By Jamie McLennan. Originally posted at Re:wordings
Here we are - Franco-OntarianDay again! Not that it's a long tradition, exactly — it was only in 2010 that the Ontario Government declared September 25 the day the province celebrates its Francophone community. Nevertheless, Franco pride has been around for a while, and today marks the 36th anniversary that the green and white flag was first raised in 1975.
Technically, I'm not a true Francophone — my mother tongue is English, though French has been kicking around in my head since I was a five-year-old French Immersion brat. But in 2009, Ontario broadened its definition of Francophones:
"Francophones were previously defined as those whose mother tongue is French....The new Inclusive Definition of Francophone (IDF) is based on three questions in the census concerning mother tongue, the language spoken at home, and knowledge of official languages."
Happily, it now looks like I actually qualify for my membership card. Ontario boasts over 600,000 Francophones, the largest French-speaking community in Canada outside Quebec. But we're a pretty diverse group: here in Toronto, almost half of the Francophone population was born outside of Canada.
The Ontario Francophonie is far from homogenous (this might explain the lack of any real French quartier in Canada's largest city — although the movement to create a one-stop-shopping place for foie gras and Côtes du Rhone is building).
Such diversity creates interesting challenges for translators like myself. Translating requires more than the ability to write well and speak a second language. It also takes a solid understanding of cultural differences. Language and culture are intrinsically linked, and the way a person strings words together is determined as much by their background as by the structure of their grammar.
It's true that the French language, especially in its written form, is highly codified. The French Academy's immortels, with their habits verts and ceremonial swords, maintain a strict, internationally recognized standard of French. But such rules don't always apply when it comes to advertising copy, personal letters, literature, and other less codified forms of communication.
The fact that language is so mutable is part of what I love about translating. And here in Ontario, the mix of cultures that make up our immigrant Francophone population (African 26.4%, Caribbean 7.1%, European 36.7%, Asian 12.4%, Middle-Eastern 11.1%, Central/South American 4%, and U.S.A. 2.3%) makes for a rich and varied Franco-Ontarian identity. When I sit down to translate a text written by a Haitian-Canadian, or by someone from Congo-Kinshasa, I'm translating not just their French, but their world-view. Being a translator in Toronto means I'm constantly seeing the world through new eyes.
Franco-Ontarian day is more of an international celebration that you might think. So when planning your festivities, remember that Côtes du Rhone also goes pretty well with akkra or tagine.
By Alexandre Brassard, originally posted at Le carnet d'Alexandre, translated from the French by Jamie McLennan. © 2011 Gaston Murdock
If current trends continue, the next Ontario government will be a Conservative majority.
But with ten weeks until voting day, the election outcome is far from assured. As we’ve seen with previous Ontario and federal elections, campaigns matter, and there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. It’s still possible for the Dalton McGuinty Liberals to stage a comeback and win a third term, but they will need to rethink their strategy.
Right now, the Forum Research poll published on July 30 reveals a strong Conservative lead. Of the 2,256 Ontarians surveyed on July 27 and 28, 38% intend to cast their ballots for the Conservatives, 28% will vote Liberal, 24% support the NDP and 7% are Green voters. These results are accurate to within 2.8%, 19 times out of 20.
How would this particular provincial poll translate into seats at Queen’s Park? The research firm doesn’t provide any answers, but we can attempt a projection based on a rough model. First, subtract current voting intentions from the election results of each party in 2007. This gives an idea of the direction opinion is moving in the province: +7.23 (NDP), +6.38 (CON), -1.02 (GP) and -14.25 (LIB). Apply these current trends to the 2007 results in each district, and voilà, we have our seat projection.
The details are available here, and they’re pretty interesting. They predict the Conservatives in a majority government with 64 seats, the Liberals reduced to 26 seats and the New Democrats gaining 17.
According to this model, Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath would handily win their districts, but Dalton McGuinty would have trouble getting elected. The Liberals would lose most of their current cabinet members, including Leona Dombrowsky (Education Minister), Deb Matthews (Health), Kathleen Wynn (Transport) and Sophia Aggelonitis (Revenue).
On the other hand, the Conservatives would elect four star candidates: Jack McLarren (former president of the Ontario Landowners Association), Rocco Rossi (former federal Liberal organizer and Toronto mayoral candidate), Donna Skelly (a local TV host) and Simon Nyilassi (CEO of Caldwell, an investment company).
