A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for May 2008

[LINK] Some Saturday links

This afternoon I’ll be flying out to my native Prince Edward Island, a province on the Atlantic coast of Canada, for my first visit in nearly three and a half years. I’m looking forward to seeing friends and family again, but I’m more wary about the changes that have surely visited the province. I’m not convinced that many of these have been for the better, between the loss of the 2013 Island Games, the lifting of the ban on beer and soda cans, what looks like the imminent closure of Woodleigh Replicas & Gardens so soon after Fairy Land and Rainbow Valley (Rainbow Valley!), the export of our blue whale skeleton, and the ludicrous-sounding optimism of operators that this summer will be a good tourist season despite rising fuel costs and the strong Canadian dollar. Still, we’ll see.

On a completely unrelated note, people still interested may be interested to know that The Globe and Mail‘s Rhéal Séguin suggests that Ms. Couillard may have been an informant for the Sûrete du Québec, the Québec provincial police.

While I’m gone, here are some interesting links for you to peruse.

  • Over at Alpha Sources, Claus Vistesen argues that Brazil may be coming into its own as a global economic power.
  • Amused Cynicism’s Phil Hunt tells us that British terrorists, like their Canadian counterparts, can be almost laughably stupid.
  • angel80 points out that the recently discovered uncontacted tribe in the Brazilian Amazon may be doomed given the rate of deforestation.
  • ‘Aqoul’s The Lounsbury links to Gideon Rachmann’s Financial Times column “On Israel and the campaign bus”, which points out that the Untied States has played an increasingly unproductive and self-destructive role in the Middle East thanks in part to the unconditional support lent by evangelical Christians to hard-right Israelis.
  • blogTO covers the recent cyclists’ protest on the Gardiner Expressway that managed to shut down much of that west-east coastal traffic artery for hours, as does Torontoist.
  • Edward Hugh argues that much of the recent surge in Vietnamese inflation can be traced to impending labour shortages caused by the country’s rapid demographic transition.
  • Crooked Timber’s John Quiggin started a very interesting discussion on the United States’ historical memory, or lack thereof, of the First World War. Many of the commenters suggest that ethnic divisions at home may have made the conflict too painful to remember for most.
  • Daniel Drezner tackles the Sharon Stone issue with decidedly good (or at least snarky) humour.
  • In another excerpt from Michael Burleigh’s Sacred Causes, Far Outliers explores the anticlericalism of the Second Spanish Republic and the surprisingly sharp decline in religious observance that had been ongoing since at least the late 19th century.
  • Otto Spejkers at The Invisible College provides coverage of the Mothers of Srebrenica’s lawsuit against the United Nations, demanding reparations for the United Nations’ unwillingness to stop the genocide there.
  • Language Hat features coverage of the reaction to the decision to standardize the Portuguese language according to Brazilian norms, regardless of Portuguese protests.
  • Spacing Toronto coverage of the recent proposal to tear down a good chunk of the Gardiner Expressway, opening up direct line-of-sight connections between Toronto and Lake Ontario for the first time in decades.
  • Strange Maps features a map of Europe’s goblin distribution.

Finally, everybody welcome Noel Maurer’s new blog, Of Arawaks, Archives, and a Good Cigar! It’s now on the sidebar.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] West Norden in action?

Björk’s performance of “Declare Independence” got her in trouble twice, when she called for a Kosovo in a Tokyo performance and more famously supported a free Tibet in a Shanghai concert. None of that comes out when you watch the video, which features Björk wearing decals of the flags of Greenland and the Faroes on either shoulder of her jumpsuit. Might that have been, as one commentator suggested, West Nordic solidarity in action?

First, an explanation. The term “West Norden” when applied to the North Atlantic region seems to have first referred to divisions within continental Norden, between an East Norden consisting of Sweden-Finland and a West Norden centered on Denmark-Norway but also including Schleswig-Holstein and the various North Atlantic holdings. Perhaps as a result of the continentalist thinking behind projects like Nordek and, later, the European Union, continental Norden might now be thought of as a whole, leaving “West Norden” to the three Nordic islands and island groups of the North Atlantic (from west to east, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroes), in the early 20th century all under Danish rule.

