Sunday, August 30, 2015

To change, or not to change -- that is the question

Like Hamlet, Canadians are faced with an enormous and potentially history-making choice in the October 19 election if the NDP were to win. People must choose whether to change or not to change. This is an existential question for Canadians as much as it was for this (fictional) Danish prince.

Succinctly, in the words of Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the NDP, "In this election, Canadians have a clear choice between four more years of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives or my plan for change."

The Liberals, NDP, and other opposition parties all agree on the need for change, as do a majority of Canadians. Both the NDP and the Liberals have election slogans that reflect this choice: for the NDP, it is "Ready for Change";  for the Liberals, it is "Real Change."  Clearly, everyone wants change!

For the Conservatives, in contrast, the message to voters is "to stay the course." Stephen Harper has warned that a non-Tory government could "wreck" the economy, and he has defended his party’s economic plan as the best way to weather the current economic downturn.

If Harper wants to win the election, he will have to convince enough voters that he is the best person to captain the ship called Canada. Many of his Conservative base no doubt will continue to support him, but he will also have to attract some who voted for him in the past but are now ready for change.

My motivation for writing about this is the result of my reflections on the topic of change. Change should not frighten us, yet often it does. My message is especially directed to those who are afraid of change and, therefore, intend to vote Conservative.

These election slogans were not chosen randomly, but they do get at the roots of what conservatism means. They refer to more than the need to replace Harper but also to the fear that many conservatives have of sudden changes. But change is necessary and inevitable!

The opposition parties are appealing to -- no, imploring -- voters that conservatives rise above their innate and deep-felt ideology this time and vote for change, while those who are not conservatives should vote for the parties that want to bring about change. Everyone should spring on the bandwagon.

Conservatism is generally associated with a fear of change, or at least sudden change. It emphasizes tradition, stability, and continuity, or even a return to the past when things were better. It is also associated with small government, balanced budgets, family values, traditional marriage, free markets, capitalism, and so on.

Change cannot be avoided. When we live, we are constantly changing. Cells die and are replaced, or they mutate aggressively -- then we have cancer, Identity remains, but changes happen, as we realize when we compare photos of ourselves from the past with the person we see in the mirror every day.

Heraclitus, an early Greek philosopher, famously said, "One cannot step into the same river twice." The river remains the same, but the water changes. So do we, so does society, so does everything. Thus why should we fear changes so much?

Harper not only believes in small government but he is also afraid of science, in particular, science that contradicts his worldview, whether that is climate change or sociology or whatever. His message is appealing to many, especially religious conservatives.

Religious and political conservatism are often equated, but this equation does not necessarily follow. The noted evangelical John Stott once said, "Every Christian should be both conservative and radical; conservative in preserving the faith and radical in applying it."

I like that way of phrasing the issue that all Christians face at some time or other. Do religious and political views always match? If so, how? Must conservative Christians vote for the Conservatives, or liberal Christians vote for other, more progressive, parties?

People of other faith have to deal with this issue as well, especially in the Canadian context. For example, does a conservative Muslim have to vote Conservative? The same question applies to Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or any other religion.

My intention is not to pick a fight with religious or political conservatives. I merely want to make some observations about change. None of us should fear change as such; while some changes are not good, many are good or, at least, necessary. Change is inevitable and cannot be avoided. We must always choose the good, if possible, and avoid the bad, but change is an inherent part of life.

While I prefer not to use terms such as conservative, liberal, or socialist, they are commonly resorted to in describing the worldviews that we see every day. I would like to construct alternatives to these prevailing views, but that is not easy nor is readily understandable by others. Thus, I will use them for the sake of this discussion.

In the context of the Canadian election in October, the choice is stark and obvious: either choose change or stick with the status quo. Unfortunately, the latter will mean more of the same that Canadians have experienced for almost a decade. Most Canadians prefer change.

I just read an article entitled, 100+ Reasons Not to Vote for Harper. I also read one with the title, 100 reasons to vote for Harper Conservatives on Oct. 19, 2015.  Personally, I find the first article much more convincing. You may disagree; that is your privilege. But don't do it because you are afraid of change. The Conservatives have played up the fear-factor too much already; don't play into their hands any further.

