“It’s hard to believe, but Alberta, the Wonderland of Canada — with its oil sands, no sales tax and debt-free balance sheet — has pissed away another oil boom.”
When I read that on Globe and Mail.com, it got my attention. It should get yours, too.
I spent my early adult years in Alberta. I got married there, and had my first newspaper and radio jobs in Edmonton. I remember being told by a callus-skinned laborer I’d encountered in one of the oil fields:
With all our riches, Alberta can be the wealthiest province in the world.
He was right. But you’d never know it by looking at Alberta’s financial position today. Staring at a $1 billion deficit, Albertans are wondering what hit them.
Two things: Collapse of world oil prices, and a decade of profligate over-spending by a government that was supposed to be committed to conservative values.
It reminds me that conservative parties, be they the PCs or the Conservatives in Canada or the Republicans in the U.S., have been guilty of the most invidious betrayal of their promises.
Whether it was Reagan’s “morning in America” in 1980, or Harper’s boast in 2008 that he’d never run a deficit, it’s the conservative parties that have been the big spenders and the big debtors. Of course, no one compares with “compassionate conservative” George Bush in the eocnomic insanity department.
Plus, conservative governments in the U.S. and Canada have wrecked the public treasuries through indiscriminate and unaffordable tax cuts.
Case in point: the Alberta Heritage Fund. When Premier Peter Lougheed set it up in 1976, the idea was to stuff it with 30% of the province’s resource revenues. By 1982 they’d cut that in half and were taking out the profits.
David Wood tells how the Fund was set up in his 1985 book.
In the past year, not a nickel’s gone into the Heritage Fund. It’s worth about $16 billion now. If the government had kept its original commitment and put in 30% of resource revenues while taking nothing out, the Fund would be worth $164 billion today. More than enough to see Alberta through the deepest of recessions.
Where did the money go? Taxpayer perks, mainly. At the peak of the boom, Ralph Klein wrote $400 checks for every Albertan, at a time when few really needed them. Government spending has gone up by 9.6% a year over the past three years.
Canada’s had only one fiscally responsible government in the past thirty years – the Jean Chretien/Paul Martin regime from 1993 to 2005. The deficit was tamed, taxes were cut, and our finances were put in the best shape of almost any industrial country in the world.
Then, when the Harper government took over, its combination of tax cuts and big-time spending sent Canada spiralling toward deficit hell even before the economic crisis hit.
Now, Alberta’s trying to get back on track. The Globe ROB Magazine article profiles Leo de Bever, the guy who’s been brought in from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund to shape up the new Alberta Investment Management Corp. Its portfolio includes the Heritage Fund along with five other public endowments and investment plans.
It will take a long time to rescue the Heritage Fund. A recent study calls on the government to grow it to $100 billion by 2030.
If the politicians raid it any further — as they’re likely to if it’s the only way to avoid deep deficits in the next few years — it could take a lot longer.
If you’re a cable TV subscriber — and who isn’t these days — you’ve probably got channels on your set you never watch.
But if you’re in Canada, the agency that rules over the TV wasteland, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) won’t let you see the English language network of Al Jazeera, the Quatar-based Arabic-oriented news service.
Most Canadians want news and entertainment that is distinct from what’s on the U.S. TV channels spilling into Canada. That’s why our public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., was set up back in the 1930s. Private broadcasters add to the mix with their own Canadian programming, even if most of what they air originates in the U.S.
For a time back in 2003, the CRTC allowed Canadian cable companies to carry Al Jazeera’s Arabic service, but on the condition that they’d be held responsible for its content.
Maybe that will change now that Al Jazeera English has a new boss. Canadian Tony Burman, former editor-in-chief of CBC News, has taken over as the network’s Managing Director. Of that 2002 CRTC decision, Burman says:
“That’s a bit like holding a newsstand responsible for what the New York Times or the Economist prints.”
Al Jazeera was set up by the Emir of Qatar as a public broadcaster. It’s now subsidized, but the aim is for it to become self-sufficient from advertising and cable revenues.
