Democracy Gone Astray

Democracy, being a human construct, needs to be thought of as directionality rather than an object. As such, to understand it requires not so much a description of existing structures and/or other related phenomena but a declaration of intentionality.
This blog aims at creating labeled lists of published infringements of such intentionality, of points in time where democracy strays from its intended directionality. In addition to outright infringements, this blog also collects important contemporary information and/or discussions that impact our socio-political landscape.

All the posts here were published in the electronic media – main-stream as well as fringe, and maintain links to the original texts.

[NOTE: Due to changes I haven't caught on time in the blogging software, all of the 'Original Article' links were nullified between September 11, 2012 and December 11, 2012. My apologies.]

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

TransCanada Buys Solar Energy Projects In Ontario For $470 Million

CALGARY - TransCanada Corp., known for its vast network of oil and gas pipelines, is making an entry into the solar power business with the acquisition of nine Ontario projects for a total of $470 million.

The Calgary-based company (TSX:TRP) said Tuesday it has agreed to buy the projects, with a combined capacity of 86 megawatts, from Canadian Solar Solutions Inc.

"The addition of these solar projects allows us to expand and add to our diverse power generating portfolio where a third of the power we own, or have interests in, comes from alternative or renewable energy sources," TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said in a news release.

TransCanada has large wind projects in Quebec and Maine, as well as hydroelectric operations that span New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont. Many of its power plants in Canada and the United States run on natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal. It is also a partner in the Bruce Power nuclear plant on the shores of Lake Huron, which currently produces 4,700 megawatts of electricity.

One Percent To 99: Stop Picking On Us

According to Bloomberg today, what the major banks and the gentlemen who run them want for Christmas is for everyone to stop persecuting them with all this talk of "the 1 percent," and to stop reminding them of the fact that they've profited while the rest of the country has suffered through an epic crisis of unemployment and home foreclosures as a direct result of their cosmic incompetence.

They're quite sick of it, and they want it to stop! So they whined at length to a Bloomberg reporter and, as Choire Sicha characterizes the end result, "It's an incredibly hot, defensive mess up in there."

To wit:
Jamie Dimon, the highest-paid chief executive officer among the heads of the six biggest U.S. banks, turned a question at an investors' conference in New York this month into an occasion to defend wealth. "Acting like everyone who's been successful is bad and because you're rich you're bad, I don't understand it," the JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) CEO told an audience member who asked about hostility toward bankers. "Sometimes there's a bad apple, yet we denigrate the whole."

Canada needs a more-efficient health care system

The number of doctors – there are nearly 70,000 – and their salaries are both at all-time highs. More Canadians have a family doctor than in years past, proof that progress has been made. But access to them is among the worst in the world. How can that be?

Only half of Canadians are able to see their doctors the same day they become sick. Queues for specialists are especially worrisome, with 41 per cent of patients waiting two months or more, according to The Commonwealth Fund’s study of 11 countries.

Canadians shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking poor access is the inevitable consequence of a publicly-funded health care system. Patients in the Netherlands and Germany have rapid access to specialists, much like Americans where private care prevails. Our system is simply not efficient.

New research shows that the average family physician in Canada billed the public purse $239,000, while the average specialist billed $341,000. Alberta leads the way with the most generous compensation in Canada, according to 2010 figures.

The Ontario government has already signalled it wants doctors to accept a two-year pay freeze when their contract comes up in March, something that is likely to have strong public support.

Topp seizes on Tory health plan to help bankroll his NDP campaign

Wasting no time, Brian Topp is trying to raise money on the back on Stephen Harper’s take-it-or-leave-it health deal.

In a fundraising appeal, the NDP leadership hopeful argues the Prime Minister believes his wealthy friends are more important than the health of Canadians.

“Stephen Harper says we have to slash stable increases to our healthcare funding – but let his wealthy friends keep their tax breaks,” Mr. Topp writes. “I think he’s dead wrong.”

Under the subject line “Stephen Harper was right,” which may startle a few New Democrats - Mr. Topp says the Prime Minister admitted “that stable funding for healthcare is simply unaffordable in the current situation.”

The former party president adds: “And for once, Stephen Harper was right. Don’t stop reading! Let me explain.”

Foreign Policy Plan: Canada Lists China As Top Priority

OTTAWA - Canada's new foreign policy identifies more than a dozen priority countries — China key among them — as Prime Minister Stephen Harper awaits official word from his hosts to visit Beijing, The Canadian Press has learned.

Harper ordered up the so-called Foreign Policy Plan — or FPP — in May when he appointed John Baird as his foreign affairs minister.

Bureaucrats at the Department of Foreign Affairs have completed a draft of the plan and sources say it is now bound for cabinet, as early as this week, for consideration, including its possible tabling in Parliament.

Sources not authorized to speak publicly about the internal government document have briefed The Canadian Press on its main points. They say the document is surprisingly slim and outlines four key priorities: building prosperity, fostering democracy, standing up for human rights, and promoting religious freedom.

The document points out the obvious need to bolster trade with Asia, in particular China, sources say.