In this election, I am voting for change. I do not want another term of Harper and his Conservatives. In the past decade, he has managed to transform Canada in ways that I find dangerous for the future --of this country. When another -- very different -- government is formed, it will take a long time for the changes that Harper has made to be undone. I want to save the Canada I love; not the Canada that Harper has transformed according to his own ideology.

This election promises to be fateful for the future of Canada. The Conservatives do not deserve another mandate in the opinion of many Canadians; thus there are only two viable options: the Liberals or the NDP. In my opinion, the NDP is the best choice not only for my own riding but for the entire country.

In past elections, I preferred to vote for the best candidate locally. I will do the same this time, but now I want to make sure that Canada gets a new and hopefully better government. However, there is a real chance that the anti-Harper vote will be split three ways between the Liberals, NDP and Greens, and that the Conservatives would, therefore, receive a new mandate. That would be tragic!

Many people want to vote strategically in order to avoid this. One way to do this, if you are a Canadian and can vote in this election, is to go to Vote Together where "over 55,000 people have already pledged to select and support the best local candidates to defeat the Harper Conservatives and move Canada forward."

As they point out: "In 2011, a majority of people voted for a change in government, but our broken voting system gave the Harper Conservatives 100% of the power with just 39% of the vote. This time, if we vote together, we can stop the riding-by-riding vote splitting that lets Harper win."

Canadians, the choice is yours! Are you voting for change or for the status quo? As a voter, this may be one of the most important decisions you will ever make! Therefore, you must vote!


Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Refugee and Migrant Crisis

Because of conflicts in the Middle East, there are more refugees today than in any time in the past few decades. They have been joined by thousands of migrants from northern Africa and elsewhere. As a result, there is a major crisis in many countries, especially in those to which people flee initially as well as those where they eventually settle.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, also known by its acronym, UNHCR, there were 19.5 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2014, 14.4 million under the mandate of UNHCR, about 2.9 million more than in 2013. All the following statistics are from the UNHCR.

During 2014, conflict and persecution forced an average of 42,500 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, either within the borders of their countries or in other countries. Last year developing countries hosted over 86% of the world’s refugees, as compared to 70% ten years ago.

In 2014, the country hosting the largest number of refugees was Turkey, with 1.59 million. By the end of 2014, Syria had become the world’s top source country of refugees, overtaking Afghanistan, which had held this position for more than three decades. Today, almost one out of every four refugees is Syrian, with 95 per cent located in surrounding countries.

A Syrian refugee camp

The UNHCR report explains that last year, 51% of refugees were under 18 years old which is the highest figure for child refugees in more than a decade. Imagine these children growing up in camps!

An estimated 13.9 million people were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution, including 2.9 million new refugees. By the end of 2014, the number of people assisted or protected by UNHCR had reached a record high of 46.7 million people.

In addition, about 38.2 million people were forcibly uprooted people and displaced within their own country and are known as internally displaced people (IDPs). In the Syrian Arab Republic, the number of IDPs increased to 7.6 million, the highest number anywhere in the world. Iraq has also witnessed massive new internal displacement as a result of the Islamic State offensive. 

If these refugee statistics were not enough, Europe is now being flooded with refugees and other migrants, many of whom cannot find work at home and want to improve their living conditions. The latter are often called economic migrants in order to distinguish them from refugees. But this is a distinction without a difference. Many migrants are fleeing war, yet they are not labelled as refugees.

Germany expects to receive 800,000 migrants this year; that will be four times more than in 2014. More than 50,000 have already arrived in Italy thus far in 2015. Hundreds are believed to have died in leaky boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Hundreds have tried to enter Macedonia from Greece, which has received 160,000 migrants in the first seven months so far this year and has now closed its border with Greece, Hungary has built a four-meter fence along its border with Serbia to curb immigration after more than 100,000 had already entered Hungary this year.

Thousands are camped out in Calais outside the Eurotunnel trying to get on trucks going to Britain. These are mostly men who have fled Africa and the Middle East and are desperately seeking a better life elsewhere. They risk life and limb by clambering onto the trucks.

Regardless of whether these people are called refugees or migrants, they pose a challenge to the countries where they are first received as well as tose where they eventually settle. By themselves, none of these countries is capable of handling the huge influx of migrants, who in some cases have literally washed up on their shores. They need to cooperate.

