This Week in Books!

I read a fair amount and many books are just words in the wind, entertaining and even informative, but lack the ability to make a person think and reassess themselves and society. These two books have stuck in my head, one is a tongue-in-cheek look at Canadian identity and neurosis’s; the other is an examination of the role of corporations in the governance of the United States.  The latter is “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative to Revolt” by Chris Hedges, and it has shattered my mind.

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I find myself wanting to dismiss Hedges writing as conspiracy theory that cannot be true. But here’s the thing, I can’t what Hedges writes has too much truth to it, it hurts too much, and is too rational to dismiss. Hedges is not the first to point out that corporations have an unreasonable amount of influence in the US, but he is the first to show me the depth of this infiltration. I suppose you can only go so long before you look past the shadow play on the wall to find the light. What Hedges writes terrifies me, and his words are compounded by the exposure of the extent of Facebook’s data breach.

But what does he actually say?

Put simply. That the US has merely the façade of democracy, that the extent of corporate infiltration within the state apparatus has created a corporatocracy. A country run by business interests, through shady money and fear, fear of terrorism, fear of poverty, fear of race. The red herring of gun control has allowed for other constitutional rights to be eroded and disarmed. Despite what capitalist’s say, the state is not there to serve business interests, it is there to serve the people. Hedges book offers us a glimpse at how this has gone terrible awry. And the repercussions on people and the environment are horrifying.

“Wages of Rebellion” is call to arms. While this book does expose the dirt of the US that is not the point. The book demands emotion from the reader, anger, sadness, despair, but it also demands action. You can’t feel what Hedges makes you feel with out wanting to hit the street and demand change. No. Not demand, because demand acknowledges authority and their power over the people. Hedges wants people to bring it all down, he doesn’t want to drain the swamp, he wants to fill it in with the rubble of the old system. And goddamn it he makes me want to pick up a brick.

But this is not my fight. I am a Canadian and have no rights in the state. I would be labeled as a foreign agitator and probably charged as a terrorist if I even protested there, as many in the Occupy movement were. No my fight is in British Columbia where we ship oil to the rest of world and hope a tanker does not run aground. In the next year we will reform our electoral system and provide an example to the rest of Canada. A story for another time though.

 

The second book “Why I Hate Canadians” by Will Ferguson is labelled as comedic writing but it also requires introspection. Ferguson wrote this book in 1996 in a time of turmoil the constitutional crisis nearly let Quebec separate and this book holds a lot of the raw emotion of this period. Ferguson questions the symbols, fears, and stereotypes of that Canadians hold so tight.

WHyFerguson attacks Canadian neurosis’s from a national inferiority complex towards the US to our obsession with “niceness.”

My partner likes to call me a nationalist and while I cringe at the word (take four years of political science classes and see if you don’t) I can’t disagree. But my nationalism isn’t understood through race but ideas. To be Canadian is to subscribe to the idea of Canada. The idea that you can become Canadian, that any race or creed can be Canadian, that violence is not the answer, and simply that we are Canadian.

What seems to really get Ferguson’s ire going is the idea of “niceness.” He says we are only nice, polite compared to the US. Which is hardly a comparison because most people are nice compared to our proud southern neighbours. To be nice is the most bland of adjectives, and is hardly historic. If you don’t believe me read a book on Canadian soldiers that went away during the Boer War, or either of the World Wars, British and French write about how rowdy, violent, rough, loud, and colonial the Canadians were. Ferguson attributes the development of niceness to when Quebec first voted in a separatist government, instead of sending in the army the government was all “I guess you can leave if you want.”

Honestly, it’s easier to read  the book than describe it. At some point in the future I would like to get some of the statistics on First Nations and compare them to recent figures. I suspect I will be appalled at how the stats haven’t changed and how we keep just fucking up when it comes to the First Nations. Instead of giving them the means to succeed and no longer need to be given the means we let them languish on reserves, drinking mud and shooting themselves. If Canadians *cough Chinese cough* can build a railway across the shield and through the Rockies we can string some wire and pavement to remote communities.

 

 

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The Monarchy is Dead! Long Live the Republic!

Thankfully the Queen isn’t dead. But what happens when she dies? I know that technically the eldest child inherits and becomes the new monarch of the UK, the Commonwealth and the Dominions. That being said, QE2 has been reigning since 1953, 65 years, nearly half of Canada’s time as a nation, and most of Canada’s time as an independent state. Under HRM Elizabeth II Canada repatriated its constitution and nearly broke up fixing the damn thing. Queen E has become synonymous with the Canadian Crown and I find it difficult to imagine a world without the old lady. I know others have the same feeling because I have heard the term “Canadian Republic” bandied about. That’s how iconic this woman has become; her death could signify the end of Canada’s Parliamentary Monarchy.

