Three New Year’s Resolutions for Canada

New Year'sI have never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. The practice always struck me as little more than an excuse to put off self-improvement until next year. But now, with year’s end upon us, and solutions nowhere in sight for the host of problems that we face as a country and as a world, the moment may finally have arrived to exploit this silly annual tradition and appropriate its language for purposes of cynically presenting a false common cause with any blog readers who happen to be into that sort of thing.

With such ingeniously devious trickery in mind, I present to you, O blogosphere, three New Year’s resolutions for the great nation of Canada:

1. Fight Climate Change

The year 2012 marks the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. It also marks Canada’s official withdrawal from the treaty so as to avoid embarrassment for failing to live up to our legally binding emissions targets.

Perhaps not all the blame can be placed at the feet of the Conservative government that has ruled our country since 2006, as the Liberal government that preceded it was infamous for its inaction on the climate file. But current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his slavish allegiance to Big Tar and the climate distorting effects thereof, has proven himself to be just about the most environmentally unenlightened leader one could ask for short of an all-out climate change denier.

Here’s hoping that in 2013, we start holding our representatives to higher standards.

2. Tackle Poverty

I realize that worldwide anti-austerity protests and the birth of the Occupy movement all took place in 2011, the year when equality finally made its long overdue comeback in the North American public’s consciousness. But good ideas do not come with expiry dates.

It is unforgivable, in an industrialized country, in an era of almost unprecedented material wealth, for 150,000 to 300,000 Canadians to be homeless, or for one in seven Canadian children to live in poverty. And horrendous though these injustices are, they are dwarfed by the heartbreaking extremes of destitution that exist in the developing world, symptoms of unconscionable global inequality.

In 1969, former Prime Minister Lester Pearson famously recommended that industrialized countries devote a minimum of 0.7 percent of their national incomes to foreign aid, a Canadian idea that has become a widely embraced international standard. Four decades later, Canada’s foreign aid level is at 0.3 percent.

This is not acceptable. In 2013, Canada needs to improve its performance on poverty both at home and abroad. And we have to be able to afford it. An adult conversation on taxes is urgently needed.

3. Respect First Nations

Most Canadians benefit from the historic legacy of colonialism. This does not mean that we consciously choose this legacy for ourselves, nor does it mean that Canadians today are all bad people, but this legacy is a fact that deserves to be acknowledged. The country was founded upon the massacre, assimilation, and cultural genocide of the people who first lived here, and to this day their descendents suffer disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, incarceration, addiction, health problems, and suicide.

In the context of this crisis, Prime Minister Harper is making it clear that he cannot be bothered to meet face-to-face with Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence, as her hunger strike is set to enter its fourth week. Her courageous actions, meanwhile, have inspired Idle No More, a First Nations-led cross-country protest movement against the government’s recent omnibus legislation, which activists claim dismantles many long-established measures to protect the natural world, thereby violating the treaty rights of the people who depend upon it.

Indigenous communities are always on the front line of fights against environmental destruction, and all Canadians owe them unlimited gratitude for the sacrifices they make on our behalf. If our government will not respect the First Peoples of this country, then at the very least, regular Canadians of all backgrounds need to stand together with them in the Idle No More movement.

In 2013, we need to actively demonstrate our support for their cause. We need to accept it as our own cause too.

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Mass Shootings by the Numbers

Guns

Over three-quarters of the firearms used to carry out mass shootings in the United States since 1982 were obtained legally. How on Earth can there not be a national discussion on gun control?

And to those gun advocates who say that tragedy ought not to be politicized, that we need to wait a respectful amount of time before debating such contentious issues as gun control (but who don’t object when such violence is attributed to the absence of God from public schools), I will point out that there have so far been sixteen mass shootings in the United States since the start of 2012, resulting in a combined death toll of eighty-eight.

There is literally not enough space between shootings to be respectful.

Finally, yesterday, on the same day as the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, a similar attack took place at a primary school in Henan province, China. Thankfully, although twenty-two children and one adult were injured, nobody died.

Instead of a gun, the attacker carried a knife.

’Nuff said.

Emerging Consensus on Gay Marriage

Marriage Equality USA

Assuming that the world survives this coming December 21, the United States Supreme Court is expected to rule on two cases in June which could result in the nation-wide legalization of gay marriage.

I cannot forecast with certainty how the court will decide, but supposing for a moment that it rules in favour of marriage equality, the short-term results are easy to predict: conservative commentators across the country will complain of judicial activism, despite having in many cases urged precisely such an overreach one short year before when Obamacare hung in the balance. Right on cue, public support for same-sex marriage rights — steadily on the rise for years — will drop by approximately ten points.

But despite this frothy chorus of apocalyptic whining (maybe that’s what the Mayans were referring to!), the homophobic naysayers will not succeed in preventing a single same-sex couple from exchanging vows. The US Constitution is the law of the land, and the Supreme Court has final say over its interpretation. Gay marriage, assuming a favourable ruling, will be here to stay.

A more interesting topic for consideration, however, is how American attitudes to marriage equality will evolve over the long-term. Will the coming Supreme Court decision be more Brown v. Board of Education or Roe v. Wade? The former ruling from the 1950s, which desegregated public schools and marked a major victory for the civil rights movement, was incredibly controversial at the time, but is now almost unanimously recalled as a just and necessary decision. Roe v. Wade, by contrast, the 1970s ruling that legalized abortion across the country, has done nothing to settle the debate over a woman’s right to choose. So is gay marriage more like desegregation or abortion?

