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Dear Fellow Torontonians

A lament for the student protests of Montreal — which could never happen here
Montreal street protestYanik CrépeauScene from an earlier (March 22, 2012) street protest in Montreal.

Dear fellow Torontonians:

I went to Montreal last weekend, one of the few times I’ve returned since graduating from McGill, and as I stood outside Mont Royal station with my bag, peering through the rain for the restaurant where my friends were waiting, I heard loud dance beats echoing against the boulangeries and bike shops. Immediately thereafter — they must have turned a corner and I didn’t notice — a crowd of boisterous Montrealers marched toward me. They came down the street, pots banging, their red felt squares prominently dividing me from them. The mood was festive and determined — placards calling for the end of the Charest era and the freezing of tuition fees left no doubt this was a protest — but whole families took part: small children, elderly couples, and mothers (some of whom identified themselves as “mères en colère“) mixed in with young people: students, I assumed. And while marchers blared their long, rainbow-coloured horns toward surrounding buildings, residents came out onto balconies to wave and cheer, including a small group of blue-robed nuns, who in turn were greeted with raucous whooping from the crowd.

And as I stood on the sidelines with my Toronto bus ticket still in my back pocket, I felt dejected, and wished we were so brave. What kind of city is ours that this scene would never play itself out here? Imagine King Street office workers heading up to Bloor and joining U of T students’ protests against raising tuition fees. Can’t do it? Me neither.

I immigrated to Canada at six years old, and as a child in grey suburban Toronto, always felt disconnected from the city’s political life. Like somehow people were engaged, and involved, somewhere I couldn’t see. But I wonder now if maybe the political community I had imagined doesn’t exist. I give Toronto the benefit of the doubt, but it is tough to stomach its political apathy. St. James Park never had more than a few hundred people for Occupy Toronto, and a few thousand joined in early day marches. The G20 protests, surrounding a homegrown event, had some 10,000 participants — less impressive in light of the damage, much of it done by mask-wearing young people, that shamed so many of us. Milder protests failed to draw the same keynote attention, and the legacy of that day is empty. Our recent half-hearted attempts at protests in solidarity with Montreal barely crawl into our newspapers, the nation’s largest. (more…)

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Posted in Open Letters  •  20 Comments

Shipping Point

To reduce national reliance on foreign oil, why don’t we send oil from Alberta to the Atlantic provinces?
Photograph by Eamon Mac MahonAlberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands Project can produce 155,000 barrels of crude per day. Its majority owner, Shell Canada, plans to increase that to more than 500,000 barrels per day (Source:Amazon of the North” by Eamon Mac Mahon, November 2011).

Last month, the Bank of Canada warned in its latest Monetary Policy Report that Canada’s oil industry is dragging down the nation’s economy because the country imports crude at higher cost than it exports. Nationally, we import an enormous amount of oil, both light and heavy crude, mainly from Algeria, the UK, Nigeria, Norway, and Saudi Arabia; in 2009, we brought in an average of 1.1 million barrels per day, compared to an export of 1.9 million barrels per day.* This foreign supply is bound for Eastern Canada, mostly going to the Atlantic provinces and Quebec, with a small quantity reaching Ontario. (Natural Resources Canada provides a good map of our existing oil pipelines.) With the difference in price between Canadian and international oil sometimes as great as 35 percent, CIBC and the Bank of Montreal estimate that the annual loss to the economy is nearly $20 billion. To reduce Canada’s reliance on expensive foreign oil, why don’t we ship heavy crude from Alberta to the refineries in the Atlantic provinces?

This question has excited the media and the energy industry from coast to coast. The Calgary Herald calculates that an eastbound oil pipeline would be a terrific investment, while Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald argues that it would be economically efficient. But these views may be mistaking the effect of an eastbound pipeline on oil prices — remember, oil companies are inherently driven by the expectation that those prices will rise. And using decades-old infrastructure for the endeavour presents a high risk of calamity. (more…)

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Northern Reflection

Will Canada’s territories eventually become provinces?

Canada, as anyone who’s attended grade school can attest, consists of ten provinces and three territories. At least one Prime Minister — Paul Martin, quoted in 2004 — has said we’ll “eventually” have thirteen of the former and none of the latter. However, the notion of territories becoming provinces is not one that much concerns the territories themselves — as Graham White of University of Toronto’s political science department says, this is a “classic Toronto question about the North.” What’s more important is the “devolution” of various governing powers currently held at the federal level, such as substantial ownership of land. And within the territories’ special set of economic conditions, provincehood — and the economic self-reliance that implies — may only become a goal in the distant future.

