The best of writing, photography, art, and argument –
on everything from film to foreign policy.
“Ever dreamed of subscribing to a cultural magazine that doesn’t seem to be eating out of the hand of half a dozen media magnates? Something pluricultural and unassuming but nonetheless covering everything worth seeing, reading, doing or listening to for a season? Well, it exists, and in Canada to boot!”
“There is no on-line version or web site, which either makes John a dinosaur or a man of character. (I opt for the second, since the editorial team occasionally has a kind word for me.)”
John Howe — Canadian artist and co-conceptual designer on all three “The Lord of the Rings” motion pictures.
* Editor’s Note: The age of the dinosaurs has at last come to an end — with the arrival of this website!
© by John Arkelian
On February 5, 2013
In Torture We Trust?
If we stoop to the vile, deplorable methods of our basest enemies, how is our cause any worthier than theirs? We in the West stand for liberty, justice, and the rule of law. Inalienable human rights and human dignity are at the very heart of what we are as a civilization. And yet… And yet, we are all too quick to embrace the opportunity (and convenient excuse) offered by the bête noire du jour (once communism, now terrorism) to throw our most cherished principles — the very values for which our forbears fought and died — into the foulest muck by indulging in the dark ‘arts’ of torture and assassination.. And make no mistake about it: In the wake of 9/11, torture and assassination (in the form of lethal drone strikes) have become routine implements of state policy and practice in the West. The extent to which torture was used in tracking down the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Ladin, is a disputed matter. What is clear is that the Hollywood film “Zero Dark Thirty” posits that torture was instrumental in locating America’s most wanted mass murderer. What is noxious about the film (which has garnered considered box office and critical success) is its complete dearth of moral qualms about such repellant abuse of prisoners. Nor is the film at all reticent about showing us horrors like waterboarding with its camera’s unblinking (and unjudging) eye. Stephen Bede Scharper takes the film to task for these failings in “In Torture We Trust?” at: http://artsforum.ca/ideas/the-wide-world
On October 15, 2012
Teddies and Tyrants
“Cannon to right of them; cannon to left of them… Into the valley of Death floated the six hundred.”*
*With apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1854.
One fine day this summer, the sky above Minsk, in the former Soviet republic
of Belarus, was filled with aerial invaders intent on attacking the despotic regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Scores of paratroops descended on the city bearing messages in support of free speech. Unarmed, save for the pointed barbs of the words printed on the placards they carried, these airborne protestors proved that no tyrant is too powerful or too feared to be denounced as an enemy of freedom. It was done with panache, and it was done with humor: For the paratroops were small teddy bears, transported across international boundaries by a single-engine airplane. The great teddy bear escapade was the brainchild of two Swedish advertising executives, Tomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey. Correctly reasoning that a tyrant’s power is founded in its appearance of strength, ruthlessness, and the ability to crush dissent, these creative protestors concluded that the best way to undermine a dictator is to make him an object of laughter. The tyrant can muster brute force; the dissenter need only muster the courage and resolve to speak truth to power to expose its illegitimacy. The airborne assault on the undeserved dignity of the tyrant of Belarus was a daring one: Mazetti and Frey risked interception (or worse) by the country’s air defenses. And their aim of embarrassing Lukashenko was clearly successful: He pulled his embassy staff out of Sweden and expelled Swedish diplomats from Belarus in angry reaction to the furry paratroops. Best of all, this audacious example of how to stage a peaceful invasion, and thereby discomfit a tyrant, is a sterling template for creative protest in action. It’s an example the rest of us should emulate whenever and wherever we encounter injustice, oppression, or the abuse of human rights.
Text © October 2012 by John Arkelian.
Illustration © 2012 by Linda Arkelian.
On October 15, 2012
Is Canada Open for Cyber-Espionage Business?
