Where are our bullshit detectors?

The recent developments surrounding the Chuck Cadman controversy serve to confirm my worst fears: Canadians are losing their bullshit detectors.

It’s a real shame too, because I have always found Canadian bullshit aversion rather pleasant, coming from the land down south where they practically invented the stuff. I don’t just say this because Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are a terrible government taking Canada in the wrong direction: I liked it when Canadians raised a ruckus over Adscam, too, and that mess was full of Liberal bullshit.

But something has happened, and I can’t tell if it’s just the winter blues or fear about economic downturn. What we do know is that two days before the tenuously passed budget in spring 2005, high-ranking officials from the Conservative Party of Canada approached now-deceased MP Chuck Cadman, of British Columbia, and made him an offer.

What was on the table, and at what cost?

A $1 million life insurance policy. All he would have had to do was vote against the Liberal budget, triggering an election. That’s a lot of money on the table in July 2005 when Chuck Cadman died of terminal melanoma, a form of skin cancer. But it wasn’t cashed because Cadman voted for the budget and then the Speaker voted for it, breaking the tie as Canadians waited until Christmas for an election to roll around.

We also know that after Mr. Cadman’s death, the Prime Minister acknowledged on tape that he knew financial gains were offered to Mr. Cadman, but that they were “only to replace financial considerations he might lose due to an election.”

So let’s go over the facts: money was offered to Mr. Cadman, and Mr. Harper knew about it. You with me? Good.

Moving forward two years to this week: a political storm is brewing, the NDP are piping mad, the Liberals are happy that finally they don’t have to look like idiots, and everybody can read. So they flip open their dictionaries to the word bribe: “money or favour given or promised in order to influence the conduct of a person in a position of trust.”

Then, just like you did, they put two and two together and decided that the offer made to Mr. Cadman was a bribe, and they smiled. Mr. Harper, the man of morals and good government, was finally caught with his pants down. And to the press they went.

Now, the PM is suing for libel for two articles published on the Liberals’ website, demanding access to a wide array of documents that the Liberals have gathered in their investigation. But once the story broke, the Conservatives began to backpedal and people are buying it. All I hear now is how this country does not need another election. Apparently everyone should just shut up and prepare for the massive economic downturn that is going to ruin our lives next year. Yikes.

Instead, we need to take a page out of the (American) history books and ask, “What did the PM know and when did he know it?” (The astute will recognize the homage to Richard Nixon.)

Several years ago, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published a wonderful little pamphlet, On Bullshit, where he treats the topic with the seriousness it deserves. The working definition proposed is that bullshit is the active disregard of the truth. It isn’t that someone knows the truth and obscures it—that’s a good old-fashioned lie. Bullshit is when someone has no interest in hearing the truth whatsoever. And that’s a dangerous road to travel.

I know that it didn’t seem to matter when an ex- PM was taking bribes instead of making them, but we need a serious inquiry, and we need it soon. This represents nothing less than an investigation of the moral bankruptcy of this government, and Canadians deserve to know.

Let’s demand that someone ask the tough questions on behalf of the Canadian people, and everyone, please—let’s cut the bullshit.

Trapped in the closet

On Sunday, March 2, Vladimir Putin stood onstage and congratulated Dmitry Medvedev, his hand-picked successor, on his presidential election victory. Putin strongly believes that Medvedev would ensure that Russia continues its steady path, agreeing to be his second in command in the role of Prime Minister when Medvedev formally takes over as President in May.

Yet not everyone is so sure of Russia’s course. Radio Free Europe’s Gordon A. Hahn adamantly wrote: “It is now time to cease using the terms such as ‘managed democracy,’ ‘illiberal democracy,’ and even ‘hybrid regime’ with respect to Russia. It is now clear that in the course of 2002-03, the regime in Russia underwent a gently imposed transition from its rather weak ‘illiberal’ democratic form of rule to a soft authoritarian regime.”

The government of Russia has transformed into a centralized executive body under the law of Putin’s way. This soft authoritarian regime has eliminated opposition leaders and parties, ensuring that the power rests in the hands of the hegemonic presidency. The future of Russia lies in two directions: a steady path towards a soft authoritarian government, or ethnic minorities that will strategically mobilize against this centralized power in strong opposition.

A soft authoritarian Russia may continue because while autonomous associations (opposition political parties) exist within society, their opportunities to shape policy and pursue political office are limited by legal initiatives. These laws restrict the ability of opposition parties to function—they have no access to state resources such as election commissions, prosecutors, and the courts.

