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Talking Protests in the United States on “The Arlene Bynon Show”

This morning I joined Arlene Bynon on “The Arlene Bynon Show” on Sirius XM’s Canada Talks 167, along with Alise Mills. We discussed the events of the past days in the United States, the calls for change coming from the death of George Floyd, the complete lack of leadership from the American President & why this time feels different than past events. You can listen to it all below.

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Reflections on a Dangerous Moment

This weekend I celebrated my 41st birthday and yeah, I’m getting old. The signs are everywhere, beyond the date on my birth certificate & the fact that I’m getting more and more white and grey hairs in my beard. It might be a sign of these difficult days, but I guess I’m feeling it just that much more than I have in the past. And if the last week has shown us anything, these days are particularly difficult and troubling.

I spent a lot of my weekend watching the news coming from the United States. It has been hard to watch, but at the same time it has been just as hard to turn away from the sights we’re all witnessing. We have seen unrest in the US before, we have seen protests and we have seen riots. I’m old enough to remember what came from the Rodney King beating. I remember the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. I remember the protests that came from the murder of Eric Garner, and Philando Castile and Trayvon Martin. It was just a couple of weeks ago that we witnessed the murder in broad daylight of Ahmaud Aubery, shot in the middle of the road by two people taking whatever they thought the law was into their own hands. And then we all saw the murder of George Floyd in the streets of Minneapolis by a police officer who knelt on his neck, struggling for life as three others stood on watching.

We have all seen these things happen and the cycle that has come with them. The one thing we have not seen has been change, real improvement or consequences for those who committed these acts of violence. But as I said I’m getting old, and despite all that I have seen in past events like those and others, this feels different. This feels very different for many reasons and we’re seeing things that are beyond disturbing. Here is just a sample of some things that leapt out at me over the past days:

Seeing journalists attacked and arrested by police with no regard, in a country where freedom of speech is so cherished that it’s the very first amendment to their constitution. To see that journalist in Louisville, Kentucky being aimed at directly and shot at by police, without any second thought, is disturbing. To see that semi-truck barreling towards protestors on a highway, one that was supposedly closed by police an hour before, was ghoulish. And to see just 24 hours ago, another police officer kneeling on the neck of a protestor as he arrested him, well that image said more than a thousand words.

It’s all so shocking and disturbing, which isn’t new to the American experience when it comes to these matters. What feels different this time is the increased tension and that it feels like a lid on those tensions has been ripped off the pot. And I say ripped off because in a time when normally you would see political leaders try to calm the waters and sooth the pain that people are feeling, we are seeing an American President in Donald Trump do the polar opposite:

Now I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I’m shocked that Trump of all people would act like this in such a dangerous moment because I’m not. This is exactly what he’s shown everyone that he is and while I would have prayed that he would rise above his usual crap in these times, that just wasn’t going to happen. But even by his standards, this is a few steps further. While journalists are being arrested and shot at in the streets, he’s calling them “bad people” that are “doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy.” While he attacks those who actually defend free speech as a part of their jobs, he also attacks Twitter for daring to call him out on lies & violent words he uses their service to spread.

He’s attacking mayors like Minneapolis’ Jacob Frey with invectives and partisan insults instead of supporting them. He’s attacking the governors of the states calling them “weak”. He’s tried to blame the far left for this while giving a pass to white supremacists and far-right militia groups, both of which authorities on the ground have also pointed to. And of course he’s attacking his likely opponent in the Fall Presidential election, claiming that his “people” are “radical left” and trying to help out anarchists. Everything he’s done so far has been the opposite of helpful yet very true to the person that Donald Trump has shown us he is.

All of that is to say that watching everything that’s happening next door to us, I cannot help but feel just how different this moment is from those others that I have witnessed in my life so far. This feels more like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union than anything else. Things have jumped to a level the likes of which we haven’t seen before. Some are comparing this to 1968 but even that does not seem strong enough. This is more like 1968 if George Wallace was President, but even that might not be strong enough. Where in the past you could see ways where some good or progress could come from such a moment (even if it never did arrive), I just cannot see that this time.

