1. From Oliver Burkeman, “Are things getting worse – or does it just feel that way?”, The Guardian, July 20, 20181

Participants were shown hundreds of dots in shades from deep purple to deep blue, and asked to say whether each was blue or not. Obviously, the bluer a dot, the more likely people were to classify it as blue. But what’s interesting is what happened when researchers began reducing the prevalence of the blue dots they displayed. The fewer dots that were objectively blue, the broader people’s definition of “blue” became: they started to classify purplish dots that way, too…

It’s been argued that we live in an era of “concept creep,” in which concepts like “trauma” or “violence” have stretched to encompass things no previous generation would have worried about. Hence the idea that certain forms of speech are literally violence. Or that letting an eight-year-old walk to school alone is actual child neglect. Or – to pick an example from the current contentious debate over gender identity – that to question someone’s preferred explanation for their experience of gender is to deny their right to exist.

Subsequent stages of the blue-dot study showed that … if you ask people to classify faces as threatening or non-threatening, then reduce the incidence of threatening ones, they’ll define more neutral faces as threatening. Ask them to classify research proposals as ethical or unethical, then reduce the unethical ones, and they’ll expand their definition of “unethical.”

As co-author Dan Gilbert put it, “When problems become rare, we count more things as problems.”

2. From Aladin El-Mafaalani, “Fighting at the table,” CBC Ideas, June 29, 20172

A hundred years ago there was not one single country that was a free land for all peoples independent of skin colour, religion, gender or sexual preference.

There was never before a time in German history when integration was as successful as it is today. For example, even refugees can expect language classes, labour market integration, an apartment, education and training. Today, an adult Syrian refugee who came to Germany in 2015 speaks better German than many guest workers who have lived in Germany for more than 50 years. In the 1960s and 1970s I would have given German integration policy a score of 2 on a scale from 1 to 10. Today I would give a German integration policy a score of 7.

But today integration policy is seen as the most important issue in domestic policy. For an area of policy which has become the most important, a score of 7 out of 10 is apparently no longer enough.

I believe we completely have the wrong idea about what integration is supposed to lead to. When integration or inclusion or equal opportunity are successfully implemented, they do not lead to a society which is more harmonious or free from conflict. On the contrary: the central effect of successful integration is actually a higher potential for conflict.

I describe the general integration process like this: First-generation migrants usually sit on the floor while the established citizens sit at the table. At this stage the migrants are happy just to be there. The second generation sit at the table and want a piece of the pie. The third generation, the grandchildren of the migrants, want also to have a say in what is ordered. And since a liberal and open-immigration country has a new first generation every year, as well as a new second generation every year, as well as a new third generation every year, the situation continues to grow in complexity.

When I went to school in the 1980s and 1990s, I saw many headscarf-clad women entering and leaving my school every day, but nobody cared. They were not German citizens, spoke hardly any German. It was seen as okay because these were just cleaning ladies. It wasn’t okay any more when the headscarf-clad women started becoming teachers, educating German children.

I don’t want to start a discussion about teachers wearing headscarves. What’s relevant to me in this context is that this conflict arose only because the integration process had been successful. Integration changes a society. Unsuccessful integration leads to deviance, social problems, crime. But successful integration leads to fundamental change and to conflict.

People often assume that racism decreases when integration is successful. This expectation is an illusion. If more people are sitting at the table, is racism automatically supposed to decrease? It’s not possible.

Conflicts are very, very important. Conflicts are energy – energy for development, for improvement, for progress. Conflicts which are managed in a constructive way can bring about wonderful things; destructive ways of dealing with conflict can lead to disaster.

3. From David Goodhart, “Liberals are set on a collision course with democracy,” Prospect, April 20183

Ivan Rogers has written: “If you evacuate many domains of public policy of any real element of choice at the citizen level … then the only way to voice opposition becomes to voice opposition to the whole system and to argue that it needs to be demolished rather than changed from within.”

So illiberal populism is the product of elite-led undemocratic liberalism or what I have called (in my book The Road to Somewhere) liberal Anywhere overreach. Anywheres – the large minority of educated, mobile professionals with confident identities based on educational and career success – have ruled in their own interest and called it the national interest.

And this is not just about the shift to an open, high-immigration, knowledge economy, which tends to benefit the better educated 25 per cent of Anywheres and often disadvantages the more rooted, less well educated, 50 per cent of Somewheres.

Almost the entire policy spectrum is dominated by Anywhere assumptions, at least in the UK: the huge expansion of higher education and relative neglect of technical and vocational education; the way in which cognitive ability has become the gold standard of human esteem; the way in which many forms of group attachment (national, local, ethnic) have been diminished; the declining importance of the private realm of the family and the downplaying of gender roles that many still value.

4. From The Current, CBC Radio, September 19, 20184

Sophia Gaston: Linked to this but also separate is this feeling that governments have somehow neutralized what we mean by liberalism to the point where it’s become an entirely accommodating force, so it’s seen to be bending to the force of other cultures, not asserting or affirming the values and traditions of the nation-state. So these concerns about immigration and the rise of populism have necessarily come hand in hand because immigration has become really an issue of democracy. People feel that governments have not been listening to them, not been true to their promises. So citizens who are highly concerned about immigration are much more likely to be susceptible to anti-establishment messages.

Elif Shafak: I think it’s okay to have fear. But my point is, it is not okay when countries are guided by fear. Because when we are guided by fear, we have made the worst mistakes, and human history is full of these mistakes. But it has been also a big mistake on the part of the liberal intelligentsia, intellectuals, to look down on people’s emotions. If I belittle other people’s emotions, including their fear, what I will be doing is to push them toward the lap of the far right, because that is one public space in which their emotions are not belittled.

Yascha Mounk: We see immigration and security coming top of opinion polls of problems in Europe, time after time after time.

Sophia Gaston: When I do focus groups in Saxony and around Dresden, where Pegida and AdF have their real hotspots, people talk about immigration, absolutely, but they talk about suppression of freedom of speech even more. And they say, “Everyone’s just trying to silence us by calling us Nazis.”

Cruising down the Canal du Midi

A few years ago, four of us cruised down the wondrous Canal du Midi in France. Our rented barge was about four metres wide and the canal maybe ten metres wide, but quite often you’d come to a bridge over the canal and the tunnel through the bridge was at most a metre wider than the boat. Steering was more complicated than at first apparent; it took time for the boat to respond to adjustments in the rudder, and you wanted to keep the adjustments small, because large adjustments would result in large changes in direction which would require more large adjustments and then many smaller adjustments – all accompanied by much chaos and laughter. The lesson was: get insurance, stay alert for tunnels (and narrows and oncoming boats), and start making small adjustments while you’re still far away.

That is my depressing metaphor for our current situation. With respect to major social issues like climate change or the rise of the populist right, we needed to start making small adjustments decades ago. And getting back on course will take decades, and there will be much chaos, though likely little laughter.

Continue reading “Much Chaos, Little Laughter”

Several weeks ago I received a Facebook posting from Kamel El Basha, a Palestinian friend who lives in East Jerusalem. It was a link to an article about a Lebanese film, The Insult, in which Kamel costarred. Kamel had won the best actor award at the 2017 Venice Film Festival!

