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The Dishonourable Senator from Northwestern Ontario

In politics just about everywhere in the World, there are truisms that really apply just about anywhere you go. One of those truisms is while there are many good people in politics, there are some who are simply the opposite of good and decent. There are some people who you hear speak some of the most ignorant and vile things and you ask yourself “How in the Hell did that person get here?”. Every country has this, and it’s true in Canada too.

Normally you can ignore those people and hope that eventually the people, in their wisdom, will vote them out. Of course, in Canada, we have an institution where that basic law of political gravity does not apply: The Senate. Being appointed, our Senators ever have to face the electorate, never have to ask for a vote and as such, don’t have the pressure on them that all other politicians in Canada have. Now don’t get my wrong, as much as I have my personal issues with the Senate as an institution, there are many good hearted, well meaning and hard-working people who take their appointment to the Red Chamber seriously. They take their role in our democracy to heart and deserve the kudos they get for their work.

But like in any other political chamber, with the good comes the bad. And when the bad just happens to come from your neck of the woods or part of the country, it makes it that much worse. In my case, being from Treaty Three territory in Northwestern Ontario, we have our particularly vile example who was appointed to the Senate by Stephen Harper. I am speaking of Lynn Beyak, twice rejected by the voters of the Kenora and Rainy River districts to serve in higher office yet deemed to be worthy of a Senate seat until the age of 75 by the Harper Conservatives.

Her story is quite well known in Canada now, for her vile and simply evil comments about Indigenous peoples, the Residential school system and other things. She’s caused much pain to those who she claims to represent in Treaty Three with those words, but she didn’t stop there. She actually posted on her Senate website “letters of support”, a term that I use in the loosest sense here, for her views and comments. She’s refused to remove those letters, refused to apologize for her hurtful words and was booted from the Conservative caucus. As you can imagine, the response to this whole situation has been rather visceral:

Those comments speak volumes but despite the public outcry, all the while those letters have remained on her website, continuing to hurt residential school survivors and their loved ones. The Senate Ethics Committee has been working on this issue now for a while and this afternoon we finally heard from them with some results of their deliberations:

If you want to read the report yourself, you can find it linked here. I have to admit I have mixed feelings about where we find ourselves here. Part of me is glad to see the Senate finally take a stand here of some sort and I would expect the full chamber to vote on this and make the suspension official. But part of me is pissed off at the completely inadequate level of the response and how this is about the worst that can be done here. They will forcibly take down the letters, something that should have been done long ago without it getting to this point. She will also be suspended WITH PAY for crying out loud, and that suspension will be all done after the Fall election. So, she will be sent home, with pay for the Summer to spend more time out at the lake??? Sorry that feels all kinds of wrong. And to make it all worse, after the election she’ll get to stay in her seat until February 2024. Yes, almost another five effing years. Oh, and what exactly will stop her from reposting the damn letters again and starting this crap up all over again?

There is so much that is wrong with this story so while I appreciate that the Senate Ethics committee is acting here, it feels a hundred miles short and completely lacking. I would hope that this story would move the new Senate, you know, the newly Independent members who now run the place, to initiate steps to make sure that there are real consequences for Senators like Beyak. I would also hope that all major parties in the Fall campaign will do the same.

This awful story of hate is a prime example of how the status quo simply isn’t good enough anymore. So, while we can breathe a bit deeper today that something has been done to correct this situation, we still have five years of this to go if the Senator decides to serve her whole term. With that in mind, I’m adding a small reminder of that fact and hopefully it will spur a bit of action before that date hits. Or maybe if she retires; we can all hope, right?

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SNC/PMO Scandal Comes out of Hibernation

We have reached the end of April and while Spring is coming bit by bit, it can’t get here soon enough for many of us. One group of people happy to see the end of the month are surely those who work in the PMO and sit on the government benches in the House of Commons. The month started with fireworks from the SNC/PMO Scandal still burning bright, but over the past two weeks or so it felt like it had gone into hibernation. We didn’t see the ritual daily breaking of new news in the story and it fell to the side. It even looked like we might get out of the month without anything new. Well, that almost happened:

And like a bear coming out of hibernation in the Spring, the SNC/PMO scandal has awoken again, with documentary evidence to boot. CBC’s The Fifth Estate and Radio-Canada’s Enquête broke this new angle to the story this morning, providing information and evidence of illegal donations to the Liberal Party of Canada, coming in at over $100,000. According to their reporting, the donations in question were made to the Liberal Party centrally, to four party leadership campaigns and four riding associations in Quebec. They also made over $8,000 in donations to the Conservatives.

