Thursday, March 31, 2005

Challenging Bill 101

Today's Supreme Court rulings on language rights in Quebec were of great interest to me. Would francophone and allophone parents get Bill 101 overturned, and win the right to send their children to English language schools? Would the narrow definition of "a majority of a child's education in English" be enlarged by the courts for those ayant droit as it were, to send their children to school in English in Quebec.

For all the anticipation, the rulings were as straight-forward as can be. Yes, the courts ruled that decisions on the right to English education in Quebec for those children coming from other provinces should be judged more expansively, on a case-by-case basis. This is in line with earlier decisions which ruled that the original provisions of Bill 101, which required that children could only be educated in English in Quebec if either their older siblings or parents had also been educated in English in Quebec, were unconstitutional, and thus broadened access to make Canada the geographical frame of reference for access.

The second case, Gosselin, never had a snowball's chance in hell. Nowhere in Section 23 of the Charter does it say anything about the right of the majority language population to send their children to minority language schools. This was never the intent of the legislation. True, in the 1970s and 80s, some other provinces used to allow this to occur - often to scrounge up a viable number of students to open a French school. But as school management rights are being won by francophone minority communities, increasingly these children are being redirected to French Immersion schools. The Supreme Court was not going to gut the basic premise of Bill 101 almost 30 years after it was passed.

The fact that the appeal was launched does, however, speak to a fundamental problem with Quebec's approach to language learning. A system that once was the envy of other provinces for producing fluent bilingualism is faltering. Francophones are rightly upset over the poor manner in which English is taught in the French system. Unlike their counterparts in the rest of the country, there is no "English immersion" offered in the public schools for those parents who want their children to grow up bilingual. There are private schools, but this is a costly route indeed. In fact, Quebec francophones start learning their second language later than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. Under Bill 101, English is introduced no earlier than Grade 3. The Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, which used to start ESL in Grade 1 in its French schools, fought this in the late-70s, and was overruled by the Minister of Education, Jacques-Yvan Morin.

Indeed, Quebec is a worldwide anomaly in the manner in which it teaches second languages. Throughout Europe second language instruction (often in English) routinely begins in the first grade, with no detriment to the mother tongue skills of the children. But there is a fear here that starting English instruction earlier will harm French language skills. This is not borne out by educational studies, but is politically strong stuff.

Section 23 was never intended to cope with this problem, and I'm surprised that the court even agreed to rule on that case. Change on this front has to come from lobbying the Quebec government. Unfortunately, Quebec francophone parents who want their children to have a fighting chance to become bilingual still seem to be in the minority, and right now it would be political suicide for the Charest government to be seen tinkering with Bill 101. So the disastrous status quo shall remain in place. More's the pity.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Checks and Balances

This will be a short post, as I'm still under the weather. I hope to have a coherent post on the new Senate appointments sometime soon.

I'm relieved to see that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Schiavo appeal today.. This story is truly incredible to watch. It is hard to believe that Congress would meddle so obviously with the clear will of several years worth of court decisions and the will of this woman's husband. (That President Bush would do so surprises me not at all.)

I've long been an advocate of euthanasia, but this case really drives home my thinking on it. The thought of being kept alive for 15 years in a vegetative state is truly appalling to consider.

Hopefully America's politicians will not intervene again. If they do, it means that one can no longer count on the system of checks and balances, and we can kiss an independent and functional American judiciary good-bye.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Universities, mandatory retirement, and the baby boom

Today's Globe and Mail ran another editorial today about the issue of mandatory retirement at age 65, specificially where university professors at U of T are concerned. (I would give you the link, but the Globe only allows online subscribers access to their editorials).

Their lines of argumentation are pretty standard: mandatory retirement was ok when it made way for younger professors, and tenure compensated for this with job security. But now, it forces people to retire when they are still productive (there is a special feature in the Careers section on an 86-year old psychology prof at McGill - in Quebec where there is no mandatory retirement). They point to Einstein, still lucid at 76, and urge the reader to "consider the loss to society of so many capable and talented older people forced into retirement before they are ready."

Then the argument switches into the latest in-vogue argument for abolishing mandatory retirement: demographic change. Recent articles always raise "the issue of how to fill all the available teaching positions, as the baby-boom generation hits retierement age in the next 15 years." This last point is central to pretty much everything I have read recently, and seems to me, more than anything else, to be at the crux of the latest "crisis" over mandatory retirement.

