A valuable and desirable passport

In the winter of 2004 while travelling in Israel, I was robbed in a taxi in Jerusalem. I tell people that it happened at gunpoint, though I can’t be certain because I never got a good look at what the driver was pulling out of the glove compartment before I bailed on the car. But I tell people this because it makes for a more dramatic story. It also has the added effect of making me appear bad-ass, a character trait that I assume isn’t normally assigned to me.

In any event, as I explained in broken Hebrew to the police that night, then again to the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv, and repeatedly to friends and family in the days following, I wasn’t entirely sure why I was robbed. I looked like a worn out traveler at the time, certainly with nothing of great monetary value on me.

Except my passport.

If it was clear to the driver that I wasn’t from Israel – and the fact that I asked him to take me to the airport may have had something to do with it – then he likely assumed that I had a foreign passport on me. And that is desirable and valuable.

I share this story now not because I particularly enjoy reminiscing about how I spent four days at the mercy of the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv. I don’t. And while we’re at it, the word “Embassy” is a stretch to begin with, since Canada’s pied-a-terre in the Holy Land consists of a few floors of fluorescent-lit office space in a Tel Aviv high-rise.

I share this story as a reminder of the value of a passport – a document with great literal and figurative power and privilege contained in its pages.

So it was with great delight when I read today of the Liberal Party’s proposed higher education initiative, dubbed the “Learning Passport.” In short, the proposed program would automatically give every Canadian high school graduate $1,000 per year to use towards their university or college education. And it would give $1,500 per year to students from low-income families.

That this is the first policy set forth from the new Liberal platform is impressive. That it’s not a partisan vote-buying gimmick is more-so. That in setting it forth, the Liberals have also budgeted the funds for the program is most impressive.

Where would the money come from to fund the Learning Passport? It would be fully funded by rolling back corporate tax cuts that were extended by the Conservatives. Say what you will about fiscal responsibility, but even Harper admits out of one side of his mouth that we’re weathering the global economic crisis well. As the Globe and Mail notes in their editorial:

“Higher education is the single best guarantee of higher earnings and future success; now is a good time, as other countries struggle with crippling debt loads, to make further investments in people…”

What continues to strike me most – beyond the honourable subastance of the program – is the title the Liberals gave the program. It drives strong and meaningful points home: higher education gets you somewhere. Like a passport, it lets you cross otherwise impenetrable barriers. And like carrying the woven bilingual pages in your pocket, a uniquely Canadian pride and privilege comes with attending a Canadian university or college.

For those keeping track, this already addresses one of the items on my personal party platform. So, well done, Grits!

Steven Harper could learn a lot at Yeshiva

To those who, in the upcoming election, might be compelled to base their vote on their religious affiliation:  If you are intent again to use a theo-political issue to trump your vote. (certainly, the Tories have done and are doing everything they can to convince you that this is a good idea), perhaps, first study some Midrash:

“Moses said: ‘I know that the Israelites are malcontents. Therefore, I will audit the entire construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)’. He began making an accounting: ‘These are the records of the Mishkan’ and he began reporting everything, the gold, silver and bronze, and the silver of the public census… He continued reckoning each item in the Mishkan in order, but forgot 1575 shekels from which the hooks on the pillars were fashioned, but which were not generally visible. He stood bewildered and said: ‘Now they will lay their hands on me, saying that I took it’, and he went back to recalculate. Immediately, God opened Moses’ eyes and showed him that the silver was used in the hooks on the pillars. He began to reply to them, saying: ‘and 1575 were fashioned into pillar hooks’ and the Israelites were immediately appeased. What enabled this? The fact that he sat and made an accounting…

…But why did he make an accounting?… It is only because he heard the cynics talking behind his back, as it says ‘And when Moshe left…they looked back at Moshe’. What did they say? R. Yitzhak said that people spoke positively. Then others would chime in: ‘Imbecile! He’s the one who controlled the entire enterprise of the Mishkan… gold and silver that were not counted, weighed, or numbered! Wouldn’t you expect that he be rich?’ When Moshe heard this, he said: ‘My word! When the Mishkan is completed, I will make an accounting’, as it says ‘These are the records of the Mishkan.’”

-Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 7

What’s going on here?

In short, the Midrash is teaching us that the fiscal cost of the Tabernacle – as a public project funded by the taxes of the Israelites – must be entirely accounted for in an open, transparent, and accessible way.

It’s also teaching us that Moses – as leader of the people – is answerable to the people. Even Moses, who speaks to God face-to-face in a way that no others do, must still face the people.

In a broader sense, it speaks about the virtue of transparency among leaders and the need to be open and answerable to the public.

Stephen Harper could learn a lot from Moses.

An egregious lack of transparency and accountability related to the purchase of military aircraft is exactly what led the Conservatives to be censured for Contempt of Parliament this past week. Of course, anyone with their finger on the pulse of Canadian politics knows that this specific issue is part and parcel of a greater patten of behaviour on part of the Tories; one that paved the way to the landmark ruling by (famed non-partisan) Speaker of the House Peter Milliken.

Certainly if we Jews acknowledge that Moses was expected to be held accountable to the people and to act transparently, we should bestow the same criteria upon Mr. Harper. Certainly if our Midrash teaches us the virtues of un-opaque leadership, we should value that in our national leader as well.

It is challenging for me to view how Harper and the Conservatives can be painted as an honest, transparent, accountable, and open government. Sure, there have been individual instances when they acted reasonable on these grounds. But the story of the Tories – as any learned political observer will tell you – is one of secrecy, opacity, avoidance of responsibility, centralized power, and tight-lipped relations with the Canadian people.

So to the Jews who will likely vote for the Conservatives on the grounds of their supposed dominance of the “support for Israel” (whatever that means) issue: if you value our rabbinic instructions as much as you value the Conservative’s platform (which, remember, didn’t exist when you voted last time…), perhaps you should reconsider the value of your vote.

P.S.: Not convinced that the Tories have a national Jewish-vote buying strategy in place? It isn’t just happening in Thornhill, it’s also taking place down the 401 in Montreal’s Mount-Royal riding.

You’re invited to join the Jesse Party

While I’m a paying member of a certain Canadian political party, and while my personal political ideology is firmly grounded, I think it’s appropriate and responsible to not just blindly vote from the gut. As the election starts, I’m going to lay out the issues upon which I will evaluate the candidates and parties to decide my vote. Call it the political platform of the Jesse Party. I’m also including detrimental political tactics that I don’t want the parties to engage in. As election day approaches, I’ll do some sort of formal evaluation here, which will help determine which party I’m going to vote for.

And here we go:

1. Integrity and Ethics
Transparency. Respect for the institution of Parliament. Aversion to proroguing. Strong leadership skills among MPs. Respect for truth and justice.

2. Environmental & Energy Policy
Formulating a strong and reasonable policy on reducing carbon emissions. Instituting a carbon tax. Transitioning to renewable and low emission energy sources.

3. Health Care
Investing in new medical facilities, attracting doctors and health professionals to Canada, reducing wait times. Not privatizing the system.

4. Domestic Economic Policy
Combating poverty. Tax-cuts for the lowest income earners. Reasonably and proportionally increasing taxes for the wealthiest earners and businesses.

5. Investment in Education
Funding universities and colleges. Reducing tuition fees. Investing in curricular materials in public schools. Creating a National Day Care program.

6. Investment in Arts & Culture
See here, here, and here.

7. Foreign Policy
A mediated and strategic end to combat duty in Afghanistan. Fostering bipartisan peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, including encouraging an end to settlement building by Israel and a strong dismantling of terrorist infrastructure and enforcement of civil law by the Palestinians. Strict standards as to who we ally ourself with and when we interfere in foreign domestic conflicts.