Elections Canada found these donations to be illegal, but SNC-Lavalin avoided the charges by signing compliance agreement in 2016 with the Commissioner of Canada Elections. And what was the promise for their compliance you might be asking? Well it was to promise not to break the law again. Yeah, they came down so hard on them.

Now some may be asking “What’s the news here? We already knew about illegal donations” and that’s true. We did know about the illegal donations in question, but now we know the names behind them and also there are details here about accountability and transparency that come to the surface. Let’s start with the who first, courtesy of Elections Canada:

Courtesy: Commissioner of Canada Elections and CBC.ca

Courtesy: Commissioner of Canada Elections and CBC.ca

According to the reporting, those who made those donations were told “their political donations would be reimbursed in the form of bonuses from SNC-Lavalin.” The story even goes on to quote one of the donors, Jean Lefebvre, who said he was asked to give to the Liberal party and “We were given a bonus that was double the amount donated.” Now if this all sounds familiar, the details, the scheme, the idea, well it should, because we’ve seen this done before on a different scale:

Yep, that was part of the whole mess involving former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro. Remember the stories about his cousin allegedly doing the same thing, paying workers in Mississauga to give to Del Mastro’s local campaign in Peterborough? In that case, the Crown gave evidence showing 22 donations of $1,000 made to that campaign by employees of Deltro Electric, owned by Del Mastro’s cousin. Afterwards all of those who gave all later received cheques from the company in the amount of $1,050. $50 isn’t the doubling that Lefebvre said that SNC gave him but getting a big tax credit of hundreds of dollars for nothing is nothing to sneeze at.

In that case, the Crown took that case to court but lost in the end. As for Del Mastro himself, he ended up being convicted for other finance issues, basically giving too much to his own campaign by paying for campaign expenses out of his own pocket. But the question does remain here why SNC-Lavalin was given a compliance agreement in this case, one that you can’t ask in isolation given all the other legal news around them. Compliance agreements are a common tool because, frankly, people do make mistakes in campaigns. But like any other tool like this, their use should involve an accounting of who they are dealing with, their track record and such. So as was the case with the Deferred Prosecution Agreement issue that came from the start of the scandal, the question has to be asked if this company was the right group to receive such largess? There’s no case to be made here for the “saving of jobs” when it comes to illegal donations to a political party.

And to that point, this story brings out another detail that, in theory, should have weighed heavily on the Elections Commissioner and their decision regarding their pursuit of this case. In the reporting, Pierre Anctil, a former SNC-Lavalin vice-president, is identified as one of the donors in question. The reporting states that he was paid $4,462.88 by SNC-Lavalin as compensation for his donation to the Liberal Party of Canada, something that he still denies despite the evidence. But that’s not all the story has to say about Mr. Anctil:

“In an affidavit in 2015 filed with the Charbonneau Commission, which was probing corruption in the Quebec construction industry, Anctil stated he knew the firm was running a similar political donation scheme at the provincial level. He said he was initially reluctant to get involved but went ahead after his boss, SNC-Lavalin president Jacques Lamarre, insisted.

Anctil said he was asked to solicit employees to make donations. Anctil said while he never received any of the bonuses personally, he told other employees they would get compensated by SNC-Lavalin if they asked.”

Wait, you’re telling me that a full year before Elections Canada gave SNC-Lavalin a compliance agreement, Anctil testified under oath before the Charbonneau Commission (into corruption) that SNC did a similar thing at the provincial level in Quebec? You mean that allegedly they are a repeat offender, that this was allegedly a part of how they just did business? Yeah, that really smells.

So, this now raises a very serious question about how SNC got off light with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist and a stern warning. Bad SNC, go stand in the corner for 15 minutes and promise never to do it again. Compliance Agreements exist for a good reason, for people (mostly volunteers) who make honest mistakes in the course of their work on elections and they admit their mistakes. Everything in this story seems to lack a basic admission of guilt by SNC, a lack of accountability for their actions, and evidence of this being more than a one-off goof by a volunteer.

This evidence makes it look more and more like a coordinated business practice than an honest mistake. This evidence also makes it look like a higher-level version of the scheme that Dean Del Mastro’s cousin was charged with and went to trial over. So why didn’t SNC get that same treatment here?

