Warm Thoughts In The Dead Of Winter

It’s hard to find much good to say about last week’s extreme frigidity. Offhand, the only thing that lightens my mood when it’s -25 C out is the reappearance of the anti-climate change Luddites. I’m talking about the diehard few who cling to the completely debunked idea that global temperatures aren’t continuing to climb at an alarming rate.

Nothing brings these folks out of hiding like a record-setting cold snap. Refrains of “Whatever happened to your global warming?” were all the rage last week, rising meteorically in equal proportion to the plummeting temperatures outside.

I appreciate the fact that many of these people are just joking. It’s their winter equivalent of “Hot enough for you?” in the dog days of summer – and, just like that popular slogan, it gets tired mighty fast.

Like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand, these “denialists” claim glaciers aren’t melting, snow cover isn’t disappearing, spring isn’t coming earlier, humidity isn’t rising, temperatures over lands and oceans aren’t increasing, sea levels aren’t rising, sea ice and ice sheets aren’t disappearing, oceans aren’t warming, species aren’t migrating and tree-lines aren’t moving poleward and upward.

Thankfully, the number of misinformed individuals continues to decline – and worldwide acceptance of manmade climate change continues to grow. Apparently, all it took was a series of epic extreme weather incidents to make a large chunk of the few remaining naysayers change their opinions.

That’s especially true with Americans, a nation that often seems to thrive on dismissing everything that’s happening around them. After a series of cataclysmic events, including Hurricane Katrina (over 1,800 dead, $81 billion in damage, according to Wikipedia), Hurricane Sandy (nearly 300 dead, $68 billion in damage and massive flooding), drought (the current one is called the largest natural disaster in American history) and record-setting heat waves, the number of climate change deniers in that country may soon drop to less than 10%. Hallelujah.

It’s always nice to see Americans catching up to the rest of the world, considering the untold destruction and loss of human life that’s already occurred in other parts of the planet, directly or indirectly caused by climate change.

Personally, I knew the tide was turning when one of the last bastions of global warming denial crumbled last year. In my case, I’d be talking about my 86-year old father who I always assumed would drown underneath a melting polar ice cap while holding a placard that said, “Climate Change Is A Hoax.” I nearly fell off my soapbox when he informed me that, “There might be something to this global warming after all.” Miracles never cease.

Like many popular hoaxes, the anti-climate change folks still cling to the junk science that exists on the Internet, although the remaining websites that promote this crud are starting to look like projects some college pranksters might have designed when they were both extremely wasted – and terminally bored.

It was priceless to see right-wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh hit the crackpot jackpot last week after he claimed scientists had made up the idea of a “polar vortex” to explain the frigid temperatures. In Limbaugh’s words, “They’re relying on their total dominance of the media to lie to you each and every day about climate change and global warming.”

When the anti-climate change contingent is forced to rely on someone like Limbaugh to make its case, you know they’re in trouble. This is the same clown who regularly rants against women, African Americans, Latin Americans, Native Americans, any religion except Christianity, homosexuals, immigrants and anyone who’s not a member of the Republican Party. This is someone you want on your side? Why not hire Krusty the Clown? At least that clown’s got a sense of humour.

Thankfully for Limbaugh, he probably won’t be around in 20 years or so when the world starts to get really nasty. As if it isn’t already insufferable enough in many tropical countries where temperatures are making life nearly unlivable for much of the year, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. According to a study in the respected journal Nature, tropical countries like Indonesia will start experiencing regular, unprecedented heat waves just five years from now.

An article in USA Today from last October 10th, says these heat waves will start to affect much of the U.S. just 20 years later and will create a tipping point after which the temperatures will rise every year. The figures will break every record set in the last 150 years if climate conditions continue to change at their current pace. The study’s lead author says, “Whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past.” Scary stuff.

It’s fun to make jokes about global warming – but man-made climate change will soon be anything except a laughing matter. Living in Canada, we may end up being insulated from some of the most radical changes for a few extra years. Right now, it’s rather enjoyable to have spring arrive earlier, winters pass faster, less snowfall and rainfall, and some of the other benefits we’re becoming accustomed to.

But, ask people in tropical countries what their lives are like today compared to what they grew up with – or talk to Americans in the drought-stricken regions – and you’ll gain a different appreciation for why climate change is something none of us should be looking forward to.

“Hot enough for you?” will no longer be a tired, summer catchphrase. Instead, it will be an inescapable reality. As the number of those opposed to the idea of manmade climate change dwindles and the temperatures skyrocket, it will be more than hot enough for everyone. And clowns like Rush Limbaugh will, no doubt, find someone else to blame for it.

 

State Of Disunion

Unifor. Ever heard of it? If you have, you’re one step ahead of me. It happens to be the largest private sector union in the country. The “super union,” which was announced more than six months ago and officially came into being in August, represents the amalgamation of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions. In total, Unifor has over 300,000 members – and, yet, like me, I bet many Canadians don’t have a clue it even exists.

The idea of joining the two unions was born back in May 2011 when CAW’s president Ken Lewenza and CEP’s boss Dave Coles were attending a Canadian Labour Congress executive meeting, listening to speech after speech about the declining state of Canadian unions. The two chiefs decided that something needed to be done to reverse the slide.

