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Sunday, June 26, 2011

More ruminations on 21st century learning and the concept of change

As usual in the distributed learning (DL) world, the month of June is absurdly hectic. Students who’ve enjoyed the right to create their own learning schedules realize, at the end, that no right exists without a corresponding responsibility. And now - as their asynchronous bliss meets the realities of graduation, post-secondary timetables and the rigours of employment - their panic must become my panic!

In any case, I am returning to my blog with a multitude of ideas for the summer. The one topic that continues to dominate my thoughts is “21st century learning”. In my last blog entry, I discussed the bait and switch nature of this latest educational bandwagon. The Minister of Education and his underlings are baiting us with golden visions of individualized learning, where students can follow their own pursuits and passions and be forever unshackled from the factory-like uniformity that supposedly characterizes (and impedes) our modern education system.

My response is one of deep suspicion. In my opinion, the vision they propose is extremely unrealistic. The amount of time and resources it would require is almost immeasurable, and will certainly not be available to a branch of government that the Minister has said will only receive “incremental funding” in the near future.1 Instead of personalized learning, I fear we will instead be switched to something less savoury: correspondence courses within brick and mortar institutions.

There are others (like here and here) who see an even more insidious game afoot. For them, this 21st century bait and switch is actually a Trojan Horse. Hidden inside the promises of “creativity and innovation”, “[t]ailored learning” and “[a]daptability” 2 are the banal realities of 19th century power politics: the breaking of unions; the end of work-hour, seniority and autonomy provisions; and the centralized control of professional development. Recent talks between BCPSEA and the ministry have focused upon the apparently inflexible nature of the current teachers’ contract, and how it’s an obstacle to 21st century learning. Indeed, in a recent government presentation to the BCTF, the rather cryptic nature of government objectives has led to a real fear by teachers that 21st century learning is simply code for breaking the BCTF and imposing a Wisconsin-style work environment. Nobody really knows what the government objectives mean in concrete, policy-manual terms, but here are a few objectives that can spark your imagination:

  • We want the right teachers placed in the right positions. Qualified and suitable teachers – in best “fit” placements - lead to better learning
  • We want to ensure that school districts are able to make human resource decisions that are effective and efficient
  • We want to align professional development with teacher performance evaluations and school district policy requirements.

In the end, I am not entirely sure if the worst-case scenario is any different from the bargaining objectives of past Socred, NDP and Liberal governments. Perhaps the BCTF is ramping up the concern in anticipation of the upcoming strike vote. Nevertheless, I’ll follow the old adage and “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. My apprehension about 21st century learning, not surprisingly, remains strong.


Another curious development related to the 21st century learning bandwagon is the colonization of the word “change”. As a person trained in political philosophy and the politics of language, I'm fascinated by the politicization of the word. Perhaps "change" is destined to become politicized any time there are great struggles between groups seeking to preserve and those seeking to change the status quo, or between groups who have competing visions of the future. In the context of BC’s education system, “change” has become weaponized. In other words, it has become a unit of rhetorical armament that is deployed at the first sign of dissent. What do you mean you oppose these policies? Why are you scared of change? Clearly you are an obstacle to 21st century realities! If you’re a skeptic like me, you’ve doubtlessly encountered this threat response many times. Those who ask tough questions about policy shifts (such as the underlying assumptions, the actual costs, and the positive policies that may be discarded) are often cast as “resistors” to change. We are dinosaurs who care only for ourselves, and not “the kids”. [In education, appealing to "the kids" is like both sides in the Crusades appealing to God.]

Notice what’s going on. “Change” does not imply that the intended alterations are positive. Change is simply difference or an adjustment of position. It’s not a straight line of progress from the Dark Ages to the Age of Enlightenment. It could be meandering. It could ultimately bring us back to the starting point. It says nothing of the merit of that adjustment. In short, "change" means nothing.

Yet to the “change agents” who view dissenters as obstacles rather than valued interlocutors, their change is necessarily good. They've captured a neutral term and armed it with a more powerful meaning - goodness - that no one wants to oppose.

But this is nonsense. If I oppose your “change”, it’s because I believe your proposal is flawed. Just because you invoke “change” does not mean I concede its superiority. I believe my own position, which may or may not be the status quo, is better than yours. Amongst other things, I believe my position is better because it more accurately aligns itself with human nature, actual financing and/or the nature of institutions. And it offers less BS.

