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

2 Retrieved from

3 Milagros Palacios and Jason Clemens, “Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation in Canada,” retrieved from

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

7 Retrieved from


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

About a year ago, the United States started pressuring Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to restart peace negotiations. No one knows why. Israel had expressed no such desire. The Palestinians and everyone else thought: What’s the point? No one believed the Americans would ever pressure Israel sufficiently to get a reasonable compromise. Besides, no one was pushing the United States to get back into the ring. Presumably, Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama thought something could be achieved. Were they naive, or did they have a few aces up their sleeves?

With the negotiations at an end, we can now answer that question. There were no aces up American sleeves. Draw your own conclusions.

Obama had tried to get things going in his first term. In Cairo, he promised the Arab world a settlement freeze. But Israel paid no attention and, instead, announced new construction in the middle of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s official visit. When Obama stated that future negotiations would be based on the 1967 borders, Netanyahu got 42 standing ovations from the U.S. Congress for telling Obama to stuff himself.

The PA asked for a settlement freeze but got the release of prisoners instead. They agreed to enter negotiations. There is suspicion that a few high-profile Western boycotts of Israeli projects in the West Bank convinced Israel to comply.

7_Secretary_Kerry_Attends_World_Economic_Forum_(Pic_4) flickr large us department of state

The Jewish State

The basis of the Kerry negotiations, like all negotiations before, is the “two-state solution.” There is near-universal agreement on what that would look like: two states, based on the pre-1967 borders with mutually accepted land swaps; a shared or split Jerusalem; and some recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees, including compensation and limited repatriation. This is Canada’s official position. The only significant groups that reject this plan are Israelis, evangelical Christians and Palestinian radicals and their supporters (see box).


Many in Israel’s coalition government reject a Palestinian state out of hand. Prime Minister Netanyahu once said he accepted the two-state solution, but he has, during these negotiations, stated that Israel will not give up the Jordan Valley for 40 years, accept refugees or remove a single settler, and that Jerusalem will remain Israel’s undivided, eternal capital. He has thrown every wrench he can find into the spokes.

The latest wrench – and the big discussion of late – is Netanyahu’s demand that the PA recognize Israel as the Jewish State. It’s an odd demand. On one hand, it’s obvious – so obvious that, until recently, it never occurred to Israel to demand it. Peace treaties were signed with Jordan and Egypt with no such declaration, and no other country recognizes or has been asked to recognize Israel as the Jewish State. The Palestinians have recognized Israel several times, but now the goalposts have been moved.

Palestinians are loath to recognize Israel as a Jewish State because they fear it would amount to abandoning Palestinian refugees’ right of return and the struggle of Palestinian citizens of Israel for equality with Jewish citizens. Are their fears justified? Who knows? Israel has never defined what it means by Jewish State.

Palestinians, like most people in the world, regard Jews as adherents to a religion. Secular Israeli Jews (a shrinking majority of Jews in Israel) tend to see themselves as a nation or people. For them, Palestinian recognition of the Jewish State is equivalent to Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. But it’s not: You don’t have to change religions to become a Palestinian or a Canadian. Imams and/or priests do not control who gets to be a Palestinian or a Canadian, but rabbis (and under Israeli law, only Orthodox rabbis) do decide who gets to be a Jew.

Negotiations were going nowhere because Israel demanded everything and gave nothing, refusing even to discuss borders. Then Netanyahu announced cancellation of the fourth prisoner release. A few days later, he announced 706 settlement units in East Jerusalem. Abbas said Netanyahu had broken the terms of the negotiations and announced the PA would sign new UN and other international agreements. Netanyahu accused the PA of walking out of negotiations.

When a few days later Abbas announced the PA had reached an agreement with Hamas, Israel suspended negotiations, saying the PA must choose between peace and terrorism – even though Israel has, more than once, called negotiations pointless because of Palestinian disunity; even though the Palestine Liberation Organization, too, had been called terrorist before Israel recognized it; even though Israel helped to create Hamas; even though at least two Israeli prime ministers had been terrorists; even though another Israeli prime minister had been found guilty of being personally responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres; even though Israel itself had previously negotiated with Hamas; and even though Abbas said that a Palestinian unity government would recognize Israel and condemn terrorism.

Netanyahu also said that, to continue negotiations, he had been prepared to offer a “partial freeze” of settlement construction. Partial freeze is another way of saying continued expansion.

And that’s where we now stand.


What’s the difference between the Israeli right, centre and centre-left? The right openly opposes the two-state solution. The centre pretends to support it in an effort to maintain international, especially U.S., support. The centre-left claims to support it, but places conditions on the Palestinians that make resolution impossible. All blame the Palestinians for failure. As Zeev Sternhell wrote in Haaretz,1 “For Israel’s leaders, the word ‘agreement’ means unconditional Palestinian surrender. This perception is anchored deep in the Israeli consciousness and is shared by the right, the center and the center-left, the towns in the country’s outskirts and most residents of Greater Tel Aviv, the Labor Party and Likud.”

The tactic that best serves the Israelis is delay. This is not new. From the beginning of the occupation, the settler slogan was “facts on the ground”: if there are enough Jews living in the territories, it will be too late to change. Settlements have expanded under both centrist and right-wing governments. Construction accelerates during times of relative peace (negotiations, for example) and slows when there is violence.

So refusing to negotiate is a kind of delay, and then negotiating is another kind. Breaking off negotiations is one kind of delay, and agreeing to resume is another. Failed negotiations are a kind of delay. Successful negotiations are a failure, because even small steps encourage the dangerous belief that deals can be made with Arabs. That was the lesson of the Oslo Accords, when for a few years Israelis became enamoured of Palestinian-Israeli accords. It took the Camp David Accords in 2000 to break Israelis of that habit – those negotiations whose failure Clinton blamed on Yasir Arafat and out of which Ehud Barak invented the great slogan “We have no partner for peace.”2 Delay as long as you can, negotiate as long as you can, then sabotage the negotiations and blame their failure on the Palestinians. And, of course, even if there is a deal, you can be sure there will be violence (from extremists or provocateurs), and Israel can use that violence to break the deal and then, again, delay negotiations or negotiate for years.

Polls show that a majority of Israelis support the two-state solution, but this means nothing. Thirty-six per cent vote for the right, 35 per cent for the centre/centre-left. The religious parties, which tend to care mostly about – and can be bribed with – welfare and exemption from army service, are at about 15 per cent. That leaves genuine opposition to the occupation and support for a two-state solution at 14 per cent (which includes the Arab parties). That is what the Palestinians are up against.

The American response

When negotiations broke down, Kerry blamed Israel. This was as unprecedented as it was accurate. Sadly, he and the State Department backtracked. Others have shown some courage in apportioning responsibility – former Canadian ambassador Michael Bell, for example.3

Typical of the self-delusion that clouds the American mind on Israel is Roger Cohen’s April 10 op-ed in the New York Times. Cohen wrote, “The recent Israeli decision to move forward with plans to build 700 new settlement units in Jerusalem reflects a widespread view within Netanyahu’s governing coalition (and quite likely in his heart of hearts) that not an inch of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River should be surrendered”; and “Netanyahu’s insistence on up-front Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state … amounts to so much bloviation designed to undermine any talks.”

