Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

December 20, 2006

Harper’s motion poses the question: Who is a Québécois?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian, p. A7

The House of Commons recently passed a motion, by a vote of 266-16, declaring the Québécois to be a nation within the Canadian federation. Not surprisingly, Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously adopted its own motion acknowledging Ottawa’s recognition.QBut public opinion across the country is far more divided. An Ipsos Reid poll indicated a majority of Canadians outside Quebec opposed to the resolution, while 63 per cent of all people in Quebec agreed.

The candidates for the Liberal Party leadership, too, were split. Gerard Kennedy was opposed, Michael Ignatieff in favour, and the eventual winner, Stéphane Dion, though a passionate federalist, also voted for it.

Even the terminology that was used by parliament is in dispute. The motion, introduced by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, referred, in both its English and French versions, to a Québécois people.

While the use of the word Québécois in French generally applies to any and all people living within the boundaries of the province of Quebec, regardless of ancestry, ethnicity, or language spoken, in English that term is usually restricted to francophones, and sometimes only to old-stock people of French descent, the so-called “pure laine” French Canadians of Quebec. Others in the province are commonly called Quebecers.

So the English text seems to suggest the recognition of a narrow, ethnic nationalism, while the French version is territorial, and denotes a civic and more inclusive nation. This implies that all citizens of the province can regard themselves as, and be considered, Québécois.

The odd thing, though, is that it is the sovereignists in Quebec who insist that theirs is the more open and pluralistic form of nationhood, rather than the old exclusionary variety. In fact the Bloc Québécois’ Gilles Duceppe wanted the English text to refer to Quebecers, rather than Québécois. Yet the MPs from the three federalist parties -- Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic -- almost all voted for Harper’s English version (as, in the end, did the Bloc).

Was this intentionally meant to suggest to the rest of Canada that the Québécois nation is one of “blood ties” united by a common past – the way in which we refer to aboriginal peoples as “First Nations?” Are we to consider Québécois a “tribe” unable to accommodate or integrate others into its body politic rather than the inhabitants of a modern society?

If so, this is a retrograde step, since that archaic form of French Canadian nationalism died in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. It would indeed be the height of irony if federalists, rather than separatists, defined Québécois in this manner.

I guess Governor General Michaëlle Jean got it wrong when, at her official installation in September 2005, she asserted that “The time of the ‘two solitudes’ that for too long described the character of this country is past.” I doubt this is quite what she had in mind.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

November 22, 2006

Is Quebec really a nation?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff has been chided by various columnists, in the Guardian and elsewhere, for applying the word “nation” to the people of Quebec.

One might think that Ignatieff, out of the blue, had suddenly begun a campaign to convince Québécois they were a self-defined national group.

But in fact the place of Quebec within Canada has been “the elephant in the room” for decades, and though people in the rest of Canada may not wish to hear it, this is an issue that will not go away.

It is precisely because the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords failed that we must, yet again, determine what kind of country Canada will be – lest it cease being one altogether.

It is true that Ignatieff’s call to recognize Quebec as a nation – though, oddly, while precluding any “special status” for the province within the framework of the Canadian constitution – has set off a firestorm within the Liberal Party’s ranks. None of the other contenders for the leadership, including Bob Rae, support his position.

But the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal Party has itself adopted a resolution asserting that Quebec constitutes “a nation within Canada” and has asked that the entire party “officialize” this status at its forthcoming convention.

And Jean Charest’s provincial Liberal government insists that recognizing Quebec as a nation is necessary, and that constitutional talks on the issue are inevitable. Why? “Because a country’s Constitution is a mirror and it is crucial that in that mirror, in the Constitution, Quebecers must fully recognize themselves,” stated Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoît Pelletier.

Does Quebec in fact satisfy the basic criteria of nationhood? A glance at the scholarly literature on the subject suggests that it does.

According to academic specialists in the field such as Walker Connor and Anthony D. Smith, there are both objective and subjective elements to national identity.

A nation must possess a well-defined geographic territory, a civic culture, and, usually, a common language. It must also form a legal-political community, with institutions that enable its citizens to express their political will.

On a more intangible level, a nation includes a set of common historical memories, customs, myths, symbols and traditions. This provides it with a psychological bond that joins its people together and differentiates it, in the subconscious conviction of its members, from other national groups – including those with which it may share a common state.

Whether other Canadians like it or not, Quebec fulfils all of these conditions. And francophones agree: A recent poll conducted by Léger Marketing showed 78 per cent of them consider Quebec a nation.

Not all Quebecers are descended from the original French settlement, of course, and any form of nationalism has the potential to become ethnocentric, discriminatory and xenophobic. But newer immigrants are now being successfully acculturated into the body politic. Quebec’s nationalism is now more state oriented and less ethnic than it used to be.

Should Rae, or another candidate, beat Ignatieff at the Liberal Party convention later this month, and assuming that the Conservatives, too, will continue to refuse to endorse Quebec nationhood, the main beneficiaries of this rejection in the next federal election will be the Bloc Québécois.

That is not a good situation for the country to find itself in. It may yet be avoided if we recognize Quebec’s national rights within the Canadian federation.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

November 2, 2006

A changing political landscape?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Liberal Party leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff’s recent comment referring to the Israeli bombing of the Lebanese village of Qana during the war against Hezbollah as a war crime prompted Liberal MP Susan Kadis, who represents the Thornhill riding in suburban Toronto, with its very large Jewish population, to step down as co-chair of his Toronto-area campaign.

It also caused Ariela Cotler, wife of the former justice minister in Paul Martin’s Liberal government, Montreal-area MP Irwin Cotler, to quit the party altogether. Cotler’s riding, Mount Royal, is home to the majority of Montreal’s Jews.

Earlier this year, a number of high-profile Canadian Jews announced their support for Stephen Harper. And when the prime minister spoke to a large audience at a dinner sponsored by the Jewish service organization B’nai Brith in Toronto recently, he was treated, in the words of one commentator, “like a rock star.”

The Liberal Party has traditionally been the “default” party of Canada’s Jewish community, but this may be changing. Many are clearly unhappy with the party’s Middle East positions, and are being swayed by Harper’s more uncompromising – some would call it principled – stance. The year 2006 may have ushered in one of those watershed periods when a group of voters moves en masse from support of one party to another.

“The Liberal Party has lost significant support from one of its traditional strong bases over the last few months, over this Lebanese conflict,” admitted Steven Pinkus, a vice-president of the party’s Quebec wing.

The various ethnic constituencies that the Liberal party has managed to keep onside as part of its political coalition all these many decades now seems to be falling apart. The contradictions can no longer be papered over by bromides about multiculturalism and diversity. Of course, when it comes to defining war crimes, some of the fault lies not with Ignatieff or others in the Liberal Party, but stems from confusion regarding the right of states to defend their populations and territorial integrity.

We saw this back in the spring of 1999, when Canada joined in the NATO campaign against Serbia when it tried to suppress the Kosovo Liberation Army’s attempt to wrest that province away from Belgrade.

For people such as Ignatieff, who avidly supported the war against Serbia, Israel too has been culpable, though it has made far greater efforts to minimize death and injury to civilians than did the Serbs in Kosovo.

Yet, as noted Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz remarked recently, “Democracies simply cannot protect their citizens against terrorist attacks of the kind launched by Hezbollah without some foreseeable risk to civilians. There cannot be any absolute prohibition against such self-defensive military actions so long as they are proportional to the dangers and reasonable efforts are made to minimize civilian casualties.”

In this age of “asymmetrical” conflicts, when the rules of warfare, such as they are, become increasingly meaningless, and international law is flouted completely by non-state actors, we have to confront grim new realities. And this may be changing the domestic political landscape as well.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

October 19, 2006

Are Quebec’s political elites too sensitive to criticism? A personal recollection

Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press

Journalist Jan Wong of the Globe and Mail recently felt the wrath of Quebec’s media and political elites for her suggestion that the marginalization of ethnic minorities in Quebec might have contributed to the shootings at Montreal’s Dawson College in September.