In the end, teachers ought to be very wary of “change”, whether it’s change for the sake of change, change that merely advances a person’s career, or – in the worst case situation – change that masks a partisan, non-consensual agenda. Above all else, don’t let others define their change as necessarily good change. If you do, and the BCTF is right about the government’s desire for less union protection, then those who demand honesty and clarity will be the first to go.


1. Abbott, George. “Opening Remarks”, Digital Learning Spring Conference: Personalized Learning for the 21st Century. April 18, 2011.

2. Premier’s Technology Council. A Vision for 21st Century Education. (http://www.gov.bc.ca/premier/attachments/PTC_vision%20for_education.pdf) Dec. 2010. Accessed 25 June 2011.

Posted by Colin Welch at 2:12 PM
Edited on: Sunday, June 26, 2011 5:56 PM
Categories: BC Politics, Education, Language, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Why I Would Never Vote for Harper's Conservatives: A List

Sometimes you need a list to keep yourself organized, or at least to remember all the things you don’t want to forget. With this in mind, I’ve decided to create a list of all the reasons why I would never vote for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Prorogation: The cynicism of Stephen Harper was never more apparent when he used prorogation to avoid a non-confidence vote in 2008. [http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/547336]
  2. The Coalition Redux: Harper must be staggeringly contemptuous of Canadians to decry a possible Liberal-led coalition when he championed a Conservative-led coalition in 2004. [http://news.sympatico.ctv.ca/canada/text_of_harpers_2004_letter_with_ndp_bloc/d270517f]
  3. Inequality: Harper’s tax cuts (following the Chretien and Martin Liberals) have, as usual, benefited the richest in our country, and have led to a growing gap between the richest 20% and everyone else. [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/economy-lab/the-economists/were-ignoring-inequality-at-our-peril/article1820187/] [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/the-rich-really-are-getting-richer/article1819803/]
  4. Tax Cuts and Productivity: In the last decade, corporate tax cuts have been promoted as a means to improve productivity. The result? Canada’s productivity is actually worse, and the lost revenue has gone elsewhere, presumably to amplify corporate profits and shareholder dividends, boost mergers and acquisitions, and increase CEO bonuses. (See # 3 above.) [http://www.td.com/economics/special/ab0610_productivity.pdf] [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/economy-lab/the-economists/five-reasons-to-say-no-to-more-corporate-tax-cuts/article1886449]
  5. Unemployment and the Middling Economic Recovery: While much has been made about Canada's economic superiority relative to the United States, the truth is that our economic performance is ambiguous at best. The biggest problem is unemployment. The rate sits at 7.8% (as of March 2010), and hasn't moved much in the last two years. In the meantime, most new jobs are temporary and those on EI insurance are staying longer than usual. (See # 3 above.) The stimulus program that we see on thousands of signs still has not addressed our municipal infrastructure deficit, and GDP growth is decidedly mediocre compared to most other developed countries. To be sure, we continue to benefit from Asian demand for our resources, and from the relatively strict regulations of the banking industry instituted by the Liberals, but neither can be claimed as victories by the Conservatives. [http://www.hrmguide.net/canada/jobmarket/canadian-unemployment.htm] [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/not-exactly-an-economic-gold-medal/article1962041/]
  6. The F-35 Fiasco: Who in their right mind would support a multi-billion dollar contract that is not subject to a competitive bid process? And which favours an extremely expensive single-engine aircraft for a country that has always needed a two-engine aircraft for patrolling the Arctic? [http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2011/03/10/354228/canada-f-35-cost-estimate-soars-66-report.htm]
  7. Senate Appointments: For a man who (rightly) derided the Liberal’s abuse of Senate appointments, and who has said repeatedly he would not appoint senators, Harper’s never-ending Senate appointments are "obscene". [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/article729200.ece]
  8. Speaking of the Senate, what about Harper's ill-conceived scheme to allow Senate elections? On the face of it, elections sound very democratic. However, there is no talk about redistributing the seat allocation, which is heavily skewed against western Canada (and most particularly British Columbia). Therefore, merely promoting elections would be a disaster for the West. [http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2006/12/13/harper-senators.html]
  9. Bill C-393: One of the most egregious failures in the last Parliament involved a bill that would send generic Canadian drugs to Africa to combat diseases like AIDS and TB. The bill passed in the House of Commons (with the support of 26 Tories), but was blocked by a Conservative majority in the Canadian Senate (see #6 above). The ridiculuousness of appointed senators subverting a democratically-supported bill in the House was matched by the sad confirmation that poor people mattered less to the Tories than Canada’s major pharmaceutical companies. [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/second-reading/gerald-caplan/how-can-conservative-senators-look-at-themselves-in-the-mirror/article1967459]
  10. Research and Development Fiasco: The Conservative's Research and Development Tax Credit program has been a disaster, with billions being wasted on questionable recipients and consultant’s fees. And even the “government’s own studies have found the program generates almost no economic benefits”. [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/flawed-rd-scheme-costs-taxpayers-billions/article1939418]

