Garth Stevenson, Building Nations from Diversity:
Canadian and American Experience Compared.
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.

324 pages.

Garth Stevenson is no stranger to Inroads readers. He has written trenchantly, and with a measured lack of deference to prevailing opinion, on a variety of topics – most recently the demand for an inquiry into missing Aboriginal women (see p. 31 of this issue). He brings these same qualities to his treatment of issues of diversity, an ongoing interest of his and the subject of his most recent book.

Another characteristic of Stevenson’s work is his extensive familiarity with both Canada and the United States, allowing him to switch easily back and forth between the two. Too often the Canada-U.S. border is treated as a Great Wall, and what happens on one side of the border as an entirely separate matter from what happens on the other. While the subtitle of Stevenson’s book announces a comparison between Candian and American experience, what he really does is more subtle and more consistent with reality: he approaches the North American continent north of Mexico as an integrated whole, with the existence of two separate political entities being only one of many factors in play.

He acknowledges the differences, of course, initially rooted in the higher level of conformity required of citizens of a republic than of subjects of the British Crown. But he sees the stereotypical distinction between the American “melting pot” and the Canadian “mosaic” as overblown. And the case studies he presents – the Irish (both Catholic and Protestant), the Chinese, the Jews, the treatment of Japanese and other minorities in wartime, the recent experience of Muslim immigrants – lend credence to his contention that the similarities between the two countries outweigh the differences. Furthermore, he sees both countries’ experience with diversity as fundamentally positive. Here there is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, comparison with Europe, which has had to cope with diversity without its being woven into the fabric of European societies in the way that it is in North America:

Nation-building through immigration, or the ability to attract immigrants and then to integrate them into the host society, will … be North America’s greatest asset in the twenty-first century. Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia face a future of demographic decline with no end in sight. The United Kingdom and France are in a somewhat better situation because of immigration that comes mainly from their former overseas colonies, but neither the British monarchy (which practises a sort of multiculturalism) nor the French republic (which emphasizes uniformity) seems able to fully integrate its immigrants into the host society or to use their talents and skills to best advantage. That fact is both a cause and a consequence of the hostility to immigration that is evident in both of those countries.

Both the United States and Canada have learned, by trial and error, how to integrate their immigrants and turn them into Americans and Canadians, and thus it seems likely that both the United States and Canada will continue to grow and flourish. Even if the people who live in North America a century or two from now may differ from most present-day North Americans in some of their physical characteristics, they will still be recognizably Canadians and Americans, just as the descendants of Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Ukrainian immigrants are today.

Not everyone will agree with this optimistic conclusion. As I write, a debate is in progress about whether a Muslim woman can take the oath of Canadian citizenship wearing her niqab. This has become a partisan issue, which may persist into the fall election campaign: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has strongly criticized a ban on the niqab; the Conservative government has strongly supported it. “Frankly, if you’re not willing to show your face in a ceremony that you’re joining the best country in the world,” said an Ontario Conservative MP, Larry Miller (Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound), “then frankly, if you don’t like that or don’t want to do that, stay the hell where you came from.”1 Whatever the merits of the case, the debate indicates that not all Canadians are as sanguine as Stevenson about the country’s capacity to absorb immigrants. In a different context, immigration has been a highly contentious issue in recent months in the United States as well.

Stevenson’s answer is: take the long view. We’ve seen all this before. Today it is Muslim immigrants who are regarded as unassimilable; in earlier generations it was Jewish and Chinese immigrants. Concerns about “radicalization” of Muslims find their parallel in the association of Jews with Communism. Nor are geopolitical concerns anything new, as Germans, Italians, Ukrainians and Japanese endured the status of enemy aliens during the two world wars.

In addition to Stevenson’s book, I recently read Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s 1982 classic None Is Too Many, cited by Stevenson as “perhaps the definitive book” on Canada’s unconscionably mean-spirited response to Jewish refugees before, during and after the Second World War. The themes of Jews being dangerously radical and not fitting in with other Canadians emerge repeatedly in the rhetoric of opposition to admitting Jewish refugees. Thus, after the 1938 Munich agreement transferred the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany, Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner in London and one of the fiercest opponents of admitting Jewish refugees (and later the first Canadian-born Governor General), favoured admitting “Aryan Sudeten Germans” to Canada “as they include … many persons who would be much more desirable as Canadian settlers and much more likely to succeed in our country than certain other types of refugees.” At a public debate in Montreal in 1943 sponsored by the Association des Jeunes Laurentiens, one speaker argued that Quebec’s existing Jewish community had done little to earn its place in the community except elect Communist Fred Rose to Parliament.2

The Jewish refugee crisis was solved only with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and Canada did not change its policy on the admission of Jewish immigrants until the early 1950s. Yet from the vantage point of present-day Canada, all this seems almost unimaginable. Jews have occupied senior positions in successive federal cabinets – including the current Finance Minister, Joe Oliver. There are Jewish Supreme Court justices and university presidents. Jews are prominent in business and their achievements in the arts have been widely recognized in both Quebec and English Canada. The trajectory of the Jews provides strong evidence for Stevenson’s conclusion that negative attitudes “tend to decline as a new and less familiar group of immigrants arrives and the earlier immigrants or their descendants come to be viewed as normal, familiar, and harmless.”

This process requires conditions that prevail in North America but not in Europe, and even North America has its own mini-Europe: Quebec. Stevenson notes that as in most European countries, but not the rest of Canada or the United States, “the great majority of population share a common ancestry and cultural heritage and are descended from people who lived there as long as perhaps four centuries ago.” Quebec, like some European countries, has gone through a transition from dominance by the Catholic Church to an aggressive secularism. And Quebec resembles Europe more than the rest of North America in being preoccupied with the issue of demographic decline.

These circumstances provide useful background to the series of dramas Quebec has experienced in recent years, from the reasonable accommodations crisis of 2006–07 through the Bouchard-Taylor Commission and Bill 94 to the charter of values in 2013–14. However, Quebec does practise its own form of cultural diversity, which it refers to as “interculturalism” to distinguish it from Canadian multiculturalism. In Stevenson’s view, there is not much difference between interculturalism and multiculturalism in practical terms, “except for the fact that Quebec gives priority to the French language while the federal government is formally neutral between English and French.” (In his book on interculturalism, recently published in English translation, Gérard Bouchard makes rather more of this distinction than Stevenson does, arguing that interculturalism is more suited to a society where there is a longstanding majority language and culture, while multiculturalism is more suited to a society such as Canada where there is no single such culture. He acknowledges, however, that despite their theoretical differences the two models have converged somewhat in practice in recent years.3)

Stevenson devotes considerably more attention to the cultural and political issues surrounding immigration than to the economic ramifications, although these are a major concern of policymakers in Ottawa and Washington. The new express entry system that went into effect at the beginning of January seeks to match immigration into Canada more closely with the labour market. The economic focus of Canadian immigration policy is not without its critics. Some, such as economist Herbert Grubel, who in a 2014 Inroads article suggested making a prearranged job in Canada a requirement for immigration, maintain that the link between immigration and short-term economic gain should be even stronger than it is.4 Others, such as Naomi Alboim and Karen Cohl, advocate a broader set of goals for immigration policy, including long-term social and economic objectives, a commitment to citizenship and enhancing Canada’s reputation around the world.5

The proper balance between hard economic objectives and less tangible goals will no doubt continue to be a matter of controversy in both Canada and the United States. What seems clear, however, is that the optimistic scenario Stevenson presents is dependent on the two countries’ ongoing capacity to offer immigrants a promising economic future. Without that capacity, North America’s history of successful integration of immigrants may not be a reliable guide to what will happen in years to come.


Continue reading “Garth Stevenson’s long, broad view of diversity”

In an election in Canada’s multiparty parliamentary system, not every party can seriously aspire to form a government once the votes are counted. Pre-election opinion polls will indicate which parties are in the running for the big prize, and which are not. For those in the second category, there is still a consolation prize to be sought: a Balance of Power. If no party wins a majority, the government’s fate may well be in the hands of a third party, which can use this situation to extract legislative concessions. Such parliaments have not been uncommon in recent Canadian history, at both federal and provincial levels, and in many of those cases the party holding the Balance of Power has been the NDP.

In practice, however, managing a Balance of Power can be tricky. A classic case was the federal House of Commons following the election of 1972, in which Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberals were reduced from a majority to a shaky minority. To stay in power, they needed the support of the 31 New Democratic MPs, led by David Lewis. For a while, the Balance of Power worked the way it was supposed to. The government introduced NDP-friendly legislation such as a foreign investment review process and a pension increase. But by early 1974, the sustainability of the arrangement was in question. As political commentator Patrick MacFadden wrote in the Last Post, an alternative newsmagazine of the time:

In the case of the NDP it is possible to write two scenarios. (Everyone writes scenarios in Ottawa.) The first is the coalition government scenario. Its main purpose is to underline the basic sense of responsibility of the party. Being responsible, it has a right to share in the governing of the country. Good legislation will ensue.

The second scenario is what we will call the gun-fighter scenario. The theory here is that to be taken seriously as the fastest gun in the West, you must kill a man – or at least draw on Billy the Kid or Jesse James. The townspeople will then go ooh-ah. “That David,” they will say. “He’s a mean son-of-a-bitch.” …

The trouble with this scenario, apart from the obvious one that it is preferred by a minority of caucus, is that David Lewis’s leadership style leans heavily on caucus opinion. In this, he is very different from T.C. Douglas.

The other difficulty is that you could get shot …

The speech from the Throne will be unnaturally specific this time … There will be nothing in it that the NDP will not be able to vote for. On the other hand, if they vote for it and the Liberals then call the election, the NDP will not have a platform.

On the other hand, there will not be an election before June 25.1

Soon after this was written, the NDP voted against the Liberals’ budget, bringing down the government. In the ensuing election, held on July 8, the voters returned the Liberals to majority status. The NDP caucus was reduced from 31 members to 16.

In the spring of 2014, Andrea Horwath faced a similar dilemma. Like David Lewis 40 years earlier, the Ontario NDP leader and MPP for Hamilton Centre held the Balance of Power. She had her own gun-fighter persona: the Steeltown Scrapper. The budget introduced by Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals contained much NDP-friendly material: an Ontario pension plan, more money for transit, increased taxes on high incomes. But Horwath decided to shoot, announcing that the NDP would not support the budget.

In the ensuing election, Horwath had difficulty defining where her party stood. The NDP campaign was widely perceived as being to the right of the Liberal one. The NDP did not do badly, keeping its 21 seats and slightly increasing its popular vote. But there was a swing from the Conservatives to the Liberals, largely because Conservative leader Tim Hudak was all too clear about where his party stood. The Liberals won a majority and the NDP’s Balance of Power was gone.

As I write this, the next federal election is just under a year away. Much can happen in a year, but at the moment it does not appear likely that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives will retain their majority. However, neither Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats nor Justin Trudeau’s Liberals appear to be in a position to gain a majority either. The probable outcome is a Balance of Power. Its exact configuration is likely to be determined in Ontario, with a parliamentary delegation expanded to 122 seats, many of them competitive. Hence the 2014 Ontario election is significant not just for Ontarians but also as a possible harbinger of what is to come on the federal scene.

In this section, two knowledgeable political observers survey the state of politics in Canada in light of the Ontario election and other recent developments. Using a model that converts poll numbers into seat projections, Paul Barber forecasts a minority Liberal government after the next federal election. One of Stephen Harper’s major challenges, he suggests, will be to convince voters that he is not a federal version of Tim Hudak. Nelson Wiseman focuses on the NDP. He examines the reasons for the party’s current weak state despite its federal breakthrough in 2011 and despite the continuing popularity of its ideas among Canadians.

Another election in Ontario, the October mayoral vote in Toronto, also attracted Canada-wide interest. This was primarily because of the spotlight that has been cast on Rob Ford’s extraordinary reign as mayor, finally brought to a close not by conflict of interest or by crack videos or even by the voters but by cancer. But Zack Taylor shows that there are other reasons for people across Canada to pay attention to Toronto’s municipal affairs, which reflect deepening economic and political divides that are replicated in other Canadian cities. The suburban areas around Toronto were a key component of Stephen Harper’s majority in 2011. The continuing strength of “Ford nation” is an indication that the appeal of conservative populism is alive and well in these areas, and should not be discounted as a factor in the next federal election.

