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.

Continue reading

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.

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.

Continue reading

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?

Canadians concerned, but not panicked

Published Oct. 27, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Reflecting on the events in Ottawa last week, the most striking thing was not the violence that took the life of a young soldier, Nathan Cirillo, at the National War Memorial and that of his murderer in a shootout in Parliament’s Hall of Honour. The most striking thing was the response to that violence from politicians, the police, the press and the Canadian public.

True, there was some silly talk on the airwaves about how this “assault on the heart of Canadian democracy” would change Canada and Canadians forever. That was nonsense. For the most part, the response was measured, restrained and thoughtful. Concerned, yes. Panicked, no. Conspiracy theories did not attract enough oxygen to survive.

Continue reading

There was a sense that we live in an age where unstable individuals — like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa or Martin Couture-Rouleau, who killed warrant officer Patrice Vincent in Quebec — will sometimes live out their religious or other fantasies by resorting to violence. It has happened before and, the world being as it is, it will happen again.

Every time it happens, there is talk of a need for greater security, for tighter laws and increased enforcement. Some steps get taken, but nothing draconian. As Canadians, we value an open society, and we want to keep it that way.

We don’t like politicians who play partisan politics with security issues, as some U.S. politicians do. We don’t like media who, as some U.S. cable stations do, play the fear card, trying to build audiences by fanning panic on issues such as ISIL and Ebola.

We try to keep a sense of perspective, and I thought CBC in particular did an exemplary job of that last week — reporting the facts, sifting truth from rumour, avoiding speculation and refusing to jump to premature conclusions.

Perspective means remembering what has gone before. I was in the Centre Block on the day in May 1966, when Paul Joseph Chartier, an embittered and unemployed security guard from Toronto, blew himself up in a Commons washroom. He had gone there to light a bomb that he had made from 10 sticks of dynamite, determined to throw it into the chamber to kill as many politicians as possible. As we learned at the subsequent inquiry, he probably would have succeeded if the clerk from whom he bought the dynamite had not sold him a shorter fuse than the one he asked for.

Security was tightened a bit after that. Even so, I recall rushing to Parliament Hill on the night in October 1970 when the FLQ murdered Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte in Montreal. For some reason, all the lights were off in the Parliament Buildings. It was eerie. I was unchallenged as I ran down the darkened Hall of Honour — and smack into Bud Drury, a senior minister in the Pierre Trudeau cabinet. After we picked ourselves up and, being Canadian, apologized, Drury told me he was headed to an emergency cabinet meeting. So I followed him.

In late August 1973, about 1,800 striking railway workers from Montreal decided to carry their protest to Ottawa. Many of them, as I wrote that day, “had slaked their thirst with something stronger than lemonade on the bus trip.” On their arrival, after pausing to scuffle with a few Maoists, they decided to storm Parliament Hill.

Some of them rushed into the Centre Block, past the startled (and unarmed) security guards, and down the Hall of Honour to what they assumed was the Commons chamber. Instead, they found themselves at the entrance to the Parliamentary Library, where they came face to face, not with cabinet ministers, but with a large marble statue of Queen Victoria. As always, Victoria radiated disapproval. Utterly confused, the strikers beat a hasty retreat.

Now, no one would suggest Queen Victoria is an answer to security issues on the Hill. But her statute is still there, still disapproving, a reminder that even in troubled times, some things remain constant.

Something Old or Something New? Territorial Development and Influence within the Canadian Federation

9781553392071

 

 

 

 

 

Authors: George Braden, Christopher Alcantara, and Michael Morden.

Published in Canada: The State of the Federation, 2011, edited by Nadia Verrelli.

Publisher: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Description: Copy of chapter available here.

Combat could be game changer in next vote

Published Oct. 14, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Whenever an election appears on the horizon, political strategists attempt to frame a “ballot question” to offer voters a bite-sized synopsis of the key issue, as the strategists see it.

For Conservatives planning next October’s federal campaign, the ballot question has been the economy and the Harper government’s wise management thereof since the crash of 2008. A federal surplus is within reach, the economy is growing again (at least a bit), interest rates are low and a brighter future lies ahead, or so it can be argued. Why risk everything by changing horses now?

