Posts Tagged ‘Prime Minister Stephen Harper’

Arctic tour puts unintended spotlight on climate change

This August, Stephen Harper became the first Canadian Prime Minister to travel to the Northwest Passage. Photo: Prime Minister's Office

This August, Stephen Harper became the first Canadian Prime Minister to travel the Northwest Passage. Photo: Prime Minister’s Office

For 9 years running, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spent part of his summers touring Canada’s Arctic regions, including this year’s Operation Nanook 14.

He goes to wave the flag and bolster territorial claims in the area. He goes in anticipation of a coming boom once resources and shipping are more accessible. And many think he goes from a genuine respect for the history and potential of the far north.

On tour, or back in Ottawa, what Canada’s most important political figure seldom discusses is a little thing called climate change. Which is odd, considering how the Arctic absolutely, utterly proves that something big is happening to our planet.

Particularly in the U.S., one can still get arguments about the cause of receding glaciers, changes in sea ice, and shifts in weather, animal and plant life. But in the Arctic, it’s virtually impossible to deny major changes are happening, often even faster than initially predicted.

Residents there know that first-hand. The Arctic Rangers, a mostly-indigenous civilian reservist force that patrols the region, say nearly everything is changing. As reported by the Canadian Press:

“The elders used to be able to predict the weather by looking at the clouds; they can’t do that anymore. You can’t predict the weather anymore,” was a typical comment on the impact of climate change, which has reduced snow cover, led to earlier springs and generated fiercer winter winds.

Snowmobiles are becoming less available as the snow disappears, making it harder to travel.

“We never used to have forest fires. Now we have more and more each summer,” said one participant.

“There are new species now like small birds, ducks, salmon, foxes, grizzlies and an unknown species that is a cross between a polar bear and a grizzly,” said another. “We never used to see any of these species before.”

Meanwhile, staples of the indigenous northern diet — caribou, seal and polar bear — are migrating north to escape the warmer weather, leaving fewer animals to hunt.

“Polar bears used to be fat and tasty,” said one ranger. “They taste different now.”

And the Arctic is no longer a natural refrigerator for the hunt, said some.

“When we are on the land and living in tents, we dig holes to put the carcasses in to keep them frozen. Now even six feet down it is not frozen.”

Natural Resources Canada map showing

Natural Resources Canada map of estimated burn sites near Yellowknife NWT, toward the end of the 2014 fire season.

CBC news reports the fire season has been unusually bad in the Northwest Territories this year:

The worst forest fire season in decades has ravaged about 33,000 square kilometres of land — an area larger than the size of Vancouver Island.

Most of the destruction has been in the North Slave region, where Alfred Arrowmaker hunts and traps.

“I went out weeks ago, looking for moose, and there was nothing there. Everything is burned. There is absolutely nothing out there,” Arrowmaker says.

“I have lived in Gameti my whole life, and I have never seen this kind of fire in my life before.

Micheal Den Tandt traveled with Prime Minister Harper’s entourage for Postmedia News. Summarizing the tour, Den Tandt said it went very well, on the whole. With two glaring exceptions.

Problem one is improving the many frustrations and poor conditions still faced by Canada’s indigenous populations. And, as Den Tandt put it,

The second elephant in the room is, of course, climate change. In the Arctic this is neither debate nor symbol; it is a fact on the ground. Moreover, it’s one the government clearly recognizes, at least in deed. The opening of northern sea routes now in its infancy underpins virtually every aspect of the Harper government’s Arctic strategy, from the search for the Franklin ships, to the need to project sovereignty northward, to the military’s Operation Nanook on Tuesday, which envisioned a tourist ship running aground in York Sound, near the Davis Strait.

None of this would be happening were it not for the gradual withdrawal of the summer ice. Climate change is a fundamental to the emerging geography of the Canadian Arctic. And yet, the two words “climate change” were not uttered a single time over the span of six days, by the PM or any of his ministers, that I am aware of. At this late juncture, with the Arctic so central to their plans, that is simply astonishing.

Readers who are still with me are probably interested in the Arctic as a region. So I wanted to call attention to a fascinating article in the New York Times on the mystery of what happened to the Dorset, an Arctic people who survived well in isolation for 4,000 years before vanishing about 700 years ago.