The gunman was a young Montreal-born son of Indo-Canadian immigrants and his rampage resulted in the death of one student and the perpetrator himself. Many others were injured.

Wong, herself also originally a Montreal “allophone” (someone of neither English nor French background), saw the roots of this tragedy in Quebec’s politics of polarization.

“What many outsiders don't realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn't just taken a toll on long-time anglophones, it's affected immigrants, too,” she wrote in “Get Under the Desk,” published in the September 16, 2006 Globe and Mail.

The response was immediate and apoplectic: denunciations from all directions. A vast number of journalists, both federalist and sovereigntist, attacked Wong’s article, in the pages of the Journal de Québec, Journal de Montréal, La Presse, Le Devoir, and Le Soleil, among other periodicals.

There was even a rebuke from Quebec premier Jean Charest himself, who called her analysis “narrow-minded” and disgraceful. Her article “betrays an ignorance of Canadian values and a profound misunderstanding of Quebec,” he asserted in a letter to the Globe and Mail published September 20. That same day, incredibly, the Canadian House of Commons unanimously passed a motion requesting an apology “to the Quebec people” for the column.

Wong’s analysis was controversial. It may also have been exaggerated, offensive or, for that matter, incorrect. That is certainly open to debate.

But one thing is certain: she is the most recent in a long line of commentators, including the late novelist Mordecai Richler, academic Esther Delisle, and former columnist Bill Johnson, who have been subjected to the same form of vilification and “mobbing” for having dared to question various political sacred cows in Quebec.

Might I, without seeming too presumptuous, add my own name to the list?

On January 22, 1982, a colleague and I published an article, “Signs of the Times,” in the Jerusalem Post. It summarized the anxiety then being experienced by the Montreal Jewish community as a result of the various political and social developments in the province following the election in November 1976 of the Parti Québécois.

Of especial concern was the passage of Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language. That law declared, at the time, that French was to be the only language allowed on commercial signs in the province. With few exceptions, the use of English was banned. For many, this smacked of a narrow, triumphalist form of nationalism.

On February 17, the newspaper Le Devoir attacked our Post article, under the sensationalist headline “La diaspora de Montréal est menacée par l’anti-sémitisme.” Our own article was reproduced on the op-ed page in a French translation that changed many verbs from past to present tense, inserted new words, and otherwise transformed the tone and sense of the original.

A day later a vitriolic editorial, “Le Québec discrédité en Israël,” appeared in the paper, suggesting that we had defamed Quebec and had “run off” to publish the story in Israel. The editorial also called on Jewish community leaders to refute our views – which some, shamefully, did.

In the weeks that followed, numerous letters appeared in the media, attacking us personally. We were also denounced on radio and television talk shows. Even our member of the Quebec National Assembly, though a Liberal, joined in the condemnation.

The whole story was picked up by other newspapers across Canada. We became, as one newspaper put it, “the eye of a storm.”

As Le Devoir refused to apologize for having defamed us, we engaged the services of the noted civil liberties lawyer Julius Grey, and filed a suit in Quebec Superior Court, charging that we had been the victims of a hate campaign. Le Devoir finally settled out of court and printed an apology on its op-ed page on December 17, 1985.

This whole episode has been documented in a number of articles and books, including Michael Brown’s Jew or Juif?: Jews, French Canadians, and Anglo-Canadians, 1759-1914, published in 1987. So, as we approach the 30th anniversary of the PQ election victory in Quebec, might I say about l’affaire Wong, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?”

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

October 18, 2006

The Liberals, Israel and the issue of war crimes.

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has enraged many in the Liberal Party by referring to some of the party’s leadership candidates as having “anti-Israel” tendencies.

This followed upon Michael Ignatieff’s remark that Israel had committed a war crime in bombing the southern Lebanese village of Qana during the war against Hezbollah last summer.

Ironically, the man who levelled that charge against Israel is often described as a “neocon” by his opponents, and is probably a better friend of Israel than are most of the other Liberal hopefuls. But Harper is on to something: the Liberal Party has a significant number of rank-and-file members who, at best, find Israel distasteful.

It is now reflected in party policies, which have become “NDP lite” when it comes to the Middle East. Indeed, it may be the reason Ignatieff, despite his attempt to woo this anti-Israel constituency, might fail in his attempt to win the party’s leadership.

Ignatieff’s remarks prompted Liberal MP Susan Kadis, who represents the Thornhill riding in suburban Toronto, with its very large Jewish population, to step down as co-chair of his Toronto-area campaign.

It also caused Ariela Cotler, wife of the former justice minister in Paul Martin’s Liberal government, Montreal-area MP Irwin Cotler, to quit the party altogether. Cotler’s riding, Mount Royal, is home to the majority of Montreal’s Jews.

The various ethnic constituencies that the Liberal party has managed to keep onside as part of its political coalition all these many decades now seems to be falling apart. The contradictions can no longer be papered over by bromides about multiculturalism and diversity.

Of course some of the confusion over what constitutes a war crime lies with our own political class, whose views on the right of states to defend their territorial integrity have come back to “bite” them.

Back in the spring of 1999, the Chrétien government joined the NATO campaign against Serbia when Slobodan Milosevic tried to suppress the Kosovo Liberation Army’s attempt to wrest that province away from rule by Belgrade. Many prominent Liberals, including Irwin Cotler, gave it their wholehearted support.

There were exaggerated stories of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo and, as we know, the Serbian president was eventually arrested and charged with war crimes. He would no doubt have been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague had he not died earlier this year.

A few months after the Kosovo war, I published an article in which I noted that under the new international regime of human rights it is conceivable that some international tribunal might some day indict an Israeli leader for war crimes.

“The newly expanded definition of what constitutes war crimes and human rights violations puts the leader of any country defending itself in the same category as an Idi Amin or Augusto Pinochet,” I wrote. “Could people who avidly supported the war against Serbia, for instance, suddenly develop a double standard when it came to Israel?”

In Ignatieff’s case, the answer is no, even though Israel has made far greater efforts to minimize death and injury to civilians than did the Serbs in Kosovo. The chickens are coming home to roost.


Thursday, August 31, 2006

August 31, 2006

Hezbollah's Strength

Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press

Thankfully, the war between Israel and the Lebanese “Party of God,” Hezbollah, has ended – at least temporarily. But this was no victory for the Jewish state. A majority of Israelis think that few of the war’s aims were achieved.

All that was accomplished was the installation of an unreliable UN force in southern Lebanon to act as a buffer between Israel and Hezbollah and the deployment there of an inept Lebanese army that is afraid to challenge terrorists, in return for the withdrawal of Israeli troops.

The UN-brokered cease-fire resolution mandated a reinforced United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), to eventually comprise 15,000 troops. Supplemented by a 15,000-man Lebanese army, they now take up positions south of the Litani River and guard the so-called Blue Line, the UN-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel. It marks the first presence of Lebanese troops in the south in decades.

But Hezbollah has stated that it will not disarm – their fighters will simply hide their weapons and melt into the general population. The Lebanese government seems to approve: “There will be no confrontation between the army and our brothers in Hezbollah,” Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said in mid-August. “That is not the army's mission.”

Added Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Elias Murr, “The army is not going to the south to strip the Hezbollah of its weapons and do the work that Israel did not.” Indeed, for Hezbollah, the army provides a convenient cover for their work.

As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote recently, “In the south, the Lebanese army will be taking orders from Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not just returning to being a ‘state within a state.’ It is becoming the state.” The Lebanese government has been reduced to acting as its front.