For years I have worked with an organization that helped to sponsor refugees. I also know what it means to be an economic migrant. My parents emigrated from the Netherlands shortly after World War II, primarily so that their children would have better educational and economic opportunities. 

When they left, the economic situation in Europe was not as good as it would later become. Nevertheless, they never had any regrets about immigrating to Canada. This experience has given me a different vision than many native-born Canadians of the challenges of migration. 

How should richer countries in the West deal with this influx? Is it fair to turn them away at the border, as some countries are doing? Other countries, because they are far away, do not have to process the migrants who are flooding into Europe, but that does not mean that they should not help them whether financially or by admitting them.

Canada, for one, could do much more, in particular by welcoming refugees. From 1975 to 1980, Canada accepted more than 55,000 Vietnamese, refugees. These became known as "Boat People." There were also thousands of Cambodians and Laotians in this group. Photos from that period are eerily similar to the ones who see today of those attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

I know some of these people personally; most have been very successful and have integrated well into Canadian society. Whether they were refugees, migrants or immigrants, all those who have arrived in Canada during the last few centuries have made enormous contributions to their new country.

Why can Canada not welcome a similar number, or even double that, from Syria? That would hardly make a significant dent in the millions of Syrian refugees, but it would indicate the willingness of Canadians to open their doors and their hearts to these desperate men, women, and children. 

Canada is a country that was built by immigrants from countries all over the world; many of them quite recently. In Toronto, more that 50% of the population was not born in Canada. Even the "First Nations," as they are called here, arrived from Asia thousands of years ago, although they might dispute being regarded as migrants or immigrants.

With the "Boat People," churches were in the forefront of sponsoring refugees. Today I would like to see not only churches but also synagogues, mosques, and temples do the same. Any faith worth its salt will seek to help those who are in desperate need. That is simply the right thing to do.

As Canadians, we can and must do more to help refugees and migrants! In fact, as people of faith, we are mandated to do so! So what are we waiting for?

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Canadian federal election: Who can we trust?

"All politicians are liars!" How often don't we hear this, especially during election campaigns? The cynical among us will wholeheartedly agree; while those who are more cautious will explain that this does not mean all politicians -- just most or, at least, many.

Do you trust politicians? This is always an important question during elections. According to a poll that was taken less than a year ago, politicians are rated as among the least trustworthy professions. Joining them at the bottom are telemarketers, car salespeople, and bloggers (I assume this means professional bloggers, not amateurs like me.)  See chart for ratings of other professions.

Most trustworthy and least trustworthy professions according to an Ipsos Reid poll (2014)

(The Ipsos Reid poll surveyed 4,026 Canadians in September, 2014, and has a margin of error of +/-2.8 per cent, 19 times out of 20, for Quebec respondents, and +/-1.8 per cent, 19 times out of 20, for Canada outside Quebec.)

There is an enormous literature, both scholarly and non-scholarly, that deals with the allegations that the mass public is losing confidence in politicians and in many aspects of the political system. This is a critical issue, especially during an election campaign. 

It is well-known that scandals can lower public regard for individual politicians and government leaders. What is less known, however, is how scandals influence our attitudes toward institutions and the political process. That is even more serious and is ultimately destructive of democracy. When we no longer trust our institutions, where can we go in order to effect change?

The current election campaign in Canada will be the longest in almost a century, It will also be the most expensive ever, thanks to Stephen Harper's early election call. It also promises to be the dirtiest. American-style attack campaign ads appeared even before the election was called.

The Conservatives have used ads that repeatedly trumpeted: Justin Trudeau is "just not ready." Unfortunately for Trudeau, if one slings enough mud, some of it is bound to stick. The Liberals have responded with an ad in which Trudeau portrays himself as "ready," but the damage has been done.

The Conservatives have the deepest pockets, which allows Harper to fly everywhere and make lavish promises, although these are conditional upon them being re-elected and producing a balanced budget, something Harper has never yet achieved during his decade in power. All this promised largess, of course, comes courtesy of government funds.

Even before the election was called, the Harper government  had sent out checks to families with children, What was not mentioned clearly enough was that much of this money would be taxed back next year.