The story of Unifor’s formation is nicely told by author John Lorinc in the December 2013 edition of The Walrus magazine, along with a counterpoint story about a scrappy union called UNITE HERE!, itself an amalgamation of two U.S. unions (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union). UNITE HERE! Canada represents about 50,000 workers across the country in a wide variety of industries, mostly in lower paying occupations.

Despite being a fraction of Unifor’s size, the smaller union appears to be doing a better job of attracting new workers to its fold, mostly through a grassroots campaign that listens to workers’ concerns and tries to find solutions.

Reaching out to its workers was a key problem that already existed within CAW and CEP’s membership. In fact, one of the goals of Unifor is to provide “a new structure and identity that would better represent its members, organize and empower all workers (whether in the union or not) and build a more cohesive and strategic movement of working people.” Whether that’s happening or not remains to be seen, but it’s something that certainly needed to be addressed.

In my lifetime, I’ve been a part of numerous private sector unions, several of them associated with CEP. My first experience was in my early 20’s when I worked at a paper mill in Northwestern Ontario. Since the “P” in CEP stands for paperworkers, you’d think the union would have some understanding of the nature of the work its members did, but I often found that wasn’t the case.

As a new employee and first-time union member, I remember going to the bank when I was hired and seeing a fairly large sum of money had been taken out of my account. These were my union dues, which were being deducted regularly from my meagre savings, even though I had yet to work a day with the company, was on a “call crew” where I was only brought in when needed, and wouldn’t actually start getting a paycheque for several weeks.

I suppose I didn’t understand how unions worked at the time – and didn’t again when I was laid off for several stints but continued to have union dues deducted – but it seemed unfair to me to be paying a union when I wasn’t even being paid by the company.

You might think a union representing paperworkers would understand the sometimes-sporadic nature of the employees it represented, but you would be wrong. That was just the first in dozens of head-scratching moments over the years when I tried to rationalize what the union was ordering me to do – and what common sense seemed to be telling me I should be doing, instead.

Several years later I belonged to a union called NABET (National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians) while working at a television station. That seemed to be a good union that understood its employees and the nature of the work they did. But, as has happened with many smaller unions over the past 20 years, NABET was eventually swallowed up by a bigger union called – wait for it – CEP. It was at that point I wondered how one union could effectively represent me in such diverse occupations.

To me, that’s the crux of the whole problem, one that seems unlikely to improve under Unifor. The new union may talk about getting back to the grassroots and listening to its members’ concerns and all that positive-sounding stuff, but it seems a bit hard to believe. Bigger rarely seems to be better, as most companies have discovered when they’ve grown larger and larger.

Many people have asked, “What does the name ‘Unifor’ mean?” In fact, so many, it’s one of the five “Frequently Asked Questions” on the union’s website. Here’s part of the answer: “The name “Unifor” is intentionally ambiguous. It means different and personal things to a union membership that is increasingly diverse. The name doesn’t peg us to any one sector of the economy, or a particular workplace. Unifor is a union built for workers. But it’s also a union that reaches out to the unemployed and self-employed; to marginalized and racialized groups union (sic); to women and young workers. Simply put Unifor is a union for everyone.” Alrighty.

If I told you the new union’s name was the result of the efforts of a polling, communications and brand strategy firm, a design company, focus groups, member surveys and townhall meetings, would you be surprised? Between the generic sounding name and the non-descript “U” logo, the response from union leaders, members and the general public has been, at best, underwhelming.

But, branding aside, what really matters is whether anything will change at CAW/CEP/Unifor. Only time will tell if the mega-union will move in a new direction, attracting the same kind of grassroots dedication of UNITE HERE! and truly representing its members’ real needs and concerns – or if it will remain stagnant because it’s increasingly out of touch with the reality of a country where manufacturing jobs, Unifor’s bread and butter, continue to disappear.

In any case, the task ahead won’t be easy. Unions are being bashed everywhere you look, by political parties like Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, by the media and by many Canadians who either don’t belong to one or feel neglected by their own current union. If Unifor hopes to regain its focus and reenergize the labour movement, it’s going to have to happen soon. Otherwise, it’s going to be too late.

 

Slip Slidin’ Away

If you’re searching for some sure signs that the official start of winter is near, you don’t have to look far. Cars in the ditch. Fender benders. Rolled over transport trucks on the 402. And repeated warnings from the OPP to “Slow Down!” Every year it’s like déjà vu all over again. Is there something about humans that immediately erases our memories at the end of every previous winter, causing us to have to re-learn the most basic rules of winter driving?

If you’re looking for another sure sign that snowy weather is here for another year, it’s the sudden appearance of all those lists of safe driving tips. You know what I’m talking about: “15 Ways To Beat Old Man Winter,” “Top Secrets Of Being An Awesomely Amazing Snow Driver,” and “Everything You Need To Know To Survive Winter Roads.”

They’re all the things you routinely ignore because you’ve heard them all before. Trust me – that’s what I do. I’ve been driving in winter for more years than I care to remember, so who’s going to tell me how to improve my driving skills? Not you – Mr. Listy McListmaker!

Having said that, a couple of days ago I saw a message from the Ontario government about a two-minute YouTube video they posted a few weeks ago called, “Top 10 Tips to Prep for Winter Driving”. Yawn. So, preparing to be bored out of my skull and scoff at all the things I already know, I watched.