Al Jazeera’s had a rough ride in the West since even before September 11. The demonization of everything Islamic has led to it being called a terrorist network. Its coverage of the recent Gaza invasion, when it was the only outside news service on the ground there, did not endear it to many in the West.
The late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American cultural critic, wrote of this anti-Islamic bias back in the 1990s. He spelled it out in Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Vintage, 1997).
Said’s argument was that the incessant presentation of stereotypes and prejudices about Islamic peoples is deeply entrenched in Western culture. He puts much of the blame on biased reporting of Western news agencies which has prevented understanding and perpetuated distortions.
I’ve made a habit of checking in on Al Jazeera’s online news site. Its postings, many written by Westerners, provide a fresh slant on the day’s news, offering a perspective you’ll not get even from such level-headed sources as the CBC or BBC World News.
Of course, it’s a perspective that was highly unacceptable to the Bush government and its allies. It remains suspect by many in Western media.
The ability to present an unfavorable image of the Islamic world was essential to the Bush strategy of building the fear that would permit public acceptance of the most repressive aspects of the war on terrorism.
We need to realize that there is no monolithic “Islam” any more than there is a monolithic Christian fundamentalism. Extremists in all religions pose an equal menace to peace and understanding.
A few glimpses of Al Jazeera’s English programming might go a long way to informing people in the West on the true nature, and challenges, of dealing with the Muslim world.
Sometime in the next few months, there will be a fresh application to the CRTC to add Al Jazeera to the line-ups of Canadian cable companies. If the past is any indication, you can expect to see bitter opposition from some in the Canadian media establishment.
And we thought varied voices were the bricks and mortar of an informed democracy!
Update: Al Jazeera English has applied officially to the CRTC to begin broadcasting in Canada. It also has launched a website iwantaje.ca to “clear up misperceptions and myths” about its TV news service.
I got to thinking, while attending the luncheon for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction in Toronto on Monday, about the recent spate of media pieces on the state of writing and book publishing in Canada.
As with most journalism, these pieces focus on the negative — the tightening-up of publisher budgets, the reduction of review space in the newspapers, the closing of independent book stores, and the uncertain future of electronic publishing.
None of this was reflected at the Taylor Prize luncheon. It’s to the credit of my dear friend Noreen Taylor, widow of Charles, that this event has become such red letter day on the literary calendar. It is run with style and grace and on Monday, the three finalists all brought the vigor of youth, creativity and charm to the occasion.
Readers of this blog will know that I predicted Tim Lee would win for his Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-18, the second volume of his history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War I. I’d read the jury — not the books — and made up my mind that a jury composed of a former director of the Canada Council, Shirley Thomson; a serious political journalist, Jeffrey Simpson; and an author and academic of the stature of Warren Cariou would be blown away by Cook’s subject. Now I’ll be certain to read it.
I’m sure the other books, Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott and Angel of Vengeance: The ‘Girl Assassin,’ the Governor of St. Petersburg and Russia’s Revolutionary World by Ana Siljak also demonstrate “a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style and a subtlety of thought and perception” as required of all Taylor Prize winners.
The fact that the Taylor Prize for 2008 drew 135 entries from 43 publishers tells me publishing isn’t in quite as bad shape as you’d be led to believe by some of the stuff we’ve been seeing in the media. James Adams, the able publishing reporter for The Globe and Mail, set off a small firestorm in writer circles with his article, Publish and your book will probably perish, in last Saturday’s paper. Judging from comments posted to the Writer’s Union Listserv, I’d say not all writers share such pessimism.
Toronto Life has an equally dismal piece, The Blockbuster Imperative, dealing with the work of novelist Anne Michaels. Her new book The Winter Vault, arrives in a ” savage environment,” writes Don Gilmor:
The Winter Vault comes at a gloomy time; its title may be an apt metaphor for the publishing industry at the moment. And while the book has its share of bleak images, like Fugitive Pieces, it is ultimately redemptive. Perhaps that will be enough.
If creativity is the be-all and end-all, why are the creators so badly paid? I’ll take a run at this issue in another blog.