  11. Corruption and Arrogance: This last one requires a list all of its own. In the last six months, the Tories have been wracked with never-ending revelations of corrupt officials and arrogant politicians. They make the Liberals appear almost benign. Almost.

a. The “in and out” financing scheme skirted the rules about national spending; the Tories used local money for national campaigning, and now four Conservatives (including two senators) have been charged under Election Canada rules. Even two former Tory MP’s have spoken out about the chicanery. [http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Tory+scheme+violated+Elections+Appeal+Court/4368357/story.htm] [http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/breakingnews/mobile/former-tory-mps-speak-out-against-conservative-in-and-out-scheme-117368283.htm]

b. Bev Oda thought that politically-inspired alteration of documents, and avoiding responsibility for the alteration, were just fine. [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/speaker-rebukes-bev-oda-over-document-in-kairos-case/article1903110]

c. When the Tory government refused to disclose the full cost of its crime bill legislation, even though it was directed to by a Parliamentary Committee, the Speaker of the House was compelled to find the government in contempt of Parliament. As Speaker Milliken said, “This is a serious matter that goes to the heart of the House’s undoubted role in holding the government to account." [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/speakers-contempt-rulings-add-ammunition-to-election-minded-opposition/article1935375]

d. Jason Kenney’s office used the official government letterhead for partisan fundraising purposes. [http://www.canada.com/news/Jason+Kenney+apologizes+staffer+quits+over+fundraising+letter/4380193/story.htm]

e. The Government of Canada is now the “Harper Government”. [http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/948436--tories-rebrand-government-of-canada-as-harper-government]

f. The newly appointed Vice-President of the CRTC has no telecommunications experience, but is tied closely to the upper echelons of the Conservative Party of Canada. [http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/story/2011/03/23/pol-crtc-pentefountas.htm]

g. As diplomat Richard Colvin discovered, honesty regarding Canada’s role in Afghanistan will only gain you enemies in the Conservative government. [http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/afghanmission/article/728906--richard-colvin-portrait-of-a-whistleblower]


I’m sure there are other things to remember. Do you have any suggestions?

Add to the list of scandals the mess with Bruce Carson. Apparently Harper didn't know he had 5 criminal convictions. He thought he only had a couple. So it is okay to let a convicted criminal into the PM's office, but only if he's only got a couple of convictions.
But let's go back to the first days of "the Harper Government." This was a party coming in on a platform of openness and accountability and what was one of the first things they did? They appointed an un-elected person (Fortier) to cabinet. Where's the accountability in that? Harper cut back on the media's access to him. Where's the openness in that? He bribed David Emerson to jump from the Liberals just weeks after the election with the offer of a cabinet position. Where's the accountability in that? More recently, he eliminated the long form census and in the process eliminated data that can and should be used as the basis for policy decisions. Where's the accountability in that? Let's not forget his maximum five question rule for the media and his dodging their questions about why an open government would limit the number of questions the media can ask. Open? Accountable? I don't think so.
Let's move on to the fact that they are running a scare campaign trying to tell Canadians that Liberal are a tax and spend party that will drive us deeper into debt. Do Canadians honestly forget that the Liberals left with a balanced budget and Harper turned that into a massive deficit and ballooned our debt? And what do we have to show for it? Nothing of substance.
I could go on all day. These guys provide more ammunition than FOX News give Jon Stewart.

Posted by Colin Welch at 11:24 AM
Edited on: Wednesday, April 06, 2011 9:06 PM
Categories: Canadian Politics, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hypocrisy reigns

Now that the federal Conservatives have fallen after a litany of ethical and legal transgressions, it looks like they are using the bogeyman of a coalition against their opponents. This 2004 letter is all you need for a response:


September 9, 2004

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson,

C.C., C.M.M., C.O.M., C.D.

