Saturday, February 04, 2006

Divide? What Divide?

Most of the good burghers of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, in their attempt to reconcile the election results, have made much of an “urban-rural divide” in Canadian politics. Funny that one never notices that someone is getting a raw deal until that someone is you.

The urban-rural divide might be breaking news to the Toronto Star, but it has been a reality in the lives of Canadians living in small towns and the countryside for decades. This sudden realization of two Canadas and a power imbalance is akin to someone discovering “Dear Lord, there are starving children in Africa!” Yes, when the cold, wet mitten of reality backhands you in the face, it’s not a pretty sight.

It was never always like this. At one time, rural Canadians were in the majority. Political power rested in the heartland. Funny enough, but no one at that time argued about cities getting a raw deal. In fact, they did quite well.

Despite the ugly stereotype, rural people are more sophisticated than one would be led to believe. In the beginning, they willingly paid the cost of developing cities, letting their tax dollars go to the building of large metropolitan areas, shipping ports, railways and the like.

Why? Because they were smart enough to see their own self-interest. Cities meant customers for their products. Factories meant farm equipment and fertilizers. Banks meant access to capital, and railways and shipping ports meant even more customers for their produce. Strong cities meant strong rural areas. To these forward-thinking people, it was not subsidizing, it was investing.

But things changed. Urban Canada outpaced the countryside in population and in economic clout. Moreover, the population was being fed by groups of people, either from outside Canada, or who had lived their entire lives in the city – neither of which possessed a collective memory of our nation’s rural roots. The urban-rural compact that functioned so well through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries was broken.

The new regime was this. There was no partnership. Urban Canada calls the shots – we have the power and the money. You grow food and make it cheap to buy, and in return we’ll make sure you get support.

Generous deal, huh? A dairy farmer works 12-hour days, sometimes longer if you count their part-time job that helps pay the mortgage. They have to buy a ‘quota’ in order to sell milk in the supply management system – sometimes as high as $25,000 for a single cow. Then, they get mere pennies for what you pay dollars for at the supermarket. According to some reports, to make any money at dairy farming, you would need to buy at least $2 million in milk quotas. This does not even account for land use regulations, increased costs, and the like. Agriculture in Canada has become a social program, but for those who eat the food, not the ones that grow it.
In 2005, the Ontario government committed more money to loan guarantees for General Motors than for the entire Agriculture Ministry’s budget. While farmers still struggle, the extra investment in GM bought nothing more than a couple of thousand layoff notices.

What rural Canada knows is this. Urbanites want us to grow food so cheap that we cannot earn enough to live, then turn around and offer us “support” and “assistance.” Urbanites will freely spend $10 for a cup of ‘fair trade’ coffee at Starbucks to ensure that coffee pickers in Colombia earn a ‘living wage,’ and yet are prepared to see 5th generation family farms outside the GTA be put to the auctioneer’s hammer.

We hear urban voices lecture us about preserving the rich ecosystem in rural Canada, and the lobbying for laws to prevent farmers from moving a rock or cutting a branch off a tree. At the same time, when the GTA needs a place to put its trash, those voices become conveniently silent.

The epitome of this disconnect I saw first hand. As I was pulling out of a parking lot at a Napanee, Ontario supermarket, I caught glimpse of a young woman running through a neighbouring cornfield, holding a camera high in the air. Climbing over the fence, she joined her friends who were waiting in a black Acura with a dealer’s decal from Woodbridge – a tony Toronto suburb.

That field is, to that farmer, the equivalent of the production floor of a factory and backyard combined. I then asked myself what would be the natural consequence of a farmer and his wife pulling their pickup to the curb outside a Bridle Path home, climbing over the hedge, and taking some photographs of the nice swimming pool and rose garden. While I cannot be certain, it probably involves handcuffs and a ride in a Toronto city police cruiser.

There truly is a divide, but it is not a divide defined by local customs and lifestyle. It is a divide in respect and in appreciation of the diversity in communities other than our own. If urban leaders are disturbed by the prospect of a deaf ear in the corridors of power, they will only be getting a taste of what rural Canada has experienced for decades.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Sooner or later we'll need to talk...

