Saturday, February 28, 2009

Québec Solidaire Another Plan for the Quebec Economy

Québec solidaire, the leftist Quebec separatist party (as distinct from the Partie Quebecois, the other leftist Quebec separatist party) is holding a conference this weekend to discuss the origins of the current 'economic crisis'. Specifically, QS's hypothesis is that those responsible for degradation of the economy, and the environment are the same. While QS has not yet explained the nature of this linkage the statement in itself sounds pretty strange.

It is generally accepted that the economic crisis was caused by the collapse of credit and major banking institutions in the United States. It is certainly true that oil companies, for example in the Canadian tar-sands are having significant environmental impacts. It's far less clear how these are the companies responsible for the economic crisis. Hopefully, this supposed relationship will be made clear after QS's conference.

Proposing eco-friendly infrastructure projects as part of a stimulus package are neither a bad, nor novel idea. Indeed, the creation of "green collar jobs" were, and still are part of Obama's stimulus package for the US. Ontario also plans on investing in the development of new wind farms--though more as an ecological measure than an economic one. These are praiseworthy efforts that could create jobs, help the environment and, to a degree, ease our dependence on fossil fuels. They are not, however, the only way the economy will be supported.

QS proposes a seven step plan to resolve the economic crisis facing Quebec (well, really the world, but all politics are local.) Though I did look, I was unable to find any real, expert analysis of these seven points. On their face, some of them seem problematic.

For example, 'massive investment into social housing.' Social housing (whatever that is--undefined in the economic plan) is a nice idea, but, homes for who? Are these homes to be given away? Will taxes need to be paid on them? Who will own these houses and the land they're on? Based on how the proposal is drafted, is sounds like these new residences will be rented. Why would the government not want to encourage more Quebecers to buy their own, new homes, rather than live in rented, mass produced government built rental units?

Investing in the "social economy" (read: cooperatives) especially in the ecological field is also one of the QS seven. Such corporate structures, which 'share the wealth' are nice ideas, especially as they help the environment, but what would they do? Is there really a demand for a product or service high enough that all this investment will produce viable businesses? Creating a company, is not the same as creating a market. One needs the other.

Another item on QS's list is raising the minimum wage by $2.00 and supporting small companies that will need to pay their workers more. Yes! Putting more money in people's pockets is a good thing but how is this going to work? Based on QS's plan, only small companies and non-profits who pay workers the minimum wage will be supported. What about medium sized enterprises? What about industries in Quebec that have become successes, have many minimum wage employees and are falling on hard times, for example, the clothing industry. Will they be punished for their success, for becoming "large?" A company's size does not necessarily make it more able to weather an economic storm. Look at the CBC itself for example, and the hard times it's facing. Furthermore, what about employees whose salaries are currently fixed at a certain rate above minimum wage? For example, an employee who currently earns only 2 dollars more than the minimum, will, under the QS plan, become a minimum wage earner unless their salary is raised too. The plan does not seen to account for this.

Keeping employers on life support works only up to a point. What is conspicuously absent from the QS plan are any efforts to help increase the market share and exports of products from Quebec around the world and by encouraging investment in Quebec. Both of which are options that can inject new money into the economy. Working both on its own as a province by taking advantage of the offices it's been paying to maintain around the world for all these years and (gasp) in cooperation with the federal government, Quebec should be aggressively promoting its industries in new and emerging markets and well as looking to grow its market share with existing trading partners. Quebec also needs to promote itself as a safe place for investors to park their money. Talk of separatism does NOT encourage that.

Like their separatist cousins the PQ, QS seems misguided about what to do for the Quebec economy. One thing that's got to be handed to them though, at least they have a plan!

Durban II: the Decision to Attend, or Not

A major news story being covered in all these different Israeli media sources today is the U.S. decision not to participate in the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Durban II. Canada was the first country to announce that it would not participate in the sequel to the first such conference--held in 2001--with Israel withdrawing from the conference some time later.

The conference, the organization of which is being chaired by Libya, Cuba and Iran, was under scrutiny for the fear that it would devolve into a display of antisemitism and anti-Israel attitudes as it did in 2001. At that conference, NGOs distributed leaflets with grotesque antisemitic caricatures and images expressing regret that Hitler had been defeated. The old forgery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was also openly available for sale at Durban I. Things began to look as though they would go the same route at Durban II when some of the planning events for the conference were scheduled to coincide with the Jewish holidays of Passover and Yom Kippur, the single holiest day in the Jewish religion. This made it difficult, if not impossible, for Jewish and/or Israeli NGOs to participate in key preparatory meetings for Durban II.