It’s no secret among my friends that I’ve had a hard time warming up to Michael Ignatieff as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
I’ve always admired him as an author and an intellectual, and I give him full credit for the success he achieved in academic and media circles in England and the United States during thirty years of living outside Canada. Can’t fault a man for that kind of success.
But my discomfort with American foreign policy, fromVietnam to Iraq, left me wondering about Iggy. His apparent approval of the Iraq invasion, and some uncertainty about his attitude toward rendition and torture, left me wondering if he hadn’t absorbed too much of the American “way of life” to be the kind of leader we want in Canada. I’m not anti-American, but with the United States possibly at the beginning of a long period of decline, I feel we Canadians need to be extremely cautious about embracing even Barack Obama’s domestic and foreign policies.
I remember attending an all-candidate meeting in the riding of Etobicoke Lakeshore in Toronto in 2006, when Iggy was running for the first time. He was having a hard time transforming himself from intellectual to street-smart politician. When people asked questions about local concerns at a level not much above pothole fixing, Iggy’s body language told you he’d rather be almost anywhere else.
But give the guy credit. He ran a strong campaign for leader. He lost, because Liberals weren’t ready to accept someone with little visible history in the party. That’s why Liberals, myself included, went for Stephane Dion.
Fast forward to today. Iggy’s doing the necessary business of visiting ridings across the country. This afternoon (Feb. 7) he stopped in the Ontario riding of Simcoe North and I went to the Orillia City Hall to hear him.
He showed himself to be warm and personable. He played nicely to the home town sentiments of a crowd that filled the council chambers. Mostly 50-plus, and all-white. He associated himself with the town’s literary hero, Stephen Leacock, mentioning his grandfather had taught school with the great Canadian humorist. He thought Orillia the kind of town President Obama should visit on a future trip to Canada.
I’ve been concerned that the Liberals didn’t extract a better stimulus package from the Harper budget. I had the chance to ask Iggy if he had any plans to pressure the government during second reading of the budget bill. I pointed out the budget was bereft of support for science and technology, for seniors, or the unemployed (in any meaningful way). It would have been nice to see a one-time partial rebate on our 2008 taxes paid.
I can’t disagree with his answer, which was that he doesn’t want to go down the road of demanding amendments and sweeteners because that would lead, inevitably, to a vote of confidence and an election call. The country and the Liberal party’s not ready for that.
Iggy is clearly determined not to help Mr. Harper govern. This is what a lot of people, including some in the audience, would like. As one gentlemen put it, “Can’t you guys go into a room once a day or once a week and come out, black eyes and all, with a plan to manage this country?”
Sorry, our parliamentary system doesn’t work that way.
Iggy also made it clear he’s not going to consider a coalition with any other party, although he did not rule out “agreements” at one time or another. His rejection of the Liberal-NDP coalition brought a strong round of applause.
His best line came in predicting that “Sooner or later, this government is going to fail so miserably that we’ll have to bring it down.”
Other key points he made:
- No to long-term income tax cuts – “We have to ensure the federal government has the capacity to serve Canadians.”
- Canadian troops must be out of Afghanistan in 2011 – but there’ll still be a humanitarian and development role for Canada.
- He’s concerned about the budget’s failure to broaden assistance to the unemployed. During second reading of the budget bill, the Liberals will frame a motion (not a want of confidence amendment) to try to get laid-off workers easier access to EI (Employment Insurance).
I thought Iggy performed very well before this conservative, small town audience — the kind of electorate he’ll have to win over to reverse past Conservative gains in Ontario and B.C.
Clearly, he’s paid his dues over the last three years. He won two elections in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, he contested for the Liberal leaderhsip, he loyally supported Stephane Dion as long as he was leader, and now he’s bringing a welcome touch of certainty and stability not only to the Liberal party but to Canadian politics generally.
Rick Mercer of CBC’s Mercer Report had some fun with Iggy on his move into Stornoway, the Opposition leader’s house. If you didn’t catch it, have a chuckle:
This being my 100th post since starting this blog, I was thinking of what to write as I stood in line at the drugstore checkout. Then my eyes lighted on the array of weekly celebrity tabloids that are standard fare at most checkouts. And one stood out: Kennedy: HIS FINAL DAYS, screamed the headline in The Globe.
