Ontario budget 2008 is better than anything Jim Flaherty has ever done?

Mar 25th, 2008 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

The budget Ontario Liberal finance minister Dwight Duncan finally tabled in the provincial legislature just after 4 PM ET on Tuesday, March 25, 2008 is, local financial experts seem to agree, by and large a cautious if also prudent document. While dabbling in many constructive directions, it does not do anything too exciting, because at this exact moment in the history of Canada’s most populous province the “fiscal room” just isn’t there. One thing this Ontario budget cannot be said to be, however, is the wild-eyed “tax-and-spend” manifesto that some federal and provincial Conservative opponents have pretended to criticize. Mr. Duncan has equally ignored the wild-eyed “tax-cut-tax-cut-tax-cut” agenda, disingenuously urged the day before his budget release by federal finance minister Jim Flaherty. But this is nonetheless the third consecutive balanced budget of the McGuinty Liberals in Ontario. It includes a strong section on “Enhancing Ontario’s Competitiveness,” with special reference to “Lowering Ontario’s Business Costs,” “Ontario’s Business Taxes,” and “Modernizing Regulation.” And on TV Ontario tonight representatives from both the Canadian banks and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business gave Mr. Duncan’s handiwork high enough marks.

Just how much economic trouble is Ontario in right now anyway? One major subtext of the budget review on Steve Paikin’s TV Ontario show The Agenda, on the evening of March 25, turned around the question of whether Ontario really was in danger of becoming a so-called “have-not” (or federal equalization receiving as opposed to paying) province, in any near future – as federal finance Minister Jim Flaherty and other Conservative critics of the McGuinty government have lately been urging.

Some on the TV Ontario panel of five experts urged that Canada’s most populous province was not actually in as perilous an economic position at the moment as others have urged (sometimes no doubt for altogether sordid political reasons).

Fans of this point of view might look to the latest February 2008 Labour Force Survey from Statistics Canada. No one on the TV Ontario panel actually dragged up these exact numbers, but they are interesting enough. In Canada at large, e.g.: “In February, for the second consecutive month, strength in employment came from private sector employees,” although: “Overall employment growth over the past 12 months … has been the result of gains in the public sector.”

Moreover: “Over the last 12 months, employment growth in Ontario stands at 2.0%, just slightly below the national average (+2.2%).” But: “Almost all of February’s employment growth was realized in Ontario … Although manufacturing in Ontario continued to lose workers in February (-20,000), these declines were more than offset by strength in construction (+31,000); business, building and other support services (+20,000), as well as public administration (+11,000).”

Others on the TV Ontario panel stressed that, as hard-working and forward-looking as the people of Ontario may be, the economic structure of the province, as in many other parts of North America and even the world at large, is currently in the midst of some great transformation. And at least in the near future this will indeed mean a lot of stress and strain.

The old auto-dominated manufacturing sector that was once so important, in both southwestern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area, is indeed in the midst of some considerable and almost certainly irreversible decline, comparable to that in other more economically developed parts of the global village today. The hot parts of the Canadian economy right now are the resource and especially oil and gas sectors in Alberta and Saskatchewan. As the recent rise of the Canadian dollar shows, they are in the driver’s seat today. What many once saw as Ontario’s traditional (even if somewhat mythical) old status as the “economic engine” of Canada is fading.

All this is no doubt quite true as well. And if federal finance minister Flaherty’s tax-cut-tax-cut-tax-cut mantra essentially just flows from a false nostalgia for the ultimately failed policies of the Mike Harris Conservative government that preceded the McGuinty Liberal regime at Queen’s Park, there is also no doubt at least something to be said for the argument that, for all its hard-working and forward-looking qualities, certain sides of Ontario today are still a bit too stodgy and “un-innovative” (as Western Canadians, e.g., perhaps too often complain). Canada’s most populous province does need some new doses of fresh economic development policy thinking.

As just one of many potential cases in point, note some remarks from a recent study of the Canadian biotech sector, by a friendly observer in Illinois: “Ontario holds the leadership role in Canadian biotech … Quebec … is a close second.” At the same time, “British Columbia – with Vancouver as its key biotech center – is the main Canadian biotech cluster on the Canadian west coast.” And: “While British Columbia may have fewer biotech companies than both Quebec and Ontario, during 2006 it was more successful in raising capital with $696.7 million raised versus Quebec’s $632.2 and Ontario’s $268.9 million.”

Mr. Duncan’s and Mr. Flaherty’s different public policy values. There are a few at least vague bows in more innovative directions in the 2008 Ontario Budget. One example is: “A 10-year Ontario income tax exemption for new corporations that commercialize intellectual property developed by qualifying Canadian universities, colleges or research institutes.”