In the nineteenth century, the original North-West Territories — which draped most of modern Canadian land, except for BC, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and half of Ontario and Quebec — was managed directly by the federal government. These centralized powers gradually gave way to local separatist movements, and provinces slowly carved themselves out: first Manitoba (1871), then Alberta and Saskatchewan (1905), and finally parts of Ontario (1869, 1874, 1889, 1912) and Quebec (1898, 1912). The Yukon broke off in 1898, following the Gold Rush, and Nunavut a century and a year later. Even so, Saskatchewan and Alberta didn’t own their land or resources until a quarter of a century after becoming provinces. (more…)

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Arctic Freeze Out

Is Canada dropping out of climate change research?
PEARLPaul LoewenCanada’s Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory

The Bank of Canada’s new $50 note features the Arctic research icebreaking ship CCGS Amundsen — a vessel which, according to the Bank, “reflects Canada’s commitment to Arctic research and the development and protection of northern communities.” But with the federal government’s recent confirmation to stop funding the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS), and the resultant grant cut to our High Arctic research station, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), we’re forced to question: is Canada, perplexingly, retreating from climate change research at a time when knowledge is evermore valuable to the global conversation?

Canada’s environmental performance has never impressed (we are currently at the bottom in international rankings, such as our fifty-fourth global position in the recent Climate Change Performance Index), although the Martin and Chrétien Liberals pushed forth encouraging progress. Stemming from their innovations, university climatology programs attracted global experts and our Arctic research facilities fed data into a wide network of international centres. But this spurt was short-lived, and the country’s reputation in climate change science is declining: dozens of newly trained climate specialists are leaving the country en masse for jobs abroad. “We’re bleeding people,” atmospheric physicist Richard Peltier, the 2012 recipient of Canada’s top science prize, the Herzberg Gold Medal, recently told Postmedia News. (more…)

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Off Track

Nora Young’s The Virtual Self, reviewed
The Virtual SelfMcClelland & Stewart

In step with her WiFi-connected pedometer, the modern “self-tracker” cradles her iPhone as she punches into an online database her mood on a five-point scale, her heart rate, and the calories she consumed for breakfast, then tweets out a GPS-tagged photo of the blue jay crossing her morning jog. The sum of all this updates her metaphorical “Data Map,” a “digital, statistical version of [her] real, physical self.”

As personal tracking tools come ever easier to our fingertips, our digital lives become increasingly complex and minutely detailed. Rather than dismissing self-tracking as the latest manifestation of an increasingly self-obsessed culture, in her new book, The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us, Nora Young argues that when “used properly”, the practice gives us the “chance to truly listen to the body, and to reground ourselves in the here and now.”

Young, who hosts Spark, the CBC Radio show that links technology and culture, waded through countless online services to log bodily functions, relationships, mental states, and habits — like RescueTime, an analytics service, popular with employers, that tracks a computer’s every working minute. Recording our daily activities forces self-awareness, she argues, inviting behaviour change with a rewarding “gold star” approach. Our basic captured data creates “a digital picture of ourselves”, she continues, resulting in a Data Map that is a “strong depiction of who we are.” (Recognizing this representational power, personal Timelines on Facebook — a visualization tool recently discussed by Ivor Tossell in The Walrus — serve, Young writes, as “repositories for people’s digital lives.”) (more…)

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The Protecting Politics from Linguistic Predators Act

How are Parliamentary bills named in Canada, and do their names matter?

Currently bouncing around Parliament is the immigration reform bill Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act (C-49), introduced by the Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews. Toews had earlier brought us the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act (C-30), a bill about surveilling Canadians’ electronic communications (which I discussed in an earlier post). Who comes up with these names? And do they direct the political debate?

The questions refer to the short titles of bills — the ones meant for citation only. Both bills above have long, formal, objective titles as well, such as Bill C-30’s An Act to Enact the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act and to Amend the Criminal Code and Other Acts, and Bill C-49’s An Act to Amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act and the Marine Transportation Security Act. (Click here to view a comprehensive list of bills for Parliament’s current session.) But it’s the short titles that get passed around in debates and by the media, and that we, the voting public, ultimately associate with new legislation.

