Archive for July, 2011

Never mind the cookie … AHS and Stephen Duckett parted by mutual agreement

Stephen Duckett and his notorious oatmeal raisin cookie back on Nov. 19, 2010. Turns out that waving a cookie at reporters wasn’t a firing offense, and Dr. Duckett is by mutual agreement $735,630 richer.

This just in: Stephen Duckett wasn’t fired for the Notorious Cookie Incident ™. It was just, you know … irreconcilable differences?

Well, it’s true, I guess. The former president and CEO of the Alberta Health Services bureaucratic behemoth wasn’t really fired for his Monte Python moment with a cookie on Nov. 19, 2010. The famously undiplomatic Australian PhD health care economist was fired for becoming a lightning rod for voter dissatisfaction with the Alberta government’s epic mishandling of the health care file throughout 2009 and 2010.

Now it turns out – late on the Friday before a long weekend, the traditional time for governments to release uncomfortable news with a minimum of fuss – that Dr. Duckett and the AHS signed an agreement a few days after the Cookie Incident in which they “mutually agree” to end their employment contract.

Given the timing of the news release – the deal was inked on Nov. 24, 2010, to be precise – perhaps we can surmise that the province had word it was about to be leaked to the media anyway.

Regardless of that speculation, it was quite a good deal for Dr. Duckett, who is now working as an instructor in his wife’s department at the University of Alberta. According to the health board’s highly informative four-sentence statement, he was paid “$661,250 in severance pay and loss of benefits; $54,380 in variable pay (pay-at-risk) to which he was entitled for his period of employment in 2010; and $20,000 in settlement of all other potential or contingent liabilities.”

That adds up to $735,630, in case you have trouble with arithmetic and since AHS didn’t help out by adding up the sums.

The release goes on: “No further payments will be made under the terms of the agreement, which was concluded earlier this month. No further action by either party is contemplated.”

In other words, Dr. Duckett’s been paid the money. End of story. Nothing much more will be said about this matter, one presumes.

To its credit, the Edmonton Journal managed to track down AHS Chair Ken Hughes, who had this to say: “Dr. Duckett wouldn’t have chosen to leave the position if the board hadn’t asked him to.”

So, if the board asked him to quit, and he didn’t want to, how was this not a firing, again? It’s hard to imagine that the Journal’s intrepid reporter not asking that question, so presumably Mr. Hughes didn’t provide an answer.

Mr. Hughes did, however, take pains to point out that the payout is really quite a good deal for Alberta taxpayers. “This is an improvement in terms of value for Alberta taxpayers,” he told the Journal. “It’s much more modest than previous agreements, obviously.”

You see, we taxpayers had to pay millions to those ones… (Capital Health Region CEO Sheila Weatherill was paid out $3.4 million. Calgary Health Region CEO Jack Davis got $5.7 million.) So, I guess by that measure, it was a good deal. Sort of.

Now, this is not really a sterling recommendation for the Conservatives’ management of the health care file, but we’ve all seen the latest poll, so presumably Premier Ed Stelmach and no one else is going to wear this one.

As for Dr. Duckett, apparently he was nowhere to be found. Perhaps the story will be updated with his comments a little later.

Even if it isn’t, there’s no reason to expect Dr. Duckett to be any shyer about embarrassing the government than he has been since he left his post at the helm of AHS. On May 5, for example, he ignited a firestorm in the media when word somehow leaked that he had told a medical conference in Toronto that before his arrival “discreet waiting list adjustments” at the request of Tory MLAs were routine.

Significantly, the deal released today includes a provision that “nothing in this Agreement shall be construed so as to preclude Dr. Duckett from giving evidence in any legal action or inquiry into health care in Alberta established or authorized by the Legislature or the Government of Alberta.”

However, with the Progressive Conservative government once again riding high in the polls, don’t hold your breath waiting for a judicial inquiry.

Nevertheless, for months Dr. Duckett has been widely rumoured to be writing a book on the Alberta health care system and his role as its leader, so while it may be true in the legal sense that “no further action by either party is contemplated,” this is probably too much for this government or the next one to hope for in the ordinary sense of the words.

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The Alberta Party’s ‘democratic renewal’ policy: a disappointment with the potential for disaster!

The Ministry must enjoy the confidence of the House. Notwithstanding this, Alberta’s Legislature may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the former Governor General – plotting to thwart the will of the Commons?

Nobody wants to be an Alberta Party pooper, but the province’s self-described “new centrist political party” continues to disappoint.

The latest example is the Alberta Party’s policy on democratic renewal, which demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of how our system of government works and identifies the party as an advocate of the same dangerous U.S.-style legislative bromides as the Wildrose Alliance.

In the case of the Wildrose crowd, this is no surprise. They are, after all, a shrinking rump of perpetually disaffected people who advocate the Americanization of everything from health care to gun ownership to the rules of the Legislature. Indeed, about the only American ideas the Wildrosers don’t like are the good ones – like that country’s profound commitment to free speech and its constitutionally entrenched separation of church and state.