More movement in some similar broad directions will no doubt be increasingly important over the next several years. And in various TV appearances finance minister Dwight Duncan does seem to have acknowledged that there is still much work of this sort to do.

Meanwhile, while Mr. Duncan’s 2008 Budget does not at all ignore the importance of the private sector role in the province’s ongoing economic development, it also stresses democratic values that were ignored by Mr. Flaherty’s rather different approach as Ontario finance minister in an earlier and more aggressively right-wing ideological era. It is all too true that many old-style manufacturing jobs, e.g., have been lost in the province. This is part of a trend that has been under way for more than a quarter of a century. The current high Canadian dollar and high energy prices have lately accelerated the trend. Realistically, no amount of business or any other tax-cutting is going to alter the prospect of manufacturing job losses in any immediate future.

Meanwhile, other new kinds of jobs are also being created in Canada’s most populous province. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business stresses that there are jobs going unfilled now, because trained people to fill them are not available. So one key feature of the 2008 Ontario Budget is a “$1.5 billion, three-year Skills to Jobs Action Plan” that “will get more Ontarians into well-paying jobs and into long-term training for new job opportunities.” Dwight Duncan from the old auto manufacturing town of Windsor is especially interested in this kind of program.

The history of government-funded job training programs in Canada at large, as in other places, has never been perfect. Who knows exactly how the new $1.5 billion program will work out? And even if it works out very well, in a $96 billion annual budget, $1.5 billion over three years is not an enormous amount of money.

Yet it is at least another step in some kind of obvious enough right direction. The people of Ontario today, you might reasonably enough say, have been having recurrent economic difficulties for about a generation. They have now elected two Dalton McGuinty Ontario Liberal governments back to back, because they tried Mr. Flaherty’s (and Mike Harris’s) quite different Conservative approach from 1995 to 2003 – much more obsessed with cutting taxes and all forms of government expenditure (in theory at least). In the end it became clear enough to enough voters that this approach did not work, especially for the hard-working Ontario families who are most vulnerable to job losses in the great economic transformation.

Finally, when the Ontario Liberals took over from the Ontario Conservatives in 2003, the province’s net debt stood at almost 28% of its gross domestic product, or total economic output. After five years under the Liberals it is now approaching 24%.

As the Bush-Cheney government in the USA next door has also made all too clear, cutting taxes very aggressively means less public money to pay down public debt as well as less money for health care, education, and the crucial public transportation and hard-service infrastructure that economic competitiveness in the global village also demands.

As federal finance minister for Mr. Harper’s new Conservative minority government in Ottawa, Mr. Flaherty himself has not been a very prudent fiscal manager. He has not really reduced public spending. And his tax cuts have helped run down the federal budgetary surpluses bequeathed by Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government. Many people of Ontario might reasonably enough conclude that they are lucky it is Dwight Duncan and not Jim Flaherty, who is managing at least their provincial public finances now.

Ontario in 2008 no doubt does need a rather bolder and more aggressive economic development vision for its future. But this does seem to be coming, between the lines of the budget documents, slowly but surely, etc. And even on more strictly economic grounds the vision needs to be democratic too. Today, it is Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Duncan who seem to have best captured the more ancient wisdom of “Old Man Ontario,” the ultimate “progressive conservative” Premier Leslie Frost, from the era when the provincial economy was at its most dynamic in recent memory: “If you look at it … from the standpoint of simply developing a great country from a materialistic standpoint, not having regard to the betterment of people, then, of course, in the end it will crush you … it has to be a partnership between the two philosophies of economic advance and human betterment.” That, in a nutshell, is the old central Canadian folklore that still persuades so many provincial voters (including many who were born in quite different parts of the world), and that Jim Flaherty and so forth just do not seem to understand.

Randall White is the author of a number of books, including Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History, and Ontario Since 1985.


March 24: NORTHERN LIGHTS .. Mr. Harper’s party animals cross another line with Ontario budget intervention ..

TORONTO. MONDAY, MARCH 24, 2008.  Earlier today Graham Richardson told CTV Newsnet that federal finance minister Jim Flaherty’s unprecedented and quite outrageous advance public “comments” on the Ontario budget, which provincial finance minister Dwight Duncan will bring down tomorrow, were just a “healthy dose of good old politics.” Other observers of Ontario government and politics who are not so friendly towards Stephen Harper’s minority government in Ottawa will be less generous – and certainly less amused.

