Monday, June 28, 2010

The Big Sleep: The Quiet Revolt of the Quebec Middle Class

I am a late arrival to the middle class. In fact, I've just arrived, so I am well placed to make some observations about how life is different here in the land of affordable luxury.

The reason I arrived late is that making money was never that important to me, but once I made that decision - it was payback time for the years of having someone else picking up more than her fair share of the tab - I have come to realize why the struggle to advance the common good is so difficult: those who have the capacity to make significant social contributions to society have opted out. With comfort comes indifference.

For someone who comes from a working class background in Winnipeg and went to the University of Manitoba, a university that will never make it to the top of the list of Canada's most prestigious post-secondary institutions since it strives to make a higher education universally accessible, it's easy to see that here in the land of skinny lattes and crossover SUVs hardly anyone gives a damn about the deteriorating quality of Quebec's public services.

Why would you if you can cherry pick? Leave it to the plebes to send their kids to public high schools where the drop out rates are around 40%, and leave it to the plebes to wait more than 24 hours to see a doctor at the emergency ward of a hospital since they don't have access to a family physician.

Of course, the rich don't use public services. We know that. But what is relatively new in Quebec is that the state actually encourages the middle class to make use of those publicly-funded services when they see fit and to become members of the petit bourgeoisie when it's to their advantage.

It starts with the publicly-funded daycare at $7 a day. It doesn't matter if you have a family revenue of $50k or $200k, the tariff doesn't vary, and the same rate applies for the before and after school supervision per day and for full-day supervision during professional development days while your child attends elementary school. Those of us with the means could pay more, but that would leave us with less disposable income.

The lack of progressive tariffs for social services constitutes a huge financial incentive towards establishing two income, two car families living in the burbs, where couples manage their small to medium enterprises (in French they are referred to as PMEs), which were previously called households, or in some cases, families. Essentially, the Quebec government subsidizes the middle class lifestyle.

For instance, once your children are ready for high school - and heaven forbid you send them to a crappy public school where every year the number of teachers without teaching certificates is on the rise - the state is there to pick up approximately 60% of the tuition fees. So, for about $3000 a year, you can send your child to a school where the chances of finishing secondary school within five years jump from approximately 50% to 98% as a result of the superior pedagogical program. This is a very sweet deal.

Thereafter, your children can then attend college in Quebec, which is a combination of community college and undergraduate university courses, for only a nominal fee. Then, university awaits with the lowest tuition fees to be found in North America.

With regard to health care, to make the system work for them, members of the middle class pay to get their diagnostics done in the private sector and then obtain the appropriate referral to the public system to have the medical service performed at a bargain rate. In the meantime, those with more limited means sweat it out waiting for their diagnostic examinations before receiving medical interventions.

Some would say that the presence of such affordable social services is the mark of a progressive society. Yet, something remarkable has changed in Quebec: the solidarity between the working class and the middle class that made the social gains brought on by the Quiet Revolution possible no longer exists.

Throughout the middle class, the triumph of individualism has occurred, and those who have the comforts as a result of having two professional incomes no longer are in the struggle to maintain the quality of public services. Instead, they have retreated to their enclaves, releasing their stress in the omnipresent above-ground swimming pools and hot tubs, while remaining more and more disengaged from the less well off. In short, the game has changed. Social causes have become a faded memory of a boomer past, and now when people march, more often than not, it's in support of the fight against cancer, the plague that respects no social boundaries.

The retreat from the social sphere in Quebec is best demonstrated by the precipitous drop in political activity. In ten years, the participation rate during provincial elections has dropped by 25%. Moreover, the number of electors who are members of political parties now resides at approximately 110,000 in an electorate of 5,400,000, about two percent - hardly a hot bed of democracy. This is a far cry from the 1995 referendum, which fell just 50,000 votes of having Quebec separate from Canada.

Today, it appears that the state's primary function is to be the port of entry into the middle class. More than 500,000 are employed in the public sector and salary scales have become much more important than the quality of government or the quality of public services. For example, Quebec's population is faced with a scandal-ridden government that refuses to hold a public inquiry into the connection between the construction industry and the financing of political parties in direct opposition to overwhelming public opinion. Elsewhere, this refusal would have been met with concerted action from the unions, leading to a series of public sector strikes in order to force the government's hand. Not here. Not now.

