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“When the facts change, I change my mind.” Famed economist John Maynard Keynes is purported to have made this comment when challenged to defend inconsistencies in his works over the years. To Keynes, dogma was a dangerous thing preventing otherwise sensible people from revising previously held ideas, beliefs, arguments or conclusions. Evidence, information, and facts ought to shape our beliefs and ideas, argued Keynes; if they change, so too must the conclusions drawn from them. What a shame it is the Prime Minister of Canada does not agree.

Indeed, if Stephen Harper has a legacy it is his utter contempt for facts, and his government’s thuggish efforts to ignore or eliminate those that clash with his dogmatic agenda.

Consider the census. Harper’s Conservative government replaced the mandatory long-form census in 2010 with a voluntary one. A promise rooted in Reform Party populism, the decision no doubt satisfied the Conservatives’ base; it has also all but eliminated vital information about Canada’s population in the years following the 2008 economic crash that ought to have been available to statisticians, policymakers, even politicians to inform the country’s thinking and guide its actions. Eliminated.

More recently, Harper’s government unveiled plans to allow Canadian bread-winners to split their incomes with their stay-at-home spouses to lower their overall household tax burden. Only a government that steadfastly, deliberately ignores the facts would enact such a policy. After all, according to at least one study, “The bottom 60% of all families (those making $56,000 or less) would receive, on average, $50. Most families would receive no benefit whatsoever… In contrast, the richest 5% of all Canadian families — those making over $147,000 — would see an average benefit of $1,100, with one in 10 of this elite group gaining more than $5,000 from this loophole.” Moreover, this policy, for which the top 5% of Canadian families will benefit more than the bottom 60%, will cost the treasury nearly $1.7 billion in 2015 alone.

Why let the facts get in the way of a campaign promise? Or for that matter, taking action to avert the greatest ecological catastrophe in human history: climate change.

For nearly ten years the Prime Minister and his ministerial minions have avowed real action to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions all the while doing nothing to actually reduce them. Worse, in the interim, they have gutted environmental protection legislation, eased restrictions on further oil and gas projects, muzzled federal scientists who might speak ill of the government’s agenda, and waged an all-out war against science.

Adding insult to injury, the federal government has spent nearly half a billion dollars in the last five years on advertising. A staggering sum relative to previous governments in previous years. If Harper and his ilk were guided by fact and reason, why so much money spent to convince Canadians they are doing the right thing? Exactly.

In a bizarre bit of irony, a little-known but significant project currently underway in Ottawa to commemorate the “victims of communism” might well serve as a fitting tombstone to Stephen Harper’s own legacy of intellectual cowardice. To be clear: the federal government is moving ahead with plans to erect a sizeable monument between the the country’s Supreme Court and Library and Archives to honour the memory of those people who lived and died under communist regimes. Seriously. This soaring concrete structure, which some architects (ahem, experts in their field) are concerned will dwarf the surrounding federal buildings, is meant to serve as a sombre yet scathing indictment of a particular economic and social theory. If only Ronald Reagan were alive today, those Irish eyes would be glistening.

This is not a memorial to the victims of forced collectivization or to state-sanctioned genocide. Nor is it a memorial to the victims of Stalin’s or Mao’s totalitarian tyrannies. Though such things will surely be invoked at the forthcoming ribbon-cutting ceremony. This isn’t even a memorial to the victims of an idea. Racism, antisemitism, homophobia, misogyny: pernicious ideas deserving memorialization. Communism? Socialism? Liberalism? A memorial to the “victims of communism” is akin to commemorating those factory workers who perished in that fire in Bangladesh with a memorial to “victims of capitalism.”

No doubt the federal government would argue communism is synonymous with so many heinous atrocities, hence victims of communism. Seriously, is Conrad Black consulting on this project? The conflation of an idea with the actions of those who purport to be motivated by it is intellectually dishonest, historically inaccurate, and paints a painfully simplistic worldview.

Then again, should we expect anything else from Stephen Harper? For nearly ten years, Harper has shown a profound disdain for intelligent discourse and for evidence-based policy making, for the scientific method and for academic research, for nuance and for history. In its place, baseless dogma — and a hulking mass of concrete and steel.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

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Greg Selinger is making history. And not just in Manitoba. The current crises of leadership and governance that have beset his administration are without precedent in Canada, or indeed in any modern Westminster-style parliament. How the beleaguered Premier has chosen to respond to the situation at 450 Broadway also speaks volumes about his political acumen (it is terrible) and his ability to lead the government (he cannot).

