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By: Chris Burke

Omar Khadr, the Canadian who has spent 10 years in Guantanamo Bay, is returning to Canada.  Khadr had been charged with war crimes, “including killing U.S. Special Forces medic Christopher Speer 10 years ago in an Afghan firefight (Toronto Sun).  Khadr’s story is one that, as Dan Tandt has pointed out, has divided Canadians into two camps.  The first views Khadr as your typical child soldier, a victim of circumstance beyond his control.  The second views him as a blood-thirsty monster who should be left to rot.  In his article for the Ottawa Citizen, Tandt goes on to argue a more nuanced view of Khadr, and declares that he deserves to be imprisoned, but is not the monster the right has made him out to be and should have been let out of Guantanamo years ago.

In my view, convicting Khadr of war crimes has always been suspect.  Tandt touches on this when he says:

“First, what makes him so different from other enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan? Khadr did not wear a uniform or operate under a traditional chain of command; but no insurgents do. He was trained in terrorist methods, such as IEDs, that do not discriminate between combatants and civilians. But that applies to all insurgents. His most serious “war crime” occurred on a battlefield, during a firefight, in which he himself almost died. How, logically, does that constitute “murder in violation of the laws of war?” Whose law, and which war?”

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By: Chris Burke

I want to kick off a discussion by asking the question, “If numbers demonstrate that consumers are not to blame, then why has the environmental movement in Canada become so focused on creating green consumers?”  There are two possible explanations, in my opinion.  The first is that people simply do not know.  They are unaware that the statistics cited are often misleading.  The second explanation is that people are aware that blame doesn’t lie with the consumer, but want to avoid taking real action to address climate change as they are afraid of what that implies: a radical change from our current system.  Encouraging changes in consumer habits is not a difficult thing to do in a consumer-driven culture.  Most people want to change their consumption habits because they want to do their part.  Plus, it could mean more money and better health for them in the long-run that is to say: these are fairly easy lifestyle changes that can be made.

However, as I argued in my previous post, these efforts will not be enough.  The true source of overconsumption is industry.  Drastic changes to how goods and services are produced must be made, but we can’t rely on those in industry to go ahead and make those changes.  Picture yourself as a business owner, you want to meet the demands of the consumer and make a profit.  If your options are a) create a “green” product for the eco-conscious consumer or b) completely change your industrial processes at the risk of profit loss and decreased market share.  The choice of option a) is an obvious one.

You may be asking, “If the business creates a green product isn’t that good enough?” My response is both “yes” and “no”.  Green products found on the shelves today are often misleading, a phenomenon known as “greenwashing”. One example would be products made from 100% recycled materials.  Recycling products is a good thing, no doubt.  What it fails to account for, however, are the industrial process involved in getting that product from the assembly line to the store shelves.  The product is green, but not green enough.

Canadian environmentalists (and everyone else in the world) cannot wait for industry to make the necessary changes because they have reasons not to do so.  It is up to citizens to work for a new way of doing things that does not result in the need for industrial overconsumption a system that encourages smart and sustainable development over unlimited growth and profits.  Only then do we stand a chance of mitigating the worst of climate change.

By: Chris Burke

Canadian environmentalists have long argued that many of today’s environmental issues can be blamed on the overconsumption habits of the average Canadian citizen.  They cite data suggesting that we would need more than one Earth to sustain the current Canadian lifestyle.  As a solution to the impending environmental crisis they advocate for a reduction in consumption, but this is a flawed solution.  Advocating for a reduction in consumption and a greening of consumer habits is not a bad thing.  The fact that there is an interest for this change in lifestyle is encouraging as it indicates that many are concerned about the current state of the environment and want to do something about it but, as I will argue in this post, the blame for overconsumption lies with industry not with the consumer.  The average Canadian consumer could reduce their carbon footprint to zero, and it would be enough to bring about the reductions needed to stave off runaway climate change.

There’s no doubt that the global North consumes on a level that is completely out of proportion to its actual needs when compared with the global South.  Environmentalists are correct in pointing out the massive differences in North and South consumption, but from here their argument starts to weaken.  When they begin to focus on the consumption levels of the average consumer, they start to go down some misleading roads.  The point that environmentalists often miss is that inequalities in consumption levels exist in the countries that make up the North.

“The average consumer” is a misleading term.  The numbers environmentalists cite to demonstrate that absurd levels of waste and consumption exist in the North are often calculated in a manner that factors in the waste and consumption of industrial processes.  The “average” is sometimes misunderstood.  It cannot always be used to draw a reliable conclusion.  How the average was calculated must be known.  In this case, the average is heavily skewed making the average consumption of your everyday consumer look worse than it actually is. Other way to think of this is to picture a neighbourhood where four people make $50,000/year and 1 person makes $1,000,000,000/year.  The average early earning is $200,040,000.  The data shows that this figure is misleading, but if you didn’t have that data you’d never know and would assume that this is a very wealthy neighbourhood.  Likewise with consumption and waste levels, we think that the average consumer is an overly affluent individual consuming more than what the planet can sustain.  However, the industry numbers skew the data.

