Archive for December, 2007

Happy New Year! Sonnets again? That’s so weird!

As noted previously, the sonnet is one of the two, or possibly three, perfect forms invented by Mankind. Here, for the few of you who may have forgotten, William Wordsworth makes the same point, only better.

Wordsworth wrote nothing, though, about baseball or Uechi-ryu karate. This may be unfortunate, but it gives the rest of us something to do.

Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

William Wordsworth

The holidays will be over soon and it’ll be back to work for this blogger. Starting this week, there will also be karate in the evenings. That likely means a slightly less frenetic pace of postings.

Hope y’all don’t mind!

Happy New Year to everyone! We’ll bloviate to you again in 2008.

More on Servus Place: Letter to the Saint City News

Here are a few more thoughts about the Servus Credit Union Place situation, from my letter to the editor, which was published yesterday by the Saint City News.

Talk about your proverbial lead balloon!

If City Council thinks spending our tax money to buy newspaper ads will, in the words of the local media, “combat ongoing rumours and allegations of wrongdoing” in the Servus Credit Union Place fiasco, they need to smoke a different brand of banana peel! Such a gambit will only deepen the distrust and cynicism of those beleaguered St. Albert taxpayers who suspect they were had before the 2004 referendum, and had again before the 2007 election.

Heaven knows, I wish the facts about Servus Place’s soaring deficit had come to light before the Oct. 15 municipal vote. I’ll bet some of the other unsuccessful candidates do too! That said, I am not persuaded there is anything more sinister at play here than inattention and wishful thinking on the part of some councillors and city officials. Nevertheless, if Council wants to restore voters’ confidence and get Servus Place on track, they’re going to have to come up with a better plan than buying newspaper ads with taxpayers’ own money.

A good place to start would be to be scrupulous about conducting their business in public — especially anything even remotely connected to Servus Place. Yes, there are legitimate reasons for councillors to meet from time to time in-camera. But frequent closed-door sessions with such vague agenda references as “advice from officials” and “communications matter” fuel an angry public’s distrust.

In addition, there sure as heck had better be no more nasty Servus Place surprises. Another unexpected budget shortfall and voters will be clamouring to bulldoze the place and turn it into a community rose garden!

Council also needs to instruct Servus Place managers to get over their fixation with selling annual memberships at a cost two-income working families can’t afford. This facility will never be a success without offering affordable single-use rates for the pool, skating rinks and running track that will get St. Albert residents inside the building, and maybe even encourage a few of them to buy annual memberships.

It would be a sad day for St. Albert if this excellent $42-million dollar facility — which might cost twice that to build today — were sold off or mothballed by some future council. But that could very well happen without public confidence in this council’s stewardship. No newspaper advertisement can make that happen.

I think that’s enough Servus Place commentary for a little while. I reckon that pretty well everyone in town knows where everyone else stands on the issue of Servus Place. The hard part is yet to come: making the facility a success, financially and in the community.

The Gazette is right, even though the law is wrong

The St. Albert Gazette ends its Boxing Day editorial with “a word of caution to bloggers out there: you are subject to the same laws of defamation as any credible media outlet.”

One is tempted to ask: “Any credible media outlet? And that would be whom?

But let’s leave that point to other bloggers. For, notwithstanding the editorial’s tone, the Gazette has raised an important issue that St. Albert’s bloggers are well advised to ponder. Indeed, bloggers are at considerably greater risk than conventional media businesses from the defamation laws of Alberta and other Canadian provinces.

There are two principal reasons for this.

The first is obvious: Most news media companies, being substantial businesses, possess in-house expertise about defamation law. Furthermore, they have access to lawyers and pockets deep enough to pay the cost of defending themselves against defamation suits, even those that may have merit. Bloggers, on the other hand, are mostly individuals with a point of view and an Internet account. They have little access to the financial and legal resources necessary to defend against a defamation action, no matter how frivolous.

