Monday, May 28, 2007

So long, and thanks for all the lobsters!

With all the excitement going down in the Quebec legislature and the mass arrests at the Moscow gay pride demonstrations, you'd think I'd be blogging up a storm, right?

Sorry folks, but I've been a little bit preoccupied. My tenure in New Brunswick is about to come to a close. The movers are coming today to pack up my life, and then, assuming all goes well, we'll be setting out for Guelph tomorrow - lock, stock and cat.

My 21 months in New Brunswick have been interesting ones, to be sure. After living my entire life in cities no smaller than Ottawa (and mostly in larger ones than that), it has been a challenge adapting to life in a community of 7,000 (5,000 in the summer once the students leave). While I will miss the pheasants wandering around my house and all the friends I've made at Mount Allison, I'm looking forward to having easy access to good restaurants again, and it will be nice to be close to our families and friends again.

I think that's enough self-indulgent musing... see you all on the flipside when I'm set up in Ontari-ari-ario! (They say it's a place to stand and a place to grow!)

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Friday, May 18, 2007

George Brown, Dalton McGuinty and Rep-by-Pop

Why is Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty so upset about Peter Van Loan's proposed federal bill to alter the number of seats that each provinces has in the House of Commons - a formula which would create 22 new seats by 2014, with Ontario receiving 10 new seats, BC 7, and Alberta 5?

It's quite simple really. One of the main reasons why George Brown, editor of The Globe and leader of the Clear Grit faction in the parliament of the United Province of Canada, was a champion of the Confederation project is that he wanted to bring representation by population to the legislature. He was tired of a legislature in which Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec) had equal numbers of seats, despite a significantly higher population in Upper Canada. The House of Commons established at Confederation was supposed to meet that demand, with regional representation established through the Senate.

The problem is that the principle of Representation by Population has been systemically undermined, usually to the detriment of Ontario, Alberta and BC. A 1915 constitutional amendment established the rule that a province could not have fewer MPs than it has Senators (hence PEI's 4 MPs and New Brunswick's 10), and a 1974 amendment created a grandfather clause under which a province could not lose MPs under parliamentary redistribution, it could only gain new ones. Had the 1992 Charlottetown Accord passed, Quebec would have been permanently guaranteed 25% of the seats of the House of Commons.

Currently, only three provinces have a higher average population per House of Commons seat than the national average (106,267) [for the sake of argument, my numbers are based on the Statistics Canada population estimates for October 2006]: Ontario (120,017), Alberta (131,287) and British Columbia (120,206).

I recognize that the Conservative bill's seat distributions are designed to take population growth by 2014 into account. It is nevertheless interesting to look at what happens if those 22 seats were to be immediately added, creating a House with 330 seats, and an average population of 99,182 people per riding. Four provinces would be over the national average (albeit marginally in two cases): BC (100,636), Quebec (102,255), Ontario (109,670) and Alberta (110,111). By 2014, this is likely to be skewed even more against Alberta, in light of that province's high population growth. But Ontario is still definitely up there in terms of underrepresentation.

McGuinty's position is even more understandable if you apply the national average to each province and see how many more seats they should have in a 330 seat House of Commons based on rep-by-pop. Instead of the 116 seats being promised to Ontario, it would have 128. Alberta would have 34 instead of 31, and Quebec (!) would have 77 instead of 75. Every other province, with the exception of BC, would lose seats. Of course, the 1915 constitutional amendment prevents this, but it gives you a much better sense of why there is such discontent.

Van Loan's bill is grossly inadequate as a form of parliamentary reform. While these provinces should have more seats in the House of Commons, the bill doesn't go far enough towards a truly equitable treatment. Moreover, there are other key elements of democratic reform which need to be addressed.

[Note: Please feel free to double-check my math - I'm a historian, not a statistician!]

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fraser reports. No, the official languages one...

Graham Fraser released his first annual report as Commissioner for Official Languages today. I've spent the day writing about the history of official languages policy, and haven't had a chance to read the full report yet. The highlights, however, are damning. Fraser is deeply critical of how the Harper government has undermined Stéphane Dion's 2003 Action Plan for Official Languages, and for cutting the Court Challenges Program, one of the key legal tools that has historically been used to secure minority language rights in Canada.

Someone is also asleep at the wheel in the Conservative optics department. The government has announced that it will not replace Guy Lauzon, chair of the House of Commons official languages committee, after he was voted out in a joint vote by the three opposition parties, who had lost confidence in him. This is not the sort of story that a government wants to have on the same day as the Official Languages Commissioner is criticizing its record.

More to follow later... In the meantime, Paul Wells has some good analysis.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pauline Marois, PEI and Manitoba

Amidst all the excitement surrounding the PQ leadership campaign, it dawned on me to check up on how our national newspaper has been covering the day-to-day politics of other Canadian provinces. Last fall, my Canadian Studies students were treated to a lesson on media bias and the impact of media concentration, as the New Brunswick election campaign slid completely under the radar for both the Globe and the National Post.

