09/21/12

The Erosion of Civil Debate


Uncivil debateI’ve been dismayed by the tone of the recent debate over the town’s proposed and new recreational facilities. Not by the debate itself – I love the engagement and interaction, even arguing because it’s intellectually stimulating – but rather by what has become an increasingly strident, angry, confrontational and personal tone in many of the comments council has received, or which have been directed towards council.

I’m disappointed because I know we, as Canadians, can have rational, calm, thoughtful debate without rancour, without resorting to insults and name-calling, without raising our voices in anger, without resorting to gossip and rumour or trying to misdirect the argument with personal attacks and innuendo.

In his book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy,, Prof. Stephen Carter writes that, “Civility involves the discipline of our passions for the sake of living a common life with others.” Among the reasons he gives for why civility is important in a democracy:

Civility reminds us that in a democracy all our actions must meet the test of morality, and that our ability to discipline ourselves to do what is right rather than what we desire is what distinguishes us from animals;
Our adherence to standards of civil behavior serves as our “letter of introduction” to our fellow citizens, thus helping to build community;
By treating each other with respectful civility, we help make bearable the many indignities and frictions of everyday life.

Constantly attacking, criticizing, verbally assaulting, haranguing and hectoring some person or group only increases that friction. Worse: it builds barriers that become insurmountable rather quickly.

In several places, Carter reminds us that civility is a discipline, something that has to be learned and practiced, a conscious act of engagement with our fellow humans, one that makes a daily statement about not only how we value community and society, but what we give to maintain them in working order.

I’ve followed Canadian politics for more than 40 years. As I recall, debate in Canada used to be much more civil. Canadians are, for the most part, polite, civil, respectful and dignified people. However, that seems to be changing as our cultural, political and social interactions become more American in tone.

Canadians used to be known for respecting differing views and accepting that differences not only exist, but contribute to the complex makeup of any diverse, democratic nation. But as the American political debates became more and more angry and confrontational, and American society became more violent, litigious and polarized, so did ours.

Ad hominem argument
The Conservative “attack ads” of the last two federal campaigns showed that incivility, personal and ad hominem attacks were the new norm for federal interaction, creating nothing but friction between parties. The NDP and Liberals responded to the vitriol with similar attack ads against the Conservatives. Tit for tat does not make it right, merely increases the volume of the argument. Debate should always be about the issues, about the decision, or about the process: never about the person or people.

As one man wrote in a letter to the Toronto Star:

Surely it is not delusional to think that healthy democracy depends more on civil discourse and quality debate than “a complex set of circumstances” that leads to political forms and practices.

An editorial in the Chilliwack Times opined about a local issue that had become angry and divisive thanks to its lack of civility,

We shouldn’t accept these types of tactics as simply part of the usual political rhetoric. Using loaded language and unfair comparisons muddies the truth and makes the public even more cynical. It can also create bitter divisions among different groups and demographics, which does nothing to foster meaningful and progressive change.
We’re not naive, we know that political rhetoric is often bitter and almost always self-serving. But hopefully, more of our leaders will realize the value of appealing to people’s common sense and decency rather than their outrage and fear.

Anyone who has seen the often puerile behaviour of our federal representatives in the House of Commons knows that our government behaves more like a pack of squabbling, potty-mouthed school children than reasonable adults when debating issues in the House. But that tone seems to be spreading to all levels of government.

The late Jack Layton attempted to keep his party above that morass of bad manners; to engage in civil debate, and to return some respectability to the House. Sadly, he died before he could achieve much in this goal He knew that a lot of people look to our government as their role model for political interaction. Well, they used to, as I recall from my upbringing. But even if we have lost respect for parties and leaders because of their attack tactics, we mimic them, consciously or subconsciously, at many other levels.

In Ontario, NDP leader Andrea Horwath told a university audience that Ontarians are tired of the adversarial trend provincial politics have taken:

Ontarians are tired of “attack politics,” says New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, who called upon her two main political opponents Thursday to stop the name calling.
People are “tired of the dirty sand-box fighting and I think people deserve a true debate on the real issues and a true look at where the leaders stand on some of the (solutions) to the problems facing Ontarians,” Horwath told a crowd at Laurentian University.
Horwath said she’s challenging Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak to “stop the hiding behind our war rooms and the missives of nastiness that get launched across our bows.
“And let’s start actually having a real serious conversation in front of the voters about how we’re going to fix some of the problems facing them and their families.”

