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.

Reopening The Death Debate

Abortion. Capital punishment. Assisted suicide. If you were making a list of the top three subjects that no politician ever wants to discuss, those would probably score highest in Canada. Although most people probably won’t squawk if the status of the first two issues remains as it is, more and more Canadians are starting to murmur about the need for change on the matter of assisted suicide.

In a touching column in The Globe and Mail on June 27th, writer Gary Mason is more than just murmuring. He begins his article by stating bluntly: “One day, society will look back at the way we currently allow some people to spend their last stretch of time on Earth, and it will abhor us.”

Strong words, indeed. Mason admits he’s been on the fence about the issue in the past. “On one hand, I understand there are people whose lives have become essentially valueless, because of illness, tragedy or some other reason. Because of that, they would rather not spend their final days trapped in a world of misery, despair, pain and/or physical suffering,” Mason writes.

On the other hand, however, he states, “I’ve had trouble imagining signing an order to end a person’s life, especially if that person was someone I spent a lifetime loving.”

When his father got sick, he wrestled with both sides of the argument, despite the fact that his dad’s final years were entirely miserable. Still, he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of voting to end someone’s life. In a gut-clenching moment, he admits, “Now, I realize how incredibly selfish that point of view was.”

What changed his mind? Mason says the ordeal of watching his younger brother die, someone he wasn’t even particularly close to, was what pushed him over the edge in the assisted suicide debate.

“When I first saw him in hospital, I barely recognized the person with whom I’d once shared a bedroom. His skin hung off his bones. Once one of the strongest, most robust persons I’d ever known, he might have weighed 36 kilograms in the final week of his life. As he lay in his room, he was often delusional. He drifted in and out of consciousness. He ripped out drips that had been inserted into various parts of his body as he flailed about. He could only mumble a few words, but the ones he whispered to me one afternoon I will never forget: ‘I want to die, Gary. Please let me die.’”

The situation got so bad, his brother begged Mason to steal a needle and do what had to be done. This was not some hypothetical debate among politicians or people sitting around a water cooler or arguing at a church meeting. This was a real person asking Mason to end his misery, to make a life-changing ethical decision and break the law. Mason realized, “His were precisely the circumstances that would qualify for physician-assisted death consideration in more enlightened jurisdictions around the world.”

Thankfully for Mason, he never had to make the ultimate decision because, after a few more days of torture, his brother finally passed away. But, that didn’t end Mason’s mental dilemma. Or his thoughts about others going through their own ethical conundrums.

“I know there are many Canadians who have shared similar experiences, maybe ones that have also reshaped their thinking on the question of dying with dignity,” says Mason. “There seems little doubt now that we are going to have a national debate on this matter, and this is only a good thing. The Supreme Court of Canada is set to rule on it for a second time. And of course, the province of Quebec has already gone ahead with comprehensive end-of-life legislation, which could also get challenged in the courts.”

Britain is also considering the idea of legalizing assisted suicide, notes Mason, and he believes Canada has to look seriously at how various U.S. states and other countries are dealing with the issue. He realizes what a minefield the debate may become.

“I’m not suggesting for a second that there is anything straightforward about this discussion. The question of whether the sanctity of life trumps personal freedom, or vice versa, is a complex and divisive one. It’s also vulnerable to histrionics, overstatement and oversimplification,” he comments. And weak-willed Canadian politicians are highly unlikely to put it on their “To Do” lists anytime soon.

But, the issue is not going to go away. In fact, it will only grow in the coming years. “As Canada’s baby boomers begin their grand exit, the demand for a debate on this subject is only going to intensify,” says Mason.

According to Statistics Canada, the average life expectancy for a Canadian male rose from 59 in 1920, to 69 in 1972, and now stands at over 79. Similarly, women’s life expectancy went from 61 to 76 to 83 over the same timeframe.

It’s wonderful that more and more people are living into their 80s, 90s and even past 100. What a blessing for those who are healthy, active and mentally vibrant. But what about those who aren’t? As Canada’s senior population continues to grow, the issue of assisted suicide will demand more and more attention.