But coming from the Alberta Party, which has tried pretty hard to brand itself as a moderate Canadian voice firmly in the political centre, this is a major disappointment.

When the Alberta Party announced it was releasing a policy on democratic renewal, many Albertans hoped it would emphasize a call for proportional representation, a change that would truly make Alberta more democratic and which could be implemented without upsetting the Parliamentary applecart. For many of us, proportional representation would have made the Alberta Party hard not to support.

Instead, the two most striking recommendations of the party’s democratic renewal brief released a week ago today are term limits for the premier and fixed election dates, which the Alberta Party says would “bring balance and stability back to the Legislature, civil service and all organizations that work with the government.”

Neither will achieve the goals claimed, and both are almost certainly unconstitutional if implemented in any meaningful way. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine how something we have never had will bring stability back to our Legislature!

Sorry about the need for some theory, but our Parliamentary system depends on the Ministry (that is, the cabinet, which must be made up of members of the Legislature) ruling only with the confidence (that is, the approval) of the Legislature. It is essential to the operation of this system that the government must fall when it loses the confidence of the House.

This was the democratic principle on which Prime Minister Stephen Harper trampled in December 2009, when he persuaded the Governor General to prorogue Parliament without a vote when his Ministry had clearly lost the confidence of the House.

It was very troubling that this did not particularly worry Canadian citizens, and it is suggested here that their lack of concern is reflected in the credibility this foolish proposal apparently has among Alberta Party activists. Whether the party’s supporters recognize it or not, this idea is designed to subvert the ability of Canadian governments to act on the programs voters want and instead to pave the way for a sclerotic and entrenched separation of powers system like that of the United States, where even popular reforms are essentially impossible.

Meaningful fixed election dates would clearly limit and possibly eliminate the power of the House to dismiss the ministry, a democratic setback.

Anyway, the Constitution Act 1982, for which we must thank Pierre Elliott Trudeau, includes a hybrid approach to the idea of fixed election dates that should be good enough for anyone who thinks this is a good idea – to wit, a five-year outside limit on the term of Parliament or any Legislature.

Beyond that, since the Constitution Act 1867 decrees that Canada will have “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom,” and since the U.K.’s constitution is unwritten, the kind of proposal made by the Alberta Party would require Canada’s written constitution to be amended to reflect the departure from fundamental British practice. This means it is almost certainly doomed to be nothing more than a gesture, constitutionally meaningless and able to be ignored by any government on a whim.

So why push a bad idea that would make our government less democratic, and which has minimal chance of being implemented anyway? Only the Alberta Party can answer that question.

As for the notion of term limits for the premier or any politician, this idea is profoundly undemocratic and originates decades ago with the desire of right-wingers to force out of office effective centrist politicians whose popular polices they despised.

Really, who is the Alberta Party to tell you, the sovereign voter, whom you are able to vote for?

If you think a politician has been in power too long, there’s a mechanism for dealing with that. You can vote against him. If you think a politician is doing a great job, why should you not be able to continue to support her?

Imposing a term limit on a premier or any other office holder is an assault on democracy that has currency in Alberta only because of the continued hue and cry and bogus arguments of a right-wing minority determined to use anything they can think of to force good people out of power when the voters won’t.

All Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor had to say on the party’s website to explain this position was: “We also heard that people are tired of the politics surrounding elections, therefore we believe there should be fixed election dates and term limits on the Premier.” Say what? Most political parties that talk like this drop this notion faster than you can say “Stephen Harper” once their own guy is in power.

Finally, the Alberta Party’s two other key policies for democratic reform are:

One, the replacement of the Alberta government’s Public Affairs Bureau, the world’s largest incompetent public relations agency, with a “citizens affairs centre” with which, I guess, we can all smoke banana peels and sing koombyah. It’s not so much that this is a bad idea as it’s hopelessly naïve. It’s unlikely to be implemented by any government, including one led by the Alberta Party. That said, trying it would probably do little harm.

And, two, developing budgets “through an open community-based process which asks for input from Albertans before budgets are finalized.”

Well, good luck with this if it’s anything more than a bogus “consultation” of the sort preferred by our current Conservative government before it goes ahead and does whatever it pleases. If the community had meaningful input, the process would be seized by the opposition, which would soon make mincemeat of the government.

There are a couple of better ideas in this document, so I suppose we oughtn’t to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To wit:

  • A longer legislated cooling off period before former MLAs and officials can become professional lobbyists.
  • Meaningful election funding legislation.

The Alberta Party also calls for increased flexibility in how the Legislature operates, including the use of new technology, so I guess they’d like to let MLAs use their BlackBerries, which would be no big deal.

But they also want to experiment with “electronic voting” – a truly terrible idea that opens the door to outright election theft by hackers, as may already have happened in several formerly democratic jurisdictions.

The Alberta Party’s policy on democratic renewal is a flop that, implemented, would do more harm than good, making Alberta a less democratic place than it is now.

It is a big disappointment that does nothing for the credibility of the Alberta Party, which, at less than 2 per cent in the polls, obviously has work to do in this area!