And, you know, a funny thing happened. Even though most of the information was pretty basic and something I’ve likely learned at some point in my life, I also realized that, over the years, I’ve managed to abandon almost all the things they mention in the video. And I bet that many of you have, as well. (If you’d like to watch it yourself, type the above name for the video into the YouTube search bar and VOILA!).

For instance, they tell you to clear all the snow from your windows, mirrors, lights and roof. Like me, I imagine you routinely forget to do at least one of those (probably your lights) and, by doing so, you add risk to your own driving and everyone else on the road. Or, how about starting your car and waiting for your windows to clear before you start driving?

Here’s one I bet nobody does: “Wear comfortable clothing that doesn’t restrict your movement when you’re behind the wheel.” I usually get to that about half an hour into my trip and, typically, I don’t even pull over to take my coat off – I’ll just do it while I’m driving. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

The video also includes two places to get provincial highway conditions before you leave for your trip: Ontario.ca/trip on the web or “511” on your phone. As well, it also gives you a non-emergency number for the OPP Provincial Communications Centre (1-888-310-1122) that you can call anytime to get assistance when you’re travelling.

The video also urges you to pack a winter survival kit (yep, I don’t have one of those either!) that includes items such as a flashlight, small shovel, blankets, extra clothing, winter boots, non-perishable energy foods, a candle (for heat) and matches.

If you become stranded, don’t panic. Check to make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of drifting snow before running your engine and open your window slightly for fresh air. And stay in your vehicle for safety and warmth.

Gas up before you go. Not only will you have plenty of fuel to get you to your destination if the driving is slow and allow you to run the vehicle longer should you be stranded, the extra weight will also give you more stability on bad roads and prevent moisture problems in your fuel system.

Finally, keep your cool. As the video cautions, “Shortcuts in winter weather ultimately won’t get you there any faster.” Perhaps that’s the best advice of all – and something that so many of us fail to heed.

We rush to leave for our destination without checking ahead or properly clearing our vehicle. We don’t allow ourselves the extra time we need to get where we’re going – so we drive faster than we should. We don’t consider the best way to get where we’re going – just the fastest. And we don’t plan ahead – which is the entire message the video is trying to deliver.

So, for those of you who’ve made it this far in your reading, congratulations! Even if you know about and practice everything I’ve written above, it never hurts to be reminded one more time. I’m off to prepare my winter survival kit right now and, if you haven’t got one of your own, I hope you’ll do the same. Stay safe and, like the video says, keep your cool.

 

Afghanistan Addition

In writing a tribute seven days ago to those who have fought for this country and were honoured on Remembrance Day earlier this week, I referred only in passing to the forces who have served in conflicts and peacekeeping missions following the Korean War. In fact, I think most Canadians often consider only the two World Wars and the Korean conflict in their remembrances. But, the truth is, tens of thousands of troops have been involved in skirmishes around the globe during the past half-century and often go unrecognized.

One of the most notable instances has been in Afghanistan, where nearly 40,000 Canadian Forces personnel have served since first arriving in 2001. This September, withdrawal of the remaining 900 special personnel began and, by March of next year, only a few will remain. Support for the troops was strong in the middle of last decade, but gradually waned until Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated Canadians had lost their appetite for the war and declared in May 2011, “Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.”

Some people beg to differ. Or, at the very least, they would say that Afghanistan is still a definite threat to itself and its people, if not the world. In a fascinating article in the October 2013 edition of The Walrus magazine, CBC journalist Mellissa Fung recounts the story of her first return to Afghanistan since she was kidnapped five years ago, held prisoner in a hole for 28 days, and tortured repeatedly.

Fung disputes two popular notions most Canadians hold: that there are few tangible results from our soldiers’ efforts in Afghanistan and that the country is ready to govern itself, hold off the Taliban insurgents and continue the reforms that have begun.

The journalist recounts some truly inspiring statistics in making her case that Canada’s efforts have made a huge difference in the country. One example is in education. “In 2001, 700,000 students were enrolled in school, almost none of them girls. Today more than 10 million children go to school, and 40 percent in the primary grades are girls. Since 2002, more than 4,500 new school buildings have been constructed, and the number of teachers has increased eightfold, to nearly 200,000. In addition, more than a quarter of a million women have attended literacy classes,” writes Fung.

She also has high praise for the Canadian forces who have served in the country – along with deep sadness for the sacrifices they’ve made: “The mission transformed the military into a modern fighting force, but also left us with a long roll call of dead, wounded and battle scarred. One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers were killed, more than 2,000 were injured and another 3,000 are estimated to have developed some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Despite those grim numbers, Fung talks about the positives for the Canadian forces, saying, “The more than decade-long engagement in Afghanistan, the longest in Canada’s history, has given our military a much-needed morale boost, rehabilitating its image after the Somalia scandal in the 1990s. The forces entered Afghanistan with a sense of both purpose and trepidation, a volunteer army from a small country, no longer peacekeepers but warriors, with new equipment, new recruits and a renewed sense of pride.”

But, as far as the job being done, Fung has her doubts. She reports that nearly three million Afghans live as refugees in neighbouring countries with almost half a million displaced internally. Countrymen fear the worst as foreign powers abandon the country. One young mother told Fung, “Leaving a war at this stage means you will give al Qaeda the chance to grow again. When the world talks about humanitarian assistance, or the humanitarian part of the fight, this is not done yet.”

