By Jamie McLennan. Originally posted at Re: wordings
Tonight is the opening of 10×10
, a photography project spearheaded by Toronto artist James Fowler. The talented Mr. Fowler
decided it was time to make up for what he saw as a lack of representation for artists during our city’s annual Pride
celebration. So he called up 10 queer Toronto photographers and asked them to photograph 10 of their “favourite queers in the arts.” The result is an exhibit that runs until July 8 at The White House
in Kensington Market, as well as an art book that sells for just $40, proceeds of which will go to The People Project
I caught a sneak peek of the exhibit yesterday, and was blown away by the photographers’ distinct styles and the fascinating approaches they chose. Some pieces seduce you with their tender reverence, others exude a more
in-your-face subversiveness. Each portrait uncovers something unique about the subject and the photographer, and consequently speaks to the incredible (warning: cliché ahead) diversity
of the Toronto queer arts community.
What is perhaps most intriguing is the astonishing number of inter-connections between the photographers and their models. This is by no means the definitive “who’s who” of the Toronto queer arts scene — it’s a mixed bag of the well-known and the up-and coming, and the artists on the walls work in wildly divergent fields. But that’s what makes it interesting, and surprisingly touching.
The project reveals a powerful and vibrant network of creative people in our midst, something that’s rarely been acknowledged in such a blatant and public way. Artists can be solitary animals, but this exhibit drags the community’s powerful collective voice out of the closet.
Viewing this exhibit is as liberating an experience as you’re likely to get at Pride this year. It’s a sorely needed antidote to the controversy
that has dogged Toronto’s gay community of late.
By Alexandre Brassard, originally posted at Le carnet d'Alexandre and in The Mark News.
A fair shake
Remember Stephen Harper’s May 2 victory speech? His face beaming, he declared: “we are intensely aware that we are and we must be the government of all Canadians, including those who did not vote for us.”
Deferring to experienced political analysts, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to believe that Mr. Harper’s new majority would soften his partisan edge, that he’d reveal a more conciliatory side. I proclaimed on-air that the Conservatives would work to bring the country together, not because of some new openness of spirit, but because it would help them win the support of centrist voters.
Sadly, recent events have proven me wrong. With Mr. Harper’s Senate appointments and his decision to cancel the traditional debate following the Speech from the Throne, I’m now eating my words faster that I can chew. It’s all too clear this government will continue to make a mockery of our public institutions in its pursuit of partisan interests. The so-called “new era of civility and respect” has been put on hold.
The speech from the throne and the debate
The government’s decision on the use of time in the House of Commons passed almost unnoticed, but it should have raised alarm bells. The throne speech is a big part of the Canadian political process. Since the beginning of our democracy, this speech has opened every new parliamentary session, and each successive government has used it to lay out its priorities for the coming term.
The throne speech has always been followed by a debate lasting several days, in which members of Parliament had the chance to respond, offer policy alternatives and present the concerns of their constituents. In this way, the opposition was able to counter, if only for a few days, the power of the ministerial majority.
But not this time. This venerated tradition — a custom that precedes Confederation and is rooted in the long history of the Westminster system — was summarily overturned by the Prime Minister, despite the astonished protest of the four opposition parties.
An attack on democracy
Our current Prime Minister has never been accused of kowtowing to the House of Commons. Under Mr. Harper, Canadians endured two untimely prorogations. We witnessed the Speaker of the House force the government to release reports on the torture of Afghan detainees. And we watched our government fall during an unprecedented motion of contempt of Parliament. Even the most cynical among us thought we’d seen it all. But in dismissing the debate on the throne speech, Mr. Harper is not just breaching customs and procedures, he’s attacking our very democracy.
By depriving opposition members of their right to speak, the Prime Minister is effectively gagging the 60% of the electorate that voted them in. What good is an elected Parliament if our MPs are muzzled? If our Prime Minister is behaving like an autocrat, why bother keeping up the appearance of representative democracy at all? Let’s just hang out a “gone fishing” sign and let Mr. Harper govern by decree.
The importance of public debate
The Leader of the Government in the House, the Honourable Peter Van Loan, informs us that the debate is merely optional and that it should be canceled this time around due to the shortened parliamentary session. This is a weak excuse for a cynical political manoeuvre. There is no need to rush this session to its close — members have only just taken their seats.