This part of the story was a sideshow to the main attraction that played out on the Hill, but with this evidence now out there, it raises more questions about this part that raises its profile while adding more stink to the stench coming from this scandal. The Liberals had leaned in on “saving jobs” when it came to SNC all along, as if that absolved everything. Yet how does this decision from Elections Canada wash with that standard? I feel safe in assuming that we’ll hear more about that in Question Period today and we’ll see what the Liberals have to say in regards to this. But in the meantime, the SNC/PMO scandal has come out of hibernation, at least for a little while, just in time for the last stretch of this last part of Canada’s 42nd Parliament.

Fringe Flirting

Today the House of Commons returns for the last gasp of this Parliament before the Fall election. MPs will sit for seven of the next eight weeks with lots of unfinished business on the agenda, much legislation still needed to be passed and tension already rising. Normally in any parliamentary cycle, May and June are tension-filled and rough times; MPs and staff are tired, their fuses are shorter than usual and tempers can flare, and that’s how it is in a non-election year. With the election coming mere months away, that just cranks that all up to 11.

With that in mind, we’ll see seeing a lot coming in these next two months that will have a long way of helping us figure out what the fall will look like. The rubber is hitting the road, and answers are starting to become clearer. There are many questions we’ve had sitting out there for a while, things that could have an impact on the campaign to come. Over the next few weeks, we are going to check in on those here to see where we stand today in relation to the.

So with that in mind, we’ll start with Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada. Many have wondered if what would come of this new political formation; would it flame out or would it be the next Reform party, splitting the right? To date, it’s not been a flame out, as they have organized over 300 riding associations, had a surprisingly high result in the Burnaby-South by-election and seem to be able to even raise some money. They have started pulling the Scheer Conservatives further right, as they have been trying to respond to the threat that the PPC poses to them. But lately, outside of some of Bernier’s rants on Twitter, there has been very little news about this group. Well this weekend we heard a bit from the Huffington Post about them that says a fair bit about where they are right now:

Folks, reading this is not shocking, as with his rhetoric you can easily see that Bernier has been playing to this element for a while now. It’s been one of the loudest dog whistles we’ve heard in Canadian politics for a long time. But what this story lays out goes a couple steps further from blowing on that whistle to allegedly actually courting these groups for their votes. The story lays out examples of this kind of behaviour, which is extremely disturbing to see in 2019.

Despite the language they used from the start, Bernier has tried to put up a façade of legitimacy to his party. They created a pledge, that EDA members needed to sign, stating that they “have done or said nothing in the past, and will do or say nothing in the future, that would publicly embarrass the party.” They also promised to vet candidates like other parties, and even do a criminal background check. But all of this seems to have gone out the window according to now-resigned PPC members quoted in the story. Why has that stopped? According to the story, it all comes down to an attempt to get Bernier in the Leaders Debates in the Fall.

But what does that desire to fill the slate look like? Well meet Mark Friesen, who was recently acclaimed to be Bernier’s candidate in Saskatoon-Grasswood. According to the story Mr. Friesen is a yellow-vest organizer in Saskatoon, helped organize the United We Roll convoy this winter and he even spoke at the Parliament Hill rally alongside Mr. Bernier and Mr. Scheer. If you look at his Facebook page, it is filled with anti-Untied Nations conspiracies, Islamophobic comments and a lot of the garden variety alt-right stuff.

There’s a lot of stuff there to disqualify this person as a candidate in most parties if a proper vet was done. And as the story tells us, it’s not that the Bernier’s party was totally unaware of this. The story quotes Mr. Mark Zielke, who withdrew from that same nomination race and then resigned from the PPC after he raised these concerns with them, only to have them fall on deaf ears. Through out the story you see other examples of similar stories; concerns raised, only to be ignored from further up the line. These are not the examples of a smooth running political machine.

And while the details in this story are disturbing, this also says a lot about where the PPC currently stands. When Bernier formed the party, many of us wondered if they could split the vote on the right again, giving progressive parties a better chance at winning. All the early organizing and fund raising gave reason to believe that they could peel away enough votes to hurt the Scheer Conservatives, as the      Burnaby-South by-election showed us. But this story starts to paint another picture, a more disturbing one. This also paints a picture of an organization that’s not as organized as one might have thought and is openly playing with political fire by courting the alt-right.

