Alberta’s Fair Deal

I lived in Alberta for a long time – more than 20 years. I worked in the oil patch, doing seismic processing. I went to university there. I split my time between Edmonton, Calgary and the north. Alberta was very good to me.

So I want the best for Alberta. The people were open to me as a newcomer, embracing my contributions to their growing economy and thriving western culture, and I in turn worked hard to make the communities in which I lived better places.

I cut my teeth in Alberta. It was here I learned computer science, learning as I worked for a division of Texas Instruments, taking night courses at SAIT, developing my skills and building applications. I also became an ink-stained wretch in Alberta, honing my skills as a journalist working with the Gauntlet for six years.

There’s more, but you get the idea. And I preface this post this way because I want to warn Alberta against making the sort of mistake it has made in the past.

I lived in Alberta in the 1980s, and for Albertans, that date means the (Pierre) Trudeau government and the hated National Energy Policy (NEP). Spurred by successive provincial governments, Albertans saw the NEP as a raw deal, and never forgave the Liberals for trying to implement it. And, of course, when the Conservatives were elected in 1984, that was the end of the policy.

Now this is important: what the NEP attempted to do was to establish a Canadian market for Alberta oil, building a coast-to-cost network, and stabilizing the price to protect Canadians – especially eastern Canadians – from another oil price shock as was seen in the 1970s.

Albertans – rightly – saw the NEP as an attempt to define Alberta oil as a national resource and as an attempt to help all of Canada benefit from the bounty found underneath Prairie soils. What they didn’t see was what it would do when the other shoe dropped. Which it did. Which it always does.

The NEP was not only a price ceiling. It was also a price floor. It would protect Alberta if the bottom ever fell out of oil prices. But this was a hypothetical benefit. Since the 1970s, oil prices had only ever gone up. And in any case, there was the Heritage Trust Fund to protect Albertans from the impact of variable prices.

So Mulroney was elected in 1984, the NEP was killed, and you know what happened next.

oil prices
Source: https://www.macrotrends.net/1369/crude-oil-price-history-chart

The bottom fell out of oil prices. A steady slide became a plunge, eventually reaching levels not seen since the 1950s. Alberta, instead of being able to rely on a steady Canadian market, fell victim to world prices. The economy plunged into recession.

Ralph Klein, Calgary’s popular mayor, governed through the worst of it, navigating the province through the severe cuts needed to survive. He also preserved what came to be known as the ‘Alberta advantage’ – a zero percent sales tax, low income tax, and generous corporate concessions, all in the name of preserving Alberta’s economy.

The effect was to gut the Heritage Trust Fund. Instead of being invested, and taking advantage of a world economy that boomed while oil prices plunged, it was spent keeping Alberta afloat during the hard times. Contrast what became of the Heritage trust fund in comparison with how Alaska and Norway managed their funds:

HERTIAGE-CHART-1007x768
Source: https://albertaviews.ca/heritage-trust-fund/

So, in essence, Alberta not only discarded income security at the exact moment it would have been most useful, it used its savings to take up the slack, squandering what could have been by now a 169-billion trust fund.

So why is all of this important?

Alberta’s new premier, Jason Kenney, is about to make the same mistake. He wants to jettison the security that comes with being a part of Canada’s social safety net, and throw the province under the fiscal bus.

He wants to renegotiate Canada’s equalization payments plan, wherein the rich provinces subsidize poorer provinces. He wants Alberta to collect its own taxes, to manage its own Alberta pension plan, and to ensure municipalities and school boards do not enter directly into agreements with Ottawa. Source.

He can do this, of course. It’s similar to what Quebec has done for decades. And Quebec – partially as a result – has been a net beneficiary from national equalization programs over the years. But the question here is whether he should do it.

What Kenney should be doing right now is asking “what if oil prices don’t go up?” What if the bottom falls out of the world oil prices as a combination of alternative sources and a global demand for zero-carbon energy courses takes hold? What if the bottom falls out of Alberta’s economy and there’s no floor?

The reaction from Alberta politicians suggests that the rest of Canada should be grateful to have it as a member of confederation and ready to bend over backward to support Alberta’s needs. After all, Alberta contributed $611-billion to Confederation between 1961 and 2017. Source.

But paying money is not by itself enough to generate a feeling of gratitude. For one thing, Ontario – the province where I grew up and where I live now – paid $723 billion in the same period of time – and even more between the years 1905-1961, when Alberta was a basket case. And Ontario made these contributions without the benefit of pool of oil sitting just under the surface.

