Thursday, October 27, 2005

"A Sophisticated Waitress"

I was going to talk about the mayoral race here in Montreal on this post, but I'm too pissed off by the separatist reaction to the appointment of Michaëlle Jean to the position of Governor-General of Canada.

The Governor-General is the symbolic head of state of Canada, representing the link between the Prime Minister and the Head of England. Originally, the Governor actually was the head of state, first of Québec after the British won it from France, then of both Upper and Lower Canada in the Constitutional Act of 1791 (which can be seen as the political birth of Canada as a nation). The Governor ruled over all the British holdings in North America, ran the military and was responsible for calling the assemblies into session. He also had a supreme veto power. This lasted until the British North America Act in 1867, when Canada became an independent nation and the position of Governor-General only symbolic. The Governor-General still gives final approval to laws, but it is a ceremonial gesture today.

During the period between the Treaty of Paris (when France gave up Canada) and the BNA Act, the Governor did a lot of things to oppress the French (who increasingly became a minority as Canada grew west and waves of english immigration arrived). Very generally, as you look at the evolution of the Canadian political structure, you can see how it slowly worked to take or hold power from the french (this is 150 years of political history right there, so I won't go into it, but it's pretty interesting). Specifically, there were several acts of violent repression, such as the hanging of 12 patriotes after the rebellions of 1837-38. I point this out to show that there is a real history behind the french-canadian resistance to the continued existence of the Governor-General's position.

Today, the job has morphed into a de facto Canadian ambassador to the world. The previous Governor-General, Adrienne Clarkson was a big promoter of the arts, though she got into some trouble for accusations of excessive spending. The new Governor-General, Michaëlle Jean, was appointed several months ago. She's Haitian-born, who came to Québec as a young girl and had a succesful career as a newscaster for Radio-Canada. She also has a long C.V. of doing good things for the world.

Her appointment caused some minor furor here in Québec, a furor that has still not yet died down. First of all, she was seen in a documentary from the 80s, at a dinner party with a bunch of separatists, toasting to their success. She responded to that saying she didn't believe in nationalism of any kind. Now that that has settled down, all different francophone editorialists are attacking her. Her husband was interviewed on the radio show Indicatif Présent and the following guest, Denise Bombardier, a writer and journalist, attacked his position and called Jean a "sophisticated waitress". There have been similar editorials in the papers, calling the couple traitors and accusing them of capitulating their views for status and power.

Clearly, I recognize the historical significance of the role to the French. But that part of history is over. The french lost the war. They were oppressed by the victors. This is normal, though not good. The oppression went too far and since we live in a democracy, was forced to bounce back. Today, Québec is freed from the bounds of english oppression. One may argue that it suffers (very loose use of the word "suffer" here) under the federal government, but within the province, the french are a powerful and succesful majority, with a thriving culture and economy. This is all good.

What the french need to do now, especially the bitter old-school separatists, is to throw off the chains of resentment and bitterness. They should be proud of Michaëlle Jean. She's a daughter of Québec's succesful social structure. She came here as a poor immigrant and through her own talents and will and the support of the province, has done extremely well. She's hot, sophisticated and stylish. She speaks 5 languages and makes Canada and Québec look super cool. She went to a high school in inner-city Winnipeg and talked straight to the students, actually getting them to listen. She also makes the many Haitian immigrants to Canada extremely proud and it is an insult to them for her to be disparaged. Fight for your independence if you still feel it's necessary, but don't vent your personal angers on someone who is going to do good for the world, for Canada and for Québec.

[Aside: I really appreciate the positive comments from the few readers who don't actually know me. I will try to answer your specific questions as they arise. There are some great Canadian blogs out there, that I'm just starting to discover and I'd love to be a part of that community, so spread the word!]

Monday, October 24, 2005

Election Primer part 2: the provincial race

I am very ignorant about provincial politics here in Quebec, but I'll post what knowledge I've got to give you some info. Knowledge of provincial politics outside your own is pretty low across Canada and I don't think this has much to do with any french/english divide. I'm sure most BC'ers have no idea about Alberta politics, for example. So what little I know from my stay here should be enlightening to those of you who are new or on the outside.