Despite repeated claims to the contrary, it is neither acceptable nor factual for NDP brass to insist the situation is run-of-the-mill party politics. Ministerial resignations are a rare thing, especially in Canada. Having five of a cabinet’s senior-most ministers resign en masse is rarer still. That they do so because they’ve lost confidence in their prime minister is unheard of. This alone ought to have compelled Selinger’s resignation. Ought to, but didn’t.

No, Greg Selinger soldiers on — or so he would have you to see it. The plucky premier weathering the storm! Rising to the occasion! Showing strength in the face of adversity! Pick your metaphor, they’re all delusions. Never before has a sitting prime minister held a leadership contest in which he or she themselves will compete. It isn’t just bizarre, it’s idiotic.

The questions Selinger’s contest raises are many and worrisome, especially since he has already made plain he won’t be resigning from his own cabinet post (as leadership aspirants were required to do in 2009) while running for the job he already occupies.

Will his Ministers be required to pledge their loyalty, or at least their neutrality in this contest? If not, how can our Cabinet Government possibly function? If so, doesn’t that only reinforce the weakness of his position?

For the New Democratic caucus, surely every vote his government brings forward in the legislature is a vote for or against his continued leadership. For those who no longer have confidence in Selinger, why wait until March of 2015 to register their displeasure? Party loyalty? That went out the window when Oswald, Swan, Struthers, Howard and Selby violated the principle of cabinet solidarity. Fear of losing confidence of the entire legislature, triggering the dissolution of the parliament and a snap election? Exactly.

Therein lies the rub. It isn’t just Greg Selinger who thinks he can have it both ways. His party also seem to be of the mind they can continue to claim the moral authority to govern whilst holding a contest that cuts to the very heart of their ability to do so: who should lead them. Which is why it is no longer acceptable to treat the imbroglio on Broadway as a party matter; it’s a parliamentary matter and, in the absence of an election, ought to be dealt with by that body.

Regrettably, while Canada has imported most of its parliamentary conventions from the Palace of Westminster, it neglected to adopt one of its most crucial: the ability for a party’s parliamentary caucus members to oust their parliamentary leader.

Some, no doubt those loyal to Selinger, would argue this would be “undemocratic” — that it isn’t for the caucus to determine who should lead the party; it should be the members. Except what’s democratic about party members determining who should be premier? Sure, during elections in a roundabout way voters get to make that determination, but what about in between them as in now during this extraordinary situation unfolding in Manitoba?

The problem, it would seem, is that we do not draw a distinction between party leader and parliamentary leader — even though, for the purposes of governing, the distinction is profound.

Had the NDP caucus had the authority to remove Selinger from his post, the current crises would likely have been over by now. Either Selinger would’ve been removed and a new parliamentary leader installed, or he would’ve remained and any further questions about his fitness to lead put to rest until the general election. Instead, we are now faced with the prospect of four more months of further speculation, doubt, instability and drift until the NDP party holds its conference in March. Then what? The noblest thing Greg Selinger could have done — and should have done — is call an election now. Even more democratic than allowing his parliamentary caucus to determine his fate would have been to allow all Manitobans to do so.

It should be said: the NDP alone can’t be blamed for the way in which this situation is being managed. It’s not entirely implausible another party would have handled it any differently, especially if the alternative for that party was being relegated to the opposition benches (as it is for the New Democrats). No, it has been in every major party’s interests, in the provinces and in Ottawa, to exert maximum control over the functions of parliament.

What this situation further demonstrates, however, is that Canada’s major political parties can no longer be trusted to manage the affairs of the nation’s parliaments. Consider how the House of Commons is choosing to address serious allegations of sexual harassment between sitting MPs: behind closed doors. As with the Selinger fiasco, the situation in Ottawa isn’t an internal party matter; it’s a matter for us all.

Sadly, unless or until Canada’s political parties agree to divest themselves of at least some of their authority over their own affairs, the situation — be it in Manitoba, or in Ottawa — will not change. Perhaps voters in Manitoba and across Canada will take up the charge in 2015. They would be wise to do so.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

By now many Manitobans, and indeed many Canadians, are aware of the facts surrounding the deaths of Brian Sinclair, Heather Brennan, David Silver, Phoenix Sinclair, and Tina Fontaine. While the facts surrounding each are unique, sadly the outcomes are not: five victims; five preventable tragedies.

