Letter from a lickspittle

Published Dec. 15, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper
24 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario.

My very dear Prime Minister:

Permit me, on behalf of a grateful nation, to extend our thanks for your enlightened stewardship and our best wishes for an exceptionally happy Christmas. Your loyal subjects join you in eager anticipation of your re-election next October to a fourth term as PM. Your place in Canadian history is secure; soon you will join the pantheon of world greats.

But you know all this. Let me get to the point. There’s a pile of presents under your Christmas tree, gifts from supporters and favour-seekers. But be careful, Prime Minister, there is one “gift” you do not want to open. It will cause you great distress. It is a new book entitled “Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover” by Michael Harris.

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It is a nasty piece of work, Sir. Very nasty. It alleges that since you took command of the state in 2006, you have endeavored, with considerable success, to make the Conservative party and indeed the entire government accountable to just one person – to you, Mr. Harper. The indictment is lengthy. You insist on controlling everything yet refuse to accept blame when things go wrong. You do not trust science, statistics or any information that does not coincide with your own beliefs or partisan intentions. You have no faith in public servants and diplomats to give you objective advice. You withhold information. You treat Parliament with contempt.

You have changed the country. As Michael Harris writes: “Until that moment (when you became prime minister), Canada had been a secular and progressive nation that believed in transfer payments to better distribute the country’s wealth, the Westminster model of governance, a national medicare program, a peacekeeping role for the armed forces, an arm’s-length public service, the separation of church and state, and solid support for the United Nations. Stephen Harper believed in none of these things.”

Please, Prime Minister, do not assume “Party of One” is some sort of partisan rant, a piece of opposition propaganda in election year. It is much more than that. It is a deeply researched and meticulously documented account of your years in office. I have known Harris for years and I worked with him at the Globe and Mail. He is a superb investigative reporter, one of the best. He specializes in finding slithery things hidden under rocks.

His first book, “Justice Denied,” reported the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall, a Mi’kmaq Indian in Nova Scotia, who spent 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. His second, “Unholy Orders,” ripped the lid off the cover-up of sexual and physical abuse of boys at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland.

He brings the same intensity to his scrutiny of your reign. It’s all there: the robocall scandal and election-spending abuses; the destruction of Linda Keen, the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; the F-35 folly; your vendetta against Helena Guergis, who was one of your MPs and ministers until you threw her under the bus; your wars against Statistics Canada, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Auditor General and even the Chief Justice of Canada; your government’s hypocritical treatment of veterans; and your errors in judgment in trusting high office to people who should be in jail instead. And, of course, there was your signature folly: Mike Duffy and the Senate-expense scandal; Harris probes your complicity in exhaustive detail.

As I advised at the outset, please, Prime Minister, do not read this book. It will make you angry. It will make you want to get even. You may even want to sue the author for being beastly to you.  I wouldn’t do that, Sir. If the case ends up before the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice and her colleagues may remember how you tried to beat her up after the court blocked your appointment of the ineligible Marc Nadon. Judges have long memories.

Your faithful lickspittle,
etc., etc.

Harper isn’t out of the woods yet

Published Dec. 8, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

A headline on the front page of the National Post the other day caught my eye: “How the PM got his groove back.”

In the piece, Ottawa columnist John Ivison advanced the argument that, having weathered a particularly rough patch in Parliament and in the opinion polls, Stephen Harper seems to be on the rebound. His Conservatives have pulled virtually even with the Liberals in the polls and Harper now enjoys a small lead over Liberal Justin Trudeau in leadership popularity. The PM’s self-confidence, badly shaken by opposition attacks over the Mike Duffy Senate scandal a year ago, has returned. As Ivison put it, “Mr. Harper has his mojo back.”

I’m not sure precisely what “mojo” is, but why shouldn’t the prime minister have his back? A year ago, with the Liberals running about 10 points ahead in the polls and the Conservatives struggling to keep from sliding behind the NDP, the poll aggregator threehundredeight.com was projecting a minority Liberal government, with 142 seats in the enlarged 338-seat Commons (with 117 Conservatives and 68 New Democrats). The positions are reversed today. The new projection: a minority Tory government with 134 seats (with 118 Liberals and 83 NDP).

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Those numbers are bound to change, perhaps more than once, before next October. But for the moment Conservatives can breathe again while they pray that the trend continues. Harper had a good summer and fall playing on the world stage, including a trip to China and his bristly encounter with Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Australia. The government’s economic numbers were good enough that he was able to start rolling out pre-election tax cuts.