Another example of misleading numbers comes from the book Too Many People?: Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis (Angus, Butler, Hartmann, and Kovel, 2011).  In 2007, greenhouse gas emissions from “Residential” sources were 15%.  Yet, as Angus, et al (2011) point out, these emissions include those produced from natural gas and electrical providers i.e.  The emissions are not being produced by your average resident.  There are more examples like this, but space here is limited.  Readers of this blog are encouraged to ask for more information on this topic.

How has it come to this?  If the numbers demonstrate that consumers are not to blame, then why has the environmental movement become so focused on creating green consumers?  That’s the question I want to leave readers with for now.  Another post will be up on the blog shortly in which I will provide my own answer to that question.

By: Chris Burke

Margaret Wente, columnist for the Globe and Mail, has been accused of plagiarism by University of Ottawa professor Carol Waino.  Odds are that you haven’t heard about this story unless you are closely tuned to the world of Canadian media.  As John Miller, writing on the matter states, “In contrast, so-called mainstream media outlets — to their great shame — have not yet reported a word of what’s going on” (Source).  What’s going on here?  Wente is a big name writing for a big publication, yet these serious (and substantiated) allegations of plagiarism, that has gone on for years, has drawn yawns of disinterest from the press.

I won’t go into detail on the plagiarism accusations as they are covered sufficiently elsewhere.  You can read about it here (Waino’s blog).  I want to use the space I have in this article to ask, “What’s happening to the media in Canada?”

So far, the Globe and Mail’s reaction to Waino’s accusations have been a mix of near silence and dismissal.  Miller writes:

According to the Globe, several journalists and others used Twitter to bring Wainio’s blog to Stead’s attention. And on Friday, she quietly put the result of her findings up on the Globe’s website under the headline “We investigate all complaints about our writers.” I’m letting you read it here because nothing appeared in print and there happens to be no direct link to the public editor’s column on the Globe’s website.

Stead chooses to characterize Wainio as “an anonymous blogger,” whereas she describes Wente more favourably as a “high-profile columnist.”

Miller points out that plagiarism is one of the highest offenses of journalism, but here we see Stead, the public editor of the Globe and Mail, appearing to casually dismiss the accusations.  Wente’s status as a “high-profile columnist” also speaks volumes about the standards in Canadian media today.  Wente’s articles often take an inflammatory tone, reminiscent of the painfully partisan tone of our neighbours to the south.   As I wrote in a previous article, Wente accused the PQ leader Pauline Marois of being “basically a socialist”.  In Canada, being worthy of “high-profile” status appears to mean minimal fact-checking and baseless accusations against your opponents.  Wente isn’t the only notable columnist guilty of this.  Rex Murphy and Christie Blatchford are names that immediately come to mind when discussing columnists who seem to be more interested in inflaming than informing.

Followers of The 1837 Society may note that my own articles can move towards the inflammatory end of the spectrum from time to time.  However, at the risk of being accused of double standards, I think the medium matters.  The 1837 Society web page is a blog, as such the writing style is much more informal than you’d find in other mediums.  Those wanting a more in-depth/informative read should turn to our journal.  Likewise, when I read an article from a top columnist in Canada, writing for a major newspaper, I expect a certain standard in the work being presented.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a bit more class from a newspaper article than I would find in a blog article.  Some may point back and accuse the blogging world of diminishing the importance of journalism, “Why bother writing something well and detailed if the story will be snatched by the internet before the newspaper can get it to publication?”  Miller notes that mainstream journalism appears “out of touch with the internet-savvy”, but the newspapers are a business, and as a business they need to adapt to survive.  Today’s model should include both blogging and column writing.  If you want to get a piece out on a story in a short time use a blog.  However, it’s not unreasonable to expect someone who writes 1 or 3 times a week to take the time to go into detail, get the facts straight, and write well.  It’s by no means the easy route, but it’s the one that has to be taken if Canadian journalism is to maintain its integrity.

