Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Wanted: bilingual indigenous female western judge for Supreme Court duties

With the imminent retirement of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has two big decision to make by December 15th, decisions that will affect the administration of justice in this country for years to come. He needs to appoint a new judge to replace Justice McLachlin on the 9-person top court, and he also need to appoint someone to take over her role as Chief Justice.
Trudeau doesn't necessarily need to steer the court in a "liberal direction" - even Stephen Harper's appointees were relatively liberal in their outlook (as he found to his own chagrin), and Canadian judges tend to be much less political than American ones. But the Prime Minister is hamstrung and constrained by decades of precedent, tradition and convention.
Traditionally, the court has to have three members from Quebec, three from Ontario, one from Atlantic Canada and two from the West (of which one should really be from British Columbia). Note that this is just a tradition, not a legal requirement, presumably roughly based on populations at the date of confederation. If it were to be based on the relative provincial populations today, the regional representation would be more like: four from Ontario, two from Quebec, one from British Columbia, one from Alberta, and half each from the prairie provinces and the Atlantic provinces (meaning, presumably, an alternating arrangement). But Mr. Trudeau tampers with tradition at his own political risk, and he is under a lot of pressure to appoint a Westerner, preferably from British Columbia (which is where the retiring Ms. McLachlin is from). Added to that, the appointee should be female, to maintain the approximate gender balance of the court (four women and five men), and she should be functionally bilingual or at least fluent in French, because Canada has two official languages. You can see that the pool of eligible candidates is already starting to look smaller and smaller.
Then there is also pressure to appoint an indigenous judge, something Canada has never seen, and that really dries up the pool. There is no convention that dictates this pressure, but Mr. Trudeau clearly sees himself as a champion of indigenous rights, and this would be a perfect opportunity to earn some serious Brownie points on the issue. Highly qualified indigenous candidates, though, are few and far between. Two or three possible names have been put forward: John Borrows, who is a member of Ontario's Chippewa First Nation, although he has lived and worked in BC for some years (he has spent the last year learning French on a sabbatical in Quebec, but is definitely not bilingual, and definitely not female); Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who comes from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, but has worked in BC for the last ten years, although not as a practising judge but as a Representative for Children and Youth (she is bilingual, and is definitely female); and Todd Ducharme, who is a Métis Ontario Superior Court justice, but has worked in all three Territories, and who is considered an outsider in the race.
None of the candidates tick all of the boxes, so somebody somewhere is going to have their nose put out of joint, and there will be complaints from some quarters whatever Mr. Trudeau decides.
As for appointing a new Chief Justice, these are usually chosen from the remaining sitting justice of the Court, but again convention comes in to play: Chief Justices almost always alternate between a judge from Quebec and one from the rest of the country. So, in theory, it should be a Quebecker this time, although the Prime Minister's father Pierre Trudeau did dare to make an exception to that rule some thirty-odd years ago. Ms. McLachlin is well-loved and respected, and is going to be a hard act to follow for anyone.
Tricky decisions, and Mr. Trudeau cannot fail but offend someone somewhere. And almost nowhere in these considerations does the requirement for the best and most experienced candidate appear. Convention and tradition appears to trump all.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Should we throw out the good art with the bad artists?