Unfortunately, her call for civility has fallen on deaf ears. In a recent column in the Enterprise-Bulletin, Brian Macleod wrote about the parallels between Ontarian and American presidential politics:

Ontario politics are moving from partisan to polarized, and the only one that’s standing aside from an ugly debate during the next election is a re-emerging Premier Dad.
And despite the polls, don’t count out Dalton McGuinty just yet.
(snip)
The polarized battle is shaping up between Tory Leader Tim Hudak’s anti-union policies and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party has always had labour at its base.
(snip)
When Hudak’s party lost the Kitchener-Waterloo byelection earlier this month to the NDP — a riding his party held for 22 years — we got a hint of what is to come. He blamed the loss on “union bosses,” especially teachers unions who supported the NDP.
(snip)
Voters found Hudak’s unfocused policies wanting in the fall election and they don’t seem to be warming up to his fiery anti-union posture either.
In a sense, he’s doing a Mitt Romney, writing off an entire portion of the electorate in pursuit of votes from those who see unions as Ontario’s economic problem.

There’s a new political pejorative: doing a “Mitt Romney.”

Municipal politics, especially in a small town like Collingwood, are for the most part, individual, intimate and above the quagmire of party politics (our last term being somewhat of an exception). We have always been able to engage one another in mature, calm discussion because there was no ostensible difference between politician and ratepayer. Unlike federal and provincial tiers, we don’t get a full-time salary with a big office, gold-plated pensions, exceptional perks and can stand aloof from our electorate in a distant city.

How to leave commentsMembers of our council are your neighbours, friends, family. We are employed here, or retired here. You will run into us in the grocery store, downtown, in the mall, in the beer store, at the arena with kids and grandkids, at a restaurant or pub. We share the same concerns, pay the same taxes, drive the same roads, stroll the same parks as everyone else here. We don’t get a pension for our effort, and we are paid a rather small stipend to shoulder the responsibility we carry. The reward is not in money, or power, or glory, but rather in the giving of service to the community.

We are all here at the council table because we all care about this community.

Whether you agree or not with an council member’s vote on any matter, you really should respect them for taking on the responsibility of making that decision publicly, under the watchful eyes of the media and the community. None of us would knowingly do our home town harm – we vote for what we believe in our hearts is the best for everyone.

I owned and operated a retail business here for 11 years. People used to come into my shop weekly, often daily, to discuss local issues, local politics. No one screamed, no one lost his or her temper, even when we disagreed (and quite a few did). It was all very civilized and mature. We could talk one on one and act like adults who agreed to disagree. Sometimes having these one-on-one conversations helped to clear up misinformation or misunderstanding about process and decisions. I enjoyed those discussions. I enjoyed their tone, I enjoyed sharing ideas.

Angry emailCouncillors get a lot of letters, although today we get more email than written letters. People agree with us, people complain about us. Both are expected, both are welcome. But for the most part, written letters have been more genteel and civilized. Email is often more accusatory, more hectoring. Some people recently demanded we do what they want us to – no please, no thank you, no calm laying out of the logical value of their preference: the writers belittled our decision, then demanded we rescind it an implement their choice. That tactic will not encourage cooperation or compromise.

Few letter writers in the past used words like fraudulent, underhanded, retarded, or accused us of twisting the facts to suit our own goals. Email, however, has grown more strident than old-fashioned letter writing, possibly because it’s easier, faster, and done with less consideration than handwriting a letter. The act of penning a letter on paper gives people more time to think through their response. And letter writing is personal: you write a a person, to someone you know or have knowledge of – a person, not a thing or a machine. You have to fold the paper, put it in an envelope, walk it to the post office or town hall.

Email is a message typed onto a screen and sent to an impersonal URL with a click of a button; no emotion, no engagement, no personalities involved. And certainly not much respect for the feelings of the recipient. Facebook, forums, Twitter – they’re the same. We respond to a machine, not to the person. Anger is a common reaction on Facebook, especially when the other person has attempted humour or irony, neither of which are conveyed well through simple text.

Stephen Carter wisely admonishes us that, “Civility requires resistance to the dominance of social life by the values of the marketplace.” Within his concept of marketplace, I would add the influence of social media on our interpersonal interactions.

No one ever agrees with every government decision. That’s democracy, and we all have the right to disagree and say so.

