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This is another topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I deeply love hockey, and yet am dismayed by the amount of violence associated with the sport, and the argument that it is an accepted (and often encouraged) component of this great game. This topic has been often on my mind, but has been slowly gaining greater prominence. Some of the elements that have shaped these thoughts is the sidelining of many players including Sidney Crosby due to repeat concussions, a book I recently read on the subject by Adam Proteau (@Proteautype) of the Hockey News titled “Fighting the Good Fight: Why On-Ice Violence Is Killing the Sport”, and as the hockey movie “Goon” was released in theatres last weekend. I’ll touch on each of these elements in detail below, but I want to start by describing my introduction to hockey.

I was introduced to hockey at a young age and have always enjoyed it. Growing up in a small town, there were few things to do even in the middle of summer, and the town seemed to shrink even further as each long winter set in. I tobogganed, snowmobiled with my dad and made snow forts. But what I loved most was hockey, and seemed perpetually drawn back to it. Roch Carrier captured this Canadian childhood so perfectly in his famous story “Le Chandail de Hockey”, or, “The Hockey Sweater”:

The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places – the school, the church and the skating-rink – but our real life was on the skating-rink. Real battles were won on the skating-rink. Real strength appeared on the skating-rink. The real leaders showed themselves on the skating-rink.

There were few places to spend time in town and few things to do, and it seemed that we were often either watching or playing hockey. Every quiet roadway and every spare parking lot and driveway could be in an instant transformed into the next road hockey game. And when we weren’t playing, we were likely found at the local arena to watch the Wiarton Wolves Junior C team play. And this is where I got my first taste and my lifelong distaste for hockey violence.

We were proud growing up that our small town had their own team (no longer, they collectively put up their skates in 2003). After school or on weekends we were likely to be found huddled on the concrete bleachers of the arena to watch our team, and it is there that I watched the first (though sparse) flashes of speed and skill that has since drawn me to watch first the OHL and eventually the NHL. There were moments of brilliance on that ice, but as it was Junior C it was very scrappy hockey, and often very violent. The last minutes of the game were especially fierce, especially if one of the teams were losing badly – the game itself would basically dissolve into all-out brawls between the opposing sides.

Many of my friends cheered these fights which often drew blood, but I always disliked it. Between this characteristic and my small size (I was usually one of the smallest of my class) I became known by many names stemming from “wimp”. I struggled with this, because I never believed my love of the game was diminished by my lack of willingness to watch two men bludgeon each other on the ice.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand the passion and fury that can come very suddenly in any game. In our games we often had to break up fights that would erupt when school-yard rivals found themselves facing off against each other in the grocery store parking lot. I’m ashamed to admit that I got in a few fights myself when I lost control, once after a personal tormentor struck me in the face with his stick – which added the label hypocrite to the list of names. But some saw it as me “coming to grips” with the fact that fighting and hockey just go together. It’s an aggressive sport full of personal grudges, and fighting is a legitimate outlet, they’d say, although after the moment was over I regretted my actions.

This leads me to Adam Protreau’s book. He talks about the culture of professional hockey, and the personal animosity as well as the manufactured rage that the NHL produces, including the acknowledged part the “enforcer” plays (which is the focus of the movie Goon, more on that after). His argument is that the NHL, like any sports marketing machine, attempts to sell to all possible customers, including those that come for violence. I can’t get into all of the points covered by the book, but will attempt to highlight a few of them here. He persuasively argues that:

  • The world of hockey is in a sad state. It has a long legacy of damage done – and it is only getting worse, for a variety of reasons, from the overall player culture to the improvements being made to protective equipment which is increasingly used not for defense but offense
  • Some of the best hockey in the world is also the cleanest (more on that below)
  • Despite the agreed-upon NHL rulebook, there is an unwritten code that is also adhered to (I would compare it to Barney Stinson’s “Bro Code”). It is a code of ethics, but it also makes players above the “law”. This assumption comes with the expectation enforcers will step in to “police”.
  • We are only now learning the full medical cost brain damage is having on our athletes. As medical advances are made and players are being subjected to further scrutiny for damage, we are coming closer to understanding the true cost of every “head shot” that occurs.
  • Professionals from career hockey players (including both players that have been sidelined by head injury and ex-enforcers) and referees to medical experts are coming forward to speak out against what’s happening in the NHL and demand meaningful changes.