The short title for a Parliamentary bill originates with its sponsoring minister (e.g., Toews), in consultation with the government (e.g., Conservative Party). In the case of a private member’s bill, the short title comes from the MP putting it forward. Short titles are up for debate in committee, and the Opposition typically pushes to amend the polarizing ones. This rarely succeeds. One exception happened in 2010, when Bill C-22’s original short title, Protecting Children from Online Sexual Exploitation Act, was successfully contested in committee, and later deleted. Parliament requires that only a bill’s full title accurately reflect its contents; there are no laws governing short titles. In the past, and usually still now, a short title is pulled directly from the bill’s full title (e.g., An Act Respecting Louis Riel becomes Louis Riel Act (C-302)). (more…)

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Laying Down: the Law

Is prostitution legal in Canada?
ProstitutionMassimo Catarinella/Wikimedia CommonsTwo brothels in Amsterdam’s red-light district

Last week, a resounding 77 percent of respondents to a Globe and Mail online poll voted that prostitution should be decriminalized in Canada — missing the point that it already is, and always has been. But seven out of ten Canadians believe it isn’t, according to a 2011 Angus Reid survey.

Why are we confused about the status of sex work in Canada? While selling sex (an activity that the government loosely defines as providing sexual services for payment in an essentially indiscriminate nature) is legal, the work is enveloped in a tangle of illegal peripheral activities — a duplicity that mimics the nation’s ambivalence toward the profession. This tangle of laws makes it “virtually impossible to engage in prostitution without committing a crime,” as Parliament recognized in a large-scale 2006 study of sex work in Canada. The situation is confounded by frequent media reports of police arresting sex sellers through raids or publicly shaming buyers by broadcasting their names.

Historically, 90 percent of these police incidents relate to solicitation in a public place, according to 2005 figures from the Department of Justice. The Fraser Report, a landmark 1985 Parliamentary review, recommended banning street solicitation, but retaining the decriminalized status of selling sex among consensual adults, and proposed that prostitution be contained within government-regulated establishments. Taking prostitution off the streets and into controlled houses would seem to solve many problems: this would protect public space, reduce police workload, and provide a safer workplace for professional sex workers.  (more…)

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Carried Away

Why do airlines limit the volume of carry-on liquids to 100 millilitres?
100-ml bottleWikimedia Commons100-ml bottle, not shown at actual size

We are well trained now: when travelling on planes, we know we can’t put anything over 100 millilitres into our carry-on luggage, and any mistaken attempts end with forfeiting our valued moisturizers and designer water bottles. Through hard battles lost, we’ve succumbed to the demands of airport security authorities, all for the belief that this restriction makes us safer. And now as we pause to consider, we wonder: why can’t we put liquids, gels, and aerosols in bottles larger than 100 ml, and why must all these bottles fit into a one-litre plastic bag?

Our first guess is partly right: it is something to do with a potential terrorist threat from liquid explosives. But solid explosives are widespread too. And in focusing our tunnel vision on individual passengers, we forget that a bomb in checked luggage can be large enough to take down a plane, while a few harmful millilitres in a purse may only blow out a window.

The so-called liquid limit got its start on August 10, 2006, when UK police arrested twenty-one suspects in London over a plot to detonate the liquid form of explosive TATP aboard as many as ten flights bound for Canada and the US. Immediately, the fortress gates of the three countries slammed shut: transport authorities banned all liquids (excepting baby formula, prescription medications, and a few others), and the US and UK even banned carry-on luggage. A month and a half later, the US Transportation Security Administration introduced its 3-1-1 rule, allowing 3.4 ounces (100 ml) of liquid per container, with all containers to fit in one quart-sized (950 ml) bag, per passenger. Another month and a half after that, Transport Canada imposed a 100 ml/1 litre rule for travellers at all Canadian airports. (more…)

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The 100-Mile Dollar

What is a community currency and why would anybody want to use one?
Community currenciesCommunity currencies from Calgary, Salt Spring Island, and Toronto

Hundreds of communities around the world have created new currencies over the last few decades, trading millions of dollars’ worth each year. In Canada, at least Calgary, Toronto, and BC’s Salt Spring Island are taking part. While only the Bank of Canada can print paper to serve as legal tender, it’s perfectly lawful for any Canadian community to make its own alternative currency as long as it records transactions and files taxes — which means this currency needs to be exchangeable with the national dollar.