The provincial government body in Quebec is called L'Assemblée Nationale. Very generally, it works the same way as the federal government, where the party with the majority of seats gets to be the party in power. Currently, the Liberals are in power, led by Jean Charest. He was very well-respected in Quebec as a federal politician and decided to take over the Quebec Liberal party. He led it to a strong victory over the Parti Québécois, the separationist, lefter-leaning party that is the main opposition.

Now, everybody hates the Liberals and Jean Charest. It's hard to tell if he's done anything at all and even more difficult to discern why everybody hates him so much. One concrete thing he did was to cut down tons of university scholarship money, which caused weeks of student strikes and ended with him giving some of the money back through some federal funding.

The PQ has been struggling to get itself back in fighting form. First, Bernard Landry, their long-time leader resigned because he only got 76% of party members support. It's still unclear why he resigned and if it was a planned decision or not. He claimed that he couldn't act unless he had full support. Because of that, the PQ has now started a leadership race. The top runner was Pauline Marois, about whom I know nothing. Revelations that her younger, gay and Harvard-educated rival André Boisclair was a total coke fiend when he worked in the parliament, helped boost him to the lead.

The PQ's separatist mandate, though perhaps more directly effective than their federal counterpoints in the Bloc Québécois, is not on the top of their debating and PR list of subjects these days. They seem to be arguing about actual social and spending policies here in Québec. Part of that is that independence is a given in their platform, but I think another part is that they don't want to be pushing independence too hard, at least until they get in power.

From what I hear and read, everybody hates the Liberals so much that the PQ have a real chance to win. But I have a vague memory that at the end of their reign, everybody was hating the PQ just as much. When it comes to provincial politics, I don't know about any solitudes. Quebecers seem just as bitchy and whiny about their politicians as every other province I've ever been in. If they're from the right, they complain that the government is taking away too much of their money. If they're on the left, they claim that they aren't giving them enough money. I think this is a Canadian characteristic, perhaps one that can help bring us together!

So separatist pundits are keeping an eye on this next election (which hasn't been called yet and I think could be as far as 2 years away) because if the PQ wins, there is a chance that they could push for another referendum. Much of the push for separatism comes from the older wing of the party and they still have a lot of power. But I sense a growing fatigue and annoyance with independence. Quebecers are doing quite well and their culture is pretty strong (at least economically speaking). I think most of them want to get on with building the economy. I don't see a referendum winning here. But you never know. I wonder what would happen to me? Would I be allowed to get a Québec citizenship? That would be kind of cool.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Election Primer Part 1: The Feds

We've got 3 elections on the horizon in my world. Montreal is having a mayoral election on November 5th. The Parti Québécois (the provincial separatist party and current opposition) are having a leadership race towards a provincial election in the near future. And there is going to be a federal election at any moment, or at least that's what you'd think watching the media here. So let's start with the feds.

The Canadian government is run by a parliamentary system, with Members of Parliament being voted in by the electors of their riding. The party with the most seats in the House of Commons becomes the Cabinet. Their leader becomes the Prime Minister. They propose laws that than get passed by the House. If a vote is lost by the leadership, it forces a vote of confidence that can lead to an election. Or the government can call an election any time within 5 years of its last victory. We currently have four major parties and one independent with seats in the house: the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois and the New Democratic Party. There are several other small parties that run in the Federal election that generally do not win any seats but some of whose minor success can have some impact on future legislation: the Green party, the Marijuana party, the Christian Heritage party, the Marxist-Leninist party, the Communist party, the Libertarian party and the Canadian Progressive party.

The Liberal Party has been in power since 1993, though under current leader and Prime Minister Paul Martin, they are hanging on by their fingernails. Their position is ostensibly center-left, supporting government programs while maintaining fiscal responsiblity. Socially, they run to the left as well, though in Canada, that puts them in the middle. They like big business and power, though, and their long run has either revealed or allowed to develop a lot of corruption and cronyism. They did do a lot of good for the country, notably getting rid of the deficit and keeping us out of the war in Iraq.