What a ghoulish headline! It reminded me of the tabloids of my youth that used to be so popular in Canada. We called them “scandal sheets” but thousands of Canadians devoured the likes of Hush and Flash every week, thirsty for gossip they couldn’t find in the mainstream press.
The rags presented themselves as fearless crusaders for the public good. Mostly, they were filled with juvenile, unsophisticated diatribes on cases before the police courts, or run-ins that customers had with the management of Eaton’s department stores. The Eatons were always a favorite target.
Papers like these, including the notorious Justice Weekly, bit the dust in the 1960s and 70s as Canadians’ reading habits became more sophisticated, and mainstream papers started covering scandalous stories they’d previously ignored.
But they did do some good. Flash, put out by the former pulp publisher Lou Ruby, was the only paper willing to expose the corrupt Vancouver Police Department. Crusading reporter Ray Munro had been let go by the Vancouver Province after it refused to touch his copy. Flash carried Munro’s stories, with the result that Police Chief Walter Mulligan was forced to resign and two detectives shot themselves. One of them died.
These papers made much of the trials of men charged with homosexual crimes. Justice Weekly reported how the Toronto police department had two officers prowling the bushes of High Park, on the lookout for men making out. It referred to the old “knot hole” technique said to have been used by some men to otbain relief.
In revealing the police repression of gay men, the papers probably contributed to the public toleration that allowed then Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau to remove homosexual activity from the Criminal Code.
The granddaddy of the papers was Hush. It was started in the 1920s by Strathearn Boyd Thomson as a stock market tip sheet. In a replay of the old “horsewhip the editor” plot, Thomson was beaten up by three men, including a couple of prominent Forest Hill individuals, while enjoying an afternoon at the races. They didn’t like something he’d written. They beat the assault charges laid by Thomson, but later had to pay him off in a civil settlement.
The scandal sheets were often in trouble with the authorities. The Attorney General of Ontario once got an injunction shutting Flash down.The paper escaped oblivion only by promising to be more sedate in the future.
Today’s only equivalent of the scandal sheets is the satirical magazine Frank. It struggles from issue to issue, but still manages to insult more politicians, pr types and corporate moguls than ever felt the darts of the likes of Hush.
Ironically, one of the most successful of the scandal sheets, the Montreal-based Midnight, lives on today in the Globe mentioned above. Joe Azaria started this paper with $14 and a $1000 bank loan when the Gazette turned him down for a job. Many of his stories were simply made up, such as the one headlined, Hitler’s Daughter Found Wed to Rabbi’s Son.
Azaria went after the American market and eventually sold the paper to a U.S. publisher.
Lou Ruby shut down Flash when he realized it could no longer match the daily diet of scandal that mainstream newspapers came forth with in the 1970s. His son, Clayton Ruby, is today a prominent Toronto lawyer.
By the way, for anyone interested in the future of media, here’s a tip. The biggest selling magazines are the celebrity weeklies like the Globe that adorn supermarket and drug store checkouts. Depressing, no?
The abject apology of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps for having once smoked marijuana is typical of everything that’s hypocritical about American culture.
I say American culture because the U.S. has among the most repressive marijuana laws in the world — far more so than Canada’s somewhat more enlightened approach to the weed.
I’m glad to see that many Americans were equally disgusted by Phelps’ enforced apology. John Santore has an excellent blog on the Huffington Post dealing with this. He was an Obama organizer and is a former Congressional speechwriter.
Consider this brief quote from Santore:
While marijuana laws have changed over time, and while past administrations have attempted to show that the situation isn’t as dire as it appears to be, drug policy in the United States is immensely hypocritical and destructive. Today, public figures justify past drug use as “youthful indiscretions” and the matter is dropped. But huge numbers of ordinary Americans are introduced to the jail system because of minor drug offenses, and as the records show, the overwhelmingly disproportionate nature of drug arrests creates a justified perception of injustice and both economic and racial bias.