Continue reading “As Ontario goes …”

In his contribution to this section, Stéphane Dion uses the metaphor of the elephant in the room to highlight what he sees as the Senate’s most intractable problem: unbalanced provincial representation. As long as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have ten senators each while the much more populous provinces of Alberta and British Columbia only have six each, none of the Senate’s other deficiencies can be remedied.

Elephants also have another metaphorical meaning, and it too suits the Senate. In the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the elephant presents a different aspect to each of the men who touch it, and each comes to a different conclusion about what the elephant is. Our contributors are not blind – they are all astute political observers and practitioners – but each of them sees a different source for what all agree is a crisis of the Senate.

For Tom Flanagan, the source is the method of partisan appointment. The patronage power of choosing senators, he argues, has become a burden even to the government that exercises it. Since the constitutional obstacles to either a fully elected Senate or abolition of the Senate appear insurmountable, he recommends establishing provincial advisory committees to depoliticize the appointment process. He finds a useful model in Britain, where an independent House of Lords Appointment Commission recommends nonpartisan members for appointment to the upper house.

Stéphane Dion rejects Flanagan’s proposal, maintaining that unless the issue of unbalanced provincial representation is dealt with, any reform that would give the provinces a voice in the selection of senators would only make things worse. He suggests some procedural changes that would enable the Senate to better fulfil its role as a chamber of “sober second thought.”

Vincent Pouliot digs deep into our past to find the source of the Senate’s problems. In his account, the Fathers of Confederation intended the Senate as a voice for the local and regional interests of the provinces at the heart of the federal legislative process. Such a Senate would be equipped to act as a balance to the House of Commons and prevent abuse of federal power. However, this intent was never carried out. Pouliot draws our attention to the 14th resolution of the 1864 Quebec Conference as a useful starting point toward creating a more effective Senate – and a more accountable federal government.

photo courtesy Intiaz Rahim/Flickr

The Bishop tells us: “When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrade’s blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race.
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.”

“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.
“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”
And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”
— Siegfried Sassoon

Many years ago, as I was reading a book by the American diplomat and historian George Kennan, one sentence stopped me in my tracks. The First World War, Kennan wrote, was the great tragedy of the 20th century. For me, this assertion was not just startling but almost heretical. As a Jew born in the shadow of the Second World War, I took it as an article of faith that the great tragedy of the 20th century was what we have come to call the Holocaust. And yet, in the intervening years I have become increasingly convinced that Kennan was right.

It is not my intent to compare the horror of the trenches with the horror of the camps and attempt to weigh which was worse. That is not the point. But I’ve come to realize that the shadow hanging over my childhood was not just that of the Holocaust but that of the whole Age of Catastrophe, as the great historian Eric Hobsbawm called the period between 1914 and 1945. And the First World War, which broke out 100 years ago this summer, was where it all began.

“The war changed everything,” says a character in the television series Downton Abbey, in an episode set in 1922. Certainly the war changed a lot. The old Europe of Empires was gone. The Tsar of Russia, the Kaiser of Germany, the Emperor of Austria and the Sultan of Turkey no longer sat on their thrones. What appears to us now as the naive faith in progress and the continued betterment of humanity that was so widespread in the 19th century had been shattered. Some changes brought on by the war were undoubtely beneficial ones. Most countries in the West finally achieved universal suffrage in the years following the war as women gained the right to vote.

In many ways, however, the war did not change enough. The world did not create a stable international order after the war. The League of Nations proved ineffectual. The short-lived economic boom collapsed dramatically in 1929. Authoritarian and in many cases Fascist rule gradually engulfed most of Europe: Italy under Mussolini, Hungary under Horthy, Austria under Dollfuss and Schuschnigg, Germany under Hitler, Spain under Franco. Communism in the new Soviet Union degenerated into Stalinism. An increasingly fragile peace gave way to a second and even more destructive war. It was only in the years after 1945 that efforts to create a supranational institutional structure in Europe to lessen the possibility of another European war bore fruit – what has evolved into today’s European Union – and that constitutional democracy prevailed throughout western Europe and eventually most of eastern Europe.

Looking back, we can see that these changes needed to happen, but did they need to happen at the cost of so many lives and limbs, of so much grief, trauma, disillusion and despair? And did the outcome of the First World War make a difference? Kaiser Wilhelm was a nasty piece of work, to be sure, but much worse was to come, and had there been no German defeat in the First World War, Adolf Hitler would almost certainly have remained a clown on the margins of German politics, and the horror of the camps might never have been perpetrated.

As is well known, the proximate cause of the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Sophie by a Yugoslav nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The assassination precipitated a crisis in relations between Austria-Hungary and Serbia in which other countries soon became involved on one side or the other. By early August, Germany and Austria-Hungary were at war with Russia, France and Britain. By October Turkey had come in as well.

From a regional crisis triggered by an assassination to a war that claimed the lives of millions and brought down the entire architecture of prewar Europe is a large leap, and so historians have long sought deeper causes. The system of alliances that turned a small crisis into a big one and divided Europe into two armed camps. The naval race between Germany and Britain. The rigid military plans based on an offensive strategy. The illusion that the war would be brief and victory quick, and the almost complete failure to foresee the ensuing stalemate with its consequences for the war’s duration, scale and horror. National rivalries. Economic competition. The authoritarian systems that gave far too much power to deeply flawed rulers such as Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. From another angle, the increasing influence of public opinion, and of the mass-circulation press that could manipulate it.

And yet, even these causes don’t seem quite up to the job of explaining a catastrophe of the magnitude of the First World War and its aftermath. Beneath those causes there are others – some that may be fixable, others that may not. The absence of international institutions that can resolve disputes between countries before they get out of hand. The very notion of force as an acceptable way of settling international disputes. Or perhaps something even more ingrained in the human species.

The historian Barbara Tuchman spent a professional lifetime approaching the mystery of the First World War from various vantage points. Her exploration began in 1958 with The Zimmermann Telegram, which examined an incident that was crucial in drawing the United States into the war. It was followed in 1962 by The Guns of August, an account of the outbreak and early days of the war. The Guns of August won the Pulitzer Prize and was read by President Kennedy, who – according to Margaret MacMillan, in some ways Tuchman’s heir as a perceptive historian with a talent for reaching a mass audience – acted with restraint in the Cuban missile crisis later that year in part as a result of the book’s influence.1 Tuchman’s The Proud Tower (1966) was a portrait of Western society before the war. A Distant Mirror (1978) was about the 14th century, but Tuchman’s interest in that era came from parallels between the collapse of medieval civilization and the collapse she saw in our own time in the First World War. And the war was clearly still on her mind when she wrote The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984), in which she drew on examples throughout history to ask why governments so often persist in courses of action whose disastrous consequences should be foreseeable:

Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process so often seem not to function?2

Then there is what Margaret MacMillan has described as “the most dispiriting explanation of all – that the war was simply a blunder that could have been avoided.”3 Did millions suffer and die for a mistake? MacMillan worries about parallels between today’s international situation and conditions before 1914, and warns against comforting nostrums like “countries that have McDonald’s will never fight one another.” She reminds us that Britain and Germany were each other’s largest trading partners before 1914. Could a confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine, or between the United States and China over some islands in the South China Sea, lead to war? Unlikely, but no more so than a war over the assassination of an archduke. And what of runaway climate change, a looming catastrophe that requires no Sarajevo to set it off but simply a continuation of exactly what we are already doing?

Whether consciously or not, the First World War remains embedded in our imaginations. First World War expressions survive in the language: home front, in the trenches, over the top, no man’s land. The last First World War survivors have died, and today’s veterans are more likely to have fought the Taliban in Afghanistan, but we still remember our war dead on November 11, the anniversary of the Armistice. And we still recite John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” and take our symbol of remembrance, the poppy, from that poem:


Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The challenge that McCrae issues to us is a real one: How are we to remember the war and those who died in it? The longest battle of the First World War, the struggle over its meaning, is still not over.

For the government and the veterans’ organizations, the way to keep faith with those who died, as manifested in the official remembrance ceremonies, is more or less as McCrae suggested: to take up their quarrel with the foe – to view the war in much the same way as the Bishop in Sassoon’s poem. The poppy campaign, in the words of the Royal Canadian Legion, is about showing our “debt owed to so many Canadians who gave their lives for our freedom.” This theme, that they died so that we could be free, is repeated endlessly in countless variations. And yet, in implying that the loss of life was somehow commensurate with what was achieved, it fits uneasily into any clear-eyed remembrance of the First World War. At the heart of the tragedy of the First World War is its pointlessness.

This is not just a retrospective, revisionist view. In July 1917, in the open letter known as the Soldier’s Declaration, Siegfried Sassoon, then a British officer, proclaimed that men were being needlessly sacrificed and that any legitimate war aims could be achieved through negotiation. For this act he was judged to be in need of psychiatric treatment and sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital for shell-shocked officers. At Craiglockhart, he met a younger soldier with poetic aspirations, Wilfred Owen, and became his mentor. Together, Sassoon, who survived the war, and Owen, killed one week before the Armistice in 1918, are voices of sanity that speak to us from that mad world of a century ago.

In Canadian war remembrance, the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, looms large. Vimy Ridge Day, so declared by Parliament in 2003, continues to be observed. The Bank of Canada recently endorsed a suggestion that its polymer $20 note be nicknamed the Vimy, after the Vimy memorial pictured on its reverse side.4 The statement that “Canada became a nation at Vimy” is heard almost as often as that the dead sacrificed their lives for our freedom.

In the battle, the Canadian Corps captured a German stronghold that had previously resisted French and British attacks. As Pierre Berton told the story, they were able to achieve this because they were not bound by Europe’s rigid class system and outdated military traditions and because of the skills they had acquired on the Canadian frontier:

Trench life in France was appalling for everybody, but at least a good proportion of the men at Vimy had known what it was like to sleep out in the mud and rain, to eat a cold meal in the wilderness, and, in many cases, to knock over a deer with a rifle … They had guts and stamina and, perhaps more important, a habit of self-reliance that would help to carry them through those weary months when the mud and the vermin were almost unbearable, and those tense few hours when the guns roared and the trenches ran with blood.5

But if Vimy was an achievement, it was a limited one. It was part of a British operation, the battle of Arras, itself part of a larger Franco-British offensive intended to break through the German defences and end the stalemate on the Western Front. Despite tactical successes such as Vimy, the offensive failed in its objective and the war went on for another year and a half. Casualties in the offensive numbered in the hundreds of thousands, including the more than 10,000 Canadians killed and wounded at Vimy.

As for the statement that Canada became a nation at Vimy, what it turns out to mean, in Berton’s account, is that Canadians of British stock – who made up the vast majority of the Canadian troops at Vimy – henceforth tended to think of themselves less as British and more as Canadian. Vimy certainly did not unite French and English Canadians. Indeed, heavy losses at Vimy and elsewhere on the Western Front increased pressure on the government of Robert Borden to conscript Canadians for overseas service, to which it responded by introducing its conscription bill in Parliament just two months after Vimy. Conscription during the First World War turned out to be one of the most divisive episodes in Canadian history, culminating in riots in Quebec City in which five people were killed in April 1918.

Even in the hands of Berton, Canada’s great mythmaker, the story of Vimy is dominated by the mud, the rats, the constant presence of death. “Was it worth it?” he concludes. “The answer, of course, is no.”6

Currently in Canada, many people wear poppies in November, and many others don’t. People no doubt have thousands of individual reasons for deciding which way to go. I don’t wear a poppy, but part of me is concerned that this could be seen as a sign of indifference. How to say that remembering the war and the dead means something, but doesn’t mean that?

Various alternatives have been proposed. Some groups have promoted wearing a white poppy, a poppy of peace. I agree with the sentiment but, for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, draw back from the gesture. The veterans’ organizations fiercely protect their hegemony over the meaning imputed to the war, but I don’t think my reticence is due simply to fear of their wrath. That meaning, even if false, is the only thing that, in retrospect, makes the suffering and death bearable for many. Do I really want to make a public statement whose purpose is to try to take it away?

