Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What is America? A Short History of the New World Order – Ronald Wright

As an English teacher, I was always frustrated by my students' poor grounding in history, as historical allusions, etc. meant nothing to them if they didn't have the context. The context that history provides is also essential for interpreting the world that we live in today. Author Ronald Wright provides that crucial tool in his latest book.

Like his last non-fiction work, A Short History of Progress, author Ronald Wright has crafted an eminently readable and concise work that deserves to be read both widely and deeply. In his latest analysis, What is America? A Short History of the New World Order, Wright looks at the history of America, from its earliest days as the domain of the aboriginal, to its current position as probably the most reviled country in the world.

Beginning with a short history of the Spanish subjugation of Mesoamerica (Mexico and the adjoining Maya region of Central America) and Greater Peru which powerfully sets the theme of conquest, the author quickly moves to the time of the English settling of what ultimately became the United States. Much of the history of the genocide and betrayal of the aboriginals living in what, for many, will seem a surprising amount of structure, government and civilization, is well-known to students of that period, but the information serves to provide the context for defining the American character as it has revealed itself over the past two hundred years.

Once the frontiers of America were closed, the U.S government looked abroad to expand its influence and will until we have the situation the world confronts today – a country that subscribes to the notions of exceptionalism and manifest destiny, beliefs that have made it guilty of a hubris worthy of Greek tragedy. Perhaps the best way to view the book is as an examination of a pattern of behaviour that, while hardly unique to the United States, has resulted in a sorry tale of lost potential.

While those who subscribe to the American mythology of benevolence betrayed will be deeply offended by this work, those who are able to rise above blind patriotic fervour will see the truth and validity of Wright’s observation which, as always, are backed by solid research and historical data.

He ends the book on a positive note by looking at one model of co-operation that suggests human beings can rise above their selfish and violent history to work together toward common goals. That model is the European Union which, as the author readily admits, is far from perfect but seems to be succeeding where past structures have failed. One needs only consider their progressive legislation on climate control or medical care for it citizenry to appreciate the accuracy of his observations.

In closing, it seems that all of the goodwill and excitement generated worldwide over the election of Barack Obama suggests that there is still a tremendous hunger in countless countries for the Unite States to succeed as a nation among nations; without question it still has much to contribute, and its tremendous power to influence the direction of world affairs, for both good and evil, is undeniable. But some important questions remain to be answered: Can the United States rise above its national character forged in history, and begin to realize its true potential? Will its citizens, even under inspirational political leadership, be willing to do the hard work and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve that potential?

Only time will answer those questions. I wish them well.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Positive Side of Failure

There is a thought-provoking column in today's Globe and Mail by Roy MacGregor, who offers his reaction to a high school principal considering banning 'F's' because it 'hurts kids' feelings.'

Many teachers, especially the veterans, will find much truth in his views on the potentially positive results of failure:

The Fs in my past stand for first-rate life lessons


From Monday's Globe and Mail
November 17, 2008 at 12:36 AM EST

Just my luck.

Not only born in the wrong century, but in the wrong province.
Were I heading into high school this year in Saskatoon, there's an excellent chance I would escape ever receiving that report card that sits in an old folder in the filing cabinet: History F… Algebra F… Chemistry F…. French F… Latin F…each “F” written and circled in red ink – just in case my parents might miss them.

No, if this bright young lad were headed for Nutana Collegiate, there wouldn't be much fear, as the “F” letter may soon be banned there.

Apparently, it hurts kids' feelings.

“We don't need to degrade the student by giving them a number,” the school principal was quoted this weekend as saying. “Incomplete” or “no mark” would amount to the same thing, but not so “demoralizing” as an actual “F” – so as of the end of January, the “F” may be dropped from the Nutana alphabet.

I could have used that a hundred years ago in that small Ontario town as I dragged my sorry way back up over the hills to a home where family members were already practising their fist pumps in anticipation of much earlier letters in the alphabet.

Back then, I would gladly have traded my place in the vice-principal's office with those of Nutana, but not in retrospect. Over time, I came to mark that slap-in-the-face kick-in-the-seat-of-the-pants as the best thing that ever happened. It was about discovering you just couldn't slide through without paying the slightest attention. When the school let me back in after some inappropriate snivelling, I had learned a lesson that didn't have a classroom – and I like to think I never forgot it.

We don't spend enough time on the plus side of failure.

It was interesting to watch Michael Ignatieff this week as he announced he was once again running for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada and practically boasted about his spectacular flameout in the same quest two years ago. And the reception among pundits this time round seemed curiously warmer, as if failure first time round had somehow made him a more rounded and more attractive candidate.

Certainly failure did not hold back Saskatchewan's most famous politician. John Diefenbaker ran six times before he finally won an election, then ran, and lost, twice for the Conservative leadership before finally becoming Prime Minister of Canada with what was then the largest majority victory ever.

In Peter C. Newman's instantly celebrated new book Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Newman points out that Asper's magnificent failure in politics (he was once leader of the Manitoba Liberals) drove him back to business, where he eventually built his massive media empire.

But that's just politics, where ultimate failure is a given – at least in a country like Canada where the citizens tend to eat their own grown-ups.

The arts are no different. British mystery author John Creasey was rejected 743 times before selling his first novel – and went on to publish at least 500 more. Pearl S. Buck had a dozen rejection slips before The Good Earth found a publisher.

British author J.K. Rowling is the world's most successful living writer – a billionaire who has sold hundreds of millions of her Harry Potter books – and yet her convocation address this past June to the graduates of Harvard University was entitled: The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.

Harvard grads, she said, might not be very well acquainted with failure, but before they come up against it – as we all do – they might like to look at it in a different light. She wasn't claiming failure was any fun, but she did think it sometimes necessary and often helpful.

There was a time, Rowling told the puzzled students, when “by every standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” Seven years after her own graduation, her marriage had failed, she was a single mother and unemployed.

She began scribbling away in coffee shops on a book about wizards.

“Failure,” she said, “meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”

Setbacks, Rowling argued, make one stronger, not weaker. Knowing you can survive a setback and move on makes one “secure in your ability to survive” and teaches you more about yourself than any examination can.

“It is impossible,” she said, “to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

She was speaking to Harvard University, but I hope her words are heard by Nutana Collegiate, which I'm sure is a fine school with a fine principal.
The principal might, however, like to reconsider.

The only school letter I ever earned was an “F.”

And it was richly deserved.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Yet Another Reminder About the Dangers of Unfettered Capitalism

In light of the current financial crisis facing the world, there are probably few that need additional proof of the dangers of unfettered capitalism, given the propensity of many corporations for greedy and immoral behaviour. Nonetheless, there is yet another sobering reminder of this truth in today’s Globe and Mail story about Dow Chemical’s (of Bhopal infamy) apparent intention to seek financial compensation from Canada over the fact that two provinces, Quebec and Ontario, have banned the widely used pesticide 2-4-D for cosmetic applications. Chapter 11 of the NAFTA agreement gives corporations the right to seek financial compensation if their businesses are hurt by a government’s exercise of its sovereignty, in this case the provinces’ efforts to protect the health of its citizens.

The story is reproduced here:

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
October 22, 2008 at 1:12 AM EDT
Dow AgroSciences is considering using the controversial investor-protection provisions of the North American free-trade agreement to seek compensation from the federal government over Quebec's ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides.

The company, a maker of the weed-killer 2,4-D, filed a notice of intent to submit a claim to arbitration under NAFTA in late August. The 27-page legal action was posted yesterday on the Foreign Affairs website, where it is listed as a dispute to which Canada is a party.

In its notice, Dow says the Quebec ban outlawing the use of bug and weed sprays for merely appearances' sake around homes breaches legal protections owed by Canada to U.S. investors under the trade agreement.

NAFTA has provisions, known as Chapter 11, that restrict the ability of a country to take measures “tantamount to nationalization or expropriation” of an investment from a firm from another NAFA member. Besides Canada, the United States and Mexico are in the trade pact.

The Indianapolis-based company, whose 2,4-D is a standard ingredient in many commercial weed sprays, is seeking compensation of not less than $2-million, plus legal costs and yet-to-be specified damages.

Dow's legal brief accuses the Quebec government of implementing a pesticide ban that “is not based on science” and was applied to 2,4-D “without providing any meaningful opportunity” for the company to make its case that the herbicide is safe.

Quebec instituted its pesticide ban in 2006, and Dow's action could have wide-ranging impacts. Ontario has recently adopted a similar measure, as have many municipalities, based on a precautionary public-health approach of minimizing exposures to these chemicals.

Although pesticide bans are spreading in Canada, the degree of health risk posed by the sprays is highly contentious. While such respected groups as the Canadian Cancer Society have argued in favour of bans, Health Canada says the pesticides it allows on the market are safe, if used as directed.

Ironically, Health Canada issued its assessment backing the safety of 2,4-D in May, shortly after Ontario said it would follow Quebec's lead by banning the lawn and garden chemicals.

The Dow claim is the latest in a long string of disputes to arise under Chapter 11 – a legal back-channel that permits foreign investors to detour local courts and sue the federal government before an international tribunal.

Foreign Affairs lists nine active arbitrations to which Canada has been named as a party.

The government is defending against a similar Chapter 11 claim filed by another U.S.-based chemical producer over lindane, a suspected carcinogen banned or no longer used in many countries. When Canada moved to end the use of the fungicide on seed treatments, U.S.-based Chemtura Corp. sued for $100-million in damages. That arbitration is going on behind closed doors.