The Conservatives have gone through a lot of permutations in the last ten years, but we're for the longest time, like the Liberals an original party and a fundamental part of Canada's political history. Traditionally, when they were know as the Progressive Conservatives or the Tories, they represented slightly more conservative values fiscally and socially. In the 90's, a new party called the Reform came out of the west who were supposed to be a new wave of conservatism, addressing the failings of the traditional Tories. The Reform, who later became the Canadian Alliance (what are they, a super hero group. Just their name made you want to slap them.) tried to ride the family values wave and failed miserably, ending up splitting the Progressive Conservatives and partly supported the Liberals' dominance in parliament. Last year, the Reform party and the Tories got re-united under the leadership of Stephen Harper and became the Conservative Party of Canada. It's very hard to tell what their position is because every time one of them says something extreme about gay marriage or family values, the rest of them sush him or her up. And their spending plan at the last election was significantly more than the Liberals.

I don't know much about the New Democratic Party's history. They represent the farther left, with a heavy emphasis on social concerns and the environment. They have always been in the wings and in the 90's were effectively dead in the House. However, since Chrétién stepped down, they have had a new resurgence under the leadership of Jack Layton and now command an important position in the House.

Finally, the Bloc Québécois are the federal party that represents Québec. It is weird that they are a federal party, since their concerns are a single province. But Québec is the second biggest province (after Ontario) so they usually win enough seats in the House that they become pretty important players. They are led by Gilles Duceppe who was considered laughable 5 years ago (for no reason other than a funny hat he once wore. Ah, the Canadian media) and is now well-respected in Québec and definitely visible on the national scene. The Bloc's political position, aside from sovereignty, is quite close to that of the NDP. Their main goal is to make Québec a separate nation.

Since the federal election of 2004, the House of Commons looks like this:

Of 308 seats,

the Liberals have 135,
the Conservatives have 99,
the Bloc has 54 and
the NDP has 19.

A party needs 154 seats to form a majority. So, do the math and you can see that the Liberals quite quickly looked to the NDP for support and currently those two parties make up the Federal government. However, the Conservatives are constantly threatening, with the Bloc to vote against a bill and bring the House down. So we are currently run by what is called a Minority government and unfortunately, most of the political talk these days is not about actual legislation but strategic power-broking and who will win the next election. Despite all the game-playing, a recent poll shows that if an election were called tomorrow, very little would change. All the parties are stuck in their power position, at least for the near future.

Personally, my big-picture analysis of the situation is that those numbers fairly decently represent the will of Canadians. We don't want to waste money, but we believe in social programs. We don't want to impose our social will on others and we think it's extremely important to protect minority groups (and I mean that in the most general, political sense). However, there are some freaky christians out there in the small towns and their voice cannot be ignored, just as there are some old school leftists who don't like capitalism at all.

The last election was called because the Liberals time was running out and the Conservatives thought they could take advantage of a scandal-ridden government (I didn't even touch on the Sponsorship Scandal, but it's big and bad). Harper failed. Since then, all he has done is look like an idiot, trying to present some coherent platform to the Canadian people and muzzle the more insane elements in his party. The Liberals haven't done anything, except pass Gay Marriage and talk a lot. The Bloc just keeps blocking, which is particularily annoying considering the tantalizing idea of them uniting with the NDP. Unfortunately, their desperate dream of independence drives all their decisions. The only party who is talking about doing anything is the NDP. They actually forced the Liberals to spend a bunch of money on housing and the cities, spending that was part of the Liberal election platform. That's pretty bad when the party you allied with to make your minority government forces you to carry out your own campaign promise.

I liked Jack Layton a lot before he got into Parliament. He was intelligent and direct. He got a bit shifty during the election, smiling way too much and looking a bit like a used-car salesman. But he is, as I say, the only one talking about specific legislation and trying to get things done.