And so my remembrance of the First World War and its dead is essentially a private one, sometimes shared with a friend whose sensibility about the war is similar to mine. My friend rekindled my interest in the war poets, and so my remembrance, like hers, centres on two slim volumes that I pull down from my shelves every November, The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon and The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. One unseasonably warm November 11 she and I read poems from those books to each other in an open square in Waterloo, Ontario. A year later, in the snow, we went to the cenotaph in Waterloo after the official ceremony was over with the intent of enacting a ritual she had designed. But the freshly laid wreaths and the whiff of the earlier ceremony hanging over the cenotaph made it an inappropriate site, and we found a spot in a nearby grove to light candles, read poems and say prayers for peace to our respective deities.

Siegfried Sassoon began this article, so it is Wilfred Owen’s place to close it:


If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est


Pro patria mori.



Continue reading “In the trenches”

The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With nearly 130 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth.

The possibility of American military intervention in Syria in response to use of chemical weapons dominated world headlines in September, and it dominated the Inroads listserv as well. What follows is an edited version of the listserv debate; a fuller version can be found on the Inroads website at (omissions from the Web version are indicated by “”).

Gareth Morley touched off the discussion just as President Obama was seeking to rally support in Congress for a U.S. strike.

From: Gareth Morley | September 4

I opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but I worry that the West has overlearned from the consequences of Bush’s decision.

Since conflict is inevitable, the only alternative to unrestrained violence is some form of law. Law rests not on a single coercive authority, as Hobbes incorrectly thought, but on norms that are typically followed and whose violations are at least typically punished.

The world cannot afford to lose those norms in relation to armed conflict that it has painfully acquired. The norm against the use of poison gas, developed out of the experience of the trenches in World War I, was strong enough that it wasn’t violated by any of the combatants in World War II. The last clear violation by a sovereign state was in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

I would prefer of course that action against a sovereign state was endorsed by the UN Security Council, but that is obviously unrealistic as long as the current regimes last in Russia and China. As Mill pointed out in the mid-19th century, nonintervention loses its force when there is intervention on one side – and whatever the United States does will hardly compensate for the support Russia has given the Assad regime.

I am concerned that the British Parliament and the British Labour Party – the party of Bevin and Attlee – have embraced a stance that will give impunity to sovereign lawbreakers. I hope the U.S. Congress doesn’t follow the same course.

Obama’s belated intervention in Libya had good consequences. It is impossible to know whether the same would be true in Syria, but it is possible to see that America needs to retain the credibility of the anti–chemical weapons norm, since no one else is going to.

I think the opposition is right to demand a parliamentary debate on the subject, even if Canada’s participation will be virtual. But I also hope that they are true to their parties’ collective security traditions and do not just bow to a passing populist and anti-American sentiment.

From: Jan Narveson | September 4

Thanks to Gareth for an important contribution to this difficult matter. Alas, though, how the idea about law is to be brought to bear on this situation is extremely difficult to discern – imponderable, even.

As I see it, we have the problem that we are not sure who the Bad Guys are – though, of course, there are plenty on both sides. But that’s the trouble.

I have seen a credible-sounding account by a reporter “on the ground” in Syria who tells us that the gas “attack” was not an attack but a mistake by a rebel group that didn’t know how to handle chemical weapons; result, several of their own people killed as well as a bunch of others.1

The Americans claim to be sure that it was Assad who pushed that button. That is on the face of it amazingly improbable, as so many have said. Assad may be a bad guy but he isn’t a damn fool. I suspect that Obama is being led into a trap.

Given that there is no such thing as “the” rebels, but a whole welter of internally competing ones, very prominent among whom are Al Qaeda types (so I understand), and if indeed Assad didn’t actually order the gas attack anyway, it seems to me that prudence requires continued abstinence, despite the growing list of casualties.

Or if you’re going to do something, it should be a lot, and it should be such that none of the really awful groups end up in power in Syria. America is the only country that could possibly do that; even if it wanted to (and it surely doesn’t), doing it without full support of at least most of the other members of NATO and preferably a lot more than that is exceedingly tricky; and all in all, as I say, it seems to me that “we” should just continue to sit, uncomfortably, on the sidelines. Force accomplishes something useful only if it’s clear why and against whom it is being exerted, and very probable that the envisaged good outcomes will actually happen. None of those conditions obtain in this matter, alas.

From: Joe Murray | September 4

Indeed, an important issue here is whether we are seeing an additional step here away from traditional international law which requires the Security Council to explicitly invoke Chapter 7 to authorize the use of force except in instances of self-defence. From broad coalitions to a coalition including only France and perhaps a few weak states, the United States is attempting in its rhetoric to justify its actions as upholding international treaties by using military force to punish an alleged violator.

I’m not sure that a policy of using force not authorized by the UN to punish international actors like states which violate important norms like the ban on chemical weapons is a prudent one that will accomplish the end of ensuring better respect for those norms.

At another level, Obama and his administration are pushing back at Russia for various irritants, not least of which is harbouring Snowden.

In the circumstances of this bloody war with many casualities and atrocities on both sides, analyzing who would profit most from credible allegations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons leads to the conclusion that the rebels would have a stronger motive to use them than the regime.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 4

Syria offers the chilling definition of “conundrum.” There are no good solutions, and a great many bad ones. Even Israel-Palestine is a case of a seemingly intractable problem that could be resolved, theoretically, even if the possibility of all the parties coming to an acceptance of the logical no-winner no-loser solution is, shall we say, dim.

But Syria is a nastier beast. It’s the ancient dilemma of political change in autocracies: at the end of the day it’s always kill or be killed. But it’s not just Assad’s hide. With the Alawite minority backed into the corner with his regime that has been so narrowly based, the Shia-Sunni conflict is also kill or be killed on a larger scale. The Alawites will go down with Assad to the last, if it comes to that, because they have in effect dug their own graves. And if, as is more likely, Assad finally triumphs over an exhausted and shattered country, the retribution against the Sunni opponents will be ghastly. Add to this the jihadist element that has been gaining among the opposition, and you can see why the blowback from direct intervention for regime change à la Iraq would be even worse than Iraq.

The case of the use of chemical weapons does, however, stand somewhat outside these parameters. Of course Assad has slaughtered far more with conventional weapons without eliciting a military response from the West (see above for why). It is also true that far more were slaughtered in World War II by conventional bombs than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet atomic weapons have been given a privileged place as absolutely unacceptable. Same thing for CW. What the United States is talking about is a strike against Assad in direct response to CW use on his own citizens, a war crime. Any such action is explicitly not for regime change.

One can entertain grave doubts about the efficacy of such a response, but still grant that it has a better moral and ethical foundation than the Iraq fiasco.

That said, Gareth is right to call for a parliamentary debate. It is shameful that while the U.K. and U.S. have had debates in their legislatures, here we have the Prime Minister and his foreign minister claiming a kind of executive privilege to hold decisions of war and peace all to themselves. The Canadian people never directly elected Harper or Baird, yet even Obama who was directly elected felt called upon to consult Congress. Parliament, for all its faults, is the only body directly elected by the Canadian people, and in Parliament all parties can have their say, not just the Conservative minority of the public (their faux seat majority notwithstanding). What a disgraceful state of democracy this government has given us.

ps: I can’t buy Jan’s argument about the rebels using CW. We know for a fact that the regime has stockpiled sarin and other deadly agents and knows very well how to deploy them. The ragtag rebels do not seem to have access to such an armoury. The American and French intel is reasonably convincing on this. If the UN finds evidence of sophisticated use of sarin, the conclusion is obvious.

From: Patrick Balena | September 5

While Gareth regards the Libyan war with approval, he forgets to mention that Russia and China indeed allowed resolutions to be passed by the Security Council concerning a “no-fly zone” during the Libyan war. Those resolutions, however, did not authorize an overthrow of the Libyan government.

What happened next? The United States and its allies brazenly surpassed the authorized limits of force set forth in those Security Council resolutions.

Now Gareth complains that the Russians and Chinese have become less cooperative.

Some in the United States are afraid of a loss of credibility if the United States does not go to war with Syria. But the people who make an argument about credibility disregard the loss of credibility the United States suffered after exceeding its mandate in Libya.

Gareth claims to have learned (but not, let us be clear, “too much”!) from the Iraq War. But perhaps he learned much too little from the Libyan War.

What does it mean to learn “too much” from the Iraq War?

Is it too much to learn that we cannot accept a great power’s supposed intelligence findings merely on that power’s own authority?

Is it too much to learn that the UN covenant’s restrictions on waging war have proven to be quite sensible?

Is it too much to learn that wars can grow bigger, and last longer, and cause more suffering, than a belligerent choosing that war could have ever expected?

The Iraq War is rich in lessons. One cannot learn too much from that war. One can only choose to keep learning, or not.

From: Patrick Balena | September 7

Gareth insists that the UN Security Council is inoperative. He blames Russia and China for any problems in the Security Council. He dismisses the Libyan example as a “fluke,” even though, if his own argument were valid, we would have expected Russia or China to have been systematically obstructive for obstruction’s sake.

But let’s look at Russian and Chinese action in the Security Council following the end of the Cold War:

  • In the Kuwait crisis, Russia voted in favour of full military action against Iraq (#678), while China abstained.
  • Neither country interfered in Security Council resolutions concerning Serbia and Kosovo (e.g. #1144, #1260), although both countries disapproved, and even though NATO forces destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
  • If Russia or China were such jealous guardians of integral sovereignty, then why did neither country veto Security Council resolutions concerning the division of Sudan (a long series culminating in #1999)?
  • More closely involving Syria, when the Security Council demanded a withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005 (#1559), Putin’s Russia did not veto, despite its longstanding ties to Syria.

So then, in light of some of the most important Security Council activity over the past two decades, including examples which directly touch on matters of individual state sovereignty and indeed on Syria itself, on what factual basis does Gareth argue that the Security Council is broken, let alone that Russia and China are the ones that have broken it?

Libya was no “fluke.” Russian or Chinese complaisance at the Security Council has in fact become the norm rather than the exception while, unfortunately, it is by no means exceptional for the United States to exceed any authority it is granted by the Security Council – as it did in both Kosovo and Libya.

From: Gareth Morley | September 10

There needs to be a little nuance here. I don’t reject the UN Security Council as completely useless or advocate a policy of refusing to engage diplomatically with Russia and China. I would say, though, that they obviously have strong and self-interested reasons to promote a policy of letting each regime do whatever it wants to its own people, and that if Security Council appproval is an absolute prerequisite for humanitarian intervention, it is not going to happen.

Note that if the United States and NATO are sometimes willing to engage in action without Security Council blessing, there will be a different dynamic, in which Russia and China might use the leverage they have in the Security Council to limit international intervention, but will also compromise sometimes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you can’t hypothesize a world in which the U.S./NATO never interevene without Security Council blessing and assume Russia and China would also compromise in that world.

Further, most of Patrick’s examples don’t prove what he says they prove.

The Iraq invasion and annexation of Kuwait was a violation of Westphalian norms, so it raises different questions. Moreover, the USSR was in its last days and China was seeking to get back into the international system after the crackdown on the student movement in 1989. I don’t think it tells us much.

Serbia was a Russian client during the 1990s. Russia made compromises, but it also shielded Serbia and its military allies from effective UN action to end the war in the Balkans. It was only with unilateral NATO action that the war came to an end. There really isn’t much doubt about this.

Sudan is a complicated situation, and I don’t claim to fully understand it. Essentially, the rebel leadership in the South and the Khartoum regime both preferred a division of the country to international scrutiny. China is pretty happy with the result as well. Both successor countries are tyrannies and seem to be relapsing into internal ethnic warfare. Maybe this is a Security Council success story, but if so, we shouldn’t want to rely entirely on the Security Council.

Round 3: The 98-pound weakling?

When reports began to surface of a Russian initiative to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, along with tentative expressions of interest by the Assad regime in Syria and the Obama administration, the focus of the discussion shifted. That was round 2. Then, a Toronto Globe and Mail column by Margaret Wente accusing Obama of letting himself be pushed around by Russian President Vladimir Putin sparked a third round of debate. When the Globe wouldn’t print Henry Milner’s letter in response to Wente’s column, he shared it with the listserv.

