Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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We need to talk about Omar

Omar Khadr, who spent 10 years at Guantanamo Bay after being captured by US soldiers as a 15 year old, has been in the Canadian news this week because the federal government has apologized to him and agreed to a payout of $10.5 million for violating his human rights.

Many Canadians, including a number of prominent Conservative politicians, are upset about this. It’s fine to debate the amount, the timing of, the manner in which the settlement was announced. But so many of the arguments seem to be based on an an emotional response that ignores or denies a number of inconvenient facts. Which is what upsets me.

For instance:

1. He is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of throwing the grenade

See What if Omar Khadr isn’t guilty? in the National Observer for the full report (by a former prosecutor), but it points out a number of problems in the legal case, including:

  • Lack of any eye witness to the event
  • Inconsistent and inaccurate accounts by variou US military personnel about what happened immediately before and after the grenade was thrown
  • Photographic evidence that appears to exonerate Kadr

2. Whoever did throw that grenade wasn’t committing an act of terrorism

For details, see the “Is it a crime?” section of Unanswered questions in 8-year Omar Khadr saga, along with the Observer article previously referenced. But the point is, terrorism means attacking civilians going about their daily business. So, launching a grenade in a shopping mall or at a rock concert would most definitely be an act of terrorism.

But in this case, the grenade was thrown at an armed Special Forces soldier who was part of a team that had just spent four hours trying to kill everyone in the compound. (Note that I’m not accusing the US military of anything here, either: in attacking that compound, the US military was just doing their job, of rooting out al-Qaeda cells.)

But the response of survivors to that attack was just self-defense, wasn’t it? Or just… war? But, “murder in violation of the laws of war” is what Khadr was charged with. It is not part of the Geneva convention, but something that the George Bush administration brought in (and Obama upheld) after 9/11.

However, 1300 US service members have been killed in the war in Afghanistan. And Omar Khadr is the only person ever charged with “murder” for doing so. Suggesting considerable doubt, even by its drafters, about how valid a charge that is.

3. But killing a medic…

Could be a war crime, yes, but Speer wasn’t a medic. He was in training to become one. On that day, he was not acting as a medic, but as a combat soldier. (The media unfortunately often gets this one wrong, so no wonder many people think he was a medic.)

4. But Khadr confessed to the charge!

  1. Under torture, yes. Making the confession unreliable. We know that some of the other things Khadr told his interrogators, such as information about Maher Arar, were untrue. (Remember that the Central Park 5 also confessed, yet DNA evidence later proved that they were all innocent.)
  2. As part of a plea deal, fearing he’d face indefinite detention at Guantanamo otherwise. There was no trial. And Khadr is now appealing that conviction.

But at any rate… What Khadr did or didn’t do in Afghanistan is somewhat beside the point, because that’s not what the government compensated him for. It’s for what the Government of Canada did to him—or did not do for him—after he was captured.

Per Here’s what Canada is making amends for in the Omar Khadr case

Canada was complicit in the rights violations Omar Khadr experienced; most notoriously by allowing our intelligence officers to interview him knowing he had been softened up by his U.S. captors through their notorious “frequent flyer” sleep deprivation program, a particularly cruel form of mental and physical torture.

That was under the Chrétien Liberal government.

That was then exacerbated by the subsequent Harper Conservative’s government’s refusal to extradite him from Guantanamo. Canada was the only Western country to leave its citizen in place there for years, and the Conservative government fought his release to the bitter end.

And all worsened by the fact that Khadr was 15 was he arrested, after his conscription into al-Qaeda group by his father at age 11. (11!) Canada didn’t consider him old enough to drive, buy cigarettes, vote, get married, or join the army, yet somehow he’s not considered (still today) to have been a child soldier

The Supreme Court of Canada has therefore ruled that his rights were violated.

So, why the persistence in insisting he’s definitely guilty of terrorism and denying that his age at the time should be taken into account? Well, as might surmise from that whole “made him join al-Qaeda at 11” thing), his family really is terrible, as noted in this  great Colby Cosh column:

The intractable problem with Omar Khadr is simply his existence. The politicians who seem to crave (more of) his blood are, in an understandable way, trying to punish the behaviour of his father, and to retroactively abnegate the slack application of dual-citizenship principles that allowed Khadr Sr. to become Canadian while leading a double life as an international terrorist.

