Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Welcome to the Republic of Bananada

So it's come to this. I was treated to this slogan on my way in this morning. "Support Our Troops" is a little too subtle for some people. The new slogan, as loquacious as it is anti-democratic, is "If you can't stand behind our troops we'll gladly put you in front of them". It's a slogan Chile's General Pinochet could have been proud of. In the minds of some, a lack of patriotism -- as defined by them; by others, it would be not patriotism but bloodlust and bellicosity -- is punishable by death by firing squad.

The conservative element of this country, as always, at its finest.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Trade pact with the EU?

I'm not seriously expecting this to come to pass, but I have to say, it's the most surprising news I've seen reported about Canada's future economic prospects in a long time. This was reported this morning in The Globe and Mail.

Canada-EU trade proposal rivals scope of NAFTA

Plan to lift barriers for goods and labour to be discussed at summit after election

September 18, 2008 at 2:00 AM EDT

LONDON — Canadian and European officials say they plan to begin negotiating a massive agreement to integrate Canada's economy with the 27 nations of the European Union, with preliminary talks to be launched at an Oct. 17 summit in Montreal three days after the federal election.

Trade Minister Michael Fortier and his staff have been engaged for the past two months with EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and the representatives of European governments in an effort to begin what a senior EU official involved in the talks described in an interview yesterday as “deep economic integration negotiations.”

If successful, Canada would be the first developed nation to have open trade relations with the EU, which has completely open borders between its members but imposes steep trade and investment barriers on outsiders.

The proposed pact would far exceed the scope of older agreements such as NAFTA by encompassing not only unrestricted trade in goods, services and investment and the removal of tariffs, but also the free movement of skilled people and an open market in government services and procurement – which would require that Canadian governments allow European companies to bid as equals on government contracts for both goods and services and end the favouring of local or national providers of public-sector services.

Previous efforts to reach a trade pact with Europe have failed, most recently in 2005 with the collapse of the proposed Trade and Investment Enhancement Agreement.

But with the breakdown of World Trade Organization talks in July, European officials have become much more interested in opening a bilateral trade and economic integration deal with North America.

A pact with the United States would be politically impossible in Europe, senior European Commission officials said.

A newly completed study of the proposed deal, which European officials said Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided not to release until after the election, concludes that the pact would increase bilateral trade and investment by at least $40-billion a year, mainly in trade in services.

Ottawa officials say they have overcome what they see as their biggest hurdle: the resistance of provincial governments to an agreement that would force them to allow European corporations to provide their government services, if their bids are the lowest.

Although Ottawa's current list of foreign-policy priorities does not include European issues, European and Canadian officials say Mr. Harper has been heavily engaged with the proposed trade pact.

The two governments have completed a detailed study of the proposed agreement that will be unveiled shortly after the election, should the Conservatives win.

Both Ottawa and Brussels have had staff work on a draft text for a deal they had hoped would be introduced at a Canada-EU summit, to be attended by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Mr. Harper in Montreal on Oct. 17. France currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and Mr. Sarkozy has said that he hopes to make economic integration with Canada one of his accomplishments.

Last Wednesday, a top Ottawa trade official wrote to Mr. Mandelson to propose “the launch of comprehensive negotiations toward a closer economic partnership at the Canada-EU Leaders Summit, to be held on October 17,” and stressed that all 13 provincial and territorial governments had agreed to the proposed pact at a July 18 meeting in Quebec City.

Because of the election, Mr. Harper appears to have decided not to unveil a full text of the proposed agreement, but instead to use the summit to inaugurate the trade talks with the launch of a “scoping exercise” that will quickly set the goals of the pact and lead to formal “comprehensive trade and investment negotiations” to begin in “early 2009,” according to communications between senior Canadian and European officials examined by The Globe and Mail.

Proponents, including all of Canada's major business-lobby organizations, are in favour of the deal because it would open Canadian exporters to a market of 500 million people and allow the world's largest pool of investment capital into Canadian companies without restrictions.

