Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for December, 2007

Nova Scotia: Up in Smoke

Monday, December 24th, 2007

When I was in high school, the amusements of the lunch hour included the sight of the teachers roaring around the back alleys in their Vauxhalls and Austins, trying to catch students smoking near the school. Imagine! Grown men and women wasting their time on such foolishness! Hypocritical, too, because the school’s staff room contained an absolute fog of tobacco smoke.

We couldn’t have imagined seeing RCMP cruisers skidding through the streets chasing smokers. But who could have imagined the events of this silly season in Nova Scotia?

Who could have imagined that the Bridgewater council would over-ride the objections of the mayor and direct its legal eagles to draft a bylaw banning the vile weed in any public place in the town streets, parks, sidewalks, you name it? We haven’t seen such a demented anti-smoking initiative since a now-forgotten Nova Scotia health minister proposed banning candy cigarettes. That idea propelled my friend Lloyd Bourinot into song:

Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette!
Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette!
While we haul our dope ashore
The cops are at the corner store,
Protecting us from candy cigarettes!

Bridgewater’s sappy initiative was preceded by a silly by-law in Wolfville, which the silly legislature hastened to extend to the whole silly province. Starting next month, it will be illegal in Nova Scotia to smoke in your own car when there’s someone under 19 aboard.

Okay, it’s not a great idea to smoke with children in the car although my father did it with me, and I did it with my own children, in that not-so-distant era when smoking was normal adult behaviour. But to pass a law against it? Holy smokes, we can’t stop the children themselves from lighting up, despite heroic efforts. Now, presumably, a 17-year-old smoker can be arrested for driving his car in Nova Scotia on the grounds that he’s damaging himself, though he might thumb his nose at the cops if he were walking. Still oh, happy day! he wouldn’t get away with smoking while sauntering in Bridgewater.

If we can’t smoke in our bars, our cars, our streets, how far are we from the day when we’ll be forbidden to smoke in our own houses if there are children present or invalids, or other potential victims? Will we see the Mounties creeping through suburban gardens in the freezing nights, peeping through the curtains to catch parents sneaking a fag? Gotcha, Papa! Cuff ‘im, boys.

I quit smoking six years ago, but I was tempted to go down to Bridgewater and light up with the protesters on the LaHave bridges, which belong to the province and will be the only legal places to smoke in Bridgewater if this antic by-law passes. I don’t want to smoke again, but I’d far rather be a smoker than a passive ally of the tobacco totalitarians. These zealots give a bad name to good health.

Honourable members and councillors, listen. Tobacco is a vicious addiction worse than heroin, according to people who have experienced both. Anyone who could easily quit has already quit by now. And tobacco use is legal. If we haven’t stopped people from smoking marijuana or crack on the streets, how will we going to stop them from smoking tobacco?

And if our police are sufficiently at loose ends to go haring off after smokers, then why can’t we can’t keep the Halifax Commons safe? Why do people think we need the Guardian Angels here? Why do we still have 36 unsolved local murders on the books?

What’s really disgusting about this type of prissy, moralistic legislation is that it’s politically cheap and easy — like the recent pronouncements of the Surgeon-General of the United States, attacking chubby old Santa Claus as a bad role model for obese North American children. Fatso should watch his diet and get more exercise.

Wow. That shows the same kind of courage it takes to pick on some 85-year-old South Shore grandmother who can’t quit smoking and doesn’t want to. But what about Nova Scotia Power, whose smoke constitutes the sixth-largest source of air pollution in Canada?

Honourable members and councillors, tackle those guys. Tackle Irving, Bowater, McCain, whose mills and diesel trucks pump out more pollutants than all the smokers in Canada. Nettle the drivers in your town by passing an anti-idling bylaw. Design a workable system of public transport. Pass a motion calling on the Harperites to stop embarrassing our country on climate change. Commit your town, your business, your province to meet the Kyoto targets even if the feds won’t.

These are all things you could actually do, but you’d need genuine courage. Go do them and when you’ve proven that you’re more than sanctimonious busybodies, then come back and talk to me about tobacco.