But the son is not the father.

In the interviews and documentaries I’ve seen of him, he seems like a remarkably decent man. (If you’re Canadian, or versed with VPNs, you can watch one yourself: http://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/episodes/omar-khadr-out-of-the-shadows). But that’s beside the point, too.

This is the point:


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I have opinions. About things.

One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all.

The Madness of King Donald, by Andrew Sullivan

But this is not really one of those times. It seems to me it would be exhausting to be against the current US administration right now, whether you are actively resisting (so many protests! So many calls to make and letters to write!) or feeling guilty that you aren’t resisting, or aren’t doing so enough.

Meanwhile in Canada…

I haven’t written, called, or protested about anything lately, save this letter to the editor about the faux scandal of Trudeau not attending Trump’s inauguration. Remember that? It seems so long ago! A number of people mentioned to me that they saw it.

It leaves me heartened that so many still read the local newspaper.

Oh, and I did sign the official petition protesting the Liberal’s abandonment of their electoral reform promise. Still open, if you’d like to do so also, though we all know it won’t change anything.

Electoral reform wasn’t my most important issue, but I did want to make at least minimal effort (and that was minimal) to register that the Liberal’s handling of it was… Unimpressive. 

First of all in the drafting of the promise itself:

electoral-reform

If your goal is to no longer use first past the post, why are you studying mandatory and online voting? Neither of those is an alternative to first past the post! (You can be forced to vote or allowed to vote on your phone with any system.)

Second, in making such a big deal about it. This party made hundreds of promises, any number of which haven’t been mentioned since election night. Since we now know they weren’t so keen on it, why did they spotlight this particular one so much, repeating it, according to the Washington Post, 1813 times?

Third, their handling of the committee report. First, the Minister of Democratic Institutions insulted the committee members, saying “they had not completed the hard work we had expected it to do” [false!]. Then she followed it up with a press conference in which she made fun of math—always a good look on a young woman (so inspiring!).

Monsef

What a ridiculous formula!

Fourth, in the Prime Minister’s lame excuses for killing the promise, citing fears of extremist parties holding the balance of power. What, like having a party that wants to break up the country as the Official Opposition (Bloc Québecois, 1993 ot 1997—thanks, first past the post!)? And then bizarrely citing the example of Kellie Leitch running her own party.

Under first past the post, Kellie Leitch has a reasonably good chance of becoming Prime Minister in 2019

After all, she is one of the front-runners in the 14-person race to be leader of the Conservative party of Canada.

Look, if I’m sympathetic to PR, it’s because Canada’s major parties sometimes move in alarming directions, and I know they only need to convince slightly more than a third of a the population (living the right places) to gain a majority of seats. And these days the Conservatives are doing far too much cozying up to their lunatic fringe for my comfort.

Four of them—Leitch, Brad Trost, Chris Alexander, and Pierre Lemieux—happily attend a “Freedom rally” by “Rebel Media” (think Canada’s Breitbart) at which Muslims were called “unintegreteable” into Canadian society, and at which Muslims bans were requested. Nice!

And the rest? Four weeks after six Muslims were murdered while praying at their Quebec, the majority of them are reluctant to support a motion condemning Islamophobia and other religious discrimination. Why? Because the Rebel people had stoked fears and anger about this innocent motion, erroneously claiming that it would stifle freedom and speech and bring in Sharia law (!!!).

liberal-motion.png

Source: https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/a-liberal-motion-is-not-going-to-force-sharia-law-on-canada-duh

As Paul Wells says, “all parties must decide if it’s better to campaign on fear or campaign against it.” Are they with Iqra Kalid, the Liberal MP who brought forth this motion, or with the people now bombarding her with hate and death thteats?

So far, only Conservative canddiate Michael Chong has shown the courage and ethics to support Motion 103.

I never thought the first political party I’d join would be the Conservatives, but it’s the only way I can vote for Michael Chong as leader. [And you can too (if you’re Canadian): Sign up at https://www.chong.ca/. It’s only $15.]

