2011 04 03
L’Etat, C’est Moi

Posted by in: Canada, Canadian politics

With an election in Canada fast approaching, my cousin is doing his part and fighting Stephen Harper with the awesome power of disco.

Comments Off

2010 06 26
Recently read: Coming up for air edition

Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books, Canada, History

Whew! Busy, busy. But at least I can read on the subway on my way to work.

Adrienne Mayor. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy

Rome fought four wars—the so-called Mithradatic wars—against Mithradates in the first century B.C. The wily, resourceful Mithradates makes such a perfect subject, and the story of his setbacks and accomplishments is so much fun, that I’m surprised that Hollywood hasn’t been all over him. Perhaps now they will be. Mayor tells his story with real verve. Mithradates was especially famed for his extensive toxicological investigations—for practical reasons he was very interested in how to poison others and how to build up immunity to poisons that others might use on him—and Mayor, an expert in ancient toxicology, is especially well-suited to relate this part of the story. Where the evidence grows thin, at the beginning and the ends of Mithradates’ life in particular, Mayor allows herself speculative passages that might have been more suitable to a historical novel. But that’s partly just a matter of taste, and these passages are usually marked out very clearly as speculative. This book is recommended.

Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang. The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar

Solid, though now somewhat dated (published 2007), account of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. Emphasizes the extent to which policy was not really driven by larger strategic considerations, but rather emerged through a series of accidents. My only complaint is that the book might be a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with Canadian politics. This is a pity, since I think it would be really useful for Americans to have a sense of what the war looks like from the perspective of a close coalition partner.

Edward Gorey. Men and Gods: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks

This book is a children’s classic published in 1950 and recently resurrected by the New York Review of Books in their excellent children’s series. The stories are well told, though it dragged in places. That might just be me, though—I’ve never had much interest in Greek myth. A chart at the back helps the reader keep track of Latin equivalents of Greek gods and heros, but there is no introduction explaining why Gorey chose to use the Latin equivalents in the first place.

Félix Fénéon. Novels in Three Lines

This is a collection of three line news summaries written by Fénéon for a French newspaper over the course of 1906. The summaries occasionally touch on politics, but they’re mostly about every day pieces of news: suicides, burglaries, assaults, and accidents. This might sound monotonous—and actually I would recommend that people not try to read the book through cover to cover without a break—but Fénéon’s summaries are, as the title of the book suggests, absolute masterpieces of compression. Fénéon was an anarchist and an important behind-the-scenes literary and cultural figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France. He wrote little and the contents of this book were only saved for posterity by lucky chance.

Howls of outrage (3)

2010 02 12
Great moments in Canadian politics

Posted by in: Canada, Canadian politics

A politician got tossed yesterday from the New Brunswick legislature after giving another politician the finger. This write up of the story doesn’t come close to conveying how hilarious the audio recording of the incident is. As a friend of mine remarked, they sound like a bunch of kindergarten kids.

Via Kegri.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 02 19
Obama in Canada

Obama paid a six hour visit to my home town of Ottawa today. My sources there tell me that the entire city was in a tizzy, with people busing in from hours away on the off chance he would find a moment to wave at them. The CBC sent out nine breathless news alerts (which are usually reserved for when something, you know, happens) in a few hours about now classic moments such as Obama’s plane landing, Obama’s arriving at Parliament, the Prime Minister’s declaring himself “quite confident” that Obama would honour free trade agreements involving the U.S. and Canada, Obama’s meeting the leader of the opposition for 15 minutes at the airport on his way out, and Obama’s plane departing.

It’s difficult to convey to Americans how important U.S.-Canadian relations are to Canadians. We’ve always had a serious love-hate (perhaps more accurately “condescend-envy”) thing going on with the U.S., but it’s a relationship that has been especially tinged with anxiety these last eight years.