Whenever Harper makes public appearances, his audiences are always carefully screened to keep possible dissenters far away. Everything is scripted and tightly managed. Harper is widely acknowledged to be a control freak, His public persona is stiff and formal, with not a hair out of place.

Control is the way he ran the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), as has become crystal clear at the trial of former Conservative Senator Mike Duffy. This trial is running concurrently with the campaign, to the consternation of Harper who cannot avoid questions relating to this trial.

Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, has tried to explain why he wrote a check for $90,000 dollars to help Duffy repay living and travel expenses that he allegedly owed, Most Canadians have already heard these sordid details, but non-Canadians may need some enlightenment. Hence this brief explanation.

What makes the Duffy trial so intriguing for Canadians but unnerving for Harper is the suggestion that Harper knew about this check all along. He claimed that he did not, but Wright's testimony and some of the volumes of emails that were sent between Wright and the PMO make very clear that some of the most senior staff in the PMO did know, and thus Harper probably knew, Was Harper, therefore, lying?

Many Canadians suspect he was. Even if it shown that Harper did not know because his staff kept him out of the loop, Canadians will still find it hard to accept that this control-freak would not know. The Duffy trial is not yet over, nor is the election campaign.

The Duffy case is the biggest scandal to hit the Conservatives during Harper's term in office. He became prime minister for the first time with the promise of  more transparency in government. His government was noted for being the most opaque ever, as the recent revelations about the PMO demonstrate yet again.

Not that the other main party leaders are entirely virtuous, The Liberals had their sponsorship scandal that Harper capitalized on. But now Harper's sins are the issue, largely because the Conservatives are in power and scandals are mostly associated with those in power. The list is too long for me to recite here; for that, check the literature of the opposition parties.

As Lord Acton famously put it, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." To which Acton had added in his letter to Bishop Creighton, "Great men are almost always bad men."

What disturbs me especially about Harper is not just his duplicity or his controlling nature, many other politicians have been accused of the same vices, but that his evangelical Christian faith doesn't seem to play a significant role in his political life. If it did, how could lie so brazenly, much less promote the policies he does? Or does he simply prove the truth of Acton's observation?

Mulcair and Trudeau are Roman Catholics, but I would still hold them to the same high standard. In fact, all politicians should integrate their faith and political life. Then they might become regarded as trustworthy and respected once again. Until that happens, we will continue to believe that politicians are liars.

In this election look for men and women of integrity, people who are honest and trustworthy. These are the ones we should support with our votes. There are such people, but we may have to search for them. Canada needs many people of faith and who are trustworthy. Vote for them! Help them to get elected!


Sunday, August 9, 2015

How then shall we vote?

The other day I saw a candidates debate. No, not the one with Donald Trump, but the other one north of the border, in Canada, where a federal election is taking place on October 19. This is the first and perhaps only one in English this time that featured the four leaders of some of the political parties in Canada.

That evening the four included: Justin Trudeau (Liberal), Elizabeth May (Green), Thomas Mulcair (New Democrat), and Stephen Harper (Conservative). It was an informative debate in which no one was the clear winner, but no one lost, as can happen in debates when one speaker makes a notable gaffe.

The American debate the same evening included the top ten contenders for the Republican nomination for the presidential election that is still more than a year off, If people in Canada get bored during the longest election campaign in more than a century, Americans will probably become nuts by the time a new president is selected.

Americans and Canadians have the opportunity to vote, but this is a privilege that many people do not take advantage of. In the last federal election in Canada about 40% did not. When you realize that the current Conservative government was elected with the support of less than 40% of the voters, then about 24% of the electorate sufficed to elect a majority government. Is this democracy? That is why I advocate electoral reform: propotional representation would be the best alternative to the current one.

Unlike the US, Canada has many parties that vie for seats in Parliament. Many parties do not win any, but some, such as the Greens, have won seats, even if it is only one or two. The leaders of the three major national parties, Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats all have a good chance of becoming prime minister on Oct, 19. That is what makes this election unusual and even crucial.

From left to right: Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair, Elizabeth May, and Justin Trudeau

This year the election is largely a referendum on Prime Minister Harper, who has ruled Canada for a decade already. He is perhaps the most divisive figure in Canadian politics today. People passionately either like or dislike  him. He has a strong and committed base, but he will have to expand that support if he is to win a majority again and become prime minister for a fourth term.