So what is to prevent Hezbollah from firing rockets from north of the Litani into Israel at some future date? Also, given that the multinational UN force will probably include soldiers from Muslim states such as Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey, will Israel even be able to bypass these troops in order to again move into Lebanon to stop Hezbollah, if it becomes necessary?

This might itself be a moot point, as Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has stated that he does not want countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel to participate in the force. None of these states except Turkey recognize Israel.

The war proved to be an almost cost-free way for Iran and Syria, Hezbollah’s sponsors, to damage Israel economically and militarily while flexing their own political muscles in the Middle East.

The two countries lost not a single soldier, while 119 Israeli troops were killed. During the conflict, almost 4,000 rockets rained down on Israel, tens of thousands of civilians were forced to evacuate their homes in the northern part of the country, and places such as Nahariya and Kiryat Shmona became virtual ghost towns. At least 40 Israeli civilians died during the war.

Israel’s massive air strikes reduced entire south Lebanese villages to rubble and made for bad optics worldwide, but, it seems, did little to damage Hezbollah’s capacity to strike at northern Israeli cities and towns.

In the six years since Israel left southern Lebanon, Hezbollah was able to build bunkers and tunnels and amass an enormous cache of missiles, rockets and sophisticated weaponry for the purpose of attacking Israel. During the war, it was able to move its rocket launchers rapidly and demonstrated striking battlefield agility and flexibility. The guerrilla group impeded the advance of Israel’s army for almost five weeks.

As well, Hezbollah’s popularity throughout the region grew by leaps and bounds during this war, even among non-Shi’ite Muslims. They managed to cross a deep sectarian divide, and this has also benefitted Iran, whom they serve as a surrogate against Israel.

There were disquieting features about this war closer to home as well. Demonstrations against Israel and in support of terrorists became commonplace in our major cities, particularly in Quebec. It showed a depth of anger against Israel among Canadians that is quite unprecedented in our history.

This hostility is a product of Liberal spinelessness over the past decade, plus, perhaps, the arrival of millions of new Canadians with little understanding of the Middle East. In more than a few cases, they were people already predisposed against Israel.

We Jews need to wake up and realize that the real Canada, not the one of our Jewish leaders’ dreams, is far less hospitable than we had thought. Telling us that Canadians and Israelis share the same “values” will not impress us anymore.

Ironically, this gap between fantasy and reality was masked while the Liberals were in government, because they managed to pretend to support Israel while in actuality being “even-handed” or even pro-Arab when it came to the Middle East. This enabled both Jewish and other Canadians to act as though they were generally satisfied with Canada’s policies.

But when Prime Minister Stephen Harper demonstrated actual support for Israel, that contradiction was exposed for what it really was. Some polls published during the fighting indicated less than one third of Canadians approved of Harper’s stance.

Unlike many analysts, I was not surprised at how tough Hezbollah proved to be. Regular Arab armies, in the Arab-Israeli wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, were composed of conscripts indifferent to the dictatorships under which they lived. Hezbollah is a sophisticated and fanatical volunteer force, well-trained, and believes in what it is doing. It remains a determined foe and is far from vanquished.

Friday, August 04, 2006

August 4, 2006

Pondering What Will Happen Next for Lebanon

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Wracked by internal tensions that periodically erupt into all-out civil wars between its religious communities, Lebanon has always been, in effect, a failed state.

It was artificially created by the French in 1943 in order to provide a sovereign entity for the country’s then Christian majority. But for the intervention of 14,000 American troops in 1958, the country would have fallen apart long ago. President Dwight Eisenhower sent them over to quell an insurrection by pan-Arab nationalists, who wanted Lebanon to become part of Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser’s new United Arab Republic.

The UAR, a union between Egypt and Syria, itself only lasted three years. Meanwhile, Lebanon was preserved as a Christian-dominated country.

Today, however, following the effective defeat of the Maronite Catholics and other Christians in the 1975-1991 civil war, and the decades-long occupation by Syria, even that rationale for keeping this fractured country together may no longer hold.

The Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah (Party of God), formed in 1982, and backed by Iran and Syria, has carte blanche over much of Lebanon’s territory and pays little attention to pronouncements by the authorities in Beirut.

The poorest community in Lebanon, the Shi’ites were in the past also the most underprivileged. But they now comprise, according to some estimates, some 40% of the population. As their numbers have increased, so has Hezbollah’s power.

Now an entrenched part of the Lebanese political system, Hezbollah is treated as a legitimate political entity, not as a terrorist group. The movement runs hospitals, clinics, schools and agricultural centres and sustains a large social welfare net.

Hezbollah won 14 seats in the 128-member Lebanese parliament in the spring 2005 elections, and is part of the Resistance and Development Bloc, a joint ticket by the two main Shi’ite parties Amal and Hezbollah. They altogether control 35 seats, and Hezbollah even has two ministers in the Lebanese government.

Indeed, the president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, has declared his full support for Hezbollah. Though a Maronite Christian (as mandated by the constitution), he is considered by many as little more than a puppet of Syria.

The prime minister of Lebanon must, also by law, come from the Sunni Muslim community, and the present incumbent, Fouad Siniora, is a member of the Current for the Future (Tayyar Al Mustaqbal) movement.

This is the party that was led by Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister who was assassinated in February 2005. Many Lebanese suspect Syria of involvement in his death.

So Siniora, unlike Lahoud, is no friend of Hezbollah. But he seems powerless to control their activities. Israel is exasperated with the fact that Lebanon has done nothing to enforce Security Council Resolution 1559, passed in 2004, which called for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias” and for the Beirut government to extend its control over the border region with Israel.

It is therefore rather disingenuous of the Lebanese to now wail that Israel has attacked their country – after thousands of missiles have been imported by Hezbollah, under their very eyes, to be used against their southern neighbours and launched from Lebanese soil.

Many commentators have expressed surprise that Israel seems to be engaged in an all-out attack in Lebanon and is indifferent to the fate of the Lebanese state itself. Is it possible that the Israelis have simply grown tired of all this, and perhaps concluded that this sort of state may not be worth preserving?

Could it be that they might prefer an “official” Shi’ite mini-state in the south – even if under Iranian and Syrian suzerainty – while the rest of the country becomes a truncated but, once again, Christian-dominated entity less antagonistic to Israel?

That way there would be no “good guy” (today’s Lebanese state) trying to gain the international community’s sympathy while the “bad guy” (the non-state actor Hezbollah) kept firing missiles into Israel and provoking border clashes. It would certainly clarify matters.

Meanwhile, what role should the international community – a fictional notion, in any case – play in all of this? Who can be trusted to be tough enough to control the Israeli-Lebanese frontier?

Last week George W. Bush and Tony Blair met in Washington and called for an international peacekeeping force. Certainly a NATO force would be preferable to one sent in by the hapless UN.

But should its mandate emanate from the UN Security Council, NATO would have to negotiate a tough set of conditions, to ensure that members such as Russia and China not be able to hamstring its operations, once the troops were deployed.

Would a land-based army along the border be enough to stop the fighting? Couldn’t Hezbollah retreat further north and still pound Israel with missiles? Then what? Would NATO be forced to occupy much of the country – as it has done in Kosovo and, to some extent, Afghanistan? There are no easy answers.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

May 16, 2006

A few brickbats.

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Many years ago, I used to read a newspaper that handed out bouquets and brickbats on its editorial page – the flowers for positive items, the criticisms for negative ones.

It doesn’t take much to come up with the latter, unfortunately. All you need to do is read a few days’ worth of news items in The Guardian or elsewhere. Here are my “three picks” this week:

First item: One of the founders of Canadian Parents for French, Patterson Webster, told the graduating class at the University of Prince Edward Island convocation last week that French immersion programs in Canada have been an amazing success story.