I wish the others parties would realize that this minority government is going to be the way of the future (as it is in many European countries) and start working on compromises that would actually help the Canadian people. Instead, it's, as usual, all about them and how they can get more power.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


We are approaching a provincial election here in Quebec and in the next several posts, I'm going to share my perspective on it. I had an encounter with a politician last week that served as a strong reminder of how slippery and dangerous they can be. I believe the anecdote will help set an appropriate tone to launch this subject.

Radio Noon is a Quebec-wide talk show on CBC in english that plays from noon to two on weekdays. The host, Anne Lagacé Dowson, is quite intelligent and informed but tends to walk a very safe line. She also summarizes the french newspaper editorial positions in the mornings, which I find an incredibly helpful and interesting service. When she does that, she's quite opinionated, quite different than on her show.

On Friday, she had Thomas Mulcair, the Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks, to discuss a range of environmental issues. I was initially impressed with the breadth of his knowledge and his strong pro-environmental rhetoric. He seemed to be very much on the side of the environment, to the point of restricting business, which is surprising for a Liberal. He came down particularly hard on pig farms, discussing how his office had closed tons down, restricted growth of new ones and were actively looking for other farms that had snuck through loopholes to stay active. A lot of people hate the pig farms because they smell bad, but the minister was also very aware of their more significant environmental damage.

He talked a lot. He seemed quite interested in discussing various approaches to sustainable development. But after a while, I started to realize that he wasn't actually answering any of the difficult questions. I was listening to all this on the phone because I had called up and was waiting to get my turn. When I finally got on the air, I asked him what was his position on bill 390, a bill proposed by Stéphan Tremblay, a member of the opposition Parti Québecois, to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags.

He responded respectfully, saying, "ah yes, that was introduced by my colleague on the other side of the house," sounding as if they were all working together. He then went on to talk about how in Ireland, plastic bags caught in trees are called witches' britches and how they have introduced a tax on plastic bags (something like 20 cents a bag at the supermarket), that has reduced consumption significantly. I tried to ask him again what his position on the bill here in Quebec was, but me and the host spoke at the same time. She repeated her question to me, which was what did I think of a tax on plastic bags. I said that I thought that was a better idea but at this point, the situation was becoming so bad that any legislation was necessary. I tried to ask if he was not going to support bill 390, what was he going to do about the plastic bags. He went on about how a lot of supposedly biodegradable plastic bags are actually still quite bad as they pollute compost sites and still release plastic molecules. I agreed with this and this time got kind of insistent, asking what his position on bill 390 and what he was going to do about it.

They hung up on me.

I was probably a little abrupt, but I really felt that Ann Lagacé Dowson had let him off easy. It's her role to press the interview subject to answer the callers' questions and her role as a public servant to call the politicians on their BS. Even worse, the lead news piece on the CBC that afternoon was how the minister had announced a possible tax break for people who buy hybrid cars. The soundbites were from that day's show. What kind of news is that? Aside from the fact that it wasn't actually news, because it was only a suggestion, it also painted the minister as this all-powerful benevolent protector of the environment and a CBC radio show as an official news event. Pathetic.

I would love to spend a day with minister Mulcair, picking his brains about the environment, policy and industry. As I say, he's intelligent, informed, well-spoken and charming. But he is also dishonest and indirect and I would not trust him to give me a straight answer on anything that might actually implicate him in some kind of action. He is, in short, a politician.

My uncles here in Quebec are hardworking people who lean on the side of libertarianism. They have gotten to the point with the governments in their world that they see them as a joke at best. One of them recommended that one should always vote for the opposition, just to ensure that the party in power never stays in power long enough to really get corrupt. I don't agree with this position, but after trying to get a straight answer out of one politician, I really couldn't think of a better solution. This minister of the environment cares about the environment only as long as it supports his party and his position of power. Why couldn't he and his opposition just sit and work together, hammering out legislation that would cut down on the plastic bag problem in a way that would work for the province? The citizens would support it. The bags come from outside of Québec so industry wouldn't fight it too hard. The grocery stores wouldn't care as that would be one less thing they would have to buy. So why isn't anything done?