So far so good, but then: “Neither side is serious today about a two-state peace settlement.” The problem on the Palestinian side is “widespread corruption and nepotism … Abbas has zero democratic legitimacy; he leads a divided Palestinian national movement” (see box: Abbas). Perhaps; but Cohen didn’t list a single position held or action taken by the Palestinians that undermined negotiations. So which side is not serious?


Cohen wrote, “The gap between the maximum potential Israeli offer and minimum Palestinian demand keeps growing.” Absolutely true, but he neglects to mention that the gap grows only because Israel’s offer shrinks.

So what does Cohen propose the Americans do about the fact that “Netanyahu’s governing coalition” is adamant that “not an inch of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River should be surrendered”?

Kerry should take a break. Prolonging failure only demonstrates weakness … American clout can only be demonstrated if there is a limit to the accommodation of unserious people. Let the impasse fester for a while (it has for decades), focus on securing a lasting nuclear deal with Iran, and demonstrate thereby that the United States is capable of acting in its own interests when necessary, irrespective of the views of even its closest allies.

In other words, the problem is American credibility, so prove your independence by pursuing U.S. interests in Iran, but other than that do exactly what Netanyahu and the Israel lobby demand: nothing. No mention that the United States provides Israel with over $3 billion a year in untied funds, guarantees Israeli military superiority4 and vetoes anti-Israel resolutions at the UN.

And now, Kerry and Obama have called for a “pause.” “Perhaps in a few months, Mr. Obama said, the time might be ripe for Israel and the Palestinians to ‘walk through that door,’ ready to compromise,” Patrick Martin reported.5 So now, according to the United States, both sides are to blame. An improvement over Clinton, I suppose.

In the Daily Beast on April 27, Josh Rogen reported on Kerry’s remarks to a closed-door meeting of influential world leaders two days earlier, of which the Daily Beast obtained a recording.6 According to Rogen, “Kerry said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the blame for the current impasse in the talks,” adding that neither Netanyahu nor Abbas was ready to make the tough decisions necessary for achieving peace. “Kerry criticized Israeli settlement construction as being unhelpful to the peace process,” and he “criticized Palestinian leaders for making statements that declined to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state,” Rogen wrote.

“Kerry also repeated his warning that a failure of Middle East peace talks could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens,” and said that if there’s no two-state solution, Israel risks becoming, in Kerry’s words, “an apartheid state.”

Finally, “Kerry said that he was considering, at some point, publicly laying out a comprehensive U.S. plan for a final agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in a last-ditch effort to forge a deal before the Obama administration leaves office in 2017.”

Sure, let’s wait another three years. Apparently there are no tricks up the American sleeve. What a waste of time and energy. Nevertheless, like an addict promising to kick the habit next time, Kerry insists the United States still matters. We can always hope. But we, and especially the Palestinians, should put our energies elsewhere.

What’s next for the Palestinians?

Many – including the PA – were sceptical about the Kerry negotiations from the start. But the pressure to enter the negotiations from America and Europe – the two groups with the means if not the will to force an Israeli retreat – must have been overwhelming. Still, at this point the PA really has no choice but to give up on negotiations entirely and turn to the UN and international law. Palestinians in the territories will turn, one hopes, to increased nonviolent political action, with the tacit support of the PA, and support elsewhere via boycott, divestment and sanctions (see box).


Ten years ago, in the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman called Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip “an urgent necessity.”7 Ideally, Friedman wrote, “this withdrawal should be negotiated along the Clinton plan. But if necessary, it should be done unilaterally. This can’t happen too soon, and the U.S. should be forcing it.”

The United States should be forcing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, and it’s an urgent necessity. Friedman wrote that more than ten years ago.

Israel’s leaders will need to realize, as did Soviet and South African leaders, that they cannot have what they want. Israel simply does not get to keep the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Gorbachev and De Klerk abandoned Soviet and South African delusions, and thereby probably prevented a great many deaths.

We can’t simply wait for an intelligent and courageous Israeli leadership. We must force an end to Israeli delusions.

Continue reading “The Middle East impasse”

2_this-is-war.762x400In Hannah Moscovitch’s This is War, four Canadian soldiers recount and relive the events that led up to a horrific mass killing. This is a story of Canada’s participation in the Afghan war, and the soldiers, whose places of origin range from Hamilton to Red Deer, seem properly and believably Canadian. But This Is War, as one might judge from its title, is also about war. At Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company in January 2014, the staging – a patch of desert, endless shades of olive and tan, the infinite horizon – reinforced the parable-like quality of the writing.

Moscovitch is an immensely talented, still-young playwright. What makes her especially exciting is her always eccentric and brave point of view. This is War is a pretty ambitious title for a 30-something – I was not looking forward to another war-is-hell story, but Moscovitch delivers far more. This has to be the most anti-romantic view of war ever. Our Canadians are not heroes, nor are they evil. They’re just banal. In the midst of constant dreariness, recurring horror and occasional atrocity, their concerns are youthfully mundane.

The play takes the form of a series of interviews and scenes with the soldiers. We don’t see the interviewers or hear their questions, only the soldiers’ responses, spoken directly to the audience, recounting the events leading up to a joint operation with, and an atrocity committed by, the Afghan army. When asked about the night before the “joint op,” the soldiers evade or won’t answer. Instead, we see what happened: a card game, a sexual encounter, a love triangle, egos bruised. But it’s all immaturity and naiveté and self-indulgence:

Jonny: You like the sarge?

Tanya: I did a tour with him. He’s like family. Like an older brother. Actually, he’s kind of like my dad.

Jonny: Yeah?

Tanya: Yeah, my dad can talk you into things like lending him your boyfriend’s car that you happen to have the keys to, so he can go crash it into a parked car in Mississauga.

Jonny: Car was totalled?

Tanya: That boyfriend was so good about it, too. Didn’t freak out. Just said, “Shit happens.”

Jonny: Nice guy?

Tanya: Nice guy.

Jonny: I’m that guy. Nice guy.

Tanya: Yeah?

Jonny: There was this girl in high school – her name was Sarah Jean Greene. I did stuff like that for her, like when her cat ran away, I put up posters for it.1

It’s all high school. And why shouldn’t it be? They’re kids.

Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated Omar is said to be the first entirely Palestinian-funded feature film. We follow three young Palestinian men, engaged in violent acts of resistance, and a young woman, loved by two of the men and sister to the third. The three men kill an Israeli soldier and Omar is captured. Following torture, he agrees to collaborate with the Israelis, but instead plays a game of double agent, distrusted by both sides, in pursuit of the woman he loves.

There are two parallel stories here: the mystery-romance and the political thriller. At the first level, it has a Shakespearean feel to it, like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet: lies and confusion leading inexorably to tragedy.

The three young men are dedicated to resisting the occupation. The film assumes such resistance is legitimate and gives us several instances of gratuitous Israeli brutality. The young men appear to be mildly admired by their friends and families, and everyone helps out as they try to escape Israeli soldiers (in rather fantastic chase scenes). But for a film so focused on politics, it leaves a lot out. There is no mention of the Palestinian Authority and no mention of alternatives to violent resistance: no demonstrations or legal challenges (as in Bil’in2), no boycotts.

I’m a bit tired of and mystified by the relentless focus on terrorism or violence in films by or about Palestinians. Take, for example, Abu-Assad’s earlier film Paradise Now, or Inch’Allah and, more recently, The Attack. They ask: What can lead someone to become a suicide bomber and kill children? But Omar is different.

