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Used to be all I’d want to learn was wisdom, trust and truth, now all I really want to learn is forgiveness for you — Collective Soul

The war in Europe is over. Now, to turn our attention to the Pacific.

“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.” — Winston Churchill.

For the past 18 months, it’s felt a bit to me like we’ve been fighting a war on two fronts: On the one hand, against Pauline Marois and the PQ at the provincial level, and on the other hand, against Stephen Harper and the Conservatives at the federal level.

One of the two fronts of this war was defeated last night, as the PQ was thrashed at the ballot box and earned its worst election result in 44 years. Now, it’s time to turn our focus to the other front.

Despite ostensibly occupying opposite sides of the sovereignty debate and of the left-right political spectrum, Harper’s Tories and Marois’s PQ have a lot in common. Both came to power on a wave of anger against Liberal corruption amidst grandiose promises to clean up government, and both took corruption to new heights. Both have been engaging in the politics of fear and division. Both have been trying to rig the electoral system to deny votes to their political opponents — Marois via her paranoid accusations about “students from Ontario” trying to steal the election, and Harper via the Orwellian-named “Fair Elections Act” that is anything but. Since coming to power, both have done pretty much nothing I agree with and plenty that makes my blood boil.

Stephen Harper once infamously said that “You won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it”. That statement turned out to be eerily prophetic.

In the past 8 years of Conservative government, here are just a few ways in which Harper has been working to make Canada completely unrecognizable:

  • The Economy. The Tory pet issue, and the one on which it runs its campaigns. Really? Not so much. Under Harper, Canada went from having a balanced budget and an annual surplus to running the biggest deficits in Canadian history. Yes, some of that was due to the global economic recession, but a lot of that has to do with the Tories’ spending priorities.
  • The Environment. Harper withdrew Canada from the Kyoto protocol, muzzled scientists from researching or even talking about climate change, destroyed records, and stripped away environmental protections in favour of his friends in the oil industry. In fact, last year, Canada was ranked dead last out of of 27 OECD nations for environmental protection.
  • Statistics Canada. Scrapping the mandatory long form census over the objections of pretty much every public poliymaker and everyone who’s ever taken a statistics course in their life.
  • The War on Science. Tories decided that science had to either support their positions, or else science was evil. If the above points weren’t enough for you, Here is a pretty comprehensive (and frightening) chronology that was painstakingly compiled and that ought to make you shake in your booties.
  • Lots and lots more. The status of women. First Nations relations (or lack thereof). The bloated Omnibus bills. Proroguing Parliament to avoid answering questions he doesn’t like. The list goes on. And on. And on.

This two-front war has left many of us exhausted, our resources and emotional stamina drained. Many of us here in Quebec have been too preoccupied with the PQ to turn much attention to what’s going on in Ottawa. The immediate existential threats to our basic human rights that Marois proposed seemed the more urgent problem, and we had an imminent provincial election to worry about. So we focused our efforts here.

But now, it’s time to turn our focus to the other direction, and do everything in our power to make sure that the next election result ensures that Stephen Harper and his Tories can do no further damage to Canada. They’ve done far too much already.

Bye bye Pauline. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

Watch out, Stephen, you’re next.

Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques goes Quebec Solidaire

There will almost certainly be a recount in my home riding of Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques, won by QS’s Manon Massé by a margin of only 91 votes over Liberal Anna Klisko.

Obviously, I would have preferred a Liberal victory over a Quebec Solidaire one here. The QS is staunchly pro-sovereignty, militantly anti-English, and has pie-in-sky ideas about economics and policy that only a party at no risk of ever having to govern can afford to hold. Furthermore, Manon Massé, while I’ve no doubt is a nice enough person, is a social justice activist who also happens to be an anti-Israel activist who joined in the Gaza flotilla of 2011 and is a member of a group that calls itself “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid”. (Whether or not any member of this group has any idea that Israel is the only state in the middle east where gay rights are even defended is another question… I’ve learned not to expect any logic when arguing with people like this. But I digress.)