Some people, however, believe that, when a government doesn’t do what they expected them to do, or what they demanded from them, it was a personal attack against them. They believe the politicians who didn’t obey must be dishonest, on the take, pursing private agendas, or looking to reap some personal benefit from the decision. They believe the politicians were ill-informed, uneducated, ignorant of the facts, simply because a different course was chosen. This leads to angry and unfounded accusations of malfeasance and underhanded acts. We’ve seen that sort of attack on Facebook and in other online posts about council’s rec facility decision.

Punch faceOnline debate is generally uncivil because it’s a solitary act, not a dialogue. It lacks the indicators and signs we get from face-to-face discussion and meetings: tone of voice, inflection, gestures, eye contact, touch… without those, internet arguments almost invariably deteriorate into angry, self-righteous confrontation, and verbal abuse. They often become an exchange of vitriolic hyperbole and escalating accusations.

It’s hard to believe anyone accepts the notion that eight of nine council members conspired in secret with numerous staff for 45 days to have a report make a predetermined recommendation, without a word being leaked during that time; that eight of nine council members could so blithely violate their oath of office, code of conduct, our procedural bylaw, our procurement policy, the Municipal Act and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, without the clerk or her staff or any department head challenging them (or calling in the police). But that rather wild notion seems to be going around the coffee shops and online.

It’s even harder to believe that eight of nine members of council would collectively and illegally conspire for some as-yet-undefined “personal gain” that would benefit only one or two of them, when there is clearly nothing to be personally garnered by any of them. It doesn’t make any sense.

The debate has also been marred by some malicious gossip, innuendo, disinformation, unfounded claims, misinformation, and a few angry but fallacious accusations that implicate people outside council in the result, but who have nothing to do with council’s decision. It has, in a sense, become one of those angry conspiracy theories that build like a storm feeding on its own energy looking for a place to explode. This is not from the majority; I believe it is just a small, disgruntled group taking advantage of the contentious rec facility issue to hurt the reputations or credibility of some council and staff. Their interest in the actual argument about rec facilities is likely remote. But they have managed to flavour the debate with an acrid, sour tone. This has, in turn, polarized the two sides.

Like I said earlier: it’s not the debate that worries me, nor any disagreement: it’s the confrontational, personal-attack tone some of it has taken on. Fortunately, the debate is moot now, since the contracts have been signed and we’re moving forward. Perhaps the tone of future debates will move forward, too, and we can restore some of that old-fashioned Canadian civility to local political discussions.
Sticks and Stones

07/30/12

Zellers closing mall store is another blow to local economy


No jobsCollingwood’s main anchor store in the Blue Mountain Mall, Zellers, will close by March, 2013, according to a story in this week’s Globe and Mail. It is one of 29 scheduled to close in Ontario, and one of 64 across Canada.

As the Globe and CBC pointed out in their stories, with an average of 100 people per store, that means a net lost of around 6,400 jobs, Canada-wide.

The impact locally is much greater. 100 jobs in a community of 20,000 people is a lot, even if most are part time.

Many retail outlets and supermarkets here offer only part-time work. People often have two or three of these jobs, just to get by. A single mother I worked with briefly had a job at a local supermarket, and as a housekeeper – both paying minimum wage – while trying to raise two kids.

If the workplace is unionized, the best most employees can get is 28 hours a week, forcing them to find other sources of income to make a livable wage. If you don’t have the seniority, you may not be able to get more than four hours a week in a union operation. And out of that you have to pay a minimum $7 in union dues, which gets you… well, nothing that I could see when I had that position.

I doubt there are 100 jobs available here, even part-time, to pick up the loss of Zellers. People may have to look for work much further afield, which will only increase their expenses.

Collingwood was an industrial hub almost from its inception in 1858 to the late 1980s. Industry means jobs – generally better-paying jobs, full time, and usually with benefits. Aside from the famous shipbuilding (which was moved overseas by its owners in 1985), it has had a tanner, flour mills, a nail factory, carpet factory, pottery, aircraft parts maker, furniture maker, automobile wheel plant, automobile hose plant, backyard recreation set manufacturer, seat-belt plant, distillery, starch plant, automobile glass plant, designer glass plant, piezoelectric ceramic plant, house truss maker, candy manufacturer, and other factories.

Today, most of those have been long closed, although a few remain.

Instead we have mostly “McJobs” in the hospitality, food, service, tourism and retail sectors. These are usually minimum wage, part time, may involve shift work or evenings-weekend work, and have no benefits, no pensions, and little opportunity for advancement or raises. Often people need to hold multiple McJobs just top pay the rent and eat. These jobs certainly don’t provide the money for people to become homeowners, and it is a struggle to raise children well at these wages.

