Harper’s Monument to Ignorance

Soon, somewhere on the streets of Ottawa, our nation’s capital,  a monument to ignorance will be erected.

The Stephen Harper Government has put up a website advertising its new Memorial to Victims of Communism.

A memorial to victims of communism is a wrong-headed memorial from the start. It is really a monument to propaganda.

Whether one subscribes to communism or not, it is merely an idea about a way to live. And at its heart, it is not an egregious idea. The failure of communism is not due to any evil embedded in the idea itself, but rather it is due to human beings’ inability to sustain its laudable humanistic goals. Any intellectual knows this to be true.

If ideas could kill, we should be building memorials to mercantilism or to Christianity, which have most certainly been used as justifications for violence. In fact, wasn’t it supporters of Christianity who brought such horror on Canada’s indigenous people through the creation of colonialist policy and the creation of residential schools?

Yet as we all know, it would be absurd to create a memorial to victims of Christianity: absurd, and offensive to the good people who worship a Christian god.

Aside from the fact that Harper’s memorial will cost us many millions of dollars, it is sure to stand as a means to galvanize people in a spirit of ignorance – the very ignorance that supplies the rationale for atrocities against other people. It will become a rallying point for a crusade against a political ideology, leading us to wander mindlessly into conflict with good people who dare to imagine a world differently than we do.

And in the light of the the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recent revelations of the atrocities Canada has inflicted on her own First Peoples, are we not obligated create a memorial to victims of residential schools? Such a memorial will serve as a reminder for generations to come of the horror we ourselves are capable once we lose our moral compass and forget the humanity of others.

It will be a sober reminder of the need for us to regard our fellow human beings with love and respect in a spirit of decency and cooperation.This is the memorial that Canada needs, and one that has been recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.




In case you’ve never thought about this, here’s proof of how the government strategizes for interviews. Always deflect the question by stating something positive about your past record. Don’t actually answer a question.

Sean Holman's Unknowable Country

Is the advice government communications staff provide serve the public interest or a political interest? (Graphic by Government of British Columbia) Does the advice government communications staff provide serve the public interest or a political interest? (Graphic by Government of British Columbia)

What started out as a British Columbia government attempt to defend the job its communication staff do has, ironically, ended up demonstrating the weakness of the province’s freedom of information law, as well as how those officials can work against the public’s right to know.

Earlier this year, I wrote an open letter about how such staffers often don’t respond or give non-responses to the questions reporters ask. They also advise elected officials to do the same thing, as well as restrict access to bureaucrats who actually have answers.

That cross-Canada issue was then covered by three radio shows, including Daybreak South. The Kelowna, B.C.-based CBC program succeeded in getting Andrew Wilkinson, the minister responsible for British Columbia’s spin doctors, to agree to an interview.

Following that interview, on…

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A lesson: the new liberalism

Traditional conservative and liberal values are being replaced by a frightening new politic –a new liberalism (“neo-liberalism”). It’s a phenomenon that is causing western society to devolve from strong free-market democracies into a type of modern feudalism. New-liberalism disguises itself as conservatism, because like conservatism, it moralizes over behaviour, but in the sense that it lacks vision, it is different. To understand this new liberalism, we first need to consider the meaning of traditional conservatism and liberalism.

At the heart of conservatism is the desire to to manage ones affairs with prudence and temperance; to delay gratification and live within ones means. As a political ideology, conservatism is visionary. It seeks to prescribe morality through law in order to protect people from themselves, thereby ensuring a safe, equitable world in which everyone has the ability to profit.

Conservatism is a vision for society in which we can profit collectively by creating a rigid structure that demands individuals act responsibly, and therefore have the ability to prosper individually for the general good of the society. Therefore, conservatives believe in fairly rigid criminal codes, governing people’s behaviour. They are morality-based and restrictive for people’s own good: for example, laws that prohibit drug use.

This ideology is not without its detractors. Liberals object to conservative’s moralized worldview. They argue that the government has no right to tell individuals how to behave, and liberals are particularly resentful of policy that discriminates against individuals and blames their plight on “bad” behaviour. And so traditional liberals tend to take a more humanistic view of society, demanding that social structures be put in place that allow people more individual freedom: for example, universal health care.