For nearly 34 hours Brian Sinclair languished in his wheelchair in the ER waiting room of the Health Sciences Centre seeking treatment for a blocked catheter. He died in that chair around the 27th hour without having been triaged, let alone seen by a doctor.

Sixty-eight-year-old Heather Brennan collapsed on her doorstep upon returning home from the Seven Oaks ER. Despite being diabetic and requiring blood thinners, medications for both were halted before she was discharged; an autopsy later revealed she died from blood clots in her legs.

At 1:00 a.m. on December 31, 2013, 78-year-old David Silver, suffering from gallstones and kidney stones, was discharged from the Grace Hospital into a taxi cab and sent home in nothing more than a nightgown. Like Heather Brennan, he, too, died on his doorstep. The ambient temperature that night reached a historic -37C.

Phoenix Sinclair was in and out of CFS care for most of her 5-year-old life; agencies were contacted no less than 13 times concerning her well-being; files were opened and closed without social workers ever actually seeing her. She was finally returned to her biological mother in March of 2005, and was beaten to death in June of that year. Her body, wrapped in plastic and buried in a shallow grave, went undiscovered for nine months.

Tina Fontaine, 15 years old and in Winnipeg for a matter of weeks, came into contact with outreach workers, police officers, health officials and CFS authorities numerous times in the days leading up to her body being discovered by the Alexander docks on August 17. Every time, this 15 year-old girl – by now already known to be missing – was released, discharged or simply let go.

Unquestionably, the system failed these five individuals and others like them. The system: various state apparatuses, charged with the care, protection and well-being of society’s most vulnerable; over-loaded, under-resourced, and ill-equipped.

Yes, the “system” failed Brian Sinclair. It failed Heather Brennan and David Silver. And it failed Phoenix Sinclair and Tina Fontaine.

Is it possible, however, our system has given cover to those individuals working within it, relieving them of any personal responsibility for the people in their care? Is it time we rethink the degree to which we allow inanimate agencies to shoulder the blame for such tragedies? Would holding actual individuals—from front-line workers through to politicians—responsible for the tragedies fix what is so terribly broken?

The provincial government convened inquests into the deaths of Brian Sinclair and Phoenix Sinclair. The WRHA conducted internal investigations into the deaths of Heather Brennan and David Silver. The Winnipeg Police Service is investigating its own. True. However, despite these investigations, inquests and administrative actions, has a single individual resigned their post, been fired from their job, or found guilty of criminal negligence?

No longer can we allow politicians the discretion to convene judicial inquiries. No longer can they be allowed to set their scope. Each death deserves a full judicial inquiry; not just an inquest; not just a verbal apology blaming the system, and certainly not the scapegoating of a taxi driver. No, each victim deserves a full judicial inquiry that is automatically empowered to go where the evidence leads it, and if appropriate, recommend criminal charges be laid against all those individuals working within the system who failed.

There is little doubt autonomous judicial inquiries, free from political interference, would ask very uncomfortable questions while trying to determine responsibility; no doubt, the answers they elicit even more so. However, in asking these questions, what a judicial inquiry would make plain is that individuals have chosen careers that require them to uphold the professional and moral obligation to help others, to do no harm, and to serve and protect.

Yes, these individuals are confronted daily with difficult questions and must make even more difficult decisions about how to handle people like Brian Sinclair, Heather Brennan, David Silver, Phoenix Sinclair, and Tina Fontaine. However, when the answers they arrive at and the decisions they make are inconsistent with the professional and moral code inherent in their positions and this directly affects the outcome of individuals’ very lives, should they not be found culpable? Because it wasn’t just the system’s fault; it was the fault of the people comprising it as well.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair or just to only blame a single front-line service worker in these cases. Because in each instance there exists a chain of command, a decision-making hierarchy, a Ministerial policy directive and layers of administrators executing it: all actual people working within our system.

Truly autonomous and fully-empowered judicial inquiries would ensure everyone operating within the system—from the front-line service worker all the way up the labyrinthine bureaucratic network to the desk of the related Minister of the Crown—had their various roles in the tragedy examined to determine the extent to which each affected the outcome.

Until the very livelihoods of the professionals working within our system and the politicians who oversee it are at stake, like the very lives they are meant to be safeguarding, our system will continue to languish and people will continue to die. Blame the system? Sure. But hold the people responsible.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

Homelessness and human rights took centre stage at two of Winnipeg’s iconic locales this past weekend: at Portage and Main, the Downtown BIZ’s third annual CEO Sleep-out, and at the Forks, the inaugural opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. With the Sleep-out, the BIZ was drawing attention to the issue of homelessness, as well as the poverty, addiction and mental illness that contribute to it. For the museum, a celebration of human rights. Both issues are important. Both are deserving of society’s attention and, even more so, action.