These three all have many points in common. All were initially settled, in the 10th and 11th centuries or so, by Norse migrants mixed with Celts, Greenland’s Norse population famously becoming extinct and replaced by Inuit migrants. All three territories became relatively weak and fell under the jurisdiction of the Norwegian Crown, which in turn became weak and fell under Danish domination. When Norway suddenly switched from rule under Copenhagen to federation with Sweden, Norway’s former North Atlantic possessions remained under Danish rule. Iceland and the Faroes experienced national renaissances late in the 19th century, reviving local cultural forms and languages and translating this into a desire for political self-government. The German occupation of continental Denmark in the Second World War and the use of Denmark’s North Atlantic territories by the Anglo-Americans destabilized Danish rule. Self-governing Iceland gained independence in 1944. It would have been followed by the Faroes which voted for independence by a slim majority in 1946 but this was overturned by the Danish government and instead a home rule agreement was established. Greenland, with its Inuit population, followed a different trajectory, in 1953 being absorbed fully into Denmark and then in 1978 being constituted as a self-governing entity so powerful that it could secede from the European Union.

What’s so fascinating about the former Danish North Atlantic to me, apart from the fact that it’s relatively close to Atlantic Canada, is the extent to which cooperation between the region’s sovereign and semi-sovereign governments seem to be growing. Iceland’s notable success might be a model. In the informative and well-designed if occasionally terribly superficial Monocle, articles have appeared speculating as to whether or not Nuuk is going to becoming the next Reykjavik and promoting the Faroes (“THE FUNKY FAROES,” the line on the masthead said, “WHALE AND GAY BASHING ARE OUT OF FASHION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC”). As Ívar Jónsson’s 1995 West-Nordic Countries in Crisis argues convincingly, these three territories are forced to use their strong dependency on natural resources in such a way as to ensure their high living standards, a task made all the more difficult by–as this May 2003 Nordic Council report argues–their relatively marginal positions in the world, in terms of their geography and their climate. It would make good sense for these three governments to share best practice, especially as climate change shakes things up.

That seems to be what’s happening. For starters, there is a West Nordic Council and a West Nordic Council interparliamentary bloc. More, there have been suggestions that these governments are interesting in discussing the exchange of consulates and the establishment of regional free trade. I was rather surprised to find out about the 2005 Hoyvik Agreement, which set up free trade between Iceland and the Faroes, promoting the free movement of goods (and services and people and capital …) across their borders and institutionalizing inter-governmental cooperation.

This may well not come to much. Björk might be in favour of independent Greenlandic and Faroese states, and the Greenlanders and Faroese might want to emulate Iceland’s success, and the shared history and possible futures of the islands might encourage cooperation, but it might well not. Competition might be as likely an outcome as cooperation, and the European Union might ultimately swallow the entire region up. If nothing else, it’s a trend worth keeping an eye on.

(“Will Reykjavik become the capital of a Greater Iceland? Stay tuned!”)

[/joke]

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2008 at 11:59 pm

[LINK] “The big stuff gets away from PM”

Veteran Canadian politics journalist Susan Delacourt has a new article, “The big stuff gets away from PM”, that might explain why there have been so many interesting press scandals surrounding the Conservative govenrment of Prime Minister Stephen Harper lately.

It has been a bad week for a government that prides itself on secrecy and communications control.

A cabinet minister has been dumped because he left secret, internationally sensitive documents at an ex-girlfriend’s house.

Yesterday, in the midst of an official European tour, there was a mad scramble aboard Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plane to reverse yet another “misspeaking” incident from a communications official – this one, revolving around what Canada and Italy had agreed upon in regard to troop commitments in Afghanistan.

And one week ago today, a report was issued on the way Canada got embroiled in the Democratic presidential race in the United States. The report, and subsequent revelations in the Star this week, have painted a picture of this government, at its top levels, being reckless in the handling of information in a way that could seriously harm future relations with a potential U.S. president.

Taken all together, these incidents point to what seems to be a glaring irony surrounding the Harper government and its communications strategy. To wit: this capital is locked down tight when it comes to small, domestic, even trivial minutiae. But on the big important stuff, the kind of information that could affect Canada’s relations with the world, people have seen a side of the Harper communications-management machine this week that appears to be a little loose, if not chaotic.