We got off to a very rough start with George Bush. Even before he assumed office, Canada’s ambassador at the time said—behind closed doors, I think, but it got out quickly—that we would do better with Gore. Chrétien was apparently disgusted and bewildered when he finally got to meet Bush. Bush reciprocated by making it clear that the U.S. would not longer be our BFF. And the entire relationship entered a deep freeze when Canada announced that it wouldn’t be helping with Iraq. It didn’t help that the U.S. ambassador to Canada for many years, Paul Celluci, was deeply unpopular in a way that struck me as unusual for an ambassador (he may have felt, in turn, that Canadians weren’t very warm).

Obama is so popular in Canada now that there’s really nowhere for him to go but down. There seem to be some pretty significant trade issues between the two countries, which are bound to be exacerbated by the state of the economy, and eventually it’s going to sink in that Obama counts his votes South of the border. Still, it’s wonderful that the U.S. is finally able to send someone who isn’t a fucking moron up North to talk with us. That sound you hear is an entire country exhaling with relief.

Howls of outrage (18)

2009 01 13
Recently read: French Kiss

Chantal Hébert. French Kiss: Stephen Harper’s Blind Date with Quebec

The Conservative Party of Canada today is the product of a merger between the Western-based Reform party and the much older Progressive Conservative Party that contested for power with the Liberals for most of the life of the country. (The merger, when it was first proposed, was very briefly called the Conservative Reform Alliance Party until someone worked out the acronym.) Although the merger with the Progressive Conservative Party softened the edges of the Reform portion of the new party, much of the party remains rooted in Reform’s culture of Western alienation, fiscal conservatism, and an often jaundiced view of Quebec’s aspirations. This legacy is hardly an asset when the Conservative Party comes calling in socially progressive Quebec, or the often-economically troubled Eastern provinces.

And yet, in the 2006 federal election, the Conservative Party managed to pull out a surprisingly strong show of support within Quebec. In the same election, the NDP, the left-most leaning party in Parliament, managed to continue its miserable showing in Quebec, the most socially progressive province in the country. Meanwhile, Bloc Québécois (BQ), the Federal wing of the province’s separatist movement, had to face the fact that the Conservatives, rather than their own party, had picked up many of the votes that the Liberals lost. Had the decade and a half of participation by the BQ in Federal politics led, paradoxically, to a greater level of engagement on the part of Quebecers with the rest of the country?

These and other mysteries of Canadian politics are the subject of Chantal Hébert’s French Kiss. It’s a good, insightful book, and I learned a great deal from it about the country that I’ve been slowly drifting out of touch with over the last ten years of living in the United States.

Hébert examines the carefully laid groundwork that preceded Harper’s 2006 breakthrough in Quebec. Enough wooing preceded Harper’s breakthrough to call into question the appropriateness of the book’s subtitle. As for the basis of the attraction, Hébert argues against much of the conventional wisdom about Quebec in relation to the rest of the country: that patronage politics is the royal road to electoral prosperity in the province; that Quebecers would reject a Prime Minister who didn’t hail from the province; that the socially progressive province would never be a match for a federal right-leaning party.

Hébert points out how poorly supported many of these conventional assumptions are. In fact, Harper’s pledge to stick to federal responsibilities found a receptive hearing in Quebec, which was never keen on Federal meddling. And Quebecers may be socially progressive, but they tend to look to the provincial government for the realization of their progressive values. And no wonder. It’s not just a separatist impulse that is responsible for this tendency. After the federal budget slashing of the 90s, the federal government’s fondness for agenda setting in matters of provincial jurisdiction has not been consistently matched with funding to support those priorities.

This last point is part (though only a part) of the story, Hébert argues, behind the NDP’s poor showing in Quebec. The NDP’s fixation with the notion that social justice is best realized (and enforced) at the federal level is an irritant in a province that prefers to run its own programs its own way.