From: Henry Milner | September 15

Margaret Wente is at least honest. “Like most everybody else,” she writes in the Globe on September 14, “I’m confused as hell over Syria.” This however does not prevent her from showering Barack Obama, “the 98-pound weakling,” with 950 words of invective. It comes down to a pissing contest and Barack Obama is losing, letting that schoolyard bully, Vladimir Putin, kick sand in his face.

Were she less confused, she might admit that Obama is playing the hand he has been dealt as well as it could be played. Obama has understood from the beginning that neither side, given their internal and external support, could defeat the other: the only solution would have to be a negotiated one. And that could only happen if Russia were involved.

Instead, this is treated as a joke. Putin is “the guy who has been arming Bashar al-Assad to the teeth and blocking the United Nations from doing anything about it.” By the same logic the United States should not be expected to contribute to peace in Palestine since it has been arming Netanyahu to the teeth and blocking the UN from doing anything about it.

So faced with a regime that gases its opponents and knowing that, in the end, it will only be removed through a negotiated settlement, what is Mr. Obama to do? Hide his head in the sand and pretend there was no poison gas? Send in the marines? Or build up external and internal support for action to make it clear that this is unacceptable?

It is hardly his fault that many prefer to hide their head in the sand – to say, like Margaret Wente, that this is Mr. Obama’s problem, not mine.

In fact, Mr. Obama’s stance on the poison gas has led to the first progress toward a negotiated settlement – however fleeting – that we have seen since this all began. Surely that’s what really matters, not who wins the pissing contest.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 15

Henry, excellent letter.

The Wente “weakling” line on Obama is of course a perfect crystallization of the Fox News–Republican line on the Russian-U.S. agreement. The right’s position has always been to demand that Obama attack Syria so that they could then attack Obama for attacking Syria! Ironically, we have also seen a bizarre criticism from the left that first branded Obama a warmonger for threatening to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and then views the agreement to divest Assad of his weapons as Putin pushing Obama around when Obama couldn’t control his own Congress. It seems that Syria is a classic lose-lose for every politician in the West. Cameron was humiliated by his defeat in the Commons, but Milliband who led the opposition has been if anything treated with even more contempt by the U.K. media.

Meanwhile, Putin has raised his diplomatic profile perhaps, but by backing Assad to the hilt he has hardly helped advance Russian prestige with the Saudis, Qataris, Egyptians and Turks, all opposed to the Assad regime. And Hezbollah, which emerged from the Israeli attack on Lebanon as the rock stars of Arab pride, has got itself into a terrible hole with its military role in Syria which is already blowing back on it in a Lebanon flooded with refugees from Assad’s brutality.

The ultimate Syrian idiocy has to rest with our own ineffable “foreign” minister, Baird. After making it clear that Canada had no intention of lifting a finger to assist the United States in carrying out strikes against Assad, Baird is now denouncing the Russian-U.S. agreement to make Assad give up his weapons. Syria’s offer to abandon its weapons is, in Baird’s carefully chosen words: “ridiculous and absurd.” Baird asserts that Assad “could not be given extra time.” Presumably, his only choice is immediate surrender or Generalissimo Baird will order the Americans to attack!

Of course, no one outside Canada gives a rat’s ass about John Baird’s bombast. But what is particularly weird about this is that Baird has lost the plot of his so-called Middle Eastern policy, which has never amounted to anything more than a blank cheque for Benjamin Netanyahu. Contrast Baird’s bluster with the comments quoted today in the Israeli media from Netanyahu: “We hope the understandings reached between the United States and Russia regarding the Syrian chemical weapons will yield results.”

Has the ventriloquist lost control of his dummy?

From: Arthur Milner | September 15

I think Baird has now fallen into line: “We welcome today’s developments in Geneva as a first step,” said Baird (quoted in multiple sources).

Now he’s just as progressive as Netanyahu.

It turned out well, all in all, but did Obama threaten to bomb Syria to prove he wasn’t a ”98-pound weakling”?

From: Matthew Barlow | September 16

Obama has no need to prove he’s not a “98-pound weakling.” As Joe Biden continually reminded the nation last year, Obama is the man who killed Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, the opposition to Obama’s stance on Syria down here has been downright comical. Only the die-hard Obama supporters continue to justify his position here. But the left of the Democratic Party has been vicious in its condemnation, until they get reminded of the chemical weapons, whereas the GOP is still screaming about Benghazi, and demanding that Obama do something, only stopping long enough to scream incoherently about Syria. It is obvious to me that Obama always had a negotiated settlement in mind, but he rattled sabres and went to Congress to call out the GOP. He did it hamhandedly, but I think he got what he wanted out of this.

From: Arthur Milner | September 16

Matthew, re: “Obama has no need to prove he’s not a ‘98-pound weakling.’ As Joe Biden continually reminded the nation last year, Obama is the man who killed Osama bin Laden.”

I hope that’s a joke. For those who care about such things, a fighter is only as good as his last bout.

And “It is obvious to me that Obama always had a negotiated settlement in mind.” Good for you! He sure tricked me.

From: Matthew Barlow | September 16

If he tricked you, Arthur, you weren’t paying close enough attention. At the same time as Obama was rattling sabres, his secretary of state was making noises about negotiated settlements. Obama’s entire run to Congress was a power play: as you know, the Constitution requires the president to seek Congress’s input on war. Since Lincoln, all presidents have done this post facto, if at all (Reagan didn’t bother when he invaded Grenada). So, given that Kerry was engaged in diplomacy abroad while Obama rattled sabres at home, the outcome seemed pretty much preordained from where I sit.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 16

The most important element in the current situation may be that top-level meetings are now being planned with the Iranians. This is itself likely an offshoot of the Russian-brokered deal on chemical weapons, as well as the new openness of the post-Ahmadinejad leadership in Tehran. If the Iranian nuclear issue can be taken off the table, Netanyahu will have no more red herrings to divert attention away from dealing with the Palestinians. But even then Obama-Kerry are so tied up by the pro-Israel lobby within both political parties that they have little freedom of manoeuvre on that front. My only hope is that Obama in the last days of his lame-duck tenure could damn the domestic consequences and beat some reason into Netanyahu, but I wouldn’t bet defunct Canadian pennies on that happening.

From: Gareth Morley | September 16

To get where Wente is coming from, it is important to realize that she does not care, and never has cared, about Middle Eastern politics. Marxists used to say the only war that mattered was the class war. Today, the only war that matters is the gender war.

To anyone with a basic grasp of strategic thinking, diplomacy and the use of force are not opposites. Rather, the whole point of having the ability to project force is to be able to credibly threaten to use it for diplomatic advantage. And the only reason to use force is that sometimes signalling breaks down, and if you don’t use it, you lose diplomatic credibility. So it just makes no sense to say either “Obama should try diplomatic solutions, rather than threaten force,” as the left tends to say, or “Obama is a big wimp for talking with our enemies,” as the right says. From the point-of-view of rational choice theory, these are just thought errors. You don’t get to talk to Putin or Iran’s leaders if you can’t credibly threaten them. And you don’t accomplish anything unless you get people who don’t share your objectives to cooperate with you. Negotiation is not a reward for being a nice guy: it is a process of communicating how it is in someone else’s interest to do what you want.

But at a deeper level, what is going on is not a dispute over policy options in the Middle East. It is a battle between (1) those who think that the feminization of Western culture is undermining our martial virtues and therefore our ability to keep the Other at bay and (2) non-crazy people. The idea that we are becoming more effeminate and eventually will be overridden by barbarians always seems to involve mentioning both poor old Neville Chamberlain and the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but it was actually a pretty old theme when that Empire was at its height. It is just a persistent motif in Western civilization.

Wente’s job is to annoy Globe readers, not to know things about the Middle East. The Iraq war was good because it represented Western males no longer taking it any more and showing the fuzzy wuzzies who is boss. Obama is bad because he bowed to the Emperor of Japan and insisted on getting involved in a conflict with a lot of confusing Arab names that at least GWB would have pronounced wrong.

From: Patrick Balena | September 17

Too many Inroaders have attributed too much foreknowledge to Obama:

  1. If Russia had not vetoed Security Council resolutions, the United States would have already been attacking Syria.
  2. Obama had no way of knowing that Cameron would suffer a caucus revolt. With a U.S./U.K./French coalition, escalation would have been likely.
  3. Obama had no way of knowing that Sisi’s new government in Egypt would block Arab League action against Syria.

One would need a deep conspiracy theory to imagine those three strings in Obama’s hands.

The evidence indicates that Obama was trying to follow the strategy used against Libya, but things just didn’t come together.

Since Obama waited about two years before preparing a U.S. attack on Syria, it is clear that such an attack was not his first option. On the other hand, if one believes that Obama in good faith always wanted to make peace in Syria, then one needs to answer some questions:

  1. Why did the United States recall its ambassador from Damascus when fighting in Syria had scarcely begun?
  2. Why did the United States insist that Assad step down as the precondition before even beginning any talks?
  3. Why did the U.S. and its allies attempt to recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate government of Syria – even to the farcical extent of installing an American citizen, Ghassan Hitto, as the nominal head of that council?
  4. Why did the United States try to disparage as useless the UN inspection team sent to investigate chemical weapons use before it had even begun its work?
  5. Why has the U.S. not encouraged Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar to participate in multilateral talks, and why did the United States repeatedly reject Iranian offers to negotiate over Syria? All of those countries are involved in the war, and they ought to be involved in the peace.
  6. Why did the United States repeatedly try to pass resolutions in the Security Council authorizing armed force against the Syrian government, but not back any Security Council resolutions mandating high-level talks?

While it’s fair to say that Obama was not eager to go to war against Syria, the claim that he always wanted a negotiated settlement cannot be supported. War was not his first option, but it was high on the list.

Obama wanted the Syrian government to fall, but hoped that it would happen quickly and cheaply. The resilience of the Ba’ath government in Syria and developments elsewhere have put him off-balance.

If “optics” are a concern, then the “optics” are bad. But would anyone prefer McCain’s hysterics? If Obama doesn’t go to war in Syria, then he has done right, even if hostile pundits think he looks klutzier than Ford.

We still have to wait three more years to find out whether a Nobel Peace Prize, when immediately awarded to an incoming U.S. president, can be an effective prophylactic treatment. The clinical trial is ongoing.

Round 4: Democracy or liberalism?

A final round focused on the oft-stated American goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East.

From: Anthony Westell | September 17

U.S. involvement in the Middle East started with Bush’s invasion of Iraq which was supposed to topple a dictator and allow the people to establish a democracy. Instead, a civil/religious war has produced a shambles. Similarly, the much-heralded Arab Spring in Egypt was supposed to make way for democracy, but now the military are in control. NATO helped the rebels overthrow the dictator in Libya, which seems still to be having trouble. Given the severity of the civil war in Syria, the outcome will be bloody and painful whichever side wins. What Obama did or didn’t say, or should have done, is merely of academic interest. The fact is that democracy is a sophisticated system which developed over centuries in Europe and will probably take many years, even decades or centuries, to take root in the Muslim Middle East.

From: Gareth Morley | September 17

Tony may be right that democracy will not be established in the Middle East soon. There are plenty of reasons for pessimism.

Still, I am skeptical of the “democracy took centuries in Europe” argument. In fact, plenty of what appear to be well-established European democracies today had little or no democratic experience before the 1970s or even 1990s. The same is true in east Asia. In 1940, democracy really only existed in the white Anglophone world, Sweden and Switzerland. If South Korea and Poland can be democracies now, I don’t buy that there is a metaphysical necessity that Libya or Syria can never be.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 17

I agree with Gareth that the “democracy took centuries in Europe” claim exaggerates the depth of democratic roots. Even in Britain, the “democratic” nature of the political system well into the 20th century has often been exaggerated. In Canada I have often shaken my head in disbelief when latter-day enthusiasts babble about the Fathers of Confederation establishing “democracy” here: that was the definitely not on their British agenda as democracy was seen as a dangerous American fashion. It was democracy, after all, that had allowed America to tear itself apart in a brutal civil war. Sir John A. once remarked that the idea that a man (let alone a woman!) should vote just because they breathed was repellent to his moral sensibilities.