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New Alberta poll: Tories way up; NDP up a little; everyone else down… So what else is new?

The Alberta Conservatives cross the North Saskatchewan and head south toward Red Deer. (Alberta political parties may not appear exactly as illustrated. But close enough, eh?)

Alberta’s political classes were abuzz last night with news of a credible new poll that shows the province’s eternal Progressive Conservative government back in the driver’s seat even before a replacement is found for retirement-bound Premier Ed Stelmach.

The results of the poll, conducted for a couple of local newspapers by Environics Research Group, also suggest that with support for both the far-right Wildrose Alliance and the Liberals imploding, and that for the NDP surfing a bit of a youth-powered Orange Wave, any of the three parties with seats in the Legislature could emerge as the Official Opposition after the next general election. The fledgling Alberta Party barely registered.

But any joy the two-MLA NDP might get from these results must be tempered by the fact that, with Conservative support at well over 50 per cent and the possibility of a three-way opposition split in many ridings high, the Tory edge is so overwhelming that the Orange Wave could easily turn into the Orange Crushed.

The poll of 900 Albertans conducted between July 15 and July 24, also sets the stage for an early fall election, since the post-Stelmach Conservatives are bound to want to take advantage of their astounding levels of support before Alberta voters get to know their new leader – whomever he or she may turn out to be.

In addition, the poll results clearly show a Trend Research poll commissioned by pollster Janet Brown and political newsletter editor Paul McLoughlin in March was on the right track. That poll was bitterly denounced by the Wildrose Alliance, which released a survey of its own four days later on which the right-wing party made the claim it was within “striking distance” of the Conservatives. Pretty clearly, unless something changes dramatically, it is not.

In other words, for all the media fantasizing these past couple of years about the Wildrose Alliance coming out of right field to prompt generational change in Alberta politics, nothing of the sort is likely to happen.

Other probable interpretations of the Environics data include:

  • Albertans are uncomfortable with and distrustful of the Wildrose Alliance’s far-right program of privatization and other doctrinaire market-fundamentalist nostrums, and will return to the safe old Conservatives unless given a strong reason not to vote for what they’re used to.
  • The Liberal brand has less and less allure for Alberta voters, notwithstanding the party’s attempt to generate interest through a leadership race in which anyone can vote, whether or not they are a party member.
  • Albertans’ dissatisfaction with the Conservative Party was really just dissatisfaction with the leadership Ed Stelmach, who failed to connect with voters.
  • It probably doesn’t matter whom the Conservatives pick as leader – if he or she runs a cautious campaign and “low bridges” it, the Tories could win an even bigger majority than they have now.
  • Even with its collapsing support, with more money in the bank for advertisements and support concentrated in Calgary, the Wildrose Alliance could still emerge as the Opposition.
  • With support concentrated around Edmonton and higher among young people, the NDP will improve its chances if it can get out the youth vote.
  • If the Alberta Party is going to make any difference, it won’t be in the next Alberta general election.

None of this is particularly good news for Opposition parties who had hoped to make big gains from sinking Tory fortunes, media companies who wanted to portray the contest with the Wildrose Alliance as a horserace, or members of the Alberta politerati who just wanted an election with a little excitement for once.

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Lighten up Doug Ford! Thanks to Margaret Atwood, at least you’ll get a footnote

Margaret Atwood on the picket line, shortly before reprimanding your blogger. Below: Toronto’s Ford Brothers.

Lighten up, Doug Ford! It’s good to be given a sound public thrashing by Margaret Atwood. It’s proof that your hitherto meaningless existence has been recognized!

After all, Ms. Atwood is an author of historical stature, the sort of person journalists describe as an icon without even bothering to look up the word. In other words, she’s someone who, unlike you, history will remember as more than a footnote.

So you should treat the talking-to you’ve just received from her as a blessing, a gift from the Gods, proof that you are not merely a gnat, no matter what the rest of us may think.

Let’s pause here for a little background: For Western Canadian readers who may have missed it, Mr. Ford is a Toronto city councillor of a particularly odious neo-Con stripe and also the brother of that unfortunate city’s mayor, Rob Ford.

The Ford Brothers are the sort of people who make the folks who surround Prime Minister Stephen Harper seem like nature’s gentlemen. Alas, somehow they managed to get elected, and now they are busy wreaking havoc in one of Canada’s nicest cities – up to now, anyway.

As the sort of person whose supporters find their lips getting tired when they read, Doug Ford has lately been on a campaign to close public libraries. Ms. Atwood, who can be quite prickly herself, got up an effort to stop him, which by all accounts has been rather successful, with more than a quarter million people sending Tweets to support her.

This in turn got Mr. Ford’s back up, and he responded with this stunning Tweeted riposte: “Well, good luck to Margaret Atwood. I don’t even know her. If she walked by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.” Well, duh! Of course you wouldn’t!

Brother Rob Ford, by the way, has also been in the news, accused of flipping “the bird” and mouthing obscenities at a woman who scolded him for talking on his cellular phone while driving. He blew it off as a misunderstanding, also in a Tweet, but let’s stick with Doug Ford and Ms. Atwood and their Tweeted and re-Tweeted fuddle-duddle battle for the time being.