By their design, community currencies force people to spend locally, and usually quickly. They often stand as pillars of community-led attempts to rejuvenate depressed economies, such as  Totnes and Brixton Pounds in the UK’s Transition Towns, and Argentina’s wide adoption of the Crédito during its 1999 economic crisis. Most are managed by nonprofit organizations, who sell them in exchange for legal tender (one Canadian dollar buys one Calgary Dollar, for instance). The managing NPOs frequently have a surplus of funds (often from business participation fees or expired non-redeemed notes) that are funnelled into community projects or customer discounts. For example, 10 percent of all spent Toronto Dollars is donated to local charities, while the German chiemgauer, which started as a school project, has raised €100,000 for charities. (more…)

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What London Sounds Like

Alberta-born, B.C.-raised author Craig Taylor talks Londoners, his new oral history of his adopted hometown
LondonersHarperCollins Canada

We have long used personal stories to record history, to log the ebb and flow of an era and the minute crises of each current. In 1930s America, the Federal Writers’ Project put the institutional force of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal behind the tradition of oral storytelling. People like Studs Terkel drove from Hooverville to farm to record and broadcast the silent sufferers of the Depression — and later the survivors of World War II — across radio waves, forging a national community in the process. Modern oral histories like some episodes of This American Life continue to document collective voices to make sense of a time. And now, joining that tradition, there is Craig Taylor’s Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now, As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It.

Taylor is a Canadian writer who has lived in London for most of the past dozen years. He previously wrote “One Million Tiny Plays About Britain” (there are actually 110 of them), each a hilarious gem, in the Guardian newspaper, as well as Return to Akenfield, an update to Ronald Blythe’s seminal 1969 oral history of the town. In addition, Taylor edits the online literary magazine Five Dials. His latest book, Londoners, is an attempt to untangle his adopted home through its own voices.

Londoners greets us open-armed with the voices of a coiled city. Among many others, we meet a burly vegetable trader who works fifteen-hour overnight shifts to organize deliveries to the city’s farthest corners, and a gay Iranian refugee who ran toward Britain’s social freedoms by way of Tehran to Bangkok to Paris and finally to London. Although the voices are unquestionably British, they reflect the contrasts and conflicts of any global metropolis struggling to understand itself. I had the pleasure of interviewing Taylor about this precious collection. (more…)

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Handle With Care

Why does Canada have more nuclear waste, per capita, than any other country?
Port HopeDerek ShaptonIn southern Ontario, the Cameco nuclear plant and a company storage site sandwich the Port Hope Yacht Club basin. Originally published with Kate Harries’ “Nuclear Reaction” (The Walrus, March 2008)
Second in a series of posts about underexplained people, places, and things that have arrested our collective attention.

Do you have a question about Canada and/or its place in the world? Ask The Walrus.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada has, by far, the world’s most nuclear waste per capita, and the second-most total nuclear waste. And yet we don’t have nuclear arms, use nuclear power for only 14 percent of our electricity, and have a strong anti-nuclear movement (British Columbia even has a no-nuke policy). So where is all this waste coming from?

The answer lies not just in the particulars of Canada’s nuclear energy sector, but also in what defines “waste.” By the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s definition, any material that contains a radioactive nuclear substance and has no use is defined as nuclear, or radioactive, waste.

To begin, Canada has one of the world’s largest uranium reserves, and more uranium (nearly a fifth of the global total) has been mined here than anywhere else. Our first uranium refinery opened in Port Hope, Ontario in 1932; northern Saskatchewan’s uranium mines currently provide 18 percent of the world’s supply. This enormous amount of uranium mining, refinement, and processing leaves a residue of uranium tailings, a radioactive sand. (more…)

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Unlawful Separation

What’s a Freeman-on-the-Land?
The Freeman-on-the-Land’s ideological leader, Robert Menard
First in a series of posts about underexplained people, places, and things that have arrested our collective attention.

Do you have a question about Canada and/or its place in the world? Ask The Walrus.

Canadian law enforcement officers are facing a new challenge: at times, when they stop a speeding car or one lacking official licence plates, the driver, instead of presenting a valid licence, brandishes a World Freeman Society membership card and declares that he or she is a “free man” on the land, not a citizen of Canada, and therefore is not subject to the statutes of Canadian law. Freemen reject police and court authority; they often refuse to pay taxes, mortgages, and even utility bills.

Freeman-on-the-Land is the Canadian manifestation of the global World Freeman Society, whose proponents believe that “A Freeman is a human being living in a common law jurisdiction under God, who has revoked consent to be governed by human laws.” The movement has surged in the last few years, following the 2005 publication of an online how-to book, How I Clobbered Every Bureaucratic Cash-Confiscatory Agency Known to Man: …a Spiritual Economics Book of $$$ and Remembering Who You Are. (Sample text: “We can not find safety and security in something that does not exist. There is no money.”) Last week, this CBC report stated that there are as many as 30,000 Freemen across Canada. Their online presence, however, suggests a much smaller group: The Sovereignty Report, one of the movement’s major websites, only has twelve email subscribers, thirty-one Facebook “likes,” and 105 Twitter followers. (more…)

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