At some point in our lives, we’ll likely all have to deal with this dilemma. How will our positions change when that happens?

For Mason, the shift was dramatic. “After witnessing the sad and mostly undignified end to my brother’s life, I know where I now stand,” he admits. No matter what your own stance, even if it’s a morally or theologically-based one, how will it hold up when you’re faced head-on with someone close to you who’s dying? Be prepared to find out.

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 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 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.


Equality For Women? Not When It Comes To Violence

How did you celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this month? International ‘What?’ Day, you ask? Apparently, you’re not the only one who didn’t attend all the parades, do all the dances and enjoy a day of celebration. Seriously, there are so many holidays and special days, it’s understandable that International Women’s Day may have zipped by without you even noticing.

If you think this is one of those ridiculous ‘made-up’ events like Earmuffs Day (March 13th) or Lips Appreciation Day (March 16th), you couldn’t be more wrong. Originally called International Working Women’s Day, it all began back in 1909 and has been celebrated ever since, with the United Nations General Assembly officially designating March 8th as an international day to celebrate women’s rights and world peace back in 1977.

During the century of celebration, there have certainly been many changes in the lives of women around the world in terms of economic, political and social advancements. On the other hand, there’s still a long way to go, especially in many underdeveloped countries or those where ultra-conservative religions control the power.

But, how about back here in Canada? Should we all be collectively patting ourselves on the backs for how far we’ve come and how much we’ve achieved? Perhaps we should hold off on celebrating quite yet.

In terms of earnings, the median full-year, full-time wage for Canadian males in 2008 was $50,600, while women’s pay was just $38,600 – 76% of their male counterparts. That’s according to Statistics Canada numbers used in a 2010 survey by the federal government. If it’s any consolation, the situation has improved slightly since the government studied the issue back in 1978, when women earned only about 62% of the median income of men.

On the other hand, if you assume it’s just as bad in most other countries, you’d lose that bet. Canada has the fourth worst gender gap in median pay among 22 surveyed countries, trailing just Korea, Japan and Germany. In some countries, including New Zealand and Belgium, the average woman earns 90% of her male equivalent.

On the political front, the situation seems to be improving in this country. In 2011, we elected more female Members of Parliament than ever before, 76 in total, which is up from 69 in the 2008 election. This includes one female party leader, Elizabeth May. Of course, May leads a party of one in the House, so it’s not like she gets a chance to wield a whole lot of power.

And, of the remaining 75 females, only 28 are in the ruling Conservative’s 167-member caucus – less than 17%. It’s probably much easier to get yourself heard if you belong to the NDP, where 40 of its 102 members are female, nearly 40%.

Socially, Canadian women appear to fare better than they do in many countries. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole lot of issues that still need addressing.

For instance, Canada’s theme for this year’s Women’s Day was “Working Together: Engaging Men to End Violence against Women.” According to the Status of Women Council, “As this theme suggests, violence against women affects us all, and everyone – men and women – must be part of the solution.”

Referencing a brief prepared by the White Ribbon Campaign for the Council, over half of Canadian women have experienced at least one incidence of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. Furthermore, “Every minute of every day, a Canadian woman or child is being sexually assaulted.”

The report goes on to note: “In 2009, victims of spousal violence were less likely to report the incident to police than in 2004.” Only 22% of victims said the incidents were brought to the attention of police. And, despite the number of homicides in Canada dropping over the past several decades, women are still three times more likely to be murdered than men.

Add it all up and it’s obvious that violence against women is one area where there’s no equality with men. But, at least it appears that men understand there’s a problem. In a survey by the White Ribbon Campaign, 75% of men said it was very important to speak out about violence against women. And two-thirds of the men surveyed said they felt they could be doing more.

Canada’s Women’s Day theme is in sync with that of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which has called for the “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.”

Returning to the original question, even if you never managed to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th in any specific way, it’s never too late to do your part. As the Status of Women Council said, it’s time for all of us to “reflect on the impacts of violence against women and commit to helping end it.” An end to violence. That’s something we can all celebrate, any time of the year.