Any Conservative win would be at the expense of the Liberals. Gains would be made:
A majority of provincial districts would thus align with their federal riding counterparts. In Toronto, the polarization that played out in last municipal election might be repeated, with urban areas supporting centrist or progressive platforms and the suburbs voting for right-wing candidates. These projections paint a picture of a three-pronged right-wing hegemony in the Toronto, Ontario and Canadian governments.
But this model is pretty rudimentary, and it’s not perfect. It doesn’t take into account the electoral advantage usually enjoyed by party leaders, former ministers, incumbents or star candidates. In addition, the data shows a pretty narrow margin of victory (<5%) in more than a quarter of the districts. That leaves plenty of room for local conditions and plain uncertainty to have a profound influence.
Nevertheless, this analysis raises alarm bells. In Canada, all levels of government have considerable power, but federalism maintains a system of checks and balances. It allows ambition to counteract ambition and limits the abuse and corruption that inevitably results from the concentration of power. By electing three levels of government with same conservative agenda, Ontarians would drop this counterweight. They’d be putting all their eggs in the one basket.
Will Tim Hudak join Steven Harper and Rob Ford on their fishing trip next summer? Ontario voters have until October 6 to decide.
By Alexandre Brassard, originally posted at Le carnet d'Alexandre, translated from the French by Jamie McLennan. © 2011 Gaston Murdock
Are you a real Canadian? If, like most voters, you didn’t vote Conservative in the last election, your values are un-Canadian.
At least, that’s what our Prime Minister thinks, if his last speech is to be believed. Addressing supporters at the Calgary Stampede, Harper said:
"Conservative values are Canadian values. Canadian values are conservative values….They always were. And Canadians are going back to the party that most closely reflects who they really are: the Conservative Party, which is Canada’s party." Globe and Mail, July 10, 2011).
Obviously, Harper was playing to his base with these exaggerated claims. In fact, he used a similar tactic at his first caucus meeting in May, and again at the Conservative convention last June. This kind of slap on the back to partisan supporters is normal, and it shouldn’t be taken as a serious contribution to public discourse. Frankly, I’d love to see Harper stand up in the House of Commons and declare, with a straight face, that his party holds a monopoly on Canadian identity. Are we supposed to believe that today’s Conservative Party members are more Canadian than Wilfrid Laurier, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Norman Bethune, Nellie McClung, Agnes Macphail, Thérèse Casgrain, George Erasmus, André Laurendeau, Jean Lesage and David Suzuki?
In mingling national identity with party affiliation, the Conservatives seem to be targeting immigrants and exploiting their desire to integrate. The not-so-subtle message? You need to toe the Conservative Party line to be fully Canadian. But newcomers won’t be so easily fooled. Our rigorous citizenship test pretty much guarantees that immigrants know our country’s history better than most made-in-Canada citizens. New Canadians could remind Harper that the Liberals have governed for 84 of the 144 years of Confederation. They could also point out that it’s thanks to the NDP that we have our public health system, a treasured cornerstone of our national identity. Clearly, the Canadian spirit is too vast and too rich to be contained within a single party.
If we believe certain Manning Centre polls, Canadians are leaning to the right nowadays. But these studies should be taken with a heaping tablespoon of salt. The poll sponsor is, of course, partisan, and the chosen indicators are neither reliable nor valid. At any rate, no one can claim to know Canada’s character after only two surveys. A country’s political culture is read in its formative events, its constitution and through its institutions. It is revealed through its cultural products and in the kind of political education citizens receive. From this angle, it’s hard to accept the Conservatives as the main architect of Canada.
That being said, I’m pleased that Harper harkened back to the values of the great late Progressive Conservative Party. If he takes this political legacy seriously, he might finally break free of the Reform Party’s narrow dogma. As heir to Macdonald and Bennett, he might remember the importance of state economic intervention, which could soften his obsession with the free market. Taking a page from Borden, he would have to concede that key infrastructure should be nationalized, that income tax is a necessary evil and that it’s a good idea to fund scientific research.
Inspired by Diefenbaker, Harper might develop an appreciation for our parliamentary traditions. In following Robert Stanfield’s example, he’d recognize the importance of social programs, even in the context of budgetary restrictions. He could also turn to George-Étienne Cartier or Joe Clark to get a better grasp of our federation’s founding pact, which lays out Canada as a « community of communities ». This may persuade him to consult the provinces before embarking on any kind of Senate reform. Examining the legacy of Brian Mulroney, Harper might also decide to ratify international agreements that seek to protect the environment and prevent climate disasters.