As a political ideology, conservatism would demand that governments regulate financial institutions in such a way as to ensure their solvency. So, for example, a truly conservative government would abhor the thought of mortgage-backed securities, which are investments in debt, and as such, are inherently risky. Conservatives would have ethical concerns about the pyramidal shape of investment that was founded on a presumption that property values would escalate forever. Conservatives would have been concerned about how those increasing values were far outpacing the trend of the rest of the economy. A true conservative would predict that this cycle would eventually correct itself, and would be loathe to risk money on it. As a matter of fact, Canada, through some fairly conservative regulatory policy, managed to escape the trauma that many nations faced when the mortgage-backed securities crisis hit in 2008.

In hindsight, liberals’ objection to mortgage-backed securities was that the collapse of the market led to a situation in which the consequences of bad policy were felt most acutely by the people who, lured by unscrupulous brokers, assumed debt they couldn’t afford. To liberals, it was unconscionable that the most vulnerable in the scenario lost everything, while the rich got bail-outs and golden handshakes.

Neither conservatives nor liberals would wish to see CEOs earning twenty times more than employees of their own company. This kind of profit skimming would not be seen as prudent by conservatives, and it would not be seen as fair by liberals. Nor would it escape the notice of either conservatives or liberals that corporations’ profits go toward lining the pockets of a few very wealthy people rather than trickle back into the greater economy. Both liberals and conservatives would expect the profitability of industry to benefit the nation as a whole. And therefore, they might insist through policy that corporations re-invest in the economy of the nation where they do business. Globalization is not necessarily a “conservative” policy.

Neither conservatives nor liberals would wish to see governments propping up large corporations with government hand-outs. Spending of tax dollars on corporations would be seen as risky by conservatives, and elitist by liberals. To conservative thinking, entrepreneurialism is a private matter that should not rely on handouts from government. This attitude would stem from the conservatives’ moral code which would say that one shouldn’t live beyond his means, and this missive would apply to corporations. To liberals, the corporations would be seen to have a responsibility to the society at large, and therefore should not receive government subsidy which would necessarily limit government’s ability to finance humanitarian social structures.

Conservatives , like liberals, also recognize the need for public ownership of some things. Education, for example, is seen both by liberals and conservatives as a mechanism for ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to succeed in a market economy. Conservatives would see public education as an investment.

Conservatives do not necessarily see government ownership and regulation of various industries as a bad thing, as long as ventures are well-managed. Although conservatives might be likely to mistrust government in managing industry efficiently, they would have no philosophical opposition to public ownership of such things as the power grid and the communications grid. After all, it may not be prudent to trust such necessities of life to the whims of a profit-driven corporation.

Although it is liberals to whom we ascribe concern for social problems, true conservatives do not hide from real issues. For example, a true conservative, seeing the inevitable environmental calamity caused by our dependence on petroleum and fast food, would enact preventive measures to mitigate the crisis. He would enact strong policy to try and stop this. To ignore scientific evidence is not the kind of folly one can attribute to a liberal or conservative worldview; it is simply folly.

Similarly, the devolution of our socio-economic structure in general is not one that we can attribute to a preponderance of liberal or conservative values, though at least partly to blame is the tendency to moralize, which is a more “conservative” tendency.

Today’s realpolitik is a new liberalism, one that liberates individuals without regard for the consequences to the society at large. The new liberalism is fiscally irresponsible, treating corporations as individuals, and staying out of their business, allowing them to profiteer without demanding that they contribute to society, and without regard for environmental impacts or the human misery that their policies engender. New liberals espouse laissez-faire policy. They strike down labour laws that prevent corporations from taking advantage of vulnerable workers. They exonerate corporations from paying taxes, and wash their hands of social issues like poverty, health and education.

Many of these new-liberals brand themselves conservatives, because in the name of efficiency they seek to privatize anything that is publicly owned, but they are not really conservative in the sense that I propose here. Steven Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada is a prime example of a party of new-liberals.

Far from a visionary ideology, the new liberalism lacks vision. Attached to this new liberalism is an ugly selfishness –“get it while you can, and bugger everyone else” mentality.  Paradoxically, this liberalism holds on to some traditionally conservative moral thinking, but it lacks compassion and it willfully blinds itself to truth, muzzling intellectuals and de-funding demographic and economic research. It assumes that the poor deserve to be poor, and therefore takes no interest in the plight of individuals within a society.