So, very interesting stuff. Two reservations—well, ok, one and a half—about the book. First, French Kiss is clearly written for politically informed Canadians. If you’re not informed about Canadian politics but this blog post has suddenly filled you with a lust for knowledge, I think you’re going to have to look elsewhere for an introduction to the subject. Hébert often alludes in passing to facts, events, controversies and so on without explaining them in a way that would allow outsiders into the conversation. It’s too bad, because not only do I think Canada is a fascinating country, but I think I would find Canada a fascinating country even if I weren’t Canadian. And perhaps you would too, outsider.

That was the half-reservation. The other reservation, the one which I have no reservation calling a full reservation, is that very often the quality of Hébert’s writing fails to match the high quality of her analysis. Sometimes we get not only prose weighed down by cliches and stale images, but a series of jarringly different stale images in rapid succession:

. . . the federal Liberals were about to fly blind into the perfect storm of the sponsorship scandal with only a skeleton crew on board, and endure a barrage of sovereigntist flak. . . The sponsorship scandal was the poison pill of Paul Martin’s prime ministership, but it need not have been fatal. A mouse of an affair got the better of a political elephant.

So in the space of a few lines the scandal morphs in the reader’s imagination from a storm to a pill to a mouse. Or rather, it would morph in the reader’s imagination but by this point most readers, realizing that Hébert herself doesn’t have a clear image in her mind, will have stopped assuming that she intends to produce one in them. In this way prose is drained of its vivacity. Here is Hébert describing the effect of Buzz Hargrove’s appearance at a Liberal rally:

It was a shot across the bow of the NDP and its leader, Jack Layton, that would reverberate until voting day.

That does not, strictly speaking, make sense, does it? A shot across a bow flies past the bow. If anything reverberates after a shot across the bow—does it?—it isn’t the shot, it’s the bow. But never mind whether this makes sense, since in a few lines we’re about to be too grossed out to care:

At the tail end of the campaign, Buzz Hargrove hit the panic button—and it virtually blew his finger off, showering Paul Martin with debris in the process.

Ew! Paul Martin standing on the still-reverberating bow of a ship covered in Hargrove-bits!

It’s interesting to consider how far Canadian politics has already moved since Hébert’s book was published in 2007. Since the 2006 election, we’ve had another election (in October 2008) in which Harper managed match his 10 seat showing in Quebec from the 2006 vote, but dipped in the popular vote in the province from 24.6% to 21.7%, while the Liberals picked up a seat and a good part of the popular vote that the Conservatives lost. Returned to Parliament with a slightly strengthened minority government, Harper then badly blundered, all but forcing the Liberals, NDP and BQ into an informal coalition that threatened to topple him. Harper appears to have survived the crisis, but in the meantime his public relations strategy was heavy on vilification of the BQ. Whether this will hurt him in the long run in the province remains to be seen. But it is clear that he will have a difficult, if not impossible time, governing Canada without Quebec. My hope is that Quebec has seen enough at this point to toss Harper to the curb, hit the panic button, turn the plane around, and ride the elephant of good sense past the mouse of the federal Conservatives on to a brighter Canadian future.

Howls of outrage (7)

2008 12 01
Oh, Canada!

Posted by in: Canada, Canadian politics

It doesn’t get a lot of attention in the US, but boy oh boy is there an awesome political drama going on in Canada right now. Here’s the latest. I’m pestering relatives and friends for help keeping up with this. If you want the basic story line, you’ve basically got a villain brought down by his own arrogance and overreaching (Harper) and a fractious, bumbling opposition apparently able to sock it to him. So far! But stay tuned. Will the new Liberal-NDP coalition fall apart? Will the Liberals, on the verge of a leadership race, break down in fresh in-fighting? What will the about-to-depart-but-suddenly-probably-PM Dion do next? Wither Rae? Ignatieff?

It’s a potential constitutional crisis wrapped in a lot of petty squabbling with the rich sauce of Schadenfreude poured all over the top. Oh, Canada! Sometimes I miss you so.