Harper should set aside Ezra Levant, and instead read some true conservative intellectuals like W.L. Morton, Northrop Frye, Donald Creighton, George Grant and Hugh Segal. Not only would he rediscover the importance of scholarship, research and critical thinking — our Prime Minister might be surprised to find multiple references to the idea of common good among these authors’ writings. He would see that Canada is more than a collection of isolated individuals and selfish taxpayers. More than an electoral clientele. Canada is a country of people who live interdependently in deeply rooted communities
Anglophone, Francophone and Aboriginal communities have all developed their own cultures and values. They have different concepts of justice and different visions of the good life. Together, they offer citizens a wide range of rich identities to choose from. But at the same time, these groups are partners within our federation, and their values often overlap. Certain ideas and objectives are shared by all the founding communities: democracy, federalism, rule of law, respect for rights and freedoms, gender equality, the protection of linguistic and cultural minorities, the welcoming and integration of immigrants, economic redistribution between communities and social solidarity.
It is here, at this convergence, where true “Canadian values” reside. These values are not the property of the Conservative Party, or of any community in particular. Or even of Canada itself for that matter. But they explain and justify our desire to live together in a single state within North America.
By Jamie McLennan. Originally posted at Re:wordings
Tonight we open Carmen in Hamilton, Ontario, under the baton of Boris Brott and led by an impressive cast of Canadian singers. We've had a great time putting this together, guided by Italian director Giandomenico Vaccari (more on that later!).
This is a semi-staged concert version, but while the set is minimal, Carmen's gypsy spirit is there in spades. The National Academy Orchestra is sounding amazing. Made up of seasoned players and emerging professional musicians, the band has all the finesse of established performers combined with the enthusiasm and energy of young pros. It's been a real pleasure to work with them. And with the fabulous Arcady Singers giving their all in the famous chorus numbers, the audience is in for a real treat.
The rehearsal process has been short (we only started a week ago!) but it's been a blast.
First, all of the cast have been great to work with and many are old friends. We've worked hard, but we've laughed a lot and I think the fun we're having comes through on stage. Yes, I know Carmen's a tragedy, but as an old acting teacher of mine once said, even in the throes of angst, you need to be having serious fun up there!
Second, we're very lucky to have had the chance to work with Signor Vaccari. He'd led or worked at some of the biggest opera houses in Italy, including the Teatro Petruzelli in Bari, the San Carlo in Naples, and the Giuseppe Verdi Theatre in Trieste. We knew going in that we'd have to dust off our conversational Italian, and I'm proud to say we've been pretty good at understanding the direction and communicating our questions (Maestro Brott is an able interpreter when push comes to shove!).
But the translator in me was most intrigued by how the mood of rehearsals took on a distinctly Italian flavour right from the get-go. The energy level was turbo-charged, and Signor Vaccari's passion for his craft was contagious. It's always fascinating to see how working in another language shifts the tone. The result is a production with an intense and spirited vibe!
An opera sung in French, set in Spain and directed by an Italian. There's going to more passion up on that stage than Hamilton has seen in a loooong time.
In boca al lupo!
By Jamie McLennan. Originally posted at Re:wordings
I just finished a week of improv classes at the Second City training centre here in Toronto. Led by the redoubtable Marjorie Malpass, I and 17 other willing victims laughed our way through an exhilarating 20 hours of theatre games, wordplay and improvised scenes.
I've always thought singing and translating have a lot in common. You take something that's already been created and interpret it for a new audience. You need to pay attention to the style and tone of the original, and you have to keep in mind the needs and expectations of your public. In both disciplines, you become known for a particular specialization, and you build your career around that area of expertise.
When translating, I write my first draft fairly quickly to avoid being bogged down by details that often iron themselves out later. But it takes effort to ignore the voice of doubt that whispers in my ear, the one that makes me question myself and stifles creativity. You know that voice. Everyone has it. It's annoying, it's persistent, and it's responsible for the success of Facebook as the world's most popular procrastinator time-suck.