It’s not a story unique to Collingwood – most of Ontario has been facing the loss of industrial and manufacturing jobs since the early 1980s. It accelerated in the 1990s, not only because more jobs were being shipped overseas to serve the consumer demand for low-price/low-quality goods, but because of increasing automation. That latter is the reason you see fewer bank tellers today – they have been replaced by ATMs. Many big box stores have self-serve pay stations so they can reduce the need for human cashiers. Some restaurants like Tim Horton’s, have replaced bakers and cooks by bringing in pre-cooked, frozen food that simply gets reheated, not actually prepared, by the local staff.

Old agePlus we have a growing number of seniors here who are not retiring, because they need more income than their old age security or government pension provides (the total being somewhere between abject poverty and utter despair, worse if you want to live under a roof, not a piece of cardboard, and you like to eat at least once a day – but don’t fret: your MPs and Senators have gold-plated lifetime pensions that ensure that they will never have to eat cat food, even if you – the taxpayers – do…).

Locally, we need to craft a new economic development strategy in Collingwood, one that takes into account the erosion of industry and manufacturing jobs, and the need to improve and develop our tourism-entertainment-recreation sectors so we can attract more visitors (creating the critical mass of visitors necessary to sustain current and new businesses, events and services.

06/6/12

Patronage: Canada’s Shame


Political patronagePatronage is the dirty secret behind most nations and governments. It’s a shameful, embarrassing, corrupt and very undemocratic practice in which friends, supporters and benefactors get plum contracts, jobs, appointments, cash, perks and bonuses.

These are usually parcelled out not on the basis of achievement, ability, or talent, but rather simply because of political cronyism.

Canada is no better, and probably somewhat worse than most Western nations in how its governments practice this loathsome act of onanistic rewards. But unlike many more democratic nations, Canada maintains an official, government-sponsored body for patronage: the Senate. Our patronage Senate is something you’d expect from some developing Middle Eastern nation where friends of princes get fat rewards for their support, not a so-called Western democracy.

Well, because of our unelected Senate, we’re really an oligarchy. Given the salaries, unrestrained perks and benefits and expense accounts of our MPs, we might as easily be described as a plutocracy. Just look at the sense of grandiose entitlement of some of the foremost snouts in the trough – like Minister Bev Oda and tell me it’s not a government of plutocrats. (Oda is ostensibly the Minister of International Cooperation, but that appears to be a pseudonym for the Minister of the Most Entitlements).

The unelected and unaccountable Senate has authority to change or even reject legislation that elected officials craft. This, of course, means Canada is not a democracy, but rather an oligarchy where the ‘good old boys and girls’ in the Senate who have benefited from the patronage scheme can run the country without having to face the rigours of democracy or have their worth challenged in an election. When governments change, it gets stacked with party faithful whose sole qualification seems to be obsequious affection for the current prime minister.

It is the least credible, least transparent government agency, but it runs the country. The Senate stinks like an overripe corpse, but so does every patronage appointment.

A recent story in the National Post asked if patronage was “the oil that keeps our democracy turning.” Nice metaphor: patronage is as slick and slimy as oil. The article opens:

OTTAWA — Pork-barrel politics. Nepotism. Feeding at the public trough. Cronyism.
Call it what you will: Every government participates in patronage.
Jean Chretien appointed his controversial public works minister, Alfonso Gagliano, as ambassador to Denmark just as the sponsorship scandal was unfolding.
Brian Mulroney appointed his deputy chief of staff, Marjory LeBreton, to the Senate.
Stephen Harper appointed his former foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, ambassador to France.
And a recent Postmedia news analysis showed about 25% of failed Tory candidates from the 2011 election landed government appointments or jobs of some type.
But while Mulroney may have scandalized purists when he famously said, as opposition leader: “There’s no whore like an old whore” in reference to patronage plums, not everyone believes patronage perverts democracy.

Sadly, the self-described reformers of this toxic practice have succumbed to its lure. Stephen Harper promised to clean it up and create an elected Senate. Instead he has perpetuated the abuses by keeping it as a trough in which Conservative snouts can feed. His credibility as Prime Minister is tied to Senate reforms, which he has refused to institute.

The lack of transparency has fuelled a belief that it’s not what you know that lands you a patronage post, but who you know in the government.

