Packing It In

Life has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Technologically, we’ve gone from hard-wired telephones and physical communication modes to an unlimited universe of advanced electronic, mobile, and Internet devices. Despite all those technological changes in our lives, perhaps our societal attitudes have evolved even more.

Think of how dramatically our thoughts about gay rights, abortion, drinking and driving, privacy, climate change, public safety and other big ticket issues have been altered over that time.

If you’ve ever watched the television show Mad Men before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Set in the early 1960s, almost every scene in the program involves someone either a) drinking alcohol b) cheating on their spouses or c) smoking in a venue where it would be prohibited today.

What brought the last point to mind this week was a photo I noticed of a diplomat sitting in the White House with then-President John F. Kennedy back in 1962. Tucked in the very corner of the photo, sitting inconspicuously on a coffee table, is a fancy glass case loaded with cigarettes.

To anyone born in the last 20-30 years, the thought of being able to smoke in the White House, let alone an airplane, movie theatre, doctors’ office, hospital or restaurant, is something totally foreign.

Today, it is not just illegal, it’s also socially unacceptable in many circles. Ostensibly, JFK was a cigar smoker in private and his wife Jackie was a heavy cigarette smoker but, even in 1962, this was not something generally acknowledged in public. However, that certainly didn’t stop the rest of North Americans puffing away wherever they pleased.

According to a 2013 University of Waterloo report on smoking, in 1965, over 62% of Canadian men were smokers and about 50% of all adults in this country smoked, the all-time peak in tobacco usage. Today, just 16% of Canadians are regular smokers and the number continues to fall every single year.

That’s a phenomenal change in less than half a century. Pressure by The Canadian Cancer Society, the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association and a variety of other public and private organizations has led to more and more restrictions on where people can smoke and what age you can buy cigarettes, along with packaging changes and warning notices, plus a whole bunch of other deterrents.

Health concerns have become better known. Workplaces have banned smoking. Governments have systematically bumped up “sin” taxes. The list of hindrances has grown to the point where smokers are not just a tiny minority, they’re ostracized for taking part in an activity that, in addition to being perfectly legal, continues to be a massive source of revenue for government, accounting for over $7 billion in tax revenue annually.

Most politicians wouldn’t be caught dead smoking a cigarette in public, partly because they know their political careers would likely be dead, too. In July 1984, I was working in the Press Gallery on Parliament Hill and found myself at a picnic one Sunday afternoon, chowing down next to Brian Mulroney, who would become Canada’s Prime Minister just two months later. Seeing the writing on the wall, he told me how he’d quit smoking a short time before that, as he realized how difficult being a smoker would be while holding the highest office in the country.

Barack Obama made a similar decision in February 2011 after 30 years of being addicted to the weed. And I’m sure thousands of other politicians made the same commitment, partly for their health, but mostly because it’s become a habit the majority of people not only don’t participate in, but actually frown upon, especially when it comes to the people they elect.

There’s an interesting article in the November 2014 issue of The Walrus by longtime magazine writer Lynn Cunningham about her lifelong attempt to quit smoking, part of which details her spending time in the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Centre.

After 50 years and numerous attempts to rid herself of the habit, nicotine had become a vice she knew she couldn’t overcome without serious help. Serious enough to travel to Rochester, Minnesota and pay $5,500 U.S. for the Mayo’s eight-day cessation program.

Cunningham talks about the lack of residential treatment options for those who simply cannot quit on their own – and the similar lack of public sympathy for cigarette addicts. Unlike other addictions for which there are numerous support groups available, she says reformed smokers rarely have such avenues.

She comments on the fact that many recovering addicts, especially alcoholics, are often chain smokers who don’t even consider smoking an addiction.

And she even talks about how many popular movies have been made about the struggles of quitting alcohol or drugs – when nobody would even think of making a blockbuster about someone who quit smoking.

“Popular culture basically doesn’t acknowledge smoking as a dangerous addiction, nor does it lend it the patina of romantic dissolution that might garner users more sympathy – or better treatment options,” writes Cunningham.

Last week, the Canadian Cancer Society said it is taking the “next logical step” by urging Health Canada to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes, according to a Canadian Press article.

It’s already the law in Australia, where cigarettes have been packaged in plain olive brown wrapping since late December 2012 and cigarette use has fallen sharply since.