To complicate any analysis of why democratic experiments seem to be faltering in the Arab world, there is a wide range of theorizing about democratization in the political science world, which I can’t even begin to touch on here (do I hear exhalations of relief all around?).

We can point to a couple of relevant factors that do help explain the difficulties, while not denying the longer-term possibilities.

The transformation from outright autocracies to more widely-based forms of governance tend to falter on the weakness of civil society (itself a direct result of autocratic rule). Autocratic rule lacked legitimacy, being based nakedly on violence and fear. But since civil society has difficulty forming viable broad-based coalitions that could provide legitimacy to the post-autocratic state, what tends to happen instead is the scuffling for advantage of sections of the society that are too narrow to command wide legitimacy.

Worse, in the Arab case, certainly in Tunisia and Egypt, the best-organized and most popularly rooted political elements are Islamist. Islam also provides a common language for a people suddenly told to engage in a political discourse they had been long barred from. Unfortunately, Islamist movements like the Brotherhood are good at winning office in the new dispensation, but once in office their ideology blinds them to the need to reach out and compromise with the secularist (and other sectarian) forces. The result is an either/or, winner-take-all mentality that mirrors the previous autocratic rule. Morsi’s Brothers “won” the election in Egypt with a minority of votes and then tried to rewrite the constitution and the basic rules to reflect their own narrow vision, which not only alienated but terrified secularist and other opponents. Hence the bizarre spectacle of the “people” of Tahrir Square applauding the military coup.

This does not look good but the situation is not without hope. Turkey (despite some recent stutters) does provide a relatively vibrant model of an Islamist political project that can command wide legitimacy in a democratic framework. Let’s remember that this does not have long historical roots. As late as the 1990s the rather intolerant secularist forces in Turkey were still intent on blocking the Islamists from even participating in the political sphere.

From: Jan Narveson | September 17

Discussions among Westerners of the political developments in the Middle East tend overwhelmingly to be in terms of “democracy.” But those who put it in these terms are, I suspect, confusing two possibly very different things: Democracy and Liberalism.

Democracy is Rule by the People, as distinct from rule by dictators, kings, or aristocracies. Liberalism is respect for individual persons, attributing to them the right to live the sort of life they want, just because they want it.

When Westerners discuss democracy, they assume (a considerable measure of) liberalism. But Middle Easterners do not. When Mohammed Morsi was elected, he took his victory to imply that at last, his “Muslim Brothers” got to assert totalitarian rule over the rest. The same general syndrome goes for Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and various presidents and such in other countries in Africa. Democracy means the majority hands dictatorial power to the guy they elected.

This is an inherent problem of democracy: why shouldn’t the majority just beat the crap out of the minority? Isn’t it majority rule?

Well, that isn’t what “we,” Westerners, had in mind. Western democracies are constitutional: they attribute pretty strong rights to everyone, and they assume that when governments are elected by majorities, those governments will respect the rights of everyone, not just those who elected them. (Yes, they’re often wrong. But that’s the inherent problem of democracy asserting itself again. At least it’s under some control in the West. Not so – as yet – in typical Middle Eastern and African contexts.)

As between the two – government by people who were elected versus governments that respect individual liberties – which is more important?

Answer: liberalism, by far. Some states have prospered without democracy. For perhaps the most outstanding example, take Hong Kong, which under British ultraliberal “rule” but without elections went from nearly the poorest state in the world to one of the wealthiest per capita, with civil liberties generally strongly respected. On the other hand, Russia, despite its elections, is not far from a dictatorship (hopefully that will change). And Libya? And Egypt? And if the “rebels” win in Syria, does anyone expect a liberal government to emerge? I don’t think so!

Which is a major reason why Western countries shouldn’t be in too big a hurry to support those rebels, who are turning out to be Islamists, with all that implies (which is a lot).

In Canada, and the United States, we are fortunate to have appreciable Muslim populations that are, by and large, becoming solid supporters of the sort of liberalism we expect. Neither the Muslim religion nor any other major religion has to be devoted to a political takeover of the governments of the countries they inhabit, with forcible conversion of the rest upon defeating them in a “democratic” election. But it isn’t an easy lesson to learn.

Nor is it fully learned by all here, as we know: the self-styled “Christian Right” is dedicated to antiliberal goals not greatly less radical than those of the Islamists. And any number of aspirants to political office hereabouts are ready to try to get their favourite ideas about how the rest of us are “supposed to live” legislated over our objections. And so it goes.

From: Gareth Morley | September 17

Jan is of course right that democracy and liberalism are not the same thing. As John Stuart Mill (who was basically right about everything) taught us, we have to worry about the tyranny of the majority.

Still, in practice, democracy, defined as a system in which the right to govern depends on free and competitive elections conducted on the basis of universal suffrage, tends as a matter of statistical generalization to go together with greater degrees of personal and economic freedom than alternative political systems.

Some amount of liberalism is necessary for democracy, since if there are no limits on what government can do, it is hard to meet the acid test of democracy, which is peaceful transition of power when the will of the majority changes. Moreover, liberalism reduces the stakes for minorities and so reduces their opposition to majority rule. If Christians and Alawites had reason to think they could peacefully exercise their religions if the majority chose who ruled Syria, they would have a lot less reason to cling to the Assad regime.

On the other hand, I am sceptical of the idea that restrictions on democracy to promote liberalism will actually do so. It seems to me that it is hardly an accident that the most democratic countries have been the most liberal. The majority tends to have a certain degree of common sense and a majority coalition will be hard to keep together if it is oppressing a minority. The main counterexamples, like the Jim Crow South or present-day Israel, are places in which most of the oppressed couldn’t vote. As LBJ pointed out in promoting the Voting Rights Act, “Once you give the Negro the vote, every cracker politician will kiss his ass.” That actually worked a lot better than Brown v. Board of Education did.

Controlling democracy for the benefit of liberalism is the big idea behind judicial review of statutes, independent central banks and the European Union. These phenomena have reduced the range of democratic choice in the Atlantic democracies substantially compared to what used to exist. To some extent, that may mean more liberalism, but in Europe in particular it has led to both an economic and a governance crisis. The independent central bank cares about bank solvency, but it doesn’t care about employment. The result is millions of young people unnecessarily unemployed who would have jobs in a system in which devaluation was possible. As Europeans realize that the real decisions get made by tribunals and agencies they have no control over, they increasingly vote for extremists.

In Canada, we seem to be more docile in accepting that the real decisions will be made by the Supreme Court of Canada, the Bank of Canada and perhaps some arbitral panel under an investment treaty hardly anyone has heard of. The Carney Bank and the McLachlin Court haven’t used their powers quite as aggressively as John Crow and Brian Dickson did. Still, I think we have a big democratic deficit and the poltical system is less able to integrate and address popular concerns.

I would basically say that democracy and liberalism actually tend to go together in the Muslim world and in Africa, just as they do elsewhere. I don’t think what will come after Assad in Syria will be liberal, but then I don’t think it will be particularly democratic either.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 19

In response to some of Gareth’s interesting and important points on democracy and liberalism:

I should have expressed myself better with regard to civil society in the Arab world. It would be a mistake to treat civil society as a measurable quantity. To say postautocratic Arab countries have “less” civil society than post-Communist Eastern European countries is nonsensical.

What I meant by the weakness of civil society in the Arab world was specifically in relation to those elements that would encourage democratic development. In some sense, the very strengths of Arab civil society – particularly the ideological and cultural power of religious faith and religiously based social organization – are what hinder Arab countries in building viable democracies.

A crucial element in workable mass democracies is surely the willingness of all major groups and interests to recognize the legitimacy of opponents; to accept that your side will sometimes be in office, and sometimes not; to recognize that your side doesn’t always get its way, while the other side sometimes does; to live and let live, as it were. By this token, democracy in the United States broke down completely with the slavery issue and had to be settled by force. By the same token, the intransigent and intolerant behaviour of some of the Republicans in Congress seems to put into some question the current viability of democracy: they threaten to bring down the entire government unless Obamacare, passed by a majority and endorsed by the Supreme Court, is repealed to appease their minority opinion.

The problem of democratic construction in Egypt is that Mubarak’s autocratic rule systematically blocked and undermined those secularist and “modernizing” forces that would have nurtured liberalism in civil society while at the same time encouraging (ironically through repression) those powerful religious elements in civil society that produced the ideological tunnel vision and cultural intolerance of the Brotherhood, Nour and other Islamist groups. These groups had learned much about how to organize grassroots support among the rural and urban poor, but nothing about cooperation and compromise with secularist and liberal groups that are educated and progressive but woefully weak on the ground outside their own networks.

Finally, with regard to liberalism and democracy, democracies can be illiberal and still democratic, in that they broadly reflect the majority popular will. These can be authoritarian populist and may inflict repressive majority rule over minorities. The historical record does tend to suggest that such states are inherently unstable in the long run, however. The segregationist South is an example. Apartheid South Africa affords another example – although in that case it was minority rule over a majority, which is even more unstable.

Let me quickly offer a couple of liberal elements that according to Francis Fukuyama2 are necessary to viable democracies: accountability of government (taken broadly) and the rule of law. Without these, even popularly based regimes – such as China – have a problem.

Continue reading “Syria: The questions remain”

Jean-Louis Roy,
Chers voisins: Ce qu’on ne connait pas de l’Ontario.

Montreal: Stanké, 2013.
370 pages.

As a young journalist, I was taught that the essence of a news story is “man bites dog” – a reversal of expectations. Since then I’ve also learned that there are many newsworthy occurrences that don’t fit that simple formula, but I still sometimes come across stories that have clear “man bites dog” appeal. “Distinguished Quebec writer falls in love with Ontario, writes book” is certainly one of them.

The Quebec writer is Jean-Louis Roy, who was publisher of the Montreal daily Le Devoir in the early 1980s and later Quebec delegate-general in Paris and then secretary-general of the main administrative body of la Francophonie, the international organization of French-speaking nations. It would be unusual for someone with Roy’s CV even to be interested in Ontario, let alone to have nice things to say about it. But what makes his book Chers voisins even more surprising – and relevant to the current debate about Quebec’s proposed charter of values – is that what he likes best about Ontario is the way the province has adapted to the increasing cultural diversity of its population.

Chers voisins takes the form of a reportage: Roy interviews a variety of people in Ontario, reports and makes observations on the interviews, and stitches together the threads that emerge from them. The book is divided into three sections: the second and third deal with the province’s economy and cultural industries respectively. But it is the first and longest section, labelled “Les Ontariens,” that is the heart of the book.

“Multiculturalism” is the word that is usually used to describe the way various cultures are expected to live together in English Canada. It is regarded with deep suspicion in francophone Quebec, and there are sound reasons for this. At its origins, multiculturalism was a diversion from the “biculturalism” that formed part of the mandate of the Laurendeau-Dunton Royal Commission appointed by Prime Minister Lester Pearson in the 1960s. It became part of the federal government’s policy toolkit in the 1970s under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, widely regarded as a foe of anything hinting at the specificity of francophone Quebec. On this take, the goal of multiculturalism was to reduce francophone Quebec to the status of one of many “cultures” coexisting within Canada.

But while there is considerable truth in this account, multiculturalism acquired a life of its own, especially in the large metropolitan areas of Toronto and Vancouver, transformed by increasing and increasingly diverse immigration in the last decades of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st. And it is this life that Roy discovers in his journey through Ontario. Indeed, he finds that the transformations have been so profound that multiculturalism is no longer an adequate word to describe Ontario’s “unprecedented cultural space”:

Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s vision of multiculturalism, inspiring as it was in its time, no longer corresponds to Ontario society and the way Ontarians practise the racial, cultural and linguistic diversity that is now their world. In Ontario, diversity is now the very ground of common life; it is quantitative and substantial. In this sense, it is not a perfected form of multiculturalism. It goes beyond multiculturalism and represents the appearance of something else, a postmulticulturalism in which the will of the majority is no longer the source of the diverse communities’ recognition and status.

This idea of “postmulticulturalism” is echoed by a number of Roy’s interview subjects. Thus Rahul Bhardwaj, President of the Toronto Community Foundation, describes diversity as “the very DNA of Ontario society,” contradicting both the old “metanarrative” of an Anglo-Saxon society and the new one of Canadian multiculturalism.