This brings us to the second, more important, point. That is that the purpose of Canadian defamation laws is not, as first-year law students are taught, to allow individuals to defend their reputations against unjustified, unfair or false attacks. If this were so, defamation law would be accessible to people who actually depend on their reputations to survive, to wit: working people, small business people and others of ordinary means. The bitter reality is that the cost of the legal specialists required to successfully pursue an action in this esoteric and unfair corner of the law means that protection from defamation is completely unavailable to most ordinary Canadians who depend on their reputations to earn a living.

Rather, the true purpose of the law of defamation in all Canadian provinces is to protect the wealthy and powerful, including wealthy and powerful corporations, from criticism, including criticism that is entirely legitimate in a free and democratic society, and including statements that are well known to be true but which cannot be proved to be so in a court of law.

Let’s say this again in a slightly different way, so that we are perfectly clear: The true purpose of Canadian defamation law is to suppress legitimate free speech.

Lest readers think that by saying this your blogger is a charter member of the tinfoil-hat brigade, no less an authority than the Supreme Court of the United States, where until 1973 defamation laws were similar to those that persist in Canada, recognized this reality. In the landmark case, New York Times vs. Sullivan, Justice William Brennan Jr. placed U.S. defamation law in the context of “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” This meant, the Court ruled in Times, that even unintentionally false statements about public figures must be protected if freedom of expression is to have the “breathing space” it needs to survive.

In Canada – to date – there has been no such commitment to free debate on public issues. Indeed, the courts have made it clear they have little interest in following the U.S. commitment to free speech. As a result, defamation law throughout Canada continues in the tradition of the Court of Star Chamber (whence in fact the tort of libel originated), giving the advantage to the plaintiff, assuming that the plaintiff’s reputation has been damaged, and placing the onus to prove statements complained of are defensible entirely on the defendant. Because of the costs and complexity of mounting a successful defence – even when a good one is available – a lone defendant like a blogger usually has no choice but to surrender, issue a groveling apology and hope for the best. In terms of the potential financial liability, the loss of a defamation suit can result in more serious consequences than those faced by many criminal defendants! This is the definition of libel chill. It hurts society and benefits the powerful.

Worse, Canadian defamation law allows corporations to hide behind the legal fiction that they are “legal persons” to use defamation law to attack justified and legitimate critics. This happens frequently in Canada, but is seldom reported in case law for the simple reason that most defendants surrender long before the matter gets to court. As bad, public officials are sometimes given access to tax dollars to pursue abusive defamation suits against individual taxpayers who have had the temerity to criticize them.

There is always hope, of course, that courts may surprise us and do the right thing. Last June, for example, the Supreme Court of Canada read the right to bargain collectively into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a huge step forward for basic human rights in which the Court had previously shown no interest. In November, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that journalists who write stories dealing with the public interest may be protected against defamation suits if they can prove they acted responsibly when they researched and wrote their stories.

But, really, we should be looking to our Legislatures to draft defamation legislation that both ensures the right of individuals to defend their reputations and protects the right of the rest of us – bloggers and credible media alike – to assail the powerful. This is well within the means of human ingenuity.

A private member’s bill would be a great place to start. Perhaps this is a project on which our two St. Albert MLAs, one a Liberal and the other a Conservative, could collaborate to the benefit of all Albertans.

There’s still merit in ‘Twoonie run’ idea

Back during the municipal election campaign, I sent out a news release that called on City Council to encourage the management of Servus Credit Union Place to offer a special $2 winter rate to St. Albert residents who wanted to run or walk on the facility’s indoor track. “When the snow flies,” I wrote then, “St. Albert residents should be able to use the Servus Place running track for a Twoonie.”

This, I argued, would result in a win-win situation that would bring people into the facility, some of whom might buy memberships to ease the facility’s deficit, which was then reported to be $900,000. At the same time, I suggested, it could also build support for Servus Place among the many taxpayers still skeptical about the whole idea and give St. Albert ratepayers something back for their contributions. It would also make a contribution to fitness and safety in St. Albert.

