All Posts Tagged With: "stephen harper"
PM Harper: Don’t call this bullying
The cousin of a young woman who committed suicide after an alleged assault and months of bullying issued an emotional appeal to people Thursday not to use violence to avenge her death.
Angella Parsons stood before a sombre crowd of about 300 people in a Halifax park to reflect on the short life of Rehtaeh Parsons and the lessons that should be learned from her loss.
“My family asks people not to respond with violence and aggression to this terrible tragedy,” she told the crowd through tears.
“We’re all angry. … Rehtaeh was angry, however, feeling angry and responding in anger and aggression are two very different things.”
The gathering came after Rehtaeh’s family said she hanged herself last week and was taken off life-support Sunday, following months of bullying linked to an alleged sexual assault by four boys at a house party in 2011.
What students are talking about today (March 18th)
1. Remember before the last federal election when everyone was sharing that little website with the photo of Stephen Harper stroking a cat, plus pages and pages of one-liners about nefarious acts our PM was accused of committing? After Shitharperdid.com amassed 4.1 million in three days in 2011, we didn’t hear much about it again. Well, now it’s back in another form. Vancouver Comedian Sean Devlin, one of the site’s founders, is joining up with improv group The Sunday Service, Brigette DePape (the STOP Harper sign wielding page) and others for the Shitharperdid.com Live! Comedy Tour. Tonight it’s at the University of British Columbia and more than 350 people have told Facebook they plan to attend. Later it stops at Emily Carr University, Simon Fraser University and Douglas College.
2. Harper may have done some shit, but the New Democrats’ budget, released Monday, doesn’t offer an exciting alternative. In fact, it will only appeal to you if you’re a real person. “Real things for real people” has five prongs: better public transit, roads and bridges, fair pensions, health care for veterans, jobs for young people and small business investment, but it’s rather short on details. The “jobs for young people” section says the NDP would launch “a $500 top-up to the tax credit for small- and medium-sized employers who create jobs for Canadians aged 18-30.” Big deal.
What students are talking about today (March 5th)
1. Carly Rae Jepsen, the 27-year-old Canadian singer, has cancelled a performance at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree in July because the Scouts still ban gay members. In a series of Tweets she wrote: “As an artist who believes in equality for all people, I will not be participating in the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree this summer. I always have and will continue to support the LGBT community on a global level and stay informed on the ever changing landscape in the ongoing battle for gay rights in this country and across the globe.” This seems like a smart move.
2. It’s Israel Apartheid Week again and both Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper condemned the annual hate-fest on Monday. So did at least one student op-ed, in Trent University’s Arthur, whose author argues the term apartheid is inaccurate. There was also a review of a film that compares Israel and apartheid South Africa in The Concordian. Here’s part of Kenney’s statement, which one might call overheated, even though he makes a valid point:
Calgary prof first made comments to student paper
Former Stephen Harper strategist Tom Flanagan has been widely and swiftly condemned for suggesting that people looking at child pornography shouldn’t be jailed.
Flanagan made the controversial remark during a lecture Wednesday night in southern Alberta. His words were recorded on a cellphone and quickly posted on YouTube.
It didn’t take long for people to start cutting ties.
By noon Thursday, the CBC dumped Flanagan as a panellist on its “Power and Politics” program. The University of Calgary, where he is a political science professor, issued a statement distancing itself from his views.
The university also mentioned he would be retiring, but made clear that decision had been announced prior to this week’s controversy.
He is currently on a research leave, and that will now be extended until his retirement.
In a statement attributed to him on the CBC website, Flanagan was apologetic to anyone he offended. He said he absolutely condemns child sex abuse.
“In an academic setting, I raised a theoretical question about how far criminalization should extend toward the consumption of pornography,” reads the statement posted on the blog of Kady O’Malley, also a panellist on “Power and Politics.”
Hard to know which celebrities have ghost-tweeters
About 290,000 people follow Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Twitter, perhaps to read what he has to say about the country’s affairs or to glean a little personal insight into what makes him tick.
Thing is, most of the messages that are sent from his account aren’t really his.
Harper only “occasionally” sends out tweets himself, according to a spokesman.
Much like many other high-profile Twitter users, most of the short-form messages that appear under Harper’s name and avatar are actually crafted by ghost-tweeters charged to work social media on his behalf.
“I assume if it’s an institutional individual — if it’s a CEO, if it’s a big personality, a singer, or it’s a politician — then they are not doing it themselves,” said Greg Elmer, director of the Infoscape Research Lab at Ryerson University studying social media.
Dangerous drinking, First World Problems & free textbooks
1. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to report this, but public safety is at risk (seriously). A University of Tennessee student was hospitalized with a dangerously high blood-alcohol level after his fraternity, which has now been suspended until at least 2015, allegedly gave him an alcohol enema. Students call this “butt-chugging.” The apparent victim denies it, but such things have happened. At least one student died this way in 2005, according to Inside Higher Education.