Kamel, more than anyone else, was responsible for the production and tour of my play Facts in Palestine. He read it and immediately announced that his company, the Palestinian National Theatre, would produce it; he translated it into Arabic; and he performed in it. And we became friends. It has been a few years since I’ve seen him, but I still feel close to Kamel and his family.

I sent congratulations by email. A few days later, I heard back. The whole thing had turned into a nightmare. The film had been banished from the Days of Cinema festival in Ramallah in the West Bank.

From various sources, I’ve put together the story. The director, Ziad Doueiri, had made a previous film in Israel, which apparently broke the rules of BDS. The new film was shot in Lebanon, with no Israeli support, but Doueiri had not acknowledged or apologized for his earlier transgression.

What is BDS? According to its website,

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality … BDS Boycotts involve withdrawing support for Israel and Israeli and international companies that are involved in the violation of Palestinian human rights, as well as complicit Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions … 

The Palestinian BDS call urges nonviolent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law by meeting three demands:

  • Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.1

I knew all that. But I also knew that, as the BDS website puts it, “BDS does not target artists. It targets institutions based on their complicity in Israel’s violations of international law.” Further, we are asked to “boycott and/or work towards the cancellation of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israel, its lobby groups or its cultural institutions. International venues and festivals are asked to reject funding and any form of sponsorship from the Israeli government.”

None of that applies in this case, so why is BDS boycotting The Insult? The answer seems to lie here: “(BDS) urges a boycott of … Normalization Projects. In the Palestinian context, normalization refers to any activity that creates the impression that Israel is a state like any other.”2 This is from a BDS statement: “Since Ziad Doueiri is still defending normalisation, then the screening of his film by Arab festivals — regardless of intentions — can only be seen as encouraging him to continue his destructive and normalising approach.”3

“Normalization” is, of course, wide open to interpretation. And here Doueiri is being punished not for a “normalization project,” but for “defending normalization” and a “normalizing approach.”

This is from a U.S. National Public Radio article:

“The BDS purpose is what?” Doueiri says. “Defend Palestine. When you go and you forbid a film where the main actor, a Palestinian guy (Kamel El Basha), won best (actor) award at Venice Film Festival — first time in history that a Palestinian actor win in Venice or anywhere else in the world, first time! — when the BDS, who are supposed to be protecting Palestinian rights, stop this Palestinian actor to present his movies in Ramallah, basically you’re screwing yourself in the head. It doesn’t make any logic.”4

I agree. There are times to enforce rules. But no rules were actually broken in the making of The Insult.

Then Kamel told me about The Reports on Sarah and Saleem, a Palestinian film directed by Muayad Alayan. Now touring international festivals, the film won the Hubert Bals Fund Audience Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam. Organizers of the Haifa Independent Film Festival, which features Palestinian and Arab films, decided not to include The Reports on Sarah and Saleem “after the BDS movement decided it had violated one of its principles when (Alayan) cast two Israeli actors.”5 Presumably hiring Jewish Israelis is evidence of a normalizing approach.

I support boycotting Israel — not only the settlements — and I support the boycott of Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions. The occupation is now 50 years old and Israel has proven itself unwilling to negotiate in good faith. Boycotts are nonviolent, and if the international community is unwilling to control the Jewish state that it created, it falls to the public to do something.

But I’ve been a reluctant supporter of BDS. I’ve tended, in my own private code, to write that I support “bds.” My problem has been the BDS demands, which I find complicated and vague. What is meant by “all Arab lands”? What if Israel were to build the wall to its own side of the green line? What does UN resolution 194 actually require? It was adopted in 1948. Would Israel comply if it accepted the right of return for those still alive who were forced out of Palestine/Israel, but not their descendants? While there’s an obvious logic in having a demand for each of the main Palestinian groups — those in the occupied territories, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and refugees in other countries — isn’t three demands a little cumbersome?

One big problem with complicated and vague demands is that they immediately set up conflict between hardliners and moderates. And the BDS website, with its multitude of pages, can support a multitude of interpretations. So “BDS does not target artists” — unless they’re engaged in “normalization projects,” or defend normalization projects, or have a “normalizing approach.”

According to its website, BDS was “inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement.” I participated in several demonstrations in front of the South African embassy in Ottawa, and I boycotted South African wine and oranges. I knew, too, that we called for sanctions against South Africa — as when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker forced South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961, or when South Africa was expelled from the International Olympic Committee in 1970. I remember that we objected to South Africa’s interference in South West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola. But so far as I remember, the only demand was an end to apartheid, which I would have described as people having different rights based on race or colour.

I checked with a friend who in the 1980s had been chair of a national “inter-agency anti-apartheid co-ordinating committee,” with representatives from various Canadian third world development groups like Oxfam and CUSO. I was correct, my friend said. The boycott had one demand: an end to apartheid.

The Palestinian situation is more complicated than was South Africa’s. There were no equivalents to the refugees or occupation. And although a case can be made that Palestinians in Israel live under an apartheid system, the most obvious elements are absent: Palestinians vote; they are members of the Knesset. You can even find an occasional Palestinian judge.

The BDS demands would benefit from simplification and clarity. The more demands you have, the more there is for people to object to. If I had to make the demands as simple and clear as possible, I would suggest: “End the occupation/End the blockade.” The logic is this: First, there will be no peace until Israel accepts that it does not get to keep the territories, just as South Africa had to accept that it would not get to keep apartheid. Second, in my 28 years of arguing for Palestinian rights, ending the occupation is the demand that people find easiest to understand and support.

Boycotts ask for people’s help and are the tactics of the weak, not the powerful. Israel doesn’t need to boycott; it can blockade. If you have the power, you can make as many demands as you like. The boycott of Israel requires the active participation of liberals around the world, and liberals are wary of targeting Israel because, to paraphrase Edward Said and/or Pierre Bourdieu, the tragedy of the Palestinians is that they are the victims of the victims of Holocaust.

The banning of The Insult and The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is the result of BDS complexity and vagueness, and a tendency among hardliners to enforce rules. Hardliners want to make the struggle deep rather than wide. Palestinian hardliners don’t have the power to enforce rules in Canada or Israel, so they enforce rules where they can — on Palestinians. Thus Palestinians, not Israel, become the target of BDS.

Meanwhile, The Insult — nominated for an Academy Award — is a seriously great film, and my friend Kamel’s performance is brilliant. Go see it. I hope his compatriots get to see it too.

Continue reading “Why is The Palestinian Boycott Targeting Palestinians?”

“We believe that the artists of our country do not want to perpetuate darkness.”
— Simon Brault and Steven Loft

In a recent Globe and Mail article, Simon Brault, director and chief executive of the Canada Council for the Arts, and Steven Loft, director of Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples, outlined the Canada Council’s response to “the question of the appropriation of Indigenous cultural knowledge and heritage.”1 Brault and Loft write,

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report highlighted repeated attempts at cultural genocide vis-à-vis this country’s Indigenous peoples. In doing so, it posed a historic challenge to every institution in Canada, including the Canada Council.