The woman does not believe her government is capable of running the country with its poor record so far of corruption and lack of transparency. She is not alone. Fung feels the current balancing act, which includes a “peace” where upwards of 100 Afghan soldiers are killed every week, is extremely fragile – and she doesn’t believe they can go it alone. “Yes, Afghans must learn to stand on their own, take care of their country, and protect their rights. They understand that, and they want it more than anything; but to protect the gains that have been made, sustained investment from the rest of the world is needed, and will be for a long time. There is fear here, but also optimism,” she says.

As the remaining Canadian Forces personnel prepare to exit the country, some are, undoubtedly, ready to come home, having done their job to the best of their ability. However, for other personnel – along with the many civilians who remain in Afghanistan – there’s a sense the job is incomplete, that the projects and missions they began as far back as 2001 still need to be finished.

In either case, those who served in Afghanistan deserve our deepest respect and gratitude for what they have accomplished in a country nearly 11,000 km away. They have performed bravely and professionally and with distinction. And they deserve our remembrance wholeheartedly.

 

 

Remembering The Forgotten

I wasn’t particularly proud of myself the other week. During an interview with a Canadian war veteran, I asked the one question that haunts him and so many of his peers: “What do you remember of your experiences during the War?” Although I should probably have been expecting it, I was devastated to watch this highly decorated former soldier break down in tears before my eyes, as he tried to compose himself enough to offer a response.

As a person who grew up without the worry of having to serve my country overseas in a brutal foreign war, I learned in that instant a tiny fraction of what those who went before us endured in Europe and Korea and other combat zones more than half a century ago.

Despite having spoken to numerous veterans over the years, it’s easy to forget that, for many, there are no words to describe what they experienced. Many of those who served did so as teenagers, just as this gentleman had. For us to begin comprehending what it must have been like for kids fresh out of high school to risk their lives halfway around the world for a cause they likely didn’t even understand is an exercise in futility.

Here are some sobering numbers. About 16 million people died in WWI, including over 65,000 Canadians or nearly one percent of the country’s population at the time. In WWII, estimated deaths were between 50 and 80 million, about 2.5 percent of the world’s population. That figure includes more than 45,000 Canadians. Over 500 of our countrymen perished in the Korean War.

And there are tens of thousands of other deaths and casualties from those conflicts and others we’ve been part of.

Beyond the sheer numbers, there are so many other changes these wars wrought on our society – the hardships, the destruction of families, the lingering memories, the economic devastation. It’s simply overwhelming.

For all of that, it’s the individual stories of bravery and heroism and suffering and pain endured by the soldiers battling for Canada’s freedom that stick most in your memories. In Lance Goddard’s book ‘Canada and the Liberation of the Netherlands,’ Cliff Chadderton of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles says: “My plans for a normal life ended in a fusillade of German artillery, helped by a German potato masher grenade dropped upon me by a leering German.”

He recalls waking up later in a hospital, wondering what had happened to the rest of his men and considering his condition: “I did not think I was in very bad shape until a doctor, performing triage, stripped away the bloodstained parts of my battledress. A lot of walking wounded from the attack lined the corridor. The battlefield surgeon told them they would have to wait until he tended to this officer (me), whose wounds he classified as ‘probably fatal.’ The expression set off a jolt in the pit of my stomach.”

He continues: “A vague debate trickled through my subconscious mind. Would they take off my right left or my left leg? The doctor told the nurse, ‘I think I can save one.’”

Or, in the book, “Hell & High Water: Canada and the Italian Campaign,” also by Goddard, Herb Pike of the 48th Highlanders recounts: “We were bogged down with mud, you just couldn’t move. Their dead was left all over the valley there, and Padre East would come along every night and ask for volunteers to go out and pick up the guys. Well, he’d come down and the guys in the slit trenches would call out, ‘The Padre’s on his way’ and all the guys would duck and try to stay down so you wouldn’t have to volunteer. They’d go out and pick up the dead. Well, you know, that may sound a little cruel, but you know if a guy’s dead, he’s dead…

His fellow Highlander, Gord Outhwaite, concludes Pike’s thought: There’s no sense in having another one dead alongside of him.”

Over 600,000 Canadians served in WWI, 1.1 million in WWII, and over 25,000 in Korea. To those who fought, we owe our freedom today. Everything we take for granted as the years pass and the memories fade is a result of these heroes, who risked and gave their lives so that we could carry on, so that we would survive. In the coming days, you will see ceremonies and tributes and remembrances that recall that dedication and bravery. Will you turn away? Or will you remember those resolute heroes who risk being forgotten with the passing of time? Choose wisely.

 

Dazed By Days

My wife asked me the other week whether I planned to cover the Big Apple Crunch Day at our area schools. My initial reaction was that she’d made that event up. Au contraire. She informed me that not only was it a real day, but that thousands of students had been celebrating it for the past seven years. Apple Crunch Day? Really? Hey, I like a red, tasty crunchy apple as much as the next guy, but do we really need a special day to celebrate it? If so, why aren’t we celebrating Grape Day, Nectarine Day and, especially, Kumquat Day?

When you’re in the business of reporting events, you’re expected to be out on Canada Day, Remembrance Day, Easter Sunday, Halloween and most other widely recognized celebrations, along with providing coverage for all the various days, weeks and months that honour both the big and small things in our lives.