While I don’t believe any Canadian politicians have enough nerve to promote a republic, the same cannot be said about the Commonwealth. Last month the Telegraph reported how the Commonwealth has started to debate whether it was necessary for the monarch to be the head of the Commonwealth after the Queens death. Apparently, it is not written that Commonwealth leadership is hereditary which has left the door open to not have Charles lead it. Part of the sticking point is that there are fifty-three Commonwealth states, only sixteen of which have the British monarchy as their head of state.

Personally, I think the Commonwealth is underused, especially the Realms (those with the Monarch as head of state). In a post Brexit world, I think the UK will have three options on the table: go it alone hacking out mediocre trade deals, become a minor partner of the USA, or try and reinvigorate the Commonwealth as an economic/trade partnership. The latter might reek of colonialism, but maybe only if the monarch was the head of the Commonwealth.

A Welsh friend of mine is appalled about Canadians apathy towards the monarchy, he believes we should be a republic. I just don’t see the point of the change. I am probably a royalist, I like the monarchy as an institution. I think it adds a to the Canadian identity and connects us with our history. That being said, I understand his trepidation towards the Monarchy, the relationship of the Welsh, Scots, and Irish with the English Crown has not always benevolent. Where in Canada (if you aren’t from one of the First Nations) the crown is an ethereal concept that we have no relationship with.

In a world where Western Countries are weakening and disgarding their political institutions I find myself clinging to the longevity of the Crown.

Vive la Reine!

The Keg

A restaurant I used to work for was just bought out by a large conglomerate. Cara Operations is purchasing the Keg for $200,000,000 adding it to their current holdings. Cara actually has a long history in Canada, originally selling newspapers, goods, and snacks at railway platforms in the 19th century; 150 years later the company’s yearly revenue is $2 billion. It was at this point when I realize that I don’t really get capitalism. What is the point of constantly accumulating money, goods, or restaurants.

To me The Keg has always been a fancier restaurant and if I wanted to impress a date or just really needed a steak it would be the place to go.  The Keg has gone from a single kitchen in the 1970’s to a Canada wide company and to me it has always had the appeal of being somewhat local. Scrolling through the Caras holdings I don’t think I would go to a single one of them by my own choice Kelsey’s, Milestones, Montana’s, East Side Marios, etc.

On the West Coast we have an amazing restaurant culture and great food and when deciding where to eat me and my friends will always choose a locally owned establishment. It’s not even a thought it’s just something we do. Franchises are often owned by locals, but it isn’t the same as going to the Turkish guy down the street to buy kabap, the Greek restaurant owned by a Greek family, or the local pub where the owner has drinks with his friends. There is an authenticity to these kinds of places that franchises lack.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter, The Keg was already a large company and it is unlikely it will change much. At least it’s owned by a Canadian company still and not a Brazilian investment firm, ie Tim Horton’s. That is a company that has gotten worse and worse. The food has gotten worse, coffee is fine I guess, and the corporate side of the business is apparently nasty. Employees are getting thrown under the bus in Ontario because of the wage increase. (Wynne doesn’t seem to think of repercussions to her governments actions, she just keeps making horrible decisions and I am confused why she is still the Premier. Although it doesn’t seem to matter who is in charge of Ontario the province just keeps flailing, but I digress.) The corporation has not been allowing owners to increase prices to compensate for higher wages, so the employees lose.

I have worked in the restaurant industry for much longer than I wish to say and it is an industry that has some of the fewest protections for workers. A couple years ago a sister pub of ours had a unionization vote (it failed because the union wanted to control the tips and take a portion) and I understand the desire to have voted yes.