Baby boomers don't want to retire. And so they're going to use their demographic clout to continue to jam up a system long oversaturated by their numbers, claiming that it would be impossible to fill their jobs. This is self-serving hokum, at least in my discipline. For most of the 90s, there were, on average, maybe 1-2 new positions per year opening up in Canadian history - for all the PhD graduates to compete for. Things have improved recently - a quick peek shows that there were about 7 open positions in 2002-03, 8 in 2003-04, and 10 in 2004-05. Mind you, these do not add up to 25 new positions - at least 4 of these that I know of were filled by lateral movement of an existing junior professor - we're just shuffling the deck here. I also know that the average new hire in my field has been out of their PhD for 4 years, teaching sessional courses and trying to otherwise eke out a living. You cannot make a hiring short list at most universities without having a book deal.

Compare this to the situation when most baby boomer professors were hired. Many of them - including my own supervisor and several of my other professors - had not even completed their PhD when they were hired. Their first books appeared years after they had been hired - and in many cases after they had already been promoted to the rank of Associate Professor. This talk of a crisis seems a wee bit exagerated, at least in my discipline. There are dozens of qualified people, eager to get into the field, with more added every year from PhD programs. (And lest I be accused of discussing a dead discipline, in most universities, history enrollments are growing faster than those of any other discipline in the humanities, and at the same rate as the social sciences).

Apart from the "baby boom" glut argument, which you can clearly see I think is overrated, there is a good case to be made for allowing some professors to continue to teach and research with the university past the age of 65. But tenure makes this a tricky egg to crack. I don't think that a professor should be allowed to continue to draw their hefty full professor salary (often 2.5 times that of a new hire) indefinitely, if their productivity doesn't warrant it, particularly once they reach the age of 65. Many professors do not keep up an active research program, continue to supervise graduate students, and generally contribute to academia consistently once they reach a certain point in their career. What benefit is there to society of allowing them to maintain their job (and salary) permanently? Very little, I would argue.

Indeed, this is why universities have the category of Emeritus Professor. This allows them to keep their top-notch professors on staff past the age of mandatory retirement. Perhaps the responsibilities and salary which accompany this rank could be retooled somewhat, but there is much to be said for universities being given the opportunity to essentially "re-hire" their top professors after age 65. It weeds out the less productive ones, and allows the excellent to stay.

I do think that there needs to be a mechanism for good professors to be allowed to continue as members of the university when they are older, but still productive, but a simple abolition of mandatory retirement without changing the tenure system is a very bad idea.

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En grève

There is a province-wide student strike today in Quebec. I don't have to teach classes today, so the strike does not affect me directly, other than making me reluctant to go to the university library to do some research.

At issue is the Charest government's decision to cut $103M in student bursaries and transform this into increased funding for student loans. The CEGEPs have been on strike for weeks now, and have recently been joined by some of the universities. McGill, Concordia and most of the rest of the province's universities are joining them today for a day-long strike.

The outcome of this confrontation is hard to predict. Every group seems to be hostile to the Charest government right now. The province has been riddled with protests, labour confrontations, and general hostility towards his two-year old government. In this province, Liberal weakness in government means that the sovereigntist PQ gains support. This makes for a rather sick political climate in which governance is always tainted by the separation question, and voters find themselves continually faced with a choice between the right-leaning, but nominally federalist Liberals, and the left-leaning, but sovereignty-prone PQ. Some would throw the ADQ (soft-sovereignty, harder-right) into the mix, but come election day, the big choice almost always comes down to the first two. But I digress...

Will the Charest Liberals hold firm in face of yet another instance of bad press and political unpopularity, or will they cave into students, for fear that they will run (more) to the PQ? Right now, the average tuition in Quebec is less than half that in the other provinces. It makes it difficult for the students to make a particularly strong case about their crippling debt loads, when one compares them to their counterparts elsewhere.

So, do I support the students? To be honest, I'm of two minds on this one. I think that in many ways they are fighting a losing cause. They already pay the lowest tuition in the country, and vehemently oppose tuition raises (which might theoretically free up more money for bursaries for low income-students). It's hard to have a lot of sympathy for students paying $1850 a year in tuition (in Ontario, it's in the neighbhourhood of $4500, last time I checked).