Getting back to you, Doug: When the bug spray has settled down after the next Toronto municipal election, history will likely not have much to say about you. Ms. Atwood, on the other hand, is someone whom history will remember. But a public slapdown by Ms. Atwood means that at least you might get a mention in a good book or something of the sort that would be kept in a library.

Anyway, as cranky as it makes you feel right now, I can personally attest that the sting will pass away in time. You see, I too have received a good crack across the knuckles, metaphorically speaking, from Ms. Atwood for a mistake less horrifying than wanting to close public libraries, but nevertheless deeply humiliating.

The circumstances were as follows: During Ms. Atwood’s visit to the Calgary Herald picket line some years ago, a matter that oddly enough came up in another context in this blog just days ago, I took it upon myself to tell her how much I had enjoyed the Robber Bride, which had been published not too long before.

Alas for me, I referred to a memorable character in that novel as Xena (as in the warrior princess), not as Zenia (as I really ought to have remembered).

Ms. Atwood regarded me with an icy stare, corrected me sharply in a voice that may be fairly likened to a hiss, and promptly decamped to discuss matters with a picketer of more literary alertness. Perhaps if she were to Tweet about it today, she would say it was all a misunderstanding … but, to her credit, I doubt it.

At that moment, Doug, my mortification was profound! But as time has passed, I have come to see this little vignette as verification of my humble existence.

Indeed, in retrospect, I think I would have forgiven her if she’d knocked out a tooth! I don’t expect you to try reading one of her books, but you really ought to man up and get over it. You’ll be a better man for it!

Remember, Doug, as Oscar Wilde so famously said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” (And if you don’t know who Oscar Wilde is, ask a reference librarian.)

+ + +

NOTE: Sometimes the speed and accuracy of my predictions is frightening. (Then again, might as well just say it, there was the time I forecasted a Barb Higgins victory in the Calgary municipal election.)

Just the other day, in this space, I observed that since all six Alberta Tory leadership candidates were unanimous in their view that there must be no provincial support for a downtown arena in Edmonton, we could safely draw the conclusion that “as soon as the leader is selected, the provincial election past, and the eternal Alberta Conservatives safely restored to power, provincial taxpayers will be ponying up for a new Edmonton arena.”

The Edmonton Journal reported yesterday that “Premier Ed Stelmach signalled … money from a provincial infrastructure fund might help pay for Edmonton’s downtown arena.”

The deal will be done even before the leader is chosen, saving whoever wins the embarrassment of, as they used to say, having to publicly change horses in mid-stream.

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The party that Jack built is bigger than any single leader

Jack Layton in Edmonton during last spring’s federal election campaign. Below: Jack Layton yesterday.

Leadership matters, so there is no question that the loss of Opposition Leader Jack Layton, even for a short time, will hurt the New Democratic Party.

Mr. Layton, who was already being treated for prostate cancer, told reporters yesterday that he has a new form of cancer and must step away from politics until September. But for most Canadians his appearance was a profound shock. This was especially so to those of us who had seen him in the flesh during last May’s federal election campaign. So speculation about his future is natural and inevitable.

It is quite proper, therefore, even at this early hour, for NDP supporters and others who believe Canada can and should aspire to being be something better than it can ever be under Conservative leadership, to admit, discuss and deal with this obvious reality. It shows no disrespect for Mr. Layton, and no less hope for his recovery, for us to do so forthrightly.

Anyway, this meme is already being replicated throughout in the national debate, especially by supporters of the moribund Liberal Party, but also by Conservatives of various stripes. Indeed, it was being repeated even before the gravity of Mr. Layton’s illness had become so obvious – as it surely it must be to any of us who gazed upon his gaunt figure today.

This self-replicating tale, which says the “Orange Wave” was driven by Mr. Layton’s personality and that alone and therefore is bound to quickly dissipate without him at the helm, is certain grow from a whisper in the comments sections of the national media, where the Tory trolls lurk, to a roar in the more respectable corners of those same publications over the next few days.

But can the loss of a single leader, even one of Mr. Layton’s stature, really change the history of our corner of the world? Not likely. Even assassination, as the 19th Century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli famously observed, “has never changed the history of the world.”

Regardless, Mr. Layton’s success was based in the fact he was more of an engineer than a charismatic leader.

He wasn’t a demagogue who made us want to rush into the streets and storm the barricades. He was a builder who created a great national coalition of social democrats, socialists, environmentalists, social activists and progressive Canadians. Like no other NDP leader before him, he created a pan-Canadian political machine that can withstand the loss of any leader.

So while there is enormous fondness in Canada for the sunny personality and optimistic outlook of “Smilin’ Jack,” his greatest success is that we can live without him if we have to. He has built among Canadians the infrastructure of hope!