Though the US did send representatives to preparatory meetings, their efforts to modify the proposed "outcome document" for Durban II by removing language singling out Israel as a racist, illegitimate state failed. This failure precipitated the US decision not to participate in the conference, and Western European countries may follow suite.

There is a school of thought that says that one should engage with ones opponents rather than seek to exclude them. This is the policy Obama is taking with Iran, for example. Exclusion can have the effect of hardening the position of the excluded while inclusion provides opportunities for dialogue and resolution. The US seems to have made serious efforts to engage and persuade others to adopt a more moderate position than the one being proposed. The ideal would be to have some dissenting voice at Durban II to actively condemn acts of bigotry and antisemitism if they occur.

The other danger of non-participation by western democracies is that by not-participating, they send a message of aloofness and could reinforce the image of a west indifferent to the concerns of the developing world. Projecting such an image could be an impediment to rapprochement. It is, however, unlikely that skipping this one conference will have too damaging an impact on north-south relations. This is because Canada, the US and Israel are choosing not to participate for clearly stated reasons of principle and not indifference. Similarly, the US continues to press for engagement via other channels which ought to send a message of openness.

All this being said, with indications that Durban II will be little more than a repeat of Durban I, no liberal democracy should be associated with the displays of virulent intolerance that may be expected.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Saudi Arabian Panties

I am enjoying this whole blogging thing very much but am sometimes finding myself paralyzed about wanting to write about too much. Like I say, this is a blog about my thoughts, and I think a lot. Therefore I welcome days like today when someone sends me an interesting article and says "hey, what do you think of this!?"

Women's rights on the conservative Arabian peninsula are at best, seriously lacking. Take for example this story of a conservative Muslim woman in the UAE who is now at the receiving end of death threats for writing a book about sexual education.

Just miles from this author in UAE, in Saudi Arabia, legislation which should allow women to work in stores--but only those that sold women's products--has not been properly enforced and so Saudi women are still in the awkward situation of having to buy their undergarments from--generally conservative--Saudi men. The woman in this article hopes to change that in a campaign she's launched that seeks to boycott shops selling undergarments to women which are staffed only by men.

Saudi Arabia has only recently lifted the ban on women being allowed to drive, but here too practicalities are such that it could be a long while before the effect of this new freedom is felt (unrelated men and women being alone in private to do a driving license test, for example.) All the while, the measure is decried as being sure to lead to sin and, as in this Saudi political cartoon--called "Women Drivers"--is being viewed as highly suspect.

Despite women in Saudi Arabia lacking (but seemingly on the road to) these basic rights, for the first time in the country's history, a woman was appointed to a cabinet position as Deputy Minister of Education. It's interesting how on the one hand, while most Saudi women struggle with these most basic issues, such as their privacy and dignity when purchasing undergarments, being able to work in a shop and being able to drive, another can be appointed to the cabinet.

Of course, all this seems like they are steps in the right direction, but are they really? The legal measures taken in favor of women seem like they may not have any real impact on society for quite some time, if ever. My feeling is, that while no doubt the new female Saudi Deputy Minister is highly qualified for her job (as I'm sure many other Saudi women are too,) she has been appointed to her post to send an image to the world that Saudi Arabia is opening up when such is not quite the case. I am aware of how long reform can take, how difficult it can be and in reading the quotes in some of the articles I've posted above (such as: "Saleh al-Lihedan, who last year issued an edict saying it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite television channels deemed to show "immoral" content"), the challenges faced by reformers are enormous. Nonetheless, I am a cynic and have to wonder, how much of this is truly a desire to reform, and how much is a desire to appear to be reforming?

Time will tell, but those outside the Arabian Peninsula who seek a reformed Saudi Arabia should reassure the Kingdom of the House of Saud (which I personally have only ever seen from across the gulf of Aqaba) that they are moving in the right direction and should not rest on their laurels. They have a very long way to go.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Canadians Can Learn From Thirsty Tel Aviv

Israel is a country with limited fresh water resources. Much (but certainly not all) of its water comes from the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan river and its tributaries. These flow into the Dead Sea (see picture,) the lowest point on earth, and the last stop for the Jordan. In November, I had a nice picnic on the side of a highway overlooking the Dead Sea and couldn't help but notice how obviously dried up it was: the result of both increased demand for water and a years long drought affecting the region. The origins of the water crisis in Israel is discussed here.