Many of the NAFTA Chapter 11 actions have been based on complaints that pollution regulations harm business, raising concerns that companies are trying to use the trade treaty to stop governments from taking actions to protect public health or the environment.

Kathleen Cooper, a senior researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, says that the Quebec ban is backed by medical and environmental organizations, and enjoys wide support in public-opinion surveys. She says she is troubled that chemical producers can invoke NAFTA in an effort to “undermine the decisions of democratically elected governments.”

Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, says Dow is “quite transparently” trying to stop pesticide bans from spreading around the country and he predicts the company will face a public backlash for its position.

But Dow, in its submission, says Quebec has consistently ignored decisions supporting as safe the continued use of 2,4-D from Health Canada and other regulators.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wal-Mart Canada to close auto shop in Quebec where workers formed union

Very predictably, Walmart has announced the closing of their automobile centre in Gatineau Quebec a few months after the employes voted to form a union. This is the second time in Quebec that the giant corporation has flexed its muscle to avoid the spread of unionism amongst its employees. People really need to think long and hard about whether they need to save a few dollars at the expense of workers' rights to a living wage.

October 16, 2008
The Canadian Press
MONTREAL — Wal-Mart Canada is closing an automobile centre in Gatineau, Que., where employees had formed a union and recently secured their first collective agreement.
The retailer said today it closed the shop because it couldn’t accept salary increases for the store’s five mechanics. Wal-Mart said the higher wages would force it to increase prices by 30 per cent.
The unionized workers and the Tire and Lube Express centre manager won’t necessarily lose their jobs because they can be transferred to another department at the store or to another of Wal-Mart’s auto centres.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union president called Wal-Mart’s decision an attack on its workers and a “blatant disregard” for Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Wal-Mart thinks a cheap oil change is more important than the Canadian Constitution,” Wayne Hanley said in a news release.
The closure marks the second time Wal-Mart has closed a Quebec outlet after workers decided to form a union.
In April 2005, the retailer closed an entire store in Saguenay affecting more than 200 workers just as binding arbitration for a first contract was set to begin. The retailers said the store wasn’t profitable.
The Supreme Court of Canada agreed in August to hear appeals from a number of workers who lost their jobs.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Foreclosure Alley

A friend of mine sent me a link to a video on the foreclosure crisis as it is affecting one community in Southern California. It manages, without being maudlin, to put a human face on this disaster by showing a ‘trashing team’ clearing a house whose former occupants apparently left quickly, and in obvious despair. One of the aspects of this report reminded me of a very moving part of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath where he depicts the families who are being forced off their tenant farms having to make hard choices over what to take and what to leave behind.

If interested in viewing this report, click here

Sunday, September 21, 2008

And the Public Thinks Teachers are Goldbrickers?

Anyone who has taught for any length of time will become aware of, and perhaps acutely sensitive to, the unjustified public perception that teachers are mere layabouts milking the public purse, working only a few hours a day, enjoying both holidays and pension plans that mortals can only dream of. Anyone tired of this kind of invidious assessment may find an article in today's New York Times to be of interest. It details the unbelievable excesses that retirees of the Long Island Rail Road avail themselves of in disability payments, claimed by about 97% of employees immediately after they retire!

If interested, follow this link.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sarah Palin's Alaskan Governing Style

There is a rather explosive article in today's New York Times regarding the disturbing practices of the Republican Vice-Presidential canadidate, both as an Alaskan mayor and later state Governor. There appears to be a lengthy record of hiring and firing that suggest both cronyism (hardly anything new there) and personal vendettas. As well, suppression of information about global warming further suggests an abuse of power.

While the story will undoubtedly be decried as yet again an example of the 'liberal press' out to undermine all that is good and sacred in America, it is a thought-provoking article that at least gives the reader some information with which to balance the current rhetoric surrounding her candidacy.

If interested, you can read the article here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Transformational Power of an Election, or How Stephen Harper and I Saw the Light

There is nothing quite like unnecessary elections to bring out the cynic in me, although lately I’ve begun to question that cynicism and consider the benefits such excursions to the polls may offer, not only for the country but for the Prime Minister himself.

Like many, I have long viewed our Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, as a controlling, manipulative, aloof man with an especial disdain for the press and for the many opinions that differ from his. It is, for example, well-known that Conservative Members of Parliament, even cabinet ministers, cannot speak publically without the explicit approval of the P.M.O. (Prime Minister’s Office) lest they risk demotion, even denial of nomination papers at election time. This from a man who, in the last election, campaigned for more openness, Parliamentary democracy, etc.

Indeed, Mr. Harper went so far as to deny the parliamentary press gallery reporters access to him unless they signed a list from which some would be selected to ask questions at press conferences, a seemingly shocking breach of freedom of the press and a complete departure from the Canadian tradition of reporters taking turns asking their questions in a queue. The cynics suggested this was yet another means by which the Mr. Harper was attempting to control the message, thereby further debasing democracy.

I realize now that I have been wrong not to have given the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt.

What accounts for this transformation of perspective? Part of the answer, I think, lies in the public transformation of Stephen Harper. My family and friends tell me that the election ads they’ve seen suggest he is a changed man. Unfortunately I can only rely on their reports, as to this point I have been unable to watch the commercials featuring Mr. Harper and his blue sweater-clad musings, lest an unfortunate Tourette’s-like stream of profanity issue from me. I hereby acknowledge my weakness.

Apparently in one such ad, Mr. Harper talks intimately about his family, especially his children and the bond-strengthening activities they share; for example, son Harper plays the guitar while Dad plays the piano; after all, according to the P.M., son Harper is at that age when he doesn’t want to hang out so much with his dad (a sentiment, by the way, with which I would be able to readily identify, were Stephen my Dad), so those times, as in all families, are precious ones. Again, this from a man with a reputation for aloofness and disdain for public exposure; thanks for sharing, Prime Minister Harper.

There are apparently other ads including one in which he reminds all of us, in talking about military veterans, how fortunate we are to have had brave men and women defending our precious way of life and that we owe them a great debt of gratitude, a true departure from the impression some have of him as a Prime Minister willing to consign our contemporary military members to danger and death on mere ideological grounds. Indeed, as I write this I have just learned that Mr. Harper says he intends to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in 2011, going well beyond the Parliamentary motion this year committing to the withdrawal of troops only from Kandahar province, the most dangerous part of the country where most of our troops are serving. I am beyond words in my amazement of and appreciation for the Prime Minister’s evolution.

Indeed, every day seems to bring new evidence of even more rapid growth in the development of Mr. Harper’s compassion. I just saw a news report in which the Prime Minister, obviously sharing our incredulity over the 13 cent a liter gas jump that has taken place today, September 12th, allegedly as a result of Hurricane Ike-driven threats to Texas oil refineries, has teasingly suggested that there will be some announcements regarding government intervention in oil companies’ gouging of consumers. Again, this from a man who earlier in the summer stated there was little government could do to affect gas prices, so no efforts would be made. I’m beginning to think that as this election continues, Mr. Harper’s growth will perhaps culminate in a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for his sheer humanitarianism.

Even his clothes reflect a changed man. Gone are the suits and ties, replaced by an array of blue sweaters. I guess it depends on your age, but when I see Mr. Harper dressed that way, I can’t help but think of Ward Cleaver at home with his family, dispensing all of the wisdom, love, patience, understanding, compassion, firmness, and fairness that we associate with Beaver’s dad..

I have been pondering what could bring about what seem to be such abrupt changes in Mr. Harper’s personality. Barring an undiagnosed medical condition, I am only left to infer that there is something humanizing and humbling about engaging in an election campaign. Perhaps it is the regular and daily contact with ‘regular’ people; after all, I am told that in one of the photo gallery series, Mr. Harper, accoutered in that ubiquitous blue sweater, is depicted sitting at someone’s kitchen table in a B.C. home, perhaps extolling life in Canada under his ministrations and demonstrating his understanding of ‘regular’ people. This is clearly a man attempting to forge a bond, especially meaningful for those of us who have ever fantasized about such a visit.

Or maybe it’s something in the coffee, croissants, or donuts in the diners Mr. Harper has been seen frequenting during the campaign, the very places we regular folks gather to strengthen community bonds. Or perhaps a humanizing synergy mysteriously emerges during the campaign of an unnecessary election. Who knows?

In any event, maybe it is only the result, not the explanation, that really matters here. Stephen Harper has worked his magic on me; he has restored my faith, which I long believed to have been obliterated, in the human capacity to change and to grow.

Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Good Staffrooms and School Morale

Although this month marks the beginning of the third year of my retirement from the classroom, September has always seemed to me to be about both new beginnings and reflections on past experience. With that in mind, please indulge my thoughts on something that I believe is vital to teachers, a supportive staffroom.

For me, a supportive staffroom is almost synonymous with, but not necessarily identical to supportive and nourishing colleagues. In my last 17 years of teaching, I was truly blessed to work in a collegial environment that emerged in part no doubt by both the geography of my school and the physical arrangements within the staffroom. Our school was a large one, divided into what was known as the East and West Wings. Fortunate to be a member of a department in the West Wing, I was part of a cadre that nurtured, supported, debated and sometimes vehemently disagreed with each another. For me, the staffroom was a refuge, an oasis, and a nexus of fervent ideas.