Meanwhile, Harper himself has shed new light on his highly-anticipated travel plans for China. He's ready to go, any time, on short notice; he's just waiting on the Chinese government to tell him when.

"I'm waiting on a date," the prime minister said Monday evening during a holiday season reception at his 24 Sussex Drive residence.

Gas Prices 2011: Paying At The Pump Ate Most Out Of Family Budget In 30 Years

NEW YORK -- It's been 30 years since gasoline took such a big bite out of the family budget.

When the gifts from Grandma are unloaded and holiday travel is over, the typical American household will have spent $4,155 filling up this year, a record. That is 8.4 percent of what the median family takes in, the highest share since 1981.

Gas averaged more than $3.50 a gallon this year, another unfortunate record. And next year isn't likely to bring relief.

In the past, high gas prices in the United States have gone hand-in-hand with economic good times, making them less damaging to family finances. Now prices are high despite slow economic growth and weak demand.

That's because demand for crude oil is rising globally, especially in the developing nations of Asia and Latin America. But it puts the squeeze on the U.S., where unemployment is high and many people who have jobs aren't getting raises.

What Does the Keystone Pipeline Have to Do With the Biggest Brands in the World?

Just a few months ago, few would have guessed that Big Oil would be licking its wounds in the wake of what can only be described as a devastating defeat on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Yes, President Obama punted, giving the Keystone pipeline a delay instead of a denial. But the message to Big Oil was clear: the days of rubber-stamping new oil projects are over.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared in September that Keystone's approval was a "no-brainer." Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that Keystone was essentially a done deal -- before any environmental review was even completed. Victory for Big Oil and the 1 percent was not all but guaranteed, it was guaranteed.

Not so fast: The fight that erupted was so fierce that many are still just trying to take stock -- Republican ranchers from Nebraska and 70s throwbacks from Berkeley issuing the same rallying cry against Big Oil, non-profits of all types strategizing and providing behind-the-scenes support to escalating civil disobedience at the White House, and college kids from everywhere rising up to demand their own better future.

To observers with any distance from this fight, the controversy was mainly about a pipeline and less about the particularly destructive source of the oil flowing through it from Canada's Tar Sands. But for most of the U.S. public, this was the first time they heard about the Tar Sands. They need to hear a lot more -- and that's the key to winning on Keystone and more importantly, on the larger Tar Sands problem. It's time to mainstream this controversy.

Will China Break?

Consider the following picture: Recent growth has relied on a huge construction boom fueled by surging real estate prices, and exhibiting all the classic signs of a bubble. There was rapid growth in credit — with much of that growth taking place not through traditional banking but rather through unregulated “shadow banking” neither subject to government supervision nor backed by government guarantees. Now the bubble is bursting — and there are real reasons to fear financial and economic crisis.       

Am I describing Japan at the end of the 1980s? Or am I describing America in 2007? I could be. But right now I’m talking about China, which is emerging as another danger spot in a world economy that really, really doesn’t need this right now.

I’ve been reluctant to weigh in on the Chinese situation, in part because it’s so hard to know what’s really happening. All economic statistics are best seen as a peculiarly boring form of science fiction, but China’s numbers are more fictional than most. I’d turn to real China experts for guidance, but no two experts seem to be telling the same story.

Still, even the official data are troubling — and recent news is sufficiently dramatic to ring alarm bells.

Wall Street's 2011 Pay On Track To Break Records Despite Layoffs And Canceled Holiday Parties

While many Americans will be squeezing as much as they can out of falling incomes to provide gifts this holiday season, some on Wall Street may be getting a nice little holiday present this year -- a boost in pay.

Seven big banks' compensation data for the first three quarters of 2011 indicates that Wall Street pay is on track to exceed 2010 levels, according to an analysis from the Public Accountability Initiative. The report found that big bank compensation, which includes salaries, benefits and bonuses, will likely total $156 billion -- a 3.7 percent boost from 2010 -- and a record breaking number.

Six out of the seven banks studied set aside more for compensation in the first three quarters of 2011 than in 2010. Bank of America set aside 7 percent more for compensation, despite having a dismal year that included a debit card fee debacle and its shares dropping below $5 for the first time in years.

Goldman Sachs, which in October recorded its second loss ever as a public company, set aside less in compensation the first three quarters of this year. Still, Goldman employees will take home $362,862 in compensation on average, compared with the U.S. median income of $26,364.

H3N2 Flu Virus: WHO Warns About New Flu Variants

The World Health Organization is urging countries to be on the lookout for new flu viruses.

The WHO is stressing the importance of monitoring for new variants of flu and reporting any findings to the Geneva-based UN health agency.

The statement comes in the wake of a series of discoveries in the United States of human infections with a new swine-origin H3N2 virus.

There have been 10 infections with this virus in the U.S. since the new variant of swine H3N2 viruses was first seen in humans in July; some limited person-to-person spread is believed to have taken place.
The WHO says countries should remember they have an obligation under the International Health Regulations to notify the WHO of any human infections with a flu virus that is not one of the subtypes normally seen in people.