Putting the Bush mistakes in the docket
This is my day to promote the Huffington Post. It has another excellent blog, this one by Rep. John Conyers. He calls for appointment of an independent commission to investigate “the cycle of lawlessness” of the Bush regime. I liked the way he put it:
If we move on now without fully documenting what occurred, without acknowledging the betrayal of our values, and without determining whether or not any laws have been broken, we cannot help but validate all that has gone on before. If we look at the Bush record and conclude that the book should simply be closed, we will be tacitly approving both the documented abuses and the additional misdeeds we will have chosen to leave uncovered.
I’ve long argued that people in high positions need to be held personally accountable for the conseqnces of their official actions. This means senior executives in the corporate world (who seem to get bonuses even while trashing their companies) and politicians who claim to be statesmen even though their policies have led to massive deaths, for no good reason.
What’s a war crime, for instance? The internationally accepted definition is the killing of civlians for no military purpose. Three hundred thousand deaths in Iraq, and the countless deaths being racked up in Gaza, or in Afghanistan, are mute testimony to the absence of legitimate military purpose.
Some also would point to the bombings of Hiroshima and Dresden as war crimes. In the case of Hiroshima, there appears to have been a legitimate belief that dropping the A-Bomb would eliminate the need to invade Japan, a military operation that presumably would have cost the lives of many American troops. About Dresden, I’m not so sure.
It would have been useful to have had proper and timely inquiries conducted into these actions. All the more reasons to hold the Bush mistakes to account.
The economic stimulus bill passed by the U.S. of Representatives contains a so-called “Buy America” clause that is causing alarm in Canada and around the world.
The provision calls for the use of U.S.-made iron and steel in all infrastructure projects funded under the program. It could freeze out Canadian steel plants (even though they’re all foreign-owned) from bidding on these billions of dollars worth of projects.
The rest of the world would be affected, as well. That’s why diplomats and politicians gathered at Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum are busy lobbying American policy-makers to back down from this regressive, protectionist move.
It all smacks of the dreaded Smoot-Hawley Act, the protectionist bill that clamped down on trade in the early 30s and helped make the Depression the disaster it was.
Canada’s international trade minister, Stockwell Day, says he”cautiously optimistic.”
Traditionally, Canada’s been a patsy for American trade policy. We’ve never really communicated agressively to the States how important Canada is. That’s one reason why most Americans are so ignorant about this c ountry.
There are very compelling reasons why Canada should fly its flag high in this controversy. We need to remind Americans (and that means everybody in the Congress and the media, too) that:
- Canada is the biggest customer the U.S. has. We’re currently buying more than $200 billion worth of stuff from the States every year. That means a lot of American jobs. And if Canada is hurt economically, those U.S. workers will feel it.
- Canada is the biggest supplier of oil to the United States. We ship the U.S. more than $300 billion in petroleum products annually, more than Saudi Arabia or any OPEC nation.
In other words, we make jobs and oil for the U.S., two desperately needed things for all Americans in the current crisis.
Then there’s all the other reasons why it’s in the interest of the United States that Canada do well. We’re a solid partner in North American defense, through NORAD which now has a “maritime” component and is of “indefinite duration.” U.S. companies have $289 billion invested in Canada. And Canada is the fifth largest foreign investor in American businsses.
Then, there’s the much talked of Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, a scheme that would lock the U.S., Canada and Mexico into something close to that of the European Union.
Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into being in 1994, U.S.-Canada trade has grown by 265%. Our total two-way trade now exceeds $550 billion a year. About 300,000 people cross the border every day.
Much has been made of the threat by President Obama during the U.S. election campaign to renegotiate NAFTA. This shouldn’t scare Canada. NAFTA could do with some renegotiation. It didn’t help us stop the Americans from crippling our softwood lumber exports. And it wouldn’t hurt to make it clearer that culture is not to be ruled by trade laws.
The Harper government has a clear deadline for resolution of the Buy America decree. It’s February 19, when President Obama will be in Ottawa on his first trip outside the U.S. With everything we’ve got going for us, there’ll be no excuse for the Harperites if they can’t settle this one.