Archive for June, 2009

Let’s not praise border bungling.

Monday, June 29th, 2009

It has been a long time since Americans and Canadians have had the same ease of transit across our mutual border that Europeans routinely enjoy when crossing borders between their countries. The American-Canadian border used to be the longest unprotected border in the world and today too many people, on both sides of the border, want to see it more restrictive. One of those people is Senator Colin Kenny, chair of the Senate committee on national security and defence. Writing for the Toronto Star today, Kenny applauds U.S. homeland security tsar Janet Napolitano’s efforts to further stifle the ease of crossing that border.

Colin and I go back many years in Canadian politics. When retiring Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau graciously appointed him to the Senate, the appointment had nothing to do with Colin’s stimulating intellect. It had much more to do with a ‘thank you’ for Colin’s many years in a tough, rather thankless organizational role in the Prime Minister’s office. Those of us who volunteered to work off and on with Colin at political functions for the Prime Minister came to refer to him as “the white rabbit.” This was not derogatory. It was said with a smile because he so often came late to meetings with words that sounded like: “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” and we local functionaries, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, were expected to follow him down whatever rabbit hole to which he chose to lead us.

He is certainly not taking me down this rabbit hole. I’ll fight on this issue. Colin says in the Star story that Napolitano’s idea of sending 700 new agents to guard our mutual border is great. He thinks we should have more border guards to help the Americans out. So far all those new rules and increased surveillance have done is hurt trade between our countries and reduce the buying traffic at border discount outlets.

Colin thinks that increasing our border vigilance will impress Washington. He should know by now that nothing impresses Washington people but their own egos. He also thinks our border approach is too relaxed and that this attitude allows the Americans to delay Canadian products going south. He believes our participation with the Americans on Inter-Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs) is a ‘terrific idea.’ Even worse, he applauds the arming of more of our customs personnel.

What Colin fails to understand or explain in his article is how any of this foolishness is going to help bring more American tourists to Canada or expedite shipments of Canadian goods to the American market. Those are two issues that are not on the radar of Homeland Secretary Napolitano and are most important to our Canadian economy.

Colin should enjoy his retirement to the Canadian Senate and stop being an apologist for xenophobic Americans.

– 30 –

Elections come down to one basic idea.

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Sitting in on a political meeting the other day, I became bored after a while with all the discussion of what should be in the party’s election platform. It was not that I did not feel strongly about some of the issues raised but the litany of issues and opinions was endless. We were starting to waste time. While parties need these platform documents to differentiate themselves from other political parties and as a uniform song sheet for candidates, the fact is that campaigns on a national scale often come down to just one overriding gut issue.

Any political pundit knows that it is impossible to predict what that issue will be. They all try to create that issue and very, very few succeed. Too often, that issue is just an accident of timing. In 1972, I remember David Lewis, then leader of the NDP, had used the term “corporate welfare bums” four of five times in speeches before the news media would pick it up and it went on to become the key phrase of the election. The NDP won the balance of power in that election but Lewis failed to capitalize on his position and was trounced by Pierre Trudeau in the 1974 federal election.

When Lester Pearson ousted John Diefenbaker as Prime Minister in 1963, the key was nuclear warheads for Bomarc missiles in Canada. Canada’s language divide split the 2008 election into two key factors. Harper’s attack ads, that Dion failed to answer, allowed Harper to savage the Liberals in English Canada while Harper’s demonic treatment of cultural issues assured his defeat in Quebec. That election left Canadians with a parliament that has to combine the vote of all three opposition parties to defeat the minority Conservative government.

But defeat is assured. Harper’s Conservatives are hardly resting this summer as an election is more likely in the fall than next year. In the fall, the Liberals under Ignatieff, will be ready for an election and it will be very difficult for the Bloc or the NDP to alter course to support Harper. While there are ups and downs in the figures, the basic situation is that 30 per cent of voters are likely to vote Conservative, 30 per cent are likely to vote Liberal, at least 15 per cent of voters are going to vote NDP and 10 per cent of Canadian voters are going to vote for the Bloc. That means that the people who will really decide the fall election will be less than 15 per cent of our voters.