Omar is not about suicide bombers; none of the characters wants or expects to die, and their targets are soldiers of the occupation, not civilians. The men are not religious fanatics. They seem quite normal, neither particularly admirable nor reprehensible. They don’t talk about goals and strategies, or leaders and parties. Resistance, in one form or another, seems simply to be part of Palestinian life in the territories, always in the air, and violent resistance is simply most obvious, nearest at hand. Violent resistance is, in a way, entry-level politics.

But violent resistance, as shown in Omar, is absolutely pointless. Acts of violence by Palestinians lead to greater acts of violence by Israel and never come close to threatening Israel’s dominance. Among the Palestinians, acts of violence lead to division, distrust, retribution and death. Such acts of violence are, in Omar’s world, perfectly understandable, but perfectly useless too – and, to him and his friends, painfully, tragically destructive.

A big problem in this Palestinian mode of resistance, as in Canada’s invasion of Afghanistan, is the nature of its agents. They’re kids, and whatever they think they’re doing, armed resistance or war, their minds are otherwise engaged: in trying to get laid or in the search for love and marriage.

They’re just kids, playing in minefields.

Continue reading “This is high school”

1. We need to have a public discussion about immigration and religion

During several visits to Europe over the last 25 years, friends on the left would tell me, in hushed voices: immigration is a big problem, but you’re not allowed to talk about it, because if you mention it, it means you’re a racist. Since that time, the far right has grown, largely on the basis of fighting immigration. I’d say it’s better to discuss difficult questions openly, because if we don’t, the situation will fester and the far right will grow.

2. Our understanding of the implications of immigration and/or religious practice needs to become more sophisticated

We need to stop relying on slogans like “freedom of religion” and “freedom of expression.” They’re excellent principles and good slogans, but they don’t replace discussion, and they’re not the solution to all problems. We need to stop calling people who disagree with us racists and xenophobes.

3. I don’t want people with extreme views to have power over me or my children

This is not about religion, it’s about extremism of any kind. A Nazi uniform or a Black Bloc outfit (as we’ve seen at various G8 or G20 summits) is a pretty good indication of extreme views, and few of us would support a government employee’s right to wear such clothing on the job.

Much the same way, a religious uniform is not a bad indication of religious conservatism. Religious people who do not wear religious insignia or clothing tend to be more moderate, more liberal in their views. Those who do wear religious insignia or clothing are more likely to be fundamentalist and take literally what is written in sacred texts. Fundamentalists are more likely to believe that men are superior and that God created Adam a few days after he created trees. They also tend to believe that women who don’t dress in the prescribed manner are loose or whores, and that nonmembers of their particular religion will go to hell. I don’t want people with such beliefs sitting in judgement over me or teaching my children.

This is not about religion. The large majority of people of all religions do not wear religious garb. Of course, there are fundamentalists and extremists who wear standard Canadian clothing. Similarly, there are many people who wear religious dress who are not fundamentalist or extremist. These moderates should have little problem removing their religious symbols while at work.

4. We should try to protect young women from parents who force them to conform to religious practices

The rights of young women who do not want to dress in a religious manner should take precedence over the rights of women who choose freely to wear the hijab or niqab. It seems odd to me that some proclaim “the right to choose” as a feminist goal per se. We need to know what is being chosen and under what circumstances.

5. The situation is semi-urgent

State and religion need little separation when religious institutions are small or liberal. As the number of fundamentalists increases, so do potential problems, as it is a sine qua non of religious extremists that they do not accept separation of religion and the state. Where there are large numbers of fundamentalists, there is a trend toward theocracy. At the time of Israel’s founding, no one worried about the small number of fundamentalist Jews. Now, at a local level, they force women to the back of the bus and, at a national level, promote motions in the Israeli legislature that religious law should take precedence over secular (state) law.

In Canada, the number of religious fundamentalists is increasing, and will continue to do so because of immigration and because, as psychologist Jesse Bering puts it, “nonreligious people are being dramatically out-reproduced by religious people of any faith.” Bering cites the work of evolutionary theorist and religion researcher Michael Blume: “Those who ‘never’ attend religious services bear, on a worldwide average, 1.67 children per lifetime; ‘once per month,’ and the average goes up to 2.01 children; ‘more than once a week,’ 2.5 children. Those numbers add up – and quickly.”1

In the United States and the United Kingdom there are private, community-based security organizations patrolling ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.2 Volunteers fight a variety of crimes, and local residents call them because they often respond more rapidly than the police. They are said to be effective in tracking suspects and detaining them until police arrive. They are not armed and do not have the authority to make arrests. In New York City, they have been successful at securing public funding, allowing the purchase of sophisticated equipment. Who could object?

But volunteer patrols have been accused of using excessive force against non-Jewish suspects, and have been criticized for withholding from police information on suspected Jewish child molesters and other criminals, in keeping with Jewish religious prohibitions against informing on Jews to non-Jewish authorities.

As far as I know, we don’t have private religious patrols in Canada, but we do have private religious ambulance services – in Toronto, Montreal and Kiryas Tosh, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in the Montreal suburb of Boisbriand. According to its website, Hatzoloh of Montreal “was established by members of the Montreal Jewish community”; however, “volunteer members respond to medical emergencies to any member of the neighborhood, without regard to race, religion, or ethnic background.” But the website has almost no French,3 and its religious nature is clear:

You see them every day of the week – including Shabbos and Yom Tov, and at all times of the day and night; dashing out of their homes, shops and shuls to do acts of chesed (good deeds). They interrupt participation in joyous family simchas (celebrations) and even when davening (praying) to Hashem (G-d).

The point is, as populations of the extremely religious increase and concentrate, their political influence will grow, as will their demands for state-like services and powers. At what point will we say, “This is not what we mean by religious freedom”?

6. If we want Canada to accept more immigrants, and especially refugees, we should be willing to make a tradeoff

Polls have shown that as many as 40 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec support the Quebec values charter.4 According to a 2013 EKOS Research poll, “40 per cent of all respondents said there are too many immigrants in Canada.”5 A recent Forum Research poll found that 49 per cent of Canadians said we should “accept immigrants only from some countries which share Canadian values.”6 Thus far, Canada has been spared an anti-immigration movement or political party. Can we mitigate opposition to immigration by adopting policies like the values charter that are explicit about what is expected of immigrants and all Canadians?

7. We want to build a liberal, tolerant society, with a clear separation between religion and state

We should be clear that we regard religion as a private and personal matter. We believe that all people, even children, should be able to make up their own minds about religion. We don’t accept that things are true because the Bible says so; and we don’t ban things because a sacred book prohibits them. Being a person of faith should neither limit you nor get you privileges.
Continue reading “Seven reasons to support (something like) the Quebec values charter”

Falling crime rates and the CBC

Stockwell Day is a very funny man. His best joke came in 2010 when he was Treasury Board president. Spending billions on new prisons was necessary, he said, because of the alarming increase in unreported crime. “Yes,” I laughed, “for all the unreported criminals.”