The overall message I received was there is obviously a problem, but the NHL is reluctant to make real changes, partially in fear that it may alienate some of its customers. This leads to the question of showing leadership. This article published yesterday seems to point to the fact that without proper leadership from the NHL, junior hockey leagues are considering going forward with their own rule changes. Specifically, it seems they may fall into step with European leagues and eject fighting players from the game immediately, sending a much stronger signal that fighting doesn’t have a place in the game. From the article: “Branch, who’s also OHL commissioner, said the sport doesn’t need violence to sell.” He says:

I believe that there is more and more recognition that our game does not need fighting to survive, to be part of the entertainment package, you might say, because of the concerns of injuries and other concerns that could very well be a byproduct of fighting.

Does hockey need violence to survive? I don’t think so. I agree with Adam Proteau’s assessment that this type of violence was only easily accessible through hockey in past eras, but there are now ever-increasing choices for violent sports on TV from many forms of boxing to UFC . People watch something because of the unique value it possesses. I believe the NHL should sell their true product – the best hockey in the world. I’m not saying that violence in hockey will or should ever be completely banned, but it should hold much stiffer penalties that always stick. It’s still early in Brendan Shanahan’s new role as NHL director of player safety, but he has sent signals that is the direction he aims to take. I hope it happens.

Another point that captured my attention was his comparison of the argument “fighting and hockey just go together” vs. the best hockey games that have ever happened. World championships, Olympic gold metal games – they are all remarkably devoid of fighting. This is because no one wants to be the player that cost their team the ultimate prize by drawing a penalty and putting their team at the disadvantage, and because there isn’t a place on these stellar teams for goons. In these games, pure speed, skill and grace win out on the ice, and we see the sport in its ultimate form. To me, this is actual hockey, and something the league should aspire to. Will it? Hard to say, especially when many that watch still come to the game hoping for violence.

I won’t comment too much on the movie Goon as I have yet to see it, but understand it is in the same spirit as 1977’s Slap Shot. I’ve read several commentaries and criticisms of the film, with comments over a great range, from those that believe the movie was a just a good movie to see with the guys and turn your brain off, to surprisingly thoughtful and insightful into the world of violence in hockey, to an unapologetic celebration of bone-crunching violence (it currently sits at an approval rating of 71% on Rotten Tomatoes). I’m curious about the timing of this film what with the sidelining of its current brightest star and motions by the NHL to change the way the game is played, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see it myself. If nothing else, the creation of this movie proves that the apparent connection between hockey and violence isn’t likely to break anytime soon – in my opinion, to the detriment of the game.

*This post is a slight departure from the small series I’ve been writing on current London and Canadian politics, but I will likely return to it in future posts.

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about for some time, but haven’t considered in as much depth as I could. The more I learn, the more I am sincerely convinced this is something every Canadian should be thinking and talking about.

I do have to admit that I am very biased on subjects about the environment. Please ask me about the high school semester I spent at a conservation area/natural education centre learning as well as teaching basic ecology. I kid you not.

I want to learn more about this subject. As an Ontarian I will be the first to admit I haven’t been to the prairies let alone to the oil sands – despite being to both coasts I have yet to visit much of the country in between, unfortunately. But I am deeply interested in this subject, especially as it keeps coming up in the news – from seeing our PM Stephen Harper campaigned to sell our “dirty oil” to the States and fail (or at least be set back), visited China in a good-will/trade mission as an alternative source for our oil (as discussed here), and watching the EU as it has debated the designation to place on our oil, and whether they should give it a special designation apart from other oil because of the high environmental cost associated with its manufacture (discussed here, here and here).

I’ve started to read the book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent” by Andrew Nikiforuk. I’ve found the entire book interesting, but a passage from Chapter 5: The Water Barons has really stuck with me:

Just about every damn agency in the country has expressed alarm about water use in the tar sands. The Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada, for example, a Calgary-based nonprofit research group, declares water use and reuse to be the region’s biggest issue, because “bitumen production can be much more fresh water intensive than other oil production operations.” The National Energy Board, no radical group, has questioned the sustainability of water withdrawals for bitumen mining.

It reminded me of another book I read some time ago by Maude Barlow, former Senior Adviser on Water to the UN GA, Blue Gold: The global water crisis and the commodification of the world’s water supply”. In it Maude makes the compelling case for our dwindling water resources across the world as our populations continue to explode. In particular, she predicts world tensions will increase as water resources including ground water are tapped at alarming rates, and alliances between Canada and the U.S. will become more crucial/contentious as our shared Great Lakes gain even greater prominence in the world as other fresh water resources are depleted. As well, water sources in the prairies will be taxed as the incredibly wasteful tar sands consume water to produce refinable oil.