Howls of outrage (20)

2008 01 19
Canadian foreign minister Maxime Bernier caves under pressure, lies


Howls of outrage (5)

2007 08 31
Ignatieff on puffins

Michael Ignatieff wants to make the puffin a symbol of the Liberal Party of Canada:

“It’s a noble bird because it has good family values. They stay together for 30 years,” Ignatieff said Thursday outside a Liberal caucus retreat in the Newfoundland and Labrador capital.

“They lay one egg (each year). They put their excrement in one place. They hide their excrement.… They flap their wings very hard and they work like hell.

“This seems to me a symbol for what our party should be.”

A bird that carefully hides its excrement is actually appropriate for the Liberals, come to think of it.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2007 08 25
Recently read: Paul Wells’ Right Side Up

The first few years I spent outside of Canada I kept up with Canadian politics fairly well. The last few years my grasp of what is going on from day to day has gotten considerably weaker. Still, that’s not going to stop me from voting in the next federal election, and it’s not going to stop me from recommending Paul Wells’ Right Side Up, his highly entertaining book chronicling of the rise of Steven Harper and the Conservatives in Canada. Wells is as clever as he is cheeky, and although the occasional spot might be rough going for an outsider, on the whole I thought that Right Side Up would be as entertaining an introduction to the last few years of Canadian politics for a non-Canadian as it is a pleasant review of the same for a Canadian.

Wells has a great eye for hypocrisy and sham, and one of the great things about Right Side Up is the way he pauses to savour moments that the more jaded might let slip by. I think this passage illustrates this nicely:

For lo, the night had come when Paul Martin became the leader of the party to which he had given his life. Liberals from across the country repaired to the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto for the great moment.

“Over the years, in various leadership conventions, a small number of Canadians have stood on a stage like this,” Martin said from the floor of the hockey arena on the evening of November 14, 2003.

“In the past while, I have thought about them. And wondered just how I would feel as I stood before you at this moment. And what I would say and what I would do.

“As it turns out, it is deeply moving—and much more difficult than I thought.”

What a touching admission of vulnerability at the moment of triumph. Also: what transparent dime-store fiction. Even as Martin was confiding to a few thousand of his closest friends that this was harder than he had thought it would be, dozens of reporters, loosely herded in a bullpen on the floor of the arena in front of the new leader, were reading along with the prepared text, which Martin’s legions of helpers had handed to us before he began speaking. Sure enough, there it was, a third of the way down Page 1: Much . . . more . . . difficult . . . than . . . I . . . thought.

Earlier that afternoon Martin had read the speech (“. . .much more difficult than I thought . . .”) at that same podium, in a dress rehearsal [. . . .]

Which means that among the small number of Canadians who had stood on stages like this, before Paul Martin did, was . . . himself. Paul Martin. De deux choses l’une, as we say: either this deeply moving experience was precisely as difficult now as it had been during months of draft speech rewrites, meetings, and conference calls, as well as at the big dress rehearsal this afternoon—or it was even more difficult now than then, in which case Martin and his communications team had factored in the requisite increment of difficulty, aiming ahead of the hurtling clay pigeon like so many ace skeet shooters, and included their eerily prescient hunch about that supplementary burden in the text of the big guy’s acceptance speech.

I also enjoyed Wells’ description of the David Emerson kerfuffle. Emerson switched sides to the Conservatives very shortly after the 2006 election, much to the consternation of a bunch of Vancouverites who were under the distinction impression that they had just voted for a Liberal.

The Conservatives were helped by the fact that David Emerson is one of the most beatifically gormless amateurs ever to stumble into electoral politics without pausing to consider how it works. His excuse for switching parties wasn’t political conviction but its perfect absence. He had run as a Liberal, he told pie-eyed reporters, only because a Liberal was offering cabinet seats. Now that Liberal, Paul Martin, had quit as Liberal leader, so David Emerson was a free agent again.