The fatal weakness of charismatic leaders is that they stink when it comes to succession planning. But the federal NDP’s success in the May election was no wave built on the charisma of one person that crested overnight, but the product of years of hard work and planning. This is true in English Canada and it is true in Quebec, where the party has a deep pool of talent on which to draw and an organization that will continue to function come what may.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the NDP will have plenty of time as Opposition to rebuild its leadership if, God forbid, rebuilding should be necessary.

Nor have other circumstances changed. The Conservatives are still bumping their heads on the limits of popular support for their stunted and inward-looking philosophy. Neither have the structural factors changed that consigned the Liberals, who after all are just Conservatives who are willing to take their time, to the ash heap of history.

So here’s to Jack Layton. We hope to see him back soon, playing his proper role at 24 Sussex Drive. The rise of the NDP in 2011 could not have happened without him.

But the party that he built is bigger than any single leader. The NDP will survive and prosper, it is said here, because it has a solid foundation, and the force that drives the Orange Wave is seismic, reflecting profound historical change in our politics and in our society.

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Is WordFest muzzling a popular author to keep the Calgary Herald happy? Sure sounds like it

Brian Brennan, at left, on the picket line during the Calgary Herald lockout and strike in 1999. Behind him, in the centre of the photo, is Canadian author Margaret Atwood, a strong supporter of the unionized Herald journalists’ goals in the labour dispute. Below: Mr. Brennan as he looks today.

Brian Brennan is one of Alberta’s most popular and best-read authors.

The Irish-born writer has been asked twice before to read from his new books at WordFest, the 16-year-old international writers’ festival held in Calgary and Banff.

So why is this best-selling Calgary author being told he isn’t welcome to read from his much-anticipated memoirs at the 2011 WordFest, which is scheduled to take place this year from Oct. 11 to 16?

A combination of servility by WordFest organizers and a nasty hangover from an ugly labour dispute that rocked Alberta a dozen years ago appears to be the answer.

You see, Mr. Brennan was active on the union side in the 1999-2000 lockout and strike at the Calgary Herald and deals with what happened during that important period of Alberta labour history in a key chapter of his memoirs. Add to that the fact the Calgary Herald is a “platinum” sponsor of WordFest and you have all the explanation you require.

At any rate, this was apparently enough for WordFest’s timorous organizers to tell Mr. Brennan he was no longer welcome to read at the event – conscious, as they no doubt were, that the Herald didn’t exactly cover itself with glory in that long-ago labour dispute.

Naturally, that’s not WordFest’s story. They have told Mr. Brennan that with 70 authors reading, gee, there’s just no space for him on the roster. But this is hard to swallow, given his long list of best-sellers, plus the facts they’ve asked him twice before, talked to him about reading again this year and only changed their minds after they’d looked at a draft of the newest book.

So, while it’s a good story, as befits a literary festival, and they’re likely to stick to it, insiders insist the real reason was their desire not to offend a major sponsor, even if that meant “WordFest” had to play the censor and muzzle a well-known author. Anyway, they told Mr. Brennan he could host a reception, an offer that must have been pretty easy for him to turn down.

The last time Mr. Brennan read at WordFest it was from The Good Steward, his best-selling biography of long-time Alberta premier Ernest Manning. He is the author of seven other nonfiction titles, including Romancing the Rockies, which won the inaugural Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award, and Scoundrels and Scallywags, which topped the bestsellers’ lists for more than 20 weeks.

Presumably it’s OK with WordFest’s organizers to let any old piker read from a book about E.C. Manning, but it’s just not done to let a 25-year veteran of the Calgary Herald and the dean of Alberta popular historians read about the Calgary Herald dispute. Please!

“The Herald lockout is a part of Calgary history,” Mr. Brennan says. “Readers are entitled to know why more than 90 journalists walked a picket line for eight months in hopes of securing a first collective agreement with their employer.”

So, is the Calgary Herald behind the effort to try to shut Mr. Brennan up?

Anything’s possible, I suppose, but I strongly doubt it. The Herald would very much like to put that unfortunate part of its history behind it. The lockout and strike certainly hurt its business in Calgary, and did no good to its reputation in journalism. There’s been a high turnover rate in the publisher’s office ever since. Lately, though, the paper has hired some good people and seems to be trying to do better.

So my guess is the that last thing the Herald wants is a controversy fuelled by accusations it’s behind an attempt to silence a respected author who has written knowledgeably about a difficult period in the paper’s history that plenty of potential customers still remember with distaste.

No, this sounds more like the work of some anxious book-biz bureaucrat desperately trying to toady up to a generous sponsor. Well, by dis-inviting one of the host city’s most successful authors because he dared to write about the wrong topic, he or she is going about it the wrong way!

A couple of things need to happen here. Calgary Herald publisher Guy Huntingford needs to pick up the phone and have a private chat with the board and director of WordFest and make it clear they’re not doing the Herald any favours with this kind of foolishness.

As for the rest of us, perhaps we can follow the worthy example of Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood, who has led a campaign by her quarter million Twitter followers to save Toronto Public Library branches from the depredations of the philistine neo-cons now running that city.

