Category Archives: Canada

Quote of the Day: Layton and Harper


Jack Layton zings Harper during the leaders’ debate in April: “I don’t know why we need so many new prisons when the crooks seem happy enough in the Senate.” (Sorry that this video includes the uploader’s spliced-in two second punchline at the end.)

Over at the Dish, Canadians continue to write in about the passing of Jack Layton. This reader articulates what many no doubt fear:

I frequently joke with my American colleagues and friends that they’d be better off with a parliamentary system. “At least then the party in power could get something done instead of this consistent gridlock,” I’d say. Well, I fear that those words will haunt me now with Layton’s passing. The Conservative PM, Stephen Harper, will now face a parliament where none of the opposition parties have a leader – a situation unprecedented in Canadian history.  An unfailing political opportunist, he will not let this one pass without exploiting it to the fullest.  Harper has been hell bent on moving Canada to the right, through undercutting funding to the opposition parties, recasting the entitlement structure that funnels money from richer regions (the ones his party overwhelmingly represents) to poorer (the ones the current opposition parties overwhelmingly represent), even returning “royal” to the names of the branches of the military, to name but a few examples.

What I suspect I and many other Canadians are reeling from is not only the passing of a truly remarkable Canadian, but the dread that our nation may be on the verge of a change we don’t want and that will irreparably damage the character of our country.

We lost him when we needed him most.

Quote of the Day: “It’s the impossibility of Layton’s career that makes him such a remarkable person”

The national mourning for Jack Layton has caught the attention of the foreign blogosphere. A Quebecer wrote in to Andrew Sullivan today with a heartfelt explanation (below) of Layton’s improbable appeal in Quebec. Layton’s political accomplishment is a singular one in Canadian history and may have realigned the Canadian electoral landscape for a long time to come. This is something the Conservatives really need to worry about, and their response will not likely rise above the debased standard they have set for slander and intimidation. Layton demonstrates what a decent person can bring to an otherwise toxic political environment. Like the old school leftists, he was a happy warrior with an antiquated notion that politicians should serve the interests of people instead of corporations.

First of all, a caveat: I’m a French-speaking Quebecer and it’s the first time I write a political comment in English. So I want to apologize in advance for the incoming grammar and syntax errors and gallicisms. (Oh, and another one: I didn’t vote for the guy. I’m not a party hack either; I’m an independent.)

There’s a huge something left unsaid in the passing of Jack Layton, either in your reader commentary or Mr. Horgan’s. It’s the impossibility of Layton’s career that makes him so remarkable as a person. This man was what we call in Quebec a “maudit anglais” – a damn Englishman. A scion of one of the great colonial families that ruled Canada from the Golden Square Mile in Montreal, whose forebears were ministers for the Conservative Party. He became a leftist in the ’70s and surged as the leader of the NDP (the Canadian version of the Labour) in the last decade. In the last election he gave the NDP its best results ever AND was able to beat the nationalist Bloc Quebecois on its own turf. He ended the career of the most popular politicians in Quebec, Gilles Duceppe, son of the great Quebecer actor Jean Duceppe. He broke the back of the Liberal Party (which was still called the Natural Ruling Party of Canada three years ago).

This is awesome. This is incredible.

The political pundits in Canada were still wrapping their head around this when Jack Layton passed away. The only way I could explain that is by offering two weak analogies: imagine in the UK a charismatic Protestant defeating Gerry Adams and winning almost the Catholic ridings in Northern Ireland PLUS giving the Labour such a beating that it would fade in third party status. Or imagine a Castillan becoming the popular leader of the Basques. It doesn’t make sense!

In all the history of Canada, Quebecers NEVER gave a majority of their votes to an  ethnic English party leader (and a Protestant to boot, even if religion doesn’t hold much sway anymore in Quebec politics). Never. Irish, Scots – rarely. English, ha! People say that politics are civil in Canada. They don’t know Quebec, Layton_Parliament-highreswhere the toxicity level is quite high and identity politics and class warfare are part of the game (it’s not Arizona, but frequently things are said here that would give the creeps to many pundits).