And Ontarians (like Quebeckers, and the rest of the country) pay their fair share of taxes. Conservative news coverage depicts equalization payments as some sort of hypothetical ‘cost’ to individual Alberta families, but take no account of the free ride Albertans have granted themselves as a result of the oil boom, and take no account of the benefits Albertans could have accrued had the province not thrown away the opportunities offered by Canada in the past.

If Jason Kenney decides to cut the province out of the benefits of the Canadian tax system, pension system, health and education benefits, and presumably other benefits as well, it will be difficult to find a sympathetic ear when the province really needs Canadian support to make the Alberta-first approach work.

British Columbia, when being asked to support an expanded pipeline to salt water, cannot be faulted when it recalls that Ralph Klein’s solution to provincial poverty was to provide poor people with one-way bus tickets to Vancouver. Source. Provincial governments have been happy to export Alberta’s problems and to lay the blame at Ottawa’s feet, but in fact, most of their misfortune has been the result of their own short-sightedness.

Even so, the rest of Canada will still lend a sympathetic ear. That’s why Justin Trudeau spent $3 billion of our money to buy a pipeline project for Alberta, even though he probably knew it would not gain him a single vote in the west. And it’s why the rest of Canada continues to support economic basket cases in eastern Canada, not because they are particularly well-managed, not because we think that they will One Day become successful, but because they are part of us, and that’s what Canadians do.

Before they cut too many economic ties, I would recommend that the people of Alberta look at the benefits of being Canadian. It goes beyond what we have – and world – provide by way of support, and equalization payments, and a stable and prosperous home market. We have shared both the risks and benefits of prosperity, and even though it is an approach Albertan voters have mostly eschewed through the years, it has nonetheless served them well.

Jason Kenney
Image: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/pension-plan-aimco-kenney-alberta-calgary-canada-1.5353186

Failing the Values Test

This article in the Gazette offers examples of five questions from the new Quebec values test. I confess that if I answered them honestly, I would fail. Let me illustrate.

1. In Quebec, women and men have the same rights and this is inscribed in law. True. False.

The same rights as whom? Each other? Other men and women?

In fact, the people with the most rights are rich old white men. There is plenty of evidence that the justice system is tilted to favour them. I have seen numerous examples of this with my own eyes, both in Quebec and elsewhere.

The people with the fewest rights are young indigenous women. Especially if they’re missing or murdered. Perhaps the mechanisms of the law will be moved to help them. Maybe. Unless a rich old white man is indifferent to their plight. Which is most of the time.

Maybe if the question had asked whether they have the same rights as each other in theory. Though even then, it’s hard to make the case.

2. Choose the illustration or illustrations that indicate who is allowed to marry in Quebec. The illustrations depict: two men; two women and one man; two women; a man and a woman; two men and one woman.

The putatively correct answers are those with fewer than three people. It is not explained why the cut-off is two. This is especially ironic coming right after the question suggesting that everyone has the same rights.

A more challenging question here would be to ask whether old men can marry children (whether one, two, or many). Or whether people can act as though they’re married even though they’re not. Things like that.

I’d probably get this one right because it asks a factual question about what the law states, not a theoretical question about how it’s applied.

3. Identify which situations involved discrimination. A job refused: to a pregnant woman; to a person lacking the required diploma; to a person because of their ethnic background.

They are of course all situations that involve discrimination.

The intent of course is to ask which of these involves discrimination prohibited by law. But of course there’s the law as written, and the law as applied, and these are two different things.

For example: the Montreal Canadiens refuse to employ a pregnent women as a power forward on the second line. Is this because she is a woman, because she is pregnant, or because she didn’t make the team? Bonus points if you can answer in the case where the player is Hayley Wickenheiser.

Discrimination takes place in fact, and is often sanctioned in law, even if it is the sort of discrimination that is prohibited in theory.

4. Since March 27, 2019 by virtue of the secularism of state law, all new police officers may not wear religious symbols. True. False.

So, this is false.

Christians may wear their small crosses under their uniforms. Jedi can wear their Star Wars underwear.

The only religious symbols actually prohibited by the law are the visible religious symbols worn by some minorities that make Christians uncomfortable – turbans, kirpans, yarmulke, Odin-horns.

5. What is the official language of Quebec? French; Spanish; English; French and English.

Canada is officially bilingual, and Quebec is a part of Canada, so the answer is ‘French and English’.

That’s why when you’re in an airplane in Montreal, as I was just a couple of days ago, all the announcements are in English and French. Also Arabic, which is what was spoken by 90% of the people in the plane.