How will the Canada Council meet that challenge?

When artists and organizations seek Canada Council grants for projects that address, deal with, incorporate, comment on, interpret or depict distinctive aspects of First Nations, Inuit or Métis culture, they must demonstrate genuine respect and regard for Indigenous art and culture in their artistic process.

We won’t dictate a specific or prescribed way of demonstrating this, but we will expect some indication that authentic and respectful efforts have been made to engage with the artists or other members of the Indigenous communities whose culture or protocols are incorporated in any project for which Canada Council funding is being requested.

They elaborate in a CBC News article: “‘This isn’t about the council becoming the art police or limiting freedom of expression,’ Loft said. ‘I don’t think artists should be scared.’”2

But I am scared. Just telling artists they shouldn’t be scared is, of course, scary. What is genuine regard? How does an artist demonstrate it? How will a jury discern it?

According to the Canada Council website, “Peer assessment at the heart of its decision-making processes.”3 The applicant’s “peers” – i.e., other artists – discuss and rate an application. Money is scarce and grants are competitive, so it often takes only one low score to remove an applicant from contention. One juror – adamant, perhaps, that only Indigenous people should write on Indigenous subjects – can sabotage an application.

In the Globe and Mail, Brault and Loft hasten to reassure us:

The Canada Council defends – and will always defend – the free expression and artistic independence of the creators and producers of culture. At the same time, we are also formally committed to respect the histories, traditions, languages and contemporary practices of Indigenous peoples. These two commitments are not mutually exclusive.

Sorry, but they are. You cannot insist on “free expression” and “respect” at the same time. Brault and Loft seem to believe they can make the conflict disappear by asserting there isn’t one. Of course, there are reasonable limits to free expression – plagiarism and libel, for example. But it’s guaranteed that any controversial play will be seen as disrespectful by some people. Do we really want to sacrifice free expression for something as vague and subjective as “respect”? Brault and Loft use “respect” or “respectful” six times in the two articles. The word “risk” – until recently a mainstay of writing about the arts – does not appear. “Controversy” appears once, in the CBC article, and it’s assumed to be negative.

Supporting Indigenous Art in the Spirit of Cultural Self-Determination and Opposing Appropriation, a document available on the Canada Council website, tells us that Council

considers it normal to ask the artists and organizations applying for grants for projects that address, deal with, incorporate, comment on, interpret or depict unique aspects of the First Nations, Inuit or Métis culture, to show that they have respect and true regard for Indigenous art and culture in their endeavours.4

Incorporate or depict, sure, but deal with or comment on? Does the Council really mean that if I want to write anything to do with Indigenous people in Canada I will have to demonstrate not my knowledge or abilities or plans, but my good intentions?

Brault elaborates in the CBC article:

There’s an expectation that we will find in your application the description of your project, a demonstration that you really paid attention to make sure that … you’re not approaching your project from a colonialist perspective.

A colonialist perspective? Are they going to ensure that jurors are familiar with Frantz Fanon and Karen Stote? If a non-Indigenous writer – a settler – writes about an Indigenous issue, is that writing from “a colonialist perspective”? If a writer ignores entirely the history and present state of Indigenous people in Canada, is that a colonialist perspective?

And there’s more. “The conversation about cultural appropriation is not limited to Indigenous cultures,” according to the CBC article. So a grant application for any controversial project could be legitimately sabotaged by a single assessment committee member who genuinely believes or merely claims that the artist didn’t “demonstrate genuine respect and regard for … .” The result will be more caution in an already overly cautious herd of writers, boards, artistic directors, general managers and jury members.

According to Brault and Loft in the Globe and Mail, the change is “a continuation of the council’s journey toward decolonization and reconciliation.” Arts-funding bodies are funding more Indigenous artists and arts projects than ever before; this is as it should be. But what could be more colonialist than the assumption that Indigenous artists need government bureaucrats to protect them from their non-Indigenous colleagues? Could they not show a little faith in the peer assessment process that they promote and the jurors that they select?

“Art and culture have always been at the forefront of these kinds of discussions of rights,” Loft says in the CBC article. Well, maybe. But Brault and Loft are not artists; they’re bureaucrats. And they’re not leading a discussion; they’re threatening artists who don’t toe their line.

I don’t know how you step back from this authoritarian nonsense. Brault needs to resign.

Continue reading “Perpetuating Darkness”

  1. Vaudevillians in the Monashees

Getting to Room Temperature is a one-person play about my mother’s polite quest for euthanasia. The main and only character is a lot like me, but we decided to hire a real actor, Robert Bockstael. We did several test presentations, and the response was excellent. We were accepted at Ottawa’s 2016 undercurrents festival, where we broke attendance records and got great reviews. We then took Room Temperature to a small festival in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Success in Canadian theatre means having a “midsize theatre company” buy one’s production (the script, actors, set, etc.: the whole show) or buy the rights to produce the script. Either would typically result in a two- to four-week run in a 200-seat theatre.

Theatre companies were uninterested. But the artistic director of a community cultural centre in the Okanagan Valley, who had read about the play on Facebook, wanted to buy the show, and she also had interested colleagues in other B.C. towns. Community cultural centres, typically, buy one performance and stick it in a 400- to 600-seat theatre. While “theatre companies” present or produce theatre, “community cultural centres” rarely produce anything but present a bit of everything – mostly music and musical plays and standup comedy. Room Temperature – “a hard-hitting, sentimental and funny one-person play about dying” – is not their usual fare.

In March, we did nine performances over three weeks in six B.C. locations: on the Gulf Islands, in the Interior and in a Vancouver suburb.

It was fantastic. We crossed oceans and mountains. We performed in cavernous auditoriums and, on the Gulf Islands, in rustic community halls. We were vaudevillians in the Monashees. Audiences laughed and cried and more than half the audience stayed for talkbacks. They, along with hospice and palliative care workers, told us: you got it exactly right. The tour was lucrative and fun and gratifying.

In Toronto, I described the experience to colleagues. The response was amazement and admiration: “You escaped the professional theatre circuit.” “You did a play on a topical and important issue.” “You connected with actual people.”

All that brought to mind my column in the last issue of Inroads about how the meaning and practice of political theatre has changed over the years.1 We used to care about content; now our concern is “the participation of ‘target groups’ (e.g., women, Aboriginals, visible minorities). In the case of target groups, this redefinition of ‘political’ was enforced by arts funding bodies.”

Recently, in the Globe and Mail, J. Kelly Nestruck wrote, “Following a couple of years of programming in which Tarragon, a Toronto contemporary theatre, has fallen short on representing the diversity of contemporary Toronto, this season could be seen as a step forward.” Artistic Director Richard Rose explained the change in his theatre’s programming: “Obviously, the priorities within the Canada Council have changed, so we’re trying to acknowledge that.”2

Tarragon is perhaps Canada’s most important theatre (measured in new plays that have had subsequent productions). Its artistic director confesses that he changed his theatre’s mandate because a government agency told him to. And there’s not a whimper.