Ms. Atwood would surely support this idea. She has been, after all, a frequent participant in WordFest events, as the organizers repeatedly boast on their website. She was also a strong supporter of the Calgary Herald strikers, walking the dreary picket line with them and speaking eloquently about the importance of their fight for union protection and better journalism.

If you’re looking for someone at WordFest to whom to drop a line about this, plenty of names and email addresses can be found on WordFest’s “Contact Us” page.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about, you’ll soon be able to buy Mr. Brennan’s memoirs, Leaving Dublin, Writing My Way From Ireland to Canada. The book is scheduled to be out in September, in plenty of time for WordFest, published in Canada by Rocky Mountain Books.

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Never mind Gen. Natynczyk, the French have it right: jawr-jawr in Libya better than war-war!

Air forces: delivering failure from the sky since the dawn of flight. Next up, seeing as that didn’t work, boots on the ground? Below: Gen. Walter Natynczyk, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Gen. Walter Natynczyk, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, has raised the possibility of Canadian soldiers taking part in an invasion of Muslim North Africa.

Needless to say, this would be a really terrible idea, and even our bellicose Prime Minister’s Office was quick to insist “we will not deploy boots on the ground in Libya.” Still, the Postmedia News story published early this week definitely had the sound of a flag being run up the pole to see if anyone is foolish enough to salute.

This kind of talk was predictable, probably inevitable, as the so-called North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mandate to bomb Libya continues to slip away. This is especially true since its attempt to implement regime change from above in that unhappy country has been revealed as an abject, pathetic and divisive failure.

If it ever was actually intended as an effort to protect the Libyan people from the excesses of their unsavoury dictator, NATO’s bombing campaign has now deteriorated into little more than a bumbling and transparent effort to assassinate Muammar al-Gaddafi so that someone friendlier to Western interests can occupy his office.

After close to 15,000 “missions,” about all NATO’s deadly airborne ineptitude has achieved is to remind us that most air force generals are delusional liars whose bombs do nothing but unite their adversaries against them – and us. At any rate, they seem to have managed to leave Col. Gaddafi relatively unscathed, although they have killed plenty of his countrymen and a few members of his family.

As an army officer, Gen. Natynczyk deserves a little more respect than his equals in rank among the Gang That Couldn’t Bomb Straight, even if he’s not an infantry guy. But there’s no way a NATO land attack in Libya would be the effortless waltz across the sand he suggests. Oh, Col. Gaddafi’s conventional forces would be easy enough for the West to smash, but the insurgency that came after would not be so simple to defeat.

You’d think our soldiers would have figured this out a decade after the “rout” of the now-resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. Didn’t anyone at the Royal Military College teach them how to spell “quagmire”?

Of course, any such invasion would also invite trouble here in Canada, because one of the perverse effects of our campaigns in corners of the Muslim world that are no threat to us is that while they are sold as protecting the homeland, they actually increase the likelihood of terrorism at home.

However, even though some of our soldiers and politicians may not get this elementary connection, their counterparts in Europe are obviously starting to, which is why this politically incompetent and militarily inept bombing campaign in Libya is threatening the unity of NATO.

Even if by some “precision-guided” miracle they manage to assassinate Col. Gaddafi, NATO’s air farces will have united the Libyan people against the West, and in particular against southern Europe. As recognition of this reality sinks into European skulls, the unity of the increasingly pointless alliance suffers.

How? Well, first, at least some Europeans realize that even the rag-tag Libyan rebels that the West has been trying to support without actually risking any troops will soon forget all but the tragic loss of life and destruction of infrastructure wrought by NATO’s bombs. This goes double, of course, for ordinary Libyan citizens, no matter how much they may privately despise Col. Gaddafi.

Moreover, even if NATO manages to knock off the unlikable colonel, significant numbers of Libyans will continue to oppose whatever puppets the West manages to put in power, sewing disorder and danger in the oilpatch of North Africa. If Col. Gaddafi hangs in there, as he has quite nicely since March 19, not to mention the previous four decades, so much the worse.

Presumably this is why the French and the Italians, to the distress of those NATO allies who live far enough away to make bellicosity a risk-free pastime, would like to sit down and start talking with the colonel.

Having been involved in ugly fights on North Africa’s stony ground before, and having seen not much good come from it, both countries have realized that one result of the incompetent bombing campaign is likely to be that whoever ends up in power in Libya can easily get their revenge on Europe. How? Merely by standing back and allowing millions of African economic refugees to pass through unmolested on their way north. Certainly Col. Gaddafi will do no less if he manages to cling to power, which without Gen. Natynczyk’s boots on the ground, he just might!

This may not be apparent to turmoil tourists like John Baird of Benghazi, Canada’s blustering foreign affairs minister, playing soldier on Libyan soil far from the front lines. But it sure as heck should be to Europeans who live just across the Mediterranean Sea.

Given Col. Gaddafi’s apparent ability to hang on with the tenacity of Fidel Castro, only without allies and with snappier uniforms, if the Americans and their Canadian lapdogs continue to insist that the dictator must go no matter what, they will drive a wedge into the heart of NATO.