Because Canada's fractious provinces have killed attempts at a trade pact in the past, Europe is demanding that Canada accept a more far-reaching agreement than Canada and Europe had attempted before, in an effort to win a stronger commitment, EU officials said.

Major “deal-breaker” conditions, officials said, include full agreement by all 10 provinces, especially on the issue of European companies providing government services, and what are known as “geographic indicators,” which forbid products such as champagne and feta cheese to be produced under those names outside their nations of origin. Controversially for Canada, this may soon be extended so only English producers can use the name cheddar on their cheese.
However, both sides agree that there is far more political will to negotiate a major deal, on both sides than there ever has been.

“I am far more optimistic this time than I've ever been in the past. … I feel very confident that we will be able to launch something on Oct. 17 that will give us a better chance than we've ever had before to get a full deal in place,” said Roy MacLaren, head of the Canada-Europe Round Table, a pro-trade business organization that has been heavily involved in the negotiations.

As a trade minister in the Jean Chrétien government and later as a diplomat, Mr. MacLaren was involved in several previous attempts at a Canada-EU pact.

Monday, September 15, 2008

When pigs fly

This evening, in the check out line at the local grocery store, I was treated to amusing spectacle of a woman purchasing two large packages of kosher chicken and a big package of pork chops. I honestly had to fight not to laugh.

Phone me to the Moon

The last thing I watched before going to sleep last night was my copy of In the Shadow of the Moon, a movie I saw in a theatre about a year ago, in which many of the Apollo astronauts themselves give their impressions of what it was like to train for and undertake journeys to the moon. As a result, last night I had a dream in which I was watching the movie in something like a cramped little college dorm room, while on the phone with Neil Armstrong (who does not appear in the movie). I’m not sure how it was arranged, but it was a privilege, and I got the impression we were both embarrassed; me asking him those same, tired old questions he must have been asked a hundred thousand times by now, and him having to politely answer them yet again. That’s just like me, though. I couldn’t dream about going to the Moon myself; no... I have to dream about inconveniencing one of the people who actually did.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The true cost of elections

Prime Minister Harper resigned the government last Sunday, and so Canada is now in the midst of a federal election. It was supposed to be next year, thanks to Harper's own government passing a bill giving us regular elections every fourth October (2009, 2013, 2017, etc., etc.), but it changed nothing about the Westminster system that enables the PM to what he just did: resign the government early and force an election when the polls suggest it's convenient for him. If he didn't have the courage of his convictions, why even pass the law?

But be that as it may... I'm already getting away from the point I was hoping to make. The election is to be held on October 14th, so I understand. That means from start to finish, the campaign is just over a month long.

Contrast that to what goes on in the States in the electing of a president. The whole thing got started in the summer over a year ago. From start to finish, electing the President of the United States takes about 18 months. Primary after primary after primary, state after state after state, whittling down the candidates, unending TV ads, radio spots, foldouts in magazines and newspapers. I'm not just talking about how vastly tedious a US election gets, long before it happens. It occurs to me that going that route must be hideously expensive.

In a Canadian federal election, the whole thing takes place among parties who already know who their leaders are; having been chosen at single national conventions at some point, those leaders are well-known and identifiable long before the Writ of Elections is dropped. The campaign runs about five weeks. Surely, any party worth its salt has a war chest that can pay to run spots and ads for five weeks. What I mean by this is, it's a cheaper model for running elections, and that has certain ramifications.

In the US, though, the length of the campaign, the necessity of first fighting your own party in public before even thinking of taking on the opposition, and the requisite travel and getting out the word in state after state has to take a vast toll – literally – in economic terms. When we hear tales of Hillary Clinton having to "lend" her own campaign millions of dollars, just to lose, you can imagine. But what does paying for a campaign of this length and breadth imply?

I think first of all, it means that, aside from the most junior seats in the House of Representatives, political office at the federal level in the United States is utterly outside the aspirations of anyone we would consider as "average". To be in office in the United States today, really, means you have to be a millionaire. And a well-connected one (a point to which I will return in a moment). The mindset of the average legislator, or the president, must today be very, very different from that of those who make up the electorate.