* * *

And these are the tactics I hope not to see. If a party engages in them, it will make it harder for me to vote for them:

1. Labeling a potential coalition as an evil, illegal, or otherwise bad thing

2. Ethnic vote buying

3. Ad-hominem attacks where inappropriate (sometimes it’s absolutely legitimate to call into question a candidate’s character when it comes to leadership skills, but I am put-off by otherwise personal attacks on a candidate)

4. Referring to the NDP pejoratively as “socialists,” as if we’re living in 1950s America

5. Pretending that the economy is Canadians’ #1 issue, when polling clearly indicates it is not

6. Ignoring or hiding from the fact that the Conservatives are the first government to be found in contempt of Parliament

You should choose your words carefully, Mr. Harper

Harper’s first words to the public after being found in contempt of Parliament:

“The global economy remains fragile. The economic recovery in Canada is strong, but it must remain our priority. That is what why the economy is and will continue to be my top priority as Prime Minister… that is what Canadians expect of us in Parliament…”

Except that this is not true. Extensive polling shows that Canadians’ priority is Health Care.

See here and here and here and here for proof…

Contempt

Right now, as I watch live on tv, the Canadian Government is falling. It is the first time in Canadian history that a sitting government has been found in contempt of Parliament, to be toppled during the vote of non-confidence that is taking place now.

Votes of non-confidence are themselves extremely rare. But in a few moments, Canadian history will be made when the Conservative’s minority government will be the first ever found to have contemptuously flouted the will of Parliament.

Right now, as I watch, the majority of elected Members of Parliament are rising to vote their non-confidence in the minority government.

This is historical in its uniqueness.
This is exciting in its reinforcement of the democratic process.
This is serious in its implications.

Flowing under all of the political machinations are the public statements of the parties’ leaders, most notably the leader of the party in power – Stephen Harper.

Harper and the Tories have tried to spin this event, accusing the Grits of contemptuously flouting the will of Canadians (?), labeling the opposition parties as being members of an evil coalition (?), and making light of the entire situation (?).

I am left wondering what is more troubling – that the Conservative government has repeatedly thumbed its nose at the majority of Canadians and has now been found in contempt of Parliament, or that they do not recognize the extreme seriousness of this.

This has never happened before. It is not a political game. It is not a minor inconvenience. Yet the cheering and jeering in the House of Commons and  snide remarks during scrums are treating this like it’s no big deal.

It is a big deal. It’s a very big deal.

We’ve just got to work on putting the budget in the net

Jim Flaherty’s soundbite comments in support of the upcoming budget, delivered while purchasing his budget day shoes, sound more like what you hear from hockey players during intermission than a comment on federal policy by a parliamentarian:

“One of the goals of the budget is to make sure we stay on course, that maintains the fiscal track…[so] we can move back to balanced budgets… At the same time make some investments to promote economic growth and jobs.”

I know this is Canada and we’ve got that hockey thing going on, but can’t we hear something a little more substantial? Isn’t that the goal of all budgets?

Canadians worth Name-dropping

“With few extraordinary Canadians doing anything to shift our national consciousness, and fewer Canadians paying attention to those who are, our identity is in danger of atrophy.”

Donald Sutherland name-dropped Tommy Douglas in an interview in (the American magazine) Esquire this month. There’s also a new biography out on him in Penguin Canada’s stellar series on Extraordinary Canadians. And he popped up in the news a few weeks ago when it was revealed that the RCMP had spied on him at one point.

All of this is to say that Tommy Douglas is still a noteworthy and newsworthy Canadian twenty-five years after his death.

But he’s more than that. Douglas is a significant Canadian not just because there are still news items on him or interesting things to say about him. There are plenty of Canadians in the news each day that may be interesting. Douglas is uniquely significant because he changed Canada and he changed Canadians. He influenced mainstream Canadian society. He changed the Canadian government, he changed Canadian domestic policy, he changed Canadian culture, and – most significantly – he changed Canadian identity. To be sure, he fomented what is likely the number two item on the list of inextricable Canadian identifiers (after hockey, of course).

Douglas looked at the Canada that surrounded him – an impoverished, desperate milieu – identified the problems, came up with a solution, and enacted broad-sweeping changes. He’s what Seth Godin would call an initiator. He kicked Canada in the ass and we now wear the bruise with pride.