The International Health Regulations require countries to alert the global community to outbreaks of four diseases deemed to be an international threat: polio, smallpox, human influenza cases cause by novel flu viruses and severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS.

The IHR, as the regulations are called, were devised after the 2003 SARS outbreak, which spread rapidly from China to a number of parts of the world — including Canada — before subsiding. An estimated 774 people died in the outbreak, 44 of them in Canada.

Attawapiskat a 'deep concern' for UN rights official

The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples on Tuesday expressed “deep concern” about conditions in the Attawapiskat First Nation.

James Anaya, who reports to the UN's Human Rights Council, said in a statement that he had contacted the Canadian government about “the dire social and economic condition” of the First Nation.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency in late October as winter moved in on the community of 1,800 near the shore of James Bay in northern Ontario, where many residents were living in shacks and trailers without running water.

Anaya said Attawapiskat reflected the conditions of many aboriginal communities in Canada.

The special rapporteur noted that overall, Canada is a country with human rights indicators among the best in the world, yet “aboriginal communities face vastly higher poverty rights, and poorer health, education [and] employment rates as compared to non-aboriginal people."

China Major Protest Demands Halt To Planned Coal-Fired Power Plant

BEIJING -- Thousands of people besieged a government office in a southern Chinese town Tuesday and blocked a highway to demand a halt to a planned coal-fired power plant because of concerns about pollution, protesters said.

Riot police used tear gas in an attempt to disperse the protesters at the highway in the town of Haimen in Guangdong province, and the demonstrators hurled rocks, water bottles and bricks in return, said one of the protesters, a 27-year-old man surnamed Chen.

It is the second major protest in two weeks in a corner of coastal southern China that has been seeing periodic unrest over the last few years, primarily over land disputes. In much of Guangdong province, conflicts have been intense because the area is among China's most economically developed, pushing up land prices.

In Wukan, a village to the southwest of Haimen, protesters drove local authorities from the area nearly two weeks ago over a land dispute. Wukan protesters reached by phone Tuesday said plans for a large march on a nearby government office on Wednesday would go ahead.

In Haimen, some protesters clashed with police, leaving dozens hurt including women and police. Some in the crowd speculated that one man who was lying on the ground bleeding from his head had died, but that could not be confirmed, Chen said.

Newt Gingrich Assails Judges Ahead Of Iowa Caucus 2012

DAVENPORT, Iowa — As he works to rev up his conservative base in Iowa with just two weeks to go until the state's caucuses, Newt Gingrich is launching a full-throated assault on a reliable GOP target: judges.

There is little love for the judicial branch among the Republicans seeking the White House. But Gingrich's ridicule has been, by far, the sharpest and the loudest. And it's taken a central role as his campaign struggles to stay atop polls in Iowa, a state where irate social conservatives ousted three judges who legalized same-sex marriage.

"I commend the people of Iowa for sending a strong signal that when judges overreach that they can find a new job," Gingrich told about 200 supporters who turned out to hear him speak in Davenport, Iowa, on Monday.

Gingrich has suggested that judges who issue what he termed "radical" rulings out of step with mainstream American values should be subpoenaed before Congress to explain themselves before facing possible impeachment. As president, he said, he'd consider dispatching U.S. marshals to round up judges who refuse to show voluntarily. In extreme cases, whole courts could be eliminated.

The New Blue Collar: Temporary Work, Lasting Poverty And The American Warehouse

JOLIET, Ill., and FONTANA, Calif. -- Like nearly everyone else in Joliet without good job prospects, Uylonda Dickerson eventually found herself at the warehouses looking for work.

"I just needed a job," the 38-year-old single mother says.

Dickerson came to the right place. Over the past decade and a half, Joliet and its Will County environs southwest of Chicago have grown into one of the world's largest inland ports, a major hub for dry goods destined for retail stores throughout the Midwest and beyond. With all the new distribution centers have come thousands of jobs at "logistics" companies -- firms that specialize in moving goods for retailers and manufacturers. Many of these jobs are filled by Joliet's African Americans, like Dickerson, and immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

But many bottom-rung workers like Dickerson don't work for the big corporations whose products are in the warehouses, or even the logistics companies that run them. They go to work for labor agencies that supply workers like Dickerson. Last year, she found work as a temp through one of the myriad staffing agencies that serve big-box retailers and their contractors. Thanks largely to the warehousing boom, Will County has developed one of the highest concentrations of temp agencies in the Midwest.

Dickerson, grateful to have even a temp job, was taken on as a "lumper" -- someone who schleps boxes to and from trailers all day long. As unglamorous as her duties were, Dickerson became an essential cog in one of the most sophisticated machines in modern commerce -- the Walmart supply chain. Walmart, the world's largest private-sector employer, had contracted a company called Schneider Logistics to operate the warehouse. And Schneider, in turn, had its own contracts with staffing companies that supplied workers.

Payroll Tax Cut Bill: House To Wait Until Tuesday To Vote On Measure

WASHINGTON -- House leaders Monday night delayed their vote on a short-term payroll tax holiday, and in the process aired a rare repudiation of their GOP colleagues in the Senate.