Manon Massé (left) and Françoise David of Québec Solidaire awaiting the results of the close race in Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques

The Liberal candidate, Anna Klisko, a housing and real estate lawyer, daycare owner and mom, seems like a much better representative for this riding.

But the truly amazing thing is that she’s come so close to victory at all. The Liberals were expected to come a distant third in this riding, which has been solidly PQ since its creation in 1989. Instead, Daniel Breton of the PQ is sitting in third place, some 600 votes behind Massé. And it’s Klisko who has challenged for the lead. Her strong showing caught everyone by surprise, even her political rivals.

The truth is, Liberal voters in my neighbourhood do exist, though many tend not to broadcast it. And even if some of the votes that the Liberals got this time around were more anti-PQ votes as opposed to genuine support for the Liberals, there’s also the fact that some folks may have voted Quebec Solidaire instead of Liberal because they viewed them as the best PQ foil. Whatever the case, hopefully this means that our riding will be more than an afterthought in the next PLQ campaign, and that we’ll get some actual attention for once.

Whatever the recount shows, I’m glad to no longer be living in a PQ riding. I hope that if Massé is confirmed as the winner, that she will represent the interests of all her constituents with honour. And either way, I’m happy to know that my vote really meant something for once, that it came close to making a real difference in my riding, and that I no longer have to feel like a lone red voter in a sea of blue.

Quebec Liberals win resounding majority

It’s a majority government for Philippe Couillard and the Quebec Liberal Party!

It’s been a really ugly 18 months, and an even uglier campaign. But tonight, my faith in the people of this province I call home was restored.

It’s hard to believe that scarcely five weeks ago, the PQ called this election and was projected to coast to an easy majority. How things change in the course of a campaign.

The PQ’s strategy of demonizing the “other” and running on the Charter of Values backfired. Some people finally started to realize that you don’t promote feminism by bullying women and telling them what they can or cannot wear. The big gaffes, though, could all be summed up by three little letters: PKP. His infamous fist-pump, and the subsequent referendum talk, cost the PQ a lot of votes. Their move to the right cost them a lot more on the left. And in the final days of the campaign, they were left scrambling. Tonight, they achieved their worst result in 44 years, since their maiden election in 1970.

Hopefully, this delivers a resounding message to the PQ and to anyone else who wants to play these ugly games of wedge politics: Don’t.

So now we have a Liberal majority, which is perhaps the lesser of the evils rather than a genuinely good thing. But despite my issues with them, this is the best possible result for Quebec. The Charter and Bill 14 are dead. The Liberals won’t be forced to buy support from the likes of the CAQ by promising concessions on language or identity in order to govern. We won’t be living under the constant threat of a referendum. And, best of all, we’ll have a good 4-5 years without an election, so we can actually focus on rebuilding.

More good news:

  • Pauline Marois lost her seat and stepped down as PQ leader. Odds-on favourites for her successor? Drainville, Lisée, or Péladeau?
  • Also defeated for the PQ: Diane de Courcy, Martine Desjardins, Leo Bureau-Blouin, and (thankfully) Louise Mailloux.
  • Former Liberal Fatima Houda-Pepin was defeated as an independent by the Liberal candidate in her riding, which means her obvious plans to cross the floor to the PQ will be thwarted.
  • In a beautiful piece of poetic justice, Quebecor media mogul Pierre-Karl Peladeau narrowly won his seat in Saint-Jerome, and now will have to sit in opposition in a majority Liberal government.
  • And in my home riding of Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques, not only was the incumbant PQ candidate Daniel Breton defeated, but he’s actually in *third* place right now. Manon Massé for Quebec Solidaire is in the lead, but she hasn’t been declared elected yet as she is only ahead of the Liberal candidate by 69 votes. Yes, the Liberals, who were projected to come a distant third and hardly even bothered to campaign here. This riding has been Pequiste since 1989. Everyone said I was nuts for hoping for a Liberal victory, but the Liberals actually won 600 more votes than the PQ. It just goes to show, you never know!