Who also happens to be the only candidate with a climate change plan—one that would also give us a big income tax cut! Otherwise, we have one climate denier (Trost) and 12 people who claim to believe it’s a problem but apparently don’t plan to do anything to fix it.

And this is an issue because the Conservative leadership is not first past the post, but a ranked ballot. Meaning that even though I only like one candidate, I have to try pick out the least objectionable remaining candidates to rank higher than the truly odious ones (the Rebel four, plus O’Leary, wh0 apparently intends to run the country from a US base). Wish me luck.

Cute cat video!

If you’ve actually made it this far down this post, you deserve this:

 


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Electoral reform: Asking the right questions

Canada’s current, low-key debate about whether to change the federal voting system (and if so, how) is way less dramatic than the political power plays in the UK, Australia’s coping with a near-tie in their new Parliament, and the insane US election. But it’s what we got.

The Liberals ran on a promise that 2016 would be last election under “first past the post” (FPTP), but without committing on how it would change. They have struck an all-party committee to try to figure that out. The main debate is between those who want PR (proportional representation) vs. those who want to keep FPTP. (A side debate is whether the question should be put to a referendum.)

Maryam Monsef

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday July 6, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Essentially, PR proponents think it’s important that each Canadian voter have a reasonable chance of electing an MP of the party they vote for. In practice, this would be achieved by having larger multi-member ridings that allow for a more proportional distribution of total votes, vs. the current system of one member per smaller riding. (Andrew Coyne, PR advocate, explains.)

FPTP proponents don’t agree that this matters. They seem to think that wanting to be able to elect an MP from the party of your choice is just a sign of not really understanding the Canadian system of responsible government. For example: Roundup: Values vs. mechanics.

Now, said lack of understanding is likely true—we don’t have great civics education in this country, and even politicians seem a bit fuzzy on how it’s all supposed to work. But, just dismissing PR proponents as ignorant is neither helpful, nor persuasive.

Admittedly, PR proponents have a tendency to be overly optimistic about the system’s potential benefits, claiming it will lead to increased voter turnout, better representation of women and minorities in Parliament, improved social equity, more political harmony—even a cleaner environment. Absolutely none of which is guaranteed. (Not the most egregious example of these, but see Activists gear up for ‘historic opportunity’ to usher in proportional representation.)

But, PR does give you that better shot at electing an MP from your preferred party. An MP who is then more likely to vote for legislation you agree with, and against legislation you don’t.

I wish FPTP proponents would address that fact. Why exactly do they think we better off having one MP from a party we didn’t vote for (which happens to the majority of voters under FPTP), than having four or five MPs, one of whom (odds are greater) we did vote for? What  current benefits will we lose if we move to a multi-member riding system?

While not exactly addressing this question, I did find this article, from a pro-FPTP perspective, rather interesting: Trump and electoral reform: Connecting the dots. Not sure about the main point that Canadian politics is in such a great state right, so why change it. If true, isn’t that more a factor of who won the last election than the system itself? Great Britain has the same system; does anyone think their politics are in a great state right now?

But, Mr. Heath did cause me to think about the fact that even if you do manage to elect an MP you want under PR, and they mostly vote how you prefer they do, that might not make any difference in the grand scheme of things. MPs that are not part of the coalition government still won’t win too many votes. It’s also absurd to think that under PR, there won’t ever be Conservative governments again (even if the current Conservatives, with their constant bleating about referendums, seem to believe that themselves). PR is no road to leftie utopia. All parties would adapt, include theirs.

It is a bit fear-mongering, though, to suggest that “the first thing you are going to get is a redneck anti-immigration party, which will get around 15% of the vote, and which will hold the balance of power in any parliament where the Conservative party has the most seats.” Not that such a party might rise; that’s likely true. But that such a party would definitely and always partner with a more moderate Conservative partner. I have a higher opinion of Red Tories than that; I expect they might prefer to ally themselves with another centrist party than a bunch of racists.

 


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A bewildered Canadian on a world gone mad

It’s Canada Day. And right now the world is giving me many reminders of how lucky I am to live here.

