Weather and Politics

From the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted on 22 Jan, 2006:

Two things I did not anticipate for January in Kingston: A federal election, and having to remove my coat to cool off while bicycling.

Weather (or où sont les neiges d’antan?)

I didn’t expect to be able to bicycle at all in the winter, since I expected the roads to be icy and dangerously narrowed by snowbanks.  Instead, the two feet or so of December snow have vanished, except for a few tough icy rinds, and we’re back to shuttling Chaya to daycare in her bike trailer.  Some nights it has not even been dipping below freezing.  It’s like an unending late fall, with the days getting longer. Meanwhile, Europe has been having a Canadian winter.  The natives here complain about the weather.  It’s too slushy. They want the streets properly frozen.

Skating is a big deal in Canada.  Skating rinks are an essential public service, and municipal governments are judged in their effectiveness on their ability to keep them well maintained, and in their social conscience on making them available to the poor.  In this, they are like the swimming pools in German cities, or railway bicycle storage in the Netherlands.  Or prisons in the US…  The Market Square in Kingston (soon to be renamed the Springer Market Square, according to a backroom city council sponsorship deal which is now the topic of legal action) has had a cooled outdoor ice rink installed, open 12 hours a day every day, and several parks have had wooden ovals installed, which they hose down at regular intervals and let freeze, if the weather is cold enough.  Whereas middle class men in the US are always off to their basketball leagues, here they go play hockey at midnight, because that’s when they were able to get the ice free.


We’re just about to have a federal election.  In a direct way I should perhaps be concerned, since Canadian universities are essentially all public, and it sounds like the universities here (as in France) are seen as a political constituency of the left.  Academics still whisper of Conservative Mike Harris’s reign in Ontario with a horror one might expect from a Ukrainian survivor of Stalin’s 1932-3 famine.

I’m still not sure I truly understand the party political landscape here.  It took me a while to recognize that the Liberal party is the closest thing to a moderate center party, though their policies overlap fairly well with the US Democratic party; or rather, what one imagines the Democrats would be if they were not shell-shocked by five years of political scorched earth from the Bush administration, and the devolution of “liberal” to a cuss word in the national lexicon.  To the left of the nominally leftist Liberals there are two major national parties, the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois (Bloc).  Of course, while the NDP is a fairly standard European-style social-democratic party, the Bloc is the federal arm of the Quebec separatists, a delicate balance which is maintained only by the almost superhuman lack of irony or humour, which is de rigueur in the sovereigntist upper echelons.

The presence of multiple parties makes explicit what is hidden in a two-party system like in the US: that the political preferences of a significant portion of the populace are ignored. It is baffling how so many parties can survive in the absence of proportional representation.  Common sense tells you that first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting encourages a race to the political center, with only a lunatic fringe voting alternative parties.  Regional parties can do well — FPTP rewards an intermediate level of concentration of support: You need your supporters bunched enough to form a majority in individual ridings, but any percentage above 50%+1 is wasted.  The Bloc has it exactly right, with about half the vote in Quebec and zero everywhere else.  In the 1994 election their Quebec vote translated into only 12% of the popular vote, but 70% of Quebec’s seats, and 17.5% of the total seats.

Ideological third parties are another matter, and it’s hard to see how the NDP gets so many people (17% in the last election) to throw their votes away.  Between them, the NDP and the Greens had 20% of the votes, but only eked out 6% of the seats.  Yet, their voters keep coming back.  It must have something to do with the confusing relationship between provincial and federal parties.  While the federal NDP has trouble gathering enough votes in one place to win a parliamentary seat, at one time or another the provincial party has held the premiership of six provinces, and it currently forms the government in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, prairie provinces that would seem, to a naive observer, inhospitable to a leftist party.

Going into the election, the main issue seemed to be, which party was going to take the responsibility for toppling the government, and so forcing a vote-weary public (the last election was less than two years ago) to listen to an election campaign over Christmas, and turn out to vote in the dead of winter.  The early election was provoked by 10-year-old scandals, going back to petty corruption from Liberal disbursement of federal funds to oppose the Oui on the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum.  (I have long thought that it is a sign of a healthy political system, when the scandals are incomprehensible to outsiders. I was in Germany when the economics minister was forced to resign over the “letterhead affair”: a letter that was sent, on ministry stationery, praising (to potential investors) the minister’s cousin’s “invention” of a chip that people would carry around and use instead of a coin as the deposit for a supermarket shopping cart, as a “pfiffige Idee” (“neat idea”). In Italy, they get scandals that don’t require complicated explanations: Mafia boss funding politicians, for instance.  In the US, you get the president imprisoning people without a trial, and torturing them, and you wonder why it’s not a scandal.)  Prime Minister Paul Martin had promised elections next spring, but all the opposition parties felt that an earlier election would be in their interest. In the end, the three opposition party leaders prodded each other like a schoolboy gang to work up their courage, and to make sure that none would back out at the decisive confidence vote.

When the campaign started in December, the conventional wisdom said that most people were fed up with the Liberals, but that they would vote them in again, because, well, who else could they elect?  The voters of Ontario (fully one third of the seats in the House of Commons) certainly weren’t about to turn the government over to a cowboy neocon from Alberta.  As soon as the campaign got under way, though, the polls showed, a rapid drop in Liberal support, and it never came back.  Part of the reason is simply credulity exhaustion.  Political campaigns are theatre, depending on willing suspension of disbelief, particularly as regards the rarely fulfilled campaign promises.  But when, after his party has been in power for 12 years the Liberal leader comes out with a promise to eliminate the “landing fee” (the fee for permanent resident status), or to modify the constitution to eliminate the possibility of overriding the protections of the Charter of Rights (the “nothwithstanding clause”), or promises to fix the public health insurance system (“Medicare”), all you can think is, why is he coming up with this now?  If this issue is so important that he feels we need to elect him to get it done, why didn’t he take it up in the last twelve years?