Those colleagues -- 39 of them, including the Senate Republican leadership -- voted for a 2-month extension of the 2 percent tax break, then voted unanimously to recess until next year, apparently believing they had a deal the House would accept.

But the Tea Party-dominated House rebelled, and after first saying it would vote down the Senate plan Monday night, delayed the vote until Tuesday and set it up using procedures that guarantee the bill cannot go straight to the president's desk for signature.

"The message coming out of our conference tonight is our members want to make sure that we're here to continue work until Congress passes a year-long extension of the payroll tax holiday," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)., emerging from a closed caucus meeting that lasted more than two hours and was often punctuated by cheers.

"We outright reject the attempt by the Senate to kick the can down for 60 days. It's an unworkable solution," Cantor said.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was more direct in criticizing the work of his fellow leader, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), suggesting the senator didn't have the authority to cut a deal on behalf of the House GOP, and that the deal he cut was no good.

We Are Palestinians

JERUSALEM — When they were young, one of my children’s favorite games was reciting the family lineage. In our culture a person’s full name is a combination of his paternal parentage. My son, born in Jerusalem in 1988, would say his name is Bishara Daoud George Musa Qustandi Musa Kuttab.       

Our family name came from the profession two brothers had a long time ago. The first Kuttabs were scribes who sat outside the court and wrote up petitions for people who had a claim with the authorities. Kuttab is Arabic for writers or scribes.

Upon graduating from North Park University in Chicago and returning to Palestine, Bishara visited the St. James Orthodox Church in the Old City of Jerusalem. He met with the head of the local Palestinian Christian parish. Using extensive baptismal records, they were able to patch together the history of Kuttabs in Jerusalem for hundreds of years. This turned into a family tree that has been circulated on Facebook to all Kuttabs.

My son’s visit had another reason: He wanted to collect rent on our family’s property. On the eve of World War I, many Palestinian families turned their properties over to local churches or the Islamic Waqf (trust) for safekeeping. The properties were controlled by the churches but the owners were able to collect a meager rent. Our history is typical of many Palestinians.

Occupy Education

“Mic check! MIC CHECK! Let the Puppet show begin! LET THE PUPPET SHOW BEGIN!”

The demonstrators who held the floor at a December 14 meeting at Newtown High School in Corona, Queens, were part of Occupy DOE (Department of Education), a mix of veteran teachers, parents and Occupy Wall Street activists that is bringing the language and tactics of OWS to the grassroots fight against neoliberal education reform.

The demonstrators explained why the Panel on Educational Policy (PEP), which had convened the Queens meeting, is an illegitimate, undemocratic body. New York’s PEP replaced elected school boards when Bloomberg established mayoral control of the school system. It is a parody of a school board: at its meetings, members of the public make impassioned speeches, but nothing they say makes any difference. The majority of the panel’s members are appointed by the mayor, and the PEP has never, in all its existence, rejected any of his proposals.

As the official meeting began, each panelist was introduced. As each mayoral appointee said their name, Occupy DOE yelled, “Puppet!” Throughout the meeting, the protestors waved puppets to dramatize the nature of mayoral control.

The PEP was voting that night on a plan to open two new charter schools in Brooklyn, both with the Success network, run by Eva Moskowitz, a former city councilwoman with close ties to Bloomberg and his administration. Almost everyone on the Success board hails from the hedge fund or private equity industry. The idea that the one percent could open schools in Brooklyn neighborhoods, despite intense opposition from both the public and many of its local elected officials, has provoked fury.

Michele Bachmann: The Candidate From Foursquare

Martin Luther's acolytes had the printing press. The Velvet Revolution had rock-and-roll radio stations. The Arab Spring had Facebook. Michele Bachmann's long-shot quest for a second American Revolution has Foursquare. Well, it's something anyway.

Bachmann won't win the Republican nomination, but her campaign is on the upswing in Iowa, where the latest Public Policy poll has her breaking double digits for the first time in months. Last week, she kicked off a 99-county bus tour, to visit every corner of the state, and she seems to think she might actually have an outside shot at winning the caucuses. The days when she had to yell frantically at debate moderators to get a little face time have passed, at least for now. What's her secret? It's the world's most perplexing social media platform this side of Ping.

There she was, at the Thirsty Dog in Manly on Sunday evening. Four minutes earlier, if Foursquare can be trusted (and I would suggest to you that it must, it simply must) she was at the Prime and Wine in Mason City. That followed a stop at Shooterz Bar in Forest City (try the meatloaf), and successive appearances at Pizza Ranch franchises in Garner and Clarion. She started the day by checking in at Harvest Baptist Church in Fort Dodge (with two others). On Saturday, it was much of the same: Pizza Hut in Ida Grove (where she unlocked the "Bender" badge for checking in for the fourth consecutive night)—and three more Pizza Ranches, in Rockwell City, Pocahontas, and Emmetsburg.