With most jobs in Canada if you work for a certain amount of hours you get breaks, paid and unpaid, not in the restaurant industry. I have worked twelve hour shifts without a break. If, heaven forbid, you take a break the manager gets irritated that you are not working. There are no benefits, no ten year gold watches, no loyalty from the company, you are a replaceable part and they let you know it. “But I’m sure if you were a good worker they would value you,” you say. Oh oh oh imaginary voice if only that were true, there is no benefit to being a good worker in this industry, because there is next to no recognition. (recently I was told from a manager that I got a gold star, I don’t know what that means but it hasn’t paid a single bill yet)

Part of the problem is that restaurant workers are not valued. I’ve seen amazing cooks come and go because they are paid poorly. There have been amazing restaurants shut down in Victoria  because they couldn’t get enough kitchen staff. Funny enough this lack of cooks doesn’t translate into better wages. I worked at one establishment where the kitchen workers asked for a raise and the owners refused, instead they forced the servers and bartenders to increase their tip out to the house. Yes that is right your server is actually subsidizing your meal, and if you don’t tip the server still has to pay the kitchen. I’ve seen servers crying because tables that spent hundreds of dollars didn’t tip and they still needed to pay the house. Instead of paying a fair wage the owners screwed over their other underpaid employees (Servers are paid less than minimum wage).

It is a pretty messed up system that is open to abuse and there is no one to protect workers. This is why when I expedited and was in charge of my small group of workers I did everything  I could to put myself between them and abuse from chefs, managers, and customers. Unions might help, but so would seeing employees as human beings.

Well that got away from me, this was supposed to a blog on capitalism with a nice anecdote about The Keg’s recent purchase. I guess I will leave that for next time.

Childhood Musings and the North (Of BC)

Towns, cities, villages, settlements have always interested me. I remember visiting with my friend Jon when we were younger (early teens) and talking about what makes a town. Why some grow, and others shrink, and what creates a community. This was during PM Harpers big Arctic push and we were debating whether it would be possible to grow a city in the far north. How to attract people, how you’d create jobs, issues with permafrost and freezing temperatures. (Yeah, we were strange ones).

I hadn’t thought about that in a long time until this Christmas season when visiting the in-laws. E and I were going to visit her parents on a lighthouse where they work for the coast guard. We drove from the southern tip of Vancouver Island to just shy of the Northern Tip.  It’s about five hundred kilometers from Victoria to Port Hardy. We passed through many towns I had lived in previously and it was fun to see how they have grown in the years since I left. Campbell River is becoming a fair sized city and it was interesting to see how it has changed in the last ten years. Port Hardy on the other hand seemed like a sad community and it started me once again thinking about what makes one place grow and another stagnate or shrink.

I at first thought that maybe Port Hardy could be the same as any northern township in BC, but then we sailed to Prince Rupert.

The trip to Prince Rupert was amazing and I would recommend it to anyone. The inside passage is five hundred kilometers of serene landscapes. It was a peaceful journey that I feel helped me connect with the settlers and explorers or British Columbia. It became clear why certain parts of the coast are settled and others not. Cliffs. Everywhere along the trip are steep islands that have no safe landing. Beautiful though. The trip is dotted with shuttered canneries and occasionally an indigenous settlement.

I like Prince Rupert. It’s a small town of 12,000 people or so. Small, lively, and hopeful. We went to the cities museum to explore the history of the north. I think what set Prince Rupert apart from Port Hardy was this sense of hope and optimism that permeated the town. The museum was a demonstration that the people of Prince Rupert have predicted their success since its founding in the early twentieth century. (This is despite many set backs). And it once again looks like the city will start prospering. The Port cuts days off shipping from Asia and the port has expanded a couple years ago and is looking to do so again. The town has also attracted the ludicrous cruise ship business.

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View from the Lighthouse tower that was the reason for this trip.

It seems obvious that what makes a town thrive is a good economy, but I think it’s more than that it’s the hope that a person gets when they feel useful and success. What ever that means.

Although, One pilot we spoke to said the best feature of the town was that there are many ways to get out of it. Rail, ship, flight, and driving. Although I’m not sure that is a ringing endorsement.

 

 

Canada after NAFTA

Maybe it’s the West coast air, but I have found myself wanting to buy local. I buy BC fruit and veg, BC wine and beer, I avoid corporate restaurants and business as much as possible. Part of this is because in Greece we weren’t inundated with McDonalds and Starbucks, I barely recognized a single logo, it was amazing. Part of it is because NAFTA is driving me nuts, I’m less “buy Canadian” and more “buy anything but American.”

The NAFTA renegotiation has entered its fourth round of talks. And they aren’t going well. I’m no longer certain that is a bad thing though. The more I read about the negotiations, the history, and effects of NAFTA the more I think it might not be such a bad thing if NAFTA were to die an ignominious death. With the demands from the Trump administration I wonder if the negative impact from an agreement would outweigh the positive.