This month, the U.S. House Intelligence Committee found that the Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE pose grave risks to the national security of the United States and its allies. But in Canada, one or both of those companies already have deals with counterparts like Bell, Telus, Sasktel, and Wind Mobile, and they are all set to bid on the creation of a new “secure network” for the federal government. Thus far, governments in Canada seem intent on blithely dismissing American concerns, preferring instead to curry favor with the one-party dictatorship in Beijing. For more, go to this link: http://artsforum.ca/ideas/regional-perspectives
On August 26, 2012
The Tiger-Slayer Confronts Three Kittens
Comrade Putin’s brave vanquishing of the three feline-inspired young protestors from “Pussy Riot” is the topic for some sober musings by one of Artsforum’s very own voices of Europe at this link: http://artsforum.ca/ideas/the-wide-world
On August 8, 2012
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
(I) The Good: Excellence in Advertising — A Celebration of Canada in 96 Seconds
We may only be two-thirds of the way through 2012, but the race is run as far as assessing the year’s best television commercials is concerned. And the gold medal goes to a wonderful celebration of Canada in 96 seconds created by the RONA hardware, home renovation, and gardening store chain to air during the current Summer Olympic Games in London. The commercial is as much a paean to Canada as it is an ad for a retail chain. It takes the form of a coast to coast relay race, while ingeniously referencing a host of different summer Olympic sports (watch for fencing against a grizzly bear), and it is a gorgeous road-trip between two of Canada’s three oceans. The music, a selection from Ennio Morricone’s score to Sergio Leone’s 1966 motion picture “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” is note-perfect. In the film, the musical selection is used when Eli Wallach, as Tuco, the film’s eponymous “Ugly,” runs through a sprawling cemetery searching hundreds of gravestones for the one that conceals buried gold. The expression on his transfixed face is a mixture of determination, exhilaration, and anticipation. He is close, painfully close, to realizing his dream of gold. And Morricone’s name for the selection is “Ecstasy of Gold.” If that’s not a sly allusion to the athletic quest for gold at the Olympic Games, then it’s a record-breaking coincidence! (Observant film trivia-buffs may notice another point of convergence: A solitary dog barks at about the same point in the film and in the commercial.) The tone of the commercial is at once exciting, inspiring, and playfully funny. It cries out to be seen on cinema screens, and, watching it, you’ll see why it’s no wonder people say that North America is God’s Country! With only minor tweaking, this smart, cinematic, superlative commercial could be (and should be) reissued as an irresistible promotional piece for Canada for broadcast abroad. As it is, it is Artsforum’s pick as the Best Television Commercial of the Year! For those who have not seen it, enjoy:
Produced by Visant Le Guennec and directed by Ivan Grbovic, the commercial is the work of a Montreal-based advertising firm called “les enfants.” They aim to be “a place where artists once again dream without limits, without cynicism, and with all the innocence and wonder of our most cherished childhood dreams.” They have accomplished all that and more — bringing artistry and heart to the medium of television commercials. Bravo!
Incidentally, RONA is one of the few corporations based here that is still Canadian-owned. Ironically, given the celebration of Canada embodied in their commercial, the talk is that RONA may soon be bought out by a foreign concern.
(II) The Bad: Selling Out Canada’s National Interest to the Highest Bidder
It was announced recently that a state-owned company from China (the China National Offshore Oil Corporation) wants to buy a Canadian energy company (Nexen Inc.) for $15 billion. What defies human understanding is that governments in Canada even need to consider whether or not to permit such a flagrant threat to our national interest. It’s a sad truth that large swathes of the Canadian economy are already owned by foreign interests. No self-respecting sovereign state should countenance the high degree of foreign ownership that has been the norm in Canada for many, many years. But the situation goes from very bad to egregiously intolerable if we start to allow foreign governments to purchase portions of the Canadian economy. As a general proposition, foreign states should not be permitted to invest in this country, either openly or through the indirect expedient of proxies that they control. That prohibition should be iron-clad in sensitive areas like energy, high technology, aerospace, transportation, communications, agriculture, water, resources, armaments, and cultural industries. Furthermore, foreign investment of a non-state sort in those broad areas — as vitally sensitive as they are to Canada’s national interest — should be restricted to minority shares, with a view to keeping effective control of companies in those areas of economic activity in the hands of Canadians. But there is an added layer of madness to the specter of Chinese state-controlled companies increasing their control over Canadian oil, natural gas, and other resource production. That aggravating factor is the nature of the state in question: China is a one-party dictatorship, a totalitarian regime which is utterly hostile to our way of life — assuming, that is, that we really care about the liberty, inalienable human rights, rule of law, and democracy which we profess to hold so dear. Should an ugly dictatorship be allowed in invest anywhere in the Canadian economy, let alone in the vital area of energy and resources? Not if Canadians care one whit about our national security and national sovereignty! If the federal and provincial governments in Canada can not see that blindingly obvious truth, then we urgently need new and better governments.