The article concerns a new study published in Science Magazine this August ”The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic“ which examined DNA evidence to conclude the Dorset were not absorbed into surviving populations.

Researchers feel the Dorset likely had problems caused by their too-isolated gene pool. But the coup de grâce may have been environmental, according to New York University professor Todd R. Disotell (who was not part of the DNA study):

Another possibility, Dr. Disotell explained, is that the Dorset braved generations of harsh tundra conditions only to succumb to the effects of climate change. In the Arctic, even minor shifts in temperature can devastate marine life, cutting off vital food sources. The archaeological record, in fact, suggests that several such events had nearly wiped out the Paleo-Eskimos before.

“When you’re dealing with sea ice, just a few degrees can be transformative,” Dr. Disotell said. “Three bad winters in a row where you can’t hunt seals, and you’re in trouble.”

Of course, some will seize upon the fact that climate has changed – dramatically – long before humans were burning carbon counts as another challenge to today’s understanding of global warming and its causes.

But maybe the salient point is this: climate change matters. Argue all you like about what causes it. Just admit that some of these shifts become issues of survival.

A striking image from the Prime Minister's 2014 Arctic tour.

A striking image from the Prime Minister’s 2014 Arctic tour. Photo: PMO

Canada’s 2012 Budget: missed opportunity, big yawn, or dangerous shift?

Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative Party rolled out the 2012 budget for Canada late last week. That’s a boring, non-event for the majority of NCPR listeners. But it matters in Canada, and to the sizable public-sector workforce in the Ottawa/Gatineau region. And offers some parallels to similar issues in the U.S. So, here are various links, opinions and counter opinions.

How to summarize a budget? Well, the English version of the Economic Action Plan 2012 runs 498 pages, so I’d rather not, thanks anyway. The Montreal Gazette has this bullet point summary. For policy wonks who care, here’s a hefty compilation from the National Post. Happy reading!

Some main points include: a claim of no new taxes, spending cuts designed to return to a balance budget by 2015-16, federal workforce reductions to the tune of 19,200 actual warm bodies (through lay-offs or attrition), Old Age Security eligibility would move from age 65 to 67 (starting in 2023), increases in duty-free allowances for cross-border shopping and getting rid of the penny. There’s lots more, of course, but the whole list is exhaustive.

Here’s the funny thing, as I see it. The right and the left in Canada seem equally annoyed by this budget. (Reminding me of the sound bite from Karen DeWitt’s NY State budget story  of 3/29/12 on how “budgeting is the allocation of disappointments.”)

For a handy summary demonstrating that point, see this list from Chris Selley, introduced as “The enigma of Budget 2012: Disgrace to fiscal conservatism? Or cunning stratagem by Harper the Destroyer? You decide.”  Including a dash of Schadenfreude (you know, that useful German word for taking pleasure in the misfortune of others):

The Post‘s Jonathan Kay is just thankful to live in a country where tough-but-necessary budgetary measures are met by “robotic bitching” from the opposition, then passed and forgotten, as opposed to in a country like the United States, which has lost its freaking mind.

David Akin has a list of NGO and other reactions to the budget here.

The right’s dismay goes like this: conservatives are finally in power, finally able to make fundamental changes, and what do party leaders do? Next to nothing!

The Montreal Gazette’s  Michael Den Tandt called it “a tepid document” and likened its roll-out to great head fake:

Signal that you’re going to throw the Hail Mary pass, an epochal transformation. Scare the daylights out of the public-service unions. Rattle the opposition parties’ cages, leading them to rear up on their hind legs, shake their fists and promise a fight for the ages.

Then deliver a budget that, while it does reiterate some previously announced, common-sense, longer-term reforms in immigration, resource development, research and old age security, and proffers some public-service layoffs, is not revolutionary at all. It’s rather humdrum. It’s downright inoffensive.

Not surprisingly, other factions disagree. You can see new NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair critique the budget on this TVO interview with Steve Paikin. Liberal Party Leader Bob Rae’s budget response can be viewed here. In a media release, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said this:

“This budget continues the Harper Conservatives’ assault on the environment in more ways than one.  The cuts to seniors, veterans, cultural institutions, and overseas development assistance, are all deeply disturbing.  We identified areas of waste equal to those areas chosen for cuts in this budget. The Prime Minister had a choice where to cut and where to invest.  He made the wrong choices. Greens are incensed by this government’s callous disregard for the things that matter most to Canadians.”