The Duffy scandal has faded, if only temporarily. Harper looked decisive and in charge (while Trudeau looked muddled) when he declared that Canada would commit aircraft to the battle against ISIS terrorists in Iraq. And he was able to watch from the safety of the sidelines while his Liberal and NDP opponents tied themselves in unnecessary knots over allegations of sexual abuse on Parliament Hill. The divided opposition continues to be the Tories’ ace in the hole.

But Harper is not out of the woods yet. Collapsing oil prices may cast the Conservatives’ economic strategy into the dust bin, making it impossible for them to buy votes with tax cuts. The Mike Duffy trial, scheduled to begin in April, could blow up in their faces if it can be shown, as Senator Duffy alleges, that the Prime Minister was an informed participant in covering up the scandal.

I’m a bit of an outlier in the Duffy matter. I still don’t see how the senator can be convicted of accepting a $90,000 bribe when no one is charged with offering the bribe, not even the man who wrote the $90,000 cheque, Harper’s then chief of staff, Nigel Wright. The fact that no fewer than 31 charges (many of them amounting to the same thing) have been laid against Duffy also makes me suspicious. Over-charging is often the sign of a weak prosecutorial case.

Has the Hill become a daycare centre?

Published Dec. 1, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Are there no adults in Ottawa these days?

The question is neither facetious nor entirely rhetorical. There are days when Parliament Hill resembles a giant day care centre more than the seat of serious government.

Where to begin? Well, let’s start with the bizarre episode of Peter Goldring, the Conservative member for Edmonton East, who last week to made his inane “contribution” to the controversy over alleged sexual misdeeds on the Hill by issuing a three-paragraph press release. In it, he referred to the two female MPs (unnamed) from the NDP who have accused two male MPs from the Liberal party (both named, shamed and suspended from caucus) of sexual abuse. Continue reading

The two New Democrats, Goldring suggested, had acted with “shameful indiscretion and complicity,” and he announced he was taking measures to protect his 69-year-old body from unwanted advances from females of socialist or other persuasion. He said he wears “body-worn video recording equipment” (apparently a miniature camera and recorder hidden in a pen in his breast pocket). He advised MPs who “consort with others” to follow his example by wearing similar “risk protection” to “prevent besmirchment when encounters run awry.”

Besmirchment when encounters run awry? I have no idea what idiocy possessed Goldring. He is no newbie; he’s spent the past 17 years buried on the Tory backbench, where he seems destined to remain. Within hours, appalled that one of their sheep had escaped from the flock, the Prime Minister’s Office retracted Goldring’s comments and apologized on his behalf. (Perhaps there was actually an adult on duty in the PMO that day.)

Next, the somewhat related and equally bizarre case of Massimo Pacetti, the Liberal MP from Quebec who stands accused of sexual misconduct by one of the two NDP members who cannot be named. The story is familiar by now. The MP who cannot be named played on a sports team with Pacetti. Afterward, they went for drinks, then she accompanied him back to the hotel room where he lives while in Ottawa. He indicated he wanted to have sex; she says she didn’t really want to, but she handed him a condom anyway.

Afterward, she went to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau to complain about Pacetti’s vile conduct. Trudeau dropped the hammer on Pacetti while carefully not identifying the complainant or even her party. Last week, the woman went public, so to speak. She gave a series of media interviews – all on the condition that she, being a “victim” of sexual abuse, not be named. She gave her account of the encounter, including her provision of the condom. She insisted, however, that she did not give “explicit consent” to the sex that followed. (What the condom implied to her, we may never know. Oh yes – and she wants an apology.)

These people are supposed to be adults. They are not fumbling adolescents. They are the people who make the laws that govern our lives and our country. Why can’t they act that way?

Final example. A week ago, the Harper government, which has been accused of lacking empathy for distressed former military personnel, moved to defuse a scathing report from the Auditor General. A battery of cabinet ministers announced they would spend $200 million in a six-year program to improve mental health services for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress-related injuries. Just what the doctor ordered and what veterans groups had been hoping for.

But wait! When opposition MPs got to read the fine print, it turned out that the $200 million is to be paid out over 50 years, not six.

Veterans and opposition MPs were outraged. It wasn’t just the money that won’t be available for today’s veterans. It is also the deception, the attempt to make a great deal out of precious little. The kids would call it putting lipstick on a pig. That’s something they might get away with in day care. In the adult world, in government, it’s called lying.

 

Republicans ignore minorities at their peril

Published Nov. 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As controversial as U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent executive order was concerning the status of undocumented, illegal immigrants in the United States, the issue might pose more strategic problems for his Republican opponents in Congress.

For all the threats and warnings from House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner about “not playing with matches” or “poisoning the well,” a review of his own actions suggests the Republicans have themselves contributed substantially to the toxic atmosphere by blocking any legislative proposals by Democrats over the past four years. Moreover, they have been shown to have no new policy suggestions of their own on the issue.