So what happens is that unchecked, the powerful prey on the weak. The powerful multinationals, whose only motivation is profit, and who have no interest in the success of the country they exploit, ensure that government allows them carte-blanche –often to the detriment of society at large. They do this by using their considerable wealth to back politicians who will give them free reign.

This new liberalism is a scourge to the whole world. We now see politicians as lapdogs for the corporate elite, enjoying black tie dinners and limo rides as long as they adopt the corporate strategy as their political agenda. There is no vision here.


The proposed Mother Canada monument: one citizen’s concern

I am writing to express my concern about the proposed Mother Canada memorial, which is to be placed in a national park at Green Cove.

As much as I support art, even art that is controversial, my support does not go so far as to allow an endeavor of human beings to impose itself on the pristine natural beauty of a national park. We have a National Parks Act written to prevent just such an intrusion on the park.

As for the art itself, I am opposed to it per se. It has not been conceived by an artist, but by a businessman. It is concerning to me that in the conceptual phase of such a project, we’re already talking about “marketing potential”. This, in my mind, somehow detracts from the principles for which our soldiers fought, and it debases the artistic purity of the work.

One trait I like to lay claim to as a Canadian, is subtlety –a reluctance to glorify ourselves above noble ideals. In my mind, our military commitments have never been for the glory of Canada, but have been humanitarian in nature. This is one of the traits I embrace as a Canadian. I worry that the statue as it is currently envisioned is a clumsily conceived monument to vainglory.

I agree with John Greer’s analysis that as an abstraction of “Canada Bereft”, the work is conceived out of sentimentality, rather than pure sentiment. It is the latter that should inspire art, not the former. Therefore, as a work of art, Mother Canada limits itself to being a poor imitation of something unique and beautiful. It somehow cheapens Canada Bereft in my mind.

Lastly, as a monument that is placed on a Canadian shore, it (in its present design) would completely disregard the long heritage of Canada’s First Nations. It is very European in its style, and speaks only of our participation in European ventures. Its permanence as an image on Canada’s shore seems to me to cement an understanding of Canada as a descendant of, and continuing participant in European colonialism.

A Quick Win: Why Chevron funds public schools.

I’m astounded at the lack of skepticism about Chevron’s initiative to fund schools.

Let me say from the outset that public school children should be kept free from the influence of any corporate ideology.

Corporations by their very nature are exploitive, and their existence depends on their ability to manipulate the public into consuming. It is rare indeed that a corporation would undertake a humanitarian project with nothing to gain. In fact, oil corporations in particular go to great lengths to manipulate public opinion. Witness the enormous efforts of Big Oil to shout down environmental science.

In British Columbia, the Vancouver School Board is getting a lot of press lately for refusing to accept donations from Chevron Corporation. These donations would provide much needed lab equipment to schools that are only too willing to accept because of the shortfalls caused by government underfunding of public education.

Not coincidentally, the gap between school needs and government funding began increasing annually some 12 years ago –immediately after the BC Liberal government reduced the province’s corporate tax rate to the lowest in the country. The amount that corporations like Chevron provide in funding can’t come close to what they would be providing had the tax rate stayed the same. Chevron is well aware of this.

Chevron’s program is really a stroke of genius. The big oil corporation gets to recoup some of its donation money through tax breaks. Nor are the donations anonymous. In fact, short of actually advertising in schools, Chevron scores big feel-good points by showing its “generosity”. The donation gets talked about in the press, and Chevron can claim to fund education initiatives in its corporate manifesto.

And even better, the government looks at Chevron as an “education partner”. And as  a “partner” who contributes much needed money, Chevron become a stakeholder, and as a stakeholder, it has influence on government policy –including policy regarding schools. Once we begin to depend on corporations for funding, the corporations are very much in a position to call the shots.

Corporations haven’t traditionally been great supporters of public education. A recent event in BC lays bare the agenda of business regarding public education. In the recent BC Court of Appeals case in which the government is trying to overturn the Provincial Court’s ruling that acted illegally when it stripped teachers’ contract language through legislation. A coalition of corporate interests applied for intervenor status in the case so as to have the ruling overturned.

