Friday, May 22, 2015

My thoughts are with Ireland today...

The Irish are voting in a historic referendum today on marriage equality.   I'm mostly Irish by blood, although not by citizenship.   And, as you can guess, I'm hoping that it turns out well for those who favour equality.

At first, I was surprised that such a vote on minority rights would be put to popular vote.  But, as this article makes clear, legalizing equal marriage in the constitution requires a constitutional amendment voted on by the public in order to avoid future legal challenges.  

Still, one has to worry what the formerly staunch conservative voters of Ireland will do today.  The country only decriminalized homosexuality in 1993.  The country seems to have become more liberal since.  Polls showed the pro-equality side far ahead right up until today.  

In the U.S., where similar referenda have taken place in the last 15 to 20 years, the experience was mostly negative until 2012, when voters started approving equality and shutting down attempts to ban gay marriage.   The tide has turned in that country. 

In Canada, the pro-equal marriage side won out 10 years ago, with courts and legislatures voting in favour.  Polls now show 65% of Canadians support equal marriage. 

Voting in Ireland continues today until 10 pm Irish time, or 5 pm Toronto time.  (Although results won't be fully counted until Saturday, apparently.)  So hopefully we'll get good news to celebrate tomorrow. 

In the mean time, glad to share this Canadian video supporting the equal marriage cause:

Monday, May 18, 2015

Progressives look for champion to stop Harper

It's been an interesting few weeks with a perfect storm producing a surprise NDP victory in Alberta.

The Alberta NDP win does prove the NDP can win votes from Canadians in surprising places.  But we need to dissect the reality a bit further to realize that this isn't necessarily the blessing the federal NDP hopes it is.

In Alberta, Rachel Notley benefited from a perfect storm which consisted of these elements which proved essential to her victory:

1) An unpopular PC government that had long grown arrogant and complacent, so much so that many conservative voters had become desperate to vote for anybody remotely qualified to stop them.
2) The official opposition Wildrose had imploded and only just elected a new leader, a well-meaning guy named Brian Jean who clearly wasn't ready for the premier's office.
3) The provincial Liberal party had also imploded, unable to attract significant talent, and its leader, Raj Shurman, had also just stepped down.  The party didn't have enough time to even run a leadership race so former leader David Swann stepped in as interim leader.  He proved fairly ineffective as a campaigner.  In addition, the Libs fell well short of running a full slate of candidates. 
4) Rachel Notley put together a moderate plan that spoke to Albertans' pent-up desire for change, including the need to tax corporations "a bit" more and get a better oil royalties' deal for all Albertans.  Ultimately, Notley projected a style of leadership and charm similar to Peter Lougheed that won Albertans over. 

Notley's NDP managed to win virtually all progressive votes in the province, as well as many centrists long tired of the PCs.  Had the provincial Liberals been better organized, it would've undermined the NDP's ability to win.  Furthermore, the conservative majority in the province literally divided itself in half between the PCs and Wildrose. 

To assume Notley's success will automatically translate into Tom Mulcair's success federally this year is foolhardy.  None of the essential conditions above exist for Mulcair.  In truth, Mulcair has shown little ability to connect emotionally with voters the way that Notley did.   When you look at his record in by-elections, Mulcair's a vote loser. 

Furthermore, while Notley benefited from being the only credible progressive party running against two strong conservative parties, we are seeing the exact opposite reality federally where two strong progressive/centrist parties are facing a united conservative option.  

Mulcair has been an effective opposition leader in the House of Commons, but that is irrelevant when it comes to his ability to connect emotionally with voters on the hustings.

I've never liked Mulcair much.  Before he became leader, I found him to be insufferably arrogant, frequently talking down to viewers when he appeared for on-air interviews.  That arrogance has been toned down a bit since he became leader.   But I still have my doubts about his abilities.  

I've been wrong before, so I don't rule out the possibility that Mulcair's team figures out a way to win this year, or at least become the main challenger to the Harper Conservatives.  But I'd argue that's only possible if Justin Trudeau's Liberals fall flat on their faces, which I'm not betting will happen.

Trudeau has shown a great ability to connect emotionally with voters, and his by-election results prove it.  But he has yet to clearly flesh out an inspiring vision for the country as well as a detailed policy platform to back it up.   Although that is starting to change with promises to cut middle class income taxes, raise income taxes on the richest Canadians and match the government's family child care promises with more generous promises.