Why is the staffroom here not merely a metaphor for collegiality? Part of the answer lies in the fact that in this staffroom, which, over lunch periods, was the meeting place of between 20 to 30 people, dominated by the English Department but including staff from science, co-op, drama and art, had only one long lunch table. This meant that anyone seated there had to be prepared to join in the discussions or simply adjourn to the sofa, recliner, or computer workstation. Few chose those options. The majority lingered and participated. More on those discussions later.

The other reason the staffroom is not intended as a metaphor or metonym (I’m sorry, once an English teacher, always an English teacher!) is the fact that there was no administrative presence in the West Wing. In the early 90’s, the then principal moved her office to the East Wing, the main part of the school, which, of course made eminent sense. Although we sometimes complained that student behavioural problems in our wing were exacerbated by the absence of an office for one of the two vice-principals, I think we ultimately benefitted from their absence for a number of reasons.

To explain those reasons, a contrast with the East Wing staffroom is necessary. That room, serving the majority of staff which at one time numbered close to 100, was merely a few steps from the central office and the school’s administration. Indeed, the principal and the vp’s used it as their eatery as well. This fact, coupled with the arrangement of tables, worked against the development of the kind of collegiality I am talking about here. There were a number of small circular tables in that room, capable of accommodating probably six at the maximum, and the tables were not especially close to one another, so that each group or clique was essentially self-contained. Granted, in one end of that staffroom there were a couple of couches, but in occasional visits there, few sat after completing their lunches. Most tended to simply return to their ‘workstations.’ As well, I can understand how the presence of administrators nearby might have dampened people’s enthusiasm for voicing and debating strong opinions.

I believe the above two factors strongly militated against the development of the kind of culture that we enjoyed in the West Wing. Our discussions, ranging from pedagogy to politics, religion to remediation, domesticity to divorce, administrative traits and shortcomings, etc. knew few bounds; coupled with the resultant camaraderie, this atmosphere represented, for me, what effective education is all about; through the nurturing of the professional soul and the cultivation of the spirit of inquiry and healthy skepticism, I like to think we helped each other to become better teachers.

Viewed in the later years by administration as some kind of repository of discontent, our staffroom, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, seemed to make the administration feel threatened; hence 2 out of the 3 administrators present when I retired seldom visited. We were seen as a problem, and often times the principal would make sure that young teachers did not have classes on that side of the school, so as to minimize the risk of ‘contamination’ with non-corporatist thinking.

And the latter is to me what much of education has become; where independence was once fostered or at least tolerated, compliance to every last detail of educational orthodoxy, whether locally or provincially generated, is demanded.

So while the West Wing still exists, and former colleagues retain independence there, I know the clock is ticking very loudly. I salute them, I commend them, and I mourn the inevitable passing of a noble tradition.

Monday, September 8, 2008

My Letter to Margaret Wente

Since I enjoyed Margaret Wente's last two columns on education so much, my wife suggested I write her a letter. The following is what I sent her:

Dear Ms Wente:

Although I have rarely agreed with your perspectives over the years, as a retired high school teacher I very much appreciate the truths you’ve addressed in your last two columns on education. As well, I respect the fact that you chose not to ‘crank out’ a couple of quick pieces by blaming the usual suspects, teachers themselves.

The theme of your column today reminded me of something that happened around 1990. Although a veteran secondary English teacher by that point, I was relatively new to the school, located in an affluent community. During an early departmental meeting our head reminded everyone to make sure that we evaluated our students’ reading ability within two weeks of the semester. I then asked her, “What do we do with this information, Joanne?” She replied, with a laugh, “I knew you were going to ask that question, Lorne.” That comment was the end of the discussion of the issue.

Over the years I had often wondered about that ‘answer,’ and the conclusion I ultimately drew was that the directive toward early semester reading assessment was my department head’s subtle way of conveying the idea of making ‘accommodations’ without actually saying so. Having retired in 2006, I can assure you that there is no longer any such subtlety or ambiguity in school policy.

What deeply troubles me now is that the combination of political, parental and administrative pressure leaves new teachers little opportunity to develop their professional integrity. The problem is compounded by the fact that those teachers with knowledge and experience of the past who could provide some context for younger colleagues are rapidly disappearing through retirement. As well, I am sorry to say, although I am a supporter of unions and federations, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation has, in my view, become simply another political entity. The system now demands unquestioning acceptance of political and administrative fiat, and that is exactly what it will get. Unfortunately, such a result, while politically expedient, is anathema to real education.

One other aspect that you might want to explore is the role that ‘careerism’ plays in public education’s malaise. In the last portion of my career, it was rare to encounter either a principal or a superintendent who didn’t put his or her own career ambitions above the well-being of education. To question in any meaningful way the educational orthodoxy generated either by the local director or the Ministry of Education is, as they say, a career-limiting move. Yet is the latter too cruel a fate to endure, given the broader good that is at stake?

Once again, congratulations on your thoughtful education columns. I am still in fairly regular contact with several of my younger former colleagues, and will be emailing them to recommend the pieces.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Hit, A Very Palpable Hit

Apologies for the arcane, perhaps even pretentious title of this post, but being a retired English teacher, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to use a line from my favorite Shakespearean play, Hamlet. While the Bard’s work has nothing directly to do with today’s topic, it does relate to its subject: education.

I mentioned earlier that I have seldom agreed with Globe columnist Margaret Wente’s perspective, but her column today, just as her earlier one, speaks real truth in its exploration of causes of public education dysfunction. While obviously not the final truth, it is well worth considering, and I suspect few experienced teachers (other, perhaps, than those currying administrative favour) will disagree with her observations.


For whom the bell curve tolls

Students vary widely in academic ability, but we pretend everyone can be above average


September 6, 2008

Whenever I write about higher education, I get letters like this: "A large percentage of our students come into college woefully unprepared. Close to half of our first-year students in business are unable to maintain a 2.0 average in their first year, the standard required for advancement and graduation. ... A large percentage have poor note-taking skills, below-average reading comprehension skills, and an inability to solve problems and complete projects without being given step-by-step to-do lists."

The letter comes from a teacher at a local community college, where the first-year attrition rate - to say nothing of the costs in money, time and student self-esteem - is depressingly high. We all think we know what's wrong. It's the public education system. They're handing out high-school diplomas to just about anyone who bothers to show up.

But the education system (for all its shortcomings) doesn't really deserve to take the fall. The real problem is the cult of educational romanticism, which holds that students' abilities are far more equal and far more malleable than they really are. Educational romanticism has led us to believe that every student can become at least average, and that the right teaching strategies can close the achievement gap.
Not so, says Charles Murray, author of a provocative new book called Real Education. You may also know him as the much-loathed co-author of The Bell Curve, and stop reading right here. But hang on, because the central truth asserted by this book is one that is self-evident to every teacher (and every student) I have ever met: Ability varies, and it varies a lot.

Most teachers can tell within a week how their students rank in ability. (So can the students.) These rankings barely budge between 8 and 18. Neither do students' test scores, and neither does the spread between highest and lowest. In terms of academic ability, people stay pretty much where they started out, no matter how good the schooling they receive.

No one likes to talk about this fact, because it sounds both elitist and defeatist. So let's talk sports. A few of us are Mats Sundin, and a few of us are so clumsy that we walk into walls. The rest of us are widely distributed in between. Not all the practice in the world will get us into Junior A, because we simply are not Junior A material.

No matter how hard we try, argues Mr. Murray, "some people are just not smart enough to succeed on a conventional academic track." What this means is, we are asking schools to do the impossible. In the real world, even the best schools will always have students who perform below grade level. The ambitious goals we've set for raising academic achievement across the board are unattainable - unless we water down the tests. And the only way to reach a high-school graduation rate of 85 per cent (that's Ontario's ambitious target) is to grant diplomas to kids whose reading and writing skills are barely more than rudimentary.

So don't blame the schools for watering down their diplomas. The system made them do it. That's why a BA is now the entry-level credential for so many jobs, and why a postgraduate degree has become the new BA. It's a sorting mechanism for employers - a crude certificate of cognitive ability.

Educational romanticism does the most damage to kids who are the least able. For students with low levels of ability, toughening the standards (by, say, forcing "applied" students to take more demanding math, as Ontario recently tried to do) doesn't raise their ability. It just dooms them to certain failure. By forcing them to try work they can't do, we've condemned these kids to 12 years of frustration, misery and humiliation. And by forcing them to share classes with kids of much higher ability, we simply reinforce their sense of failure.

"Educational romanticism pursues unattainable egalitarian ideals of education achievement at the expense of attainable egalitarian ideals of personal dignity," Mr. Murray writes. How do we get out of this? Restructure the curriculum for vocational students in a way that prepares them for the world of work and channels their abilities toward work they can succeed at.

Educational romanticism has also led us to believe that a BA is a ticket to success - and that many, maybe most, kids should be capable of getting one. Both beliefs are wrong. The job market is exploding for skilled technicians of all kinds, in health care, entertainment, hospitality, and so on. Good community colleges and trade schools - not more second-rate universities - is where we should be investing. Good electricians are harder to find than good lawyers, and not badly paid. But middle-class kids and their parents have been brainwashed into thinking that, without a BA, they're doomed. Even guidance counsellors now see their role as encouraging everyone to go on to higher education. Too many of them don't talk straight with their students about their futures - and if they do, the parents protest.
There's more than one reason why so many kids arrive at business college or university so woefully unprepared. Maybe their high schools really did do a lousy job. But maybe their abilities are marginal. Maybe, no matter how hard they try, they can't do the work.