Did you know that two provinces are in the middle of election campaigns? Better tell the Globe! It's been a week since there was any mention of the Manitoba campaign. The PEI campaign hasn't merited a word since May 5th.

I recognize that the vast majority of the Globe's readers are concentrated in central Canada. But there really is something striking about the fact that the leadership race for what is currently the third-place party in the Quebec legislature is getting a lot more ink than the provincial election campaigns in two other provinces.

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And then there was one. Third time the charm for Marois

I don't think anyone would have predicted a week ago that Gilles Duceppe would essentially be forced out of the PQ leadership race due to an underwhelming level of support from the party. But it seems that this is the case, and that Pauline Marois' third run at the leadership of the party will be unopposed.

Never let anyone tell you that Quebec's politics aren't the most interesting in the country.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

So much for the triumphant coronation...

Interesting. I'm not entirely certain what to make of the fact that Pauline Marois has decided to run against Gilles Duceppe for the leadership of the Parti Québécois.

To read most of the press coverage to date, it is tempting to conclude that this is simply a matter of Duceppe not being overly popular among the PQ's elected MNAs, and perhaps being mistrusted as an "outsider" by PQ party militants.

However, I'll stick my neck out and offer another possible explanation. Earlier reports today had the Marois and Duceppe people feeling each other out. I'm going to suggest that they might have jointly decided that it would be better for the party (and the separatist movement) to have an active leadership race, featuring at least two high-profile candidates, than to simply hand the job to Duceppe, and thereby reinforce the perception that the PQ leadership is a job that nobody really wants. I'm by no means certain that this is the case, especially given the deeply rooted animosities within the PQ tent, but I'm in the mood for thinking outside the box on a Friday afternoon.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I'll take "utterly predictable developments in Quebec politics" for $200, Alex

So, André Boisclair has handed in his resignation. I, for one, am decidedly unsurprised by this development. A headless chicken could have predicted that the PQ would ditch Boisclair after his poor performance in the election. Unfortunately, Boisclair himself was woefully incapable of deciphering the bleeding obvious, and is now forced to leave under a dark cloud of pettiness and party infighting.

What should prove to be much more interesting is how this will shake up federal politics. The BQ has hardly been shining in the federal polls, and I rather suspect that if popular leader Gilles Duceppe departs - as expected - for the provincial arena, the party's popularity will take yet another hit. I fear that this is likely to be good news for the Harper Conservatives, given Dion's failure to revitalize the party's support in Quebec - or indeed to do anything other than talk about the environment.

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A little thing called section 23

I nearly fell off my chair this morning when I read this story that Justin Trudeau had criticized the education system in New Brunswick which has separate systems for anglophones and francophones. Now, I recognize that Justin would only have been about 10 years old when his father fervently fought for the creation of Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which specifically mandates the protection of official language minority education rights. He might not remember the fact that his father specifically ensured that this section of the Charter could not be overruled by the notwithstanding clause. Maybe he didn't watch the CBC miniseries about his father starring Colm Feore which featured this as a plot point...

He clearly hasn't paid a lick of attention to the past twenty years of activism by French Canadian and Acadian communities that have used this section of the Charter to fight for the right to their own school boards. Perhaps he didn't read about how these communities were upset by the cancellaton of the Court Challenges program, which provided them with financial assistance in their legal battles to have the provinces recognize their educational rights. Perhaps he is unaware that the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars since the 1970s, under the aegis of the Official Languages in Education Program, to help provinces provide official language minority education. Maybe he didn't notice that Stéphane Dion helped relaunch that effort to promote official language acquisition with a major infusion of new federal money in 2003 when he was intergovernmental affairs minister.

I suppose this is one way for Justin to distance himself from criticisms that he's running on his father's name - he clearly doesn't seem to have a great sense of what that legacy implies in francophone minority communities. To be fair, he has apologized for his statements. I rather like the quote from Stéphane Dion in the Globe article: "He is new." It calls to mind a phrase that my friends used to express shock at someone's ignorance or naivete about a subject - "Are you new?!" As one of his first gaffes as a candidate for federal office, this one's a doozy!

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Water, water everywhere, but I wouldn't take a drink

After two weeks in Ontario, I received an email from the Mount Allison university mailing list on Thursday evening warning me that my community of Sackville was under a boil water order. Apparently there had been a water main break. Yesterday, I received another email from the university, letting me know that there was another boil water order, because there was a breakdown in the town's chlorination system.

I know that I complain a great deal about the amenities of a small town, which is at least in part a product of having lived in big cities all of my life. The monthly brown water in the town has been the subject of a previous rant. But underlying my sarcasm is real worry. I was at least lucky enough to be on an email list warning me that there was a boil water order, and I got the email before I returned home on Friday. If you don't check the town's website, there appears to be little other means of finding this out. I have heard stories from friends about how they were complaining about the water problem, only to be greeted with blank stares from people who hadn't been told. Small wonder, since neither the CBC nor CTV websites bothered to consider this news. I haven't been noticing signs around town about it either. I worry that we're a hair's breadth away from becoming the next Walkerton. And it really worries me that this same pattern might be replicated elsewhere, with people blissfully drinking contaminated water.

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