But where is the will in Ottawa to end this system of buddy rewards and Senate appointments? Certainly not this government. As this story pointed out last December, Harper’s patronage appointments have become a holiday tradition in which the party faithful get their rich plums from the PM:

As reported by the Canadian Press Wednesday, Harper slipped through a rash of Conservative patronage appointments just after the pre-Christmas exodus from Parliament Hill. The recipients included failed candidates, ex-caucus members, members of Conservative riding executives and long-time party faithful.
Looking back, it seems that Harper’s Christmas appointments have become somewhat of an annual tradition.
On December 20, 2010, Harper appointed two new Senators – Larry Smith and Don Meredith.
On December 22, 2008, Harper made a record number 18 senate appointments…

What’s ironic is Harper’s history of denouncing the slimy practice of which he has become the undisputed king:

In opposition, Harper denounced the practice.
“(Canadians) are ashamed the Prime Minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation,” he said in the House of Commons in 1996.
Then, in 2006, after opposition MPs rejected his choice of a patronage watchdog, he vowed to one day stop the appointments of friends and insiders…
Harper now has his majority, yet the patronage appointments continue.

Funny how that evangelical zeal to reform a bad system has been lost since he has been in power. When will Canada get a government or a leader bold enough to break free of the patronage system and finally make Canada a democracy?

04/20/12

Horwath needs to read her Machiavelli


Andrea HorwathAndrea Horwath needs to do some more reading before she decides to negotiate further with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. Specifically, she needs to read more Machiavelli. The Prince, in particular.

This week the Globe & Mail reported that Horwath announced that, “…NDP Leader Andrea Horwath (is) now abandoning another major proposal in return for her party’s support of the governing Liberals’ budget, it will be easier for the two sides to strike a deal.”

Her “proposal” – actually a demand in exchange for the NDP’s support of the Liberal budget – was to remove the provincial portion of the harmonized sales tax from home heating bills. Her plan would have given tax relief to millions of Ontario homeowners.

Instead, she chose to drop that demand and decided to push for the government to tax the rich more.

Wrong, wrong, wrong strategy. The rich are few. The people are many. Horwath has not read her Machiavelli otherwise she would have chosen differently. She chose to abandon her strength (the people) while attacking those few (the rich) who are not her supporters anyway. Bad choice. Start the countdown to the NDP leadership review…

In Chapter IX of The Prince, Machiavelli wrote what Horwath should be reading:

“…a prince can never protect himself from a hostile people, because there are too many of them. But he can secure himself from the nobles, as they are few in number.”

McGuinty will balk, because the Liberal party (as well as the Conservative party) get much of their financial support from the upper-middle to upper class. The NDP, however, get their financial backing from unions, and working class families, who are the majority of voters. The working class families will be hurt by the HST on fuel bills, but not helped at all by the tax on the rich.

McGuinty doesn’t want to tax the rich, probably because he HAS read Machiavelli, who wrote:

“The worst that a prince may expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them; but from hostile nobles he has not only to fear abandonment, but also that they will rise against him. The nobles have more foresight and cunning. They always act in time to save themselves, and to seek favours from him whom they expect to win.”

Working poorEven if the rich are taxed more, they won’t care because it’s a temporary annoyance. The NDP will never get into power, so the rich will back the party that promises to repeal those extra taxes next election – and odds are McGuinty will promise that next campaign if he is forced to concede that demand to Horwarth to save his rule.

McGuinty surely realizes that the worst he can lose is an election. But if he saves his backers, he will still have a chance to rise again with their funding. Horwath doesn’t get it. Pushing for a new tax bracket for the super rich doesn’t matter to the public except as a token gesture. It doesn’t help the average homeowner, the working stiff, the seniors and those people struggling on a small fixed income.

The NDP had the power to gain a significant concession from the minority Liberals and bend the budget to their alleged goals as the party of the working class. Plus a chance to win huge accolades and public affection. Instead, Horwath dropped the ball and has left the Liberals to continue to pummel working class taxpayers.

Damn. Who will stand up for us now the NDP have betrayed the working class? My recommendation for NDP supporters: deduct the amount of the provincial portion of the HST on your home heating bills from any future donation you make to the party. That will send an unmistakeable message to the NDP’s leaders who chose to pursue this strategy.

04/11/12

Could ‘Advanced’ Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?


RepublicansThat’s the question asked today in an article posted on Science Daily.

To which I might add: Why not? Dinosaurs didn’t die out: they have ruled parts of this planet in the guise of fundamentalist theocracies for decades. They thunder and roar in Iran like rutting Stegosaurs. The Taliban raptor rampaged through Afghanistan until they had to slink back to their caves while NATO knocked them about.