Even of that small percentage of the voters, we know that, at least, a third of them are going to scatter their votes on Greens, Libertarians, independents and others. They want to make their own statement and it is not worth the effort and time of anyone to get them to support someone who can win. What it boils down to is that one in ten of Canadian voters are the real decision makers and that is the group you need to reach with this gut issue that can make or break your campaign.

You can, of course, argue that the non-voters are also the decision makers. These are voters such as the probable Liberal voters from 2008 who failed to go to the polls because they expected Dion to be a loser. This is why for eons in North American politics, the riding politicos have concentrated on getting their identified voters to the polls. Any political poll captain, worth anything to the campaign, spends that last hour that the voting stations are open, desperately trying to get those last five to ten voters to the polls. And that effort is often made easier or more difficult based on the one key issue.

– 30 –

Babel and its second-hand news media.

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

You listen to the put-downs, the sly digs, the knowing slurs, the mindless jokes and say little but enough is enough. So I live in Babel. It’s not a second-class town. It’s not just where the military from Base Borden come to drink and whore. It’s not just a bunch of big box stores to serve the cottage bound. This is a city that deserves to be treated as a city in its own right. It’s not a poor cousin to the big smoke, south on Highway 400.

And our lousy local news media need to understand that.

Not that we ever did anything to deserve the media that we have in this city? The ‘A Channel,’ owned by CTVglobemedia, is the runt of the litter. It is not only a pitiful excuse for a television outlet but if it was not a competitor of the pretentious CFTO in the big smoke, CTV would put it up for adoption. The radio stations are owned by a variety of broadcast chains whose executives could not find the city on a county map. They sell a demographic to advertisers based on a computer selected sound. Nobody makes the mistake of referring to their employees as talent. One of the stations pays its broadcast people so poorly, half of them, on air, sound like they refer to their station as “f…in 93.”

But it is print media in Babel that is on the shoddy side of disgusting. Start with the Examiner. That is what they call it. It examines nothing. The publication has been through more rapacious hands than a Dunlop Street hooker on a busy Friday night. It is currently operated by a Markham company called Osprey that is, in turn, owned by those printing company people at Quebecor in Montreal. The Osprey concept of chain control is so distant that you yearn to return to those caring days of that kindly, philanthropic publisher Conrad Black. Their idea of editorial staffing is determined by their parsimonious approach.

The other major print publication is operated by Metroland, a wholly owned subsidiary of Torstar, a company better known for its Toronto Star newspaper. Mind you, any similarity between their local Babel publication and a real newspaper is purely coincidental. I like to call it the Babel Backward. It is distributed free, twice each week, as a wrap for grocery chain advertising, pizza delivery ads, furniture store flyers, etc.

The latest insult to journalism by this direct-to-recycle rag was a front-page story in the June 16, 2009 edition. It was by-lined by a staff reporter who normally spends her time fawning over the local city counsellors. While headlined that (Liberal leader Michael) ‘Ignatieff looks for concessions,` the story was really about her favourite member of parliament and big-time advertiser in her biased publication, the ubiquitous Mr. Brown. It was a plaintive whine about why the constantly campaigning Mr. Brown does not want an election. He knows how easily he can lose.

While there is frustration in Babel over the local media situation, there are few solutions. Creating long-term alternative media would be a very expensive proposition for anyone foolish enough to take on the deep pockets of the chain media that have dragged us down. The media down the road in the big smoke will continue to dominate as more and more Torontonians escape the city for the easier life here in Babel.

– 30 –

Entry #4

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

The Ontario government and its gambling addiction

When writing recently about the Ontario government’s addiction to alcohol, it occurred to me that the more serious addiction is gambling. If I were a religious person, worried about the immortal souls of my fellow citizens of this wonderful province, I would be down at the Legislature every day on my knees praying for the Members of Provincial Parliament to be cleansed in the blood of the lamb and exhorting them to renounce their corrupt and venal ways of taking money from the suckers.

Since I am not religious and try to be tolerant of most organized religions—at least the less harmful and less strident ones—I take my concerns to Casino Rama. It is only 25 minutes from Babel.