French is the official language of the government of Quebec, but that (of course) is not the same things as Quebec.

———-

That’s the problem with a values test.

I get that the government wants to get the message across to new immigrants that women are equal, gay marriage is permitted, job discrimination is prohibited, there is a secular government, and there is a common (linguistic) culture.

But the way to establish this is not to put the values in a test, unless the questions in the test are very carefully worded. The test provided here requires the respondent to answer with known falsehoods in four of the five questions.

It’s also unreasonable to require that new immigrants share a set of values and attributes a large number of people already living in the country do not possess.

We should promote our values, not by forcing them on people, but by living them, and proving by our own example how tolerance and respect for others creates a better society.

Demonstrators hold signs as they protest against Quebec's  proposed Charter of Values in Montreal
Image: https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/why-a-canadian-values-test-for-immigrants-wont-fly-in-canada/

Responding to Sky News

I’ll quote this extract, posted on LinkedIn, in full:

Excellent response from a journalist from Skynews Australia to the youth who recently showed for the climate:

” …you are the first generation to have asked for air conditioning in every classroom; your lessons are all made to the computer; you have a television in each room; you spend all day using electronic means instead of walking to go at school, you take all kinds of means of transport. You are the biggest consumer of consumer goods in all history, you constantly buy the most expensive clothes to be “trend”, your protest is announced by digital and electronic means.

Kids, before protest, turn off the air conditioning, go to school on foot, turn off your phones and read a book.

None of this will happen, because you are selfish, poorly educated, manipulated by people who use you, saying you have a noble cause while having fun in the most insane western luxury. Wake up and close it. Learn about the facts before you protest and start by respecting your elders “.

First of all, the youth has a name: she is Greta Thunberg. Here is her address to the United Nations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9KxE4Kv9A8

Now for my response to the criticism.

Doesn’t the writer see the irony in this: “you are the first generation to have asked for air conditioning in every classroom?” They are complaining about global warming. One of the first effects, especially in Australia, is that it’s hotter.

But a lot of his vitriol is aimed at the use of electronics. “Read a book,” he advises. This is rich. I live in a nation where virtually all of the old growth forest was removed so that people like him could read a book. The paper production industry continues to destroy land and pollute the environment. Now it’s true that electronic media use a lot of power. But there’s no reason why this can’t be – especially in Australia – solar power. That is your fault, not the fault of the youth.

He also complains that youth use all sorts of means of transport instead of walking. Perhaps he hasn’t seen how cities are designed these days. Mostly, there is no public transport. They are spread out over wide areas and gas-fueled cars and buses are the only means of transportation. It is physically impossible to walk most places in a reasonable amount of time. All of that is your fault, not the fault of the youth.

He complains that youth are “the biggest consumer of consumer goods in all history.” The youth, looking at the McMansions and SUVs owned by their parents, might be surprised to hear that. But even they were the biggest consumers of goods, it was not them that created an economy dedicated to consumer spending, where demand is created by relentless advertising and media coverage. All of that is your fault, not the fault of the youth.

He complains that youth should “Learn about the facts before you protest.” We could ask who it was that was responsible for educating the youth. We could ask who it was that created climate change denial, misinformation, and fake news. On this issue especially, the older generation has been actively engaged in making it difficult to learn about climate change. And to this day, with columns like this, you continue to lie and mislead. All of that is your fault, not the fault of the youth.

The fact is, there is nothing the youth can practically do on their own that will make a difference, other than what they’re doing. They own none of the wealth and power that have created and powered an economy that is out of control and destroying the planet. In a world where dollars count as votes, they have no votes. The planet is being destroyed by the elder generation and its industries, and they respond by denying there’s a crisis, by saying they cannot afford to take their foot off the gas, and by blaming the youth.

greta

 

Fixing the Vote

What Ottawa City Councillor Tim Tierney did is a matter of public record:

Last November, Ontario Provincial Police charged Tierney with corrupt practices under the Ontario Municipal Elections Act for trying to induce another candidate to drop out of the 2018 election.

according to OPP documents filed in court last year, Tierney called Schurter on his cell phone. Schurter put the call on speaker phone, and three people in the Elections Ottawa office alleged they heard the councillor offer to make a donation to a local food bank if Schurter withdrew his candidacy.

Now it’s not my place to presume guilt of innocence, especially given that the Crown has withdrawn the charges and agreed to a settlement with Tierney yesterday. But I’ve seen nothing beyond this prima facie evidence of a pretty strong case that could have been made.