Roy acknowledges the social and economic gaps that continue to disadvantage some of Ontario’s ethnic groups, but they do not disturb his generally positive view. He also acknowledges that there are in reality two Ontarios – the Greater Toronto Area and the rest of the province – but his attention is directed almost exclusively toward one of them. Chers voisins is, in essence, a book about Toronto. I found little in it that relates to the small-town Ontario where I live, where diversity is, if not completely absent, still something of a curiosity, and not one that is always welcomed by longtime residents.

Still, Chers voisins captures something real and essential about contemporary Ontario. And it raises a question that Quebecers need to pay close attention to: the relationship between the majority and cultural minorities:

In this society of diasporas, the idea and the reality of a majority are fading away, to be replaced by a singular entity in which a constellation of communities, only yesterday still designated by the term “minorities,” live together. Ontario society seems to have been preserved from the hate-filled debates, recurring fears and violent crises that feed the West’s deep malaise in the face of the diversity that now defines it.

Has Ontario really achieved this status of a collection of communities living together, with no one dominant majority setting the rules for the rest? Is this desirable? How would this apply in Quebec, where the crucifix in the National Assembly has been defended not on religious grounds but on grounds of Quebec’s “heritage”? I remember being struck a few years ago by a Muslim woman’s comments on the Bouchard-Taylor Report on reasonable accommodation:

How can harmony among cultures come to be when there is a relationship of domination in which other cultures are subordinated to the culture of the Québécois de souche? How can a vivre-ensemble that takes different cultures into account be constructed when the references are those of Quebec culture? The Bouchard-Taylor Commission missed the opportunity to discuss a common culture to be built with – not outside of – new Quebecers, taking into account their cultures, and not just a single culture, that of the established majority.

What she was proposing was something very similar to what Roy purports to have discovered in Ontario. It is not something that most Québécois and Québécoises de souche have bought into, or are likely to buy into in the foreseeable future. Most Quebecers would likely agree that the majority should be generous to minorities – the extent of that generosity is part of what is at issue in the debate over the charter of values. But the proposition that the majority, if such a thing exists, should be on an equal footing with minorities, culturally as well as economically and politically, is another matter.

It is undoubtedly easier for an English-speaking society such as Ontario, where the dominant language group can simply take its dominance for granted, to be multicultural or even “postmulticultural” than it is for a society such as Quebec whose language is constantly in need of protection. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that most Ontarians have bought into the above proposition either, at least not consciously. (It is worth remembering that it is in Ontario, not Quebec, that state-funded religious education is available to you if you are a Roman Catholic but not if you belong to any other religious tradition.) And I would not venture to predict how debates surrounding this proposition are likely to play out.

But what is clear is that for healthy debates to take place, the idea of a society without a culturally dominant majority needs to be out in the open, and not hidden behind other issues. In making this idea explicit, Jean-Louis Roy has performed a valuable service, for Ontarians and Quebecers alike.

In the summer of 2009, the Liberal government of British Columbia announced that it had reached agreement with Ottawa to replace its provincial sales tax and the federal Goods and Services Tax with a new Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). The announcement triggered a political storm that led to the resignation of Premier Gordon Campbell and culminated in a 2011 referendum in which voters rejected the HST.

In the Winter/Spring 2013 issue of Inroads, co-publisher John Richards analyzed the HST controversy and the referendum campaign. He was critical of the arguments put forward by the anti-HST side, and maintained that referendums are not an effective way of determining tax policy. “Parliamentary democracy in which a cabinet can exercise broad discretion with respect to spending and taxation,” he wrote, “is probably the best form of government in high-income countries with elaborate social programs requiring a correspondingly elaborate taxing effort.”

Others disagree with his interpretation of the events surrounding the HST. In the following pages, two knowledgeable and engaged British Columbians – Doug McArthur, who teaches in the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, and Tom Syer, who served as former Premier Campbell’s deputy chief of staff – continue the HST debate.

Continue reading “British Columbia’s tax referendum”

A major mission of Inroads since its inception has been explaining Quebec to people outside the province. The evolution of cities has been another important theme of this journal. With these mandates in mind, we could not ignore the revelations of the Charbonneau Commission into the Awarding and Management of Public Contracts in the Construction Industry, revelations that continue to make headlines in Quebec. Casting a net that includes Montreal, other Quebec municipalities and the provincial parties, the commission has brought to light unsavoury aspects of politicians’ and public officials’ relationship with construction and related service companies going back at least two decades. Just before Inroads’ press time, Quebec’s anti-corruption squad arrested 37 people, including Gilles Vaillancourt, powerful ex-mayor of Laval, Quebec’s third largest city.

Of course, corruption in Montreal is nothing new. In 1928, a dubious financial transaction preceding the municipalization of a water utility came to light. The ensuing scandal helped bring about the defeat of longtime mayor Médéric Martin at the hands of his younger rival, Camillien Houde. Twenty-six years later Houde was so entrenched in the mayor’s office that he was known as “Monsieur Montréal.” But incriminating revelations at an inquiry into underworld influence ended his long tenure, and one of the lawyers for the inquiry, Jean Drapeau, was elected to succeed him on a reform platform. Drapeau was to dominate Montreal politics for the next three decades, but his election simply moved the action to the suburban municipalities surrounding the city. In rapidly growing Ville Jacques-Cartier on the South Shore, the mayor in the early 1960s was a convicted criminal and his chief aide was an ex-boxer and bank robber.

And yet, nothing in this history prepared Montrealers for the swirl of revelations, reports, accusations, resignations and denials that began in October 2012. By early November, the mayors of both Montreal and neighbouring Laval had been brought down. Some of the more significant revelations, along with the origins of the Charbonneau Commission, are highlighted in the accompanying timeline. The timeline is followed by comments from five informed observers: Inroads co-publisher Henry Milner, Montreal journalists Irwin Block and Eric Hamovitch, political scientist Brian Tanguay of Wilfrid Laurier University and urban politics specialist Robert Whelan of the University of Texas at Dallas.

Each writer focuses on a particular ramification of the revelations. Whelan sees municipal corruption as a North America–wide phenomenon and puts it in historical context. Tanguay asks whether Quebec really is the most corrupt province in Canada and, if so, why. Hamovitch looks at how Montreal’s relationship with the provincial government in Quebec City has contributed to its problems. Block highlights the vast scope of the corruption and sees it as a case of wilful blindness at Montreal city hall. Milner focuses on the role of former Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay in the affair: is he villain or victim?

Only some of the underlying features of the scandal are unique to Quebec as a province and Montreal as a city. Similar scandals shook the Netherlands ten years ago, and now are affecting Spain – just to name two. The incentives inherent in the relationship between private construction companies and the governments they contract with to undertake large-scale projects and provide important public services inevitably invite under-the-counter side deals and outright corruption:

  • These are typically very large contracts and the rewards to the winner are likely to be handsome provided competition for the contracts is limited; hence the incentive for the contractor to bribe.
  • The contracts are negotiated with anonymous, not especially well-paid officials or local politicians. The contracting firms know far more about their business than their counterparts on the government side, and there are few incentives for the officials and politicians to undertake due diligence. Savings realized do not, at least in principle, accrue to the politicians and officials.
  • Quebec’s strict laws governing political donations have perverse effects. Parties are unable to raise enough money for campaigns from individuals and are prohibited from receiving corporate donations. What they get instead are donations from corporations funnelled through individuals who act as proxies. This is illegal, and hence done in secret, which means that any quid pro quo they receive is hidden.
  • The key actors in the construction and related sectors have sociocultural connections facilitating collusion. In the case of Montreal/Quebec, these links extend to organized crime – the Italian mafia in particular.
  • In the normal course of events, the transactions appear to follow best practices of tendering. The lowest bidder gets the construction contract, and the consortium of engineering companies created seems to be appropriate for a complex project.
  • It takes a public commission to expose the collusion underlying the tendering process. Honest elected and appointed officials working alongside corrupt ones may be totally unaware of these practices or, more likely, are somewhat suspicious but unable to confirm their suspicions.
  • An important feature of the corruption is behind-the-scenes pressure, with implicit threats of violence, that persuades reputable outside firms not to compete for public contracts. This kind of tacit collusion, in which reputable firms quietly withdraw from the market, is different from what we normally think of as political corruption: companies illegally contributing to a political party or candidate in exchange for future considerations.

This is still very much a developing story, as the commission’s hearings are slated to continue through 2014. We present as full a picture as we can as of early May.

The Charbonneau Commission: A timeline

April 2009

An Action Démocratique du Québec member of the National Assembly, Sylvie Roy, calls on the Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest to establish a commission of inquiry into the construction industry to examine alleged links among construction companies, politicians and organized crime.

September 2011

The report of the anticollusion unit of the Ministry of Transport, led by former Montreal police chief Jacques Duchesneau, confirms problems of corruption, collusion and influence peddling among firms doing business with the Transport Ministry. The anticollusion unit will later be incorporated into UPAC, the province’s permanent anticorruption unit.

October 19, 2011

After two years of pressure from all sides, Premier Charest establishes a commission of inquiry with a mandate to bring to light possible collusion and corruption in the construction industry. Quebec Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau, a former prosecutor, is appointed commissioner.

November 9, 2011

In response to criticism about the mandate of the commission, the Charest government grants it full powers of a commission of inquiry.

May 15, 2012

The government introduces Bill 75 to give the commission additional powers. The bill is passed. The commission can now conduct searches and seize documents.

May 8–21, 2012

The commission begins to hear witnesses. Meanwhile, Jacques Duchesneau makes headlines with a second report, on his own account, revealing the secret financing of political parties.

September 4, 2012

In the Quebec election, the Charest government is defeated and Charest loses in his own constituency. He resigns as Liberal leader. The Parti Québécois forms a minority government. Jacques Duchesneau is elected as a Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) member of the National Assembly.

September 17, 2012

The commission’s hearings resume. Initial testimony focuses on links between the construction industry and the mafia.

October 2, 2012

Testimony by former contractor Lino Zambito points to collusion between contractors and Montreal municipal officials, including former executive committee chair Frank Zampino.

October 4, 2012

UPAC conducts searches at the home of Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt, at Vaillancourt’s city hall office and at other Laval municipal offices.

October 18, 2012

Former Montreal municipal engineer Gilles Surprenant admits that he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from contractors between 1991 and 2008.

October 30, 2012

Former party organizer Martin Dumont testifies that Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay was aware of secret financing and double bookkeeping in his political party, Union Montreal. Tremblay denies the allegations. Members of the National Assembly from all three parties call for his resignation.

November 5, 2012

Gérald Tremblay resigns as mayor of Montreal, protesting his innocence and denouncing the process as an “intolerable injustice.”

November 9, 2012

With revelations pointing to his central role in corruption and collusion in his city, Gilles Vaillancourt resigns as mayor of Laval.

November 16, 2012

Montreal City Council appoints Executive Committee Chair Michael Applebaum to succeed Tremblay as mayor. Having resigned from Union Montreal, Applebaum sits as an independent and heads a multiparty administration. He promises not to be a candidate in the upcoming (November 2013) election.

November 2012

The Charbonneau Commission hears testimony from a number of witnesses about collusion among construction companies and the payment of kickbacks to municipal officials. According to contractor Michel Leclerc, this system dates back to the 1990s.

January 23, 2013

In his testimony before the commission, the president of the engineering firm Génius, Michel Lalonde, reveals collusion among consulting engineering firms and illegal contributions to provincial and Montreal municipal political parties. Montreal officials deny the allegations.

February 11, 2013

The engineering firm Genivar suspends one of its vice-presidents, François Perreault, named in testimony about collusion among engineering firms.

February 19, 2013

UPAC conducts searches at Montreal city hall, other municipal offices and Union Montreal headquarters. Mayor Applebaum, former mayor Tremblay and former executive committee chair Zampino are reported to be the chief targets of the searches.

February 19, 2013

Nicolo Milioto, nicknamed “Mr. Sidewalk,” denies the existence of collusion in the allocation of sidewalk contracts in Montreal, even though 92 per cent of contracts were awarded to six firms with roots in the same Sicilian village, Cattolica Eraclea. Milioto also denies being an intermediary with the mafia, although he acknowledges being a friend of the late mafia boss Nicolo Rizzuto.