The CP story says similar plans are in the works in Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and France. “Plain packaging is an important and logical next step for Canada to curb tobacco marketing, reduce smoking and save lives,” says Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Cancer Society.

As more and more pressure is inflicted on Canada’s remaining smokers to quit the killer weed, it’s amazing to look back at the changes that have taken place since the 1960s. When the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) was formed in 1974, its founders had very modest goals. They hoped to convince a few people that smoking was bad for their health and, in doing so, make them consider the idea of quitting.

As Canada gets closer and closer to being a non-smoking society, the NSRA must look back and marvel at how boldly life has changed in their 40 years of existence. It’s just one example of the ways our lives in this country have evolved, but it’s a profound one.

Back To The Future

Ronald Reagan. It’s been years since I thought about the 40th President of the United States. However, in one of those odd coincidences that happen so frequently in life, I was reminded of Reagan recently after watching an Oscar-nominated movie and reading a popular 2013 novel.

The movie is Dallas Buyers Club, which tells the horrifying story about the outbreak of the AIDS virus in early 1981, coincidentally, the first year of Reagan’s administration. The film details the struggle to identify and treat the first victims of AIDS. It’s a sad, sad story of fear and prejudice and ignorance, some of which was propagated by Reagan himself.

Ostensibly, the President refused to utter the word “AIDS” in any of his speeches until 1985, during his second term in office, despite the fact that it had become an out-of-control epidemic by that time. In 1981, there were just 159 reported cases of the disease. By the time Reagan left office in 1989, nearly 90,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

As the movie relates, during those first few years, the U.S. government dithered and delayed, eventually setting up blind clinical trials that dying AIDS sufferers would have to wait for a year to start. By then, if they were still living, they would have only a 50/50 chance of being prescribed the untested drug AZT. If they weren’t in that fortunate group who received the drug, they’d get a worthless placebo, instead.

Dallas Buyers Club relates the story of two very different victims, one an emaciated redneck played by Matthew McConaughey (who knew this guy could actually act?) and the other a flamboyant transgender male/female, played superbly by Jared Leto. The unlikely pair of victims join forces to purchase illegal, experimental drugs from various parts of the world, creating their own “cocktails” to help prolong their lives.

The other 80’s touchstone is the novel The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. The book centres around a group of young people who come of age during the Reagan administration. One part of their lives deals with the sudden appearance of the AIDS virus and its effects on the members of the group, one of whom becomes involved with a victim of the disease.

Twenty-five years after he left office, Ronald Reagan routinely scores near the top in surveys about “Most Admired Presidents” and many still consider him to have had a greater impact on American life than almost any U.S. leader in the 20th century. His supporters point to the restoration of American morale following the Vietnam War, the great wealth accumulated by many, the collapse of the Soviet Union and numerous other touchstones that occurred during his administration.

On the other hand, Reagan’s tenure also saw the national debt soar, relations with Iran and other Muslim countries ruined, a massive build-up of defence spending, the attempted destruction of unions and, of course, the aforementioned devastating effects of Reagan’s inattention to the AIDS virus.

Added to that, in my opinion, there was a transformation of America into a less caring, more fearful, more isolated nation, one that’s only been made worse by subsequent Republican Presidents, including Reagan’s Vice President and successor, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bush’s son, George W.

For those who never supported Reagan, he’s considered a B-list actor (one who co-starred with a chimp in the “classic” Bedtime for Bonzo), an eccentric geezer, and a dunderheaded buffoon who championed absurd projects such as the cartoon-like Star Wars defence program, which would have seen billions or trillions of dollars spent trying to shoot enemy missiles out of the air. It also led to the President’s popular nickname, Ronnie Raygun.

Rather than looking at him like a friendly, doddering old uncle, they see him as a mean-spirited tool of the rich and powerful who gave generously to the wealthy through his failed Reaganomics program, a simplistic economic system that anticipated a trickle down of wealth to the poor and middle class, something that never happened.

Instead, Reagan’s policies sowed the seeds for an America where the rich got richer, the gap between the haves and have-nots widened, mistrust of foreign countries grew and fear became the norm in American life. It also paved the way for creepy characters like the Bushes and Dick Cheney to build on their own wealth and power at the expense of average citizens for much of the last 30 years.

In the movie and book’s descriptions of living with the AIDS virus, Ronald Reagan’s true colours shine brightly. During his tenure, the primary goal in life was to accumulate great wealth, at the same time ostracizing those who were different, promoting fear, buckling under to the religious right and ignoring anyone who didn’t fit into the President’s narrow definition of what it meant to be an “American.”