Tomorrow, there will be work to do. The Liberals have to rebuild the trust of Quebecers despite corruption allegations. They have to work to heal the deep rifts that this ugly campaign left, while tackling the important issues including the economy, healthcare, education, infrastructure and the environment. Some of us will agree with their policies and some of us will disagree. And there are no easy answers to the big questions.

But tonight, let us breathe a collective sigh of relief, and celebrate

Merci, Québec.

Marois then and now

What a difference 18 months makes:

Pauline Marois 2012 vs 2014

In 2012, Pauline Marois donned a red square and declared the PQ the party of the social left. In 2014, she stood by Pierre-Karl Peladeau and declared the PQ the party of business and the economy. A scant 18 months have gone by.

A student-led coup d’etat?

As I’d pointed out at the time, the PQ’s involvement in the red square movement was no accident. Whether you believe it was orchestrated in advance or sheer opportunism or a little of both, Pauline Marois and company knew exactly what they were doing when they put on those red squares and promised the world to the protesting students.

As you know, I did not support the red square protests at the time and I still don’t. I think tuition badly needs to unfreeze, and the fact that it’s become such a third rail issue is hurting our education system, our economy and our opportunities for the province’s future. But of course, it was never about that. The protests rapidly changed their tone from the original tuition freeze message to talk about corruption, social issues, anti-protest legislation, and specifically about the Liberals under Jean Charest.

To this day, I speak to friends who supported the red square movement who argue that it had nothing to do with PQ versus Liberal. Many of them don’t and won’t vote for the PQ; they’re Quebec Solidaire, Green or even Marxist-Leninist voters, or else they’re utterly disgusted by politics and don’t vote. I don’t doubt that their own personal motivations to be out there banging pots and pans were, in fact, pure. Nobody wants to believe that they’re merely puppets in a larger political game, with someone else pulling the strings. It’s an ugly and insulting accusation to level at people who, I’m sure, had the best of intentions.

But the truth is, the students and others who were out there played exactly into the PQ’s hands.

The voter turnout among 18-24 year olds is historically low. It was only 36% in 2008, and has hovered in the under 40% range for decades. In 2012, a historically unprecedented  62% of them voted. Similar upswings in participation were noted among the 25-34 age group. It was this huge vote upswing that turfed out the Liberals and put the PQ in power.

It was, in effect, a coup d’etat cleverly disguised as a protest movement.

And, intentionally or not, the folks out banging on pots and pans became tools of the PQ, who rode the anti-Liberal anger all the way to a narrow minority-government victory. A real feat for a party that had been in complete disarray only twelve months earlier. And anyone who thinks that this happened by accident or happenstance is, excuse me for saying this, but just as naive as the students who believed Pauline Marois when she pinned that red square on her coat in the first place.

Desperation tactics

Flash forward 18 months and that’s all changed. The PQ has taken a hard right turn by recruiting media mogul, businessman and notorious union-buster Pierre-Karl Peladeau to its ranks. It’s a calculated strategy by the PQ, who sees the CAQ collapsing and is going after its voters in the suburbs. However, in the process, the PQ’s traditional staunch allies — labour unions, students, activists, the social left in general, are finally feeling abandoned.

The gamble doesn’t seem to be paying off. Marois started this campaign having leveraged ugly wedge politics and minority-baiting to build lead in the polls that gave her party a virtual lock on a majority government. With two weeks to go until the election, however, that support seems to be bleeding. Peladeau’s infamous fist-bump brought up the R-word — referendum — every mention of which has cost Marois votes. Her Charter message has gotten off message. Corruption accusations are flying. A CTV poll last week gives the Liberals a 5-point lead in the polls — potentially enough to even win the election, if this trend continues. (Dare I hope…? Not yet. Please vote.)