Shrewd tactics not the same as good health policy

It is often said that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a brilliant tactician. We saw a striking example of that on Monday when, over lunch, his finance minister presented his provincial counterparts with what was essentially a take-it-or-leave offer on federal health and social transfers.

The gradual levelling off in growth ofhealth transfers is probably the best possible deal the provinces and territories – and Ottawa for that matter – could hope for. At least in base political terms.

But shrewd tactics and political palatability are not the same thing as good public policy. At a time when medicare needs leadership and vision, the new accord continues the lamentable tradition of thoughtlessly shovelling money at the status quo.

Jim Flaherty’s offer was this: Continuing the 6-per-cent annual increase in the Canada Health Transfer and 3-per-cent per annum hike in the Canada Social Transfer until the 2016-17 fiscal year; after that, until at least 2024, increases in the CHT will be tied to economic growth, while the CST will continue at 3 per cent.

World’s poor pay for PM’s policies

In a review last week of the year’s best and worst, Rex Murphy offered up his choice for the most overrated politician of the year: Stephen Harper.

Speaking on the “At Issue” panel on CBC-TV’s The National, Murphy mused that the Prime Minister is not nearly as menacing a character as his enemies make him out to be: “He doesn’t have the power that they think he has. He doesn’t have the depth of animus against all the rest of the world that he’s painted as.”

Murphy, for all his posturing as an independent-minded contrarian, was delivering a message the governing Conservatives would dearly love to plant in the minds of Canadians: that Harper is not an extremist.

Rather, Murphy suggested, it’s Harper’s “enemies” — those who are “radically against him” — who are the extremists.

Since Harper’s “enemies” — arguably about 60 per cent of the Canadian public, judging by the popular vote in the last election — are given little airtime on The National these days, let’s at least take a moment here to consider their “radical” viewpoint.

Conservatives' fundraising-driven rhetoric dumbs down political conversation

The Conservatives were in more of a hurry to kill the wheat board than the gun registry.

Bill C-18, the wheat board bill, received royal assent on Thursday. C-19, the gun registry bill, won't get through the House of Commons before February.

It might be, as the Tories say, that the government had to kill the wheat board first to give farmers time to get ready for the 2012 wheat-marketing season, or it could be that the gun registry is more useful for the Conservatives as a cash cow.

The party started running an ad on radio stations across Canada on Monday.

It starts with a woman's voice: "Hey honey," she says. "So, it's almost gone."

"What is?" says a man.

"The wasteful long-gun registry," she says.

"That's great news," says the man.

"Yeah, the Conservative government has been given a strong mandate from Canadians to scrap it," she says.

"Great," says the man. "Now hunters and farmers won't be treated as criminals anymore."

The ad suggests listeners visit a website,, a domain name the party registered in October. If you click on the main art — a father and son walking along with light shotguns and a couple of dead partridges — you get to a petition. Sign the petition, and you are brought to a page where they ask if you would like to join the party or, ahem, make a donation.

Harper’s flat-tire federalism

Stephen Harper and some friends signed the so-called firewall letter in 2001 urging Alberta’s premier “to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.” But there are ways and ways to do that.

If you can’t build a firewall, you can progressively sap any federal government’s ability to encroach upon provincial jurisdiction. You do that by getting money out of Ottawa — by the billion — or by binding it up to other ends — by the billion. It’s hardly a subtle business.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten the Canada First Defence Strategy.
Over the next 20 years, these increases will expand National Defence’s annual budget from approximately $18 billion in 2008-09, to over $30 billion in 2027-28. In total, the Government plans to invest close to $490 billion in defence over this period.
(The 2008-09 recession led to some trims in the defence strategy’s spending projections — I’ll add details in an update — but the prognosis remains, robust spending growth for a long time into the future.)

And the foregone revenues from the GST cuts. I’m actually less interested in echoing the value judgment Stephen Gordon makes here than I am in reminding us all of the scale of the change in Ottawa’s fiscal position:
Unlike, say, corporate income taxes, the effect of the GST on the budget balance is fairly easy to calculate. …it blew a $12b hole in the federal balance that will have to be filled somehow.
What else? Jails. Actually not a huge incremental cost in the scheme of things, but worth throwing in:
When the Conservatives came to power in 2005-06, Canada’s federal corrections system cost nearly $1.6-billion per year, but the projected cost for 2011-12 has increased to $2.98-billion per year.
And now the health-care transfer announcement.
Jim Flaherty’s offer was this: Continuing the 6-per-cent annual increase in the Canada Health Transfer and 3-per-cent per annum hike in the Canada Social Transfer until the 2016-17 fiscal year; after that, until at least 2024, increases in the CHT will be tied to economic growth, while the CST will continue at 3 per cent.

MP Albrecht pledges investigation after ‘crank’ election calls traced to Tory office

WATERLOO REGION — When Carolyn Siopiolosz answered the phone days before the May 2 federal election, she knew something was wrong.

The anonymous caller informed the St. Clements resident that her polling station had been changed to a park in Kitchener.

“I said ‘what do you mean I have to vote in there,’ ” said Siopiolosz.

