Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ontario Election: NDP gives up on Guelph, saves me a decision

I try so darned hard to support the NDP. I am sympathetic to their message of social justice, of social welfare programs, of equitable treatment for Canadians. I have had great respect for many of the party's leaders past and present. If only I could ignore their local candidates, literature and e-mails.

The following quote is from a message that arrived in my inbox today from the local candidate's - James Gordon - campaign, announcing the opening of the campaign office, which will feature an appearance by MP Charlie Angus:

"Guitars in hand, James and Charlie are going to send a message through song: we can win this riding, and work together to build an even better Guelph and Ontario.

Sending a message through song?!? Seriously?! In an election where the Mike Harris acolyte Mike Hudak (be prepared for multiple references to "the evil forces of Hudak" for the remainder of the campaign, kids) is poised to potentially topple the McGuinty government, the local NDP is going with a message of song? What sort of hippie bull is this? And this follows on the "summer of listening" email from July. I thought it was bad in 2007 when the NDP candidate ran on the message of "vote for me because I am an immigrant woman of colour" platform, but apparently the depths of the no-hoper barrel had yet to be plumbed.

In one sense, this makes my decision easier, narrowing my potential vote candidates to two. But I'm really disappointed that in a riding with a sizable left-wing population, the NDP continues to put up candidates that could not possibly appeal beyond the hardest of the hardcore 60s radicals.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Symbols Matter - Canadian Forces Edition

Symbols matter. Traditions can be invented. Nationalism is the product of collective will to create an imagined community.

All of these concepts (which are debatable, of course) are vitally important to understanding the trajectories of Canadian identity politics since the Second World War. This has been my academic stomping ground, so to speak, for the last decade or so. I was thus not particularly surprised, although I was disappointed, by the leaked announcement that the Harper Government is planning to bring back the "Royal" in the official names of the Canadian air force and navy. It fits very nicely with what Queen's history professor Ian McKay has referred to as the Right-wing reconceptualization of Canada, a rebranding of Canada's national symbols and identity markers, including the Citizenship Guide to give much higher prominence to the military and the monarchy.

The 1968 amalgamation, re-naming and re-uniforming of the Canadian Forces was an incredibly contentious issue. Coordinated by Miniser of National Defence Paul Hellyer, this break with British traditions and symbols has never sat easily with many members of the Canadian forces. Indeed, it is one of the few topics that my students, usually reservists, have requested permission to write about in my post-war history courses, despite the fact that it isn't on the list of suggested topics. To a one, these papers have taken the stance that the amalgamation of the forces was the worst thing that could have been done, a sop to French Canadians, and an attack on military morale. Clearly the culture of grievance has been passed down through the generations, given that these students were born two decades after the incident in question, and the papers tend to be based more on opinion than academic literature. I'm therefore not surprised that the Harper government has opted to make this change. It reinforces their conservative narrative of Canadian identity, and plays to their electoral base, particularly their older supporters. Personally, I see it as a retrograde move, one which further reinforces a connection to the monarchy, a hereditary institution whose time I believe has passed.

If you're particularly interested in learning more about the amalgamation and re-naming of the Canadian forces, the backlash it engendered, and how it is lamented by more conservatively-oriented academics, you might want to take a look at The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism, 1964-68 by C.P. (Chris) Champion. Champion has been an advisor to the Conservative government on its citizenship and heritage policies, and his book has been endorsed by a who's who on the Canadian academic (and populist) right. If you want to know what sort of intellectual thinking is fuelling this re-branding and conservatizing of Canadian symbols, it's not a bad place to start.

Of course, given my own recent research projects, I wonder how long it will be until we see a return of Dominion Day!

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Graham Fraser's So-called Secret Shoppers

Graham Fraser, Canada's commissioner of official languages, has kicked off a bit of a kerfuffle in the nation's capital over a recently announced plan to investigate the state of bilingualism in the national capital region, a research study which would entail both examining signage and service delivery at federal government offices and buildings, but also examining commercial services in the region.

