Northern summer notes .. Mess-O-Potamia, Northwest Passage, East vs. Western Prince of Pot, etc

Jul 19th, 2007 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

Even in Canada the rising great mess in the Middle East is the focal point of the summer this year. And for Canadians especially it is not just Iraq – it’s Afghanistan and now Pakistan too. Meanwhile, Stephen Harper is on the road in the Western Hemisphere (Colombia, Chile, Barbados, and Haiti). And a somewhat happier Conrad Black is still in the news from the USA. Then there’s global warming, the Northwest Passage, and Mr. Harper’s plans for Canadian Arctic sovereignty. And then there are the shifting new tales of northern urbanity, back east, on the coast, and in the new Hogtown West of Calgary, Alberta. Finally, note the headline: “Judge rules Canada’s pot possession laws unconstitutional.” This, some will stress, just confirms that Prime Minister Harper’s new/old Tory minority government in Ottawa is still not running everything in the land of ice and snow yet. (And three cheers again for the rule of law.)

1. Back to the old lands of the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and of course Mess-O-Potamia too …

Why is North America so preoccupied by the Middle East so far away these days? The short answer is of course oil. But there may be deeper and more interesting answers too.

North America, e.g., is struggling to redefine itself for the 21st century – in all its separate political destinies of Canada, the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean etc. The Middle East is, in some degree, one original homeland of the civilization of modern Western Europe, just as Western Europe is (albeit in only some degree again) one original homeland of the civilization in North America today, as rough and ready as it still may be.

When “Gimme That Old-Time Religion” sings “It was good enough for David and it’s good enough for me,” David etc lived in the Middle East. America has somehow reached the point where it must very earnestly explore what this means for the USA today?

And then … who knows what? The practical point right now is that the Iraq War which George W. Bush and Dick Cheney started in 2003 is dominating US domestic politics in the summer of 2007. And last weekend the Sunday Times across the ocean in the loyal UK ran this headline: “Iraq: Has America lost the will to win? Even if the war is still winnable in Iraq, it is now being lost at home. Even some Republican senators are calling for troops to be withdrawn.”

Does this prognostication look more or less true several days (and editions of “The News Hour,” “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” “The Daily Show,” etc) hence? The best answer here still seems yes and no. What does get clearer and clearer is that the real issue now is not just Iraq, but more or less all of the Middle East.

Start with Israel and Palestine (and Lebanon no doubt), e.g. Then move to Iraq, and then Afghanistan, and now more and more Pakistan too – with Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, and points west looking on. Then consider India, China, and Russia in the other direction. And note the latest from Pakistan today: “Suicide bombers hit a convoy of Chinese workers in southern Pakistan and a police academy and an army camp in the northwest, killing at least 51 people in the latest violence in the week since the army stormed a mosque held by Islamic extremists.”

It really is starting to add up to a full-scale Mess-O-Potamia. With a half-glance backwards at the ancient Congress of Vienna of 1815 in the old Europe, maybe it will finally take some new Congress of Tehran (or Cairo?) to sort the mess out properly, for the next few generations. And maybe this really cannot begin until the real democracy in America finally starts moving troops out of Iraq? Now that: “The international Quartet of Middle East mediators is meeting in Lisbon Thursday with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the group’s new peace envoy.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times has been telling us that “Aid to Pakistan in Tribal Areas Raises Concerns.” And the Washington Post reports that “Pakistan Truce Appears Defunct.” Our particular far northern perspective appears in “Canadians split on Afghanistan … Support for the mission continues to drop, according to an Ipsos Reid poll.”

Then the New York Times adds this poignant sidebar on the way it is back in the USA: “Michelle Robidoux, an organizer with the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto, which advises Americans who have deserted or crossed the border to avoid military service, said in recent months the group has received calls that included two Army sergeants and a Navy chief petty officer … In the 2006 fiscal year, the Army reported that 3,196 soldiers had deserted, compared with 2,543 in fiscal year 2005 and 2,357 soldiers in fiscal year 2004. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 871 soldiers deserted.”

(If you multiply the last number by four you can see quite starkly just how badly things may be starting to go. But don’t let it spoil your day at the beach. Whatever else, Nirvana in the Middle East is no doubt not about to happen any time too soon. And until it does three more cheers for July 19’s Keith Olbermann special comment “on the leaked Bush Administration letter that blames Senator Hillary Clinton, and all war dissenters, for this President’s failures in Iraq.”)

2. Stephen Harper as a New Statesman in the Americas?

The current prime minister of Canada has been on the move in the global village himself, as he continues his struggles to find some acceptable niche for “Canada’s new [minority] government” in the Canadian public mind.

In the midst of his somewhat unusual summer tour of Colombia, Chile, Barbados, and Haiti: “Prime Minister Stephen Harper spelled out a new foreign policy vision focused on the Americas, saying that Canada could be a free-market model that rejects the leftist policies of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, but is also a clear alternative to George W. Bush’s United States …

“Too often, some in the hemisphere are led to believe that their only choices are – if I can be so bold to say – to return to the syndrome of economic nationalism, political authoritarianism and class warfare, or to become ‘just like the United States,’ Mr. Harper said at a business lunch attended by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet … This is, of course, utter nonsense. Canada’s very existence demonstrates that the choice is a false one … Canada is an open, free and democratic society with the strongest economy in the G8 today, while also being a proud and independent country with our own way of life.'”

