Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ontario Election: Guelph Update

I unfortunately missed the all-candidates debate on social policy last week in Guelph, as a nasty cold took hold of me. I had been looking forward to checking out the candidates in person. From what a good friend and colleague told me though, the NDP candidate, James Gordon, acquitted himself very well and was solid on the issues. I'll admit that my initial impression of him was not a great one (receiving emails about summers of listening and sending messages through song irritated my pragmatic and sober self). She wasn't terribly impressed by any of the other candidates, including Liberal incumbent Liz Sandals, who struck her as bored. I can't say that I was terribly surprised by this, as Sandals spent most of the 2007 debate that I attended seemingly working on other paperwork. She has always struck me as somewhat bureaucratic in nature - competent, but not all that inspiring in person.

In any case, with the election a mere week away, I have no real idea how the riding is likely to go. Last time out, it was mainly a Liberal-Conservative fight, with the Green candidate sneaking into third place above the NDP. I get the sense that the NDP are fighting harder this time, at least in my left-of-centre downtown neighbourhood. Indeed, to look at signs on lawns near my home, you'd be hard-pressed to consider the Conservative candidate a threat. This is reflected in the literature as well - so far we've had 2 NDP drops and 5 Liberal ones, with nothing in print from the other two major parties (although Green signs abound, since we live so close to their campaign office). I rather suspect that there is some rather specific neighbourhood targetting going on, with the Conservatives focussing their energies on suburban Guelph, especially the south end, with the Greens and NDP hitting hard downtown, and the Liberals spread more widely across the city. I suspect that this will once again be a close race, and I'm not feeling all that confident, a week out, to predict the outcome, especially with things seeming so fluid overall in the province.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Camera-test your ties - Ontario Leader's Debate Edition

So, despite a deep-seated desire not to inflict pain on myself, I tuned in this evening to the Ontario election leader's debate. To make this a productive hour and a half, I also set up the ironing board and a stack of 12 shirts. If you don't feel like reading the rest of this post, feel happy for me that I at least got my ironing done.

Alas, that's really the only great thing that I can say about how I spent my early evening. The debate was formulaic, with no surprises, endlessly-repeated talking points, and folksy populism. And I'm sick of it.

Could we please end the new tradition of having the questions be asked by videotaped, carefully-selected "average voters" whose questions are picked because they aim right at one candidate or the other's talking points? And if not, could the leaders at least give up the oh-so-fake approach of pretending to be talking to these people directly and endlessly repeating their name in the ensuing 12 minutes? I get it, you wrote down that her name was Catherine!

And while we're on the name game issue, would it be too much to ask for an end to the folksy anecdotes about the hard-working family folks whom the leaders have met on the campaign trail, be it Julie from just outside of Wawa, or Kevin the electrician from Tilbury, or Sammi the nine-year old lemonade stand operator from Moosonee who is concerned about the HST on the paint she uses for her sign?

I don't feel that I got a great sense of any of these leaders' platforms beyond their endlessly-repeated talking points. Hudak claims to have a "5-point plan" (as if the number of points matters) with health and education as his priorities and cuts that will miraculously appear. McGuinty is all about clean energy, university tuition cuts, a $355 tax cut last year and home care for seniors. And Horvath (insofar as I got to see her tonight) will end the HST on hydro to help out seniors, and defend public health care. And all of them are parents, and have parents, and have kids that have had to use the health care system recently. And they all care about families and seniors. (And if you're single or in a couple but without kids, and in your 30s or 40s, none of the leaders could care less about how you vote!)

I would love to see the debate format turned into a rigorous on-camera grilling by journalists, or perhaps experts. To balance things off, perhaps each party could nominate their choice of a journalist or an academic with policy expertise. And then we might see an actual debate where there is interactivity, and a chance to get beyond talking points and have the assertions of the leaders challenged by those posing the questions. But that's probably a pipe dream, and we're doomed to several more debates that are a race-to-the-most-folksy-and-down-to-earth competition.