It seems that in parts of Israel, a country that seems to have always been conscious of its water use, some cities are beginning to feel pressure to kick up their water conservation measures. Take, for example, Tel Aviv. The efforts to save water in Tel Aviv not only include contests to see who can use the least water (I hope people don't stop bathing!) but have also recruited internationally known Israeli celebrities like Bar Rafaeli to help promote the municipality's efforts.

I have long been interested in issues relating to fresh water. I think Canada has a great deal to learn from countries like Israel that find themselves looking for innovative ways to save water. Canadians have long been fed the myth that Canada's borders encompass more fresh water than any other country on earth. This is only sort of true. Most of these huge water resources are non-renewable, too remote to be of any value, or frozen away in glaciers. The water we do have easy access to (for example the great lakes) is used up faster than it can be naturally renewed and is becoming increasingly impacted by pollution and other activities making it more difficult to access. Canada is the world's second largest per capita consumer of water (according to these outdated statistics.) Canadians need to wake up and realize that what we learned in grade school was not exactly right. We need to take care of our water and watch it closely. It is not unlimited.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Laugh and Cry Your way From Iran to Sudan

A couple of articles I found on Israeli media websites today made me both want to laugh and vent at the same time, I thought I would share my amusement and frustration.

The first story is from Iran. A popular call in television show had a young girl call in and mention that her father refers to her toy stuffed monkey as "Ahmedinejad," the president of Iran. The article is interesting as it lists other incidences of children, on live TV, saying things that would be considered taboo in Iran. The examples given drive home just how conservative a country Iran is. Interestingly, I could only find this story carried in Israeli media, at least in English. I would be very interested in knowing if there was any legal, political or social fall-out form this incident and what it was. I'd be interested in hearing more about an average Iranian's reaction to this bit of news.

The second bit of news, reported here, here, here, and here at first made me laugh, but then troubled me. Gaddafi, the Libyan leader has suggested that the Sudan is not responsible for the genocide in Darfur: foreigners are, including, you guessed it, Israel. Not a shred of evidence is offered to support this claim and no elaboration was made about this accusation aimed at deflecting attention away from the president of the Sudan who is currently the subject of proceedings at the International Criminal Court. The reason I laughed at first was because I thought: 'what nonsense! How could anyone take this seriously?' If he offered evidence, it would surely be worth a look, but really, you want us to believe that Israelis are complicit, in Janajwid Arab-Muslims slaughtering and displacing (amongst other unmentionable crimes) non-Arab Africans? Where is Israel's interest in supporting the Janjawid? Where is Israel's gain from killing Africans? You've got to be kidding us Mr. G, right?

I was then troubled because I thought to myself, here a leader of a sovereign state accuses another of complicity in genocide, without a shred of evidence, and people may actually listen to him: uninformed people; uncritical people; and people who are looking for another reason to hate. Why is it so absurd to think that the Sudanese government is responsible for what happens in the Sudan? Why must foreigners be responsible for the horror of Darfur? Why must it be someone else's fault? Until I see some proof of this allegation, I cannot help but think that this is just another sad effort to tar foreigners (and especially Israel, the only country specifically alluded to) with the brush of evil just because it's Israel.

Monday, February 23, 2009

An Economics Lesson from Pauline Marois

Oh! This one is rich (pun sort of intended.)

Pauline Marois (who has been accused of talking and acting too much like a rich person, get it?! Get it!?) , the leader of the seperatist, opposition Parti Quebecois has suggested that the panacea for Quebec in the latest global economic crisis is, you guessed it, the same as the miracle cure for everything else awry in Quebec, separation, independence! In a rough translation from her speech at a PQ party meeting Ms. Marois said that sovereignty is the cure because with it Quebec can: 'have more leeway to develop a strategic economic plan, support workers and families. We [Quebec] would not have to waste our energy on pilgrimages to Ottawa.' Well, there may be a kernel of truth in that statement, but if saving energy is what this is about, I can suggest a few other ways Ms. Marois can clear her schedule.

For example, perhaps Ms. Marois can, rather than threaten to break up Canada, make more efforts to work collaboratively with other Canadians who want a strong unified Canada which would include a strong, culturally vibrant Quebec. Cooperation tends to be far easier than confrontation and contrariness, I find. With the extra energy, perhaps Ms. Marois could then propose some ideas to lift Quebec from its artificial "have-not" province status and let it become the powerhouse that it should be. Unfortunately though, it seems that any spare time Ms. Marois has will be spent putting together an actual plan to guide Quebec towards sovereignty because it seems she doesn't even have one. All she knows is that once it happens, however it happens, it'll be grand, and all will be right in the world (provided you're not a patient in a Quebec hospital).

