Sunday, January 22, 2006

I wish I'd said that...

A guest editorial about the riding of Ottawa-Centre:

"This finally brings me to Richard Mahoney. His candidacy represents everything I find reprehensible about Canada's clubby political, corporate and class system, a smarmy hideous monster in its own right, the latest incarnation being represented by Paul Martin's Liberal machine. He is the insider's insider, the lobbyist's lobbyist, all spin, no him. There is nothing there that is not crafted, fake and equivocal. His candidacy, his methodology, and his reasoning are the amoral antithesis of what I consider good and decent for this country. He represents the opposite of what the other candidates offer: Cynicism that relies on a mix of pessimism, apathy and fear. You want scary? That is scary."

No kidding. Mahoney didn't like what a local community newspaper said about him: he threatened to sue. He didn't like what NDP candidate Paul Dewar said about him: he served papers on Dewar this past week.

My riding is going to Paul Dewar, and the forces of light will continue to shine, if not on a new Canada, at least on Ottawa-Centre, its ground prepared by the redoubtable Ed Broadbent. Perhaps, given the polls, only a candle in the darkness, but a bright and warm one in the middle of the winter of our discontent.

Go, Richard Mahoney, go! If you get my drift.

UPDATE: (January 23). And he went.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The body politic

yell when the ear is near, dear,
but the mouth has got no teeth;
the tongue at its moor of sinew
tugs at the jaw beneath.

nor if it is public or private,
an organ can't compete
when the pulse-rate drops to this level--
even the feet must eat.

so head for the heart for a start, dear,
(nudge the bad blood aside)
a true thrust is a trust, love,
a wrong is a right denied.

a shot in the dark will never go wide
though our hands be as cold as death:
the brain must come to a standstill
if the mind is to catch its breath.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Hard cases

We've seen a remarkable piling-on by three of the four top party leaders this past week, as they scrambled like the proverbial crabs in a bucket to out-tough each other on the crime issue. Gilles Duceppe stayed wisely aloof, for whatever reason: maybe he knows better. But Stephen Harper, Paul Martin and now Jack Layton are in hard-guy mode, and they've got it all: minimum sentences, stiffer penalties, you name it. And lots more cops, of course, not to mention arming our customs officers. No soft-on-crime nonsense is going to mess up the three-way races. Criminals, tremble. Your time is coming.

It seems, though, that the "criminal community" has shown remarkable prescience: bracketing for a moment the dreadful series of recent handgun homicides in Toronto, of which the young gunsels themselves have been predominantly the victims, its members seem to have been taking an extended holiday. Never mind David Frum: Chris Selley and a conservative commentator named "2sheds" have demolished his preposterous claim that Canada has a 50% higher crime rate than the United States. Check out the Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner instead, a man whose detailed fact-finding and sober comments have earned my respect.

Crime is dropping, folks—even in Toronto. In Gardner's words, and a good many of them deserve to be quoted here,

By far the most common crime committed with a gun in Toronto is robbery. In 1992, there were 1,111 robberies involving firearms. In 2004, the latest year for which Statistics Canada has data, there were 625. That's a 44-per-cent drop. (Note that the Statistics Canada data err on the side of inclusion: Any incident in which a firearm was present is recorded, even if the firearm wasn't used in the crime.)

The next most common gun crime is "assault with weapon." In 1992, there were 185 such incidents in Toronto. In 2004, there were 77. That's a 59-per-cent decline. In 1992, there were 44 kidnappings involving a firearm. In 2004, there were 21. That's a 53-per-cent decline. In 1992, there were 31 aggravated assaults with a firearm. In 2004, there were 26.

In 1992, 46 common assaults occurred in which a firearm was present. In 2004, there were 32.

Several other categories of gun crime -- including sexual assault and "discharge firearm with intent" -- were rare and showed little change in either direction. The same was true of attempted murders with a firearm: In 1992, there were 41; in 2004, there were 41.

It should be noted that these numbers make things look worse than they really are because they don't take into account Toronto's population growth since 1992. If that were accounted for, the declines in gun crime would look even bigger and the numbers that stayed flat would actually reveal declines in the rate of gun crime.

But leaving all that aside, we are still left with the horrendous toll of 52 gun killings in 2005, a record high and a dramatic jump from 17 such killings in 1992.

It is important to realize, however, that this increase is not a long-term trend. The 2004 total of gun killings was just 24. And in each of the three years leading up to 2005, the number of gun killings actually dropped. So the rise in gun murders in 2005 is a very sudden spike.