Unlike the Democrats, they are clearly divided in trying to simultaneously satisfy tea party extremists who fantasize about impeaching Obama — among many other radical agenda goals — and the mainstream establishment wing of the party, more based in reality, which just hopes to win elections.

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A deep chill descends over Parliament Hill

Published on Nov. 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Back in the olden days, when prime ministers still deigned to speak to provincial premiers, they would hold gatherings called first ministers’ conferences. This happened fairly often, perhaps once a year, depending on what was happening in the country at the time.

The prime minister would invite his provincial counterparts to Ottawa to talk about the economy, the Constitution, the state of the federation, pensions, medicare or even that old chestnut, the reform of the Senate.  The premier of Ontario always sat on the PM’s right, the premier of Quebec on his left, with the others placed around the table in the order of entry into Confederation.

If he was in a good mood, which he often was, their genial host would invite his guests home for drinks and dinner. They might pose for a group photograph, then hold press conferences to tell the Canadian public what they had discussed and decided, or left undecided.
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Thinking back on it, it was a comforting ritual. Things might be going badly in the land – whether because of international issues, persistent unemployment, hyper-inflation or the threat of separatism – but at least the leaders, regardless of partisan affiliation, would gather to try to sort out problems and seek solutions. The process was reassuringly Canadian.

That was then. This is now. In the Sun King era in Ottawa, Stephen Harper does not hold federal-provincial conferences. Now that he has a majority government, he doesn’t think he needs to.

It’s not so much that he actively dislikes individual premiers (although he manages to control his affection for Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne), as it is that he actively resists the notion of meeting with them en masse. That would mean sharing the big national stage with a gaggle of mere provincial politicians, who would undoubtedly try to make him spend his money to fix their problems. He has cabinet ministers who can take care of whatever it may be that is troubling these lesser leaders. And why should he have them home for dinner?

The premiers think of themselves as partners in Confederation. He treats them as uninvited guests at the national table.

The chill between Ottawa and Toronto is deepening. Premier Wynne wants to meet Harper to discuss such legitimate issues as infrastructure, the auto industry, improvements to the Canada Pension Plan, and violence against aboriginal women and girls. She wrote to Harper in September to request a meeting. Last week, two months later, she got a reply but no agreement to meet. “I encourage you to work with the responsible federal ministers to make further progress in these priority areas over the coming year,” the prime minister wrote.

Why the snub? It has everything to do with partisan politics. In the past – though not always, admittedly – federal and provincial leaders tried to keep out of each other’s patch in election season. Not today. Wynne is openly campaigning for Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals in the pre-launch to the federal election of 2015, just as Harper and his people vigorously supported Tim Hudak and the Progressive Conservatives in the Ontario election this year.

The federal election next October will be won or lost in Ontario. In Wynne, the Liberals have a potent ally. She has a fresh majority mandate and is considerably more popular in the province – especially in Toronto – than Harper is. So don’t expect him to do her any favours between now and election day.

The breakdown in relations between Ottawa and Ontario has had one interesting effect. Left without someone to talk to in Ottawa, Wynne is working around Harper by making common cause with Quebec’s new premier, Philippe Couillard, a fellow Liberal, starting with electricity swaps (they signed an agreement when they met in Toronto last week), climate change and pipelines.

For Ontario and Quebec to work together is in the best tradition of Confederation. That they are doing it today highlights the leadership vacuum that exists in Ottawa.

The Imagined Electorate: Values, Perceived Boundaries and the Regional Rehabilitation of Political Culture

Speaker: Ailsa Henderson.

Lecture Dec. 3, 2014 at University of Edinburgh Business School.

Abstract: The Imagined Electorate: Values, Perceived Boundaries and the Regional Rehabilitation of Political Culture
Political culture is often seen as a concept whose time has come and clearly gone, instinctively useful but difficult to treat with precision. Researchers, who have typically employed it as a tool to compare states, have largely been silent on how it might operate at the sub-state level, notwithstanding the considerable research attempting to map regional political cultures within pluri-national or federal states. And yet addressing political culture below the level of the state forces one to explore many of its unanswered questions: How do we know when political cultures exist?; How do we delineate their boundaries?: How important is evidence of distinctiveness? This lecture explores political culture as it operates below the level of the state, identifies the existence of two forms of regional political cultures, identifies markers by which we can identify and delineate political cultures and highlights the importance of perception. It provides data demonstrating that citizens believe they possess distinct values from those in neighbouring regions, even in the absence of meaningful variations in attitudes. The result is an imagined electorate for whom legislators then legislate. Far from proving that regional political cultures do not exist, such imagined perceptions of difference form a central component of the subjective dimensions of politics that political culture as a concept was originally designed to capture. Throughout it argues that by exploring political culture below the level of states we can rehabilitate it as a tool for political scientists.