(III) The Ugly: Crushing Free Speech and Creative Dissent in Putin’s Russia
Three young women (all aged 20-something) are currently on trial in Moscow for daring to stage a creative protest against Russia’s autocrat, Vladimir Putin. The women (Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich) are members of a girl-band called “Pussy Riot.” In March 2012, they entered Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral, when the church was not in use, to stage and film a brief mock-religious song in the form of a “punk prayer,” asking to be spared more years of Putin’s autocratic rule. Putin, it should be remembered, subverted constitutional term limits by arranging a job-swap with his trusted supporter Dmitry Medvedev. After ruling Russia from 2000 to 2008, Putin installed Medvedev as nominal President while he himself waited in the wings as Prime Minister until he could resume the presidency in Spring 2012, after an election of dubious legitimacy. The young musicians broke a second taboo when they implied collusion between the Kremlin and the Orthodox church. The defendants in this political show-trial face serious criminal charges, which carry a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. Apparently, Putin has urged his kangaroo-court to show ‘leniency,’ so the prosecution is seeking a sentence of ‘only’ three years. If there were in fact any “culpable” element to the Pussy Riot protest, it amounts to no more than non-criminal “nuisance,” for which even an overly stern society would seek to impose no more than a probationary slap on the wrist. But, the fact is that all these women did was to exercise free speech and freedom of expression in a country where those basic rights are scarcely more than notional. To criticize Putin and to impugn the reportedly cozy relationship between secular and church power in Russia is to run dangerously afoul of the authoritarian powers that have Russia in their relentless grip. The outrageous, unjust criminal prosecution mustered against three brave women who dared to protest the undemocratic state of things in Russia is a political show-trial. But what it shows to the world is the criminal injustice of the Russian state itself.
Copyright © August 2012 by John Arkelian.
The author is an international law and international relations analyst and a former diplomat.
Editor’s Note: On Friday, August 17, 2012, the three “Pussy Riot” protestors were each sentenced to two years imprisonment for “committing hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” It seems Putin & Company didn’t find the dissidents’ mock-prayer pleasing to their tin-ears. If this doesn’t make Putin and his lawless regime a laughing-stock — and a pariah — we don’t know what will. It’s a travesty, and its consequence should be a suspension of Putin’s invitation to attend G-8 summits, as he is clearly unfit for civilized company. But then, events in Chechnya, and in Georgia, and the thinning ranks of independent journalists in Russia already made that clear a long time ago.
On July 18, 2012
When the ‘Cure’ Causes the Disease:
Zostavax Vaccine Can Cause the Very Disease (Shingles) it was Designed to Prevent
A healthy Canadian woman (let’s call her Jane Doe) was given an injection of Merck’s “Zostavax” vaccine as a prophylactic measure to prevent her from contracting shingles. Instead of protecting her from acquiring that illness, however, the vaccine gave her the very malady it was intended to prevent. She contracted shingles from the vaccine and was immobilized with severe, painful symptoms for many weeks. Read more at: http://artsforum.ca/ideas/regional-perspectives
On April 22, 2012
Our Revels Now Are Ended
Canada lost an unsung titan of stage, television, and screen this month, with the death of the eminent actor Jonathan Frid at the age of 87. Almost unknown in his native Canada, Frid became an enduring icon of popular culture in the United States for his memorable portrayal of a tragic antihero on the television drama “Dark Shadows.” A personal tribute to Jonathan Frid from a friend can be found at: http://artsforum.ca/other-media/tv-radio
On April 15, 2012
A Voyage to the Uttermost North
“I have been to the Uttermost North, a place to which I have long been drawn. I swam in a lagoon the color of blue milk with drifting
mists floating above its surface, felt my heart leap in joy at the sight of mighty breakers crashing on a remote black beach at the top of the world, trod upon an ancient glacier, traversed moonscapes of breathtaking beauty, walked up a small mountain, and visited an islet by boat for the lighting of a peace tower that hurled beams of blue light into the obsidian infinity
of the night sky. The place was Iceland, and it has left me with a ceaseless longing that only a return can quell.”