Governor General

Rideau Hall
1 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A1


As leaders of the opposition parties, we are well aware that, given the Liberal minority government, you could be asked by the Prime Minister to dissolve the 38th Parliament at any time should the House of Commons fail to support some part of the government's program.

We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority.

Your attention to this matter is appreciated.


Hon. Stephen Harper, P.C., M.P.
Leader of the Opposition
Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada

Gilles Duceppe, M.P.
Leader of the Bloc Quebecois

Jack Layton, M.P.
Leader of the New Democratic Party




Posted by Colin Welch at 7:20 PM
Edited on: Friday, March 25, 2011 7:33 PM
Categories: Canadian Politics, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Another Fraser Institute Joke

I'm pleased to see that Craig McInnes of the Vancouver Sun doesn't take the Fraser Institute’s latest salvo against Canada's surgical wait lists too seriously. A 16% return rate on a voluntary survey makes a mockery of any official conclusions. Little wonder that the report's authors fail to mention the response rate in their section on methodology, though one can locate the number in the corner of a chart on p. 40.

It reminds me of the Institute’s refusal to include apprenticeship data in its high school report, data which favours public schools over private schools.

In both cases, a barely-disguised ideological agenda overrides any concern for credibility.

Posted by Colin Welch at 5:12 PM
Edited on: Thursday, December 09, 2010 5:44 PM
Categories: BC Politics, Canadian Politics, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid

Saturday, May 15, 2010

One of the great Jon Stewart episodes

One of the benefits of a DVR is that I can watch Jon Stewart's Daily Show even though I'm too old to stay up that late. The following is one of the best episodes I've seen from one of the best reasons to watch TV:

[Update: Because the original episode has been removed, I have to offer this summary news item.]

Posted by Colin Welch at 11:18 AM
Edited on: Friday, July 23, 2010 1:30 PM
Categories: American Politics, Humour, Language, Modern Culture, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid, The Media

Sunday, June 07, 2009

My goodness! Canwest is suddenly interested in private energy production!

Though I avoid Canwest newspapers like the plague, I occasionally read The Province and The Sun when time permits. Today's issue of The Province is a travesty. After largely ignoring run-of-the-river hydro projects during the recent election (when I did follow the two Vancouver dailies), the newspaper has finally decided to run a series of articles on the subject. Now. After the election. Thanks for contributing to the public sphere, guys. As Rafe Mair opined in his electoral post mortem, "the news media of B.C. utterly failed in its duty to inform the voters about critical environmental issues." The rather belated interest in these issues from The Province, especially IPP's (independent power producers), can't help but make one cynical.

In typical fashion for The Province, it underdelivers on its reportage. In the main article, the serious issues of environmental damage are alluded to, but no specifics are given, and the high contract costs being shouldered by BC Hydro are only mentioned briefly at the end (where few readers venture). The second article, the one about "party lines" and IPP's, is very short and vague, and it only paraphrases the (apparent) NDP position. No quotes from NDP leaders are given. Things get more interesting in the third article, which lists many of the Liberal and BC Hydro insiders who have jumped to IPP corporate positions, though the denial of conflict of interest from BC minister of energy Blair Lekstrom goes unchallenged.

However, if there is any doubt about the IPP's in the minds of readers, Michael Smyth, The Province's main columnist, comes to the rescue. His column follows the two page spread, and it attempts to attack the NDP and their apparent "hypocrisy" over the issue.

Smyth's column is a laugher, one in a long line of snide, one-sided collections of bumper-sticker arguments.

He starts with a defence of the run-of-the-river project that will finally give clean energy to the In-SHUCK-ch First Nation on Harrison Lake. He contends the following: "But the critics won't care. Comfortably ensconced in their own air-conditioned condos, watching their power-sucking big-screen TVs, they will condemn the First Nation and the private company it has partnered with." Really? Will they? Exactly who has condemned this? When? Smyth provides no evidence for his prediction. Having lived near Harrison Lake for years, I have never heard such criticism of the In-SHUCK-ch project. [Ok... a week after I first published this I read some negative words from certain environmental groups... but nothing from the NDP.] Indeed, if there ever was an IPP project that the NDP would support, this would be the one. Moreover, the In-SHUCK-ch First Nation should have been hooked up to the power lines years ago - that is, to the power lines that are already there. The IPP that's being proposed is not primarily for the aboriginals; it's coming because power line infrastructure is easily accessed. It's interesting that Smyth totally ignores the very controversial Bute Inlet project proposed by Plutonic Power. That company is rife with BC Liberal insiders and faces serious opposition from locals and environmentalists alike.