“You’re saying that if Paul Martin had become prime minister you would have stayed with him and become a minister in his cabinet?” one reporter asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” Emerson replied cheerfully.

Wells is also very funny on the subject of Michael Ignatieff, who shows up in the final part of the book devoted to the Liberal leadership race that followed Paul Martin’s election defeat. He begins with a little poke at Ignatieff for trying to pass as common folk:

I haven’t heard anyone drop so many g’s from the ends of his participles since Hee Haw went off the air.

“Yeah, people have got questions about—bein’ out of the country,” Ignatieff said. Here, “bein’ out of the country” is a genteel euphemism for the fact that until he moved to Toronto to run for Parliament in 2005, the rookie MP for Etobicoke-Lakeshore had not resided in Canada since 1969. He spent some of that time teachin’ at Harvard. “I genuinely got a lot of people sayin’, ‘It’s great. It’s great. Good for you.’ Behind the you’ve-been-out-of-the-country question, it’s not really—I think Canadians rather like the fact that somebody’s been out and has done stuff and has come back. What they want to be assured is that the guy knows the country, right? He’s not some kind of Martian.”

Oh, surely that a bit harsh. Where would any Canadian get the idea that Michael Ignatieff is a Martian? I mean, where besides the preface to his book The Rights Revolution, published in 2000? In that preface, Ignatieff admits that he is writing about the Canadian conception of rights and that it “may read oddly” to an audience of actual Canadians. “To them, this book may seem like a report by a visitor from a distant planet,” Ignatieff writes. “I want to alert readers that I am a Martian outsider.”

And so on, and on, and on (for several pages afterwards, Wells drops the “g” from every single participle, a deliciously cruel little touch). It’s passages like these – gotcha passages – that make the book so highly entertaining.

So much for entertainment. What about edification? Well, here I think the verdict a bit more mixed. Wells really is, as I said, awfully bright. And in the course of providing context for some of those very funny gaffes, Wells treats his reader to a bit more substance that we might find in a regular news column. Still, I found myself wondering at times if the book didn’t reflect (as I confess this post does), in some modest way, one of the vices of Canadian reporting, which is to allow gaffes and gotcha moments to organize the presentation of the issues rather than the other way around. (Toward the end of the book, Wells makes a few comments on Harper’s attitude to the media that suggests sympathy for this view of the Canadian media.) I can see that since this is the way that Canadian politics is so often done, a history of Canadian politics will need to reflect that. And I can see that there is some difference between writing a bunch of gotchas and writing about a bunch of gotchas. Still . . .

I’ll leave aside my irritation with Wells’ brief treatment of Harper’s foreign policy towards the end of the book to make just one complaint about substance. Wells seems to think that the relative moderation of the early Harper government shows that critics were wrong to complain that the sky would fall if Harper got into power. But Harper didn’t win a majority in 2006, and his government lives on borrowed time, with a very strong incentive in the meantime to act in as nonthreatening a way as possible, in the hopes that the Conversatives can sweep to power later with a solid majority. And it seems pretty clear to me that if Harper can do that, we can expect very different things from him. So, the sky may yet fall.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 07 13
Conrad Black, guilty

Posted by in: Canada, Schadenfreude

Guilty on some charges.

The story of Black, his florid prose, his far right-wing wife, his massive sense of entitlement, his rise, his launching of a successful national Canadian paper, his struggle with the Prime Minister to be allowed to accept a Lordship in Great Britain, his (spectacularly) unsuccessful lawsuit against said Prime Minister, his renunciation of his Canadian citizenship, his fall from grace, the abandonment by so many upper class friends he had picked up along the way, the exposure of so many embarrassing details in court, and, finally, his conviction – that story, would take too long to tell, and I would have to be a better storyteller than I am to convey just why the whole thing is so funny. If you haven’t been following the story, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Howls of outrage (23)

2007 05 24
Your basic birthday

Posted by in: Canada

The bar for spousal birthdays has been raised.