Our travel feature on Iceland, compellingly illustrated with the drop-dead
gorgeous photography of Iceland’s own Rebekka Gudleifsdottir, can be found at: http://artsforum.ca/travel
On March 6.12
Despicable Thee — Canada Condones Torture
It recently came to light that the Government of Canada has approved the use and dissemination of information that “may have been derived from the use of torture or mistreatment.” That was the directive from Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, Vic Toews, to Canada’s spy agency, CSIS. It overturned the existing policy that CSIS was not to knowingly rely on information obtained by such repugnant (and illegal) means. Apparently, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper — precisely like the morally discredited former administration of George W. Bush south of the border, which it so closely resembles — has concluded that real or imagined expediency trumps not only the law of the land and binding international treaties (which outlaw torture), but also the core values upon which our nation is founded. A government that is prepared to rely on torture is hostile to the fundamental principles which bind us together. Such a government has betrayed its trust and forfeited its legitimacy to govern, opting instead to (in effect) wage war upon its own citizens.
Squalid Endings Make for Squalid Beginnings: The Unfortunate Murder of a Tyrant
Moammar Gadhafi was a ruthless tyrant who ruled Libya for 42 bloodstained years. The rise of overt opposition to his tyranny in 2011, as part of the so-called Arab Spring, was certainly to be applauded. Canada did its bit, with the United States, Britain, France, and other allies, in belatedly securing Gadhafi’s downfall, even though we were quite prepared to do business with him at various times during his reign. The NATO members and other countries which engaged in last year’s massive aerial bombardment of Gadhafi’s forces (and in the surreptitious on-the-ground organizing and arming of ragtag opposition forces) were not honest enough to admit that our real objective was regime-change. Instead, we abused the terms of the limited mandate granted by the U.N. to protect non-combatants. Still, few would lament the demise of such an ugly regime. What we should regret, however, is the murderous end of its despotic head. Gadhafi opted to stay and fight, until he was finally cornered in the town of Sirte. Captured by his enemies, he was murdered by them in cold blood: He begged for his life, and they deliberately put some bullets in him to kill him.
Some might regard death by murder as a fitting end for a man whose regime perpetrated the self-same lawlessness for decades. But we do not agree. The only civilized response to criminality is justice — and that means apprehending the villain and according him a fair and open trial, ideally, in this case, at the International Court of Justice, rather than in situ. How can Libya hope for a better future when it starts its new chapter with more of the same bloody violence and murder that afflicted it for so long? And what has the legacy of that lawlessness been to date? According to Amnesty International, the same militias which ousted Gadhafi (with our all-important help) are now routinely torturing detainees suspected of being Gadhafi supporters. Evidence of torture and other abuse was found at ten of the eleven detention camps A.I. visited in the first two months of this year. The ramshackle provisional government we helped install controls neither the detention camps nor the armed brigades that run them. And, a few days ago, armed men desecrated an Allied war cemetery in Libya, smashing the gravestones of Canadian and other soldiers who died there fighting Axis forces in World War Two. It doesn’t get much more ‘squalid’ than that!
Kowtowing to China: Doing Servile Obeisance to Tyrants
Having inexcusably permitted (and abetted) the wholesale export of our manufacturing sector, and the thousands of jobs that went with it (a boondoggle perpetrated in the spurious name of ‘globalization’ that doubtless benefited corporate tycoons, even as it wrecked havoc and ruin upon ‘the 99%’), the political and business leaders of the United States and Canada now rush to ingratiate themselves with the Chinese regime. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the latest to lead a pilgrimage, er, entourage, to do abject obeisance to the tyrants of the East, smiling in the best servile fashion and (figuratively) bowing in his cap-in-hand mission to drum-up trade and investment.
And, so it goes: China gets our jobs; they make all the shoddy consumer goods we buy; and, in return, they buy our raw resources. It never seems to dawn on our leaders to insist on our oil, lumber, minerals, and other natural resources being processed here. Instead, Canada ploddingly does what it has always done: It sells raw materials, and then buys them back — for a lot more money — in the form of processed goods.