But it was not so long ago that Ontario approved massive tuition hikes for its students, and there was a chorus of protest against that decision of the Harris government - which came to naught. My own tuition rose from $2000/year in my first year to almost $4000 by my fourth. Should Quebecers have to face the same fate, simply because Ontario (and other provinces) set a bad precedent? Can Quebec universities stay competitive and retain high-quality education without taking the same measures as their counterparts elsewhere? How can the government pump more money into university education without either a) tax hikes or b) tuition increases?

I realize that this post doesn't really come to any conclusions. But I felt like pondering publicly today. Especially since I can't really go into work.

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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Taking a stand, Conservative-style

Two related issues to discuss here:

Conservative Abstentions at the Budget Vote:
This was an interesting strategy to take. I'm not sure if it was making the best of a nasty situation. Right now, both the Bloc and the NDP stand to gain more from a snap election than the Conservatives, which meant that it came down to the Conservatives to "support" the budget vote, if the government were to continue operating. How best to do this?

If they followed the "keep the members in the hall" strategy, and voted against the budget, they are immediately accused of not having enough party discipline/organization to properly bring down a budget. The members chosen by the party whip to sit out the vote are also faced with hostile voters back in their ridings who wanted them to vote down the budget, and can't point to their "no" vote. Voting for the budget is perhaps worse from a political standpoint - it leaves them with no convincing response to Liberal (or NDP) accusations that they supported the government's agenda.

I'm not entirely sure that the abstention route will prove to be better, but it does show a) a united party, and b) the willingness to keep Parliament operational, without overtly supporting the budget. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Moral Issues at the Conservative Convention:
First off, the motion to have no official party platform on moral issues was entirely ill-conceived, as so many have pointed out. It does open the party to accusations of a secret social conservative agenda. But will the alternative prove to be better for them. This can go one of two ways, as I see it. Option A is that the convention votes for a socially conservative platform. Then it isn't a "secret" social conservative agenda, it's an overt one, and anyone who might have thought "well, maybe the Liberals are just using scare tactics" and thus voted for the Conservatives, will no longer do so.

Option B, as I see it, is that these motions fail. This doesn't change the inclinations of Conservative MPs to vote a socially conservative line. They continue to do so, despite there being no official party policy to this effect. And thus, the Liberals can continue to claim that the Conservatives are a party of secret social conservatism.

Frankly, the only way that I think the Conservative party can actually divest itself of the vote-killing (well, at least east of Manitoba) social conservative tag, is to vote a binding resolution obligating party members not to support or initiate legislation on abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage, etc. Every other option seems to leave them in the same morass.

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Friday, March 04, 2005

High on Emotion? Surprisingly not...

Please pardon the reference to a Chris deBurgh song - my partner is a CdeB addict, and it has filtered into my discourse. I am referring to the responses now filtering out about yesterday's tragedy, where four RCMP officers were killed in a shoot-out at a marijuana grow-op in northern Alberta.

I was fully expecting political leaders, in particular Stephen Harper, to react emotionally and use this incident to argue that marijuana is not an innocent drug, and thus should not be decriminalized. Instead, as this piece from the Globe and Mail indicates, Harper is taking a more reasoned stance. Essentially, he is citing this as an isolated incident which has nothing to do with decriminalization of marijuana, although he still opposes that legislation. Colour me surprised, but pleased.

Unfortunately, I rather fear that Harper's words of calming will have little effect on the grassroots. If I, a person who supports decriminalization, immediately reacted to the coverage with fear that people would immediately jump to the equation "marijuana = RCMP deaths", I suspect that others will as well.

On a related note, I have to admit to being shaken up by the fact that one of the constables killed is about my age. My heart goes out to their families and friends for their loss.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Why Canadians don't like Waffles

I could make this into a long diatribe about why I think that Canadian participation in the missile defence program is a bad (or good) idea. Instead, I'd like to take you all on a trip down memory lane to a time when another Prime Minister was faced with a decision over defence policy and how to deal with American demands.

Picture it: the early 1960s. The Avro Arrow project has been cancelled, and John Diefenbaker has decided to build Bomarc missile sites in Canada and deploy Honest John missiles to Canadian forces in Europe. Trouble is, both projects require nuclear warheads. We are now about three years after Diefenbaker has ratified the Liberal-negotiated NORAD agreement.