Foreign policy is, in the context of political discourse, a strange animal indeed. On one hand, it conjures up rather sexy and intriguing images of black limousines, exotic locations, and the great issues of war and peace. On the other hand, it really doesn't get play in the general public unless you can tie it neatly to a "bread and butter" issue at home.

Globalization, from the growth of the global economy to the myriad of international agreements and treaties we sign, is becoming very important to our lives - often in ways that we do not yet appreciate. Nevertheless, foreign policy always gets dovetailed into a couple of neat paragraphs in policy platforms.

Foreign aid? Yes. International trade? Sure. Human rights? You bet. But does any of this truly amount to a foreign policy? After all, no one would call a bunch of ad hoc cuts here and there constitutes a fiscal policy.

The last time we had a foreign policy in this country was when Lester B. Pearson lived in 24 Sussex. That is not a fact that gives me much pleasure. The fact is that Pearson was the last Prime Minister of Canada who articulated a theme to Canadian foreign policy to which you could connect every individual initiative. The 0.7% foreign aid target, the emphasis on multilateralism, and the groundbreaking work on peacekeeping - love it or hate it, they fit like pieces of a puzzle to make a more compelling picture of Canada in the world.

Trudeau never walked the talk. He was committed to NATO, but allowed the Canadian Forces to atrophy. He was keen on North-South issues, but never did Canada's financial pledges rise to the level of P.E.T's rhetoric.

Mulroney came closer, simply because he was prepared to put some money where his mouth was. Unfortunately, military spending was still below par, and despite the obvious benefits of the relationship with the US, closer cooperation with one country does not a global policy make.

The problem is that we just don't think big anymore. Canada has nothing akin to a Pearsonian strategy, and God only knows that this is the time when we could really use one.

Pearson, Trudeau and Mulroney all had the advantage of living in a bipolar world - either you were with the Yanks, or you were with the Soviets. Today, you can be with the US, or you can be with the Europeans, or you can try to hook up with the Chinese, or India, or the Russians, or Brazil, and let's not forget Japan is still a player.

Most international commentators suggest that the world of 2050 will be radically different than today's. The changes we see today are a harbinger of this new regime.

The purpose of foreign policy, when you strip off all of the diplomatic verbosity and "brotherhood of man" talk, is simply this - to preserve one's status, or improve it, regardless of what way the world unfolds. That is, to make sure Canada is a player regardless of what nations rise or fall in the pecking order.

Big challenge, to be sure. So big that a couple of treaties and foreign aid gifts simply won't do the trick.

The new Prime Minister, luckily enough, is a policy wonk and a logical thinker by reputation. One would expect that if there would be an opportunity to make a statement of great import, it may be now.

While the temptation of a minority parliament is to play it safe, I suspect that Canadians are eager for a vision that extends beyond the vagaries of the latest opinion polls. A new foreign policy philosophy for Canada may very well be just what gives the Harper government a chance to establish a legacy that sets the tone for the next 4 decades, just as the man for whom the department's headquarters is named.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Lost innocence

"Losing one's innocence" is a phrase meant to describe a whole host of events in the life of an individual, a community, a nation, or a world. Regardless of the application, it means, essentially, the same thing. Some watershed event has occurred that causes us to never look at the world the same way again.

One such event happened today in London, and while the import of it may be lost on a great number of Canadians, it serves no less important a demarcation.

Today, Foreign Affairs officer Glyn Barry was laid to rest, and his death, along with those brave Canadian soldiers that were injured in the attack outside Kandahar, represent the public's first notice of what political scientists call the "paradigm shift."

We have been raised on the Pearsonian ideal of "peacekeeping," of the site of the legendary UN Blue Berets. We even built a statue in tribute, and print a remembrance of it on our money. But we now know, especially in light of these tragic events, that "peacekeeping" has been supplanted by "peacemaking."

The truth is, we knew a long time ago. In the early 1990's, Canada shifted its commitments in the former Yugoslavia from UN missions to NATO and US led operations - sometimes referred to as a switch from blue berets to green berets.

The desperate actions of the various factions and their partisans, combined with a lack of the niceties that traditionally marked these missions, drove Ottawa to make the change. While blue berets were constrained by the Security Council's need to seek consensus, green berets were free to carry out the mission with more latitude.