There are two ways of looking at that spike. One is to see it as evidence of a broad shift -- proof that gun crime and violence are exploding across the city and that people are in more danger. If this is true, it deserves to be a major political issue and it may require major changes to the criminal justice system.

But there isn't any evidence to support that view and plenty to suggest it's wrong. For one thing, the spike is totally out of line with the trend in gun murders. And since there have been no reports of spikes in other gun crimes, it also seems to be out of line with the trend in other gun crimes as well (although we won't know that for sure until Toronto's 2005 data for other gun crimes are gathered by Statistics Canada.)

It's also out of line with a decline in gun crime that has been going on fairly steadily for decades. In 1977, 39 per cent of all robberies involved a firearm; in 2004, just 14 per cent of robbers carried a gun.

Gun murders dropped even more dramatically: In 1974, the rate of such killings was a little more than 1.2 per 100,000 people; in 2004, it was less than 0.6.

Now, what can be done about uncomfortable facts like this on the campaign trail? As Kim Campbell once put it, a campaign is no time to discuss serious issues, and the three leaders have clearly taken her words to heart. Follow the public mood, created in no small part by the media, pretend that crime is out of control when it's actually dropping, and out-heavy the other guys. It's miserable politics, and it makes for lousy public policy.

That isn’t to say that we turn away from the subject, only that we stick to "just the facts, Ma'am" when we address it. For example, our border guards are too often left alone in isolated posts to deal with cross-border traffic. (A few years ago it was reported to me that under-trained summer students were occasionally assigned to lonely border crossings; I'll be updating on this issue shortly).

The issue of smuggled weapons, and the exposed state of our borders and border guards do need to be addressed. But so do the social causes of crime, or we end up in reactive mode, treating the symptoms and not the disease. Poverty, racism, and lack of educational and employment opportunities are all factors, whether the "hit 'em hard" crowd wants to admit it or not. And, of course, those factors can generate attitudes and actions in the sub-populations affected that influence the crime rate.

So what is to be done? At least Layton has a relatively balanced approach, calling for increased law-enforcement and punishment on the one hand, and social improvements on the other. But he, too, has been corralled by the campaign and the political environment, and there he is, calling for such things as minimum sentences, while the rest of the world has been trending away from that kind of thing.

A crackdown on crime in the midst of a falling crime rate is, on its face, fatuous. In 2003, the homicide rate in Canada was the lowest in three decades. Turning the current Toronto spike into a nation-wide trend is sheer dishonesty. Furthermore, there is no proof that throwing more young people into jail makes our land any safer. In Ontario, Mike Harris’ late, unlamented regime delivered the Safe Schools Act, a Procrustean approach to student behaviour that has led to numerous mandatory expulsions for the very individuals most in need of institutional guidance. As for minimum sentences, much like the infamous US "three strikes and you're out" legislation, sheer injustice is too often the result. In one province of Australia that brought in mandatory sentencing (now repealed), the preponderance of those sentenced were young Aborigine adults. Nor, it appears, are such laws even effective in their explicit crime-prevention aims.

The current unseemly display of political leaders jumping on the punishment bandwagon is a dangerous affront to the truth, and it perpetuates a largely media-generated social panic. The reality is that, just as hard cases make bad law, hard laws make bad cases. The media and the politicians need to start talking facts, not fears. Come on, Jack—you’re better than this.

UPDATE (January 8, 2006): Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen, referenced above, has an excellent website containing an archive of his articles. They are simply stuffed with facts and figures on such issues as crime and the drug trade. Visit it here.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Five Weird Things

Kate’s tagged me with the "List five weird things about yourself, then tag five others to do the same" meme. She says, for some reason, that this oughtta be easy for me.

OK, here goes, but I’m having to dig pretty deep:

1) I enjoy glazing bacon in the pan with brown sugar and eating the resultant mess over rice;

2) My exes remain close friends;

3) I named my blog after my own pet;

4) I like TV commercials;

5) I can actually wiggle my ears--but not independently.

And I hereby tag:



Either Orr

Bound by Gravity

James Bow

Aboriginal good times

A diversion, now, from the heavy stuff. I have just been to heaven, and that heaven is Sweetgrass, an Aboriginal restaurant in downtown Ottawa. I have come back to earth to bring glad tidings to all in the area, and beyond. This place, to continue the metaphor, is truly to die for.

It was the younger whelp’s seventeenth birthday, and we wanted to try something new. Restaurants in Ottawa are springing up like mushrooms, or undergoing makeovers--our old favourite Crepe de France, for example, now offers Lebanese cuisine; and our old friends at Chez Jean-Pierre are enjoying their well-deserved retirement. But digging into a restaurant listing in the local paper, we discovered Sweetgrass, and thought we’d give it a try, if just for the experience.