Howls of outrage (4)

2007 05 21
Canadian curse words or insults?

Posted by in: Canada, Language

Over at Ask Metafilter, languagehat writes that he is putting together a book on cursing worldwide, and can’t come up with anything good for Canada. He’s looking for “pointers to good use of wicked language by Canadians (doesn’t have to be obscene; cf. Twain’s “Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward…”), old or new, online or off.” There are some suggestions posted that he could probably use some input on (is it “nob” or “knob”? was “hoser” an insult before Bob and Doug Mackenzie?).

So, Canadians among us: can you think of anything? Can your friends? Ask around. Post here and I will email them to him, or you can email him directly: languagehat AT GOOD OLD

Howls of outrage (45)

2007 02 17
Ultimate Canadian Day

Posted by in: Canada

The Yarn Harlot has a long, lovely entry up about taking a day with her family to go skate the Rideau Canal in Ottawa – eating Canadian foods, seeing Canadian sights, etc. Lots of photos. We’re going up to do the same thing next week sometime, and this made me happy to see.

Howls of outrage (4)

2007 02 04
To enter USA

Posted by in: Anecdotal, Canada

I just realized that I’ve never mentioned one of my favorite things about crossing the border from Canada into the US. This is the sign you pass as you’re about to drive into the US Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint:


Please, wretched teeming masses, huddled, yearning to breathe free: have your id in hand before you come to our country.

Howls of outrage (9)

2007 01 26
Arar apology and settlement

Stephen says sorry:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a formal apology and a compensation package to Maher Arar and his family on Friday for the “terrible ordeal” they suffered after Arar spent nearly a year in a Syrian jail.

“On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you…and your family for any role Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002 and 2003,” Harper said.

“I sincerely hope that these words and actions will assist you and your family in your efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in your lives,” he said.

Harper, who made the announcement in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa, said the settlement negotiated with Arar includes $10.5 million for pain and suffering along with an estimated $2 million for legal fees.

Most well-informed Americans know about the Arar case, but I doubt that very many people among even this small cross-section of American public opinion know what a huge deal the Arar case is up in Canada. It’s just all over the news, all the time. There was a scandal, a major inquiry, a series of closely followed (fruitless) negotiations and briefings with U.S. counterparts, and now this. So it’s constantly in the news, and opinion is pretty solidly unanimous that it is a bad thing that the U.S. government abducted a Canadian citizen and deliberately sent him off to be tortured in Syria.

The U.S. continues to insist that Arar is guilty of some unspecified crimes, but also claims that it can’t publicly reveal its reasons for thinking this. Given that the main reason seems to be a desire to avoid admitting that they cheerfully enabled the torture of an innocent Canadian citizen, given that they are sociopaths who lie and lie repeatedly about these and related matters, given that being an accessory to torture in this way is technically a crime according to U.S. law, as well as international law . . . well, given all these things, no one believes the U.S. government’s claims about Arar. And indeed, when U.S. officials briefed the Canadian government privately on its Arar file, the Canadian side came away distinctly underwhelmed by the quality of the evidence. And just to give you an idea of where the Canadian government is coming from on this, we’re talking about a Conservative government, that is, a bunch of people who would just love to get cosy with the U.S. on all kinds of issues, and would surely back down on this issue if it were at all possible. (To give you an idea of the ethos of the government, the Prime Minister praised Israel’s “moderation” during the recent Israel-Lebanon fighting.)

My dear American friends, this matters. This really matters to us. Canada is, as you so often remind me, an insignificant country. But we do what we can to help – for example, in Southern Afghanistan now, where Canadian soldiers are fighting and dying in an offensive against the Taliban – and occasionally we can offer resources, diplomatic support, credibility, and so on. When you fuck with us in this way, it makes it harder to cooperate with you in other constructive ways that figure into the larger effort to protect ourselves. And in the end, even setting aside moral objections to torture, that ought to matter to you.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)