A Grab Bag …’Cause It’s Been a While

Has it really been a month already since my last blog entry?! I guess so… That means it’s also been exactly a month since my last vist with Lucy. Funny, but it feels like 10 days or 10 months ago — fairly recent or another long-ago chapter.

Tons of sundry topic worthy of a blog chat (or rant) have popped into my mind in the last month, so I think I should just do a “This and That” grab-bag entry like Torn used to do when he would blog. (His readers haven’t enitrely given up on him even though his life is about to get increasingly busy since he decided to enrol in a master’s program in education, which is a huge and wonderful decision on his part.)

Centres StopThe Attempt to Quit: Update
I’m sad to say it’s not going very well. I currently smoke about half a dozen cigarettes per day. On the plus side, that’s five times fewer than the day I tried quitting and I hardly cough anymore, but on the down side, that’s still far from my goal of not smoking at all. However, there’s another plus side: unlike past attempts when I would tell myself that I would only be a light smoker (and, of course, would progress back to being a heavy smoker within a few weeks), I’m still in the “quitting” mindset.

I’m viewing my current smoking status as a temporary setback and I’m not giving up on trying to quit. But this time I categorically learned that, more than the first coffee of the day or after meals, work-related stress is my downfall. I only smoke in one room at home and never while I’m out. In fact, I’m well beyond feeling that panic when I leave the apartment without ciggies. To me, that’s still progress and I’m choosing to view the positives as more significant than the negatives — the chief negative being that I believed that this treatment would be any different than any other method of quitting.

Zombie vs. BabyBad Neighbours
When I look back at this blog in its nearly 10 years of existence, I realize that I’ve done a hell of a lot of bitching about my neighbours. A part of me wonders if I’m really that unlucky and another part fears that I’m too demanding and intolerant. But at least now, after therapy, I understand better why it upsets me so much and that the truth is somewhere in between.

Last night I learned that the landlord has just mailed a registered letter to my neighbours upstairs. That’s huge and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t persisted with the janitor, an approach I likely would not have pursued with as much persistence prior to therapy. And I feel no guilt because clearly I’m in the right: boundaries need to be respected and I am entitled to insist that they be respected, an entitlement I second-guessed for myself in the past.

Today — Saturday — they were particularly AWFUL up until about 15 minutes ago when they stepped out for a while. I realize now that it’s not just the kids but also daddy, whose step is remarkably heavy for a guy who’s average to diminutive in size. I felt like going up and telling them that they are the most inconsiderate neighbours I have ever had, but unfortunately that’s not true: they are AMONG the inconsiderate neighbours I have had. But clearly it would go right over their heads, in good part because they can hardly speak English or French and my Mandarin is non-existant.

Niqab or BurkaNot All Black and White
What a perfect segue for the immigrant guide put out this week by the city of Gatineau, on the Québec side of the Ottawa River opposite our national capital.

The village of Hérouxville started a huge controversy when it released a code of conduct for immigrants in 2007, which was filled with xenophobic “codes” like “It’s illegal to lapidate or kill one’s wife.” What made the Hérouxville code so controversial is that the village had precisely two immigrants, one of which was a Asian child adopted at a very young age by the Québécois family. What followed was a series of wrenching public hearings, with the fire fanned by the right-wing ADQ the led by Mario Dumont, as the rest of Canada smugly looked on and derided Québec, without a trace of irony, as the country’s most racist province.

As a francophone from outside Québec who came of age during the era of Prime Minister Trudeau, I am fundamentally in support of multiculturalism. No one should be forced to erase and forget their cultural history. However, I also believe it has to be woven into a distinctly Canadian identity. It’s unfortunate, though, that political correctness has led to many, many blunders.

There are very valid reasons why some people chose to leave their own country to come to Canada. In some cases, the reasons are economic; in others, the reasons are persecution and war. That said, there’s nowhere in the world I could go and expect my “Canadianess” to trump local values, nor would it be reasonable for me to expect that. Indeed, when in Rome, one has to do as the Romans. To some extent, that has to be true in Canada as well, except that what made Canada distinct in the last half-century or so is that there wasn’t an outright expectation that immigrants had to deny their essential identity and assimilate into a melting pot. The expectation was more one of integration coupled with mutual respect.

I hate to admit it, but there is, at least in my mind, a link between this controversy and my fucking neighbours.