1. That Quebec’s referendum on separation was defeated.

I wasn’t paying much attention to Brexit until a couple weeks before it happened, and even then I was thinking that surely they wouldn’t vote Leave? Watching the results come in reminded me so much of the horrible Quebec separation referendum of 1995. A full night of tension (following weeks of worry on a vote I, an Ontarian, couldn’t even participate in) watching the movement of a Yes (separate) / No (stay) line on television.

151030_is0se_rci-m-vot_sn635

That nail biting time before the needle moved to the side of good

But then, while the Yes started out strong, it gradually swung toward the No, who ended up taking it with a 0.6% margin. Whereas Great Britain’s vote was the opposite: A strong initial showing for Stay giving way to Leave, who took it with 2% margin. (No matter how many times I refreshed my browser.)

What would have happened to Canada had it gone the other way? Great Britain’s experience is giving us an idea:

  • A precipitous drop in currency.
  • Tumbling stock markets, with the UK dropping from the 5th to the 6th world economy overnight.
  • Expected rises in unemployment, debt and lowering of GDP and growth.
  • A Leave team with no plan for how to exit.
  • Political disarray all around, leaving no party or leader currently able to effectively govern through the chaos.
  • Regions (Scotland, Ireland, London) unhappy with the result talking separation of their own.

For Canada, it would have been all that, only worse. (For an idea just how ill-prepared the country was for the possibility of a Yes vote in the Quebec Referendum, read Chantal Hébert’s The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day That Almost Was.)

And just for the record, Leave voters in Great Britain: What you did was crazy. Your country had a great deal in the EU: you were allowed to retain your own currency and greater control over your own borders than other countries, while still enjoying full trading access and movement of workers. And you gave that up for what?

177763_600

2. That recent attempts to win Canadians’ votes through xenophobic appeals have failed.

While a number of factors inspired Leave voters, the wish to reduce immigration—particular a certain kind of immigrant—was among them, as evidenced by the unfortunate increase in hate crime and racist abuse since the vote (as though racists now feel “allowed” to air their views). Meanwhile, the presumptive Republican nominee for US President wants to ban all Muslims from entering the country (“til we figure out what’s going on”) and build a wall to keep out Mexicans. And France has their National Front party. And so on…

But similar appeals haven’t met with success in Canada. In Quebec’s (them again) 2014 election, the Parti Québecois ran, in part, on a “Charter of Values” that would have banned public sector employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols:

MG0911003A_.indd

This bill was so popular in polls, the PQ used it try to turn their minority government into a majority. It didn’t work. After a fairly disastrous campaign by the PQ, it was the Liberals, who opposed the Charter, who were elected with a majority of the seats. With the added bonus that the spectre of another Quebec referendum on separation retreated further.

Then in the 2015 election, the ruling Conservatives appeared to gain ground in polls after they pledged to ban the wearing of niqabs at Canadian citizenship ceremonies, and to set up a barbaric practices tip line. [This is when I had to check out of Canadian election coverage for a while, as I was so distraught.] But the end result was, again, a coalescing around the Liberal party, who were foursquare against both proposals (and, it must be said, who generally ran a brilliant election campaign).

justin_trudeau_liberal_leader_federal_election_surrey_bc_-_mychaylo_prystupa

A plurality of Canadians chose hope over fear

Upon election, Liberals walked the talk, dropping the court case on the niqab ban, and most notably, welcoming 25,000 (and counting) Syrian refugees, moves that have only made them more popular since the election. Americans look on it in wonder, from The Daily Show to the New York Times:

Why? Well, Vox Magazine says it’s the outcome of decades of Canadian government fostering tolerance and acceptance as core national values. As a result, most Canadians see immigration as an opportunity, not a problem; as something that improves rather than threatens the nation. Apparently, Canada is the least xenophobic country in the Western world.

3. That our current government is (mostly) pro-trade

One of the most confusing results of the Brexit vote, to me, was the cavalcade of federal Conservatives MPs who tweeted their approval—the only Canadian I’m aware of who did so. But isn’t Conservatives supposed be all pro-trade, because it’s good for business, while it’s the lefties who are opposed, fearing it’s bad for labour?

And yet there’s Trump, spitting about pulling out NAFTA. What? When did this turn around? (Harper’s government, it must be said, was most definitely pro-trade, making the MPs comments all the more confusing.)