The US has finally started to act like a superpower, by that I mean a belligerent bully who knows that it can use force to get its way. Previously the US baffled political theory by occasionally working on building consensus. Demands and obstinacy was often reserved for rivals and enemies, apparently now allies are valid targets. Even if Canada and Mexico can remove some of  the “poison pills” of the US demands the new NAFTA will not be great for us. Because NAFTA was a compromise between three countries it has been an easy target for President Trump, because everyone had to give a little.

I keep reading about the bad effects of NAFTA for Canada, the loss of sales for vineyards and breweries, the weakening of regulations regarding the environment and worker protection (thanks to Article XI), wage suppression, US subsidized farming harmed other agriculture industries, and depending how far down the rabbit hole you go there are more. And the only real pro has been increased trade. Now I’m not naive about this, Canada relies on trade its the bedrock of our economy, but…

When ever the Canadian government defends NAFTA it’s about the auto industry, the one that we bailed out and was supposed to keep jobs in Canada. Also the one that as soon as Harper sold the government held shares of (at a significantly reduced price, thank you Harper) pulled jobs out of Canada. The auto industry isn’t doing any favours for Canada, and if President Trump has his way they will significantly be more US focused.

I keep saying Canada here but lets be honest, I mean Ontario. In BC it’s hard to see any benefit from NAFTA, hell I can expand that to the West in general probably, hell I can probably also include the Maritimes and Newfoundland in there as well, hell I could probably also include Quebec.

BC’s industries, forestry (not included in NAFTA), dairy products (protected by the government, but a new revised NAFTA would like less protection), wineries, breweries, and distilleries (nearly impossible to sell to the US because of prohibition era laws, but NAFTA fantastically opened up Canada to US companies, hurting ours). The US is the top purchaser of BC goods (by goods I don’t mean we make anything, no we send raw resources and buy finished goods, because mercantilism yeah!).

Hey how about we make things from our resources?  Let’s invest in innovation and promote creation. Let’s refine our own oil, we could ship it out east where it can create jobs in the Maritimes and boost their economy and there won’t be any of the risk of earthquakes, avalanches, shoals that there are in BC, oh wait…

As for NAFTA being tariff free? Just look at Bombardier. 300% (I’ll just let that number speak for itself). If we are already getting tariffed on our goods because we are subsidizing industries, the same way the US is, the hell with it lets subsidized more.

This whole free trade deal has gone bitter let it die, and lets look at it again in ten years under a new administration, hopefully at that time Canada can bring more weight to the table. Since NAFTA was signed Canada has negotiated many free trade agreements , perhaps its time we start using them.

 

PS. After posting this, the US demanded that Canada open up over 30% of the dairy market, 10 times the amount that was begrudgingly agreed to in the TPP. I’ve seen this before, it happened to Jamaica when they needed an IMF loan. It absolutely destroyed local industry. It’s clear that the US has started to view Canada as a tributary.

Referendums

Maybe it’s the Canadian in me but referendums get me excited. Two hopeful nation-states have voted, two have voted yes, and both are considered illegal.

When I hear about the legality of an independence referendum I can’t help but roll my eyes. Iraqi and Spanish politicians have decried the results of the referendums because their constitutions do not allow for secession. Off the top of my head I can’t think of a single constitution that does allow for the breakup of a country, that’s the whole indivisible thing. Nobody want’s to write into the DNA of a state a self destruct button, that would be foolish. Facetiousness aside, it is an intriguing issue.

Kurdistan

The Kurds without a doubt (and all politics aside) should have a state. They are a nation with a defined self, a region with borders, and are the authoritative military power within these borders. Unfortunately for them, all the chips are laid against them. Kirkuk has vast oil wealth that Iraq depends on, and the Kurds are spread over four countries, two of which are quite powerful, and they have no great power backer.

That last one is the real kicker. Greece needed Great Britain, France, and Russia to intervene militarily to ensure its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Kurdistan has Canada, reluctantly and fading fast.

In the mire of the Middle East Canada attached itself to the Kurds to defeat Daesh, not at a glance a bad thing. Canada has a small army, but our special forces are quietly renowned and we sent the Peshmerga our special forces. On training mission to be sure (Another phrase that has me rolling my eyes). Canadian forces are doing hands on training, as in side by side on the front lines. I was continually surprised no one called this out, until somehow one of our “trainers” broke a sniper record and there was a collective “oh.” That is all beside the point now. Canada is responsible for creating a highly trained and effective militia among a people that have a long standing desire for independence.