If you read The Globe and Mail, I guarantee that you are comfortably on the right side of the bell curve. (Don't be flattered. You did nothing to earn it.) You take your reading and calculating skills for granted. All your closest friends are more or less like you, and you probably have no idea what it means to be of average or below-average ability. Real Education might convince you that educational romanticism is the worst thing that ever happened to struggling kids. We don't live in Lake Wobegon after all. And the truth is, we never did.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Frasier Institute, Mississippi, and Quebec

Canada’s right-wing ‘think’ tank, the Frasier Institute (the term ‘institute,’ I guess, gives it the patina of academia, although, of course, it is affiliated with no university), in its latest evaluation of North American labour market ‘flexibility,’ gave Quebec the bottom spot. The jurisdiction with the top ranking is Mississippi. To find out the kind of simplistic thinking this ‘institute’ engages in, feel free to read the following article from today’s Globe and Mail:

Fraser Institute's labour ‘flexibility' too hard and fast


September 4, 2008 at 6:00 AM EDT

When the downtown Montreal borough of Ville Marie passed a bylaw last year requiring shopkeepers to keep the sidewalk in front of their stores clean, everyone agreed it was a victory for civic-mindedness.

Everyone, that is, but municipal workers. They filed a grievance, arguing the bylaw violated their union contract – and won. An arbitrator recently ruled that the regulation amounted to an illegal contracting out of a union task. The city, after all, could not make citizens sweep without pay.

Montreal's cols bleus, as the city's “blue collar” workers are known, never fail to live up to their hard-won reputation for work avoidance and basic unco-operativeness. Indeed, the bylaw would never have been passed in the first place if the cols bleus had been doing their job.

This Montreal street-sweeping saga may help explain why Quebec comes up dead last in the Fraser Institute's latest ranking of North American labour market “flexibility.” With the highest rate of unionization on the continent, at 40.2 per cent of all workers, and the second-highest minimum wage relative to per capita gross domestic product, Quebec has chosen a policy prescription for job market sclerosis. Or, at least it has in the Fraser Institute's pro-free-market world view.

And just which province or state has got it right in the Vancouver-based think tank's mind?

That would be Mississippi, among others. The Magnolia State is one of 22 with right-to-work laws. Such legislation allows workers to choose whether or not to join a union and make financial contributions to it. In Mississippi, the state constitution has made the closed-shop illegal since 1890.

That hostility toward unions is one of the reasons only 7.8 per cent of Mississippians belong to one. Mississippi has no state minimum wage, either. Yet, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that workers or the state economy are better off because of these “flexible” labour laws.

Just ask the Mississippi Poultry Workers for Equality and Respect, a group that's been combatting abusive labour practices in an industry dominated by underpaid blacks and Latinos. Just ask the 600 workers in Laurel who were hauled off to prison last week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after a raid on an electronics plant there.

What has all this labour “flexibility” meant for the Mississippi job market? Employment grew at an annual rate of 0.3 per cent in the five years to 2007, putting Mississippi in 58th spot out of 60 states and provinces. Employment in union-crazy Quebec grew at an average rate of 1.5 per cent, good enough to earn it a 21st place ranking.

To be sure, a few Quebec unions have priced themselves out of the market with wage and benefit expectations that bear no relationship to their productivity or competitiveness. But that is the fault of short-sighted union leadership, not of unionization in and of itself.

What's more, the Fraser Institute study ignores some of the most important factors determining the state of the job market, such as education levels, population growth and economic diversity or lack thereof.

Then there's oil. But can you really say that Alberta has the “best-performing” job market in North America, when wage inflation means signing bonuses for burger flippers? When employee loyalty only lasts as long as it takes to get a better offer? When high-school students calculate that it's more lucrative to drop out than get a diploma?

Similarly, can you really label Quebec's job market an underperformer when it has nearly closed a yawning gap with Ontario? Three decades ago, the unemployment rate in Quebec consistently topped Ontario's by about five percentage points. In July, the difference was a mere point – 7.4 per cent versus 6.4 per cent. What bridged the chasm? Economists regularly point to education. Quebeckers now graduate – from high school, college and university – in equal proportions to Ontarians.

Desjardins economist Hélène Bégin recently predicted that the unemployment rate in Quebec could soon fall to 5 per cent, as slow population growth and retiring boomers cause the work force to shrink. But that would not in itself signify a healthy labour market any more than the rate of unionization would constitute an obstacle to one.
Ask Barack Obama. He promises to adopt a Quebec-style “card check” system under which workers can form a bargaining unit if a simple majority sign union cards. Current law requires a secret ballot. Mr. Obama's reform could reverse the three-decade-long decline in the rate of unionization south of the border, where it stands at 13.6 per cent.

Would that be such a bad thing? Somewhere between Montreal's cols bleus and those Mississippi poultry workers, there has to be a happy medium. The Fraser Institute hasn't found it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Margaret Wente on Education

Although I rarely find myself in agreement with her views, Margaret Wente recently wrote a column on the impact of political interference on education with which I found myself in complete accord. The only thing she didn’t address is the effect such interference has on the integrity and goodwill of committed teachers everywhere.

High-school daze: In Ontario, failure is not an option

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
August 30, 2008 at 1:10 AM EDT

When I was a kid, everybody knew the rules and the penalties for breaking them. When the teacher walked into class, you stood up. If you arrived late, you got a late slip. If you were late a few times, you got a detention. If you handed in an assignment late without a good excuse, you were marked down, and if you were caught plagiarizing, you got a zero.

The teachers were expected to be fair but strict. I had one who used to prowl the classroom and whack our desks with a yardstick if we were daydreaming. "If you don't shape up [whack], you'll wind up selling ribbons at Kresge's," she'd warn.
Kresge's is long gone, and so is that teaching style. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. The world is now a more complicated place. The student body is far more diverse, and the education stakes are higher. Today, school boards and governments have decreed that schools must do everything in their power to help every kid succeed - even if they have to redefine "success" to do it.

In Ontario's secondary schools, teachers are told not to penalize students for late work. The Ottawa public school board has decreed that students who plagiarize will be allowed to do the assignment again. In some schools, students are allowed to stroll into class whenever they want. And a provincially mandated system of "credit recovery" means it's so easy for them to make up failed courses that they don't have to do much more than show up.

"Credit recovery" was devised as a strategy to help "at-risk students" (as they are now known) to stay in school. As one expert explained it, "Too many students are short credits and lose interest and hope." Instead of having to repeat the whole course, students are now allowed to make up only the parts they've failed. They can do this in different ways, including something called "experiential learning." The usual way is to attend a credit recovery class once a day for a few weeks. He doesn't have to pass a test. All he has to do is persuade his credit recovery supervisor (not the teacher who failed him) to give him a 51.

"There's a lot more leniency and a lot less work in credit recovery," says a teacher at one middle-of-the-pack Toronto school. "Kids know that, if they fail, they can do the class again in six weeks." Credit recovery is also a convenient way for some teachers to shuffle the losers out of their hair. "It has turned into a huge program here," says the teacher, who, like most, won't speak on the record for fear of professional consequences. "As long as you show up, you're not gonna fail."

The "success" rate of students in credit recovery is amazingly high, a fact that may or may not be related to the relentless pressure on the schools to boost their graduation rates. But teachers worry that credit recovery has watered down the meaning of a diploma.

"A credit for Johnny is not a credit for Janey," says Neil Orford, a history teacher and department chair at Centre Dufferin District High School in Shelburne. "The integrity of the credit is in trouble across the province."

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has declared himself the education premier. He's investing hundreds of millions more in the system. He's raising the high-school exit age to 18 and plans to introduce all-day kindergarten. He has also pledged to raise the high-school graduation rate to 85 per cent by 2010-11. (It's 75 per cent now.) To meet this target, large numbers of "at risk" students will need to be salvaged and given every chance at success.

One controversial part of this strategy is to stop penalizing students for late work. The reasoning goes that lateness is a behavioural issue, not a pedagogical one, and that students should have as much time as they need to do the work to the best of their ability.

Not surprisingly, teachers regard this policy as idiotic. It's something only an educational romantic could dream up, because it doesn't work in real life.
"The late issue is a real hotbed," says Mr. Orford. "We're really struggling with the ethical dimension of it."

The ethical dimension is obvious. Some kids can get away with murder, and all the other kids know it. The teachers have been pushing back, and the result is that every school (and often every teacher) has different practices. After much struggle with the authorities, some teachers at Mr. Orford's school have adopted a work-around known as "windows of opportunity," which means that students are given one provisional deadline and one real one.

At other schools, chaos prevails. "At the end of the semester, I have kids who say, 'What have I missed, what do I need to do to pass?' " says the teacher who asked not to be identified. She is younger and less experienced than Mr. Orford. "It drives teachers crazy. But a lot of them say, 'Oh, just do what the policy says.' "

Talking to teachers, you get the overwhelming sense that many of them are on their own, caught in a Kafkaesque world of bizarre policies imposed from on high that they can't do much about. "There are no tardiness policies at our school," says the younger teacher. "Kids are late to class more often than not, but you can't do anything about it, and they know it. I've tried giving them a quiz at the beginning of the class, but then parents say you have to give them a chance to make it up. You can't deduct marks. You can ask them to stay for a detention, but they don't come. I'm always asking teachers, 'What do you do?' But there's nothing."