Getting back to connections. To run a campaign of a year and a half, not only must one (obviously) already be of extremely independent means... no Joe Six-Pack... but it's almost de rigueur that one have powerful friends with very deep pockets. Such friends tend to be legal persons, rather than flesh-and-blood ones: corporations. You win your office indebted to "friends" who are immortal, and whose memories are eternal. Little wonder that HMOs have been able to fend off the institution of universal health care there, or that defence contractors can get funding for whatever silly, money pit project they can think up so long as they farm bits of it out to enough states to cover all the bases of the senatorial committees that approve these things.

I'm not saying there's no cynicism in our system (see my first paragraph, above), or that our system is devoid of corruption. I know that's not the case. But I've come to see that ours, arranged as it is, however accidentally, is better-suited to a country run by the grass roots. That it is possible for an average person, even an immigrant, to get elected to the Commons and even to the Cabinet if they show promise. I'm not saying there aren't rich people in the Commons; sure there are. But in this country, I think the hyper-rich concern themselves elsewhere, rather than actually governing. And I think the difference is most in evidence right now, when the duration of our entire election will be contained within theirs. Ours, only just begun, will be over while theirs, already over a year in the making, will still be going on.

And who will they owe when it's all over, and what will they owe?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Colour me resentful

I was in a line at the store today behind a woman buying school supplies for her kid, and I was suddenly reminded of the first time in my (then) young life I came to realize that parents were not to be counted on 100% of the time, either to be infallible or sympathetic.

It happened when I started kindergarten. This was at the very butt end of the Psychedelic Sixties, carried over into the early 70s. In keeping with the times, Crayola had released a little carton of eight "fluorescent" crayons (for the record, and to aid your imagination, these were: Chartreuse, Ultra Blue, Ultra Orange, Ultra Red, Hot Magenta, Ultra Green, Ultra Pink, and Ultra Yellow). They were in a package that was easily mistaken for the traditional pack of eight average, boring, WASP crayons... the ones on the list of required supplies I brought home from school that first week. My mother picked up the fluorescent variety.

Making new friends, on my own for the first time, trying to fit in, and there I was, the only kid in 25 with the wrong crayons (that, and plaid pants, which my mother assures me were in style at the time). And this was when having the right equipment mattered: there were no flights of fancy. Colours were regimented! "Colour the sun yellow." No problem; I had a yellow crayon that whose brilliance would bore though the back of your skull if you beheld it too long. I had an orange crayon that looked like it could be used to coat pills; a blue one that could have been used to paint the line they want half-dead people to be able to follow in hospital corridors. But "colour the wood brown" presented me with an insurmountable problem: there was no such thing as day-glo brown. I had no analog, no matter how psychedelic, and little drug experience (beyond pilfered morning-after beer) to fall back on for alternative suggestions. Such obstacles would set me to tears until the teacher would let me off the hook and allow me to do the next best thing: colour the wood radioactive blood "Ultra" red. Other kids had landscapes of glorious blandness and breathtaking conventionality that I could only dream of. Mine looked like Puff, the Magic Dragon frolicked in the autumn mist a little too much and blew lunch all over Honahlee. You should have seen the angels I had to colour for our Christmas decorations. There was no mistaking mine. It was a vision, alright. One that would send you to Lourdes.

So parents weren't infallible. Okay. But what about sympathetic?