So what is the answer? These discoveries encourage me that we should continue green energy initiatives occurring across our province, in part because of the guidance of London-West MPP and Minister of Energy Chris Bentley. I understand some of the province’s methods of implementing wind energy projects are perceived as heavy-handed, but I believe they are key if we are going to move towards healthier methods of producing energy. But a greater problem persists – we are deeply dependent on oil to live our lives. What can we possibly do to lessen this burden when so many of the machines we rely on are powered by this dirty source of energy?

“A week is a long time in politics.”- Harold Wilson, former British PM

How true these words continue to be. As I scanned through the news and started to write a post on the subject yesterday, the “robocall” controversy was front and centre in the political news as the story of a call centre in Thunder Bay that apparently worked on behalf on the CPC to misdirect voters blended with the expanding story about automated calls from a voice broadcasting centre in Alberta with Conservative ties doing something similar.

All of this changed as Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (who has been surrounded by controversy in recent weeks over Bill C-30, as well as being the subject of the controversial “Vikileaks” Twitter account describing his personal life in detail) rose in the House on a point of privilege, as described here.

Liberal interim leader Bob Rae stood to apologize for Vikileaks and explain that (from the CBC article) “he was advised Sunday that a member of the Liberal party research bureau used a House of Commons computer to set up the account that was used to publish details” of Toews’ divorce.” The article goes on to say “Rae said he spoke with the staff member, Adam Carroll, Monday morning. He offered his resignation and it was accepted, Rae said.”

I’m left wondering what can be taken away from all this. My initial reaction was fairly cynical, as this issue casts renewed doubt (as always, with the first whiff of scandal, the dreaded words “Ad Scam” are being dredged up once again) into the conduct of the Liberal Party even as the Conservatives are being asked to answer for what is starting to appear to be a concerted effort conducted across the country to illegally suppress voting (something that frustrates me deeply to say the least, especially considering the fact that we’re struggling to engage citizens in the electoral process to begin with). As citizens continue to express, is there anywhere we can still turn?

This comes as I’m already heavily struggling with my politics. I joined the Liberal Party during the last election and sat with the London-Fanshawe Federal Liberal Association (LFFLA) for a few months last year. My difficulty is that I know (more or less) what I believe, and have tried my best to examine what the major political parties work to represent. I say work to because no one and no organization is perfect, perhaps especially true in politics. So I have struggled between “occupying” the system and working to be the change I want to see from within, and trying to find my own unassociated way to be involved. At least for now I have chosen the later, but hope to continue to be engaged and connect with my community and be some form of positive change. Part of my problem is the sort of “all or nothing” approach to association, in that, if you choose to join any sort of group organization etc. you become connected with all those under such an association. This is something that needs to be grappled with when entering politics, and in which I struggled.

However, my friend Chris Loblaw (@spankules) that I met at the LFFLA posted this yesterday and helped me consider where to stand. In it he state about the Vikileaks revelation and LPC interim leader Bob Rae’s apology:

It’s the cost of being included in any large membership group: you end up being judged by the lowest, most visible element, instead of those who actually represent your group. Today, the Canadian press and Twitter are ablaze with discussion on the revelation of the vikileaks source, and many are painting this as a slight to the reputation of every Liberal party member. But this staffer with bad judgement and a grudge did not, and does not speak for me as a Liberal. However, in his well-delivered and sincere apology, Bob Rae does speak for me as a member. Any organization of people will have within its members the wise and the foolish, the ethical and the sleazy, and sometimes even the good ones make bad choices. Good leaders recognize the misstep, correct it, and apologize for it happening. Bad leaders pretend that any wrongdoing is a mystery to them and they have no responsibility for their party member’s actions (though they are quick to take credit for every success).

I think this is a very sensible way to recognize how a group of any kind can and should behave. We need to define ourselves by the elements we want to embody. We must also be ready to speak out about corruption and distasteful behavior wherever it occurs, even if it is from someone within our group. How often this actually happens is questionable, but I’m glad to see the LPC do this today. Glen Pearson (@GlenPearson) said it so well in his Tweet after Bob Rae’s apology on behalf of the party and the subsequent turmoil: “Let’s just be honest. The attack on Minister Toews by a Liberal staffer on VickiLeaks was wrong – absolutely, no excuses.” If we’re to start rebuilding the shambles our politics (at all levels) are rapidly dissolving into, I think we’ll need more people like Glen. I hope to that I can, little by little, become one of those people.

*I may expand on this topic in my next post. I continue to struggle with partisanship in all its forms both within and without, and will keep working towards seeing the issue without the party. I am quick to leap on and carry arguments that say the robocall issue is completely different than Vikileaks, but want to make sure that the argument is valid.