Are the Tories flying under the radar on the F-35?

Published Nov. 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Now that MPs are back in Ottawa from their week-long Remembrance Day break and the Prime Minister has returned from telling off Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit Down Under, might one venture an impolitic question?

Who is responsible for pulling the wool over the Canadian public’s eyes on the F-35, that hugely expensive stealth warplane that Ottawa has been dithering over for the better part of a decade?

Is it the Conservative cabinet, which would dearlylove to acquire 65 of these magnificent flying machines, if only it could figure out a way to sneak the purchase (estimated price: $45 billion over the lifetime of the aircraft) past the auditor general, parliamentary budget officer and the opposition parties? Or is it the Pentagon, which, being under heavy political fire in Washington for cost overruns, is anxious to spread the F-35 risk among as many friendly nations as possible? Continue reading

Or is it our own generals at the Defence Department in Ottawa and their allies in the aircraft industry (our very own “military-industrial complex”), who may be desperate to nail down the purchase of the snappy new planes before a federal election next year that could produce a new government with ideas of wiser ways to spend $45 billion?

The Harper government keeps insisting a final decision has not been made on new fighter aircraft. But those denials have worn thin. Last week’s column mentioned a leak from a Pentagon briefing to the effect that Canada had asked to accelerate the purchase of its first four F-35s, with a letter of intent to be sent to Washington this month and a purchase order placed by next March.

This information was contained on slide 11 of a 14-slide, high-level briefing by Lieutenant-General Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program executive officer, to Deborah Lee James, secretary of the U.S. Air Force. The Pentagon subsequently confirmed the accuracy of the leak.

These four early-production aircraft, to be used for pilot training, would cost an anticipated $640 million. More than that, they would effectively commit Ottawa replacing the aging CF-18s with F-35s. (Who in his right mind would spend $640 million to train pilots on planes they were never going to be asked to fly?)

Stephen Harper was Auckland on an official visit to New Zealand when reporters caught up to his entourage last week. Officials travelling with him insisted Canada will not be buying those four F-35s and said no decision will be made on which warplane to purchase until firm details on cost and capabilities are received from Lockheed Martin, the U.S. manufacturer.

Who to believe? Assuming the officials with Harper were being truthful, is it possible that the U.S. general briefing the secretary of the air force deliberately misled her with a view to shoring up political support for the troubled program? Alternatively, is it possible that a senior person in the Canadian military or even in the cabinet slipped some erroneous (or premature) information to the Pentagon in the hope of backing the Harper government into a purchase commitment?

Last week, there was another leak, this time to the Ottawa Citizen. Ever since 2006, the Harper government has been a participant in a nine-nation partnership that helps finance the development of the F-35. The way it works, each country kicks in some money every year; in return, manufacturers in that country get a chance to bid on contracts to supply components for the F-35.

This year, Ottawa was asked to contribute $22.5 million. The defence department refused to pay and passed the bill to the RCAF, which pleaded poverty. When the dust settled, the department found the cash, gave it to the RCAF and told the air force to pay the bill.

This annual tithing exercise is part of the 2006 partnership agreement; it commits Canada to investing $551 million over 40 years. The next payment falls due on May 1. And no decision has been made? Really?

The Mirror Of The Residential Schools Policy

There was a fascinating and troubling court decision on Friday that ruled that First Nations traditional medicinal practices are “aboriginal rights” in the context of section 35 of the constitution. Although the intent of this decision is, on its surface, to respect the aboriginal rights confirmed by the constitution and thus to ensure the vitality of aboriginal communities, I argue that this case mirrors residential schools policy. It does so in that it denies First Nations children the protection of medical interventions and perpetuates rhetorical space for a continued exploitation of First Nations people by powerful and predatory financial interests in the alternative health industry.

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In the case, a judge dismissed an application by McMaster Children’s Hospital to compel the Brant Children’s Aid Society (CAS)to take action to take into custody a child from the Six Nations reserve. The child in question had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in August and, with the consent of the child’s parent, had begun undergoing chemotherapy treatment. In the hospital’s assessment, going through the full phase of treatment meant the child had a 90-95% chance of survival (Note: this study reports an 80% cure rate). After a brief period undergoing the treatment, one of the parents withdrew the child, ostensibly in favour of traditional medicine. Concerned about the child’s welfare, the hospital contacted the relevant CAS office (Brant) to gain some assistance in getting the child back into chemotherapy. The CAS declined to intervene, although it appears from the facts of the case that this was a considered, and not a knee-jerk, decision, whereupon the hospital filed the court action to compel Brant CAS to action.

