Posts from our progressive community

When Will They Get Their Act Together?

Northern Reflections - Sun, 03/01/2015 - 03:28


Ralph Surette has had Stephen Harper's number for a long time. He's a veteran journalist. And he knows a charlatan when he sees one. Bill C-51 is a superb example of how his government operates:

Not that the bill doesn't have some good points -- but that's Harper's genius. He starts with a vaguely decent argument, then takes it to extremes -- but only to that precise extreme that can be muffled by the repetition of talking points.

But the bill itself is only the half of it. The deeper, ignored part is that the Harper government can't be trusted with laws of any kind. The omnibus bills delivered on short notice and passed in a whiz to avoid debate, the error-ridden bills passed with flagrant arrogance, the crippling of parliamentary committees and the abuse of parliamentary process at every level, the attack on the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and ultimately the two-faced hypocrisy of running a "law and order" government that abuses the law whenever it suits its ideology -- none of this gets into the talk. Harper is a repeat offender whose previous record is never taken into account.
What really disturbs Surette is that the opposition parties seem incapable of blowing the whistle on the prime minister:

Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair has made himself into an effective prosecutor-style interrogator in the Commons, but 90 per cent of his performance doesn't get past the Ottawa bubble. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau muddles as we await further policy. Neither focuses the big picture. (The Green Party's Elizabeth May, on the other hand, does -- but hers is a small voice). Mulcair and Trudeau are both trapped in the business of scoring points on the 24-hour news cycle. That's Harper's rink, where he stickhandles around them handily. As long as the focus is on the here and now, yesterday's dirty tricks are forgotten.
Harper has given them lots to work with:

It has always baffled me, given the richness of the material, that the opposition leaders didn't do this: keep a crisp little mantra of the Harper record in their coat pocket and recite it every time they speak in order to keep the Harper agenda in view: the electoral fraud, the destruction of environmental and fishery laws, the crippling of the census (done to protect privacy, no less -- no sign of those concerns in the terror bill), the muzzling of scientists, the tax persecution of environmental groups and charities considered unfriendly to Harperism (even a bird-watching group in Ontario that called last summer for a pesticide to be banned had Revenue Canada sicced on them), the veterans, the hundreds of millions of tax dollars wasted to promote the party, the bung-ups in military procurement, the chopping up of the tax system for partisan reasons ...
When are they going to get their act together?

The Harper Regime and the Continuing War on Canadian Veterans

Montreal Simon - Sun, 03/01/2015 - 01:46

The day Stephen Harper finally fired Julian Fantino, and made Erin O'Toole the new Minister of Veterans Affairs, I predicted that nothing would change.

Because the way the Cons have treated our veterans wasn't just a failure to communicate. It was a failure of human decency, and a betrayal of our Canadian values.

And sure enough, I was right. O'Toole turned out to be just another tool of his depraved leader.

And the more things change, the more they stay the same. 
Read more »

José Mujica: The Pauper President Steps Down

Montreal Simon - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 23:17

In a world groaning under the weight of poverty, ignorance, and war, it's hard to imagine how we will ever solve all our problems.

Or even save the planet from destruction.

In a world full of grubby self serving politicians, it's hard to find a political hero.

But I do have one, and his name is José Mujica.
Read more »

Republished: Religion poll is a waste of paper

Terahertz - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 12:20

My second (and last) editorial in The Gateway while at the University of Alberta, salvaged via the Web Archive. The paper had a policy where writers were forbidden from submitting letters or opinion pieces if they were the subject of the news due to perceived conflicts of interest. I called them out at the time for the absurdity of such a policy.

Religion poll a waste of paper

Originally published in The Gateway, 9th October 2008

There’s an election going on at the moment. No—not the Obama/McCain one, and not even the Canadian one that you probably know less about, but affects you more. This one went on with almost no warning and, in the end, will have no positive effect at all.

Perhaps by now you’ve seen a certain campus group’s posters asking you to vote on whether you believe in God. By setting up a booth in CAB, and later SUB, they hope to accomplish what the SU has failed at for far too long—getting students to vote. However, one must immediately question several things regarding this concept.