Continue reading

For the opposition parties, the ballot question is a hoary one – time for a change. The New Democrats and Liberals will put different spins on the question, but the bottom line is essentially the same: after nine years, it is time to get rid of the aloof, insensitive prime minister and his arrogant Tories who care only about winning and not about the needs, hopes and dreams of ordinary Canadians.

This is pretty predictable stuff. Now, however, there is a new element – two elements, actually. First, will the war against ISIS and Canada’s involvement be what they call a “game changer?” Will it change the way Canadians look at their political leaders and their parties? Will it change their vote next October?

In one scenario, the air war goes well; ISIS is quickly contained, if not obliterated; and Canada is seen to have made a useful contribution. In this scenario, Prime Minister Harper and his Conservatives accept the credit for sound leadership and roll to victory in October.

In a second scenario – call it the Vietnam syndrome – the air war drags on with no end in sight. ISIS warriors take shelter among the civilian population and it becomes apparent it is going to take allied boots on the ground, including Canadian boots, for an indefinite period. Having bought into the U.S.-led coalition, could Canada realistically back out when the going gets tough?

But would the Canadian electorate accept an extended commitment to a war effort in which there is no evident exit strategy? And what happens if Canadian soldiers are killed or taken prisoner, or held hostage and paraded on internet videos? That would be a worst-case scenario for the Tories and could mean a ticket back to opposition.

This is why all parties are hedging their bets. The Conservatives say they signed on to the air war for six months only – a trial period that seems artificial and unrealistic. How do you fight a war with your eyes glued on the exit? The opposition parties are in a similar dilemma. They say they are opposed to joining the air war, but might change their mind later, depending on how things go. It’s a position built on quicksand, betraying both expediency and lack of commitment.

If ISIS is one potential game changer, Justin Trudeau is another. Chosen Liberal leader 18 months ago, Trudeau has enjoyed an astonishingly easy run to the top of the polls. His thin resume and meager arsenal of policies did not hinder his ascent. He has the Trudeau name – if not the steel-trap mind and icy determination of his father – and he generates genuine excitement among younger voters.

Here is an attractive young leader who wants to be prime minister, who seems impervious to Conservative attack ads, who has been forgiven assorted gaffes over the months, and who – importantly – is not Stephen Harper. What’s not to like?

The answer may have begun to emerge last week. The Commons held a debate on Canadian involvement in the ISIS war, the most important debate in the Commons in many months. It was a time for national leaders to step up. Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair stepped up, leading their parties in the debate. Trudeau did not. He left the heavy lifting to other Liberals, and he made matters worse with sophomoric sexual innuendo about fighter aircraft, an attempt at humour that was inappropriate and unfunny in a serious situation.

If Trudeau wants to lead the nation, he is going to have to prove he has what it takes.

Press Freedom, Journalism and the Duty to Answer Questions

Recently, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced that he would no longer deal with any journalists from the Sun News outlet because of a particularly virulent report from Ezra Levant.

While this is serious inside baseball, it does touch on an important point in press-government relations: Does the freedom of the press imply a duty to answer questions? Although the Trudeau-Levant kerfuffle is small-ball, the question is a larger one.

Continue reading

My first reaction is that, no, a free press does not imply a duty to answer questions.

Press freedom is usually justified on the grounds that citizens require information about public affairs that does not stem from the state itself and that a free press is a useful check on state power. On the face of it, I don’t think that the latter reason for a free press gets you at all close to justifying an obligation to answer questions. The former reason might get you closer in that in a hypothetical world where no politicians took any questions from any journalists, the citizenry might lack sufficient information to serve as citizens. But it fails on a couple of other counts. First, the obligation seems wholly impractical to implement. Second, though, even in the hypothetical scenario I described above that did involve the executive being held to account to the legislature in debate open to a free press and the legislature being held to account to the people in open elections, with a free press operating, you’d be hard pressed to argue that citizens had no access to information.