Globe and Mail arts critic Russell Smith, always an interesting and challenging commentator, has produced a particularly brave and provocative piece in today's paper.
In it, he asks whether we should ignore or shun works of arts - be they in the sphere of film, literature, painting or indeed any artistic field of endeavour - just because the creative force behind it was criminal, immoral, offensive, or just plain politically incorrect. It's a perennial thorny problem, but all the more pertinent in recent days with the ongoing revelations of the sexual assaults and inappropriate habits of filmmakers, media personalities and prominent sportsmen. Smith, though, holds nothing back, and comes out swinging.
He begins by asking whether we should blacklist the sublime work of Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini on the grounds that the artist was a double murderer and probably a rapist. What about Caravaggio (also a murderer)? Egon Schiele (abuser of teenage girls), Marquis de Sade (rapist), Ezra Pound (anti-Semite), Martin Heidegger (Nazi sympathiser), etc, etc? Should Adolf Hitler's youthful watercolour paintings be destroyed? What, then, about art by more or less good people on unpalatable subjects, like some of the films of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, uncomfortable books like Nabokov's Lolita, or the performance art of Zhu Yu, who photographed himself eating what is purportedly a human fetus?
Does it make a difference if the artist gains financially from his or her art? We then get into the realm of filmmakers with checkered pasts like Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, et al. Some of these people will probably never make a film again (although some seem to perennially escape public censure). But should their back catalogue be destroyed as well? Should they effectively be erased from history?
Russell Smith takes the outspoken view that art is completely divorced from the personal life of the artist. Indeed, he goes further to say that he actively seeks out art by bad boys. He argues that we should be curious to see how beauty is perceived by a violent person, and that great art is often about badness, at least in part. He further asserts that, by "consuming" art, we are not necessarily perpetuating the ideas behind it, or validating the beliefs of the individuals who created it. He positively expects that good art be about moral danger, that art should be troubling and uncomfortable, even unpleasant, that it is there to challenge the viewer, not just to be "enjoyed".
This is probably an extreme, purist view of the sanctity of Art-with-a-capital-A, and I'm not even sure that I subscribe to it. But kudos to Smith for having the cojones to publicly espouse it, particularly in the current charged environment.

Is the word "marijuana" racist?