Two of the three major unions were in the process of negotiating their public sector collective agreements and third would have been part of the focus in a public inquiry looking at the construction industry. In other words, organized labour, which constitutes about 40% of the workforce, chose to cast a blind eye towards the legitimacy of Quebec's democratic institutions.

In a similar vein, there was an eerie silence in Quebec when it was announced in the last budget that there would be the equivalent of a $200 poll tax to raise monies for the health care system with an additional $25 charge per visit to consult a physician.

Without question this is a fiscal measure that drives a wedge between the middle and working class. For an upper middle class family, the $200 surcharge is the equivalent of the cost of a top-of-the-line hockey stick for junior, while for the working poor it may mean going without the essentials. Similarly, a $25 charge to see a doctor would not deter a middle class family from seeking an appointment, not so for someone with limited means.

The absence of a strong, vocal response to these regressive measures demonstrates the changes in Quebec since the days of the Quiet Revolution. The notion of creating an independent social democratic state is dead. Sovereignty has become an identity marker rather than a viable political option. Even the former Quebec Premier, Lucien Bouchard, publicly declares himself to be sovereignist while admitting that the movement is at a standstill.

It is as if Quebec, having failed at making the radical move of declaring independence, has lost interest in anything political, and when nothing stirs the passions, a great number will settle for material comfort. Politically speaking, les Quebecois have lost their collective mojo.

Yes, the culture and the language are alive and doing well, but other than the linguistic differences, there seems to be the boring North American sameness throughout Quebec. People here are in the same process of amusing themselves to death, only the cultural icons are different.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Canada Has Yet to Atone for It's Immoral Treatment of the First Nations

As you are probably aware, this week marked a time of reconciliation between Canada and it's First Nations Peoples. At issue was the systemic government-sponsored abuse that was perpetrated against indigenous children by taking them away from their families, placing them in a residential school setting, where they were often subject to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

The federal government has apologized for the role that it played (for the record, the articles of the Indian Act that empower the government to behave so cruelly are still on the books), but in my opinion saying you are sorry doesn't go far enough in order to make things right.

What is required is that as a nation, we come clean with the magnitude of the abuse we have inflicted upon the First Nations and the precious little we have done to fix the problem.

No, we can't turn back the clock and erase the sins committed by this nation's forefathers, but we can own up to the fact that we as a people radically disposed the indigenous peoples of their land, ignoring for the most part the treaties that were signed and even the principles of our common law which holds that aboriginal title was never extinguished since it requires an act of Parliament with an explicit intention to do so.

Essentially, we pushed them off their land, forced them to live on reserves and administered a legal framework that treats aboriginal peoples as if they were subhuman. Case in point, the residential school system. Imagine, if you will, the international out cry if similar methods were imposed upon a white European ethnic minority. Without question, there would be mention of crimes against humanity, but in the context of the English settler states, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US, the ill treatment of the indigenous peoples is thought of as the unfortunate outcomes of colonial expansion into virgin territory.

As could be expected, the four above-mentioned settler states rejected the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples although Australia subsequently endorsed the declaration and New Zealand recently announced its intention to do so as well. That leaves the US and Canada as the only hold outs, much to the chagrin of the international community.

Canada's official position is to assert that we cannot sign the declaration because of our constitutional framework. How convenient. If we were serious about facing the unpleasant facts entrenched in our collective past, we would move beyond this institutional inertia and do what it takes to bring about a substantive and equitable reconciliation with the peoples we have oppressed for four hundred years.

For that to happen, we need to bury the two founding peoples myth and face up to the fact that we are a people comprised of successive waves of immigrants that have settled and occupied other peoples' lands.

In my mind, if Canada is ever going to evolve into a modern state of the 21st century, we will need to be honest with regard to how we got here and put aside the collective amnesia that we have found to be far too comfortable.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Obama Battles the Bonehead Factor in the US Big Time

There are times when the bonehead factor in the US goes way off the scale. Having watched Obama's speech from the oval office and the following media reaction, I couldn't get over how much time is given to some really bonehead debate.