In Reagan’s United States, the AIDS virus was considered to be God’s punishment for those whose lives didn’t conform to what was considered “normal.” It was a tragic, despicable view that ended up killing tens of thousands, many of whose lives might have been spared if Reagan had kept his eye on the physical health of his country, rather than just its wallets.

A friend reminded me last week of a quote from an unknown source that says, “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” Too true.

Put on as many pairs of rose-coloured glasses as you want. No matter how hard you squint, you can’t hide the fact that this popular president did so little to help average citizens, as well as the weak, the poor, the sick or the challenged. Instead, he promoted the stockpiling of wealth for those who were already well off – at the expense of the people who truly needed his help and compassion. In my mind, that’s nothing to be admired.



The New Trudeau: Justin Time For A New Generation?

Quite frankly, I can’t say I’ve been all that impressed so far with Justin Trudeau, the newly elected leader of the federal Liberal Party. Having been a youngster when his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, swept across the nation in a whirlwind of Trudeaumania back in 1968, Justin seems, at first glance, to be a pale imitation of his dad and certainly has less practical, hands-on political experience. Then again, I’m hardly the young, impressionable voter that the new Trudeau is counting on to set his political career on a rocket-powered journey into the Prime Minister’s seat when Canadians go to the polls again in October 2015.

Last week, I received a solicitation letter from Trudeau asking for my support and, immediately, I tore the letter in half, partly because I don’t actively support any political party and also because, if I did, it likely wouldn’t be one led by Trudeau. My 25-year old son was surprised, saying that he liked and admired the 41-year old leader (his father was nearly 50 when he was elected, just for comparison’s sake). I said that he didn’t seem to have any policies or platforms and very little experience, but none of those things affected my son’s impression. Instead, he liked the new Liberal leader’s optimism and positive approach.

Indeed, reading Trudeau’s letter, there is absolutely nothing about specific things he wants to do as the Liberal leader. The entire missive is filled with words like “hope” and “change,” but not much about how he intends to go about running the country. The closing message reads: “Let’s turn hope into action and show our young people that positive change is possible. And let’s get down to the very serious business of building a better country.”

If this message sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because it appears very similar to the type of crowd-pleasing speeches that helped get Barack Obama elected for the first time to the U.S. Presidency. So far, it seems to be working very well for Trudeau, so why change if it appears to be doing its job? Certainly, it helped him get elected to the Liberal leadership and it’s already pushed the Liberals into the lead in recent polls over the Conservatives.

So, does this signal the beginning of Trudeaumania 2.0, a phrase that was jokingly tossed around last fall – but now appears to actually be a verifiable phenomenon? What’s Trudeau got that’s attracting large numbers of new supporters and making him appear to be a legitimate leader? In an article by veteran reporter Richard Gwyn in the latest issue of The Walrus, he says what the younger Trudeau possesses is “an abundance of emotional intelligence,” which he contrasts to his father’s “intellectual intelligence.”

It’s an interesting argument, but one that certainly seems to fit with the type of support Justin is gaining. Gwyn says, “Trudeau is exceptional at street politics, because he genuinely likes people. He in turn is impossible not to like, a carefree extrovert, forever smiling, happy to kiss babies and their mothers, happy to hug their fathers and blessed with a keen remembrance for people’s names.”

The author goes on to say, “He has the intelligence to understand that people are not moved by analysis or reasoned argument but by emotion and empathy. He has thus spotted, as many others have yet to do, a major new political trend.”

By comparison, his main opponent, Stephen Harper, is seen as an intelligent, dry, humourless leader who has a good idea of how to manage the economic part of Canada, but not much in the way of compassion or warmth.

So far, it all seems to be working pretty well for Trudeau. As Gwyn points out in his summary, “By virtue of his personality and, as can never be underestimated, his name, he has helped revive the underlying sense, now part of Canada’s DNA, that there is more to the country than balancing the budget and trimming the fat, or that there should be and so can be again. “

For argument’s sake, let’s say Gwyn is correct and that, indeed, Trudeau’s “emotional intelligence” is something that Canadians are buying into and that it’s what has helped him win the Liberal leadership race and top the polls, all in just a few short months. Will that be enough to maintain the momentum for the next two years and keep voters mesmerized until the 2015 election?