Smyth also says the "New Democratic Party now wants to shut these same projects down." A typical exaggeration. A "moratorium" means that the whole IPP process will be temporarily halted and reviewed, and the stringent environmental processes that have hitherto been lacking (but which even Smyth acknowledges are important) will be put into place. Smyth surely knows what a moratorium means and what the NDP have said about the issue. To say that they will kill the whole thing is a blatant lie.

I suppose Smyth's role is to mitigate any negativity from the other stories (making Dennis Skulsky and Gordon Campbell very happy), even though the other articles are pretty mild.

With Canwest columnists like Smyth, no wonder I usually read the The Globe and Mail, The Tyee and The Georgia Straight for my BC news.

Posted by Colin Welch at 2:20 PM
Edited on: Thursday, July 16, 2009 9:09 PM
Categories: BC Politics, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid, The Media

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Language Reveals Power

I've always been a fan of George Carlin. He was one of the first mainstream comedians to use humour against power, and there aren't many comedians who have forced the US Supreme Court to consider laws on speech and obscenity. He was, in my mind, the great link from Lenny Bruce to present-day commentators like Jon Stewart. And Carlin was one of the few celebrities who never seemed to sell his soul... at least not explicitly. (I admit, Shining Time Station was not a highpoint of Carlin's career.) In any case, you have to respect the wisdom of a guy who says, “If God had intended us not to masturbate, he would've made our arms shorter”. A modern day sage, I say.

On the other hand, I recently came across a passage from Carlin where he argues that “by and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth”. I've heard this kind of argument before, and I'm not so sure I can agree.

Is it language that conceals truth? Or is it the forces - economic, political, demographic - that encourage certain speech/text to be produced and venerated, and other speech/text to be censored, ridiculed or ignored? I believe it's the latter. I'm not saying that language is neutral or inert, as if it's a simple mirror that perfectly represents a physical reality. I just believe that language finds it difficult to hide its speaker's or author's intentions. Language just can't help itself. If you know where and how you look, language will eventually reveal its relationship to power - be it domination or submission or defiance. Language is like that friend who just can't keep a secret.

Case in point: the unions versus the bondholders in the ongoing GM debacle.

Have you ever noticed that the corporate press and their followers always couch union activities in moral terms? Thus, if a union like the CAW moves to defend its members' pensions, the language of moral condemnation comes out with clarity and predictability. A good example (though a rather muted one, considering the source) comes from The National Post, Canada's newspaper equivalent to Fox News. In a typical puff piece, the NP recently let Garth Whyte, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, write his own story. Read the article carefully. Whyte tries to be understated, but he just can't seem to help himself. The union's pension is ultimately a "luxury". Whyte, of course, is against any bailout, because it's "overly generous". He taps into the private sector envy of public-sector pensions, and a bailout package that appears to be equivalent, and seems to think that if his RRSP has gone down, so should everyone else's. [This seems to be the favoured sentiment amongst most of the union-haters who have posted on this topic in The National Post and The Globe and Mail.] In other words, union efforts are based on greed. Workers and their representatives are almost always cast as lazy, venal and undeserving. If they cause a company to collapse, it's considered a moral failure. Damn those unions!

The bondholders are another story. These are the investors, by the way, who until recently would not agree to a settlement with GM (unlike the supplicating unions). In many ways, it is the bondholders who are responsible for GM's current move into bankruptcy protection. But no matter. There is no greed here. At worst, their rational self-interest has been a matter of miscalculation. That is, it's not moral at all; it's a matter of business. Moreover, if their efforts are cast in moral terms, it's with a different set of values than the one used against the unions. Rather than a list of vices drawn from the seven deadly sins, the morality of the bondholders is a matter of "conviction" as they struggle against the grasping unions and their government henchmen. So the NP portrays the bondholders as the victims of this tragedy, and reports (without a challenge) the following:

"The latest GM 'offer' sends a chilling message to all individual bondholders, not just those, like us, holding GM bonds: Contracts in America are no longer worth the paper they are written on," said GM Bondholders Unite, a grass-roots group representing individual GM bondholders across the United States.