But it turns out that of the candidates vying for the leadership of the federal Liberal Party, fewer than half can function adequately in French. A recent news story declared that only five of the 11 hopefuls are truly bilingual.

Remember – these are Liberals, not redneck Reformers! They’re almost all from Ontario, not Alberta! And they are all the ideological disciples of Pierre Trudeau, the father of official bilingualism.

Clearly, despite French immersion programs, something is amiss with our language policies. This is something the Bloc Québécois will no doubt make certain Quebecers won’t fail to notice.

My next brickbat: When the Canadian dollar languished below 65 cents a few years ago, then prime minister Jean Chrétien insisted that a cheap currency was actually of benefit to Canada – it helped exporters, he claimed, even if it did mean that the rest of us were left with reduced purchasing power, or less money with which to travel in the United States or Europe.

Now, however, it turns out that trade-off wasn’t even necessary.

According to economist Stephen Poloz of Export Development Canada, the belief that a strong dollar hurts exporters is a myth. He told the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce recently that Canadian exports actually declined during that period.

So much for Chrétien’s words of wisdom; I guess he missed the Economics 101 lecture on currencies while at university. Let’s hope that the next time he visits the U.S., he asks the bank to give him 65 cents U.S. for every one of his loonies.

Finally, we have the case of our Governor General, the representative of our head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, lecturing Haitians on democracy while representing this country at the inauguration of Haitian president René Préval last week. Michaëlle Jean returned to her country of birth for the first time since being appointed in September 2005.

Préval won a disputed election last February, replacing a U.S.-backed interim administration appointed after the radical Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country in February 2004 in the face of a bloody armed rebellion. He had been elected president of Haiti in November 2000.

Aristide’s opponents charged him with corruption and of having created a climate of murder and terror. He claimed he was forced out because he had been trying to alleviate the condition of Haiti’s destitute and hungry masses.

Aristide, currently living in exile in South Africa, still has many supporters in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with annual per-capita income of about $400.

Though independent since 1804, when a successful slave rebellion ended French rule, Haiti has rarely been a politically or economically happy place. Throughout its turbulent history, it has usually been ruled by rapacious dictators. From 1915 to 1934, it was even occupied by U.S. Marines.

To Haiti’s impoverished majority, Préval is little more than an American (and Canadian) puppet, kept in power on the bayonets of the foreign troops serving with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.

Indeed, 4,500 UN troops and Haitian police in armoured personnel carriers and on foot cordoned off the areas where the ceremony was held.

There is little doubt that political violence and lawlessness will remain a feature of the country’s landscape. The struggle between Aristide’s followers and the Haitian elite is total, a reflection of the chasm between radically opposed sectors of Haitian society.

One side is Black, Creole-speaking, illiterate, disenfranchised; the other a privileged French-speaking Mulatto elite, often educated abroad. They don’t speak the same language and don’t have the same shared culture or history.

For poorer Haitians, Jean is representative of this latter group and they will not be as favourably impressed by her comments as we in Canada have been.

In any case, hers is a ceremonial, not elective, position, and therefore not a pulpit from which to dispense advice to the rulers and citizens of foreign countries. Aren’t many Canadians angry when George W. Bush does the same? Jean is not Peter MacKay, our foreign minister. And she should in any case not sound like like a colonial official.

Brickbats, brickbats, everywhere.

Friday, May 05, 2006

May 5, 2006

As Fijians go to the polls.

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Another election, yet more ethnic animosity. Such has been the sad story of the South Pacific island state of Fiji ever since it gained its independence from Britain in 1970.

Fijians go to the polls Saturday to elect a government, but no matter who wins, political harmony will probably again be the loser.

Ethnic Fijians account for 54 percent of Fiji’s 900,000 people, Indo-Fijians 38 percent, and Chinese, Europeans and Pacific Islanders make up the remainder.

The indigenous Fijians have historically been opposed to sharing power with Indo-Fijians, who came to the islands from India between 1879 and 1916 to work as labourers in the sugar plantations.

From the start, the two communities had little in common. While most native Fijians had been converted to Methodist Christianity, the Indians were Hindus and Muslims. They spoke different languages. And the economic system instituted by the colonial state compartmentalized the two ethnic groups.

The main area of contention between the Indians and the ethnic Fijians has been the land question. In order to preserve the Fijian way of life, the British had reserved 83% of the total land area of Fiji for the native Fijians in perpetuity. It could not be sold but only rented; it belonged to Fijian clan entities known as mataqali, each headed by a tribal chief.

By the 1940s, most Indian sugar-cane workers had come to lease the land they worked from Fijian clans. But this small leasehold system forced Indians into a precarious existence, since they could not own outright the land on which they depended for their livelihood.

From 1970 until 1987, the Alliance Party, led by one of Fiji’s powerful paramount chiefs, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, governed the country. Indians, despite their legal disabilities, had come to dominate commerce and the professions, and were the mainstay of a rural economy which depended on the sugar cane industry, but they took a back seat when it came to exercising power.

All of that changed in 1987, when the newly-formed Labour Party won a general election. Most native Fijians considered it a vehicle for Indian political power and one month later, an army colonel, Sitiveni Rabuka, overthrew the government and installed himself as ruler of Fiji.

Rabuka’s new Fijian Republic would spend the next decade as an economic and political pariah and he finally allowed a return to civilian rule. A new democratic constitution was promulgated in 1997 and in the 1999 general election, the revived Labour Party emerged with an absolute majority. For the first time in their history, Fijians found themselves governed by an Indo-Fijian politician, Mahendra Chaudhry – but not for long.

Once again ethnic Fijian nationalists resorted to violence and in 2000 Chaudhry’s government was overthrown in a coup led by an ethnic Fijian, George Speight. Following a period of political chaos, the powers of government were transferred to an interim administration, with no Indo-Fijian representation, appointed by the military. The new prime minister, Laisenia Qarase, was an ethnic Fijian.

The 1987 and 2000 coups shook Indian confidence and many expressed anger at their treatment by a political class that considered them little better than aliens. Since then, more than 60,000 Indians have left the country, professionals in particular.

New parliamentary elections were held in 2001 and Qarase’s Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) or United Fiji Party emerged victorious, with 32 of the 71 seats in the House of Representatives, five more than Labour’s 27.

Qarase’s government, not surprisingly, has done little to ameliorate the condition of Indo-Fijian farmers. Their long-term leases, most of which have come up for renewal in recent years, have in many cases not been extended. Planters found themselves evicted from their land, little more than economic refugees.

In the current election Qarase and Chaudhry, who remain bitter enemies, are again leading their respective parties. Indeed, the election process itself, instead of evolving into a mechanism of unity and legitimacy, has become a battleground of inter-ethnic strife.

In its manifesto, the SDL continues to maintain that all agricultural land should be managed by ethnic Fijian bodies, in accordance with the wishes of the landowners, while the Labour Party hopes to improve the position of the Indo-Fijian farmers.

Even now many ethnic Fijians refuse to consider the possibility of an Indo-Fijian leader. Qarase recently stated that Chaudhry “is not a Fijian” and he has also broached the possibility of an amnesty for Speight, who received a life sentence for treason in 2002.

The last two decades have spawned a culture of lawlessness and intimidation in Fiji. And should Qarase’s SDL again triumph, the lot of Indo-Fijians will continue to be an unpleasant one.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

April 20, 2006

The federal Liberals should choose Ignatieff as leader.

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The race for the leadership of the federal Liberal Party has begun in earnest. And there are some strong and highly intelligent candidates already in the field or contemplating a run for the job, especially former Ontario premier Bob Rae and former federal environment minister Stéphane Dion.

But it is Michael Ignatieff, who, though elected to Parliament from a Toronto riding only last January, would make the most formidable Liberal Party leader.