This feels very different and dangerous, a danger that’s only increased by the current occupant of the White House. It’s in times like these that we expect leaders to put their best interests aside and do what’s best for the nation. Yet even with those normal expectations, no one is seriously expecting Donald Trump to do that. He’s shown no ability or will to do that in the past and nothing he’s shown us in the past week would give the impression he is now. That makes this situation that much more dangerous & leaves me with the impression that the United States might not be governable like this. This didn’t happen over night and the past four years have surely accelerated that, but it feels like we are watching a dangerous time in the United States unless the better angels of their leaders can rise to the moment like they never have before. That’s something we all hope for, the question remains how likely it will be.

A Cold Response from Alberta

Throughout this Covid-19 crisis many political leaders who I strongly disagree with have done a good job in my estimation. I have no problem saying that a lot of these leaders have risen to the moment and have earned respect for that work to date. But at the same time, not all have risen to the challenge while others are really starting to backtrack on whatever progress was made.

We’re seeing good examples of this when it comes to the re-opening of our society and economy, as provinces are taking different approaches in fits and starts. Quebec had to slow down some re-opening measures and just today New Brunswick has had to re-instate some measures because of an outbreak in the Campbellton area. But Alberta seems to be standing alone in their aggressive approach, even announcing yesterday that the Conservative Government of Jason Kenney won’t be extending Alberta’s state of emergency when it expires on June 15th.

Even with all the different re-opening measures, no single Canadian province or territory besides Alberta is moving in that direction and for good reason. It’s generally agreed that even as things start to re-open this health emergency is far from being over. This isn’t like a flood or forest fire that once it’s dealt with the emergency disappears. We know we’re in a long fight here against Covid-19 yet for some reason the Kenney Conservatives are choosing to ignore that. That lead to some legitimate questions about this decision, bringing some striking comments in the Alberta Legislature as Kenney tried to explain this move:

Ugghh!!! Come on man, seriously? After three months of this we still have to have this discussion about the ugly trope that Kenney started with there? Kenney trotted out the old canard about how other things will kill more Albertans, as if they were all on level footing. He stated that more people die of accidents than Covid-19, which is very cold comfort to the families of those who have already died because of Covid-19. It’s also ignorant of a very simple fact; accidents aren’t contagious diseases! I can’t believe that I need to point out to a politician as experienced and long in the tooth as Jason Kenney that you can’t treat fighting a global pandemic of a contagious disease the same way you would seat belt safety or teaching your kids to safely cross the street. If accidents like car crashes became contagious, you better believe that governments everywhere would be taking measures to limit our exposures to our SUV’s or to protect the public at intersections everywhere. But of course it’s silly to compare the two, not to mention intellectually dishonest, a tactic that Kenney has traded in for well over two decades.

He then goes onto the next line of attack. He points out that “there will be more infections, there will be more outbreaks, there will be clusters, there will be more hospitalizations and sadly there will be more COVID-related deaths.” He just takes that as a matter of fact concept, like there will be nothing we can do to stop it so why try. But it’s the next part that I found to be especially illuminating. He challenged health officials to figure out how to protect the most vulnerable in the “strongest and most discreet ways possible.” Discreet? Wait, you mean that Kenney is concerned about discretion when it comes to how this disease is being treated? He’s saying out lout that he wants to make sure that the treatment of Covid-19 is “out of sight, out of mind”, as if that will make it easier for everyone else to go on about their business and forget about what’s going on across the planet.

That’s not just whistling past the graveyard, that whistling past while the graveyard is covered by protective drapes so no one can see the graveyard at all and assume that it’s really a fun place like an arena or an amusement park. There’s no graveyard there, I can see the images of the roller-coaster right there! Christ that’s taking burying your head in the sand to a whole new level. But that’s not where Kenney ended, not at all. He uttered a short 9 second sentence that was just chilling, especially coming from the leader of a provincial government in this country:

“The average age of death from Covid in Alberta is 83, and I remind the house that the average life expectancy in the province is 82.” That’s what he said, word for word, without any emotion or sense of just how ghoulish those words were. They insinuated all kinds of things, which were in the context of that statement. Kenney was trying to suggest there was nothing abnormal about people dying from this disease, which I guess means he wants to ignore the meat plant workers or health care workers who have become ill and succumb to this pandemic. They don’t count in this argument from Kenney.