I was at a talk recently on the purported beneficial effects of medical marijuana for Parkinson's Disease sufferers. It was an interesting enough exposition of the various products available, how to obtain them here in Ontario, and what benefits there may be for PD sufferers (not much, it seems, unless you have a good deal of pain, cramps, or severe sleep problems).
But what really struck me was the speaker's branding of the name "marijuana" as "racially charged" and to be avoided, in preference for "cannabis". She effectively said that we were being racist to use the word "marijuana", which made no sense to me. Since then, a Hamilton councillor has publicly vowed to stop using the word marijuana because of its race connotations, creating something of a firestorm of comments on the subject.
Now, the plant has any number of common labels (pot, weed, dope, ganja, hemp, herb, hashish, reefer, bud, etc, etc), and I had always assumed that marijuana and cannabis were just two more such labels, albeit slightly more "official", correct or formal ones. Well, it turns out there is a whole lot of rather unsavoury history behind the use of the word "marijuana", which does not apply to the word "cannabis".
Up until the beginning of the 20th century, the plant (and its various derivatives) was almost exclusively referred to in North America as cannabis (which is the proper Latin name of the genus, the most common species being Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Ruderalis), or sometimes hemp (after its popular industrial use). After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, up to a million Mexican immigrants and refugees flooded north, leading to a good deal of hostility, discrimination and prejudice among the locals, and the Mexican peasants' drug of choice, at least at this time, was cannabis, rather than the more socially-acceptable American drug of alcohol.
Some of the more Machiavellian American lawmakers and organs of the press, made use of the widespread dislike and fear of the incoming Mexicans by exaggerating their iniquities and dangers, and also by conflating the Mexican crime-wave with their pot-smoking habits. The idea was to use the Hispanic label marijuana or marihuana to demonize Mexicans, and to underscore that the dangerous habit of smoking marijuana was a Latino, even a specifically Mexican, vice. Sensationalist stories of pot-crazed Mexicans carrying out horrific crimes abounded in the early decades of the 20th century, peaking during the prohibition mentality of the 1920s and 1930s. A 1925 New York Times headline was typical: "Mexican, crazed by marihuana, runs amuck with butcher knife". Interestingly, such accounts were also quite common in Mexico, where there was also a prohibition movement around this time.
It's not even entirely clear where the Mexican word marihuana came from in the first place (the spellings marihuana and mariguana were used interchangeably, and it was only later that the word was Anglicized - or perhaps "Spanishized" - to "marijuana" in America). The plant was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores, but mainly for use as hemp and not for its drug properties. It has been cultivated all over the world, though, and there are at least three theories about where the name marihuana came from: the Chinese phrase for cannabis, ma ren hua; the African Bantu word for the same plant, makaña; and the colloquial Spanish word for "Chinese oregano", mejorana. Take your pick.
Particularly important in the trend for using "marihuana/marijuana" as a pejorative term in America was Henry Anslinger, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was a zealot on a crusade to ban any and all intoxicants, from alcohol to cocaine to opium to cannabis. He used his 1937 congressional hearing testimony to establish the largely spurious connection between cannabis and crime, and to popularize the use of the Spanish label marihuana to refer to this Mexican "killer weed". At one point, he stated, rather disingenuously, "We seem to have adopted the Mexican terminology, and we call it marihuana", thus helping to associate this name with the plant's recreational use (as opposed to its medical or industrial applications), and particularly to its criminal Mexican reputation. He went on to link poor black people, jazz musicians, prostitutes and the criminal underworld, among whom cannabis was also a popular recreational drug: "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use ... this marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others". And, just for good measure, here is another gem from Anslinger: "Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men … the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races." Ouch!
Whatever its history, marijuana remains one of the most universally recognized and used term for the herb in the English-speaking world. Its history is clearly seeped in race and iffy politics to some extent. But is not in itself a racist term, and, moreover, the label predates this embarassing episode in American racist propaganda. It is merely the latest example of the politically correct language revisionism that is currently going on in Canada (see the article on UoT's attempts to ban the word "master" for another such example), a trend that I confess I am not entirely comfortable with. Do we need to start saying "the M-word"? Are Mexicans and blacks now the only people who can say "marijuana" in polite society? Aren't we over this by now, and hasn't the word lost its prejudiced bite?
Now, I am not black or Latino, and I know that I have had a very different life experience. But I have at least tried to put myself - hypothetically, of course - in their position, and I'm afraid I still don't see such things as that important in the scheme of things. Maybe I'm just insensitive, or maybe I have just signally failed to put myself in a black person's position, to see things more from their perspective. I don't know. It just seems to me that there are much more important things we should all be doing and thinking about to combat systemic racism than these kinds of diversions.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Loblaws signs up for Tesla electric delivery trucks

Good old Loblaws is doing its bit and ordering 25 of Tesla's new Semi all-electric delivery trucks, even though they are not even expected to start shipping until 2019 at the earliest, and the final price tag is still not clear.
I have always wondered why so little attention has been paid to making trucks more efficient and climate-friendly, when so much progress is being made in the field of electric cars. Not many people are aware of it, but delivery and freight trucks generate a surprising (and increasing) proportion of our greenhouse gases, almost as much as cars. It is rare to even hear mention of it, but Tesla, perhaps predictably enough, seem to be on top of the problem.
The Tesla Semi truck promises to save companies a substantial amount of money in the long run, even if the initial price will almost certainly be high. However, at this point, we only have Tesla's word to go on. The truck will have a 500 mile range, and it will boast faster acceleration, a much lower drag coefficient, and make much less noise, than conventional diesel trucks. Tesla has also tweaked the whole design of a truck, making them easier to get in and out of, allowing the driver to stand fully in the cab if needed, centring the driver's seat in the cab (there is a removable jump seat if needed), and adding in a whole host of fleet management, trip logging and routing tools, as well as not one but two touch screens. Indeed, they seem to have thought of just about everything, and its specs are impressive. It even looks cool.
Loblaws is following in Wal-Mart's footsteps in ordering the trucks - Wal-Mart has already ordered 15 as a trial - and all credit to them. Like Wal-Mart, Loblaws has an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction plan, and it hopes to have a fleet of at least 350 electric trucks operational by 2030. Go, Loblaws!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Carding? Street check? Well-being check? Racial profiling? Who knows?