2. This could be a game-changer. California’s governor has signed a law that will make more than 50 core textbooks free to download. Hard copies will cost just $20. I’ll bet it’s only a matter of time before this idea catches on here.
3. A Queen’s Journal columnist has explored the trend of #FirstWorldProblems after a life-changing event that happened while waiting in line with a friend for a latte. “We were informed that our Starbucks rewards no longer included free flavour shots,” writes Trilby Goouch. “As regular flavour shot users, we were both a little rattled by this new information.” First World Problems indeed.
Chuck Norris, Quebec election and Stanley Cup rioters
1. Chuck Norris, known for on-screen martial arts and a certain intractable meme, has a message for Americans. If you love your family and freedom as much as he and his wife Gena do, don’t vote for Obama. America is headed toward “socialism or something much worse,” says Chuck. Gina predicts “a thousand years of darkness.”
2. A Quebec election, which was at least partly called to settle the nightly student protests against tuition, is happening today. Polls put Liberal Premier Jean Charest in third place, but this is Quebec so anything could happen. Charest does look especially desperate. He warned over the weekend that a Parti Quebecois government could jeopardize the chances of NHL hockey returning to Quebec City. Read full coverage here.
Gallery: Stephen Harper drops the first puck
It’s an infrastructure project with a special place in the Prime Minister’s heart. The former Maple Leaf Gardens reopened today as the Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens. It’s the new home of the Ryerson University Rams, as well as the school’s fitness centre. Stephen Harper’s government gave $20 million toward the renovation, and he was there to remind us. “The new athletic centre will have something for everyone,” he said. “Students will be able to work out in the gym… and even buy a few groceries on the way home,” he joked, referring to new grocery store beneath it.
The building has offered plenty to Harper in the past. He was awed by its size when he was a 10-year-old Torontonian. A notorious Beatles fan, he noted how all three North American Beatles tours stopped in the arena. A huge hockey fan, he talked of how the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup when they moved in in 1931. Harper finished his speech by drawing a parallel between a building that almost didn’t get built because of the Great Depression and the renovation, which was also started in a shaky economy. He dropped the first puck in front of a lectern emblazoned with the branding of Canada’s Economic Action Plan: Jobs, Growth and Prosperity.
Canadian Mennonite University students campaign against government cuts
A group of Winnipeg university students has started a grassroots campaign to prevent cuts to refugee health care by mailing 59 cents to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and encouraging others to do the same.
The students from the Canadian School of Peacebuilding at the Canadian Mennonite University created the 59 Cents Campaign to battle the government’s cuts to the Interim Federal Health Care Program, which will see Citizenship and Immigration Canada stop paying for the supplemental health care of refugees during their first year in Canada.
Matt Dueck, 25, told the Winnipeg Free Press that since the cuts are projected to save $100 million over five years, the annual cost per Canadian to preserve the refugee health care is 59 cents. Dueck and his fellow students made a Youtube video to encourage the public to mail Harper a few quarters and nickels and pennies.
“We believe that if Canadians stop to consider the effect which these changes will have on the most vulnerable portion of our global society, that our country’s annual savings of 59 cents per person to keep the federal Interim Health Program open for refugees will be seen as insignificant,” the video says. “In 2011, Canada was proudly a place of hope and healing to 25,000 refugees. This is a fact in which we take pride and wish to take pride in for generations to come.”
But deans have a plan. Cornish hen, anyone?
“Canada has gone from brain drain to brain gain,” Stephen Harper told a crowd at McMaster University on Aug. 3. He was speaking at a ceremony to announce the 167 recipients of the 2011 Vanier Scholarships, awards that were launched in 2007 to provide whiz-kid graduate students from around the world with $150,000 in funding over three years. The Prime Minister made the goal of the big cheques clear. Research leads to innovations, which creates Canadian jobs, he said.
But wait a minute. Has the brain drain that sucked south 488 members of the graduating engineering class of 1995 before the ink dried on their degrees really been plugged? Look more closely at the 167 Vanier Scholarships awarded this year. Only eight will fund engineering research. Only five of those went to Canadian citizens or residents.
New poll data shows young voters aren’t any more likely to vote for Layton. It’s everyone else who is.
The NDP is surging in Quebec and many point to the party’s popularity among young voters as the reason why. Jack Layton’s progressive message, the logic goes, makes him stand out as a legitimate alternative to Gilles Duceppe among left-leaning voters.
But here’s a problem with that storyline: data from the Historica-Dominion Institute’s poll of young voters suggests there isn’t an NDP surge among Quebec youth at all. Its 2011 Inter-generational Study shows young Quebecers are no more likely to vote NDP now than they were in 2008. Back then, the party captured a mere 12 per cent of the vote in Quebec.