But what the argument is really trying to say is that “Hey they had a good life, they were going to be dying soon enough anyway.” He basically tries to say this is no big deal because they were old. He insinuates that they are expendable because “hey, they were going to die anyway so why should the rest of us suffer?” The point also completely ignores the whole concept around quality of life that despite the fact that the average life expectancy may be 82, many people life long beyond that date and don’t start to see a decline until they are way passed that age. I look at my maternal Grandfather, who lived until he was 6 months shy of 100 and he was in fine shape, physically and mentally, well into his 90’s. Hell, at 82 he was just getting started. But in Jason Kenney’s eyes, those 17 years he lived after would have been worth throwing away to ensure that he can get a haircut.

I’m not surprised to see Jason Kenney of all people make such cold, callous and thoughtless statements because that’s how he’s made his career since the 90’s. The only thing that would have made that an even more “Kenney” comment would have been to add a line about the “depreciation of human capital” or something like that. Those words of his yesterday display the worst kind of hubris and a total lack of basic compassion. Where other politicians have grown in response to Covid-19, Kenney has continued to shrink in this spotlight. But as with many things with Kenney, those words give you some clear insight to how he views the world. He’s willing to let more people die, put others at greater risk of dying & try to push the treatment of those who fall into the shadows all so there can be a return to a normal that the vast majority of people agree isn’t coming back. This just screams of an approach that’s going to fail & will lead to the next Covid hotspots in this country. I hope and pray that doesn’t happen but when I see those words from Jason Kenney, I see the same Kenney that has always been there. That isn’t what folks need now but sadly it’s what has been delivered and that’s a scary proposition.

Why Politicians Following Physical Distancing Measures Matters

We live in times where transparency matters, especially from government. These are also times when setting the example matters greatly and when not doing so has serious consequences. Some of us who saw yesterdays stunt at Queen’s Park, where the Ontario Conservatives ignored physical distancing rules and crammed their members in the chamber for a vote that wasn’t necessary. It was selfish behaviour that completely undermined public confidence in those important, life saving measures.

But despite that, there are still people out there saying “Big deal…. That doesn’t matter… It’s not like anyone got hurt”. That is the attitude of too many people in this crisis, and it’s one that has dangerous consequences. It’s important that our elected leaders not only set the example to set a good example for the citizens they represent. It’s also important because of the real public health risks associated with it. We only need to go back to April for a dark example of this from the Town of Pelham to get a reminder:

That story from “The Voice of Pelham” was burning up social media last month when it came out, as it showed the real-world consequences of ignoring these vital public health measures. According to the reporting, Pelham Councilor Ron Kore was visibly ill at local town council meetings going back into March and tested positive for COVID-19. The reporting goes onto state that “for a period of nearly four weeks he continued to come into work while exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory illness.” That included going to town council meetings.

During that same period of time one of Kore’s council colleagues, Councilor Mike Ciolfi, came down with COVID-19, testing positive during the week of April 6. Just a couple of weeks before both Kore and Ciolfi were at an in-person council meeting, on March 23rd, where Kore was visibly ill to the point where it is reported that staff in the room were concerned & alarmed that Kore was even there. As the Voice of Pelham piece points out, both Kore and Ciolfi sat on the same side of the room, eight feet apart at that meeting. Within days of that meeting Ciolfi start to show serious symptoms and eventually he died overnight on Sunday, April 12.

This case outraged people across the country because of the dots that connected here and the callous disregard for everyone else’s safety that Kore displayed. Days after the Voice of Pelham story came out, Kore released a statement saying that he would never “take a risk with my health, the health of my wife, employees or colleagues at Town Hall”, yet that seems to be precisely what he did. He later released an apology in which he said that he wanted “to apologize for any unintended consequences my actions caused early on in this pandemic and the resulting stress and hurt it may have caused the community.”