All of this is not to say that Tommy Douglas was a saint. To be sure, the Canadian healthcare system has its flaws and is in dire need of updating. Moreover, this is not my meager attempt to say profound things about Douglas that have already been said by people more eloquent and learned than I. While I’d like to convince myself otherwise, I don’t think I have anything to add to the Canadian canon at this point.

So this is all to say – or rather, ask – something else:

Where are all the Extraordinary Canadians? Where are the initiators? Where are the identity makers?

The Canadian (yet once-illegal in Canada) zero-emission Zenn Car
There are certainly many Canadians out there doing newsworthy, cool, and interesting things (although if you Google “Interesting Canadians,” the results come up pretty slim). But newsworthy, cool, and interesting is not equaling extraordinary these days. Newsworthy, cool, and interesting is not cultivating identity.

“Whither Canadian Identity?” is that quintessential existential question that we Canadians ask to hold a mirror up to our national self when our national inferiority complex flares up. But I’m not lamenting a lack of Canadian identity. I’ll leave that to George Grant. Besides, there’s a Wikipedia article on Canadian Identity, so I think we’re safe in that department.

I’m lamenting the lack of Canadians of late who have risen up and done something that has galvanized our country in the identity department. I’m lamenting the dearth of Canadians who have on a national scale shifted the way we think. I’m lamenting the absence of Canadians who can be added to the Wikipedia article on our national identity.

To be sure, just take a look at the Canadians who have been deemed extraordinary and fit for publishing by Penguin, or the finalists from the CBC’s 2004 series, The Greatest Canadian. On both lists, with a few exceptions (or perhaps just one – Terry Fox), the identity-building Canadians did the body of their work most recently thirty to forty years ago. For most, it’s been over half a century.

Yes, Sidney Crosby did do that thing in Vancouver last year, and The Great One and Don Cherry were indeed finalists on The Greatest Canadian. But hockey already occupies the number one spot on our identity list. Unlike Mr. Douglas, the trail was already blazed for Sid the Kid (insert some clever remark about the zamboni clearing the ice for him). Unlike Fox, Gretsky and Cherry had and have institutions, managers, and paychecks supporting them.

It’s been quite some time since Trudeau, Montgomery, The Group of Seven, McLuhan, Pearson, and the lot.

It’s been quite some time since a Canadian has risen up and done or said or created something that has inspired Canadians in a unifying way; in a way that has become as much a part of Canadian Identity as Hockey, Universal Health Care, Tim Hortons, the GST, a National Inferiority Complex, and not being American.

To be sure, there’s a certain temporal perspective gained from looking back on ourself, which contributes to the lists’ foci on historical figures. But it’s 2011, and we’ve been hyper-connected and hyper-self-aware for awhile now. Isn’t it time we started catching up to ourself? If that Rebecca Black girl can reach millions of people with a ridiculous YouTube video (I won’t do it the justice of linking to it), and we identify en masse with new memes every week, certainly the market is primed and ripe for someone to do something worthy of capturing us.

I’m not denying that Canadian identity exists. Certainly it does. But it isn’t being flexed by anyone. With few extraordinary Canadians doing anything to shift our national consciousness, and fewer paying attention to those who are, our identity is in danger of atrophy.

In that painfully Canadian way, I’m aware that all this has the potential to come across as complaining and whining about a problem without presenting a solution. After all, Tommy Douglas didn’t sit around and blog, he got off his own ass and kicked Canada in our collective tuchus. But I don’t (yet) have the bully pulpit of our Parliament or the platform of a national newspaper, so maybe this is just to vent or call attention in a limited way to something that I – as a Canadian – am invested in.

I’m looking for Canadians who can make us shift the way we look at ourselves for the better. I’m looking for Canadians who have the drive and power to give our country a much needed kick in the ass.

I’m looking for Canadians worth name dropping.

Seven Questions for Stephen Harper

http://www.thestar.com/searchresults?AssetType=image&stype=genSearch&r=FullCategory:%22/Opinion/EditorialCartoon%22
Courtesy of, and adapted from Seth Godin’s recent post on Seven Questions for Leaders, I thought I would imagine what Stephen Harper’s answers to these questions might be, with links to recent stories that seem to support my guesses.