For what it's worth, I didn't think there was a clear winner or that any of the candidates really distinguished themselves. I think that hurts Horvath the most, as she seemed to be marginalized a lot of the time, and unable to get a word in over the other two, which is a problem when she is the least well-known of the three. I saw a lot of Twitter commentary about McGuinty waving his hands around, and his terrible hypnotic tie, but he stayed on point (perhaps too tightly and scriptedly so) and didn't seem to get too flustered - I still take issue with a number of his policies, especially on post-secondary education, but I don't think he hurt himself. I don't know whether voters waffling between a Liberal and Conservative vote would find that Hudak came across as a premier-in-waiting. I'm quite firmly opposed to even the notion of this, but I still don't think he was all that impressive (and who picked that purple-and-green monstrosity of a tie!) So in a debate without a winner, might we be headed for minority territory?

Steve Paikin, incidentally, was a good moderator, in terms of trying to pull the leaders back to the questions and allow for fair amounts of time. But the format really didn't allow him to press the leaders directly, as we sometimes see in the American Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates, or Canadian leaders' debates of the past.

As I said at the beginning - at least I got my ironing done!

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

John A.: Birth of a Country

Last night, the CBC aired John A.: The Birth of a Country, a dramatization of the eight years of Canadian political history leading up to the formation of the Great Coalition government of 1864 - the government which ultimately drove the Confederation process. Based on Richard Gwyn's recent biography of Sir John A. Macdonald (and with historical insights provided by my friend, historian Andrew Smith), the film is clearly an effort to reinvigorate the interest that Canadians have for their past. Twitter today has been filled with glowing reviews from the Historica-Dominion institute and Canada's History magazine.

Would that I could share this enthusiasm. I'll admit that even though I love and teach Canadian political history, I've never been a huge fan of historical films, and I don't read nearly as many biographies as perhaps I should. But I'm always on the lookout for a new film to show in the Practicing Historian course that I teach to my second year students (much as The Valour and the Horror illustrates a lot of very useful points about film and public history, I don't particularly enjoy watching it year after year), and so I decided to settle in and watch John A. last night. Having done so, I don't understand the accolades being heaped on it by people such as Andrew Coyne and Peter Mansbridge.

The acting by the two leads, Shawn Doyle and Peter Outerbridge, as John A. Macdonald and George Brown, was solid, given the script and the material that they had to work with. Brown, in particular, came across as a complex character who had strong ideas about democracy and the failures of the United Province. Macdonald, on the other hand, was largely depicted as a charismatic showman and a crafty political operator. Having watched the film, though, I got the sense that the filmmakers got to a certain point and decided that they really wanted to make this a film about George Brown. This doesn't surprise me, as most of the accounts that I've read of Confederation give Brown most of the credit for compromising and coming up with the idea for a constitutional committee and the Great Coalition. Of the three major leaders (along with George-Etienne Cartier, who only plays a bit part in the film), Conservative leader Macdonald controlled the smallest number of followers in the legislative assembly. Nevertheless, the result is that "John A." felt like a misnomer of a film that could just as easily have been called "George". Had the film continued into the Confederation negotiations of 1864-67, Macdonald's central place in the narrative might have seemed more justified.

I'm not a historian of 19th century Canada. My own research interests lie in more recent decades, so I'm not particularly well placed to pick apart where the filmmakers might have taken some liberties with the historical past. My bigger concern is with the film itself as a piece of entertainment. It is primarily on this score that I found it to be a failure. I was not gripped by the drama, nor drawn in by the characterizations of these politicians. Quite the contrary. I found the script to be leaden in its earnest desire to educate its audience. In an effort to communicate historical facts, the characters frequently engaged in dialogue that sounded like they were reading aloud from historical monographs. It reminded me of a great scene from "The Great Muppet Caper", where Lady Holiday (played by Diana Rigg) delivers a long monologue explaining all about her relationship with her brother, the family business, etc, and then Miss Piggy turns to her and asks "Why are you telling me all of this?" Holiday airily replies, "It's plot exposition, it has to go somewhere. Anyways..." Almost all of the dialogue of John A. felt like this to me. The characters kept telling each other things in a completely artificial way, providing historical exposition for the audience, but snapping the viewer out of the moment, and making him/her very much aware that they were being educated about Canada's history.