But the guy had this super smile, and said things like “When I’m Prime Minister, I’ll hold China accountable for its treatment of Tibet” with a willful look. And people tended to believe him because he got results, however seemingly impossible the objectives. He also had dignitas without unnecessary gravitas.

So this idealist (quixotic?) bloke from uptown, who speaks a hesitant French, with a moustache and a cane, changes the face of politics in the spring and dies by the summer, leaving us with a dream of purpose and appealing to our better selves. And leaving the left decapitated in front of the most conservative and ideological government Canada ever had.

I’m still shocked.

I tried all day to find an historical character to give a reference to a stranger to Canada. Perhaps a mix of Wilberforce and Zola, with a touch of RFK? A Gracchus without the anger? A Nick Clegg with a spine? Al Gore for the principles but without the stiffness, Ted Kennedy for the political acumen but without the sleaziness, likeable like Joe Biden but with speech discipline (for lack of a better word) and facial hair.

I hope this gives some perspective on this remarkable man.

(Drawing by Colin White)

Jack Layton 1950-2011

Three and a half months ago Jack Layton led the NDP to become the Leader of the Official Opposition, something that had eluded all of his predecessors, as well as all of his predecessors’ predecessors in the old CCF.

There are others who can speak more knowledgeably about his accomplishments and legacy, but two recent events stand out. The first is that he survived a last ditch smear by Conservative house organ the Toronto Sun a couple of days before the election. Unlike Michael Ignatieff, who was gored by years of Conservative slander, Layton was already well-known and respected by voters and he walked away without a scratch. It is a good measure of the trust and credibility he had earned through many years of public service.

The other was unexpected and came as a pleasant surprise. On Friday I happened to catch the CTV News report on Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s testimony before the House finance committee. Flaherty delivered up talking points mush: the government of Canada is committed to lowering the deficit despite the need for government spending to create jobs and security because, well, just look at Europe, they have deficits too and they’re in big trouble. I know I looked for the remote at that point because the analogy is ridiculous, like comparing beavers and boulliabasse. However, the report also included a clip that, if you’d blinked, you’d’ve missed it: a young newly-elected NDP MP on the committee, when his turn came, responded to Flaherty, “Canada is not Europe, and the minister knows that.” The expression on Flaherty’s face made it clear that he isn’t used to being addressed that way.

It may be that a large part of Layton’s legacy is the unprecedented election of so many young members of parliament. They represent the generation that will have to clean up after people like Flaherty finally leave town. It’s very reassuring to know that some of them already have a jump on the situation, and we can thank Jack Layton for that.

From the letter written on his deathbed on Saturday:

To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

Tar Sands Protest in Washington

Scores of people have been arrested at a protest in front of the White House against further development of Alberta’s tar sands, specifically a pipeline to transport more of the toxic product into the U.S. Time has a story here.

Canadians may not see themselves this way, but we now rank among the world’s worst environmental villains, thanks primarily to the Harper government abrogating its responsibilities under the Kyoto Accord: instead of being 6% below 1990 CO2 emissions as our treaty obligations require, we are currently almost 30% above them. Now Harper is aggressively pursuing his promise to make Canada an “energy superpower” — that is, to make Alberta an energy superpower — by escalating production of the world’s filthiest oil from the tar sands. Every day, somewhere in the world, there is a protest going on outside a Canadian consulate or embassy to protest tar sands development. Canadians may have become irresponsibly complacent about our good standing in the world as peaceful, reliable, and always honest brokers. Most of that reputation has been squandered in just the last few years. Per capita, we are in the top three of worst carbon polluters in the world. In terms of gross tonnage, we are always in the top ten — and we have by far the smallest population compared to the other nine. Villains is not a bad way to describe us.

Just how dangerous are the tar sands? James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institue says that if the development of the tar sands continues, then it means “game over for the climate.” (An interview with Hansen published today here.)