I’ll try my best to write on this topic as it continues to unfold, though as I’ve seen observed over Twitter, I’m not sure if we’ll ever really get to the bottom of this. And the story only continues to spread, I may return to this as more details come to light. At last count 36 38 39 ridings seem to have been effected; as well, there is suspicion human callers used voter suppression tactics in the last election, as well. More on that below.

It all began when this story broke Wednesday February 22. Pretty soon a firestorm of investigation, consternation and speculation began, which only continues to expand as the House returns to sit today. Election Canada, aided by the RCMP, are conducting an investigation. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party of Canada are conducting an internal probe.

The story alleges that automates calls were made through an Edmonton voice-broadcasting company connected to the CPC named Racknine to harass and deceive voters, specifically those likely to vote Liberal. The issue is, as CBC explains, is that   “[s]uch calls, known as a voter-suppression tactic, are illegal under the Elections Act. ”

Liberal interim leader Bob Rae soon spoke out against this issue, saying it helped to tip several close campaigns against Liberal candidates, and fits a wider misinformation campaign by the Conservatives  (story here and here). Since, Mr. Rae has again requested an emergency debate on this issue (as shown here); if this request is granted today after question period, the debate would happen either later today or tomorrow.

Meanwhile, in one of the contested ridings in Guelph, Conservative staffer  Michael Sona resigned amid the probe. When questioned about the robocalls, MP Peter McKay told CBC News in New Glasgow, N.S., that he believes the calls directing people to wrong or non-existent polling places were isolated incidents (as shown in this article).

The story continues to get more complicated as workers at a call centre called Response Marketing Group Inc. in Thunder claim they they were instructed during the last election by the CPC to state that Election Canada had changed their voting station, as written here. In this very detailed post, CBC’s Kady O’Malley has shared this story as well as campaigns that were clients of RMG Inc. in the last elections, and the polling stations that were changed by Elections Canada. This story continues a parallel story started by the attempt to discredit Liberal MP Irwin Cotler by phone calls by people (not “robocalls”) to constituents claiming Mr. Cotler was withdrawing from politics and triggering a by-election (as written about here) though this wasn’t the case.

Closer to home, there is concern that vote suppression tactics were used in London ridings, although Liberal North-Centre candidate Glen Pearson and London-West candidate Doug Ferguson were quick to indicate they don’t think the local campaigns were involved. The story of London-West is told here. Doug Ferguson stated he doesn’t think CPC MP Ed Holder’s campaign was involved, while MP Holder seems skeptical of the concerns. “Unfounded allegations are the worst part of politics,” he stated for the London Free Press. “If he’s got any evidence at all, he should bring that forward.”

Meanwhile, Glen Pearson is being asked about concerns he voiced near the end of the last election in light of this story. In this article, Glen mentioned how he

“started to get a frosty reception at some doors, with voters telling him they were upset because live callers were telling them he spends six months of every year in Africa. “It was primarily the fact that I had spent a lot of time in Africa,” he said. “It’s one week a year. And it’s in January, when the House isn’t even sitting.”

Sadly, this is just one story in a much later narrative, many similar cases are described in the article.

Beyond the facts and speculation swirling around this issue, there is an unfortunate amount of opportunism occurring at all sides. Conservatives shake their heads and insist the issue is being overblown, while many progressives seek to capitalize on this issue, some insisting that we should re-open the election through such means as calling for by-election in effected ridings. Glen Pearson captures it so perfectly in this comment, made in this blog post:

Canadian communities now look at Ottawa as some kind of theatre, replete with actors, henchmen, scripts, plots, fixed programs, and subterfuge. It’s been like this for years, perhaps even decades, and all parties have bought into it to one degree or another. This recent episode of the possible government interference in the electoral process is just the latest in a string of distractions. And it’s not just the Conservatives that are behaving badly. A quick perusal of social media finds the NDP and Liberals getting digs in at one another when the real issue should be about public trust, not who can gain the most from this debacle.

So, what is the best way to go ahead from this? As an avowed progressive that is trying to find moderation in my politics, I struggle. I am bitter with many of the actions the Harper Government has taken, yet I hope to join with others and work to find better ways of doing politics, despite the fact the system itself seems irredeemably rotten (as expressed in my post “Open Government”). I guess the ultimate goal is to identify but not glory in blunders made by the opposition, and be equally willing to identify them one of your “own” makes them. Easier said than done…I seem to be saying that a lot lately.