There are plenty of very important recognitions – Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), Heart Month (February), Fire Prevention Week (October 6-12), World Diabetes Day (November 14), International Women’s Day (March 8), Aboriginal Solidarity Day (June 21), etc.

Then, there are the ones that, although important to some, make you wonder if they really need their own special day, week or month: International Child-Centred Divorce Awareness Month, Bath Safety Month, Be Kind To Food Servers Month, International Hoof Care Week, Copyright Law Day, Return Shopping Carts To The Supermarket Month and International Sword Swallowers Day.

And, of course, there are the celebrations that fall under the “You’re Kidding Me?” category: California Dried Plum Digestive Month, Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, National Mail Order Gardening Month, National Tempura Day, Women In Blue Jeans Day, National Hot Tea Month, National Cowboy Poetry Gathering Week, Tubers & Dried Fruit Month, Camcorder Day, Squirrel Appreciation Day (which is January 21st and shouldn’t be confused with Squirrel Awareness Month in October), and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day. And that’s just in January. There are 11 more months of the same inanity. Thankfully, National Gin Day is coming right up on November 7th to help us all drown our sorrows. Cheers!

All of which leaves me to believe that either a) people are running out of things to celebrate or b) we need to add more days to the year or c) people have too much time on their hands. Personally, I’m going with option c. I appreciate the fact that those who come up with these goofy celebrations are just trying to have fun, but I wonder if all the joke festivities are taking away from the legitimate ones.

Or maybe we just have too many illnesses and ailments that need more awareness? In November alone, the following diseases and conditions are being recognized: Epilepsy Awareness Month, Diabetic Eye Disease Month, Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month, Lung Cancer Awareness, AIDS Awareness Month, National COPD Month, National Alzheimer’s Disease Month, National Home Care & Hospice Month, National Impotency Month, National Marrow Awareness Month, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Prematurity Awareness Month, National Patient Accessibility Week, X-Ray Day and World Diabetes Day.

My point? Enough is enough. As of this very moment, I’m calling for a complete moratorium on any and all additional days of celebration, awareness, recognition, appreciation, enlightenment or remembrance. If there’s not already a day, week or month for your pet cause, you’re out of luck. Sorry about that, Transsexual Spotted Gerbil Anti-Discrimination Week. My apologies, Orphan Sock Reunification Month. You’re out of luck, International Broccolini With Limburger Cheese & A Touch Of Nutmeg Casserole Day.

If we don’t stop this insanity, before you know it we’ll be lighting candles to commemorate World Kanye West & Kim Kardashian Awareness Week – and I’ll be slitting my wrists. So, to honour my moratorium, I’m breaking my own rule and officially naming November 5th as International Day Of No More Special Days For The Celebration, Awareness, Recognition, Appreciation, Enlightenment Or Remembrance Of Anything That’s Not Already Being Honoured. Raise your glasses and let the partying begin!

 

Senators Gone Wild!

Oh, the life of a Canadian Senator. A nice little base salary of $135,200 per year. A guaranteed job for as long as you want it until age 75. A strenuous “workload” that fills three days a week, 29 weeks a year. And a chance to work outside and earn extra cash. That’s right. A Toronto Star article from July says that all but 17 of the 101 Senators had outside gigs, including a full-time doctor, several lawyers, members of numerous boards of directors, etc. All for doing a job that most Canadians wouldn’t even know how to describe.

But, wait. There’s more! If that isn’t enough to make you want to apply for the position right this second, Senators also enjoy generous expense allowances, too. Apparently, however, all those perks still aren’t enough for several Senators, some of whom decided a few extra expense claims would help get them through the lean times.

Hence, the ongoing revelations about several Senators who allegedly submitted questionable expense claims amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars in overpayments. One Liberal Senator, Raymond Lavigne, was found guilty of fraud and breach of trust back in 2011 after claiming $315,000 in dubious travel expenses.

I hope he enjoyed all that travelling, as he’s doing much less at the moment. Currently, Lavigne is serving a six-month sentence at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, after which he’ll be under house arrest for another half-a-year. It could have been worse, as the former Senator might have been sentenced to up to 14 years in prison for his misdeeds.

Although he forfeited his $100,000+ salary when he resigned from the Senate, Lavigne still has one ace in the hole. That’s the $67,611 annual pension he receives for the time he spent doing whatever he did in the Senate (other than claim travel expenses).

Just in case you didn’t get that, a former Senator who was convicted of fraud is collecting nearly $70,000 a year in pensions, paid for with your hard-earned tax dollars.

Does this make you angry? You’re not alone. In fact, one determined Member of Parliament, John Williamson, a Conservative from the riding of New Brunswick Southwest, is so appalled, he’s introduced a Private Members Bill that was brought to my attention recently.

Bill C-518, also known as the Protecting Taxpayers and Revoking Pensions of Convicted Politicians Act, intends to do just what it says. If passed, politicians who are convicted of a crime would no longer be able to collect their pensions. Pretty simple, huh? So simple, it makes you wonder why nothing’s ever been done about this egregious situation before.

In a letter to supporters of the bill, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation explains why it’s backing Williamson’s motion and urging fellow Canadians to sign a petition showing their support, as well: “Liberal Senator Mac Harb resigned from the Senate last week. He will immediately start to collect a six-figure pension for his time as MP and Senator.