This comes up pretty often, whenever a politician gets in a fight with journalists. Politicians rarely win out when they do get in these conflicts. But it’s one thing to say that it’s good sense for politicians to deal with journalists, and another thing to say that there’s an obligation to answer questions. While most journalists are reflexive enough to be aware that a free press does not imply an obligation to answer questions, a lot of the coverage of events like these gets pretty close to implying that there is a duty which is being shirked.

Of course one of the main reasons many journalists often push this interpretation is that it’s in their interests to. I’m currently working on a research project with a colleague that will put forward some survey data from politicians and journalists that will show the competing standards for particular democratic standards differ greatly. Journalists in particular hold to standards that, surprise, surprise, emphasize the importance of their own role.

Explaining the Emergence of Indigenous–Local Intergovernmental Relations in Settler Societies: A Theoretical Framework

Authors: Jen Nelles and Christopher Alcantara.

Published September 2014 in Urban Affairs Review.

Abstract: There has been growing interest among practitioners and academics in the emergence of intergovernmental relations between local and Aboriginal governments in Canada. Initial research has focused on describing the nature of these relations but has yet to develop any theoretical expectations regarding why some communities are more likely to cooperate than others. We address this lacuna by developing a theoretical framework for explaining the emergence of cooperation between Aboriginal and local governments. After identifying a set of variables and specifying how they are likely to affect the propensity of communities to cooperate, we conclude with a discussion of how future researchers might use this framework to investigate cooperation and noncooperation between Aboriginal and local governments in Canada and in other settler societies.

Saving Canada’s “marriage”

Published Sept. 17, 2014, in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Aboriginal leaders often quip that modern treaties are like a marriage, but that Ottawa treats them like a divorce.

Recently, a new constellation of respected aboriginal leaders, politicians, judges of the highest rank, experienced civil servants, philanthropists and others came together to try to help save the marriage. Its brightest stars include two former prime ministers and several high-profile First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders.

Calling themselves Canadians for a New Partnership (CFNP), they declared in their founding declaration they would “bring a new energy and reconciliation to the project of building a better Canada.” In their view, government and civil society have so far failed to “embrace the notion of partnership fully and place it at the very heart” of the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

Click here for more…

Revisiting the Debate: Canadian and Comparative Politics

Last summer, I wrote a blog post lamenting the decline of Canadian politics.  I worried about whether the “big” departments would continue to prioritize and hire scholars to teach and write about Canadian politics.  I complained about the push for a “comparative turn” in Canadian politics, directing some worry towards a volume that many of my friends, mentors, and colleagues put together at UofT on this very issue.

Although UBC and McGill have not advertised any Canadian politics jobs recently, UofT has this year, as has Queen’s, which are welcome signs.  But the debate continues! Recently, UBC Press announced the publication of a new volume entitled, Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadian Politics, edited by some of the best, young, Canadian political scientists on the scene today (of course, I may be biased since all were at UofT when I was there and all are friends or at least acquaintances but still!).

The following below is a message from one of the editors, Luc Turgeon (assistant professor of political science at University of Ottawa), commenting on my original blog post and his new co-edited book.
Continue reading

Dear Chris –

 

I promised you last year I would eventually write a rejoinder to your blog entry “Political Scholars fiddle while Rome Burns”. I apologize for taking so long!

 

In that blog, you lamented the assault on the study of Canadian politics. You pointed to the gradual replacement of Canadian scholars by comparative ones in political science departments throughout the country and to the growing promotion of the “comparative turn in Canadian political science”, rather than a focus solely on Canada. In this year’s presidential address at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Alain Noël was similarly very critical of the “comparative turn”.

I share many of your worries about the future of our discipline. And I could not agree more with you “that political science departments in this country need to do more to protect, prioritize, and publicize the study of Canadian politics”.

 

It might seem strange that I share some of your critiques of the “comparative turn in Canadian politics” considering that I recently published a co-edited volume entitled Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadians Politics. Whereas the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science explored the ways in which Canadian scholars contribute (or not) to comparative politics theories, our book explores the ways in which the comparative method allows us to better understand Canada.