But it’s not just theocracies. Brontosaurs stomp about in Republican and Conservative parties in so-called “advanced” nations. Ceratopsians rule North Korea and Myanmar. Living fossils in China still brutalize the Tibetan mammals.

If a political dinosaur like Rick Santorum can snort and thunder here, why can’t there be planets with a democratic, liberal dinosaurs?

Okay, the article does ponder the possible existence of “monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans” which is not exactly what we have here on Earth: monstrous humans with the intelligence of dinosaurs. Maybe advanced dinosaurs only live on advanced planets.

03/30/12

Why does Canada need an “Office of Religious Freedom”?


Religious Freedom?Why did the Harper Conservatives establish an “Office of Religious Freedom” within the Department of Foreign Affairs? I don’t get it. Was there some pressing issue in Canada where religious rights were repressed, so it needed a multi-million-dollar government agency to oversee compliance with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

That charter clear states, in section two, that all Canadians have four “fundamental freedoms:”

  1. freedom of conscience and religion;
  2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  4. freedom of association.

Well, since the ORF is within the DFA (excuse my initialisms), it must mean Canadians are going to enforce religious freedoms outside our own borders, right? So we’re going to become the faith police for the world? Do we send in the army when someone’s faith is being oppressed? Or just mail hurt and sad diplomatic notes? Perhaps something like this one will appear in a Taliban mail box soon:

“Dear Mr. Taliban:
We are truly distressed and hurt that you want to enslave women and turn children into suicide bombers in the name of your religion. We also feel we must protest against the destruction of those irreplaceable, millennia-old Buddhist statues you had dynamited and shelled in the name of your religion. And we are really, really upset that one of your followers threw acid into the faces of young school girls because he was angry that women were being educated. Finally, it was very naughty of you to execute those women for shaming their families by being raped. Stoning goes against our Canadian values.

We sincerely hope you won’t do any of this again.

In the name of love and peace,
Canada.”

Yeah, that’ll change them. One look at a warning letter from Canada and these frothing mad religious zealots will just crawl back into the Dark Ages whence they came. Right.

Given the fundamentalist-right leanings of some of the Conservatives, I am leery of this government – any government, in fact – overseeing rights and freedoms of any sort. But having them oversee religious freedoms is to me like letting the fox guard the hen house. I can’t quite believe a Christian evangelist is going to be fighting for the rights of persecuted Muslims or Buddhists in some developing nation. Maybe it’s just me, but I expect they’re more likely to try to convert them…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m an advocate for religious freedom. As a non-believer, I still support the right of anyone to believe anything they want, no matter how silly, stupid or humorous – right up until the moment it interferes with another human being’s life or rights. Sure, you want to believe the world is going to end and you’ll get carried away safely in a spaceship, go ahead. That’s your right. But you don’t have any right to demand anyone else drink the Kool-Aid with you.

Your religious freedom extends as far as your own skin, and not a millimeter further. It doesn’t allow you to tell anyone else what to believe, what to read, what to think.

protesting TibetansBut why, I ask again, does the government need an office to enforce religious freedom? Will it have its own police force? Will it, for example, send diplomats to Tibet to protest the ongoing, brutal Chinese oppression of Tibetan religious freedom – or just send the PM to Beijing for some chop suey and photo ops while inking some more trade deals and to hell with the Tibetans?

In mid-March, Helene Laverdiere, NDP foreign affairs critic, stood up in the House of Commons and asked the government how this office was formed, who wanted it, what its mandate was, and what it could cost Canadians (full text of her question and the response is here).

The government’s nebulous response was, basically bafflegab, but it did state the office (or rather, as the reply noted, the Office of Religious Freedom Office) would get $5 million a year for a staff of five, for at least the next four years. One million dollars per person per year. Wish I could tap into that salary… This new expenditure comes at a time the government has announced budget cuts in health, food, safety, heritage and the CBC, among others.

Is this all government balderdash, as several bloggers (like this one) think? Just pandering to the Conservatives’ Christian roots, while scoring extra points in the multicultural communities for looking pro-active (of the six-member panel created to consult with religious groups in closed-door sessions, four were Christian. None were Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist).

Should our government even inject “religion into a secular foreign policy” as the Toronto Star asked. I just can’t help but feel – given the government’s history and makeup – that this is just being used to further another agenda.