February 20, 2013

A publication ban covering some of Genius president Michel Lalonde’s testimony is lifted. Revelations include a $2,000 cash payment from Lalonde to former Quebec cabinet minister Line Beauchamp. The transaction was carried out through Bernard Trépanier, former chief fundraiser for Union Montreal, nicknamed “Mr. Three Per Cent.”

March 11, 2013

Former City of Montreal director general Claude Léger testifies that two former executive committee chairs, Frank Zampino and Claude Dauphin, interfered to favour the selection of particular firms.

March 12, 2013

Having resigned from Genivar, François Perreault admits that he participated in the engineering cartel and paid 3 per cent kickbacks to Union Montreal.

March 22, 2013

Paolo Catania, Frank Zampino, Bernard Trépanier and others appear in Superior Court to answer charges of fraud, breach of trust and conspiracy in the 2008 Faubourg Contrecœur land deal.

March 25, 2013

Two engineers who testified before the Charbonneau Commission, Rosaire Sauriol of Dessau and Robert Marcil of SMI, resign from their firms.

March 26–28, 2013

Bernard Trépanier testifies before the Charbonneau Commission.

April 17–24, 2013

Frank Zampino testifies before the Charbonneau Commission.

April 25 & 29, 2013

Gérald Tremblay testifies before the Charbonneau Commission.

May 9, 2013

UPAC arrests 37 people, including former Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt, former engineering executive Rosaire Sauriol and former construction company owner Tony Accurso.


The cozy relationship between councillors, civil servants and contractors

As the hard-digging Linda Gyulai reported in the Montreal Gazette, the root cause of the current round of collusion, kickbacks and influence peddling may well be traced to the mid-1990s. Before then, according to one veteran Montreal civil servant, a Montreal city councillor wasn’t allowed to contact any of his former municipal colleagues.

The separation between the civil service and politicians was formalized when the reform-oriented Montreal Citizens’ Movement under Jean Doré was elected in 1986. They created the position of secretary general, responsible for the civil service and a precursor to today’s city manager, and set up a liaison office that handled councillors’ requests for information and meetings with the civil service, she noted. All contact had to be arranged and mediated through the liaison office.

That separation of politicians from civil servants changed in December 1994 when, at the request of newly elected mayor Pierre Bourque, the Quebec government discarded the provision.

The former civil servant, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, said this was the beginning of the illegal payments linked to the new cozy relationship between municipal employees, Montreal politicians and city contractors as described at the Charbonneau hearings.

New rules to prohibit such access to civil servants who make recommendations on budget spending and zoning changes so they can do so in strict neutrality would help curb influence peddling.

Sympathetic interest among francophone Quebecers in the Jewish community in their midst is recent; it dates from the 1980s. Three new books in French indicate that this interest is not only continuing but has reached a certain level of maturity.

The importance of Pierre Anctil to this development can hardly be overstated. One of the new books is a collection of his essays, a second (Jean-François Nadeau’s) is dedicated to him and the third (Malcolm Reid’s) contains his endorsement on the inside back cover. For Anctil, who teaches history at the University of Ottawa, Quebec’s Jewish community represents an espace charnière, a pivotal space between English and French. Anctil is interested in the Jewish community on its own terms and for its own sake. But he is also interested in the ways in which Quebec history looks different when the Jews are taken into account.

The 11 essays in Trajectoires juives were published in a variety of places over a period of about a decade, and cover a variety of topics: the tiny Jewish community that existed in Quebec before 1850; René Lévesque’s relationship with the Jewish community (which was a template for his relationship with all of Quebec’s “cultural communities”); the art collector Max Stern, who came to Montreal after fleeing Germany in the 1930s; a comparison of language policies in Quebec and Israel. But Anctil devotes the most space, and the most passion, to Yiddish writing in Montreal in the first half of the 20th century. He is sufficiently engaged by this literature that he became fluent in Yiddish himself, starting with a course at McGill (he also learned Hebrew). A sense of the excitement of discovery pervades the three chapters devoted to this topic:

When a francophone – that is, someone outside Jewish culture – comes to the realization that a large body of Yiddish literature existed in Montreal from the dawn of the 20th century on, the appropriate reaction is one of utter amazement. This vast corpus in a nonofficial language has remained so completely outside the Quebec majority’s sphere of cultural perception that a French-language reader who even skims its surface will be first surprised, then astonished. After all, how could there have been another fully developed literary tradition in Montreal besides the French and the English, possessing its own writing, publishing and distribution networks, without participants in the two dominant traditions detecting even the faintest echo?

A Montreal that had this literary tradition is a different, richer, more complex Montreal than the one Anctil had previously known. The Yiddish writers saw Montreal through another set of eyes, and created a literary language to evoke Montreal at a time when most francophone writers were still celebrating the virtues of the countryside. Furthermore, they wrote about new ideas, socialist ideas that would remain marginal in francophone Quebec for another generation.

Jewish Montreal’s literary tradition continued, but not in Yiddish. After the Second World War, Yiddish faded as a spoken and written language among Montreal Jews. The newer writers – the ones who were prominent or rising when I was growing up in Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s – drew on their Yiddish predecessors but wrote in English, increasingly the common language of the community (with the exception of the French-speaking Jews from North Africa who began to arrive in large numbers in the late 1950s). It is striking to me, and humbling, that even though my grandparents were Yiddish-speaking Montreal Jews, the literature that Anctil writes about is accessible to me only through his pioneering translations into French.

One of the reasons for the decline of Yiddish was the adoption of Hebrew as the official language of the new state of Israel in 1948 and the accompanying sense that Hebrew was the language of the Jewish future while Yiddish was a language of the past. And yet 50 years earlier Hebrew had been strictly a religious and academic language, and its transformation into a lingua franca for a modern society took place only through conscious and sometimes heroic effort – and government support. In this way it bears comparison with the French of Quebec, a comparison that Anctil is well positioned to make. He looks both at language legislation in the two societies and at the role language plays in the respective nationalist movements, pointing out differences but concluding that these are outweighed by the similarities.

As is inevitable in a collection of essays from different sources, there is some repetition from one essay to another, and a degree of unevenness in the quality. But on the whole, Trajectoires juives provides an excellent introduction to the work of this boundary-crossing scholar. The Montreal Jewish community that he describes from the outside is fully recognizable as the one that I experienced from the inside.

One of the characteristics of that community was deep suspicion of Quebec’s francophone majority – which Anctil alludes to in his essay on René Lévesque who, while maintaining a cordial dialogue with Jewish community leaders, was unable to evoke any sympathy in the community for his project of a sovereign Quebec. For my parents, and other Montreal Jews of the postwar period, fascist marches in the streets of Montreal in the 1930s were a vivid memory. In arguing against their wayward son’s sympathy for Quebec nationalism, my parents would seek to scare me by raising the spectre of Adrien Arcand, leader of the movement that organized those marches.

As becomes clear in Jean-François Nadeau’s Adrien Arcand: Führer canadien, the first full-scale biography of the fascist leader, Arcand was every bit as ferocious an anti-Semite as my parents imagined. But despite the noise he made, he was a marginal figure in his own society. Arcand liked to give wildly exaggerated estimates of his support, and he was able to establish ties with at least some elements within mainstream right-wing political parties – the federal Conservative Party, Social Credit and, especially, Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale. And yet, Nadeau estimates, at his peak in the late 1930s Arcand probably had no more than 1,000 core supporters.

The son of a union organizer and left-wing activist, Arcand became a journalist and was fired by La Presse in 1929 for organizing a union, an experience that left him bitter. He started his own satirical newspaper, Le Goglu, which over time took on a distinct right-wing and anti-Semitic slant. After Le Goglu folded for financial reasons, he earned his living as editor of L’Illustration Nouvelle, a tabloid published by a scion of La Presse’s founding family who had lost control of the paper in a power struggle and (up to a point) shared Arcand’s right-wing political sympathies. Meanwhile, he devoted himself increasingly to his political activities as head of the Parti National Social Chrétien, which became the National Unity Party after it merged with a number of fascist organizations elsewhere in Canada in 1938.

The authorities took his bluster seriously enough that, after war broke out, they interned him and held him for more than five years (1940−45). After his release, he lived simply in the village of Lanoraie northeast of Montreal on contributions from his supporters and, until his death in 1967, continued his voracious reading and correspondence with ideological soulmates around the world. He made speeches and gave interviews, and always claimed that the National Unity Party would resume its activities when the time was ripe, which, of course, it never was.

Two characteristics of Arcand’s ideology contributed to his marginal status. Arcand and his supporters differed from the rest of the Quebec far right in their use of the swastika as a symbol and their unqualified admiration of Hitler. Other groups admired Mussolini (whom the historian Paul Johnson characterized as possibly the most admired statesman in the world in the early 1930s) but thought Hitler went a bit too far. Related to this was Arcand’s obsessive anti-Semitism, which had a very different tone from the more casual Catholic anti-Judaism of the groups that took their inspiration from Lionel Groulx (although my parents could be forgiven for lumping them all together). For Arcand, the Jews were an all-purpose explanation for everything wrong with the world. After the war, he seriously entertained the idea that all the world’s Jews should be deported to Madagascar, and forbidden to leave on penalty of death. He was also an early and consistent Holocaust denier, and was an influence on the young Ernst Zündel, who met Arcand soon after his arrival in Canada.

In addition, unlike most of the rest of the Quebec far right, Arcand was strongly opposed to Quebec nationalism. He was a Canadian nationalist and a monarchist who took pride in Canada’s membership in the British Empire. Needless to say, his loyalties were strained when Britain declared war on his beloved Nazi Germany in 1939. Arcand thought this was a tragic mistake on the part of Britain, which instead should be allied with Hitler against Communist Russia.

Jean-François Nadeau is both an academic (he has a doctorate in history and taught at Laurentian University) and a journalist who has been the editor of the cultural pages of Le Devoir for the last eight years. In some ways, his writing combines the strengths of both disciplines: the book is accessible without being superficial. And while Nadeau has (to put it mildly) no sympathy for his political views, Arcand comes across as neither a monster nor an ideological caricature but as a recognizable human being. There are also some interesting digressions: into the celebrated French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline (who shared Arcand’s obsessive anti-Semitism and visited him in Montreal in 1938), the change in attitudes toward fascism after the war, and the contours of the 1930s Quebec far right as a whole and the lines of filiation that tied it to the 1960s Quebec nationalist left. For there were such lines, even if they didn’t mean that 1960s nationalism was simply a continuation of its 1930s predecessor as my parents imagined. For example, Walter O’Leary, the leading light in a 1930s right-wing nationalist group based on the ideas of Lionel Groulx (the Jeunesses Patriotes), emerged in the 1960s as a militant in the socialist wing of the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale.

Somewhere near the opposite pole from Adrien Arcand in my parents’ esteem was Leonard Cohen. Even within Jewish Montreal’s formidable coterie of literary lions, Cohen stood out. He was not a curmudgeon like Irving Layton, nor did he air Jewish dirty laundry in front of the goyim like Mordecai Richler. And while my parents warmly admired A.M. Klein, their admiration was mixed with deep sadness at the depression that curbed Klein’s literary output in the last two decades of his life.

The Leonard Cohen of whom my parents spoke so highly was the young poet and novelist and not the internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter he would later become. This is also the Leonard Cohen whom Malcolm Reid evokes in his memoir Deep café.