It’s those kinds of consequences, unintentional or otherwise, that make the public health measures we have in place so important. That makes government officials and elected leaders setting the example all the more important. When you look at what happened at Queen’s Park yesterday, the story of Pelham should ring through our minds. In that case there were only three people in the room; at Queen’s Park yesterday there was clearly over 50, in much tighter quarters than what Pelham Town Council faced. But if you want to drive how why what happened yesterday was so bad, a story from the United States came out last night that shows again why following these public health measures matters so much:

Yesterday Democratic Pennsylvania State Representative Brian Sims went live on Facebook with that video above and proceeded to tear a strip off his colleagues from across the aisle. It turns out that some of his Republican colleagues have been testing positive for COVID-19 but did not tell their assembly this. Some of their Republican colleagues knew, but they did not tell others, including their Democratic colleagues across the aisle. And they did all this while they called for in-person committee meetings to argue that business sectors were safe to reopen. They were sick, they knew it was not safe, yet they concealed it and then tried to re-open things prematurely, all without telling anyone they had been exposed.

This went on for 11 weeks folks, without saying a bloody thing while trying to claim that things were overblown. For 11 weeks, those other elected members sat in a chamber with infected or exposed colleagues and had no clue, all because those Republican members decided to withhold that vital information, apparently as not to undercut their dangerous partisan point.

In that Facebook video, Sims lays bare the reasons why this was so dangerous to some of his colleagues and even himself. He pointed out that one of the Republican leaders, who it turns out had been quarantining himself between sessions without telling anyone about his health status, was known to bump into this other colleagues, talking closely with them or letting others open doors for him. Sims went onto point out that some of his Democrat colleagues have young children, who thanks to this selfish act were now exposed. The wife of another Democratic colleague is immune compromised, which would put her in the highest risk category for COVID-19. And yet every day, that elected official went home to his wife not knowing that he had put her life in danger, all because those Republican members refused to disclose their situation and exposed him in the process.

Finally Sims disclosed a piece of information that wasn’t public, something that was honourable of him to have done, but that now this health crisis puts in a new light. It turns out that this past January, Sims had donated a kidney to someone in need, an act of charity that normally comes with the price of certain health risks. Those risks went up significantly with COVID-19, and for him to be exposed to the virus like this could have the most mortal consequences of all. It’s easy to understand why he was so mad.

When I saw that video from Representative Sims this morning, I thought immediately of the selfish stunt we saw at Queen’s Park yesterday and the potential real consequences of that vote. Yes those MPPs were wearing masks in the chamber, but those aren’t a panacea. We don’t know what their exposure has been, we don’t know how they’ve been feeling. We do not know if they have been sick and honestly before this moment, I honestly wouldn’t have thought to ask it. But it is that kind of the point here? In normal times, we wouldn’t ask but in these times being upfront about our exposure to COVID-19 is of paramount importance. It’s a matter of life and death to so many.

For all the Randy Hillier’s of the World who say “I am willing to accept the risks”, they forget that it is not themselves alone that they are risking. They are putting others at risk, to a degree that I doubt they realize or want to consider. And that is the thing about this disease, it’s not just about you or me as individuals. It’s about all of those around us, those who we know and love and those who we don’t know. When we don’t think of others, like those MPPs did in Toronto yesterday, you can end up with cases like the two above. We shouldn’t need reminders of that fact in these hard times yet here we are. Now’s a time when we should be thinking of others and their risks, not our own and when it comes to that, our elected leaders should be setting that example first and foremost. That’s not an unreasonable thing to expect.

A Needless Stunt at Queen’s Park

Over the past week we’ve had lots of talk and discussion about the importance of social distancing measures. The whole incident at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto on Saturday was one major flash point, but there have been other incidents that have brought this discussion to the fore. Throughout it all, we’ve been looking at governments to set the example when it comes to following these measures. In response to what happened on Saturday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford spared no mercy to those who were flaunting social distancing measures and putting people’s health at risk, which he was right to do by the way. But today something completely messed up happened at Queen’s Park that caught everyone off guard, stunned and left folks asking some seriously legitimate questions:

Yes folks, that wouldn’t look so abnormal in a pre-Covid time but that video leaps off the screen there. That video shows Doug Ford’s Conservatives, in the dozens, voting on a piece of legislation called Bill 159, the Rebuilding Consumer Confidence Act. If you’re wondering what that bill will do and why it was so vital to be pushed through today, one of the things it will do is make evictions easier. Yep, this happened to make it easier for landlords to evict tenants, in the middle of a global pandemic and the worst financial crisis we’ve seen since the Great Depression.