Thankfully, most teachers still like their jobs. "I love what I do," says Mr. Orford, who adds that only a minority of students abuse the system. The younger teacher says, "The good kids make it all worthwhile." But both of them worry about what lessons their students — including the good ones — are learning about fairness and respect, responsibility and self-discipline.

Coincidentally, these qualities — fairness, respect, responsibility, self-discipline — are the very ones that Mr. McGuinty has promised to instill in every child across the province, in another of his big initiatives known as "character education." Which raises the tantalizing question: Why not make a start by rolling back the late policy?

"The teachers are desperately looking for moral leadership on this," says Mr. Orford, "and, in many cases, they can't find it."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

When is a Crisis Not a Crisis?

For those of you with no interest in politics who may be wondering how my recent postings on Canadian politics are in any way related to education, allow me a moment to explain. As I implied much earlier in my postings on critical thinking, in my view the truly educated person is one who is able to assess with both knowledge and logic the information she or he is bombarded with. Sometimes that information consists solely of facts, as in a new report of an accident or a crime, but much of what we read and see in the media are expressions of opinion, some well-reasoned, some merely demagogic rants, and some only sadly misinformed.

While I am not in any way suggesting that we can simply turn aside our own values, experiences and prejudices when assessing opinions ( for example, the Conservative Government’s dictatorial and manipulative propensities deeply offend what I consider my more balanced perspective and philosophy), the application of reason and critical thinking skills at least prevent me from living in a world entirely closed off to new possibilities - in other words, I think I still have the ability to grow as a person.

I will be continuing with these political posts now and again, largely because I am so deeply offended by the complete contempt Mr. Harper and his crew are showing for the intelligence of the Canadian people in their use of lies, misdirection, and half-truths as they vainly seek to convince us of the need for an election. What follows is the editorial from today’s Globe and Mail that addresses some of these concerns:

Manufacturing a crisis
August 28, 2008

Shortly after he took office, Stephen Harper explained why he was comfortable establishing fixed election dates. "I've fought many elections and leadership races over the past couple of years and I'm quite happy to govern," the Prime Minister said in May, 2006. "Obviously, governments always prefer a majority, but I think we can make a minority work most of the time so I'm happy to keep on governing as long as we're getting some things done."

That Mr. Harper is now prepared to run roughshod over his own legislation by forcing an election campaign to begin as early as next week suggests he is now convinced it is not possible to get things done. He has all but said as much, telling reporters this week that "this Parliament is increasingly reaching an impasse on a range of issues." But Mr. Harper failed to mention a single major policy his government has been thwarted on - possibly because one does not exist.

It is difficult to imagine any minority government having an easier time pushing its legislation through. Not prepared to face voters, Stéphane Dion's Liberals have allowed the Conservatives to have their way on virtually every issue - from accountability legislation to tax cuts to an extension of Canada's mission to Afghanistan. Even on immigration reforms that the Liberals claimed would throw the country "back to the Diefenbaker era," they meekly caved in rather than defeating the Tories in a confidence vote.

Absent his own policy priorities necessitating an immediate election, Mr. Harper now claims that Parliament cannot proceed because of a disagreement over an opposition party's platform. "The other party has tabled an economic agenda that remains diametrically opposed to everything this government stands for," he said Tuesday of the Liberals' proposed carbon tax. "I think you really have increasingly in Parliament two visions of where we should be leading the country, particularly during challenging economic times, and that's something I'm going to have to reflect on."

Mr. Harper made a good case for the Liberals to finally work with the other opposition parties to bring down his government. But if there is to be an election, it should result from the defeat of an important piece of government legislation in the House of Commons - not because Mr. Harper has manufactured a crisis.

A difference of opinion over a policy that is not on the legislative agenda is hardly a compelling reason for a government to refuse to continue governing. By the standards he set for himself in 2006, Mr. Harper has no justification for breaking his promise not to call elections on a whim.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Harper’s Manufactured Crisis

In a page likely taken out of the old Mike Harris (former Conservative Premier of Ontario) playbook, Prime Minister Harper seems intent on creating a crisis where none exists in order to have his way politically. As reported in today’s Globe and Mail, Harper is threatening to call an election immediately if Liberal Opposition Leader Stephane Dion refuses to meet with him before September 8th, the day three by-elections are scheduled to be held.

The transparency of Haper’s motives must be making even inveterate Conservatives nervous. In order to avoid what could be embarrassing by-election results and to limit any further damage to Conservative credibility over the election ‘in and out’ scandal, not to mention the prospect of a Democratic win in the U.S November Presidential election and a souring Canadian economy, Harper seems intent on insulting the intelligence of all thinking Canadians by trying to perpetrate a fraudulent basis for dissolving Parliament.

Perhaps Mr. Harper should review the results of unnecessary past elections: they often incur the wrath of voters who resent being manipulated by their so-called leaders.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rex Murphy's Column on Stephen Harper and Fixed Election Dates

Maintaining a mellow frame of mind since my cottage sojourn, I arose early this morning to get caught up on my Globe and Mail reading, even going so far as to read right wing commentator Rex Murphy’s latest column, which, both to my surprise and delight, I found myself in total agreement with. His topic is the issue upon which I wrote yesterday, Stephen Harper’s apparently impending violation of the fixed election date legislation that he so ardently championed three years ago. I have placed certain parts of the column in bold for emphasis.

Was it all a ‘pious hope' dream?
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
August 22, 2008 at 6:12 PM EDT
So, we don't have a fixed election date after all. How strange.
I could have sworn it was one of the early, and rare, high-minded initiatives of the Harper government. In what is obviously a false memory, I seem to recall it grew out of the Conservatives' own experience in opposition while under the butterfly-brief tenure of Stockwell Day.

Jean Chrétien the Heartless pulled the plug on his own government while Mr. Day's wetsuit was still wet. The poor Tories never had a chance. It wasn't fair. That was the lesson – I thought – that Stephen Harper drew from the occasion. And that such a power, solely in the prime minister's hand, warped and bent the democratic process. Something like what intense fire does to steel.

Did not Mr. Harper himself speak to this very point in May of 2006? I have notes to that effect, with Mr. Harper speaking to reporters in Victoria. He said, according to my delirium, that “fixed election dates stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar … and they level the playing field for all parties.”

Furthermore, according to my obviously fevered jottings, he placed great stress on the justice of his proposed reform: “The only way we can have justice is to have a fixed election date, because an election without a fixed election date is a tremendous advantage for the party in power.”

I remember, too, or rather seem to remember, some of the wisest heads in the Ottawa punditry, at the time and later, wondering why a prime minister as smart, as tactical, as Stephen Harper would voluntarily lay aside one of the greatest partisan weapons in a government leader's hand?

Is it not wonderful how once an idea or a notion takes hold of us – however transparently spurious and unlikely – it builds its own evidence? We cannot shake the delusion, however forcefully we try. I begin to have some appreciation for all those folks who've spotted Elvis recently chatting up Roy Orbison at the local supermarket.
For here we are in the declining days of August, and almost every day I read or hear of Mr. Harper threatening or promising to call an election this fall. And evidently in no doubt of his constitutional or political right to do so. So I guess, and this is a chilling thought, I'm just now emerging from a long and continuous fantasy about a prime minister who promised fixed election dates, set the day, month and year of the next election (Monday, Oct. 19, 2009), and who claimed and secured the moral advantage of reforming one of the most unfair and lopsided practices in Canadian democracy.

Or, he did promise the reform. He did pass the law. He did secure the credit for so doing. And now, well, it's inconvenient. Now the Liberals won't call the election when he wants them to. Or, now that he's decided that Parliament is “dysfunctional,” he sees himself as unburdened by the law he passed, the promise he made, and will waltz off to the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament whenever the opportunistic fit is upon him.

Now we hear that, actually, the law he passed changed nothing. I like parliamentary expert Ned Franks's description of that law as meaning “a fixed election date if necessary, but not necessarily a fixed election date,” which the good Queen's professor supplemented with the observation that “it's what in the trade they call a ‘pious hope.' ”

Well, is it too much to remind people that, when the fixed election law was passed, Mr. Harper and his party harvested a goodly store of credibility (election promise kept) and electoral respect (at last, a government “levelling” the field) for the reform? And is it too much to remind people that, at the time, we heard nothing about it being just a “pious hope.”

But, somehow, everyone is now supposed to forget Mr. Harper's seizure of the moral high ground, the wonderful contrast he then provided to the always opportunistic Liberals, to forget the great example of a Prime Minister deliberately tying his own hands on the important matter of when an election is to be called. All that is now “inoperative,” to borrow a word from our American political friends, when statements or actions prove to be a burden to present opportunity. Down the memory hole. It was all a “misspeak.”

I don't think Mr. Harper wants to go into an election this fall in which the highlight will be the nullification of the law he passed to hold one next fall. I don't think he wants to call an election in which the issue is his calling of the election. He chose the fixed date path. And it's a matter of honour that he now follow it. Or at least a genuinely pious

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Harper, Hypocrisy, and Parliamentary Dysfunction

Well, we’re just back from the cottage where, quite honestly, it was nice to be away from what is frequently the distraction of the Internet. Nonetheless, I must say I craved a connection during the week when reading about Prime Minister Harper’s threat to violate his own government’s legislation on fixed election dates, on the pretext that Parliament is dysfunctional.