First, why do Americans think that the best way of fixing a problem is to declare war upon it? War on drugs. War on terror. Now, the war on the hole in the bottom of the ocean.

On CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, they actually discuss: "if this were a war, would we be winning?", and they are serious when they use military metaphors. I guess they were disappointed that Obama didn't give them a "we shall fight them on the beaches" speech.

Second, where do people come off cursing against the six-month moratorium on deep sea drilling? Holy moly Batman, don't they notice that the hole left over from where the Deepwater Horizon rig used to be is gushing out 60,000 barrels a day and that the emergency response plans from the other major oil companies all include plans to protect the walruses in the Gulf?

Dat don't matter. Drill, baby, drill. Whose you daddy!

Third, what's with all this paranoia with big government? I guess size is important for a lot of Americans and it appears that for many it's better to have a small one.

Don't they realize that size doesn't matter? Everyone knows that what counts is what you do with government and in this case it means having the proper regulatory framework so this shit doesn't go down. Didn't they learn anything from the collapse of the financial markets and getting tapped for a trillion dollar buy out?

Finally, Americans have to get over the belief that if declaring war on the problem doesn't work, technology will come to their rescue. It's as if everybody is extremely pissed off that Obama doesn't slip into some type of Iron Man web suit, dive down to the bottom of the sea and plug that damn hole with a giant stopper, kicking some serious BP ass while he's at it.

Fortunately, the President is a smart guy. He gets it. The era of cheap oil is over and the US needs to kick it's addiction to fossil fuels.

In conclusion, the situation is totally BP, beyond politics, and Americans are going to have to change their ways, no matter what the boneheads would have us believe.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Canada the Last Outpost of the Klingon Empire

There is an interesting discussion going on in our colony. It appears that some would have us submit ourselves to the majority rule of the weaklings, those who did not win the sacred Klingon contest of winning the most electoral battles during the electoral wars.

Yes, these battles are hard fought on the ground and in the airwaves, and with the splintering of the tribes, no clear cut victory can be obtained. But that should not lead us to abandon our ways. Never mind what has happened in our homeland, where an unholy alliance has been struck between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, in which the strongest tribe must listen and act upon the demands of a much weaker tribe. It as if a plague has struck the homeland and feverish thoughts of ceding to the will of the majority has taken hold on the population, but this will pass and the rule of the strong man will return.

Remember the holy words, "losers don't get to form coalitions." If we were to let the losers make their unholy pacts, the strongman will lose his place and our guiding vision, our strong hand upon the tiller, will be no more. We will be reduced to having to listen to reason and to entertain compromise. No more will we be able to have our way by a show of force and bluster.

Yes, these are troubled times. The members of the Red and Orange tribes are already scheming against us. They talk openly about forming an alliance, but fortunately we can count on the leader of the Red tribe not to give in to the weaklings. His Klingon blood runs strong. He shares our lust for power and our need to dominate and control.

I know that some of you have heard the talk of abandoning the electoral battles altogether. There are some who believe that the winner of the electoral battle should not get all the spoils of victory. Imagine, they would have us count every vote, even those from the loser tribes, and enter them into a magical formula that would tell us who would and who would not sit in the great hall under the gaze of the great chief.

This will never pass as long as we can retain our dominance in the airwaves. As I speak, those who have our desire for riches strong in their hearts are coming together and will take to the airwaves and will denounce every unholy utterance, every abomination against the rule of the strong man and will fight until their dying breath to make sure that power is never shared and that we will always have our will obeyed.

This land is ours. We conquered it first and we will never let it be ruled by those who do not bow down to exalt the presence of a greater power.


(Klingon expression that when loosely translated means, please don't let me drown in my own bullshit)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Crimes Against the Planet

There is something seriously wrong when a company like BP continues to pay multi-billion dollar dividends to its shareholders while millions of gallons of oil continue to flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

It is as though the oil spill that in reality is wreaking catastrophic environmental damage to the Gulf's ecosystems is simply a glitch in the company's cash flow. Nothing more, nothing less than an adjustment to the income statement.

Indeed, there is a tendency in the media to attempt to quantify everything: estimates of how much oil has escaped into the gulf, the economic loss to fishermen and to the tourist industry, and the size of the bill BP will be handed for the clean up costs, to mention just a few.

