Conservatives’ idiotic attack ads

The latest developments in Canadian politics are:

  1. The Liberal Party of Canada, under leader Michael Ignatieff, has opened up a lead in the polls over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party.
  2. The Conservatives, predictably, have responded by unleashing attack ads aimed squarely at Mr. Ignatieff.

One of the ads says that Ignatieff was “away” from Canada for 34 years. It’s true:  Ignatieff was a public figure in England and in the USA before returning to Canada in 2005.

According to the ad, Ignatieff brags that he is “horribly arrogant”. I wonder whether Mr. Ignatieff intended that statement to be taken at face value?

Moreover — according to the ad — Mr. Ignatieff also brags that he’s “cosmopolitan”! How horrid! Lock up your children!

Then, bizarrely, the ad continues:  “The only thing he missed about Canada was Algonquin Park”.

How very Canadian of Ignatieff to be homesick for Algonquin Park!

It seems to me that the last statement lets the air out of the preceding, attempted smears. Arrogant, cosmopolitan, missed Algonquin Park:  one of these things is not like the others.

I suppose I shouldn’t help out the Conservatives by posting their attack ad on my blog. But if this is the worst muck the Conservatives can sling at Ignatieff, surely his lead in the polls is insurmountable.

I like Andrew Steele’s take:

I’m a subscriber to the Will Ferguson theory of Bastards and Boneheads.

It states that Canadians elect leaders who are bastards, not boneheads. […] Trudeau versus Clark. Mulroney versus Turner. Chrétien versus Day. Harper versus Dion. […]

In effect, the Conservative Party is paying millions of dollars to brand Michael Ignatieff the very thing Canadians vote for:  arrogant bastards.

Steele’s argument is a bit tongue in cheek, perhaps, but I think the point is valid. The attack ads pay fealty to Ignatieff as a formidable political opponent.

Arrogant, cosmopolitan, missed Algonquin Park:  none of those attributes is a reason not to elect Michael Ignatieff as Canada’s next Prime Minister. The next election can’t come too soon for me.

Homeless hero

What do Faron Hall and Susan Boyle have in common? They both exceeded people’s low expectations of them.

You’ve probably heard of Susan Boyle, whose audition on Britain’s Got Talent shocked everyone. Who would have thought that a homely woman could have a beautiful singing voice?

Faron HallFaron Hall is a homeless, Dakota man who saved the life of a drowning teenager. Who would have thought that a homeless man would risk his own life to save the life of a stranger?

I’m not imagining this. People interviewed on TV were uniformly shocked that a homeless man would emerge as the hero of this life-and-death story. But why?

Aren’t homeless people human beings, the same as you and me? In a crisis, shouldn’t we expect a homeless person to respond as any other human being would respond?

Hall’s story, like Susan Boyle’s, is an example of the halo effect:

People seem not to think of other individuals in mixed terms; instead we seem to see each person as roughly good or roughly bad across all categories of measurement.

The halo effect occurs when our first impression of someone (e.g. a beautiful woman) is positive, and we assume good things about her in other respects. For example, she might impress a prospective employer and receive a job offer despite a weak resume.

The reverse halo effect occurs when our first impression of someone (e.g. a homeless man) is negative. Reflexively we assume there’s no good in him. In Mr. Hall’s case, that would be a big mistake:

Mr. Hall […] was sharing a beer with a friend, Wayne Spence, downriver from the bridge when he heard a loud splash. In a light-hearted mood after a long day of collecting cans, he remembers saying, “Damn, that must have hurt.”

But humour turned to shock when they spotted the teen screaming for help 40 metres out on the fast-moving river. Living life on the margins helped him decided what to do next. “People ignore me,” he says. “But I don’t ignore them. We look out for one another out here.”

He threw off his backpack, kicked off his old black dress shoes and jumped into the chilly water.

“When I got to the kid, he started fighting me,” says Mr. Hall, pointing to a bloody scar on his forehead where the teen socked him. “I had to smack him back, tell him, ‘Hey, I’m here to help you.'” He’d pulled the teen within 20 metres of shore when his adrenalin stalled and fatigue set in. “It’s too damn cold,” he remembers yelling to Mr. Spence, who was standing along the shore.

