate a small cohort of
vandals, police disregarded the constitutional rights of thousands.”

A key point of the report is that the atmosphere for the repression of legitimate public protest was set during the planning stage when various security forces were given a free hand to do largely as they wished, without consideration of constitutional rights such  as those entrenched in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The report  singles out the lack of transparency surrounding the designation of the security perimeter (the fence) set up around the G20 meeting sites. Police misled the public into thinking anyone could be arrested in the vicinity  of the fence. Indeed, for a time they genuinely thought this to be the case. But even when they found out differently, they refused to properly instruct their officers or to advise the public.

Most of the arrests took place far from the security perimeter. The police raid on the dormitories of the University of Toronto, and the attack on peaceful protesters taking a break in Queen’s Park — where Premier McGuinty had invited to  them set up a protest zone — were all part of what Ontario’s Ombudsman has  called the biggest violations of civil rights in Canadian history.

(Yes, bigger than the War Measures Act in 1970, used to round up suspected separatists following the FLQ kidnappings in Montreal).

Ironically, during the one occasion during the G20 meetings when violent protesters began smashing shop windows in downtown Toronto, the police were nowhere to be seen. They hung back, letting the vandals do their worst. The magnitude of this blunder raises the question of whether there was some intentional strategy to escalate the threat, thus justifying the hard crackdown on non-violent protesters that followed.

Premier McGuinty has flatly refused to endorse a public inquiry. Prime Minister Harper hasn’t been heard from. After all, it was Harper’s plan to bring the G20 leaders into downtown Toronto, tie up the city on a June weekend, and spend a billion dollars on security.

The Premier’s excuse is that five separate inquiries are already underway into this sad episode. However, none will have the cleansing, cathartic effect of a full-fledged, judicially directed public inquiry.

It has become acceptable since 9/11 to accept massively repressive interventions into normal life. In too many instances, the police are being put above the law. Despite filmed evidence of countless physical attacks carried out by police on peaceful citizens, only one member of the Toronto police force has been charged. The excuse is that the offenders can’t be identified — they had removed their  badges, itself a violation of police regulations.

On the evidence, the police conducted themselves as above the law on G20 weekend. How does their behavior differ — in principle — from that of that of the police or the military in other countries who attack their citizens during public protests? Think Egypt, think Libya. Admittedly, no one’s shooting at people on Canadian streets — not yet.

By attacking innocent civilians, and forcibly confining them without charges, two types of crimes were committed — assault and kidnapping. Police argue that the law allows them to take individuals into custody when it is suspected a crime has been committed. But when there is no valid suspicion? No evidence? When all but a handful of  those arrested on G20 charges are released without charges?

The CCLA has rendered a great public service in pursuing this outrage. Its report concludes:

The many violations of civil liberties
that occurred during the Summit, such as illegal detentions and
searches and excessive uses of force, cannot have simply been the
actions of a few bad apples. Rather, given the scope and severity of
the violations of rights that occurred during the G20, it is difficult
to view this situation as anything other than a failure of policy and

This is why a public inquiry is still needed.