Tuesday, 26 January 2016

We are travelling in Laos.  Admiring the glorious Buddhist temples of its capital city Vientiane.  In the back of my mind is this nagging question of how Canada should respond to the events in the Middle East, Syria and ISIS in particular.  There’s a call for greater bellicosity.  Commentators and opposition politicians say we need to increase our military engagement.  It’s not quite wanting to make the desert glow, but lots of “why can’t the Prime Minister sound at least a little angry?”

Well, anger may be a great way of letting off steam, but it’s not always the best emotion for rational analysis.  There’s a recurring moment in the movie Bridge of Spies, when the Tom Hanks character asks his Soviet spy client a question intended to provoke a strong emotion, and the spy always replies, “would it do any good?”  That’s a great question, a question which we should especially ask about whether Canada needs to get more engaged - I was going to say ensnared - in the literal and metaphorical minefield that is the Middle East.  Would it do any good?

All wars come about because older men and women decide to kill younger men and women. Their own citizens. Some of those killed are soldiers, and others are innocent civilians. The Leader says to his people, “Please give me your sons and daughters so I may slaughter them on battlefields, and break your hearts when they never return from the faraway place I need to send them.”  The question begs, “Why, O Leader?”  The answer is often an appeal to a higher ideal.  In many countries of course, the answer is sometimes “because our borders are threatened.”  Not so in Canada, not for the past two hundred years.

Sometimes the answer is, “We need to do this to make the world safe from something bad.”  Perhaps it is justifiable to put Canadians in harm’s way if the result of the loss of lives is that some greater evil has been avoided.  As I get older, however, experience teaches me to be increasingly skeptical of that argument.  The world was told Iraq needed to be invaded to make the world safe from weapons of mass destruction.  Except there weren’t any such weapons.  And the result of the invasion of Iraq is that the world is actually less safe. Much less safe. The world was told that Afghanistan needed to be invaded to make the world safe from the harm being caused by its leaders. Well, the world is always being told that about Afghanistan, and whether it is ever true, the fact is that the lost of precious Canadian lives in Afghanistan has had no enduring positive impact on domestic safety and security in that country, and Afghanistan continues to be a source of international instability.  And we are told we need to increase our military engagement in Syria.  We are told this, mostly, by people who are much better at starting wars than finishing them.  Forgive me if, this time more than ever, I am skeptical of the war-mongers. I have grandchildren.

Why am I ranting on like this?  Yesterday we visited the National Museum of Laos.  The plaster is cracked, there's dust in the corners, and some of the exhibits are a bit timeworn, but the story of the country's passage is compelling nonetheless.  It's a story told from the singular perspective of the Democratic People's Republic, with the special tone that one-party states tend to adopt when praising their accomplishments.  I took a (bad) photograph of this map.  Every dot is a bomb drop.

Between 1964 and 1973, as part of a secret operation conducted during the Vietnam War, the US military dropped dropped 260 million cluster bombs – about 2.5 million tons of munitions – on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions.

As our tour guide said a couple of days ago, “Well there were about three million people in Laos then, so you could say the US dropped about a ton of bombs for every man, woman and child of Laos.”

Did it do any good? Did all those bombs make Laos a free country, with liberal democratic institutions, respect for private property rights and the rule of law?

No.  About a year after the bombing stopped, Laos became a communist state.

Some historians argue that the final triumph of the communists in Lao was a direct result of the US bombing campaign.  That is, not only did this massive, relentless campaign of utter destruction singularly fail to achieve its stated purpose, it actually produced the opposite effect.  Laos was bombed (in part) to protect the US war effort in Vietnam.  Well, so how did that turn out?  The US left Vietnam in failure and disgrace, and soon thereafter, North and South Vietnam became one undivided communist state, the very thing that the US intervened to prevent a generation earlier.