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The End of the American Century

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

“I’m glad I have a property in Canada,” said my American neighbour, “because I know I have a place to go when the brown hits the blades in the States.”

Wait a minute. This is not some pinko dope-smokin’ hipoid radical kid. This is a prosperous middle-aged businessman, an armed forces veteran, whose general political orientation is probably Republican.

And yes, I heard such talk 40 years ago, when the US was in flames: inner cities burning, campus riots, an endless slaughter in Vietnam. Today, with a dishonorable war slowly being lost in Iraq and a lunatic presidency spoiling to start another one in Iran, you might expect the same symptoms. But they aren’t there.

True, many patriotic Americans are deeply sad and angry. Read the passionate anti-war speech by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, for example, at http://www.slcgov.com/mayor/. But the Democrats are both complicit and cowardly, and the streets and campuses are not ripping out the country’s entrails as they once did. So what is my friend worried about? What does he mean?

“I’m not sure what I mean,” he replies. “But the United States has not discharged its responsibilities well either domestically or internationally, and my intuition tells me that we’ll be called to account for that. I don’t know whether it will be a lot more al-Quaeda attacks or what it may be. But I’m glad to have a place to go with my family.”

Well.

Soon after that, I read John Risley’s investment advice in Atlantic Business. Risley, you’ll recall, started out selling lobsters from the back of an old pickup truck. His Clearwater Fine Foods group is now the dominant player in what’s left of the Atlantic Canadian fishery. Risley is a very wealthy investor.

Risley’s first investment preference is Canada, with its natural resources, strong dollar, robust economy and orderly markets. But one should also diversify into foreign investments. He suggests looking first at London, which is “in the process of replacing New York as the world’s financial capital. Why is that? Because the global financial powerhouses can move talent from around the world to their London offices. The paranoia resident within the US immigration policy prevents that from happening in New York.”

Richard Florida makes the same point on a broader scale. In The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida argues that the driving force in today’s knowledge economy is human creativity, which flourishes in places that are tolerant, diverse, culturally and intellectually rich, hospitable to innovation.

Thus the US economy has been propelled by its ability to “energize and attract the best and the brightest, not just from our country but also from around the world.” Almost a third of the new businesses in Silicon Valley during the 1990s were created by immigrants from China or India. Enterprises founded by immigrants include Intel, Sun Microsystems and Google.

But, says Florida, Bush’s Washington “has stunned scientists across the world with its disregard for consensus scientific views.” Think about stem cells and global warming. Washington has also “inspired the fury of the world, especially of its educated classes, with its my-way-or-the-highway foreign policy. In effect, for the first time in our history, we’re saying to highly mobile and very finicky global talent, ‘You don’t belong here.’”

So the brilliant young immigrants who once competed for entry to Harvard and Berkeley are applying to Cambridge and Copenhagen – and Toronto. Foreign students in the US “complain of being hounded by the immigration agencies as potential threats to security.” Scientists report that they can’t hold international conferences in the US because foreign scientists can’t get visas. Even distinguished American scholars are emigrating.

These huge trends reflect millions upon millions of individual choices. A Cape Breton couple decides to fly to Nassau via Toronto rather than New York in order to take some food to their hosts and avoid the hassles and delays at the US border. A Brazilian family chooses not to vacation near the Grand Canyon. An small Italian company expands in Germany, not the US.

So there’s less demand for the US dollar, and it falls. Did the Canadian dollar strengthen? Yes, slightly – but this year the U.S. dollar has declined against 15 of the 16 most-actively traded currencies.

When George W. Bush took office, his neo-conservative buddies were touting a “New American Century” of world domination. American power seemed limitless. That was an illusion, of course, as unlimited power always is. But Bush behaved as though it were a reality. On his watch, the US has lost much of its power, economic, political, military and intellectual, along with its global good-will.

An increasingly-hostile world is learning to get along without the United States. The “New American Century” is ending. It didn’t even last ten years.