Matthew Green, Hamilton's lone black councillor is kicking up a fuss after being questioned by the police while waiting for a bus in the city's downtown. Mr. Green sees the exchange as an example of racial profiling or "carding". The police are claiming that it was just a regular "well-being check", a regular and necessary part of normal policing.
The police officer in question is being charged with "discreditable conduct" under the Police Services Act, for conducting an "arbitrary or unjustified" street check against Mr. Green. It is alleged that the questioning was aggressive (at least until Mr. Green mentioned that he was a city councillor), and that he felt "psychologically detained" by the exchange. The lawyer acting on behalf of the police officer points out that the officer was in his cruiser, some 8-12 metres away, and that he thought Mr. Green appeared suspicious, standing as he was in a puddle of mud near a judge and near a group home. Mr. Green counters that he was just checking emails and waiting for a bus.
There are clearly some issues of fact to be sorted out here. But all sides will be watching the case closely for its implications on the difference between a street check and a well-being check, and on how the new Ontario regulations on street checks (introduced earlier this year) are being implemented.
Between 11% and 14% of street checks in Hamilton are done on black people, a demographic which makes up just 3% of the population, proof, activists claim, that racial profiling is still rampant. Similar stats and similar claims are regularly quoted elsewhere too. But I always wonder, when I see such assertions, what are the relevant percentages for the numbers of people hanging around on street corners at 2 o'clock in the morning? Now, I'm not saying that black people are specifically disposed to al fresco inner city nocturnal assemblies - although they may well be (or not) for all my paltry experience of urban nightlife goes - and neither am I saying that all black people are criminals. But the police obviously tend to focus on times and places where experience tells them that crimes are often committed.
Don't get me wrong: the Hamilton incident occurred in late afternoon, not at 2 o'clock in the morning. But I've no reason to believe, perhaps in my naivety, that the Hamilton police officer would not also have challenged a white guy in the same situation.

How "terrific" came to mean "terrific"

I've often wondered why the word "terrific" came to mean something good. "Horrific" still retains its original (unfavourable) meaning, as does "terrible". Why, then, has "terrific" come to mean "great" or "wonderful"?
Back in the day, "terrific" did in fact mean "frightening" or "terror-inducing", similar to "terrible". It was first used as such in the mid-17th century - it appears in Milton's Paradise Lost in 1667 - and was occasionally still used in this original context into the early 20th century.
In the 19th century, though, its meaning began to gradually change, through a process of semantic shift or, more specifically, amelioration, where a previously bad word takes on a good connotation ("tremendous", "awesome", "luxury" and "wicked" are a few other examples). Thus, by the early 19th century, there was already evidence of "terrific" being used to mean "severe" (as in "a terrific headache") or "very great" (as in "a terrific thunderclap"). This probably arose out of poetic exaggeration or hyperbole (i.e. so painful or so loud that it was actually terror-inducing). Gradually, it came to be used, by the 1870s and 1880s, to indicate intensity in general, and to be applied to positive experiences like "terrific beauty" or "terrific joy". From there, it is not such a great leap to its modern-day meaning.
All part of the terrific (in all its senses) English language.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Are you one of the Canadian 1%?

Statistics Canada has just released new data on what it takes to be considered part of the 1% in Canada.
The threshold for 1%-dom in 2015 was earnings of $234,700, up from $227,100 in 2014. There were 270,925 such individuals in Canada (the biggest increases over the previous year coming in Ontario and British Columbia). If you are interested in being part of the 0.1% Club, you would need to earn $826,800, and there were 27,095 others in the club. Aiming for the 0.01%, the top 10,000th of earners? The threshold was $3,636,000 in 2015, and you would be in the rarefied company of 2,710 other tax filers.
Well, all of this puts me well away from danger of being a 1%-er in wealthy Canada, although I am probably still a 1%-er worldwide (at least in terms of accumulated wealth, rather than annual earnings), which is a much lower hurdle, and has cheaper club fees.
The other interesting factoid coming out of the StatsCan data is that the top 1%'s earnings as a share of Canadian national total income actually took a little hop in 2015, to 11.2%, after remaining stable for a few years at just under 11%. To be fair, this was the last year of Stephen Harper's Conservative administration, and it is to be hoped that, in the last couple of years under the Liberals, this has fallen. But we are still going to be a long way from the 7% levels of thirty years ago.