If Mr. Flaherty really believed his argument about Ontario business taxes on strict economic grounds, the thing for him to do was phone up Mr. Duncan and put the case to him privately, a few months or so ago. What he has done – by publicly telling the government of Ontario what should be in its budget the day before the budget is to be released – is both unprecedented in Canadian political history, and just too ludicrous, dishonest, and sleazy for further words. If the people of Ontario had wanted Mr. Flaherty’s mindless Herbert Hoover tax-cut policies they would have voted for them in their most recent election this past fall. But they did not. And the federal finance minister along with  the rest of Mr. Harper’s slender minority government should have the democratic good manners to just accept this plain political fact. That is what their own theory of the Canadian federation is supposed to be telling them to do after all. Isn’t it?

Can this possibly do the Harper government any good in Ontario – or has it just decided to write Canada’s most populous province off? There certainly is a constituency in Ontario for the Harper-Flaherty rabid-right-wing tax-cut policies as a solution to all economic problems in Canada’s most populous province. Mike Harris won two back-to-back elections on the strength of this constituency in the mid 1990s, during an earlier bout of Ontario economic difficulties.

The trouble for Mr. Flaherty today is that his and Mike Harris’s kind of economic development policies finally didn’t work in Ontario. The constituency that supported them shrank, and Mr. Flaherty’s party then lost the next two Ontario elections, back to back.

Will the Ontario people now change their minds if the Harper minority government in Ottawa just bullies them enough? Theoretically, anything is always possible in democratic politics. But it seems more than a fair empirical guess at the moment that there is no Ontario majority for what either Mr. Flaherty or Mr. Harper and so forth are talking about.

In the old Ontario city of Guelph a few evenings ago, Mr. Harper himself intoned: “The separatists in Quebec are on their heels … The last two years, our economy is strong, our government is clean, our country is united – these are great times for Canada.” These words have a hollow ring in many parts of Ontario and for many Ontarians today. The economy is not strong at the moment, of course – any more than such a thing could sensibly be said in the United States next door. The country does not seem united (except perhaps, under Mr. Harper’s tutelage, against its most populous province?). Mr. Harper’s government does not seem at all clean. It increasingly seems dishonest, sleazy, and bullying. And Mr. Flaherty’s Ontario budget intervention today only seems to underline the point.

Of course, it may be that Mr. Harper has decided he does not really need anything that approaches strong support in Ontario to win a majority in Canada – as long as he has Quebec. This actually was a formula that no less a Canadian political giant than William Lyon Mackenzie King used to some significant good effect, back in the bad old days of “Tory Toronto” and all that.

So Ontario is used to being reviled in the rest of the country, etc, etc – and even, contrary to much regionalist rhetoric elsewhere, to being out of favour in Ottawa. Ontario does have some problems at the moment, economic and otherwise. But it has had such problems in the past as well. It is hard-working, forward-looking, and much addicted to good manners. Survival is its middle name, and it will survive in the end, the current attacks from the Harper government and Ontario’s own former finance minister Mr. Flaherty notwithstanding.

The ultimate question is not what will happen to Ontario. It is what will happen to Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Harper, and and such former provincial and now federal cabinet ministers as Mr. Clement and Mr. Baird, etc, etc, etc.

They still seem unwilling to accept that Mike Harris was defeated in Ontario a while ago now. (And by himself in fact. He resigned shortly after some interminable booing from wrestling fans in the capital city.) And they somehow think that their, granted, surprisingly long-lived, but still very slender minority government in Ottawa (put into office by just over 36% of the Canadian people at large), can actually bully the people of Ontario into taking Mike Harris back. We will see if they are right.


March 21: NORTHERN LIGHTS .. Will Easter rabbit hop into politically incorrect Ontario budget, etc, etc, etc?

According to a report in the Globe and Mail: “Dale Orr of Global Insight Inc. was among the first economists to say Ontario is in jeopardy of becoming a have-not’ province in Confederation, which would make it eligible to receive payments under the national equalization program for the first time.” But some who worked inside the Ontario bureaucracy in the late 1970s may recall that similar noises were being quietly made way back then.

The Globe story in 2008 carries on: “The topic became political this week when federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty weighed in, saying that Ontario is on track to become a have-not province within two to three years. Progressive Conservative MPP Tim Hudak echoed that opinion yesterday.” Yet with the Ontario budget expected on March 25, other reports from other places point to “higher-than-expected revenues from corporate, income and retail sales taxes.” Already Premier McGuinty has foretold that: “In our budget we will be investing $1 billion in infrastructure to reach every Ontario community from Windsor to Whitby to Wawa to Walkerton.” And both federal and provincial Tories – and New Democrats – should take note: Premier McGuinty is where he is today, because he alone knows the names of that many real-life Ontario communities that start with “W.” (No wonder he is smiling so much.)

Some other holiday weekend notes: TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond has told the Globe that Stephen Harper’s federal Tories “seem to be bent on making Ontario’s situation worse at the moment.” Even with former Ontario finance minister Flaherty in the Harper cabinet, this is no doubt not a good Ontario strategy for the next federal election.