“You can’t let go, you can make it,” Mr. Spence yelled back, before wading up to his knees in the water to drag his friend and the petrified teen to the shore.


Granville Island goslings

I spent several days in Vancouver this week, at the Granville Island Hotel.

Astonishingly, we had three consecutive days of bright sunshine. Here’s a view of the harbour from the bridge that crosses to the island.

harbour view from Granville Island bridge

Granville Island is a bit too touristy for my tastes. But the market is a nice bonus (fresh fruit and bread) if you’re going to stay right on the island.

The Canada geese added some colour to my visit. There were two pairs of mates; one of them was caring for eight goslings.

Canada Geese goslings

The geese are accustomed to having people around. Although the parental geese were usually watchful —


— I was astonished to see how close they came to me when I was sitting quietly on a bench!

ducks in a row

Jack Layton’s hissy fit

The Canadian Parliament is back in session, and the Conservatives have just tabled a budget. Michael Ignatieff (Liberal leader) says the Liberals will support it. The headline takeaway is, The coalition is dead.

And Jack Layton (NDP leader) doesn’t like it. Not one little bit.

Ignatieff has asked for one concession:  that the Conservatives report back to Parliament “no later than five sitting days before the last allotted day in each of the supply periods ending March 26, 2009, June 23, 2009, and Dec. 10, 2009.” Ignatieff says,

Accountability is something that Stephen Harper has always said is important. I agree with him.

But this budget does not include one word about accountability.

We will require regular reports to Parliament on the budget’s implementation and its cost — one in March, one in June and one in December.

Each of these reports will be an opportunity to withdraw our confidence should the government fail Canadians.

Layton, who specializes in bristling with outrage, is bristling with outrage:

Mr. Layton, visibly angry, declared Mr. Ignatieff’s conditions a “fig leaf” for caving in to the Tories.

“What you and I heard today is that you can’t rely on Mr. Ignatieff to oppose Mr. Harper,” Mr. Layton said. “We have a new coalition: Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff.”

Therefore the NDP will oppose both the budget and the Liberal Party’s amendment to it.

Jack Layton, pool hustlerNDP leader Jack Layton

But here’s the thing. Jack Layton had an informal coalition with the Conservatives which lasted for two election campaigns (when the Liberal leader was Paul Martin). And that coalition was a very cynical manoeuvre, considering that the NDP is at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Conservatives. (The NDP are often derided as “socialists”, although that’s an exaggeration of their policy positions.)

At the time, the Liberals were bleeding support. The NDP and the Conservatives were both vying for disillusioned Liberal voters. And so Canadians were treated to a bit of tag-team wrestling:  the Conservatives and the NDP took turns pile-driving the Liberals.

Relatively speaking, the Liberals and the Conservatives are not so far apart. Not since Stéphane Dion (decidedly left-wing in his views) was replaced by Michael Ignatieff (who is centre-right). And not since the Conservatives’ near-death experience in December led them to surrender to the deficit-spending-economic-stimulus craze currently sweeping the globe.

It seems a tad hypocritical to me that Layton, who was prepared to sell his soul to the Conservatives for the opportunity to gather Liberal voters into his basket, is now working himself up into a mustache-quivering lather because Ignatieff is going to support the Conservative Party’s economic stimulus budget.

And here’s the other thing. As I’ve already mentioned, the NDP are going to oppose the Liberal amendment to the budget. But the amendment calls for the Conservatives to report back to Parliament. How can the NDP justify voting against accountability to Parliament?

In sum, Jack Layton threw a hissy fit yesterday. I guess it’s not too shocking, given that his pool trick has misfired.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives say they will support the Liberal amendment:

By 4 p.m., the government, relieved that the conditions did not require more substantive concessions, accepted the amendment, saying that providing updates to Parliament and facing votes wasn’t really a new burden.

“This is nothing new. … We always report back to Parliament,” Government House Leader Jay Hill said.

“The amendment just states the obvious, so we’re very pleased to comply with it as we move forward.”