The decision to start construction on the bases is made without much hesitation. But there is trouble brewing in the cabinet between External Affairs Minister Howard Green, who is anti-nuke, and Defence Minister Douglas Harkness, who supports the nuclear weapons. Like a certain man currently occupying the PMO, our man Diefenbaker does not deal well with multiple options and conflict. And it takes a while for missile bases to be built, which gives him ample opportunity to start dithering on whether or not nuclear weapons will actually be allowed on Canadian soil. Options are floated, including the construction of the missiles with one part missing - presumably to be shipped ExpressPost from the US when trouble looms.

To make a long story short, pressure is laid to bear on Diefenbaker by the United States to accept the nuclear weapons. Diefenbaker bristles at pressure from the young whippersnapper JFK, and then again at comments from General Lauris Norstad (the retiring chief of NATO), that nuclear weapons are part and parcel of Canadian commitments to NATO. Pearson's Liberals declare in favour of nuclear weapons, to live up to their NATO and NORAD obligations, despite earlier opposition to the plan.

And Diefenbaker... waffles. He refuses to allow a clear statement to be made on Canada's nuclear policy, and kneecaps Douglas Harkness for attempting to clarify government policy to the media. Harkness resigns in disgust, prompting a schism in cabinet, leading into the 1963 election. Diefenbaker tries to pull every trick in the book during the campaign, including the fabrication of a letter from the US government offering to help the Liberal campaign. (Mind you, shortly after this came to light, JFK did send feelers to Pearson asking if he would indeed like some help - an offer wisely refused). All this comes to naught for Dief, and the Liberals win a minority.

It strikes me that Canadians tend to prefer leaders who weigh the pros and cons on an issue, come to a reasoned decision, and stick with it. They can respect decisions, even if they don't always agree with the decisions made - witness the Trudeau approach to governance. Paul Martin and Diefenbaker seem to have problems with parts two and three of this equation, and I suspect that Martin, like Diefenbaker, will suffer for his indecisive nature. With the big chair comes big decisions, and they have to be made in a timely fashion.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Fiscally unbalanced

I rarely pay much attention to budget debates. This is largely because a) I don't pay a heck of a lot of taxes yet, and b) I see them more as suggestions of how a government might spend its money, rather than hard and fast rules.

One aspect that I do follow, as does Paul Wells, is the manner in which research and education are treated by Ottawa. I'm always keen to see if more money is being spent on universities and scholarships. The later Chretien years were good for this, as Millenium Scholarships and Canada Research Chairs were created, SSHRC (and the other granting councils) were expanded, and tax deductions for scholarships were increased. I have heard of no such good news in the latest budget, which is a shame. I feel this way more notably now that I live in Quebec. Last year, paying taxes here for the first time, and having been forewarned about the high taxes in this province, I got a wonderful surprise. All scholarship, fellowship and bursary money is exempt from provincial taxes. Wow! While the federal government has been slowly creeping up it's exemption (which was a pathetic $500 not too long ago), the Quebec government has made a solid commitment to its scholarship winners. Would that Ottawa could get on this bandwagon.

This segues me into another topic. The fiscal imbalance. There has been much talk recently from provincial governments about the so-called fiscal imbalance - the idea that Ottawa's taxing powers are disproportionate to its responsibilities, and that these should be devolved to the provinces. This seems a little too convenient to me. If provinces (read: Quebec), want to increase their revenues, they have the option of increasing the taxes that they control. Indeed, that was what Maurice Duplessis did back in the 1950s when he thought that Ottawa was getting a pit bold with its taxing. There were fears at the time that this would be politically unpopular, as Quebecers would be doubly-taxed. Not so. Ottawa dropped its tax rates (or at least remitted a portion of what was collected in Quebec back to the province). It seems to me that if the provinces could collectively agree that they wanted more revenue coming directly to the provincial governments, they could all raise their taxes, which would apply pressure on Ottawa to drop federal ones. Anyone think that is going to happen? No, I think that this is really a convenient exercise in federal scapegoating so that provinces don't have to take the politically unpopular step of increasing their existing taxes to get the revenue they want.

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