When Pierre Trudeau was elected Liberal leader in April 1968, his party was already in power, so he instantly became Prime Minister. He called an election for two months down the road, with the public still salivating for his new brand of politics. Prior to becoming leader, he had been a high-powered Justice Minister who introduced groundbreaking legislation on such issues as the legalization of abortion, contraception and lotteries, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the use of Breathalyzer tests for deterring drunk drivers, tighter rules for gun ownership and many other major legal precedents (thank you, Wikipedia, for that information).

Contrast that with Justin Trudeau’s meagre resumé and it’s obvious that he’s got a long way to go before he can earn the trust and respect of the average Canadian voter. As Trudeau says in his recent letter, “We have a long road ahead of us, and I’m going to need your strength, energy and support.”

Emotional intelligence is a great weapon to have on your side, but only time will tell if it’s enough to convince people that you’re ready to be Prime Minister. As Gwyn concludes, “The ball may yet slip out of his hands, but it is still in play.” Let the games begin.


The Difference Between Them And Us

I like Americans. I really do. In my opinion, you’d be hard pressed to find any people in the world more friendly, open and welcoming. If you’ve ever travelled in the U.S. or, even better, met any Americans while you’re on holidays, you’ll know what I mean. Sure, they can be kind of loud and gregarious and opinionated and overbearing sometimes but, heck, so can we Canadians.

Because of our proximity, many people outside of our two countries can’t even tell us apart. Our cultures are similar, our economies are alike, we shop at many of the same stores and, despite some regional dialects, our languages are mostly interchangeable.

That’s not to say we don’t have our differences. We’re big on universal health care and they seem to think it’s some big socialist plot. They spend about $682 billion a year on their military (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) and we only fork out about $20 billion. Their teams actually win at hockey while ours are mostly hapless (do you know it’s been 20 years since the last Canadian team won a Stanley Cup?).

But, I have to believe the biggest single difference between our two countries comes down to one thing: guns. They love ‘em. Us? Not so much. It’s estimated that about 47% of American households own a gun and that there are nearly 90 guns for every 100 Americans or about 300 million in total. In Canada, even the highest estimates say that only about 20% of Canadian households own a gun.

And, of course, the difference in the number of gun-related crimes between our two countries is simply staggering. According to a website called, there were 8,775 U.S. homicides committed with firearms in the U.S. during 2010, as opposed to just 170 in Canada. That’s almost three people per 100,000 in the States versus less than .5 people in our country.

Last December 14th, 20 first grade students and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, one of the most heinous massacres in U.S. history. In the days following, there seemed to be a change in many Americans’ opinion about the need for some kind of gun control measures, even of the most basic kind.

However, within a couple of weeks, the Executive Vice President of the powerful National Rifle Association was already lobbying against such initiatives saying, instead, the solution was to put more guns on the streets and have armed guards posted in every American school.

Jump ahead to last week when a series of watered-down gun control proposals were shot down by the U.S. Senate. Far from stripping the average American of the right to bear arms, which is guaranteed in the Second Amendment, the proposals seemed, at least to this Canadian, to be pretty level-headed: a requirement for background checks on weapons purchased at gun shows and through the Internet, a ban on assault weapons and a ban on high-capacity gun magazines of more than ten rounds. However, all the proposals were defeated soundly, despite being introduced as bipartisan efforts between Democrats and Republicans.

U.S. President Barack Obama called it a “pretty shameful day for Washington.” Especially shameful when you consider that a number of polls and surveys said the proposals were supported by between 80-90% of Americans. Apparently, the “will of the people” doesn’t mean much these days. What really means something is the efforts of the NRA and its 4.5 million members, representing fewer than 1.5% of Americans.

Owning a gun for hunting or protecting your family or because you’re a collector all seem like perfectly acceptable ideas. No person or group can seriously believe that having a ban on the types of weapons suggested by the U.S. Senate would prevent any legitimate gun owner from enjoying his hobby or feeling safer in his home. But, somehow the NRA and other gun advocates believe otherwise. Certainly, that’s their prerogative and they’re free to voice their opinion. But, when that opinion contradicts more than 80% of Americans’ views on the matter, it makes a person wonder exactly what kind of “democracy” they’re running down there.

And, on top of that, it also leads me to believe that, perhaps, Americans really are a whole lot different from Canadians than I originally thought they were. In the case of all the U.S. victims of gun violence – past, present and future – that’s just sad.