Is anyone still interested, however, in when the next federal election may or may not be? Another Globe report has claimed that: “The New Democrats are preparing to force Stphane Dion’s Liberals to take the country into an election or vote for a bill that lawyers say will strip transparency from the immigration system and deny basic rights to foreigners hoping to come to Canada.” (Really?) Meanwhile, the Guelph Mercury has explained that: “The Conservative government will leave the timing of an election up to the opposition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last night at a campaign-style rally in Guelph.”

With a little sunshine on this theoretical first day of spring, when the next federal election will be does seem unimportant, to say the least. The more compelling latest news is that 47% of those surveyed in a Barrie Examiner poll believe that, even in Southern Ontario, it will take another month for spring to arrive in practice this year.

Meanwhile again, as of 3:45 PM ET on Friday, March 21, 2008, the New York Times is reporting that the “State Department said on Friday that it was investigating several incidents in which the passport files of all three presidential contenders [and not just Barack Obama] were improperly accessed by employees.” Which really starts to make you wonder what is going on here? Check out, e.g., Robert Parry’s article “Obama’s Passportgate: Historical Echo,” for a crisp and thought-provoking report on how: “Five presidential elections ago, when another George Bush was in the White House and when Bill Clinton was the Democratic nominee, State Department officials conducted an improper search of Clinton’s passport files.”


March 18: NORTHERN LIGHTS .. no by-election surge for Dion .. troubled economy and citizenship oaths remain

The four March 17 federal by-elections in Canada did not add up to any great night for Stephane Dion’s still beleaguered Liberals. The picture was very good in Ontario (or just big-city Toronto more exactly). But it was not at all so impressive in Western Canada (including the deeply urban Vancouver Quadra, which the Grits only won by the skin of their teeth).

Even under Stephen Harper, the Conservatives have their strengths – geographically and demographically. And even under Stephane Dion the Liberals have their places in the sun. In the country at large, yet another Strategic Counsel poll claims that “Conservatives maintain strong lead over Liberals.” But the “latest Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey has support for both the major federal parties flatlining at 32 per cent.” The March 17 by-elections don’t suggest any Liberal surge. They don’t point to any clear Conservative majority either. The stalemate in Ottawa, it seems, will just go on. And Canadians have many other key current worries – from the troubled economy to pharmaceuticals, citizenship oaths, and the rising cost of education.

Vancouver Quadra. Federally, this almost mystical region of Canada’s most exotic city has been with the Liberals since John Turner took it in 1984. In the 2006 general election they won with just over 49% of the vote. As of March 18 at 1:55 AM ET (and with all polls reported), in the March 17, 2008 by-election their candidate Joyce Murray only managed just over 36% – with Conservative Deborah Meredith at more than 35%, and in absolute numbers only 151 votes behind. (Someone might even want a recount?) Voter turnout was almost 34%.

Desneth-Missinippi-Churchill River. The Liberals only took this aboriginal-majority riding in the far north of Saskatchewan by a mere 67 votes in 2006. And for the 2008 by-election Stephane Dion had parachuted in a candidate who irked the local Liberal machine. So most pundits were prepared to see the Grits lose this time, without suffering any vast loss of face – in a race where all three major parties ran aboriginal candidates. But Conservative Rob Clarke wound up taking almost 48% of the vote, against Liberal Joan Beatty’s 31%. Voter turnout here was 25%. (And what does it mean that the Conservatives can win an aboriginal-majority riding by such an impressive margin seems like an interesting new question … maybe?)

Willowdale. The Liberals had won this old suburban riding in north-central Toronto with more than 55% of the vote in 2006. Martha Hall Findlay – the green candidate at the December 2005 Liberal leadership convention who many admired, even though everyone knew she could not win – actually managed somewhat better than 59% in the 2008 by-election. If all of Canada (or even Ontario for that matter) actually were like Toronto, the Liberals would no doubt be in much better shape than they are now. Ms Findlay will in any case make a potentially interesting addition to the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa. (Voter turnout: 24%)

Toronto Centre. Again, former Ontario New Democrat premier Bob Rae, now running for the federal Liberals, actually managed to improve on the more than 52% of the vote in this very diverse region of downtown Toronto that former Liberal house leader Bill Graham won in 2006. On Graham’s March 17, 2008 birthday in fact, Rae won with somewhat better than 59% too. (Voter turnout here: almost 28%.) Stephane Dion himself was on hand to introduce the victorious candidate. Like the friend of his youth Michael Ignatieff, the impressively bilingual and highly skilled debater will stiffen the Liberal front bench in Ottawa, in its question-period jousting with Stephen Harper’s Tories. Yet walking home early in the morning on March 18, as you look out west, from the corner of Bloor and Yonge streets in Mr. Rae’s new riding, you can still see that the federal Liberals today are going to need something more, if they are ever going to regain their once legendary status as Canada’s “natural governing party.” (Maybe they actually should start thinking a bit harder about Senate reform, or something like that?)