Firstly, you have to ponder the purpose of performing a poll like this yourself instead of hiring a polling company. You would think that a statistically significant poll would be more valuable—but perhaps empirical evidence is a bit too foreign to some believers.

If you want a hint at their results, see if they line up with a Canada Press poll from this past year that found that 23 per cent of Canadians don’t believe in a God, and 36 per cent of Canadians under 25 were non-believers. In a university campus environment, the latter group is quite prevalent.

Next, with polls like these, one has to wonder how the terms have been defined. It’s unclear what they’re talking about when they mention “God.”

Traditionally, big-G God refers to that guy-in-the-sky that Jews, Muslims, and Christians believe in. But some people believe that there’s some universal spirit or force running through the universe, and they call that god.

Others believe in a deity that started the universe and let it go like a wind-up watch. So what definition are they going with?

Then there’s the strangeness of hinging the metaphysical existence of anything on popularity. Humans often believe pretty crazy things. For example, people have believed the earth was the back of a turtle, while others believed that the Milky Way was fluid squirted from a goddess’s breast. So to run a mock election on belief in God makes me wonder what they hope to prove.

There are a countless number of things that the majority of humanity has previously believed without any empirical evidence that later turned out to be false—the earth being flat, the earth being the centre of the universe, the sun being the centre of the universe, humans being utterly disconnected from the rest of the animal kingdom, the existence of witches, and that masturbation will cause hairy palms.

So to ask whether the majority believes in a supernatural being doesn’t lend anything to its existence—we may as well ask if people believe in the Higgs boson. Without doing actual science, we’ll never know an answer about either.

Some will claim that science can’t know everything, and that God can’t be found in a test tube. Well, he can’t be found in a student group-sponsored poll either. And rather than getting their group more believers, they may inadvertently expose how many unbelievers there are on this campus.

Alberta is often seen as the most conservative Christian province in Canada, and election day will demonstrate why. However, when the 2001 census shows that upwards of 25 per cent of Albertans claim “no religion,” second only to British Columbia, there’s clearly more going on than meets the eye.

So take charge, fellow heathens, heretics, humanists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and skeptics: you are not alone.

Republished: There’s no ‘God’ in graduation

Terahertz - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 11:31

This was the first article I wrote for a student newspaper and in a way it’s somewhat historic. In 2008, the University of Alberta Atheists & Agnostics started campaigning for a secular convocation charge. When our initial request was ignored, I raised the issue with the student newspaper, The Gateway, and they recommend I write an editorial to push the story forward. This is that editorial.

There’s no ‘God’ in graduation

Originally published in The Gateway, 16th September 2008

Upon the gruelling end of a 4-5-6 or even 7 year journey, students embark across a stage for the chance to experience their high school graduation on steroids. This event is known as convocation, and despite the movement toward inclusiveness and tolerance, this is one stage that keeps the flame of intolerance burning bright.

When new graduates cross the stage at their convocation, they are presented with a charge by the University’s Chancellor. He issues an Admission where he states: “I charge you to use them [the powers, rights, and privileges of University degrees] for the glory of God.” It is commonly understood that big-G God here is some variant of the monotheistic Abrahamic God (or the one Jews, Christians and Muslims live in fear of).

A recent Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey suggests that around 36% of Canadians under 25 do not believe in a god. This means that when the Chancellor issues his charge, he is denying the existence of students who disagree with the idea of living in fear of a deity. He also offends the sense of the majority who believe that a public institution should have no stance on religious issues. This is the idea of separation of church and state, or secularism, that founded the United States, but is exemplified by Canada’s modern governments.

Upon hearing about this issue from several of its members, the University of Alberta Atheists and Agnostics drafted a letter which was sent to the President’s Office on July 14. Hope for a quick move to inclusiveness was dashed when nearly a month later we received a brief response stating their office had heard of the issue earlier and decided against doing anything. We were disappointed to hear that this University wishes to remain in its dark-aged roots, however, seeing as we received no reason for their decision not to change the charge, we requested the minutes from the meeting where they decided this. Continuing to drag its feet, the President’s Office has decided this is an issue that requires a FOIPP request.