If there’s one thing that Canadian experts, journalists, academics and letter-to-the-editor writers agree on, it’s that the Tories’ Safe Streets and Communities Act (Bill C-10), passed by the House of Commons a year ago, is a mistake. A quick trek through headlines on the Internet reveals near-unanimity:

  • Tory crime bill a solution in search of a problem, criminologists argue
  • Lawyers attack Harper’s tough-on-crime agenda
  • Coalition of churches condemns Ottawa’s justice plan
  • Health researchers slam Tory mandatory-minimum-sentence proposal
  • Tory crime bill will overburden court system: retired judges
  • UN criticizes Canada on crime bill and youth
  • Texas conservatives reject Harper’s crime plan
  • Crime bill unfairly targets women, Aboriginals, critics say
  • The Conservatives’ crime bill: mean, but not lean
  • Tory “tough on crime” bill off the mark, SFU researchers say
  • More than 550 doctors, professors, social workers sign letter opposing Bill C-10
  • Conservative senator says he can’t support government crime bill
  • Nunavut fears crime bill will overwhelm jails
  • 10 reasons to oppose Bill C-10: Canadian Bar Association
  • Elizabeth Fry Societies say Conservative bill will not deter crime
  • Canada’s homicide rate falls to its lowest level in 44 years
  • Tory crime bill: Budget Officer slams Conservatives’ cost estimate
  • Tory crime bill an attack on our liberty
  • Crime bill won’t actually help them at all, seasoned victims-rights advocate says
  • West Vancouver Police boss worries cops will be spending more time in the courts and less time protecting the public.
  • Author of Tory-supported study says crime bill goes too far
  • Tory crime bill a very strong case for Quebec independence: Parti Québécois
  • Tory crime bill to make matters worse for mentally ill: expert

Apart from some provincial governments – Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia and New Brunswick – yea-sayers are few and far between:

  • Former NHL star supports Tory crime bill
  • Macdonald-Laurier Institute study questions StatsCan’s crime numbers

Even police support is iffy:

  • Police chiefs urge more “balanced approach” while supporting omnibus crime bill

The complete legislation,1 as adopted by Parliament, is 100 pages long and contains this kind of thing:

16. (1) Subsection 161(1) of the Act is amended by striking out “or” at the end of paragraph (b) and by replacing paragraph (c) with the following …

So you might want to try the Department of Justice’s summation.2 At a single page it’s far more digestible, but I wouldn’t rely on it. We are told, for example, that the Penalties for Organized Drug Crime Act “would target organized crime by imposing tougher sentences for the production and possession of illicit drugs for the purposes of trafficking.” Who could object to that (unless you’re one of those people who believes the war on drugs drives up prices, to the benefit and encouragement of traffickers)?

But if you go back to section 41 of the actual legislation, keeping in mind that, in Canada, drug trafficking is defined as: “to sell, administer, give , transfer, transport, send or deliver,” 3 you will learn that if you grow six marijuana plants and give a joint to your mother, you get a minimum six-month sentence.

You can see why a lot more people might end up in jail. That and a great many other new legislated minimums means more spending on, and overcrowding in, prisons.

Oddly, there doesn’t seem to have been a great outcry for government to get tougher on crime. A 2009 Statistics Canada survey found pretty much what a 2004 survey had found, that “93 per cent are satisfied with their personal safety.”4 So why are Conservatives spending more on crime where they’re cutting back in almost every other area, and when the consensus is that crime rates are falling and that Bill C-10 won’t reduce crime anyway?

Presumably, C-10 is popular with a significant part of the Tory base. Who cares what the experts say? You don’t need to be an expert to understand simple logic: if more criminals are in jail, fewer will commit crimes. And besides, it’s not about rehabilitation and crime prevention; it’s about punishing people who deserve punishment: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

As for the rest of us, we’re torn. Maybe there is less crime than there was 20 years ago, but there sure seems to be a lot. We know the stats, but would you let your 10-year-old walk to school? We believe in “innocent until proven guilty,” but so many people get off on technicalities, don’t they? We believe in rehabilitation, but why are so many crimes committed by people on parole? Did you hear about that guy who killed his whole family and …?

The commercial media are often accused of following the principle of “if it bleeds, it leads.” But happily CBC radio helps us keep things in perspective, right?

On Tuesday, March 26, 2013, I recorded 20 hours of CBC Radio 1, Ottawa. I began with the start of local programming at 5:30 a.m. and stopped after the 1 a.m. news.

There were short “promos” for upcoming CBC stories and shows, and there were “news headlines.” Then there were longer stories and proper newscasts. In the list below, items that involve crime, accidents, violence or natural disaster are in bold. What to include is not always clear. Do you include a story about university binge-drinking? I did. Do you include a story about asbestos in public buildings? I didn’t.

5:30 a.m.

Promos for upcoming stories:

  • brutal attack at a nursing home
  • binge-drinking in university
  • a provocative antismoking ad

CBC local news:

  • parents brawl at amateur hockey game
  • sexual assault on Greyhound bus
  • sexual assaults on city buses (separate story)
  • asbestos in public buildings in Gatineau, Quebec
  • new safety program for children “as young as eight” about online predators and pornography
  • women’s curling team returns

Promos for breaking international news:

  • Italian courts call for retrial of Amanda Knox, an American woman previously acquitted of murder
  • Cyprus bank crisis
  • same-sex marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court
  • fear of too little snow at next year’s Winter Olympics

Business news:

  • controversial Ford ads in India
  • 17-year-old app developer
  • service workers take revenge on rude hotel guests

Story: immigration appeal offices in Ottawa have closed

Promo: dog park dispute

Local news headlines:

  • brawl at amateur hockey game
  • sexual assault on Greyhound bus
  • sexual assaults on city buses
  • asbestos in public buildings in Gatineau, Quebec
  • women’s curling team returns

6 a.m.

World Report:

  • U.S. Supreme Court hearings on same-sex marriage
  • Amanda Knox retrial
  • Russian tycoon found dead in British hotel; possible suicide
  • New Brunswick deficit
  • Saskatchewan’s electoral map
  • report to be released on the possibility of flooding in Manitoba

promos for upcoming stories:

  • wall of building under construction collapses; no injuries
  • brutal attack at a nursing home
  • binge-drinking at university

local news headlines:

  • sexual assault on Greyhound bus
  • sexual assaults on Ottawa transit
  • parents brawl at amateur hockey game


  • wall of building under construction collapses; no injuries
  • brutal attack at a nursing home

6:30 a.m.

CBC local news:

  • parents brawl at amateur hockey game (The fight was caught on video. “You can see the video at”)
  • sexual assault on Greyhound bus
  • sexual assaults on Ottawa transit
  • asbestos in public buildings in Gatineau, Quebec
  • new safety program for children “as young as eight” about on-line predators and pornography
  • women’s curling team returns

That pretty much set the pattern. Through the day, about 68 per cent of local stories, news items, headlines and promos involved crime and/or violence.

The top three local news stories involved crime and/or violence, as did 10 of the top 12. None of these stories made the national news, meaning that, for example, while the top local news item – the acquittal of a young man charged with a 2010 murder – was considered worthy of 16 mentions, it was not considered to be of national (or even provincial) import.

I didn’t include music, weather, sports or traffic reporting. There were no reports of sports violence or injury that day. One change I’ve noticed recently involves traffic reports. In the past, traffic delays were reported, and sometimes the cause was mentioned: construction, road conditions, collisions, etc. Now the reporter always leads with collisions – even if it’s to say there haven’t been any, as was the case that day.

For national news items and headlines, about 50 per cent involved crime and/or violence. The top story (mentioned 21 times) was the U.S. Supreme Court hearings on same-sex marriage. The next two were the Amanda Knox retrial (12 mentions) and Manitoba flooding (10). A serious flood demands coverage; a story about the upcoming release of a report into the likelihood of a flood, less so.