This story leaves me with the impression that as of this moment, Bernier’s party won’t have the impact that many had thought it might early on. With the Conservatives riding higher in the polls and the PPC barely a speck in those same surveys, it seems more and more like this will be the case. Will Bernier change tack, put away the dog whistle and try to be a more open party? Given his history, I doubt we’ll see that happen. It seems that he and his party feel more and more comfortable flirting with the fringe alt-right, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

How to be Great in Office

In my time on Parliament Hill, I was blessed to get to see and experience many things. But along with the good and amazing came the rough, stressful, difficult and bad. I got to work for four amazing MPs in my time, but as the way thing is in life, we all have bad days, bad weeks and struggles that we face. The point I guess I’m trying to make here is that many people sometimes forget about the human side of elected officials. At least, that’s what came to mind for me when I saw a series of tweets come across my Twitter feed yesterday that just really rubbed me the wrong way, and frankly left me upset. Here is the series in question:

This all started with a tweet from journalist Emma Graney, quoting the soon-to-be Premier of Alberta Jason Kenney as he addressed his new caucus. His message was, in that tweet, was pretty clear. That brought a response from now former Alberta MLA Robyn Luff, who left the NDP caucus on unhappy terms. She makes a very good comment, one that I wish more people would; yes, you can be in elected politics and still have a life. You don’t have to put everything aside, you don’t have to ignore your family, you don’t have to put the job above all else. Yes, it’s more difficult and it takes a lot of extra planning and will to make it work, but not only can it be done, it’s a good thing to do. You can be an MLA, MPP, MHA or MP, and not miss every birthday, anniversary and watch your relationships go to crap.

That brought a response from Karri Flatla, who was defeated as a UCP candidate in Lethbridge-West by New Democrat Shannon Philips. She responds with what I would flat out call a cheap shot at the work ethic of people she doesn’t know, while putting a dangerous fallacy out there. Yes, it does take sacrifice and hard work to achieve great things; all elected people know that and all make major sacrifices, as to do their families. But there is a difference between making sacrifices and sacrificing your entire life and family; you don’t need to sacrifice to that level to be a great MLA and you don’t need to sacrifice to that level to achieve great things.

Further to that, she insinuates that somehow that only “free enterprisers” make sacrifices or work hard. I’m sure that would come as a shock to Ms. Flatla’s former teachers, who I’m sure spent hundreds of hours working after the bell rang each year to ensure that she could become a successful realtor. The same would go for the police, fire fighters and paramedics that serve her community, ensuring that she’s safe while they miss holidays and important dates with their families, all so she can thrive and be better. I would argue that many of those people wouldn’t qualify as those “free enterprisers” that she was referring to. I could go on, but I personally find it amazingly insulting to hear someone who wanted to serve her community make such a wide, judging comment about the people who live in her city and province, as is somehow “free enterprisers” are inherently better people. I could go on, but thankfully New Democrat MLA Heather Sweet did that already in the chain of tweets above.

The reason why this whole situation bothered me and got under                my skin is because I know that some of those coming in from the outside, new to elected politics, take the same view as Ms. Flatla. They come into the political arena and think that in order to do so, all of those other things must go or if that they really want to succeed, you must put all of those things like family and loved ones on the altar as a sacrifice to the political gods. That is just crap, pure and simple.

But just because it doesn’t have to be that way, doesn’t mean it is easy for politicians or their staff. Working on the Hill for a decade, you see many marriages or relationships fail, families get hurt and the stress of the job and the family sacrifices creating extremely unhealthy situations. Over a decade ago, TVO’s Steve Paikin wrote a great book called “The Dark Side”, that dove right into this topic. When I’ve worked with candidates in the past, I’ve leant them my copy so they could read it and hopefully learn the importance of that work-life balance in politics.

There have been many conversations in the political arena over the past two years about stress, work-life balance and trying to find a better way of doing politics in that way. Comments like those from Ms. Flatla just ignore all of those issues and act as if it’s some kind of character flaw or a lack of will to “do what must be done”. That is just all kinds of BS, and I don’t think that can’t be said loudly enough. If that is the message that Jason Kenney’s caucus is receiving about how it must be, that’s not a good sign for his caucus, their staff or the province in my humble opinion.

And to finish on a clear point here, for me this is not a partisan issue; it just so happens that the players in this story have the partisan affiliations that they have. In my time on Parliament Hill, I’ve seen MPs like Jim Flaherty, Gord Brown, Jim Hillyer and Jack Layton all pass away in office. In all cases, I was saddened when it happened, as despite our partisan differences, we were all there trying to serve our communities to our best. While all of these gentlemen passed in different circumstances, they all went before their time and some have opined about the effect of the stress of this job on their health. So having lived it up close and personal for a decade, I’ll admit it pisses me off when I see comments like the ones above. I haven’t seen it but I’d hope that Ms. Flatla and by extension, others reading this story, will walk away with the message that you can go into politics, you can serve in the House of Commons, a Legislature or a City Hall, and you don’t have to sacrifice it all in order to do it. I have my fingers crossed because the sooner we dispel this notion that Ms. Flatla put out there, the better off our whole political system will be.