Another manoeuvre the Kremlin uses to its advantage is a direct application of administrative resources during elections to create outcomes in their favour. Administrative resources are often used by the Kremlin authorities to restrict the use of campaign venues for opposition parties. The same resources are used to calculate the result of elections, which makes the Russian elections questionable, to say the least.

Russia’s other path involves ethnic minorities strategically mobilizing against central powers to create a strong opposition. These are helped by amendments in Russian law that prohibit political parties based on minority ethnic, religious or linguistic groups from running for elections. Clearly, isolating ethnic and religious minorities from the political process may result in ethno-political conflict and mobilization. The Kremlin has ensured that their power is seemingly secure because opposition parties’ and candidates’ chances of winning are reduced to near nil, leading to a violent uprising on the part of minorities and opposition members.

Consider the federal assembly. Under Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, there was a balance between the branches of government. Parliament managed to keep Yeltsin in check and influence public policy. Yeltsin was often unable to implement his own reforms regarding the economy and political structures, as such initiatives had limited parliamentary support. Opposition to Yeltsin grew and the majority of parliament moved farther away from him. The lower house in the parliament, also known as the Duma, became an important arena for dealings among powerful organized interests.

When Putin came into power, this changed dramatically. The Duma was no longer an arena for confrontations between the president and the opposition. Instead, it became an instrument for legislative endorsement. Putin’s centralized and disciplined policymaking has led to the re-engineering of the internal procedures of both chambers of parliament to guarantee him consistent and reliable majorities.

As bad as the democratic devolution seems, it also suggests that Russia’s political system is still susceptible to evolution in how its constitutional structure operates. If political parties become more effective in gathering the interests of Russia’s voters, the parliaments will become an important arena for decision and deliberation. Both the paths mentioned above seem increasingly plausible given the circumstances of Russia’s limiting and super presidential system, yet if resistance organizes itself, democracy can indeed return to Russia.

Evolution of a revolutionary

Regarding Charles Darwin, paleontologist Stephen J. Gould once wrote, “Darwin was indeed a gentle revolutionary.”

Fittingly, William Thorsell, director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum, relayed this point when introducing the museum’s newest exhibit, Darwin: The Evolution Revolution. The project takes an in-depth look at one of science’s most significant personalities, surveying his work and his private life in equal measure. “This is an interesting approach to Darwin—it’s very autobiographical,” said Thorsell.

The curator of the exhibit, U of T’s own professor Chris Darling, emphasized the importance of the project beyond the next six months.

“It is here and at other natural history museums around the world that Darwin’s careful, meticulous approach to studying the natural world continues,” said Darling. He highlights the interactive aspects of the project, saying, “This is far from an exhibition-in-a-box.”

The attention to the design components of the displays is readily apparent. Crisp, colourful graphics and well-selected fonts complement the data being presented without distracting from its content. In a presentation regarding a topic as complicated and convoluted as evolution, it would be easy for an overabundance of text to overwhelm the reader. Fortunately, it is succinct without leaving out important details. An innovative use of coloured capitalized lettering to highlight passages aids comprehension without dumbing down the material.

The layout of the exhibit over the awkward interior space of the crystal can be forgiven: merciless angles and random support beams are a challenging environment for any object to be displayed. The various display clusters are arranged chronologically— fitting, considering the exhibit’s autobiographical approach—but it seems that better use could have been made of the space. Large gaps of floor are interspersed among some slightly cramped areas.

Among the various flat informational displays, many three-dimensional static areas are placed. Some live animals, such as iguanas and tortoises, are included to highlight the various organisms that Darwin studied as he traveled the world. A collection of stuffed finches provides visual counterpoint to the story of Darwin’s findings as the HMS Beagle toured the Galapagos Islands. A replica of Darwin’s study is a standpoint piece, displaying various artifacts, such as the microscope he used.

The most interesting aspects of Darwin’s life are the lesser-known details, such as his personal relationship with the Wedgwood family (of the famous china products), and a club formed while at Cambridge dedicated to eating animals “unknown to human palate.” Ever the pragmatist, Darwin also made a pro and con list regarding marriage at the age of 29, eventually deciding to get married.

The exhibit is certainly complete: from Malthus to Wallace, the evolution of Darwin’s theories is easily followed, as professional connections between Darwin and other scientists throughout his life are noted. An audiovisual display shows the continuation of the theory, presenting notable scientists, such as Francis Collins of the human genome project, discussing scientific theories of evolution, intelligent design, and creationism. Needless to say, evolution still remains a controversial topic for certain groups.

“We don’t have a sponsor for this exhibition. There is resistance to getting too close to Darwin,” said Thorsell.