The minority prime minister’s speech-writers still don’t have the tone quite right here, some will urge. To say, e.g., This is, of course, utter nonsense’ is of course utter nonsense.

Just as it was last week, when the Canadian Press reported that, at a barbecue in Edmonton, “Prime Minister Stephen Harper says it’s been 40 years since Canada has been as united as it stands today and he credits his government’s popularity in Quebec.”

With his parliamentary opposition off on summer holidays, on one reading the poll numbers for Mr. Harper’s federal Conservatives were nonetheless briefly starting to improve again. Yet such good news is apparently still fleeting and o-so-volatile in Canadian federal politics. On another more recent sounding the Conservatives and Liberals are tied at 31% – and “the Tories find themselves less popular among women, French-speaking Canadians and voters who earn more than $100,000 a year.”

3. How soon is Conrad Black going to jail?

So there is some good news for Conrad Black on Thursday, July 19 at last. The bottom line is that he will not have to go to jail until at least November 30, when his sentencing hearing is held. Whether he will be allowed to go back to his current residence in Toronto during this period has been put off until another preliminary hearing on August 1. For the moment he must remain in the Chicago area (or Palm Beach in Florida). The answer to how soon is Conrad Black going to jail is not until November 30 at the earliest. And that’s enough on this subject for now

4. Summer thoughts of global warming … and the Northwest Passage at last …

From the birthplace of the ill-starred 19th century Arctic explorer John Franklin in the UK comes a reminder about how global warming has meant that the once impassable northwest ice passage in Canada’s far north “is now potentially navigable …

“Since 2000, commercial ships have been able to negotiate the route during a short summer period but this is expected to grow over time … If the passage was opened as a trade route, it would reduce the current Europe to Asia trek by more than 2,000 nautical miles, and provide a faster route than the Panama Canal, which is a slow moving passage that is politically unstable.”

If you Google “Global warming and the Northwest Passage,” you will find some extensive background on the subject. Meanwhile, Peter Wilson complains in the Globe and Mail that Prime Minister Harper’s new “plans to spend billions of dollars to create jobs in southern Canada by building patrol vessels for the North” won’t help all that much in defending Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, as and when the new Northwest Passage opens up:

“When they’re ready, around 2014, the slushbreakers’ won’t actually be capable of operating in the Arctic year-round; they’ll have to retreat to the South when it gets too cold for them up North. So midwinter would be a good time for other nations such as the U.S. or Russia to visit, because they have the capability to cruise through or under Canadian Arctic waters in any season and there’ll be plenty of mooring space available at our new northern port.” Why, you might ask, doesn’t Mr. Harper want to build the kind of tougher ships that will really do the job?

5. New urbanism in Canada … East vs. West

Pete McMartin’s recent Vancouver Sun column on what he did for his summer holidays this year in the USA ends on a jaded note of east-west regional antagonism in Canada.

Things, Mr. McMartin suggests, “are undeniably different north and south of the border … But for better or worse – and our cultural imperialists would say it is for the worse – the magnetic lines” of our existence today “run, naturally, not east-west, but north-south.” Thus there have been and still are “westerners who, like Wallace Stegner, who wrote with equal elegance of both southern Saskatchewan and Mormon Utah, found his life straddling both sides of the border …

“I am not sure what any of this means. My children and I don’t love our country any the less. We don’t hanker to be Americans … But my children’s idea of a far-off foreign country? Where people are different from them, and have a different outlook on life? Ontario.”

O well, people in Ontario will say. (Or would if many of them ever saw Mr. McMartin’s columns in the newspaper.) It does seem here back east that when you travel from Toronto to, say, Buffalo, you are in a bit more of a foreign country than when you travel from Toronto to Vancouver. (Granting that nowhere in the US is exactly a foreign country to anyone from anywhere in Canada, of course – or vice-versa, of course again – and even you might argue in Quebec.). To Torontonians at least, Vancouver seems quite a lot like Toronto with mountains in the background – and definitely more “Canadian” than San Francisco, say, which is also a fine place to visit, and has much in common with Toronto too, just like New York City, etc, etc.

In any case, the very latest local news is that Toronto has entered a new age of decline. See, e.g., this recent report in the Toronto Star: “Weak economic growth, a soaring dollar and competitive pressures in manufacturing are contributing to a relative decline in the standard of living in the Greater Toronto Area … A report by economists at the TD Bank paints a picture of an economy falling behind the rest of the country … I worry about the economic prospects of the City of Toronto and the GTA,’ said Don Drummond, chief economist of TD Bank Financial Group and co-author of the report …

“The report noted real Gross Domestic Product per capita in the GTA increased at half the rate of Canada as a whole and one-third the pace of other regions in Canada. And despite boasting a 2.5 per cent average growth rate per year, the GTA reported an unemployment rate above the national average for the first time in recent years … Meanwhile, Calgary’s economy grew by 5 per cent per year and Vancouver’s by 3.4 per cent … I always just had this bedrock view that Toronto was the economic capital and was the wealthiest area … that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore,’ Drummond said. I think all parties have to pull out the stops to rectify that.'”