To put it bluntly, green berets did not need to call New York to ask whether they could retaliate if shot at - they were free to fire at will.

Afghanistan, we should remember, is a NATO mission, and as such, carries a different set of rules of conduct than a UN effort.

But while Canadian policymakers were astute enough to realize that people often do not play nice or keep their word, and you need to respond in kind where necessary, they did not appreciate it enough to put their money where their policy was.

A more aggressive stance needs the necessary equipment and resources to back it up.

At the same time Ottawa was prepared to take a more assertive stance in peacemaking, it underfunded and undersourced the military - fewer soldiers, older equipment, and no strategic airlift to get them to where they needed to go.

To the credit of the outgoing Martin government, they did do three important things to move in the right direction: First, they increased the budget; second, through Defence Minister Bill Graham, they set the context of this new reality by preparing Canadians for the real possibility of casualties; and third, they appointed a Chief of Staff like Gen. Rick Hillier who appreciates the challenge and is keen to reshape the Canadian Forces accordingly.

The 'Canada First' defence policy put forth by Prime Minister Harper should bring us full circle in this evolution of stance.

Lester Pearson's legacy is not dead - peacekeeping is still an honourable policy and duty for international stability. But we must appreciate that keeping the peace presumes that it was there to begin with. That requires a stubborn recognition that conflicts are not always tidy affairs conducted by rational actors with a sense of honour found in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

Certainly, Glyn Berry's death is the death of an outmoded ideal as well.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Some observations on the 2006 vote

Despite the disappointment of some that Monday's Conservative win was not great enough to garner a majority, most of us would agree that a minority government is a mandate nonetheless. It gets us out of the cheap seats and, after more than a decade, it's nice to be out of the cold.

Election day, for me, was a non-stop relay race between scruitineering, doing some domestic duties on my "day off" from work, and trying to find any off-shore blog that spilled the beans before 9:30 p.m.

The last 48 have been a time of rest, relaxation, and reflection. So here's what I've come up with.

First, this government has legs. Until the Grits resolve their ascendancy issues, their legal problems, and win the Super 7 draw, they will sit tight. Ditto for the Bloc, as the writing is on the wall for them. Quebec voters are the most savvy in the country, and Duceppe's worst nightmare is that they clue in that beyond providing some cushy jobs for Pequiste hacks, they serve no purpose whatsoever. In fact, they have been a greater waste of federal tax dollars than the Sponsorship program. As for the Dippers, Jack "the 'stache" Layton also has to know that it doesn't get any better than this for him and the missus.

Second, Toronto mayor David Miller, and others who bet their paycheques on the Liberal horse are now trying to cover their losses by talking tough. Build a bridge, Prime Minister Harper, or you'll never see a seat in the GTA, or a majority mandate, which to these geniuses, is interchangable.

All I can say to Miller, McGuinty, and the Liberal cabal is to keep their hair on. Harper will build you a bridge, not because of your false bravado, but because, SURPRISE, he takes his job seriously. He wants seats there, and will earn earn them honestly.

Harper's no fool - he knows turning Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver into economic black holes might satisfy short-term penchants for vendictiveness among some Tories, but it is suicidal public policy.

The Liberal doyens of the GTA, of course, know that Harper knows. That's why they got up on their hind legs and began to bark. When Harper does what he was intending to do all along, they can claim that it was their pressure and empty threats that did it. It's about as lame as commanding your Cocker Spaniel to lay down when he is already doing so, then follow up with a "Good boy."

Finally, we have learned that politically, there is no such thing as Ontario - there are three, in fact. There is the north, where the three or four odd ridings bounce from Liberal to NDP and back again; there is the GTA, bastion of Canadian Liberalism. Most important to Mr. Harper, there is the remainder of the province, stretching from Windsor to the Quebec border. This area is painted Blue, with at least a half dozen ridings where Conservatives won with 45 to 55 percent of the popular vote.

Some call it rural and suburban Ontario, they used to call it the "Loyalist Belt", Sir John A. Macdonald used to call it home, and so do I.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Ontoryo.