As a regular CBC listener, I can assure you that at both the local and national levels, March 26 was a typical crime day: there were no local murders or taffic fatalities involving children; no terrorism, mass murder or celebrity killings.

I don’t have a similar recording from 20 years ago, so I can’t prove that there is a great deal more crime and violence on CBC radio now. But clearly that was the plan.

Richard Stursberg was executive vice-president of CBC–Radio Canada from 2004 to 2010. On April 22, 2012, he was interviewed by Michael Enright of The Sunday Edition5:

STURSBERG: When I got here in 2004, in terms of television news viewing in Canada … all in, local and national, CBC took 12 per cent of total viewing. The other 88 per cent was on Global and CTV. With the exception of The National, CBC television news had basically vanished from people’s radar. … We redid all the local news shows, we redid The National, we rebuilt the sets, we redid Newsworld, we redid everything, and now they’re doing much, much better …

ENRIGHT: You hired a company from the States … and they come up with the theory that people are interested in two things primarily, crime and weather.

STURSBERG: No, that’s not quite right. What they’re interested in overwhelmingly – this is largely about local news but it translates into national news as well – is they’re interested in security and safety. … It includes things like the environment, public safety in the streets, it includes weather … Before we redid the news we did a very, very large study of what it is Canadians wanted by way of their newscasts. It was pretty clear that the most important items, the sort of price of entry … were that you had to cover personal security and weather. Once you get in the door, can you cover other things? Yes. But you have to get in the door.

Note that in describing how badly CBC news was doing 2004, Stursberg doesn’t mention CBC radio. Presumably radio news, like The National, was doing just fine.

In 2003, the Canadian Alliance merged with the Progressive Conservatives to become the Conservative Party of Canada. The next year, Stephen Harper won the CPC leadership and Stursberg arrived at the CBC.

Let’s accept Stursberg’s insistence that the CBC’s increased coverage of “security and safety” was purely a search for increased market share and that these changes had nothing to do with the new regime in Ottawa. Still, at some point, CBC management must have noticed that its new policy fit nicely with the Conservatives’ focus on crime. And the CBC could not have been ignorant of the possibility that its new focus on crime might make it safer from government cuts.

That day that I recorded the CBC, I heard intelligent and informed discussion of the prospects of same-sex marriage in the United States, the economic crisis in Cyprus, the BRICS meeting, cutbacks in Newfoundland and tax increases in New Brunswick, the immigration hurdles faced by an Afghani who translated for the Canadian military, a study of racial profiling, and even Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s most recent troubles. All that is what we expect of a public broadcaster.

But it might be that what the CBC does is more important that what it says, and what it does is contribute to a sense that there is a great deal of crime in Canada and that serious criminals regularly go unpunished. As Jeffrey Simpson wrote, “intelligent discussion doesn’t stand a chance in a media world convinced that simplistic crime stories sell.”6

That same evening, on Ideas, physicist Neil Turok of Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute talked about “Our Imaginary Reality.” I didn’t hear the program, but I can’t help wondering whether he was talking about the imaginary reality the CBC is helping Prime Minister Harper construct.

Continue reading “Our imaginary reality”

I arrived in Israel Friday morning, travelled to Bethlehem in Palestine, and then to the international city of Jerusalem. There’s no trace, that I’ve seen, of the apparently upcoming war with Iran or the recent protests against the Palestinian Authority.

The English version of Haaretz, Israel’s left-wing newspaper, is bustling with attacks on Netanyahu’s efforts to destroy Israel. I am reminded of a column by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman from a few months back: “It seems obvious from here that the narrow-minded policies of the current government are basically a gradual, long-run form of national suicide.”1

According to several major Jewish journalists in the United States, that suicide is no longer “long-run.” The New Yorker’s David Remnick: “It is hard to overestimate the risks that Benjamin Netanyahu poses to the future of his own country.” M.J. Rosenberg, formerly of AIPAC and Israel Policy Forum: “Binyamin Netanyahu poses an existential threat to the Jewish state. Those who claim to care about Israel need to speak out. Will we really allow this rightist egomaniac to destroy a 2000 year old dream?”

How did it come to this?

Initially it seemed the threatened bombing of Iran was just another diversion from settlement expansion. As long as Israel was killing or threatening to kill people in Lebanon, Gaza or Iran, no one paid attention to Palestinians losing their homes. (Even now, under cover of potential international disaster, Israel – not the settlers’ organizations but the actual government of Israel – is seeking a ruling from Israeli courts to allow it to build 40 new settlements on privately owned Palestinian land.)

But Netanyahu’s recent behaviour is fantastic. Does he – and do Israelis – really think they can order the world about? Do they really think it’s all right to start a war that will destabilize the world because they’re nervous? Do they think they, who actually have a nuclear arsenal, can bomb another country that they merely suspect is building one? Do they really think they can grossly interfere with the U.S. election and that there will be no consequences?

I guess they do. And if they – Netanyahu and his supporters and Jewish Israelis – really do think they run the world, how did they come to believe such a ridiculous thing?

China and Russia and the United States ignore international law when it suits them, but they’re superpowers. Who’s going to go to war with China over Tibet? But Iraq thought it could ignore international law (in Kuwait) and Iraqis suffered the consequences. The Serbs thought they could ignore international law and they paid. It took a long time, but apartheid South Africa paid too.

Pretty much every country in the world – including Canada – regards Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and Jerusalem as occupied territories and regards the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal under international law. But Israel has annexed the Golan and Jerusalem and continues to build and expand settlements – and force Palestinians from their homes. Israel has been creating refugees and illegally refusing their return since 1948.

What’s the consequence? Preferred status in trade with Europe. Canadian sycophancy. Charitable status for illegal settlements. $3.5 billion in annual untied aid from the United States. The United States goes against its own policies and interests in the Arab world by vetoing UN resolutions on Israel. Israel humiliates the U.S. Vice President when he visits and there is no consequence. Israel’s Prime Minister openly defies the U.S. President in a speech before the Congress in Washington, and what’s the punishment? One standing ovation after another.

No wonder Israeli Jews think they’re omnipotent. If Israeli leaders believe Israel has a free hand to do whatever it wishes, where did they possibly get that idea?

My point is, this isn’t sudden. Israel has always been allowed to get away with – literally – murder. The consequences for Palestinians have been disastrous. The consequences for the world – 100 years of increasingly bad relations between the West and the Arab and Muslim worlds – are immeasurably awful.

I read an article by Sefi Rachevski in yesterday’s Haaretz:

We are probably confronting a final moment. The moment that realization of … the inability to change things spreads, emigration and the collapse of the liberal bubble that maintains Israel will soon follow … The religious right received 65 seats thanks to poor voter turnout among moderates. The hope and the fury that created the 2011 social protests; the existential danger in the face of the dominant extremist atmosphere – including arrogant foreign policies that isolate Israel – could … give rise to a non-religious, non-racist government … that will stop subsidizing and stop nurturing the racist-extremist hothouse.2

From the point of view of moderate Israeli Jews like Rachefski, who would like to live in a democratic country, defeating the religious right is crucial. From the point of view of anyone who cares abut Israel’s survival, defeating the religious right is important.