"The 'offer' to individual GM bond investors is ridiculously lopsided because it arbitrarily favors other groups, at the expense of the legal rights, under the U. S. Constitution, of hundreds of thousands of individual GM bond investors.... We aren't asking for a bailout or a handout, just a fair deal. So we have no plans to back down."

I guess we should forget that that a collective agreement is also a valid and legal contract, or that investment is the epitome of capitalist risk. But I digress.

The conclusion I want to make is this: If you read and listen carefully, you can easily find the language of morality (good and bad) and/or amoral calculation that is interwoven into this particular narrative. And this is just the tip of the ideological iceberg. Cast your opponent as immoral, and yourself as objective and fair. Evil liberal, union-loving pinkos - bad; beseiged, principled capitalists - good... or at least "fair and balanced", according to Fox News.

So, language can't hide its intentions. The secrets are too good to keep quiet.

Posted by Colin Welch at 11:38 PM
Edited on: Sunday, May 16, 2010 9:45 PM
Categories: Canadian Politics, In a Philosophical Mood, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Elections Do Not Equal Governments

My brother made a great point in a recent letter to the Georgia Straight. Though we may vote on the basis of party leader, we don't actually vote for a premier or a prime minister. On election night, we vote for a local representative who will ostensibly represent our riding's interests in parliament or the legislature. In an important sense, election night is really about 308 simultaneous elections federally, and 85 provincially. When those different elections are tallied, the party leader with the most support from the elected members takes the seat as the head of government. That is the essence of parliamentary democracy. In other words, there is a fusion of the executive and the legislative, insofar as control of the legislative branch (usually the lower house) gives you power over the bureaucracy. If you want to vote for your head of government directly, you'll have to move to the United States.

Unfortunately, "legions of politically illiterate British Columbians" (and Canadians in general) were incensed when, in 2008, the Liberals and NDP proposed a coalition to take over from Harper's minority Conservative government. Anti-coalition types, mostly Conservative, argued that they didn't vote for Stephane Dion, the leader of the Liberals. (They also said relying on the BQ was treasonous, forgetting that the Conservatives under Harper had proposed such an arm's length alliance with the BQ in 2004.) The argument against Dion, however, showed that many Canadians were under the mistaken belief that, since they didn't vote for Dion, he couldn't become PM. Actually... nobody voted for Dion, except for a majority of voters in the riding of Saint-Laurent/Cartierville. Moreover, not a single person voted for him (or Harper) qua prime minister.

So of course Dion could have become PM. It's not up to voters, whether we like it or not. In our indirect democracy, it's up to the members of parliament, whose support is required for a government to stand. That's why our parliamentary system is a "system of confidence". Even in Canada, in the early 1920's, the Liberal Mackenzie King was our prime minister even though the Conservatives had more seats. King had the support - the confidence - of the Progressives, and that's all that mattered.

Another distinction that helps clarify the situation is to understand the difference between government and election. The two are not necessarily symmetrical in a parliamentary system. This is the logical outcome of a confidence system. You can have more governments than elections, because you might have different coalitions - based on the results of one election - as confidence shifts and changes. Here's a case in point: since World War Two, Canada has had more elections than Israel or Italy, though many fewer governments. Canada has had 20 elections (starting in 1949), Israel has had 18, and Italy has had 17. The difference is our electoral system. We use the first-past-the-post election system, which tends to create artificial majorities (or limited coalition options) and therefore more stable levels of confidence. Israel and Italy use various types of proportional elections, which tend to elect more and smaller parties, and therefore less stable government coalitions. But the system of confidence remains in all three parliaments, because that's what we mean by parliamentary democracy. If Canada isn't used to a lot of coalitions, it's because of our election system. But that does not affect the reality that confidence from the sitting members remains central to who becomes prime minister.