I find it a little insulting to the intelligence of Quebecois to tell them that sovereignty will somehow cure their economic woes. Never mind that prior to the 1995 Quebec referendum the Canadian dollar fell over 2 full cents--a strong indicator that talk of separation and political instability are bad for the economy. Never mind the billions of transfer payments that Quebec City received from Ottawa every year either. What is so insulting, is that as the world is in economic shambles, the WHOLE world, Ms. Marois thinks that Quebecois will accept that the reason Quebec is suffering, is that it is part of Canada.

I hope I'm right and Quebecois will see through this, but I have my fears. Parties in power during hard economic times rarely do well when it comes time to return to the polls. Though in Quebec this may be several years off, with the right of centre ADQ party leaderless as of today, and the federalist Liberal party as the incumbent, I hope the PQ do not gain any momentum with their reductio ad absurdum strategy.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

London Antisemitism Talk-Shop

Between February 15 and 17 2009 legislators from 35 countries met in London for The inaugural conference of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism (ICCA). A few things struck me about this conference. First, I note that some of the legislators who spoke (while I do not question that theirs hearts were in the right place) could not seem to resist playing politics with the event, for example the British Parliamentary Under Secretary of State who noted his record of discussing antisemitism with all cultural groups he meets, and Canada's Minister of Immigration who used the forum to announce that the Canadian Arab Federation, which was seemingly involved in activities of an antisemitic nature, would no longer be receiving federal funding. I understand of course that these individuals were making the point that they undertake activities which they think should be emulated, but still, if you take a look at their speeches, it's hard not to roll your eyes, a little.

That aside, the conference resulted in the publication of a declaration full of high minded ideals and useful resolutions for the combating of antisemitism and indeed a template for combating most forms of discrimination. I did read through it, and aside from some overly broad use of terms, the line that struck me most was in the preamble, which said "We are alarmed at the resurrection of the old language of prejudice and its modern manifestations –
in rhetoric and political action - against Jews, Jewish belief and practice and the State of Israel." The document does not go on to really explain why Israel is mentioned in this document about antisemitism. Fortunately, Canadian MP Irwin Cotler does provide an excellent explanation of this difficult point in his key-note address to the conference. A major weakness of this document is that it does not explain what Professor Cotler does.

Anyway, this document and this conference was a really lovely idea but such things often involve much preaching to the converted, so to speak. I'll wait to pronounce the value of these efforts once we begin to see some actual results come from them.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bridge Unbuilt: A Turkish Peace Plan For Israel and Palestine Fails to Materialize

I found this article, from the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz (the Country) upsetting. In a nutshell, a Turkish philanthropist proposed the construction of what he called a peace complex within Israel but on the 1967 border with the West Bank. This complex was to contain a 200 bed children's hospital which would serve Israeli and Palestinian children. It would be staffed by people from both sides of the border as well who would live within the peace complex. The complex would also contain schools and a hotel for the families of Palestinians being treated in Israel. It was expected to create hundreds of jobs, and be fully funded by the Turks including any expenses incurred for additional security. The project received high level support from Israeli politicians (including the Prime Minister,) and the Turkish government. Unfortunately, this project is at a standstill and may never see the light of day because of security concerns expressed by Israeli defense and security agencies.

Would this complex have all of a sudden brought peace to the Middle East? Of course not. It would, however, build bridges between peoples who simply don't know one another. Imagine the children who grew up in such a community: children who knew the "other." Who knew that the people living on the other side of the line were not scary, who would have talked with them, played with them. Children who knew that their parents worked together with "the other" and who realized that they were able to live a good life as a result of this coexistence and cooperation. Imagine the leaders that could come from such a community.

I cannot find another example in Israel or Palestine of a project such as this one where the intention was not only to provide health care, but to actually create a community of both Israelis and Palestinians. There are, however, other projects with similar goals, such as those listed by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the initiatives supported by the Peres Centre for Peace not only in the field of health, but sport, culture and other initiatives as well as programs to increase accessibility of medical care for Palestinians in Israel, described here. It’s these brief contacts, these step-by-step building of relationships that will eventually create an interconnectivity and a relationship between people on each side of the divide. One is far less likely to support the harming of someone they know, than a total stranger; someone who is one of “them.”