Now, almost two month’s after the UAAA made a request to make our convocation more tolerant of the diversity of all students, we still don’t have an official reason why the President’s Office won’t respect our wishes. We also have over a hundred signatures of students who are outraged by this break in secular values and the separation of church and state. Finally, we have a Facebook group for people to get more information about this issue. We have had tremendous support not just from atheists and humanists but from students, alumni, and faculty of diverse backgrounds, including people who deeply believe in God but who support the separation of Church and state and recognize that this is a public, not private, university.

This push is also not without precedence. The University of Calgary’s admission is to grant degrees to those who have "earned" them and give them the "rights and privileges, powers and responsibilities pertaining to those degrees."  The University of Toronto secularized its convocation several years ago as well. Cleary the U of A can look to be as progressive as the U of T and U of C.

Many will assume this is a frivolous attempt to push militant atheism. However, we are not requesting the charge to say "use your glory to disprove god and vilify religion", we just want to feel welcome in a ceremony we have all equally earned. Further, members of our group do not wish to define "god" in some way that it makes them happy as some would suggest. We do not arbitrarily interpret words differently to get through the day. Interpreting an F on your transcript as "Fantastic" doesn’t make it so. The University’s charge comes from the charge from Oxford University, which has a clearly Christian foundation.

It shouldn’t be unreasonable for a group of students who pay upwards of $25,000 to get a degree to ask to be included in a celebration of their achievements. The President’s disregard for our wishes is abhorrent and intolerant.  We stand united for a secular convocation at the University of Alberta.

By the end of the school year, we’d managed to win a concession from the university and the convocation charge was changed.

Conservative Does Not Think Conservatives Deserve Majority (Wait til you find out who)

Dammit Janet - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 11:30
Putting this here for people who do not do the Twitter thing or who may have missed it.

Connie Fournier (yes, that Connie Fournier) writes:

Canadian conservatives don't deserve to have a majority government.

There. I said it. I haven't given up on conservatism. Actually, quite the opposite. I have just come to the conclusion that it is not in the interest of conservatism (or liberty or democracy, for that matter) for the Conservative Party to remain in power.
She goes on to excoriate -- very capably but from a conservative's point of view -- this government's abuse of privacy, freedom, and democracy focussing on the Jihadis Under Every Bed Bill, aka Bill C51.

Fourth-last paragraph:
It is obvious that we, as a political movement, do not have the maturity at this time to handle the unlimited power of a majority government. When we, as citizens, are left depending on the NDP and the Green Party to try to stop the Conservatives from stripping us of our rights, it is very, very wrong.
Go read the whole thing.

So, Connie, I guess we can expect to see you at upcoming anti-C51 rallies, eh?

Even Conrad Black Can't Stomach Bill C-51

The Disaffected Lib - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 10:47

He knows a thing or two about law enforcement, the judicial process and essential liberties.  All that has Conrad Black incensed at Bill C-51 which he sees as a threat to the freedom of the Canadian people.  He doesn't like the place into which he believes Stephen Harper plans to lead the country.

As presented, Bill C-51 makes a Swiss cheese out of due process, and the three national political parties have approached the problem from distinctly different angles. The government have swaddled themselves in Stephen Harper’s default-toga of protecting the public, aspersing civil liberties concerns, and uttering tired pieties that “the law enforcement agencies are on our side,” presumably referring to their objectives rather than their political preferences. It is easy to be cynical about this and resignedly conclude that Vic Toews and Julian Fantino ride again (itself a terrorizing thought, and thought-terror is assumedly covered in the vast sweep of this bill). The government is responsible for preventing terrorist outrages from happening and it has to be given some licence to protect the country and everyone in it. But it is hard to be overly sanguine about the medieval antics of the government that took the giant leap backwards that was the omnibus crime bill. Nor is it reassuring that Mr. Harper, as is his frequent custom, is imposing a shortened debate on Parliament.

