Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ontario, Equalization and the Question of National Unity

This CBC story has put me in the frame of mind to write about an issue which has been percolating for a good year or so now, and is potentially more destructive to national unity than Quebec separatism (how's that for hyperbole?)

Ontarians, for a long time, have been among the most likely of Canadians to think of themselves as "Canadian" first, and a resident of their own province second. A long chain of Ontario Premiers have played the "honest broker" role in federal-provincial relations, whether in terms of trying to accomodate Quebec, or to foster national unity in some form or another. Accepting equalization is part and parcel of this broader approach of how Ontario and its politicians have seen their role in the country.

Many, especially residents of Atlantic Canada and Western Canada, have argued that Ontarians think of themselves as Canadians and agree to these schemes because, they argue, Ontario benefits the most from Confederation and "national" policies, and Ontarians play a determining role in which party forms the national government.

The specifics of whether or not this is borne out by the evidence might be debated. But the fact of the matter is that while Ontario's leaders have groused from time to time about the fairness of equalization and transfer payments, this has usually stayed at the level of a murmur. I think we're starting to see a very different attitude coming out of the McGuinty government. I also don't think this is just belligerence from Dalton McGuinty (and those who know me are aware that I'm far from his biggest fan). The recent trend of Ontario-bashing from the federal government is aggravating an already bad situation, and the rhetoric out of Queen's Park is going to get worse. I shudder to think what will happen when Ontario is no longer willing or able to play the role of national unity broker.

My prediction - Ontario will never officially become a "have not" province for the purposes of equalization. The figures might justify such a classification, but I'll bet a large sum of money that the formula is rejigged before Ontario starts receiving more than it contributes to the program.

So, how about that Newfoundland surplus and tax cut...

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Literacy scores: Spin those results, Kelly Lamrock!

Interesting. The new literacy and math scores for Canadian teenagers were reported today with Quebec leading the pack, followed by Ontario.

I wonder how Kelly Lamrock, currently the president of the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (and ironically the person who is quoted in the Globe story), will spin these results which show that the the top three scoring provinces for literacy are: Quebec, Ontario, Alberta. All of these, you'll note, are provinces which offer early French immersion programs, and start their core French early. It would seem, in my less-than-humble opinion, that these provinces aren't suffering for their decision to follow best practices in second-language education.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bastarache steps down

Apparently I'm now doing blog posts by request. Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache announced that he will be stepping down from the bench in June. Bastarache was not slated to retire for another 15 years, so this is a very surprising decision.

I'm not an avid watcher of individual Supreme Court justices, but I will miss Bastarache. He was the first justice that I actually had heard of before he was appointed to the bench, having read his work on language rights for my research. As both a lawyer and then professor at the University of Moncton, Bastarache was a major advocate for the rights of linguistic minorities in Canada. He played a major role in the development of Acadian rights in New Brunswick throughout the 1970s and 1980s. I hope that his decision to step down from the bench is not, as speculation in the Globe and Mail suggests, a sign of major health issues. If so, I hope he recovers swiftly.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Memo from Harper to Quebec. Re: the Constitution. Never Mind

This announcement, kiddies, is the sign of a trial balloon that sunk like a bag of concrete in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

I am particularly impressed by the way this one was floated - suggested by neither the Prime Minister nor the alleged Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and therefore deniable as government policy.

I'm relieved... for now. I don't for a second believe that Harper would not have moved forward with this little bit of electoral blackmail if it had appeared like he'd get away with it.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Meech revisited: Or why I wake up at night screaming

If it's all right with you, gentle reader, I'm going to pretend that Stephen Harper did not promise to re-open the Constitution if Quebec helps him get a majority government. My fourth year seminar group just finished up our discussion of the constitutional fiascos of the late-80s and early-90s, which began with a promise from Brian Mulroney to have Quebec sign the constitution "with honour and enthusiasm" if he won a majority in 1984.

The old Conservative alliance of alienated Westerners and Quebec nationalists is forming again. It worked so well last time, didn't it - the formation of the Bloc, the launch of Reform, the decimation of the Tories, a squeaker of a referendum in 1995...

I'd rather not revisit the constitution on those particular terms, thanks very much.

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Lamrock to the Globe: "French Immurshun is why our kidz kant reed gud"

The Globe and Mail ran an editorial over the weekend which was highly critical of New Brunswick's decision to cancel early French immersion. Kelly Lamrock replies in a Letter to the Editor (possibly behind the subscribers wall).

Among other preposterous claims, Lamrock states that "Early immersion teaches too few children and those who struggle with or don't take immersion wind up in the same class. This is called "streaming" and we've paid the price with last-in-Canada literacy scores."

I've already noted the fact that one solution to this problem is to actually devote resources to helping special needs children in immersion programs. Another would be to actually implement the government's own rules that state that immersion classes are supposed to be comparable in size to other classes in the school boards.

But the bigger issue is this. Shawn Graham and the Liberals campaigned in the last election on promises to improve literacy scores in the province, which the OECD has found to be among the lowest in the country. Statistics Canada produced similar results.

But here are a few problems with Lamrock's argument. Alberta has one of the highest rates of literacy and one of the best arrays of immersion programs in the country. In fact, French immersion is offered in every province in the country. So how, exactly, are we supposed to believe that French immersion is the bogeyman of literacy?

Secondly, Lamrock's plan calls for intensive French in Grade 5, and then giving parents the option of putting their children into late immersion. Won't this also produce the "streaming" effect that Lamrock fears? Does he think that a full 70% of anglophone parents will opt for immersion to reach his targets for bilingualism?

Finally, I wonder if Kelly Lamrock is fully aware of how much money his government receives from the federal government under the Official Languages in Education Program, which is tied to enrollments in programs such as French immersion. New Brunswick's Action Plan certainly doesn't seem to say anything about slashing immersion. Of course, that was the Lord government who negotiated this agreement - one wonders how federal officials will respond to the scorched earth approach proposed by Lamrock.

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