Thursday, September 24, 2015

On the Yellow Brick Road

It was a fine autumn day, crisp and sunny, and I was lolling at the forest edge, trying to catch a nap. A frightened partridge whirred past my head. Then a rabbit ran by, looking perplexed and pointing a thumb back into the woods.

I walked into the bush to see what caused the animals to flee. I had not walked far when I saw a yellowish hue through the trees and heard the rumbling of what I sensed was an argument.

I stepped into a clearing and a most unusual scene. There, on a shimmering yellow brick path stood four people, three men and a woman, gesticulating wildly and shouting crazily.

They looked as if they belonged on a film set. One was dressed as a Lion, another as a Scarecrow and yet another as a Tin Man. The female had long blonde pigtails and wore a green checkered pinafore and ruby red shoes.

I asked who they were and why they were making noise in my peaceful woods.

“Why do you need to know?” growled the Lion, who wore a nametag on which was scrawled: “I’m Stevie. Vote for me.”

“Ignore him,” said the woman with the ruby red shoes and a green nametag with Elizabeth printed in green ink. “Stephen never wants anyone to know anything.”

“That’s right,” said the Scarecrow whose nametag said: “I’m Justin. I’m ready and I apologize.”

“We’re following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City to see the wizard,” he said excitedly, glancing about to see if a crowd was gathering. “He’s going to grant just one of us our fondest wish. . . .”

Elizabeth cut him off by breaking into song:

“Somewhere over the rainbow

Way up high
Oh why, oh why can't I?”

“You looked pretty high at the Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner when they dragged you from the podium, Elizabeth,” sneered the Lion.

“Really Stephen you must learn to control your gas emissions,” Elizabeth shot back.

That set off another argument with both the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, whose nametag read Tommy, jumping in.

They were loud and nonsensical and upsetting the peace of my forest, and frightening the wildlife. So I stepped into their midst and asked them to calm down and cease their gabbling.

“People don’t understand me,” sniffed the Lion. “They say I don’t have a heart. So I’m going to ask the Wizard to give me one. People will vote for me then.”

“No, he’s going to give me a brain,” said the Scarecrow. “Then I will stop saying dumb things like only pro-abortion candidates can join my party. And a brain will help me with math. Like learning that three minus five equals a deficit.”

“So what do you want from the Wizard?” I asked Tommy the Tin Man.

“I don’t know what to ask. What I really need is oil to loosen me up. But some of my candidates keep calling the Alberta oil sands environmentally destructive so I don’t know what to do. I just hope the Wizard will stop my joints from creaking.”

I walked over to a woodpile I had neatly stacked for the coming winter. I sat down to think about how to handle these strange people.

“What is that you’re sitting on?” Elizabeth asked sharply.

“It’s my woodpile for winter burning,” I replied. “A well-planned woodpile is as good as money in the bank.”

“You mean you are going to burn that? Create smoke! Destroy the environment!”

“And wreck our oil-based economy!” roared the Lion.

Scarecrow and Tin Man began shouting at each other. Something about economic theories and the middle class but I couldn’t understand it.

“Well I never . . . .” scolded Elizabeth who glowered then clicked the heels of her ruby shoes and all four of them, and the yellow brick road, vanished.

Peace returned to the forest.
On the walk back out I passed a group of animals huddled under some spruce trees.

“What was all that about, Shaman?” asked a raccoon.

“Nothing to fret about,” I replied. “Just nonsense that we humans call politics.”

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Police and the Value of Sharing Information

In that bizarre movie Jane Mansfield’s Car, well-known actor Robert Duvall, a nosy citizen, arrives at a traffic accident scene and confidently walks through the police line. He chats with the cops about how the accident occurred.

That scene would never occur in Ontario where police have expanded and tightened their no-go perimeters at investigation scenes. This is disturbing because it is part of a trend by governments to squeeze the public’s right to information.

There are some examples from our own Haliburton County this summer.

There was that fatal shooting at a house on Highway 118 in which the OPP closed off a long section of highway. A media photographer trying to do his job was not allowed to go further than the road shoulder. 

Another OPP officer stonewalled a reporter by saying he couldn’t tell her anything. He brushed off the reporter by saying there was no media relations officer to handle any questions. In other words: get lost.