In his own way, Malcolm Reid is as intrepid a boundary-crosser as Pierre Anctil. From an English-speaking Ottawa family, he came to Montreal in 1957 as an undergraduate at McGill, where he spent a large part of his time in the office of the McGill Daily. Over the course of the next decade or so, he discovered journalism, the delights of what he calls Bohemian Montreal and the Quebec nationalist movement, especially the group around the journal Parti Pris, which would be the subject of his first book1 (coming to McGill and the Daily from an English-speaking family in the Montreal suburbs, I underwent not dissimilar discoveries a few years later.) When I first met him, in 1969, he was the Quebec City correspondent of the Toronto Globe and Mail. He quit the Globe a couple of years later, but has remained in Quebec City to this day, thoroughly immersed in the city’s francophone political and cultural life but also interpreting this life in English to readers in the rest of Canada, through a variety of publications including Inroads.2

During his Montreal years, as recounted in Deep café, Reid discovered the poetry of Leonard Cohen. Cohen wasn’t especially political, and he certainly wasn’t a Quebec nationalist, but he was, as Reid writes, “part of the scene.” He was a poet who spoke to Reid and other young people of the time, just as he would later speak to much larger audiences through his music. In the early sixties Reid read all of Cohen’s books of poetry as they came out, and he uses them as landmarks in his memoir. But it was only much later − when he detected a note of protest in Cohen’s 1992 album The Future − that Reid began to reflect on how his attraction to Cohen’s work was connected to his growing political activism:

I started to write this book, searching for a protest dimension in his early poetry. A utopian dimension. I wanted to understand better the affection that had welled up quickly, easily, between me and this poetry. And my search required me to look at who I was during that time. Who was Malcolm? Why was he so strongly attracted to the books of this poet who was seven years older than he was?

What initially piqued Reid’s curiosity about Jewish Montreal was not Cohen but the realization that many of his friends in the peace movement at McGill were Jewish. He didn’t go as far as Anctil in learning Hebrew or Yiddish, but he did study books on the Hebrew alphabet in the Jewish Public Library and drew the letters − those strange letters that Anctil says were part of what made Yiddish culture so impenetrable to the French and English mainstream − on cards that he brought home to show his brother. He continues,

At the library, I also found documents on the era of Yiddish culture in Montreal, before the war. To what extent were these the roots of my young Jewish friends? I wondered. Few of them appeared to speak Yiddish. They were characterized more by the facility, humour and rhythm of their English.

With this introduction, Reid recognized the deep rootedness in and love of Jewish culture in Cohen’s poetry, especially his second book, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961):

Out of the land of heaven
Down comes the warm Sabbath sun
Into the spice-box of earth.

At the end of Deep café, Reid and his wife Réjeanne are living in a flat in west-end Montreal in the summer of 1967 when their upstairs neighbour, a theatre student named Patrick, bounds up to his flat with a package in his hands. The package turns out to contain a phonograph record, and a few minutes later the strains of Cohen’s “Suzanne” float down through the ceiling. This is the Leonard Cohen that the world would come to know.

Leonard Cohen is the Montreal Jewish community’s gift to the world. As I come from that same community (we share common great-great-grandparents somewhere back in the mid-19th century), it is easy to see why I would feel drawn to him. But being drawn to Leonard Cohen does not seem to require geographical or cultural affinity. From a friend from England who kept threatening to call Cohen over the course of a surreal evening in Montreal in 1967 to another from British Columbia who found him “better than ever” during his 2008 world tour to a third from the Ottawa Valley who referred to him as a “priest” in a recent lunch conversation, I have kept finding people with no such affinity who feel at least as deep a connection to him as I do. He is one of those rare artists whose appeal transcends cultures and generations. In Deep café, Malcolm Reid brings to life that appeal in its early days, along with a 1960s Montreal whose reference points only partly overlap with those of his francophone readers.

The relationship between Quebec’s Jews and the francophone majority has known rocky times − the life of Adrien Arcand is part of that story. But there is a more positive story as well. There is the work of Canadian Jewish Congress archivist David Rome (1910−1996) and his collaboration with Father Jacques Langlais, leading to their jointly authored 1986 book Jews and French Quebecers: Two Hundred Years of Shared History.3 There is the Montreal Yiddish Theatre’s landmark 1992 production of Die Shvegerens, the Yiddish translation of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Sœurs. There is the thunderous ovation that greeted the Yiddish Theatre’s founder, Dora Wasserman, when she was given a lifetime achievement award by the Académie Québécoise du Théâtre at Montreal’s Monument-National in 1997. These are events in a continuing story; fortunately the events surrounding Adrien Arcand are of another time.

Drawings by Malcolm Reid from Deep café.

Continue reading “The Francophone Discovery of Jewish Quebec”

By Bob Chodos, Henry Milner, and John Richards

The sun is shining still

Layton has been more guilty of tax waffle than his predecessors. In the 2008 election, Stéphane Dion attempted to persuade Canadians to “do something” about climate change through a carbon tax. Layton opposed this “Green Shift” and argued for a nebulous cap-and-trade alternative. He also opposed the pioneering British Columbia carbon tax introduced that year. In addition, every European government – including every European social democratic party – has endorsed consumption taxation based on the principle of taxing “value added” at each stage of business. Not the NDP. Layton ran television ads against the Ontario valueadded tax (the HST) and verbally damned the B.C. equivalent. Beyond the uncertainties of their respective agendas, Harper and Layton are Americanizing our politics – creating the Canadian equivalent of blue and red states. Canadian Conservatives insist on a “low tax advantage” that implicitly sets U.S. taxing effort as the ideal; they have become geographically concentrated in traditional “have” provinces. Of their 167 seats, 133 are in the resource-rich provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan plus Ontario.

The Canadian left looks set to be the voice of “have not” provinces interested in greater interpersonal and interregional income redistribution: 64 of the NDP’s 102 seats lie in Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Maybe I’m wrong about the failings of our leaders and the polarizing potential of the election. Admittedly, not all ridings in “have” provinces are wealthy, nor are all ridings in “have not” provinces poor. The morning after a night of counting Canadians’ ballot choices, the spring sun is shining on my corner of this very privileged country. Maybe it will continue to shine on us in the coming Parliament.

— John Richards

Two elections in one

A Canadian federal election is best seen as being made up of two subelections, one in Quebec and one in the rest of the country. Most of the time the two subelections have very different outcomes, and May 2 was no exception. The Quebec subelection was won handily by Jack Layton’s NDP, while the Harper Conservatives lost ground in terms of both seats and the popular vote. The ROC subelection was a solid victory for the Conservatives. For the New Democrats, it was a successful election but not a breakthrough: the 44 seats they took outside Quebec was an improvement of one over their previous high of 43 in a smaller House in 1988 (an election in which they won no Quebec seats).

What the two subelections have in common is that both were disastrous for the Liberals. That Quebec and the rest of the country follow different political paths has consequences. These consequences are as real when Quebec gives its support to an ostensibly federalist party such as the NDP as they were when it was dominated by the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois.

While the differences may turn there are two obvious winners in this election – Stephen Harper and Jack Layton. Harper has his long-sought majority. It will allow him, he says, to implement his agenda unimpeded by the messy compromises imposed by a minority Parliament. What agenda? He may, for example, rein in the family unification component of immigration. While this is controversial, there is a case for doing so in order to reduce the risk of ethnic “ghettos” that fracture the national community. He may insist that the Department of Indian Affairs finally get serious about the low quality of federally funded on-reserve schools. Again controversial but also justifiable.

On the other hand, Harper may pursue the least attractive features of his reign: foot dragging and obfuscation on the climate change file, accelerating tar sands development in his home province, wielding arbitrary control via the PMO over far too many dimensions of the federal bureaucracy. Layton deserves credit for overcoming an obstacle that has frustrated every leader of the Canadian left since J.S. Woodsworth led the CCF in the depths of the Great Depression.

Finally, Quebec social democrats have voted for the same party as their anglophone comrades. The Achilles heel of the federal NDP has always been a chronic inability to undertake an adult conversation with supporters on how to pay for an expanded public sector. The NDP makes the case for better pensions, more generous medicare, universal child care and so on, but degenerates into waffle on the subject of taxes. Layton has been more guilty of tax waffle than his predecessors. More on social issues than on the national question, the fact remains that Stephen Harper built a majority without Quebec, and is likely to pursue an agenda to which most Quebecers, and almost all of their representatives in Parliament, are opposed. Nor should the turn from the Bloc to the NDP be interpreted as a turn away from Quebec nationalism. While much remains to be discovered about the NDP’s Quebec caucus – which represents a majority of the whole NDP caucus – it is clear that it contains many Quebec nationalists within its ranks. Quebecers will expect their new NDP MPs, like the Bloc MPs who preceded them, to represent the interests of Quebec in Ottawa. Those MPs will face additional pressure if, as expected, the Quebec election that will take place within the next two years results in a victory for Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois.

Whether a rejection of the Bloc was a primary reason for the NDP wave can also be questioned. Although reduced to four seats, at 23 per cent the Bloc remains a solid second in the popular vote, well ahead of the Conservatives and Liberals. In his blog on the day after the election, columnist Jean-François Lisée suggested that while Quebecers wanted to “escape” from the status quo and the Bloc offered them nothing new, they weren’t angry with the Bloc. Their anger was directed at the Conservatives and Liberals and the Bloc was more a “collateral victim” than a target. In short, the declaration heard from many commentators after the election that this was a great victory for federalism may be a little premature.

— Bob Chodos

Polls, young voters and Vote Compass

We all expected a cliffhanger. But we were disappointed. With the last polls showing the Tories at 35 per cent and the NDP at 30, a Tory majority appeared less likely than the NDP and Liberals combined winning more seats than the Conservatives and in a position to govern together. But a Conservative majority was evident a short time after the polls closed. With the largest party garnering close to 40 per cent, the result was much the same as during the 1990s, except that our electoral system rewarded Harper rather than Chrétien.

Why did the polls get it wrong? The answer is actually quite simple. The polls showed Tory voters generally to be more enthusiastic about their choice and less likely to change their minds, more positive about the way the country was moving than the other parties’ supporters were negative, and more certain to vote. While the pollsters tried to take these factors into consideration, they did not account for the other crucial factor. Table 1 shows how intention to vote for the Conservatives broke down by age groups. In 2008, according to Elections Canada’s estimates, 18-to-25-year-olds turned out at 37 per cent while turnout of over-55s was 67 per cent. If, as is likely, something similar happened this time, then we need look no further to explain the gap between the polls and the actual results. We won’t know for sure until we get the breakdown in turnout by age, which takes Elections Canada months to complete.

Admittedly, there was more of a concerted effort to get young citizens to the polls, but having investigated the phenomenon of young political dropouts in Canada and elsewhere, I suspect that the effect was marginal. Observers agree that this was the nastiest election in living memory, and all the attack ads certainly couldn’t have helped generate interest among politically apathetic young people. It was not only the Tories – though they started it with their repeated refrain that Michael Ignatieff “did not come back to Canada for you.” Apparently it was a Conservative-backed website alleging that his father wasn’t the poor immigrant Ignatieff made him out to be that drove the Liberal leader to release attack ads with a parallel message. After telling us that “the Prime Minister acts like he’s above the law,” they asked, “Is this your Canada? Or Harper’s Canada?” Some potential young voters may have been driven to vote for the NDP by this kind of campaigning by the other two.

But some others were surely turned off voting altogether, or rather not turned on. Getting them to vote will take a more systematic effort, starting with what goes on in school – in civic education. Here a new wrinkle in this election could prove useful: the CBC’s Vote Compass. There is no indication that it brought young citizens out to vote this time, but the potential is there. In this election Vote Compass served especially to illustrate graphically to anyone who used it that we have four centre-left parties and one centre-right party – that the distance between the Conservatives and the other four parties on 30 campaign-related issues is notably greater than the distance among those four.

This makes it plain for all to see that we elected a majority government opposed not only at the ballot box but on underlying issues by 60 per cent of voters – something that should be disturbing even to defenders of our electoral system. The right-wing media were convinced of a pro-Liberal bias in Vote Compass, as a creature of the CBC and left-leaning academics. In reality there was no intended bias, but the methodology tends to favour the more moderate party in that the way it is set up, for most users it does not take intensity into account. A Conservative supporter who takes a conservative position on that minority of the 30 questions that really matter to him or her, but a more moderate position on the remaining questions, can end up being placed in the Liberal camp.

In the end, though, given the very poor showing of the Liberals, Vote Compass could not have changed many minds. Nor does it seem to have affected overall turnout, which stood at 61.4 per cent, a small increase over the 2008 turnout of 58.8 per cent, the lowest ever recorded. Yet Internet user–friendly innovations like Vote Compass do have a potential for bolstering youth participation if used effectively. Similar systems in other countries allow users not only to find out more readily where each party stands on each question, but also to view the arguments underlying those positions, as well as relevant facts and figures, as they make their decision. And in some countries they are incorporated into civic education classes and other activities aimed at young people.

— Henry Milner