So, not too surprisingly, Marois and her party are resorting to desperation tactics.

Students: From pawns to bogeymen

In 1995, Jacques Parizeau infamously blamed the referendum defeat on “money and the ethnic vote” after accusing immigrants and new Quebecers of having their citizenships fast-tracked to allow them to “steal” the referendum. They also illegally disallowed 86,000 “no” ballots in a desperate attempt to try to steal the referendum for themselves.

And now it’s 2014 and we’re seeing the same ugly tactics all over again. Pauline Marois is publicly “worried” that the election will be “stolen” by yet another group of “outsiders” — this time her target is students. Namely, students who moved here from out of province to study, and who are attempting to legally register themselves on the electoral list to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Marois’s concern? Too many of them have ‘funny-sounding’ English names and are thus unlikely to vote for the PQ. So their attempts to vote are ‘worrisome’. Clearly.

Only 18 months ago, students helped Marois coast to victory. This time, she’s desperately hoping that they’ll provide a convenient foil that will help her avoid defeat. After all, if Muslim women in hijabs don’t scare voters enough, maybe students from Ontario will do the trick.

The PQ believes they’ve found a way to get scared voters from the regions to turn out in high numbers. They’ve latched onto this issue. The justice minister even weighed in.

How ironically symbolic was it to see Leo Bureau-Blouin — one of the student protest leaders — out front at a PQ press conference designed to deny the rights of students to vote. Because Bureau-Blouin and fellow student leader Martine Desjardins, in becoming PQ candidates, showed what most of us knew all along: They were never in it for the students. They were in it for themselves — their own political careers, their own advancement. In the process, they were fully prepared to throw the student members of their unions under the bus, denying them their right to attend classes they paid for or even in some cases, to graduate. And then they threw them under the bus a second time at the PQ’s sham of a student leadership “summit”, at which the PQ proceeded to unfreeze tuition anyway — albeit to a smaller degree than the Liberals had been planning to do, leaving a huge funding gap about which our universities are sounding the alarm. But even so.

And the thing is, it turns out that it’s all completely manufactured nonsense. Registrations aren’t unusually high; according to the DG’s office they’re even slightly down from the last election. Students, due to the fact that they move around a lot, are more likely to be trying to register at a new address before an election than older people who have lived in the same place for a long time.

The real outrage

The real outrage isn’t that students are trying to register to vote; it’s that anyone is trying to stop them.

There are three criteria that have to be met to allow someone to vote in this election. They have to be Canadian citizens, they have to be 18 years or older, and they have to have been ‘domiciled’ in Quebec for a minimum of 6 months.

Simple, right? Not so much. Because students are reporting that they’re being denied the right to register to vote by the review boards, after being asked to prove completely arbitrary things, like their intent to remain permanently in Quebec, their taxpayer status or their holding of a driver’s license. Many students don’t pay taxes, since they earn little income. Many students in Montreal don’t drive or own a car. That’s perfectly normal. But the PQ finds it concerning. Why? Because they’re too anglophone? Too ethnic? Too likely to vote for someone other than the PQ who, I might point out, royally screwed over the students last time around? All of the above?

The DG’s office released a “clarification” as to what “domiciled” means, which clarified absolutely nothing at all. It basically empowers the DG’s office to conduct an inquisition into all matters of the voter’s life, and then to arbitrarily deny them their right to vote anyway.

Anyone who thinks this sounds an awful lot like the Republican Party in the United States would not be wrong.

It’s still about identity politics

The PQ is doing everything in its power to win this election. Because in their view, this is still about identity. “Nous” — Pequistes — have the right to vote, but “vous autres” — anyone voting for someone else — is an outsider who is stealing Quebec’s right to decide for itself. “Vous autres” includes anyone the PQ deems an outsider, whether because they are immigrants, minorities, students, too anglo, too ethnic, too federalist, anything non-PQ.