So it was another interesting bit of timing that this week was the NAFTA summit between the current US President, Canadian Prime Minister, and Mexican President.

cmjo22zwmaavs9w

Too bad they’re all men (but this US will be changing that soon, right? right?), but a fine-looking trio they are

Their big message: Trade is good. Countries are stronger when they work together. Globalism brings prosperity. And it was all capped off by one amazing speech President Obama gave in the House of Commons:

And what makes our relationship so unique is not just proximity. It’s our enduring commitment to a set of values, a spirit alluded to by Justin that says no matter who we are, where we come from, what our last names are, what faith we practice, here, we can make of our lives what we will.

Watch or read the rest here.

It was heart-warming, and for a while, one might forget that it remains so much easier to cross borders in Europe than it is to move between the US and Canada, that we have to pay duties on even tiny online purchases from the US, and absolute absurdities such as Canadian inter-provincial (!) trade barriers that cost our economy billions.

So there’s a lot of work to do on this one. But at least it seems the intent it to make things better, not worse, on this front.

Cause that’s the Canadian way.

Happy 149, Canada.

 

 


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Sunny ways—Canada is back

I was nervous Monday.

Despite my reduction in news consumption, and even though off on a wine-soaked vacation last week, I was well aware of what the polling was showing: That Harper’s horrible Islamophobic campaigning had seemingly backfired, and that the Liberals’ numbers were rising steadily—showing a comfy 9-point lead in one of the last polls to be released.

But also knew that polls were often wrong, and at any rate, were entirely meaningless. Only the vote counts for real.

My less emotionally invested yet still interested husband set up his tablet in anticipation of result, using CBC website tools to track certain ridings. He was at the ready as soon as Eastern results were posted. As I distracted myself with housework and such, he was giving reports:

“It’s looking good.”

And a little later: “It’s looking really good.”

And we all know what happened. Canada’s Atlantic provinces turned into one big Liberal red lobster.

Nova Scotia riding results

Yes, I know this is just Nova Scotia, not all the Atlantic provinces…

Of course that made me feel better, but we still had a big time gap til the more decisive Quebec / Ontario results.

So we watched a little iZombie to pass the time.

Around 9:30, I turned on the TV and said I’d just “have a look.” Of course, then I couldn’t stop watching (though I did bounce around channels a lot), mesmerized as the “Leading  or Won” seat counts just kept ticking up. By 10:00, they’d called that the Liberals would have a plurality of seats. The numbers kept going up, til it was clear that majority wasn’t an impossibility after all. And that was officially called around 10:35.

Canada votes Liberal majority
Holy doodle.

This would be the first time in about 20 years that a Federal candidate I voted for was elected as part of the governing party. Not to mention the first time in 10 years that I’m not appalled by a Federal election result.

It is unfortunate that the NDP and Greens were collateral damage in this; I didn’t wish ill to either of those parties, who lost some good MPs. But they were just as out-campaigned by the Liberals as the Conservatives were. The Liberals were able to do something else that hasn’t happened in decades: inspire disaffected voters to come back to the polls. The Liberals received more votes than in any party in Canadian history.

Even when the overall results were evident, I couldn’t stop watching. I looked up particular ridings. I cheered the principled Michael Chong’s victory, the only Conservative for whom that was the case.

I was pleased that my local candidate, Bardish Chagger (#MovesLikeChagger) garnered nearly 50% of the vote. I was glad to see her joined by three other Liberal MPs, replacing our previous set of middle-aged, white Conservative MPs with a more diverse group.

New Liberal MPs of Waterloo Region

(And the remaining middle-class white guy’s name is Bryan May, so he can’t be all bad!)

I liked that the Liberals won seats in all provinces, even Alberta and Saskatchewan! (What’s up with Saskatchewan, anyway? Why so Conservative?)

And I stayed up to watch all the speeches. I admit to being moved by Trudeau’s story about the Muslim woman and her baby. (But then again, it was nearly 1:00 AM, so that might just have been an exhaustion response.)

Trudeau and baby with her mother

This is the picture: It really happened!

And while I was going to say to say that results really don’t affect my daily life much, this one has. Because now that I know this story has a happy ending, I’ve ended my news diet, and have happily returned devouring interesting news stories wherever I can find them.