It’s a tremendously complex issue, but I hope we can work towards solutions. As Glen said, the real issue is public trust – actions such as the “robocalls” are undermining that trust, but if the opposition start digging not to expose the problem but to seek personal gain, that trust will only be harmed further. Where does personal responsibility end and personal interest begin? A very complicated issue, to be sure.

*This post has been updated as of Tuesday February 28 based on this, this and this article. I was at first hesitant to speak of the lunch between city councillors as fact, and called it an “alleged” lunch. It has been confirmed that this lunch did occur, formal complaints have been made to the Ontario Ombudsman, and the Ombudsman’s Office is reviewing the incident to decide if a formal investigation needs to be launched. I have changed the phrasing of this post in light of this information, and extended my post to include the information from the London Community News article.

*Further updated this post (will need to create a new one soon!) on February 29 in light of this article. Councillor Henderson says those that are making complaints are “sore losers”, he also says that policy such as affordable housing was discussed. There was speculation that this may have happened before, but it is now confirmed. I’ve changed the wording of this post to reflect this. Abe Oudshoorn (@AbeOudshoorn) also has a great blog post about this.

Extending from my other posts about citizen engagement and London politics, I’ve been thinking about secrecy and corruption in government. In particular, I’ve read on @butchmclarty ‘s site that a portion of London City Council met together for lunch before the Tuesday marathon Council session that included passing the 2012 city budget. This is concerning enough, but it seems that Councillor Dale Henderson (who signaled he was considering changing his decision to approve a $1M cut to affordable housing ahead, as written here) may have changed his vote back to approving the cut based on conversations he had at this lunch. This concern seems especially valid considering the other councillors said to be present were Mayor Joe Fontana, Ward 1 Councillor Bud Polhill, Ward 4 Councillor Steve Orser, Ward 10 Councillor Paul Van Meerbergen and Ward 11 Councillor Denise Brown (6 all present), who all approved the cut to the affordable housing reserve, as well as the other cuts from the “B” list with the goal of reaching a 0% tax increase, and that if one councillor changed their vote the cut would fail instead of being approved.

From this site, I also discovered that the definition of what constitutes a council meeting for council members in Ontario municipalities are based in part on events that unfolded in 2009 and were investigated by the Ontario Ombudsman (the report can be read in full here). I discovered with interest that the events occurred in the small town of South Bruce Peninsula – also known as Wiarton, my hometown.

Part of the concerns that the Ontario Ombudsman was observing was the fact that some Wiarton councillors were meeting together after Town Council at the local Tim Horton’s. The summary of the report found that though it wasn’t appropriate behavior, because it represented less that a majority of Town Council (the agreed amount to produce a quorum) it didn’t break any rules. So it’s a question of optics – what it looks like to the public. The councillors involved argued that they were only meeting socially and even encouraged members of the public to join them, but members of the community still felt that this wasn’t correct behavior for town council and made the formal complaints which started the inquiry.

This brings us back to the lunch last Tuesday. At best it was an inappropriate get-together by several London city councillors, that is still concerning as it appears to be a gathering of councillors united in supporting a 0% tax increase, except for Councillor Henderson, who the group may have been concerned would vote against them. At worst, this was a concerted effort by a group of councillors meeting to sway another councillor to continue to side with them, knowing that if Councillor Henderson reversed his previous decision their vote would fall 8-7. This is especially of concern now that we know that the topic of affordable housing was discussed, according to Councillor Henderson. I find the number of councillors especially telling – as 6 doesn’t constitute a quorum, no record needs to be taken of the meeting, so they can meet without ever disclosing having done so.

This event has created a discussion with opposing views on what is and isn’t appropriate for councillors to be doing. Here are some of the comments made:

  • Ward 11 Councillor Denise Brown argued “We didn’t have a meeting whatsoever; we had a lunch. We went to a public place so it would not be seen as a meeting,” Brown said. “If we wanted to, I am pretty sure any of us could have come up with spot for a private meeting. But that wasn’t it; we went to a public restaurant and had people sitting around us.” *Note: Despite not wanting it to seem like a meeting, Councillor Henderson has since stated city business including the affordable housing reserve was discussed. To me, this constitutes a meeting.
  • Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler argues that “Members of council are equal participants at the council table. When you start pulling aside a select group it is seen to be backdoor deals and private deals. So yes, I have a big problem with it.”
  • Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe voiced concerns similar to mine, that if nothing else the optics are very bad, especially considering the lunch happened before a contentious budget session where most of the votes succeeded or failed by votes of 8-7.
  • Ward 1 Councillor Polhill argues that the issue of the lunch is a non-issue and is only being raised for political reasons.
  • Ward 14 Councillor White believes that Council colleagues sharing lunch is a good sign of congenial relations. “If they were just having lunch, I think it is great they were getting along. It sounds like they were just having lunch and relaxing”.