According to the legislation, which the Conservative Party championed while in opposition, the next federal election should be in October of 2009. The Harperites enthused over the concept as a means of taking away from the government the power to call an election at a politically opportune moment. Now, however, with the economy souring in Canada, and a Parliamentary committee probing deeper and deeper into the ‘in and out’ campaign spending scandal, Mr. Harper has now found it expedient to declare that Parliament is dysfunctional and assert that unless he gets assurances from the opposition parties that they will surrender their traditional role of questioning and acting as a check on the Government and not in any way impede his Fall legislative agenda (whatever that may be – given their paucity of ideas, I must admit my imagination is taxed), he will dissolve Parliament and seek a new mandate from the people.

Beyond the obvious political hypocrisy of this stance, what troubles me is the fact that he has offered no evidence of dysfunction. Indeed, as far as memory serves, every piece of legislation introduced by the Government has been passed. Equally troubling is the fact that no journalist, to my knowledge, has challenged Mr. Harper on this shamefully dishonest pretext of dysfunction, which is an indictment, in my view, of the integrity of our press. One cannot help but wonder whether the journalists who are so essential to a properly functioning democracy are afraid of losing access to the P.M. by questioning his preposterous position.

If that is the case, they are, of course, failing the people of Canada.

Friday, August 15, 2008

An Update on the Harper Government’s Attack on the Arts

I was reading in the paper the other day about a study that shows how the reading of novels increases one’s ‘social intelligence,’ the ability to understand both ourselves and others and to act wisely in human relations. Given its continuing assault on the arts, it is probably not a gross overgeneralization to deduce that there are very few novel readers amongst the Harper Conservatives.

In addition to the cancellation of PromArt and Trade Routes, which I wrote about the other day, today’s Globe and Mail reports that Ottawa is in the process of terminating five more arts and culture programs over the next two years. Posting the cancellations, not in the media but rather on the affected programs’ web pages (almost as cowardly as is their penchant for announcing unpopular actions on Friday afternoons, where little media coverage will be given), this government once again shows its hostility toward things that are beyond its ken.

In classic Orwellian fashion, Canadian Heritage Minister Josée Vernier defended the cuts, saying that the government only wanted to help arts and culture organizations in “a more efficient manner and those being axed failed to demonstrate that they were providing sufficient returns for the dollars invested.” Nowhere does she explain what arcane evaluation criteria are being used in making these determinations. She went on to say, “Culture is an essential element of a nation and in that sense, will always have its (the government’s) unfailing support.” Huh?

My prediction is that should these ‘barbarians at the gate’ be re-elected, we will see a much wider dismantling of programs well beyond those involved in the arts and culture, and the pretext will be the decline in government revenues, thanks in small part to the economic slowdown and in large part to the government’s cut in taxes, the only policy that seems to have any currency with this regime.

But then, won’t it be like the child who murdered his/her parents pleading for mercy because he/she is an orphan?

Harper Hypocrisy Assailed in Globe Editorial

In a strongly worded condemnation of the obstructionist tactics being used by the Harperites in refusing to appear before the House of Commons Ethics Committee looking into the ‘in and out’ scandal that I wrote about yesterday, the Globe and Mail points out the hypocritical nature of a government that ran in the last election on a promise of greater parliamentary democracy. I am reproducing the editorial below, and I have placed in bold print certain parts for emphasis:

In-and-out sinks to new depths
From Friday's Globe and Mail
August 15, 2008 at 7:53 AM EDT

'We have seen increasing signs that this Parliament is really not working very well any more, it's becoming increasingly dysfunctional," Stephen Harper said yesterday. The Prime Minister's assessment was accurate, and it is time for the election he hinted at.

But after their performance this week, Mr. Harper's Conservatives are full partners in that dysfunction - particularly when it comes to what he described as "a committee system that is increasingly in chaos."

Parliament's ethics committee, justifiably maligned for its often laughable hearings into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, should never have launched its own investigation into the "in-and-out" election spending controversy.

A probe by highly partisan MPs into alleged Conservative improprieties during the last federal campaign was certain to turn into the kangaroo court predicted by Mr. Harper, and has only confused matters as Elections Canada officials carry out a proper investigation. But that does not justify the contempt that the Tories have shown for the committee this week, which has made a mockery of their past promises to strengthen parliamentary democracy.

Summoned by the committee, Conservative officials and operatives could have raised the tone of the hearings - or at least risen above it - by comporting themselves with dignity. Instead, they have lowered the tone to new depths.

The week began with a bizarre stunt by the Conservative campaign manager Doug Finley, who was scheduled to appear on Wednesday but arrived on Monday morning, planted himself at the witness stand and refused to leave until he was escorted from the room by security guards.

The antics continued yesterday, when a former Tory candidate, Sam Goldstein, arrived unannounced two days after his scheduled appearance and occupied much of his time literally screaming at the committee chair, Paul Szabo, and other opposition MPs. At the alleged urging of their party, most of the other would-be Conservative witnesses simply ignored their subpoenas altogether - some of them actively dodging bailiffs' attempting to serve their summons.

The Conservatives may be pleased with their role in making a farce of a committee that has them in its sights. But in the process, they have also undermined the entire system that Mr. Harper purports to be concerned about - and not just for the duration of this Parliament.

By demonstrating that it is possible to deliberately obstruct parliamentary committees without consequences beyond a bit of negative press, they have jeopardized the long-term ability of MPs to conduct hearings into matters of importance. If members of the governing party can thumb their noses at committees, why shouldn't others?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Prime Minister Harper and Ethics

With almost tiresome predictability, the Harper Government is once again demonstrating its contempt for rules and procedures that work against it. In the latest example, as reported in today’s Globe, 11 senior Conservatives failed to appear before a Commons ethics committee investigating possible election financing fraud through what is known as an ‘in and out’ scheme, whereby, during the last election, the Conservative Party, in order to circumvent campaign spending limits, transferred sums of money to local ridings, ostensibly for local advertising, but then instructed the recipients to immediately transfer the funds back so they could be used as part of the national advertising campaign. On paper, the money looked as if it were being spent locally, thereby allowing the Conservatives to spend more nationally than is permitted by the Elections Canada.

Apparently, the Government has told those who are summoned that they should not appear, labeling the committee ‘a kangaroo court.’ Today’s report describes the inability of the committee to serve summonses on perspective witness who, mysteriously, cannot be found or are ‘on vacation,’ behaviour reminiscent and worthy of common criminals.

Unfortunately, the Harper Government, which made moral rectitude the centerpiece of its last campaign, seems to care little for the very sad example it is setting for the people of Canada. Indeed, they seem intent on bringing new meaning to the term “Contempt of Parliament.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Globe Readers Respond to Prime Minister Harper’s Attacks on the Arts

The other day I posted an article by Simon Houpt of the Globe and Mail pertaining to the elimination by the Harper Conservative Government of two important arts programs, PromArt and Trade Routes, both tasked with promoting Canadian culture and perspectives abroad. These cuts have elicited some spirited responses from Globe readers, a sampling of which I am posting below. While such reactions are unlikely to alter the course of this government, which seems to have a deep suspicion of things it cannot understand or of people who promote ideas not in line with its ideology, it is good to know that the Canadian people are voicing their strong exceptions to such reactionary moves.

The world needs more Canada

Vancouver -- I'm reminded of a quote by Winston Churchill in response to a request to cut arts funding during the Second World War: "If we cut funding for the arts and culture, then what are we fighting for?"

Faculty of Law, McGill University
Dismantling the infrastructure that supported the export of Canadian ideas and talent around the world must be Stephen Harper's way to "stand up for Canada."

executive director, Canadian Actors' Equity Association
August 13, 2008
Toronto -- Given the censorship elements of Bill C-10 (involving the denial of tax credits to film and television productions), followed by almost zero recognition of the Canadian arts and culture sector in the 2008-09 federal budget, it is hard to interpret the PromArt and Trade Routes cuts as anything but the latest move in an ideological attack on the arts (Ottawa Axes Second Arts Subsidy In Two Weeks - Aug. 11).

Quotes attributed to Kory Teneycke, the Prime Minister's press secretary ("the [funding] choices made were inappropriate ... inappropriate because they were ideological in some cases, with highly ideological individuals exposing their agendas or [money going to] wealthy celebrities or fringe arts groups that in many cases would be at best, unrepresentative, and at worst, offensive"), confirm a deliberate attempt on the part of the government to constrain artistic endeavours that don't match political dogma.

No matter how the Tories try to justify it, failing to continue funding $4.7-million for PromArt and another $9-million for Trade Routes is unlikely to effect a significant change to Canada's balance sheet. But such cuts will ensure that homegrown opera, dance and theatre are denied a place on the world stage

August 13, 2008
North Saanich, B.C. -- For nine years (1987-96), I was the Canadian consulate's political, economic and public affairs officer for Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. From the time our Cincinnati office opened to the day the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade closed it in 1996, we used Canadian artists to promote Canada's political and economic mission.