But from the point of view of Palestinians, it’s not a big deal. Israel’s plan to populate and annex the occupied territories has proceeded under all Israeli governments. The left, as much as the right, has excluded Palestinians from Israel’s democracy – completely in the occupied territories but also, to a great extent, within Israel itself. The left, like the right, has been deaf to the rights of refugees. Finally, there’s no reason to think that peace is more likely under a left-wing government than a right-wing one; the left has just been better at making it look as if lack of progress is the Palestinians’ fault.

By our silence and inaction, we’ve created the megalomaniac that is Netanyahu and the monster that Israel is becoming. The solution? Stop doing what hasn’t worked. Instead, take international action to force Israel to comply with international law.

Continue reading “How did Netanyahu come to believe he runs the world?”

CBC radio and the decline of public broadcasting

Some 20 years ago, a number of us in Ottawa formed a committee to defend the CBC, then “under attack” by the Mulroney Tories. We soon realized that it wasn’t the CBC as a whole we wanted to save: it was CBC radio. Of course, we supported CBC television, because we believed in public broadcasting. The problem was that CBC television was public broadcasting in theory. CBC radio, on the other hand, was public broadcasting in practice.

At a public meeting some months later, a few labour activists argued that our committee should defend CBC radio and television equally. Their motion passed easily, but people stopped coming to the meetings.

In those days, I lived in a four-room apartment, and most of the time a radio was tuned to CBC AM, as it was called, in each room, so that as I wandered about I was rarely without the CBC. Some shows were dull, but even these formed a pleasant background to my day. The odd one – Basic Black, for example – I found irritating enough to turn off. But there were a great many shows that I found reliably worthwhile: Sunday Morning, Peter Gzowski’s various morning shows, Ideas, Quirks and Quarks, The House, This Native Land. I bought a cassette recorder that I could preset to record shows I didn’t want to miss. And every night I went to sleep comforted by my citizenship in Vacuum Land.

In those days, no doubt I watched CBC television, but who pays attention to which TV channel you’re watching? I was a strong supporter of CBC television drama, but again, in theory. With a few notable exceptions – early Street Legal and This Hour Has 22 Minutes and, more recently, This Is Wonderland – I didn’t actually watch the stuff. I have no doubt that CBC television’s news and current affairs programming was better than the competition’s, but it couldn’t hold a candle to CBC radio news. Television news is just too slow. Endowed with visual capability, television news has to use it, but pictures take up valuable time and one battle scene looks pretty much like another (the attack on the World Trade towers being a notable exception). Train crashes always make for better visuals than political analysis. The most serious accusation one can make about a television current affairs show is that there are too many talking heads. But that’s exactly what radio is.

Things have changed now. I try to listen to The Current and As It Happens, but the list of annoying shows has mushroomed so that most of the time I prefer silence. Shelagh Rogers’s Sounds Like Canada, or “Death and Recipes” as my friends call it, features interviews about what it feels like to find out you have cancer. Then there’s Vinyl Café with Stuart McLean, rock star for seniors.

But that kind of banal sentimentality is on its way out. Ascendant is the trivially hip: all that talk about the wired universe; a weekly half-hour show devoted to the kumquat in contemporary cuisine; documentaries on potentially interesting subjects so overproduced you think you were listening to a technopop rock video; Out Front, where amateurs are encouraged to explore the use of sound effects as they tell stories of interest only to close relatives. Finally there’s the violence. Violent crime is, according to statistics, not increasing. But you’d never know it from local CBC programming, which, besides its endless chatting, seems committed to reporting every accidental or criminal death within 500 kilometres.

Google “CBC mandate” and you will find the sidebar on this page. It’s filled with admonitions about how the CBC should do things: be Canadian, be in English and French, connect the regions, reflect Canada’s multicultural and multiracial nature. But there’s little about what it should do, except at the top: inform, enlighten (as in The Enlightenment?) and entertain; and, further down, promote cultural expression. Clearly the CBC is living up to its mandate. But what kind of informing is going on? Well, you can learn a lot about the kumquat. Is that enlightenment? Is that entertainment? If you say so.

Many of us who support public broadcasting believe it contributes to “civic literacy,” to borrow Henry Milner’s phrase. We believe informed discussion is a precondition to successful democracy, and we were loyal to CBC radio, then, because there was a great deal of informed discussion. The weekly debate between Eric Kierans, Dalton Camp and Stephen Lewis was the model (although those who complained that it and the CBC in general were too left-wing had a point). CBC radio fulfilled the mission we gave it. Now it doesn’t. The World at Six, The Current, As It Happens, Quirks and Quarks do their best. But that stuff just isn’t hip enough to survive in the new CBC. Last week one of The House’s correspondents complained that electoral reform was boring. Compared to what?

What CBC management clearly believes is hip is the new media: websites and blogs, YouTube and Wikipedia and Facebook. Their ubiquity does force us to ask serious questions: What role will radio and television play in the future in this multimedia, million-channel world? Will all the distinct media converge into a few submedia, all delivered by Google? Will YouTube and Wikipedia replace CBC radio? Will it matter?

The future of technology may well make radio, television and newspapers dead or irrelevant. On the other hand, Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook might turn out to be fads, or at least not harbingers of cataclysmic change. Either way, why should CBC be out at the vanguard, hastening its own demise?

But it seems determined to do so. Recently, the CBC announced the appointment of John Cruickshank to its “top CBC news post.”1 According to a CBC spokesperson, Cruickshank’s areas of interest include the use of multimedia and digital applications, and the “different ways how news has to transform to serve better and provide a relationship with people .”

Of course the CBC has to change with the times and attract a new audience as the old one dies. But the CBC’s strongest support has come from supporters of traditional public broadcasting – CBC radio listeners – and the CBC is doing its best to send them to U.S. National Public Radio.

The future will be rocky. The next time CBC comes under attack, who will come to its defence?

Continue reading “The Trivially Hip”

This past February, Michael Healey left his position as resident playwright at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. Healey is an actor and playwright, author the The Drawer Boy, one of Canada’s best and most successful plays. Tarragon has been, for years, perhaps Canada’s most respected theatre company.

On CBC Radio’s The Current on February 7, Healey told host Anna Maria Tremonti that he resigned after the Tarragon decided it would not produce his new play. Proud “takes place in the Prime Minister’s office. The character is never called anything other than ‘Prime Minister’ … It is absolutely this government that I want to discuss and examine.” The main character, said Healey, is “nakedly our Prime Minister.”

According to Healey, “There was anxiety among members of the board, I understand, that the possibility of libel existed … I went out and hired a libel lawyer myself to vet the play, and he responded, in fairly bald, unambiguous terms, that the play isn’t libellous.”

Proud is the third play in a trilogy. The Tarragon had produced the first two: “I had hoped they’d produce this third one, and I just thought, if they don’t produce my plays, then I don’t really understand what our relationship is, and maybe it’s time for me to give up my office to a younger writer.”

These are the facts as we know them. The theatre has yet to make a public statement.

The chill

Anna Maria Tremonti asked, “What does it say to you about the climate in the theatre community right now?” Healey replied,

This government manage dissent with an extremely, to my eye, heavy hand. You only have to ask Colvin or Lousie Arbour or Mark Tushingham or Linda Keen how much fun it is to get on the wrong side of this particular government.

Tremonti also interviewed Lucy White, CEO of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, the management organization for Canadian theatre companies, of which Tarragon is a member. White quickly absolved Tarragon: “Most theatre companies in Canada are charities, so the financial situation of a theatre that might have to close down for six weeks while a play is under examination, that kind of risk is unsupportable.”