...We have ample proof, from the McDonald Commission’s 1981 report and elsewhere, that the law enforcement agencies in this country, as in others, are capable of outrageous and unfathomably stupid abuses, and anyone who has had anything to do with any arm of the law knows it (although most people in these occupations are reasonably dedicated and honest). Definitions have to be tightened; oversight has to be stringent and prompt and answerable to parliament, and we should be careful of too much reciprocity with foreign governments. Only 10 or 12 other countries have as much respect for human liberties as Canada does and must retain; the United States, with its 99.5% conviction rate and stacked rules — a criminal justice system that is just a conveyer-belt to its bloated and corrupt prison industry — is not one of them. If we go to sleep in Canada, we will wake up in an unrecognizable despotism, like Argentina, Turkey, or Louisiana.

Republished: The Christians are coming!

Terahertz - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 10:27

Another old article, this one a review of Marci McDonald’s 2010 expose on the influence of the Christian Right in Canadian politics. Still relevant given that Harper has since gained his majority government and faces another election in October.

The Christians are coming!

Originally published in The Peak, 31st May 2010

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.
Those who dwell in the wilderness will bow before Him,
And His enemies will lick the dust.

Psalm 72: 8-9

From this passage, Marci McDonald begins her argument in The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada that a Christian Dominionist movement has been growing in Canada. She purports to show how this Northern Christian Right has subtly gained an alarming amount of influence in the government in a short span of time.

In the first chapter, McDonald outlines Stephen Harper’s personal religious history, a taboo in the media. After moving to Calgary and joining Preston Manning’s Reform Party, Harper became a born-again Christian. Harper, unlike Manning and his ilk, preferred keeping his faith and politics separate. McDonald notes that it was only later when, as leader of the new Conservative Party, Harper reached out to other evangelicals.

McDonald has some difficulty measuring the level of influence the Christian Right has had on the Harper government. Few socially conservative policy changes have passed. Those that have passed have generally disappointed the very factions McDonald seeks to expose. Harper has repeatedly turned away from the abortion debate. Upon winning his first minority government, he quickly held his promised free vote on same-sex marriage – earlier than many evangelicals had wanted, as it provided them less time to mount a defence. Similarly, by breaking his fixed-election date law in 2008, Harper killed several of his caucus’ private members bills, including an unborn victims’ bill that was called the “first winnable abortion bill” in years.

However, McDonald does point out that perhaps Harper’s greatest success has been in his “incremental” changes, evidenced by his numerous appointments of partisans and born-agains to the courts, the senate, and the civil service. Within the Prime Minister’s Office, Harper counts many evangelical leaders, including the former leader of Focus on the Family Canada, Darrell Reid.

Similarly, Harper has been able to make many changes by the mere stroke of a pen. Harper cut funds to Status of Women Canada and KAIROS, a social justice charity that apparently represented the wrong-type of Christian – a charge levelled against McDonald herself. He has also provided tens of millions of stimulus dollars to Bible colleges and has cut funding to abortions provided as foreign aid.

McDonald also briefly discusses the so-called “Christian Left,” which included Tommy Douglas, the father of Canadian medicare. She points out how both former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and the late NDP leader Jack Layton reached out to various faith communities through acts like the revival of the NDP Faith and Social Justice committee.

The Armageddon Factor is an enlightening read, regardless of one’s personal views, but the book strays from objectivity enough that it reads as a bit more than just a who’s who of the Christian Right. I had initially hoped that it could have let the subjects speak for themselves, like the documentary Jesus Camp.

Regardless, the book does shed light on what has been taking place in the dark. No democracy is served by secrecy and backroom lobbying. At the very least, this book will hopefully force Canadians to decide what kind of country we want this to be, because if we do not, there are those who have a scripturally-inspired version of what they think it should be.

"He's Acting Like Someone Who Has Nothing to Lose"

The Disaffected Lib - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 10:27

The editorial board of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz looks at the country's prime minister and sees a one-man wrecking ball winging his way to Washington.  The paper concludes that Israel badly needs a new prime minister.

On the eve of Israel’s election, Netanyahu is insisting on damaging Israel’s most important relationship. His grip on power is shaky, and he’s acting like someone who has nothing to lose.

Instead of respecting the American president and refraining from intervention in his domestic and foreign policy, Netanyahu is insisting on embarrassing Barack Obama in his home court. He will challenge Obama on Capitol Hill and urge the president’s political opponents to disrupt his diplomacy with Iran, just so that he can portray himself as the “savior of the nation” back home and please his master, American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, an avid supporter of both Netanyahu and the Republicans.