There are, however, some in Toronto (“the city with the heart of a loan shark” etc) who don’t worry so much about which city is the “economic capital.” Canada’s alleged economic capital used to be Montreal. And the deepest historical truth is that Canada has never really had an economic capital anyway. It is nice to see Vancouver and Calgary gaining some ground. Maybe this means they will some day be happier about sharing some of the burden of keeping Canada alive. Maybe Mr. McMartin’s grandchildren won’t find Ontario such a strange place after all. Maybe now Toronto can settle into its own current North American destiny as recently summarized by native son Mike Myers – “very, very laid-back and unpretentious” (a place where new and fresh thoughts and actions can happen more easily than elsewhere – a place where the “creative class” is rising, in the language of US urbanologist Richard Florida, who has recently moved to the Rosedale neighbourhood in Toronto himself?)

Besides, Jeffrey Simpson from Ottawa has just discovered that Toronto’s old mantle of Hogtown of the north has just recently been passed along to a new Hogtown West, in Calgary, Alberta. And there are more than a few ex-Toronontians who  already know that if you are really lonely for the way Toronto used to be (the good old Tory Toronto from the 1920s to the 1950s or even the 1960s and a bit beyond, e.g.) you can just move to Calgary. (A pathway that has already been pioneered of course by the current minority prime minister of Canada.)

Which is not to deny that Toronto and all of Ontario at the moment are facing some fresh challenges (and opportunities). But this is an old story too. It does Ontario good to have to scramble from time to time, and that is no doubt what it has to do now. Besides, the adjacent New York State – the old “Empire State” – used to be the No. 1 most populous state in the entire union, no questions asked. Nowadays it is just No. 3. (California is No. 1 and Texas is No. 2) You might guess that it will be quite a while before both BC and Alberta are more populous Canadian provinces than Ontario. (And if and when it does happen, that will be a good thing for Canada too. It is still possible to take pleasure from such thoughts in Ontario today. And maybe that’s what makes it slightly different from Pete McMartin’s Canadian West?)

6. “Quebec potheads outsmoke even BC” …

Finally, we come to the news that everyone has been waiting for, from coast to coast to coast: “A Toronto judge has ruled that Canada’s pot possession laws are unconstitutional after a man argued the country’s medicinal marijuana regulations are flawed …

“The 29-year-old Toronto resident had been charged with possession of about 3.5 grams or roughly $45 dollars worth of marijuana … The man has no medical issues and doesn’t want a medical exemption to smoke marijuana. In 2001, Health Canada implemented the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations, which allow access to marijuana to people who are suffering from grave and debilitating illnesses … In court, the man argued that the federal government only made it policy to provide marijuana to those who need it, but never made it an actual law. Because of that, he argued, all possession laws, whether medicinal or not, should be quashed … The judge agreed and dismissed the charges.”

In related news elsewhere in the same country: “Canada’s so-called Prince of Pot says he’s received a legal notice from he CBC telling him to stop promoting a hockey game screening event as Hockey Night in Vansterdam’ … Marc Emery had purchased a 50-inch plasma-screen TV and decided to start showing playoff hockey games at the BC Marijuana Party’s Vapour Lounge earlier this year …

“Emery says the reason for the move was that there are plenty of places in Vancouver to have a beer and watch a game but nowhere to smoke pot and enjoy some sports viewing … The CBC alleges Emery has violated its trademarks … Amsterdam is known around the world for its liberal attitude toward drug use. Emery has combined its name with Vancouver to come up with Vandsterdam.” (And by the way Mr. McMartin etc, Emery migrated to BC from London, Ontario, many many Indian moons ago now.)

And finally again, just to remind all of us dumb anglophones, from Halifax to Yellowknife to Victoria, who the real champions of authentic Canadian culture are: “Were it not for prodigious pot use in Quebec, Canada would not have placed first in a United Nations drug study of marijuana use in the industrialized world … In fact, were Quebec a sovereign nation, it would have finished first ahead of Canada, according to a breakdown of the data supplied by Canada for the UN study …

“The biggest difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada is seen in the youngest age groups … According to the Health Canada’s 2002 Youth Smoking Survey, which looked at marijuana as well as tobacco, 32 per cent of students in Grades 7 to 9 in Quebec have smoked marijuana at least once … That compares with 18 per cent in British Columbia, which ranked second in Canada, and 11 per cent in Ontario, which ranked lowest among provinces and territories … The 2007 World Drug Report found 16.8 per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 64 used marijuana in 2004; only four countries, all non-industrialized, had higher rates – Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Ghana and Zambia.”

Leave Comment