 Harb, along with Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau have all had their expense claims referred to the RCMP for further investigation. If charged and convicted of defrauding taxpayers, these Senators might have to serve hard time, but they won’t lose their generous parliamentary pensions if they resign before being convicted. (The three former Conservative Senators need to stick around until January 2015 to qualify for a pension).”

The CTF goes on to explain that, “

Resigning before being convicted is known as the “Lavigne maneuver.’” Yes, that’s right. They actually have a name for the procedure used by the above-mentioned Lavigne, whose exploits we’ve already recounted.

The Taxpayers Federation fears that, “Others will continue to enact the “Lavigne maneuver” unless we change the law.” That’s where Bill C-518 comes in. As the CTF argues, this bill “would take away the pensions from people like Lavigne or any federal politician who is charged and convicted of defrauding taxpayers.

 The bill specifically states that any conviction of those who were MPs or Senators on June 3, 2013 will result in loss of their parliamentary pension, meaning that as long as the bill passes, Harb and others, if they are convicted, would lose their pensions, even if they resign.

”

The Federation says, “We need your help to make this bill a law. We need the Harper government to adopt Mr. Williamson’s private members bill as a government bill and pass it as soon as Parliament resumes this fall.”

One way you can show your support is to sign Williamson’s petition. If you’re interested, visit  www.johnwilliamsonmp.com/C-518_Petition.pdf to view and sign the petition. You can also email Williamson directly, along with your local MP, the Prime Minister, or anyone else you can think of in Ottawa.

As I said before, the whole concept of this bill seems so simple, it’s hard to believe there aren’t already rules in place preventing convicted former federal politicians from collecting government pensions. Of course, whether the bill actually gets passed is another question entirely. As a website called hillwatch.com notes, only about 1.5% of Private Members Bills from 1993-2006 ever got passed, so the chances are slim. At the very least, however, it’s pushed the issue into the public awareness, which is a good start.

In the meantime, Lavigne will continue to enjoy his annual pension, long after his time in the Senate has become a distant memory. And, of course, taxpayers will also be on the hook for his jail time, too. I’m not sure what it costs to house a criminal at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, a provincial facility, but if it’s anything like a federal penitentiary, Lavigne is being well taken care of.

According to Corrections Canada, last year it cost just under $114,000 a year – or $312 per day – to incarcerate each federal inmate, more than the cost of staying at many all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean. In this case, however, we hope Lavigne won’t be eligible to submit any bogus travel expenses for his time at the Ottawa-Carleton Crowbar Hilton. If he is, then John Williamson might have to come up with a whole new bill to deal with that.

Oh, the life of a Canadian Senator.

 

The Most Boring (And Potentially Important) Story You’ll Read This Year

Pension reform. Have you stopped reading yet? Have your eyes begun glazing over? Have you already gone to the refrigerator to find something to snack on? If so, then, like me, you probably haven’t been paying attention to the issue of pension reform in this country. The fact is, the changing demographic make-up of Canada is about to have a serious impact on the future of all our pension systems. So what? Well, whether you’re about to retire – or have another 40 years left in the workforce – it’s going to affect you in ways you’ve never imagined.

First things first. The Canada Pension Plan is in decent shape, at least for the time being. Far from being the basket case it was in the early 1990’s, the system is in no danger of collapsing – for the moment anyway. The reason is that the Liberal government at the time and, specifically, finance minister Paul Martin, made massive changes to the system, which would have been bankrupt by now if things had stayed on the same course.

Similarly, Stephen Harper’s government has now introduced measures to gradually raise the age when Canadians can begin receiving their Old Age Security (OAS) benefits and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) to 67 from 65, which helps bolster that part of the retirement pie. The government gave four reasons for the changes.

First, Canada’s population is aging rapidly. Over the next two decades the combination of baby boomers hitting retirement age and longer life expectancy means 25 percent of the country’s population will consist of seniors by 2030, compared with just 14 percent in 2010.

Second, because of the rising number of seniors, OAS payments will increase over the same 20-year time frame to $108 billion from $38 billion, or about 21 cents of every federal tax dollar from the current 13.

Third, with the increased payments required, the burden to fund the system will fall increasingly on younger Canadians. Right now, there are four working-age people for every senior. By 2030, there will be just two working Canadians for every senior. That will not only affect workers’ lifestyles, it will also hamper their ability to save for their own retirements.

Finally, the Canadian labour market is going to have to adapt quickly due to the huge number of retirements. If labour can’t pick up the slack, it will have a huge impact on the country’s economic growth and our ability to fund social programs, especially those for seniors.

With the latest changes, a Band-Aid has been applied to the OAS and GIS, but nothing has been done to fix the most glaring problems, which are the CPP and the decline in private sector pension plans. For the time being, the CPP is adequately funded. The problem is, benefits from that plan max out at only about $12,000 a year. Add in OAS and GIS and it doesn’t equal much of a retirement plan, especially if that’s all you’re counting on in your golden years. What else do you plan to live on?

The bare minimum most retirees can survive on is 60% of their working salaries, while most require much more if they want to live even somewhat comfortably. As reported in the Globe and Mail, a report from CIBC earlier this year says, “5.8 million Canadians face a decline in living standards of more than 20 percent when they retire. Those born in the 1980s can expect a drop of 30 percent.”