Gone are the days of Harper’s public criticism of China’s lethal contempt for human rights. While he was shamelessly cozying-up to China’s anti-democratic regime in pursuit of trade, what were his hosts doing? Why, only gunning down two unarmed Tibetan protestors and vetoing (along with their fellow autocrats in Russia) a milquetoast resolution at the U.N. which dared to mildly admonish the murderous regime in Syria for making (very literal) war on its own people.
China is implacably hostile to the precepts of liberty, justice, and democracy. It is an enemy of human rights. That makes it our enemy; and its totalitarian regime should be anathema to our leaders. Instead, they curry its favor, because that’s where the money is these days. Befriending such a noxious regime and pretending that it is fit to be welcome in decent company among nations which recognize and vouchsafe basic human rights is to shamelessly substitute mercantile expediency for protection of the fundamental principles we in the West allegedly hold so dear.
The Banana Republic of the North?
The “robo-call” scandal that hit the news in Canada in recent days is a distressing sign that there is something rotten in the state of the true north strong and free. Nearly a year after the May 2, 2011 federal election, we are belatedly learning about what looks to be deliberate, orchestrated attempts to subvert the democratic process.
It turns out that more than 31,000 complaints have been lodged with Elections Canada about telephone calls which misdirected voters to bogus polling stations. Some calls were placed by live callers, others by the automated messages dubbed ‘robo-calls.’ Those doing the calling, whether in person or through a ‘robotic’ intermediary (i.e. an automated system programmed to make calls on someone’s behalf), fraudulently identified themselves as Elections Canada officials. It seems their objective was to disenfranchise as many voters as they could. And early indications suggest that opposition voters were the primary recipients of these fraudulent calls. The practice is alleged to have taken place in dozens of ridings across Canada — including some where the victors (usually Conservative, it seems) won by margins as low as 18 votes!
We are told that Elections Canada and the RCMP are investigating. The full force of Canada’s law enforcement resources needs to be brought to bear on this grievous affront to democracy. In government, as in legal proceedings, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. The current situation raises deeply troubling questions about criminal interference with the functioning of democracy in Canada. Until it is satisfactorily resolved, it also raises grave concerns about the legitimacy of the result of the 2011 federal election. No effort should be spared to get to the bottom of the alleged vote-tampering. Those responsible should face the full force of sanctions under both elections law and the criminal law — up to and including penitentiary sentences. In each riding in which a reasonable doubt can be made out about the legitimacy of the result as a consequence of criminal interference, said result should be nullified and a by-election called. And, should the problem prove to endemic across many ridings, the current government should resign and call a general election to clear the air. No self-respecting democracy can afford to live with nagging doubts about the legitimacy of its elected government, not, that is, unless it is to assume the ignominious mantle of the ‘Banana Republic of the North.’
© 2012 by John Arkelian.
On January 11.12
Case-Studies of Creative Protest in Action
A reader from Germany offers a delightful account of creatively opposing life’s little injustices. Taking a stand (constructively) and engaging with the world around us, in microcosm or in macrocosm, is the sine qua non of a free and healthy civil society. For an entertainingly original approach to standing up to the indignities that too many of us meekly endure, see here: http://artsforum.ca/letters
On July 24.11
A Sad Loss for Canadian Cinephiles
I note with sadness the passing on July 22, 2011 of Elwy Yost at his home in West Vancouver at the age of 86. As many of you will recall, Elwy was the avuncular film buff who hosted “Saturday Night at the Movies” on TVOntario from 1974 to 1999 (he also hosted another film-show, “Magic Shadows,” on the same network from 1974 to about 1985). Genial, infectiously enthusiastic, and always down-to-earth, Elwy brought an irrepressible love of (and wealth of knowledge about) movies to his countless interviews of actors and filmmakers. He might have been a tad effusive in his interviewing-style, but there was never any doubt about his passion for the cinema, and that wonderful authenticity endeared him to his viewers. Elwy was a longtime reader (and supporter) of Artsforum (needless to say that publication’s ever-increasing coverage of all things cinematic always attracted his particular attention); and, Elwy’s unique exploration of movies through conversation was one of the inspirations for our very own Cinechats.