White explained that a typical Canadian theatre is financially dependent on its audience, on government funding and on private support: “So if you alienate any one of those supporters – typically a board of directors is your first concern –”

Tremonti interrupted: “But we’re talking about government here, so what are you saying about the alienating of government?”

White explained that Canada Council funding criteria are clear, but that funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage was not transparent, nor is it clear who makes decisions. Tremonti raised the case of the SummerWorks Theatre festival. “The SummerWorks example is a perfect one,” said White.

A bit of background: SummerWorks is an annual theatre festival held in Toronto. In the summer of 2010, the festival presented 42 plays, one of which was Catherine Frid’s Homegrown, described on the SummerWorks website: “A Toronto lawyer/writer meets a prisoner accused of ‘homegrown terrorism’ in 2008. She continues to visit him over the next year and a half, and becomes obsessed with separating fact from hype in the face of the uncertainty, delays and secrecy in his case. A true story.”

Homegrown opened on August 5, 2010. Two days before that, the Toronto Sun reported that Andrew MacDougall of the Prime Minister’s Office, “a spokesman for Harper,” said, “We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism. Had the plot hatched by the Toronto 18 succeeded, thousands of innocent Canadians would have died.”

On the day of the opening, the Sun editorialized, “It’s insulting that taxpayers are helping to fund a positive portrayal of this terrorist … SummerWorks received a grant of $35,000 from the federal government to fund the 42 productions it will put on. The Toronto Arts Council contributed $30,000 to the festival and $6,000 to the creation of Homegrown. The Ontario Arts Council contributed $24,500 to the festival.”

SummerWorks had received Heritage funding for five years running. The following year – one month before its 2011 Festival was to begin – SummerWorks was informed that it had been denied Heritage funding. As is usual, no reason was given.

Anna Maria Tremonti asked Lucy White if the loss of funding was connected to the PMO’s “disappointment”:

WHITE: Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know what the decision-making process was …

TREMONTI: And are you connecting the dots then?

WHITE: What I’m saying is we don’t know what the process is. It’s not clearly articulated …

TREMONTI: What are the community’s concerns?

WHITE: … What we would like is for the Department of Canadian Heritage to have the same clearly articulated processes and decision making as with the Canada Council.

TREMONTI: And if you don’t get that, what’s the danger, in your view?

WHITE: I don’t know that I would say it’s a danger. I would say that in a vacuum of information …

TREMONTI: But you’re talking essentially about a creative chill, are you not?

WHITE: I’m not going to use those words, no.

TREMONTI: You’re not. Michael Healey?

HEALEY: Should I use those words? The minister is going to come on and he’s going to deny that there’s any connection between the PMO’s astounding statements about their disappointment in that play – a play I want to point out that they didn’t see and had never read – and SummerWorks funding getting pulled. The problem is that in this atmosphere … it’s really hard not to connect those dots and that’s why the minister has to continually come on the radio and deny that there is any connection between those two events. So is there a chill?

TREMONTI: You’re talking about self-censorship.

HEALEY: Yeah, I’m talking about an arts organization or a diplomat or an Environment Canada scientist who … has to make a decision about whether or not they are going to run counter to this government’s message.

What chill?

Tremonti next spoke to Heritage Minister James Moore, whose philosophy might be “the best defence is a good offence.” Moore blamed the CBC for whatever chill there is. Here are a few tidbits:

I was a bit disappointed in your pushing your guests into your thesis, which is completely false.

Certainly when there are programs like yours and you go on the air and misrepresent what happened …

If there’s constant misrepresentations as you’ve spent the last half an hour misrepresenting things, then no wonder there’s a chill.

If somebody, for example, has a radio show on the CBC that’s funded by the taxpayers of Canada through the Stephen Harper government and wants to criticize us – you have your show.

When Mary Walsh ambushed Rob Ford at his private residence, I can speak out against that. This says nothing about the internal editorial choices of the CBC to air the show. They can still do whatever it is they choose to do. Kirstine Stewart and Hubert Lacroix – they can run with it.

I would call these barely veiled threats. Are they designed to create a chill in the CBC? Perhaps not, but one would have to be outstandingly naive to deny that they might do so. Of course, constant Conservative talk of cutting the CBC, well, that chill’s been around a long time – and, to us longtime CBC Radio listeners, its effect has already been heard.

More surprising is Moore’s benign view of his government’s statements. In the quotation above, he insists on his right to speak out against individual CBC transgressions and denies any effect. In response to a question about whether it was “unusual for someone in the PMO to make that statement” about SummerWorks, Moore insisted, “I can have my opinion as a Canadian citizen, yes, and as a member of Parliament, yes, as the Minister of Canadian Heritage, but the funding decisions are still made at an arm’s-length basis by the Department of Canadian Heritage.”

Tremonti asked about an artist who had had her funding cut and “got a hold of the email trail through Access to Information and the Department of Foreign Affairs and it showed a discomfort on the part of bureaucrats that her work was not consistent with government policy.” Moore answered, “Follow the exact language that you just used. You said, ‘an email trail among bureaucrats within the department’ – not Stephen Harper, not the minister, not me.”

Is Moore naive or stupid – or lying? Does he really think he’s just an ordinary citizen when he speaks out against the CBC? When the PMO’s Andrew MacDougall says “we are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism,” does Moore genuinely believe that it’s ridiculous to suggest that such public musings might influence a Heritage bureaucrat?

Even so, even if Moore adamantly denies any responsibility for a chill, it would be nice to have heard a ringing endorsement of free speech – “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death …” – from the minister responsible for publishing and the arts.

Michael Healey is right: this government has created a chill, and, I would suggest, has done so intentionally. While previous Canadian governments initiated, expanded and maintained a Court Challenges Program to fund groups opposing government legislation, this government calls opposition un-Canadian, extremist or sympathetic to child molesters.

The courage of artists

In their interviews with Tremonti, both Michael Healey and Lucy White started out talking about the Tarragon’s decision not to produce Proud, and in both cases Tremonti changed the subject. Perhaps she saw chill as the bigger, more important story. Perhaps she was explaining – or justifying – changes at the CBC.

I kept expecting Tremonti to say to Healey, “You must have been very disappointed that Tarragon wimped out.” I kept expecting her to say to White, “You must be embarrassed that a theatre company represented by your organization knuckled under to such a minor threat.”

Because a minor threat it is. Would the Prime Minister sue? Who knows? Would the courts grant an injunction? Who knows? What if the courts did force the theatre to close for six weeks?

SummerWorks lost its $50,000 Heritage grant. An emergency fundraising campaign (which included public readings of the notorious Homegrown) raised close to that amount. A six-week shutdown would have cost Tarragon more, but Tarragon also has far greater resources, including several thousand subscribers. Would the publicity hurt Tarragon? Would its subscribers actually want their money back if a prime-ministerial libel suit forced a shutdown? Who wouldn’t contribute to Tarragon under those circumstances?

In the end, this particular threat seems so small that one has to be wonder if the threat of a libel suit was the real reason for Tarragon’s decision.

Let’s review the steps: Healey submitted a draft of Proud to Tarragon’s respected and experienced Artistic Director, Richard Rose. Rose conveyed his intention to produce Proud. Next, it’s fair to surmise, Rose informed the board and something happened. If not fear of libel, what?