One particularly awkward aspect of this is that our ally Turkey does not get along with the Kurds. Another is that it could create (continue?) a civil war in Iraq at a point when Daesh is weakening. This could be one of  those actions that in a decade we look back and go “oops.”

I think no matter what the international community says the Kurds will push forward with their independence. This could be their best chance at brokering independence. The region is stabilizing a bit, but not enough that the Peshmerga aren’t needed to fight. They have not unilaterally declared independence, instead they want to barter with Iraq. This would probably need to involve a sharing of the oil fields for Iraq to even remotely agree, but who knows what could make Iran or Turkey agree.

Everyone knows that the Kurds want independence. This referendum creates a bit of legitimacy and could be an appeal to Western populations who are not concerned with the geopolitics of the Middle East and simply see people who want to control their destiny.

Catalonia

Unlike the Kurds, Catalans at one point were independent. It’s been nine hundred odd years but still. I know relatively little about this movement except that it has a long history. I don’t even know if there is a strategic reason for Spain to have Catalonia. I think it is simply to stop Spain from losing bits and pieces. Aragon, Basque, Valencia, and Galicia are autonomous from the central government and Catalonia could set a precedent that Spain does not want.

The referendum here is more of a problem than the Kurdish one. For one, only about 40% of people voted, I don’t care that 90% percent of these voted for independence, 40% is too small a number to break up a country (Ahh my Canada is coming out, show me a clear majority).  This number without a doubt is affected by the negative actions of the Spanish police forces at polling stations.

While I understand not wanting your country to break up (we love you Quebec), it isn’t good for anyone to hold the territory of unwilling citizens, that is a path to violence and bitterness. I think the UK did it right with the Scottish referendum, set the date and let the campaigning begin. At least there is an understanding then. You can bet if the Catalan vote came back in the negative the government would want to stand by it.

Instead of forcing the state on people a government should convince people why it is good for them to be part of something greater. When the ballots are counted we know the will of the people and should stand by it.

Greece Part II

What really struck me in Greece and has lingered in my mind since then is nationalism in Greece. Museums, art galleries, archaeological digs enable a country to create their narrative and create a unified sense of self, this seemed to be entirely lacking on the Peloponnese.

Greece’s modern sense of nationhood is rooted in the Ancient world, as the founders of Western Democracy, political thought, and theatre, just listing a couple. And each city still seemed to view itself in terms of independent city-states. There is no unified narrative among Greece’s cultural institutions, Each city we visited: Athens, Acro-Corinth, Nafplio, Mystras, Nafpaktos, Delphi, showed why their own history was superiour to their neighbour. Reading plaques  on the history of the wars with Persia was what initially had me intrigued. Athens museums showcased that city as being the key to defeating the Persians and has little mention of allies. Acro-Corinth did the same thing, barely mentioning other city-states contribution to defending Greece. I saw this time and again on the trip.

On our trip we met up with a Greek professor and over coffee I asked her a little bit about how Greeks view themselves. Dr. E told me how in Athens few people actually identified themselves as Athenian. She explained how Greece had rapidly urbanised, but the connection to the home village was still strong. She herself had grown up in Athens, but saw herself as from her families ancestral home in the Peloponnese.

I wonder whether some of the modern disconnected narratives of Greece are rooted in the fact that city-states were independent actors. If a country is using that kind of myth as its base identity does it not invite fraction? When Greece revolted it was the first time an independent Greek state had existed for two thousand years (the Byzantine and Latin Empires were arguably not Greek but Frankish, Italian, and Roman). Oh to go back in time and find out whether Greeks in the 19th century viewed themselves as those ancient Greeks who gave us so much.

Part of my conundrum is that I am sitting in Canada, I am Canadian, and the idea of having a history that reaches back millennia  is befuddling. Our history as a state goes back 150 years, with settlement occurring somewhere in the last 400 years. Presently on Vancouver Island a fringe on the periphery of Canada was only considered for settlement in the mid 19th century. For most of Canada’s history our identity was as a part of the British Empire and this continued on after Confederation. The massive settlement of the Prairies at the start of the 20th century as well as the gold rushes in British Columbia took all the energy of the government, there was little concern with nationalism.

Often we attribute Canadian nationhood to the Great War and the Canadian Corps, baptism of fire and all that. But even then I wonder whether this is a modern myth that didn’t take root until the 20’s or 30’s. What makes us Canadian is hard to say but it is a growing concept.

Greece on the other might have too much to work with, or maybe being occupied by various kingdoms and people washed away unity, and like Canada is struggling to find a modern sense of self.