It seems that potential sponsors are afraid to lose support from the conservative religious demographic, as Darwin’s work borders on the blasphemous. One of the exhibition’s strengths is its dealings with intelligent design and creationist claims concerning evolution. Subtly, it states that religious claims have no bearing on the scientific truth behind the theory of evolution. The exhibit doesn’t gloss over the social implications of Darwin’s ideas, including the now-discredited theories of eugenics.

Consider how Darling describes Darwin: “He was a reluctant student, world explorer, and an ambitious, but reluctant scientist.” In presenting this perspective, the exhibit succeeds wonderfully. Between the visual, audiovisual, and tactile components (many of the displays have fossils and models that can be touched), the senses are well occupied. The only misstep is the rather unnecessary oceanic background (complete with sound effects) in the section on the HMS Beagle.

Evolution is not necessarily the most captivating topic for children, but there is enough eye candy to keep the young ones occupied. Take the mockup of the HMS Beagle at the end of the gallery for children to play on, and several other activities, including a dress-up section, as examples.

This six-month display is only the beginning, as the ROM plans to expand its natural history and evolution- themed galleries. “As we complete these galleries, they will be in the narrative of time,” said Thorsell. And rightfully so, as 2009 finds itself two centuries removed from Charles Darwin’s birth. The ROM has provided a suitable tribute to a scientific revolutionary—viva la evolution.

Darwin: the Evolution Revolution runs from March 8 to August 4 at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Rating: VVVV

Healing the soul of a city

Legendary Torontonian blues musician Jeff Healey died Sunday of lung cancer at the age of 41.

His death comes after a lifelong battle with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eyes that robbed him of his sight when he was just a year old.

As a young child, Healey picked up a guitar, developing his unique style of playing by laying the guitar flat across his lap. Considered a prodigy despite his blindness, legend says he was discovered in a Toronto club by iconic blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn.

After establishing an exhaustive gigging regimen in Toronto in the 1980s, Healey shot to fame with the 1988 album See The Light, selling more than two million copies worldwide and spawning the classic track “Angel Eyes.”

The album received Grammy and Juno nominations, turning The Jeff Healey Band into a true mainstream success.

After the release of their third album, Feel This, Healey and his bandmates Joe Rockman and Tom Stephen were invited to be the subjects of a MuchMusic Intimate & Interactive special.

In recent years, Healey’s records explored his passion for American jazz standards, a genre he studied his whole life, amassing a collection of over 30,000 obscure jazz recordings from the 20s and 30s.

In addition to his impressive musical accomplishments, Healey deserves praise for nurturing a new generation of blues talent here in Toronto at the venues to which he lent his name. The original Healey’s, a basement venue on the southwest corner of Queen and Bathurst that opened in 2001, ushered in a new era for live blues in the city. This location closed in January 2007 to make way for a new, swankier facility on Blue Jays Way.

Through the weekly Thursday night shows played at his own bars, Healey became a legendary Torontonian blues institution even as the cancer that plagued him spread to his lungs.

A statement from Toronto mayor David Miller on Healey’s passing echoes this sentiment: “Our city was enriched by his presence, as he showcased not only his own unique genius, but the virtuosity of others at exciting local venues he established to further the musical cause. His passing leaves a huge void in our city.”

Healey’s death comes just a month before the North American release of his first blues album in eight years, Mess of Blues. Remarkably, he had plans to tour in support of the album, in spite of his illness.

He is survived by his wife, Christie, and their two children.

Very Necessary

Veteran writer/director Daniel Brooks wasn’t particularly worried about his introductory speech. “You’re all thinking about yourselves, anyway. It doesn’t really matter what I say.” A smattering of slightly shocked laughter passed through the crowd—but this display of confident individuality is exactly what the patrons of Monday night’s “One Day: Three Plays” fundraiser have come to expect and appreciate about Brooks, the outspoken artistic director who has turned Necessary Angel into one of the most successful and highly-regarded Canadian theatre companies.

Held at the revamped Capitol Event Theatre and hosted by a charismatic Rick Miller, the gala aimed to raise money for the company and throw a damn good party at the same time. The program included a silent and live auction, a gourmet dinner, and three short plays created by some of the hottest theatre talent in town.

Globe and Mail food columnist Lucy Waverman set the menu, consisting of swanky treats like forest mushroom soup with truffle cream, braised beef short ribs, and scalded black bean rubbed sable fish in a soy ginger drizzle. Soy ginger drizzle! Of course, there was plenty of wine flowing between courses—and this was before the first play had hit the stage.