Whether it stems from British and French legal tradition — let’s not forget that, constitutionally, Canada is a nation founded by the French and English — or our huge territory for a puny population, respect of space and privacy is, I would argue, an implicit Canadian value. If someone comes from a chronically overpopulated place, they might be more accepting of always overhearing others. Of course, that’s also a fact of life in large Canadian cities like Montréal, Toronto or Vancouver, but certainly not to same extent.

As for the “smelly food” edict that caused so much stir in the Gatineau guide, that’s a tough one. One the one hand — and perhaps most significantly — the variety of tastes we can enjoy now in Canada is remarkable compared to 50 years ago. But, on the other hand, I’m remembering when my brother and sister-in-law were in town last July and we ended up going through my apartment to figure out if some small animal had died in a wall in my office. Turned out it was the neighbours’ stinky food and it took nearly a day for the smell to dissipate.

That said, I would admit that was only a minor inconvenience and I probably would have forgotten about it had food smells been their only “offense.” Certainly I never would have gone as far as making “no stinky food” a point in an immigrants’ code of conduct! However, where do we draw the line? If I were to kiss a man in Saudi Arabia, I’d be in big trouble. But if someone immigrated to Canada from a country where being gay is outright illegal, that someone should not expect that “value” to hold here is well.

Christmas TreeThe Fake War!On!Christmas!
But when I wrote earlier that “political correctness has led to many, many blunders,” certainly the whole fake war on Christmas is a prime example.

Indeed, this is case where politically correct zealots have gone too far. I mean, everybody knows I’m no fan of Christmas and I’m certainly not a practicing Christian; however, I can’t deny that I was brought up Catholic, as were generations before me. That’s just a fact. When I wish someone a “Merry Christmas,” my eyes aren’t waxing over at the thought of Baby Jesus in some crib next to an alledged virgin and an old guy who probably couldn’t have gotten it up; I’m just being civil, just as I believe I would be civil when wishing my Muslim co-worker “Eid Mubarak” at the end of Ramadan which he diligently observes. In fact, I’m pretty sure my Muslim co-worker will be wishing me “Merry Christmas” on our last day of work before Christmas.

I suspect that many of those who are the most vocal against the politically correct zealots are Christian zealots who don’t actually know anyone who’s not of a Christian background. It’s right up there with the Hérouxville code of conduct for immigrants …in a place where there’s no immigrant !!! They don’t know what they’re talking about.

A Drive Up North

Autumn at Mont Tremblant

Although I’ve been living in Montréal for more than three years, I’ve never driven dew north from the city. I’ve been several time northeast in the Lanaudière region around Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon, but never in the Laurentians. That all changed, though, last Sunday.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Indian Summer this year was beyond spectacular. I knew that many in this town choose to go to the Eastern Townships at the height of the autumn colours, but I thought I’d outsmart them and head north. Not my brighest idea.

It didn’t matter which direction, except possibly east on Autoroute 20 or west on either Autoroute 20 or 40; traffic was a slow accordion crawl for more than 60 kilometres outside the city in all directions. However, once out of ultra-ugly suburbia — as most suburbias are — the slowness of the traffic offered time to really look at the beautiful fall foliage. Under a cloudless sky and temperatures well into the 20s C, it was a real treat.

I think I long avoided going to Mont Tremblant because of the many pictures I’ve seen of the resort. While certainly attractive on the surface, it all seemed so cookie-cutter and unnatural. Also, since I’m no skier, I’ve never had much reason to go.

And indeed, the resort is as artificial and horrible as I expected. However, the cynic in me stayed home and I enjoyed watching everyone enjoy the extraordinary weather. I was even amused to see how all little children seem drawn to water fountains and unable to resist the urge to touch the water or climb into the pool. Some parents might have found it odd that I should be on the verge of laughing out loud as I sat there sipping on an espresso, but what they failed to realize is that their child’s antics had been repeated a dozen times in the previous few minutes by other people’s children. So much for their “oh, my child is so special” line!