Essentially the judge decided a fairly narrow, but crucially important, point. The importance of this decision cannot be understated. The judge ruled in the abstract that practicing traditional medicine is an aboriginal right confirmed under section 35 of the constitution. In the specific, he ruled that the parent of the child, as the substitute decision-maker, was practicing traditional indigenous medicine. Therefore, her decision was covered by s. 35 and could not be abridged, even by any evidence about the efficacy of said types of medicine.

This is a landmark and a terrible judicial decision. I come to this conclusion not through a particular professional interest or expertise in the politics of aboriginal rights in Canada, but in risk perception, risk management and the role of scientific evidence in public policy. Perhaps the worst flaw in the judge’s reasoning was to rely too heavily on concepts of “traditional” and “western” medicine as discrete, identifiable activities of human endeavor, even making reference to the “western paradigm.” “Paradigms” have a long history in the philosophy of science, particularly associated with the work of Thomas Kuhn. However, the concept has been so stretched, abused and misunderstood that its utility in the philosophy of science is questionable. Certainly, it is dubious to rest a judicial decision on which a girl’s life and the nature of aboriginal rights in contemporary Canada on such a shaky concept.

Central to Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm” is the notion of incompatibility, which is to say that two competing scientific paradigms are discrete, parallel and that the relative merits cannot be adjudicated in terms of evidence. This has been a tremendously powerful concept in the field of the philosophy of science and public discourse. But it is nowhere near a “proven” or “true” description of the nature of scientific theories and evidence. For one thing, as valuable Kuhn’s descriptions of the sociological process of paradigmatic construction has been, one can ask whether accepting the concept of a “paradigm” necessarily means that one must accept notions that evidence or facts cannot adjudicate between competing paradigms. Moreover, famously, one philosopher of science once argued Kuhn had failed even to coherently define a paradigm, counting 21 separate definitions in his original book.

One consequence of conceiving of traditional and western medicine as being composed of two competing paradigms is that it creates rhetorical space for a multi-billion dollar industry of highly organized financial interests to offer “alternative” medical services, including the Hippocrates Institute in Florida, to which the child’s parent turned in this case, at a cost of $18,000 after seeing a presentation . The industry is so huge and varied that it defies cataloguing in this space, but it ranges from corner store homeopathic, naturopathic and chiropractic providers to billion dollar nutritional supplement companies as well as clinics. What unites all of them is the premise that the medicine that people know, use and is tested is “western” and that what is not is complementary or alternative. For example, HPI Health Products Incorporated, based in Dawson Creek, British Columbia markets a highly successful line of pain supplements as “Lakota Herbs”. You might know them from a questionable television ad in the 1990s featuring a First Nations actor recommending the product. Most of its products are made from “natural products” such as willow bark, a plant that contains the chemical salacin. This product has been used throughout human history for its pain relief properties, including by Bayer to make….apsirin. The consequences of this example are important. It reveals both that the distinction between traditional and wesetern medicine is not so discrete, and that interests in the alternative health industry can colonize First Nations images and practices. In order for HPI to make any money, it has to differentiate its product, so it appeals to a widespread suspicion of western medicine and defines itself as both alternative and traditional.

There are a vast array of dubious rhetorical strategies available to people to make this link, many of them on display in front of the judge in this trial. I witnessed one expert argue that both alternative and traditional medicines focus on the health of the whole person. A second expert argued that traditional medicine was based on homeopathic principles. Homeopathy, of course, is a system of alternative medicine that has roots in medieval Germany and is premised on the notion that substances become more medically powerful as they are diluted out of existence.

One of the central arguments made by the defendants in the case was that pursuing alternative medical treatments at the Hippocrates Institute was an extension of traditional, Haudenosonee medicine and, more importantly, stands in contrast to “western” medicine. According to this news story, the decision to pursue treatment at the Hippocrates Institute was directly related to the decision to stop chemotherapy. Quoting from the story:

After securing financial support from family, she called Clement from the hospital waiting room on the 10th day of her daughter’s chemotherapy.
“He had the tone of voice where he was so confident,” she says.
“By him saying, ‘Oh yes no problem we can help her,’ that’s the day I stopped the chemo.”