On May 9.11
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian During a National Election”
A thoughtful person, let alone a patriot, who endured Canada’s spring 2011 election might be forgiven for dismissing the assorted partisan contestants and the truly perverse result of May 2nd with an angry, exasperated cry of, “A plague on all their houses!” See the full opinion essay at: http://artsforum.ca/ideas/regional-perspectives
On May 6.11
The Death of Osama bin Laden
As to bin Laden, he was responsible for grievous criminal acts; but I would have much preferred that he be arrested and given a fair trial. Shooting him, when he was unarmed, smacks of deliberate execution and arguably reduces us to his level. And the crowds of college students who gathered outside the White House (and worse still) at the site of the World Trade Center chanting “USA, USA” and a popular soccer cheer were an object-lesson in poor taste. As an Egyptian-American journalist said, it seemed like a frat-party atmosphere. As such, it lacked the dignity of what ought to have been a solemn, respectful remembrance of the victims of 9/11 and of other terrorist crimes elsewhere in the world.
I haven’t heard anyone else raise this idea, and I hate to contribute to our culture’s absurd over-inclination to embrace outlandish conspiracy theories; but, what if bin Laden was really captured instead of being killed? What if they did capture him, and then took him away in secret to be tortured for the rest of his life? I’d hate to think of anyone being abused in that way — no matter how loathsome their ideology or crimes. But, surely, he’d be regarded as a mother-lode of information by intelligence and security agencies. Wouldn’t they have an irresistibly strong temptation to take him alive? Claiming he’s dead would eliminate the need for a pesky trial and allow ruthless people to torture him without anyone ever knowing. It’s probably just a fanciful notion, but, still, I wonder…
On July 27.10
The Decline and Fall of TIFF
Yes, that’s right, TIFF, better known as the Toronto International Film Festival, has a new moniker, one that better describes its unattractive new modus operandi. Forget about the current cinematic fad known as 3-D; the festival does it one better, having cornered the market on “4-D:” “Discourteous, Disorganized, Disingenuous, and Disdainful.” Gone are the days of civility, a warm welcome, and public transparency. They’ve been left on the cutting-room floor. In their place stands a coldly arrogant edifice comprised in equal parts of hype, hubris, avarice, and a haughty disdain for all but the favored few. The people who run the festival fawn over supposed celebrities, the self-anointed Demigods of Tinsel Town before whom they shamelessly bow, even as they show nothing but contempt for the rest of us mere mortals. Sure, there are still some good movies at the festival; but there have been fewer and fewer truly outstanding ones in recent years. Quality is as endangered a species as civility at TIFF. Cinephiles will have a far happier experience if they stay home and rent quality films on DVD or through one of the lawful download-providers.
Like too many of its movies in recent years, the festival leaves us cold with its endless queues; the over-crowding and insufficiency of repeat screenings that make it all but impossible to get into the films you want to see; the lamentable caste system pervading the whole affair that dismissively looks you up and down to determine if you’re a ‘somebody’ or (more likely) not and treats you accordingly (who’d have guessed that even the attendant press corps is ranked according to perceived import and that its members are susceptible to being demoted from prioritized to plebian without warning, explanation, or right of appeal); the excessive price tag on everything from admission tickets to the program book (a book whose production costs ought to be more than defrayed by its many full-page color corporate ads); the over-abundance of immodest hype; the general air of corporatism and clubbiness that distances the whole thing from ordinary folks; an inexplicable doltish readiness to tolerate the ubiquitous use in darkened cinemas of cell phones and text devices, whose display screens beam a blinding light into the unwilling eyes of other filmgoers; and an unseemly preoccupation with a planned $196 million corporate headquarters cum showpiece, the so-called “Lightbox.” Just what an ostensibly not-for-profit organization is doing (besides empire-building) devoting so much of its energy and resources to the pursuit of a massive real estate development in pricey downtown Toronto is hard to fathom. It seems that the palatial new digs will not come close to being able to accommodate all of the festival screenings (there’s been a crying need for years for more screens, bigger venues, and far more repeat-screenings). That being so, what in the name of the hallowed silver screen is the festival doing as a would-be player in the worlds of high-finance and real estate development? Sadly, it seems that the curtain has fallen on the festival Torontonians once knew and loved. If you’re wise, you’ll avoid the unrecognizable thing that has usurped its place like the proverbial plague.