If that was bad enough, the very image of what we saw there is even worse. What happened to physical distancing measures? What happened to public health? What happened to ensuring that the Ontario Legislature didn’t become one big super spreader of a petri dish? All that seemingly went out the window to stack the deck on a vote to make it easier to throw people out of their homes.

Many people probably don’t know that all the parties at Queen’s Park came to an agreement at the very beginning of this crisis to help the place operate with lesser numbers. As former NDP Whip and current MPP John Vanthof pointed out on Facebook, when he was whip negotiated lots of those agreements, especially on Thursday afternoons when MPPs would typically get out of town for the weekends back in their ridings.

With that agreement the Ford Conservatives, who hold a majority, didn’t need to worry about them losing that vote. Yet despite that fact, according to reports from the legislature, the Ford government had most of their MPP’s waiting in the wings for the vote, ready to flood the chamber when the time came. They didn’t tell any of the Opposition Parties, despite the fact that packing all of those MPPs from across Ontario into that chamber also put their health at risk.

That image was so stark, especially when you consider what happened in Ottawa today where the House of Commons sat in its first hybrid session. Just from doing a fast headcount in that photo, I can feel safe in saying that there were more MPPs crammed into that chamber in Toronto than there were MPs in the House Chamber. And oh yeah, that chamber in Toronto is much smaller.

And again I ask the question: What the Hell for? Why in the Hell pull a bush league, immature stunt like that for a vote that you were going to win anyway, no matter how ghoulish the result if it may be? After you just spent weeks chiding Ontarians to follow the rules and to act right for the sake of those, why in the Hell would you stack that chamber, masks or no masks?

This is so epically dumb on so many levels. Not only does it give a massive middle finger to all Ontarians who have been struggling to do the right thing, it tells all of those who have been ignoring the rules that they were right to do so. Remember those “yahoos” in front on Queen’s Park who have been saying there is no danger and have been licking statues on the lawn? Yeah, cramming those MPPs into their seats, shoulder to shoulder, sends them that message too, something that I doubt they will miss.

It completely undercuts so much of the good work that this Premier has done in this crisis and flushes it down the john. It reeks of what pre-Covid Doug Ford would have done and as a result, looks even worse in this moment. And again, I ask the question: What for? What is it they think they are getting by stacking the room to pass that bill, one that will pass anyway, and put their very credibility with the public at total risk? And at a time when you need to have trust from the Opposition to move things along quickly, why would you put that relationship at risk. As Vanthof put it, this incident makes him “question their judgement and true willingness to work together.” That seems like a very reasonable think to question after that.

In the end I have to keep asking myself “Why?” because I just don’t see it. I don’t see what they get from pulling this dangerous stunt. I really don’t, it makes no sense at all and looks like a dumb mistake to make if that’s what it was. And in the meantime, every time Doug Ford wants to get in front of the microphones to tell everyone else how they should follow public health rules, he will now get legitimately asked “But why did you stack the chamber for that vote?” This reeks of the “One rule for thee, another for me” kind of thinking that lead to Ford’s three other violations of Covid-19 rules. Instead this time, he dragged his whole caucus into it, in plain view of the live cameras and the press gallery.

After the day that Ontarians went through yesterday, you’d think that maybe Premier Ford would tread a bit more lightly today yet with this move, he’s slammed his foot on the gas. I look forward to hearing the explanations for this crap because I’m sure they will be spectacular. For all the growth that Doug Ford has shown over the past two months, this stunt is a serious shrinking on the man. Today he went back on his own word, he needlessly exposed his colleagues to serious risk during a state of emergency and undercut his own ability to lead Ontarians in these dangerous times. And all for what? We have no clue & honestly, I am left to wonder if even he knows why. I always say that “we should never chalk up to great strategy what can more easily be explained by stupidity.” This falls clearly in that category because there is no sign of strategy here, but many of the latter. Premier Ford, you owe us an explanation and it better be good.