We all have the right to vote. But in Pauline Marois’ view, the only people who ought to vote are the folks who agree with her. Everyone else be damned.

The whole thing is utterly disgusting. I can only hope that any student legally allowed to vote who is denied will appeal, and that other students will go out and vote en masse to turf out the PQ. I hope that they will realize that they were never allies, that the PQ never had their best interests at heart and is only interested in power at all costs.

I hope the electorate will be too smart to be played this time.

Update: Kelly McParland echoes this sentiment in the National Post: For Marois, the only thing worse than an ethnic voter is a student from Ontario.

Update #2: CJAD has more reports of students being denied their right to vote, including a student who secretly recorded his exchange with the revision officer. A direct quote by the revision officer: “You can show me all your bills for the past 10 years. It doesn’t prove to me that you’re eligible to vote.”

A plea to my fellow Quebecers

Rumours have been circulating for weeks, and now it’s official: Quebec will be heading back to the polls on April 7th.

The Parti Quebecois has been in power for a scant year and a half. In that time, it has done more damage than even I would have thought possible. From a vitrol-laced election campaign, the PQ wasted no time launching into a vitrol-laced program designed to cynically scapegoat minorities to win a majority.

This absolutely must not happen. And that is why I am issuing this unprecedented plea: Vote Liberal.

Yes, you heard me. Philippe Couillard is not my favourite guy by any means, or, I would venture a guess, yours. He has flip-flopped on nearly every important issue so far. He leads a party still reeling from corruption scandals and trying to find its footing after being brought down in a flurry of red squares and angry protesters. He lacks Jean Charest’s charisma. He hasn’t been particularly inspiring on any of the issues thus far.

But this is too important. The CAQ has never been a viable option and has been bleeding support for months. The other separatist parties that siphoned off support from the PQ last time around, such as Option Nationale, have basically ceased to exist. Quebec Solidaire is little more than a protest party that, thankfully, is no threat to form a government. The PQ has done all the math and believes that it has what it takes to pick up a few seats here, reduce a bit of vote-splitting there, and coast to a majority.

In a year and a half of minority government, the PQ has succeeded in turning Quebec into an international laughingstock. It has ratcheted up tensions at home. It has been preying on the politically weak — minorities, women — to leverage people’s hatred and fear. Every government does this to some extent, but the ugliness that we’ve been living through these past couple of years is really unprecedented. When people are getting beat up on the street for wearing religious symbols; when people are afraid to leave their homes; when basic human rights and liberties are under attack, then it’s time for all of us to say: Enough.

The PQ’s policies are systematically driving people out of Quebec. Those with the most options — the educated, the bilingual, the wealthy — are leaving first, and thousands are following them as they see their jobs and prospects disappear. Some people are leaving for political and ideological reasons, yes, but most will leave out of economic necessity. We’ve all lived through this before, and with every wave of people leaving, it leaves fewer and fewer of us to fight at the polls. Don’t think this isn’t part of the PQ’s plan; Marois would love to drive everyone who doesn’t vote for her out of the province, so she can coast towards a majority. This is gerrymandering on a scale that even Tammany Hall couldn’t envision.

We can’t afford to be complacent. Marois has made pre-election promises adding up to nearly $2 billion in handouts — money we don’t have. Quebec’s population is aging rapidly, and our tax base is shrinking. Our infrastructure is collapsing. Job growth has stagnated or gone backwards. We can’t even afford to maintain the services we have, and our tax rates are at a tipping point. Unemployment is on the rise and investment has ground to a halt. We’re barrelling towards a healthcare crisis, with a massive shortage of doctors and resources. When even Jacques Parizeau is sounding the alarm, you know things are bad. And yet, the PQ’s strategy of distract-and-defend seems to be working, because nobody’s even talking about these issues. Instead, we’re talking about invented non-issues like what people are wearing on their heads.