There’s certainly no shortage of topics for them to discuss. Recent reports have uncovered instances of government negligence, porkbarelling and human rights violations during the G8 and G20 summits. Our troops in Afghanistan and Libya are risking their lives over a muddled foreign policy. The government is preparing to gut the public service to the tune of 1.8 billion dollars per year. It just scrapped public funding of political parties. And it also wants to modify the Canadian Senate, essentially altering the terms of the federal pact without the agreement of the provinces. With so much at stake, a debate on the Speech from the Throne is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
Throughout the history of parliamentary governments, first ministers have always submitted their political priorities to criticism by the opposition. If this principle was sacrosanct for the likes of Walpole and Churchill, for MacDonald and Laurier, who is Mr. Harper to brush it aside?
Translated from the original French by Jamie McLennan, © 2011 Gaston Murdock.
By Jamie McLennan. Originally posted at Re: wordingsYesterday I attended Govcamp, part of Net Change Week at the Mars Centre in downtown Toronto. The topic of the day was the latest technological hot potato in government, open data. All three levels of government in Canada are making more and more of their data available to the public online. The hope is this will lead to increased transparency and enable the private sector to use this data for some intriguing (and useful) purposes.
But some important questions came up over the course of the day.
How will the data be extracted? Government data is extensive, exhaustive, and often well buried. Bizarrely, the computer programs that store the data are sometimes incompatible with the software used to extract it. Also, government departments can be pretty proprietary when it comes to their data, and before it gets out to the public there may be more than a few regulatory hurdles to jump over. One of the sessions yesterday was all about the ‘shadowy world of the socialintrapreneur.’ A panel of four brave public servants recounted their experiences (sometimes in hushed tones) tunnelling under and pole-vaulting over rules and regulations in government in order to “help the system speak with more voices” (i.e. get things done). Open data is being touted as a way to bring the people and their government closer together. But folks in government might not always be enthusiastic about letting their data out of the warm casings of their hard drives.
And maybe with good reason. Context is everything. Yesterday, one government worker muttered into her coffee cup about how data can be easily misconstrued and misinterpreted. Last year’s scandal over the internet usage of OPS workers is a case in point (this particular public servant is online all the time for her work). Opening up data without putting it into context can be problematic, from an optics point of view of not worse.
And what about citizens with limited or no access to technology? The homeless are less likely to have Twitter accounts, and the voices of marginalized people are at risk of being silenced in this techno-happy open data dance party.
Finally (and here I go putting on my translator hat), if it’s to be useful for all Canadians, data has to be accessible across language and cultural barriers. Could the open data movement represent new opportunities for skilled translators, or will governments avoid spending the money and simply dump the data online, leaving it up to the private sector to pick and choose what the rest of us get to see?
I think the best quote of the day came from David Tallan of the OPS (one of the ‘troublemaking’ social intrapreneurs), who simply pointed out that it’s important to “focus on people, not technology.”
Hopefully Microsoft — not surprisingly, a major event sponsor — was listening.
By Alexandre Brassard, originally posted at Le carnet d'Alexandre.Legend has it that Emperor Caligula once appointed his favourite horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate. When he recently named three rejected Conservative MP candidates to the Upper House, our own prime minister didn't go quite that far, but he ruffled more than a few feathers. It was, without question, a blatantly partisan move. But it may also have been a very clever one: with his actions, Harper has demonstrated, reductio ad absurdum, the need for Senate reform in Canada.
Mr. Harper has shown a preoccupation with the Senate ever since he began his political career in the Reform Party. The party’s base in Alberta has long called for an elected, equal and effective Senate that would strengthen the West’s representation in Ottawa and counterbalance the influence of Quebec and Ontario. The issue is important enough to Alberta that the province elected its own senators-in-waiting. In 1990, Brian Mulroney felt obliged to appoint two of them, Stan Waters and Bert Brown, to the Upper House. Harper’s previous reformist attempts were thwarted by his parliamentary minority, but this obstacle was removed on May 2. And now the question of Senate reform will no doubt make an appearance in the Speech from the Throne.