But with improv, you get to shut that voice up. Improv forces you to work on skills that are crucial to writers and performers: spontaneity, attentiveness, focus, acceptance, and the willingness to trust your instincts. This week, I learned some tried-and-true techniques that improv performers use every time they're on stage. Watch for these tactics the next time you see a great comedy — they're pretty universal. And I think they're very useful for writers, too.
Mirroring. We've all played that "lame mirror game" in drama class. You know, the one where your partner contorts his body into ridiculous poses and you're forced to mimic him. Well there's an important point to this very basic exercise. When you're on stage with someone, the best way to connect with him is simply to pay attention to what he's doing. When you pick up on your partner's behaviour, you can either chose to imitate and magnify it (very funny) or go the opposite way and create a foil for whatever character he's creating in front of your eyes. It's the simplest improv technique there is, and it's easy to grasp because we do it In Real Life all the time. When you meet new people, you unconsciously echo their body language to set them (and yourself) at ease in social situations. Don't believe me? Next time you meet someone new, see how quickly you start using a common body-language lexicon.
Yes, let's! Improv is all about accepting everything and running with it, no matter how unexpected. If you enter the stage, and your scene partner tells you she's preparing dinner for your mother-in-law, she's offering you a location (kitchen) and a relationship (married couple) that you have to agree to. It's incredible how tempting it is to say no and impose your own clever idea — "what do you mean, my mother-in-law? I'm a police officer and I'm here to arrest you!" This evil twin of acceptance is called blocking. It's guaranteed to kill the scene and leaves your partner hanging. Shame!
Point of focus. What can you focus on to help advance the narrative? Is it an object? Is it an argument? Is it the alien growing out of your chest? Too many points of focus and the scene can dissolve into a soup of unrelated events and characters. This happens when actors stop paying attention to their partners and instead try to drive the scene all by themselves. Guaranteed awkwardness.
Punning. In one of my favourite exercises, we were made to come up with ridiculous and outrageous (and often eyeball-rolling) plays-on-words. "What kind of music does a cat like?" "Meow-sic." I hear you groaning already. It may not be worthy of a Stephen Fry twitter post, but the guy who came up with that answer actually got a big laugh because it was so impulsive. You could see the word forming in his mouth even before his brain knew it was being said. No matter how corny, a pun will make us laugh because it forces us to go from A (different people like different music) to C (cats make a meowing sound) while skipping over B (cats don't listen to music!). In other words, it gives our brain a vacation from linear thinking. This is really refreshing, and takes us to far-off, magical improv lands full of wonder and amazement.
The tilt. Related to the pun, the tilt takes a situation and heightens it with an unexpected twist. "I'm preparing dinner for your mother-in-law" takes on new meaning when you respond that your mother-in-law was a victim of the zombie apocalypse and now only feasts on brains. That's not a block — you still accept the offer that you have a mother-in-law. But you throw it back in a fun and unexpected way. This is actually a generous gesture that takes the narrative to a great place with lots of potential (your flesh-eating mother-in-law is still likely to criticize your wife's cooking, after all). Is there a "mother-in-law" waiting to come onstage? You've just handed her a winning performance on a silver platter. You will be much loved by audience and performers alike.
So how do these improv techniques relate to translating a 2,000-word press release? Well, writing certainly requires the ability to trust your instincts. When you say yes to a new client, you need to have faith that your skills will carry you through the next assignment. It also takes guts to sit down at a blank screen and just start typing (at least writers don't have to do it in front of an audience). Acceptance teaches you not to worry if the first thing you put down on the page isn't Pulitzer-worthy, or even if it makes any sense. Mirroring reminds you to remain faithful to the original author's message, but to make it your own and to be creative without straying from what's been offered. Point of focus is also something every writer needs to keep in mind. If you lose track of your message you can also quickly lose your reader (you're still here, so I guess I did something right). Finally, improv helps you develop a knack for non-linear thinking, for knowing when to drop in an unexpected tilt that catches your reader off-guard and wins them over with a smile.
That little annoying voice in my ear got a lot quieter this week. It also became easier for me to squelch it whenever it starts whining. When that voice is silent, you're free to play. That's when you really start cooking. And this leaves room for those flashes of genius that come when you're not even looking.
Wow, see how that rhymed? Felt good. And I didn't even plan it.
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 and apathy 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: wordings
Yesterday 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’ reaction
But 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.
This is a regularly updated collection of popular blog postings by Alexandre Brassard and Jamie McLennan.