The Charter of Values may seem silly and ridiculous. It might be a blatantly transparent way for the PQ to play divide-and-conquer politics while hoping to pick a fight with Ottawa. But to allow it to pass would be a travesty. It would be sacrificing our rights and liberties as citizens to the fear and racism of others.

This comes down to what sort of society we want to live in. Is Quebec a place of xenophobia, fear, hatred and divisiveness? Or is it a place of inclusiveness and progress? I love my city and my province, and I am really, really worried about our future.

The Liberal party is uninspiring at best. We’ll have to see what Couillard can deliver in terms of campaigning skills, but I’m not optimistic. He hasn’t shown much promise so far.

Still, the PQ is far, far worse. I’d go so far as to say its policies are truly evil. And, like it or not, a strong Liberal performance is the only way to hold the PQ in check.

I’m not a fan of strategic voting. It pains me to even have to write this plea. I’ll be holding my nose in the voting booth, to be sure. But I’ll be there, and I’ll be casting my vote for the only party that has a chance to unseat — or at least limit the damage — of the PQ. I sincerely hope that you will do the same.

North Korea: United Nations pulls head out of sand, finally

More than ten years after the BBC aired a devastating report about North Korean concentration camps, mass killings, torture, poison gas chambers and other horrific atrocities, the United Nations has finally come around to the view that yes, maybe, there were some crimes against humanity going on in the world’s least free nation:

“Testimony was given … in relation to the political prison camps of large numbers of people who were malnourished, who were effectively starved to death and then had to be disposed of in pots, burned and then buried … It was the duty of other prisoners in the camps to dispose of them,” he said.

The world stood by and watched this all happen. We knew about it. We talked about it. We reported it. But in our broken moral compass of the 21st century, “Never Again” apparently means “Never Again.. except when China is on the Security Council and doesn’t want us looking too closely at its North Korean ally.”

This quote by an unnamed UN official has got to rank up there among the world’s most ironic quotes in all of history:

“We’ve collected all the testimony and can’t just stop and wait 10 years.”

Why not? Isn’t that what we’ve done already?

14 for ’14

Happy New Year, everyone!

I had a conversation with a good friend of mine today over hot beverages while trying to thaw out our toes. The discussion was about goals versus plans. We pretty much agreed that setting goals can be positive and constructive, but getting too set on specific plans can be negative and destructive.

So on that note, I’m making some New Year’s Resolutions this year. Because it’s good to have goals, even if I fully expect to mess them up, break them, diverge from the path many times over, and hopefully find something better in the process. Here goes:

  1. Always say yes. This was my one resolution last year, and it’s been working pretty well for me so far. Saying yes to new ideas, new opportunities and experiences is rewarding in sometimes unexpected ways. (In the spirit of improv, I probably should amend this to “always say yes, and…” but you get the idea.)
  2. Travel to at least 5 new places. A few travel plans got aborted this year, true. But temporary setbacks aside, my traveller’s spirit will prevail. I have lots of ideas already. Stay tuned.
  3. Blog weekly. There was a time when I was blogging multiple times a day, but Facebook and Twitter largely taken over for short one-off posts and links, so blog posts take longer to write these days. Still, I blog in four different places, so I’m going to aim to update each of them at least monthly.
  4. Learn a language. My many attempts at Spanish have yielded nothing but epic failure, and my Hebrew is getting rustier kol yom. I’m starting an ASL course in a couple of weeks, so maybe I’ll have better luck with a nonverbal language.
  5. Spin, baby, spin. Every year, the lose weight/exercise resolutions go unfulfilled like stale clichés. Instead, this year I’m resolving to sign up for some spinning classes, to stay in cycling shape during the Bixi off-season.
  6. Get at least 15 days on skis. The start of the season was promising, but the current deep freeze has put a damper on it. I’m at 2 days so far in December. Hopefully January and February will be better.
  7. Go camping. It’s been a few years since I’ve been on a camping trip. This summer, I resolve to fix that.
  8. Watch Team Canada win the hockey gold. This worked when I resolved it four years ago for Vancouver ’10. Hopefully it’ll work for Sochi ’14. Not that I’m superstitious or anything.
  9. Win Impossible Montreal 2014. Can the Hunny Badgers defend our title for the third consecutive year? I have no idea, but I sure intend to have a lot of fun finding out.
  10. Do everything in my power to get the PQ out of power. Come on, Quebecers, we deserve better than this sorry excuse of a provincial government. Let’s speak out against divide-and-conquer identity politics.
  11. Ditto for the Harper government. The next federal election likely won’t be ’til 2015, but that doesn’t mean I can’t keep calling Harper and his cronies out on their crap whenever I see it.
  12. Fail boldly. More improv wisdom. I will surely make mistakes this year. I resolve to make grand, decisive, epic mistakes.
  13. Be there for the people who matter. I resolve to do a better job of putting family and close friends first in my life.
  14. Take the road less travelled. Because it’s always more interesting than the beaten path.