The Buck Stops…. Somewhere, Right???

In the weeks since the first Ford Ontario Conservative budget, we’ve been seeing a steady drip of stories coming out about cut after cut after cut. These stories have brought out levels of frustration and consternation the likes of while Ontario hasn’t seen since the Harris years. A couple of days ago we heard about another such cut, one that had a lot of people shaking their heads for various reasons:

Trees. Yep, the next thing on the chopping block is the planting of trees. How much did that save the people of Ontario? $4.7 million. Yeah, that’s it. In the scheme of the massive Ontario budget, that is a drop in the bucket, but it was a drop that helped to plant trees in places where forests were long lost, to help sequester more carbon and to help further mitigate flooding around rivers and lakes. It seemed like a very noble program, and a wise and productive use of money; little money in, but big benefit out.

So why do this? Why do something that will lead to more erosion in flood zones, poorer air and water quality, warmer lakes and streams without forest cover to shade them, less wildlife habitat and less capacity to sequester carbon? Well the Ford Conservatives replied to that by saying the forestry industry plants 68 million trees per year, which is true. The Forestry sector does plant that many trees every year, to replace the trees that they have harvested. It’s called sound sylvicultural practices, something that the forestry sector is well known for. But folks, those trees serve a different purpose than that 50 million that the Ford Conservatives just cut. Those trees were not for harvesting, they were for that long list of things I just wrote above. Is the Ford Government suggesting that this is why they are doing this? That the forestry sector will pick that up instead? I think that would be news to the sector if that was the case.

But folks, this story just gets more and more confusing the more you look into it. Do you know where the idea for this 50 Million Tree Program came from? Well, that’s a twist that makes this all the more confusing:

Yep, this idea was the brainchild of Conservative MPP Ted Arnott, who is now the Speaker of the Ontario Legislature. And it wasn’t just his idea, it was of a motion that Mr. Arnott brought forward in the last legislature and was passed unanimously by the place. Yeah, this was a Conservative environmental initiative, that cost very little and was getting big results, that got the axe. You’d think that the Conservatives would be pointing at this as an example of how they can be good on the environment, how they can help reduce GHG emissions and be better stewards of the land. You’d think that Doug Ford would want to plaster this as a “For the People” example getting things done. Well it’s funny to mention what Mr. Ford motivations might have been because……

Wow everyone, that is a wild and crazy story. That thread is an amazing yet freaky insight into the operation of this government and the Premier’s office. Sure the he “never promises anything 100%” line is a whopper of one given some of the very clear promises and statements he made on the campaign trail about not one single job being lost, but lets look past that for a moment to that part that focuses specifically on the tree funding. He openly admitting to a citizen who called him on his personal cell phone out of the blue that he had no idea about this story, that he didn’t hear about it until he read it in the media. Then he supposedly called his office and his staff told him his talking points. That’s all kinds of insane. He then went on to make the same admission around legal aide cuts.

But everyone, there is a serious question to be asked here: who in the Hell is running the Government of Ontario? If we are to take this at its word, there are major decisions that are being made by somebody in government without the Premier having a clue about them until it hits the media, let alone having a hand in the decision making. It’s either that or he was telling a lie to this person in an attempt to try to protect himself. Either way, this is a seriously bad look on this Premier, government and province. That leaves us having to ask the serious question about who is really running the Good Ship PC at Queen’s Park. Is it the Premier’s staff? Is it certain ministers? We can’t say for sure but the fact that we’re even able to realistically question it is a bad thing.

And to top it all off for folks on the national scene, remember right now Doug Ford is one of the provincial Premiers leading Andrew Scheer around by the nose, as he falls in line with whatever strategy that those provincial leaders come up with. How does it look for the Federal Conservative leader to be led around by a guy who seems to not even be in charge of running his own government that he was elected to lead? Yikes man, this is insane and far from a good look.

So, with this story we have seen bad decisions with no rationale and all seemingly without the knowledge of the person ultimately responsible for it all: Wow, welcome to 2019 in Ontario. Strap in folks because this ride keeps getting crazier and crazier.