All conflicts have their own histories.  But before we put our children in harm’s way, isn’t it right to ask the question whether it will do any good?  The answer is so rarely yes.  It is often said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  But we do not have to.  It is also said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.  I have heard no one begin to offer a coherent explanation of the kind of multi-generational commitment that would be needed to build a measure of security and stability in the Middle East, and frankly, the region’s leaders are themselves quite conflicted on the question whether they would ever want such a thing, given that a certain amount and kind of conflict and instability seems to suit their interests.  

For a generation, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Canada tried to make a reputation for itself as a peace maker, not a war maker.  Many look back on that era as a high point of our contribution to world affairs.  Others think we should just buy more fighter planes.  I say, just this once, let's reach for something higher.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

We want an open government but we're far too critical for it

The Globe and Mail published this today:
Perhaps you are one of those people who wonders why government seemingly goes out of its way to conduct business behind closed doors? If so, read on.

Last week there was a news report about a proposed new physics curriculum for high school students in BC. A draft of the curriculum was circulated for comment. The document very plainly was not a finished product. It was a draft. Government wanted input. As in, help us revise this document so that the final version is the best it can be.

That’s not the input they got from a physicist at Simon Fraser University named Steve Dodge. Rather than try to improve the document he went public. He slammed it. He called it “slapdash”.

Here is a case where government deliberately sought public input on an important policy initiative. And what government gets is not thanks from citizens for the opportunity to offer their thoughts, but a sharp kick in the backside.

If you were in government, how keen would you be about the next opportunity to share a draft document with the public?

Now to be fair, some folks, such as BCTF president Jim Iker, and Grahame Rainery, the president of the BC Science Teachers Association, welcomed the opportunity to comment on this draft curriculum. Someone even pointed out that drafts like these would not normally have been released, but the Education Ministry decided it would be a good idea to routinely post such material to solicit feedback.

I don’t mean to pick on Professor Dodge, and this is not a column about how to improve our high school physics curriculum. It’s a column about how we get the government we deserve. In particular, we say we want open government, but there’s ample reason to doubt we would ever actually know what to do with it. Is open government about looking for fun new ways to embarrass politicians, or is it about giving ourselves as citizens the tools to improve how we are governed?

You won’t get much help from political commentators on this question. On Mondays, pundits shake with indignation when government officials dare to delete emails. On Tuesdays the same pundits fall all over themselves in a rush to embarrass government officials over the contents of those emails.

When I ran for office, Gordon Campbell made a promise to permit free votes on anything that was not (to use the formal term) a matter of confidence. Members of caucus exercised that right from time to time. A government MLA would rise during debate on a government bill, explain why he or she was going to vote against it and then do so. The headline the next day was never, “Premier keeps his promise to permit free votes.” The usual headline was a version of, “BC Liberal caucus hopelessly divided.” In short, the media both demand openness and punish it.

This may come as news to you, but governments are composed of human beings. When the result of daring to conduct a preliminary policy discussion in public is that the initial work is dismissed as slapdash, we shouldn’t be surprised if government takes policy discussions back behind closed doors. Not because politicians have easily-bruised feelings. But because experience too often teaches them that people don’t have much to offer except criticism.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. But we will have to want to change it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

My thoughts on the federal government's refugee settlement announcement

As published in Wednesday's Globe and Mail:

In these first weeks of the new Liberal government, few issues have captured more attention than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election promise to bring 25,000 refugees from Syria by the end of the year.
Was this target ever practically achievable? Should it be re-thought, particularly having regard to the Paris terrorist attacks, and the possibility that a massive influx of new refugees would strain our capacity to ensure that no one who represents a security threat manages to gain safe harbour in Canada?
With Tuesday’s announcement delaying the timetable for completion by two months, it’s now time to mark the difference between two kinds of questions. First there is a question of policy. Should Canada expand its admission of Syrian refugees, and if so, how many and on what timetable? Then there is a question of politics. The Liberals promised 25,000 more Syrian refugees by year-end. They imposed the deadline. They won’t meet it. Will we now congratulate them for having had the wisdom to adjust their commitments to ensure they can be properly implemented, or simply attack their promise-breaking?
Put another way, once elected, is it the promise that matters, or good policy?
I have no doubt about the answer to the question. Governments are elected to make good decisions, and to persuade the citizens of their merits. They should govern according to clear and consistent goals and principles. They should make and keep credible, responsible promises that will advance those goals and principles. They should also change course when the evidence calls for a different approach.
As was famously said by the British economist John Maynard Keynes: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?” But Mr. Keynes, of course, was never elected to public office, and never required to revisit an election promise, particularly one made in a campaign that concluded only a few weeks earlier.
It is interesting that the federal Liberal policy platform document attached no timetable to the Syrian refugee commitment. The written promise was “to expand Canada’s intake of refugees from Syria by 25,000 through immediate government sponsorship.” This was clearly a call to action. But a doubting public wants to know not just what a government will do, but when. So during the campaign, the promise became 25,000 new refugees by “year-end.”
The number was always ambitious, the timetable doubly so. We all know that sometimes we need specific targets to force us to complete difficult tasks. But this number was set high deliberately, to speak to the deeply held view of many that Canada needs to turn a more actively compassionate face to the world. In the continuing aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, as other countries publicly revisit their refugee policies, questions of national security are now interwoven into the already complex issues involved in large-scale refugee admission and settlement. So again, is it the policy or the promise that matters?
In 2001, I was a cabinet minister in the first term of the B.C. Liberal government. We were elected on a platform with hundreds of commitments, including a list of specific action items for the first 90 days in power. We worked our way through the list. Most promises were kept. Some were not. Still others were broken. What I found was that while we tried to take credit for the fact that we were keeping our promises, virtually no one cared or kept count. What people cared about was the substance of what we were doing, not the fact that we had promised to do it. And people also cared when we did something that was directly the opposite of what we had promised.
Broken promises matter more than kept promises. But in the end, voters want governments to make good decisions. You can test this proposition by asking yet one more question: What is it that voters will remember in four years about Canada’s commitments to Syrian refugees? I suggest the answer is this: We will remember that Canada significantly enhanced its role in responding to an international refugee crisis, and that thousands of refugees from the Syrian civil war were properly settled and have become our neighbours and fellow citizens. Partisans aside, most of us won’t remember whether the number of refugees was 25,000 or a bit more or a bit less, or whether they arrived in December or some other month.
I don’t know as much as I ought to about Canada’s capacity to identify and safely process and settle an influx of 25,000 new refugees from the hell that is war-torn Syria. But I do know this: To make bad decisions simply because they were promised is bad government. The first true political test of this new government may be that they have found the fortitude to do the right thing.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Wednesday night in Victoria

I am sitting in a hotel bar room in Victoria listening to a jazz piano version of O Little Town of Bethlehem.  The syncopation feels like an awkward fit.  It makes me wonder if there is a jazz version of Handel's Messiah? I try to picture folks in the back row of the choir snapping their fingers and scatting Hallelujahs.

There are a couple of girls on the other side of the room discussing their plans to drink their way through the dessert coffee menu while they take selfies in front of the Christmas tree.

November is like that. Hardly content to be itself, with its early dark, blustery cloudscapes and wind-blown leaves scattered on sidewalks, it can't wait to be December.

And to think, only a few weeks ago, it felt like Canada had rediscovered compassion. Now, apparently, many of us want to bomb somebody, somewhere, who knows who and who knows where, back into the Stone Age.  When in doubt, fall back on a failed strategy. It's so much easier than to have the courage to try something different.

For a generation we have fought terrorism as though it is a war that can only be won by pitting our guns and bombs against their guns and bombs.  It's not working. We need a different approach.  But alas, tonight, there are too many voices falling into the trap of over-reacting in exactly the way the terrorists want us to.  By assuming this is some kind of war for civilization instead of the desperate thuggery of a tiny ragtag collection of homicidal maniacs.

By all means, find those who perpetrated the violence in Paris, and punish them according to law.  And mourn not only for those who died in Paris, but also the children bombed by the gunship attack on the hospital in Afghanistan, and those bombed in Beirut, and the passengers on the Russian airplane.  But maybe, instead of just mindlessly ramping up the violence, let's see if there's something we can do to bring it to an end.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Today my heart aches for the people of Paris

I am thinking this morning of Paris.

Late yesterday afternoon, I was in the car listening to radio interviews with people in Paris whose lives had just been touched or irretrievably altered by last night's terrorist attacks, people who were simply doing what we all might do on a Friday night, maybe out with a friend at a concert of their favourite band, eating a meal at a restaurant, or enjoying a soccer match.  There were harrowing stories of escapes and near misses, told from cell phones in darkened cafes and apartments.  The voices - even those of seasoned reporters trying to keep up with the developments - all had an unmistakable note of incredulity.  Everyone was describing what had happened, but the real question they were asking themselves was why.

When I first started travelling, Paris was famous among North American tourists for its boulevards and gardens and cafes and Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. It was also famous for its rude waiters.  Notoriously arrogant and condescending. Like all French people.  Or so it was said.

That has never been my experience.

The last time we were in Paris, we were on our way to hike in the Basque country, and we stopped first for a few days in Paris to get time zones caught up.  We stayed in a hotel on the Left Bank, near the Pantheon.  A lovely old hotel, with an elevator smaller than a phone booth and a room barely big enough for its bed.  Breakfast was served in the basement, under ancient stone arches.  Fresh croissants, of course. One morning we talked with our table neighbour, a university lecturer. He started a conversation, by asking us where we were from.  We asked him if he was visiting Paris, like us.  Not so, he said.  The night before there had been an open concert, with live music played at nearly every street corner in the city.  It was an annual event.  And every year, our table neighbour explained, there was a loud rock band stationed just underneath his apartment window, only a few streets away from here, and so he had taken to booking a room in our hotel that one night, every year, just to get a good night’s sleep. He laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.  But really, if you had a couple of kids standing right below your apartment playing full volume head banging grunge rock at midnight, with a crowd gathered around shouting encouragement, you might start to wonder if there was somewhere you could get some sleep.

We were just tourists, but he was happy to share his story with us, and we were happy to listen and laugh along with him.  And Paris became not just a place to see, like a museum object you are allowed to admire but not touch, but a city full of people with real lives.

We walked.  In Paris, we always walk.  Paris is not just a city of streets, but a city that lives in its streets. On our first day, a lovely early summer blue sky day, we walked all the way to the Arc de Triomphe.  I remember sore feet, and a lovely hour in the house and studio of the painter Eugene Delacroix, now a museum.  Not far away, the crowds were milling about in the magnificent Musee D’Orsay, but we had M. Delacroix’s house pretty much to ourselves.

At the Arc de Triomphe there was a small memorial ceremony taking place, with some dignitaries in suits and military and families carrying wreaths.  I don’t remember the occasion, but it was a reminder that in Paris, history is everywhere around you, and some part of the past is always taking place right before your eyes.  We climbed to the top and admired the view, with all of the great landmarks spread out around us.

One evening we decided to head south east from our hotel, away from the major tourist destinations, in search of dinner.  We found a Greek restaurant on a quiet street in a residential neighbourhood.  There was a table for two outside on the sidewalk.  Jammed in between other tables.  We love Greek food, but this was a new experience: Greek food prepared by Parisian chefs, and with a menu that was simply indecipherable.  There was no “souvlaki” anywhere in sight.  I think I may have started fumbling for the dictionary.  The waiter was sure to arrive in a minute.  You know, a Parisian waiter.  He would be impatient with our incomprehension, and we would hang our heads and well, wait a minute.  The couple on one side of us, about our age, perfectly dressed as Parisians always are, took one look at us and instead of shrugging their shoulders at the amusing spectacle of tourists who had plainly found themselves in the wrong place, smiled and said hello and offered to help us understand the menu.  They were both professors at the Sorbonne.  Their English was as good as our French, and that’s always more than enough to get by.  So we started to relax, and I think the bread and wine arrived.  And then at the table on the other side of us a man reached under his table, pulled up a big bag, and then informed us all that he had been picking cherries that afternoon from the tree in his backyard a few streets away and thought we all might like to sample some.  So he passed the bag up and down the line of tables and we all enjoyed fresh picked cherries.

It was World Cup season, and France was making its way, game by game, to the finals.  There was a match that night.  In the shop windows and bars in the streets around us, you could see TV sets and hunched-over faces staring intently at screens.  And as the evening proceeded, whenever there was a big play, a goal or a great save, a roar overwhelmed the neighbourhood.  And we would all laugh and congratulate one another, and the bag of cherries would get passed around again, and we would marvel at the joy which is Paris and life.

It is unbearably sad this morning to think of what has happened in this beautiful city, with its wonderful people, all of whom must surely be asking themselves whether, after two such attacks in less than a year, they have lost something they will never get back.  Parisians are proud that theirs is the capital city of a major world power, and it’s impossible to keep the world at bay these days.  There is more than enough to think about, and learn, and eventually respond to, but for this morning anyway, I think I will simply grieve for Paris, the city of light, and its people.

Friday, 30 October 2015

John Furlong has the right to be proud of his life and work

The Globe and Mail published this on October 30, 2015.

Lost in the clamour of last week’s federal election was the quiet sound of a door closing. John Furlong’s hard-fought struggle to clear his name reached its conclusion. Stories like these do not have happy endings, but we can at least mark the occasion and pass judgment where judgment is due.
Last Monday, Laura Robinson, the journalist whose articles in 2012 created a firestorm that threatened to incinerate Mr. Furlong’s reputation, announced she would not appeal the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss her defamation claim against Mr. Furlong.
Ms. Robinson’s articles claimed Mr. Furlong had misrepresented his past. That in telling the story of his family’s decision to immigrate to Canada in 1974, he had buried the story of an earlier time when he was a very young teacher at a parochial school for First Nations children in Burns Lake, B.C. And that, while at the school, he had abused students.
Ms. Robinson took direct aim at Mr. Furlong’s reputation as the man who had not only been CEO of the highly successful 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, but someone who had, for the first time, included First Nations as partners in those Games.
Mr. Furlong quickly and vigorously denied the allegations. He sharply criticized Ms. Robinson’s journalistic practices. He accused her of a “shocking lack of diligence,” of holding a “personal vendetta,” a “two decade-long pattern of inaccuracy” and more.
Key elements of her story soon began to fall apart. The RCMP investigated. They undertook a wide range of interviews and inquiries. They discovered no reliable evidence to support the claims of abuse. For example, one former student had not even been at Mr. Furlong’s school when the alleged abuse took place. No charges were laid. Lawsuits commenced by alleged abuse victims were dismissed.
In due course, Mr. Furlong himself decided it was time for closure, and he dropped his own claim for defamation against Ms. Robinson. But Ms. Robinson was determined to clear her name from Mr. Furlong’s attacks. In essence, she put her journalistic integrity on trial.
She lost.
In a careful, methodical, 74-page judgment, without a single rhetorical flourish, Justice Catherine Wedge explains the law of defamation, analyzes the evidence and then finds that Mr. Furlong was entitled to respond as he did, and that he did not lose the right of verbal self-defence that arose when his reputation was attacked.
It was not necessary for Justice Wedge to decide whether Mr. Furlong’s criticisms were true, only that he was entitled to make them.
But her decision reads as a textbook on how not to do investigative journalism. She says at one point, “whatever [an] investigator’s professional credentials, he or she must be up to the task of determining, to the greatest extent possible, the accuracy of the information where guilt or innocence – or the reputation of an individual – is at stake.”
Justice Wedge spoke of the need to take the “greatest of care” to ensure the spontaneity and reliability of the statements of informants. Ms. Robinson had instead “telegraphed” her intentions, and “had no information from any independent source to support the allegations.”
At its best, investigative journalism can unearth important, hidden truths about misuses and abuses of power. The fearless pursuit of truth may sometimes cause collateral damage to reputations. Those whose reputations have been wrongly harmed have the right to sue for that harm. The law strikes a balance that recognizes the vital importance of vigorous public discourse, while imposing a measure of discipline intended to ground that discourse in fact, not fiction.
All of this requires journalists to work with skill, diligence and integrity. As the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision makes plain, that was not how Ms. Robinson did her work.
Last Monday’s announcement that Ms. Robinson would not appeal was both graceless and unrepentant, without even an acknowledgment of the brutal harm she had caused, not only to Mr. Furlong, but also those former students who were victimized by her zealotry.
But maybe at last, for John Furlong and his family, a door has closed. What they have gone through can never be taken back. It is appalling. No court judgment can fully undo the hurt.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Un-Canadian, eh?

The Globe & Mail published this on October 13.

A friend of mine once suggested that a good way to end a particularly troublesome media scrum would be to say, “That question is un-Canadian.”  His point was that Canadians are a polite respectful people, and that polite respectful people do not ask annoyingly difficult, even disrespectful, questions of politicians.

It was a cute thought, but I never took him up on it.  Better just to try to come up with good answers to all those pesky questions.

But in the last days of this long election campaign, there is another idea of “un-Canadianness” that is getting a worrisome amount of attention.

This is the idea that there are two kinds of Canadians.  Those who are, well, Real Canadians.  Just like us.  Old stock.  And those who are not.

And so it is being argued by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives that Real Canadians would not seek to hide their faces in public places.

And that what this country urgently needs is some sort of tip line so Real Canadians can report the “barbaric” cultural practices of our un-Canadian neighbours to The Authorities.

And that there are two classes of citizens: some whose citizenship can be removed for certain offences, and others who, being Real Canadians, might go to jail for their crimes but will always be citizens.

It is as if the one thing Canada needs most urgently at this time in place is not viable policies to remedy a persistently flagging economy, address the looming crisis of climate change, or restore Canada’s position of credibility in world affairs, but rather, a legislated dress code for citizenship ceremonies.

But it is much worse than that.

There is a principle which is truly fundamental to our country.  It is that we do not simply tolerate difference, we celebrate it.

We do not impose the values of one religion on all; instead, we respect religious freedom.  This protection is written into our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the document that, more than any other, is the expression of our deepest values as a nation.

The constitution goes further than this.  A section which is quoted much less often reads, “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”  Not just the passive acceptance of difference, but its preservation and enhancement.

Hardwired into our nation’s system of government is the idea that we are not a seamless, homogenous whole.  We are instead a patchwork, a mosaic, a tapestry of different beliefs, customs and practices.  The idea is that these differences should not divide us, but rather unite us, within a constitutional framework that guarantees basic rights to all while fundamentally respecting - as liberal democracies must - our individual right to live our lives autonomously, freely.

This must surely include the possibility that some will hold religious beliefs that call them to modesty in public, even to the extent of veiling their faces.  There is, in fact, no difference between the Scottish born immigrant who wants to wear his kilt to his Canadian citizenship ceremony, and the Muslim immigrant who wants to veil her face.  Both want to become Canadian, to obtain full membership in a society that will not scorn their difference, but rather embrace it.

There are some who think otherwise.  Plainly, some of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are in that group.  But we have seen these people before.  People who advocate for the creation of tip lines to rat on the behaviour of our neighbours are not much different from Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Theirs is the politics of intolerance, fear and division.  Today we will be given the opportunity to phone the tip line.  Tomorrow we will be required to do so.

Some will say that this is simply a political strategy.  A late campaign attempt by the Conservatives to exploit so-called wedge issues intended to scare us into voting for them.

The problem, however, is this.  If we reward them now for their intolerance, we can expect more of it.

There are important issues in this election campaign.  The parties differ markedly on some, and not on others.  We can choose among different approaches to economic growth, environment protection, refugee policy, parliamentary reform.  It may be hard to see the differences sometimes through the noise of partisan rancour.  But it’s an election, not a tea party.

All except for this. The notion that what this country needs now is a politics that punishes cultural and religious difference, that classifies us into different categories of citizens, is profoundly wrong.  It is, in fact, un-Canadian.  We must reject it.