In his 2007 history of modern music, Alex Ross writes, “To the cynical onlooker, orchestras and opera houses are stuck in a museum culture, playing to a dwindling cohort of aging subscribers and would-be elitists who take satisfaction from technically expert if soulless renditions of Hitler’s favorite works.”3 Yes, that’s pretty cynical. But artists must from time to time entertain such negativity. To transpose Ross’s aphorism to midsize and small Canadian theatres: artists work for dismal wages to perform technically proficient, obscure plays for an artistically pretentious sector of the upper middle class.

Since the election of Donald Trump, we’ve been asking ourselves, “How do we breach the cultural divide?” Maybe the simplest answer is: get out of the big cities. Big cities are the home of liberalism and formal experimentation and government-enforced cultural diversity. Big cities are the home of theatre companies. Big cities are where we talk among ourselves.

Small cities and suburbs are the home of community cultural centres and Trump supporters. And that’s where we took our sweet story about a mother and son, our fairly sophisticated (I hope) exploration of death in the rich countries, and our discussion of assisted suicide. This is what we said about Canada’s most famous anti–assisted suicide campaigner:

Here’s what Margaret Somerville gets wrong. She thinks we’re in danger of going from a world in which God decides when we die, to one in which strangers decide. But in fact we’re long past God deciding. Science and society have extended our lives, not God. If Somerville wants God to decide, we’ll have to get rid of not just the vaccines and penicillin, but – let’s admit it – the unions and public health care and the welfare state. And we’ll have to go back to dying at 40 instead of 80.4

All in all, it seems an important message to carry across the cultural divide.

  1. The Walmart effect

Canada and the United States have lost quite a few jobs in manufacturing, and almost all unskilled, nonunionized work pays less than it used to. People blame computers, free trade or immigrants, or all three. But there might be a simpler, proximate cause.

Sam Walton opened the first Walmart in 1962. By 1990 Walmart was the largest retailer in the United States and in 2000 its worldwide workforce reached one million. According to Wikipedia, “Walmart is the world’s largest company by revenue, according to the Fortune Global 500 list in 2016, as well as the largest private employer in the world with 2.3 million employees.”

In Wal-Mart: The Bully of Bentonville, Anthony Bianco suggests that there are many secrets to Walmart’s success.5 It was, for example, a pioneer in the use and development of technology, setting the pace for stock management and “just-in-time” delivery. In 1987, Walmart developed its own private satellite communication system – the largest in the United States.

As resistance to its expansion grew, the company sought to reshape its image. In 2010, Walmart committed $2 billion to ending hunger in the United States and, soon after, declared its commitment to sustainable agriculture, local farming and providing affordable, high-quality and healthy food.

There was one point, however, on which Walmart would not budge. From the start, Walmart insisted on the lowest wage package possible. It paid minimum wage or slightly above. It forced employees to work split shifts. It kept work hours and length of employment below the level at which statutory benefits and income security would kick in.

Keeping pay down meant keeping trade unions out. On the very few occasions in which employees successfully organized, Walmart reacted brutally. A month after being forced to sign a first contract with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), representing workers in Jonquière, Quebec, the company shut the store.

Not surprisingly, Walmart’s low-wage strategy influenced most of its retail competitors. But it wasn’t just retail. Before Walmart, suppliers set prices. When Walmart grew powerful enough to make offers that could not be refused, suppliers too were forced to cut costs – by reducing wages, replacing workers or going offshore.

How does one measure the impact of Walmart’s low-wage strategy? How does one compare that with the impact of technological change, free trade and immigration? I have no idea. An interesting project for an economist, no doubt.

But here’s some wisdom gained from hindsight: We should have put a lot more effort into helping the UFCW’s organizing efforts. We should have sat down in front of Walmart distribution centres instead of G7 meetings. It should perhaps have been the left’s absolute priority.

All that might be closing the barn door long after the horses have fled. But here’s another thing:

When you talk to these people, they are still bitter about the trade issue, furious about what was done to them. They worked their butts off for Bill Clinton, and look what he did to them. Then they worked their butts off for Barack Obama – they turned over their treasury to the Democrats and they went door to door – organized labour had one demand to Barack Obama … they wanted “Card Check,” to make it easier to organize a union … Do you think he got that passed when he had both houses of Congress? He did nothing. He just let it die.

So here’s something else we might do to reach out to those who might vote for a Canadian Donald Trump: Make it a lot easier for people in the private sector to join a union.

Continue reading “Across the great divide”

To live outside the law, you must be honest.
— Bob Dylan, “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” 1966

It happened that my wife and I were discussing sixties music one day in October. Her parents, longtime CCF-NDP activists, had listened to Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. I suggested that her parents selected their music according to their politics. Whereas I, a half-generation younger, selected my politics according to my music – chiefly, the songs of Bob Dylan.

The next morning we learned Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. For three days, Jennifer and I listened to “early” Dylan: his first seven LPs, recorded between 1962 and 1966. I’d been a fan since the release of the third of these, The Times They Are a-Changin’, in 1964. I was 14.

I didn’t just listen to Dylan. I learned to play the guitar in 1968, and within a couple of years I’d memorized the words to perhaps 50 of those early songs. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that those songs laid the foundation for the person I am. There is, for example, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan’s anthem to equality and humility and the difficult lesson of learning you’re just like everyone else:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you? …
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.
How does it feel?

There’s this from “To Ramona”:

I’ve heard you say many times
That you’re better than no one
And no one is better than you.

From “Chimes of Freedom”:

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
And for each and every underdog soldier in the night
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

From “My Back Pages” (rumoured to be Dylan’s farewell to “the movement”):

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school.
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow.
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

From “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”:

I started out on burgundy
But soon hit the harder stuff;
Everybody said they’d stand behind me
When the game got rough,
But the joke was on me,
There was nobody even there to bluff;
I’m going back to New York City
I do believe I’ve had enough.

From: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you;
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you;
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore;
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

From “One Too Many Mornings”:

It’s a restless hungry feeling that don’t mean no one no good,
When everything I’m a-sayin’ you can say it just as good.
You’re right from your side, I’m right from mine.
We’re both just one too many mornings an’ a thousand miles behind.

And there are Dylan’s stories about the American underclass as told in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, “Ballad of Hollis Brown” and my personal favourite, “North Country Blues”:

Come gather ’round friends
And I’ll tell you a tale
Of when the red iron ore pits run plenty,
But the cardboard-filled windows
And old men on the benches
Tell you now that the whole town is empty.

Of course, none of this means Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. I’m pleased, because I think we artists are too prone to celebrating the obscure. As for those who fear that the selection committee has damaged by stretching too thin the category “literature,” let me quote Dylan’s friend and colleague Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
— “Anthem,” 1992

The Nobel committee made a crack and let in a bit of light.

When Canadian theatre was born in the late sixties, it had, like the decade, a left-wing and nationalist temperament. There was no funding for the arts at the time, and there were a total of six Canadian plays in existence, so if you were going to found a theatre company dedicated to the production of Canadian political plays, you had to be obstreperous – which might be an apt description of the era’s artistic directors and theatre companies like TWP, Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre, Globe Theatre (Regina). There was one Canadian playwright – George Ryga – so, not surprisingly, a lot of the early plays were collective creations. And the target was a general audience, not theatre artists, of whom there were too few to fill a Volkswagen van.