There also was an OPP investigation on Highway 35 at Saskatchewan Lake. Again a long section of highway was closed while OPP checked out an abandoned car suspected to have been involved in a Lindsay death. Anyone travelling north or south between Carnarvon and Dorset had to detour via the Kushog Lake Road.

Also on 35 just south of Dorset the OPP investigated a fatal car crash and closed the highway so tightly that anyone travelling from Dorset to, say a St. Nora Lake cottage, had to backtrack along Highway 117, go south on 11, then east on 118 and then north on 35. That is a detour of one and one-half hours.

In all three incidents the police gave little or no consideration to public inconvenience or the needs of the news media, which reports to the public.

One of the most ridiculous examples of police over-controlling a situation occurred last fall in Hamilton. Corporal Nathan Cirillo of the Hamilton-based Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was shot and killed at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

He lived in east Hamilton and Hamilton police sealed off several streets in his neighbourhood. No threat was involved and Cirillo’s killer already had been shot dead on Parliament Hill.

Hamilton police, when asked why such a large area had been sealed off, said it was out of respect for Cirillo’s family. They didn’t want media and citizens in the neighbourhood where the family lived.

Wouldn’t a couple of officers posted on the street outside the home have been enough?

Last month a Toronto police superintendent was found guilty of unnecessary exercise of authority in the arrest of more than 1,000 protesters at the 2010 G20 summit in downtown Toronto. The presiding judge said the superintendent lacked an understanding of the public’s rights.

We all understand that police work is difficult and that there are good reasons for controlling investigation scenes. The problem is that police over control too often, not considering public inconvenience or the public’s right to know.

The real concern here is not about a cop at a crime or accident scene having a bad day, or getting puffed up and over exercising his or her authority. Cops at the scene get their orders and their attitudes from their commanders. Their commanders get their orders and their attitudes from the top police brass. And, of course, the top police brass get their orders and attitudes from the politicians.

Our politicians are masters of media manipulation and of controlling what they want the public to hear and see. Police brass take their cue from the politicians, or in some cases are simply told what to withhold or manipulate.

Increased police control of what we see and hear is only a small part of a wider and more serious Canadian problem: lack of genuine freedom of information.

Canada in many ways is a closed society because so much of its information is controlled by politics. A truly open society is controlled by knowledge and our knowledge never can be complete until we learn the true value of sharing information.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Who Is Not Doing Enough?

Please, let’s cut all the political crap about how Canada is not doing nearly enough to help the millions of Syrians caught up in the world’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Politicians and their supporters are spinning this nightmare of human suffering into a dreamcatcher in which they hope to snag more votes on Oct. 19.

Saying that Canada is not doing enough is an insult to every Canadian. Perhaps we can do more. I don’t know. Our current federal government and a new federal government, whoever forms that next month, has the responsibility to figure out how much more we can afford to do.

Also, thousands of individual Canadians, groups and organizations are doing more than their share to help ease the suffering of these people.

For anyone, or any international organization, to say we are not doing enough is a slur against Canada and the Canadian people, who have an outstanding record of helping the world when it is in crisis.

Some facts and figures:

-       Under one UN Refugee Agency plan Canada has pledged to resettle 11,300 refugees. The U.S. figure is 16,200. France 1,000.

-       Canada is among the top contributors to Syrian refugee relief aid. It has provided more than $500 million dollars, just a bit less than two of the richest Gulf oil states. We rank 7th among the top 20 givers.

 Anyone who wants to talk about who is doing what for the Syrian refugees needs to turn their attention to the richest countries in the Arab world. The total number of Syrian refugees resettled by Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain is – zero. Not one.

Four million Syrians have been forced to flee their country’s civil war and these rich nations with their gleaming towers proclaiming disgusting wealth, have not taken one. Neither, incidentally, have Russia nor China.

Most of the refugees are stranded in squalid refugee camps in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey. Those who find the camps unbearable try to get to Europe, mostly across the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands end up drowning, like the three-year-old boy who washed up on a Turkish beach last week.

The rich Gulf states have contributed money to help the people in the refugee camps. A cynical person would say they are sending money to keep them there. However, it should be noted that the good old U.S.A., the country the world loves to dump on, has contributed four times more aid to the refugee camps than Arab Gulf states.

The rich Gulf nations are believed to have a military budget of around $100 million. They have never signed the UN 1951 Refugee Convention which is aimed at helping the world’s displaced people.