The Historica-Dominion survey gathered the opinions of 831 youth aged 18 to 24, including 189 from Quebec. The NDP was the most popular party among young voters in Quebec, capturing 27 per cent support, while the Liberals got 23 per cent, the Bloc Québécois got 21 per cent, and the Conservatives came last with 8 per cent. (For more results from the study, including a look at which issues matter to young voters, read the next issue of Maclean’s.) Those figures are virtually unchanged from the Institute’s 2008 Youth Election Study, which found 27 per cent of young Quebecers leaning toward the NDP, another 27 per cent supporting the Bloc, 20 per cent behind the Liberals, and 7 per cent leaning Tory.
The youth numbers also mirror last week’s EKOS and CROP polls, give or take a few points. “That seems to indicate the rest of the population is catching up to the youth in considering the NDP rather than a youth surge,” says Allison Harell, a political scientist at the University of Quebec at Montreal. That may be good news for Jack Layton. If his support is more broadly distributed across age groups, she adds, it may translate into more votes on election day. Historically, only about a third of Canadian youth end up voting, compared to nearly two-thirds of the electorate overall.
The big question is whether the current NDP supporters—young or not—will change their minds before election day. Houda Souissi, a 21-year-old labour law student at the University of Montreal has already switched back to Duceppe after a brief dalliance with Layton. After scrutinizing the NDP record, she worries an NDP government could take away provincial powers. She’s also turned-off by Layton’s stance on the long gun registry. Most importantly, she’s wary of inexperienced MPs. “I don’t want to say they’re nobodies,” she says. “But outside of Outremont, we don’t really know who the NDP candidates are.”
Souissi’s worries may be moot come May 3. If the NDP’s surge in the polls translates into actual votes, the party’s Quebec candidates could be well on their way to becoming decidedly mainstream among voters of all ages.
UWO student ejected from Harper rally for Facebook picture with Ignatieff
All you F-35 Joint Strike Fighter naysayers—this’ll make you bite your tongues. After all, the proof is in the pudding, and just this past weekend, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives proved the need to stay vigilant against enemies, many of whom can appear in even the most innocuous of forms.
Of course, I’m talking about 19-year-old University of Western Ontario student Awish Aslam, who managed to infiltrate a Harper rally in London on Sunday despite having a Facebook picture of her with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. The audacity, I know. How the undecided voter managed to get in, I’m not sure; but she and a friend were escorted out of the rally shortly after signing in.
According to Aslam, a man led them to a back room, tore up their name tags, and told them they weren’t welcome at the event. “We were confused,” Aslam told the London Free Press. “He said, ‘We know you guys have ties to the Liberal party through Facebook.’”
I don’t know how many times we must drill this message home, but students: Please exercise discretion when posting things online! Yes, you may have a night where you down too many beers with friends and decide to ‘Like’ the Canadian Learning Passport on the Liberal Facebook page, but others will notice your actions! And it goes further than that. Every time you sign onto Farmville and don’t post a comment about the long-gun registry, know you’re making a political statement. For every occasion you send a ‘Poke,’ you should be requesting a fitness tax credit. And finally, never, ever, ever, refer to a group message as a “Coalition.” Vague insinuations are fine, though.
All parties want to encourage the youth vote, of course, but they can’t help it if young people disenfranchise themselves through mistakes like these. Young people should know better than to explore their political options before casting a vote –and worse yet–posting a totally meaningless picture online. Remember: don’t chew Big Red on Harper’s turf, unless you plan to stick it on the bottom of your shoe.
Student unions pour money into political causes that many members don’t even know about, let alone support
The story made headlines everywhere: it was Feb. 11, 2009, and Daniel Ferman was a member of Drop YFS, a group dedicated to overthrowing the York Federation of Students. Drop YFS was presenting a petition with 5,000 signatures—enough to stage a coup of sorts. They were protesting the student union’s support for a teachers’ strike, which would potentially leave students on the hook for missed class time. They were also against the union backing the Israeli Apartheid Week, which many pro-Israel students despised. As the press conference began, Ferman and his fellow Drop YFS members were faced with a crush of student union members who came in to denounce the petition rally. After a volley of shouting, the crowd moved to the Hillel student lounge where some of the Drop YFS members took refuge. “Students were barricaded in the lounge,” says Ferman, who was Hillel @ York’s president at the time and helped organize the Drop YFS effort. “It got very nasty. Police were called. There were racist slurs.”
Students like Ferman don’t think it’s the student government’s role to take sides on political issues. “I think students have every right to speak up when they feel student dollars are promoting hate and a toxic atmosphere on campus,” says Ferman. Since the 1980s, student unions have been growing in power. They take money from undergraduates every year, which is charged separate from but alongside tuition, and they’re supposed to work for students. Some of that cash funds services, such as health and dental coverage, and student athletics. But much of it goes to advocacy and clubs students may find offensive. “They’d taken very controversial stances on what to fund in pro-life versus pro-choice issues, on Tamil issues going on in Sri Lanka. On every worldwide issue, they’d taken a position,” Ferman says of the YFS, which operates with a $2-million budget. They rarely take the position he would take.