Nobody is sanctimonious at Rama. The place is an ugly barn with delusions of some connection to a long-gone nomadic aboriginal culture. Inside it is all about the business of taking your money. There are few allusions to the staggering amounts of money the place earns for government coffers. The place is cheap, badly designed, with gaming tables uncomfortably wedged together, narrow aisles of dreary slots and the ill-lit gaming floor surrounded with the necessary food places and restrooms. The theatre is one of those curtained expandable areas where you usually expect to see basketball nets folded up and you sit on uncomfortable chairs to see has-beens and wannabes with the rare good act that will agree to do a cheap gig.

They certainly do not overpay the staff either. Awkwardly structured shifts, poorly trained supervisors, constant, intrusive surveillance leads to a high staff turnover and, too frequently, the imposition of new, ill-trained staff on the players.

Mind you most of the gamblers are also novices. It is why there are so many blackjack tables. Blackjack is a game that any jackass can play, and they often do. It is a social game but playing along with people who really know how to play is a rare and delightful event. Most times you are playing with people who have no clue as to basic strategy or money management. They think they can guess what will be the next card out of an eight-deck shoe. They are afraid to take a card when they really need one. The worst players are the ones who play two spots on the table because they are afraid to lose and figure (incorrectly) that they will win at least one of their bets and lose less money.

But no table game is going to make you a winner if you always make the same bet. If you don’t use a flexible money management system, the simple odds of the game say that you will eventually lose your money. It hardly matters what you are playing, the smart gambler is one who takes advantage of his or her wins. In horse racing lingo, it is called parlaying. You rarely ever see anyone doing that at Rama. The exception is at the craps tables. The best gaming odds in the casino are at the craps tables because these tables attract the most knowledgeable players. They know to push their bets during a hot roll.

The best kept secret at any Ontario casino is the information that casinos compile on frequent gamblers. Until recently, many players carried a card that could be mined for information on money won and lost. The casino knew who to encourage to come more frequently and those who are less welcome. Players were offered free shows, meals and other benefits based on the information generated by their card information.

But many of the freebies have been cancelled over the last while. Some feel the recession mood has hit the casinos while others feel that they figure people will come without the encouragement. The real reason is probably lost in the schizophrenic management of gaming by the province. Between the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario and constant inference from the politicians, it is hard to tell who is running the games.

And we know who are the worst possible people to be meddling in gaming. They are the people who know the least about it: politicians.

– 30 –

Entry #3

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

It’s a wild life in Babel.

Where did Sammy come from? It puzzles us but hardly seems to bother Sammy. He just stretches his fuzzy, stubby little wings and continues eating tender shoots of grass and the more succulent bugs he finds. He seems quite content with his surrogate parents, Maude and Melrose.

We know where Harriet, Harry, Heloise, Hanna, Harvey and Henrietta came from. We watched the nest being built by the pond, counted the six eggs that were produced by Maude–after some sort of private collaboration with Melrose–and observed her regimen of caring for the eggs while keeping them warm with the soft down of her belly. It hardly mattered if it was Maude or Melrose sitting there, we knew better than to go over and ask silly questions. Nobody needs to be pecked by an over-protective Canada Goose.

After a boring month of egg-sitting through April, our new wild life emerged in May as the H’s pecked their way out of their shells. What is amazing is that all six decided to leave their protective shells on the same day. How Maude knew to keep rearranging the eggs to produce this simultaneous event is one of the mysteries of nature.

The day in early May that was the birthday of the six little goslings gave us reason to celebrate. Maude and Melrose preferred the muddy creek water to champagne and, as stated before, they have never been good for an argument. And certainly not now, when they are busy protecting six little bundles of goose fuzz.

It was after the second bottle of the bubbly that we started naming the offspring. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to determine the sex of a newly hatched gosling on its first day? Make it doubly difficult—even with 10X binoculars—when you are more than 45 metres (about 160 feet) away, above and on the other side of the pond. Since the sexual persuasion thing would, in due time, only be of interest to another Canada Goose, we were rather arbitrary in choosing boys or girls names. Henry was hardly going to be traumatized to find out later in life that he had the equipment with which to lay eggs.