“In a small town, you know if something has happened and I knew you didn’t have to go all the way down there.”

After using the “star-69” command on her phone to track the telephone number, Siopiolosz decided to contact Kitchener-Conestoga riding’s returning officer and Elections Canada.

Siopiolosz said she has no party affiliation. She has often voted Liberal in the past, but says when it’s time for a change, she can vote the other way. But in this case, she contacted her riding’s federal Liberal association, which filed its own complaint with Elections Canada.

Review: Margin Call shows the dogs of finance with bared teeth

The film Margin Call takes us inside the foul-mouthed, high finance world of the one per cent. The low budget production, the first from writer/director J.C. Chandor (the son of a stockbroker) went from the Sundance Festival to theatrical release (also on iTunes, and Video on Demand) just in time to validate the Occupy Wall Street movement. It has just been released on DVD.

A tale of how investment bankers perform in a crisis, the Chandor film relies on stimulating viewer intellectual curiosity, plus top-draw talent (Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore) for its appeal. No skin, no sex, no violence, no blood, no fancy sets, just dramatic tension as bankers in nice suits try to make others pay for a mess they created themselves.

The film opens with a number of investment bankers being terminated by order of their bosses. A risk management specialist is taken out of his modest office by a kindly, attractive female human resources officer, and brought to meet with a second tough talking female from HR. He receives a severance offer, and loses his office phone, cell phone, access to his computer, keys to his filing cabinet, and is handed over to a security guard who will allow him to pick up a few personal items from his office, and then accompany him out of the building.

When he tries to explain to HR that he is working on something important, he gets a response straight from the termination manual: it is not your problem any longer.

Brave leadership spreads hope: Attawapiskat takes on the ultimate bully

There have been countless blogs, reports, media stories and commentary on the crisis Attawapiskat First Nation located in northern Ontario on the James Bay. So many of these stories report on the current situation and few provide the historical context from which it all evolved. The purpose of this blog is simply to provide a little context and show how grassroots community members have the power to spread hope to all First Nations by their brave leadership.

Attawapiskat is a First Nation community of approximately 2000 members on reserve and about 800 or so off reserve. This community is part of the larger Cree Nation and the current Chief is Theresa Spence. Attawapiskat is part of the Mushkegowuck Council (a tribal council representing eight Cree communities which is currently headed by Grand Chief Stan Louttit and represents about 10,000 First Nations people).

At the regional level, Attawapiskat is represented by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (formerly known as Grand Council of Treaty 9). It is headed by Grand Chief Stan Beardy and represents over 45,000 First Nations people. This organization is affiliated with the Chiefs in Ontario which is the provincial co-ordinating body for the 134 First Nations in Ontario.

All of the issues surrounding the current situation in Attawapiskat did not turn up overnight, nor can Canada or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) legitimately claim that they had no idea what was happening in the community. The significant challenges faced by Attawapiskat can be traced back to the diesel spill in 1979 that was never remedied by INAC.

The privacy commissioner's 'top-down' approach and disappearing citizen participation

Is something rotten with privacy?

The word "czar" in politics, a colloquial designation of an omnipotent commissioner responsible for the state of affairs in a particular area, highlights the high degree of his or her autonomy and the scarcity of checks and balances under which the czar acts. The privacy commissioner of Canada is one such czar with the mandate to protect citizens' privacy rights.

The independence of the czar from other government bodies has a clear rationale: that person is expected to curb the government's appetite for invading the citizens' privacy. But should that czar also enjoy a significant degree of autonomy from citizens?

The privacy commissioner deserves credit for many good things. In the recently released Annual Report to Parliament she discusses outcomes of audits of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority and selected databases under the custody and control of the RCMP.

Many breaches in the privacy legislation have been identified in the operations of these government bodies. Air travellers would hardly disagree: practices of screening at the airports have long been subject to criticism because of potential breaches of passengers' privacy and the lack of respect for their human dignity. These endeavours on the part of Canada's privacy czar justly received accolades from both the press and general public.

The case for a Canada-U.S. land swap

Canada and America are about to resume negotiations over a cross-border customs agreement known as “land pre-clearance.” These negotiations failed in 2008 and, despite good intentions, may very well fail again. There is a better way—a land swap, formally exchanging territory on opposite sides of the border. It may take longer—but a long process that succeeds is far better than a shorter process that doesn’t.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a plan they called “Beyond the Border.” The main idea behind it was for Canada and the United States to co-operate on a secure perimeter for their common space—in effect, applying the NORAD model to the movement of people, goods and services into North America. This is fundamentally a good idea for both countries—like it or not, our security is inextricably linked. From a Canadian perspective, one of the major corollary benefits of a joint approach to the perimeter would be the “thinning” of the border between the two countries, facilitating travel and trade.

To that end, one part of the December plan to implement the agreement (released earlier this month) calls for Canada and the United States to negotiate a land pre-clearance agreement—that is, an agreement where American customs and immigration officials will physically be located on the Canadian side of the border to screen people, trucks, and cargo before they cross into the U.S.; Canadian border officials would, likewise, do their work at a facility on the American side.