It's not a complete policy vision yet, but once the entire platform's out there,  I predict Trudeau will be effective at communicating it on the hustings.   That may go a long way to countering the impression that he's too green and immature for the prime minister's office.   But we shall see.  Things could go very wrong if Trudeau gets shaky off-script.   The debates will be key and could prove his downfall or his great success. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Alberta election, we've seen polls that claim the NDP is surging federally, perhaps even outpacing the Liberals for second place.   

But this poll by Nanos Research out today is much more credible due to that pollster's great record and methodology.  Despite the Alberta NDP win, Nanos still shows the Conservatives and Liberals battling closely for number one in Ottawa, with the NDP still playing spoilers.

We'll see if this holds.  I'm expecting it might for a while until either Trudeau or Mulcair make some kind of gaffe.  It might be more likely that Trudeau makes a slip of the tongue which gets his campaign in a bit of trouble.  But Trudeau has also shown an ability to bounce back quickly from such things.  It would take a series of Trudeau errors to provide the opening Mulcair needs to supplant the Liberals as the main alternative to stop Harper. 

In the end, if both Trudeau and Mulcair perform well enough in this race, they may end up cancelling each other out.   Progressive voters will divide between the two parties, allowing Harper's Cons to slip up the middle and likely form a minority government.

What happens after that depends on the actual voting results and seat count.

All of this is prelude, of course.  Some say the Liberals' slow descent in the polls in the last year means they're in trouble.  In reality, these polls might bring out the fighter in Trudeau and make him the campaigner he needs to be.  Had he continued to coast along out front, he might've become complacent and more prone to sloppy errors.

Now it's clear Trudeau will have to fight hard for every vote.  They won't be able to arrogantly argue only the Liberals can beat the Cons.  The Alberta election proves that is false.   The federal Liberals are underdogs again with most commentators greatly underestimating Trudeau's abilities.  These are the same folks who underestimated Trudeau when he stepped into the 2012 boxing ring against Patrick Brazeau.  And we all know how that turned out. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Wow! How stupid can Ontario PCs be?

As I listened to the Ontario PC official read out the individual riding results minutes ago, with Patrick Brown winning most ridings (and eventually winning the leadership), I was struck by how out of touch Ontario Tories are with their local communities. 

Or perhaps it proves just how much of a shell this party has become that it could be taken over by a well-organized pretender like Brown.  

In the Toronto auditorium where the event was happening, I heard one woman cry out, "Thank you, Jesus!"

Toronto Star reporter Robert Benzie quoted Mary Ellen Douglas, Ontario President for Campaign Life Coalition as saying, "We are happy with Patrick Brown's election."

This is not the face of modern Ontario. 

One thing for certain - I'm afraid PCs have voted in someone who will be even worse at connecting with Ontarians than Tim Hudak.   Brown is arrogant and inexperienced with a penchant for flirting with social conservative causes most Ontarians want nothing to do with like revisiting abortion rights. 

He's got nothing to offer.  This emperor has no clothes.

Of course, facing such a lousy opponent, I hope the Kathleen Wynne Liberals won't get complacent.  It's true that Brown will spend most of his time trying to recruit ethnic voters out in certain ridings now held by the Liberals.  The Grits will have to work hard to maintain their strength there. 

Perhaps this opens the door to Andrea Horwath's NDP who might now find it much easier to win the votes of Ontarians hungry for change next time (who will no doubt find Brown a horrible option.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Historic NDP victory in Alberta gets tonnes of reaction!

Last night's historic NDP majority in Alberta was something to behold.   Goodbye, Alberta PCs and Jim Prentice!  The NDP took 53 seats, the Wildrose 21, the PCs just 11, the Liberals one, and the Alberta Party took one.

Calling the election when he did will go down as one of the biggest political blunders in recent Canadian history.

Reactions are pouring in.  I have to eat my words about the NDP never being able to win in Alberta.  Clearly, in the right circumstances (including immense public anger at the conservative incumbents, lack of confidence in the Wildrose opposition and a collapsed Liberal Party), the NDP can unite the progressive vote behind it and beat Conservatives.

There are more serious implications for last night's vote, but I'll save those for another post very soon.