However, do a group of CEOs, politicians, glad-handers and hangers-on camping out at Portage and Main—comfortably, in sleeping bags—do much to actually alleviate homelessness? Does a national museum for human rights—built at a cost of nearly $400 million—do anything to address the continuing human rights violations of the very peoples on whose land the museum is situated?

Sure, supporters of both events would undoubtedly argue they’re “raising awareness” about these issues. Raising awareness: a bromide too frequently substituted for actually doing something. Is there a person in this city, or any for that matter, who isn’t aware there are some who are tragically homeless? Is there a person here, or anywhere in Canada, who isn’t aware of the myriad ways governments and churches together conspired to erase the existence of Aboriginal peoples—or the crippling poverty in which so many still live?

But think of the money the Sleep-out raised! Nearly $200,000! Yes, imagine if the roughly 160 participants had each simply written a cheque for $1,250, and hadn’t talked or tweeted about it. Or was that what was meant by “raising awareness?” Those selfless sleepers were raising awareness about their own selflessness.

Honestly, there’s nothing dignified about slum tourism. And what else to call a guided (and guarded) tour of downtown’s shelters and soup kitchens; a food truck serving ribs and oysters at midnight; be-gowned and be-jewelled VIPs, fresh from the museum’s gala, photo-bombing campers’ selfies? Raising awareness, indeed.

(Pro tip, campers: if you’re looking for ways to network, join LinkedIn or attend a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Don’t spend the night beneath Winnipeg’s own JumboTron, warmed by its glow, the small-batch bourbon in your mongrammed flask, and that down-stuffed sleeping bag.)

Meanwhile, on the very same banks as the CMHR, individuals have had to take it upon themselves to dredge the Red River for the remains of Aboriginal women and girls—taken, tortured, then dumped like refuse to be forgotten—because there isn’t the will amongst wider society to give closure to their families and friends.

As has been well publicized, across Canada over 1000 Aboriginal women are either missing or, worse, presumed murdered; their lives snuffed out, their very existence erased by acts of utter inhumanity. Erased. Not unlike the genocide committed against Canada’s Aboriginal peoples; a genocide recognized by academics, historians, even the United Nations—but not by the very museum located on Treaty 1 land, designed and dedicated to the exploration of and education about human rights, a stone’s throw from where Tina Fontaine’s body was found stuffed in a plastic bag.

How can the “Tower of Hope” possibly inspire such feelings of optimism if, at the same time, the very institution on which it stands refuses to acknowledge the full scope of atrocities committed against Aboriginal peoples historically, or the crimes being committed against them right now on the museum’s own river bank?

Oh, but surely the generations of students from Winnipeg and across the country that will pass through the museum’s doors will be forever changed by the interactive, multi-media exhibits documenting the nasty things people have done to each other and the ways in which Canada and other countries have worked to ensure such atrocities aren’t repeated! Surely, too, ours will become a more tolerant, inclusive society because of this national museum, the first of its kind outside of the nation’s capital. And surely, above all, there was no better way to spend over a quarter of a billion dollars on the cause of human rights!

Why must it be an either-or proposition? Why can’t we have awareness-raising sleep-outs and actually help end homelessness; erect a museum for human rights and actually do something to stop their ongoing violations in this country? We can, but we rarely do. Too often governments, emboldened by an electorate overcome with cognitive dissonance, choose spectacle over substance; the shorter, less complicated, less uncomfortable route.

Fitting, then, the Downtown BIZ’s CEO Sleep-out and the opening gala of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights took place on the same night, both nothing more than spectacles fuelled by ego shockingly insensitive in their handling of the issues they’re meant to be addressing. And above all, considered substantive only through willful ignorance.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

It’s as if our mayoral hopefuls are standing atop those unsightly giant marbles that line Portage Avenue; their vantage points slightly higher up than the rest of ours, but not so elevated they can actually see the city en masse. The result: back-of-the-napkin proposals, unhinged from any sort of evidence-based footing, isolated from any sort of coherent, wider platform; populist, headline-seeking bumph unworthy of serious consideration were it not for the fact we now expect so little of our civic leaders, our standards for them so utterly diminished.