It was fascinating during May and early June to see how the family interacted with each other and their environment. Their creek area is just a small oasis surrounded by massive pollution control centre construction, road construction, heavy traffic along the lakeshore and the humans and their dogs on the north side of the pond. Despite the threats, Maude and Melrose constantly paraded their family, on land and on the water. Maude is always in the lead with Melrose chasing the laggards. The muskrats, mallards and herons who share their creek cannot hold a candle to the dignified orderliness of the family.

It was the noisy pets of the humans who must have earned the enmity of Maude and Melrose and they found a particularly vicious way to get even. They must have seen how obediently humans bend to scoop behind the yappy beasts. A few nights, they took the family along our sidewalk, and did their daily dump for us. Without owners to do the scooping, that sidewalk became something of a hazard to unwary humans.

The biggest surprise was the day that Maude and Melrose had the family out for the daily regatta on the pond and I suddenly realized that they had an extra five goslings in their herd. We had seen another family with five goslings further up the creek and when we checked we found them without their hatchlings. They were just moping around. Maude and Melrose had obviously usurped their parental role and added the new five to their family. We hastily checked some names and came up with Gwyneth, Garth, Garret, Gertrude and Guy. Swimming across the creek, they made a formidable flotilla.

We checked with people purporting to be more knowledgeable of the parenting practices of Canada Geese and we were informed that the geese are not capable of comprehending the concept of day care. We were told not to be concerned: the loser parents will go off and produce more goslings of their own.

But I gave up later when I counted and recounted the goslings who are growing in size as well as numbers. Sammy was number 12 in the litter. Where he came from, we have no idea. Clifton Webb and Steve Martin can make their movies about families being “Cheaper by the Dozen” but Melrose has proved it.

The wild life goes on in Babel.

– 30 –

Entry #2

Friday, June 19th, 2009

“And the truth shall set you free.”   And maybe not!

Stephen Harper stood up in the House of Commons late last month and suggested that he had incriminating videotapes to use against Leader of the Opposition Michael Ignatieff. It is a foolish comment. It shows him as mean spirited and desperate for something with which to defame his opponent.

The public has already tired of the campaign run by Harper’s Conservatives that attempts to vilify Ignatieff for spending years outside Canada, completing his education and teaching in England and the United States. What Harper and his friends do not understand about their own campaign is that it fails to make their point. They are trying to say that Ignatieff does not know about Canada because he has been away. Do Harper’s frequent trips away from Ottawa make him less aware of what is happening?

Liberal Leader Ignatieff is a very different person from his predecessor Stéphane Dion. Dion’s inability to respond effectively last fall played right into the Conservative election strategy. Ignatieff is not as easy a target. He can take the current Conservative smear campaign and deflect it back at Harper.

The fact that the Conservative attack advertising is not true is probably the least important rebuttal to make. It still needs to be made. A man with Michael Ignatieff’s intellectual curiosity, warmth, family ties and attachment to his country has kept well abreast of what has been happening and the why’s of Canadian current events. In the court of public opinion, the truth is not a defence for mud-slinging. In a court of law, the Conservatives would find that anchoring libel on truth is not a defence when the objective is to misrepresent and defame.

Regrettably, Canadians do not make full and proper use of libel laws. Most slander is ignored as it comes from the mouths of the angry and churlish among us. Libel is the slander that people publish. What makes it libel is not so much the content but the purpose of publishing the material.

As a young writer I had the advantage of working for some outstanding news people. An early lesson learned was having a story thrown back on my desk with the comment that I needed to remove a libellous statement. Knowing that I had written the truth, I was puzzled as to what was libel. All I had said that was derogatory about someone was that I thought he was in need of a bath. The explanation by my mentor was very simple: yes, the man was quite likely in need of a bath at the time but the man was also a competitor. If people who might hire him, hired me instead of him because of his hygiene, my statement became libel.