A majority of the workforce reductions are expected to happen in the Ottawa/Gatineau areas, as reported in this Ottawa Citizen article:

The Conference Board estimates that job reductions in these areas will mean Ottawa-Gatineau will absorb about 60 per cent of the planned trims to the total federal public service. And this translates to 11,500 jobs that will disappear from the National Capital Region by 2014.

That’s a lot of families facing uncertainty and pain ahead. At the same time, some ask if the layoffs represent real cuts, after looking at long-term growth of government employees. As detailed in another Citizen article, there are significant costs to letting employees go:

The process for handling layoffs is laid out in the workforce adjustment agreement that’s embedded in all employees’ contracts. It’s a highly complicated process that could take as long as 16 months

Inevitably, how people are laid off raises arguments too. What’s fair? Some private sector analysts think government workers get too many perks, as discussed in this National Post article:

“Layoffs are an absolute necessity to balance the budget, but it’s how it’s done that I take issue with,” said David Whitten, a partner at the Toronto law firm of Whitten & Lublin.

In the same article:

John Gordon, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, defends the existing policies for public employees. He said the measures are necessary for employees who are let go against their will and have to look for jobs in the private sector that don’t translate directly from their public experience.

Maybe you care about federal job cuts, maybe you don’t, but just about everyone has a stake in when they can retire and expect to collect Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. (Similar to Social Security in the U.S.) For those born after April of 1958, that age is set to ramp upward from the current 65 to 67 starting in 2023. Here’s a useful Q & A on that from the Ottawa Citizen.

Not surprisingly, there’s disagreement on the justification and effect of that change. It’s being presented as a necessary demographic adjustment -  people are living longer, healthier lives. But critics say this hurts those on the lowest rungs of society and is not even necessary. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has found the existing system is sustainable without increasing the retirement age. According to this article in the Huff Post:

..the government may have other reasons for making the changes, but inability to pay for the benefits is not an issue either in the short term or long term. In fact, not only is the OAS sustainable, but Ottawa has room to sweeten benefits.

The Harper government is often accused of being secretive and defensive, reserving special ire for groups like environmentalists. Does this budget move from hostile words to preemptive harassment?  Some non-profit groups say they are about to be targeted for closer examination, with a boost in funding for the Canada Revenue Agency to spend on what the budget labeled “education and compliance”.

The fear is that non-profits deemed to engaged in excessive amounts of political activity might lose their charitable status. (Something similar occasionally comes up in the U.S. too, as when churches were told they should be careful about specific political advocacy in recent elections.) As explained in the Hill Times:

The main budget document noted charities are allowed to engage in political activities, centered primarily on advocacy, as long as the activities are related to their charitable goals and represent a limited portion of their resources—no more than 10 per cent for larger charities.

This Globe and Mail editorial gave some background to the controversy:

The real target is obvious – environmental groups, especially those opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline proposed to run from Alberta through British Columbia, to take oil-sands bitumen to ocean tankers for delivery to Asia. In January, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver issued a public letter – diatribe, more like – denouncing “environmental and other radical groups” who “hijack” regulatory bodies and “use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.”

Here’s a Q&A on the subject from the Canada Revenue Agency. The Hill Times article says Finance Minister Jim Flaherty explained the increased scrutiny this way:

“Quite frankly, we’ve had a lot of complaints and concerns expressed by Canadians that when they give money to charities they expect the money to be used for the charities purposes, not for political or other purposes.”

Besides looking at the books of environmental groups, the budget proposes a “one project, one review” reduction of the time it takes to get environmental reviews for large natural resource projects. Green Leader May, long associated with environmental causes, put it this way “”It’s a shocking anti-nature budget but it’s also anti-democratic.” Sierra Club of Canada Executive Director John Bennett responded in a media release: ““The government has done a great injustice not only to the environment but to all Canadians and future generations.”

Another Hill Times article details other cuts and changes seen as efforts to weaken environmental reviews:

In addition to “streamlining” the environmental review process, the federal government will also make significant reductions to the budgets of two departments with central roles in regulating the environmental impacts of large-scale industrial projects.