Yet, there is something much more fundamental at issue: when companies like BP are shown to have inflicted harm at this scale to natural ecosystems, charges should be laid against those who are responsible for having committed crimes against the planet.

This is a special category of crime similar in kind to the notion of crimes against humanity, which are are particularly odious offenses in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority.

In this case, the odious offenses, the serious attacks, and degradation target many species and the underlying networks of relations from which the affected ecosystems emerge. These are not ordinary offenses and they should not be treated as such.

In fact, the perpetrators should be brought to trial in an international court beyond the protection of sovereign borders and without the limited liability afforded to corporations. If found guilty of crimes against the planet, justice should be met commensurate with the seriousness of the offense: top officials shall be jailed, corporate charters revoked, assists seized and sold off, and, when applicable, governments be held accountable for the absence of adequate regulatory frameworks.

Laissez-faire is dead.

The time has come to re-establish an order that no longer allows the violence perpetrated against the earth to continue unabated, Such atrocious behavior by individuals, corporations, and governments should no longer be tolerated.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Life is becoming far too complex. So much so, the complexity we create
brings about problems that we cannot solve. Things are out of control.

Take for example the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It's pretty
impressive to get a live video feed from the ocean floor, 5000 feet
below the surface. It gives me pause to wonder. How did they manage to
drill a well at such depths? How did they even know where to drill? I
guess some smart people can pull off some amazing feats.

Yet, the more fundamental question to ask is why are we even drilling
into the seabed to find and extract oil. This is where things become

In short, we have created a massive global economy that is predicated on
the availability of cheap oil. With regard to supply, the low hanging
fruit has been plucked off the tree, in this case conventional oil that
is easy to find and easy to extract - remember good old Jed Clampett
from the Beverly Hillbillies, "one day when he was shootin for some
food, and up through the ground came some bubblin crude, oil that is,
black gold, Texas tea.

Today, however, to keep up with the increasing global demand, we have to
go further and deeper, to the very limits of our technological capacity
in order to bring new oil reserves to market, and if something goes
wrong, we'll simply fix it.

Well, so we thought until we realized that plugging a hole in the seabed
quickly, where the pressure is about a ton per square inch, is extremely
difficult. In fact, as it turns out, it is beyond our technological

It would appear that if we connect the dots, the picture that emerges
tells us that we need to kick our addiction to fossil fuels and power
down the economy towards a more human scale using more renewable energy
sources in the process.

Unfortunately for the planet, a small financial elite, less than
one tenth of one percent, has gained its fortune by ramping up production
of consumer goods to unsustainable levels while drawing down on our
non-renewable resources. This same elite is as addicted to material wealth
as is the rest of the population is to cheap oil and they are the ones
that hold the reins of power.

Faced with the choice between more modest returns on their investments
and greater financial gain as a result of engaging in higher risk
behavior, they opt for the latter and impose the cost of their repeated
failures on the rest of the society.

The collapse of the financial sector is another case in point. No
longer content with reaping financial reward the old fashioned way,
dividends payed out on retained earnings, financiers were able to
convince our political leaders that the best way to economic growth was
along the path of greater securitization, which means a greater capacity
to peddle speculative financial products and to earn higher fees on each
transaction. As a result, trillions of dollars of financial derivatives
were being traded until the house of cards came tumbling down when it
became apparent that much of the debt obligations that had been sold
were worthless. According to the risk management schemes that were
employed to sell the securities, a sudden market crash was extremely
unlikely, once in a billion years, and hundreds of thousands of
individual and institutional investors let themselves be bilked as they
went along buying and selling debt obligations that were too complex to
understand, being guided by dubious investment strategies that were too
good to be true.

That the global economy was plunged into a world-wide recession was an
unfortunate affair, especially for those without fortunes.

Upon reflection, I think that we need to own up to the fact that we have
put into process a chain of events that we are unable to control, the
results of which could lead us a species to a massive die off if we
don't come to terms with climate change.

Rather than pretending that we can deal with ever increasing levels of
complexity, we need to slow down and to simplify things and, like Mickey
in Walt Disney's Fantasia, give up the fantasy that we can control what we really don't understand.