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The Troubles of Mahone Bay

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

Perhaps the most famous image of Maritime tranquillity is the three graceful churches of Mahone Bay side-by-side along the shore, their images reflected back from the still water.

Alas, Mahone Bay is anything but tranquil these days. Last May, the Town Council accepted a developer’s proposal to buy 14 “surplus” acres from the Town for $90,000 to build a substantial housing complex. The decision created a storm of opposition.

The proposed development would include 96 seniors’ apartments and 30 “assisted living” apartments, 36 other apartments, 36 semi-detached homes, and 32 single family dwellings. The homes are intended to be small and affordable — about 1000 square feet in size, priced from $130,000 to $150,000. The 220 new units would house about 300 residents.

That’s a lot of new housing for a town of about 900 — and the village already has subdivisions with lots available. Worse, say opponents of the scheme, the land in contention is not “surplus.” It includes most of the former Mahone Bay Academy grounds, excluding the old school itself, which is now a non-profit community arts, culture and recreational facility.

The remaining acreage has always been used as if it were a park. It includes a first-rate soccer field as well as a lovely stretch of woodland seamed with pathways where people cycle, do cross-country skiing, watch birds and walk their dogs. The new housing would reduce the amenities of the neighbourhood, create a need for new recreational facilities elsewhere, and substantially alter the character of the town.

And the character of the town — its serenity, its historic architecture, its easy pace — is Mahone Bay’s greatest asset.

The plan’s supporters retort that there’s a difference between being serene and being comatose. Like other small coastal towns that once bustled with small factories, foundries, sail lofts and boatyards, Mahone Bay has been gutted economically by the sweeping changes of the last half-century. The tax base is shrinking, the population is aging. The village needs stimulation.

And say the project’s supporters the new development will provide much-needed accommodation for all those seniors as well as affordable new housing for the young families who are the key to the town’s future. At one meeting, a veteran firefighter explained his support for the plan in terms of the difficulty in finding young volunteers to join the fire department. New homes mean new families and new volunteers.

Well, maybe. But the problems of Mahone Bay are the problems of rural Nova Scotia generally, and indeed of rural Canada. As we lose the old labour-intensive resource economy of farming, forestry, fishing and mining, villages wither. Simply providing affordable housing won’t reverse that trend. Mahone Bay, luckier than most, is close enough to Halifax to serve as a bedroom community. But that’s not what the village wants.

The deeper issue in Mahone Bay is the process. Citizens are enraged that the council made such a crucial decision without consultation. Indeed, the council was meeting in-camera when it
accepted developer Bob Youden’s proposal. It also agreed to refund him the purchase price of the land as an investment, and to provide him with certain tax concessions.

It later ratified these decisions in a public meeting. Then, when the decisions proved controversial, the council refused to reconsider them or to delay their implementation.

On October 9, town resident Penny Carver presented the council with a petition containing more than 250 names. (As of this week, the petition had 359 names.) Its final paragraph said, “We call on you not to commit to this development before all the people of the Town have had a chance to fully assess and debate its implications, both good and bad, and to consider alternatives.”

“It’s about fair process,” Penny Carver told the council. “It’s not just about a number count of those for or against development; it’s about ensuring there is dialogue about how and where development takes place.”

Yes and in fact, the matter doesn’t seem that difficult. The town needs seniors’ housing, and a very attractive seniors’ complex could be built on the edge of the school property, overlooking the soccer field and leaving most of the woodland untouched. The homes vacated by the seniors would then be available for younger families.

But the council responded to the petition by reaffirming its earlier declaration that the lands were surplus and when Mayor Joe Feeney proposed to defuse future controversies by instituting a “mayor’s round-table” as a mechanism for future citizen involvement, the motion died for want of a seconder.

Such huffy defiance seems politically loony, and makes one wonder what else may be motivating the councillors. Meanwhile, by creating deep divisions within the community, the controversy may wind up driving people away from one of Nova Scotia’s most charming and beautiful communities. That’s precisely the opposite of what “development” is supposed to do.