I find it interesting that even on questions of ethics, politics still creeps in. I believe that this lunch warrants some form of inquiry into the conduct of our City Council and how it meets, and if this lunch was just a meeting among colleagues or something more. As I understand it, Council is held to a higher standard than other workplaces, despite the fact Councillor Denise Brown argues that she met with coworkers in other jobs she has held over a friendly lunch, and therefore should be allowed to in her position on Council. But as Councillor Polhill alleges, perhaps some councillors and others like myself are against it because we don’t agree with how he and the others that happened to be around that table voted. If the nonpartisan and arms-length Ontario Ombudsman becomes involved, however, it will be interesting to see his ruling.

This topic makes me think about the wider concerns about secrecy in politics. As I started writing this I was watching the first episode of the British 80’s political satire Yes Minister with my brother-in-law Ed Stephens (@qualitypunk). The episode is called “Open Government”, and provides an excellent reminder that political secrecy isn’t remotely new. One great example from the episode:

Bernard:  But surely the citizens of a democracy have a right to know.

Sir Humphrey Appleby:  No. They have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity.

Another comment made in the episode: “If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.” How true!

So if secrecy is so imbedded in the political process, what can be done to combat it? One project I am very excited about is an app being developed by L0ndoner Gavin Blair (@gavinblair), appropriately named “Open Council” – the project website can be viewed here. The basic goal is to produce an app that allows the user to easily access information such as who their councillor is, how they can be contacted, how they have voted in each Council meeting, etc.

The project is currently seeking donations to help get it off the ground, I’ve gladly helped to contribute to the project as have many others. The fundraising goal for the project is $5000, it is currently at almost $2,200. There are many perks for contributing to the project, including having beta access to the app when it is close to being completed.

As citizens we need to keep all levels of government accountable. I’m excited for projects such as Open Council that will make this process easier, but as citizens have mentioned on Twitter, this app will be most helpful assisting online activists that are likely already engaged in our political process.  So we must continue to find ways to share the valuable information easily accessible by such means as the Open Council app with our offline neighbours and friends. We’re all citizens, and we’re all in this together.

Here’s a few of the books I’ve read recently:

  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, novel by Alan Bradley
  • Fighting the Good Fight by Adam Proteau
  • Tar Sands by Andrew Nikiforuk
  • The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, novel by Alan Bradley
  • Losing Confidence by Elizabeth May

Books I’m currently reading/have in the pile:

  • A Red Herring Without Mustard, novel by Alan Bradley
  • Speaking Out Louder by Jack Layton
  • I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, novel by Alan Bradley
  • Always Looking Up by Michael J. Fox
  • How The Scots Invented Canada by Ken McGoogan
  • Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky

I’m thinking  I need to add a bit more fiction to my reading pile. Any suggestions?

I read two posts this morning published by former London-North Centre MP Glen Pearson (@GlenPearson) and London City Councillor Paul Hubert (@phubert1961) that got me thinking about and started on this blog. Glen wrote for the Huffington Post in this article about Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Paul wrote in this blog about his experiences of this past week, dominated by the city budget approval process on Tuesday. I’ll start with a quote from Glen’s article:

When [Lincoln] and his opponents had reached a standstill, he would sometimes say, “Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.” Is there any of this kind of reasoning in our politics anymore? Is anyone grand enough to say it … and mean it? Every party says they want peace, prosperity, a cleaner environment, and better communities, but they start with the divisions and not the commonality. The vitriolic and partisan mudslinging continues even as once-prosperous nations continue their downward slide.

We all want the same things, yet only our party’s method is correct. Canadians watch with dismay as all sides of the House become embroiled in controversy and petty insults. I have heard many citizens say with disgust they feel they don’t know where to turn, with comments such as “The Liberals bullied through their agenda and cheated taxpayers with the Ad Scam fiasco, and yet the Conservatives seem little better. Who can I possibly vote for? They’re all crooks and liars as far as I’m concerned.” How can we possibly bring ourselves back from the brink of such skepticism and frustrstion, especially when it seems so well-founded?