...This flawed judgment, which betrays the trust the public reposed in him as a leader and a statesman, bolsters the need to elect a different prime minister. And one of that premier’s first tasks will be to fix what Netanyahu has destroyed.

The past few weeks haven't been kind to Netanyahu.  He's been exposed as a calculating, serial liar and a chronic manipulator.  Video has also emerged of Netanyahu telling friends that he'll commit to agreements like the Oslo Accord without the slightest intention of honouring them.  It's no wonder his last friend on Earth is Stephen Harper.

Republished: Let’s bring reason back to politics

Terahertz - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 10:15

As part of my attempt to get back into writing this blog, I’ve been going back through my list of published articles and making sure they’re all still live. Many of the links have changed in the years since I wrote many of those articles, but luckily I copied most to this blog. A few were missed, so here is one of the first republished articles.

Some context: In late 2010 while living in Vancouver, I met a few times with a number of friends in the skeptics community to discuss the need for greater evidence-based politics. Our (somewhat) naive efforts to create Reason Vancouver eventually fizzled out but I still think foreshadow (though by no means influenced) the Ask for Evidence and Evidence Matters campaigns at Sense About Science.

Let’s bring reason back to politics

Originally published in The Peak, 15th November 2010

“Politics is the art of the possible,” declared Otto Von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Germany in the 19th century. While it is now a cliché, it does eloquently state that good politics is more pragmatic than idealistic.

Idealism comes in many forms, from utopian communism to free-market libertarianism to progressive liberalism to social conservativism. Yet these all tend to fail due to oversimplifications and false assumptions about human nature and the world in general.

If we are to solve the greatest challenges that face us today, we need to limit our idealism by compromising with others. So another cliché – that democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others – holds true.

Since today’s idealists have sequestered themselves into partisan camps, and gridlocks between them have plagued Canada and the USA, it may be time to step back and reassess how we pursue our political goals.

From a utilitarian point of view, the basic goal of any society ought to be to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In our increasingly interconnected world this is only becoming more complex.

With this goal in mind, it is clear that good politics should form a system that protects and encourages its society and others. Obviously, opinions vary greatly on the details, but most would agree that some organization is necessary.

To determine the best structure of this organization, we must consider our history. Every nation, province and city can be viewed as an experiment in perpetuating itself. With some thought we can seek to replicate the successes and avoid the failures; this constitutes a basic framework for an evidence and reason-based form of politics.

Rather than tying ourselves to any dogma, be it left- or right-wing, we choose to pursue policies that are based on empirical evidence.

Consider the local issue of Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s expansions of separated bike lanes onto Dunsmuir and Hornby Streets. The goal of this project is to promote cycling to work as an alternative to driving, both to reduce traffic in the downtown core and to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, which has been shown to contribute to global climate change – a threat to every society. The argument is that by separating the bicycle lanes, cycling will be safer and more people will choose it.

This is a relatively easy claim to evaluate. Many cities in the world have experimented with separated bike lanes, with varying levels of success. A key study out of Copenhagen showed that while the separated bike lanes increased bicycle traffic, they potentially made motorists and cyclists more complacent and at intersections accident rates actually started to increase. There are also indications that road controls, such as turn regulations around bicycle lanes, could counteract some of that increase – which of course means more studies into the question.

Yet in a debate with clearly polarized views, it is clear that neither environmentalist hysteria nor thick-skinned science denialism contribute to finding a solution.

To cure the partisan rhetoric that has been poisoning our discourse, I propose two solutions. First, we must frame our policies in light of what works. It is also essential that we acknowledging failures when it has become evident. Second, citizens must be engaged in democracy. Politics should involve everyone in the decisions that affect their lives.

To pursue these goals, a group has begun work in Vancouver to form a new civic political party for the 2011 election. Under the banner of Reason Vancouver, we hope to bring evidence and rationality back to the debate, starting at the local level. To directly engage the electorate in policy we have established a policy wiki, where anyone can contribute ideas and evidence. It is our hope that through a collaborative and evidenced-based approach to politics, we can raise the level of debate and effect positive change for us all.