The underlying social problem appears to be primarily a generational one. The needs and expectations of the Baby Boomers define just about every social issue, and they undeniably drive the political agenda because they are such a large cohort and they vote in large numbers. However, their grandchildren, commonly known as the Millennials, seem to have a very different set of expectations, and they certainly will have to address the mess they are about to inherit. The triumphalism of North American “conservatism” is a mug’s game, and on some level “conservatives” must know that. Once the Boomers are gone, so goes the grasping panic that sustains our consumer society, which Baby Boomers seem to regard as a cradle-to-grave entitlement. One way or another such a society is doomed because it is not sustainable: we don’t have the resources, which are finite and are quickly being exhausted, and the effects upon the environment are catastrophic. With any luck at all, the Millennials will embrace the prospect of the change that must come rather than simply be victimized by the environmental and social disasters that will inevitably make change necessary. The very near future, therefore, is not the Conservative Party of Canada. It is much more likely the New Democratic Party (see Quebec) and the Green Party. The only prevailing issue is how much more political, economic, social and environmental damage the Conservatives and their American siblings the Republicans can inflict before they are done. Indications are that there is no limit to the damage they are willing to inflict.

Frye, as we’ve seen, includes care for the environment as a manifestation of primary concern. Here he is in “Canada: New World without Revolution” expressing an attitude that may well articulate the outlook of those who would have been his great-grandchildren:

Ecology, the sense of the need for conserving natural resources, is not a matter of letting the environment go back to the wilderness, but of finding some kind of working balance between man and nature founded on a respect for nature and its inner economies.  As part of natural human ecology, of conserving not only our natural but our cultural and imaginative resources.  Again, this is not simply a matter of leaving alone everything that is old: it is a way of life that grows out of a sense of balance between our present and our past.  In relation to the natural environment, there are two kinds of people: those who think that nature is simply there to be used by man, and those who realize that man is himself a part of nature, and will destroy himself if he destroys it.  In relation to time and human history, there are also two kinds of people: those who think that the past is dead, and those who realize that the past is still alive in us.  A dead past left to bury its dead ends in a dead present, a society of sleepwalkers, and a society without a memory is as senile as an individual in the same plight.  (CW 12, 441)

Jim Bronskill on Breaking the Frye/RCMP Story

I asked Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill about how he discovered the RCMP’s Frye file. His response:

I cover security and intelligence issues for the Canadian Press, and take special interest in the historical dimensions of the beat. As a result, I examine old RCMP security files to see what names crop up. In some cases, there are entirely separate files on those individuals. The dossiers — if kept for posterity and transferred to Library and Archives Canada — can be obtained through the Access to Information Act twenty years after a person’s death. It is a bit of a guessing game to determine which people the Mountie spies kept files on. But when you zero in on one, it can provide telling glimpses of state security practices and the tenor of the times.

That’s certainly true in this instance. Despite the distressing twenty percent of Canadians who think it was acceptable for the RCMP to spy on Frye, the commentators at the Globe & Mail‘s website do not share that view by a pretty considerable margin.

Some examples:

What sort of country spies on its best and brightest?


Tommy Douglas – now Northrop Frye?

Is that what we pay taxes for? – spying on Canadian leaders who openly and democraticaly oppose the economic and political elties?


And soon all Canadian’s will be spied on starting this fall – when the Cons bring in legislation requiring your Internet company to keep a record of all your online activity

… which will be accessible to the police WITHOUT warrant.

Scary stuff.

(Don’t criticize anyone too much!)


Here are a couple of people who are clearly twenty percenters:

Intelligence organizations can’t leave people off the radar just because they are intelligent. Many intelligent people are complete lunatics. The Norwegian sniper is a good example.


Never heard of him and I’m guessing the majority of Canadians haven’t either.


