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  • Wow, photo finish to the regular season! Let's hope this gives them some traction into the playoffs. ,
  • Because the Conservatives are messing with our most basic right as citizens -- the right to vote. This is not... ,
  • Far from "soul-searching", it seems like the PQ is still completely oblivious to the reasons for its loss.... ,
  • Icing on the cake this week: A major court defeat for the OQLF, right on the heels of the PQ's defeat at the... ,
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Archive for the ‘Canada eh’ Category

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.

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.

Penny idioms on their way out in Canada

Canadian pennyToday was the official end of the penny in Canada, as the Royal Canadian Mint halted production and went into collection mode. While pennies will continue to be legal tender indefinitely, retailers as of today will begin rounding to the nearest nickel for cash purposes.

It occurs to me that the end of the penny will bring with it the gradual demise or dis-use of a number of penny-related expressions. I’m sure they’ll stay in our vocabulary for decades still; after all, the US penny is still in circulation, and our language is slow to adapt to change at any rate. But I wonder if our grandchildren’s generation will know what we meant by some of these expressions. So in honour of the beginning of the end of the Canadian penny, here’s my top 10 for expressions that we’ll now have to change:

10. Cut off without a penny.

9. A penny saved is a penny earned.

8. Penny for your thoughts?

7. Here are my two cents.

6. Penny-ante

5. In for a penny, in for a pound.

4. Penny-wise and pound-foolish

3. Not worth a red cent

2. Pinching pennies

1. …And the penny drops.

RIP, Canadian penny. I can’t say I’ll miss you weighing down my purse. But it does feel like the end of a chapter in history.

Bell’s purchase of Astral: CRTC says Non

The CRTC has actually momentarily remembered that its job isn’t to rubber-stamp requests from the big telecoms: It has squashed Bell’s plan to buy Astral and thus control a massive share of the telecom market:

“BCE failed to persuade us the deal would benefit Canadians,” said chairman Jean-Pierre Blais, who took over the post earlier this year and has quickly put a populist stamp on the regulator. “It would have placed significant market power in the hands of one of the country’s largest media companies. We could not have ensured a robust Canadian broadcasting system without imposing extensive and intrusive safeguards, which would have been to the detriment of the entire industry.”

Anglos are breathing a sign of relief because this will save TSN 690, Montreal’s English-language sports radio station (and official home of the Habs, when the NHL isn’t on lockout). Rival media conglomerate Quebecor is breathing a sigh of relief, because its dominance in the francophone market won’t be challenged by a Bell/Astral giant.

But there’s a bigger issue here, and one that should be of interest to all Canadians who are concerned about the extreme amount of media consolidation that we’ve witnessed in our country over the past couple of decades. When two or three companies are allowed to control both the media and the messaging via television, radio, newspapers, digital and mobile channels, we all suffer. Just about every Canadian has a nightmare story about one of the telecom giants (and Bell figures at the top of most of those nightmare story lists). Canadians already pay the highest cell phone rates in the world, and that’s only getting worse due to the lack of competition in the marketplace. The telecoms are all working hard to produce exclusive content, and are licensing it to their rivals for high costs. The limited choice in television service offerings is leading many Canadians to simply pull the plug rather than put up with poor service and content offerings for high prices.

Canadians are fed up. And plenty of them spoke up at the CRTC hearings. There were 9,700 interventions filed, and while many of them were from rival media conglomerates such as Rogers, plenty of others were from the general public. They were standing up to say that having one company in charge of nearly half of what we see, hear, read and watch isn’t in anyone’s best interest.

I’ve been really hard on the CRTC in the past for being in the pockets of the telecom companies and shirking its mandate to protect the consumer. Thanks to this decision, I have to issue this blog’s first-ever kudos to the CRTC. It’s a step in the right direction.  Keep it up.

“I’m too rich: Tax me more, please!”

That’s the theory behind this site: We are the 1 percent. It contains manifestos of a bunch of people who claim to be part of the American super-rich, but who feel that it’s unfair that they aren’t taxed their fair share.