This is only the second Aboriginal restaurant in the whole of Canada, believe it or not, and Ms. Dawg and I have been to the other one, in Vancouver. We were, sadly, not impressed on that occasion: we ordered goat chops, which were tough and barely cooked, and further cooking toughened them up even more. The place was atmospheric, but not positively memorable.

Talk about night and day. We were greeted at the door of Sweetgrass, and made to feel welcome from the start. The place is decorated with local First Nations artwork, and Aboriginal music was playing in the background. We began by sampling some “in-betweens”: red deer short ribs, and Canadian goose dumplings. The rib servings were substantial, with a flavourful wild mushroom sauce; the goose dumplings were light and airy, with a cucumber mint salad and a piquant pine nut dipping sauce.

Our Vegan had a green salad with an Inuit crowberry tea and lemon vinaigrette; I had one with my main course, and can report that the dressing was unlike any other vinaigrette I have ever tasted, which these days tend to be a little
ho-hum: it was, in a word, scrumptious. All of us had Navajo frybread, Aboriginal comfort food: stinging hot, delicious, just the thing on a snowy evening.

But, lest I run out of admiring adjectives, let me turn to the mains, which were served with bannock. The birthday boy had wild salmon, which obviously pleased him, although he’s a young man of few words. The Vegan in the family had a brilliantly-presented Portobello mushroom accompanied by a smoked tomato cornmeal cake. The doting parents, however, decided on the grilled tatonka (bison) steak.

And that is where I realized I was being rewarded at last for having lived a good life. Tatonka! A word I shall never forget. A taste that is the Platonic ideal of red meat: deep, flavourful, complex--and I realize here that such words have been applied to red wine, but so what? Fork-tender, and, as a professional restaurant reviewer would say, yummy. I’ve simply never had anything so good. I was reassured by our pleasant and attentive waitperson that, while the Sweetgrass menu is seasonal, tatonka remains on it in suitably timeless fashion. I remember my last bite: I believe I wept a little.

Dessert? After all that? Certainly. The birthday boy had a sundae, on the house, by the way—nice touch—and the rest of us had a variety of special coffees. One included tequila, quaffed by our Vegan, who pronounced it profoundly satisfying. All made a satisfying end. We floated back to the car in a state of rapture.

Sweetgrass is not cheap, but in this case you truly get what you pay for. And I must say I am impressed with the First Nations ethic of the place: the wines have been chosen from countries with indigenous populations, for example, and most of the waitstaff are Aboriginal.

Go there. They will accept
even the undeserving, and for that, give thanks.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Warren Kinsella: certifiably nuts?

Over at Comments Please, Jean Chretien’s tireless footsoldier-in-exile posted an attack, not entirely unjustified, in my view, on a Liberal politician named Andrew Telegdi running against the fine NDP candidate Edwin Laryea in Kitchener-Waterloo. Telegdi ill-advisedly went to bat for a Nazi war criminal some time ago, although I suspect his chief sin in Kinsella's eyes is being a Martin Liberal. Nevertheless, one has to ask what Telegdi thought he was doing.

So far, so good. But Kinsella wasn’t finished. He managed to dredge up a comment made by the youthful Telegdi more than three decades ago, a clear reference to an article written in 1967 by Jerry Farber entitled "The Student As Nigger."

At about the same time (1971), the translation of Pierre Valliéres’ 1968 work Nègres blancs d'Amérique : autobiographie précoce d'un «terroriste» québécois, appeared: White Niggers of America: The precocious autobiography of a Quebec "terrorist."

These attempts to make common cause with the plight of oppressed and exploited Black Americans south of the Mason-Dixon line obviously set a somewhat different context for the n-word than as a racial epithet. And I was rash enough to point this out to Kinsella on his blogsite, thus:

Telegdi's reference was to a well-known pamphlet circulating widely in the 'sixties. Might as well call Pierre Valliéres a racist for his "White Niggers of America." Context is everything, Warren. And intellectual honesty, come to think of it.

It is his bizarre response that leads me to believe that he is…not well. Possibly unhinged, in fact.

Kinsella longs for the good old days, it would appear, and every move he makes, every word he speaks, has a political purpose that, frankly, doesn’t really matter any more. I'm an NDPer, although not a prominent one; once upon a time, I was an official in a large federal public service union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada. This is enough for Kinsella to attempt to smear me as a racist, which would be laughable, given my history, and highly ignorable as well--except that he has been busying himself writing to my old employer, demanding that they do something about me, and he has been sending me threatening emails, including this one:

Get ready, pal.