The Canadian Federation of Students—an umbrella organization for student unions—has been heavily criticized for rash advocacy using student funds. The national organization, with its provincial subsidiaries, lobbies on behalf of 600,000 student members across Canada. These “members,” who automatically gain that status if their student union is a member organization, each pay $4.01 per semester to the CFS. In 2010, that came to $3.7 million in membership fee revenue—money used to fund the not-for-profit’s advocacy work. Students also pay an average of $4 per semester to be members of their provincial CFS. That’s before student union fees, which average out at around $30 per student, depending on the school. CFS national chairperson David Molenhuis acknowledges that some of the national campaigns, such as its current effort to fight the Canadian Blood Services’ decision to ban gay men from donating blood, are hot issues—but he doesn’t think they’re controversial. “They attempt to address head-on issues that perhaps college and university administrators don’t feel comfortable addressing,” he says. Some students also feel uncomfortable with their fees going to such politically sensitive issues.
For example, last June, the CFS wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty joining the cry for a public inquiry into the “unprecedented curtailment of civil liberties” that took place at the G20. “The federation stands up for the rights of students to participate and to assemble publicly and to participate in demonstrations,” said the letter. “We defend the rights of students to mobilize in public, and the G20 is no exception.”
Some students at the University of Ottawa were upset to learn that not only does the CFS take a political stand on the G20, their own student union spent at least $1,000 to rent a coach bus to shuttle about 50 protesters to Toronto during the G20. Student Peter Flynn, who also heads up the University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives, blasted the expenditure as a “blatant misuse” of student fees. “I highly doubt that every single student who has to pay those fees would be happy to know their money was being spent to send a few individuals to protest for the weekend,” Flynn told the Ottawa Citizen.
York student Gregory Kay was also irked by his student union’s support for G20 protests. The YFS and the student union at the University of Toronto co-sponsored “Toronto vs. the G20: a teach-in.” Class included Black Bloc tactics, which ended up seeing storefronts and public property smashed during the summit in downtown Toronto. “That’s something most students don’t believe in at all,” says Kay, who is the business representative for the YFS board of directors. “Most students aren’t anti-capitalist. They’re not interested in civil disobedience.”
Of course, if students are unhappy with their student government, they aren’t doing much to change it. While voter turnout tends to be higher when contentious issues can be resolved with a ballot, the average voter turnout sits at between 25 and 30 per cent. Many students see student government as too divisive—or too inflexible—to even bother running. Ferman, for one, considered running for a seat on the executive in 2009, but couldn’t put his academic career on hold for a year as the bylaws dictate. He ran for—and won—a seat on the board of directors instead.
“It’s an interesting dichotomy—that the student president isn’t even a student,” he says. “There are lots of inherent problems with the organization, but the lack of flexibility is a major one.” In late August 2010, the university’s ombudsman released a report saying the student union’s electoral process needed a massive makeover, making recommendations Ferman believes might one day legitimize the organization. “Now the onus is on the student federation to take some of these recommendations to heart.”
Photo: Christinne Muschi/Reuters
For the government relying on academic research is bad politics
An outsider to Stephen Harper’s Ottawa might easily be forgiven for assuming that this summer’s uproar over the Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the long-form census was an isolated event. How could a debate, no matter how heated, over the way government gathers statistics signify much beyond the argument’s own peculiar details? But ask prominent scientists and researchers who’ve struggled to influence federal policy over the past few years, and they’ll quickly link the census flap to wider misgivings about how the Harper government uses data and evidence—or refuses to—in shaping policy.
On sensitive files from crime to health, taxation to climate, the Harper government has often clashed with experts who argue the fruits of their research are undervalued by the Conservatives in the development of new laws and regulations. “I think,” says Gordon McBean, a University of Western Ontario geography professor and internationally respected climate-change scientist, “there is a significant problem—unwillingness to entertain, or invite, or listen to, people who are experts in their fields and want to provide advice and guidance to the government.”
Since he’s a prominent advocate for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, McBean might be suspected of merely having an axe to grind, considering the Harper government’s track record of hesitant steps, at most, on the global warming file. But it’s not just that frustrated academics turn resentful when Conservatives look skeptically, even dismissively, at the recommendations that flow from their work. In fact, the Prime Minister and some of his closest advisers have occasionally expressed reservations about letting expert views directly inform their policies.
During the 2008 election campaign, Harper boasted that his party’s platform was grounded in real-world experience. “Grand blueprints that have been done on the blackboard,” he said, “endorsed by experts with no practical experience in the economy or society, are disastrous.” Harper added that he had steered away from that kind of expert-approved policy-making, at precisely the point when Stéphane Dion, then Liberal leader, was moving his party toward it with his elaborate “green shift” plan to tax carbon.