 

In our book, while promoting the potential benefits of the comparative method to the study of Canadian politics, we also acknowledge three potential limits or problems with what your present as “embracing the comparative turn”.

The first one is simply that our discipline cannot and should not be reduced to a subfield of comparative politics. Normative and critical perspectives on Canadian politics have been and are still central to our discipline. Moreover, some of the main contributions of Canadians to international political science and comparative politics have been the result of our interest (some might say obsession) with normative issues raised by the country’s struggle over national unity and debates about Canadian multiculturalism.

 

The second potential problem is that a focus on comparison can lead us to dismiss case studies or Canada-centred studies. As discussed in the introduction of our book, such case studies are crucial to explore under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and also to inductively develop new theoretical perspectives. Moreover, as Alain Noël stressed in his presidential address, comparative politics privileges a positivist epistemology. The object of social science inquiry is not always to explain, but also to interpret or to criticize. In such case, a comparative strategy might not be useful in light of the researcher’s intentions.

 

The third problem is that it can give a relatively distorted view of the history of our discipline. The main strength of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is that it documents, I believe, a real shift in the 1990s and 2000s as the number of cross-national studies of Canada increased significantly. The different contributors also artfully explore the way Canadian political scientists have been “givers” or “takers” when it comes to theories of comparative politics. These are important contributions that should not be dismissed.

 

I find problematic though the idea that, somehow, Canadian political science was before the 1990s “introspective, insular, and largely atheoretical”, to quote from the The Comparative Turn‘s blurb. While Canadian political scientists were certainly preoccupied by national unity concerns, they engaged with theoretical debates in international political science and used some of those approaches to illuminate the Canadian case. Just to give an example from our book, political economy in Canada was influenced by and engaged with theoretical perspectives such as British neo-marxism and the French regulation school.

 

Many of the critiques of the “Comparative Turn”, whether fair or not, came down to the fact that it gave the impression that our first objective as students of Canadian politics should be to contribute to the international comparative scholarship. The first objective, critiques responded, should be in fact to better understand Canada.

I believe that the comparative approach to the study of Canadian politics can contribute to the revitalization, not the cannibalization, of the study of Canadian politics. In order to do so, we must first recognize that the comparative approach is one of many other approaches that can help us better understand Canadian politics. We must also acknowledge that in order to contribute to the study of Canadian politics, our students need to know better the history of our discipline, and not only the most recent comparative theoretical approaches.

 

Comparison can play an important role in the study of Canadian politics. It allows us to overcome a number of potential pitfalls: making erroneous normative claims about aspects Canadian politics, exaggerating Canada’s specificity or uniqueness, neglecting the country’s internal diversity (which brings the important of comparative provincial or local studies), and over-emphasizing the centrality of certain factors in explaining different political phenomena.

 

More importantly for the study of Canadian politics though, the comparative method and continuing engagement with the comparative literature can leads us to ask new questions about our country and explore aspects of Canadian politics previously neglected or overlooked. As Stretton argued in the late 1960s, the function of comparison is perhaps less to simulate an experiment than to stimulate imagination.

 

Ultimately, one of the main merits of the Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science is to have contributed to a debate about methodological approaches to the study of Canadian politics. We need to pursue that reflection. There are a number of methodological approaches in fact that have not been sufficiently explored in the study of Canadian politics (life history, political ethnography, different experimental methods, etc).

 

More than a decline of Canadian politics, I see a renewal. The national unity crisis of the post-1970s had a defining impact on our discipline, contributed to the intervention of many political scientists in the public sphere and influenced their research. What I see today are a number of political scientists exploring previously under-studied aspects of Canadian politics and using different platforms to disseminate their findings. In most cases, those who adopt a comparative perspective do so not because of some sort of misguided belief in the superiority of comparative approaches, but because they think that such approaches allow us to gain important insights about our country.

 

Luc Turgeon

 

I’m a big fan of Luc Turgeon, both as a person and as a scholar.  The first time I met him, we clashed in the Sidney Smith lunch room over the value of Canadian political science. I was a very junior PhD student and Luc was one of the rising stars in the department.  I don’t remember who argued what but I do remember we had a vigorous debate and that I must have been losing because some of my colleagues began to inch away from me as the debate continued!