Here’s the drill: three top Canadian playwrights were provided, on Monday morning, with an opening line written by none other than British theatre icon Tom Stoppard. Each playwright was paired with an equally prominent director and a swell group of actors to create a 20-minute play in only four hours. The line that Sir Tom drummed up? “Don’t anybody move—there was an asp in that basket of figs and the little bastard is somewhere in this room!”

The first company to take on the line was playwright Morwyn Brebner’s team with Monkey Fights Snake—a hilarious hypothetical scenario featuring Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel the night before Conrad is set to hit the big house. Not quite as topical, but equally amusing, was Daniel MacIvor’s American Zombie, a meta-theatrical piece about actors in a classic British farce angling for spots in a zombie movie.

Dessert was being served by the time Claudia Dey’s Tom Stoppard Told Me To, a surreal love story between quirky characters named Finch and Mustang, took the stage. Patrons were happily shuffling out by midnight, some bearing auction items like a weekend at Stratford or a David Blackwood print. Daniel Brooks might not be too concerned about saying the right thing, but he sure knows how to bring public support to his company—and there’s nothing more necessary than that

We don’t need two solitudes

Language and cultural tensions are once again heating up Quebec—and it looks like nothing will be sufficient to quench these fires.

Canadians have been aware of an ongoing separatist debate in Quebec for quite some time now. In an attempt to safeguard its unique majority-Francophone population, and to resist bilingualism and multilingualism, separatist thought seems to be on the rise amongst Francophone Quebeckers. The latest episode in an escalating movement to defend and preserve the French language stems from one of Quebec’s most popular French-language authors, Victor-Lévy Beaulieu. Beaulieu has proposed a symbolic ultimatum: to burn his entire body of work, comprised of some 70 pieces, if nothing is done to stop the surge of bilingualism in the province. Sparked by Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois’s suggestion that Quebec school children could benefit from taking more classes in English, Bealieu’s rash request comes at a time when English-speaking schools are on the rise. Parents are increasingly advocating the value of a bilingual education, insisting their children will have more opportunities with more than just French under their belt. Beaulieu, however, sees bilingualism as a signpost of future Anglicization—and assimilation—of Francophones.

But he is not alone in his his sentiment. Quebec’s language watchdog has accused a popular Irish pub in Montreal of showcasing English-only vintage advertisements for Guinness and Harp Lager, as well as an English-only chalkboard menu and service. This appears to violate Quebec’s language laws, which require French to be predominant on most commercial signs.

In another related issue, the Journal de Montréal featured a report of obtaining employment downtown with a limited knowledge of French, prompting the question of whether there is enough French spoken in downtown Montreal.

Some Canadians claim that Quebec’s laws are intolerant, discriminatory, and even racist. Much criticism and debate has surfaced in recent years over reasonable accommodation of immigrants in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which demands that accommodation be made to various ethnic minorities. As Quebec faces the question of its own identity, confronted by the various cultures of immigrants, the province feels their own French-Canadian culture could be sacrificed. The government encourages only French-speaking immigrants, having abused the principal of reasonable accommodation of immigrants by, for example, contesting the balloting of Muslim women who wear Muslim head coverings such as the niqab or burka.

Those who argue against bilingualism claim that a bilingual Quebec will eventually result in an Anglophone Quebec. Are Quebec’s cultural-protectionist methods intolerant and discriminatory, or are they legitimate practice to ensure that French Canada doesn’t lose its roots?

Sadly, I’d have to say both. In a country where only 7.1 million people speak French at home, compared with the some 20-plus million who speak English, not to mention the neighbouring U.S. where the predominant languages are English and Spanish, Quebec is a fish out of water. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and feeling backed into a corner, Quebec has seized any and all opportunities to preserve its language and culture.

However, Quebecois culture doesn’t have to fade away. The onus to change lies not with French Canada, but with the majority comprised by the Anglophones. Change or a solution, if one indeed exists, will take a significant effort on the part of Francophone and Anglophone Canadians. Although many have expressed their support for a bilingual country, the solution does not lie in a few English Canadians learning how to speak French. English Canada must come together to recognize French as equal in every way to the English language. We need more education, dialogue, understanding and experience. We should celebrate the fact that we can speak two languages here, promoting this as an economic and cultural strength instead of boycotting and undermining either language.

It is safe to assume that Quebec will not back down in its fierce struggle. The province still feels pressure to defend its language, regardless of how many livres leave the bibliotheque.

Under the covers

“This novel is a work of intuition.” So Isabel Allende writes of her latest work, Inès of My Soul, based on the real-life story of Inès Suárez, a 16th-century woman who aided with the conquest of Chile. With careful research of this undeveloped aspect of Chilean history and a gift for storytelling, Allende has managed to recreate the extraordinary life of a courageous heroine.