That’s the theatre world I entered when, in 1976, I started working with Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company. Founded a year earlier (we were a bit late to the party), GCTC was dedicated to producing Canadian and political plays. “Canadian” meant written by Canadians, and “political” meant, to us, political parties, history, social issues. It was pretty broad, but not borderless; “the personal is political” and “everything is political” were not GCTC slogans.

In the beginning, GCTC productions came from Canada’s small repertoire of political plays: Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe; Carol Bolt’s Buffalo Jump; The Mummers Troupe’s Company Town; Sharon Pollack’s Komagata Maru Incident. When these ran out, the company commissioned plays or its members wrote collectively or individually. Slowly, GCTC’s work was being recognized, especially after a 1982 tour of Sandinista!, a collective creation about the Nicaraguan revolution.

I was made resident playwright about then, and my annual contribution was always explicitly political: Zero Hour (the CIA in Central America), Cheap Thrills (poverty), Learning to Live with Personal Growth (poverty again), 1997 (the future of work).

It wasn’t long, however, before the theatre world passed us by.

In those early years, GCTC was a “collective”: everyone was paid the same, and all full-time staff were members of the board. We had an artistic director, but also an “artistic direction committee,” which voted on the season. These structures were seen as more or less important by various members at various times; but we all understood – well, let’s say most of us understood – that what made GCTC political was not what happened offstage, but the content of the plays. We were willing to compromise on everything but that.

Increasingly, however, out there in the broader theatre world, “political” had come or was coming to mean other things: “formal experimentation” or the manner of creation (e.g., collective creation or improvisation), or the participation of “target groups” (e.g., women, Aboriginals, visible minorities). In the case of target groups, this redefinition of “political” was enforced by arts funding bodies, and in the case of formal experimentation and manner of creation, by artists on juries.

The explicit political content that GCTC specialized in back then has been largely abandoned. Such plays still get written, of course, but they’re seldom produced. Consider plays like Michael Healey’s Proud (2012), George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor (2013), Tommy Taylor’s You Should Have Stayed Home (2010), my own Facts (2010), or The Public Servant (2015), a collective creation from Common Boots Theatre (whose artistic director, Jennifer Brewin, and I are married). All (especially mine!) are intelligent, funny and provocative plays on important political/social subjects. All these plays have been successful with audiences and reviewers, but not with Canada’s artistic directors.

3-1Facts’ domestic journey is not untypical. It has enjoyed international success: it toured Palestine and Israel in Arabic; it ran for a month in London, England, to sold-out houses and rave reviews; and I believe it is still running in rep in Istanbul in Turkish. In Canada, however, after a successful premiere at GCTC, it has been self-produced and produced by United Players, a “community theatre” in Vancouver. Reversing centuries of cliché, amateur theatre companies are now more adventurous than our professional theatres.

The Public Servant was a major hit at GCTC (100 per cent attendance) and also, recently, in Toronto in a Common Boots–Nightwood coproduction, but no one else has picked it up. What is going on in the brains of artistic directors in Canada’s capital cities I can’t imagine.

3There is a counterexample: “Whether it is home invasions or bullying among young girls, few Canadian playwrights are as acutely tuned to contemporary issues as Vancouver’s Joan MacLeod,” wrote Robert Crew in the Toronto Star (November 14, 2013). Her plays do get produced. The Valley, for example, has been recently produced by Alberta Theatre Projects, the Tarragon, the Belfry, Prairie Theatre Exchange, Arts Club and perhaps others.

Many will claim that financial exigency demands light entertainment. Certainly, ever lighter entertainment is the first reflex of theatre boards and artistic directors when facing financial difficulty. However, the near absence of political theatre from the stages of Canada’s midsize and large professional theatres is not due to the tastes of audiences but to the tastes of artistic directors and the boards that hire them. (Our small companies, meanwhile, busy themselves exploring new forms.)

The newspaper, wrote American humorist Finley Peter Dunne (“Mr. Dooley”), “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” I think that would be a good goal for theatres. It’s a challenge bringing theatre to the afflicted, of course – and we should do more of that.

It’s less of a challenge to afflict the comfortable. In my experience, audiences want to be challenged. They want to hear provocative and strange and uncomfortable ideas, and to be stimulated to think in new ways. They want smart, funny, dramatic plays about the world they live in. They want theatre that’s about something.

But instead, our theatres bring comfort to the comfortable – that is, they provide light entertainment for the well off. And for that, theatres get government subsidy derived from taxation of the comfortable and the afflicted, both.

I think we have to do better.

This article first appeared in #Cdncult: Reporting and commentary about Canadian performance culture in Internet times (spiderwebshow.ca/cdncult). Volume 7, Edition 7: ART & POLITICS.

Years ago – maybe 40 years ago – I attended an all-candidates meeting for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party. I happened to be sitting next to a visiting Swede and after the debate I asked his reaction. As I remember, he was surprised at how “middle-class” the party was. I asked him to elaborate. He said the party seemed geared toward the middle class and not toward the poor.

That story has come to mind several times recently – as I was writing a column for the Winter/Spring 2015 issue of Inroads (“The left’s greatest gift to the political right”); as I’ve watched the militant and growing support for Donald Trump; during the celebration of Rob Ford’s life and mayoralty; as I witness Thomas Mulcair’s fall and the Leap Manifesto’s rise; and as I read the following in Paul Krugman’s generally positive assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency: “There are still some areas of disappointment – low labor force participation, weak wage growth.”1

Low labour force participation likely hits the same people most affected by weak wage growth: the bottom third of income earners, people who have given up looking for work and people who are working harder and longer for less money.

These are the people who make up a good part of Trump’s base of support. They also made up a good part of Rob Ford’s base. They seem particularly resentful of (1) refugees and immigrants, (2) people on welfare and (3) public sector employees. They see the left (in Canada) and liberals (in the United States) as overly sympathetic to those groups, and therefore they support the right.

Here’s a third-hand story. An American woman goes into a shop that sells devices for people with disabilities. There’s a basic wheelchair, which is free to people on social security, and a fancy wheelchair which is not. And she says, “This is how the poor get ripped off by government crooks. That’s why I’m voting for Trump.”

It’s pretty clear that she’s misinformed. A right-wing party is more likely to cut funding even for the basic wheelchair, and a left-wing party – despite its support for refugees, welfare recipients and public servants – is more likely to add coverage for the fancy wheelchair. The poor, in general, are likely to get better treatment from the left. In Canada, the NDP has led in raising minimum wages; in Saskatchewan, it brought in Canada’s first income support for low-wage workers.

So why aren’t the poor loyal to the left? Why do they seem increasingly to support right-wing populists like Ford and Trump? Perhaps they actually yearn for the freedom from oppressive government programs that neoconservatives and libertarians promise, but not likely.