1. Do you let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Yes.

2. What do you do with people who disagree with you… do you call them names in order to shut them down?
Call them names in order to shut them down.

3. Are you open to multiple points of view or you demand compliance and uniformity?
The Harper Government is a well-documented fortress of demanded compliance and uniformity. Apparently, you even need to know the secret password question to get information out of them.

4. Is it okay if someone else gets the credit?
Apparently not. Bev Oda isn’t even allowed to speak for something which the party probably doesn’t want the credit for.

5. How often are you able to change your position?
Given that the Harper Government hasn’t done much substantial legislating, it’s tough to say. So I’ll defer to Yann Martel on this one to say that Harper’s not the most open guy.

6. Do you have a goal that can be reached in multiple ways?
Remember during the last election when the Conservative Party’s platform was released like, the day before voting day?

7. If someone else can get us there faster, are you willing to let them?
Remember when Harper shut down Parliament and slandered the opposition parties who were on the verge of forming a (legal) coalition?

– – –

And that’s about how I feel about Mr. Haper’s leadership. Not the most academic survey, but certainly a valid and frightening one, I would say.

Who is “Joe the Canadian” today?

Remember Joe the Canadian? What a great symbol of Canada he was. Understated, yet proud. One who celebrated the diversity of Canada, and stood up for our uniqueness on the world stage. A proponent of peace keeping, multiculturalism, hockey, and chesterfields. While he didn’t say it in the famous commercial, back in 2000, one of the distinguishing features of being Canadian at the turn of the millennium was appreciating a nuanced and balanced perspective on domestic world affairs.

Ten years later, what do Canadians look like?

If you ask the current Conservative government – the people charged with representing us domestically and internationally, people that you might assume (and rightly so) would have a good answer to that question – here’s what you might hear back…

Michael Ignatieff – the Canadian – is unCanadian. Jack Layton – the Canadian – is part of the Taliban. Dalton McGuinty – the Canadian – is a small man of the Confederation. Richard Colvin – a man charged with representing Canadians – is an untrustworthy liar. And Irwin Cotler – the Canadian (and the Jew) – is an antisemite.

These “definitions” are too sharply defined; they cut Canada and Canadians into isolated segments and divide us into useless categories. Unsurprisingly, the Conservative paradigm is one of sharp dichotomies: Big people and small people. People who are trustworthy and people who are liars. Canadian and unCanadian. To be sure, this paradigm itself is pretty unCanadian. At least it would be according to Joe the Canadian.

But wait a minute – wasn’t Stephen Harper just speaking about “putt[ing] aside old quarrels and… embrac[ing] a common future?” Oh wait, he was talking about the Olympics.

The latest round of demagoguery (though can it be called a “round” if it’s just a continual pattern?) has centered on the Conservative’s defunding of the Human Rights organization, Rights and Democracy, over their alleged anti-Israel stance. Of course, this fits in nicely with the Tories’ hardline ‘you’re either wish Israel or against them’ stance.

It is rare that I find myself agreeing with Haroon Siddiqui, and even rarer that I would quote him to back up my argument, but I’m happy to do so today as he is bang on in his assertion that “Israelis thrive on democratic debate and dissent but Harper… want[s] to shut down debate in Canada.”

For those too afraid to side with Sidiqqui, Liberal MP Anita Neville, co-chair of Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel (and Jewish herself), has also argued that “by making [support of Israel] frequently into a black-and white-issue, [the Tories] are setting it up as a wedge… And it’s creating a backlash.”

This is an issue that has garnered international attention. And rightly so.

William Schabas, the Canadian director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights recently posited an opinion that resounded incredibly loudly with me, noting that the current goings on are “extremely partisan and highly divisive. It isn’t very Canadian. It’s the kind of thing that I, as a Canadian living abroad, am very conscious of.”

I’m left wondering what a Joe the Canadian commercial might look like today. Do we really want to accept the Tories’ definition of who and what is and isn’t Canadian?

Perhaps that job should be left to the beer companies…