There are those who think it is the height of chutzpah for Ignatieff to think he can return to Canada after three decades outside the country and become its prime minister. I disagree.

That Ignatieff has lived abroad and taught at universities such as Cambridge, Harvard and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales is, in my opinion, a plus, rather than a minus.

He comes from the cosmopolitan world of arts, education, and culture, and his world-view is far less parochial than many of his small-minded “Canadian nationalist” political opponents, who after years in the political trenches are unable to think “outside the box.”

And of course he is not tainted by the corruption that was endemic in the Chrètien and Martin years.

Ignatieff would be the Liberal most able to defeat the Harper Conservatives in a federal election. Why? Because this distinguished author and professor is the very thing most Canadians think they don’t like: a “neo-con.”

The word “neo-con” has become a term of abuse, almost an insult, in Canada, in particular among Liberals and New Democrats, thanks to the antipathy that has been generated to it in this country by the Bush administration.

Yet most Canadians have no idea of neo-conservatism’s historical roots. It originated within the Democratic Party in the United States during the Cold War 1970s, in opposition to both the “loony left,” who were prepared to appease the Soviets and co-exist with Communism following the Vietnam defeat, and the isolationist and reactionary Republican right, nowadays referred to as “paleo-cons,” as in paleolithic or ancient.

Most neo-conservative thinkers were former liberals and leftists, even socialists, people like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Senator Henry Jackson, Jean Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Norman Podhoretz.

Canada’s more liberal political culture and lower international profile has made neo-conservatism a less significant factor in our political life and this is why so many of us confuse it with other political doctrines.

The founders of the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance were mainly social conservatives and evangelical Christians — often called theological conservatives or “theo-cons” — rather than neo-conservatives. As for the old Progressive Conservatives, many were simply ideological liberals.

In order to avoid being “tainted” by the term “neo-con,” at least in this country, Ignatieff prefers to define himself as being on the “centre-left” of the political spectrum, and a proponent of “liberal internationalism.”

But, perhaps because he has lived outside Canada for so many years, he fits the neo-conservative profile almost to a T.

Basically, neo-conservatives can be defined as follows:

They are fiscal conservatives, and oppose big government, but allow a role for the state in mitigating those extremes of poverty and wealth inevitable in a free market economy. They do not advocate a laissez-faire "free-for-all" economic system nor are they social Darwinists.

They are social liberals, but without going to the extremes found among some of the politically correct. They tend to be “a-religious”and secular and are agnostic about, or even supportive of, abortion and same-sex marriage. More pragmatic in matters of morality than are social conservatives, they are far less likely to be swayed by religious arguments.

In international affairs, they believe Canada has a national interest and should be prepared to back it up.

They champion a robust, fairly pro-American policy, and are not afraid to assert that sometimes armed force is needed to extend democracy and defeat the enemies of freedom around the world.

So they look askance at the naivete of those who place their faith in “soft power” and who would have our foreign agenda be dictated by the do-gooders at the United Nations or among various “civil society” non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

“I believe in a progressive and compassionate approach to social policy; a moderate, creative and responsible approach to economic policy in order to fuel the growth required to enhance social justice; and a confident and realistic foreign policy that focuses on making a real and positive difference in our troubled world,” Ignatieff recently stated in the Globe and Mail.

This is neo-conservatism in a nutshell — and a far cry from the image painted by those who choose to slander it.

A true “public intellectual,” and fluently bilingual, Ignatieff arguably would be the most articulate and knowledgeable Liberal leader since Confederation (and yes, that includes Pierre Trudeau). He would attract voters from both the left and right.

Conservatives and New Democrats should pray to the political gods that the party chooses someone else.
April 2006

UPEI Faculty Opposes Gag Laws

Henry Srebrnik, Newsletter of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS)

The threat of censorship lately has hung over the campus of the University of Prince Edward Island. Last month, the president of the school, Wade MacLauchlan, had the February 8 issue of The Cadre, the student newspaper, confiscated after it published the notorious Danish cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

MacLauchlan stated that he ordered the papers removed from "the property" to prevent "the possibility of a reckless invitation to public disorder and humiliation." He cited the deaths that had already occurred elsewhere in the world – though PEI is one of the most peaceful corners of the globe.

MacLauchlan met with the president of the Student Union four times in the days that followed, and the Student Union finally agreed to destroy the offending issue of the paper, although at first they had rejected the idea. MacLauchlan afterwards praised the Student Union for its wisdom in seizing and destroying the papers, insisting this had been their decision, not his.

"I was especially proud of the leadership shown by the Student Union in addressing a situation that was obviously not of its choosing," he remarked.

A few days after the controversy began, MacLauchlan staged a meeting with a Muslim woman on PEI, someone entirely unconnected with the university, who had written a letter congratulating him. He had the local paper, the Charlottetown Guardian, cover their conversation. She appeared in a photo with him, reading her letter as he looked on benignly.

"It was very honourable on your part to stand up to do what is right," she wrote. "Your action has set a great example of integrity, courage, justice, and wisdom, as befits a strong chief administrator of an educational institution." MacLauchlan then posted her lengthy letter on the official university website for a week.

An "open letter" from SAFS published in the National Post on February 16 criticized his action, and his behaviour also met with negative comments locally. But he continues to justify his actions.

"Is UPEI a more positive, dynamic and animated learning environment today than we would be if the cartoons had been left in circulation for the intervening three weeks, and their publication defended by the University as free speech?" asked MacLauchlan in a letter to faculty on February 28. Of course! "I am absolutely convinced that our learning environment is better for having limited the publication of the caricatures."

Things looked like they might get worse. The university administration is currently in negotiations with the Faculty Association over a new collective agreement. They were particularly insistent that the new contract include a "Code of Conduct" which would obligate the faculty to be respectful, punctual and reliable – do some professors arrive hours late to class? – and to "act in a manner that will contribute positively to the overall vision, mission, and reputation" of UPEI.

But who, pray tell, would determine whether the "reputation" of UPEI has been harmed? Note that the administration was not proposing that they also be bound by this code, though one could argue that the president has done more damage to UPEI than anyone on faculty or staff. Yet it would be the professors who would be, to say the least, discouraged from criticizing university policies.

One doesn't need a PhD in political science to be troubled by such developments. This was an obvious attempt to infringe on the basic right of freedom of speech, something every Canadian should hold dear. No other faculty collective agreement in Canada contains such language.

The president of the Faculty Association, Wayne Peters, told the membership that this clause alone was sufficient reason to go on strike – after all, if it were now in effect, I presume even a tenured full professor like myself would be liable to dismissal for writing this very article.

Due to the publicity generated by those opposing this code, which included letters of support from, among others, the Harry Crowe Foundation, the ad-ministration dropped its demand for the code. It was clear the faculty would never accept such a draconian clause.

A university is the very last place where one should try to stifle debate with gag laws. Where there is no check on power, those in control can act in arbitrary and
capricious ways. This is an old tale.

I've been teaching a course on African politics at UPEI this semester, and we've been dealing with the many sad stories of the so-called "big men" who ruled their countries in totally arbitrary and capricious ways, and brought them to the brink of ruin. I guess that's why all this sounds so drearily familiar.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

March 23, 2006

Nationalism persists as a mobilizing force; ethnic and religious conflict remains the primary cause of war in the world.

Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Fast Forward Weekly

These days, few people would deny the impact of religion in world politics. Yet this is something that many academics would have been reluctant to acknowledge a few decades ago.

Most 20th century social scientists embraced secularism, believing religion to be a diminishing force, something that, in the words of Philip Costopoulos, co-editor of the anthology World Religions and Democracy, "belongs to the childhood of the human race."

Today, he notes, scholars are forced to grapple with the issues raised by the challenges to democracy posed by various religious traditions.