In the mean time, please enjoy this parody video, 'Hitler reacts to Alberta NDP majority election,' I created late last night to have a little fun:

Monday, May 4, 2015

Canada now has two elected, openly LGBT premiers

PEI Premier Wade MacLauchlan
With tonight's majority Liberal win in Prince Edward Island, Wade MacLauchlan becomes the second openly gay premier elected in Canada (after Kathleen Wynne in Ontario.)

Most celebratory of all is how his sexual orientation seemed to be a non-issue in the race.  How far we have come, indeed!

MacLauchlan's Liberals won 18 seats out of 27 in the province.  The PCs took 8 seats, but their leader Rob Lantz narrowly failed to win his own Charlottetown seat.   

Of note, the provincial NDP and the Greens won big gains in the popular vote, with the Green Party leader, Peter Bevan-Baker, handily winning his party's first seat in the island legislature.   (Unfortunately for the NDP, their increase in the vote was less concentrated and failed to elect anyone under Canada's first-past-the-post voting system. But with tomorrow's election in Alberta, the NDP may soon be smiling.)

For full results,  click here to go to the CBC's election website.

Monte McNaughton shows his true colours on eve of Ont PC vote

Failed Tory leadership candidate/Lambton-area PC MPP Monte McNaughton hit new lows over the weekend with emailed attacks on his colleague Christine Elliott, who might end up being his political boss after May 9th. 

McNaughton again flirted with sexism and/or homophobia when he criticized Elliott in the email for allegedly not doing enough to fight the province's new curriculum, which includes sensible and age-appropriate sex ed material, like letting kids know that gay people exist in the world and some kids may even live with same-sex parents.   That's too much for certain homophobes out there. 

As this Sun article makes clear, McNaughton's showing a great deal of immaturity and stupidity:  

"The former leadership candidate accused the long-time MPP, whom he refers to as “Christine Elliott Trudeau,” of having “waffled” on the curriculum issue.  He then urged party members to support the only other candidate in the race — federal Conservative MP Patrick Brown.

McNaughton also accused Elliott of saying people who don’t support the curriculum won’t be welcome in her “Big Blue Tent” if she wins the leadership.   

“Ms. Elliott should rename her tent to the ‘Little Red Tent’ or ‘Little Pink Tent,” McNaughton wrote. “There is nothing ‘Big’ or ‘Blue’ about it.”

Really?  A 'little pink tent?'

Most opposition to the new curriculum is based on lies being promoted by anti-gay bigots like Charles McVety, attacking things that aren't actually in it.   They're whipping up opposition in ethnic minority communities, taking advantage of the fact that few if any of them will actually ever read the proposed curriculum to confirm the hysterical attacks.

We are seeing the ugly side of conservatism and bigotry in this debate.

Glad to see some Ontario PCs fighting back against McNaughton's stupidity, including MPP Todd Smith who slammed McNaughton on Twitter this weekend:  "It's amazing to me just how low has fallen in the last two months but tonight was the lowest!!"

Thursday, April 30, 2015

'A Sinner in Mecca' impresses at Hot Docs Toronto festival

Thousands of Muslims circling the Kaaba in Mecca,
as seen in 'A Sinner in Mecca'
I attended the world premiere last night of director Parvez Sharma's controversial new documentary 'A Sinner in Mecca.'   It played at Toronto's Hot Docs film festival.

Sharma is an openly gay Muslim filmmaker who previously directed 'A Jihad for Love.'  His new film chronicles his own personal and spiritual journey to visit Mecca, a journey all Muslims are supposed to make at least once during their lifetimes.

The CBC ran stories about Sharma and his film yesterday: 

"The Hajj is the highest calling for any Muslim," he told CBC News. "For years I felt I really needed to go, so this film is about me coming out as a Muslim. I'm done coming out as a gay man."

He videotaped his journey to Mecca surreptitiously on his iPhone and other small cameras that looked like phones since filming isn't permitted in Saudi Arabia and homosexuality can be punished by death.

"I was terrified because they reserve the death penalty for people like me," Sharma said.

Several times he had his equipment seized and video files deleted by authorities. But he persevered with both his spiritual journey and his film.

"I was there making this pilgrimage for the thousands of gay Muslims who were too scared to go to Saudi Arabia, who would feel they would never be welcome," Sharma said. "I felt I was doing it for them."

...The film's very existence has earned Sharma hate mail and death threats from angry Muslims.

The film was also denounced by the Iranian government for promoting homosexuality. The Hot Docs festival has added extra security for the filmmaker's safety and for patrons attending the three sold-out screenings."