Those who vie for the Premier’s seat in the Legislature, or the Prime Minister’s chair in the House of Commons are held to a far higher standard. We demand from our provincial and federal leaders fully-costed, comprehensive policy platforms before we cast our ballots. Those journalists covering such elections scrutinize the parties’ platforms, and pillory those when their math doesn’t add up, or where their proposals don’t make sense. Surely, we should be holding those seeking municipal office—regardless of the absence of political parties—to that same level of scrutiny.

And yet. On public transit and policing, the downtown and aerial drones, grocery stores and garbage pick-up, red-light cameras and racism, our mayoral hopefuls have offered us little more than mush.

More cops! A downtown grocer! Fewer potholes! Smaller malathion buffer zones!

Absent from the endless stream of ethno-cultural selfies posted to candidates’ social media feeds, and the empty rhetoric of their campaign “announcements,” is a substantive discussion about the fundamental problem with Winnipeg: it is woefully unsustainable.

Over 50 years of unchecked suburban expansion—fuelled by the antiquated and wholly regressive property tax revenue model—has produced a city so terribly hollowed out at its core, so lacking in the kind of healthy density modern metropolitan areas require to be cost-effective in both maintenance and operation.

And yet. Our candidates seem determined to pave more roads, further and further afield, to service a seemingly endless outward expansion of the city’s suburbs.

  • Judy Wasylycia-Leis is promising to, “take a bite out of Winnipeg’s infrastructure deficit” by spending an additional, “$60 million in local and regional roads over the next four years.”
  • Gord Steeves, despite calling for a property tax freeze, wants to, “make sure 75 per cent of road construction [happens] 24-hours a day, seven days a week.”
  • Brian Bowman would, “invest an additional $10 million dollars each year, over the next four years, into the city’s infrastructure budget to improve Winnipeg’s crumbling roads,” by finding, “two per cent savings in [the city’s] annual operating costs.”
  • Robert Falcon-Oullette, with the most ambitious plan of the bunch, has tabled a, “$250-million plan to prevent and patch potholes, and pave Winnipeg’s worst streets.”

So much concrete. But don’t worry, our candidates also want a vibrant downtown, too!

Granted, not all candidates agree on what vibrancy actually looks like: Bowman, for example, has said, “our downtown needs to feel like a neighborhood for residents with similar amenities that many people currently enjoy in the suburbs.” That’s right, because what’s missing from downtown is the soullessness of the suburban wasteland, with its big-box stores, chain restaurants, eight-lane highways, and the near impossibility of actually getting anywhere on foot.

Newsflash: Winnipeg can’t have it both ways: city leaders and planners long ago sacrificed a people-centric urban community, for a car-centric suburban one. (The closure of Portage and Main to pedestrians was and remains a fitting metaphor.) We are now paying the price for their lack of foresight, and will continue to do so as our infrastructure crumbles more quickly than we can afford to replace it.

That’s not to say we should let our infrastructure crumble. However, any talk of spending money on improvements to existing infrastructure, let alone new construction, ought to be done with the recognition we can’t keep doing things like we have been doing them for the past 50-plus years.

And yet. Where is the moratorium on new suburban expansion; a realignment of civic planning around higher-density, infill development; a transportation plan that places a primacy on public transit, not private automobiles—and seeks out ways to make it more advantageous and affordable to choose the bus, a bicycle or one’s own two feet than the family sedan? At least when Gord Steeves calls for the cancellation of the southern BRT corridor, he’s being internally consistent with the rest of what passes for his platform. The other candidates seem convinced we can have it all. No, we cannot.

Are the costs associated with completing the southern transit corridor high? Absolutely. Consider, though, the distances that must be covered for the system to service so few people. Winnipeg’s urban density is nearly a third of Toronto’s or Chicago’s. Is this reason enough to cancel the project? No: a robust public transportation system is an essential mitigating measure to slow the sprawl and to begin the admittedly costly, but vitally important process of improving Winnipeg’s long-term economic and environmental viability.

And yet. Sadly, even a state-of-the-art rapid transit system won’t change prevailing attitudes. Is it any wonder our mayoral hopefuls don’t speak of sustainability, but instead talk of potholes? Winnipeggers are their own worst enemies: blissfully unconcerned with the implications of continuing to embrace an inefficient, unsustainable urban model, slavishly dependent upon concrete and gasoline.

Perhaps it isn’t just the candidates we need to be holding to a higher standard, but each other.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.