Frye on Privacy

Thanks to Jim Bronskill of the Canadian Press, we now know that the RCMP kept a classified dossier on Frye between 1960 and 1972. Here he is on privacy and the free mind:

If certain tendencies within our civilization were to proceed unchecked, they would rapidly take us towards a society which, like that of a prison, would be both completely introverted and completely without privacy. The last stand of privacy has always been, traditionally, the inner mind. . . A society entirely controlled by slogans and exhortations would be introverted, because nobody would be saying anything; there would only be echo, and Echo was the mistress of Narcissus. It would also be without privacy because it would frustrate the effort of the healthy mind to develop a view of the world which is private but not introverted, accommodating itself to opposing views. (CW 11, 20)

Primary Concern as a “caring and responsible attitude to nature”

Harperworld’s heartland: Fort McMurray, Alberta

Picking up on our thread involving Stephen Harper’s intention to turn Canada into an “energy superpower” by churning out increasing amounts of the world’s dirtiest oil, here’s something from The Double Vision:

In the twentieth century, with a pollution that threatens the supply of air to breath and water to drink, it is obvious we cannot afford the supremacy of ideological concerns anymore. The need to eat, love, own property, and move about freely must come first, and such needs require peace, good will, and a caring and responsible attitude to nature. A continuing ideological conflict, a reckless exploiting of the environment, a persistence in believing, with Mao Tse-Tung, that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, would mean, quite simply, that the human race is not long for this world. (CW 4, 170)


What we accept as beautiful or attractive or in accord with the way we want things to be has some connection, however indirect, with the satisfying of these concerns, and what we call ugly or dehumanized — air choked with pollution, land turned into waste land by speculators, infernos created by technologies from Chernobyl to Exxon Valdez — with the frustration of them. For a long time the established powers that be have looked at their civilization and said, “Probably much of it is very ugly, but that doesn’t matter as long as we make profits out of it, and certainly nothing is going to be done about it.” When it becomes clear that the ugly is beginning to mean dangerous as well, however, the point of view may slowly change. (191)

(Image: Peter Essick, National Geographic)

Alice Munro: “A Twentieth Century Jane Austen”

Alice interviewed at the Vancouver International Authors’ Festival in October 2009 on the occasion of the publication of her latest collection of stories, Too Much Happiness.

Today is Alice Munro‘s 80th birthday.

Frye in “Culture and Society in Ontario, 1784-1984”:

….[T]he [Bildungsroman] theme seems to have an unusual intensity for Ontario writers: the best and most skillful of them, including Robertson Davies and Alice Munro, continue to employ a great deal of what is essentially the Stephen Leacock Mariposa theme, however different in tone.  Most such books take us from the first to the second birth of the central character.  Childhood and adolescence are passed in a small town or village, then a final initiation, often a sexual one, marks the entry into a more complex social contract.  (CW 12, 621)

In any case, as we saw, prose in Ontario began with the documentary realism of journals and memoirs, and when fiction developed, that was the tradition it recaptured.  Documents, when not government reports, tended to have short units, and the fact may account for the curious ascendancy in Canadian fiction of the novel which consists of a sequence of interrelated short stories.  This form is the favorite of Alice Munro, and reaches a dazzling technical virtuosity in Lives of Girls and Women.  (ibid., 624)

From “‘Condominium Mentality’ in CanLit,” an interview with the University of Toronto Bulletin, February 1990:

O’Brien: Which Canadian writers are you most enthusiastic about?

Frye: The obvious people: Peggy Atwood, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Timothy Findlay, Mordecai Richler, . . . especially Alice Munro, who seems to be a twentieth-century Jane Austen.  (CW 24, 1037)

Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (1999) in the New Yorker here.


Saturday Night Documentary: “Dirty Oil”

A 2009 documentary about the deadly toxicity of Alberta’s tar sands. This remains true despite the crooning lullaby of TV ads from a tar sands advocacy group that is beginning to slither into view.

This is how you monitor significant changes in Harperworld: by the commercials it circulates among what it hopes is a drowsy-and-ready-to-sleep population.