Harper’s modest proposal
So what should we expect? Mr. Harper won’t be able to completely overhaul the Upper House. It would take a constitutional amendment to alter the distribution of seats, change the way senators are selected or modify their powers. The procedure is slow, cumbersome and risky, and any change requires the formal support of seven provinces representing more than 50% of Canada’s population. It would mean launching a new round of constitutional negotiations with Quebec. And for defenders of the status quo, that can of worms is best left on the shelf.
All things considered, the government’s current proposal seems modest. Right now, senators are appointed by the governor general on the prime minister’s recommendation. In theory, there is nothing to stop the prime minister from consulting the public before making his recommendations. These “consultations” could be formalized through a popular ballot. This could be done in tandem with federal elections and would create, in practice, an elected Senate. Also, by limiting senators’ terms to eight years, the Upper House would become accountable and democratic.
At first glance, it seems like a brilliant idea. We would avoid the headache of a constitutional amendment, and rectify one of the most glaring deficiencies in our political system. Mr. Harper would be hailed as having solved a problem as old as Confederation.
The provinces’ reactionBut Quebec and Ontario have already voiced their opposition. And together, the two central provinces could derail Ottawa’s plans.
Ontario, on the one hand, has nothing to gain from this type of reform. The seats in the House of Commons are distributed according to population, and Canada’s most crowded province is wary of any Senate reform that could dilute its influence, regardless of the potential for improved equality or efficiency. Dalton McGuinty has instead suggested abolishing the Upper House altogether.
As for Jean Charest, he isn’t opposed in principle to “modernizing” the Senate. After all, the demographic weight of the Belle Province is on the wane, and a reformed Upper House could compensate Quebec for the inevitable loss of seats in the House of Commons. It could also help guarantee the protection of Quebec culture and the French language. The Charlottetown Accord was headed in that direction already. The problem is, Ottawa is trying to impose its will without consulting one of the country’s founding communities. The Quebec Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs and the Canadian Francophonie, Pierre Moreau, has declared that
“any amendment to the Senate puts at risk the balance that was created when the Confederation pact was sealed, and that is why it requires a constitutional amendment and not a unilateral act passed by the House of Commons.”
Some argue that Harper’s proposal is unconstitutional, and the province will no doubt dispute it in court. However, the most serious problem is symbolic. By going it alone, Ottawa risks repeating the insult of the 1982 unilateral patriation of the constitution, a traumatic event that is still lodged in the collective memory of Quebeckers. Harper’s project may well revive sovereignist sentiments and help propel the PQ to power in the next Quebec provincial election in 2013.
At the same time, there is no guarantee the West would be satisfied with an elected but still unequal Senate. Under Harper’s plan, Alberta would continue to hold only six seats, which seems unfair considering both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick currently have ten each.
This overhaul, moreover, would have no effect on the powers of the Upper House. It would remain subordinate to its Lower House. Sure, the Senate can put forward its own bills, but these can’t have any financial ramifications and they must still be approved by the House of Commons. It’s true the Senate can veto House of Commons bills, but this doesn’t ever constitute a motion of non-confidence, and any rejected bill can still be passed by the House of Commons 180 days later. So in this sense, the Senate’s power would remain very limited even after the proposed reform. Its role would consist of improving House of Commons bills and revising regulations adopted by federal departments. Historically, our Upper House has also served as an institutionalized lobby (funded by taxpayers!) for business interests. After the reform, the Canadian Senate still wouldn’t be the counterweight Albertans are calling for.
Ultimately, this kind of piecemeal reform could wind up disappointing Alberta, attacking Ontario and angering Quebec. It would result in a fair amount of political discord for comparatively small democratic gains. If Harper takes us down this road he could miss the opportunity for a genuine renewal of Canadian federalism.
But let me leave you with an even hotter topic for your water-cooler chats. What would Mr. Harper do if Quebeckers “advised” him to appoint sovereigntist senators? Would he recommend them to the governor general, or would he feel forced to undermine the new constitutional convention he hopes to establish? If he is truly committed to Senate democratization, the Prime Minister will have no choice. He may be forced to publicly acknowledge the political legitimacy of the “separatist parties” he once attacked so vehemently. In the end, our fellow Albertans, admirors of rodeos and horses that they are, may well prefer Incitatus to an Honorable Senator Duceppe.
Translated from the original French by Jamie McLennan, © 2011 Gaston Murdock.