Luc’s letter sounds promising.  I like the nuance he provides in terms of the contributions and relationship between Canadian and comparative politics.  How many political scientists in Canada, however, agree? Maybe this book will spur a much needed debate in Canada political science departments.  Will the anti-Canadianists listen?

 

Missing Aboriginal Women and the Canadian State

This is a topic I don’t know very much about except what the statistics indicate: that this is a major problem in Canada and that it’s clear that action is needed.  But what kind of action?

The popular answer seems to be that the federal government should hold a national inquiry.  Critics counter by saying that there is already a large body of research out there and so there’s no need for another study.

Harper’s original response was that this issue was a criminal one, rather than one based in sociological issues.

So what should the federal government do? I think the government needs to act, at least symbolically, but ideally with real action.

If critics are right that there are already many studies available, then a national inquiry is not an answer.

In terms of real action, I think meeting with the provinces, the territories and Aboriginal governments and stakeholders at a series of roundtables is certainly one viable course of action and should be pursued.  Here, the participants could develop a national strategy based on existing research.

In terms of symbolic action, Harper needs to go old school.  He needs to deliver a rousing speech in Parliament, like some of the great parliamentarians, and address the Canadian people on this important issue.  Take a page from the residential school apology and use Parliament to address the nation about the importance of this problem and his desire to address it.

 

 

Canadian First Ministers’ Conferences and Heresthetic Strategies: Explaining Alberta’s Position on Multiculturalism at the 1971 Victoria Conference

Authors: Christopher Alcantara, Renan Levine, James C. Walz

Published Spring 2014 in Journal of Canadian Studies.

Abstract: The Province of Alberta seems an unlikely early advocate of multiculturalism; yet, several months before the federal government unveiled its official policy on this issue, it was an Alberta premier, Harry Strom, who demanded that multiculturalism be a condition for constitutional reform during the 1971 Victoria Constitutional Conference. What explains this puzzle? Using William Riker’s concept of heresthetics and the literature on Alberta politics, Western alienation, and Canadian federalism, the authors argue that Strom introduced multiculturalism at the conference as a strategic manoeuvre to bolster and defend Alberta’s compact perspective on federalism and to block any constitutional change that would prevent Alberta from recognizing itself as an equal and autonomous partner in the Canadian federation. The authors’ findings suggest that Riker’s concept of heresthetics may be useful for analyzing other instances of intergovernmental relations in Canada.

Taking politics out of the Senate

Published Aug. 5, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. What, one wonders, would happen if the Harper government applied that adage to the seemingly intractable issue of Senate reform?

We already know, courtesy of the Supreme Court of Canada, what is not possible. It is not possible to abolish the Senate without the unanimous consent of the provinces. The same unanimity requirement would surely pertain to any effort to redistribute Senate seats to reflect demographic reality — by taking from the East and giving to the West. Other reforms, involving the powers of the Senate, the direct election of senators or term limits for its members, would also require significant involvement of the provinces — if not unanimous agreement, at least the consent of seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population (the 7/50 rule).
Continue reading

The failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords in the Mulroney era illustrate the futility of trying to negotiate provincial agreement on constitutional proposals. It would be no easier today, in an era when the provinces simply do not trust the federal Conservative government to say what it means and to do what it says.

Given this sad reality, the trick for Stephen Harper, if he is serious about Senate change, is to work around the constitutional straitjacket by implementing measures to make the upper house more democratic, more relevant, more useful and more productive — without wasting years arguing with the provincial governments. The measures are all within the realm of possibility, and within the power of the federal government, acting on its own.

First, eliminate party blocs within the Senate by abolishing the Conservative caucus as Justin Trudeau has already abolished the Liberal caucus. Freed of partisan shackles, senators would be able to debate legislation without party rhetoric and to make laws better before sending them back to the House of Commons. Isn’t that what the chamber of sober second thought is supposed to do?