However, the Hippocrates Institute has no connection to Haudenosonee people, history or culture. Instead is an archetypal institution of the “alternative” or “complementary” health industry. It offers classes in “lifestyle transformation” and “encourages people to draw from their vast inner resources to transform the quality of their health and lives.” Its goal is to: ” assist people in taking responsibility for their lives and to help them internalize and actualize an existence free from premature aging, disease and needless pain.” It also seems to have a singular focus on the power of food as a source of medicine:

Under the guidance of a knowledgeable and compassionate team, guests from all over the world benefit from health and nutritional counseling, non-invasive remedial and youth-enhancing therapies, state of the art spa services, inspiring talks on life principles and a tantalizing daily buffet of enzyme-rich, organic meals.

This is a powerful way to blur the differences between traditional and alternative medicine, in that, on their own telling, traditional medicines were herbs and plants provided by the Creator to grow.

The problem here is that all these claims cannot pass evidentiary tests of efficacy. They do not work. “Western” medicine, by contrast, is defined by its commitment allowing claims to stand only so long as they are supported by evidence. It is not my first choice to quote from a comedian on a point of such grave concern, but Tim Minchin truly said it best, when he said that by definition, “alternative” medicine has not been proved to work or has been proved to not work. “Alternative” medicine that has been proved to work is ….medicine. This is precisely what happened with willow bark and aspirin. Used by traditional cultures, European and others, everywhere, scientific methods proved and refined its efficacy and it became….medicine.

And here we arrive at the problem with defining traditional, alternative and western medicine as different, but equal, paradigms. “Western” medicine is not in any way “western”. It is medicine. It is worth noting, European life and society were equally marked by “traditional” forms of medicine. Some ultimately passed tests of efficacy and became “medicine”. Others, such as bleeding, were swept aside and destroyed by the onslaught of “western” medicine in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I have myself had conversations with elderly German women who praise the “traditional” knowledge of herbs that their grandparents knew and bemoan the loss of those traditions in the face of “western” medicine. “Western” medicine, it seems, was as destructive to particular “western” traditions as traditional medicines.

These concepts that we commonly use to navigate the field of contemporary health care lead us into traps with damaging, even fatal, consequences. In particular, when medicine is deifned as “Western,” the rhetorical space is created that is necessary for financial interests like the Hippocrates Institute and giant pharmaceutical companies peddling all sorts of snake oil to convince people interested in “traditional” medicine that what they both share is that they are “not western”. In this case, the Hippocrates Institute charged the family $18,000 for a treatment program that has reportedly included lessons in developing a positive attitude and learning how to eat raw, vegan diets. This reveals again the distinction between alternative and traditional medicine. Not only did First Nations diets not vegan, no human community has subsisted in human diets since we developed fire and cooking. The trend to veganism and raw food is almost entirely a product of education and affluence.

This is what I mean when I speak of the “mirror of the residential schools policy”. This may not be a perfect metaphor for what is going on here, but it is good enough, I think, to put it out there. When you put a picture in front of the mirror, you can still grasp the conceptual outlines of what is involved. A person is a person, a house is a house. But what was on the left is on the right. Positions are reversed. In the residential schools policy, elements of the Canadian state forced First Nations children to residential schools to assimilate them. Some elements of the state were racist and malevolent, but I suspect (this stands subject to verification) some were actually well meaning but misguided”. However, we all know the consequences were near genocidal.

Today, we have an element of the state (McMaster University) still making an attempt to apprehend a child, not to destroy them, but to save them. By contrast, we have other elements of the state (Brant CAS and the judge) cooperating with predatory white people and well-meaning allies in the worlds of health care, the university and the law, seeking to prevent this. Ironically, the past legacy of the residential schools policy as a justification. The roles are kind of reversed, as in a mirror, but the effect is going to be the same: a First Nations child is going to die.

If we cease thinking about medicine as “western” and, instead, think about it as medicine that has been proven to work, then we can also cease demonizing contemporary doctors and hospitals as current manifestations of past colonial attempts and seeing predatory quacks as anti-colonial allies. Instead, we can look at what medicine can offer First Nations people. We can think about it as the best that white society can offer, not the worst.

One of the arguments I often hear against the thesis that the treaties signed between First Nations and the Crown meant that First nations subsequently gave up rights to their territory and became wards of the state is that the spirit of the treaties was meant to enable a joint sharing of the land and a joint prosperity. If we stop thinking of medicine as “western” does this not open up space for us to make the same argument? Do McMaster and its proven treatments start to look like the best that “western medicine” can offer and the predatory quacks at the Hippocrates Institute as the worst?

Teaching Canadian Federalism: A “Flipped Classroom” Lesson Plan

My goal in PO 263, which is the introductory course on Canadian political institutions, is to add one new active learning unit every year I teach it.  Last year, I introduced a flipped classroom activity on the Supreme Court of Canada, which I’ve blogged about previously and will be using again in two weeks.