Here’s a typical headline from the NDP website: “Tom Mulcair will invest in the middle class by asking corporations to pay their fair share.”2 The poor could be forgiven for not knowing that for the NDP “middle class” includes the poor because it’s a euphemism for “everyone except the very rich.” If they read the fine print, they’ll learn that the NDP promises low-cost child care and a national drug plan. But they might be forgiven for thinking these are just more goodies for the latte-drinking elites.

It doesn’t help that the left has largely shifted its focus from class to identity politics: from the poor and relatively poor to women’s and LGBT issues, people of colour and Aboriginals. The poor – especially poor white males, of course – will see this as another indication that society and elites have turned against them. They see themselves as outsiders and give their support to outsiders. And if latte drinkers are appalled by the Fords and Trumps, that’s just more evidence that outsiders have made the right choice.

To the extent that they are badly educated, they will not recognize the political party that best serves their interest; and to the extent that they fail to recognize the party that best serves their interest, they will remain poor. I’m not suggesting that winning support from the poor will be easy for the left – only that it’s necessary.

Those difficult-to-like and difficult-to-reach outsiders are the exact people on whose behalf a social democratic party must work. As my Swedish colleague indicated, representing the poor – the bottom third, whoever they are – is what social democratic politics is about. It’s why we need a social democratic party in the first place: the political landscape is crowded with parties happy to serve the middle class.

Representing the poor and integrating them into society – through decent housing, transit, health care, income support, drug and alcohol treatment, care for the aged and especially education and work that is secure, healthy and fairly remunerated – is more than the ethical thing to do. We should now understand that if we fail, they will support Rob Ford or Donald Trump – or worse.


Continue reading “Why do the poor support Ford and Trump?”

From CBC Radio 1, June 28, 2015:

HARRY FORESTELL: Thank you for listening. I’m Harry Forestell, sitting in for Rex Murphy on Cross Country Checkup. Our topic today: Should Canada accept more of the migrants and refugees trying to get into Europe. We’re interested in what you have to say … An email from Thomas Brawn in Ottawa, Ontario, very succinctly says, “Yes, we should accept migrants from everywhere. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, ongoing guests of the First Nations.” 1

I laughed. If we really are “ongoing guests of the First Nations,” I thought, it’s pretty rude of us to invite hundreds of thousands of people into our hosts’ home.

Then, five minutes later, I learned I wasn’t the only one to have this thought:

FORESTELL: We have Kahn-Tineta Horn from Kahnawake, Quebec, on the line. Should Canada accept more of the migrants and refugees trying to get into Europe?

HORN: Canadians and yourself are saying that we should be accepting more people. I’m Mohawk. We’ve gone through a horrible, horrific genocide and now there are very few of us left and we are living in the worst conditions anywhere in the world, practically. No water, toxins in the water, the devastation of our environment, sicknesses and all kinds of health problems and we’ve just come through the residential school commission and Canada has committed genocide.

FORESTELL: So is dealing with those problems sufficient reason to not acknowledge other problems in the world and not try to deal with those other problems as well?

HORN: Well, don’t you think you should deal with the problems with us first?

FORESTELL: I’m saying, Can we do two things at once?

HORN: I don’t think so. These people are going to come over – I’ve spoken to lots of them. They don’t even know anything about us, they come here to help themselves to our resources. They’re even getting loans from the banks so they can buy our land, which we never even relinquished. They’re acting the same way as the Canadians, who by the way are refugees.

FORESTELL: So you don’t see any difference between traditional, historical empire-building and people who are so desperately in need of help they have nowhere else to turn. Who should look after them if not Canadians?

HORN: If you can’t even look after us, and we’re in desperate situations, how can you turn around and take care of these people? They want to be in on the genocide, they’ll come over here and they’ll help you with the genocide. Canada is built on genocide. That’s what it’s built on.

Of course, not all liberal Canadians are as idealistic, naive or politically correct (take your choice) as Mr. Brawn, and not all Aboriginal Canadians as militant or extreme as Ms. Horn. Still, I’ve recently attended several events in Ottawa, including at the National Arts Centre, at which a spokesperson “acknowledges” that we are on “unceded Algonquin territory.” OPIRG-Ottawa, whose mandate is “to bring together and build upon a broad-based community dedicated to social, economic and environmental justice,” announces at the top of every website page, “On unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin Territory.”2

Does that mean we should refrain from bringing refugees to Ottawa until its ownership is settled? What would OPIRG say?

The photograph

I am thinking about all that as Canada turns its attention to Syrian refugees, following the release of that genuinely painful photograph of a drowned three-year-old Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but that particular picture has generated a billion words. It might also have been the biggest nail in Stephen Harper’s coffin, yet again exposing him as unable to distinguish between humanitarian action and war. Among Mr. Harper’s recognized qualities is his lack of generosity, and even the most loyal among the Conservative base don’t want to believe themselves heartless. If he had simply said, “Yes, we will immediately begin a process of accepting 25,000 refugees and, if we are in a position to do so in the future, we will accept more.” But no, he kept saying they were doing enough and he kept talking about war, while the country faced up to its embarrassingly low, by international standards, rate of accepting refugees.

There has been a great deal of speculation about the fantastic power of that photograph, but I’ve heard no one say this: It worked, in Europe and America, because Aylan Kurdi looks middle-class. With his running shoes and colourful shirt and tidy haircut and apparent health, he is our son and we are his parents. He doesn’t look different or foreign – like all those desperate, hungry women in their hijabs. He looks like a boy on his way to play an organized sport at the community centre down the road.

For the first time, perhaps, we begin to understand what we, the West, have wrought on that civilization.

Treachery, hypocrisy, abject failure

According to Jewish-Israeli journalist Ari Shavit:

In the second half of the 20th century the United States and Europe contributed to stabilizing a post-colonial order in the Middle East. This order was rotten and corrupt. It was based on a shady deal of supporting dark regimes in exchange for a regular oil supply … But in the early 21st century the United States and Europe toppled the old Middle Eastern order with an insane war in Iraq, an idiotic war in Libya and indirect support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The result wasn’t an alternative order that stabilizes enlightened regimes and advances democratic values, but utter disorder. It was civil wars and fanatics’ wars and inter-tribal wars. The Western powers’ idealistic ambition – naïve, idealistic and cut off from reality – wreaked havoc in the last 12 years throughout the Middle East.3

And Palestinian-Israeli journalist Odeh Bisharat:

Qatar, a U.S. ally, is supporting the sadistic ISIS (Islamic State)4 … Saudi Arabia, of course, is the mother and father of the Wahhabi stream of Islam, which sees everyone except its own adherents as heretics deserving of death. By building on this movement, the House of Saud seized control of Saudi Arabia, supported by Britain. Later on, America replaced Britain … So even as America was ostensibly fighting for human rights all over the world, the Middle Ages prevailed in its own backyard, in Saudi Arabia.

As Saudi Arabia underwent incredible economic development, there emerged a fatal combination between billions of dollars and a horrific ideology of death, which brought about the current Arab disaster. But when the worst occurs, the leaders of the Gulf states, who are still supplying weapons and billions of dollars to these death cults, remain silent. Their money is safely stowed in Western banks.5

And then, of course, there’s Israel. In August 1990, after five months of occupation, a U.S.-led international force ejected Iraq from Kuwait. In its 48th year of occupation of the Palestinian territories, Israel remains the world’s largest recipient of U.S. aid. Hamas is condemned for firing largely ineffectual rockets in its fight against an Israeli blockade; but Israel “has a right to defend itself” when it kills thousands of civilians in retribution.