I’ll pass on the comment of an acquaintance, a consultant to many nongovernment organizations: “We live in conservative times, politically and economically. Recently, in search of corporate donations, many nonprofit boards have appointed conservative and Conservative members, who don’t like to hear themselves and their friends criticized.” In other words, these people aren’t responding to a chill – they’re helping to create one.

Whatever the reason, be it conservatism or fear of Conservatives, one would like to see a little resistance. Richard Rose let us down. Michael Healey’s criticism of Tarragon was remarkably restrained, but going public took courage in an artistic milieu not fond of self-criticism.

And what about Lucy White, spokesperson for (English) Canada’s theatres? Did she urge us to the barricades to fight this flagrant attempt to silence one of our finest artists?

“The financial situation of a theatre that might have to close down for six weeks while a play is under examination – that kind of risk is unsupportable.”

As a playwright, I must say it’s a great comfort to know that our artistic directors and arts organizations have my back.

Arthur Milner considers himself a close acquaintance of both Michael Healey and Richard Rose, and his plays have been rejected by the Tarragon Theatre for more than three decades. His play Facts will be performed as part of the SummerWorks Theatre Festival in August 2012.

The possibility of a merger between the federal Liberals and the NDP has been much in the news since Jack Layton’s death. Jean Chrétien and Ed Broadbent are said to be amenable. Bob Rae and Stephen Lewis, as well as the Globe and Mail’s editorial board, have dismissed merger out of hand. What no one seems to be talking about – out loud – is some form of cooperation other than merger.

The NDP has already been through a merger of sorts. Its founding in 1961 is often described a merger between the CCF and the union movement.

A CCF convention had voted, on the recommendation of its national council and executive, to participate in the formation of a new political party. It was entitled to send delegates to the founding convention, along with affiliated unions of the Canadian Labour Congress. Once the founding convention adopted a constitution, policies and principles and chose officers and an executive – and Tommy Douglas as leader – the federal CCF passed into history. This was followed by similar processes in the provinces. The whole effort was carried on with a high degree of grassroots participation and was managed in a way that headed off the establishment of other successors to the CCF by those who opposed the change.

The change was, however, not a formal merger, but rather the reorganization of an existing party. Properly understood, merger is the legal amalgamation of two (or more) organizations into one of the existing organizations or into a new organization. This is precisely what happened when, in 2003, the Canadian Alliance (previously the Reform Party) and the Progressive Conservatives merged to form the Conservative Party of Canada.

The Reform Party elected its first MP in 1989. In the 1993 federal election, Reform elected 52 MPs, and in 1997 it formed the official opposition. But if that was good news for Reform/Alliance, it was better news for the Liberals: with conservatives split in two, the Liberals won three consecutive majority governments. In 2003, the Alliance and the PCs merged. In the election one year later, the Liberals were reduced to minority government status. Since then the new party, the Conservative Party of Canada, has won three elections in a row, the most recent with a majority government.

The conservatives learned their lesson. Is there a similar lesson for the Liberals and the NDP?

There seem to be two. The first is: “Why wait? Merge now.” The second is: It takes a long time and many defeats for the parties to a proposed merger to abandon hope of individual success. Liberals, humiliated by defeat, are unlikely to swallow the further humiliation merger implies, and will continue to believe that resurrection of “the natural governing party” is imminent. For their part, NDPers, ecstatic at their breakthrough, will believe that momentum will carry them just a little further, not just to government but to their natural place as the party of the centre-left, like the Labour Party in Britain. (This is the position of Garth Stevenson in this issue of Inroads.)

Our conclusion is that no merger is on the horizon. But even if it were, we have a preferred option – a temporary, strategic coalition (TSC). The TSC would have two objectives: the defeat of the Conservative Party and the preservation – rather than dissolution – of the Liberals and NDP.

This second is of particular concern. In the September 2 issue of Maclean’s, John Geddes wrote that, at McGill University, Jack Layton “came under the thrall of philosophy professor Charles Taylor, whose argument that productive clashes could result from ideological polarization strongly influenced Layton’s view of politics. ‘Back in the day, they used to talk about brokerage politics – smooth over all the differences all the time,’ Layton said. ‘ concept was that you want to bring out the different perspectives and have them stand in stark relief. Then what will emerge are the real solutions.’”

We agree. Real solutions are more likely to emerge from a variety of perspectives: NDP and Liberal voices – as well as Green and Bloc voices – representing real constituencies. Indeed, we see the merger of the Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, and the resultant predominance of neoliberal conservatism at the expense of Red Tory conservatism, as a real loss to Canadian political discussion. For this reason, we prefer a solution that is capable of defeating the Conservatives while preserving the Liberal Party and the NDP.

What would a Liberal-NDP temporary, strategic coalition look like?

There are three potential elements to a TSC, associated with the periods before, during and after an election. We’ll start with what a coalition might look like during an election.

At its most basic, the parties would agree not to run candidates in constituencies in which the other party is incumbent. They might also agree that whichever party’s candidate came second to the Conservatives in the last election would not be opposed by the other party. The parties would likely agree to temper attacks on each other. The authors disagree on whether this arrangement should be made available to the Bloc Québécois (which the Bloc would be unlikely to accept), but we agree that the offer should be extended to the Green Party. In any case, all this would be subject to negotiation between Liberal and NDP (and Green and Bloc) representatives.

For the post-election period, Canadian political parties have some experience operating in coalition government, and we would limit our input here, with one exception: a pre-election agreement would include a commitment that, should the parties form a government, they would implement some form of proportional representation (PR). The authors’ preference is for a mixed-member type of PR, as practised in Germany and New Zealand. (We are talking about implementation, not just holding a referendum as in B.C., Ontario and P.E.I.).

We believe that there are a great many reasons to prefer PR to Canada’s current first-past-the-post electoral system. For our purposes here, PR has two salient benefits. First, it would make a centre-left government more likely. (The Conservatives formed minority governments with 36.3 per cent of the vote in 2006 and 37.6 per cent in 2008, and a majority government with 39.6 per cent of the vote in 2011.) Second, once adopted, PR would eliminate the need for strategic alliances in subsequent elections.

In the pre-election period – i.e. now – the parties would of course negotiate the nature of the electoral alliance and an approach to electoral reform. There might also be informal or formal cooperation in opposing the Harper government. There might be a protocol setting out regular joint strategy meetings; agreements on speaking order beyond that set out in the rules of Parliament; agreement on issues to be raised; and extraparliamentary work such as discussions to explore matters the two parties have in common, rather than a focus on where they differ. Local or regional “workshops” that borrow from nonconfrontational labour-management processes might prove interesting. All of this would run up against the reality that the two parties are in competition for the same electorate and for the same human, political and financial resources. It would take creativity and commitment to succeed in the face of decades of distrust.

All told, we believe a temporary, strategic coalition offers the greatest hope of defeating the Conservatives. There are, of course, no guarantees. There is no reason to believe that all NDP votes will go to the coalition’s “Liberal” candidate, and vice versa (just as there is no reason to believe that all NDP and Liberal voters would vote for a merged party). There will be those who regard this pre-election strategy as antidemocratic in that it reduces the electorate’s choices. There will be those who prefer a merger, and those who regard any cooperation with the other party as a sellout. There will be others steadfastly opposed to PR.

There will be resentment and resistance, and Stephen Harper can be counted on to accuse the coalition partners of everything from communism to treason. The process must be open and transparent, and Canadians will need to be won over. The Liberals and the NDP should get started now.

Continue reading “To merge or not to merge”