I believe it is more like desegregation. Marriage equality can very easily be framed as a civil rights issue, since after all it is about guaranteeing equal rights for a persecuted minority. On the subject of abortion, however, the applicability of equality is muddied by the fact that some people demand rights for women while others demand them for fetuses. Although I personally count myself in the former category, and believe that any depiction of the pro-life community as a modern-day civil rights movement for the unborn rests on a fundamental confusion, I can at least understand how such a confusion could come about and how much work it will take to clear it up. Gay marriage is far more clear-cut, and I see something approaching a consensus emerging over time.

But might it actually be something else that determines the public’s attitudes on social issues? Might it instead be the powerful influence of religious conservatives? If so, gay marriage could be doomed to share the stage with abortion as a highly symbolic subject of perpetual debate whose status is never secured.

Fortunately, I do not think this is likely. Take a look at Canada. We have had same-sex marriage for nearly a decade now and unrestricted abortion rights for a quarter century. While the latter is not nearly as much of a hot issue here as in the United States (perhaps owing to the reduced influence of evangelical Christianity), occasional attempts to chip away at a woman’s right to choose still make their way into Parliament. But marriage equality has not been up for serious contention in years, and that appears to be just how the public likes it.

This does not mean that homophobia has completely disappeared from Canada any more than racism disappeared from America within a decade of Brown v. Board of Education. But after a little time passed and the Canadian public saw that the institution of heterosexual marriage was not under threat after all (at least not from homosexuals), gay marriage quickly lost its status as boogeyman to be exploited by reactionary politicians.

If the United States Supreme Court comes to a similarly enlightened conclusion a few months down the road, I think the American public will look back on the present day ten years from now and wonder what all the fuss was about.

On the Latest School Shooting: Symptoms, Disease, and Gun Control

GunWith every problem, there are the symptoms and there is the disease.

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the United States today — this one leaving twenty-seven dead at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school — the disease, clearly, is the culture of violence that pervades the country, and I do not blame anyone for wanting to tackle this disease directly. But when the symptoms manifest themselves in the form of twenty dead children, a call to manage the symptoms through gun control is more than just understandable; it is urgently necessary.

Without doubt, these frequent shootings represent an evil deeper than the mere existence of guns. The country must undergo some major soul searching. But firearms enable the destruction of life with an efficiency that is unconscionable and all-too-effortless. While it may be true that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” we must always remember to end this cliche with the common revision that, far too often, “people with guns kill people.” Any object or tool or implement with such undeniable risks — regardless of its occasional usefulness — needs to be subject to strict public oversight and regulation.

I do not know if today’s massacre in particular could have been averted through gun control, but surely at least some of the mass shootings that riddle the country are preventable. Their unyielding prevalence, in addition to being tragic, is becoming ridiculous. There is no more appropriate time than now, after today’s horrific events, to start a serious national conversation about gun control in America.

My thoughts go out to the victims and their families.

Two-State Twilight

PeaceFor many years, I have felt that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were an exaggeration. Yes, Israel has been unyielding in its expansion of settlements in the West Bank in clear violation of international law, effectively dividing the already-slight territory into several isolated segments and making the creation of a viable Palestinian state nearly impossible. But Israel has withdrawn settlers from occupied territory before, in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Unlikely as it may now appear, it could always happen again.

The above represents the optimistic perspective I have traditionally held. With every passing year, it becomes harder to maintain this optimism. Israeli settlers in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) currently number around half a million — far more than anything Israel has ever removed before. I do not know exactly how close the settlements are to a point of no return — or indeed if they have passed that point already — but what seems obvious to me is that if the two-state solution is not yet dead, it is clearly dying, and every decision to authorize or excuse settlement expansion in the West Bank diminishes its chance of full recovery.

This is the only lens through which to understand last week’s United Nations General Assembly vote granting Palestinians “non-member observer state” status. While Israel occasionally claims to be in favour of some form of two-state solution, as soon as the moment came to put its money where its mouth was, the country led a small number of other rejectionists (shamefully including my own Canadian government) in voting against Palestinian statehood. Then, in retaliation against Palestine for its victory at the UN, Israel announced plans for new settlement construction in a move that will further carve up the West Bank.

The occurrence of these events mere days after Israel concluded its brutal assault on Gaza and agreed to a truce with Hamas is especially disturbing. According to Palestinian parliamentarian and peace activist Mustafa Barghouti:

What worries me most today is that Israel is sending a message to the Palestinians that if you do non-violence, we will oppress you. If you do the most peaceful, non-violent act of turning to the United Nations, we will punish you. But if you use violence and guns, we will respect you. That’s the message that Palestinians are getting, and that’s a wrong message.

Furthermore, in addition to hurting Palestinians, Israel is hurting itself. If the two-state solution becomes impractical, Palestinians and their international supporters will not simply roll over and accept the eternal occupation of Palestine as a fait accompli. Rather, they will demand (and who can blame them?) voting rights in Israeli elections for all living under Israeli sovereignty. The two-state solution will die and be reborn as the one-state solution, featuring equal democratic rights for all people — Jewish and Palestinian — between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

For most Israelis, this is a nightmare scenario. I am not quite so pessimistic.

Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip together make up a natural social and economic unit, and if one accepts the right of return for Palestinian refugees (as anyone who believes in the universality of human rights must), then the pre-1967 borders are a rather arbitrary place to draw the partition line. The only good reason to defend the two-state solution is that it remains the path of least resistance. Majorities or pluralities among Israelis and Palestinians support two states, as does virtually the entire international community. Furthermore, after decades of violence and hatred, there may be some utility in at least temporarily giving each population its own state.

For these reasons, I have always supported an interim two-state period to allow tempers to cool, but have remained hopeful that eventually, after years of reconciliation, a single binational state might emerge.

Naive? Who’s to say? What is obvious, however, is that Israeli intransigence on settlements is eclipsing any possibility of an intermediate stage. A time will soon come — if it hasn’t already — when one state is the only choice left.