Treachery, hypocrisy and abject failure, from Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration until yesterday’s photo of our neighbour Aylan Kurdi lying in the sand. Continue reading “Thoughts inspired by Aylan Kurdi”

At the age of ninety-three and a half, my mother went for 30-minute walks. Then she took a turn for the worse. We went to the doctor. “Doctor,” she said, “I would like to die. Can you help me?” “No,” said the doctor, “and don’t ask me again.” After that, she frequently asked family members to help her die. She suggested going to Switzerland.1 We were concerned, but no one did anything.

She walked more slowly, then she needed a walker, then a wheelchair. She was often sleepy. She got a lung infection and was sent to the hospital. She refused to be admitted, went home with enough analgesic to keep her dopey and, three days later, died. The decline took seven months.

We die differently now, and we haven’t recognized it.

In How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter,2 Sherwin B. Nuland describes the autopsies of people who died at 85 and older. Their death certificates had reported cause of death as heart attack, stroke, cancer or infection – those were the big ones – but in every case the autopsy found that they were dying of other things at the same time. Their entire system was collapsing. In other words, they were at the end of their life span.

A Galapagos land tortoise lives to 190. A very healthy grey squirrel barely makes it to 20. Those are life spans. The human life span is about 90, and that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. What has changed, for humans, is life expectancy. In 1900, Canadians could expect to live to 50. Now we can expect to live into our eighties.

This is a key point: in the rich countries today – as a result of sanitation, vaccination, diet and antibiotics – human life expectancy is very close to the human life span.

In 1900, your typical person got sick – at 7 or 37 or 67 – and died at home a few days later. Today, most of us die in a hospital. And we don’t get sick – we just get old. Pneumonia used to be called the “friend of the aged”; now it’s easily cured, so we linger. Our increased longevity has demographic implications: the longer people live, the higher the percentage of old people. People blame it on the baby boom, but if those post–World War II babies died at 50, there would be no boom in old people now.

So given the unprecedented millions of us who will be lingering for months or years, the current interest in euthanasia or assisted suicide is not surprising. Current polls show that 84 per cent of Canadians support assisted dying.3

My mother was no social pioneer, but on this she was ahead of her time. Twenty years ago, at the age of 75, her major activities included going to funerals and visiting hospitals and “long-term care facilities.” She’d say, “I believe in euthanasia. When someone is miserable and they make everyone else miserable, they should be killed. When I get old, you won’t have to beg me.” She was right. She had to beg us.

The irony is that virtually none of the current discussion is about the aged. The most discussed cases involve youngish people suffering from great pain and a terminal disease:

  • Sue Rodriguez was 43 when Canada’s Supreme Court decided against her in 1992. She had ALS.
  • Susan Griffiths suffered from multiple system atrophy, a rare degenerative neurological disease. She was 72 when she “went to Switzerland” in 2013.
  • Donald Low was 68 when he made his famous video. He died of a brain tumour in early 2013.
  • Gloria Taylor and Kay Carter are the women whose cases were recently decided, posthumously, by the Supreme Court. Taylor was 61 when diagnosed with ALS. Carter was the exception: she was 89 years old. Confined to a wheelchair as a result of a degenerative disease, she went to Switzerland in 2010.

Quebec’s legislation and the recent Supreme Court decision were guided by legislation and experience in Belgium, the Netherlands and the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington. The focus of all of these is on people, like those above, who are in great pain and dying of a terminal illness.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Criminal Code’s prohibitions on assisted suicide no longer apply “to the extent that they prohibit physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who … has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”4

Québécois aspirants for assisted death “must suffer from an incurable serious illness” and “suffer from constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain.”5

Quebec’s legislation and the Supreme Court’s decision are humane and important steps, but they would likely have been of no use to my mother and won’t much help the vast majority of people who in the years to come will suffer lingering deterioration. When we talk about assisted dying, we need to distinguish between the young and the old, between early death from disease and the death that comes at the end of a proper lifespan.

According to Laura Fraser in a Halifax Chronicle Herald special report, “Academics point to the same European countries as role models for other regions, with Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands regularly topping their lists as the best places in the world to grow old.”6 Fraser conveniently points out, “Their citizens are the highest-taxed in the European Union.”

In Canada, here is what old people can look forward to: If we have money and a caring family, we will spend our final years at home or in a seniors’ residence with the best care love or money can provide. If we’re poor, we will go into a nursing home (a “long-term-care facility”) and lie in bed until we succumb.

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Quality varies. According to a Canadian Institute for Health Information study, “The average nursing home resident in Canada is age 85 or older and faces many challenges, including multiple chronic diseases and problems with mobility, memory and incontinence. Some are completely dependent on nursing home staff for the most basic activities of daily living, such as toileting and eating.”7 Further, according to the same study,

  • “The percentage of residents on antipsychotic medications without a related diagnosis ranged from 18% to 50%” (i.e., people were given antipsychotic drugs even when not psychotic);
  • 60% suffer from dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease;
  • “residents with worsening symptoms of depression ranged from 3% to 40%.”

I’m 64 years old. This is what I would like for my last years. I’d like Canadians to willingly pay high enough taxes so everyone can be humanely cared for as they grow up and as they grow old.

I would also like – let’s deal with the tough one first. Dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s, can wipe out the higher functions of the brain (memory, cognition, emotion, language) but leave the body intact for years. I would like to be able to sign a document today that stipulates that when, for a period of 30 days, I cannot recognize my grandchildren or remember their names, I will be put to death. No country will allow me to sign a request today, when I am (arguably) of sound mind, for euthanasia to be carried out at a later date when I am not.

I hope I have 100 good years. But I’d also like to know that, if I remain of sound mind, I can get help dying, even if I don’t have an incurable disease and am not in unbearable pain. I don’t want to be put in the position of having to kill myself while I am still capable of doing so, but before I want to. Maybe 80 or 85 should be the minimum age. But if I want to die because I’m bedridden and uncomfortable, or don’t want to deplete my children’s inheritance and/or use up large amounts of government funds for little return, that should be sufficient reason.

Finally, I’d like a going-away party. I’ve been to a few wakes recently, and they tend to be fun. I’d like to attend mine. I will lie in bed and people will make funny, affectionate speeches about me. Then someone will fetch barbiturates or hook me up to a canister of helium. I’d rather they didn’t go to jail for doing so.

Continue reading “Dying later, dying differently, dying when we want”

As I write this, the British Columbia teachers have returned to work, following a strike of several months. Depending on whom you listened to, the union or the government, it sounded like two entirely different events. The main mystery for me is why the government didn’t force the teachers back to work earlier – in time for the normal start of classes in September. Presumably they wanted to teach the teachers a lesson. In any case, it’s clear that both management and union had priorities other than the education of children.