Now, admittedly, this concept might be better if more of the people in the blog’s photos actually said what they were doing to help the 99%, besides writing statements on paper. But the spirit ain’t bad.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has its share of problems, namely, the lack of any coherent demands, the lack of focus, and the general sense of a movement with lots of gripes but few answers. But they’re not wrong to point out the negative consequences of large income disparity in the US. And while the income gap isn’t nearly as dramatic in Canada, there’s a strong sense that we’re moving in that direction.

The fact is, while these people claim to be in the so-called 1% of Americans, and most of us aren’t, we’re pretty much ALL of us part of the luckiest 0.00001% in the world – we hit the mother of all jackpots just by being born here in Canada, having enough food to eat, a roof over our heads, security and safety and education and healthcare and the chance to grow to be an adult. It’s worth it for all of us to think about how we can do more to give something back.

(Not for nothing, but this goes back to my long-standing call for Quebec to raise university tuition for those who can afford it and increase bursaries and financial aid for those who can’t. More access to opportunity benefits everyone. Just sayin’.)

Ontarians give McGuinty a third term; avoid triple-whammy

Ontario voters avoided the threat of a triple-whammy conservative blowhard government – Ford in Toronto, Harper in Ottawa, and Hudak challenging at the provincial level – by rewarding incumbent Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty with a third term in office. But with only 53 seats, down from 72 in the previous government, the Liberals will be one seat shy of a majority, and will need support from the NDP – now holding the balance of power – to enact legislation.

I’m only a casual observer of the ins and outs of Ontario politics. Unlike the minefield of the Quebec political landscape, Ontarians are more traditionally divided along left-right lines. For the most part, I think McGuinty has been a decent-to-good leader, and I’m relieved that Ontario dodged the Hudak bullet. But this was far from the resurgence of the Liberal banner that people at the federal level were hoping for.

It’s worth noting that the turnout for this election hit a record low – just the latest example of a disturbing trend showcasing widespread disillusionment with the political process.

Jack Layton loses his battle with cancer

The longtime leader of the NDP and official opposition leader of Canada, Jack Layton, lost his battle with cancer this morning at age 61:

“We deeply regret to inform you that the Honourable Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, passed away at 4:45 am today, Monday August 22. He passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family and loved ones,” the statement read.

Layton led a party that I often didn’t agree with. I wasn’t a big fan of him as a politician, either. I mocked his used-car-salesman demeanour, his debate tactics, his party’s habit of apologizing for extremism or drawing false moral equivalencies, and even his moustache.

All of that aside, though, his death is a tragedy, just as any death from cancer is a tragedy. It also comes at a time when the country is, more than ever, in the iron grip of a Conservative party that is doing frightening things to our political landscape. The NDP’s historic gains in the May election, which vaulted them into official opposition status, meant that Layton was expected to play a major role in doing whatever he could to keep the Tories in check. Now, of course, this duty will pass onto someone else.

Canadians of all political stripes – left, right or the kitchen sink – will mourn Layton’s passing, and rightly so. I didn’t always agree him, but  even where we disagreed, I recognize that he was acting for what he believed was his vision for Canada. My condolences to Olivia Chow and to the rest of Layton’s family and friends.

You can read the text of Layton’s last letter to Canadians here.

By the numbers: Canada’s debt load

As the eyes of the world have been on our American neighbours and their efforts to make a deal childish grandstanding and petty squabbling to avert a default on the national debt, it’s understandable that many of us Canadians have been feeling pretty smug. After all, we may have problems, but not problems to the tune of nearly $15 trillion dollars… right?

Well, sort of right. We’re a smaller country with a smaller economy, so of course the total number is proportionally smaller as well. But what you may not know is that Canada’s public debt has been steadily rising over the past five years, and now sits at an all-time high of $564 billion dollars. That’s nearly $17,000 per Canadian – which, granted, is much lower than the $46,000 per American that our neighbours to the south are on the hook for. Still, that’s 17 grand for every man, woman and child in Canada, and I suspect that if you were asked to pull our your chequebook, you might balk at coming up with that amount.