In the past, most of the difference between working income and retirement income was made up by pension plans, especially “defined benefit plans” that guarantee retirees a payout equal to a certain percentage of their best earning years. While public sector employees still enjoy those plans, most private companies have opted to switch to “defined contribution plans” where your retirement fund is made up of the contributions you and your employer make plus whatever growth you can accumulate. In other words, there are no guarantees about what you’ll be paid out when you retire and, typically, they’re much less lucrative.

Even worse, many companies have abandoned pension plans altogether – or their existing plans are so underfunded that the benefits people once expected are now gone forever or will likely be cut back severely by the time retirement arrives. Currently, less than a quarter of private sector employees even have a pension, versus 87% of public employees.

To be blunt, if something isn’t done now to address this issue, millions of Canadians will be retiring in the next 20 years with virtually no pensions, no RRSPs and no savings of any kind. As The Walrus magazine stated in an article from its September 2013 issue: “This cohort faces the very real risk of an impoverished old age that will inflict extreme fiscal pressures on social programs and health care while starving other public services. Those without decent pensions will have little choice but to keep working if they want to avoid poverty.”

It’s probably too late for many of the millions of retiring baby boomers to address the problem if they haven’t already planned ahead. However, for anyone in their 50’s or younger, new solutions need to be found – and very quickly. There are plenty of options, some voluntary and some mandatory. One would be an enhanced CPP where individuals can supplement their required contributions. Another is a Pooled Registered Pension Plan, which is similar to the enhanced CPP, except it’s administered by employers, although companies themselves don’t have to contribute. There’s already a federal framework for this and Quebec recently introduced its own version called the Voluntary Retirement Savings Plan.

The problem with voluntary plans is that they’ll likely only be used by people who are already good savers and invest regularly in RRSPs, TFSAs and other similar vehicles. For the millions who don’t have the discipline to do so, mandatory options seem to be a better solution. But, who would administer such a plan – the government, employers, or a totally separate entity?

In the article from The Walrus it talks glowingly about the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, the world’s best-performing retirement fund and one that currently has assets of $130 billion. Teachers are forced to invest a certain portion of their salaries in the fund and can’t withdraw anything until their normal retirement age, unlike RRSPs, which people can borrow against. In return, however, they enjoy a lucrative pension that most of us would kill to enjoy (hence the article’s title, ‘Pension Envy’).

Where does the solution lie and which options are most practical for the average Canadian? That’s the dilemma, one that was supposed to be on the front burner of federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, but seems to have fallen through the cracks. According to the Globe and Mail, the issue was scheduled to be debated by Flaherty and the provincial ministers in June, but nothing seems to have come of that.

Time is wasting and the issue isn’t going to disappear. In fact, as the number of retiring baby boomers starts to snowball in the coming years, the problem will become more and more acute. Who is going to pay for 30-40 years of retirement for those people who are barely making ends meet right now when they’re still working? Their children? The dwindling number of working Canadians? The Tooth Fairy?

Pension reform may not be a particularly exciting topic for the average person. But it’s something we’re all going to have to deal with sooner or later. We’d better hope it’s sooner – or we’re all in very serious trouble.

 

 

This Is Why We Have Laws

If there’s one common complaint Canadians have, it’s that we’re over-governed. Too many laws. Too many regulations. Too much red tape and bureaucracy. As an example, the PC Party of Ontario noted in one of their recent “white papers” that there are 386,000 regulations in the province covering agri-business alone. How is that even possible – and how many thousands of people are in charge of making sure all those regulations are being followed?

Tim Hudak’s party says they’re committed to getting rid of one-third of all red tape across the board, which sounds like an admirable goal. But where do you start? And where does it all end? If you start cutting out all the superfluous laws and regulations, how do you know when you’ve dumped all the unnecessary ones and started chopping the ones that actually serve a useful purpose? The same goes for our whole country.

Just a little over a month ago, a runaway train carrying crude oil crashed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing at least 47 people and destroying much of the town. The train’s owners, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, have now declared bankruptcy in the U.S. and Canada, unable to pay even a fraction of the estimated $200 million cleanup, let alone any legal damages.

There has been plenty of finger-pointing since that accident and who know where all the blame will fall eventually? In any case, it’s pretty obvious that many of the regulations that were already in place were never followed prior to the accident. In fact, part of the reason for the catastrophe may have been that some of the rules formerly enforced by Transport Canada had been transferred to the railway companies themselves to self-administer. And, following the accident, Transport Canada introduced several new emergency directives to prevent futures disasters like the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic one, so now there are even more regulations to follow.

This past week, in an accident that seems like something Hollywood might pitch for its next horror movie, two young boys died in Campbellton, New Brunswick after being asphyxiated by a 4.3 metre (14-foot), 45 kilogram (100 lb.) African Rock Python, a snake that has been banned in the province since 2009.

How could such a calamity happen when there were laws in place preventing it? A criminal investigation into the event is still ongoing and there’s no indication what charges might be laid, but there are legitimate reasons why such exotic, dangerous creatures are restricted.

Recently, in our own area, a 21-year old man from London died tragically south of Watford after he was electrocuted while setting up a large tent for a wedding. The OPP and Ontario Ministry of Labour are investigating the incident and no results have been released yet but, again, it appears on the surface that regulations may not have been properly followed.