Meanwhile, London is seeing a similar situation playing out in our own City Council chambers. This year’s budget has been heatedly contested despite the fact that last year’s budget passed relatively smoothly even with a 0% tax freeze. As several councillors against the contested “B” cut list have observed, prudent cuts were achieved last year without discussing using city reserves and services to reach 0%. That all changed this year, and with it, the tone of City Council. As Councillor Paul Hubert observes:

The mocking of members statements and denigration of their principles does not win the respect of Londoners. Sadly this inpoverishes the debate of issues and the character of council.

I and others watched in dismay from the gallery as not only personal philosophies but also the person themselves became targets. Councillor White made a backhand remark that despite downloading occurring in the city because of the McGuinty government, if Councillor Branscombe (who ran in the last provincial election as a PC) and Tim Hudak had succeeded we’d be in much worse shape. This type of partisan politics sickens me when it occurs in the “correct” sphere, but to have it made to attack another’s character and position on the City of London budget left many shaking their heads. Several of these types of personal animosities flared up as the night dragged on.

I imagine many citizens see these kinds of displays and say “If this is what civil engagement and politics is all about, forget it”.

So there does this leave us? People have pointed to the Occupy movement that has circled the globe as a positive step for democracy and engagement of young people in the process. I applaud the messages Occupy has sent about numerous issues including income disparity as the gap continues to widen and the environment as our country continues to push for rampant resource extraction despite the costs to our planet – but I believe it must evolve and participate more closely with the public system to make its voice and message heard and influential. Some Occupiers seem to embrace this as they speak and participate in groups the London City Symposium/Citizen Panel discussions, while others keep a skeptical distance. I understand our system is flawed and even in democracies like ours corruption can still build deep roots, which fosters this disillusion. The embarrassing conduct of our elected representatives at times can also breed disgust. For my part, I believe we must “occupy the system”, engage and meet with our  representatives, work to become those representatives to make the difference we want to see.

I expressed disgust and outrage at the conduct of some occupy members at last Tuesday’s 2012 budget approval as they stood, waved banners and chanted slogans from the public gallery at City Council –  despite the fact viewing members of the public were to be silent observers – as contentious cuts were passed. I wrote and talked to Council members about my concerns and watched as a bitterly divided Council voted to approved the cuts 8-7.  For my part, I stayed silent though I was deeply dismayed. I expressed over Twitter my frustration with their conduct; while some echoed my sentiment, others said they believe it was important for the community to speak up against these “shameful” cuts, and sitting quiet sure wasn’t accomplishing anything.

I imagine those same occupiers that were with me in the gallery might feel I was the one not engaged. Who can say?

As times change, perhaps our methods of engagement might need to change to attract people to the process. Some council members expressed frustration with the occupy group that interrupted the proceedings, but I was deeply impressed by the quiet but commanding way Councillor Matt Brown chaired the session, and patiently waited for occupy to show respect and allow Council to continue. To me, he was a prime example of what our democracy should work to be. Respectful,  controlled and patient. Council and citizens demand respect, but members of both groups have failed this agreement. All parties involved need to show the type of reasoning Lincoln embodied. We all want the same thing – a vibrant, active and engaged city, province, country and world. We should all ask ourselves not what is different between “us” and “them”, but to see commonality and work to bridge the gaps. Easier said then done.

I’m still shaping the structure of this blog and am unsure of what I will ultimately be using it to post – if there will be any formula at all. I’ve had blogs in the past including one for a literacy in technology class I took in college as well as a personal one – both methods had merit as the class one was tightly focused on class projects etc., while my personal one was littered with anecdotes from different video games I was playing,  books I was reading and scraps from short stories I was working on. I’ll consider what I’d like to do and likely let it slowly take shape, please bear with me!

However, for now I thought I’d write for now on a topic I’ve been thinking about a great deal in the past couple of years, and which I will likely keep coming back to as I write here.

Across Canada (and other countries with a first-past-the-post system, such as the United States) voting turn-out hovers around 60%. At every level of government, citizens just aren’t coming out to the polls – I heard that in our last city election, London came out at a rate of close to 40%. Why is that? And how can we possibly change this? I believe this is a question we should all ask.

One of the things that got me dwelling on this topic was Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May’s book “Losing Confidence”. In it she isn’t making an argument that Canada had a by-gone Golden Age of bipartisan cooperation, but that since 2006 civility in the House has taken an even steeper nose-dive. She argues that lack of decorum coupled with our existing election structure (which has produced many false majorities in recent decades, including 2 of Jean Chretien’s  majority governments) is what is turning Canadians away from the polls. Elizabeth argues that while we continue a first-past-the-post system that sets everyone who didn’t vote for the right “side” (party) as not likely to be fairly represented in the House, people are less likely to vote. She points to European (and other) countries with a form of proportional representation and how their voting turn-outs are often beyond 90%. But changing voting methods takes time, and great political will. Still, I believe it is something we as a nation should consider and have an honest conversation about.