The danger of the fallout from the past bad week is that it will reinforce and strengthen the tight-fisted approach, while doing nothing to fix the ham-fistedness.

A more complicated reading of this week’s communications disasters might show, in fact, that the pressure cooker of Harper’s message control is starting to show signs of wear and leakage – that one can only keep the lid on information so long in government before the effort explodes in strange and unexpected ways.

For anyone interested in Canadian politics, this article’s exploration of a major element in the current federal government’s self-representation makes it worthy reading.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2008 at 6:54 pm

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[LINK] “The art of investing dangerously”

Report on Business Magazine features in its latest issue an article by Doug Steiner, “The art of investing dangerously”, that explores the difficulties of doing business in Haiti. The country as a whole, the article argues, is caught in a bitter economic catch-22, with the influx of tourists and business investments needed to revitalize the Haitian economy depending on the establishment of the needed security which in turn depends on the establishment of a prosperous Haitian economy, et cetera. Some businesses can thrive in particular niches, still, such as Canada’s Scotiabank.

The bank now operates four branches in Port-au-Prince and two bank mach-ines. The branches were closed during Carnival, which is basically a week of national holidays, but just walking around the exterior of one of them was intriguing. It looked the same as suburban Scotiabank branches in Canada: red signs outside, grey countertops inside, and a drive-through.

But a small building out back housed diesel-powered emergency generators and dozens of batteries. Stuck to the window of the main door, in addition to a sign with hours of business, was another with an outline of a handgun with an X through it. Back in Toronto, Scotiabank CEO Rick Waugh later told me that checking guns at the door is indeed a service provided by the bank in many countries.

The branch was also by far the tidiest building in the neighbourhood, and we only had to drive down the street for a few minutes to see how impoverished the retail customer base can be in Port-au-Prince. We arrived at a dusty open-air market with dozens of stalls that were no more than bits of cloth or plastic held up with tall sticks. A dozen ragged-looking cows were tethered near a refuse pile. As traffic roared past, a dog drank out of an open sewer across the road.

Any talk of cash in Haiti also brings up the question of drugs, corruption and money laundering. Charles is firm and polite, but short on details. “There are a lot of clichés about this country,” he said. He and other bank executives also note that the operations in Haiti have to conform to Scotiabank’s corporate rules on cash transactions, as well as Canadian law and international standards. Charles is also chair of a Haitian commission on money laundering.

The more familiar and immediate risk for Charles is personal safety—his own and that of his 79 employees. Two of them have been kidnapped. Both were returned safely after their families paid ransoms, and they are still working for the bank. Charles has two armed guards around the clock at his family’s own elegant three-storey house in the hills. However, the only robbery of a Scotiabank branch in Haiti that anyone recalls was 30 years ago. In Canada, on average, one Big Six bank is robbed every day.

Are the risks in Haiti worth it? And would the bank ever leave? These are questions for Waugh and Rob Pitfield, Scotiabank’s executive vice-president of international banking back in Toronto. They point out that Scotiabank has been active in the Caribbean for more than 120 years, and now operates in 25 countries in Central and South America. “We’re an international bank that happens to have its head office in Canada,” said Waugh.

Sure, Haiti and other developing countries look daunting, said Pitfield, but “people manage these issues.” A global bank needs a broad mindset. “Canadians are somewhat insular and not aware of the countries out there with wonderful people trying to get what we have,” he added. “It’s taught the bank to be open to ideas and to be tolerant.”

Without any available capital and a skilled workforce that’s concentrated in the Haitian diaspora, Steiner argues, one of the only things Haiti can work with is the very low wages paid out to the workforce. This particular comparative advantage does little to address Haiti’s unerlying issues.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2008 at 6:51 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] Pacific Islanders in New Zealand

Thanks to errolwi for forwarding a link to this blog post by David Farrar at Kiwiblog, hinting at a wider debate on the consequences of the quotas in New Zealand immigration policy directed towards Pacific Islanders. As this 1995 study points out, this has had a major impact on island populations: There are many more people with Niue, the Cook Islands, and Tokelau in New Zealand than actually live in those associated territories, and the effects elsewhere aren’t that much less pronounced. Pacific Islanders form 5% of New Zealand’s population as a consequence of economic growth in New Zealand after the Second World War that created the sorts of labour shortages that could be filled by Pacific Island migrants. Should the automatic preferences continue without regards for this immigration’s impact on wider New Zealand society, Clydesdale asks.