Burning question

accidentaldeliberations - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 09:07
What exactly do we expect CSIS to do with a possible data dump of every piece of information held by every federal government agency when at last notice, it was struggling to find the capacity to check e-mails for malware?

The Great Canadian Compromise

Dawg's Blawg - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 08:02
It really doesn’t get stupider than this. Only the benighted Conservatives could have dreamed it up. No word as yet whether the vet with a glass eye still has to take annual vision tests to prove he can’t see out... Dr.Dawg

Saturday Morning Links

accidentaldeliberations - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 08:01
Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Bryce Covert weighs in on the IMF's latest study showing a connection between stronger trade unions and greater income equality:
While it can be hard to say for sure whether the decline in unionization is a direct cause of growing income inequality, they found that it is a “key contributor” to steep increases in income at the top, which holds true even after they controlled for other factors such as shifts in political power, labor market trends like the growing power of Wall Street and deindustrialization, and top marginal tax rates.

The authors also found that reductions in country’s minimum wages have increased inequality “considerably.”

Why would lower unionization rates have such an impact? The authors explain it in two different ways. Lower union density reduces workers’ bargaining power, which means corporate managers and shareholders stand to see higher returns if workers don’t have the power to ask for a bigger share. A lack of bargaining power may also mean that workers have less influence on corporate decisions, which could led to policies that better benefit top earners like higher executive pay. Unions also play a political role and can push parties to pass policies that would better redistribute income, but if they are weakened they don’t have the same influence. - And Enda Curran and Simon Kennedy highlight how even governments which face little democratic opposition are responding somewhat to the public's demand to reduce inequality.

- But sadly, we're seeing little on that front in the places which can most afford it. On that front, CBC reports on the massive and growing problems of poverty and inequality in Toronto, while Sara Mojtehedzadeh surveys some much-needed solutions. And David Ottewell and Owen Bennett discuss the clear connection between cuts to housing programs, and rapidly increasing homelessness in the UK.

- Eric Reguly comments on the effect of monetary policy in exacerbating inequality - but while Reguly is right to note that we'd be far better off fighting recessions through helicopter drops than quantitative easing, it's the lack of the former which puts central banks in the position of having to use the tools at their disposal. And Andrew MacLeod looks at the kid-glove treatment of mortgage insurance providers in B.C. as just another example of the financial sector receiving a perpetual get-out-of-consequences-free card.

- Ben White reports on Elizabeth Warren's important challenge to the TPP and other corporate power agreements.

- And finally, Mark Hooghe, Sofie Marien, and Jennifer Oser argue that we shouldn't take hashtag activism and other online communications tools as a substitute for direct representation in decision-making, particularly since they may only perpetuate existing disparities in reach and power.

update: mississauga library workers vote to form independent cupe local

we move to canada - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 07:00
When people are denied independence and told that they cannot govern themselves, it only makes them more determined to achieve their independence.

This simple principle repeats itself in matters large and small, throughout all history and all cultures.

The struggles of 430 library workers in the sprawling suburban city of Mississauga, Ontario are not exactly global news. But in the microcosm, we rocked the world. Our members voted overwhelmingly - 98.6% - to separate from the larger, merged local and become our own CUPE local.

As I mentioned a while back, the composite local was pulling out all the stops to try to prevent us from separating. Dues from our unit represent about 15% of their revenue. Without us, some serious lifestyle changes will be needed. They weren't going to let us go without a fight.