Posted by Colin Welch at 8:06 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 5:54 PM
Categories: BC Politics, Canadian Politics, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Mining Industry Gets Its Comeuppance

One of the most ideologically strident industries in Canada, and certainly its whiniest, is the mining industry. It recently suffered a well-deserved loss in Canada's Federal Court, which ordered the industry, and its pals in the federal government, to fully disclose the industry's pollution output. Canada's mining industry did not have to report "the pollutants present in the tailings and waste rock" in the national survey on pollution (the NPRI). Amazingly, the federal government fought the full disclosure, apparently at the behest of its mining friends. Read the full story at cbc.ca:


Posted by Colin Welch at 8:45 PM
Edited on: Saturday, May 16, 2009 2:11 PM
Categories: Canadian Politics, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Red Cross Torture Report

Mark Danner is well known journalist and professor of journalism at Berkeley. He has written dozens of articles for the New York Review of Books, and has, in my mind, provided the definitive reportage on the Serbian massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica.

His latest article is a thorough yet blistering summary of the "ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen 'High Value Detainees' in CIA Custody", otherwise known as the "Red Cross Torture Report". We may be tired of the issue, as it's been a focal point for criticism of the Bush administration since 2001. However, Danner may have written the definitive summary again, and I think the question of torture will continue to haunt American politics for many years to come. The current debate over the release of the Bush torture memos, a possible South African-style truth and reconciliation commission, and possible war crime charges against Bush-era politicians, will ensure the past continues to inform (and deform) the present. Plus, the descriptions of torture, especially the waterboarding and beatings against plywood sheets, is too gripping to ignore. After reading Danner's article, it's almost impossible to believe that America hasn't crossed some irreversible, unrepairable moral divide. The rank hypocrisy of American foreign policy has never been more exposed.

Here are some excerpts from his review:

... An awareness of this history makes reading the International Committee of the Red Cross report a strange exercise in climbing back through the looking glass. For in interviewing the fourteen "high-value detainees," who had been imprisoned secretly in the "black sites" anywhere from "16 months to almost four and a half years," the Red Cross experts were listening to descriptions of techniques applied to them that had been originally designed to be illegal "under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Conventions." And then the Red Cross investigators, as members of the body designated by the Geneva Conventions to supervise treatment of prisoners of war and to judge that treatment's legality, were called on to pronounce whether or not the techniques conformed to the conventions in the first place. In this judgment, they are, not surprisingly, unequivocal:

The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment....

... One fact, seemingly incontrovertible, after the descriptions contained and the judgments made in the ICRC report, is that officials of the United States, in interrogating prisoners in the "War on Terror," have tortured and done so systematically. From many other sources, including the former president himself, we know that the decision to do so was taken at the highest level of the American government and carried out with the full knowledge and support of its most senior officials....

...Mr. Abu Zubaydah commented that when the collar was first used on him in his third place of detention, he was slammed directly against a hard concrete wall. He was then placed in a tall box for several hours (see Section 1.3.5, Confinement in boxes). After he was taken out of the box he noticed that a sheet of plywood had been placed against the wall. The collar was then used to slam him against the plywood sheet. He thought that the plywood was in order to absorb some of the impact so as to avoid the risk of physical injury....

... Torture has undermined the United States' reputation for respecting and following the law and thus has crippled its political influence. By torturing, the United States has wounded itself and helped its enemies in what is in the end an inherently political war—a war, that is, in which the critical target to be conquered is the allegiances and attitudes of young Muslims. And by torturing prisoners, many of whom were implicated in committing great crimes against Americans, the United States has made it impossible to render justice on those criminals [because torture=inadmissable evidence], instead sentencing them—and the country itself—to an endless limbo of injustice. That limbo stands as a kind of worldwide advertisement for the costs of the US reversion to torture, whose power President Obama has tried to reduce by announcing that he will close Guantánamo....

... The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the "politics of fear" is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved. That this has not yet happened is the reason why, despite the innumerable reports and studies and revelations that have given us a rich and vivid picture of the Bush administration's policies of torture, we as a society have barely advanced along this path. We have not so far managed, despite all the investigations, to produce a bipartisan, broadly credible, and politically decisive effort, and pronounce authoritatively on whether or not these activities accomplished anything at all in their stated and still asserted purpose: to protect the security interests of the country....

The full article can be found at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22614. Here is a video of Mark Danner talking with Bill Moyers:

The Paradoxes of Torture: Mark Danner in discussion with Bill Moyers and Bruce Fein from Mark Danner on Vimeo.

Posted by Colin Welch at 2:13 PM
Edited on: Thursday, June 18, 2009 9:49 PM
Categories: American Politics, Global Issues, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid