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.