There was no "art for art's sake." We were able to make important connections with Midwest business people and politicians who had no idea that Canada was their largest trading partner. Our profile was (and still is) so low in the United States that it takes a village of Canadian artists to raise up our political and trade representatives.

president, Ontario College of Art & Design
August 13, 2008
Toronto -- Ottawa's decision to cancel two successful cultural programs demonstrates a troubling lack of recognition of the vital role played by the arts in Canada's economy and in its international presence. Recent research by the Conference Board of Canada shows the strong impact of cultural programs on the economies of developed nations. At a time when Canadian culture is being recognized on the world stage for its variety of creative expressions, including critical and experimental voices, Ottawa should be investing more, not less, in programs that increase our country's cultural profile and its competitiveness in business, trade, tourism and immigration.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Harper and His Crew Strike Again

There is an interesting article in today’s Globe and Mail by Simon Houpt which, in my view, exemplifies the repressive nature of the Canadian Federal Government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. A very secretive administration that came to office promising greater accountability and access to information, the Harperites have done everything in their power to ‘control the message,’ tending to ridicule and punish those that don’t share its ideological bent.

Houpt’s article, which I am reproducing below, looks at two recent cuts in arts funding in that context:

New York Diary: Whither Brand Canada?
Without the arts, our image grows dim abroad

From Monday's Globe and Mail
August 11, 2008 at 2:16 AM EDT

Last month, for the first time in almost a decade, Central Park was eerily quiet on Canada Day.

Every year since 1999, the federal government has sponsored a New York City satellite of its July 1 party on Parliament Hill, importing a handful of Canadian bands as part of the park's free SummerStage concert series. There have been delicate tribute shows to Joni Mitchell, fuse-blowing rock from the Tragically Hip, a resplendent Rufus Wainwright, rain-soaked sets from the Cowboy Junkies and Natalie MacMaster, and musicians making in-jokes about hockey and the CBC that the expats in the audience would then politely explain to the locals.

And at the end of every show, the Upper West and Upper East Sides of Manhattan would suddenly blossom with thousands of tiny Canadian flags worn in the hair or thrust into the back pockets or temporarily tattooed onto the sun-kissed arms of concertgoers, most of whom were merely honorary Canucks for a day.

No more. This year the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) killed the concerts. When I asked a spokesperson in Ottawa last month for an explanation, she refused to comment. Last Friday, it all became depressingly clear when DFAIT announced it was cutting all ties to culture by axing its PromArt program, a $4.7-million annual fund that sent artists into the world to speak for Canada.

The program's death notice was revealed in exquisitely cynical fashion. On Thursday, a government official leaked the story to a reporter by explaining the program had funded mainly political radicals and others it deemed naughty: the former CBC pundit and current Al-Jazeera contributor Avi Lewis, the journalist Gwynne Dyer, and a Toronto rock band known as Holy Fuck. Talk radio and conservative bloggers lapped up the talking points like so much cream, outraged that millions of dollars of tax money had been used to support speech with which they disagreed.

Did they care that they'd been spun? In fact, the vast majority of the funds sent abroad artists and companies that Stephen Harper would enjoy with his wife and kids: $8,000 to send Newfoundland's Duo Concertante dance company to China; $30,000 for the acclaimed experimental circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main to give 42 performances in Mexico and Germany; $15,000 to The Nickle Arts Museum of Alberta to present an exhibition for six months in Poland.

There are the dozens of $500, $750 and $1,000 grants that paid the airfare for award-winning authors to go forth as independent representatives of Canada. Last year, more than 300 grants were awarded.

The program was not, as its critics are barking, a wasteful socialist/Liberal boondoggle. Its greatest champion was in fact Joe Clark, who as the secretary of state for External Affairs (now DFAIT) from 1984-91 oversaw a major expansion in the cultural diplomacy budget because he recognized the importance of increasing Canada's presence abroad as the country embraced free trade with the U.S. and made its way in a globalized world.

And killing PromArt was never really about silencing radicals; that was just a red herring that paid political dividends. Late on Friday, while attention was focused on the DFAIT cut, the government quietly said it was also ending Trade Routes, a $9-million program run by Heritage Canada to help artists take their work abroad.
It's hard to overstate how low a profile Canada has abroad. If that's the way the government wants it, that's their decision. But if we want our voice to have influence in the rest of the world, to be the moral beacon we believe it is, that requires marketing Brand Canada. Sending artists and writers abroad is an integral part of that marketing that happens to be extremely cost-effective.

A little while ago Pamela Wallin told me that when she served within DFAIT as the consul-general of New York, culture was an indispensable tool to create a broader understanding of Canada within the United States. “It's all about presence; it's all about being top of mind. The more stages we continue to take ourselves off of, the more difficult the overall mission becomes,” she said.

“In order to be more than the Great White North, or more than just a trading partner like others, I think we have to show how interwoven the connections are, and how broad that cultural mix really is.”

She noted that the consulate also often used Canadian artists visiting New York to soften potential trading partners.

“It's an entrée point, it's a way to deal with people other than at the office, nine-to-five, about economic matters.”

That's why it was smart foreign policy to have Feist headline the Canada Day show in Central Park back in 2006, shortly before she became the iPod girl and a four-time Grammy nominee.

Even the United States, which invented the globalized free market in culture, has a long tradition of spending government money on so-called cultural diplomacy. During the Cold War, the U.S. State Department sent jazz musicians Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and others to the Middle East, Asia and Europe to spread American values. The U.S. is spending more than half a billion dollars a year on TV and radio broadcasts that bring American music, comedy, and drama to the Arab world and other territories.

This is lost on DFAIT, where PromArt and its antecedent programs were never really understood. One long-time bureaucrat in the department told me recently: “Anyone caught doing culture, it was a career killer.”

DFAIT, being stocked with diplomats used to reading scripts written at head office, was always uncomfortable with the voices of artists who weren't direct government employees.

This might, in fact, be the core reason the feds have just cut a small but effective program that didn't really mean much to the overall budget. Since taking office, Stephen Harper has tightened communications coming out of Ottawa, putting choke collars on his cabinet ministers and spokespeople. He wants to be the only one who speaks for Canada abroad, too. From the government's perspective, artists especially are suspect: they don't tend to stay on message; sometimes, they even voice independent thoughts. Worst of all, they're more interesting to listen to than a droning politician. Maybe Harper is jealous.

I'm only half kidding.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Short History of Progress – Ronald Wright

Every so often I read a book that not only makes me think deeply but also causes me to feel a measure of despair about the human condition. Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress is such a book.

Exploring our short 10,000-year-old human civilization, Wright develops a portrait that can hardly be considered flattering. Examining four previous societies, Sumer, Easter Island, the Maya and Rome, the author shows the shortsightedness of each that ultimately led to their downfall. In spending all of their ‘natural capital’ (the natural resources available to them), with little thought to the future, each was ultimately felled by what Wright calls ‘progress traps’ that resulted in environmental degradation, starvation, and collapse. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of their collective demise is the fact that each of them became aware, long before conditions became irreversible, of where they were headed and yet persisted in their respective behaviours! Might this sound at least remotely familiar to the modern reader?

The power of this very accessible book lies in its demonstrated historical correspondence to contemporary life, and the message is clear: if we continue in the pattern so regularly repeated throughout our human history, we will soon be at a point where not just one or two societies collapse, but rather our entire way of life on earth. A few years ago it would have been easy to dismiss such a thesis as alarmist and overblown, but given what we now know about greenhouse gases, pollution and climate change, we would be as foolish as our ancestors were to adopt such an attitude. But of course, isn’t that precisely what so many of us and our leaders continue to do?

I suspect that one of our fundamental flaws as human beings is to confuse our technological achievements with wisdom, leading us to the belief that we are highly evolved beings when, in fact as Wright so amply demonstrates, our short history of progress shows us to be a shortsighted species, having thus far left an almost unbroken record of environmental exploitation and degradation.

The question that remains to be answered is, “Are we capable of truly learning anything from our sordid past?” Stay tuned to find out the answer.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Some Comfort for Beleaguered Consumers

Anyone who has ever experienced indifferent, dishonest or deliberately devious business practices may take some comfort in a new website called thesqueakywheel.com, which I learned about in yesterday’s Globe and Mail. For a fee of $5, anyone who feels they have been ill-used by a business, large or small, can register a letter of complaint that will remain posted for one year on this site. What takes this beyond merely a public airing of grievances is the fact that for every person who views the complaint, an e-mail is sent off to the company letting it know that another potential customer has become aware of the customer’s dissatisfaction, thereby giving added incentive for the company to settle the complaint.

If you are interested, check it out at: www.thesqueakywheel.com

Thursday, July 24, 2008

80% of Canada's Population and Climate Change

There is an interesting article from today's Globe and Mail, which I am reproducing below, discussing how a coalition of four Canadian provinces has joined with seven American states to form the Western Climate Initiative, set up to establish a cap and trade system to reduce carbon emissions. I find it quite telling that the four provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia) representing about 80% of the Canadian population, find it necessary to use their powers to circumvent the Harper Government - a clear indictment, their rosy rhetoric notwithstanding, of the lack of action on the part of Canada's Conservative Government, which plans to force reductions in emissions, not next year, not next decade, but in another 42 years, by 2050!

Bilateral coalition unveils cap-and-trade proposal
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
July 24, 2008 at 4:05 AM EDT

A coalition of four provinces and seven states revealed a framework yesterday for a broad cap-and-trade program to reduce polluting greenhouse-gas emissions, the first such program in North America.

The Western Climate Initiative draft design proposes setting a hard cap on industrial emissions, providing cash incentives for companies to reduce their pollution levels. Following a European cap-and-trade model - by which greener companies can sell their pollution "credits" to the highest bidder - it would be the first such carbon system on the continent.

"This rewards efficiency," said Nicholas Heap, a climate-change analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation. "The people that are using less fuel and emitting less greenhouse gases are going to have lower costs."