On June 27.10
A Billion Dollar Boondoggle
It’s a sad state of affairs when you can pretty much count on the powers that be to do the wrong thing. That clearly goes for the lame-brained decision of the Government of Canada to host the G-20 Summit this weekend (June 26-27, 2010) in downtown Toronto. Turning the heart of this country’s biggest metropolis into a bristling armed camp – complete with legions of black-clad police in full riot gear, military helicopters overhead, and a miniature version of the Berlin Wall surrounding several city blocks – has made for a sorry spectacle. Spending nearly a billion dollars (yes, that’s a billion) on security for a meeting that lasted barely more than a day is sheer reckless irresponsibility. Squandering such an enormous sum for the sake of what amounts to not much more than a photo-opportunity and bragging rights shows a brazen disregard for responsible stewardship of the taxpayers’ money. It also flies in the face of professed concerns for government spending restraint. And, let’s not forget that $57,000 “fake lake”- a glorified wading pool set up in the building set aside for media covering the summit.
It’s not clear that anything of real value ever results from these multilateral get-togethers. Sure, there are some vague, unbinding statements of intent in the form of summit communiques, but these (usually) empty “promises” are worked-out ahead of time by bureaucrats. It’s all but unheard of for heads of government to do more than sign what their underlings have already prepared in advance of the summits. If a group chat is nevertheless wanted, why not have it by video-conference, at a cost of next to nil? And, if our leaders (democratically elected and otherwise – to wit, China and Saudi Arabia) still insist on some non-virtual face-time, why not find a remote, easily defensible location? Alcatraz Prison gets our vote. That site (which is now a museum) is on its own island (in San Francisco Bay) with easily controlled access, and it is already surrounded by high walls. Besides, such a venue might be more conducive to keeping our leaders humble than the current luxury resorts, limos, and black-tie dinners.
On a more serious note, there are plenty of practical measures that could tame the runaway costs of hosting these summits. First of all, why not drastically cut back on the size of national delegations, which currently number in the multiple hundreds for some countries? Such absurdly long retinues are not necessary. Secondly, why not dispense with the luxurious trappings? Are heads of government there to work, or to live like princes at our expense? Thirdly, keep security arrangements to the bare minimum needed to protect the physical safety of visiting leaders. Not so long ago, visiting leaders used to walk the streets of host cities with only a few bodyguards; now, they’re being treated like mega-celebrities. Lest we forget, they’re supposed to be our representatives, not our overlords. Last, but not least, never again make the absurd mistake of staging a spectacle like the one currently unfolding in Toronto in the heart of a big city. It is a city, after all, not an armed camp.
Barbarians Inside the Gates
As perversely thick as it was to hold a summit that was guaranteed to attract violent protesters in the midst of a metropolis where millions of people live and work, it is just as much a cause for dismay to witness the usual mob of itinerant hooligans and troublemakers unleashing their own special brand of violence, vandalism, and mayhem on the hitherto mostly peaceable streets of Toronto. Summit leaders ought never to be shielded from the sights and sounds of peaceful protest. Doing so is an affront to democracy. But, neither they, nor the hapless citizenry who are paying for their five-star weekend getaway, should have to endure smashed windows, burning police cars, and threats of personal injury at the hands of masked mobs of thugs, masquerading as activists, on the city’s streets. There is no excusing the mob’s despicable actions, but they should have been anticipated – and avoided, by holding the summit somehere else.
Being Paid Like Princes
In May, Andrea Horwath, the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, proposed a cap on the salaries of civil servants. Her idea was that no civil servant should get paid more than twice what the Premier makes. Since the Premier makes $200,000 per annum, civil servants would be capped at $400,000. Horwath was right in recognizing that salaries at the top end of the public payroll are excessive, but her proposed corrective measures don’t go nearly far enough.