The southbound drive back into the city was another accordion-like bumper-to-bumper adventure, but again I took it in stride since this was meant to be a “nowhere.” Still, I couldn’t help but notice how many assholes there are on the road — either those who try to go too fast when no one is getting anywhere very fast given the gridlock or those who cluelessly stick to the fast lane and hold back faster traffic for easily a kilometre or more. I believe both types are selfish but the latter even more so because they seem oblivious to anyone but themselves. I think I’d clue in if I saw half a kilometre of unobstructed space in front of me and an endless lineup of cars behind me, but that assumes such selfish people [a] look in their rear-view mirror and [b] give a fuck. I wouldn’t be surprised if some do A but don’t do B, either because of their selfishness or some kind of mental challenge when it comes to handling themselves on the road.

You might be thinking, “Oops, there’s that Angry Maurice again!” And maybe you’re right. People who think only of themselves piss me off. They always have and they probably always will. But the difference now compared to earlier this year is that, beyond the initial “being pissed off,” I don’t let a petty little thing like traffic behaviour augment my sense of outrage. Because in 50 years or so when we’ll be very dead and buried, it won’t matter, so why make it matter now?

Indian Summer 2011

It’s not quite at that stage yet in Montréal but close and oh so summer-like otherwise.

Montréal in Autumn

Apparently the autumn leaves are at their peak, as shown above, about an hour east of the city in the Eastern Townships plus, throughout northeastern North America, the temperatures are back to summertime values for the next few days. However, because it’s resolutely fall, the sun is lower on the horizon and the lighting is completely different — more golden, I would say. What luck for us that Indian Summer should fall on a long weekend this year!

Although I ventured outside for a bit to have brunch and run an errand, I’m going to take a little gamble and postpone outdoor amusement until tomorrow and Monday. Likely I will go for a “nowhere” drive to soak in the fall colours. I may go out this evening but I’ll see at the time how I feel about that. For the rest of the day, I’ll be doing tons of laundry and other stuff I feel like doing, all inside for now.

Time for Some Serious Decisions

The “Harper government” — yes, I’m choosing the term very deliberately — is ordering Canadian embassies around the world to display an image of the Queen. So, which will it be?

The Good Queen   The Evil Queen

Look, I’m neither for nor against the monarchy. The lefty in me doesn’t agree with priviledge bestowed onto someone simply by birth, but in the modern Canadian context, the Queen’s role is so symbolic as to be meaningless — benign, but meaningless. However, I suspect that if Elizabeth weren’t still around and Charles were King, there would be a more unanimous outcry against the Harper government’s degree.

First came John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, asking to replace modern paintings by a Quebec artist at his department’s headquarters with a portrait Good Old Benign Liz. Then came the reinsertion of the word “Royal” to the Canadian Air Forces and Canadian Navy. And now a portrait of Liz must appear in our embassies.

Quite correctly, I believe, University of Guelph Associate Professor Matt Hayday, quoted in this article of the National Post, sees this attempt at rebranding Canadian identity as a step backward.

“It’s a very deliberate and calculated effort to re-shape Canadian symbolism, Canadian nationalism and Canadian values back to a certain conception of conservative Canada that has very strong roots in Diefenbaker-era Canada where ties to the monarchy, to tradition, to the British world are very important,” said Matthew Hayday……

Canada’s conservatives have long loved the Crown because it plays to the ideas of tradition and respect for authority — namely, the authority of the British empire, he said.

“There’s a certain amount of nostalgia as well for a period where Canada was part of a broader British empire,” said Prof. Hayday, and the mandate plays to a “specific subset” of the Conservatives’ Canadian voter base who have watched as multiculturalism and bilingualism, in their view, overshadowed any nods to Canada’s British heritage.

However, as I commented on Matt’s blog, it occurred to me that maybe all these moves by the Conservatives, but especially this latest one, are a provocation on their part. Sure, on the surface, they’re playing to their base. But in the nearly 20 years since the failed Charlottetown Accord, there’s been agitation on the right for true Senate reform, mention on the left (especially by the late Jack Layton during the last election) of finding the “winning conditions” for Canada and Québec, and for all sides for electoral reform. In other words, could it be that, in public, they’re saying that they don’t want another round of constitutional talks, but in fact they’re itching for one through provocation via successive legislative plans and degrees that most Canadians find distasteful?

I can already hear the cries of protest against constitutional talks when there’s so much uncertainty economically worldwide. And I have grave concerns about having such talks while the current brand of Conservatives is in power. But in my view, the economic argument against such talks is the weakest, for the most significant constitutional changes of the 20th century occurred at times when the economy was precarious. In fact, if the economy were good, there could be arguments along the lines that “the economy is good, so let’s not disrupt it by reopening the constitution.”