March 15: NORTHERN LIGHTS .. Ten waves that shake the world today (well, Canada anyway)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s March 13 follow-through on his threat to take the Liberal Party of Canada to court “over bribery allegations published on the party’s website concerning the Chuck Cadman affair” marks the first time that “a sitting prime minister has sued the opposition for libel.” And it draws a troubled line across the history of the Canadian confederation of 1867.

Whether the federal Liberals will come to see this line with regret, as Mr. Harper claims, or whether he himself will finally suffer more for his hubris here may be a little clearer with the results of the four March 17 by-elections in Western Canada and Ontario. Meanwhile, nine other big and small waves are also rolling over the confederation today: the North American economy; the Canadian Arctic; the case of cannabis crusader Marc Emery; fake ID in BC; pharmacist prescribers in Alberta; Donald C. MacDonald and Hugh Segal in Ontario; federal and provincial carbon taxes; and section 54 of the Constitution Act 1867 – and what it means for education on Cape Breton Island (say) in 2008.


March 17 by-elections … The four ridings in which by-elections are taking place this Monday, March 17 present an interesting enough cross-section of Canada today.

Vancouver Quadra is the home of the University of British Columbia or UBC. More than 38% of its population claims “No religion” – compared with only 16% in Canada at large.

Desneth Missinippi Churchill River occupies the entire northern portion of the province of Saskatchewan. Aboriginal people account for almost two-thirds of its population.

Toronto Centre includes wealthy old Rosedale in the north, and the Regent Park public housing project in the south. So-called “visible minorities” account for more than 40% of its population.

Willowdale is in the old suburban central far northern region of what used to be called Metropolitan Toronto. More than half its population are “immigrants,” especially Chinese.

Ths Liberals won all four of these seats in the 2006 general election. But they only took Desneth Missinippi Churchill River by 67 votes. It may seem odd that it was the Conservatives who almost beat them in an aboriginal-majority riding. But that is the plain truth.

Stephane Dion “also ran into criticism when he designated Joyce Beatty” as the Liberal candidate for the March 17 by-election in Desneth Missinippi Churchill River. For the current by-election as well all three major parties are running aboriginal candidates in this northern Saskatchewan riding: “In addition to Beatty, who was the first aboriginal woman elected to the provincial legislature and appointed to cabinet, the Conservatives are running Aboriginal RCMP officer Rob Clarke, and the NDP has the Deputy Mayor of Buffalo Narrows, Brian Morin. This development can be expected to further up-end any predictions one could make from past voting behaviour, putting DMCR on the top of every pundits’ list of ridings to watch on March 17.”

In the end, no one will be surprised if the Liberals don’t take “DMCR” again. But it won’t look good if they don’t manage to win the other three Vancouver and Toronto seats as they did in 2006. Former Ontario NDP Premier Bob Rae is running for them in Toronto Centre, Martha Hall Findlay in Willowdale, and Joyce Murray in Vancouver Quadra. See the Pundits’ Guide to Canadian Federal Elections for other fascinating detail.


Canadian economy slowing down too? … It isn’t easy being Canadian. For a while now we have at least enjoyed hearing how our regional resource economy is actually doing somewhat better than the US colossus next door.

Alas, new Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney has just pointed out: “The high commodity prices that have shielded Canada from recessionary conditions in the United States are poised to weaken and drag down the Canadian economy … Even though oil and gold have been trading at record levels … Mark Carney … is looking beyond the day-to-day market gyrations to determine how the US slump will worm its way into Canada.”

On a similar irksome wave, it has just been reported that: “Canadian labor productivity worsened in the fourth quarter of last year, marking the biggest decline since 1995 as workers clocked in more hours on the job even as the economy slowed sharply.”

And, just in case you still don’t believe it: “Canada’s net international investment position continued to deteriorate in the fourth quarter, fuelled by the largest inflow of foreign direct investment in eight years … International liabilities increased $27 billion to $1,387 billion, mainly due to strong direct investment inflows … On the other side of the ledger, Canadian holdings of foreign assets increased only modestly to $1,182.4 billion.”


PM not just playing games in Arctic? … Not satisfied with the mountains of snow that have fallen on Ottawa this winter, “Prime Minister Stephen Harper waved the Conservative flag in the [very far] North on Monday [March 10] to the howl of sled dogs, the applause of business people and the smiles of young athletes at the Arctic Winter Games” in Yellowknife, NWT.

