Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Heavy mudslinging in the off season

The new Conservative attack ads have been getting most of the media buzz this week, but clearly they aren't the only party that is terrified by Stéphane Dion's potential, and is upset that they aren't facing off against Michael Ignatieff.

My NDP membership, taken out while I lived in Outremont, home to Separatist Jean, lapsed a couple of years ago, but I still recieve regular appeals for donations. The most recent call was a six-page(!) letter from Jack Layton begging for money. First off, I don't know who told him that anyone would read through a six-page letter asking for money. But whoever it was should have thought twice before putting pen to ink. Amidst the attacks on Harper were some rather nasty digs at Stephane Dion. His main crime seems to be that he doesn't understand "ordinary Canadians and middle-class families" (I'd go after the nauseating political lingo, but that's another post - and don't get me started on "in solidarity"). That, and that he appointed the devil incarnate, Michael Ignatieff, who supported the Iraq war, as his deputy leader. Both the NDP and the Conservatives really want to play up the Iggy card against Dion. It makes you wonder what they would have done if he'd actually won the leadership.

I'm not an expert on the effectiveness of attack ads. But I do wonder how Canadians will respond to hard-core nasty political advertizing when there isn't even an election on. I also don't think that slinging mud randomly at Dion is going to be an effective tactic. Even though he isn't the most charismatic of leaders, I don't think that many people dislike him, or even harbour secret fears of him (unless they're Quebec separatists). I suspect that the Conservative ads will be perceived as the acts of a schoolyard bully attacking the geek with the knapsack, and the NDP attacks will be seen as an act of desperation. I expected this from the Conservatives, but from the NDP I find it disappointing. I said as much to the NDP fundraiser who called me two days after I received the fundraising letter. I'm a swing NDP-Liberal voter, and you aren't going to win my vote by attacking the other party that I'm considering. Convince me that your policies are better, and you might stand a chance.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Meanwhile, it's a slow news day in New Brunswick

You know that it's a slow news day when this tops your website, as it does for today's CBC New Brunswick site:

Price of milk going up in N.B.

By how much, you ask with bated breath? By 5 cents a litre, which, we are informed, still keeps our milk at 8 cents a litre cheaper than Nova Scotia.

That's some nice journalism, Lou!

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De Gaulle, she ain't

I think that Chantal Hebert has hit the nail on the head with her analysis of Segolene Royal's recent comments about Quebec sovereignty. Reading the initial quotes from Royal, I got the sense that she was making reassuring platitudes to a guest, about an issue that really didn't matter all that much to her. Her recent backtracking and inept efforts to clarify her position reinforce this impression. This is not like the cold calculated manoeuvring of Charles de Gaulle to get Quebec separate invitations to meetings of la Francophonie, to be sure.

That being said, it really is tiresome to see French politicians, whose country traded away New France so that they could hold on to Guadeloupe and Martinique, playing the French solidarity card and, yes, meddling in Canadian politics. You can bet that the day that a Canadian Prime Minister calls on France to grant official language recognition to the Basque language will be the day that the French government condemns Canada for meddling - and that wouldn't even be about calls for recognition of an independent Basque state!

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Enabling a fetish, Canadian-style

I almost fell off my chair laughing this morning when I read that the Canadian military is making Rick Mercer an honorary colonel.

In recent seasons, I've started to get a bit tired of Mercer's "Look at me in a tank/plane/helicopter" routine. While his advocacy for a better-funded military is doubtless appreciated, these segments have more than a little touch of military fetishism to them. And now the Canadian Forces are making him an honorary colonel? He must be tickled pink.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Homophobia in the Hill - Richmond, that is

Slap Upside The Head has an interesting post up this morning about the banning of a Gay-Straight Alliance Club at Richmond Hill High School.

This story caught my attention for a number of reasons. First off, I find it astonishing that a Canadian public high school is banning a Gay-Straight Alliance, seemingly in the name of fear of offending parents of specific ethnic and religious origins. It doesn't surprise me that my own Toronto-area high school didn't have such a group. We were part of the Catholic school board, and the gay teenagers there had our own clubs - they were called the newspaper and the yearbook. But for the nondenominational public board to ban such a group in 2007, when gay marriage is legal, is stunning.

This also has personal resonance for me. My husband was a gay teenager at Richmond Hill High School a decade ago. One would have thought that we might have made some progress over the past decade in this respect, but apparently not. Certainly, Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne seems to think that this was a place where progressive values had a place when she was part of the women's liberation club at that institution.