[W]e do have some specific quotas for Pacific Islanders where applications are decided by random ballot. As far as I can tell they are a Samoan quota of 1,100 a year, a Kiribati quota of 75, Tuvalu 75, Fiji 250 and Tonga 250 for a total of 1,750.

There may be family members on top of that as permanent and long-term arrivals in the last year from Samoa was 1,482 and 773 for Tonga. But that may be family reunifications or other factors.

Now as I said above there are some public policy reasons for having special PI quotas – certainly in the case of Samoa. In 1982 the Privy Council ruled all Samoans are entitled to NZ citizenship. The Government passed the Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982 to over-turn that ruling and restrict citizenship to those already lawfully in NZ.

As “compensation” for doing so a Samoan quota was agreed to as part of a Treaty of Friendship. We are morally bound to keep our word under that Treaty.

The other Pacific quotas can be justified on public policy grounds also – as the “big brother” to the South Pacific, it is argued we should help out our small neighbours, and we do with most aid going there, and also the special immigration quotas.

The issue is though, that because these special country quotas exist, it is legitimate to debate the impact of immigration from those countries. I do not believe it is particularly valid to question the impact of immigration from China (for example) because no-one from China gets in purely because they are Chinese. They get in because they have met the same objective test as everyone else in the world wanting to come here. Well that, or they were mates with Taito Philip Field.

[. . .]

But the existence of those special quotas means it is legitimate to look at issues such as under-achievement in employment, education and crime for migrants from those countries. A sensible debate can be held on whether the quotas are set at the right level. Even in the case of Samoa the quota of 1,100 is a maximum and applicants still need to meet other criteria like having a job offer. The Government relaxed those criteria in 2004 as not enough applicants were being accepted. It is in no way racist or wrong to debate whether or not that was a good idea, and whether the level of quotas is too high, too low or about right.

Similar debates involving the skills and achievements of different groups in different countries exist elsewhere in the world. These debates have had consquences–Canada’s points system, which selects preferentially for skilled migrants, might be a model for immigration policy reforms in France and Australia.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 29, 2008 at 7:32 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Karma’s a chameleon

Sharon Stone’s remarks about the recent Sichuan earthquake suppression being karmic retaliation for the suppression of the recent protests in Tibet have gotten wide coverage.

Stone, 50, made the remarks at the Cannes Film Festival last week, leading to pledges by some Chinese cinemas not to show her films again, and reportedly motivating a cosmetics chain to remove advertisements with her image.

“I’m not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don’t think anyone should be unkind to anyone else,” Stone said in Cannes, according to footage widely available on YouTube.

“I’ve been concerned about how should we deal with the Olympics, because they are not being nice to the Dalai Lama, who is a good friend of mine,” she said.

“And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and I thought, is that karma — when you’re not nice that the bad things happen to you?”

In her defense, the Dalai Lama would likely believe this. Moreover, the Dalai Lama wouldn’t apply this principle only to the Chinese. Look at this 2004 Johann Hari interview in which the Dalai Lama suggests that the Tibetans, like disabled children, are being punished for sins committed in a past life, in Tibetans’ case for their support of feudalism. That does strikes me as a bit off, inasmuch as Tibetan feudalism, like every feudalism, involved a small minority of people enforcing their rule and their values on the rest of the population through customs and ultimately arms, but there you go. It’s certainly not as if the Dalai Lama had any role in Tibet’s feudal government and anything to atone for. Really.

At any rate, what this does suggest is that the Chinese invasion of Tibet, by thoroughly smashing Tibet’s brutal feudalism, may have earned the Chinese–as a homogeneous bloc, of course, one Chinese being as good as another–good karma.

Thoughts?