Harper used a speech for the occasion “to try to sell his new budget, which includes funding for a new polar icebreaker, a plan to map the Arctic seabed and a proposed commercial harbour in Pangnirtung, Nunavut … “There are also better tax breaks for northern residents and tax credits for mining exploration … Ottawa’s efforts to more forcefully exert Canada’s sovereignty in the North also won the prime minister a round of applause … We are passionately committed to protecting and defending our sovereignty,’ he said.”

On Monday, March 10 as well the “the federal government was expected to announce $2.3 million over three years to bolster aboriginal involvement in sports in the three territories.” (The amount here is just slightly less than the $2.5 million the minority government prime minister is suing the federal Liberals for – “$1 million in general damages, $1 million in aggravated damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.”)


Ruling shines different light on Emery’s case … Ian Mulgrew of the Vancouver Sun has reported on a “court ruling that puts in perspective the five to 10 years’ imprisonment that BC cannabis crusader Marc Emery faces in US prison for selling pot seeds … In a judgment released Friday [March 7], BC Court of Appeal Justice Richard Low (backed by Justices Mary Newbury and Anne Rowles) said a one-month jail sentence plus probation was appropriate punishment for such an offence … If anyone needed evidence, this decision exposes the fundamental unfairness of what is happening to Emery.”

There is also of course still the related question of how allowing Mr. Emery’s extradition to the US, with its much harsher (to say nothing of more irrational and dysfunctional) punitive regime for cannabis crimes (federally at least) impacts on Canadian sovereignty. Despite Mr. Harper’s claim that “We are passionately committed to protecting and defending our sovereignty”(see 3 above), there are still no signs that his federal government will be doing the right thing by Marc Emery – and preventing his extradition down south. Three cheers anyway for Ian Mulgrew and the Vancouver Sun.


BC global centre for fake ID … A CIA operative (or was it FBI?) once semi-famously (and contemptuously) said that “You can do anything in Toronto as long as you don’t spit on the sidewalk.” It will no doubt come as no consolation to Vancouver and environs that similar things can apparently be said about the far Canadian West. But it would seem to be nonetheless true.

As also recently reported in the Vancouver Sun, at any rate: “B.C. has become an international centre for the production of fake ID cards and a loophole’ in Canadian law means police here are largely powerless to stop it, according to an internal report by the Canada Border Services Agency … Several producers of counterfeit documents appear to be operating in British Columbia,’ states the CBSA report, obtained by the Vancouver Sun through the Access to Information Act. Unfortunately, police agencies have found these activities difficult to prevent.’ The problem, according to the CBSA report, is that under the Criminal Code, someone can only be found guilty of forgery if police can prove they intended their product to be used as a fake.”


Alberta pharmacists get prescription power … Whatever its other problems may or may not be, the province of Alberta can make some plausible claims as a Canadian innovator. As just one recent case in point: “A group of 15 pharmacists in Alberta have become the first in Canada given powers to prescribe new medications to patients without needing final authorization from a doctor … They were part of a pilot project to ensure all future pharmacists wanting additional prescribing powers under Alberta’s Pharmacists Act are rigorously evaluated before taking on the new responsibility.”

Ontario is just one other Canadian province that has looked into this issue over the past few years, and come to much more cautious and conservative conclusions. Medical doctors, for one, do not like the idea, and are concerned that it could open the door to prescribing powers for nurses and other health professionals on the lower reaches of the food chain. But it may be that Alberta is showing us how, so long as those wanting such “additional prescribing powers … are rigorously evaluated before taking on the new responsibility,” it can actually make sense? Now, in any event, those in other provinces who continue to be interested in this kind of health professions innovation will have Alberta’s practical experience to evaluate.


‘Best premier Ontario never had,’ Donald C. MacDonald dies … In a few local areas of the old most easterly parts of the ancient Province of Upper Canada (now Ontario), it has been said, the majority of the population actually bore the surname Macdonald (or MacDonald). The first prime minister of the 1867 Canadian confederation, John A. Macdonald, was at least a symbol of this ancient heritage. (Although as a childhood immigrant from Scotland, he couldn’t quite claim exact biological descent from the fabled Macdonalds/MacDonalds of eastern UC.)

The considerably younger Donald C. MacDonald was actually born in 1913 in Cranbrook, British Columbia, and moved with his family to Tullochgorum, Quebec in 1923. But he subsequently earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Queen’s University, in John A. Macdonald’s “loyal old town of Kingston,” Ontario. Donald C. MacDonald “supported the Conservative Party of Canada in his youth, but became a democratic socialist after witnessing the social problems of the Great Depression.”