Unfortunately, as I imagine the case is with all security establishments, Israeli officials who examined this proposal found too much to worry about and so have officially, shut down the planning, this despite the high level political support. What a shame that such a potentially beneficial project should have to die because of the narrow focus on security. Is it not the job of these security forces to identify risks and then solve them? Why do we not see the civilian leadership saying “security services, this is your mission. It is as important as any other. Carry it out.” It’s encouraging to that there are still champions of this project in Israel and in Turkey. I hope someone begins to listen to them

Friday, February 20, 2009

Reversal of Fortunes on the Plains of Abraham

A planned re-enactment of the Seven Years War battle between the English and French at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 at Quebec City was canceled. Amid threats of disruptions and even violence by separatist groups such as the Réseau de Résistance du Québécois (The Quebec Resistance Network) lead by Patrick Bourgeois the National Battlefields Commission of Canada decided that it was too much of a security risk to host the event which was to consist mostly of re-enactors from the United States, but also from Quebec and other parts of Canada. Separatists viewed this cancellation of an event they considered to be a humiliating reminder of a military defeat to be a victory and the likes of Bourgeois feel it is a first step towards ridding Quebec City of "all monuments dedicated to the memory of Wolfe [the English commander killed in combat at the battle.]"

The cancellation of this event sets a dangerous precedent. Instead of guaranteeing the over 2,000 re-enactors and their families who were to come to Quebec City increased security at their event (which was to include a solemn memorial for all the soldiers involved in that battle) our government capitulated to a vocal extremist minority. Instead of responding to threats of violence with police investigations and legal sanctions, the government has let threats of and physical assault with a weapon, slide (some threatened to bring paint ball guns to disrupt the event).

It is upsetting to think that anyone in modern Quebec, which prides itself on a distinctness based on its unique history in North America, would seek to ban historical re-enactments and monuments to important figures in Canadian and Quebec history who they found distasteful. The extremists of the separatist movement have shown their true colours with their intimidation tactics and their desire to erase from the pages of history historical facts about the country they live in. They want to erase from history all that they see as a humiliation forgetting that the true humiliation came at the hands of the French and not the English. Even French media in Quebec points out how the British did away with cruel French criminal laws while protecting the settler's rights to their own civil laws, religion and language. Little mention is made, however, of how when the Seven Years War ended the French, defeated by the English, when given the choice, chose to abandon Quebec to the English. In exchange for the costly colony of Quebec, by the 1763 treaty of Paris, the French were entitled to keep their sugar, rum and slave producing colonies in the Caribbean as well as some fishing rights and tiny, rocky islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was the French who chose to abandon Quebec, that perhaps, is a humiliation greater than military defeat. Nobody wants to be a second choice.

This episode is also troubling because of what appears to be a lack of any efforts to compromise, to enter into a dialogue which would allow the re-enactors to bring history to life, and as a spin off, pump millions into Quebec's economy while assuring separatists that this is to be a solemn remembrance of history, not a glorification of English victory. There was no effort to reassure opponents of the re-enactment that they were not the target of some sort of attempt at humiliation and that if they wished, they would be allowed to protest peacefully, without disrupting the re-enactment.

Indeed, this whole episode is a sad day for democracy. Even the Federalist Premier of Quebec, Jean Charest had criticized the re-enactment and indicated that he would have no part of it. Quebec is in trouble when a legally authorized event can be canceled by a group of separatist "hotheads" threatening violence. When is enough, enough?! It is time for strong leadership to say 'no! This is Quebec history, these re-enactors have as much right to freedom of peaceful assembly as protesters have a right to free speech. In our democracy, these values must co-exist and be protected. Threats of violence are unacceptable, illegal, undemocratic and will be punished. We will not sacrifice benefits for the many to the threats of the few.' Sadly, no such leadership seems to exist.

Indeed, separatist extremists have won the day. No doubt they are celebrating with the shop owners, restaurateurs and innkeepers who have lost-out on a potential financial windfall. Instead, Quebec can rejoice in having joined the likes of the Spanish conquistadors who burned 'unchristian' Mayan texts of immense historical value; the Popes who caused massive damage to the 'pagan' Coliseum of Rome by stripping it of its stone and iron to build churches; and the Taliban who destroyed centuries old statues of Buddha, including what was believed to be the worlds largest standing Buddha. Quebec has joined the ranks of those who will bow to threats of violence by those who seek to erase history they find distasteful, and in doing so, driving a deeper wedge between them, and the rest of Canada.