In today's Ottawa Citizen, Fraser defends this study as part and parcel of his mandate, which is not only to be the ombudsman for the federal government's institutional bilingualism, but also to promote and encourage bilingualism in Canada's business and voluntary organizations. He outlines a well-worn path of both his own actions, and those of his immediate predecessor, Dyane Adam. By couching this study as necessary research for identifying best practices in the private sector, he makes a good case for why his office should fund such research. Indeed, had Fraser been alloted more space, he might have pointed out that historically some of the best work of the Commissioner's office has been in areas that are not squarely within the realm of adjudicating complaints about federal bilingualism, but promoting linguistic duality more broadly. Efforts to promote French second language learning and French immersion, which have been ongoing since the first commissioner, Keith Spicer, leap to mind as an example.

It's unfortunate that the media were so quick to attach the phrase "secret shoppers" to this initiative, which invokes images of language police that are, alas, not alien to recent Canadian history. But it would be nice if these secret shoppers were in fact able to discover some great language practices in Ottawa. Then perhaps we could call Fraser "Canada's Secret Santa" if and when he produces a report filled with great new ideas for making bilingual service delivery more widely available. A December report release seems in order, no?

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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Federalism - It's not just for Centralizers any more!

As an addendum to yesterday's post, I see that Nycole Turmel has re-stated her commitment to federalism, and plans to end her membership in the sovereignist Quebec Solidaire. But here's the central issue for me, as someone who teaches courses on Canadian politics and federalism. Saying that you are a "federalist" is a pretty meaningless statement in some important respects. The central feature of "federalism" as a system of government is that power is divided between a central government and regional governments, with each sovereign in their own sphere - although often with some overlapping jurisdictions. Where the balance of power lies between the two levels of government, and how responsibilities are divided up, varies wildly between different federations around the world. Switzerland, for example, gives almost all of the powers to the cantons, while the USA has swung back and forth between a state-centric and national government-centered approach. So when Nycole Turmel says that she is a commited (or strong) federalist, all this really means is that she is not a supporter of Quebec separatism.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate even this level of clarity. As someone who has studied Quebec history for years, I'm well aware that the sovereignist parties have basically monopolized left-wing politics for decades, and many NDP supporters hold their noses and vote Bloc, or PQ, or QS because of their social policies. But for many NDP supporters outside the province of Quebec, it actually does matter a lot whether the party is still committed to a strong national government role in the provision of social welfare. And this, at least for me, is one of the big unknowns about what the May election means for the future of NDP policy. I'm happy that Turmel does not support the sovereignist planks of the two sovereignist parties that she has been a member of, but I'd still like to know more about how she conceives of the future of Canadian federalism. For me, this isn't about using national unity as a political wedge issue, it's about getting more information about how the NDP is conceiving of future directions for the funding and delivery of Canadian social programs.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Nycole Turmel, meet Jean Lapierre

Gosh, the Twitterverse is atweet today with spin and counter-spin on Daniel Leblanc's article in the Globe and Mail about interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel's very recent membership in the Bloc Quebecois. Some partisans are crying foul and alleging that this is a smear campaign. Other commentators are observing that it's commonplace to switch political allegiances.

Here are my two cents: Welcome to the big leagues Dippers! Changing political allegiances is pretty common in Canadian politics. Jean Lapierre did it. Rene Levesque did it. Bob Rae did it. Belinda Stronach did it. Scott Brison did it. Lucien Bouchard did it (a bunch of times, in fact). Heck, I've been a card carrying member of different parties in my lifetime (none at the moment though). Over one's lifespan, your political ideals may shift, and so too might your party affiliations. But if you're going to run for political office, you'll need to be prepared to be clear about your political past, and why you've changed your beliefs.

What appears to be igniting the firestorm in this case is the apparent absence of changed political beliefs on the part of Turmel, at least insofar as the letter obtained by Leblanc would indicate (which is not necessarilly the full extent of her reasoning). And let's get real, kids, separatism/sovereigntism is a big deal in Canadian politics. It's legitimate for Canadians to want to know where their politicians stand on this issue. And if that makes the current NDP, with its Quebec-heavy caucus, uncomfortable, that's too bad. Ever since May, the party appears to have been trying to dance around the éléphant in the room, and at some point, that's going to become impossible. The party known for heralding strong national social programs in English-speaking Canada is going to have to publicly reconcile this stance with its asymmetric-federalism stance in Quebec.

This might well be a good opportunity to start that public conversation and provide some clarity. Because without Jack Layton's personal popularity to hold the party together, things might become very tense, very quickly. A clear public statement from Turmel would be an excellent start.

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