During the strike, I wondered more than I usually do why public servants have the right to strike in the first place. Public sector unions are different from private sector unions. Private sector workers are engaged in an economic battle with owners. They gamble that the company will prefer higher labour costs to lost revenue. But it’s a big gamble: a strike can drive the enterprise out of business or out of town.

No such concern exists for public sector workers. Theirs is a political battle. A public service strike inconveniences the public, and the pressure on government is indirect. Workers will lose wages, but not their jobs.


It’s hard to find agreed-on numbers comparing wages and benefits in the public and private sectors. In a debate hosted last year by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Jim Stanford,an economist with the Unifor trade union, argued that governments have “the power to ‘solve’ their labour relations problems by simply dictating a settlement. The potential for misuse of this confluence of fiscal interest and political power is enormous.”1 He acknowledged that “average earnings in the public sector are 5 to 10 per cent higher than economy averages (depending on how they are measured) – but education and credentials are significantly higher too. Comparing similar occupations and credentials, it’s largely a wash. Hence, he said, “Tilting at public sector unions is all about politics, not economics.”

Arguing the other side, Professor Tom Flanagan contrasted private with public sector bargaining. In the public sector, he said,“gains extorted through repeated use of strikes and strike threats may lead to reductions in service,” but the reductions “will not necessarily be in the sector where strikes have driven up compensation.” Thus, “aggressive collective bargaining may well kill someone else’s goose.”2

Flanagan cited a recent study that, after controlling for a dozen variables known to influence earnings, including gender, age, education, experience, province of residence, size of employer and nature of employment, found that public sector employees are paid on average about 10 per cent more than unionized private sector workers with similar qualifications and experience.3 Public sector workers were “much more likely to have a generous pension plan, retire earlier, have greater job security, get longer paid vacations, and take more sick days.”

Of course, even if public sector employees do have an unfair advantage over their private sector counterparts, why begrudge them their good fortune? Isn’t it a bit like the proverbial Russian peasant who, offered anything he desired, said, “My neighbour has a goat and I don’t – kill his goat”? Shouldn’t private sector workers and unions just fight harder for better pay and benefits?

The problem is bigger than that. The public sector advantage has broad implications for left-wing political parties. Public sector strikes are a left-wing government’s Achilles heel: give in to union demands, you open yourself to accusations of profligate spending; put up with a long public sector strike, you look helpless and incompetent; legislate strikers back to work, you risk losing labour votes and campaign workers.

And efficient public services are central to a left-wing conception of society. Public sector strikes undermine the left’s ability to deliver on that promise. And the perception of public service privilege leads to the conviction that increased funding for services will result in increased wages for public servants rather than improved or expanded delivery of service.

The left doesn’t usually talk about these problems in public, but there are exceptions. In the prologue to his How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot, Brian Topp describes his experience with the Saskatchewan NDP. Its near-defeat in 1999, he writes, was the result of rejection by rural voters and “a tactically opportunistic and strategically mindless nurses’ strike, timed by that union’s leaders to politically blackmail our government.”4 Then, a few pages later, discussing David Miller’s successful campaign for the Toronto mayoralty, Topp goes further:

The bitter public-sector strike that preceded Mayor Miller’s announcement in the fall of 2009 that he would not run for a third term had a familiar ring to veterans of NDP governments. Public-sector bargaining is perhaps one of the left’s proudest achievements in Canada. It is also perhaps our greatest gift to the political right .5

According to Richard Littlemore in the Globe and Mail, the proportion of private sector workers who belong to a union in Canada “has collapsed. In 1984, it was 26%. Today … it’s 17% and falling.” On the other hand, public sector membership “hit 72% by the mid-’80s and has stayed in that range ever since.”8 Littlemore suggests that one consequence is “a serious souring of public sentiment”:


Members may see value in their union cards, but for large swaths of the public, unions have a serious image problem: They’ve gone from being the folks who brought you the weekend to being the folks who deny you the services for which you pay your taxes.

Before the complexion of unionism went civil-servant, workers in the private sector tended to aspire to union membership. But now, non-union members of the public are more likely to resent union protections, especially when it seems that civil servants are getting fat (and retiring happy) on taxes paid by the unorganized.


He doesn’t provide much evidence, but you can easily find the evidence by reading the “comments” on articles about the public service in the online version of any of the major daily newspapers. They are overwhelmingly anti–public service and often drip with resentment. Public servants are seen as lazy and overpaid, using their leverage with friends in government to win undeserved privilege – at the ordinary person’s expense. Largely absent is any notion that government expenditures – on education, health care, transportation – help the underprivileged.

2_Sam Javanrouh flickrLittlemore, like Topp, sees evidence of the backlash in the 2009 Toronto garbage strike:

Public resentment over the garbage that piled up in parks during the 2009 strike helped catapult the notorious Rob Ford into the mayor’s chair. In an administration dogged by controversy, one of Ford’s clearest victories has been to contract out a large number of garbage-collecting jobs that had belonged to CUPE members. The public outcry over this was notable by its absence.

Should the left support banning public sector strikes? There are better options. According to Juhana Vartiainen in “Interpreting Wage Bargaining Norms,”

From the mid-1990s onwards, Swedish wage bargaining has been characterised by informal co-ordination of the wage claims of big unions and bargaining cartels. In particular, it has been understood that the manufacturing sector should lead by first agreeing on a pay increase, whereafter the service sector and public sector unions choose a similar increase.7


In other words, the manufacturing sector settles on a wage and the service and public sectors follow. Canada lacks the “bargaining cartels” and other structures that are conducive to such an arrangement, and Canadian labour and management show no signs of wanting them.

Nonetheless, here’s my suggestion: public sector unions should volunteer to have their increases tied to some aggregate of settlements in the private sector. If Jim Stanford is correct that public sector workers are not a labour aristocracy, then it won’t much affect public sector wages anyway. But it will undercut certain unions’ abilities to hold left-wing parties to ransom during elections; more important, it will immediately undercut public distrust of public servants, left-wing parties and state provision of social services. And in the long run, it will be in the overall interests of public servants, as it will restore some measure of respect to the public service and encourage public sector growth.

Will that happen? I wouldn’t bet on it. But maybe the first step is admitting that we have a serious problem.



1 Retrieved from http://www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/should-public-servants-have-the-right-to-strike-yes/

2 Retrieved from http://www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/should-public-servants-have-the-right-to-strike-no/

3 Milagros Palacios and Jason Clemens, “Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation in Canada,” retrieved from http://www.fraserinstitute.org/uploadedFiles/fraser-ca/Content/research-news/research/publications/comparing-public-and-private-sector-compensation-in-canada.pdf

4 Brian Topp, How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot (Toronto: Lorimer, 2010), p. 28.

5 Ibid., p. 30.

6 Richard Littlemore, “Do Unions Have a Future?”, Globe and Mail, March 27, 2013, retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-magazine/do-unions-have-a-future/article10310754/?page=all#dashboard/follows/

7 Retrieved from http://www.konj.se/download/18.5ce513b71287f0b00bc800016189/wp_116.pdf


Arthur Milner is a playwright and theatre director, and Inroads’ culture columnist. He lives in Val-des-Monts, Quebec.