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Blessed are the Peacebuilders

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

The decline of Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping, says Carolyn McAskie, is “the greatest disappointment of my life.” Peacekeeping is a treasured Canadian tradition; it was practically invented by Lester Pearson, and for two generations this country was among the world’s most dedicated peacekeepers.

Today, says McAskie, we’re not even a player. Our peacekeeping is a memory. We rank 56th in the world in our contribution to peacekeeping.

Carolyn McAskie knows. She spent 30 years with CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency. In 1999 she joined the United Nations, becoming Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and also heading the UN peacekeeping mission in Burundi. Sixteen months ago she was appointed Assistant Secretary-General for peacebuilding support, attached to the UN’s new Peacebuilding Commission. She was recently in Halifax to deliver the Lloyd Shaw Lecture on Public Affairs at Dalhousie University and to participate in a symposium on peacebuilding.

Peacebuilding? Whuzzat?

In 1961, as a young peace activist, I did fundraising for the Canadian Peace Research Institute created by physicist Dr. Norman Alcock. Huge amounts were being spent on war research, euphemistically called “defence research.” Alcock – who died last March, at 88, bless him – argued that we should also be studying ways to prevent war and resolve conflicts peacefully. In 1961, that idea was novel, shocking and suspect, but dozens of academic programs cover that field today.

The research shows that achieving peace involves at least three major phases. “Peacemaking” means bringing an end to a violent conflict. “Peacekeeping” is the maintenance of the ceasefire and the prevention of fresh violence – for example, by soldiers patrolling the ceasefire line.

And “peacebuilding” — the new concept — is the long-term process of creating an environment which ensures that the inevitable conflicts in a society, or between nations, are worked out within a non-violent framework. Carolyn McAskie’s new UN agency is currently working in Burundi and Sierra Leone. Each has a recent history of violent conflict, and either could slide back into violence. The peacebuilder’s role is to ensure that doesn’t happen, ever.

Canada will be joining the Peacebuilding Commission next July – but the decay of our peacekeeping capacity, says McAskie, means that we’re in danger of arriving without the ability to do anything useful for those two beleaguered African nations.

What has happened to us?

Traditionally, she says, Canada recognized itself as a “middle power” which couldn’t rely for its security on force. A great power might believe that security lay in military strength, and might believe it could win a war if necessary. A middle power could never win a war, though it could certainly lose one. For a middle power, peace is the only security.

For Canada, then, peacekeeping was not mushy-headed do-goodism, but hard-headed realism. Peacekeeping in Suez was not simple altruism. It was a practical exercise in defence of Canada, which would have been instantly vaporized if the conflict had escalated into a nuclear duel between the US and the USSR.

Peacekeeping also suited our character. McAskie cites a quip from The Economist that Canada is the only social democratic country which never elected a social democratic government. Like western Europeans, we believed in a mixed economy, a strong social safety net, and an individual willingness to support state initiatives with taxes. We believed that in a rich country, nobody should be homeless or hungry. We had seen that in the Depression, and we did not ever want to see it again. There were no food banks in the Canada I grew up in.

And we were proud to be among the world’s leading peacemongers.

Individual Canadians, says Carolyn McAskie, still care about peace and social justice – but our government and other institutions have lost sight of our traditions. Since the 1990s, we have been absorbed with internal matters – western alienation, Quebec separatism, the deficit. We said we couldn’t afford peacekeeping and a decent level of foreign aid. We told the world we’d be back, but we never came back.

Instead we joined the NATO effort in Afghanistan, which tries to combine peacemaking, conquest, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. But that’s impossible. You can’t do it all simultaneously – and certainly not with a foreign army.

“The process was founded on a great mistake,” says Carolyn McAskie. “The Taliban was never at the table. You may think the Taliban is completely evil, but the Taliban has to be at the table. If you want to get out of hell, you have to talk to the devil.”

A disquieting thought, but a deeply Canadian one. The only solution is peace, and the only route to peace is negotiation with the other side. You don’t have to like the other side, but you do have to deal with them.

Waging peace, a small country can make a large difference. We’ve done it before. We should do it again.

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