My take on the film: it is a stunning journey documented with meticulous detail by Sharma that I won't forget.   As a non-Muslim Westerner (and non-religious person) who will never be able to journey to these locations, it was incredibly illuminating.

Sharma's voice over accompanying his visuals make clear the immense physical challenges he and others endure to make this trip, including the pushing through mass crowds circling the Kaaba (pictured above) as most try to touch it.  The circling goes on 24/7.  "There is nothing kind" about this, remarks Sharma.  Instead of being a moment of solemn prayer and reflection, it's an exhausting shoving match not for the faint of heart, it seems.   Near this holiest of Muslim sites, Saudi royalty has seen fit to allow a Starbucks franchise and various other commercial outlets to be opened. The clash between solemn religion and modern capitalist hypocrisy couldn't be more stunning.

Sharma even sacrifices a goat to fulfil his journey, the final step in his religious purification, he says. The bloody scene is awful to watch.  In the end, Sharma says he feels empty, but relieved he made the journey.  He also states the experience bolsters his desire to see a "reformation" in Islam.

Non-Muslims will see things in this film they will never otherwise see.  I'd say the same goes for Muslims as well.  As a gay man who has also struggled to find a place within organized religion, I found Sharma's journey and film to be fascinating.   I highly recommend it.

'A Sinner in Mecca' plays again this weekend at Hot Docs, and later in May will screen at Toronto's LGBT Inside Out film festival.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Could Rachel Notley's NDP be heading to shocking win in Alberta?

I watched last night's superb debate between Alberta provincial leaders.  Yes, Alberta politics has become spell-binding for political junkies this election. 

Yes, NDP Leader Rachel Notley was amazing and PC Premier Jim Prentice didn't really help his struggling campaign much, especially with his patronizing comment, "I know that math is difficult."

Wildrose leader Brian Jean looked good in his suit, but probably didn't convince many outside his base that he's premier material.  Liberal leader David Swann was decent but irrelevant.  
The reviews so far show that Notley won the debate by a country mile.  It's likely the event will add to the Alberta NDP's considerable momentum. 

Could we be witnessing a historic and shocking NDP win in an Alberta election?  A perfect storm with the right-wing literally cut in half by two parties, and a collapsed Liberal Party producing an NDP victory?  Time will tell on May 5th.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Edward Snowden, Bill C-51 and the scary growth of government surveillance

I recently watched the chilling, superb documentary Citizenfour by director Laura Poitras.  The film, which won the Best Documentary Feature award at this year's Academy Awards, chronicles in detail the 2013 interviews by Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill with Edward Snowden, the infamous whistle blower.   It also outlines how the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S., in cahoots with other world governments and agencies, have expanded their spying to include virtually all human digital communications, not just on those suspected of terrorism. 

The film is must-see for everyone.  I have to admit I didn't fully understand the full extent of Snowden's revelations when they first came to light in June 2013.   I recall the revelations getting a bit blurred in the coverage of the attacks on Snowden's character by the intelligence establishment and his fleeing from authorities to Russia. 

But the film returns the focus back to the secret documents that Snowden revealed which proved the full extent of the NSA's surveillance program, which has grown to intercept virtually all digital communications of Americans and citizens of other countries without any safeguards for privacy rights.   Data of every email, every Google search, every Facebook post, every phone call, every online purchase of virtually every human being they can monitor is being captured using NSA technologies and partnerships with other government's agencies including the Canadian government and is being stored for future reference.   Should governments decide to target anyone, they are able to utilize their vast surveillance archive to retroactively investigate them. 

Essentially, this represents the greatest invasion of privacy in history.

In late 2013, Barton Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who led the Washington Post's coverage of Snowden's disclosures, summarized the Snowden leaks as follows:

"Taken together, the revelations have brought to light a global surveillance system that cast off many of its historical restraints after the attacks of Sept 11, 2001.  Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, Internet and location records of whole populations."

No doubt, the full implications of these disclosures are still permeating through the public consciousness two years later.  Many people still barely know what Snowden revealed, let alone understand it.  Thus, the vital importance of the film and why it continues to be important to hear from Snowden, as we thankfully continue to do.  

Citizenfour's interviews of Snowden flesh out a man of principle who went to incredible lengths and personal sacrifice to reveal the despicable overreach of his bosses into the lives of all of us. 