Three horrific accidents in three different parts of the country, but they all appear to have one common connection: they might all have been preventable, if only the existing laws and regulations had been adhered to. We laugh at some of the ludicrous by-laws on the books, probably for good reason. Almost all of us flaunt speed limits on a regular basis. None of us are saints and there’s no way we can follow every single piece of legislation when there are millions of them – and more been drafted every day.

However, when we make the decision to engage in potentially life-threatening situations, it’s understood that if we choose to ignore the law, we do so knowing there may be dire consequences that follow. We live in a society that runs on rules. This isn’t the Wild West or a chapter out of Lord of the Flies.

During a recent public information meeting, an OPP constable talked about the need to strike a balance in our society so that everyone can live their lives as they choose, without causing harm to others. He said we do that through laws and regulations. It’s a balance that’s not always easy to achieve, but it’s something we must all work towards.

If we reap the benefits of having a government or a police force or a regulatory body whose goal is to protect us, we must, in turn, choose to follow the regulations they set out, even if they’re inconvenient or costly or restrictive. To do otherwise is to choose a path that puts others in harm’s way and threatens all our freedoms. It’s not Big Brother watching us. It’s all of us watching out for each other.

 

Printing The Unprintable: A Question Of Ethics

Everyone has his or her own moral compass that points in a particular direction. It’s called into play whenever an ethical dilemma arises and we’re forced to decide either to stay on the right side of the moral fence – or cross over into the dark zone. In our normal lives, it’s hard to say how often that happens. But, in the world of journalism, it’s always an ongoing issue.

Several weeks ago, a university student who’s enrolled in a Masters of Journalism program interviewed me for an assignment he was working on. Specifically, I was asked to discuss an ethical dilemma I’ve had – and how I dealt with it. The more I thought about trying to pinpoint one specific incident, the more I realized that almost every single news story I work on contains at least one ethical quandary. That’s shocking to me.

As a reporter, I learn plenty of things that never make it into the stories I write – for a variety of reasons. The most common example is when a person tells me something “off the record.” Ethically, as soon as someone invokes those three words, nothing can be reported. But, as I explained to the student, when does that privilege end? Generally, those “off the record” comments are a sidebar to the main story. Therefore, once the interviewee finishes those comments, we should be back “on the record.”

However, how do you know when that actually happens? You can interrupt the person and say, “Are we back on the record now?” or you can make your own decision. I believe most reporters do the latter – but if you’re not 100% certain, you risk having the person confront you later angrily, saying, “I thought that was supposed to be off the record.”

Further to that point, what happens if you learn something “off the record” and use that information to try and get others to open up? Technically – and ethically – that’s forbidden territory. It’s like your best friend telling you a secret and making you swear not to tell anyone else. Most people’s moral compasses tell them not to do it – but some people don’t seem to have any problem breaking that confidence. I suspect many reporters do the same thing, although it wouldn’t be something I’d be comfortable with.

What about offhand remarks people make that they never expect to be quoted on? Unlike television where you’ve got a camera stuck in your face and tend to be more guarded in what you say, newspaper reporting is often more like having a conversation with someone. In many situations, people will reveal certain confidential information or make an off-the-cuff remark, perhaps one that is inflammatory, sarcastic, racist or in some way compromising, but without telling you it’s “off the record.”

How do you decide whether you should use the comment or not? I find journalists for larger newspapers often worry less about this dilemma than a small town reporter like me. They really don’t care much whether they embarrass someone they hardly know or make it so that person won’t talk to the media again. In the case of this newspaper, we interview the same people over and over again. We work and live in the communities we serve, so if we decide to “burn” someone, humiliate them or take their comments out of context, we likely won’t be able to continue doing our jobs effectively.

Does this mean we bury stories or don’t cover them accurately? I hope not. Instead, I think we find creative ways to get around the issue and tell the story in a fair and balanced way, without singling out a particular person and making them look bad. Most of the people we interview still trust us. They see us on the street regularly, so they assume we’re going to treat them fairly. If we don’t, we’re taking a huge gamble – and we better be prepared to suffer the consequences.

The question of ethics has so many facets, it’s impossible to cover them all. Our main goals as reporters should always be to cover stories fairly, accurately, and without bias. However, that’s rarely as easy as it sounds. Often, we’re just not able to get both sides to talk to us, especially if it involves the government or large corporations, both of who either don’t return calls or give you only the information they want you to have and avoid your other questions. So, we’re left trying to do a balanced story when all we have is one side. Are we ethically bound to try digging up information to counterbalance the story?

In the end, it all comes back to that moral compass. If you have a strong ethical guidance system that forces you to stay on the side of good at all times, that’s wonderful. However, it’s also probably not realistic. As a reporter, you can’t always write positively about all the issues and events you cover. You wouldn’t last long in this often-cynical business.

On the flipside, if your compass doesn’t work at all, you won’t last long either. Journalism doesn’t often rank very high on lists of the “Most Trusted Professions,” and we don’t do ourselves any favours when we start crossing questionable ethical lines. Moral dilemmas will always be a daily part of our jobs. The decisions we make reflect not only who we are, but how much we value our readers. In my case, I hope I’ll continue to make the morally correct decision whenever I’m forced to choose. As a loyal reader, you deserve nothing less.