When we first planned our separation informational meetings and the vote, we envisioned an all-day "walk-in" vote, where members could show up at their convenience, show identification and be checked in, drop their ballot, and leave. This is how the Toronto Public Library Workers Union held their separation vote, over two days and in four different locations. 
TPL workers were forced to hold some voting in non-library locations, but we didn't get the walk-in vote at all. We were told that all voting must take place at an official meeting, where there is quorum, minutes are taken, the motion is read and seconded, and so forth - the trappings that constitute a formal meeting. 
At first, I was told that all voting must take place at only one meeting. Our members work in more than 20 different locations, in a variety of shifts and hours. If all voting was held at one meeting, we would have 30 or 40 people making a crucial decision for 430 members. Not only would this be completely undemocratic, denying access to the vote for hundreds of members, the vote itself would appear less legitimate. We would be open to charges of initiating a coup, and the National Executive Board might not accept the vote and issue us a new charter. Which was exactly the point.
As an alternative, I lobbied for a series of vote meetings - short meetings held throughout the day and evening, at which quorum would be achieved, the motion read, and so forth. At these meetings, members would cast ballots in one ballot box, to be counted after the final meeting of the day. 
These meetings would be timed to afford every member an opportunity to vote. No matter what shift and in what location a member worked, there was at least one meeting time she or he could attend. 
Explaining this to national representatives and waiting for their decisions was a bit nerve-wracking! But it worked. 
Next I explained to our membership that we were denied the walk-in vote, and how voting would work instead. This turned out to be a crucial turning point. Our members were furious that obstacles were being raised in what should be an open and democratic process. Members who had been undecided shifted strongly in favour of separation. Members who had previously supported separation now become vocal, making their support public. 
I asked a few members who have great respect and credibility for statements that I could publicize. I invited members to attend multiple meetings, to ensure quorum, so that if a member chose an unpopular meeting time, she would not be denied the opportunity to vote. Many members volunteered for this, and it became another channel through which people could demonstrate their support for separation and their solidarity with their union.
Through email and Facebook, and in our own workplaces, we campaigned.
The result was the biggest turnout we've ever seen outside of a contract ratification vote. 
In a series of seven meetings, 98.6% of voting members voted to separate from the merged local and form our own independent local.
It was an exhilarating - if exhausting! - outcome. But the true outcome was larger than separation: it was the process that engaged so many more members. It raised the profile of the union in members' lives. It brought us together. It built solidarity.
This year we will be bargaining for a new contract, at a time when library workers, like workers everywhere, are facing very difficult conditions. Full-time jobs are disappearing. Professional jobs are being de-skilled. Part-time workers face increasingly precarious conditions. Services are suffering, as budgets are balanced on the backs of people who can least afford the burden.
If ever a time was needed for solidarity, this is it. The larger local tried to scare our members into believing that being overseen by a larger, outside body would be safer and more secure. But we understood that no one can ever represent us better than we can represent ourselves.

Saving Capitalism From Itself

Northern Reflections - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 06:20


The American economist  Richard Wolf maintains that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. Unchecked, it produces greater and greater inequality, until it collapses upon itself. Tom Walkom agrees:

Experts may tie themselves up in knots over the precise trajectory of inequality, depending in part on what is measured and when.But the general point is beyond dispute: On its own, the free market is providing increasingly less equal rewards.That inequality, in turn, hampers the very forces that favour the free market.
Thus, those who wish to preserve capitalism should protect capitalism from itself. Those protections include public pensions, public healthcare, unemployment insurance and public employment.
After the Second World War, business and labour reached a grand bargain, which included these four safety valves. But things changed:
Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government began the job of dismantling the so-called welfare state. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are finishing it.But the factors that really killed the old bargain were globalization and the changing nature of work.
The old welfare state was built for a world where much of the workforce laboured in big factories.Now, big factories are passé. The new normal is part-time work and alleged self-employment.
Rather than responding to changed circumstances, our politicians have been deer in the headlights. Walkom  has some suggestions about what they should do:
Build a national pharmacare program. This would continue the process, begun in the 1960s, of socializing the costs needed to keep workers healthy.
Reform the employment insurance system. The aim here should be to ensure that all who are involuntarily unemployed, including part-timers and the self-employed, have full access to EI.
Rebuild the entire collective bargaining system. Developed in the 1930s and ’40s, the current one was premised on a world of factory production. A new arrangement would have to take into account the dramatic new changes in work.
The Harper government has no such plans. But a new government -- if pushed -- might.

A Worrisome Trend

Politics and its Discontents - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 05:41

Thursday's post lamented the fact that opinion and personal beliefs are increasingly being regarded as legitimate challenges to facts. As was noted, accepting the facts of evolution and climate change are now often presented as a matter of choice. If the signs are any indication, these worrisome affronts to critical thinking are likely only to grow.