Painful experience lay behind Harper’s conscious move away from the influence of academic research. His former chief of staff, Ian Brodie, talked candidly about the transition at Montreal’s McGill University last year, in a panel discussion on the role of evidence in policy-making. Brodie recounted how Harper had run in the 2004 election on a tax-cuts platform carefully constructed along lines favoured by tenured economists. “We promised a comprehensive system of moving brackets around, cutting bracket rates, multi-year this, multi-year that, a corporate income tax cut as well,” he said. “A program so well thought out that even the people who wrote it can’t remember the details now.”
The Conservatives lost that election. The setback, Brodie explained, led Harper and his advisers to radically rethink their approach. By the 2006 campaign, Harper was pitching a simple idea, cutting the Goods and Services Tax, which was almost unanimously opposed by mainstream economists. But if experts would have overwhelmingly preferred reducing the tax burden on income and investment, voters liked the sound of Harper’s uncomplicated pledge to slash the widely resented consumption tax. That GST promise helped them win, and Harper’s team learned to treat conventional wisdom among specialists with a certain disdain.
On another key Tory policy theme—law and order—Brodie touted conflict with academics as good politics. Most university criminologists say there’s no evidence to back up the Tories’ heavy emphasis on imposing longer prison terms. They point to studies showing that more jail time doesn’t reduce crime. At the McGill panel, though, Brodie said voters tend to side with Conservatives when they argue with “sociologists, criminologists, defence lawyers and Liberals” about prison terms. “Politically, it helped us tremendously,” he said, “to be attacked by this coalition of university types.”
So not only do Harper’s advisers suspect that following expert advice leads to unsaleable policies, they also think battling the experts can boost their popular standing. In the census controversy they seem willing, almost eager, to take on virtually the entire Canadian research establishment. Among the many groups arguing for keeping the mandatory long-form census, which Harper is turning into a less reliable voluntary survey, are the Canadian Economics Association’s executive, the C.D. Howe Institute’s president, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Institute of Planners.
The National Statistics Council found itself in perhaps the strangest position. The 40-member expert group is appointed by the government, supposedly to provide advice on statistical matters. But when it came to deep-sixing the long-form census—the most consequential federal policy change on stats in memory—the council was kept entirely in the dark until the decision was announced. One of its best-known members, former Finance Department and TD Bank Financial Group economist Don Drummond, said discovering they had been frozen out was “shocking.”
Profs pick a uni president to replace Michaëlle Jean
Last autumn Stephen Harper decided he had a rare luxury, a few free months to plan ahead without worrying the opposition would try to defeat his government. He visited China and India and then, throwing caution to the wind, invited hundreds of journalists to 24 Sussex Drive for a pre-Christmas cocktail.
During the obligatory small-talk portion of the evening, Harper confessed amazement over his visit to the Great Wall of China. Not because the wall is big or beautiful, but because its construction extended over centuries, so that almost everyone who worked on it was committing to a project that could not be completed while he lived.
Other people are moved by a sonnet or a perfect game. Stephen Harper mists up at the thought of long-term planning. This makes him an odd mix for Ottawa, where Monday’s scandal or cause is generally forgotten by Friday. But the long view helps guide his action when he selects the only public official with the power to simply decide, one day, whether Harper gets to remain prime minister. That’s the governor general.
The question is not abstract. In 2008 the Liberals brokered that coalition with the NDP that depended on Bloc Québécois support. Every Liberal MP, including Michael Ignatieff, signed a letter to the Governor General endorsing that pact. Harper’s own cabinet told him that if he lost power he should not expect to hold on to the Conservative leadership. He had to go to Rideau Hall and plead with Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. It’s the sort of thing that sticks in a prime minister’s memory.
Michaëlle Jean’s replacement will almost certainly be waiting at Rideau Hall if Harper ever again faces another coalition challenge. It’s fantasy to think Harper left the choice of a new governor general to chance.
So it was entertaining to watch his staff multiply their descriptions of the ornate, arm’s-length process by which David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo, was selected. It was all so exquisitely non-partisan, they said and repeated. Political staffers were barred. “This is not about politics,” Harper’s spokesman told the newspapers.
Then the PMO released the names of the committee who helped select Johnston. Some of its members are indeed not about politics. Sheila-Marie Cook has been secretary to the Governor General since 2006. She’s like Michaëlle Jean’s senior bureaucrat.
But at least three others have strong opinions about the role of the GG, and those opinions can best be summed up as, “Know your limits.” Christopher McCreery, a historian who is private secretary to the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, wrote an op-ed in 2006 detailing all the ways Adrienne Clarkson had overstepped her role. “Sadly few senior officials in the PMO/PCO or at Rideau Hall have been willing to stand up to a governor general,” he wrote, “and tell them what is appropriate and what is not.”
The two most interesting committee members were two political scientists. Christopher Manfredi is dean of arts at McGill. He studied at the University of Calgary, where Rainer Knopff is a professor. The PMO release on the committee says Manfredi “is an authority on the role of the judiciary in democratic societies,” whereas Knopff “is well-known for his views about the influence of judicial decisions on Canadian public policy.”