Second, flush the patronage out of the Senate system by changing the method of appointment. Direct election (as for members of the Commons), would require a constitutional amendment, but Harper doesn’t have to go that far.

He could do two things without sacrificing his constitutional prerogative to name senators. First, he could encourage provinces to hold “consultative” elections of senators, as Alberta already does. But Harper would have to pledge to appoint whomever the electorate chose, even if the person were not a Tory. Alternatively, the prime minister could invite the premiers to choose the senators for their provinces.

For example, Ontario has 24 of the 105 Senate seats. Four Ontario seats are currently vacant. Harper could invite Kathleen Wynne to present four names and he would appoint them, no questions asked. She might choose four Liberals, or she might not. That wouldn’t matter. Once partisanship is eliminated from upper house, the party stripe of newcomers will be less important than their experience and other qualifications.

Informal groups of senators, feeling the pressure of public opinion, have been meeting secretly in recent weeks to discuss ways of fixing the upper house. (Why the secrecy, I have no idea.) One of their ideas, long overdue, is that their speaker be elected by the members (as the Commons speaker is), instead of being appointed by the prime minister. Another sensible idea is to abolish the daily question period. Now that the government leader in the Senate is no longer a member of the cabinet (a move Harper made to distance himself from the Senate expenses scandal), the question period is even more useless than it has historically been, because now there is no one to answer for the government.

A better idea, I submit, would be for senators to arrange for the prime minister to attend the Senate once a week to take questions for a half-hour or so.

None of these changes would revolutionize Parliament. But they would make the Senate more relevant without reopening the Constitution.

Gendered News: An Interview with author Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant

9780774826235

Dr. Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant (Ph.D. McGill) is an associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University. Concentrating on gender and politics, her current research is comprised of several ongoing projects that deal with gendered aspects of political behaviour, representation, and news media and elections, respectively. Goodyear-Grant has also published work on attitudes toward democracy and political representation, attitudes toward the use of referenda, and so on, all part of a larger research agenda that concentrates on representation and political behaviour.

Recently, she published a book entitled Gendered News: Media Coverage and Electoral Politics in Canada. (Vancouver: UBC Press), which was shortlisted for this year’s Donald Smiley Prize. According to the jury report:

“Goodyear-Grant’s book offers a rare but important look at the relationship between media coverage and women’s representation in Canada.  In particular it “…asks whether the new media contribute to the supply- and demand-size barriers to women’s political representation.”  The answer is: yes, it does. Drawing on a considerable body of content-analytic data, alongside opinion data from the Canadian Election Studies, Goodyear-Grant offers an impressively detailed analysis of the nature and magnitude of gendered media coverage in Canada.  Goodyear-Grant makes a strong case for the importance of mass media in citizens’ ideas about politics and politicians.  She then outlines important differences in the visibility and treatment of female politicians. The book exposes the heavily biased climate in which female politicians much operate; and offers one possible explanation for ongoing gender gaps in political interest and participation.”

Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Goodyear-Grant about her new book via email during the early summer months of 2014.
Continue reading

Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?

Goodyear-Grant: Two reasons are particularly important. First, while becoming more common, analyses of media’s effects on the electoral success and political representation of the full diversity of Canadians is under-analyzed. I wrote this book, in part, to fill a gap. Unlike parties, the campaign finance regime, and other important institutions structuring candidacy and office-holding, I didn’t think we had an adequate understanding of how media affects electoral outcomes, as well as the supply of female candidates. Second, this book is also very much an evaluation of news media’s performance. News media serve multiple roles in a political system, and one of these is to act as the information provider. When news coverage is unbalanced or biased, that creates ripples in the system. Some of these may be positive, and some may be negative. I present evidence in the book that certain patterns of coverage can harm female candidates’ electoral prospects, contributing then to under-representation. In this sense, the book is an accounting of how well media live up to their primary task in a democracy. Generally, news media are doing a good job, but there is also systematic evidence of gender imbalance in coverage.

Alcantara: So what kinds of patterns of coverage did you find? And how pervasive were these patterns across media types (e.g. radio, tv, internet, etc.) and media outlets (e.g. “left-wing” vs. “right-wing” outlets)?