It’s not entirely clear whether this would be a good or bad thing. On one hand, eliminating a military alliance whose raison d’etre has disappeared and that only seems to exist to advance American imperial projects would eliminate one major source of destabilization from the world. On the other, it always makes one a little nervous to imagine just what Europeans might get up to on their many borders without NATO to keep things orderly.

On balance, if the Euro-Zone monetary union can survive the flames lapping at the edges of the Balkans, the world would now probably be better off without NATO.

For the moment, though, we will have to listen to Postmedia’s drivelists telling us that “the NATO mission in Libya has dragged on longer than most had expected” – utter bunk if anyone was paying attention to anything other than Postmedia’s and the government’s propaganda.

We will also have to listen patiently, of course, to the likes of Gen. Natynczyk telling us “the challenge in any of these campaigns is having patience.”

The problem with this campaign has been that we’ve had too much patience. If we’d been paying attention, and treating the campaign and its advocates with the patience they deserve, we would have joined the French and the Italians in calling for, as Winston Churchill put it, more jawr-jawr and less war-war.

Boots on the ground? God help us!

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A note to readers: Why I’m not sorry I skipped Vermilion

Conservative candidates and their supporters gather in Vermilion. Alison Redford is visible near the centre of the photo. Alberta politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Former Vermilion MLA Steve West.

I’m not all that sorry to report to readers that I skipped the dreary ride to Vermilion, once the seat of the mighty privatizer Steve West and therefore a symbolically appropriate place to officially start the Summer 2011 Alberta Conservative leadership race.

Dr. West – who appropriately enough came by his honorific by being a veterinarian – was the Lord Voldemort of Alberta politics and the actual brains behind Ralph Klein, whatever you may have heard about anyone else. His efforts live on in the Richest Place on Earth’s crumbling and under-staffed health care system, teacher-deprived schools, electricity distribution chaos, regional planning discord and rubble-strewn infrastructure. But, je digresse.

Naw, it’s more than 200 kilometres from my redoubt in St. Albert along the potholed Yellowhead route and you’d go airborne and experience an extremely harsh landing if you tried to do it at autobahn speeds.

And now that the first media reports are filtering in, it’s clear that the trip wouldn’t have been worth the gas and the grief. By the sound of it only about 100 more members of Alberta’s stout rural yeomanry showed up in V-Town tonight than effete city-dwellers made it out to a similar Alberta Liberal affair in E-Town yesterday.

What’s more, according to the Edmonton Journal, the six candidates to replace Premier Ed Stelmach failed to take off the gloves and mouthed only the usual anodyne platitudes. Sorry, but if you’re going to drive two hours each way on that road, I think you deserve to see six combatants in the Thunderdome and some blood on the mats. (“Five men enter! One woman leaves!”)

Apparently they only completely agreed on one thing: “Near the end of the debate,” intoned the Journal, “candidates were asked whether they would offer provincial support for the construction of a new arena in downtown Edmonton. They unanimously vetoed the idea.” (Emphasis added.)

So, I guess we can safely draw one conclusion from all this: As soon as the leader is selected, the provincial election past, and the eternal Alberta Conservatives safely restored to power, provincial taxpayers will be ponying up for a new Edmonton arena.

The next leadership debate is set for July 28 in Grande Prairie, which is even farther along an even worse road.

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When government MLAs start blowing whistles, who rats them out? Their legislative assistants, of course!

Jonathan Huckabay and Raj Sherman at a Liberal leadership all-candidates’ meeting in Edmonton Wednesday night. Below: Government Whip Robin Campbell.

“When in doubt, tell the truth,” Mark Twain famously advised. “It will confound your enemies and astound your friends!”

Still, it was startling to read in the Calgary Herald that Raj Sherman, the former Progressive Conservative MLA turned Independent turned Alberta Liberal leadership candidate, had just like that admitted he was the one who last fall leaked emails that pointed to Alberta’s top cabinet politicians as the guys responsible for the province’s Emergency Room crisis. (The emails were published on this blog in December 2010.)

The emails showed Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach had promised the province’s Emergency Room physicians 600 long-term care beds would be built to fix hospital overcrowding that had resulted in jammed ERs, but that the promise wasn’t kept and sick Albertans may have died as a result.

Even though as Parliamentary Assistant for Health he was still a junior member of Premier Ed Stelmach’s cabinet at the time, Dr. Sherman told Herald journalist Matt McClure Tuesday, “I will confess to you, I was the person who anonymously sent that email out.”

If the media didn’t treat this as an earth-shattering story, that was likely because pretty well everyone who follows Alberta politics either strongly suspected or actually knew that Dr. Sherman, an Emergency Room physician himself and the only doctor in the entire Tory caucus, was the source of the leak.

Nevertheless, the media’s blasé response to this story may have resulted in another story that many Albertans would find considerably more astonishing being given short shrift. To wit, that the Stelmach government assigned employees to keep an eye on its own Conservative MLAs and report back to the Tory caucus whip.