Though I must say I didn’t expect quite so many of them to be about how “boinkable” Justin Trudeau is. World: some respect for our hot new PM-designate, please!


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#Elxn42: This shit’s making me crazy

This shit’s making me crazy
The way you nullify what’s in my head
You say one thing, do another
And argue that’s not what you did
Your way’s making me mental
How you filter as skewed interpret
I swear you won’t be happy til
I am bound in a straight jacket

— Alanis Morissette, “Straightjacket”

So, it’s that part of the Canadian federal election where everything seems stupid and awful, we semi-hate everyone now, and when will it be over?!!

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s not just me.

Fortunately, I was able to decide who to vote for in the early and considerably less awful part of this extra-long campaign. And I’m not even primarily voting against something.

On balance, I just found that I like the Liberal platform the best. Things like, banning taxpayer-paid government ads (much as we’ll all miss those “Canada Action Plan” ads). And making the Senate non-partisan (one they’ve already walked the talk on). And, amending the Access to Information Act so it actually provides access to information. Ending omnibus bills. Trying to make Question Period better (it can hardly be worse). And yes, legalizing marijuana.

I also found Trudeau the most appealing leader overall. He’s shown more passion and boldness than the others. And I’m not concerned about his competence to govern.

As well, I am really impressed with the Waterloo Liberal candidate, Bardish Chagger. She’s smart, well-spoken, experienced in working in federal government. And she’s bound and determined to vote for Waterloo interests first, her party second. “I’d like to meet the person who succeeds in telling me what to do”, she said, credibly, at the debate I attended.

So good luck Ms. Chagger!

But I hope you’ll excuse while I now do my best to ignore the rest of the campaign. Because it’s not that I’m not interested. It’s just that me being interested has the unfortunate side-effect of me starting really care what happens. And I have no control over what happens—what politicians do and say, how the media reports it, and ultimately, how everyone else votes.

And that shit makes me crazy (then angry, scared, and finally kind of depressed and hopeless). I need off this emotional roller-coaster.

So bye-bye news radio, hello iTunes. See ya Macleans; the new Entertainment Weekly is in. Watch a leader’s debate? Are you kidding me? It’s the fall TV season! (Plus, I just discovered iZombie and Mozart in the Jungle on Shomi. Seriously, so fun.) Political bios? Not when I have a fresh copy of Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance.

Now, Twitter remains a minefield. And I’m not ready to give that up, but I guess I can mute / unfollow a few politicos until November or so, eh?

By then, hopefully this will no longer be my anthem:

Straightjacket on YouTube


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How to make a Canadian quilt

In honour of Canada Day, I just installed the Canadian English Dictionary extension for Firefox, so now WordPress doesn’t mark “honour” with a “u” as a typo. Yay!

I also spent some time (badly) photographing possibly the most Canadian item I own: A red and white quilt signed by various Canadian celebrities. My mother won it in a museum fundraiser back in 1997, and I recently inherited it.

Since 1997, some of the signatures have faded, and some of the “celebrities” have become obscure. But a number remain fun to look over.

Mr. Dressup signature and image

Aw, Mr. Dressup!

Jann Arden, Pamela Lee sigzantures

So Pamela Anderson was still married to Tommy Lee in ’97. And an interesting juxtaposition beside Jann Arden’s drawing (yes, that angel is naked. As angels are.).

Pamela Wallin and Jean Chretien signatures

Speaking of Pamelas and juxtapositions, Pamela Wallin was then just a TV journalist, not a disgraced Conservative Senator. The modest signature below hers is that of the Prime Minister of the day, Liberal Jean Chrétien.

Shania Twain, Stompin Tom, and Michelle Wright signatures

Stompin’ Tom was still was us in 1997, and Shania Twain is still with us today. Not sure what’s up with Michelle Wright these days…

Lynn Johson signature

And this one is just lovely

A few more items in Canada’s tapestry:

Google logo, Canada Day

Google’s logo today

Songza’s curated Canada Day playlists.

Raccoon on deck

A recent deck visitor

Trout, spinach, and roseRaspberries, strawberries, and dessert

Some fine local food.

Happy July 1, everyone! Canada flag