Our school actually ordered in supplies. You would take the class's order to the office, where you could buy pencils, erasers, pens (though we weren't allowed to use ink yet), notebooks (the paper kind; the computerized sort were as yet still Twilight Zonesque visions of the future), and crayons. Yes, the officially-approved, politically correct, does-not-cause-retinal-cancer-in-laboratory-rats, guaranteed not to make baby Jesus cry (not to mention me) set of eight traditional colours. As memory serves me... and it's been a while... they were 15¢... which, tangentially, never made sense to me before fractions. Why were seven crayons worth 2¢ each, but one was worth only 1¢? And which one? I decided it was black, because some know-it-all in class with an older sibling insisted that black wasn't really a colour, it was "no colour"... another great philosophical conundrum. So conforming to the demands of my society, such as they were when I was five, merely required the donation of a nickel and a dime from my parents. Could I get the 15¢? Could I, hell. I had perfectly good crayons, I was told, and I was to use them. Perfectly good? For what? Triggering seizures in epileptics? I cried, I begged repeatedly over the months as one yech-nicolor humiliation piled on top of another... but no use. I forget now just how it happened, but I eventually did wind up with a set of the right crayons before the end of the year, and I remember how relieved I felt to have colouring projects that looked just like everyone else's. (By the way, are you getting the impression that, well over a quarter of a century later, I still vaguely resent my parents for this? Yeah, me too.) I have the vague impression, though, that I got them by agency of an older friend who took pity on me, because I seem to recall hiding them, and anything I coloured with them, from my folks. So if they ever had cause to consider me a devious little shit growing up, clearly, they had only themselves to blame.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Having a Grand time

Well, no getting around it; the summer's winding down. Again. This seems to happen every year. I know I'm jumping the gun a little; Labour Day was only a couple of days ago, and the trees are still green and the ground is still warm. But the sun comes up later and later and it gets dark earlier and earlier. Wasn't all that long ago it was light till past 10. Not anymore.

But it's still summer, both technically and practically (unless you just went back to school, I guess). There are still summery things to do.

P-Doug recently came across something about tubing down the Grand River, though the Elora Gorge. I'm not sure if he's had this in mind for some time now or anything, but it was something he was hoping to do with the summer. Oddly enough, the large amount of rain we've had this year postponed the plan a little a couple of weeks ago because the Grand was running too high, and the park that rents the equipment had suspended the rentals. But it was up and running again for the long weekend, so we decided to give it a go.

I guess it was a mark of just how much he wanted to do it that he was up so early; he came by to pick me up somewhere between 7:15 and 7:30 or so. I'm used to getting in touch with him for 9:30 or so to start things rolling on the weekends, and being on the road between 10:30 and 11, so there you go. We headed down the 401, listening to an old Coldplay CD he'd recently bought, and we got sufficiently caught up in what we were talking about that he completely missed the exit for Hwy 6. We ended up taking Hwy 8 through Kitchener-Waterloo, which put us a little out of our way, but really not all that much. It had the added benefit of putting us on the highway, though, just as some university students unveiled a banner on an overpass that read: ULV UW WELCOMES YOUR "VIRGIN" DAUGHTERS. I only wish I'd had the camera ready for that.

Elora's not that far from Guelph, so we had to kind of double back, but it was a nice trip. The park opens at 9, and we got there only twenty minutes later, but there was already a considerable line-up for the rental office. In truth, it took us two hours to get to the head of the line. P-Doug was speculating that during the mid-week, this would probably not be the case, but this was the Sunday before Labour Day, so for a lot of people this was pretty much it, summer-wise. I got the impression it was a consideration he'll keep in mind for next summer. Funny how you change as you get older. I can remember 45-minute line-ups one year at university as being like terms in purgatory. But two hours standing in line for the rental really didn't strike me as all that onerous... not that I'd care to do it regularly. I suppose you just get more and more used to being in lines as you get older.

I think we had the option of taking a bus to the launch site or walking. P-Doug and I opted to walk. Took about fifteen minutes, I guess. When we got there, I was really surprised how warm the Grand was. A little warmer than I think I've seen the Humber so far this year, and that's surprising because around there, the Grand is in and out of steep, shaded channels. I set my tube in the water, stepped in, managed to sit on it without banging my (helmeted) head, and pushed off. Took the current a few moments, but it caught me, and I was on my way.

I jury-rigged a set-up to keep my G9 dry and around my neck, and it worked pretty well as long as I used it. I took the camera out as I set off and I guess I got ten or fifteen minutes of video going down the gorge. I almost got bucked off my tube in the first five minutes or so, but I held on and I never wound up in the drink, though it washed over me a few times.