Is it just me, or does this sound like something that would have happened in the Soviet Union, circa 1934 – only without the firing squads, of course?

Here’s the key passage in Mr. McClure’s story: “While the source of the leak was a mystery to most, legislative assistant Jonathan Huckabay said top Tories knew because he had ratted out Sherman to the government whip.” (Emphasis added.) “‘I was kind of supposed to keep an eye on him,’ Huckabay said. ‘I said, you guys better get ready (because) here’s the email he’s about to send out.’”

I know that Mr. McClure will forgive me when I say I phoned Mr. Huckabay the first chance I got and offered him an opportunity to recant. After all, even after Dr. Sherman’s admission, it strained credulity to hear a former legislative assistant say aloud his job was to keep an eye on the government’s own MLAs, and fink them out if they stepped out of line.

This was especially startling since Mr. Huckabay has since quit that job and gone to work as Dr. Sherman’s non-Tory legislative assistant – a job in which, seeing as Dr. Sherman is now the Independent MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, there’s no need to rat him out to anyone but himself.

Mr. Huckabay, however, minced no words. “That was my job,” he told me matter of factly. “The legislative assistants don’t actually work for the MLAs. They work for the government whip. … The legislative assistant should be paying attention to make sure an MLA doesn’t do something stupid.”

The government can’t deny they knew about the emails, or who’d leaked them, Mr. Huckabay explained, “because I’d ratted Raj out to the caucus.” Period. Full stop.

Well, not quite full stop: He did mention that at the time, he was also acting as the legislative assistant to five other Conservative MLAs: Carl Benito (Edmonton Mill Woods), Pearl Calahasen (Lesser Slave Lake), Dave Rodney (Calgary Lougheed), Greg Weadick (Lethbridge West) and David Xiao (Edmonton McClung). Did they ever do anything that had to be reported to Government Whip Robin Campbell, MLA for West Yellowhead? … Maybe…

It wasn’t having to blow the whistle on one of his MLAs that troubled Mr. Huckabay about the life of a caucus legislative assistant, he noted, however, although he recalled how “I actually had the Whip come over to my desk and ask me to show him Raj’s email.”

No, it was hearing well placed members of the government caucus lying about what meetings they’d been at and what they’d heard there when the whole health care crisis started to spin out of the government’s control. “People lied bare-facedly!”

Well, there’s no more of that, by the sound of it, where Mr. Huckabay now sits!

Meanwhile, back in the Conservative caucus, he noted, there’s one legislative assistant for every two Conservative MLAs. That should make the job of staying on top of things – and MLAs – considerably easier, one would think.

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Ted Morton can 4GEDIT, this vanity plate idea is just 2DUM2LV

Ted Morton’s vanity plate idea, photo grabbed from the Calgary Herald, which won’t mind because they’ve been attracting readers by linking to my blog. Below: New Hampshire vanity plate: “Live free or die,” Freddy Lee Morton with gun.

Holy Cow! Holy sheep, actually. If you wondered what uber-right-wing Tory leadership candidate Ted Morton’s been plotting through all these weeks of silence as his devastating pre-campaign strategic move to get Albertans to line up in his column and to crush the Wildrose Alliance like bugs, well, now we know…

In seven letters or less: Vanity Plates.


Er, Alberta already has vanity places, you say? Not like these, though. They’re blue! (Tory blue.) They have a SHEEP on them! (The voter, Alberta’s provincial animal…) Not that kind of sheep! A big horn sheep, of course. You know, like a mountain goat, only, umm, hornier. Alberta’s provincial mammal – really! I’m not making this up! After all, Alberta’s provincial bird is the … great horned owl!

Instead of “Wild Rose Country” they’ll say “Strong and Free.” (You know, like in the national anthem… as befits an Alberta sovereignist who signed the famous Firewall Manifesto along with such other notorious Western separatists as Stephen Harper and Wiki-assassination advocate Tom Flanagan.)

No more Wild Rose Country? I guess that’ll show that Danielle Smith … wherever Dr. Morton ends up running! Not to mention those other five Tory candidates, DOUG1, DOUG2, GOGARY, REDFORD and RIKRMAN.

And if that doesn’t work, the plates can just say, “Live Free or Die,” the slogan of Dr. Morton’s native Illinois … and maybe of his campaign as well. (Ted’s not from Illinois, you jerk, he’s from Wyoming, by way of California. Flannigan’s from Illinois. And Live Free or Die is New Hampshire’s slogan. … Whatever! And why do you lefties keep bringing that up, anyway?)

The Edmonton Journal says the sheep picture was painted by artist Robert Bateman, who was impressed because Dr. Morton quoted Theodore Roosevelt, who like Dr. Morton was a big gun guy.

The Journal’s reporter didn’t bother to tell us what Dr. Morton quoted President Roosevelt saying, though, so here’s a Teddy Roosevelt quote for you, free of charge: “A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”

In seven characters or less, what do think the chances are of this idea getting any voters to start supportin’ Morton? 2LAME2B? 2DUM2LV? 4GEDIT? Suggestions welcome

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