Montreal needs a reality check on customer service

Last week the Gazette published a rant by a couple of restaurant waiters, in which they angrily chastised customers for committing such cardinal sins as making small talk, asking for allergy-free meals, requesting to be seated in a booth, sending back food when it was not what they ordered, or — gasp! — failing to leave a giant tip. Judging by the tone of the rant, these two waiters probably deserve every lousy tip they get.

Please Don't Interrupt Me While I'm Ignoring YouNow, I’ve spent most of my career working in the customer service sector in some way or another. From my student days working at Fairview shopping centre folding sweaters, to my career in account services and strategic planning for various marketing agencies, I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to make sure that the customer was satisfied. It’s not easy, I’ll grant you. There are days when it’s trying, or when certain people make you want to tear your hair out. There are those clients who make you go home and cry and question your will to live. But on the whole, I love it, and I suspect most other people who deal with other human beings in some way feel the same. I get deep satisfaction from building those relationships, anticipating and exceeding expectations, and making people happy. The one thing that always gets to me is when I’m complimented for simply doing my job. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher: After all, compliments and thank yous are nice, but in today’s highly competitive world, shouldn’t good service be the price of entry?

Bad customer service is one of those universal things that can happen anywhere. People love to complain loudly about airlines, telecom companies, service providers, restaurants, hotels and stores where they had unfortunate experiences or were mistreated. They tell their family and friends. They take to social media en masse. This is hardly unique to Montreal.

What is unique here, however, is this sense that this is perfectly normal. and that nobody really needs to try harder or to do better. There are exceptions, of course. But in general, our service sector is among the surliest, rudest and most indifferent on the continent — and when called out for it, they tend to blame the customer.

Read the rest of this entry »

How do you solve a problem like Bixi?

Morning bike ride through Parc Lafontaine, October 2013Montreal’s bike-sharing system is used by thousands of people, myself included, to get around. Montreal is a city where the ubiquitous orange cone is practically a symbol, with road closures and sinkholes and traffic nightmares and transit service outages the norm as opposed to the exception. In this context, Bixi is often the least stressful and most reliable way to get from point A to point B. My morning commute by Bixi takes about the same amount of time as it would take to drive, or to take the metro. But it’s certainly nicer, more pleasant and much better exercise to hop on a bike on a cool, crisp autumn morning and enjoy the views through the park as I make my way to work, as opposed to elbowing my way onto a crowded and smelly metro, or fighting traffic and circling endlessly for parking. Plus, it’s great for the environment. Win-win, right?

But the service is in financial crisis.

Read the rest of this entry »

CRTC’s new wireless rules don’t go far enough

We Canadians pay the highest mobile rates in the world, thanks to the entrenched Bell-Rogers-Telus oligopoly that for years has been gouging customers with impunity. The CRTC, the regulatory body that has generally been in the pocket of the wireless companies, has been taking some baby steps towards actually protecting consumers in recent years, thanks to a huge backlash and an acknowledgement that the current situation is hurting business and innovation. But these baby steps haven’t done much to stem the tide.