Hence the budget will pass. The Conservatives have survived last month’s crisis, and they will continue to govern for the immediate future.

Meanwhile, Canadians will get their economic stimulus package. Now we don’t have to feel like we’re missing out on the goodies every other Western nation is receiving from its government.

Battleground Ontario

The Liberal Party of Canada now has more electoral support than the Conservatives in Quebec and Ontario, according to a new poll. Not coincidentally, the Liberals have a new leader, Michael Ignatieff:

The Liberals have moved into a statistical tie with the governing Tories, according to the Nanos Research survey provided exclusively to The Canadian Press.

Liberal support stood at 34 per cent, one point ahead of the Conservatives and up eight points from the Liberals’ dismal showing in the Oct. 14 election under the leadership of Stéphane Dion.

The Tories slipped almost five points from the election to 33 per cent while NDP and Green support was virtually unchanged at 19 per cent and seven per cent respectively.

The Liberal resurgence was particularly pronounced in Quebec, where the poll indicates the party vaulted into the lead with 39 per cent support to 29 per cent for the Bloc Québécois, 17 per cent for the Tories and 14 per cent for the New Democrats. […]

[Mr. Nanos] said the poll could foreshadow a return to a more traditional two-party, east-west dynamic in federal politics, wherein the Tories dominate the West and are competitive with the Liberals in Ontario while the Grits are strong in Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

“If the Liberals do manage to pick up support in Quebec, we’re actually going back the way Canadian politics was a decade ago,” he said.

According to the survey, Liberals expanded their lead in Atlantic Canada (44 per cent to the Tories’ 28 ) and regained a narrow lead in Ontario (39 per cent to the Tories’ 35 and the NDP’s 16).

The Conservatives continued to dominate western Canada, with 44 per cent to the Liberals’ 24 per cent and the NDP’s 23 per cent.

Regular readers will know that I predicted this development two months ago — before the abortive Liberal/NDP coalition, and before Michael Ignatieff was installed as Liberal leader. I wrote:

Canadian voters are waiting for Liberal Party to clean up its act. The other parties had two opportunities, in 2006 and 2008, to supplant the Liberals as Canada’s “natural governing party”. It didn’t happen. The Liberals have been given another opportunity to regroup.

Before long, Conservatives will be looking over their shoulders at a revitalized Liberal Party. The Bloc Québécois, the NDP, and the Green Party will be growing increasingly anxious, too — with good reason.

Mind you, it’s early days yet. I also commented, “The Liberals have a big rehabilitation project ahead of them, aside from merely choosing a new leader.”

In Quebec, the Liberals may be leading in the polls, but they still lack an effective political organization (a hang-over from their collapse following the sponsorship scandal). Without that organization, it’s impossible to turn poll numbers into votes.

And of course, Ignatieff could be enjoying a honeymoon with voters. Political honeymoons (just like marital honeymoons) can turn abruptly frosty.

But there has been a big change in media coverage. When the media discuss the economic crisis, they give prominent coverage to Ignatieff (e.g. here and here) along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper or Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

From the perspective of media coverage, we’ve returned to a two-party system:  the Government and the official opposition — a kind of government-in-waiting. The other three parties are relatively marginalized.

If the Liberals can deliver those seats in Quebec (where Ignatieff’s personal popularity is very high), Ontario would then become the electoral battleground. Whichever party wins in Ontario will form a government.

That is, whenever the next election comes around. Ignatieff will want some months to rebuild organizationally before the Liberals will trigger the fall of the Harper government.

As I said in November, we’ve entered an exciting time in Canadian politics.

Longer is better

Quote for the day:

They are now claiming they are the widest. Well, they can be wide. I’d rather be long.

Paul Jordan, chief operating officer of a community development organization, argues that the outdoor skating rink in Winnipeg is superior to Ottawa’s famed Rideau Canal skating rink. Winnipeg recently supplanted Ottawa in the Guiness Book of Records for having the world’s longest naturally frozen skating trail.