RHHS has some illustrious membership in the Progressive Bloggers community. Liberal blogger extraordinaire Jason Cherniak is also an RHHS graduate. Any thoughts, Jason?

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Shouldn't that headline have scare quotes?

From today's Globe and Mail website: Liberal Lapierre leaving federal caucus

Such a pity... I'm sure that Stéphane Dion would have made him intergovernmental affairs minister if the Liberals won the next election. As longer-term readers of this space know, I had the privilege of having Founding BQ member Jean as my MP while I lived in Montreal. It was enough to make me waste several good weekend hours handing out flyers for a no-hoper NDP campaign in Outremont. Recruiting him ranks high on my list of reasons why I disliked Paul Martin and questioned his judgement. The party will be stronger for losing him. Bu-bye Jean - don't let the door hit you on the way out.

As for the speculation about who should run to replace him, I have no problem per se with Justin Trudeau running for the nomination. But I think that he would do his party more good if he ran in a more contested seat, such as one of the Montreal ridings that the Liberals lost in 2006. Outremont is a very safe Liberal seat - heck, the party even held it with Jean Lapierre as their candidate - and I suspect the party would benefit more from keeping this seat for someone who might need a safer entry into the House of Commons, and would be a more impressive recruit. This is not to say that Justin Trudeau doesn't have star power, but he is not likely to significantly raise the party's profile in Quebec.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The curse of the CBC comedy continues

Since I was already watching the Mercer Report last night (and while I'm on the subject, why aren't Canadian journalists writing the same kind of scathing attacks on Conservative policies, like the Accountability Act, as our comedians are?), I stayed tuned for the very heavilly promoted Little Mosque on the Prairie.

The show was overhyped, and overexposed, and I expected to be disappointed. In that, at least, I was not disappointed. CBC's answer to Corner Gas tried very hard, but in my opinion, came across as far too earnest. It got a few genuine laughs from me, but most of the jokes were forced and obvious, and the tacked on feel-good ending made me feel vaguely nauseous. Perhaps the show will settle in over time, and become less cluttered as characters become established. But I rather suspect that once it is moved away from its timeslot after the Mercer Report, it will lose whatever audience it had this week. I'm not sure what it is about the sitcoms what CBC produces that makes them feel so clunky. Their sketch comedies are usually top notch, and I've heard good things about the dramatic programming. Unfortunately, Little Mosque is not going to break the pattern.

For those who are wondering, I am actually quite eager to get back to posting on political events - there just hasn't been much to attract my attention over the winter break. I had resisted the urge to crack jokes about the logistics of the US police tracking biathlete Myriam Bedard in the winter (really, would you want to track someone who won an Olympic medal for shooting?), but the Khan defection and the image of the NDP-Harper "coalition of the willing" didn't really warrant full posts. Let's hope that future weeks bring more interesting news!

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Location in CanLit

Permit me a brief deviation from politically-oriented posts for a word or two about Canadian literature. When I'm not reading history or political science for work, I like to read fiction, and have recently been reading a fair bit of Canadian literature. Most recently, I devoured The Garneau Block by Todd Babiak, which was a Christmas gift from my in-laws. I thoroughly enjoyed this satirical novel, written in a style that reminded me of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. I particularly enjoyed how explicitly it was set in Edmonton, and played off of the local culture and geography - how accurate his descriptions are, I'm not certain, only having visited Edmonton three times in my life.

Part of what I enjoy about reading Canadian authors is to reading stories which are set in familiar places and cultures. The first time I read Margaret Atwood (I believe it was Life Before Man), I got a thrill out of recognizing the U. of T. locations. Prior to that, pretty much everything I read was set in London, Berlin, or somewhere in the U.S. (Confession: I used to read a lot of Cold War spy fiction.)

As I've been reading more Canadian fiction, I've noticed a trope that I find rather irritating, and I'd like to know what is behind it. I'm referring to the proclivity of Canadian authors to write about clearly real towns and cities, but masking them behind pseudonyms. I first noticed this with Robertson Davies, whose writing I love. Many of his novels are set in small university towns in Ontario, which bear a striking resemblance to Kingston. Davies, as far as I know, never went so far as to completely recreate the city and just rename its key locations in obvious ways. Most recently, I've seen this from two authors, and it grated on every nerve. Russell Smith carefully recreated Kitchener-Waterloo, but renamed it and Wilfrid Laurier University, as his chosen site of suburban blandness. Lynn Coady went even further with Mean Boy, carefully recreating my current town of Sackville and Mount Allison University under the guise of Westcock University (Westcock being one town down the road), complete with institutions such as Carl's (Mel's) Diner.