Toward the end of the post, I offered several possible contributing factors to this elevation of irrationality. One of them was this: Perhaps people take living in a supposedly democratic age as license to suggest that any view is valid.

Two columns by The Star's Katherine Porter suggest that this wrongheadedness may, in fact, be aided and abetted by the education system, at least here in Ontario. Her first column, entitled My kids' report cards get failing grade, criticized the increasingly cryptic and euphemistic nature of the report card comments that teachers are currently forced to use:
My son “has demonstrated having had some difficulty following a series of specific instructions or steps to establish priorities and manage time to achieve goals.”

I think that means he’s unfocused.

“At times,” my daughter “is reminded to stay on task, particularly for literacy centres, so that other peers also benefit from this work time.”

Does that mean she chats too much during reading time?There is a simple and perhaps obvious explanation for such obscure and at times impenetrable language. They are designed not to offend parents who, over the years, have become increasingly confrontational and reactionary about their dear ones' academic and behaviourial shortcomings:

I was reduced to tears,” said one primary school French teacher, describing the call she had with an irate father. She had phoned to say his daughter was coming home with a D on her latest test. She had wanted to talk about what they could do to help her. I’d call that awesome.He screamed at her. “He accused me of not helping her and said I wasn’t doing my job,” she said.While it has been almost a decade since I left the classroom, I remember the kinds of computer report comments that were coming into play at the high school level, and they were of a similar ilk, causing teachers much consternation for their opacity. And those comments were motivated for the same reasons that Porter identifies thanks to emails from irate teachers:

conflict-averse principals, school board policies and angry mother-hen parents.

Contrast this with 'the old days,' as recalled by Porter:
When I was in middle school, I spent a year warming the bench before I’d proven my volleyball skills were worthy of playing time. Now, every kid gets equal time. Every kid gets a soccer trophy, no matter how much time they spend picking dandelions on the field.'Better a bitter truth than a sweet lie' is the philosophy by which I have conducted my life, but it is not one shared by all.

I won't launch into a tirade here with personal stories about the careerists in education whose sole motivation these days seems to be their personal advancement at the expense of educational principles, but rest assured they were much in evidence in the latter part of my career. Unfortunately, the advancement they seek often involves shielding parents from the truth, while upbraiding teachers for their candour. The effects, however, are and will be pernicious.

Which brings me back to my earlier post and my concluding statement. If people are now being inculcated with the idea that they are special, that the world revolves around them and what they think, how will we ever achieve a society that prizes objective and critical thinking over self-centred indulgences?

I suspect you know what my answer is.

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Why Bill C-51 Will End Up Hurting Stephen Harper

Montreal Simon - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 04:16

They say Stephen Harper is fit to be tied, or restrained.

He can't stand the idea that his monstrously flawed anti-terrorism bill C-51 is going to take weeks, rather than a few days to study in committee.

And what must be driving him absolutely crazy is the thought that with every passing day more Canadians are coming forward to call his bill bad and dangerous. 
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Stephen Harper and the Veiled Appeal to Racism

Montreal Simon - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 00:34

Stephen Harper would like us all to know, that when it comes to the headgear of some Muslim women, some are more equal or permissible than others.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn't agree with a Quebec Court judge's controversial decision to refuse to hear a woman's case because she was wearing a hijab, a spokesman says. "If someone is not covering their face, we believe they should be allowed to testify," Harper spokesman Stephen Lecce said in a one-line statement.

Even if he doesn't say it himself. And it's just a one-line statement.

Because of course, as I pointed out yesterday and Chantal Hébert points out today, he's counting on fanning the flames of bigotry in Quebec's Great Niqab debate.

Along with his fellow travellers in the Bloc Quebecois.
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The Rise of Tom Mulcair and the Missing Progressive Vision

Montreal Simon - Fri, 02/27/2015 - 20:11

I've always thought it was unfair that Tom Mulcair should work so hard and reap such little benefit.

Because the way he grills Stephen Harper in Question Period, like a prosecutor does a criminal, is one of the highlights of my day.

Especially since it drives Harper crazy, and makes him say crazy things like what he said yesterday. 

Even though Mulcair's son is a police officer.

So I'm glad to see that all that effort may finally be paying some dividends. 
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