Journalist Robert Fulford has admitted that he was one of many who failed to anticipate this development: "Of all the smug and foolish delusions that were part of conventional wisdom when I was young in the middle of the 20th century, two stand out in memory. One was the idea that nationalism was a 19th century concept, on its last legs. The other was that religion, as a force in worldly affairs, was slowly but inevitably fading away. At times I was stupid enough to believe both of these preposterous fallacies; but then, so was nearly everyone else."

A succession of analysts, Karl Marx and Max Weber among them, also postulated that ethnicity would dissipate, and ethnic and nationalist conflicts diminish, through the process of modernization.

But contrary to their predictions, the integration of ethnic populations into larger state structures and economic systems has not, in most instances, resulted in a decline in ethnic allegiance. There seems to be little correspondence between modernization and levels of ethnic group cohesion.

Instead, the role of ethnicity as a mobilizing force appears to be escalating, and the worldwide development of a sense of ethnic, national and religious consciousness constitutes one of the major political and social trends of this new century.

The persistence of such ethnic separatism in today’s world has also long confounded social scientists. For most thinkers of the modern era, ethnic nationalism is an "infuriatingly persistent anomaly," remarked Robert H. Wiebe in his book Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism.

"Nothing so thoroughly affronted the universalist values that the champions of human rights and of law and order alike used to measure the health of the world," he wrote. "It accumulated modifiers: atavistic, fanatic, xenophobic, blind, bloody."

But many scholars now recognize that the development of global markets, the disintegration of empires and the weakening of state structures do not necessarily lead to a lessening of concern with issues of national identity and territory.

On the contrary, they stimulate new demands for national recognition and new ethnopolitical conflicts arising from separatist movements within existing states, transnational ethnic linkages and, in some cases, forced migration, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

There are as many as 3,500 groups of people around the world who describe themselves in ethnic or national terms, so most of the world’s sovereign states are multinational patchwork units of different – often hostile – ethnic communities. On the other hand, there are some 77 multi-state national groups – ethnic peoples who live in more than one state. All this is a recipe for trouble.

"Myths justifying ethnic hostility, fear of ethnic extinction and the opportunity to mobilize around these themes," observes political scientist Stuart Kaufman in his book Modern Hatreds, will produce "a politics of extreme nationalist symbolism" that leads to ethnic warfare.

Since the Second World War, more people have been killed in ethnic and religious conflicts within states than have been killed in wars between states. Today, with ideologically based superpower rivalry a thing of the past, nationalist and religiously rooted doctrines are in the ascendancy, often bringing in their wake intolerance of minorities, hatred of neighbours and impatience with established frontiers.

The past two decades, especially, have seen the intensification of ethnic strife, especially in multinational states prone to such antagonisms. Indeed, friction between rival nationalities is the basis of most of today’s violence and has contributed significantly to global instability.

Of 30 major armed conflicts that are either still going on or have recently ended, 10 or 11 can be regarded as being between religious civilizations, and 14 are essentially ethnic conflicts, according to Harvard University history professor Niall Ferguson.

Since ethnic conflict remains our most intractable political problem, policies and techniques that promote ethnic accommodation ought to be of prime concern to political elites in multinational states. Yet even those political leaders who would rather place stress on economic or other issues have frequently found it easier to mobilize people along ethnic rather than class lines. This has all too often resulted in polarized and fractured societies with little overarching national loyalty.

Attempts made to ameliorate ethnic and religious discord within states through power-sharing and other forms of political accommodation have met with only mixed success. The role of international organizations such as the UN in trying to resolve such conflicts has also proved ineffective in all too many cases.

The seemingly immutable differences between communities has frustrated many. In his 1995 book, Black Sea, British author Neal Ascherson observed that this maritime crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and central Asia has always been a place where civilizations overlapped and diverse peoples intermingled.

Yet, though many groups have lived side by side on its shores, "the symbiosis has often been more apparent than real," he concluded. "My sense of Black Sea life, a sad one, is that latent distrust between different cultures is immortal." Necessity may bind such communities, but they remained "a bundle of disparate groups – not a helpful model for the multi-ethnic society of our hopes and dreams."

As Turkish political scientist Umut Ozkirimli contends in his study of Theories of Nationalism, humanity continues to be "torn apart by nationalist conflicts, cruel acts of ethnic cleansing and all kinds of fundamentalisms." Unfortunately, animosity between ethnic and religious groups remains the primary cause of armed conflict in the world.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

March 22, 2006

The U.S. is on the verge of losing the war in Iraq

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The United States toppled Saddam Hussein in a short and decisive campaign three years ago, yet is on the verge of losing the war in Iraq to a faceless insurgency three years later. What went wrong?

“Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” may apply to people but not to wars. The impending American withdrawal from Iraq is, in Samuel Huntingtonian terms, a civilizational disaster, far worse than the U.S. defeat in Vietnam three decades ago.

Vietnam was a war that should never have been fought. The Vietnamese Communists proved to be no danger to the U.S. and were content, after 1975, to govern their own state, albeit, of course, in a non-democratic fashion. But at least they turned out not to be an international threat.

Iraq is different. The defeat there will leave the country in the hands of religious fanatics and terrorists who will be emboldened to launch further attacks on American allies in the region – and, eventually, on the U.S. itself.

The Iraq war has also demonstrated a major weakness in the ability of a western state to win a war against those who completely disregard the value of life – their own and those of fellow citizens as well as those of the opponent. The rules of war are to them totally irrelevant.

The only way to defeat such people is through massive terror of one’s own, which of course the U.S. and its allies will not (despite accusations to the contrary from left-wing radicals) engage in.

The Americans lost a war in Vietnam they could have won, but at a tremendous political and moral cost. But at least the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, though fighting as guerrillas, were still an identifiable military force, and did engage in regular battles against American and South Vietnamese forces

In Iraq, though, it seems that all it has taken to make the U.S. go home is simple terrorism – suicide bombers in cars, roadside bombs, improvised explosive devices lobbed at military units, and so forth.

The terrorists and fanatics are not even organized in guerrilla formations. And yet they have managed to defeat the mightiest power on earth, a country that accounts for almost half of all military spending in the world – the U.S. allocates more money for its armed forces than the next 17 states combined.

This does not bode well for the future of the Middle East, nor for the rest of the world as well.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

March 11, 2006

Examining our role in Afghanistan: Should we be there?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The 2,200 Canadian troops stationed in Afghanistan find themselves under increased fire, now that we have taken command of the NATO troops in the southern region of the country. Canadian casualties mount around the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

This is causing increasing unease back home. A recent Ipsos Reid poll found that only 52 per cent of Canadians believe our combat mission in Afghanistan is vital to our national interest, while 48 per cent feel the troops should come home as soon as possible.

The latter figure is down from 66 per cent four years ago, when we first deployed the military there.

The new Conservative government has rejected calls from people such as NDP leader Jack Layton for a full debate on Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, with Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay saying the mission isn't up for discussion.

How seriously should we take those who criticize our involvement in Afghanistan? Have not many of them done a complete about-turn in the past few years?

In 2003, the main argument made by Canadian opponents of the American invasion of Iraq was that it was `different' from the war in Afghanistan. They pointed to the fact that Saddam Hussein hadn't been involved with al-Qaida or the Taliban, that the invasion hadn't been authorized by the UN or NATO, that it wasn't a war of necessity, and so on.

They later felt vindicated by the fact that no weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq. Fine.

Now they want out of Afghanistan as well, though back in 2003, they had seemed to imply that the Afghanistan mission, unlike the Iraq war, was a defensive and justifiable one.

Doesn't this demonstrate retroactively, so to speak, that their opposition to the Iraq conflict wasn't based on their rejection of the American rationale for toppling the Saddam regime, but simply left-wing pacifism? And that they now oppose the operation in Afghanistan - which, remember, was "ground zero" for Osama bin Laden before 2001 - for the same reasons?