Environment Canada’s budget will be reduced by $88-million over the next three years, while the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will see its budget cut by $79-million over the same time period. The National Round Table on the Environment, and the Economy, which was a source of comprehensive environmental analysis and gave advice to the government, will be eliminated. The NRTEE’s budget was $5.2-million.

Some business and industry groups take the opposite view: review simplification is long overdue and will improve economic growth and job creation.

OK, by now you can see why certain constituencies are upset by this budget. But wait, there’s more. Anyone familiar with the culture wars as they involve NPR funding in the U.S.can easily grasp a similar quarrel about funding the CBC in Canada.

Unlike NPR, the CBC gets a majority of its funds right from tax coffers. Like NPR, critics charge CBC with an ingrained bias that favors liberal views and labor issues. And why should tax payers fund TV and radio anyway?

This budget cuts the CBC’s budget in the range of 10% (or slightly more, depending on how the numbers are crunched).

Richard Stursberg, a former executive vice-president of CBC English Services, offered this defense, writing “Unless care is taken, CBC may be so badly damaged that it will be unrecognizable in the future.”

Meanwhile TV critic John Doyle weighed in with some blunt language: “Suck it up, CBC. You should have seen this coming.”  I’ll quote from that here, because the column discusses ideas worth considering for those involved in public broadcasting:

But the main thing to keep in mind is that the CBC has been asking for trouble. It has failed to defend itself adequately. It has been naive. For CBC, and all its radio, TV and online platforms, this Prime Minister is an implacable foe, as imperious in his dismissal of Canadian TV news as he is in dismissing anything that smacks of that European welfare state. For the government, the CBC is a symbol that must be diminished and denigrated.

And, here’s the crazy thing – the CBC does not merit that stature. In recent years, CBC has failed to transcend mediocrity and forcefully explain what it does.

Least you think Doyle is fundamentally anti-CBC, he closes with this admonishment:

It’s a defeat in a war and it’s not over. Gird yourself, CBC. Get serious, do better and become worth defending.

At a recent forum on the CBC, a participant thought the CBC might do well to take a lesson from NPR stations:

Judy Adler, a self-described computer “geek,” said the CBC should model itself upon U.S. National Public Radio (NPR), which is adept at building strong local community support.

“The CBC does nothing to build connections to the community while NPR goes out of its way to build the connections to its listeners,” Adler said.

Clearly this summary still leaves a lot out (probably including something you feel is important!). Space simply doesn’t permit discussing everything. But keep an additional detail in mind: Stephen Harper remains a polarizing figure.

Just as Presidents Bush and Obama evoke strong reactions and partisan divides in the U.S., Harper has admiring fans and fierce detractors across Canada.

But if you’ve ready this far, congratulations, you’re a policy wonk!

What aspects of Canada’s 2012 budget please or concern you, if any?

Comments and civil discussion are always welcome.

Harper and Cameron warn of global debt crisis

British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the Canadian Parliament yesterday evening.

The text of his address can be read here, CTV video can be seen here. (Cameron’s delivery varied slightly from the prepared text, most notably by paying respect to the recent death of Jack Layton.)

Cameron and Prime Minister Stephen Harper raised concerns about current economic instability and the necessity of taking serious steps to prevent another global recession.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, speaking to reporters after his Parliamentary address…

Cameron also told journalists that the British government’s austerity cutbacks should be a lesson to other nations.

“I don’t pretend it is popular with everyone. It isn’t.” But he said that when governments are honest with people about the need for tough measures, they are more likely to get public support.

Read that full article here.

What does government austerity mean to you? If this is indeed a “debt crisis”, is austerity an essential element of recovery, or just one ingredient?

Historic vote topples Harper Government

Canadians are getting a Spring election as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government lost a confidence vote in Parliament this afternoon. Harper will call on the Governor General, David Johnston, on Saturday to formally launch the election process.

The unique aspect of this was  the nature of the motion: for the first time in Canadian history, the ruling party has been found in contempt of Parliament, for allegations they deliberately withheld information on matters up for Parliamentary consideration.

Harper has just addressed the press, stating the economy remains the main priority of the nation and he’ll be taking that case to the electorate.

The opposition will be running hard on the themes of ethics, leadership and democratic process.

By law the election must be held on a Monday after a campaign of at least 36 days, leading to projections of May 2 or May 9th as election day. Those details should be known by next week.