I'm not certain why it is that major cities seem to escape from the renaming trend. Is there some fear among the Canadian literary establishment of being faced with raving hordes of torch-bearing townspeople who are angry at having their community satirized in print? If it's meant as social commentary on the sameness of small Canadian towns, why go to the point of including obvious details? If anything, the renaming seems to smack of more contempt for small Canadian towns and cities and their inhabitants than use of the real names would.

This is just a pet peeve of mine, which I'm glad Babiak avoided. I'm curious to know if anyone can offer a better explanation than the ones I've posited here.


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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Paul Wells, Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper's New Conservatism

I had been incredibly patient about reading Paul Wells' first book. I put it on my Christmas wish list, and then dutifully resisted several urges to buy and devour it before the holidays. But when my copy arrived in the mail as a Christmas gift from my sister a few days before the 25th, I could resist no longer. Which is why, at 7 AM on December 25th, I was contentedly sipping my morning coffee and reading its middle chapters on the couch in my in-laws' living room, while the rest of the family was still comatose.

On the whole, Right Side Up is a very enjoyable, entertaining and informative read. Macleans' columnist Paul Wells has set himself an ambitious goal: to chronicle both the collapse of the Liberal party and the concurrent rise of the new Conservative Party. In many respects, his book is like a work of old-school political history - the fates of both parties, in Wells' estimation, are intimately tied to the strategies and foibles of two white men: a cold and calculating Stephen Harper and an ambitious, but bumbling, Paul Martin. Wells constructs an entertaining narrative, drawing on his own observations as a journalist, those of his colleagues, and a host of political insiders, both named and unnamed. We, his readers, are treated to a rather sarcastic, yet highly insightful analysis of the careful planning which led to the reinvention of the Conservative parties' approach to federal politics, contrasted against the blind ambition for power that drove Paul Martin and his supporters to stage a their coup to take over the Liberal party.

It is often said that journalists write the first account of history, and this is certainly true when it comes to political happenings. Right Side Up might be considered a first-and-a-half account, written shortly after the events it chronicles - indeed, Wells includes initial observations about the Liberal leadership race which had not yet been concluded when the book went to press. This brings many strengths to the book, including current impressions about the motivations of the various players, and a very detailed blow-by-blow of the election campaigns of 2004 and 2005/6.

In other respects, his book can be frustrating. The intense focus on the Liberal-Conservative dynamic necessarilly leads to the marginalization of the roles played by the NDP and the Bloc. For example, the fall 2005 decision of the NDP to throw the Liberals to the wolves and end their temporary support of the government was not the subject of any analysis. There is also little detail on the policies of the Martin and Harper governments - once bills are passed through Parliament, they largely disappear from the narrative, with little follow-through on their implementation (or lack thereof).

Wells is very strong when analyzing politicking, and the manner in which the various parties tried to construct their voting coalitions among the various demographics of Canadian society. Future accounts of this period (should this turn out to be a more profound shift in Canadian politics), will need to ask the question of whether a more fundamental shift in Canadian political values and demographics is also occurring. Wells suggests that perhaps a change in lower middle-class and working-class voter allegiances is underway, similar to the shift in white middle-class male voting patterns which helped the Republicans rise to power after the Democratic 60s in the United States. This analysis will need to be followed up by other political scientists and historians.

Historians are always faced with the dilemma of deciding when to end their story. In this respect, I think Wells was poorly served by his editors. The last several chapters of his book deal with the events of summer 2006, dealing with unresolved (and sometimes minor) political spats and bills that had not been resolved. By the time the book was published (or almost immediately after), the dynamic had shifted. In particular, the Liberal leadership race should have been left out of this book. This chapter was dated by the time I read the book - less than two months after publication. Indeed, given the way that Gerard Kennedy, who turned out to play the role of kingmaker, was overlooked, this chapter seemed particularly weak.

These observations, it must be noted, reflect my own biases as a historian. It is the task of my own profession to go through the archival and journalistic record with a fine-toothed comb to flesh out some of these minor (or arcane) details, and to perhaps construct an alternative narrative (or narratives) to accompany these events. The political junkie in me greatly enjoyed this book, and found that Wells' analysis largely coincided with my own observations and recollections of the past three years. His wit and dry humour are always enjoyable, as are his equitable skewering of both Martin and Harper. Liberals in particularly would be well-advised to take his observations to heart, perhaps coupled with the analysis of Stephen Clarkson's Big Red Machine (my Christmas read last year).

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