Overall, the film felt like a two hour version of on of Historica's Canadian History minutes. And while that method of communicating tidbits of Canadian history can work in a one-minute commercial, it becomes tiresome in the format of a feature-length film. Caught between a desire to educate Canadians about their past and a desire to provide good entertainment, the filmmakers appear to have been unable to make up their minds, and thus fell flat with their final product. Mind you, I don't know that I could have done a much better job myself with the source material. I don't really understand what led to a decision to end this film with the start of the more interesting story about how the Confederation deal was brokered. When I lecture on this material to my undergraduates, I take less time to address the issue of the deadlocked legislative assembly of the 1850s and 1860s than this film did. It might well have been better to simply admit that some aspects of Canada's political past are not the best source material for a movie. But that's another debate...

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Canadian Political History Conference at York University

I've noticed that a number of people have landed at my site because many months ago I posted a call for papers for a Political History Conference at York University. The program for the conference "Transformation: State, Nation and Citizenship in a New Environment" is now online at the conference's website. The conference will run from October 13-15, and has a really exciting program with many of Canada's leading political historians presenting on a wide array of topics.

Now if I could just get my own talk finished, I'll be set!

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

On Royal Rebranding

In light of this week's ministerial command to "hang the Queen" in Canada's embassies abroad here are some comments from me in a story by Sarah Boesveld in the National Post. For the record, I'm shocked, shocked(!) by what Rudyard Griffiths had to say.

Well, actually, I'm not shocked at all. He said precisely what you'd expect the founder of the Dominion Institute to say.

Enjoy your weekend, folks!

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Friday, September 02, 2011

Ontario Election: GSAs, Greens and Catholic Schools

The issue of gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools in Ontario has heated up again, this time in the Toronto Catholic District School Board, which voted this week to place denominational rights above other rights in implementing the provincial equity policies - which were supposed to guarantee GSAs in Ontario high schools. Clearly, the individual schools in the board are interpreting this as carte blanche to ban anything which explictly has "gay" in the name, going so far as to threaten disciplinary action against students who are fighting for these support groups.

I am pleased to see that this issue is not only getting attention from the gay and alternative media. The Globe and Mail has been devoting significant coverage to this issue, including today's commentary piece from Aidan Johnson.

I'm going to be very curious to see how this issue plays out in the provincial election campaign. So far, the approach of the McGuinty government has been to support the creation of GSAs, using gay Toronto Centre MPP Glen Murray as the main spokesperson on this issue. (Although I find it curious and significant that Education minister Leona Dombrowsky is largely MIA on this issue). But there is clearly reluctance to putting the full weight of the government behind a strategy of compelling the Catholic boards to accept these support groups, especially with the Liberal government in danger of losing the election.

The option of seeking a constitutional amendment to eliminate public funding for the Catholic boards - as was done in Quebec and Newfoundland - does not appear to register on the radar for the current government. I'm not overly surprised by this, given the stew John Tory found himself in in the 2007 election with his promise of funding for other denominational schools. I'm not sure if the gay community and their supporters will be able to mobilize this as a major campaign issue, particularly given the fact that the only major party to endorse an end to public funding of Catholic schools in the 2007 election - the Greens - have retreated from this platform promise, and so there will be no standard bearer for this approach.

I imagine that the Liberals (and the NDP, for that matter), will make vague promises about resolving the issue in the courts, which should tie things up for at least a few more years.

More's the shame, as it will be gay and lesbian teens who suffer in the meantime. I'm not at all surprised by the hateful position of the Catholic schools (having been educated in the system myself), or by the hesitancy of the major parties when faced with a sizeable Catholic voting block. But it does betray their cynical political calculations and lack of willingness to passionately advocate for one of our most vulnerable populations.

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