If they really feel that we should not try to defeat, or at least neutralize, those who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks, they should state that clearly.

Of course, their job has been made easier by the reluctance, especially by the former Liberal government, to provide a degree of justification for the mission. Jean Chretien and Paul Martin acted almost as though they were ashamed of it, and made it a `stealth' operation. It was never debated in Parliament.

This reluctance to display Canada's colours in Afghanistan is not just metaphorical, but literal.

Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, the Canadian commander of the multinational brigade in Kandahar, has had all Canadian flags and insignia (and those of other NATO countries) removed from bases and vehicles. The reason? `Cultural sensitivity'.
The only flag to be flown is that of Afghanistan.

How absurd is that? We are in the country at the request of its own government and our soldiers are dying on its behalf. Surely we should be allowed to make our presence evident.

Imagine watching film footage of Canadians landing on the shores of Normandy on D-Day, or fighting in the Korean war, without them being allowed to `show the flag'. Back then, we weren't ashamed to let our enemies know we were there to liberate those they had oppressed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

February 22, 2006

Different reasons why some approved, others condemned the Danish cartoons.

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

We’re all now very familiar with the notorious Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, following the uproar over their publication by the Cadre, the student newspaper at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Two other Canadian publications, both in Calgary, followed suit.

UPEI president Wade MacLauchlan condemned the Cadre’s decision to print them and the entire issue of the paper was subsequently confiscated by the Student Union.

The reaction elsewhere around the world has been nothing short of amazing. Marches, demonstrations and riots ensued, embassies and legations were burned, and at least 50 people have been killed.

The furor still shows little sign of abating.

In trying to understand the motives of those who have supported or opposed the publication of these cartoons we must realize that there are at least two sets of players on either side of the issue.

Some of those who approved of the circulation of the cartoons are secularists, atheists or opponents of all religion. They uphold the right of free speech, including what we might call blasphemy, as an absolute principle in a modern society.

Others, though, might be devout followers of other faiths, who simply consider Islam to be a false religion and thus view Muhammad in a negative light.

On the other side, there are those who believe these cartoons are an unnecessary provocation and see their dissemination as an affront to Islam. These people are liberal multiculturalists, and they would feel just as strongly were any other faith to be denigrated or ridiculed.

But others who have taken offense might be observant Muslims who are upset because Islam, which they regard as the only true faith, has been mocked, but who might themselves have no compunction in belittling or denying the claims of other religions.

We have to keep all these different motives in mind as we watch this story continue to unfold around the world.

How amazing this cartoon controversy would seem to the 1960s student radicals. Not just because they, unlike today’s students, would probably have been on the side of “transgression,” or because Islam was a subject not even remotely on the radar back then. They would wonder why so few of today’s academics--many themselves “tenured radicals”--seem to be speaking out on this issue.

Friday, February 10, 2006

February 10, 2006

Conservatives should remove opposition to same-sex marriage from their agenda.

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Stephen Harper has become the prime minister of Canada. The election of his minority Conservative government has been a first step in reshaping the political landscape of Canada.

Harper has promised to re-open the issue of same-sex marriage and allow a free vote in parliament on rescinding the legislation that legalized it. But in order for the Conservative movement in this country to expand its reach and bring about much-needed reform, it must prevent its social agenda from being driven by those who want, for various ideological or religious reasons, to restore the traditional definition of marriage as one between a man and a woman.

Conservatives should reject the sterile and non-logical arguments against same-sex marriage and unequivocally affirm that gay and lesbian Canadians are full and equal citizens of this country.

The debate about abortion is of a different order entirely, as it revolves around such issues as when human life begins and the status of a fetus. Two individuals marrying, on the other hand, pose no threat to anyone or anything.

The Conservative Party needs to move beyond its fixation on the definition of marriage and welcome the gay community--which, by the way, is above the Canadian average in terms of education, occupational status, and wealth--to participate in its work.

Many fiscal conservatives, interested primarily in lower taxes and smaller government, and proponents of a robust defence and foreign policy, both natural constituencies for the Conservatives, will otherwise consider Harper a captive of certain religious forces and be reluctant to support him.

Those who do not subscribe to the theological arguments for opposing such single-sex unions, and secular libertarians who resist in general the intrusion of religiously-based morality in government, will shun the party as well.

All this will keep Conservatives from achieving electoral success in our major urban areas and prevent the party from ever achieving a working majority.

Perhaps government should get out of the marriage business altogether, and leave the public validation of two people committing themselves to each other to other institutions in society. But as long as the state remains involved, it must treat all people with equal respect.

A democracy must maintain what American political scientist Alfred Stepan calls the “twin tolerations”: allowing freedom of religion within civil society but also making certain that no particular religious group be allowed to authoritatively mandate public policy to a democratically elected government.

Endorsing same-sex marriage not only makes political sense, but is also the principled position to take.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

January 25, 2006

An analysis of why the Liberals lost.

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Why did Paul Martin’s Liberals lose the election? There are so many reasons. As the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning might have said, “let me count the ways...”

From Liberal strategist Scott Reid’s dismissal of the Conservative child care plan as “beer and popcorn money,” to pro-Martin labour leader Buzz Hargrove’s bizarre description of Stephen Harper as a “separatist” while at the same time encouraging Quebecers to vote for the Bloc Québécois rather than the Tories, it was just one misstep after another.

It shows the bedrock strength of our “natural governing party” that, even after running such a lacklustre campaign, they still won over 100 seats and have held Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to a fairly slim minority government.

The Bloc also lost seats and must rethink its strategy in Quebec, now that it faces a significant federalist alternative in the Conservatives.

In relative terms, Jack Layton’s New Democrats probably have the most to cheer about, having gained seats in both Ontario and British Columbia.

Here were two of the most serious Liberals gaffes:

Martin dropped a bombshell in one of the leaders debates, announcing that if he won re-election, he would eliminate the federal government’s power to use the “notwithstanding” clause in the Charter of Rights.

While most of the subsequent debate around this issue centered on whether this was in fact a good idea, and whether Martin could in fact unilaterally amend the constitution without the consent of the provinces, what initially went unnoticed, until Jack Layton mentioned it, was Martin’s unstated premise that no federal government should ever want to override a Charter ruling by the Supreme Court--because the justices would always be chosen by Liberal governments.

Yet, as Layton pointed out, what if some future court rulings resulted in reducing rights to, say, public health care, abortion or same-sex marriage? The Liberals had clearly never considered the possibility that the “scary” Stephen Harper might win an election and then have the power to select judges who would implement his “hidden agenda.”

When this prospect became more likely, Martin declared that Harper would “stack” the Supreme Court with conservative judges. Apparently, the current members of the Court, all but one appointed by the Liberals, did not, in his view, hold any political opinions. To voters, this was yet another sign of Liberal arrogance.

The prime minister also blundered in his use of the “America card.” His shrill and gratuitous denunciation of the Bush administration for not ratifying the Kyoto Accord, made at an international conference on climate change held in Montreal in December, was particularly silly, given that Canada’s environmental record is worse than that of the U.S. Canadian greenhouse gas emissions have risen about 24 per cent since 1990, as compared to 13 per cent south of the border.

Then, as the campaign entered its final phase, the Liberals unleashed a barrage of attack ads against the Conservatives.

The ads, in which Stephen Harper was all but accused of being an American agent “very popular with right-wingers in the U.S.,” and speaking to “a secret, ultra right-wing American think tank,” implied that those intending to vote Conservative were, at the very least, dupes, and at worst, little more than pro-American fifth columnists seeking to destroy Canada.

The producers of the Liberal attack ads made a big mistake: they referred to Stephen Harper consorting with his “American pals” and “American friends.” Note: not “Republicans,” nor even “right-wing Americans,” but simply “Americans.”