And the reasons for dropping the case are transparently flaccid. It “would have been a ‘lengthy prosecution’ and that, if it had been successful, would have resulted in an expensive byelection.” Also, “the allegations of bribery were made public during the campaign, and noted the people of Beacon Hill-Cyville still re-elected Tierney by a massive majority.”

All that could well be true, but those aren’t the bases on which we decide whether to proceed with a prosecution. It’s like saying “sure, maybe he murdered the man, but it would cost a lot to find out, and the man would have died anyways.”

It’s not the sort of justice that would be meted out to you or me. But it’s the sort of justice the rich, powerful and connected have come to expect. It’s the sort of justice where we can overlook the allegations with a slap on the wrist if a full prosecution would be too inconvenient.

We’ve entered into an era now whether the foundations of democracy are under attack, where there are concerns of influence from external powers, where money is playing an increasingly oversized role, and where we are not even sure whether to trust the voting process itself.

We can’t simply allow a person to violate the rules and allow the results to stand if the win is big enough.

The result should have been overturned and a by-election held. I don’t care whether Tim Tierney agreed to pay two months’ salary. He shouldn’t have been entitled to it in the first place, as his own admission of wrongdoing shows.

This is a principle that should apply generally, shouldn’t it?

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Image: Ottawa Matters

 

 

The Greens and the NDP

The defection of 18 NDP candidates in New Brunswick to the Green Party raises once again the question that has been on my mind for a while, specifically, whether to align with the Greens rather than the NDP.

It could have been so different. Had the NDP not ousted Thomas Mulcair in 2016 as a result of the ill-conceived and tone-deaf LEAP Manifesto, he would have spent the last three years in the media holding to Trudeau to account, and would be viewed as a viable candidate for Prime Minister. And we would be having a very different conversation.

But he was ousted, and instead we got Jagmeet Singh who, on being chosen leader, immediately disappeared from view, leaving a dispute between the Alberta and B.C. NPD governments simmering, losing ground in Quebec, and never actually visiting New Brunswick at all.

By all accounts, the results in a few months in the general election could be historically bad. The party has yet to nominate anything close to a full slate of candidates, there’s mismanagement and mixed messaging in the campaign (“We’re in it for you”), and Jagmeet’s choice of issues to comment on seems… odd.

We have no idea where he stands on China, on relations with Trump, on a post-Brexit deal with Britain, on environment and pipelines and carbon pricing, on education… but we know he’s very proud of his brother, he’d like lower cell phone costs, and like every NDP candidate since ever, he supports pharmacare.

All this makes me take a closer look at the Greens. They have been running on a consistent message for a long time now, we know they will not compromise on environmental issues, and they seem progressive on other issues. They recognize, I think, that environmental issues are also social issues, and that fundamental Canadian rights like health care need to be protected.

So… good, right? But the Greens also have a long history of accommodating corporate interests. And their campaign slogan “Not Left. Not Right. Forward Together.” is ambiguous to the point of distress. I agree with the subtext: “The real divide of the 21st Century is not left versus right, but insiders (the one percent) versus the rest of us.” The question is, are the Greens the party to deliver on that?

Through the election I’ll be watching both NDP news releases and Green news releases not so much for the content – the two parties often echo each other – but for the selection of issues to care about. What will the parties do specifically to wrest control from the super rich and return to traditional Canadian values of respect for the environment and for people?

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Pride

When I was younger the movement was called ‘Gay Pride’ and it was very much about making a political statement. These days it’s just called ‘Pride’ and is more inclusive than it was back in the day. That’s a good thing. And this weekend I was at the annual Pride parade, just as I have been many times previously.

Today, it should be a celebration of who we are. Not just gays and lesbians and trans and questioning and goths and bears and all the rest, but all of us. To me, at its heart, Pride is about celebrating a fundamental value in our society, that we can be whatever we want, love whomever we want, and express ourselves and our love freely and openly.

But there is, to be sure, an element of Pride that is very much about defending the rights of GLBTQ+ in our society, and very much about them asserting their right to be who they are. And that it is still necessary to make that statement saddens me.

And make no mistake, it is still necessary. There are societies outside Canada where homosexuality is frowned upon and there are places where it is actually illegal. And even inside Canada, there are people who in the name of one doctrine or another argue it should still be illegal, and that they should be denied the rights the rest of us take for granted such as, for example, the right to be married.