Written by Randy McDonald

May 29, 2008 at 3:25 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] On Canadian biker gangs

inuitmonster‘s comment on the previous post, on the resignation of Canada’s foreign minister, reminded me that most non-Canadians aren’t nearly as familiar with the history of Canada’s biker gangs as Canadians. Perhaps biker gangs elsewhere in the world are relatively law-abiding. Biker gangs, as the CBC notes, rank among the most notable organized crime groups in Canada. I’ve no disputes with William Marsden’s summary in mental_floss about the history of biker gangs in Canada and their involvement in organized crime in this country.

In the late 1970s, the Hells Angels were thriving in the States under the leadership of Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Angels’ original chapter in Fontana, Calif., and arguably the most famous Hells Angel in history. The group was reported to be deeply involved in drug smuggling, prostitution, and extortion, and Barger saw opportunity for the Angels in Montreal, where the local gangs were less organized and local authorities less prepared to resist the group’s presence. So, in 1977, Barger established the first Canadian chapter of the Hells Angels in Montreal. Almost immediately, they began muscling their way to supremacy, reorganizing the country’s homegrown biker gangs into well-disciplined bands of killers.

But dominating the biker scene wasn’t always easy. In many regions—specifically Québec—the Hells Angels had to fight turf wars with rival gangs such as the Outlaws and Bandidos. That’s when things started getting bloody, and that’s when Yves “Apache” Trudeau came into the picture. One of the original Canadian Hells Angels, Trudeau was a notorious drug addict and psychopath. In his quest for Angel dominance, Trudeau was rumored to single-handedly have killed 43 people and to have played a part in the murder of 40 others. By 1985, more than 100 people had died as a result of biker-gang violence.

After that, Trudeau became the face of les Hells, as the Angels were known in French Canada. But during the latter half of the 1980s, the group began turning on itself. Still under Trudeau’s leadership, various chapters of Angels started vying for power in certain areas and fighting to control the spoils of crime. In one instance, five Angels were murdered by members of a rival chapter, their bodies dumped in the St. Lawrence River. The killers had hoped to murder Trudeau as well, but he escaped. Seeking sanctuary, Trudeau did the unthinkable and turned to the police, instigating one of the biggest biker busts in Canadian history. In exchange for a reduced sentence, Trudeau sent 50 of his fellow Angels down the river.

In the aftermath of Trudeau’s arrest, only two of Québec’s five chapters remained. Police thought the Hells Angels were finished, but they were wrong. It was only a matter of time before a new leader emerged on the biker scene. This time, it was Maurice Boucher, better known as “Mom” (because he liked to make breakfast for his fellow Angels).

Boucher expanded the Hells Angels presence in Canada even further. Looking to smuggle huge drug shipments into North America, local chapters of the Angels infiltrated major ports in Vancouver, Montreal, and Halifax. By 2000, Boucher’s drug network in Montreal was purportedly trafficking more than $100 million a year in cocaine, hashish, and marijuana (that’s according to the gang’s own computer records, by the way). But with expansion came more territorial warfare … and more violence. Between 1994 and 2001, another 165 people died as a result of motorcycle-gang violence.

The violence continues: Two years ago eight bikers were massacred in rural Ontario.

How is Bernier connected to this decidedly unsavoury criminal movement? As the Chicago Tribune points out, Couillard certainly has some interesting connections.

On Monday, Couillard began her television interview by insisting that she was “definitely not a biker’s chick.” And she noted that she had never been accused of a crime. But once that was out of the way, she went on to confirm the essence of news reports connecting her to organized-crime figures.

Beginning in 1993, Couillard lived for three years with Gilles Giguere, a well-known crime figure connected to Maurice Boucher, the now-jailed leader of the Hells Angels in Quebec who is better known as Mom.

After police arrested Giguere for possessing submachine guns and a large quantity of marijuana, he became an informant. Giguere was killed in 1996; his body was discovered in a ditch.

In her interview with French-language television network TVA, Couillard claimed that she told Bernier early on about her past. This contradicts with Bernier’s claim that he knew nothing about her past until relatively recently. Bernier was appointed to his ministerial position by the Conservative government in an effort to appeal to the Francophone electorate in Québec. Québec is also the Canadian province where the biker wars were most intense. Perhaps, just perhaps, the expansion of the scandal to include the loss of confidential documents was silently welcomed by a Conservative government that didn’t want to lose its tentative foothold in la belle province.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 28, 2008 at 7:27 pm

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