I hope that does not happen. Canada cannot afford another Harper-led government. In the past decade he has uncrementally reshaped Canada into his own vision. He has changed Canada so much that it will take many years to undo the damage. Many Canadians share this opinion. They fervently want change.

Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair have image problems, Trudeau has the advantage of a famous name: he is the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. But he is still young (43) and inexperienced politicly, something his major rivals have capitalized on, saying that he is "not yet ready" to be prime minister.

Mulcair has a similar problem. He is the current leader of the opposition but is he ready to be prime minister? people ask. For this reason, he is being carefully scrutinized  not only by his political opponents but also by voters who have never yet voted for the NDP and wonder if they can govern well.

Harper's response to these charges made against him is to point to himself as the only one who is qualified be prime minister. His experience in office makes him the best and most suitable candidate. Therefore, he argues, Canadians should vote for his party.

Who then should Canadians vote for? Some principles that I have used in the past to help me to decide may prove helpful to others.

1. I generally vote for the person from the parties in my riding who can best represent me and be an advocate for the positions that I espouse. That may be easy some of the time but very difficult at other times. Let me give one example.

Some decades ago, when I first moved to Toronto, I voted for an NDP candidate who was opposed to nuclear weapons. She was a leader in the movement to rid the world of such weapons. I helped in her campaign and encouraged others to vote for her as well. This was an issue that was close to my heart. I even became a member of the NDP for a few years.

I also managed to discuss many other issues with her. Unfortunately, she was defeated in that election and even more soundly in the following one because of the collapse of the NDP nationwide. Since then, however, I have always been partial to the NDP because of their stance on many issues.

This chart is by a Canadian blogger living in Japan

2. I try to avoid parties that only focus on one issue. One such issue is abortion. While I am personally opposed to abortion, I am also opposed to the death penalty, Many pro-life people are inconsistent on these issues; they reject abortion but favor the death penalty.

We live in a pluralistic society which makes it difficult, if not impossible for Christians or any other group to be able to legislate against abortion or to overturn court decisions that that have ruled in favor of it. As much as we might regret it, secularism has made such inroads in contemporary society that it is not possible anymore to turn back the clock.

The larger parties in Canada refuse to discuss this issue since it is so controversial. The Greens, Liberals, and NDP are officially pro-choice while the Conservatives are not allowed to discuss this issue, even though many Conservative Members of Parliament are pro-life.

I also try to avoid such parties because they tend to neglect many other issues that I favor. Thus, I will vote for a candidate and a party that does espouse these issues, or as many as possible.

3. For ideas about the issues, I suggest that you read the Election Bulletin of Citizens for Public Justice. I intend to ask the candidates in my riding the questions that are raised in this bulletin. Even if you cannot or do noot want to pose these questions where you live, nevertheless, it will help you to formulate the issues in your mind and thus help you to decide how to vote. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a board member of CPJ.

Other tools include the Federal Election Resource 2015 published by the Canadian Council of Churches which provides a different list of question to pose to prospective members of parliament. The United Church of Canada has produced a similar kit, the 2015 Federal Election Kit, Other churches may have done the same, but I am not yet familiar with them.

The mission of CPJ to promote public justice in Canada by shaping key public policy debates through research and analysis, publishing, and public dialogue; and to encourage citizens, leaders in society, and governments to support policies and practices which reflect God’s call for love, justice, and the flourishing of Creation.

These are only a few such principles that I use. There are many more, but space does not permit me to elaborate. If you have suggestions, however, please send to me. The election period in Canada is long enough this time for some dialogue on this topic, and the one in the US is much, much longer with even more time available.

Which party am I going to vote for this time? I will probably vote NDP. But I am also partial to the Greens because of their unwavering stance on protecting the environment. The other parties are not as consistent, which is not surprising since they must please voters all over the country who have contradictory views on how to care for the environment. Unfortunately, a vote for the Greens would be wasted, There aere many Canadians who will vote for anyone but Harper.

I urge all of you, whether Canadians or Americans, to cast your vote during these elections. Vote carefully and responsibly; your vote is too important to waste.