The Conservative Leader Steven Harper has the credulity problem in a different way. Unlike their US counterparts, Canadian parties don’t slaughter their standard bearer when an election goes wrong.  Thus, Harper has been around a while, and the differences between this (moderate, reassuring) campaign, and the last (crazy right-wing) are both conspicuous, and hard to explain away by whatever personal growth and change of heart a person goes through in the course of 18 months.  So it’s tactical, and those who want to chuck out the Liberals (even if they just want to do it for the Liberals’ own good, to give them a chance in opposition to work out their problems) have to pretend that it might be heartfelt.  When he is criticized for having defamed Canada, and said (in a speech to a right-wing US think tank) “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term,” his defense is, simply, that he hasn’t said that in years.

The most striking difference between Canadian and US election campaigns is in the scale. For instance, after a rally in the Conservative heartland of Alberta, the Toronto Star reported “Mr. Harper then returned to his standard stump speech. The Conservative Leader was clearly buoyed by the presence of a large crowd at the rally, numbering more than 600 people.”  600 people.  More than 600 people.  George Bush turns that many people away from his campaign rallys, for wearing insufficiently supportive t-shirts.

Another difference was in the debates.  The presence of four candidates on the stage, all of whom obviously dislike one another, did spice up the proceedings, particularly as the hapless prime minister got whacked from the left and from the right.  But most impressive to an outsider was that there were an equal number of debates in English and in French. Obvious, when you think about it, but still astonishing to an outsider that you can’t lead a major political party in Canada without speaking two languages.  And not just grin and say “Dónde es la cerveza?” at a campaign stop in El Paso, but hold one’s own in a two-hour political debate.  I won’t exaggerate the intellectual achievement this represents, but I am convinced that having to speak about your politics in two different languages militates against absolutism and ideological inbreeding.  Some of the worst excesses of the Bush presidency might have been avoided if GWB had been forced to think how his speeches would sound in another language, even Pig Latin.  At the very least, he would know why most of the non-English-speaking world considers him a dolt.  (Of course, we know what happens to a US politician who speaks French.  For an analysis of the anomalous role of the French language in US politics, see here.)

One other important distinction between US elections and Canadian: In Canada, federal elections are not left to be run by local politicians with whatever funds are left in the kitty after the Halloween party.  There is a fiercely nonpartisan branch of the civil service, Elections Canada, that has complete responsibility for the election, from the polling machinery to the counting to the statistical presentation of the results.  (The Chief Electoral Officer is appointed for life — or rather, until retirement at age 65 — by Parliament, and his electoral independence is so rigidly guarded that he is banned from voting himself in federal elections.)  The data on their website are wonderful, including amazing maps of past election results.


Of course, bilingualism in Canada is concentrated at the top.  If you move up in the civil service, you have to be able to speak either language with your subordinates.  Sophisticated middle-class parents send their children to French-immersion schools, starting in kindergarten.  Beyond, that, though, one is surprised at how little bilingualism one encounters.  Anglophone students, for instance, do not take well to the suggestion that they read a paper published in French.  I was quite surprised that the local CBC did not broadcast (or even significantly acknowledge) the French-language debate going on in nearby Montreal.  To hear it we had to turn to the Internet.  And at that, the francophones don’t hear CBC, they hear Radio-Canada, and it uses entirely different (and, at least for my system, less reliable) software for Internet broadcasting.

Quebec separatism

Quebec separatism is a mystery impenetrable to outsiders.  Not the existence of a separatist movement — God knows, nationalist sentiment has reasons that reason knows nothing of, and the “advantages” of housing one’s nation in an independent country cannot be measured in currency reserves — but the manner with which they go about it.

The thing is, the separatists refuse to be drawn out on the details of what Quebec independence actually means.  The 1995 referendum question was stupendously vague:

Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?

One wonders whether the goal is not separation, but a kind of constitutional blackmail. The separatists are promising, in essence, a new referendum every ten or twenty years, until they win.  The referenda have a ratchet quality: As the  PIRA said in its message to Margaret Thatcher after its 1984 Brighton bombing failed to kill her, “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always.”  What happens, then, when the separatists get lucky?  Do they envision a completely sovereign country, with border controls between Hull and Ottawa? Will people need passports to travel from Montreal to Toronto?  What about citizenship — do they envision current citizens to become dual citizens of Quebec and Canada?  If not (and it’s not clear why Canada would accept this) how should people choose their citizenship?  What happens to the national debt and national assets, not to mention the civil service and the military?  If they really want sovereignty, you would think they would want to hash out these questions before voting.

Maybe the intended effect is not a sovereign Quebec, but rather interminable negotiations, with a referendum-backed threat of secession strengthening the Quebecers’ hand.  Even without a Yes vote, the memory of the last referendum and the threat of the next one help keep the concessions flowing from Ottawa.

It was to avoid, at least, the vagueness of the 1995 question, that doesn’t even specify whether the result of a Yes vote is actually supposed to trigger secession or just negotiations, that the federal parliament passed the stupendously unclear “Clarity Act”. This law states that for a future referendum to be recognized by the federal government, it would have to pose a “clear question” and pass by a “clear majority”, neither of these terms being defined in the act.

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