Maybe my little “conspiracy theory” is giving the Conservatives too much credit. Maybe this isn’t a bait at all, but it could certainly be turned into one. Maybe the Conservatives really are intent on changing the country through whatever back-handed means their majority affords them. Or maybe the opposition — both in Parliament and the public at large — isn’t alert enough to recognize the bait it’s being handed…

I mean, why not consider having a Governor General as end-of-the-line head of state? Let’s look perhaps at keeping the title of “governor general” out of respect to tradition and heritage instead of seeking a republican president. And why not consider whether or not we want a Senate? And if we do, let’s discuss how it should be constituted and whether its member should be elected or appointed. And while recognizing that, for a vocal minority, the only solution for Québec is full sovereignty, why not try to find among the soft nationalist and federalist majority in Québec what they would deem acceptable for being a solid and equal partner within Canada?

Let’s Be Consistent About It

House of CommonsIf you are a Canadian who has just awaken to the notion that 39.63% of the popular vote should not yield a majority government, take some time to learn that this is NOT a new problem. If you fail to do so, you will be accused of being a partisan sore loser. So please, indulge in a little history lesson.

It’s quite simple, really. All that matters in the first-past-the-post system is winning a plurality in a riding, slim as it may be, and scoring the highest number of pluralities. With 50% + 1 pluralities (currently = 155), you’ve got yourself a majority government and it doesn’t matter that it’s not “fair” since you got far less than 50% + 1 votes in your favour. There is no mechanism under first-past-the-post to take into consideration the popular vote or the strength of those pluralities. The rules of first-past-the-post don’t give a rat’s ass about that.

Sidebar Before You Further…
What Does “Over-representation” Mean?
In an ideal electoral system, one would expect that a party receiving 40% of the overall popular vote would get roughly 40% of the seats in the legislative assembly. In other words, if there are 100 seats, 40% would give 40 seats. But in first-past-the-post, a party can get considerably more or fewer seats than would be expected. A party winning 52 seats with 40% of the vote would be considered over-represented by 12 seats, or 12%. Similarly, a party winning only 26 seats with 40% of the vote would be considered 14% under-represented. When Frank McKenna’s Liberal took all 58 seats in the New Brunswick legislature in 1987 with 60.39% of the popular vote, the total percentage of votes for each of the other parties was considered their under-representation: 28.6% for the Progressive Conservatives and 10.6% for the NDP.

Slim these pluralities can be! On May 13, a judiscial recount led another seat in Québec to move into the NDP column. Indeed, with a difference of only 9 votes, the NDP candidate defeated the Conservative incumbent, bringing the number of NDP seats in Québec to 59 and reducing to 5 the number held by the Conservatives. The Bloc Québécois, the sovereignist party that crested twice at 54 seats (1993 and 2004) and even held Official Opposition status from 1993 to 1997, now holds only 4 seats in the House and is being stripped of its official party status, while the Liberals, once dominant in Québec, hold the province’s remaining 7 seats.

Except that Québec is nothing like Alberta, the land of massive Conservative pluralities and popular vote. There, 66.82% of the popular vote for the Conservatives delivered them all but one of the province’s 28 seats. But even such a decisive majority gets warped in our first-past-the-post system, for indeed, how can two-thirds of the popular vote deliver 96% of the province’s seat — a 29.6% over-representation? That being said, the over-representation of the NDP in Québec is even greater: the 42.9% popular vote for the NDP delivered 78.7% of the province’s 75 seats, which is a whopping 37.8% over-representation.

In Québec, the biggest “victim” of the NDP surge and first-past-the-post system is by far the Bloc Québécois, which scored the 2nd-best popular vote (23.45%) but, seat-wise, came in 4th after the Liberals and the Conservatives, thus rendering it 18.1% under-represented in the House. With 16.52% of the popular vote, the Conservatives came in 3rd but, while they are also 3rd in the seat standing, they are 9.85% under-represented. For their part, the Liberals, with their embarrassing 4th place finish in the popular vote (14.16%), managed to come in 2nd in the seat standing but are still 4.83% under-represented, which remains quite an under-achievement for a party that once dominated in Québec prior to the Bloc and the 1984 to 1993 blip in favour of the Progressive Conservatives. All that being said, however, there is irony (or retribution if you’re particularly unkind): the biggest Québec victim of first-past-the-post this time around profited richly from that system in the past, achieving an over-representation high of 27.2% in 2008 and a low of 10.8% in 2000.