Well, the snow is flying now and the Servus Place annual deficit has climbed past $2 million and is likely to stay that way for several years. But the facility’s management is still charging $9 for an adult to use the running tack on a single-occasion basis. Presumably, they believe this strategy is likely to sell more annual memberships, which they desperately need to do. Of course, many of us suspect it is having the opposite effect.

Back in July, the Servus Place marketing and events manager responded to my news release by saying (in the words of the Gazette’s reporter) that the idea was “contrary to standard industry practices to charge day admission rates.” I begged to differ. Alas, in the heat of the election campaign, my letter to the editor went astray and never appeared. Here’s part of what I wrote then:

… Just because an idea’s new doesn’t make it bad. Indeed, there would be very few business success stories without new ideas. But in this case, I believe it’s incorrect to suggest that charging modest fees to use indoor running tracks in publicly funded facilities is unheard of, or even unusual.

Here are three examples: Single-entry admission to the running track at Calgary’s Olympic skating oval is just $3. Single-entry admission to the indoor running track at the Guildford Recreation Centre in Surrey, B.C., is $2.10 during the day. Single-entry admission to the indoor running track at the Waterloo Memorial Recreation Complex in Waterloo, Ont., is free. In each case these facilities, like Servus Place, were funded by tax dollars to benefit their communities. In each case these fees apply year round.

[It] is right, of course, to point out that the current $9 rate gives users free rein to use the entire facility. But that’s not much of a bargain if all one wants to do is run, as would be the case with many residents during the winter months. Nor is it a bargain compared with similar facilities in the Edmonton region. For example, the comparable rate at Spruce Grove’s Transalta Tri-Leisure Centre is $7.75, at the Kinsmen Sports Centre in Edmonton it is $7.25, and at Sherwood Park’s Millennium Place it’s $6.50.

I stand by my view that charging a Twoonie to use the indoor running track at Servus Place during the winter is a good idea that would help sell memberships and benefit the citizens of St. Albert who are paying for the facility.

I would go even farther now. Instead of sticking to a marketing plan that is pretty clearly not working, Servus Place management should offer single day-use rates. Not just for the winter, but all year round. And not just for the track, but for the skating rink and the pool as well. They don’t all have to be a Twoonie, but $2 still makes sense for the running track in winter.

Except for the weather and the reported size of the deficit, nothing much has changed since last July. As I said then: “Servus Place should do a favour for those of us who live in St. Albert, and itself, by offering a Twoonie rate to walk or run on the indoor track.”

Death & Taxes: Fourteen gloomy lines of welcome

The American author Charles McCarry, in his novel Second Sight, has a character (a thinly disguised version of Allen Dulles, Dwight Eisenhower’s Director of Central Intelligence) express the view that “mankind in all its thousands of years on earth has only invented two perfect systems, the English sonnet and the game of baseball.”

Each, the character explained, “is governed by absolute rules which cannot be bent without destroying the form and therefore the result, and yet everything known to the human heart and mind, everything, can happen within them. Rules and imagination — that’s the winning combination.”

I believe this is true, or very close to it. Even my beloved Uechi-ryu karate falls just a little short of this standard of perfection, alas. So let us start this blog with 14 lines of poetry of my own composition, a single thought imperfectly expressed within a perfect form. From there, in just a little time, we can move to more cheerful topics: St. Albert politics, taxes, and journalism.

Death and taxes — a winning combination!

Instructions for the Disposal of My Earthly Remains

When I shuck off this mortal coil, dear friends,
I ask this favour of you; no debate
Please. Just burn up my remnants at the end
And dump the ashes in the Haro Strait.
Drive to Cordova Bay, look to the right
To where San Juan’s brown island you can see
Look east, toward Baker’s mount, a blinking light,
Should mark the spot, to toss them out to sea.
This final favour is not much to ask.
The drive is easy with a rental car.
But if some rule or law should ban this task
I will not urge you to go very far:
Still, from your duty don’t recoil in fright,
But simply shake the package out at night.