He “worked for several years as a teacher and journalist, and was employed by the Montreal Gazette in the mid-1930s.” He joined the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) while serving in the armed forces in Ottawa in 1942. In 1946, “he joined the national CCF staff and travelled the country as a party organizer. He was a candidate in the August 1953 federal election for the British Columbia riding of Kootenay East, and finished a strong third against Liberal Jim Byrne.” He was then “persuaded to run for the Ontario CCF leadership later in the same year, and defeated Fred Young and Andrew Brewin for the position.” He remained leader of the Ontario CCF and its New Democratic Party (NDP) successor until 1970. And he sat for the riding of York South in the provincial Legislative Assembly from 1955 to 1982.

It is now sad to report that Donald C. MacDonald “died Saturday night [March 8, 2008] of heart failure,” at the honourable old age of 94. According to the Canadian Press: “Giving up his seat in the Ontario legislature in 1982 to make way for Bob Rae’s switch from federal to provincial politics was one of the greatest regrets’ of former Ontario CCF and New Democrat leader Donald C. MacDonald’s life, current provincial NDP leader Howard Hampton said … .” Mr. MacDonald nonetheless continued to play an active role in Ontario public life (and even in the study of Ontario history) long after 1982. And he was “often called the best premier Ontario never had.”


Hugh Segal’s Bill S-231 on citizenship oath … John A. Macdonald’s loyal old town of Kingston, Ontario is also the source of a report on some very recent activities of the noble Senator Hugh Segal – who proves that while the present Senate of Canada may desperately need to be reformed (or abolished?), it does still contain a few distinguished members, even today. Senator Segal’s distinctions, however, also remain linked with some archaic approaches to Canadian political culture – sadly enough, as at least some of us see it.

According to the Kingston Whig-Standard, Mr. Segal has now “introduced a motion in the Senate that would invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to prevent references to the Queen being dropped from the country’s oath of citizenship … The Kingston senator’s motion comes in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by Charles Roach” – and discussed at some length in a May 20, 2007 counterweights article entitled “WHY IS THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF CANADA SO KEEN TO SHUT DOWN ROACH VS. THE QUEEN?

The objective of Mr. Roach’s class-action suit is merely to allow those new citizens who object on grounds of conscience to dispense with that part of the present Canadian citizenship oath which requires an essentially medieval pledge of allegiance to the British monarch. Such grounds of conscience might involve, e.g., a belief in democratic and republican rather than aristocratic and monarchical conceptions of government authority. As the Kingston Whig-Standard notes, Mr. Roach’s “case has become a flashpoint for both ardent monarchists and those who would like to see Canada throw off its colonialist past.”

Since last May the Attorney General of Canada has tried three times to have the Ontario courts in which Mr. Roach has launched his class action throw the case out, before its essential argument that the present citizenship oath to the British monarch violates sections 2 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution Act 1982 is even considered on its merits. The Ontario courts have now consistently rejected these attempts, most recently on this past February 19, 2008, at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. And it would appear the case will now go ahead.

The bill that Senator Segal has put before his fellow Senators seems to assume that once Mr. Roach’s case is considered on its essential merits the courts will have no choice but to accept its core argument. Thus Mr. Segal’s bill proposes that the provisions of the current Citizenship Act “relating to the taking of the oath of citizenship and the form of that oath operate notwithstanding the provisions of sections 2 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” (following the so-called “notwithstanding clause” in section 33 of the Constitution Act 1982).

It would seem unlikely that this bill will ultimately be passed by both houses of the present Parliament of Canada, and actually become the law of the land. But who can be altogether certain in the present somewhat bizarre Ottawa climate? And some who admire so much of Senator Segal’s other work are disappointed to see him bringing it forward. He has at any rate shown that he certainly is not a Canadian “who would like to see Canada throw off its colonialist past.” As he has now explained to the Kingston Whig-Standard: “If someone wants to accuse Hugh Segal of being an unreconstructed monarchist, then I am guilty as charged.” The “53 per cent of respondents” who told Angus Reid pollsters that they “would support Canada ending its formal ties to the British monarchy” last fall will not be amused.


It’s the environment stupid? … Is the passion for saving the human environment on planet earth that seemed to finally push Stephane Dion into the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada in December 2006 at last starting to surface seriously again? And if so, what could this possibly mean for the ongoing mindless struggle between Stephen and Stephane (assuming Mr. Harper’s $2.5 million libel lawsuit does not actually destroy the Liberals for a generation)?