In other words, the ads mocked the U.S. itself, the country on which we to a large extent depend for our very defence and economic livelihood.

This did not go unnoticed south of the border: Both the New York Times and Washington Post, the two most influential American newspapers, ran stories about the anti-American ads, as did the Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times and USA Today. PEI’s favourite journalistic son, Mike Duffy, was interviewed on CNN about the ads.

Paul Martin now had the ear of the American administration, all right, but not in ways that would do Canada much good.

I think even those Canadians not enamoured of George W. Bush, or of the United States in general, were ashamed of these “over the top” attacks.

Harper will not have an easy time of it: He has no natural allies in the next parliament and probably the best thing going for him right now is the political exhaustion of all Canadians. No one wants yet another election in the near future. But he will be given little quarter by the other parties. None of them will demonstrate a particularly generous attitude towards the Conservatives.

Still, here are five reasons why, even if you disapproved of the Conservative Party’s program, its narrow victory on Jan. 23 might not be a bad thing for Canada:

It would bode ill for democracy if a party that had been in power for as long as the ruling Liberals had been, could not be defeated in an election, especially following the sponsorship scandal and other revelations--because the other major party was deemed too “scary.”

Nor would we have a healthy political system if voters believed that only the two left-centre political parties, the Liberals and New Democrats, were legitimate, and agreed to assign to the Conservatives the same status of “nation wreckers”as they did to the Bloc Québécois.

And in Quebec, a Liberal victory would have been manna from heaven for the separatists, and would provide the ammunition for them to maintain that anglophone Canadians cared little about the way they had been treated, and that federalism was a force for corruption.

Had the Liberals won, the country would have been run out of three “city-states,” since the vast majority of Liberal seats are in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.

Finally, our country would not remain united in the long run if the citizens of its richest province, Alberta, and its most dynamic city, Calgary, were forever kept away from the levers of power.

So, even for those Canadians who support the Liberals and New Democrats, things are not as dire as they seem for the country!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

January 17, 2006

When did ‘Canadian Values’ become such an issue?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

A lot of things have changed in the world of Canadian politics since I was a university student four decades ago.

Back then, for instance, our professors told us that our British-derived Westminster form of “responsible government” was superior to the American separation of powers model, with its rigid divisions between executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Our system, in which Parliament was supreme, was more flexible and adaptable. We did not have a constitution “cast in stone.” And we did not have to worry about unelected judges with lifetime tenure having the final say on how we would be governed, by exercising the awesome power of judicial review through reference to that constitution.

Today, of course, we have become worshipers of the Charter of Rights and are saddled with a constitution that is virtually impossible to amend.

Another example of Canada’s more enlightened political culture, we were taught, was our tolerance for ideological diversity.

Canada had no foundational myth nor was it formed around some great political vision. While the American idealists who had fought for independence and founded the United States were larger-than-life heroes, bold political theorists, revolutionaries with transcendental goals, Canada’s “Fathers of Confederation” were neither great thinkers nor orators, but simply colonial politicians.

The 1867 British North America Act united four British colonies into a Dominion of Canada. It was a compact of provinces and/or “founding nations,” not a new American-style social contract inspired by, in the words of the United States Constitution, “we, the people.”

The U.S. developed what Abraham Lincoln called a “political religion.” The various written documents--the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, among others--are still revered, and serve as a canon of political literature.

Indeed, the followers of political scientist Leo Strauss at times sound as though the U.S. Constitution is, if not actually a revelation from God, then at least semi-sacred and divinely inspired.

The historian Richard Hofstadter once said of his country that “it has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.” And “Americanism” has indeed at times been moralistic, rigid and doctrinaire.

But since Canada was formed by a union, at the time, of British and French colonial subjects, with their differences of language and religion, it was more comfortable with ideological diversity and could deal with it in a more rational manner. There was no overarching definition of what it meant to be a “Canadian.”

No one had a monopoly on the “spirit” of the nation. Television ads for soap and cars did not wave Canadian flags in viewers’ faces. There was no “Canadian way of life.” Nationality was related to community, not ideological commitment.

The U.S. House of Representatives actually included the notorious “Committee on Un-American Activities” (HUAC), to investigate “subversive activities.” It was a vehicle for unscrupulous politicians to impugn the patriotism and smear the reputations of those whom they deemed ideologically suspect. It was finally abolished in 1975.

But a “House Un-Canadian Activities Committee” would have been an oxymoron. So we could argue that the U.S. was a more politically intolerant nation that repressed minority opinion with recurring waves of McCarthyist demagoguery and witch-hunting, whereas a non-populist, non-ideological society like ours allowed more freedom because there was less need to enforce ideological conformity.

As the philosopher George Grant wrote in his 1965 Lament for a Nation, “To be a Canadian was to build a more ordered and stable society than the liberal experiment in the United States.”

Yet today, as the fractures between east and west, anglophone and francophone, multicultural big city and “old stock” rural region, continue to widen, our most prominent political leaders, Liberals in particular, prattle on endlessly about so-called “Canadian values,” which mostly boil down to feel-good platitudes.

They wrap themselves in the Maple Leaf while delivering speeches full of empty bombast and self-congratulatory rhetoric, boasting about what wonderful patriots they are.

When did we become just a second-rate version of America?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

January 5, 2006

Who is responsible for Canada’s slide towards national disintegration?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The election campaign has now passed the half-way mark. Following the Christmas-New Year’s time out, the politicians are again bombarding us with their messages in advance of the second round of leaders’ debates.

Along with child care, gun violence, insider trading on the stock market, and relations with the United States, the very future of the country has emerged as an election issue.

As we paused for the holidays, the Bloc Québécois had an astounding lead of 60% to 20% over the Liberals in Quebec, according to a poll conducted between Dec. 17 and 19 by the Strategic Counsel. The Conservatives and New Democrats were nowhere, at 8% each, in the province.

Even in Montreal, the poll found the Bloc was almost twice as popular as the Liberals. Such are the continuing fruits of the sponsorship scandal.

Yet Paul Martin has continued to attack the Conservatives as being less able, or even willing, than the Liberals to preserve Canada as a united country. Indeed, a few weeks ago the prime minister accused Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe, “if they get enough seats,” of “working together to dismantle this country that all of us are so proud of.”

This is all a bit odd, coming from a man who seemed unhappy with the Clarity Act and who appointed a founder of the Bloc, Jean Lapierre, who has called the act “useless,” as his Quebec lieutenant when Martin took over the party.

Steven MacKinnon, the national director of the Liberal Party, also spoke of a “Conservative-Bloc partnership,” while Liberal strategist John Duffy wrote about Harper’s “record of parliamentary co-operation with the Bloc.”

It goes without saying that Mr. Harper is no friend of Quebec’s sovereigntists. But there is no doubt that, should the Conservatives form a minority government (which I think they will), the Bloc Québécois will want to keep Stephen Harper in power for as long as possible. Why?

The House of Commons after Jan. 23 will likely have more than 60 “Quebec” MPs, as the Bloquistes like to think of themselves, while the remaining House members, be they Liberals, Tories or New Democrats, will all be from “Canada” (including the handful of Liberals elected in anglophone and allophone ridings of Quebec).

As the Conservatives will probably not win a single seat in Quebec, the Bloc will able to portray Mr. Harper as an “English Canadian” prime minister and the Conservatives as a party “foreign” to Quebecers. That will help the Bloc carry the message to people in that province that a Yes vote on separation in a future provincial referendum will be the only way to safeguard their interests as a people.

Indeed, the composition of the next parliament will make many Québécois feel as though the province has already, in all but name, split off from the rest of the country.

But don’t blame Stephen Harper or even Gilles Duceppe for this state of affairs. Just remember that those great defenders of Canada, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, have been in power these past 12 years.