When is a coup not a coup?

When it is in accordance with the will of the people, perhaps? After 37 long years of chaotic, despotic and largely unpopular rule, 93-year old President Robert Mugabe is currently under house arrest by the Zimbabwe military. With the economy in tatters, unemployment and inflation rampant, and human rights violations a regular part of daily life, Zimbabwe has clearly limped along under Mugabe for far too long, and change is long overdue. But a coup?
Top army general Constantino Chiwenga and the military insist that this is not a coup, merely what some are describing as a "bloodless correction of gross abuse of power", and that they will soon return the country to "a dispensation that allows for investment, development and prosperity" (i.e. not necessarily democracy). But others have called this merely "putting lipstick on the pig": the President some of his senior ministers and possibly his wife, are all under arrest; military police and tanks are on the streets of Harare; the state television company has been seized - yes, it's a coup (albeit largely bloodless), whatever kind of a spin you like to put on it.
As far as can be discerned at this early point, the military have chosen this moment to act against a perennially unpopular and increasingly erratic leader mainly because Mugabe has been showing distinct signs that he intends for his wife, the equally disliked Grace Mugabe (disliked by both the people and the military), to take over the reigns of state. With this in mind, he recently dismissed his vice-president and once putative successor Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has close ties to General Chiwenga and the military, on flimsy charges of plotting to overthrow him through witchcraft(!) This was just the latest of Mugabe's increasingly frequent crackdowns on political dissent, but the speculation in relation to this particular action was that he would then appoint his 52-year old wife as vice-president, with a view to grooming her for the leadership.
Thus is a once-admired liberation leader brought down: partly due to his own arrogance and hubris, and partly due to the machinations of his overly ambitious young wife. It's kind of like a Greek tragedy.
Mnangagwa is currently in hiding in South Africa, but it seems likely that he may well be installed as transitional leader, which will probably not help the country much: 75-year old Mnangagwa is a fellow veteran of Zimbabwe's war of independence, operated for years as Mugabe's spy chief, and has his own well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. He is also accused of masterminding various atrocities during the country's civil war, as well as attacks on opposition supporters.
Mnangagwa would probably be the closest thing to business-as-usual that the army can stomach. There is even a possibility that Mugabe himself can sweet-talk his way into staying in power, at least as a ceremonial figurehead if nothing more (he is currently reported to be in talks with the army over his future). There is technically an opposition party in Zimbabwe - the Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC) was established in 1999 - and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai has come out swinging, calling for Mugabe to resign immediately. Tsvangirai was defeated by Mugabe in the 2013 elections, in a poll that, like many before it, was marred by violence and (largely unproven) allegations of rigging. Tsvangirai and war veteran leader Christopher Mutsvangwa have both just flown in from South Africa to insert themselves into the swirling chaos that is Zimbabwean politics.
So, coup? I guess so. But definitely a popular coup. At this point the people will take any change over more of Mugabe. Public dissent has been conspicuously absent, and there have even been celebrations and dancing in the streets of Harare - not the usual response to an army coup. Most people are just breathing a sigh of relief that Mugabe has been taken out of the equation (or has he? don't rule him out just yet). As with the Egyptian coup against Mohamed Morsi in 2013, it is a crying shame that democracy has to take a back seat to power politics. But sometimes, it seems, democracy needs just a little shove.