It's odd that they were worried about the depth of the river because I got hung up on rocks in the shallows a couple of times. I actually had to get off the thing and move it myself the first time. I found that kind of irritating. I just wanted to go with it. There were at least three or four times I can remember where rapid paddling on my part prevented that happening again. It reminded me a little of taking a country drive in 1920 and the tires getting flats every few miles.

What a view, though, when you are moving. And there are a few places where you're really moving! The Grand is a really variable river through there. It can change in moments... from pouring down white water at ten or fifteen miles per hour to being shunted into a still water pool at the edge that takes three or four minutes just to spiral you back around to the current.

About half way down I decided to risk taking out my S70, the infrared camera, that I'd stowed in a different clear plastic bag. Unfortunately for me, it was one I'd used on previous trips, and it must have had a couple of small holes in it. The thing was half full of water. So far, everything I had on me that day that got wet – my PhotoTrackr and its battery, the two Canon camera batteries, the CF card in the S70 – has worked again. But not the S70. I tried it, briefly, on Labour Day, but it didn't budge. So, I'm going to let it dry out all week and try it again... though I think it might be shot (N.B.: after a week — yeah, it is). Even if it isn't, the silt that might have gotten in might make it next to useless anyway. Well, my bad. I'm glad I held onto the G1.

It was somewhere around there I caught up with and passed P-Doug, but I went through a very slow area at one point, was repeatedly passed by others, and so was under the impression that he’d overtaken me and was somewhere up ahead. As I went along, I found I had more and more control over my orientation and position in the river, and I was usually able to keep myself facing ahead and away from the banks.

The end of the trip was occasioned by arriving at a bridge of a rather clever design. It was a single lane, made of concrete, and built in some fashion that it enabled the tube-riders to stop against it but not be drawn under it. Its sides were beveled so that when the river rose, water would simply flow over it… a very good design for any such bridge where the constancy of traffic is an issue.

I hauled myself ashore but couldn’t spot P-Doug. I decided that he must have either walked back, or caught the bus back to the starting point. As I stood waiting for my turn, looking over my soaked equipment, I debated with myself whether or not I would take a second trip. I wasn’t anxious to take on the shallows again; I did find that markedly frustrating. But the real deciding factor for me was all the equipment I’d brought… by necessity, it would have to make a second trip. And, for that matter, I’d just done it. It’s not like I was going to see a different leg of the river or something. So I decided against it, and was trying to figure out what I was going to do when P-Doug appeared. My first reaction was, he couldn’t have made it down here a second time so fast, could he? Of course, I knew he couldn’t, so I realized that I must have passed him and stayed ahead of him.

We talked things over and it was clear he was keen to go again. I had no problem with that; I’m old enough and self-sufficient enough to while away an hour and a half or so without much trouble. He was good enough to give me the car key and offer me money for lunch (which turned out to be a good thing since the vendor had no Interac machine in sight, or even a cash register). We caught the bus, and he got off at the starting point, and I went back to the rental site.

The bus trip was strange. We were driven by a skinny, beareded Englishman who must have been hippie in his youth. He insisted on playing rather psychedelic-sounding music I’d never heard before but postulated was by Jimmie Hendrix (it was). Bouncing along the one-lane road with fragrant pine boughs brushing past us, it was a little like being back at the camp grounds when I was four or five in the early 70s.

I dropped off the equipment, got changed, bought a little lunch, and settled back with the paper to wait out P-Doug’s second trip. I had the passenger door open, and hung my clothes over it to let them dry in the sun. I’d given the paper a good going over and was literally on the verge of laying across both seats to doze when P-Doug arrived.

We ended up going to a pub in Guelph he’d identified called, if I remember correctly, The Penny Whistle. On our way there, I took some 3D pair images of a lovely statue dedicated to the concept of the family, and then we had a few beers and some nachos. After that, we took Hwy 6 – the one we’d missed on the way in – back down, past the 401 to the QEW, and headed back into town. And that was how we passed the last day of August.

And here's a video of some of the interesting moments on the way down the Grand.