Goodyear-Grant: In terms of the patterns of coverage, I’ll give you the broad strokes. We tend to think about news coverage in terms of two broad categories: visibility and quality. Visibility refers to how much a person is shown or discussed, as well as how prominent in a newspaper or news broadcast their coverage is placed. On this measure, there is little systematic evidence that women are perennially disadvantaged. On certain indicators of visibility, women lag behind men, but on others, women and men are equal, or women actually outpace men. This last point is important. Some women are very prominent in news, such as former MP and cabinet minister, Belinda Stronach, as well as former NDP MP (and now mayoral candidate for the city of Toronto) Olivia Chow. Yet, this focus on women, or fixation in some cases, is often gendered. Women candidates sometimes receive a lot of news attention because of their novelty value, because they do not fit the bill of the traditional politician, or because of their connection to some powerful man, as in the case of Chow, whose marriage to the former NDP leader Jack Layton is mentioned in every one of her print news stories in my analyses of coverage of the 2006 Canadian federal election. While such coverage sets women apart as “different” because of their gender, likely contributing to enduring stereotypes that view men as the norm in political office, it is not clear that it would be an immediate electoral disadvantage for women. In fact, greater coverage can be beneficial for candidates, depending on the quality of the coverage.

On the more important issue of how men and women are covered in political news, the story is different. Systematic evidence is provided in Gendered News that women tend to be covered differently than their male counterparts because of their gender. Coverage of female candidates often fits into one of roles or stereotypes, sex object, mother, pet, and iron maiden, each of which poses dangers for women’s equal representation in politics, as well as societal gender equality more generally. Indeed, to the extent that news coverage perpetuates well-entrenched, but tired stereotypes about men’s and women’s roles, abilities, and aspirations, media contribute to broader dysfunctions in how the genders see themselves and each other.

The sex object was how Belinda Stronach was consistently portrayed, with news coverage that emphasized her appearance, personal life, and glamour over all else, but also her relationship to her powerful father, the automotive parts magnate, Frank Stronach, suggesting she was not to be taken seriously as a political figure. The iron maiden is another popular frame, and it fits with my discovery in the book that women candidates’ aggressive behaviour is exaggerated in news, while at the same time female “toughness” is implicitly criticized as “unfeminine”. This may be part of the reason for the book’s finding that news depictions of female politicians’ aggressive behaviour are actually detrimental to voters’ evaluations. When a woman goes on the offensive, voters rate her news stories more negatively, a result that was not produced for the male comparators in this portion of the study. This direct link between news coverage and public attitudes puts news media directly in the cross-hairs in assessing why women are politically under-represented.

Alcantara: And what did you find in terms of differences across media types and outlets?

Goodyear-Grant: In terms of patterns across media types and outlets, there are clear differences. The contrasts in print and broadcast coverage are due largely to the format differences. Broadcast news has very lean content. A 60-minute television newscast, leaving out time for commercials, has much less actual news than a newspaper. As such, lengthy descriptions are often absent from television news. This seems to benefit female candidates sometimes, because it is in all the descriptive material where commentary on appearances, personal lives, and the like creeps in. My analyses demonstrate that mentions of candidates’ appearances, clothes, and personal lives are much rarer in television news than in print news. Another major difference is the huge emphasis on party leaders in televised news compared to print news. Non-leader candidates are largely absent from national televised news programs. This means that without female party leaders, women are marginal in depictions of campaigns in national televised news. National papers have much more coverage of non-leader candidates, because they have more space. There are other differences, but these are some of the big ones.

In terms of outlets and whether those thought to be “left” or “right” in ideological orientation provide different coverage, not really. There aren’t actually systematic differences along these lines in hard news content (as opposed to editorial content, which I have not analyzed extensively in the book). One might expect more gender-balanced or gender-neutral coverage from outlets thought to lean “left”, but this is not borne out in the data in any systematic way. This finding is consistent with the literature on stereotypes, which says that their activation and use is largely implicit, not the result of explicit bias or prejudice.