And there are some people in our society who are just mean and are happy to use this as much as anything as an excuse to beat someone up. Because that’s the inevitable result of intolerance and hate. You can say “love the sinner, hate the sin” but someone else will take your words as an excuse for bigoted violence.

None of that sits well with me. My support for GLBTQ+ rights is rooted in the very simple principle that we should leave people alone to live their lives as fully and completely as possible, and if that means getting married, or kissing in public, or whatever, then they should. It’s not something we should hide from the kids. It’s something to celebrate.

And what does not help is dredging up this whole debate all over again, as though we still think in Canada in this day and age that these are still rights that are open for discussion, that we could still turn back the clock and return to the dark days of legally sanctioned repression and discrimination.

That’s one reason why people were upset with the Liberals dredging up an old anti-gay speech by Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. It’s not simply a question of whether or not Scheer was intolerant a decade ago, it’s that the Liberals are saying that they still want to have this debate with him. As though that would help anyone in this country other than the Liberals.

And that’s why some people were very rightly upset with today’s CBC call-in show again on the question of same-sex marriage. The show provoked the unsurprising response of someone calling in and arguing that these rights should be overturned. What good is served by that? Why not also a call-in on revoking the women’s right to vote? I’m sure this also has supporters out there somewhere. It doesn’t mean the question should be open for debate.

So I guess maybe I was fooling myself when I thought of Pride as mostly a celebration of who we are. I guess it’s still necessary to tell those in power and in the media that we have moved on from their narrow and binary interpretation of society. I guess it’s still necessary to tell them that they are not being helpful, and that they are, simply for their own purposes, hurting people.

Meanwhile, to all my friends in the GLBTQ+ community: peace and love.

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Handmaiden to Despots?

Responding to Heather Morrison, who writes,

As any movement grows and flourishes, decisions made will turn out to have unforeseen consequences. Achieving the goals of the movement requires critical reflection and occasional changes in policy and procedure.The purpose of this post is to point out that the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) appears to be inadvertently acting as a handmaiden to at least one despotic government, facilitating dissemination of works subject to censorship and rejecting open access journals that would be suitable venues for critics of the despotic government. There is no blame and no immediately obvious remedy, but solving a problem begins with acknowledging that a problem exists and inviting discussion of how to avoid and solve the problem. OA friends, please consider this such an invitation.

Sustaining the knowledge commons full post:

https://sustainingknowledgecommons.org/2019/08/14/doaj-handmaiden-to-despots-or-oa-we-need-to-talk/

This is an issue I have thought a lot about. My work takes me to various countries, some of which might be classified as despotic. I have worked with the governments of those countries, always from the perspective of advancing open access and free learning. The question I have asked myself is whether it is appropriate to work with them.

I have decided that it is, and for a very simple reason: any principled selection process would leave me with very few countries to work with, if any.

It is easy to point to a particular country and suggest that we should not work with that country. But if we apply the same principle that led us to that decision the we are left with a significant practical problem. And if we extend that principle to agents of the country, including companies that support that country, or customers of that country, or suppliers to that country, as we most surely should, then we are left with no countries in which to work.

And at a certain point, when a recommendation to boycott a given country is made, I find that I have to ask, why this country? What made the person select this country to address, as opposed to one of the many others engaged in the same practice?

I will most certainly concur with Heather Morrison that a problem exists. There are countries in the world that murder their own citizens, either extra-legally, or by some sort of state sanctioned capital punishment. There are many countries that interfere with the publication of academic materials on political grounds. There is definitely a problem, one of many problems plaguing our world today.

How to address this? It is easy to identify what we oppose and to work against it. But my experience is that, in the long term, if is much more effective to work for something. It is also a lot harder, which is maybe why we don’t see so much of it.

We need, globally, to build the structures and institutions that will address issues such as this. Support for entities such as the United Nations and the World Court will go a long way toward addressing oppressive regimes. It is essential to build international trade regulations that prioritize justice, human rights, and environment as much as they do the needs of global capital.

It is tempting to short-cut this process, to have (say) DOAJ stand on its own against countries that oppress their citizens. But this is not justice, nor can it be seen as any pretense of justice. Only by building the institutions that serve all people, on a global scale, will we be able to address the injustices that we, as individuals, seek to redress. Any other approach would be parochial and sectarian.

Meanwhile, as an individual, I stay firm and unwavering in my own commitment to individual autonomy, celebration of diversity, an open society, and collective governance. Change happens not by changing governments, but by changing people, and the only way to change people is to be an example of the change you want to see in them.

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