What are their views on the role of the judiciary? Broadly, that judges are political actors the same way legislators are. And, broadly, that that’s been a problem. In 2004, Manfredi told a Commons committee that closer scrutiny by MPs of Supreme Court nominees wouldn’t politicize the court because that cat was already out of the bag. “I would argue that the character of the 21st century Supreme Court is that it is already a political rather than a legal institution.”
These aren’t heretical notions. They are solidly in the mainstream of debate about the role of courts. They’re also really popular with Stephen Harper, whose first chief of staff Ian Brodie has said he “found Manfredi’s lessons on the power of the courts and judicial appointments were constantly helpful” in his own studies. Knopff’s signature appears with Harper’s at the bottom of the 2001 “firewall letter” to Ralph Klein advocating limits on federal influence in Alberta’s jurisdictions.
So these guys go back a ways. That’s not unusual either. If a Liberal prime minister had concocted an arm’s-length advisory board before naming a governor general, he might reach out to liberal academics like Errol Mendes or Sujit Choudhry. They would pick somebody fine and upstanding with an expansive view of the governor general’s role. Somebody like Adrienne Clarkson.
This crew has picked somebody fine and upstanding who is a good deal likelier to take a more modest view of his role. That will come in handy if Harper goes to Rideau Hall as an incumbent PM against another 2008-style coalition of other parties.
The irony is that in 2008, when Michaëlle Jean was the referee, she did precisely as he asked. But she made him nervous. He has done what he can to ensure that next time, he won’t have to be nervous.
Professors and researchers unite in defence of long-form census
For those who think that Stephen Harper detests academics, or is anti-science, particularly science of the social kind, or is waging a culture war, they were given new fodder at the end of June when it was announced that the long form census will no longer be mandatory. As Canadians have been reminded recently, the census consists of two main surveys. A short-form sent to all Canadians, and a longer form, sent to 20 per cent of the population that solicits detailed information about education, ethnicity, income, etc. In 2011 the short form will remain mandatory, while the longer form will be sent to more households to allegedly compensate for the fact that it is no longer a civic obligation, like paying taxes or participating in jury duty. The government is claiming that the long-form questionnaire is an unnecessary intrusion into Canadian’s private lives.
Canadian academics, at least those that have commented, have been unanimous in dismissing the idea as preposterously bonehead stupid. Because there will be some demographics that will be more likely to respond than others, census data will become skewed, rendering it almost useless. As professors and researchers rely on accurate information to do their jobs, and, because the government relies on accurate information (well, we hope anyway) to construct good public policy, injecting such a glaring sampling bias into the census (ie: the data from which all other data flows) will distort how Canadian society is understood.
“It’s not often that sample selection bias becomes an issue of national importance, but then again, it’s not often that census sampling design is outsourced to drunken monkeys,” Laval economist, Stephen Gordon wrote on his Worthwhile Canadian Initiative blog.
More diplomatically, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which claims 65,000 members, wrote a letter to the prime minister urging that the long form census remain mandatory: “The long form Census is the only source of regular, highly detailed, systematic information on immigration, family and household structure, racialization, demography and other vital information about Canadians. While some information is available from other Statistics Canada surveys, for example on education, employment and income, the dramatically larger Census sample size allows vital detailed geographical breakdowns not otherwise available.”
The Canadian Economics Association wrote a similar letter: “Making this change without consultation will damage Statistics Canada’s currently outstanding reputation inside and outside of Canada and will leave Canada with a Census that is significantly less useful than those of the countries that Canada compares itself against.”
And from the Metropolis Centers of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Diversity: “Finally, by eliminating comparability with previous censuses, the proposed changes would significantly devalue ALL of the data collected in the long form of the census over the past half century.”
As for the question of privacy, Gordon argues that Statistics Canada is obsessively protective of information: “Anyone who has had dealings with Statistics Canada will tell you that they are ferociously – and at times irritatingly – determined to protect the privacy of those whose information is stored in their data bases. Researchers never see the data. They are obliged to send their estimation codes to StatsCan professionals, who run the programs and return the output to the researcher. That goes for all other non-StatsCan government employees as well.”
Aaron Wherry has a more complete list of organizations befuddled by the government’sdecision.
If you unleash some of those hundreds of millions of minds you help Africa and you help the world.
The other $20 million the Prime Minister announced today at Perimeter Institute may be the smartest and boldest investment a Canadian government has made in development assistance in decades.
It’s $20 million over four years to support Perimeter director Neil Turok’s African Institute for Mathematical Studies, which the cosmologist has branded as his Next Einstein initiative. Turok’s South African, and his idea is simple: there is no good reason why the next Einstein or Newton or Stephen Hawking shouldn’t be a young African man or woman. That continent is many things but of course one of them is a massive untapped human-capital resource: if you unleash some of those hundreds of millions of minds you help Africa and you help the world.