Crippling the Right to Organize: GOP Inaction May Leave National Labor Relations Board Inoperable

The National Labor Relations Board, the government body that oversees labor complaints, is on the verge of being shut down. Under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from last year, the NLRB must have a quorum of at least three of five members in order to operate. But one member’s term expires at month’s end, and Republicans have meanwhile refused to confirm President Obama’s two replacement nominees. Unless a solution is found, the NLRB would be frozen come January. Without the NLRB, workers would lose their legal recourse to defend their right to organize and to protect themselves against anti-union activity by employers. We speak with Stanford Law School Professor William Gould, former chair of the NLRB.

Source: Democracy Now! 

Tory crime bill to put pressure on courts

The federal government is anticipating a constitutional challenge over the mandatory minimum sentences it plans to impose as part of the omnibus crime bill, documents obtained by The Globe and Mail suggest.

A piece of the legislation will require judges to issue minimum sentences for some drug-related offences, a change that is expected to dramatically increase the number of people in provincial and federal prisons.

The change will also ratchet up pressure on the country’s courts, as people who might otherwise plead guilty instead choose a trial to try to avoid the mandated time behind bars.

Documents tabled in Parliament by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews earlier this year suggest that between 80 and 90 per cent of people who would have pleaded guilty to “serious drug offences” in the past would opt for a trial instead.

The documents refer to Bill S-10, legislation aimed at toughening sentences for drug offenders that was eventually bundled into the omnibus crime bill this fall.

By attaching no strings, Flaherty binds irate provinces to health plan

Where was the first-ministers meeting? The tense communiqués? The last-minute proposal from Saskatchewan? The walkout by Quebec?

All gone, replaced Monday by a drab announcement from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that, whatever the premiers say, lays what was supposed to be a major federal-provincial irritant to rest until well after the next federal election. Where was the fun in that?

Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand denounced Mr. Flaherty’s new 13-year funding formula as “totally unacceptable.”

But in fact Quebec and every other provincial government has no choice but to accept it, at least for now. That’s because the Conservatives are asking for nothing in return.

Liberal prime ministers Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien caused no end of trouble because they wanted to impose national standards on the health system as the price for any increased funding.

But Stephen Harper has always believed that things work best when Ottawa and the provinces stick to their respective knitting. And since the federal government is attaching no conditions to this deal, thus requiring no protracted negotiations, it alone decides how much it will give.

The Death of Kim Jong-il and the Future of U.S. Relations with the Two Koreas

North Korean state-run television announced Monday that longtime leader Kim Jong-il died Saturday at the age of 69, after reportedly suffering a heart attack while traveling on a train. Under his leadership, North Korea became a nuclear state and was widely known as one of the most repressive societies in the world. Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jung-un, is expected to become North Korea’s new leader, but it is unclear if his ascendancy will bring about any real changes, as Kim Jong-il ruled North Korea in concert with a large circle of regime insiders who remain at the helm. We look at how the Korean Peninsula is the most militarized region on earth and what this means in this transition of power. "Given the past history of animosity and confrontation between the two Koreas, our government has taken precautionary measures to stabilize the situation," says Chung-in Moon, professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and former government official who twice met with Kim. Meanwhile, "there’s a kind of reverence for Kim Jong-il by the people, because the North Korean people have a deep sense of needing sovereignty and independence," notes Christine Ahn, executive director of the Korea Policy Institute. She says North Koreans recall 35 years of Japanese occupation and were proud of "joining the nuclear club" in order to prevent what they perceive as U.S. military occupation and the division of the Korean Peninsula.

Source: Democracy Now! 

Food, gas costs fuel inflation in Canada

Canada's annual inflation rate remained relatively high at 2.9 per cent last month as Canadians continued to pay considerably more for food and gasoline than they had 12 months earlier.

Statistics Canada said Tuesday that grocery prices were up 5.7 per cent in November compared with a year ago as consumers saw double-digit increases for such basics as fresh vegetables and bread. The figures included a 1.3 per cent jump from October alone.

Overall food prices, including restaurant meals, were 4.8 per cent higher than a year earlier, the biggest such increase since July 2009, the federal agency said.

Meanwhile, gasoline also continued to be a key driver of annual inflation, rising 13.5 per cent in November from 12 months earlier.

However, gasoline price inflation is on a downward track after peaking in May at close to 30 per cent. On a month-to-month basis, Canadians actually paid 2.3 per cent less for gas in November than they did in October.

The continuing high cost of gasoline helped push the transportation component up 5.7 per cent, although that was less than the 6.7 per cent gain recorded in October.

Oilsands PR battle goes after Chiquita bananas

The public relations battle over Canada’s oilsands has reached new heights with the Harper government setting its sights on an unlikely foe: Chiquita bananas.

Several high-profile government MPs, including Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, have urged Canadians not to buy bananas distributed by Chiquita Brands International after the Ohio-based company said it would avoid using fuel for its trucks derived from Alberta’s oilsands.