The only non legal expert in Canadian libel law over many years now has been that irrepressible bon viveur, British lord and now American jailbird: Conrad Black. He has used what is called “libel chill” very effectively over the years. Libel chill is using the threat of legal action to repress criticism. When his Canadian lawyer suggested recently that Black could finance his U.S. Supreme Court appeal with the gains from his string of libel actions in Canada, it gave the start to new ulcers for some Canadian writers. Luckily for them, Black will have a hard time getting paroled from the federal prison, where he is incarcerated, to appear in Canadian courts for those proceedings. After all, people not only have a right to face their accuser but we all want to hear how they did more damage to Conrad than he has done to himself.

– 30 –

Welcome to Babel.

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

I was born in the city of Toronto on the north side of Lake Ontario. From my early childhood, I watched the city grow from a dull provincial backwater into a vibrant cosmopolitan metropolis that has become home to millions of people from across Canada and around the world. You do not have to leave Toronto to see the world. It comes to you. I love the tumultuous mix of people who have made my city grow and mature. They bring a swirl of cultures, color and sophistication, rawness and an edge to life. No matter where I have travelled since in the world, in Asia or Europe, I am where friends were born and share a heritage. No matter where I go, I do not think of it as a foreign country, I am visiting relatives and friends of my friends.

I now live in Babel. Babel is my name for a smaller city in the Greater Toronto Area. It is a bedroom community for people working in Toronto. There are regular trains and buses and a six-lane highway goes straight to the city, an easy drive. In many ways, I have the best of both worlds. I have a magnificent view of the lake. It is a smaller lake than Lake Ontario but one large enough to disappear in the horizon. And, an hours’ drive away, I still have my Toronto.

The bay here in Babel affords an ever-changing vista. We shiver to the storms of winter and enjoy the happy cries of swimmers in the summer. We compare the lazy regattas of the yacht clubs with the remarkable speed of the iceboats. And there are always some of those ubiquitous misanthropes out there fishing.

Besides the view from my home, Babel offers the usual amenities. There are the same big box stores you will find in Toronto. Good shoppers can still find bargains at the grocery stores. There are two Canadian Tire Stores, one in the north end of town and one in the south. There is an excellent library. The main street downtown is wall-to-wall bars separated by the occasional struggling retailer, to break the monotony.

But Babel is not like the fabled small town of Mariposa fame. Babel is an accident. When the first British Governor of Upper Canada, Colonel John Graves Simcoe, ordered a great road north to be built by his engineers, they became lost in Babel. Everyone going north has been lost here ever since. It is deliberate. There are no signs in modern Babel to direct a traveller around the lake named for our first governor. His storied road ends abruptly somewhere in the middle of town, only to reappear in the wilds north of here. The unwary traveller who forgoes the province’s six-lane road, that now bisects Babel, is expected to stay and add to Babel’s burgeoning population.

Babel is now a city with a population of more than 135,000 lost souls. Regrettably, the city only has infrastructure and support services for about 85,000. The need for growth is the cause for the city enjoying a cacophony of pile drivers for the past two years as the city fathers add on to amenities such as the sewage capacity so that Babel will not foul its source of drinking water. This building boom, with its attendant road closures reached the point where, at one time, the city closed all of the major north-south arteries east of the provincial highway. One city wag pointed gleefully to the traffic jams and claimed we were becoming more like Toronto every day.

Babel grew in the time-honoured tradition of great cities: by stealing the adjacent serviced land from neighbouring communities

Babel’s traffic patterns are something else. It is a rare street, of more than two blocks, that continues to go in one direction. Mind you, there is also the rare street in Babel that uses the same name for more than two blocks. Before the availability of cheap global positioning systems (GPS), taxi trips in this city were a venturesome experience.

It is the influx of Torontonians that makes Babel an especially dangerous place in which to operate an automobile. Weird, illogical roads and the mix of farmers, small-town clerks and Torontonians adds up to trouble. The locals proceed at a dignified pace down the centre of the road with Torontonians skittering around them like fast moving balls in a pinball machine. Locals have to be sure there is no traffic seen, in any direction, before entering or crossing a thoroughfare. The Torontonians are the ones behind them leaning on their car horns.

Babel has its charms too. It is like the old Cheers theme: we need a place where everybody knows our name. Babel is that place.

– 30 –