The new activity I added this year was for my federalism unit.  Prior to class, students completed two readings (e.g. a textbook chapter and a journal article), a tutorial discussion, and an online quiz on the textbook reading.  In class, I lectured for an hour (interspersed with “top hat monocle” activities) on the various forces that have placed stress on our Canadian federal system.

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After the break, I divided the students into groups of five or six and told them the following:

“You have been hired by the government of Canada to recommend a wholesale redesign of Canada’s federal system. You have been given complete freedom to make whatever recommendations you wish to make. Reflecting on the knowledge you have acquired about Canadian federalism and how it has developed over time, how would you redesign the Canadian federal system?”

The groups were given 40 minutes to draw up and email me a proposal for how they might change our federal division of powers.  They were also to provide a one minute presentation summarizing their main changes and why.

Incentives in the form of classroom participation and bonus marks were also added to encourage students to participate.

The results were pretty fantastic.  All of the students were involved in the discussions and the proposals they generated were very interesting, but also a useful launching pad for a class discussion about some enduring themes in the course: e.g. the dynamics of institutional change and institutional design. We also discussed whether the diversity in the proposals reflected the impossibility of designing a federal system to accommodate all interests and thus separatism is inevitable, or whether the diversity combined with the resilience of the Canadian federation indicates that federalism is the solution to managing countries like Canada.

At the end of class, lots of smiles and energy. During class, lots of good discussion in the groups.

It’s certainly a activity I’ll use again in the future but maybe add some additional steps, such as having students vote on proposals or “vote with their feet”!

UPDATE: Another thing I would do next time would be to tell the class about the activity before they completed the various homework activities (e.g. the readings, tutorials, and online quiz) and attended lecture.  I think if the students knew what was coming, the quality of the proposals would be much better.  As well, recent research suggests that “problem-based” learned activities are effective mainly because they force students to do more prep work which in turn results in more successful learning.  Interestingly, the “problem-based” activity itself seems to only have a limited impact on learning outcomes.  At least that’s the finding reported in a recent PS: Political Science and Politics article. Check out that article, written by Robert P. Amyot (Hastings College), here.

UPDATE PART2: Here is the activity sheet for anyone who wants to use this activity and here are the slides I used to introduce the activity.

Are Tories fast-tracking the F-35 decision?

Published Nov. 10, 2014 in the Waterloo Region Record.

Love them or hate them, you have to concede one thing to the Harper Conservatives. They are persistent. Some might say stubborn or high-handed, even when wrong-headed. Once they have embarked on a course, they do not let themselves be deflected – not by public opinion, not by the courts (the restoration of anti-prostitution laws being a current example), not by Parliament, not by expert opinion, and certainly not by common sense.

The long drawn-out saga of the F-35 fighter aircraft is an example of the Conservatives’ refusal to heed both expert opinion and common sense. They have been committed to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning, the most expensive warplane in history, ever since they took office in 2006. In 2012 – faced with production delays, performance issues, soaring costs (from an original estimate of $16 billion over the lifetime of 65 aircraft to a revised projection of $45 billion), and a devastating report by the Auditor General – the government ordered a review.

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No one outside the government knows what the review, conducted in secret, involved. Did it look seriously at other (and cheaper) aircraft from other manufacturers? Did it assess whether the F-35 actually meets Canada’s military requirements? (And what, by the way, are those requirements? Maybe the Canadian public would like to know.) Did the review even consider the pilot-safety issue that would inevitably arise if the single-engine F-35 were deplored to patrol the vast distances across the far north and along Canada’s coastlines?

We don’t know these things because the Conservatives haven’t told us. But the review must have endorsed the F-35 because it found its way back to the cabinet agenda this past spring for a decision. In June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, apparently not satisfied he could make a convincing case to the public, bought some time by removing the item from the agenda. The government bought some more time in September by deciding to spend unannounced millions to extend until 2025 the life of the CF-18, the 30-year-old twin-engine warplane that the F-35 is meant to replace.

These moves seemed to suggest that the Tories were punting a final F-35 purchase decision until after the federal election, scheduled for October 2015.

But things are not always what they seem to be in the worlds of politics and weapons acquisition. Last week, Canadians learned, courtesy of a leak from the U.S. Pentagon, that Ottawa is proposing to fast-track its acquisition of F-35s. (Why Canadians have to learn about important issues, anything from drug safety to military purchases, from the Americans rather than from their own government is an interesting question. But I digress.)