Alcantara: Does the party to which a women politician belongs matter for your findings? Or any other individual characteristics, like ethnicity, age, or the like?

Goodyear-Grant: These are complicated questions. Separating the effects of gender on news coverage, on the one hand, from those of party, ethnicity, age, and other characteristics is tough. Starting with the question of party – the most critical consideration guiding the vote, and a powerful influence on news coverage as well – my book proposes that party does matter a great deal. One of the important points here is that gender and party stereotypes interact in important ways. To give an example, women in left-wing parties may be portrayed as more “soft”, compassionate, and liberal than they really are, in part because stereotypes about women and left-leaning parties encourage this. In contrast, where stereotypes collide, such as women in right-leaning parties, the outcome may be different. News stories may depict right-wing women as tougher, more aggressive – as possessing more masculine traits, essentially – because of party. Simply put, party moderates the impact of gender on news coverage.

Other individual characteristics can matter too for how gender influences media coverage. Ethnicity and age are obvious factors. Part of the difficulty in sorting out how they matter is that there have been comparatively few visible minority women and young women office holders to study. I cannot offer systematic evidence, but the analyses in the book suggest that minority and young women may get more coverage on account of their relative novelty, but their coverage may be problematic in what it says or implies about them. For example, my analyses suggest that visible minority women are often presented as exotic.

Alcantara: What kinds of advice might you offer female politicians as they navigate the news media? How about journalists?

Goodyear-Grant: These questions find me on shakier ground! I cannot claim to have much advice for female politicians about how to avoid gendered news, and I say this for several reasons. First, much of the gendering is beyond candidates’ control. There isn’t a whole lot many of them can do about their coverage. Even if they could, it would require hiding or de-emphasizing aspects of their personal lives or who they are – such as de-emphasizing the fact that they have children – and I’m not sure this is a good thing. I interviewed former Prime Minister Kim Campbell for this research, and one of the things she said about going into politics is that you cannot any longer be your authentic self, a fact she found unfortunate. I suppose this is true for both men and women, but to then take it one step further for women and strip them of all the things that make them different from men or that remind the electorate that they’re mothers or wives or daughters is ridiculous. The sacrifice is too great. It also does nothing to push newsmakers, and all of us, away from the idea that politics is a male preserve. Finally, the idea that gendered news is best avoided is not universally true, and especially not in the eyes of candidates on the campaign trail. While I make the case in the book that gendered news, broadly, ultimately harms women’s political representation, at the individual level it is not difficult to identify instances where gendered news has created opportunities for female candidates, either as a result of the practices that produce it or the way it’s received by audiences. Some of the female MPs I interviewed for the book felt, for example, that their gender garnered attention, and they welcomed the “leg up”, so to speak. Gendered news can present both opportunities and obstacles, is what I’m saying.

Journalists generally do a decent job of providing gender-balanced coverage, an important finding in the book. My advice to newsmakers would be to exercise caution and vigilance. Simple. Much of the gendered news coverage that is produced is the result of gender-based stereotypes, which get cued implicitly, without motive or conscious action. In other words, we are susceptible to gendered thinking about candidates because that is the schema with which we look at men and women in the world, all of us, and in many situations. Newsmakers need to be more cautious in the words they choose to describe female candidates and the topics in their stories about female candidates.

Alcantara: Now that this book is done, what’s your next major project?

Goodyear-Grant: I have a few projects active at the moment. I’m working on several papers assessing gender and race affinities in candidate preferences with Erin Tolley, my colleague at University of Toronto, using data collected from web-based survey experiments conducted over the past year. I’m also embarking on a new 5-year SSHRC-funded project with Amanda Bittner, my colleague at Memorial University, whereby we intend to identify better gender measures for use in survey research, with a focus on election and public opinion surveys. The challenge with this work is that we need to identify the politically-relevant aspects of gender identity, test various operationalizations of these, and then further test how these can be combined in an economical way for widespread use in standard public opinion and election surveys. This is an exciting project, to be sure, and one that is both methodologically and substantively innovative in its outcomes.