Turok has put everything he has into the notion by launching the first AIMS school in Capetown and planning to build a network of such schools across Africa. He told me about his plans in this 2009 interview. They’re almost unbelievably shoestring operations by the standards of Perimeter: Turok told me it takes about $1 million a year to run one of the places. And the payoff? Students educated at home for one-fifth the cost it would take to educate them at Cambridge or UBC. Staying home to tackle local problems. With a network of contacts among other AIMS grads from across Africa, a built-in antidote to the factionalism that helps hold so many of those countries back. Taught by bright young scholars from home and abroad, and able to plug into that global knowledge network just like any scholar.
The second AIMS in Abuja, Nigeria opened in 2008. Now things get harder. Dakar, Senegal is next, in 15 months: a francophone country with far less-developed physical and social infrastructure than Capetown and Abuja. The (new) (not-in-the-spring-budget) money Harper announced today will help in this crucial next phase. And how significant is this modest $20 million over four years to what Turok’s trying to accomplish?
“It’s the largest single investment in the Institutes ever, by a factor of twenty,” Turok told me today.
Really? Yes, or close, exchange rates being what they are lately. The president of Senegal recently pledged 1 million euros as host of the next AIMS. And Google gave the project a $US1 million grant last year. The Harper government has given it all a mighty push, especially because it may inspire copycats. As one person familiar with the AIMS project pointed out today, can you imagine France letting another country take the lead in such a spectacular fashion on a development project in francophone Africa?
AIMS isn’t the only so-called “smart aid” project in Africa. The Nelson Mandela Institute’s African University of Science and Technology is another; the Mandela Institute’s Funmi Arewa attended yesterday’s announcement. David Strangway’s Academic Chairs for Africa project, still more ambitious, is another.
Eager readers will already have raised two obvious counter-arguments. One is that $20 million is chump change next to the billion and then some that was pledged for maternal and child health at the G8. Well, sure. But on the scale of Turok’s project, which I hope I’ve been able to sketch for you, it’s hardly trivial. And as Dambisa Moyo and the evidence of your own eyes tells you, some very large fraction of traditional subsistence aid to Africa has gone utterly to waste over the last half-century when it hasn’t actually managed to make things worse. The failure of traditional aid is of course no guarantee that a different kind of program will succeed. Rather, it’s an argument for prudent investment to ramp up a highly promising project to a wider scale. Sort of like today’s announcement.
Second, of course, is the you-can’t-get-there-from-here argument. I’ve heard it at length from a European diplomat who’s spent serious time in African universities: have you seen some of these places? They don’t need physicists. They need bed nets, drainage ditches and wheat.
This argument made Abba Gumel laugh out loud when I rehearsed it at Perimeter this afternoon. He’s a Nigerian who runs the Institute of Industrial Mathematical Sciences at the University of Manitoba. He called the bed-nets-before-string-theory argument “totally wrong” and said that what’s made the developed world develop was scientific advancement. “Take that away, and Canada would be a developing country.”
Your mileage may vary. Anyway now we’re going to give this other thing a shot. “Canada is famous as a country with a big heart,” Turok told the crowd after the PM spoke. “It’s fast becoming famous as a country which is smart.”
Post-docs stand to take a substantial tax hit
Let’s take Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s announcement today at Perimeter Institute in two parts.
The PM announced $45 million over five years (that’s kind of like $9 million a year, but not quite because there’s a ramp-up from zero to full cost) for 700 so-called Banting Post-Doctoral Fellowships. There was some chatter on Twitter that this is a re-announcement of something that was in the spring budget. In fact, I said as much myself. The opposition Liberals quickly sent me the same talking point. But I’m not one for dwelling on such things. When governments announce the allocation of funds they’d earmarked in a budget, to me that’s essentially just a confirmation that the budget meant something real. And indulging in games of “he announced it before!” is one way to avoid discussing the merits of the actual policy.
So on to the actual policy. The federal science and technology strategy as it has evolved through the governments of Mulroney, Chrétien, Martin and Harper is by now so elaborate that it’s getting into areas most people won’t even be familiar with. What the heck is a post-doc? Of course Wikipedia has an answer, but it’s essentially a way station between graduate research — Master’s and doctoral-level scholarship — and a full career in science. The Banting post-docs seek to attract the best fledgling researchers from Canada and abroad and launch their careers well. At $70,000 a year, they’re quite generous.
But here’s the thing. The spring budget also announced a decision on a question that’s been hanging over the many hundreds or thousands of pre-existing post-docs for years now: will their income be taxed the way yours and mine is? Perhaps not surprisingly, the budget said “Yes.” If this is a problem, it is so for only two reasons. First, hundreds of post-docs haven’t been paying income tax on their fellowships before this year. And second, graduate student awards remain tax-free.
The Ottawa Citizen‘s Tom Spears explains it better here than I’ve seen it explained elsewhere. The upshot is that students who have slaved away for petty but livable wages as PhD-level research assistants now stand to take a substantial tax hit for the crime of graduating to the next level of their academic career. Or that post-docs who paid no income tax last year will now pay tax — making these exquisitely well-trained but economically vulnerable citizens, many of them young parents, the only class of Canadians who were hit with a substantial income-tax increase this year.