How strange! Why wouldn’t BC’s corporations want smaller classes in schools? After all, the vast majority of credible research (not to mention common sense) suggests that this is a good idea. Obviously the answer is that they would be called upon to fund them through higher taxes. They’ve gotten used to the lower rent that they pay for being based in BC.

Chevron is not brazen enough to try to re-write a curriculum, or to force McDonalds-like ads targeted at children (School districts would never allow this.), but it’s well known that the big oil companies are huge government lobbyists. And Chevron is certainly putting its stamp on things.

Here’s how you know that a donor is motivated out of philanthropy: the donor gives anonymously, and the donor does not specify how the money is spent. It’s interesting that Chevron has limited its contributions to science and technology. Nothing for the liberal arts? No musical instruments? How about sponsoring a summit to study the causes of global warming?

Chevron gains much out of its funding of schools. It has found a nice situation that is ripe for exploiting. Schools are desperate. And what does Chevron get? PR on the cheap. It’s a quick win, and it’s dodgy.

The fact that BC Liberal voters must face.

If you voted for a BC Liberal candidate in the last election, here’s what you voted for:

You voted for a group of people who got together behind closed doors and cooked up a sleazy strategy to provoke teachers into a strike in order to help the themselves get elected.

They WANTED teachers to strike.

They WANTED schools closed –kids to stay home.

And they took every opportunity to humiliate good women and men, shaming them, and forcing them to go without pay for their principled stand.

They did this (so the BC Supreme court found) so that teachers would look bad and they would look good. Their behaviour had all the baseness of a high school mean girl who makes up rumours about her rivals in order to win the title of prom queen. Their action was actually that depraved.

The BC Liberals did this to me and my colleagues. They used us and the children that we teach. They had all the power and they used it to beat us down.

This is the party supported by business. Is it safe to say, then, that theirs is the mentality of business people: this mentality that winning trumps all other things and ethics be-damned?

And can we assume that you, who support the BC Liberals, would call this behaviour “cleverness” –this behaviour that the rest of us call “sleaze” –this behaviour that religions associate with the devil –this insincerity, trickery and treachery?

If you vote for these people, knowing what you know about them, look at yourself, at your willingness to embrace sophistry (you do know what sophistry is, don’t you?). Face the ugly fact of your quickness to put what’s profitable ahead of what’s right. You are a disgraceful excuse for a human being.

Message to the Boss

Hi Gerald:

I’ll be late

for work. I’m

at Granville Station. There’s

a guy down here busking violin.

You can’t imagine how

beautiful it sounds. It’s sad

and lovely, and

the notes are echoing around the platform.

I’m gonna stay a while and listen. In fact,

I don’t know

if I’ll be in at all today.


B.C. Today: Labour Conflict or School Reform?

The most lucid post on Liberal public education strategy that I’ve read in a while.

Did the BC Liberal government just bluff on that forty-dollar a day voucher plan or do they really want to have THAT battle over public education now?

It was telling that one of the earliest responses to the announcement came from a former top ranking BC Liberal. “Hmm. Did BC govt just take the first $40 per day step towards a voucher system for public education?” asked former Attorney General, Geoff Plant on Twitter.

Yes! Was the resounding answer from those who know what a voucher school system is.

If you don’t know about vouchers here’s a quick explanation. A voucher system is one of several in the ‘school choice’ basket. I use quotes here because ‘school choice’ is a codified term that is synonymous with privatized, typically non-union schools.

The government issues parents a voucher worth a specific amount of funding towards their child’s education. Parents…

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Education. It’s personal

Yesterday, on the picket line, I sat for a few minutes next to a colleague who, after having protested at a Liberal fundraiser, and having been able to confront Education Minister Fassbender directly in conversation, was particularly despondent.

I know her. I have known her a while. I have collaborated with her closely. I have shared ideas, and worked away long hours with her. I am used to her moods. She can best be described as passionate. She takes everything… everything personally, because her work as a drama teacher is so intensely personal.

A drama teacher. Even as I write the words, I think how trite that sounds –“drama teacher”. Because what use is a drama class in the great scheme of things? What job depends on you having had drama experience?

You’d be surprised.