I certainly do not know the answers to any such questions. But three recent newspaper articles seem to suggest some vague fresh light: First, “Tories unveil ‘green’ rules aimed at oilsands, coal plants.” Second, a report indicating that the “Liberals have refused to bring down the minority Conservative government over its alleged failure to combat climate change.” And finally an article that appeared, among other places, in the Calgary Herald, headlined “Dion calls for national carbon tax.”

In this last article Mr. Dion is reported as praising the parallel carbon tax policy of “BC Premier Gordon Campbell, a Liberal … With this kind of leadership, BC may be on track to do for climate change what Saskatchewan did for medicare,’ he said. I commit to you that when I am prime minister, my government will be equally as courageous and serious when it comes to putting the appropriate price on carbon.'”

Mr. Harper is happier to leave carbon taxes up to individual provincial governments. That way BC can do what it wants. And Alberta – which has so much of the oil and gas in Canada – can do what it wants too, without worrying about Ottawa. (Well, except for “Tories unveil ‘green’ rules aimed at oilsands, coal plants,” whatever that really means?)


What does section 54 of Constitution Act 1867 really mean? Finally, here is this week’s puzzle for the hardest core Canadian constitution junkies. (And everyone else should no doubt skip absolutely everything that follows.)

On Friday, March 14 John Robson published an article in the Ottawa Citizen (which also appeared in the Calgary Herald, and no doubt elsewhere too). It complained that the “three opposition parties teamed up to pass Dan McTeague’s private members’ Bill C-253, letting parents contribute $5,000 per child per year to a Registered Education Savings Plan and deduct it from taxable income.”

This Mr. Robson claims “flatly contradicts Section 54 of our Constitution: It shall not be lawful for the House of Commons to adopt or pass any vote, resolution, address or bill for the appropriation of any part of the public revenue, or of any tax or impost, to any purpose that has not been first recommended to that House by message of the governor general in the session in which such vote, resolution, address or bill is proposed.'”

After much similar talk, Mr. Robson concludes “that C-253 abdicates the key role of Parliament, usurps that of the Crown and smashes the Constitution to do it … If no one knows or cares, it’s done, folks. Carve it up.” The ultimate puzzle here is: Is Mr. Robson out of his mind, or not?

Here are some clues to the puzzle. First, by “our Constitution” Mr. Robson merely means the Constitution Act 1867 – which is only one part of our real Constitution and often needs to be interpreted carefully, because it is so old and so coloured by “our colonialist past” that Senator Segal and others (including Mr. Robson, no doubt) are so reluctant to politely set aside, at last.

Second, consider, just as an example, what is said about “The Nature of the Constitution” in R. MacGregor Dawson’s now classic text of 1947, The Government of Canada – as also subsequently updated through various fresh editions by Professor Norman Ward (thus “Dawson and Ward” etc). Dawson and Ward explain how what we now call the Constitution Act 1867 must be read very carefully nowadays, because it frequently deals with matters of detail “in such fashion that they become ambiguous and sometimes misleading.”

In this context Dawson and Ward note in particular section 54, which they tidily summarize as “All money bills must first be recommended by the governor before they can be passed by Parliament.” This and other such parts “of the written constitution still wears garments” from “before 1848” (when real “responsible government” began in what is now Canada). These parts can only be “properly understood and interpreted today” with reference to the so-called “unwritten’ constitution.” And one of the key principles here is that “the prime minister and his cabinet must always have the support of the House of Commons.”

What Mr. McTeague’s private members’ Bill C-253 finally shows, some might say, with all this in mind, is that Mr. Harper’s quite slender minority government does not always have the support of the House of Commons, but too often tries to pretend that it does when it doesn’t. What Mr. Robson and others (and even sometimes Senator Segal?) may ultimately be having so much trouble with is the fact that our Canadian political system today is most fundamentally anchored in what the Constitution Act 1982 calls our “free and democratic society.”

The real “Sovereign” in our system of government today is not the British monarchy or the old colonial governor or even the present-day governor general appointed by the Canadian prime minister. It is the Canadian people. And it is the majority in the democratically elected Canadian House of Commons that finally speaks for the Canadian people. Canada today is fundamentally a parliamentary democracy, not a “constitutional monarchy.” The monarchy is just non-functional window dressing from the colonialist past. (And at least a bare majority of the Canadian people today do want to set this past aside.)

Those at least are the clues to Mr. Robson’s puzzle which seem most useful to me. Senator Segal summed it all up so nicely just a few months ago now: “One of the core premises of the development of responsible government in Canada is the process of evolution. To be relevant and engaged, all aspects of our democratic institutions must be open to reflection, public scrutiny and public sanction. The Canadian Senate, venerable, thoughtful, constructive and often nonpartisan as it may be, must not be outside the circle of democratic responsibility.” Why doesn’t the same excellent argument apply to “the Crown” and section 54 and all that too?

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