Ottawans can stoop to a little trash-talking in their turn. Paul Dewar, Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre, says the Winnipeg trail is “more of a cow path than a skating rink.” It seems that the Winnipeg surface narrows to the width of a car in spots.

Take that, ‘peggers!


Inevitably, we get back to the perennial debate:  is it size that matters, or is there some other measure of superiority?

We need a skate-off. An independent third party can skate our canal and then attempt to skate on the Winnipeg path. It’s not just quantity but quality that matters in good ice.


Success redefined

The Globe and Mail has chosen Canada’s 2008 nation builder:  Jean Vanier.

Jean VanierM. Vanier was instrumental in changing the way that mentally handicapped people are cared for. In L’Arche communities, founded by M. Vanier, volunteers live round the clock with the mentally handicapped people they serve.

M. Vanier is a devout Roman Catholic. It seems to me that L’Arche (= “the ark”) follows a monastic model of ministry:  devoting one’s entire life to carrying out God’s work in a community set apart from the way people ordinarily live.

The L’Arche model is certainly rooted in the Gospels:  specifically, in Jesus’ admonition to serve “the least of these, my brethren“. Vanier tells the Globe and Mail that he wants to announce a message:

That people who are weak have something to bring us, that they are important people and it’s important to listen to them. In some mysterious way, they change us. Being in a world of the strong and powerful, you collect attitudes of power and hardness and invulnerability. [… But] it is vulnerability that brings us together.”

Vanier maintains that we need to redefine success:

Recently, a couple came to him with their one-and-a-half-year-old son, who had an undiagnosed disorder and screamed incessantly. Mr. Vanier asked the mother how she was, and she muttered, “Okay.” He asked the father, a military man, the same question. “Sometimes,” the father said, “I want to throw him out the window.”

Mr. Vanier leans forward in his chair. “And I said to him, ‘I understand. I’ve lived the same thing.'”

He is referring to Lucien, a severely handicapped man who used to live with him and whose endless shrieking began with his mother’s death and rarely stopped. Mr. Vanier often returns to Lucien in his writing: Suffering through that noise helped him understand not only his own limitations but what the families of disabled people must go through, isolated as they often are.

“It obviously penetrated through all my protective systems and awoke anguish, and I could see violence within me,” he says. “If I hadn’t been in a community, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Lucien died a few years ago; his screaming never ceased entirely. It is easy, when hearing this story, to understand why L’Arche is always facing a shortage of volunteers. Most people would find such a life too taxing to endure.

What Mr. Vanier finds surprising is that very often it’s the volunteers’ parents who don’t want them to work at L’Arche.

“Parents will say, ‘We gave you education, university, and now you want to live with these people?'” […]

This leads to one of the cornerstones of Mr. Vanier’s philosophy, which is essentially that we’ve lost track of the different ways to measure a successful life. [… Vanier muses,] “How to find a world where the essential thing is to work for peace, to work to build something together?” […]

One of those who came and stayed was Cariosa Kilcommons. Disillusioned with her pre-med studies, Ms. Kilcommons dropped out of St. Francis Xavier University more than 20 years ago to live at the L’Arche home in Cape Breton. Four years later, she came to stay in Trosly; now, she returns to her family home in Pincher Creek, Alta., only for the occasional holiday.

“It was pretty radical,” she says of her decision to make L’Arche her life. “But I was filled with inner certitude. It’s true that a lot is asked of us here, but we get a lot back. The hours are long, but the experience is so rich.”

Certain public figures maintain that the world would be a better place without religion. And it’s true that religion does a lot of harm in the world. Some of the most prominent religious leaders stand for intolerance, division, and violence (whether overt or covert).

Maybe those religious leaders have absorbed the wrong definition of success. They pursue publicity, glory, money, deference, and access to the corridors of power. Perhaps they also mobilize people for ministry. But it’s difficult to keep one’s motives pure when those things begin to blend together.

How many of those leaders would show the same dedication to ministry if God called them to toil anonymously in a L’Arche community?

Jean Vanier hasn’t sought the public spotlight. Nor has he developed a personal fiefdom, where he can reign as a little pope. Instead, he has poured out his life in service to people who might otherwise be forgotten by the world.

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