According to the leaked Pentagon briefing, Ottawa plans to send a letter of intent to Washington this month confirming that Canada will place an order for at least four F-35s by the end of this fiscal year (next March 31). The deal is this: the U.S. Air Force has four places on the F-35 production schedule for aircraft to be delivered in 2016 or 2017. The RCAF would take those positions, and use those four aircraft for pilot training; in return the USAF would take four slots that are earmarked for Canada on the 2019 delivery schedule.

If, as we are told, no final decision has been made to buy F-35s, why the rush to order them? A cynic might suggest it has something to do with the polls. According to EKOS Research, concern about public safety, in the wake of terrorism-linked incidents in Ottawa and Quebec, has boosted the Conservatives’ standing as they rose from 12 points behind the Liberals a month earlier to just three points down today.

That movement was enough to cause Frank Graves, president of EKOS, to speculate that Harper might find it expedient to ignore the fixed-election law again and call a snap early election. In this scenario, a multi-billion dollar military purchase, plus a tough-on-crime domestic agenda, might be the ticket to re-elect the Tories. Or is this far too cynical?

Ghomeshi affair shows the importance of investigative journalism

Published on Nov. 2, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Jian Ghomeshi saga, sordid though it is, has been fascinating on several levels as it played out over the past week or 10 days.

On the most fundamental level, there’s the serious issue of violence against women; yes, in some situations, the state does have a place in the bedrooms of the nation.

On another level, there’s the potency of celebrity in the world of media and entertainment. In the lilliputian universe of Canadian radio, Ghomeshi was a giant; the women he allegedly abused were afraid to complain about him. Then there’s the peril of hubris, as Ghomeshi has surely discovered. Next, there’s the power of social media both to raise up and bring down those who play around with it; Ghomeshi used it to build a following and his own Facebook posting brought him down.

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And, sadly, there’s the cowardice – or call it the willing complicity – of his employer, the CBC, which knew of the allegations against its star radio host for many months, but made its inquiries so cursory that it was able to satisfy itself that Ghomeshi was being forthcoming and truthful when he lied that he was the innocent victim of a vindictive jilted lover. The CBC chose to believe the lie because it feared the consequences of the truth.

The aspect I wish to consider today is something different. It is what the Ghomeshi affair tells us about the importance of investigative reporting. To many people, investigative reporting is just sensationalism for the sake of selling newspapers or attracting audiences. Those people would be wrong.

Investigative reporting is at the heart of responsible journalism. It exposes corruption, abuse of trust and criminality in secret places. It reveals truths that those in power do not want told – in scandals ranging from Watergate in the United States to Airbus in Canada.

But investigative reporting is not easy and it is not cheap – two reasons why there is so little of it done these days. It requires patient, time-consuming research. A single story may tie up reporters for weeks or even months. Editors and lawyers will pick over every word looking for possible libel.

The best investigative reporting in Canada today is being done by the Toronto Star. All other news organizations followed in its wake as it peeled off the layers of the Jian Ghomeshi story. (When the National Post, Globe and Mail and the CBC itself are reduced to quoting Star disclosures, you know that newspaper is on to something big.)

Rumours about Ghomeshi and issues with women began circulating in Toronto media and legal circles last spring. The Star’s Kevin Donovan started work on the story in May, interviewing four women who claimed to have been sexually abused by Ghomeshi. None of the four had gone to the police and none was prepared at that point to let the Star publish her name. Although the Star believed the women – they independently described similar non-consensual experiences – the newspaper decided it would be irresponsible to run such an explosive story based on information from unnamed sources.

That changed when Ghomeshi went on Facebook last weekend to claim that he was the victim of a smear campaign. “A major Canadian media publication (referring to the Star) did due diligence but never printed a story. One assumes they recognized these attempts to recast my sexual behaviour were fabrications,” he wrote.

The Facebook posting was a big mistake. His public denial and assertion prompted the Star to run the story it had been sitting on. It cited separate incidents involving four women. As the week went on, that number grew to nine. At least two agreed to be named and three filed formal complaints with the police.

The sad saga is not over yet. Police are on the case. CBC has hired investigators to find out who in the organization knew what and when they found out. Jian Ghomeshi’s once bright career is in ruins. Sad is the word.

Senate majority may mean little to Republicans

Published on Oct. 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Given the current gridlock in the United States Congress, one might reasonably ask why it makes any difference who wins the Nov. 4 mid-term elections.

The American political system was created under the principle of “checks and balances” and “separation of powers,” which assumes a modicum of accommodation among the various branches of government for it to work efficiently. Alas, compromise has little resonance among contemporary political leaders in the U.S.

Only during the first two years of his presidency has Barack Obama been able to deal with a co-operative Congress. Reports suggest that immediately after his election in 2008, Republican congressional leaders vowed to frustrate his agenda at every turn

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