Now, the long-awaited new Wireless Code announced by the CRTC after months of public hearings promises to address a few of the most egregious issues. Among them:

  • Canadians will be able to cancel their plans after two years with no penalty, even if they signed a deal for longer.
    This is all well and nice, considering that the three-year plan cycle was stifling innovation. But considering that there really aren’t any better options out there, cancelling and going to a competitor is illusionary freedom at best.
  • Caps on extra data and roaming charges to $50 and $100 respectively within a given billing cycle.
    This is perhaps the biggest win for consumers; stories of $22,000 phone bills or other ridiculous overage charges have abounded in the media lately, embarrassing providers and frustrating consumers. Even smaller amounts are ridiculous: A friend recently returned from a trip to the UK to discover a $1,287 phone bill, all for committing the cardinal sin of having forgotten to purchase a data plan, and having accessed Google Maps a few times while abroad. Such charges far exceed any reasonable costs that the providers have, and amount to a punitive tax on the unsuspecting for no reason other than they’ve been allowed to get away with it for far too long.
  • Canadians will be able to unlock their devices after 90 days, or immediately if they didn’t purchase a phone on contract.
    Anyone who wanted an unlocked device was already doing so on the grey market for a few dollars. It’s useful for people moving out of the country or for those of us who travel a lot; Canada remains one of the only countries in the world where you can’t get off a plane and pick up a local SIM card for a matter of a few dollars to use during your stay. (I do this all the time with my unlocked phone; it’d saved me thousands in roaming charges in countries from France to Israel to Vietnam.) But for most Canadians, with no competition to speak of in the market, unlocking your device will only allow you to switch to an equally bad provider, which is really no choice at all. All this means in practice is that providers will raise the prices of the phones in the first place, arguing that they can no longer subsidize them to as great a degree.
  • Contracts must be in plain language, with wording explained clearly and with the option to opt out of all changes.
    This ought to have been the price of entry and a given for anyone doing business. The fact that it needed to be said was sad. A step in the right direction, to be sure. But the Code doesn’t set out any restrictions on what the wireless providers can and cannot put in the contracts, as long as it’s spelled out in plain language.

What’s missing from this Code? Quite a lot.

  • There’s no mention of the fundamental unfairness of charging for incoming calls and text messages — a particularly egregious issue considering how much spam and how often my phone rings with unsolicited telemarketing calls. When I complained recently to Rogers about the dozens of robo-calls I’ve been receiving lately (“Congratulations! You’ve won a trip!”), I was basically told that I had no choice but to pay for the calls. There’s also the fact that we take the double-charging (paying for both outgoing and incoming minutes) as a given here in Canada, when most people from other countries would find that shocking.
  • There’s next to nothing being done to address the lack of competition in the marketplace. Bell, Telus and Rogers collectively own the vast majority of the wireless spectrum. Efforts in recent years to open up parts of the spectrum to bidding from smaller players are failing, since the small players are being sold one by one to the big ones. Virgin Mobile is owned by Bell; Fido is long owned by Rogers; Telus is in talks to buy Mobilicity; Public and Wind are both up for sale. Only Videotron here in Quebec is making a go of it, since as a larger cable company it can afford to compete, but its service and offerings aren’t exactly advantageous compared to the Big Three. And anyway, Rogers and Videotron have a network sharing agreement that will effectively prevent them from actually competing. With so few choices, we all lose, regardless of market regulation or consumer codes. Since, after all, the Big Three can charge whatever they want, as long as they spell it out in plain English.

Ultimately, this Wireless Code is Too Little, Too Late. It will get us to where we needed to be as a country five years ago, but it does very little to address the future. And we will continue to fall behind the rest of the world in terms of mobile adoption rates and technical innovation.

But, it’s a step in the right direction.

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April 2014
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