My colleague’s drama classes are filled with young boys and young girls: young boys, who are confused by their rapidly changing adolescent world, by the remarkable changes in bodies and behaviour of the girls their age, and by the power and sexuality awakening in their own bodies; girls, who are confused by their own development – their fierce need for social attachment, their powerful emotions and changes in their bodies and minds. Drama class takes these children, and gives them a voice. It moves them safely through awkwardness into articulateness, from segregation to inclusion, from fear to confidence.

My words can’t do justice to what my colleague does. All of our new grade 8s take drama. She takes children and shows them a world of excitement and potential. She looks out for the stray, and she makes the underdog aspire. She guides them safely on a journey through adolescence into young adulthood.

I say that my colleague takes things personally. This is in no way meant as an insult to her. She is very, emotional.

When she’s on a creative tear, she’s unstoppable. She’s up, she’s cheerful and she’s optimistic, and when she encounters resistance, she becomes passionately angry or passionately sad. Tears are close to the surface always.

And having worked closely with her, I’ve seen her run the gamut of emotions. Hell, you don’t even have to work closely with her to see the gamut of emotions. They’re right there on her sleeve all the time. She can be exasperating! She is going to do this or that, and it’s going to require a buy-in from her colleagues, because her efforts will require that students take their focus away from their other classes, or even that we ourselves may have to help her out a bit. Exasperating. Yes, and probably more so because we know we will cooperate, because we know deep down that she is doing a huge service to the kids. You just can’t stand in her way of doing that. Her intensity won’t allow it.

But I’ve never seen her despondent.

Nobody knows what this woman does, no one other than the kids, and us, her colleagues. Even the kids’ parents  (most of them) don’t see it. They scratch their heads at their kids’ new-found passion for the stage. They don’t see the importance of it – the importance of the wonderful experience; the importance of being able to do something with one’s voice and body – just the experience of that – not for acquiring a competency for the workplace (although drama skills absolutely are competencies for any workplace), but for the joy of doing it.

Joy! That elusive emotion, so complex and wondrous, and so real in our increasingly virtual world. Is joy not important in school any more?

“You’ll never guess what happened at school today, Dad!” says a beaming speed-talking adolescent girl.

“Well that’s great,” I answer. “Do you have homework?”

We stand at the picket line with a growing awareness that despite the noble symbolism of our fight; and despite our pluck, no one understands the true importance of what we do, and no one wants to pay for it. Our government will not hear us, and it continues to underfund to the point where our efficacy is trounced.

And we know what government stands for. It is the will of the people (or perhaps more accurately, the lack of will). We stand against a rising tide of apathy about education — a belief that education is something to get rather than to experience, that the most important outcome is a letter grade or a score on a test.

We walk the picket line feeling the growing immensity of our failure. Our failure is the failure of our society. Though we struggle to articulate it, we feel it. And we become despondent.

At the protest, the Education Minister had tried to reassure the passionate teachers there that it’s not personal. That is probably the worst thing he could have said.

Is Christy Clark sabotaging attempts for a mediated settlement?

While Christy Clark was in Dawson Creek this week, she was asked to comment on the possibility of a mediated settlement with the BCTF. Her answer sent a message to any would-be mediator, that the government won’t agree to a mediated settlement the way things are now.

It looks like this strike may go on for a long time yet, as the government is still spinning its fallacious arguments about a “settlement zone”. A mediator’s findings would almost certainly put pressure on both parties to settle. The fact that mediation was requested by the union suggests that they feel that they have the upper hand in terms of reasonableness.

The government’s reluctance? Well, that’s a little harder to figure out. One would think a government would want a reasonable settlement.

I suggest that the government does not want mediation because it would like to see the labour dispute last long enough to hurt the BCTF. And why not? Time is on the government’s side. They don’t believe they need to worry about public opinion, as they have three years  before an election. And the public has a very short memory.

The BC Court of Appeal won’t review BC Supreme Court’s ruling in favour of the BCTF until October. The actual ruling of the court will likely not come out for months after that. The government can simply wait it out, but the teachers have families to look after. Meanwhile, the government saves hundreds of millions of dollars if the teachers don’t work.

It seems that this government is quite happy to see that its public sector loses ground to inflation, that its public schools limp along on the good will of teachers, and that teachers feel disrespected and undervalued. Certainly that is the situation now.