Meanwhile, we’re watching as a political drama unfolds about suspected “robo calls” that occurred in the last federal election that apparently were used to dissuade voters from going to their polling stations. Susan Delacourt (@SusanDelacourt), the Toronto Star Senior Writer in Ottawa, published this article today. In it she said:

“Voter suppression” is the alleged purpose of the calls. The idea was that if you phoned people, told them the voting location had changed, they’d just decide it was too much of a hassle to go and cast a ballot. Think about that for a second. To pull this off with any success, you had to count on people being so lazy, busy or disengaged that they’d throw away their democratic franchise because of a minor inconvenience.  Cynical? Or just realistic?

Sadly, I believe this is fairly realistic.  I’ve met many people that are just “too busy to vote” – for a year in college I lived in a basement apartment where the landlady lived above. She was a committed citizen that worked hard, went to karate and other programs in the city and raised two children. On federal election day in 2008 I asked her to vouch for me at the polling station because my ID was for my parent’s address. She came with me, but confessed that she didn’t want to vote. “I don’t know who any of these people are, or what they stand for”, she said. It’s not that she wasn’t connected to her community, but when it came to election time she gave a sheepish shrug, saying “I know I should care, but I already have so much to worry about.” So, how do we connect our right to vote with making a contribution to how our country is run, and who stands in City Hall, Queen’s Park or the House of Commons to represent us? And how do we make it worthwhile to make it a part of our ever-increasingly hectic lives?

Statistics Canada also released a very relevant study today available here  on factors associated with voting. As expected voting turn-out among younger Canadians is much lower than the average. This is one factor I particularly struggle with, as I know this occurred despite the best efforts of some.  I and many other London youth participated in Rick Mercer’s “Vote Mob” event in Victoria Park ahead of the May 2 vote to encourage young people to come out to the polls. I know that this particular election created especial obstacles as it happened as students were returning home after the post-secondary school season, but this is a chronic problem in all Canadian elections. I hope that new and creative ways can be found to make civil engagement as well as the election process more accessible and attractive to younger Canadians, though I struggle to imagine what methods could be used.

Part of what spurred me to finally create this (I’d been thinking about starting this for some time) was my experience at City Hall last Tuesday as I watched the budget approval process. I’m still putting together my impression of that occurrence although better minds (Gina Barber/@GinaBarber_W9 and Philip McLeod/@philipmcleod, as two examples) have already written excellent posts on what happened. One thought that stuck with me was one expressed by City Councillor for Ward 8 Paul Hubert at a citizen meeting for people concerned about the slated cuts – Paul mentioned that we were a group of citizens that were reading into what was taking place, and discussing across social media like facebook and Twitter. However, after that meeting he was going to watch his child play hockey, in an arena full of people that likely didn’t know about the concerns we had. We can talk online, share a survey Paul prepared, but we’re not getting any closer to talking with these citizens which are just as valid as us. So the question is – how do people concerned about citizen engagement meet other citizens where they are? We’re not likely to do so from our computers.

This is something that continues to trouble me, and something I think we all need to consider. I have many questions but precious few answers, I’d love to hear yours if you have some. I hope through this writing to connect with more Londoners and hear their thoughts. Let’s have a conversation.

I want to start with a quote that has stuck with me every since I first read it, attributed to Johnny Cash: “If you don’t get outside every day, even for a minute, you have not appreciated what God has done. It makes you grateful for our surroundings, and it starts your day differently.”

Every time I step outside I am struck by how true this is. We work tirelessly to make out indoor world as comfortable and static as possible – the moment I am struck by a fresh breeze or feel rain on our face as we step outside, I’m grateful for the natural world even as I am glad to have a safe place to be sheltered from it when I choose. It is important to enjoy time out there every day.

But there is another reason I believe getting out into the world is important.

Working from home and not driving, it’s easy for my world to become incredibly small. I will continue to work to connect with others online and encourage others to do as well, but we need to do more than that – challenge yourself to talk to someone you wouldn’t likely to, and work to meet others face-to-face. Disagree on someone’s posts/blogs/etc.? Take them out for coffee.  It’s all too easy to get trapped in toxic rhetoric online, and infinitely freeing to meet somewhere neutral and discuss your opinions.

I’m still working on this.

May come back later with thoughts on citizen engagement, something I’ve been dwelling on more and more of late.