Not taking into account the over- and under-representation that occurs under first-past-the-post has rendered many blind to emerging trends. For example, if the NDP in Québec were to maintain its low-40% vote in 2015 but that vote were to drain into and become concentrated in the Montréal area, it would win fewer seats and could become under-represented. However, the most conspicuous blind spot resulting from not keeping an eye on the over/under-representation ball is not seeing strength where it exists. In Québec, the right-leaning ADQ was under-represented by 5.7% in 1994, 11.0% in 1998, and 15.0% in 2003. The signs of the ADQ rising were in plain sight but the story wasn’t told by the party’s seat standing, namely 1, 1, and 4, respectively. There was shock when the ADQ rose to Official Opposition status in Québec City in 2007, with 30.8% of the popular vote, 41 seats, and only 2% over-representation. Unfortunately for the ADQ, it revealed itself “not ready for prime time” while acting as the Official Opposition, and it was decimated some 18 months later: 16.4% popular vote, 7 seats …but 10.8% under-representation. Therefore, it would be foolish to think that the right-of-centre in Québec is a spent force, just as it is foolish to assume that the BQ’s collapse on May 2 spells the end of the sovereignist movement.

There’s been a lot of groaning among non-Conservative voters since May 2 about how a marked minority in the popular vote nationwide, namely 39.63%, has given the Harper Conservatives their first majority. For that, we once again have the first-past-the-post system to thank as well as the fact that Canada has not had a U.S.-style two-party system for nearly a century. Until we adapt the voting system to reflect what has been Canada’s political reality for a very long time, fake majorities will continue to be a fact of life, not to say a source of great disatisfaction among non-partisans of the victor.

It saddens me, however, that it took the decimation of two parties and the rise of the current Conservative brand to elicit so much more interest in considering an overhaul of the way we go to the polls. I can actually understand why staunch Conservatives are accusing of hypocrisy those of us who are now raising our voices in favour of a form of proportional representation. I have been a proponent of this approach since the days when the Liberals were in seemingly perpetual cycle of “fake” majorities, and my position wasn’t the result of being a Dipper and seeing the NDP scoring far fewer seats than what would be expected based on the popular vote. No, for me, it has always been about lack of fairness and a distaste for Orwellian doublespeak that leads to calling something “a majority” when it is anything but.

From 1957 to 2011, there have been 19 federal elections that yielded:

  • 4 [Progressive] Conservative majorities (1958, 1984, 1988, 2011)
  • 5 [Progressive] Conservative minorities (1957, 1962, 1979, 2006, 2008)
  • 6 Liberal majorities (1968, 1974, 1980, 1993, 1997, 2000)
  • 4 Liberal minorities (1963, 1965, 1972, 2004)

Of the 10 majorities in that period, only 2 were real: Diefenbaker’s in 1958, with 53.66% of the popular vote, and Mulroney’s in 1984, with 50.03% of the popular vote. But even those were warped by the first-past-the-post system:

  • Diefenbaker’s was over-represented by 24.9%
  • Mulroney’s by 24.8%.

The biggest first-past-the-post screw-up was Joe Clark’s 1979 Progressive Conservative minority: not only were the PCs over-representated in the House by 12.3%, but they also loss the popular vote by 4.2% against the Liberals!

But for those of you who just woke up to the unfairness of “fake” majorities, be sure to digest these figures before going on the warpath. Jean Chrétien’s Liberal majorities were:

  • 1993: 41.41% popular vote; 18.6% over-representation
  • 1997: 38.46% popular vote; 13.0% over-representation
  • 2000: 40.85% popular vote; 16.3% over-representation

Stephen Harper’s 2011 Conservative majority, with 39.63% of popular vote (i.e., more than Chrétien’s in 1997), is 14.3% over-represented in the House.

So you can see how easy it is to be accused of hypocrisy by gleeful Conservatives: Just because you may have only recently figured out that the first-past-the-post system is not serving us well, that has been the case in this country for nearly a century.