Snowden's had some critical things to say about Canada's spying regime and lack of adequate oversight, as well as the Harper government's proposed Bill C-51, which would expand the powers of the Canada's spy agency.

This past weekend saw numerous protests across Canada against Bill C-51.  This follows what seems like plummeting public support for the legislation. 

I've struggled to dissect the implications of Bill C-51, reading both good and bad about it.  Without enhanced oversight provisions, I can't help but be wary of it.   This Walrus article by Craig Forcese and Kent Roach helped me greatly with my understanding.

Justin Trudeau's decision to vote for Bill C-51, despite concerns over the bill's lack of enhanced oversight provisions, puts the Liberal Party too far on the side of the security establishment which clearly has grown too big.  Sure, the Liberals' decision to vote for it is pure politics, in response to the Conservatives' exaggeration of the terrorist threat.  In truth, there's little real difference between the Liberal position and the NDP position on C-51, except for the symbolic votes either for or against the legislation.  Both opposition parties are promising to similarly tinker with the law should either of them form a government.  The Conservatives' majority ensures they can control passage of whatever bill they wish this year.

But we need more than tinkering.  We need more than just a new parliamentary committee to keep an eye on CSIS and other government agencies after the fact (although that would be an improvement).   We need a full-scale, public investigation into this new status quo revealed in Citizenfour and how to roll it back to return some degree of privacy to our lives.  We can't trust Stephen Harper to do that as he probably approves of the NSA's abilities to spy on every Canadian.

The issues raised in Citizenfour and by C-51 are not entirely the same, but clearly they are linked.   They both deal with growing government power snuffing out individual freedoms.   We need to pull back the powers we have handed over to these forces to ensure better balance so we don't continue down this scary road.   If we continue, years from now, we'll all be horrified to see our society transformed into a police state, where lack of privacy and freedom is the norm, not the rare exception.  

The next step in this fight is to create a critical mass of awareness.  Once more and more of the public realizes that their privacy no longer exists, we will hopefully stop giving deference and support to the Harperites of the world and demand our governments roll back surveillance of our lives.   On this issue, I have to admit the NDP has its priorities right.  I can only hope that politicians like Trudeau soon catch up. 

In the mean time, watch Citizenfour and look forward to more films on the subject that can continue to pierce the public's awareness.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Michael Coren is my new hero

I really like the new Michael Coren, who's undergone a mellowing that looks very good on him.

Watching him debate the horrible Charles McVety in this Power & Politics debate this week on Ontario's new school curriculum was immensely enjoyable.

So I'm happy to post it here:

Sorry, religious conservatives, Canada is a secular country

I'm immensely pleased with this Supreme Court ruling yesterday.   It has struck me as wrong for decades that we continue to recite Christian prayers at public council and legislative meetings in this diverse and secular country.

Chantal Hebert nicely sums up the issues in her column here. 

Hebert writes: "The recitation of a prayer remains a fundamentally religious act, a fact about which the court had this to say: “. . . the state may not, by expressing its own religious preference, promote the participation of believers to the exclusion of non-believers or vice-versa. (. . . ) A neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity, and it helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society..." 

"In paragraph 74 of the judgment, and almost as an aside from its core narrative, Justice ClĂ©ment Gascon writes: “I note that a neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space. Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals.”

Those who suggest that Canada is a Christian country by heritage and therefore that should trump other religions today are wrong headed.   To them, I have a simple message: Canada was originally 100% Aboriginal.   The Europeans and others who brought Christianity here did so centuries afterwards.   Christians have no more right to dominate public spaces today with their practises than any other religious group of immigrants like Muslims or Hindus.

We are all descendants of immigrants to Canada, if not immigrants ourselves.   Even Aboriginal Canadians are descendants from the very first immigrants to this land.   Plus we are a country that respects the clear division between church and state.

Those religious folks tend to resent it when they perceive the state encroaching on religious freedom.   Yet many of those same folks continue to demand that their religions encroach on the state (such as with public funding for Catholic schools in Ontario, or Christian prayers at the start of city council meetings, or conservative religious censorship of public school curriculum.)

I'm sure we'll all hear incessant grumbling about how Canada is a Christian country from those with a warped perspective of history, and how this ruling is unjust.  Canada was a Christian country when the Christians took it over and imposed their religion on the entire populace.  But now in these secular times, such old practices need to be curtailed.

A moment of silence at the beginning of legislative sittings would be most appropriate from now on.   But no spoken prayers.