And now the pro-oilsands group is taking the fight to the airwaves with the launch of a new radio ad this week urging consumers to stop buying bananas or premade salads from Chiquita, a company the group calls a “foreign bully.”

“The Chiquita banana company says it’s boycotting oil from Canada’s oilsands. Apparently they like oil from OPEC dictatorships better,” an announcer’s voice says over orchestra music. “While they boycott Canada’s oilsands, you can boycott them. Don’t buy Chiquita bananas or Fresh Express salads at your grocery store.”

The 30-second ad also reminds listeners that the company was fined $25 million in 2007 after it admitted to paying a Colombian militia that had been deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. government for protection in a farming area rife with civil unrest.

McGuinty eyes freeze on corporate tax cut

The cash-strapped provincial government is wrestling with a freeze of corporate tax cuts to boost the minority Liberals’ political and fiscal fortunes, sources tell the Star.

In a move that would also help Ontario’s tarnished image in the eyes of bond-rating agencies, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s administration could keep the corporate tax rate at 11.5 per cent instead of continuing to gradually lower it to 10 per cent by mid-2013.

Former Progressive Conservative premier Ernie Eves similarly delayed planned tax cuts in 2002 after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.

McGuinty insisted Monday he is “trying to bring a balanced approach” by ensuring business taxes are competitive with other jurisdictions.

But the Liberals are mindful they need support from opposition MPPs to pass the budget next March and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has been pressuring the government to reconsider its 2009 pledge on such tax rates.

“Reductions in corporate taxes are not the right way for Ontario to go,” Horwath said last week as she unveiled a motion in the House that was viewed as an NDP concession to the Liberals.

Don’t kill the land transfer tax

Mayor Rob Ford often says that the city government should be like a prudent family and make sure not to spend more than it earns. But what family that is trying to work its way out of debt decides to cut its income at the same time? That, in essence, is what Mr. Ford is doing when he proposes phasing out the city’s land transfer tax.

City council imposed the LTT in 2008 to give the city a new source of revenue and reduce its reliance on the property tax. Mr. Ford calls it an unfair burden on taxpayers and promised during his campaign for mayor to kill it once elected.

Cooler heads have persuaded him to hold off so far. The city can hardly do away with such a rich revenue source if it hopes to fill a budget hole that the mayor himself initially pegged at $774-million earlier this year. The LTT imposes a tax amounting to $5,725 on the sale of a $500,000 house. It brings in about $300-million a year to help pay for city services from policing to transit to community centres.

Now, though, Mr. Ford says he wants to make at least a start on eliminating the tax. “I can’t say we’re going to wipe it out this year,” he told Stephen LeDrew of CP24 television last week, “but it might be a quarter this year, a half next year, or ... you know, but we’re going to do it piece by piece. You’re going to see a portion of the land transfer tax – I don’t know how much right now – be gone by the end of next year.”

Violence is no longer ‘primary option’ for Hamas

The militant Islamic organization Hamas has indicated it will halt the firing of rockets and mortars on Israel as part of a shift in its resistance to Israeli occupation of territories claimed by Palestinians.

“Violence is no longer the primary option,” Taher al-Nounu, a spokesman for Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya, told reporters Sunday in Gaza. “But if Israel pushes us, we reserve the right to defend ourselves with force,” he added.

His remarks followed a number of reports that Hamas was swearing off violence. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, speaking on the weekend, saw the development as part of Hamas’s commitment to reconciliation with his Fatah movement.

This week in Cairo, Mr. Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal are scheduled to discuss ways to implement the reconciliation deal they signed in May but have not yet fulfilled.

Non-violence sounds good, but can Hamas be believed?

The group has always had its advocates of non-violence. In 1987-88, during the first intifada when Hamas was formed, its approach was to use nothing more than rocks in facing down Israeli troops and tanks.

Occupy London prepares for legal action as life continues in Tent City

The air is chill and Nick has dressed appropriately: sheepskin hat, thick sweatshirt, scruffy waterproof jacket, ripped jeans. Only his immaculately polished black brogues set him apart from the others huddling in small groups at Occupy London's tented camp outside St Paul's Cathedral.

Nick is an investment banker. He and a colleague are being shown around the Occupy LSX community by shivering activist George Barda, 35. "George said no suits," says Nick, who prefers that his surname is not published. He borrowed his colleague's gardening clothes. Hotfoot from his London hotel room, where he stayed over after a Christmas party "in town", he's now got his own private tour of Occupy's London camp.

Why? "Because I wanted to hear what they have to say." Turning to Barda he continues: "I'm sure there's a very big audience that thinks everyone here is just a complete flake, and you should be bulldozed out of the way.

"That's why it's important for me to get your point across to an audience you wouldn't reach," explains Nick, who writes a blog distributed to some 300 financial institutions and has his own video cameraman in tow.

Barda has plenty to say; thousands of words, in fact, which, as he is one of three named defendants in the high court action by the City of London Corporation to remove Occupy LSX's camp, are neatly distilled in court papers lodged prior to the case which opened on Monday.