Suárez’s Latin American journey begins when she travels from her native Spain to the freshly discovered continent in search of her fortune-seeking husband. After a grueling nautical voyage and several trying and terrifying incidents, Suárez discovers that she is a widow. From this moment on, her life transforms from that of a quiet Spanish seamstress to one of a bold and courageous conquistadora. A fiery romance with Pedro de Valdivia leads her to become the only Spanish woman on a colonizing expedition to the Chile. With a mix of determination and strength, Suárez not only shatters the traditional view of 16th-century women but also becomes an indispensable member of the journey, saving lives on several occasions. Though tried by hardships and sexism, Suárez lives to see the goal of founding Chile come true.

The extraordinary life of this novel’s heroine is ultimately worth telling, all the more because it is true. Written as a memoir, Allende politely assumes the character of Inès Suárez, relaying the events as she believes they were once experienced. The depth and passion present in the novel reveal Allende’s incredible literary and emotional abilities. The narrative is littered with adventure, love, anger and fear that are familiar yet shocking. The vivacity of certain passages, especially those involving violence, demonstrate the author’s knowledge. Allende attributes her familiarity with torture, a reality often present in the novel, to her time spent in Chile during the coup that brought down her uncle, Salvador Allende, from power.

In many ways, this novel is a success. It brings clarification and honor to a little-known historical figure, enriching otherwise plain names, events and dates. Isabel Allende brings these to life, inviting readers to discover the potential of the author herself.

Rating: VVVV

Heads up: It’s Hudson

After an unusually brisk election period, Sandy Hudson is expected to stroll into power at the University of Toronto Students’ Union along with the rest of her Unite U of T slate. Out of the fi ve Unite slate members running for seats on UTSU’s executive board, only Hudson had an opponent. The other four candidates, Dave Scrivener (VP external), Khota Aleer (VP equity), Binish Ahmed (VP university affairs), and Adnan Najmi (VP internal and services), only needed to win a Yes/No vote.

Hudson’s opponent, varsity athlete and UTSU newcomer Ruben Vina- Garcia, ran on a platform of engaging students in political life and reinstating online voting in campus elections. He also ran on accusations of political nepotism at UTSU—and, after four years of familiar faces on the executive board, Vina-Garcia isn’t the fi rst to make that charge.

“I read that on [Vina-Garcia’s] Facebook group and I immediately submitted a complaint […] to the CRO,” Hudson said (the CRO is the Chief Returning Offi cer, hired by UTSU and tasked with ensuring a fair election).

Hudson protested Vina-Garcia’s charge that UTSU’s leadership was undemocratically entrenched.

“I think his word was ‘dynasty,’ or ‘unbroken line.’ I think it’s kind of ridiculous.”

Hudson, currently UTSU’s VP equity, assembled Unite U of T with current UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener. Scrivener approached Ahmed after working with her in the International Relations Society. Hudson knew Aleer from her work in the African Students Association. Najmi currently sits on UTSU’s board of directors and has two years experience with UTSU’s workings.

When UTSU’s top seats are almost all given away with no contest, is student apathy the culprit?

“To be honest, I don’t know,” said Hudson. “The Elections and Referenda committee did their best to publicize the elections. They even extended the nomination period. I guess it’s just the way it is.”

As for goals for the year ahead, Hudson said she hopes to make health and dental plan refunds and discount Metropasses available online.

But not voting?

On that issue, Hudson recalled incidents in

2003, when voting was done through ROSI, and drew complaints from students who were without web access. She noted that the Chestnut residence lost Internet access for a whole day, and many students didn’t vote.

“You never know what can go on with technology, and if you have it there and you’re tracking it and everything’s secure, I think that paper balloting is more reliable.”

UTSU’s apparent president also mentioned the TTC UPass proposal—a $480 pass that gives unlimited TTC rides from the beginning of September to the end of April. The catch? The proposed pass would be mandatory for all students, essentially bringing a large fee hike.

“We would really like that opt-out option, but we’ll just have to continue to negotiate with them,” Hudson said.

UTSC is already bringing the proposal to a student referendum—the only school in the GTA to do so. If they accept the TTC’s deal, it could severely weaken the ability of other campuses to negotiate more favorable terms.

“It’s a little difficult when Scarborough’s already going to referendum,” admitted Hudson. “That affects all the rest of the schools that are negotiating with the TTC.”

“It’s a touchy situation.”

A remarkably calm election, then, could mark the beginning of a turbulent year. Is Unite U of T’s virtually-uncontested slate a symptom of student apathy, or partly to blame for the problem? Hudson shrugged:

“Don’t know…” she said. “Don’t know.”