The program would grant each participating province (British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec) an allocated and declining cap for each year from 2012 to 2020, set in advance. Those caps have not yet been set, but would be based on population, electricity consumption and production, and economic activity - not on current efficiency, the WCI report says. As such, the most efficient provinces in 2012 could sooner sell credits to other regions, creating a revenue stream.

The overall WCI emissions cap - the sum of each province and state's cap - "will be set at the best estimate of expected actual emissions," the WCI report said.

It is not yet clear how each province would enforce the caps, with the draft design allowing flexibility for each jurisdiction. One carrot on the enforcement stick is set, however: Any company that did not have sufficient credits to cover its emissions would pay a threefold credit penalty the next year.

The plan is still open for review, and is the culmination of several policy briefs released earlier. It will be reviewed publicly and finalized in September.
The effect of the cap would be for polluting companies to pay for the emissions they created. They would be free to pass those costs on to consumers.

"They'll be paying a price for putting carbon in the atmosphere; that is the idea," said B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner, whose province was the first to join the WCI. "We believe there are economic and environmental opportunities that can come from a cap-and-trade system."

Emissions caused by the production of transportation fuels, such as gasoline, are included in the draft design. Others include electric generation, general combustion, industrial process emission sources and transportation fuel combustion. The gases considered as emissions are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulphur hexafluoride.

The cap would apply to all companies emitting more than 25,000 tonnes of those gases, measured as "carbon dioxide equivalents" per year.

"We recognize we're in a carbon-constrained world," said Jock Finlayson, chief economist at the B.C. Business Council, adding that it remains to be seen how the WCI proposal would fit in with the federal government's plan to reduce emissions.

"The devil will all be in those regulatory details. There's a great bit more to come."

The emissions would be regulated at the point of entry into the member province or state. For instance, emissions created by transportation fuel would likely be measured at a distributor - not car by car - but may vary from province to province. Companies would be required to begin monitoring emissions in 2010, and begin reporting them in 2011.
Emissions from the production of biofuel would not be included.

The WCI plan includes the option for provinces or states to maintain "comparable fiscal measures" for putting a price on emissions. B.C. is the only province with such a system, after introducing a carbon tax this month.

The four provinces, which joined the initiative voluntarily, make up nearly 80 per cent of Canada's population, and account for 49 per cent of its greenhouse-gas emissions. Ontario joined most recently, just last week. The participating states are Arizona, California, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington. The eleven jurisdictions have a total population of more than 80 million people, creating a broad trading market for polluters.

The United States has a similar cap-and-trade program to reduce acid rain.

The WCI draft design will be discussed by stakeholders in San Diego on July 29. The WCI plan is open for public comments until mid-August.

View the full report or make comments at http://www.WesternClimateInitiative.org.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Dark Knight and Reflections on Human Nature

Yesterday I saw the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, and would like to offer a few observations. First, the film is as good as the critics say, but my surprise arose from its philosophical depth, something one doesn’t normally expect in a movie of this genre.

Very briefly, and without going into too much detail, Batman is confronted by the Joker, played so effectively by the late Heath Ledger in what is essentially a battle for competing views of human nature. The Joker, a demonic figure if there ever was one, seems intent (and this seems to be his only motivation in the film) to spread terror, despair and cynicism throughout the citizenry, as if to convince everyone that goodness is no more a reality than Santa Claus. His delight arises from exposing the weakness of people, tearing through what he sees as mere facades of rectitude. Confronting and challenging this view, (as well as being challenged by it) are both Batman and another character, the crusading district attorney Harvey Dent, played very well by Aaron Eckhart.

The role of the hero and his/her importance to society is explored in depth through the ensuing conflict with The Joker, and I will offer no detail as to the final resolution offered by the film. However, aside from the entertainment value of The Dark Knight, it made me think once more about what it is people expect, want and need from their leaders. The observation is made in the film, in relation to Harvey Dent, that people need a hero, someone they can look up to, the implication being that such people have the capability of bringing out in others the best aspects of human nature. As I have mentioned in previous posts, this is, I believe, where our elected leaders, for the most part, utterly fail.

The easiest and most obvious exemplification of this failure is to be found in the past eight years under the morally bereft Bush presidency. As he prepares to leave office, it is clear to me that Bush’s main ‘achievement’ will be a legacy of hatred, suspicion, cynicism and cronyism. The fact that Democratic presidential candidate Barrack Obama has thus far inspired a great deal of hope suggests that there is a hunger on the part of Americans to be raised out of the morass into which they have fallen.

However, Bush's spectacular failure as a leader should not overshadow the fact that a lack of vision and purpose on the part of our politicians is widespread. As I mentioned in my last post, Lawrence Martin nicely captured the malaise of the governing Conservative Party in Canada. Today finds a newspaper revelation that this same Government is preparing to bury a 500-page report by Health Canada about the relationship between global warming and ill-health. Because their stance on climate change is so regressive, apparently the report will be hidden on an obscure part of Health Canada’s website, once more demonstrating that the preservation of power over principle is the ruling political ethos.

I suspect that we can all be much better people than we are. However, as long as politics remains only concerned about the acquisition and retention of power, there is little chance of that happening

Monday, July 21, 2008

What Happens When Our Leaders Lack Vision?

I read an interesting article this morning by one of my favorite Globe and Mail columnists, Lawrence Martin. He is reflecting on the leadership style of Prime Minister Harper, and how the Conservative Party lacks any sense of national purpose, or vision. He suggests that this approach has not netted him any real gains in the polls, and that people want something more from their politicians. Personally, I have always felt that those we elect, despite our democracy, are less a reflection of our wishes and more a reaction to perceptions crassly manipulated by those who either aspire to or wish to retain power. I also believe that those who are elected have a special responsibility to try to cultivate the best in all of us; unfortunately, the venal reasons so many people run for office precludes that from happening very often.

In any event, I have reproduced Mr. Marin’s article below, and although I disagree with his conclusions about the purpose behind changes in personnel such as the chief of staff (after all, Guy Giorno, a much-reviled member of the group that brought Mike Harris to power in Ontario, is hardly an improvement over Ian Brody), it makes for some thought-provoking reading:

The politics of destruction has run its course

From Monday's Globe and Mail
July 21, 2008 at 8:14 AM EDT

The governing Conservatives have discovered something of late: Their modus operandi - politics as war - isn't working as it used to.

In the winter and spring, they had the Liberals running scared from the prospect of an election. But in the soft days of summer, much has changed. A veteran pollster was saying last week that, if an election were held today, the Tories would likely find themselves on the opposition benches.

Their game plan, which served them reasonably well, was simple. Leave the ideas to eggheads, visions to dreamers. Use a superior field commander and bigger tanks to crush the opposition.

The politics of destruction was a slice of Karl Rove, the veteran Republican strategist, come North. Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan describes the Rovian techniques in his book What Happened. In the Bush administration, "deliberation and compromise, elements central to governing, all but disappeared." Governing was turned into a permanent campaign. The "mentality of political manipulation" operated around the clock.

The war mentality of governance wasn't strictly a Republican thing in the United States, just as it hasn't been a strictly Conservative happening in Canada. Democrats there, Liberals here, lay the groundwork with their own lowering of the bar. On each side of the border, conservative governments came in promising a new way but found comfort in the old.

War politics worked here to the point where, with Stephen Harper weaving intricate plots, Stéphane Dion almost faced mutiny. On the battlefield, the PM had cruise missiles, the Opposition Leader popguns.

But, in a signal that all has not been proceeding well, the PM has brought in a new chief of staff, a new communications director, other new faces. It's a wise move, a scaling down of the war mentality that could bring about a truce with the media, civil servants and alienated segments of the public. If the bunker mentality isn't being abandoned, it's at least being modified.

Changes are necessary for obvious reasons. The Conservatives have been sliding in the polls. Their recent series of mini-scandals, some prompted by too much Karl Roving, has clouded their image of cleanliness and competence. They are seen as being too blue when the trend line is green, they are dropping in popularity in Quebec, the economy is suspect, and the war in Afghanistan, which they enthusiastically embraced, is going badly. To top it all, they have posted no vision of where they want to take the country.

Moreover, an opposition leader once on the point of crumbling hasn't crumbled. Mr. Dion's Green Shift plan has changed the political dynamic, elevating his image from wimp to risk-taker, staking his party to a strong vision, putting the PM on the defensive.

The Conservatives were relying heavily on Mr. Harper's big lead over Mr. Dion in personal leadership rankings. But that's less certain now. They were relying heavily on making big gains in Quebec. That's not at all certain. They were hoping to be able to boast of sound economic management. But that's hard to do if the economy is sliding.

The good news for them is that, while their support numbers have been slipping, Liberal numbers have not been going up. The Tories also maintain big tactical advantages in terms of money and organization. On the political spectrum, they have the right side to themselves, while the Liberals are crowded in with the Greens and the NDP.

But momentum, which was once on the Conservatives' side, has been drifting away. Their penchant for destructive politics has hurt them ethically. But more than that, because they have placed so much emphasis on battlefield tactics, they have little in the policy vault with which to move forward. In the last parliamentary session, they had some good initiatives such as immigration reform, the residential schools apology and a few consumer-friendly measures. But there were no big-ticket items to showcase in a campaign.

The war mentality of governance can work in the short term. But, in the long term, something more is needed. With the tides shifting, the Conservatives need a bold new program, something to show the public they can do more than crack heads