By: Chris Burke

“A higher education is the path to greater things”.  Throughout your youth it is likely that you were told something along those lines.   With hope in your head and a sparkle in your eye you study hard to get into that school you’ve always dreamed of.  Then the day of excitement comes:  you’re accepted.  The school you’ve had your eyes on will soon be your new home.  The next few years are a whirlwind.  You enjoyed the good times and made it through the bad.  So four (maybe five) years later there are you are gracefully walking across the stage to accept your well-earned degree.  Now you’re ready to take on the world, to get the job that’s right for you.  Unfortunately, there’s a problem: there’s no job out there for you.  Sitting around and waiting for the right job isn’t an option, you’ve got debts to pay off.  Something needs to be done so you take the first job you can grab even though you’re completely overqualified for it.  This job will offer you very little in the way of skills required to build a future career, and it doesn’t pay well enough to pay down your massive debt so there you are stuck in the job.  How did it come to this?  Did you do something wrong? Maybe, perhaps your expectations for life right out of post-secondary education were unrealistic though there’s more to it than that.   You made the mistake of choosing a degree that was of interest to you, but of little interest to employers.

Lauren Friese, writing for the Globe and Mail, discusses the struggles faced by young Canadians who decided to go to school for an Arts degree rather than the “more practical” degrees of Engineering and Business.  Employers often view students with the latter two degrees as having more hands-on experience and an understanding of how the workplace functions.  While true, it ignores the fact that skills such as communication and critical thinking (valued by most employers) are part of an Arts education.  A student that spent four years studying philosophy could very well come up with a creative solution to a problem because they’ve spent the past four years doing nothing but thinking and communicating what it is they’re thinking.

A few may argue that the students brought this on themselves.  I worry about how this attitude is affecting our society.  Ask yourself, do you really want to turn schools into factories that pump out student after student with a business or engineering degree every few years and march them straight off into the business world? Or, do we take a step back to see the bigger picture.  There is value in an Arts degree no matter how niche it is.  Those saying that we need to tailor students to meet the needs of business have it half-right.  Of course, students should understand how to conduct themselves in an office, but businesses have to embrace students by the merits of their skills and knowledge, which is not always reflected in the piece of paper they hold.  We are not doing the economy any favours by making jobs unavailable to graduates and forcing them into low-paying jobs.  For the graduate that situation is both financially and emotionally stressful.

It’s time to take higher education back to what it is: higher education.  Increasingly, it feels as though higher education is nothing but job training.  That needs to change, and it starts with today’s students demanding that change.

By: Brad Rubinoff

Let’s start with a question: What is the purpose of an election? I would argue (and I don’t believe that this is particularly controversial) that the purpose of an election (and by extension the system under which an election takes place), fundamentally, is to establish, through a democratic mandate, who will govern. It is the method by which we, the people, select who will represent us in the municipal, provincial and federal legislatures. An election is a democratic expression of the will of the people, and the results of any given election should, as best as possible, reflect this.

As such, every once in a while it behoves us to step back and admire just how terrible a voting system First Past the Post (FPTP) really is. It’s almost embarrassing just how utterly it fails at representing the democratic will of the populace. Take the recent Quebec Election, in which Pauline Marois’ Parti Quebecois won 54 seats (43% of the Legislature) with 31.95% of the popular vote; in comparison, François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec won 19 seats (15% of the Legislature) with 27.05% of the vote. Marois’ extra 4.9% of the total vote translated into 35 additional seats for the Parti Quebecois. Less than 5% of the vote was worth 28% of the seats in the Legislature. 1

In other words, the 1,180,000 people who voted for the CAQ are dramatically under-represented in the Quebec Legislature, as compared to the 1,393,000 people who voted for the PQ. And that’s not even the most absurd example of FPTP in Canadian history. Our elections are littered with silly results. Consider the 2008 Federal Election, in which the Green Party of Canada received over 937,000 votes (roughly 6.7% of the popular vote) and yet won 0 seats in the House of Commons, compared to the Bloc Quebecois, who received 1,379,000 votes (Just under 10% of the popular vote) and yet won 49 seats. Again, the ‘efficiency’ of the BQ vote (centred, of course, entirely in Quebec) meant that their votes were worth far more than the votes of the scattered votes of Green Party supporters, which were ultimately worth nothing at all. 2

My favourite example of the dismal failure that is FPTP comes from the 1979 Federal Election.  In this election, Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives won a minority government of 136 seats, with Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Party forming the Official Opposition at 114 seats. However, Trudeau won a staggering 40.11% of the popular vote to Clark’s 35.89%, receiving over 400,000 more votes than Clark. Nonetheless, due to the ‘inefficiency’ of the Liberal vote, Clark won 22 more seats in the House of Commons than Trudeau. 3

No voting system is perfect. While I, personally, am a fan of STV/Instant Runoff Voting, it is not without faults. Neither is Mixed Member Proportional Representation, or any of the other proposed replacement voting systems. However, whatever their faults, virtually all voting systems have fewer problems, and less absurd results, than FPTP. While we may debate what we should change our voting system to, we can all agree that we need change. FPTP is an antiquated failure that needs to be replaced.