This happened on Stephen Harper’s watch – the same Stephen Harper who got elected on a fiction of being good for the economy. As you can see by the chart below, the previous Liberal governments had balanced the budget and were steadily lowering the public debt each year… but the Conservative government since 2006-07 has increased it to its all-time high levels and is continuing to spend:


Sure, you might argue, the Liberal government years were years of relative economic prosperity in the world, while the Tory government has been navigating Canada through a global recession. But how, exactly, does building more federal prisons, buying military fighter jets, and pouring money into the Harper government’s promotional campaigns constitute responsible spending during recessionary times?

What’s happening in the US ought to serve as a cautionary tale for us Canadians on how debt can spiral out of control and severely weaken our economy when irresponsible politicians are at the helm. Of course, liberals and conservatives (and NDPers) will never agree on where to spend and what to cut. But anyone who voted conservative because they believe that Harper is good  economy needs a bit of a reality check. As the Tory government has shown time and time again, a balanced budget is not a priority for them. And Canadians will be paying the price… to the tune of almost $17 grand apiece – and rising.

The first 50 days

What will Stephen Harper do with a majority government? That was the question on everyone’s lips just 50 days ago, after an election shocker gave the Tories their long-awaited majority with 166 seats.

Oh, I heard all the platitudes. It won’t be so bad, people said. Give them a chance. They’re not so scary. They won’t do anything that they didn’t do as a minority (not like that was very reassuring, either).

Yeah, right.

In politics, it’s customary to review the “first 100 days”. Unfortunately, Harper and his cronies have been so busy doing shit, that waiting until 100 days for this review seemed excessive.

(And yes, I know it’s not really the first 50 days of majority government. The 41st Parliament only convened on June 2nd, which is in fact less than 3 weeks ago. That’s a frighteningly short period of time in which Harper has already managed to do an awful lot of damage. But it has been 50 days since the election, so I think the post title is appropriate.)

Let’s look at what’s happened in the 50 days since the May 2nd election, shall we?

  • Workers’ rights have taken a serious beating, with back to work legislation being tabled against Canada Post, and threatened against Air Canada (who struck a deal to avoid it). In the case of Canada Post, arguably the legislation is against the crown corporation, which has locked out the workers. And those of you who know me understand that I have rather ambiguous feelings about labour unions that have too much power. But, especially in the case of Air Canada – a private company with competitive options for the consumer – the Tory government’s swift response against any labour rights whatsoever crosses the line even for me. There’s a happy medium in there, and this ain’t it.
  • Senate appointments for three Tory MP candidates who lost in their ridings called into question not only the appointment process itself, but Harper’s own promises to reform it. Canadians didn’t even blink. Beyond that, he’s threatening to abolish the Senate altogether if they don’t cave to his extortion cooperate with his reforms.
  • Asbestos exports are once again being defended by the Tories, who apparently feel that cancer is okay as long as it happens to people in other countries.
  • Job cuts in the public sector are coming pretty much right away. One of the first areas to be hit? Auditors. Cause, y’know, Harper doesn’t want anyone actually noticing how badly he’s been cooking the books – and how badly he plans to continue doing so.
  • And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that Harper is about to appoint two judges to the Supreme Court – something that will have ramifications for decades.

When you consider that there are still most of 5 years to go in his term, and that nothing prevents him from being re-elected, it’s downright terrifying.

StatsCan: Hate crime is up

The number of hate crimes reported to police increased by 42% between 2008 and 2009:

While hate crimes remain primarily motivated by race (and black Canadians remain the most-targeted by hate crime), the data also showed the number of reported hate crimes perpetrated against Arabs and West Asians doubled (to 75 from 37). There was also a 71 per cent increase in hate crimes committed against Jewish people.

Statistics Canada analyst Mia Dauvergne says two factors might have influenced the result: While there may have been a real increase in hate crimes, it is also possible that more crimes are being reported as police forces across Canada set up special hate-crimes units.

Regular readers of mine know of my general discomfort with hate crime legislation. We also know that these are the kind of statistics that, on their own, don’t mean very much; how a crime is reported is less about what happened and more about the circumstances involved.

But if this trend continues, it’s very disturbing. Especially when it leads to fostering of secondary hate, such as resentment between minority communities who are vying for the dubious label of “most victimized”.

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