This came after a note to him, copied to his blogsite. And I close with this note, on the basis of which readers may judge for themselves a) if I am indeed a racist, and b) if Kinsella is finally ready for the funny farm. Comments welcome.

Dear Warren:

I have not been involved with the PSAC since 2003, when I stepped down. I am flattered by your interest in me, and it should make a good blog post in its own right on my own blogsite.

Since I posted this on your blog only this afternoon, and you posted a response after 5:00pm today, I suggest that you are being a little impatient.

For [the President of the PSAC]'s benefit, and for yours (although your disingenuousness appears to know no bounds), the word "nigger" is never acceptable in my view, used as a racist insult against Black people. Those who bother to read my blog, and indeed other writings of mine, know precisely what my views are about racists and racism.

But your attack on the youthful Telegdi for comments as a student politician many years ago was in an entirely different context. He was, in fact, referring precisely to a well-known article, which had wide circulation at the time, called "The Student As Nigger," an attempt (lame, in my view) to link the cause of students with that of the Black civil rights movement. Such a title and such a comparison do not stand the test of time, and would not be acceptable now. At the time, progressive and even radical students, many of whom had put their bodies on the line for civil rights, found nothing racist in the article. We're talking many, many years ago.

Of course, in the same period, Pierre Valliéres wrote his famous book. In his case, he was equating the treatment of French-speaking Quebeckers with that of Blacks in the Southern US. Once again, his intent was not to throw a racist epithet at Blacks, but to attempt to make common cause with them--to make the links, as human rights activists say now.

My objection to your comment, in the instant case, was your going back in time--considerably far back, in fact--to target a politician whom you don't like. If you'd stuck to his more recent misbehaviour, I wouldn't have said anything at all. But you did, in fact, wrench a comment, made in his youth, out of time and out of context.

To answer your question directly: is there a context in which the word "nigger" (without quotation marks) is acceptable? In the here and now, I can't think of one. Thirty years ago, in the highly particular circumstances noted, there was a context in which many progressive people found the word acceptable: namely, making common cause with the exploited and oppressed Black people south of the Mason-Dixon line.

In conclusion, if you have a battle, it is with me, and not with the PSAC--an organization that you rightly point out has a long and distinguished history of defending human rights. Indeed, when I was a PSAC official, I like to think that I played a role in some of those struggles--such as helping to drive the Heritage Front out of Ottawa. But we aren't dealing here, of course, with the reality of the situation, and my own personal history of fighting racism since the mid-sixties in countless protests, sit-ins, letters and articles, in public and in private life. Rather, we are dealing with your own propensity for the cheap shot, for public posturing and displays of self-righteousness.

For intellectual dishonesty, in fact.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year, everyone

And I do mean everyone. I've been blogging for all of six months or so, and have met enough interesting people to stuff a Rolodex. To those on my side of the political fence, I wish us the thousand small and large victories that will move us all forward in the coming year. To those on the other side of the fence, or on it, or even above it--rest assured, we shall have some interesting discussions in the year to come.

Internationally, Bolivia will be interesting to watch, as the American empire crumbles just a little more. And, with any luck, the Butcher of Santiago will do a little time before he expires. Our complicity in torture and political imprisonment in Haiti will deserve some on-going scrutiny as well. And Iraq, of course, always Iraq--will the Kurds finally wrench a northern homeland out of the Bush experiment? So many places, so relatively little time to comment.

Closer to home, I look forward to justice for the Lubicon and proportional representation, keeping the Conservative wolves at bay and trying (talk about uphill battles) to keep the Liberals honest. Out-of-the-box ideas are starting to be heard in the midst of the current political holding pattern. A couple of folks have suggested, for example, in all seriousness, a Conservative-NDP alliance. Any idea what such an unstable compound might look like, and what joint policies might emerge before the thing disappears in a flash of gamma radiation?

I have added three intelligent right-wing blogistas to my blogroll. Among the acres of mudslingers, name-callers and knee-jerk, hateful so-cons out there, a few bright and civil voices emerge now and then. While I find much of their world-view uninhabitable, I recognize and salute their ability to write, think and analyze. Such people would be an asset were they to undergo a Damascene conversion on the road to Ottawa, as it were. Being on the left, I remain an eternal optimist.

Ms. Dawg, our younger whelp and I have just returned from a rural celebration of New Year's Eve, where for once no one woke up with a hangover. Below is the morning scene, New Year's Day 2006. Pretty beautiful country we live in, eh?