And finally, it means today’s announcement of a small number of fancy post-docs was financed entirely by taxing all pre-existing post-docs (as well as the recipients of the new Banting awards themselves).
The association representing Canadian post-docs has been ringing the alarm bells over all this. Of course the temptation is to write that off as so much special-interest pleading. But when even as stern a fellow as Jack Mintz echoes these concerns, it’s worth more attention than the government has given it.
Obviously there are both horizontal and vertical fairness issues to be weighed here. Huh? I mean that arguably a post-doc shouldn’t be protected from taxation while a plumber or schoolteacher or newspaper reporter of similar income level has to pay the taxman. That’s horizontal fairness. But vertical fairness means you don’t penalize someone by hiking their taxes arbitrarily, and the peculiar career path of scientific researchers ensures that most of them will face a tax hike at about the time many of them start a family and decide how ambitious they want their research careers to be.
What needs to be done is to reconcile these two legitimate fairness imperatives and the tensions between them. That’s one reason why we need a national conversation about the future of our knowledge economy. With, like, all hands on deck, from feds to provincial governments to university administrators, teachers, granting councils, business, what have you. The good news is that the feds also announced that, or something like it, in the spring budget:
“To ensure that federal funding is yielding maximum benefits for Canadians, the Government, in close consultation with business leaders from all sectors and our provincial partners, will conduct a comprehensive review of all federal support for R&D to improve its contribution to innovation and to economic opportunities for business. This review will inform future decisions regarding federal support for R&D. The Government is currently developing the terms of reference for the review.”
The prime minister had nothing to say about that today. Not a problem. Tomorrow’s another day. When he does announce this review, the question won’t be Is he re-announcing something from the budget? but rather, Is this well-designed and helpful?
PM announces 70 post-doctoral scholarships
Stephen Harper dropped in on famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking on Tuesday bearing scholarly gifts — a new post-doctoral scholarship for Canada. The prime minister announced 70 fellowships a year will be awarded, with a total value of $45 million over five years.
“We must invest in the people and ideas that will produce tomorrow’s breakthroughs,” Harper said. “The Banting post-doctoral fellowships will give scholars in research institutions across the country the support they need to explore and develop their ideas to the fullest.”
Hawking took up residence at the Perimeter Institute for theoretical physics last month and will continue his work through July. Harper thanked Hawking for coming to the institute and praised him as an “inspiration” to Canadian scientists. Hawking was to have visited the southwestern Ontario institute last summer as a research chair but illness forced him to cancel. The research institute is a public-private partnership that receives funding from the Canadian and Ontario governments as well as individual donors.
The author of “A Brief History of Time” retired from Cambridge University in England last year at age 67.
Harper also announced $20 million to help establish five science, math and technology centres in Africa. “This is a revolutionary approach to development,” the prime minister said. “It aims to nurture the brightest minds in Africa.”
The Canadian Press
After leading the charge against FNU’s governance problems, CAUT is upset the feds are doing something about it
The most recent Bulletin from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) slams the federal government for refusing to restore funding to First Nations University of Canada (FNUC).
Here’s Randy Lundy, from FNUC, quoted approvingly in the article:
We cannot understand the federal government’s decision, coming after the longstanding governance and administrative concerns at the university have been fixed.
Well, first of all, this is incorrect. The decision to cut funding came after years of problems which were never fixed. What Lundy and the CAUT bosses object to is that the government won’t restore the funding, now that the fixes have finally, supposedly, been made. But that’s like a philandering husband who’s been thrown out by his wife asking “why won’t you take me back, now? I’m not cheating any more!” Sorry. Too late.
Now, I sympathize with Lundy. He stands to lose his job through the incompetence of his governors. Everything should be done to find him and faculty members like him new positions. But what galls me is that CAUT has the audacity to pretend that the Federal Government is arbitrarily trying to destroy FNUC for no reason, when it was CAUT itself that led the charge against FNUC’s mismanagement in the first place. It was CAUT who censured FNUC, telling its members that the place was so messed up, no self-respecting academic should have anything to do with it. And now they have the nerve to act like they’ve been on FNUC’s side the whole time?
Remember, it was less than two years ago that CAUT said:
Censure is a measure of last resort used only when we are faced with violations of principles that are fundamental to higher education [...] In most cases, university and college administrations recognize the serious consequences censure will have on the reputation of the institution and its ability to recruit staff and students, and they look for ways to resolve problems before censure is imposed. Unfortunately, while the FNUniv administration and board were given every opportunity, they refused to show any serious willingness to address the concerns.
Today, they call, with a straight face, the federal funding cut “a surprise announcement.” How could CAUT be surprised that funding would be cut to a university that they themselves said violated the fundamental principles of higher education?
I am rarely on the side of Stephen Harper’s conservatives, but I applaud them for taking a stand on quality education. Even if the Canadian Association of University Teachers won’t.