The Gulf nations certainly have been contributors to creating the hell that exists in Syria. They have funded and armed some of the factions fighting in the civil war.

“The records of Gulf countries is absolutely appalling, in terms of actually showing compassion and sharing the responsibility of this crisis,” says Sherif Elsayid-Ali, head of Amnesty International’s refugee and migrants’ rights division. “It is a disgrace.”
The Gulf states take in thousands of migrant workers but almost all come from the Indian sub-continent and southeast Asia. Any Syrian who wants in has little hope. Most Arab countries require Syrians to obtain visas, which are seldom granted.
Israel also refuses to take in any Syrian refugees saying Israel is “a very small country that lacks demographic and geographic depth.” It plans to build a fence along its eastern border with Jordon, which now has about 750,000 displaced Syrians in refugee camps.

Canada has a responsibility to the world to help displaced people. It also has a responsibility to its citizens to ensure that aid and resettlement efforts are balanced and paced to ensure changes to the country are gradual and do not become unmanageable.

Canadians governments of all stripes have done a decent job of that over many decades.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Teachers' Deal and Premier Pinocchio

The start of a new school year brings memories of Miss McTeague and Grade 3.

Miss McTeague was a hard taskmaster when it came to simple arithmetic. Like two and two equals four. And two times three equals six.

Also, Miss McTeague would wave a stern finger at us and warn that if we told fibs, even itsy-bitsy ones, our noses would grow like Pinocchio’s.

Premier Kathy and other members of her Ontario government obviously never attended Miss McTeague’s class. If they had, they would not be so inept at math, and more honest with taxpayers.

The Ontario government has negotiated a new three-year “net zero” deal with high school teachers. The deal provides a 2.5-per-cent wage increase over two years, an additional paid day off and more generous sick leave.

Also, the province gave up its demands for flexible class size. That means the government must spend additional money to hire additional teachers.

All that is a “net zero” deal with no additional cost to the taxpayer – at least in the minds of Premier Kathy and Education Minister Liz Sandals. So zero plus 2.5, plus more benefits, plus more teachers equals zero.

We’ve seen this “net zero” before. Back in 2013 Sandals said contract negotiations with teachers would not cost one cent more. Later, however, the government’s auditor-general said that negotiation resulted in not quite a “net zero” deal. In fact, it cost us $460 million.

Sandals says that net zero actually means that teachers are being given increases but the additional spending is being taken from other parts of their collective agreement.

“Any salary increases are offset in other areas within the collective agreement,” she has said.
Premier Kathy says, yes the teachers’ contract includes more compensation, but none of it will be paid for with “new” money.
Neither she, nor her education minister, will say where they will get the money to offset the new spending that makes for a “net zero” deal. Fewer textbooks? Turning the school lights lower? Who knows?
This is yet another example of politicians weaving words and phrases to make themselves and their political parties look good.
People have had enough of this nonsense. They want their political leaders to be straight up with them, to tell the truth no matter what the consequences.
What is wrong with saying: “We committed to not increasing our education budget. We were unable to do that. We negotiated the best contract that we could.”
Voters could look at that and decide whether the government had done a good thing or a bad thing. Many voters likely would say that teachers deserve to be paid whatever we can afford to pay them. Teachers are important, a damn sight more important than politicians.
Actually, what is most important at the moment is the federal election and Premier Kathy’s very public campaign to elect Justin Trudeau as prime minister. An Ontario teacher’s strike would have been disastrous to that campaign. And so would telling us that avoiding a strike will cost us all more.
This is another example of the ‘more services but no new taxes’ wet dream being experienced by governments across Canada.
You will witness that first hand if you do any fishing or hunting in Ontario this year. Service Ontario  has quietly added a $2 “service” fee to every fishing or hunting licensing transaction. An example: Ontario charges $22.26 for a licence to hunt small game. Add to that the new service fee of $2, plus HST of $3.15 and you get a total of $27.41. (Yes, there is HST on the service fee).
The new fee, not a tax of course, must be paid whether you deal in person with Service Ontario, by telephone, or online.
The government says the new fee will go to fish and wildlife management. We’ve all heard that one before.  
No new taxes, eh? If she continues to be less than honest with Ontario citizens, one day Premier Kathy will trip over her nose while jogging. And, people will start calling her Premier Pinocchio.
Miss McTeague would not be amused. Neither are Ontario taxpayers.