Instead, we propose that no one who is paid in part or in whole from any public coffers (and that means federal, provincial, regional, and municipal) should make more than $175,000 per year. That includes: elected political leaders, bureaucrats, presidents and other senior administrators at universities, colleges, hospitals, and crown corporations, judges, doctors, and senior executives at public transit agencies, public utilities (power, water, and the like), museums and public art galleries, police and fire departments, libraries, public communication and broadcasting organizations (like the CRTC, CBC, and TVO), publicly-funded scientific, health, and educational agencies, publicly-funded transportation agencies (like VIA Rail, or Air Canada before it was privatized), and lottery corporations. There are currently people in most or all of the foregoing categories who make enormous incomes at the public expense. (Have a look at the annually-published “sunshine list” to discover some of them.) It is sheer unadulterated nonsense to suggest, as apologists do, that these jobs will no longer attract “the best people,” without princely incomes ranging to many hundreds of thousands of dollars. On the contrary, the best people are the people who are motivated more by genuine public service than by becoming wealthy at the public expense. There are plenty of eminently talented people who will assume leadership roles in the public sector for a “mere” $175,000! It’s time to roll back the riches, if government “restraint” is to be taken seriously.
What Have They Got to Hide?
What a relief that our secretive Members of Parliament finally relented – in the face of public indignation – in their strident opposition to the Auditor General’s quest to audit their expenses. Apparently, those expenses amount to a half-billion dollars a year! But, M.P.s from all federal parties (save, ironically, the separatist Bloc Quebecois) wanted to perpetuate the practice of having only a committee of fellow M.P.s (the so-called “Board of Internal Economy”) oversee their spending. C’mon! They can’t seriously expect us to be content to simply trust them with such large sums of money — not after the recent spectacles of massive misspending among British M.P.s and at public agencies like e-Health Ontario and the Ontario Gaming and Lottery Corporation. Members of Parliament seem to have forgotten that they are our employees: They work for us, they are spending our money, and we have an absolute right to hold them accountable.
On May 14.10
The Blob That Ate Oshawa: Contaminant Enters Lake Ontario
The Gulf of Mexico has a disastrous oil-spill to deal with. But good old Lake Ontario has to suffer a few man-made indignities of her own. A couple of weeks ago, I happened upon a noxious-looking, oily, phosphorescent orange liquid oozing out of a large drainage pipe on the beach at Oshawa’s Lakeview Park and making its way across three or four feet of sand before entering the lake. In a quixotic attempt to do my civic duty, I contacted environmental officials with the regional, provincial, and federal governments to raise the alarum. None of them were initially inclined to take meaningful action. (I simply suggested that someone familiar with hazardous substances inspect the leak and take a sample for chemical analysis.) Indeed, one spokesperson, who was remarkably short on tact, proffered the sarcastic rejoinder that if the public wants the provincial government to test possible contaminants, we should first be prepared to pay higher taxes. (Hmmm…) Anyway, action was finally taken — perhaps giving credence to the old adage that squeaky wheels get the grease, even if leaky pipes do not. Apparently, the pipe opening was temporarily sealed, the pipe contents were sucked up by a vacuum truck and taken away to points unknown, and whatever residue is left will be flushed out of the pipes – right out into the lake, one supposes. Best of all, samples were finally taken for analysis. Let’s hope it doesn’t come back positive as concentrated death, as an unknown quantity of it made its way into the lake before anyone in officialdom lifted a finger to investigate. Their sudden flurry of belated activity suggests that the powers that be shared my concerns that the stuff entering the lake certainly looked toxic! A photograph of ‘the Blob that Got Away’ accompanies this post, in case you’re curious about what you’ve been drinking lately.
Postscript (on June 27.10): It seems that a number of chemical analyses were done. Most organic chemicals apparently came back below detection levels. Some coliform bacteria was detected, but, apparently, not in dangerous amounts. (According to an Ontario Ministry of the Environment spokesman, coliform bacteria is present in most water.) The samples tested as “rather high” in iron, manganese, zinc, and chlorides. Provincial staff are still assessing what the various materials identified in the test samples are actually from, though they think the source is unlikely to be paint (which is what the orange liquid resembled). When I pointed out that the orange gunge was still there (and full of dead gnats, for whom it had proved lethal) several weeks after the pipe was supposedly flushed-out, provincial staff revealed that the one hundred feet of the pipe closest to its terminus on the public beach had not been flushed after all, since city equipment could not reach it. Thirsty, anyone? (Lake Ontario is the source of drinking water for millions of people.)
© 2010 by John Arkelian.
The best of writing, photography, art, and argument
Watch this space! We strive to challenge conventional thinking and easy assumptions by encouraging our readers to think critically for themselves – whether the topic be film or foreign policy.